Shelf Life

Shelf Life

The Complete Jean Vigo, Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One.

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There’s a touch of the superhuman to the short, revolutionary life of Jean Vigo. The artist was given just enough time on earth to identify his working materials—a wretched childhood, an anti-authoritarian lineage, a wildly romantic spirit—and mold them into a rough-hewn but elegant form that projected itself well beyond the established possibilities for a nascent medium. Before succumbing to tuberculosis in 1934, at 29, Vigo worked within a window he knew would be narrow. His hunger and restlessness, his sense of urgency about his vocation, have since been immortalized: he is cinema’s original Modernist martyr. His three films, each one a classic and a shambles, are now available in Blu-ray digital restorations on Criterion’s The Complete Jean Vigo ($39.95). The collection also includes a nine-minute short, a documentary, a number of video interviews and alternate footage, all on a single disc. Make a night of it.

Vigo’s debut, À propos de Nice (1930), a silent twenty-three-minute documentary made in collaboration with Russian cinematographer Boris Kaufman (brother of the filmmaker and theorist Dziga Vertov), stages a surreal and savage uprising against the genre of the “city symphony.” The boredom and lethargy of seaside vacationers on the Mediterranean is observed, appreciated, then mocked: the clothes of a fashionable woman change shape, then color, then magically disappear! Vigo dissolves glimpses of moneyed languor into images of inner-city deprivation, which then give way unexpectedly to a carnival atmosphere. Vigo conceived of this “social documentary” as an act of revolution, but its polemical force is sometimes blunted, sometimes augmented by an irrepressible spirit of celebration. Vigo himself can be glimpsed toward the film’s end, dancing with a group of gaudily attired flappers. Is he showboating as a devil-may-care reveler or inviting the working class to fox-trot on the grave of the bloodless bourgeoisie? The film allows viewers the freedom not to choose.

Vigo was the son of a Catalan anarchist who died in a French prison in 1917, and as if in tribute, his masterful Zéro de conduite (1933) offers one of cinema’s most exquisite lessons in the spirit of insurrection. It is in every sense an education. This exhilarating forty-four-minute account of “little devils at school” testifies to the liberating possibilities of formal constraint. In his initial edit, Vigo had exceeded the stipulated running time and was forced to recut. Instead of truncating the story to preserve a naturalistic narrative rhythm, he created a jagged, elliptical collection of poetically resonant fragments. The film’s genius is that the kids behave in much the same way, enjoying temporary bursts of playground revelry under the watch of a diminutive, dour headmaster. Zéro de conduite was banned in France until 1945 but eventually found a receptive audience there and abroad. In a July 1947 review in The Nation, James Agee advocated for Vigo’s “flexibility, richness, and purity of creative passion.”

The only feature-length film Vigo completed was another project he would not live to see properly released. L’Atalante (1934) now appears so routinely on critics’ lists of the greatest films ever made that it seems less imperative to praise it than to categorize just what sort of masterpiece it is. Following a young married couple’s fretful honeymoon (and temporary separation) aboard a Seine River shipping barge, L’Atalante is Vigo’s most gentle and approachable work, lyrically devoted to the expressive idiosyncrasies of landscape and the human face. Coming so soon after Zéro, it also seems restrained: Agee said “it suggests the strugglings of a maniac in a straitjacket,” unwilling to grant how perfectly Vigo’s approach mirrors the give-and-take of marital commitment. Anarchism here moves to the periphery, personified by the Falstaffian sailor Père Jules, but Vigo’s feverish spontaneity is never stifled, and never has been. Unlike those who outlived and outgrew him, Vigo is always still emerging.

* * *

Revising history means discovering the footnotes that deserve restoration to the body text. The footnote of Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One (Icarus; $24.98) is Frank Little, a half-Cherokee union leader who was lynched in Butte, Montana, in 1917. Essentially owned and operated by the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, Butte supplied 10 percent of the world’s copper at a time when World War I made the commodity indispensable. Little arrives in Butte, where the mortality rates in the poorly regulated mines were higher than in the trenches, aiming to combat the injustice.

An Injury to One is not a straightforward historical drama, because much of the documentation of the Butte class struggle has been lost or purposefully disappeared, and the “official history” is always only the company narrative. In this formally stunning work of assemblage, which runs less than an hour, Wilkerson uses the creative means at his disposal to reanimate a history that didn’t leave much trace.

The film is properly partisan. Its title refers to the Industrial Workers of the World motto, and it begins with a verbatim, text-on-screen rendering of the beginning of the IWW constitutional preamble (“The working class and the employing class have nothing in common…”), treating it as a foundation for cinema as well as labor. Wilkerson intersperses the film’s historical narrative with four songs of the Butte miners, the words overlaid on fixed-camera shots of the town’s contemporary industrial decay. It’s “Workers of the World Unite!” presented in karaoke format, with every word given equal weight. It would be wishful thinking to characterize An Injury to One as an emblem of a resurgent American political cinema: completed and released in 2002, it is only now finding its way to home video.

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