Friday, September 11, 2009

The Indomitable Leni Peickert

The Indomitable Leni Peickert is a loose, half-hour sequel to Alexander Kluge's second feature film, Artists in the Big Top: Perplexed. This shorter work, seemingly assembled from leftover footage from the longer film, continues the story of the circus owner Leni Peickert (Hannelore Hoger) after she first abandoned her idea of a radical circus in favor of a job in television. It opens where the previous film left off, at a TV station where Leni and her friends have gathered as employees, attempting to infiltrate the corporate establishment with their own revolutionary ideas. This radicalism is somewhat undercut by the way that Kluge deliberately shoots down the low-cut blouse of one of these young revolutionaries, the camera eyeing her cleavage and then panning down, to the text she's reading, and then back up again, finding her sexuality ultimately much more interesting than her radicalism. This lascivious camera movement is then mirrored in the young radicals' plans to create "sex education" movies that somehow change the world by categorizing and numbering the sexual positions — after all, the Hindus have 365 positions already, one vapid would-be filmmaker says, and wouldn't it be better to have even more?

Even more than its predecessor, The Indomitable Leni Peickert is an inquiry into what all this chatter and ideology actually means; Kluge seems to be wondering, how much actual substance is there in all these half-baked 60s ideas about sex, free expression, equality, peace, love and all that good stuff? Is the sex film made by Leni and her friends a real expression of sexual liberation, or is it just as exploitative and perverted as Kluge's own ostentatiously ogling camera move? In any event, despite its title, The Indomitable Leni Peickert finds the titular heroine even more besieged and overwhelmed than in her first appearance, less able than ever to fulfill her ambitions and really create a lasting and important statement. She's always putting things off, dithering and delaying, telling herself that she's building foundations, that she shouldn't rush. Her plan for TV is a very long-term one, to eventually become the head of a station; in the meantime, she's just been promoted to manage the building's heating system. Later, she's fired from the station and returns to the circus, but only for commerce this time, abandoning her ambition to make a challenging new kind of circus: now she only wants to make money at it. Soon enough, she grows disillusioned with that as well and quits, or at least says she quits: in a typical example of Kluge's clever use of voiceover, the omniscient narrator announces that Leni has quit the circus and then, without acknowledging the contradiction, continues to talk about her working for the circus.

This disconnect between talk and action is at the heart of these two films, which is probably why Kluge, following earlier French avant-gardists like Godard and Debord, has so radically separated sound and image here. He allows the two halves of the cinema to exist independently, sometimes commenting upon one another, sometimes syncing up, almost as if by accident, but more often going their own separate ways.

Although in many ways The Indomitable Leni Peickert seems like simply an extension of Artists in the Big Top, utilizing the same style and exploring similar themes, it does differ in that it's more of a straightforward narrative film than its predecessor. Despite its disjunctive audio and its habit of narrating events from a distance, the film tells its story succinctly and with relative directness. The one notable exception is the denouement, which montages together classical drawings and paintings, taking Leni's struggles to a symbolic plane: through a progression of still images, these paintings tell a story of oppression and struggle between authoritarian forces and the rebellion of the masses. It's a clever way of universalizing the film's story. It transforms Leni's personal struggles — with artistic expression and with maintaining her individuality against smothering capitalistic constraints — into the larger story of the common people throughout history. It also unites Leni — and by extension, Kluge — with the artistic lineage of the West, with the artists who documented various populist uprisings of the past. This sequence suggests the interplay between art and reality, with the former both documenting the latter and echoing down through history to eventually have an influence on reality as well.

The Indomitable Leni Peickert is thus much more than a simple coda to Artists in the Big Top. It extends the longer film's themes into a broader social and political context, making explicit a few of the connections and ideas that were merely implied in the earlier work.

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