Resisting Paradise | Film | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

From where I sat -- in a reclining black leather chair in my living room, watching a video -- Barbara Hammer's Resisting Paradise began with a mystery.


"There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism." These words appeared on my television screen, letter by letter to the sound of an old typewriter. But the bottom of my TV chopped off the name of the person who said it. Hence, my mystery, although I later determined the source to be Walter Benjamin, whose life and death figured in the drama that followed.


Hammer's film tells the stories of people who fled to the tiny southern French fishing village of Cassis during World War II to hide from the Nazis. But she calls her work an "essay" rather than a straight documentary, and that it is: A former painter, Hammer asks such compelling questions as (I'm paraphrasing here) "what should artists do during wartime?" and "are some places just too beautiful for war?"


Hammer found her way to Cassis seeking inspiration in the same glorious light that inspired such painters as Pierre Bonnard ("Our God is light," he wrote to a friend) and Henri Matisse (the friend, who replied, "All of my paintings are adventures"). But when the war in Kosovo made headlines, Hammer found herself contemplating "the Europe of the present and the Cassis of the past," and what she would do if she found herself at war.


"If everyone who has any value leaves France," Matisse writes, speaking of artists, "then what will remain of France?" Oh, I don't know: How about most of the country, at least by his estimation of his own worth. When Hammer asks his grandson why Matisse continued to paint during the war, the grandson gives the stock answer: "That was the only thing he knew how to do in life." So much for desperate times requiring desperate measures.


Hammer tells this story with avant-garde images, historical footage, subtle re-enactments (an actress, rather than an actor, embodies Benjamin), and interviews with survivors, some still quite lucid in their 90s (like The Sorrow and the Pity, Hammer uses voiceover translations rather than subtitles.) This element of Resisting Paradise, which takes up most of the film, is highly conventional, much more palatable, and, of course, quietly moving as it documents stories of people, including Matisse's daughter, who struggled to protect their own lives and the lives of strangers.


But then there's the other stuff. "What is it like to have this happen in such a beautiful place?" Hammer asks. Her implicit answer: Worse than in Paris (where, by the way, more people lived, and so where more died). And what (Hammer wants to know) should artists do in wartime? For Matisse, the answer was clear: Keep painting. Resistance, it seems, was futile. If only Hammer had made a compelling case for why. 7:15  p.m. Thu., Nov. 11, and 9:15 p.m. Fri., Nov. 12. Melwood 




Week Two Daily Schedule


Wed., Nov. 10


Regent Square

7:15 p.m. Reconstruction

9:15 p.m. Postmen in the Mountains


Harris Theater

5:30 p.m. Guerrilla and Don't Call Me Crazy

8 p.m. Small Voices



7:15 p.m. Moog

9 p.m. Saints and Sinners


Thu., Nov. 11


Regent Square

7:15 p.m. The Big Animal

9 p.m. Monsieur N.


Harris Theater

5:30 p.m. Small Voices

8 p.m. Guerrilla and Don't Call Me Crazy



7:15 p.m. Resisting Paradise

9:15 p.m. Jandek on Corwood


Fri., Nov. 12


Regent Square

7:15 p.m. Reconstruction

9:30 p.m. Notre Musique


Harris Theater

7:30 p.m. Short Films



7:15 p.m. Jandek on Corwood

9:15 p.m. Resisting Paradise


Sat., Nov. 13


Regent Square

2 p.m. Monsieur N.

4:45 p.m. Notre Musique

6:45 p.m. The Big Animal

8:30 p.m. Bright Leaves


Harris Theater

4:30 p.m. Distant

6:45 p.m. Caterina in the Big City

9 p.m. Dear Frankie



2 p.m. Year of the Bull

4:15 p.m. Bazaar Bizarre

6:30 p.m. The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

8:30 p.m. Unknown Soldier


Sun., Nov. 14


Regent Square

2:45 p.m. Two Men Went to War

5 p.m. Watermarks

8 p.m. Sunrise


Harris Theater

2 p.m. Dear Frankie

4 p.m. Distant

6 p.m. Sex Is Comedy



2 p.m. Bazaar Bizarre

4:15 p.m. Robbing Peter

6:15 p.m. Year of the Bull


Mon., Nov. 15


Regent Square

7:15 p.m. Watermarks

9 p.m. Bright Leaves


Harris Theater

5:30 p.m. Untold Scandal

8 p.m. Caterina in the Big City



7:15 p.m. Chain

9:15 p.m. Unknown Soldier


Tue., Nov. 16


Regent Square

7:15 p.m. Two Men Went to War

9:15 p.m. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress


Harris Theater

5:30 p.m. Sex Is Comedy

7:30 p.m. Tarnation



7:15 p.m. Robbing Peter

9:15 p.m. Shorts Program I


Wed., Nov. 17


Regent Square

8 p.m. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress


Harris Theater

5:30 p.m. Tarnation

7:30 p.m. Untold Scandal



7:15 p.m. Shorts Program II

9:30 p.m. Chain


Thu., Nov. 18


Regent Square

7 p.m. Duaneland

9:15 p.m. Duaneland

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