Or How Collaboration is a Socialist Activity
Beneath a stark, luminous desert sky, a clown silently rummages through the detritus and wanders the ruins of Llano del Rio—a socialist utopia that existed north of Los Angeles from 1914-1918. Founded by narrowly defeated L.A. mayoral candidate, Job Harriman in the Mojave Desert, the colony was the most important secular communitarian experiment in western American history. This is the backdrop and nucleus to Mady Schutzman’s documentary film essay, Dear Comrade, which borrows techniques from performance, writing, and the visual arts to track the rise and fall of the Llano community. The filmmaker mines her own personal history in the telling, finding parallels with her lifelong experiments in communal living, in both its joys and disappointments.
The film, which breaches the sometimes restrictive tropes of documentary storytelling, is at once a love letter to Llano, and a meditation on memory, witnessing, and social change. It is an exuberant celebration of the idealism of cooperative living and a realist’s witnessing of the successes and failures of a particular socialist experiment. Beyond that, though, is the film merely an indulgent rumination on utopian fantasies, a sort of nostalgic reverie, or does it provide us with valuable cultural or political critique? What is the takeaway from the film’s exploration deep within the folds of the challenges and promise of utopian endeavor? Does it offer a viable alternative to the current culture of apathy, disconnection and hopelessness, to a world in which mass culture and the free market is celebrated globally? Moreover, does it propose that these experiments can bring about long-lasting change or a type of change we can experience in our daily lives?
Through its polyvocality and embracing of multiple practices and disciplines, Dear Comrade conveys a palpable longing for a life removed from competition and materialistic pursuits, and instead engaged in human connection, collaboration, and artmaking. The film demonstrates that collaboration can be a driving force in art making (Mady’s friends and colleagues saw her Llano del Rio project as a film before she did and many were involved integrally in the final product as rotating guest editors, etc.), and immerses us in the revelation that artistic collaboration has much in common with the dream of collective living and the yearning to live in a utopian community. This is at the film’s core, this pursuit of cooperative coexistence in which one’s success is contingent upon the success of those around her, and play, joy, and hard work are equally essential in advancing its goals.
But striving toward an ideal society carries its own risks, as any art open to collective input is susceptible to a lack of unity. As the film unfolds, Schutzman seems to embrace this dynamic by pursuing lines of inquiry and seeking that mystify more than illuminate, allowing narrative arcs that may pause and hover just above cavernous unknowing, and incorporating voices that contradict one another. It’s all a part of the assemblage that is being constructed here. Along with traditional documentary techniques, Dear Comrade weaves together improvised historic re-enactments, clownery, memoir, political commentary, and candid interactions with individuals who participated in utopian lifestyles with Schutzman—members from a collective she was involved in, and her Aunt Sue, with whom she reminisces about summer performances and communal living in an upstate New York lodge. Schutzman allows the seams of her assemblage to remain loose and exposed, undermining any singular expression of representation or authority.
Not surprisingly, Dear Comrade invites conversations about representation, delving into questions regarding how to honor your subject matter when engaging with documentary materials, how to do so ethically, how to reveal one’s own position in relation to the subject without overpowering it, and how to do all this while maintaining integrity, imagination, and craft. Instead of facilitating definitive answers to these complex inquiries, the film problematizes these issues and incites further questioning. What is the socialist dream and is it still relevant? How can collective living take place within a society hostile to it? How do we reclaim history lost to insufficient documentation, suppression, or conquest? Attempts to reclaim something long lost and gone, especially in a climate of forced forgetting, seem destined to fail. So, what’s the point? What can a film like Dear Comrade, which seeks this kind of reclamation and celebration, hope to possibly accomplish?
In Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, the Chilean poet reclaims lost histories and cultural identities through invocation—the work’s imagery reenacts life “(b)efore the wig and the dress coat,” in a time when “there were rivers, arterial rivers,” and “(m)an was dust…Tender and bloody was he, but on the grip of his weapon of moist flint, the initials of the earth were written.” These poems evoke a world before conquest, before the destruction of artifacts, written and rendered. This kind of rebuilding, syllable by syllable, is a kind of incantation, a literary magic spell that speaks the forgotten, infused with a desire to resuscitate. Schutzman’s Dear Comrade is this manner of evocation, that engages in this type of imagining, wishing, hoping, and reclaiming. And like Neruda, the work is fuelled by both passion and political activism.
At one point in the film, Schutzman recalls a prophetic encounter with an artist known for making portraits that reveal the true, spiritual essence of their subjects. As part of his process, Mady spent an entire day with the shamanistic figure, talking, having her astrological chart made, and roaming the Colorado Rocky Mountains where he lived. More surreal than that long day of mystical exploration was the experience of receiving, an entire year later, the artist’s finished portrait of her. It depicted Schutzman as a clown, sitting with legs crossed, posed in a Lotus position. Her initial response was bemusement. What could the peculiar image have to do with her? Only in retrospect, after years engaged in performing, teaching and writing about jokering and play, has the portrait begun to make sense. The clown, symbol of eternal optimism in the face of danger, counters dominant value systems. It is a catalyst of the imagination—receptive, fluid, and willing to take a chance. Play, deeply rooted in the body, is integral to the clown’s very approach to living. The clown is the perfect embodiment of a utopian idealist.
Schutzman’s casting of herself as a literal clown in Dear Comrade, foraging through the detritus of Llano in wig and costume, echoes this rebellion and idealism. And the casting of members of her former collective further explores this attempt at contact, (at one point, her colleagues are paired up and armed with clown horns, which are used to show their disapproval with one other’s recollections of the collective; they implicate their own failures at attempted utopia with the honk of a horn, which gets “the last word”). This playful celebration of failed attempts may provide the antidote to automatic surrender. If no one is willing to testify—to leap in foolishly and risk failure or folly, what hope can we possibly have of connecting? If we quietly succumb, we negate not only the accomplishments of the experiment, but any future potential for social change. In Dear Comrade, the ability to jest and to remember, to fail and then get on with the joy and hard work of maintaining and promoting hope, suppresses despair and allows reclaiming, rebuilding.
The end of Dear Comrade places the former members of Schutzman’s collective on an overcast Northern California beach dressed in full clown regalia. The colors of the clowns’ vivid clothing punctuate the beige of the sand and the grey of the sky, as they dance, play, and dress up among the tall sand dunes. In these moments on the beach, there is no talking, no judgment, and no agenda. Just joy. As some of the members of Schutzman’s collective assert, living collectively permanently changes you, on the inside.
Neruda, Pablo. Canto General. Trans. Jack Schmitt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Print.