The Hour of the Furnaces and the Third Cinema

“A documentary is never objective. A documentarist never wants to be an objective observer.” This assertion might generate certain antagonism among the followers of a theoretical eclecticsim, but its trueness becomes immediately evident in practice, especially dealing with political subjects. Thus, the first virtue of The Hour of the Furnaces(1968) becomes that not only this film never tries to hide the fact that it is the vehicle of a specific ideological point of view, it points out that it is neither the first nor the second to do so, but the third.

Political documentary is probably a genre recycled every forty years. Three films, the prototypical Potemkin (1925), The Battle of Algiers(1966) and then the glorious Fahrenheit 911(2004), seems to mark the apogee of this cycle. Their common denominator, and consequently the second virtue of The Hour, is that their power lies within their aesthetic achievements and does not rely on any “political correctness”[1].

No doubt, a cinematic achievement as effective as The Hour deserves a detailed quantitative analysis. But due to the scope of this essay I can only delineate several qualitative guidelines. First, the film shows a strong understanding of the power of Eisensteinian montage and successfully extends the method into the realm of audio-visual combination. I would like to take the slaughter house scene as an example, which can be regarded as a homage to a similar scene in Strike(1925). Eisenstein mentioned that he chose to parallel the slaughter of the bull to that of the people because, first, he wanted to avoid the falseness of filming a massacre; secondly, to maximize the bloody horror (Eisenstein 41). It is indeed an ingenious conception. However, Eisenstein’s slaughter footage is far from “bloody” since the limitation of black and white photography makes the blood look like inconspicuous mud. In order to overcome this insufficiency, namely, the ineffectiveness of the visual brutality, Solanas and Getino use a hammer instead of a knife and the effect is totally overwhelming. Also, in Eisenstein’s version the parallel between the cattle and the people is explicit and abstract, whereas in Solanas and Getino’s version, there is a rich, meaningful and concrete contrast between the capitalism and consumerism “surplus value” illusion and the proletarian reality. Moreover, the contrast is reinforced by its respective stylistic choice: the flashing slideshow of glossy, immaculate photos versus the gloomy, grimy and cinema-verité style of the slaughter house.

The soundtrack in The Hours is distinctive in several ways. The most impressive feature of it is the use of drumbeats to enhance the punctuations of the voice over narration. The music itself is both indigenous (and in this sense diegetic, concrete) and highly representational (the abstraction of suffering and struggle ). The presence of the rhythm is thorough and organic: like an angry voice, it is sometimes suppressed, but never entirely subdued. Qualitatively speaking, the use of sound in The Hour is very close to the Eisensteinian ideal of contrapuntal sound.

Although political documentary tends to attack its target frontally, there are actually several other strategies commonly used. One is the “staged action” embodied by The Battle of Algiers; the other is the “disruptive irony”, which juxtaposes incongruous cinematic elements. In The Hours there is a cocktail party of certain literature prize where both methods are involved (or only the latter if the scene is authentic). This sequence is conceived to outmaneuver the neocolonialism’s strategy of “cutting off of intellectual sectors, especially artists, from national reality by lining them up behind 'universal art and models'”. Since it is rather difficult to debate on the validity of this ‘universal art and models’ without having examined objectively the individual artist’s work[2], the documentarists choose to contextualize the Eurocentric claim in the European monopoly of the Argentine economy (again the cattle).

Although the film is as effective as I have been trying to prove, much of the manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema” can be said strongly biased and outdated. In this pamphlet written somewhere in the 1970s, Solanas and Getino outlined (or rather repeated, as we often see elsewhere in the Soviet or Chinese regime) the urgency of developing an effective means of mass communication tool against the corruption of a colonist-capitalist-consumer ideology. In opposition to ideas such as “Beauty in itself is revolutionary” , “All new cinema is revolutionary” and various other “progressive alternatives lacking politicization”, the authors of the manifesto emphasize the importance of adopting a revolutionary theme, thus prevent itself from being “cut off from the concrete facts”. But if the formalist’s claim that “beauty” and its renewal is revolutionary in itself is an unconscious acquiescence to the bourgeois value, can the subversion of this value be sufficiently and definitely revolutionary, to say nothing of the artistic?

Those who have seen the film can confidently say that in the case of The Hour of the Furnaces, the answer is yes. But this does not certainly disqualify my questioning of their theoretical proposal. The proof is easy to find: everywhere under the same guideline, from the meekest socialist realism to the most violent militancy, the fidelity to the revolutionary doctrine does not always guarantee a yield of truly original (and in this sense revolutionary) content and its according artistic form.

[1] Everybody can make a claim against George W. Bush and they are probably all justified, but only Michael Moore was awarded the Palm d’Or.

[2] I doubt very much a typical ivory-tower Argentine writer like Jorge Luis Borges is only hoaxed by the neocolonialism to search for a ‘universal art’ and its European root, or even learn to read English,


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