#326. Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Gigi and Man of the West and this movie were the three that I watched at the fever pitch of a long and kinda torturous breakup and all three of them speak to that experience: Gigi suggested hope, the cyclicality and timelessness of love and loss, while Man of the West, a subversive neo-western, reflected those vibes of desolation that were painting my walls and suggested a kind of plodding, realist, matter-of-fact solution to the whole issue: get on with it. A bad thing happened, you made it out alive, now pick up where you left off and move on.

            Ashes and Diamonds spoke to the breakup situation ina  weird way because although it belongs to what I consider the stodgy and stuffy genre of watch-em-once political thrillers, stuff like A Wanted Man or The Interpreter (movies where all of the double-crosses are neatly revealed and the whole thing culminates in one or two shots being fired), there’s a heavy human element in Ashes and Diamonds that concerns our young male lead, Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulsk), a Polish revolutionary who appears to be about my age and who starts the movie off in a surprisingly gripping action scene where he and his partner machinegun a convoy that they think is carrying a certain political figure.

            It isn’t.

            They’ve killed the wrong people.

            And so the rest of the movie (just about) is set in a hotel where their target is staying and where Maciek is gonna find a way to kill him.

            What does this have to do with my breakup?

            Glad you asked.

            Cuz it even fits the moment.

            My friend Steve Donoghue was talking about Ghandi and peaceful protests recently in this video on his YouTube channel and—coming on the heels of his arguing that one horse-sized duck is safer to fight than one hundred duck-sized horses because “size and strength doesn’t matter when you’re fighting a crowd, the crowd will win”—he says that what huge, peaceful, public demonstrations do is they remind a government, even a military, that they’re nothing but “a thin skin” over the massive entity that is a citizenry. That citizenry, should it choose to rise up, will out-number its military 100/1. No government stands a chance against its people.

            The caveat, however, is that people need to be willing to die for their cause.

            “You protest as a group,” Steve says, “but you die as an individual.”

            This came to mind during the Black Lives Matter protests, lanched in response to the murder of George Floyd, where I saw a young guy post photos of his cratered and gore-pulped eyesocket: he’d been shot in the face with a rubber bullet and lost the eye. There were several cases of crippling and mortal injury against peaceful protestors who went out there knowing this was possible. Knowing this was a risk they faced. But they believed in the cause and went out there anyway.

Young William T. Vollmann–who maybe doesn’t look like the protagonist?

Similarly, there’s a shift in Ashes and Diamonds where the young assassin (whose resemblance to a young William T. Vollmann I can’t get over) falls in love with Krystyna (Ewa Krzyżewska) and questions are raised about what we give of our personal, precious, terrifyingly unlikely lives on this Earth in order to support the causes we believe in.

            And the way that this spoke to my lovelorn and navel-gazing heart was to remind me that there’s a larger world that I belong to, a world that expects things of me, a world to which I can be of service—which probably wasn’t the healthiest lifeling to grab for, because I then basically started distracting myself with an immersion in worldly shit (so began my torrid Chomsky affair), but it did play a role in ultimately steering my attention to a less self-absorbed and wallowy headspace.

            As concerns the movie: it isn’t quite of the aforementioned watch-em-once genre; mainly because it tackles themes that surpass its plot. It favores the development of character over the development of story. It’s also just beautiful to look at, which I wouldn’t have expected from a gritty political thriller on the cusp of the 1960s. Also, I had to watch a great YouTube video essay to pick up on the movie’s historical context and some of its symbolism, but I’m resenting myself for not having picked up on all of the fire imagery, and the fact that its themes were not so deeply and exclusively rooted in the milieu of postwar Poland.

            I was able to follow the movie as it unfolded but there was definitely a feeling like I was out of the loop on some critical things; not quite as abad as with, say, Spring in a Small Town or Zemlya, which are nearly incoherent without a good half hour of preliminary reading, but it was a healthy dose of the vibe that says, “This wasn’t made just to entertain you. If you wanna enjoy what it has to offer, you’ve gotta do a little work, gotta meet it halfway.”

            Which is a good vibe to encounter, at least a few times a week.

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