The Hour of the Furnaces

Oh boy. No star rating is possible for this one, because as I will argue, this film (at least from my perspective) is outside the boundaries of classical criticism. This is also only a consideration of Part One. Let’s break this down carefully:

This film has a lot of facts. A LOT. It tells us the statistics surrounding poverty, deaths, disease, famine, and how exploitation and imperialism is being used against the Third World by the United States (taking over from Spain and then Great Britain). But in the age of Politico fact checkers, I highly doubt some of those numbers would stand up to any scrutiny. Unless I wrote it down wrong, my notes say that one of the facts is that 2 million die from in Latin America every year. Well I don’t know how long Latin America is going to have any population if that is true, and that’s just one of many statements here that don’t sound right (also who is dying? From what? Not necessarily from imperialism). There is footage of violence and starvation and people looking very sad about their living conditions. But there is also so much telling, and I don’t know whether or not I’m being fed things I really think are true.

This movie is one of the most aesthetically bold works I’ve ever seen, and has some montage patterns and sequences that I did find quite riveting to watch. But it’s also so impossible to access unless you agree with its viewpoints. Compared to documentaries like Man With a Movie Camera or even Native Land, this film does not provide access points to anyone who does not agree with its positions. The title cards are almost always in CAPS LOCK, shouting things about the SYSTEMATIC VIOLENCE to the people of Argentina and Latin America as a whole (“NAPALM NOT YET NECESSARY”). There are scenes of wealthy Argentinians where their dialogue is ad-libbed in voiceover to make them sound more horrendous than they perhaps are. There’s also a sequence dedicated to the slaughtering of cattle that is quite gruesome, but unlike Eisenstein’s Strike, the film is trying to make it more than a surface comparison…which sure you can make an argument that capitalism led to terrible slaughter of animals, but that’s a whole different can of worms. There’s also footage of Americans invading Japan during WWII that we are told represents the imperialist takeover, which um okay.

I’m an ambivalent centrist politically, and a staunch supporter of many of the policies of the United States throughout the 20th Century. I only bring that up because this film is an attack on a lot of my core beliefs. I want to always be challenged to defend or reconsider those beliefs. But this film isn’t trying to convince me at all; in fact, I think the film is designed for those who wouldn’t think about questioning its tactics or ideologies. When you show a sequence of young Argentinian students dancing to the Beatles and drinking coke and then cut to an inter-title that says “ALL COMMUNICATION IS CONTROLLED BY THE CIA,” I don’t know what to make. When your final message (which this film was mostly played on 16mm prints on to factory workers in the middle of streets) is that the poor should choose death over their current life, is it okay for me to feel like that’s a really disgusting thing to tell people?

This all comes to the question that AO Scott thought more critics need to consider when writing about films when he came on the podcast: who is this movie for and what does it tell them? It was for people in Argentina and throughout Latin America who were struggling in every day life, mostly living on meager needs. It was not meant to be a documentary with facts, but a rallying cry of propaganda to inspire men and women to take to the streets. It was not made for me to examine, critique, instigate. But few films are actually made for “me,” so here we are. These notes provide a template for me to work through my thoughts on this, but at the end of the day, I’m left in a quagmire on this fascinating but very problematic work.