The Sixth Side of the Pentagon dispenses with neutrality almost immediately: it sides with the anti-war movement. With a subject as divisive as Vietnam, speaking without bias could be tantamount to lying, or worse, inviting others to presume you’re playing for the opposing team. Much as he did during World War II, director Chris Marker brings a camera into mobilized masses, to watch their endeavors unfold. While the protest this documentary captures, the October 21, 1967 March on the Pentagon, may not have produced concrete results, the film concludes that the process was a messy and somewhat painful flowering. The sixth side of America’s iconically symmetrical government building lacks the order and rigidity of the building’s other five sides, but such is life…
Chris Marker, known previously for his film school staples La Jetée and Le jolie mai (the latter of which was only distributed in America this year), entered a unique political phase of his career the year this film was made. The year 1967 marked the completion and distribution of Marker’s “first collection” of film essays and the completion of an anti-war omnibus of shorts by New Wave and Left Bank filmmakers alike. The Vietnam collection included work by fellow Left Bank collaborators Agnès Varda and Alain Resnais, and New Wave names like Godard and Lelouch, but added non-fiction heavyweights William Klein and Joris Ivens to the bill. The evident momentum of this project helped Marker begin a political filmmaking collective project he called SLON (Société pour le lancement des oeuvres nouvelles) for which he aimed to find politically motivated groups and make films with/for them. The Sixth Side represents a transition film between his collective projects and the international SLON films the come between 1967-9.
An affectless, accented narrator (co-director/collaborator François Reichenbach) describes the Pentagon’s symmetry, its aura of mathematical accuracy, its percentage of military men per square foot. This star-shaped building was, at the time of the film’s making, the largest governmental administrative building in the world. Looking at the brick outline from above you won’t find the answer to the film’s title—like the riddle of the sphinx, this building inspired a mystery which may very well have no one answer, but Marker and Reichenbach imply the sixth side is Direct Action. It’s not merely the people who comprise the ephemeral extra side of this governmental icon, it’s the populace mobilized. After all, the protests that make up the anti-war movement are not idle, but they are disparate. “Keep non-violent. Look for incidents,” says the man with the megaphone, because while the Constitution protects peaceable protest, a march on a government building is such a strong a public statement that it could be seen as a threat, so the police are ever-ready to stand in armed guard.
The National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam is officially the organizing entity behind the march, but their small Manhattan office races to keep up with so much promising activity, and then one worker asks, “Is anyone here actually going to D.C.?” The moment recalls the confusing dénouement of Mark Kitchell’s Berkeley in the Sixties: a pregnant pause lays heavy and can’t promise a live birth.
In ways the political action of the sixties has a patina of cynicism, and Kitchell’s film about the era implies the glorious insurrection of impassioned students and incited citizens that commenced with a bang but died with a whimper. The romance and hope of a moment so united in spirit and agenda is intoxicating, ebullient…fragile, and so the threat of violence seems especially destructive.
As the National Mobilization Committee reports: “people are interested” you might want wonder ‘what does that mean?’ A film made today might ask such a question—we’re so used to ennui (a French word that’s ironically unfamiliar with French political action) and have so little concept of what we gain from protest, political or otherwise. It’s perhaps worth mentioning the march—and what constituted the undifferentiated mass of marchers—was the most chaotic side of the Pentagon.
While Marker favors the students, and follows talks on college campuses to the Lincoln Memorial, it looks like everyone and their brother is at this march. As numbers grow, organization diminishes proportionately. The American Nazi party enters with an unclear but draft-card related agenda (Reichenbach calls them “underdeveloped morons,” perhaps this is why their plight gets little screentime). Behind them enter veterans, marching in loose formation and carrying banners; they’re welcomed widely but we hardly hear their platform. The mob conceals many celebrities: writer Norman Mailer would write Armies of the Night based on these experiences, and New York documentary avant-garde filmmaker Shirley Clarke would go to jail with many of the march leaders that night. Poet Allen Ginsberg and activist Abbie Hoffman (later one of the Chicago 8) were mingled in the ranks, as well. The event’s publicists go unrecognized, but with such evident tension between what Marker calls “The University Generation” and the Military Men, the press hardly needed notices to know where to aim their cameras.
Marker leads with his humanity. As if a hero story or a myth, this muddle of direct action and mixed intentions will lose its leaders to jail, leaving followers to man a protest they’ll hold through the night. When fatigue and frustration set in, riot police aim rifles, protesters charge on the Pentagon and men burn draft cards. A woman famously photographed by Marc Riboud, drops a flower and says to the riflemen: “none of you will dare pick up that flower.” Her actions are poetic…but can such a gesture end a war? Does it have to end the war to be worthwhile?
Marker and Reichenbach side with the anti-war movement, but make a poignant and humbling statement about the goal of this march, and perhaps the goal of political action in general. Reichenbach says of the protesters: “By the morning they have gained the entirely novel feeling of having crossed a threshold; from political gestures they have moved on to political action…Told to us by the fifteen-year-old girl on the steps of the Pentagon: I have changed.”