Marxism Goes To The Movies
Monday, 30 March 2020 19:17

Marxism Goes To The Movies

Published in Films

Mike Wayne weighs the influence of Marxism on film culture

Marxist filmmakers, Marxist-influenced culture and Marxist theory, have all had a huge influence on world film culture for more than a hundred years, although it is an influence that is often denied. The struggle for control over the cinematic means of production on the terrain of culture is part of, and develops in relation to, the broader struggle between the classes over the means of production as a whole. In the early part of the 20th century, as capital struggled to find ways of turning the new medium into a profitable commodity, the working class internationally were laying down their own claims to this new means of cultural production in ways that dominant forms of historiography have repressed.

Film developed in the context of urbanisation, spreading industrialisation, mass communications and mass culture. The latter benefited from the decades of labour struggles that had gradually driven down the length of the working day  week, thus expanding the scope for various cultural activities.

In America there was considerable establishment anxiety over the role the new mass medium might play in drawing an ethnically and religiously divided immigrant working class together around a common cultural form. Film could potentially speak to this audience as a class in a way that the more respectable cultural forms, such as theatre, where the dominance of middle-class values was assured, rarely did. Writing in The Atlantic, in a 1915 article significantly titled ‘Class Consciousness and the ‘Movies’ Walter Prichard Eaton suggested that:

In the average American village of a few thousand souls, even today, you will not find class-consciousness developed. The proletariat is not aware of itself. The larger the town, the greater the degree of class-consciousness—and the sharper the line of cleavage between the audiences at the spoken drama and at the movies.

Marx had argued that the movement from a class existing in itself (without self-consciousness of its distinct class interests) to a class for itself was absolutely crucial if it was to become a political agent capable of leading the fight for social change. The prospect that film might help the proletariat achieve such a degree of class- consciousness and self-awareness was not outlandish in pre-Hollywood American cinema. The medium had yet to become that powerful promoter of American national identity or mythology that it was to become. Instead the screen teemed with ordinary people facing tough times. This typically proletarian milieu often included extended critical commentary on the dominant institutions of established society that made life for ordinary Americans so hard. Bosses, the rich in general, policemen, politicians, the courts, landlords, government officials and such like, were frequently shown as greedy, petty, corrupt, vain and vindictive. Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp, already being forged in the mid-teens, embodied this popular recognition of class inclusion and exclusion.

But as the American film industry became ‘Hollywood’, i.e a oligopoly of film companies that controlled production, distribution and exhibition and was increasing integrated with finance capital, so the proletarian image began to be  marginalised in favour of a middle-class social milieu that stripped out a materialist, realist layer to early film. Nevertheless, the proletarian image could not be entirely banished. It was there in many of the lower budget ‘B’ movies that some studios specialised in and at particular moments, even within the new corporate structures, it would resurface with a vengeance, such as between the 1929 Wall Street Crash and the 1934 imposition of a Catholic-inspired morality censorship code. The Motion Picture Production Code, as extensive a censorship system as existed in the Soviet Union under Stalin, considerably infantilised American film culture, although smart leftist filmmakers could still navigate the system at times and subvert it. That is until the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee used the post-war Cold War as an opportunity to push many leftists out of Hollywood and intimidate those who remained into passivity.

It was not until the Motion Picture Production Code began to break down with the decline of the studio system in the 1950s and more significantly, in the 1960s, that Hollywood films began to break away from the censorious moral-political culture that the bosses and the politicians has clamped down on it. Here culture and politics interacted with the economic changes in ownership and a generational shift in attitudes to transform the terrain. Much of that culture and politics that was most significant came from the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles of the so-called Third World and its interaction with western political aspirations. An entire genre, the Western, underwent a major transformation as a result. Where it was once a supreme colonial genre and mythmaker about America’s own origins, it was now turned into a critical vehicle examining racism and territorial expansionism which continues into the present, as the recent, and excellent Western, Hostiles (2017) starring Christian Bale, demonstrates. Equally, America’s post-war consolidation as a corporate dominated economy, also became critically re-examined through the Western genre. The small town, the railroad corporations, the outlaw, these elements of the Western provide a manageable microcosm to explore the emerging power of capital, while also being historically distant enough to escape immediate censure and informal censorship.

Projecting into the future, as well as the past, has also been another way in which the Marxist thematics of class power, class struggle, revolt and revolution, have been played out in the commercial cinema. The science fiction genre has been remarkably receptive to the way Marxism has seeped into the collective unconscious. An early example of this was Fritz Lang’s German expressionist Metropolis (1927), but again some of Hollywood’s most interesting and critical films in recent decades explores the same template set down by Metropolis, namely elites who control technology lording it over the proles who must fight back in order to survive, often culminating in fantasies of revolutionary change as with They Live (1988), In Time (2011), or Elysium (2013), or at the very least targeting a techno-capitalism as the enemy, as in Alien (1979) and its 1986 sequel, Bladerunner (1982), or Moon (2009).

But before Metropolis, there was Aelita: Queen of Mars, a film made by Soviet filmmaker Yakov Protazanov in 1924 at the height of the cultural fermentation in the Soviet arts. Aelita in fact sets the template, with its story of revolt on Mars against tyranny expressing the high ideals of revolution, but also and fascinatingly contrasted with the difficult realities of living with the real revolution in the Soviet Union on earth. In many ways, this film is far more valuable as a insight into the realities and contradictions of the revolution as it was being lived than Sergei Eisenstein’s film the following year, Strike. His revolutionary romanticism (set prior to the 1917 revolution) did not leave much room for exploring ambivalence and personal desire in a situation of material scarcity.

Of course, what Eisenstein did bequeath world cinema was the theory and practice of montage. Again one can hardly overestimate the enormous influence which Marxism has had on world film culture via the concept and practice of montage. It is an editing strategy which generates emotional shocks and perceptual conflicts by the orchestration of shots. This has been absorbed into mainstream commercial filmmaking although often stripped of its political intent – e.g. the famous shower sequence in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). This is because the crucial element which Marxist film practice of montage also insisted on, is the making of connections outside the strict limitations of temporal-spatial unity. Without montage it is impossible to conceive a whole tradition of analytical documentary filmmaking that assembles a vast range of materials, from Industrial Britain (1931) to The Corporation (2003), still less the revolutionary montage documentary filmmaking of the Cubans – Santiago Alvarez being the master of this kind of work – and others.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Latin Americans in particular pioneered experiments in democratising film production, distribution and reception. The tried to break down the hierarchical division of labour which capitalism has imposed on filmmaking and they tried to break down the boundaries between filmmakers and their subjects, whether they were making a documentary film, as Fernando Birri did while making his film Tire Dié (1958) about shanty town dwellers, or as Bolivian filmmaker Jorge Sanjinés did with his work with the Andean peasantry.

The Latin Americans also pioneered new distribution models, with mobile projectors taking films to remote areas and ‘parallel’ distribution networks in the cities circumnavigating the corporate cinemas and using civil society networks instead to find screening locations and audiences. And they democratised the reception process as well, encouraging debate and discussion – although of course this does go back further to Communist film clubs set up in the 1930s. For Solanas and Getino, film should be conceived as a ‘detonator’ for discussion. In doing so, the consumer-spectator becomes an actor and participant in politics and the space of the screening becomes a liberated zone combating ‘solitude, noncommunication, distrust, and fear.’

Revolutionary filmmakers have also tried to break down the division of intellectual labour between theory and practice, in line with the Marxist emphasis on praxis (the mutually beneficial and critical interrogation of theory by practice and practice by theory). For the Cuban filmmaker, Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, “solid theoretical judgement” is a must for the filmmaker because they are “immersed in a complex milieu, the profound meaning of which does not lie on its surface”. Filmmakers cannot simply go out in the world “with just a camera and their sensibility”. They need instead to “promote the theoretical development of their artistic practice”. 

Alea’s own theorisation of film, its relationship to reality and the twin goals of cognitive awakening and emotional engagement, is itself a fine contribution to our understanding of film, called The Viewer’s Dialectic. Similarly, the British filmmaker, Peter Watkins, who like John Berger, found sanctuary from the intellectual philistinism of the British middle class in Europe, has written extensively about film and its place within a wider media system and can be found at http://pwatkins.mnsi.net. His epic (six hour) reconstruction of the Paris Commune, La Commune (2000) is among one of his finest in a long career. Among La Commune’s many virtues, is not only a reinvention of the long shot that captures the swirling dynamics of a revolutionary situation, but also his utilisation of another contribution to film and artistic culture that Marxism has made (via Brecht), political self-reflexivity. This allows film to examine the language and process of construction of the very film we are watching, as well as the role of the media in general in shaping perceptions, attitudes and identifications.

Marxist film theory as developed in academia has struggled to hold its own of course. Marxist film theory cannot do without engaging with what we might call, the ‘bourgeois’ cultural theories (structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, etc). But it is very hard to engage with these currents as an equal, and not succumb to the pressures of the esteem and acceptance which these currents have within academia, to the detriment of developing an independent Marxist film theory. Still, Marxist film theory has survived, especially in such as collective ventures as the Jump Cut journal and has no doubt subtly influenced generations of former students turned critics, and people who have subsequently gone onto make films even in the commercial arena. Marxism has gone to the movies and the movies have gone to Marxism – a dynamic that has profoundly shaped the movies and even Marxism for more than a century.

Mike Wayne’s latest book is Marxism Goes To The Movies (Routledge 2020).