Brett Gregory

Brett Gregory

Brett Gregory is an independent screenwriter, director and producer based in Manchester (UK).

Saturday, 10 February 2024 10:28

Zombies and capitalism: George A. Romero's anti-capitalist critique, and his democratic, collaborative film-making

Published in Films

Interview Transcript

BG: Victor Halperin's movie ‘White Zombie’ from 1932, Jacques Tourneur’s ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ from 1943, Gordon Douglas' ‘Zombies on Broadway’ from 1945 … all early warning signs which were ignored by the great and the good alike until …

[‘Night of the Living Dead’ audio clip]

TF: Hi Brett, my name is Tom Fallows. I work for the American Film Institute and I'm the author of ‘George A. Romero’s Independent Cinema: Horror, Industry, Economics’ published by Edinburgh University Press.

BG: Welcome, Tom. So, born in the Bronx in New York in 1940, who was George A. Romero?

TF: George Romero is an American independent filmmaker best known for his series of zombie films which spanned from 1968 to 2009. Beginning with ‘Night of the Living Dead’ Romero and his collaborators essentially invented the modern idea of the zombie.

BG: What do you mean by ‘the modern idea of the zombie’?

TF: Traditionally, zombies had their roots in Haitian folklore, where they were basically dead bodies bought back to life as slaves through magic. Romero removed this magical component and reimagined the zombie as a mindless ghoul hungry for human flesh. In the process he also transformed them into something more immediate. He embedded his creation into the heart of America, where for US audiences they were no longer some kind of existential other: they were deceased friends, neighbours and family members.

BG: Romero's ‘Night of the Living Dead’ in 1968 was much more than a horror film, wasn't it?

TF: ‘Night …’ was famous for being one of the first US films to have an African-American hero where his race is never mentioned. Romero insists that lead actor Dwayne Jones was only cast because he was the best actor among his friends, but race is crucial to the film. Jones's hero ‘Ben’ is fiercely intelligent and capable and ends up hiding from the zombie hordes in a farmhouse where he's trapped with a white patriarchal father who undercuts Ben's agency at every turn, and the film ends in kind of the starkest way possible with Ben surviving the zombies but killed by a white posse that had supposedly come to the rescue.

G Night of the Living Dead 1968

[‘Night of the Living Dead’ audio clip]

TF: As other critics have pointed out, the images in this black and white horror film were evocative of a harrowing real world violence at the time where bloody attacks and assassinations on civil rights leaders and protesters frequently played out in the streets and on the evening news. In that sense there are moments in ‘Night …’ with its gritty low-budget aesthetic that feel almost like a documentary, and demonstrated Romero, whether he admitted it then or not, as a socially conscious counterculture filmmaker with his finger on the pulse of what was going on in America.

BG: So how would you describe Romero's view on people, on humanity?

TF: A main theme of his film is really communities, and how people interact with each other. When its dystopic, such as in his zombie films, it's about the impossibility for humans to function collaboratively, and how this failure often results in our destruction. The human survivors of the zombie apocalypse can never work together, and this failure ultimately leads to catastrophe. This is a thread that I think is very, very current in 2024.

BG: People not helping one another during difficult times, motivated only by self-interest? I'm … I'm … shocked! So what role does Romero's use of explicit imagery play in all this? You know – the violence, the gore, the consumption of self-centred human beings?

TF: The key aesthetic in Romero's films is obviously the violence. It's the gore: his films often revel in scenes of carnage and zombies devouring human flesh in extreme close-up. While the violence in these films has been controversial, often resulting in X ratings or getting the films banned, it never feels gratuitous, it's never violence for violence’s sake. To me the gore is crucial to Romero's politics: it gives an edge to the satire, it presents his rhetoric as something fierce and exceptionally angry and urgent. In that way these films are almost like the best punk music in that they are confrontational, anarchic and disdainful of the status quo.

BG: You mentioned ‘these films’. Tell us a little about his follow-up feature ‘Dawn of the Dead’.

TF: So after ‘Night’s …’ critique of race and racism, the sequel ‘Dawn of the Dead’ in 1978 turned to issues of consumerism in a very pointed manner. It's set in a shopping mall where it's almost impossible to see the difference between the zombies and contemporary American shoppers. ‘They are us!’ is a key line in the film and a key line in Romero's zombie cinema. The survivors in ‘Dawn …’ meanwhile use the mall as a refuge and the comfort they get from its wares allows them to ignore what's happening in the outside world. Again, this is an overt plainly-stated satire on the direction Romero felt America was headed in the 1970s. Ultimately, the film's not about consumerist greed as some critics have stated, but it's about ignoring the problems we collectively face as a society.

G Dawn of the Dead 1978

[‘Dawn of the Dead’ audio clip]

BG: Now, what I find very interesting is that not only were ‘Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Dawn of the Dead’ both shot in Pittsburgh, Romero's production company, Laurel Entertainment, was also situated in Pittsburgh, rather than, say, Hollywood.

TF: Pittsburgh was crucial. As an independent filmmaker it gave him the freedom to tell the stories that he wanted to tell, largely without the interference of Hollywood or corporate decision-making. To begin with he was working with low budgets and drawing upon the local business community for financing which really allowed him to fly under the radar and produce the kinds of bold, politically radical films that we've been talking about. It also gave him space to experiment with alternative working practices and, at the start of his career, his films were much more collaborative or egalitarian than traditional modes of filmmaking allow. Romero and collaborators, such as John Russo and Russ Streiner, were really striving for a democratic process of filmmaking. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ particularly was made in this uniquely collaborative style where, although Romero was credited as the director, all the key decision-making was done collectively by a core team – from editing to shot selection to production design to core aspects of the screenplay.

BG: It sounds like a socialist, cinematic utopia. What could have possibly gone wrong?

TF: Although it started as a grassroots organisation, the international success of ‘Dawn of the Dead’ – which earned over $55 million at the box office – really changed the shape of their operations. After ‘Dawn of the Dead’ the firm went public and it became beholden to shareholders and committee meetings, just the kind of bureaucracy that Romero tried to avoid and that ultimately pushed him away from the company in the mid-1980s.

BG: Capitalism crushes creative collaboration – Stop the Press! This said however, Romero, Laurel Entertainment and their horde of zombies actually did bring some genuine prosperity to Pittsburgh in more ways than one, didn't they?

TF: Although this experiment in egalitarian film production didn't last, Romero always valued the creative input of collaborators, and his company nurtured a base of film workers that ultimately helped transform Pittsburgh more widely. This base of trained professionals fed into Pittsburgh and transformed it into a leading film centre. It remains a leading film centre to this day with Hollywood productions such as ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ using that talent base in Pittsburgh to create these big-budget films.

BG: And, of course, Romero's cinematic influence spread much farther than Pennsylvania.

TF: In terms of Romero's impact on independent cinema more widely, this can be seen most evidently in horror. ‘Night of the Living Dead’ awakened filmmakers such as Toby Hooper with ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and Wes Craven with ‘Last House on the Left’ to not only the socio-political potential of the genre but also its affordability, demonstrating filmmaking as something that could be achieved outside of Hollywood, and even outside of New York, without compromising on their artistic vision or political ideology. ‘Halloween’ director, John Carpenter, famously once said if any independent filmmaker tells you that they weren't influenced by Romero and ‘Night of the Living Dead’, they're lying.

BG: And what about the young pretenders who have followed in his wake? Sprightly socialist transgressives, or lethargic capitalist copycats?

TF: Romero’s idea of the zombie has become dominant and it’s something we now see in everything from the AMC TV show, ‘The Walking Dead’, to Zac Snyder’s recent Netflix film, ‘Army of the Dead’. But what these recent films and TV shows tends to leave out is, as you say, the transgressive political address that has defined Romero's critical reputation.

BG: Finally, George A. Romero died in 2017. How will you remember him, Tom?

TF: Romero ended his career in Toronto, once again producing low-budget zombie films that were at once fiercely critical of American capitalism and deeply humanist in their approach to characters. I think the best thing that you can say about Romero is that he was always true to his countercultural roots and never stopped believing in the prospect of something better for America.

BG: Great to have had you on the show, man. Many thanks for your time and your insights.

TF: Thanks, Brett, it's been a pleasure to talk to you.

BG: This has been the UK Desk for Arts Express with Dr. Tom Fallows, author of ‘George A. Romero’s Independent Cinema: Horror, Industry, Economics’ which is available now via the Edinburgh University Press website. Cheers!

G George A. Romero Horror Economics Industry 2023

‘Folk Horror on Film: Return of the British Repressed’
Thursday, 01 February 2024 09:33

‘Folk Horror on Film: Return of the British Repressed’

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Louis Bayman, Associate Professor Film Studies at the University of Southampton

BG:  Even before the suicidal insanity of Brexit, the UK has always been regarded by the wider world as a very posh, very violent and very strange country: out of place and out of time, lost in its own history, locked inside one of its own dungeons.

Indeed, to acquire some sort of insight into the oddity of our people, our customs and our belief systems, one only needs to watch four films: ‘The Witchfinder General’ from 1968, the unsung classic ‘Cry of the Banshee’ from 1970, ‘Blood on Satan's Claw’ from 1971 and, of course, ‘The Wicker Man’ from 1973.

Folk horror The Wicker Man 1973

[Audio clip from ‘The Wicker Man’]

LB: Hi there, Brett. It's really nice to be here and thanks very much for inviting me to speak to your listeners at Arts Express. My name is Louis Bayman and I'm an Associate Professor in the Department of Film Studies at the University of Southampton here in the UK.

BG: Many thanks for lending us your time, Louis. So, folk horror.

LG: British cinema and, in fact, television in the late 1960s and 1970s contributed many of what's now recognised as being the classics of folk horror. The folk horror scholar, Dawn Keetley, in fact points out that most horror can in some way find its traces back in tales around the campfire, in folklore, in myths and legends that were particularly popular back in the earlier kinds of periods which folk horror often represents.

BG: And what about its cultural history?

LB: There had been an interest in folklore and the folkloric past at least since Victorian times. James Fraser and ‘The Golden Bough’ - actually not a really particularly scholarly reliable compendium of supposed pagan practices, but nevertheless one that was enormously influential on popular modern understandings of what might have existed before modernity in Britain. We're interested in looking back at the societies that we feel that we've supplanted as well, of course, as looking forward to the society that we may wish to become in the future.

BG: Fascinating. Unlike most other film genres folk horror is very much seated in British history, its internal conflicts and its desire for self-destruction.

LB: Folk horror stages times of social crisis. So ‘Witchfinder General’ is set in the 1640s during the English Revolution, ‘Blood on Satan's Claw’ is set in the very early 18th century, again in England, and there's frequent reference made to the Jacobite rebellions which were ongoing at the time. And then there's also a film called ‘Cry on the Banshee’ from 1970 which was set in Elizabethan England.

Folk Horror Cry of the Banshee 1970

[Audio clip from ‘The Cry of the Banshee’]

LB: These are films that are squarely about Britain itself and British history, and can't simply be solved by a group of peasants with pitchforks chasing after Frankenstein's monster. There's an important class element here as well because the gothic tends to be set in the castles of barons and counts; there's a whole other history about how the gothic is a product of a modern England which is going through the Industrial Revolution / capitalist liberalism but looking anxiously back on the aristocratic past that it hasn't entirely left behind. However, what you get with folk horror is much more of a concentration on the peasantry which, of course, made up the vast bulk of the population.

BG: What's distinctive about folk horror though? What separates it and, in my opinion, elevates it beyond other horror sub-genres?

LB: Whereas in the traditional gothic you might have vampires, werewolves, other kinds of ghouls that threaten the community from outside, in folk horror what's distinctive is that it is the community itself that is the source of violence, of anguish and fear. In folk horror it's civilisation itself which is the problem: its belief systems, systems of ritual, systems of punishment and justice which are actually particularly threatening. So it's not a fear of savagery but actually of customs, of lifestyles, of arable agricultural land – rather than the wilderness that we might associate with the sublime of the gothic – and it's a fear of a particular form of education and social development; fears of how what is totemic for one society could be taboo for another.

BG: I remember sitting in the living room in the 1980s and watching ‘Psychomania’ on the television, hypnotised by its premise that with a little bit of witchcraft and self-belief suicide and death were just the beginning. However, these topics of teenage interest in our current happy-clappy corporate culture are now seemingly verboten.

LG: What I think is most radical is that folk horror removes any sense of there being a stable set of values at all, or any normative social order; both traditional society, pagan or cult worship and modernity are all shown to be equally mad. In ‘The Wicker Man’ Howie’s Christianity is just one form of ritual fanaticism which removed from the social structures that give it meaning and give it force seems perhaps to be just as ridiculous as the veneration of the old gods of the pagan community that he finds himself among.

So I think that folk horror, actually what's most disturbing about it, is the way that it points to how some societies and belief systems actively engage in ritual sacrifice. Other forms of social organisation might engage in corporisation, in the enclosures of the land, in persecution of heresy. And our adherence to one or another of those belief systems is not based on their fundamental rightness, but is based simply on accidents of history: the things that we find right and proper are considered by people from other cultures as horrific and vice versa.

Folk horror The Blood on Satans Claw 1971

[Audio clip from ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’]

BG: And, symbolically, we see such sacrifices played out over and over again when, for example, a prime minister is voted out of office. The right-wing mass media leading us to believe that this is some sort of ceremonial blood transfusion, but it isn't: as a country, as a collection of countries, we're actually dying, rotting on a throne like a Francis Bacon painting.

LB: There's a sense that maybe a certain vitality or a certain form of British pre-eminence is now slipping away and in that all sorts of other alternative forms of social organisation could come to the fore. And as well as this I think decolonisation is extremely important. No longer is weirdness and foreignness located in far-flung places across the rest of the world but actually within the British Isles itself, perhaps we're actually forced to look at ourselves now that we're no longer an imperial power.

This is the same kind of time that E. P. Thompson was talking about the rise of the English working class, a book which, in particular, is about the decline of handicraft, artisanal trades and ways of life, the very things that folk horror is particularly interested. Tom Nairn was writing about the breakup of Britain, and one of the articles, one of the chapters in the book that we've just co-edited, by Beth Carroll is about the uncomfortable position that Celtic cultures play within a broader understanding of Britain, and it draws attention to how many folk horrors are set, for example, in Wales, in Cornwall and in Scotland. So while Tom Nairn was writing at the end of the 1970s about a future breakup of Britain, in some ways we can see folk horror already in the decade prior to that kind of anticipating this notion.

John Berger, the Marxist art critic, had caused a scandal with his television show from 1972, ‘Ways of Seeing’, where he de-mythologises landscape painting by showing the ways that it actually asserts the dominance of a landholding class as being beautiful and as being part of nature, rather than the actual violent social process of enclosures and corporisation that it really was.

So there's a very similar demythologising impulse there in the films of folk horror which, as I say, on the one hand can be related to the counterculture of the late 1960s or a sense that society in general is perhaps falling apart or disintegrating, there's a great deal of disorder, and maybe folk horror is a fear of that sort of disorder; but underlying it even further a more relativised place and understanding Britain's own place within history, a recognition of the violence that formed British history and perhaps also a certain insecurity about what exactly Britain's future might be.

BG: It's such an all-encompassing and deeply involving film genre. For those who wish to investigate further, as well as your book, what would you recommend?

Folk horror Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched 2021

LB: Any of your listeners who are fans of the genre might have seen the recent documentary, ‘Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched’, which is a three-hour long documentary that sprawls across a hundred years of film history from one part of the globe to another, and seems to pretty much cover everything that it possibly can do with any kind of sense of strangeness that might be attached to prior or rural beliefs and ways of life.

BG: And in conclusion, Louis, how would you personally sum up British folk horror?

LB: So I would say ultimately it speaks to a certain confusion about who we are as a society and where we're going. I don't think that there's the same kind of faith in progress that there was in the Victorian era or in the middle of the 20th century, and so folk horror speaks to a certain fear and an anxiety about social change, but without progress where are we going as a nation, as a people, as a class? What is there left for us to believe in?

BG: I couldn't have put it better myself, Louis. It's been an absolute pleasure.

Folk Horror on Film Return of the British Repressed 2023

This has been the UK Desk for Prairie Miller’s Arts Express with Dr Louis Bayman, co-editor with Professor Kevin Donnelly of ‘Folk Horror on Film’ which is currently available to buy through the Manchester University press website here. Cheers.

This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York on January 31st. Brett Gregory is an independent filmmaker and broadcaster based in Greater Manchester. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Social media: @seriousfeather. Website: www.seriousfeather.com

Grim, glorious visions of broken Britain: a review of the film 'Tish', and the photography of Tish Murtha
Wednesday, 17 January 2024 12:10

Grim, glorious visions of broken Britain: a review of the film 'Tish', and the photography of Tish Murtha

Published in Films

Brett Gregory reviews 'Tish', directed by Paul Sng, 2023, and presents some of Tish Murtha's photographs

'My use of photography and the approach to it is based on the conviction that the fundamental value of the medium is its capacity to provide direct, accurate and vital records of the conditions, events and experiences that shape our lives.'

This is a quote from one of Patricia ‘Tish’ Murtha’s essays as narrated by Maxine Peake in Paul Sng’s observational and performative documentary, ‘Tish’, from 2023. In turn, it can be understood to be at the core of her socialist agenda as a working-class photographer and social realist documentarian.

As a 52-year-old working-class filmmaker myself, it’s depressing to see that the desolate council estate where she was raised in Elswick, Newcastle, was very similar in style and content to the miserable maze of treacherous terraced houses where I grew up in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Places where poverty, illiteracy, alcoholism, drugs, child abuse, domestic violence, vandalism and boredom were the main attractions.

Ex Miner New Found out Pub Newport 1977 Ella Murtha

Ex-Miner, New Found Out Pub, Newport, 1977 © Ella Murtha

In 1976 Tish Murtha, with support from her tutors Dennis Birkwood and Mick Henry, secured a funded place on a photography course at Newport College of Art and Design run by David Hurn. The New Found Out Pub on Cambrian Road in Newport was notorious for serving lumpy cider.

While the working-class residents of Elswick were ravaged by the descent and dismantling of the steel and shipbuilding industries during the latter part of the 20th century, Mansfield, a mining community, was decimated and deformed by the Thatcher-led pit closures in the early to mid-1980s. This mining community had been composed almost entirely of regional migrants, particularly from Scotland, Wales and, coincidentally, Tyneside. Indeed, the older lads I sometimes hung around with outside the local shops during my mid-teens – Carl, JJ, Biddy, Kev and Mozz – were all Geordies.

In the summer of 1985, I remember that JJ saved up enough money to get a tattoo of his beloved Newcastle United on his arm, but when he peeled the scab off after a few days it read ‘Newcastle Uniten’ instead. It seemed that even the tattoo artist in town was illiterate.

Anyway, we all laughed and poked fun at him, and he told us to ‘Ga'an away or a'll boot the shite oot ya!’ before storming off home. A week later and he then triumphantly reappeared outside of the shops, pulled up his sleeve and revealed to us that ‘Uniten’ was no more, had never even happened, for it had now been replaced by a new tattoo of a big red rose. I asked him what the ‘Newcastle Rose’ stood for, but he said, ‘It divvn't matter, like. It looks canny. The lasses will gan mad for it.’

Around this time the accent, dialect and earthy humour of the North East had also begun to pervade wider popular culture in the UK. There was the highly successful television series, ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’, the widely read ‘Viz’ comic, the volcanic rise of the footballer, Paul Gascoigne, and, of course, the ubiquitous and inimitable Newcastle Brown Ale. The lads told me, stony-faced, that there was actually a wing in Newcastle General Hospital where men who were addicted to ‘Newkie Brown’ received treatment, and I believed them.

They never told me about Tish Murtha from Elswick though. If she wasn’t on the telly with Terry Wogan, or in a band on Top of the Pops, or running the 1500 metres at the Olympics, how would they have known about her? How would they have known that she was a photographer, or that her work mattered, or that she was even alive? How would they have known that, in blazing black and white, she was documenting and dignifying dead-end lives like ours on a council estate which was just as dark and derelict as this one?

Glenn and Paul on the Washing Line Youth Unemployment 1981 Ella Murtha 

Glenn and Paul on the Washing Line, Youth Unemployment (1981) © Ella Murtha

'[O]ne has only to look at football grounds to see how the evils of extreme right-wing groups are being preached to youngsters who seek some diversion from the misery of unemployment.' – Mr Robert Brown, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne West, House of Commons Debate, ‘Redundancy Fund Bill’ (Feb 1981)

Flats with their windows all boarded up; the bus stop smashed to smithereens; the burnt out car at the back of Spar; the drunk uncle who staggered home from the social club on a Sunday afternoon; the stepdad who combed margarine into his hair because he couldn’t afford Brylcreem; the kids on the bottom estate who set fires in the park and danced in the ashes; the majorettes who twirled their maces and tossed them up higher than houses; the girls who pushed prams down the road as if they were ploughing a field; the mum of three who answered the door wearing sunglasses because she had two black eyes.

Sng’s documentary highlights that the main reason why people knew nothing about Tish Murtha and her photography was because she never received any financial support from the dead-eyed decision-makers who work for opaque, undemocratic organisations like Arts Council England.

Why would she? This country’s establishment doesn’t understand, doesn’t respect and doesn’t care about working-class culture, its narratives, artefacts, experiences or its history. It never has and it never will. Working-class creatives are regarded as unsophisticated, untrustworthy, unruly and, much more importantly, unconnected. Butchers, bakers and candlestick makers gripping onto cheap, borrowed or stolen pens, paints and plectrums.

Kids on Spare Ground Youth Unemployment 1981 Ella Murtha 

Kids on Spare Ground, Youth Unemployment (1981) © Ella Murtha

‘On the whole, reports Tish [Murtha], the only generation who understand these youngsters are pensioners, perhaps because they remember the Depression years.’ - Blakelaw School’s ‘Roundabout Journal’ (1981)

Tish got used to this kind of letter:

‘Many thanks for your recent application for funding. We regret to inform you that your project proposal has been unsuccessful on this occasion. If you would like more specific feedback …’

And so you either fund yourself or you just give up.

Twenty years ago I was able to choose the former because I’d secured a job as a lecturer in film and cultural studies at a college in Manchester. Out of my salary I self-funded, self-distributed and self-promoted numerous campaign and charity promos, music videos for struggling acts, an international short documentary and two documentary features. All of which received absolutely no financial assistance, exhibition or promotional support from publicly-funded entities like the British Film Institute, Film Hub North or HOME cinema.

In turn, my debut working-class feature film, ‘Nobody Loves You and You Don’t Deserve to Exist’, was part-funded by my redundancy money between 2016 and 2022, and the rest was paid for by loans, credit cards and an overdraft which I couldn’t afford.

Each year students used to ask me:

‘How do you find the time to make all these films when you’re teaching us as well?’ And I’d reply, ‘It’s easy: never get married, never have kids, never get a mortgage, never own a car and never go on holiday. See? There’s plenty of time.’

‘That’s well sad, Brett. Why won’t the government fund you? Or the council?’

‘Because they don’t fund people like me, and I haven’t got the time to play their silly games.’

And you don’t have to take my word on this either. Following her time at the influential Side Gallery in Newcastle, Tish Murtha wrote a letter to Dennis Birkwood, her college tutor at Newcastle College of Arts and Technology, which Maxine Peake also narrates in the documentary:

‘I left the Side Gallery for a number of reasons, but mainly because of their peculiar attitude to me and my work – they wanted to manipulate it to fit their group philosophy … And the boss’ girlfriend was getting really spiteful and bitchy towards us, damaging expensive photographic work … ‘accidentally on purpose’. So, as they obviously thought it was all a big joke, and I should be grateful for any situation they offered, I told them all where to stick their job and what an offensive, incestuous little clique they were.’

In 2013 an exhausted Tish Murtha had to die from a brain aneurysm while on the dole for her photography to be finally recognised by national and international cultural commentators for what it is – the work of a major 20th century artist.

Karen on Overturned Chair Youth Unemployment 1981 Ella Murtha 

Karen on Overturned Chair, Youth Unemployment (1981) © Ella Murtha

Tish Murtha took a number of photographs of Karen Lafferty which appear in the 'Youth Unemployment' series. This particular image, which Tish would playfully refer to as 'Saturday night out on the dole', is currently a part of a collection at the National Portrait Gallery.

Her gloriously grim visions of broken buildings, broken people and broken Britain were ignored by the mainstream during her lifetime because they revealed truths about this country that simply made the authorities uneasy, but not ashamed: the inequality, the hypocrisy and the cruelty.

Of course, the self-entitled and self-serving right-wing establishment which the UK is cursed with relies upon, and revels in, keeping working-class culture in its place, down in its oubliette, year after year, decade after decade. At the very least it reminds the rest of the population of what to expect if they too decide to step out of line and speak up. What is more chilling however is that, while protected and empowered by the ideological and repressive state apparatus surrounding them, this establishment’s key historical figures have the experience, resources, personnel and desire to continue this war of attrition until the very end of time.

It is their country after all. For example, only just this week the official portrait of King Charles III was unveiled and, in turn, an £8 million scheme was announced by the Tory Cabinet Office to permit schools, police stations, hospitals and councils to request a free A3-size, oak-framed copy to hang wherever they see fit.

£8 million! Following her death, aged 57, Tish Murtha received a £100 rebate from her energy company.

She wasn’t a working-class photographer. She was a war photographer.

Kids Jumping on to Mattresses Youth Unemployment 1981 Ella Murtha 

Kids Jumping on to Mattresses, Youth Unemployment (1981) © Ella Murtha

With Mark Murtha, one of Tish's brothers, holding on to a ventriloquist dummy (bottom left), this photograph now features in an exhibition at Tate Britain. As her daughter, Ella Murtha, tells us in the documentary: 'To actually say that Tate Britain has acquired me mam's work for a permanent collection ... The whole thought of that is just quite overwhelming really.'

***

Paul Sng’s documentary ‘Tish’ (2023), which chronicles the life and times of the late North East photographer, Patricia Murtha, is currently screening at selected cinemas across the UK, and is available internationally via the Curzon Home Cinema website.

Please also visit www.tishmurtha.co.uk, which is run by her daughter, Ella Murtha, for further information about her exceptional mother. Thanks to Ella for permission to use Tish's photographs.

Thanks also for additional research for this review, by Jack Clarke / @ClarkeJ98

A lurid labyrinth of bestial bureaucracy: Julian Assange and Wikileaks
Friday, 12 January 2024 13:04

A lurid labyrinth of bestial bureaucracy: Julian Assange and Wikileaks

 

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Matthew Alford, Lecturer in Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath (UK) 

BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. Antonio Gramsci, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Bertrand Russell, Benazir Bhutto … Just a handful of 20th century citizens who were incarcerated by their respective governments because they dug deep, took a stand and said, ‘No!’ No to injustice, no to fascism, and no to war. This evening I'm joined by Dr. Matthew Alford from the University of Bath in the UK who is here to discuss one of the most important political prisoners of the 21st century. Matt, please tell us more.

MA: Julian Assange is 52 years old. He's Australian, he studied maths and computing and then founded WikiLeaks in 2006. I'd say perhaps the most neutral term for Julian Assange's profession is ‘publisher’. Personally, I prefer to call him a ‘freedom fighter’.

Julian Assange

BG: WikiLeaks is a term which is often bandied about by the mainstream media, but how did it actually work?

MA: WikiLeaks was important because it had a specially designed dropbox that allowed whistleblowers to post secret documents without anyone, including WikiLeaks itself, knowing their actual identity. This was designed in order for everyone to be kept safe from prosecution. It was a brilliant invention.

BG: And why is whistleblowing so important?

MA: Whistleblowing is part of democratising any organisation, and it's really, really important, especially for organisations that are as secret as the CIA and NSA.

BG: So, what kind of information did Julian Assange release by way of WikiLeaks?

MA: Julian Assange's revelations implicate powerful government and corporate villains worldwide in things like illegal surveillance and false-flag military attacks. And the charges that are against him are for much of his best and his most famous work, including footage of the US Army when they slowly and deliberately killed 12 innocent people, including several journalists, from the safety of a helicopter gunship. He was instrumental in putting that video out online, to hold the American military to account.

BG: And I'm assuming the consequences for him were extremely dire?

MA: Julian Assange was charged under the US Espionage Act of 1917 back in 2010. He's accused of working with army private, Chelsea Manning, to obtain and disclose classified information.

BG: Tell us a little more about Chelsea Manning, another name which the mainstream media has conveniently forgotten.

MA: Chelsea Manning leaked a lot of material when she was a private in the army, and she did this for moral reasons. She was imprisoned for several years herself. Eventually she was released following a plea bargain with Barack Obama. Chelsea Manning is a real hero for what she did. Personally, I'm unclear on why she has been so silent about Julian Assange's case for quite some time. It might be that she's had to sign some kind of gagging order, I don't know. That would just be speculation on my part.

BG: The plot thickens ...

MA: There's been a huge clampdown on these sorts of leaks from the Obama presidency onwards. One study found that almost all non-government representatives thought that the Espionage Act had been used ‘inappropriately in leak cases that have a public interest component.’ One journalist says that it's almost impossible to mount a defence against charges under the Espionage Act because defendants are not allowed to use the term ‘whistleblower’; they're not allowed to mention the First Amendment, and they're not allowed to explain the reasons for their actions. The US government wants to get Julian Assange using the Espionage Act, but this would be the first time in over a hundred years that that legislation has been used against a publisher.

SAMSUNG

Julian Asange at the Ecuadorian embassy

BG: A lurid labyrinth of bestial bureaucracy. But Assange managed to escape, didn't he, for a while at least?

MA: In 2012, Julian Assange hid in an embassy in London, and he stayed there for the next seven years. He was forcibly removed in 2019 and, ever since, he's been in Britain's top security prison, Belmarsh. All of Julian Assange's exercise is indoors; he has not seen the sun for five years, and his feet haven't touched free soil in nearly 12 years. Library books, where he currently resides, are deemed a fire hazard. Julian Assange married his brilliant lawyer, Stella, in 2022 while in prison. For their wedding they were not allowed to use the chapel, and his children weren't even allowed to give him a daisy chain that they had made: it was deemed a security risk. The food available in Belmarsh consists of, quote, ‘porridge for breakfast, thin soup for lunch, and not much else for dinner,’ according to his latest visitor.

Julian has been in Belmarsh longer than any other prisoner, apart from one old man. He's actually lost his freedom for longer than Solzhenitsyn did when he was sent to the Soviet gulag. Julian Assange does currently have a radio, but this is only because one of his prominent friends pointed out to the prison warden that even Hezbollah allows their hostages access to radios. The authorities, even up to the top judicial level, formally accept that Julian Assange is a suicide risk. They don't seem to care; in fact, if anything, they seem to be encouraging it. I find it quite heartbreaking that the last photograph of Julian Assange is of him in court while he happens to be having a mini-stroke.

BG: That's a horrific and inhuman timeline, and in the 'Land of Hope and Glory' as well. In 2022 the then UK Home Secretary Priti Patel of the right-wing Conservative Party approved the extradition of Assange to the US in order to face the country's judiciary and penal system. From your descriptions though, can this really be worse than Belmarsh prison? Isn't the United States the land of the free and the home of the brave? Hasn't Julian Assange been brave?

MA: There are all sorts of ways to make his life worse in prison, to make anyone's life worse in prison, and those could well occur if he is deported, if he is extradited to the United States. So, for example, Julian Assange is currently isolated in his cell for 23 hours a day, which is really, really bad. But if he goes to a supermax facility in the United States, it could be even worse.

For example, it's likely that the CIA would prevent him from handling paper. I mean, it's possible; it does happen to several dozen other prisoners who are there on national security grounds. You know, just be shown a letter through a glass screen. In fact, the British prison Belmarsh already did this once a couple of years ago. In the depths of winter, they said, ‘Okay, fill in this form so that you can acquire your clothes,’ but, due to coronavirus regulations, he was not actually permitted to touch the pen and paper to put in that application. So, there are all sorts of grotesque, perverse things that can be done to a human being when they are incarcerated, and that situation could easily get a lot worse for Julian Assange if he goes to the United States, where the prison system is, I think, widely accepted to be more brutal than even the British cases.

BG: Aren't political cases like this explicitly banned under the UK-US Extradition Treaty? Is international law being tampered with here?

MA: Yeah, I mean, the extradition treaty does explicitly ban extradition for political reasons, except for in cases that involve things like murder. But, you know, law can always be stretched, it could be repurposed for political reasons, and when it comes down to it, the national security state in the United States and in the UK despise Julian Assange. It's almost kind of personal. They're prepared to break all laws, they're prepared to break all conventions just to mess him up. I think standard borders, things like sovereign jurisdiction, Australia's rights, Ecuador's rights, don't matter a jot to organisations like the CIA.

WikiLeaks Logo

BG: What about freedom of speech? What about our right to know how our societies are being governed?

MA: I mean, it's always been standard practice for journalists to receive secret information, and they can use that secret information to hold powerful organisations, particularly the government, to account. If the government is allowed to repurpose current laws to prosecute a publisher, that means that in the future, they'll have set a precedent; they'll be able to do whatever they want in the name of ‘national security’. And it would take a phenomenally brave whistleblower or publisher right now to follow in Julian's footsteps, having seen the price that he's paid.

BG: That's genuinely chilling; it's like we're discussing the Gestapo or the Stasi police or something. Anyway, so from a personal perspective, what does Julian Assange mean to you, Matt?

MA: Julian Assange is a symbol, a symbol of freedom, and a symbol of resistance. But he is also a human being in his own right. Even from this British prison where he currently languishes – Belmarsh in London – he's still sending out regularly, whenever he can, messages of love and hope. I like this quote from him: ‘If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth.’

BG: Exactly. We need to keep the faith. So what action can people take? What can they do so they don't feel, you know, useless?

MA: For more information, I'd suggest going to the website stellaassange.com. That's the best place to be active, to support, and to coordinate both online and on the streets. You can also contact me on Facebook if you like: Matt Alford: War, Laughs, and Lies. If you want some more specifics, I'll be doing a running commentary about Julian Assange and other international political events.

I'd just like to add, and this comes from Stella Assange's website: ‘Saving Julian Assange is about saving ourselves. What happens to him cannot be undone. It would be the end of our right to know and the end of our democracies.’ So please gather outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, and in cities around the world, on the 20th to the 21st of February at 8:30 am and demand Julian's freedom.

BG: That's the Royal Courts of Justice in London on February 20th to the 21st from 8:30 am. This has been a very sobering yet very urgent interview, Matt. Many thanks for your time. 

This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.

Theaters of War: How the Pentagon and CIA took Hollywood
Saturday, 30 December 2023 12:46

Theaters of War: How the Pentagon and CIA took Hollywood

Published in Films

Brett Gregory, UK Desk for Arts Express on WBAI-FM Radio (New York) interviews Dr. Matthew Alford, Lecturer in Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath (UK)

BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. The French Marxist philosopher, Louis Althusser, outlines for us how our values, desires, attitudes and tastes are shaped by wider capitalist-consumer society and culture on a daily basis. He calls this network of influence the ‘Ideological State Apparatus’ and it includes the ‘soft power’ of, for instance, the media, education, religion and the family.

In turn, Althusser also identifies how this societal framework of influence is enforced by the ‘Repressive State Apparatus’. That is to say, the ‘hard power’ of, for example, the military, the police, the judiciary and the prison system.

On this evening's show we're going to be discussing a 2022 independent documentary called ‘Theaters of War: How the Pentagon and the CIA took Hollywood’, an incendiary exposé which reveals how Althusser’s ideas have been combined to produce propagandist entertainment products like Paramount Pictures ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, Amazon Prime's ‘Jack Ryan’ series and Activision's ‘Call of Duty’. But first let's listen to the trailer.

MA: Hi, Brett, my name is Matt Alford. I teach at the University of Bath in the UK and I specialise in the politicisation of media, especially film, and particularly as it relates to British and American foreign policies.

BG: Nice one, Matt. So please tell us, as ordinary citizens and consumers, what are we up against?

Department of Defense Seal

MA: The United States Department of Defense has got a budget of $800 billion. It's an obscene amount of money to waste and, you know, there have been all these stories for decades about, you know, the Pentagon spending $640 on a toilet seat and a $1,000 on nacho cheese warmer and things like that. It's a hugely wasteful organisation. It’s not that it's just wasteful and splurging money around but actually that it really quite actively and desperately needs to spend a lot of money on PR, and that's not just to attract personnel but, I think, that it needs to con the whole world and the American public of course, most importantly, into thinking that the American national security state is a force for global stability and it isn't, it just isn't; it hardly ever is. The United States is very commonly a destabilising force in many conflicts.

BG: And what would motivate a powerful governmental entity like the Department of Defense to carry out such a sustained PR assault on us? Haven't they got actual wars to fight and real spies to catch?

MA: I think this need for PR was perhaps most clear in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, and the whole National Security State started pouring money into PR because at that point there was even less rationale for these heavily state-subsidised taxpayer systems of domination to exist because there was no enemy. It seems a little bit different now because we're in a multipolar world and have been since 2012, maybe 2017, but in the 1990s there was a real opportunity to have developed and forged peaceful alternatives. I mean, there still is but it was extremely clear at that point and I always think it's such a great tragedy and it's, you know, looking at international relations over the past thirty years has just been like watching a slow motion car crash.

National Security Cinema 2017

BG: And what motivated you personally to pursue this research topic, to co-author your 2017 book ‘National Security Cinema’ with Tom Secker and to co-produce Roger Stahl’s ‘Theaters of War’ documentary?

MA: About twenty years ago I began a lengthy private correspondence with Noam Chomsky, the world's most celebrated anarchist and philosopher, so it was really that experience which drove my research. But that said, there were definitely some politically distinct films around that time, right at the start of my research process.

So, for example, ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ which was set in Bosnia, ‘Munich’ which was about Israel-Palestine and ‘Hotel Rwanda’; and these were all received as moderate, uncontroversial mainstream movies. It was only really when I took a more forensic look at them that I could see that they were actually consistent with much more dubious government policies, and they actually had imperialist ideas quite subtly baked into them.

So, take an example like ‘Three Kings’, this anti-war comedy set in Iraq; it starred Mark Wahlberg, George Clooney, a really good movie. But as good as it was the underlying message of the film was that the United States had been morally inconsistent in the first Gulf War of 1991 and, by implication, this left open the idea that a full-scale American invasion or Allied invasion that advanced all the way to Baghdad would have been better than what they actually did in the real world. And so that meant that when the film's director met George W. Bush in 1999, way before 9/11, and he said to Bush, ‘Look, my film is going to challenge your father's legacy on Iraq’, a young George W. Bush was able to shoot back, ‘Well, I'm going to have to finish the job then aren't I?’

Triumph of the Will Riefenstahl 1935

BG: Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 documentary ‘Triumph of the Will’ is often cited as fetishizing Nazism. Is Hollywood fetishizing US imperialism?

MA: In a hundred years’ time I doubt that cultural historians will be discussing ‘Triumph of the Will’ in the same breath as ‘Transformers 12’. I mean, the Nazis were systematically and deliberately glorifying a particular man, a totalitarian system, so I do think there is a bit of a difference there. To be fair though ‘Top Gun 2’ really does have stronger echoes of genuine fascism, I'd say.

In my country the two most well-known film journalists are Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo. Now they talked about ‘Top Gun 2’ and they loved it and, in fact, they scornfully dismissed any political concerns about it. They said ‘it's a fictional country in a fictional story and it doesn't matter. It's a cartoon, it exists in a cartoony world’ and then they put on these sort of silly voices to mock people like me who read the film politically. I think it's legitimate to enjoy a film on its own merits but I don't think it's good to ignore constantly the systematic application of military PR across thousands of film and TV products and also, I think, particularly in the case of ‘Top Gun 2’, I mean State involvement in that film was so in your face I think that it's kind of weird to ignore or dismiss it.

BG: Surely if the military are at it then so also are, for example, the police. I mean people love their crime dramas.

MA: Absolutely, Brett. Yeah, I completely agree. I think it's reasonable to include the FBI and major police forces like the LAPD and the NYPD in our definition of a security state. If we include the police, the numbers of productions supported by the security state does zip up a little bit and it takes us well past 10,000.

BG: Is it just movies and TV shows? What about video games which are played for hours on end by teenagers in the supposed safety and security of their bedrooms?

MA: Yeah, there are other entertainment products targeted and integrated into the national security state. There is reliable evidence to indicate that the US and UK militaries have supported ‘Doom’, for example. ‘America's Army’ was the most downloaded game for a long time in the early 2000s. ‘Rainbow 6’, ‘Homefront’, ‘Call of Duty’, ‘Medal of Honour’.

There was a game called ‘Mercenaries 2: World in Flames’ which requires the gamer to take part in an invasion of Venezuela because this Hugo Chavez socialist-type leader has used nuclear weapons on the Allies. Now the company that made that had previously developed training aids for the US Army, but claims it didn't cooperate with the Government on that particular product. You know, that kind of idea Venezuela nuking someone – even having nuclear weapons – it's just ridiculous and it's actually a plot device that was used in the Amazon Prime show ‘Jack Ryan’, that hugely popular series - it's insane threat inflation.

BG: But isn't it just entertainment? Aren't we all grown adults free to make up our own minds? Or does history tell us different?

MA: Entertainment can really exert a pivotal impact on society. There's a historian called John H. Franklin and he said that without ‘Birth of a Nation’ from 1915 – the explicitly racist movie – he said that without that film the Ku Klux Klan would not have been reborn. If we talk about the US military in particular, I'd say that if these systems weren't in place, I'd say that within a few years I think the US would probably lose all legitimacy and wouldn't be able to use its force overseas. Which is not far off really what happened for a few years in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War.

BG: Surely the US is not the only guilty nation? Surely the UK, for instance, also has its fat fingers stuck in such political pies?

MA: Well, I have looked at other national cinematic systems a little bit and in the UK the Ministry of Defence we now know has worked on hundreds of entertainment productions including films like ‘King’s Men’, ‘KickAss’, various James Bond movies and we are examining the British case now systematically, which is being led by a PhD researcher. What I'd say though is that while it is obviously a good idea to pick apart and generally oppose all propaganda, by any measure – and that's military size, film industry size, foreign policy ambitions, global cultural influence – the United States just dwarfs everybody.

BG: So how can concerned citizens and their families actually watch your documentary ‘Theaters of War’?

MA: Well, contact me on Facebook or on YouTube. I'm on Dr Matt Alford ‘War, Laughs and Lies’. That's if you've got any problems trying to acquire the film, and if you're a student you should be able to find it for free through your library on the system called Kanopy.

BG: Great stuff, Matt. Powerful subject matter. Let's hope people will now think twice about what they pay to entertain themselves.

MA: Thanks very much, Brett. Great talking to you.

BG: This has been the UK desk for Arts Express with Dr. Matthew Alford from the University of Bath, and I've been Brett Gregory. Cheers.

This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.

A taste for paradox and contradiction: a review of 'Godard Cinema' by Cyril Leuthy
Thursday, 21 December 2023 10:22

A taste for paradox and contradiction: a review of 'Godard Cinema' by Cyril Leuthy

Published in Films

Cyril Leuthy composes his posthumous portrait of one of cinema’s great enigmas by entwining, with painstaking precision, original and archived interviews, film clips, newsreels, epistolary recitations and scripted voiceovers. The resulting narrative is totally and memorably Godard, running at 24 frames per second with a clear beginning, middle and end, in that order.

The narrator reminds us that the late Jean-Luc Godard produced over 140 feature films, documentaries and shorts in his lifetime as a part of his absolute quest for cinema, to capture its purity, its humanity, its incredulity, and that he sacrificed his psychological, emotional and spiritual wellbeing at the altar of the seventh art as a consequence.

As Godard himself comments ‘As a boy I was already in mourning for myself, my one and only companion’ and, later in life, ‘Does the fact that I make images instead of having children prevent me from being a human being?’

He was born into privilege in Paris in 1930, his father, Paul, was a doctor and his mother, Odile, worked for a bank. The family was ‘fairly intellectual’ but, as his father observes, Jean-Luc ‘always wanted to be apart. He wanted to follow his thought, only his thought’.

In 1946 he went to study at the Lycée Buffon in Paris and, through his family’s connections, mixed with members of the cultural elite. He failed his baccalaureate exam first time around in 1948, but then passed in 1949. He subsequently registered to study anthropology at the prestigious Sorbonne University but, unsurprisingly, never attended.

‘When I was at the Sorbonne,’ Godard explains in Leuthy’s film, ‘little by little I became interested in cinema. I discovered film clubs and the Cinémathèque Française, and I met guys like Truffaut, Rivette, Rohmer, Chabrol …’

By 1952 he was writing criticism for Cahiers du Cinéma, the famous French film journal which fathered the now infamous auteur theory. Here he praised the gloomy romanticism of North American directors such as Nicolas Ray and Howard Hawks as opposed to the formalistic artfulness of Orson Welles and William Wyler.

His mother then died in an accident in 1954 but his family didn’t wish for him to attend her funeral. As his sister, Veronique, explains, ‘Making films was not considered in the family line, where you study, you become this or that. But he was considered as a so-called artist …’

Breathless Godard 1960

Godard’s creative response to such an opprobrious body blow was to knock the wind out of everybody else in sight with his debut feature film, ‘Breathless’, in 1960. A cool and casual iconoclastic collage of pop culture, jump cuts and discontinuity, the French New Wave film starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg, and introduced the subject of Godard’s cinema as cinema itself and, naturally, cinema adored him in return.

‘Will Godard soon be more popular than the Pope,’ opined Francois Truffaut, his friend and fellow director, ‘that is to say just a little less than The Beatles?’

Fame and adoration were simply not enough for the impish Godard, however. ‘I have a taste for paradox and a spirit of contradiction,’ he wrote. ‘The new wave is criticised for only showing people in bed, so I’m going to show people who are in politics and don’t have time to go to bed.’

The Little Soldier Godard 1963

Thus he shot and released ‘The Little Soldier’, also in 1960. Starring his new wife and onscreen icon of the French New Wave, Anna Karina, the film explored the use of torture during the Algerian War of Independence and, consequently, it was banned in France until 1963.

Although his commercial successes continued with, for instance, ‘Contempt’, starring Brigitte Bardot and Jack Palance, a large bright aperture had opened itself up within Godard and through it he could see that his immediate future lay not simply in the aesthetics of moviemaking, but also in its politics: that is to say, in Marxist critiques of the middle class, capitalism, consumerism and, following the invasion of Vietnam in 1965, North American cultural imperialism.

As the actor and historian, Christophe Bourseiller, recalls ‘[Godard] arrived one day with a crate of [Mao Zedong’s] ‘Little Red Book’ which he had picked up from the Chinese Embassy in Paris.’

David Faroult, author of ‘Godard: Inventions of Political Cinema’, continues that the director wished to document the political climate in contemporary France by focusing on the radical ‘Union of Communist, Marxist and Leninist Youth, a new pro-Maoist group very much influenced by the philosopher Louis Althusser.’

The Chinese Godard 1967

The resultant feature film, ‘The Chinese’, loosely based on Dostoyevsky’s novel, ‘Demons’, was released in 1967, wherein an isolated group of politicised students are portrayed as ‘[The Swiss Family Robinson] of Marxism-Leninism’ in Godard’s attempt to ‘confront vague ideas with clear images’ as one social class sets about overthrowing another.

The Chinese Embassy detested the film however, describing it as the work of ‘a reactionary moron’. In turn, they said if they had the power then they would forbid it from even being called ‘The Chinese’. Godard was disappointed of course, but he wasn’t dissuaded.

At the outset of the now legendary student protests and industrial strikes across de Gualle’s France in May 1968, Godard, Truffaut and others famously travelled to the Cannes Film Festival to demand the event be delayed ‘for the film industry to show solidarity … I’m talking about solidarity with the students and workers, and you’re talking to me about tracking shots and close-ups!’

From 1970 to 1971 Godard marched alongside the Dziga Vertov Group, a political filmmaking collective which, ironically, sought to erase the notion and influence of the auteur by way of Marxist content and Brechtian forms.

Godard was involved in a serious motorcycle accident in Paris in June 1971 however and spent a week in a coma. Leuthy’s narrator comments that, not only did this serve as a metaphor for the director’s political failings, but also for his rebirth: he met the famed multimedia artist, Anne-Marie Miéville, in 1973 and they were married in 1978.

The middle-aged director then entered into a period of exile and experimentation, building the Sonimage studio in his house in Grenoble where he explored and invented new filmic approaches with the latest videography equipment to ‘satisfy his fantasy of making movies all by himself.’

As Henri Langlois, one of the original founders of the Cinémathèque Française in 1936, aptly observes: ‘The last person who made cinema language evolve was Godard … With access to video technology, he would become the new Griffith of cinema.’

Of course, there is much more for audiences to uncover, experience and learn for themselves from Cyril Leuthy’s thoughtful and disciplined documentary about one of the key figures in the history of the moving image.

The documentary’s US premiere is at the non-profit Film Forum Cinema in New York on December 15th 2023, and this will be preceded by Jean-Luc Godard’s final film project, ‘Trailer of a Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars’.

In turn, while the digital release of ‘Godard Cinema’ across the US won’t be until February 2024, UK cinephiles can enjoy the documentary now on the BFI Player online. It is highly recommended.

This review first appeared on Arts Express for WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.

Socialism, Scotland, Cinema and Song: Brett Gregory interviews David Archibald
Tuesday, 19 December 2023 08:55

Socialism, Scotland, Cinema and Song: Brett Gregory interviews David Archibald

Published in Films

Brett Gregory, UK Desk for Arts Express on WBAI-FM Radio (New York) interviews David Archibald, Professor of Political Cinema (Theatre, Film & Television Studies) at the University of Glasgow (UK), December 2023. Image above: The Tenementals

BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. Tonight's guest is an academic, an author, an activist, a filmmaker, and a singer from Glasgow in Scotland.

DA: Hey, my name’s David Archibald, and I teach film studies at the University of Glasgow.

BG: Great voice, David. Anyway, as well as teaching film, what are your wider research interests in the subject?

DA: I'm the editor of the Political Cinema series at Edinburgh University Press, so perhaps that may indicate something of my general research interests.

BG: And what other projects has this led onto, specifically?

DA: I recently completed a book on Ken Loach, which is published in the series. And just now I'm working on a project that attempts to link feminist activists in Cuba, Catalonia and Glasgow through collaborative no-budget filmmaking. And I'm also doing another research project that explores how a music band might be able to make history with a capital H.

Front Cover Tracking Loach

BG: So what's your personal perspective on cinema as an art form?

DA: In common with the pioneers of Third Cinema, a radical film movement from what is generally now called the Global South, I take the view that cinema can be utilised as a generator of theory: that we can think and that we can learn through making.

BG: I like that, that's interesting. I reviewed your latest book, 'Tracking Loach,' for Arts Express earlier this year, as well as for the arts and politics website Culture Matters, which is based in the Northeast of the UK. Out of curiosity, what was your rationale behind the book's title?

DA: I called the book 'Tracking Loach' because I've been tracking the British filmmaker, Ken Loach, in different capacities for some decades, as an audience member for many, many years, but also as a journalist including writing articles for the great New York-based journal ‘Cineaste’, and as an academic with various chapters and articles.

When I heard that Loach was coming to Glasgow to film 'The Angels' Share' about 10 years ago, I was contacted and asked if I could look over his shoulder while he was making the film. And I proposed that I would write a book about his celebrated working practices. Thankfully, he said yes, so the book is an account of tracking Loach in many ways over many decades from a political perspective.

BG: What would you say is particularly significant about the films Ken Loach has directed in the first quarter of this century?

DA: What's noticeable about Loach's work is how the films are utilized to force the political discourse beyond the screen. And Loach's work – whether it be 'The Wind That Shakes the Barley' which deals with Britain's role in Ireland in the Irish Civil War, or 'I, Daniel Blake' about the conditions facing unemployed workers in Britain – what's noticeable is the significant way that they shift the discourse away from the one set by the British right-wing media.

BG: And how would you personally assess Ken Loach's impact on, for example, the field of cinema as a whole?

DA: Loach has been a socialist for his entire adult life. His contribution to radical cinema is unmatched in breadth alone on a global scale.

BG: Now, in this cold-hearted corporatized society of ours, what would you identify as a key practical value of independent artistic expression?

DA: I think that artworks help to set agendas for conversations to come into being. I've spent a long time attempting to foster and nurture alternative ways of talking and doing, being and making. There's a parallel perhaps in the invaluable work that alternative media, like your own radio station, do. They’re vital in creating a new set of possibilities for us. That's why I'm delighted to be here, speaking today.

BG: Yeah, it's all about digging deep, excavating the new, the unknown, the hidden, and sharing the wealth. So, Glasgow: a place that’s always brimmed with energy and ideas in the arts, culture and, particularly, grassroots politics. What does this tell us about the city's psyche, its outlook, and its history?

DA: Glasgow is a city haunted by a proletarian ghost. The city is well known for its industrial past and for a radical heritage which goes alongside it. The spirit of collectivism which developed when it was a major industrial centre continues to operate in much of the city's cultural scene. It’s manifest, for instance, through various ways that artists are open to working together. There is a collaborative ethos, and that's connected to the spirit of collectivism which was forged in the shipyards and factories. And I’m interested in exploring and have always been interested in this for a long time, exploring how to converse with that ghost and see what might transpire.

BG: But your passion for and your pursuit of these creative conversations, as you say, has taken you further afield beyond Glasgow, beyond Scotland even?

DA: I'm currently working with Núria Araüna Baró, an academic from the Public University of Tarragona, and with four groups of feminist activists in Havana and Glasgow, cities which are twinned, and Vilanova i la Geltrú in Catalonia, the city in which Núria resides and Matanzas in Cuba; these two cities are also twin. It's a project that tries to connect these activists through dialogical filmmaking, building trans-local connections. And we have an event at the Havana Film Festival in December next month, at which women from all the four cities will meet for the first time. It's a beautiful project, and I feel very lucky to be part of it. So although I create work that is deeply rooted in the city, always interesting to build international connections and alliances beyond them.

David Archibald centre at the Havana Film Festival

David Archibald (centre) at the Havana Film Festival

BG: Admirable stuff, man. Your students at Glasgow University are lucky to have you. Right, your band, The Tenementals. Tell us more.

DA: The Tenementals is a wild research project and a lot of fun. It attempts to recount the history of Glasgow in song and asks what might history look, sound and feel like if it was created by a group of musicians. It also asks not whether artworks or songs can be history but whether history with a capital H can be artworks or songs. It's wild because it refuses the strictures often imposed on conventional academic research and finds its own path within the artistic community. It runs to its own beat, untethered by authority or control. That's really the only way it can be alive. It has to do whatever it has to do, and the history that it constructs is a history of fragments. It's a radical history of a radical city told in a radical way.

BG: And your latest song – which we’ll be actually playing out with – has got a compelling radical history all of its own.

DA: Although we set out to record a history of Glasgow in song, we're certainly not parochial, far from it: our outlook is international. In January we played a support gig for striking workers and we wanted to do a cover. We were thinking through options, and I was speaking with a filmmaker and academic friend of mine, Holger Mohaupt. And we were talking about German songs popular during the Spanish Civil War. And he mentioned 'Die Moorsoldaten' or ‘Peat Bog Soldiers' in English. It was first performed 90 years ago this year, 1933, in a concentration camp for leftist political prisoners. And although it's been covered in English by a number of quite famous singers like Pete Seeger, Paul Robeson, it's not particularly well known in Britain. We asked Holger's daughter, Lily, to sing it because I'd heard her very, very beautiful but delicate voice on some films that Holger had made previously. The first time I heard her singing in the recording studio or in the rehearsal studio, I knew instantly that we had to record it.

The Tenementals Logo

BG: And the release is a bit different?

DA: We've just brought out two versions, one in German and English with a new translation, and one the rarely performed six-verse German version. We hope to introduce an old song to new audiences in a new way. It's a song about opposition in the most difficult and darkest of times, and I think that that has resonance.

BG: Yeah, the darkest of times pretty much sums a lot of things up at the moment. What are your thoughts on the future? Do you see hope?

DA: You know, when I was a teenager, people often used to tell me that I'd grow out of the radical socialist ideas which I held. Socialists are often presented as dreamers and fantasists, but if we look at the catastrophe which capitalism has created in terms of global climate change, the true fantasists are surely those who would have you believe that it can be resolved under capitalism. It cannot. Socialism, for me at least, remains the hope of the future. And while some academics often talk very vaguely about living differently or about being differently or working in a post-capitalist world, I suppose we're not afraid to name our object of desire: a democratic socialism in which workers have control over their own lives, and where human beings live in harmony with the world, rather than ruthlessly exploiting it in the interests of the ruling class.

BG: That's very honest and rousing, David. The struggle often feels lonely for many, myself included, but thanks to you, not today. It's been brilliant having you on the show. I'm really happy to have finally met you.

DA: Thank you, Brett. It's been great to talk with you, and good luck with all your great work.

BG: Cheers, man. This has been the UK desk for Arts Express, and I've been Brett Gregory. And, as promised, here are The Tenementals with their latest single, the haunting and historical ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’ which is available now via Strength In Numbers Records on Bandcamp.

This interview originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.



The Radical Dreams of Werner Herzog
Wednesday, 29 November 2023 10:51

The Radical Dreams of Werner Herzog

Published in Films

Over the past sixty years Werner Herzog’s extensive and elaborate filmography has explored both the grand and garish extremes of human experience, astonishing audiences all over the world with his breath-taking insight, innovation and industriousness.

Suitably then, Thomas von Steinaecker’s latest documentary, ‘Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer’, is an intimate, informative and involving tribute to an auteur of the highest order, an individual who transcended his origins in the New German Cinema Movement in the 1960s to become the internationally recognised director, screenwriter, documentarian, author, actor and cultural icon that he is today.

Indeed, as Wim Wenders, the esteemed German director of such classics as The American Friend, Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, observes: ‘Herzog is a mythological character. A lonesome rider’.

Both his fictional and factual works frequently pursue protagonists who are driven by destiny, whatever the cost to themselves or to those around them, often along an uncertain or even irrational timeline, as well as almost always against a backdrop of Nature’s savage indifference.

His overarching narrative mission as a storyteller is not necessarily to reach a specific goal or resolution however; rather it is to witness and capture images along the way which human beings like you and me may never have encountered before. In turn, over the duration of a film or maybe even over the duration of a lifetime, these visions will eventually cohere with our perceptions, reflections and imaginations to form an unforgettable ecstasy of illumination.

images 1

Fitzcarraldo

The trail of conquistadors and tribal slaves snaking down a Peruvian mountainside at the beginning of Aguirre, Wrath of God from 1972; the 320 ton steamboat literally being dragged across dry land by way of primitive levers and pulleys during the production of Fitzcarraldo in 1981; the solitary penguin who is compelled to abandon its colony in Antarctica and wander 5000 miles to certain death in Encounters at the End of The World from 2007.

As the late US film critic, Roger Ebert, reminded us, Werner Herzog ‘has never created a single film that is compromised … or uninteresting. Even his failures are spectacular’.

While von Steinaecker’s documentary is peppered with A-list personalities such as Christian Bale, Nicole Kidman and Robert Pattinson proffering their praises, accompanied by various clips from previous documentaries such as Burden of Dreams from 1982 and My Best Fiend from 1999 to provide historical context, it is the up close and personal biographical contributions which make you lean forward. Original interviews with Herzog himself as well as with his brothers, Tilbert and Lucki, together with his former wife, Martje Grohmann, and his current wife, Lena, are fresh, genuine and quite thrilling cinephilic moments.

Abandoned by their father, we learn of the Bavarian village of Sachrang where Herzog and his brothers grew up in poverty during the 1950s and early 60s, their highly educated mother only able to afford a single loaf of bread between the four of them each week.

In turn, we follow them as they eventually move to find employment opportunities in the city of Munich and here, Tilbert tell us, Herzog first worked as a welder at a steel factory, investing his wages in producing short films such as Last Words and Precautions Against Fanatics.

Winning 10,000 German marks in a screenplay competition however was what truly set Herzog on his way since, in 1968, it provided him at the age of 25 with the financial means to write, direct and release his first feature, Signs of Life.

The film, shot by his long-standing cinematographer, Thomas Mauch, centres on three German soldiers who lose their minds on the Greek island of Kos during World War II. It caught the attention of the influential German film historian, Lotte Eisner, who, after informing her close friend, Fritz Lang, of its significance, introduced it to an array of prominent film critics in France. As a result, Signs of Life went on to win the Silver Bear Extraordinary Jury Prize at the 18th Berlin International Film Festival.

Arguably, Werner Herzog’s subsequent fictional work enjoyed its vertex over the 1970s and 80s with a succession of five films which forced Hollywood, and the international cultural intelligentsia at large, to critically countenance previously unthinkable levels of moviemaking which were altogether historic, operatic, raw and real. Furthermore, such a death-defying approach to cinema’s mechanics and aesthetics was also illumined incredibly, as well as overshadowed deeply, by Herzog’s singular collaboration with the incendiary German film and theatre actor, Klaus Kinski.

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski on set

The star of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Woyzeck, Nosferatu the Vampyre, Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde was diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder in 1950, and he attempted suicide twice in 1955. It is of little surprise then that, during lengthy soul-sapping shoots in the punishing jungles of Peru, Ghana, Brazil and Columbia, Kinski would often explode with preternatural fury, physically destroying set designs, verbally abusing crew members, threatening their livelihoods while also promising, in the same breath, to murder his director.

As Thomas Mauch comments, Kinski, who died of a sudden heart attack in 1991 at the age of 65, ‘was only interested in himself. He only cared about creating as much turmoil as he could. He did that to make every gesture seem god-like.’

Herzog finally turned his back on Germany in 1996 and moved to Los Angeles. His brother, Lucki, who is also his producer, informs us that this was because not only were his sibling’s films no longer being funded but ‘he was done with the whole system, with all the bureaucracy behind it, with all the smug narrow-mindedness.’

Fortunately, taking flight in such a manner carried the filmmaker to a continent which coursed with creativity, collaboration and conviction and, as a result, his filmmaking career became revitalised as his work ethic and productivity increased at a staggering rate.

Grizzly Man 2005

That is to say, over the last 27 years Werner Herzog has directed eight original feature films, including Rescue Dawn with Christian Bale and Bad Lieutenant with Nicolas Cage; seventeen documentary features, such as Grizzly Man and Cave of Forgotten Dreams; an eight episode mini-series about Death Row; and, if this wasn’t enough, he has also acted in a number of high-profile feature films and television shows like Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, Tom Cruise’s Jack Reacher, The Simpsons and, more recently, The Mandalorian.

And, let us not forget, that he has magically found the time, energy, focus and finance to direct nineteen operas as well.

Ultimately, Werner Herzog is a polymathic phenomenon, a quasi-religious visionary borne out of the 20th century who sings and sweats cinema, literature, theatre and opera and who, at 81 years of age, is still showing no signs of stopping. Consequently, the only real criticism one can direct towards von Steinaecker’s superbly orchestrated documentary is that, with a running time of 90 minutes, it simply isn’t long enough.

‘Werner Herzog: Radical Dreamer’ will be available to rent or purchase on a multitude of digital platforms in the US and Canada from December 5th 2023, and in the UK from January 19th 2024. This review originally appeared on Arts Express via WBAI 99.5 FM radio in New York.

 

 

Sunday, 05 November 2023 13:22

Hollywood Politics and Oliver Stone

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Ian Scott, Professor of American Film and History at the University of Manchester (UK), October 2023

BG: Hi, this is the UK Desk for Arts Express, and my name is Brett Gregory. This evening we're going to explore Hollywood's up and down relationship with party politics over the years while also focusing on one of the industry's great creative firebrands, Oliver Stone.

IS: Hello, my name is Ian Scott and I'm Professor of American Film and History at Manchester University in the UK. My research specialisms are in Hollywood movies, the relationship between cinema and American political culture more widely, and the social, cultural and political history of California.

BG: So what was the catalyst that got you first into Hollywood and politics?

IS: The relationship of politics to movies has always intrigued me, and my own taste had gravitated towards what were broadly termed political films a long while ago. Movies like ‘Mr Smith Goes to Washington’, ‘All the President's Men’ and ‘JFK’. But really it all came together when I was a grad student studying California politics; I was interested in why people who'd never stood for office before would try to win election races at a very high level first time out, principally getting elected to Congress, in other words.

All The Presidents Men 1976

The political scientist David Canon wrote a really influential book for me and for my research at the time, and it was called ‘Actors, Athletes and Astronauts’, and in it Canon claimed there was mounting evidence that these were the routes to high office. In other words, people from the entertainment industry, sports stars or people who'd done heroic acts of derring-do. I applied Canon's theory to my own research looking at candidates in California during the 1970s, 80s and early 90s who wanted to run for the House of Representatives, the federal House of Representatives, and before I knew it I was implicitly predicting the rise of Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship of California.

BG: And this relationship between party politics and Hollywood, when did it first take hold really?

IS: I suppose I'd make the claim that politics and the movies have always been inextricably linked, but really it was the 1930s, The Depression, that put that relationship into sharp relief. The Hollywood studios, as they were growing in stature and influence through the 20s, were always perceived as conservative at least at the top among the moguls, and those moguls who came west were interested in developing an archetypal American persona.

So, many were Republicans and they imposed a pretty rigid conservative line in the studios, and remember at this time studio workers were beginning to unionize as we start to get into the 1930s. The moguls thought these were all going to make Hollywood a hotbed of left-wing politics and agitation, and that did happen: it's often forgotten that the 30s really were a period of deep unrest in and around the film industry; quite a lot of strikes, quite a lot of agitation going on and, to some degree, it made the moguls even more conservative.

The difference really was the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932. That began to change things. First of all, Roosevelt was a Democrat and there hadn't been one of those in the White House for 12 years, so really that was going back to the beginning of Hollywood's infancy really, so they weren't quite the force on the national stage they were by the early 1930s. And second, FDR understood that from the off if he wanted to communicate his New Deal policies to the wider population he had to be both a broadcasting star himself – so he created his famous fireside chats, as you know, his weekly radio broadcast to the nation – and he needed to cultivate a relationship with Hollywood that would sell, however implicitly, the idea of economic and social regeneration in America.

BG: And how did World War II affect Hollywood's output?

IS: The war maintained that political connection and, of course, Hollywood was deeply involved in propaganda for the military by way of organizations like the Office of War Information. After the war the Cold War provided impetus for topics and at the same time the prevalence of film noir as a genre provided an aesthetic base for Hollywood to continue to make films with a social and cultural agenda to them, if not an outright political ideology.

So you've got post-war movies like ‘The Best Years Of Our Lives’ that contemplated the nation's priorities after the war; films like Frank Capra's largely underrated ‘State of the Union’ with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn; Robert Rossen’s ‘All the King's Men’; and then a little bit later ‘A Face in the Crowd’ directed by Elia Kazan. All of these made an impression in the late 40s and at the turn of the 50s but, of course, the coming and growing anti-communist force during that era distracted Hollywood as well, and it scared off filmmakers and the studios from much further inquiry and investigation.

A Face in the Crowd 1957 res

BG: Fascinating. And what followed in the 60s and 70s?

IS: So by the time we get to the 1960s and 1970s you have a different kind of force at work, a different kind of agenda is emerging. Conspiracy and paranoia thrillers like the classic ‘Manchurian Candidate’ from 1962 and then in the later decade ‘The Parallax View’ with Warren Beatty and ‘Three Days of the Condor’ with Robert Redford all suggested an American political landscape dominated by shady cabals and big corporations unaccountable to anyone. And these films began to tap into the mood of disillusionment with politics that had finally come to fruition with the Watergate scandal in the midst of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s.

BG: Indeed. I literally forced Jack Clark, who I work with, who's 25, to watch ‘All The President's Men’ last night so he was aware of 70s paranoia. Anyway, please continue.

IS: Hollywood generally was always suspicious enough of someone like Ronald Reagan – who was an insider, of course – not to trust him entirely. Reagan had previously been a New Deal Democrat who turned over to the Republican party and became governor of California in the 1960s before he became President.

The Clinton era followed a pattern established by John F. Kennedy that Hollywood was to be cultivated and money should be sought, endorsements gathered, that kind of thing, and it was very successful for Clinton during the 1990s.

By the time of the George Bush administration in the 2000s, Bush largely eschewed Hollywood: he didn't feel it was the kind of community that was very sympathetic, probably rightly, to some of his politics. Although in the immediate post-9/11 era there was an unlikely alliance between the administration and the Hollywood studios and some of the unions like the Screenwriters’ Guild that tacitly supported The War On Terror in the backdrop to 9/11.

The Obama years brought in endorsements even from those who resisted political involvement. So big celebrities, musical stars like Bruce Springsteen who'd been very loathe to support and come out publicly for candidates in the past, came forward for somebody like Obama, who it was thought was really going to change not just American politics but really the whole of American life, American society at that time.

The Trump years followed, of course, and that was quite some reaction as you know, and in many ways the Trump years have been a masterclass in someone saying how much they're personally loved and how they're admired only for such communities – and Hollywood has been most particularly vocal in this – only for communities to refute that claim entirely about Trump in many ways.

BG: And in what ways have films affected government policy rather than a vice versa?

IS: The wider political landscape has seen the exposure of things like American nuclear policy, for example, in a movie like ‘The China Syndrome’ in the late 1970s starring Jane Fonda, a film that appeared around the time at the near nuclear meltdown disaster at 3 Mile Island in Pennsylvania.

But perhaps one of the most obvious examples of influence is, of course, Oliver Stone's ‘JFK’ from 1991. A film that had such traction beyond the pages of review sections of the magazines and newspapers that it eventually resulted in the U.S Congress passing what is known as the Assassination Records Collection Act which set up a review board that over the past 30 years or so has released millions of pages of previously redacted material. JFK caused such a storm over the official story of Kennedy's assassination in 1963 that the American Congress quietly realised it was actually the custodian of a history that frankly few accepted anymore, if they ever had; and Stone, who gave testimony to Congress himself, was well aware of the impact that his film was having and the influence it was having over people's public perception that the Warren Commission Report of 1964, intimating that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin who had killed Kennedy, was simply not believed by the wider American populace.

BG: And you interviewed Oliver Stone. That must have been something?

IS: I did find Stone absolutely fascinating to interview, and subsequently I began to learn a lot more about what motivated him, and understand the years after I'd interviewed him – which was around about 2012/2013 – I began to understand a great deal more about what it was he was telling me at the time, particularly when I reviewed his first book of memoirs a couple of years ago, ‘Chasing The Light’.

In a way Stone encapsulates some of those contradictory impulses in Hollywood. He very much wanted to tell his own stories when he came to Hollywood and it just so happened that those stories and the history that he was a part of, and growing up in, during the 1960s and 1970s was really a time of fraction and disjuncture and a very kind of conflictual time for the United States and for American history more generally.

Stone understood the great opportunities and principles that are at the heart of the American ideal, but he also understood well the terrible costs that were paid for some of those principles. Notably in Vietnam where Stone served with distinction and then made later three very different films about the conflict. But at the same time you know he's kind of an establishment figure: he understands Hollywood's an industry and he works within its confines for good and for ill.

I'll tell you when I asked who he most admired in American cinema – thinking that I had a list in my head of the kind of names he would go to – he straightaway said Steven Spielberg, not the filmmaker you might automatically assume to be somebody Stone would think of as a real inspiration. But the point was that Stone admired Spielberg's freedom within the system, the ability to make films on his terms. Stone might not have made a film like ‘Lincoln’ the way Spielberg did, or ‘The Post’, or ‘Bridge of Spies’ or more subject matter you could see Stone being attracted to, but I think he just admires Spielberg's craft and his determination not to be swayed by fads and taste to do what he wants. That, for so many political filmmakers indeed, is an enormous attraction: the freedom to be able to dictate your own projects and mould them to your vision, however collaborative that vision might seem.

So I think Stone would tell you he managed longevity and he managed to kind of mould his political vision because he made films on time and to budget, and certainly he delivered a run of movies from ‘Salvador’ in the mid-1980s, all the way he's through to probably ‘Natural Born Killers’ a decade later, that were commercial but were also critically challenging movies that audiences wanted to see, and which in Stone's case tapped into a zeitgeist that few filmmakers can ever achieve.

But with movies like ‘Platoon’, ‘Born on the Fourth of July’, ‘The Doors’, ‘JFK’ and even ‘Nixon’, as well as ‘Natural Born Killers’, Stone had a run of films that did all of that and more. He understood about maintaining relations with the studios – even though he didn't always agree with them by any means – but that's why he's managed to mould such a long-standing career for himself.

BG: A compelling character indeed. Many thanks for your time, Ian. It's been great.

IS: Thanks very much for having me. Thank you.

BG: This has been the UK Desk for Arts Express, and I've been Brett Gregory. Cheers.

Queer Horror, Marxism and Hollywood
Thursday, 14 September 2023 13:42

Queer Horror, Marxism and Hollywood

Published in Films

Brett Gregory interviews Dr. Darren Elliott-Smith, Senior Lecturer in Film & Gender Studies at the University of Stirling (UK), for Arts Express

Brett Gregory: Hi, this is the UK desk for Arts Express, and my name's Brett Gregory. Over recent weeks, we've been exploring cinema, not only as a playground for entertainment, escapism, and egos but also as an economic, political, and ideological battleground for social class, gender, ethnicity, technology, and, as we're going to discover in this evening's episode, sexuality.

Darren Elliott-Smith: Hi, my name is Darren Elliott-Smith. I'm a senior lecturer in film and gender, and I teach at the University of Stirling in Scotland in the UK. My research specialisms are in the representation of LGBTQ people in the horror genre, and I'm arguing that it's more recently that this has moved out from the shadowy realms of implicit and symbolic representation of yesteryear.

BG: So how are we to understand queer theory as a critical approach to cinema and its relationship to, say, Marxism?

DES: I suppose it depends on your understanding of queer as a theory and how the term and the ideology have altered in recent years. For me, it's often kind of obvious that there are at least two strands to queer theory. One being around identity politics and attempting to offer what Harry Benchoff describes as an oxymoronic community of difference. So this is a kind of paradox, I suppose, in itself that captures the problematic existence within queer culture and queer theory. But queer, as a word and as an ideology, in my understanding, also still disturbs some people, depending on your social persuasion, or your generation or background, in lots of different ways. And in terms of where this fits with Marxism, queer activism all drew upon socialist rhetoric that called for change, a change whereby the queer collective were being marginalised, crushed, and effectively killed by capitalist, imperialist, middle-class, white CIS hetero patriarchy. And Pride, though far removed from the activist origins of Pride marches in the 1970s, 1980s, still retains some of that need for change to look after the collective and therefore the individual as they exist within the mass, free from the oppression of that ruling elite.

BG: And how does this inform a queer understanding of the horror genre in particular?

DES: Interestingly, many of the works of early horror film theorists in the 1970s, particularly the definitive work of queer film scholar Robin Wood, utilised both a lesbian and gay approach with a socialist and Marxist approach as well. So he argued that, using a little bit of psychoanalysis merged with Marxism, that those ideals and energies that don't fit the bourgeois capitalist, imperialist, and white patriarchal culture of production and reproduction are cast out as other across this imaginary border, which then sets up the binary of us versus them. The problem is that actually within horror and within a lot of Gothic narratives, the ‘them’ or ‘they’ sometimes come back. The fact that they always come back, repression and oppression eventually is shown to fail in the horror narrative, causing this monster, creature, killer, or infection, whatever it is, to come back and threaten that pure individual that's meant to represent the US.

BG: Can you give us a specific film example where the ‘us’ and ‘them’ binary becomes blurred?

DES: in kind of focusing on this theory. He collapsed the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary, and we see this most critically skewered in films like George Romero'sNight of the Living Dead,’ whereby the undead, the zombie, the returned, kind of reanimated corpse who once was human, once was us, become a ‘them’ figure, and then they return to assimilate everybody else into this undead horde, where children eat parents, and the sole survivor, which in this case is Ben, black male, is gunned down by white vigilantes at the end of the film, who stake him for one of them, even though he's not zombified; he's actually still human and very much alive. And Romero's point is that the gun-toting white male doesn't see any difference; actually, all exist in an othered state.

Duane Jones as Ben in Night of the Living Dead 1968

BG: So what is the scope of horror films and television shows which is under consideration here?

DES: Queer horror, although I'd argue that all horror is queer in that it seems to represent the odd, the strange, the non-normative, and as a genre, it seeks to distress, to upset and to challenge, and to scare. It's for me a set of films and TV shows that are made, normally by LGBTQ creatives, that foreground queerness as an element of representation in some way, but this subgenre also includes historical considerations as influences upon these newer out contemporary horror films and shows. So, in order to do that, we have to look at what a lot of academics and myself call closeted texts like, Interview with a Vampire, The Hunger, Psycho, Bride of Frankenstein, all these films that kind of clearly have LGBTQ themes running through them but never really explicitly kind of outwardly state that they are. So they involve some kind of symbolic interpretation or reading.

BG: From a historical perspective. The Hays Code, which was introduced in the 1930s, clearly had a resounding effect on cinema's representations, narratives, and themes. Could you tell us a little bit more about this? 

DES: So, the Hays Code was set up after a series of scandals rocked Hollywood, and people were worried about the deplored world of filmmaking as one that might infect supposedly decent heteronormative family life. One particular case that's often cited is the star Fatty Arbuckle being accused of raping a young starlet in the early 1920s. So, Will Hays set up a production code that would monitor the content of all film productions and those that were released in US cinemas, preventing certain elements and themes and narratives that they deemed would seek to poison US ideology. It's Vito Russo's documentary and book ‘The Celluloid Closet’ outlines this really well in terms of the impact on LGBTQ+ folks. The rule that existed within the Hays Code strictly prohibited any depiction of what was called "sex perversion," impacting any explicit representation of any non-normative sexuality or romance. So, Some films had to get around this by using symbolism, inference, suggestion so as to ensure that their true audience were being represented in and seen in films. Some directors, queer-affiliated directors, were kind of doing this deliberately, coding their films in a way.

The Bride of Frankenstein 1935

BG: For example?

DES: The Universal franchise of horror films from the '30s and the '40s were actually playing with the limitations of the code as well. It's been kind of recently introduced so the suggestion here becomes quite pointed at times, and there's a practice of rebellion in a small way, and this was more pushed, I suppose, by the makers of these films. So if we can kind of go to certain auteurs, film directors like Todd Browning, whose sexuality was often kind of questioned but never fully defined, he made the pre-code film ‘Freaks,’ which is problematic but also really interesting kind of queer film in its representation of non-normative body types. There's also James Whale, who is a gay British director who ramped up the suggestion in his version of ‘Frankenstein,’ that he directed and even more so in the kind of more comedic and kind of almost parodic ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ where we have this homoerotic triangle literally exploding off the screen between Frankenstein the creature and Dr Pretorius as well.

BG: And once again social class is at play in such horror films as well isn’t it?

DES: Class definitely comes into it again, drawing on those early Marxist readings from Franco Moretti on the nature of the capitalist blood-sucking vampire configured more recently as a corporate CEO or landed gentry or an aristocrat versus the underclass or working class, the proletariat of the zombie or a mindless slave. And we see a kind of a literal version of this in the depiction of Haitian voodoo in early RKO texts like ‘I Walked with a Zombie.’ But the queerness present in the upper classes, something I suppose that's reflected on as a consideration of effete queer men, idiosyncratic in their taste, often overindulged with an emphasis on the pursuit of overwhelmed senses, and that kind of stereotypical depiction of upper-class queerness is existent in early Gothic texts like ‘Jekyll and Hyde' and ‘Dorian Gray,’ where the upper classes are seen to wallow in debauchery that's propped up by generations of wealth, them having the time, the money, the power to indulge in seemingly perverse desires.

I Walked with a Zombie 1943

BG: And queer horror is still disrupting and destabilising popular conservative sensibility today as well, isn't it?

DES: Well, the recent remake of Hellraiser wasn't received so well by so-called purist horror fans. Um, they took against this more explicit queer content and they rejected in particular the idea of trans actor Jamie Clayton as the new Pinhead. I mean, not realizing that this film was written by a gay male author, directed by the same man, Clive Barker, and inspired by his experiences of BDSM queer practices that he saw in Berlin nightclubs. And it's quite clear that it's queer from the get-go.

BG: And your academic work presents is exploring the relationship between queer horror, trauma, and mental health, is that correct?

DES: So my recent work looks at the impact of neoconservative, neoliberal ideologies upon LGBTQ individuals' mental health and how horror and Gothic are often the go-to genre for the representation of this. So recently, we've seen a few films that foreground this, utilising horror tropes. ‘Hypochondriac’ from 2022 focuses on this young man who fears that he's inherited his mother's mental illness but sees himself split into two versions of himself: one is a wolf man, the other is this kind of non-normative, seemingly kind of normal queer individual. Other films like ‘Thelma’ from 2018, which is a Swedish supernatural film about a girl with Carrie-like powers who comes to terms with her own lesbianism that has been repressed by her staunch religious parents. And even the recent series of ‘American Horror Story: NYC’ tends to come to terms with personal and cultural trauma that's affected the queer community and also across the world, but particularly in New York. Via various, albeit from my perspective, they're quite clunky allegories and explicit narratives around the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

BG: And we must never forget that with the current rise in right-wing attitudes in both the US and the UK, there are real lives at stake here.

DES: So it seems that in the past few years, things have become even more obvious that being different, being LGBTQ in today's world can be scary. Our rights are being taken away one by one, these hard-won equalities that have been rolled back, and our existence as legally equal is increasingly becoming very precarious. So it's a really interesting time, I think, for theorists and for filmmakers to think about the ways in which we can start to kind of think about how cultural theory that once oppressed and stigmatised queer people is now being re-interpreted, re-expressed, and re-presented to allow queer filmmakers and theorists to take up that mode of address that can offer critiques of the establishment and of also our own subcultures and of those that still oppress us.

BG: Fantastic Darren, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on the show. Your cinematic observations have been both illuminating and important. 

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