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During my graduate-school years in New York City in the mid-seventies to early eighties, Manhattan was the world’s vibrant center of repertory film theaters: each night yielded an embarrassment of the world’s great cinematic riches, meticulously programmed at a dozen or so great “art” houses. There were four of the best on the Upper West Side alone: the Regency, the New Yorker, the Thalia, and the Carnegie. Domestic or foreign, classic or au courant: the city in those days was a nonstop banquet for every cinephile taste.
And these were places where you earned your cinéaste stripes—the seats at the pre-renovated Thalia were so ragged and tightly serried, the atmosphere so grungy, that the ache in the knees and backside that followed a two-hour stint of Bergman or Bresson was a Purple Heart earned in the noble cause of film art.
With the inexorable march of video technology—first the VCR, then the DVD, and now the blandishments of the high-def home theater—these shabby shrines to movie madness are now ghosts of collective memory, fondly recalled informal universities of the twentieth century’s leading art form. What remains are a couple of burnished, nonprofit curatorial emporia, devoid of their forebears’ ramshackle charm, stubbornly upholding the imperiled tradition of the movie “art house.”
In one sense, the community’s loss is the individual’s gain—armed with Netflix and a remote, we can now program our own festivals of cinema’s greatest hits and savor them while dissolutely splayed on bed or couch, clothing optional, yet with something approaching the audiovisual impact of a theatrical projection thanks to hi-def LCD or plasma screens and hi-fi speakers—minus the stresses of someone else’s show times, the yakker in the row behind you, the varsity basketball star blocking your view in the row ahead, or the wad of chewing gum that adheres to your hand if you touch the armrest.
Yet the conveniences of the home theater scarcely compensate for the loss of the communitarian ethos of moviegoing that made the cinema more than just an art form for previous generations. In that pre-VCR era in New York—and Paris and other cinematic metropoles— going out to a repertory theater was a shared experience that bound audience to the art and to one another in a community of cultural aspiration and expression; beyond mere connoisseurship, art-house moviegoing, along with jazz in the 1950s and rock and folk in the 1960s, defined a way of life, a subcultural revaluation of values in the arts and in life. As a blogger wrote in reaction to a You Tube-preserved performance by the jazz singer/pianist Blossom Dearie from 1958, “If anyone out there remembers NYC or Bucks County in the 1950s, then they know that this video is as close as it gets to the real experience. She embodies an entire post-WWII generation determined to create a new world through art and music.” 
In that era the arrival of a new Godard or Truffaut film, or Coltrane or Stones or Dylan album, was an event of great moment, as eagerly anticipated by some as the debut of the latest model of an X-box or iPad is now; and the lines outside the theater, the ensuing reviews, the passionate debates in cafes and diners about the merits of this or that film or director, were common currents of life of the postwar urban subcultures. In fact, the most influential American film critic of the postwar era, Pauline Kael, got her first paying gig as a reviewer in just that manner—animatedly discussing movies in a Berkley coffee shop, where a magazine editor overheard her and on the spot offered her a job reviewing Chaplin’s Limelight. And remember Alvy Singer’s obsession with The Sorrow and the Pity in Annie Hall? Or his exasperation with the guy behind him in line at a movie theater who was pontificating pompously about Fellini to impress his date? Such displays of ardor about film were not far to seek in the generations of urban bohemians and radicals before the advent of the VCR and the DVD player.
Since that technological sea change, the cultural importance of film in general and serious film in particular has suffered a marked decline. There are no directors now whose work attains to the cultural preeminence—or inspires the passionate devotion—of the generations of postwar auteurist innovators extending from De Sica and Bunuel to Godard and Fassbinder and Wenders (the Belgian Dardenne brothers, for example, make contemporary films of that caliber, but few know of their work).
The art of cinema in the left community is in eclipse as well; increasingly preoccupied with the atomized intercourse of Twitter, Facebook, and the Web, the current left of Occupiers, reflecting a generational turn, seems to have little time for, and even less interest in, cinema as anything other than a passing techno-diversion among dozens of others. The work of the classic titans of film continues to inspire a younger generation of directors, but in the absence of communal/tribal rituals of moviegoing, that cultural heritage has lost its hold on much of the young, educated, leftish urban audience.
This cultural amnesia struck me full force over the past few months as the topic of a possible film series came up in my local Queens, New York, Occupy group. The working group dedicated to this task was intent on mounting a series of obscure, current-events leftist documentaries. Concerned that such a program would attract only the usual tiny coterie of the faithful who are already with us, I urged instead a series of esteemed politically-themed films, mostly narrative fiction rather than documentary—the kind that people have been paying to see for decades—to ensure a more robust turnout and thus a riper opportunity to reach out to those countless masses of the 99 percent who vaguely identify with progressive issues but remain trapped in the illusions of duopoly politics or paralyzed by indifference or despair. Not only could we reach a far larger audience, I argued, but we could also engage them more effectively on the primal level of shared lived experience evoked in such works.
Unfortunately, aside from the Hollywood-produced Glengarry Glen Ross, not one of these Occupiers had even heard of, much less seen, any of the films on my proposed list (reproduced below), which includes some of the imperishable classics of film history (OK—one of group had seen Grand Illusion in college because it was an assignment). So the group decided to press ahead with an all agitprop-doc series. 
But what do such conventional hard-left documentaries really amount to? They all essentially follow the same tattered recipe: take several heaping tablespoons of the kind of factual reportage readily available on this and other left Web sites every day; lift it from the printed page, wring out any “excess” detail and nuance, and stuff the simplified remains into the mouths of droning, affectless talking heads; stir in some melodramatic voiceover, ominous background music, and a few whiz-bang animated kaleidoscopic graphics . . . et voila! All of which amounts to a kind of audiovisual Cliff’s Notes, a facile emotive supercharging of the issues, but usually not even serious investigative journalism that unearths new truths, and certainly nothing approaching a work of art. The public showing of such films flatters the preconceptions of the tiny left audience they attract but fails in the critical task of engaging a broader one. If this is the left du jour’s idea of political outreach, it is reaching out and touching only itself.
What is lacking in such insular self-defeating routinism is the audacity of creative imagination: a symptom, I am convinced, of a philistinism that has deprived society as a whole—and with it much of today’s left—of the transformative energies of great art; the oblivion to film culture I witnessed in the Occupy working group (and in the wider OWS group as well) would have been unthinkable among previous generations of urban leftists, who drew inspiration as much from the arts—music and film in particular—as they did from pamphlets, journals, and newspapers.
Some of the finest examples of the revolutionary potential of art are represented on the list of films below; all of these works are actually more radical in spirit than even the leftmost conventional documentaries because, like all great art, they aim to disrupt and disorient the entrenched relation of self to world and thus open up new ways of seeing and being—an abiding necessity for all us unfinished, fallible humans (a category that includes, yes, leftists, among whom sanctimony and delusions of omniscience are constant occupational hazards). From the agitprop doc the prototypical left viewer emerges as the same person, only more so; from a stirring film one emerges as a deeper, stranger, newer person—and much the better person for that.
The symbiosis of radical politics and the arts has enriched the theory and practice of the left for generations: Marx himself was thoroughly immersed in the classics of world literature, the influence of which on his life and work cannot be overstated. Allusions to and citations from centuries of literary classics crop up throughout his letters and published works. According to his son-in-law Paul Lafargue,
[Marx] knew Heine and Goethe by heart and often quoted them in his conversations; he was an assiduous reader of poets in all European languages. Every year he read Aeschylus in the Greek original. He considered him and Shakespeare as the greatest dramatic geniuses humanity ever gave birth to. His respect for Shakespeare was boundless: he made a detailed study of his works and knew even the least important of his characters. . . . Dante and Robert Burns ranked among his favourite poets and he would listen with great pleasure to his daughters reciting or singing the Scottish poet’s satires or ballads. 
Literature and art were no less influential in shaping the sensibilities of Marx’s most notable followers. Engels wrote to Marx, “I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professed historians, economists, and statisticians of the period together.”  Trotsky read French novels on the trains that shuttled him between battlefields while he commanded the Red Army, and one his most important works was Literature and Revolution. Lenin, too, was passionately engaged with imaginative literature. He wrote four essays on Tolstoy, and he was steeped in the European classics, including Goethe’s Faust, the source of one of his favorite quotations, which pierces to the heart of the contemporary left’s debilitating estrangement from the inspirational daimons of the arts: “Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.” 
Now the influence of all the arts (including cinema, the pre-eminent art form of the twentieth century) is in sharp decline, on the left and in the culture as a whole. The waning cultural power of great art is actually nothing new; the alarums about this trend have been sounded since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, beginning with the Romantics at the beginning of the nineteenth century and extending to the present.  Culture critics as diverse as Matthew Arnold, Friedrich Nietzsche, T. S. Eliot, Theodor Adorno, Dwight MacDonald, and Guy DeBord have all borne witness to a flattening of the peaks of the creative human spirit under the steamrollers of corporate-dominated, urban mass culture—what Adorno called “the culture industry.” This trend has accelerated in the face of the collapsing academic hierarchies of highbrow and lowbrow: yet even given the meltdown of traditional aesthetic standards, no one can deny that there is at least some sort of critical distinction to be made between, say, the oeuvre of Todd Phillips (of Hangover and Hangover II renown) and that of Terence Davies or Abbas Kiarostami; you still know formulaic pap when you see it (documentary or fiction), and you still know great art when you see it.
But there are precious few opportunities to know, see, or think about authentic art in any form outside a few large cities, and even there the arts struggle to survive as anything more than a “tasteful” adornment of rampant urban-gentry lifestylism. Any meditative oases where the artistic sensibility can take root and thrive have been lost to the mass-media desertification of the American mind. There’s no refuge from it, not even in the back seat of a taxicab or in the classroom— least of all in the classroom, a key target in the corporate Leviathan’s designs on the public/nonprofit sector. In the continuing assault on public schools, art programs are invariably the first casualties.
And the university, traditionally the repository of classical culture, is now just another conquered province of the Fortune 500. With their ballooning business-administration and economics departments putting the squeeze on humanities resources and enrollments, American universities—including the elite institutions—have decided that their main business really is business, not humane learning. The percentage of U.S. college students graduating with degrees in the humanities is now half of what it was during the 1960s.  Before the 2008 crash, 47 percent of Harvard’s graduates were taking jobs in the financial industry (the figure is now still a robust 29 percent, still dwarfing the number of graduates heading into medicine, teaching, scholarship, or the arts).  As Chris Hedges puts it, “. . . knowledge for its own sake, as a way to ask the broad moral and social questions, has been shredded and destroyed. Most universities have become high-priced occupational training centers.”  He notes that even the surviving liberal-arts programs “are marketed as another way to propel students into the vocational specialties offered by graduate schools or into lucrative jobs.” 
The big-business occupation of academe has grown even more brazen in recent years. According to a the Wall Street Journal,
A fast-moving, competitive economy — and the perception that students are unprepared for its demands — is creating a new phenomenon at colleges and universities: courses supported by, and tailored for, potential employers. . . . The trend goes beyond the traditional ties between private industry and academia. Companies have long funded chairs for faculty — or even academic centers — in areas of particular interest. They underwrite research into business issues that eventually turn into case studies for classes. And executive-education programs housed in business schools cater to corporate employees with courses taught by university faculty. For companies, these links have promoted a better-prepared work force. Faculty, meanwhile, have incorporated real-world applications into the classroom. 
Corporations are by nature metastatic—they must ruthlessly expand or die; hence no organic, nonprofit remnant of social or cultural life is safe from the lethal voracity of the market. Corporate America’s systematic devouring of “higher” education is at once cause and symptom of a society that is impervious to the ennobling influence of the arts and critical thought.
Seventy-five years ago, surveying the spiritual ruins of our business-industrial civilization, Anaïs Nin wrote,
. . . the tragedy of our world is precisely that nothing any longer is capable of rousing it from its lethargy. No more violent dreams, no refreshments, no awakening. In the anaestheisa produced by self-knowledge, life is passing, art is passing, slipping from us: we are drifting with time and our fight is with shadows. We need a blood transfusion.
The sixties counterculture briefly promised just this sort of “transfusion” until it fell prey to the mass-market machinery of style and “cool.” With culture—including much of film and music—now mostly trivialized into a giant, suffocating junk pile of inane marketing fads, surly attitudinizing, vicarious violence, frat-house raunch, and leering celebrity gossip, the visionary potential of art is buried and forgotten, even among broad layers of the soi-disant left.
Kafka wrote that great art should be an “axe to the frozen sea inside us.” That axe is the imagination; in its freedom from the tyrannies of quotidian drudgery and distraction, the imagination can show us something uncannily, even disturbingly, surprising and original: this is Baudelaire’s “dérèglement de tous les sens,” which ruptures conventional modes of perception and invites exploration of the as-yet unseen. In the words of Herbert Marcuse,
Art as a form of reality means, not the beautification of the given, but the construction of an entirely different and opposed reality. The aesthetic vision is part of the revolution; it is a vision of Marx: ‘the animal constructs (formiert) only according to need. Man forms also in accordance with the laws of beauty.’ . . . Art is transcendent in a sense which distinguishes and divorces it from any ‘daily’ reality we can possibly envisage. No matter how free, society will be inflicted with necessity—the necessity of labour, of the fight against death and disease, of scarcity. Thus, the arts will retain forms of expression germane to them—and only to them: of a beauty and truth antagonistic to those of reality. . . . There is in them some faithfulness to one’s passions, some ‘freedom of expression’ in defiance of common sense, language, and behaviour which indicts and contradicts the established ways of life. 
Even in the absence of an overtly political or social intent, the truth and beauty that inhere in the imaginary realm of art are in themselves forms of resistance to the pervasive deceit and ugliness of commercial civilization. In this sense imagination is the foundation not only of art but also of a truly emancipatory left political theory and practice: imagination can impel us beyond the confines of the grasping self and toward a compassionate inhabiting of the lives of others; and because the concept of an ideal socialism has nowhere been fully realized in practice, it remains what it has always been—a product of radical imagination.
One of the key slogans of the May 1968 revolutionaries in France was “l’imagination au pouvoir” (“power to the imagination”): and in that power to transcend the soul-killing constraints and opiates of everyday life, to remain faithful to one’s deepest passions and yearnings, we find the true subversive power of art: to give us more reality than reality itself—the unshakable haunting power of the dream that seems more real, more intense, more profound than waking life.
The Summer Staycation Home Film Festival List
For the Occupy working group, I strove to compose a list of films that exemplify this defiant, transformative spirit of great art. I offer that same list here: a baker’s dozen of superb films with political/social themes, in the hope that it will inspire some readers to undertake a couch-bound yet guilt-free staycation summer film series—guilt-free because of the slender hope that watching these films can, in molecular fashion, help to revive the notion that great art can change consciousness and thus the world.
Please keep in mind, however, that this does not presume to be a ranking of the all-time greatest films of any kind; given its genesis in the Occupy working group, I have expressly limited it to eminent achievements with overtly social/political themes, so I did not consider masterpieces such as Vertigo and La Strada, in which any political/social dimension is more implicit than explicit. And I have winnowed the list down to a manageable thirteen—there are, of course, many more great films of this kind that might have been listed, so I’m sure I have omitted many people’s favorites; here I hope that readers will indulge me on the vagaries of taste and the limitations of space.
Dramas predominate on this list, but there are two comedies as well, and two documentaries. But these are documentaries that are true to the spirit of art in showing disturbing human realities rather than merely stating them abstractly via the monotone talking-head commentator. In both instances—Roger and Me and Point of Order—they bring us face to face with the human actors, the perpetrators and the victims, of the lived experience of human oppression and repression. They are powerful evocations of complex truths rather than celluloid bludgeons.
The films are classified according to their politically relevant theme, with one or two titles listed under each theme, along with major awards won and authoritative critical blurbs to convey a sense of the film’s importance. I furnished no plot summaries; these are readily available on the Net at two Web sites: The All-Movie Guide [http://www.allmovie.com/ ] and the Internet Movie Database [www.imdb.com]. All the films are available from Netflix except Rosetta, Los Olvidados, and Land and Freedom, which can be obtained inexpensively via eBay in authorized overseas DVD editions—just be sure that the region code listed will work on your DVD player.
The Human Costs of Outsourcing and Downsizing
Human Resources (Dir. Laurent Cantet, France, 1999)
“This smart, coolheaded and ultimately wrenching film, directed by Laurent Cantet, explores class differences, corporate behavior, labor relations and father-son strife with an unusual depth and subtlety.” The New York Times
“Restrained, tough, and subtle enough to be as engrossing on the second viewing as it was on the first, Laurent Cantet’s Human Resources is a film that both Godard and Ken Loach might envy. It combines an eternally alluring subject—the father-son relationship—with one that’s a more difficult sell: blue-collar work and the conflict between labor and management.” Village Voice
Roger and Me (Dir. Michael Moore, USA, 1989)
“Mr. Moore is clearly someone who believes that poverty and corporate neglect are sins, and he doesn’t pull his punches. He doesn’t appeal to easy sentiment. . . . Mr. Moore makes no attempt to be fair. Playing fair is for college football. In social criticism, anything goes, as it goes triumphantly in Roger and Me.” The New York Times
The Human Costs of War
“A model of simplicity and grace, with emotional effects that move you when you least expect it, the kind of great film that only a master can pull off.” The Los Angeles Times
“It’s still one of the key humanist expressions to be found in movies: sad, funny, exalting, and glorious.” The Chicago Reader
The Human Costs of Poverty and Unemployment
Rosetta (Dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, France/Belgium, 1999)
“This is a film with a rigorous transforming gaze, a strange and passionate urgency… It is a film whose grace and lyricism has earned it, simply, the status of classic: something of real greatness.” The Guardian
Shoeshine (Dir. Vittorio de Sica, Italy, 1946)
“It has a sweetness and a simplicity that suggest greatness of feeling, and this is so rare in films that to cite a comparison one searches beyond the medium. If Mozart had written an opera set in poverty, it might have had this kind of painful beauty.” Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies
Political Repression, Then and Now
Point of Order (Dir. Emile de Antonio, USA, 1964)
“. . . anyone young enough to wonder what McCarthyism was about . . . should see this movie. Point of Order starts rather oddly and then grows more and more dramatic, confrontational, and wild. . . .” New York magazine
The Psychopathology of Capitalism
Glengarry Glenn Ross (Dir. James Foley, USA, 1992)
“In Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller made the salesman into a symbol for the failure of the American dream. In Miller’s play, Willy Loman was out there all alone, on a smile and a shoeshine. Glengarry Glen Ross is a version for modern times.” Roger Ebert
The Human Costs of Greed
Á Nous la Liberté (Dir. René Clair, France, 1931)
“Beautifully made . . . Clair’s directing demonstrates that sound pictures can be as fluid as the silents were, and this picture is rightly considered a classic.” Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies
Third World Poverty
Los Olvidados (Dir. Luis Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)
“A great, great movie . . . a masterpiece of social surrealism and the founding work of third-world barrio horror. Los Olvidados is strong enough to make a hardened Communist cry or drive a (true) Christian to despair. . . . Once seen, this movie can never be forgotten.” Village Voice
The Ravages of Imperialism
The Man Who Would Be King (Dir. John Huston, UK/USA, 1975)
“This ironic fable about imperialism has some of the pleasures of Gunga Din; it’s a wonderfully full and satisfying movie, with superb performances by [Sean] Connery and [Michael] Caine. . .” Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies
“John Huston has been wanting to make this movie for more than 20 years. It was worth the wait. A mellow, brassy, vigorous movie, rich in adventure and melancholy, The Man Who Would Be King represents the best work Huston has done in a decade. Like [Huston’s] The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947), The Man Who Would Be King is also a meditation on the excesses of ambition and avarice.” Time magazine
The Rise of African American Political Consciousness
Nothing But a Man (Dir. Michael Roemer, USA, 1964)
“A landmark independent film, Nothing But a Man is the first dramatic story featuring a largely black cast created for an integrated audience . . . Word of mouth in the black community . . . and continued attention by film historians have ensured the status of Nothing But a Man as a pioneering and enduring work.” All-Movie Guide
“A quietly stirring, beautiful little movie . . . The great thing about this movie is the rising moral power of an individual who learns how to stand up and say no. It’s a triumph not just for this black character, not just for black audiences, but for everyone.” The Washington Post
The Perils and Pitfalls of Political Commitment
Land and Freedom (Dir. Ken Loach, UK/Spain /Germany/Italy, 1995)
“ . . . as admirable and intelligent as any film around.” The New York Times
“Ken Loach . . . takes an unpromisingly complicated aspect of modern European history — conflict among antifascist fighters during the 1936 Spanish civil war — and turns out a compelling dramatic story.” Entertainment Weekly
“One of the year’s best.” New York magazine
La Chinoise (Dir. Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1967)
“Jean-Luc Godard’s fast, clever political comedy (and elegy) about the late-60s incorporation of revolutionary heroes and ideas into Pop. . . . The movie is like a speed freak’s anticipatory vision of the political horrors to come; it’s amazing.” Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies
“La Chinoise was an integral part of the ’68 juggernaut. With the May  student uprising in Paris, . . . Godard appeared remarkably prescient; . . . Not just a period film, La Chinoise . . . is a chunk of the period. It’s also a spectacular accomplishment within a sustained performance unique in movie history.” Village Voice
William Kaufman is an educational writer who lives in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Among the titles included in the working group’s proposed series are conventional agitprop docs such as Heist: Who Stole the American Dream; Wikirebels: The Story of Wikileaks: The American Ruling Class; and The New Jim Crow (this one is not even a documentary but a video of the author talking about her book of that title).
 Paul Lafargue, “Reminiscences of Marx,” in Marx and Engels Through the Eyes of Their Contemporaries (Moscow, Progress Publishers, 1972). Available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lafargue/1890/xx/marx.htm#art1
 Friedrich Engels, “Engels to Margaret Harkness in London,” in Marx-Engels Correspondence 1888 (publisher unknown, Moscow: 1954). Available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1888/letters/88_04_15.htm
 V. I. Lenin, “Letters on Tactics,” in Lenin Collected Works, vol. 24 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), 42-54. Available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/apr/x01.htm
 At the dawn of the Industrial Age, the Shelley was already despairing over a perceived waning of the power of art; see these lines from his poem “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” written in 1816:
|Spirit of BEAUTY, that dost consecrate|
|With thine own hues all thou dost shine upon|
|Of human thought or form,—where art thou gone?|
|Why dost thou pass away and leave our state,|
|This dim vast vale of tears, vacant and desolate?|
Complete poem available at http://www.bartleby.com/236/71.html
 Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Perseus Books Group, Nation Books, 2009), 108.
 Sandra Y. I. Korn, “From Harvard to Wall Street: Recruiting at the Ivies,” The Nation education blog Extra Credit, January 18, 2012, http://www.thenation.com/blog/165724/harvard-wall-street-recruiting-ivies#
 Hedges, Empire of Illusion, 109.
 Anne Marie Chaker, “Companies Design, Fund Curricula at Universities,” Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2006. Available at http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/business/news/companies-design-fund-curricula-at-universities-449866/
 Anaïs Nin, preface to Tropic of Cancer, by Henry Miller (New York: Grove Press, 1961, 1980), xxxiii.
 Herbert Marcuse, “Art as a Form of Reality,” in Art and Liberation, ed. Douglas Kellner, Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, vol. 4 (London: Routledge, 2007), 147. Available at https://wiki.brown.edu/confluence/download/attachments/73535007/marcuse-the_collected_papers_of_vol4.pdf?version=1&modificationDate=1301355727000