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Reading Trotsky While Watching Kurosawa

A couple of weeks ago an Australian friend and fellow Marxist raised some interesting questions about film:

I have just moved to the capital city of the state and attended my first film festival. I have always enjoyed movies but in the past have been living in regional centers.

It got me thinking about what constitutes a “good movie” and yourself and David Walsh are the only two Marxist movie critics I can think of. David never seems to like anything very much and his discussion of culture – which is interesting- relies heavily on Trotsky’s ‘Literature and Revolution’.

I know you have written in passing about the sort of movies you like but wondered if you’d written more systematic about Marxism movie criticism.

Despite having written over nine hundred film reviews in the past twenty years or so, I have never really given much thought to the question of “Marxist movie criticism”.

Unfortunately Walsh has stopped writing film reviews for the World Socialist Website, which for my money was the only thing worth reading there. It’s a dirty little secret but most of the material that appears on wsws.org is extracted from the bourgeois press and then spiked with Marxist rhetoric about how evil the capitalist system is, as if we needed any reminding. I’d rather read the NY Times and make such observations myself.

Unlike Walsh, I stay away from Hollywood films except for the end of the year when I am obligated to watch a sufficient number of films like “Gravity” or “Zero Dark Thirty” to make sense out of the nominations my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) put forward at our annual awards meeting. Most of what I review is either documentaries or gritty neorealist films from “foreign” countries (nothing is more foreign to me than Hollywood) so I have a much lighter burden than Walsh.

For an interesting exchange on Marxism and film, I recommend the emails between Walsh and screenwriter John Steppling. In Steppling’s view, “film art is rarely talked about seriously “. I would only add that it is not even thought about much except in academic journals like Cineaste.

The focus of the Walsh-Steppling correspondence was on the crisis in filmmaking that Walsh described:

I think it’s fairly indisputable that there is a crisis in American filmmaking, and filmmaking (and art) in general. Of course there are honorable exceptions, but the studio products at this point are largely execrable — shallow, pointless, trivial, aimed at some imaginary demographic. I don’t feel that cinema audiences are particularly satisfied by what they experience. They go out of habit, dutifully, but present-day films don’t provide much — in some cases, a few violent shocks to the nervous system, in others, mild titillation, etc. I don’t think one would get much of an argument about the deplorable state of the American film industry, even from many within that industry.

Interestingly enough Armond White, my colleague in NYFCO and former president of the prestigious New York Film Critics Circle, who was expelled this year for heckling the arty Afro-British director Steve McQueen at their awards ceremony, has pretty much the same take on American filmmaking despite being a rock-ribbed conservative. White, an African-American, is passionately devoted to Pauline Kael’s legacy and like Walsh and me views Hollywood as a wasteland. His reviews are archived at the National Review, where he currently holds forth. Despite my being on the opposite side of the fence politically from White, I had pretty much the same reaction as him to “The Imitation Game”, the Alan Turing biopic:

Years after the gay romantic Oxbridge drama Another Country (1984) and Merchant Ivory’s deeply felt film of E. M. Forster’s Maurice (1987), it’s peculiar that The Imitation Game depicts Turing’s life so coyly. But Tyldum’s coyness is part of the awards-season, agenda-pushing soft-sell strategy. The Imitation Game is not geared toward making sense of Turing’s reticence, self-doubt, or awkwardnesses; these are just tics for the actor Benedict Cumberbatch to play with. The film means to sentimentalize Turing, a cheap form of martyrdom that mostly goes to the advantage of imprecise, weakly declared political interests. This year Hollywood can flatter itself for disdaining homophobia just as it congratulated itself for disdaining slavery thanks to last year’s horror show 12 Years a Slave.

Frankly, I couldn’t have put it better. Which leads to the key question: what exactly is the Marxist approach to a film like “The Imitation Game”? If I can see eye-to-eye with a National Review critic, perhaps reviewing films requires a different skill set than one used for analyzing the role of the informal economy in the Sandinista revolution or the tendency toward a falling rate of profit.

Although I am loath to admit that I am reliant on Leon Trotsky’s writings on art and literature since that would put me in the same camp as wsws.org, Walsh is correct to count him as a major influence. When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, it was partly on the basis of discovering that the founder was partial to the writings of Louis-Ferdinand Céline who when he wasn’t writing some of the 20th century’s greatest novels was extolling fascism. When I read Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading” in 1961, it mattered less to me that he was a fascist than that he could come up with formulations like “Literature is language charged with meaning”.

In terms of the relationship between Marxism (or any other radical worldview, including anarchism) and film criticism, I think there is less of a direct connection than there is between Marxism and filmmaking itself. In my pantheon of great filmmakers, there is almost always some evidence that the director and/or screenwriter were on the left.

seven-7-samurai-akira-kurosawa-1954

Toshiro Mifune in “The Seven Samurai.”

In some cases, it is obvious with the Italian directors of the 1950s and 60s who were members of the Communist Party (CP). There are also some directors who traveled in the same circles and were certainly influenced by the milieu. In an article on Kurosawa based on a PBS documentary, I note that he traveled in CP circles as a youth and that some of his early student works were “socialist realism” exercises. After WWII began, he went to work in the Japanese film industry turning out propaganda films that glorified test pilots and female factory workers. Once it ended, he returned to his leftist roots but not in an obvious propagandistic method. His “Seven Samurai” is about as passionate and artistically realized a film that has ever been made about commoners fighting collectively against evil.

Satyajit Ray also made films that empathized with the poor but were much more focused on them as individuals than as political subjects, so much so that the Indian CP castigated him as bourgeois. Considering the fact that Ray made “Distant Thunder”, a film that exposed the role of British imperialism in the Bengal famine during WWII, you can see what a dead-end leftist dogmatism can be. Complaining that Ray did not offer class struggle formulas misses the point. Art is not propaganda. It is instead a way for people to connect with deeper humanitarian impulses that lay buried beneath the grime of daily life in a capitalist society growing ever more barbarian by the day.

As an illustration of that, I can only refer you to “Stand Clear of the Closing Doors”, a film included in my 2014 survey for CounterPunch and that was made possible by a $35,000 Kickstarter campaign. On the surface, it is a family drama about a mother’s desperate search for her autistic son who has wandered away to ride the New York City subways. But it is also a drama about immigrant workers who are pushed to the limits by poor pay and a fraying social system that is largely responsible for such children getting lost because of malign neglect. You would not expect such a film to conclude with a call to arms but by the same token you are transported to a higher place by seeing the world through the eyes of an exceptional young man.

Such a resolutely non-commercial film will never get its foot through the door of a major Hollywood studio, starting with Sony, a corporation that is revealed through the hacks as run by utter cretins who publicly spout platitudes about social justice while privately making racist wisecracks to each other. It is exactly such films that I am committed to reviewing. In a period of deepening capitalist decay, the role of art is not that much different than it is for radical politics, namely to present alternatives to the status quo.

At the risk of self-plagiarism, I would conclude with the final paragraphs of something I wrote about 15 years ago under the title “Trotsky on Revolutionary Art” . It is probably close to what David Walsh believes, even though I doubt that we agree on practically anything else (he remains one of my favorite film critics.)

The illusions that the Abstract Expressionists had in the civilizing beneficence of American society seem quaint nowadays. The signs are all around us of a culture whose ruling class has lost all ability to either support or inspire high or popular art. Some examples drawn at random:

–The NY Times runs article after article about the crisis in classical music, while its FM station plays nothing but short dribs and drabs of the most banal war-horses, with ads for Volvos and vacations in the Bahamas taking up at least ten percent of every hour of air-time.

–The Whitney Museum’s biennials of current art have become the laughing stock of the critical community and for good reasons. As clients of the ruling class who fund them, these artists lack inspiration and technique, thusly mirroring the barbarism of their benefactors. Their half-hearted attempts at radical criticism embody the postmodernist sensibility and naturally defy any attempt by ordinary people to identify with their messages buried in irony and kitsch.

–Hollywood is at the end of its tether. The golden age of cinema is finished, as the post-WWII generation has either died or retired. Films today are the product of the accountant’s spreadsheet and are based entirely on demographics. Screenwriters are drawn from the world of television and demonstrate all of the vapidity of the medium.

The decline of culture is tied up with the decline of capitalist civilization. Attempts to reform art are doomed to futility, just as attempts to make the media more accountable are doomed. There are structural impediments that are insurmountable.

A radical critique of bourgeois society cannot be limited to problems of unemployment and war, as serious as these matters are. The loss of beauty and spirituality (yes, I chose that word specifically) are also oppressive. If the ecological crisis can cause the disappearance of blue-fin tunas or the orangutan, two of the most sublime animals in the world, we must take up arms against that crisis. A world devoid of all species except homo sapiens, his household pets, crows, and rats hardly seems worth living in.

By the same token, the inability of this culture to foster the environment necessary for what Trotsky called the “artistic personality” condemns it. What Trotsky did not spell out is that the “artistic personality” includes each and every one of us. To enjoy art as well as to create it requires a total transformation of the way society is organized.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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