The revival of militarist, racist, patriarchal, and capitalist ideologies in post-1977 Hollywood films would seem to suggest that the United States had turned significantly rightward. There is evidence to the contrary. Indeed, one could say the virulence of contemporary conservatism is itself ample evidence that something very nonconservative was still active in U.S. society.
We have described the power of the individualist ideology in American culture. As a result of the residual appeal of that ideology, the socialist possibility, of the sort that would address certain pre-political popular desires we have noted throughout this book, is denied any general availability in public debate. That ban is fostered by longstanding, carefully manufactured antisocialist prejudices that equate socialism with statism and play to populist anxiety regarding the impersonal power of big government. The overwhelming power of capitalist interests in promoting their anticommunitarian philosophy of social life also accounts for the almost total silence on the issue of socialism in the media as a whole and in film particularly. With the exception of British filmmakers like Ridley Scott and Americans like Peter Hyams, John Sayles, and Warren Beatty, few filmmakers criticize capitalism itself, and none overtly suggests that a socialist alternative might be better.
This implicit ban is aided by the dominant representational codes of Hollywood, codes shaped in the same cultural climate of liberal individualism that fosters the uncritical acceptance of the entrepreneurial capitalist model and the unquestioned popular prejudice that all socialism is “totalitarian,” a denial of individual freedom. Because those codes are inseparable from the perceptual codes that frame audience experience of the world, it is difficult to rework them in ways conducive to the development of a more critical attitude toward capitalism or a more positive attitude toward socialism without promoting a negative audience reaction, a mismatch between representational strategy and audience receptivity—in film lingo, a flop.
In this chapter we will consider the work of several filmmakers who have tried to operate from a leftist perspective within Hollywood, and we will compare it with the work of radical independent filmmakers. We will be concerned particularly with the ways in which progressives attempt to recast the dominant representational codes, so that the form of film as well as its content promotes radical alternatives. Form, or means of representation, as much as the content of film, needs to be transformed because the prevailing patterns of thought, perception, and behavior that help sustain capitalism and patriarchy are determined, we would argue, by representations, the dominant forms or modes through which people experience the world. Whether one represents the history of the United States as an epic of realized destiny or as a series of only contiguously related episodes of alternating idealism and brutality makes a difference for how one acts in the world. In addition, socialism would imply a new form of life, a new (more democratic and egalitarian) style of social organization, which would be inseparable from different modes of representation. If the maintenance of capitalism is dependent on the prevalence of cultural representations that construct a shared social reality, then the development of socialism necessitates different cultural representations, different forms or ways of constructing the world and a sense of one’s place in it. If current representations position women as passive objects, blacks as dancers and comics, and poor people as somehow inferior to white male businessmen, then a more egalitarian social arrangement would require different representations.
Form inheres in the very substance of social life. Form not only determines cognition, how one experiences the world; it also determines the shape of social institutions, practices, and values. Morality is a question of ways of being, modes of action, and forms of behavior. And the same can be said of politics, economics, or psychology. The political struggle between Left and Right comes down to a contest over the shape of life, the form it will take. The form of Hollywood film has in recent years come to be characterized as inherently ideological because it tends invariably to reinforce the dominant forms of patriarchal and capitalist life. We differ from the common characterization of this ideological procedure in that we see it not as a matter of cognition, the positioning of spectators as spuriously self-identical, specular subjects who are lured into an imaginary identification that is inherently ideological. Rather, Hollywood forms are in our view ideological because they replicate the figures and narratives that constitute the very substance of those values, practices, and institutions that shape a society of domination.
Spectatorial cognition is merely the end result of a broad process of rhetorical replication whereby those grounding figures of the society (the narrative of individual success, the metaphor of freedom, the synecdochic privileging of efficiency over democracy, the litotic liberal ideal of pluralist neutrality, etc.) are transcoded into specifically cinematic forms—the male quest narrative, the camera positions of individuated identification, the domestic mise-en-scene, shot continuity as a realization of a spurious model of psychological motivation, the instantiation of a dichotomous Christian morality through contrapuntal editing, and so on. Rather than disable the question of form, this reconceptualization of ideology gives it even more force as a required concern of a reconstructive politics. But it does displace the specific importance accorded the undermining of narrative realism, of the basic film illusion, by structuralist film theory. Our argument will be that while such work is necessary for a broader project of reshaping the grounding figures of society, it misses the mark by concentrating on the phenomenal consciousness of film viewing. It may be more important to accept the viewing assumptions of narrative realism in order to be better able to change the dominant figures of thought, value, and action that are the substance of society. Instead of only different camera angles, editing techniques, or framing devices which rupture realist narratives, also different character representations, different plot strategies, different moral configurations, different tropes of actions, etc., within the frame of realist narrative. These things are also matters of form, and they go more to the heart of those forms that constitute society as a set of material figures and practices than do the cognitivist forms of the phenomenology of film viewing. We will argue, therefore, that while such modernist formal revisions are essential, they can also get in the way of gaining access to popular audiences in ways that work to reshape the dominant figures and narratives of patriarchal capitalist social life.
The radical film avant-garde argues that films with leftist content are conservative if they use traditional Hollywood representational forms. Some would push this argument further and argue that only modernist non-Hollywood forms are “progressive.” This leaves open the question of what a “progressive text” is.1 Is a film with conservative content in a modernist form a progressive film? The trouble with this position is that it ignores the role of modernism in cultural history, where it was frequently (as in Eliot and Pound) allied with reactionary politics. Modernist form alone, without a leftist content, is not necessarily progressive. Indeed, as we have noticed in the case of Coppola (who, interestingly, has Brando read Eliot in a scene in Apocalypse Now), modernist forms can be welded to quite conservative thematics. A purely formal criterion of progressive politics in film also ignores crucial substantive issues of race and gender. Feminist and non-white progressive texts may operate under a different set of exigencies altogether.
The ideal would seem to be films that are both thematically leftist and formally modernist. But the criterion for judging such matters should be pragmatic, one that measures the progressive character of a text according to how well it accomplishes its task in specific contexts of reception. What counts as progressive varies with time and situation, and what works in one era or context might fail in another. Moreover, the notion of progressive is always differentially or relationally determined. Something is always progressive in relation to something else. Modernist texts tended to be progressive in comparison to the stultifying and ideological bourgeois realism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Bennett, Galsworthy, etc.), but as modernism itself became detached from social concerns and became a marketable commodity in the world of art, modernism as such was no longer progressive.
While the idea of the progressive text is variable, it is not entirely indeterminate. Certain uses of certain forms are ideological—camera techniques that suggest natural hierarchies, spectacles that idealize violence as a solution to social problems, voyeuristic objectifications that debase others. The ideal would seem to be forms that provoke critical thought regarding the world, that associate pleasure with egalitarian and empathetic social procedures, that link narrative resolution to ideals of justice purged of militarist and chauvinist themes, etc.—a mix of the best of modernism and classical realism.
Such an ideal is difficult to attain within the Hollywood frame, as we will see in the case of Robert Altman. Most left-liberal filmmakers like Michael Ritchie (Downhill Racer, The Candidate, Smile) work within fairly traditional formats. The one consistently experimental filmmaker, John Cassavetes (Shadows, Faces, Woman under the Influence), limits his experimentation to cinema verite devices and strategies (nonprofessional actors, improvisation, long “real life” sequences of conversations, etc.). Radical formal experimentation is more likely to be used by people whose political and aesthetic interests require a break from the past and from the reigning conventions of representation. Those people generally have to work outside Hollywood. One exception from this is the Chicano film Zoot Suit (1981), directed by Luis Valdez and based on his Teatro Campesino play, which combines realist and fantasy modes and uses an unconventional, discontinuous narrative form to tell the story of the trial of three Chicanos and their white friend in the Sleepy Lagoon murders during World War II. The use of a Brechtian narrator (Edward James Olmos) and the frame-rupturing forays into the theater in which the film is being shot distance the audience from the story and force reflection on the events. The contrast between the fast and colorful musical numbers, which often contain Utopian visions of various races interacting and dancing together, and the grim realism of the prison scenes marks the distinction between fantasy and reality experienced by many Hispanics. And the “ending” presents a variety of possible conclusions to the story that calls attention to the conventional nature of film, indicates how different endings contain different ideological closures and positions, and depicts life as a narrative that can be constructed in any number of ways.
Arthur Penn has successfully worked on the margins of the prevailing Hollywood conventions, injecting leftist themes into forms that, if they are not modernist, are at least subversive at times of the dominant conventions. His Mickey One (1964) represents alienation stylistically through the use of discontinuous narrative and nonnarrative sequences that break the rationality of the logical story line. Jazz music heightens the effect of disjunction. The film, however, was not popular; in effect, it was too formally radical for the audience. Penn fared better with Bonnie and Clyde and Little Big Man, one of the most popular films of 1970, in which a picaresque episodic structure permitted narrative discontinuity to work in the service of a critique of western myths. Yet in the seventies Penn’s films became increasingly traditional in their narrative formats, although the critical thematics of films like Night Moves, Missouri Breaks, and Four Friends are still allied with a questioning of generic conventions (the detective, the western, the working-class success story).
Most Hollywood liberals and leftists seem to accept Penn’s fate, working within the traditional representational formats (image, narrative, and character) while tinkering critically or playfully with the generic and action conventions. Jane Fonda’s films, for example, are consistently recognizable as traditional Hollywood realist films on the level of narrative, image, and character construction, yet they usually push against generic and action conventions. Both Comes a Horseman (1979) and The Electric Horseman (1980), for example, use yet depart from the western conventions. In the first, a woman wins out against a cattle baron (even Vienna couldn’t do that without having to cook breakfast for her man), and in the second, the “post-western” conventions are hybridized with the corporate conspiracy genre to produce a sense of generic nonsynchronicity that aids the critical theme. Fun with Dick and Jane (1976) turns a middle class melodrama into an absurdist satire of success and economic survival. An unemployed bourgeois couple resorts to bank robbery to maintain their lifestyle.
Clearly, there are significant limits to what can be done with actional and generic conventions. Normal people can be shown doing uncustomary things, and normal generic boundaries can be crossed, but hewing to all-American representational forms requires playing in some way to the attitudes and beliefs about the world that are linked (via the cultural system of representations that includes the Hollywood system) with those forms. Thus, in Rollover the plot requires that Arabs be represented in a somewhat populist xenophobic manner appropriate to the Iran hostage era of intolerance. Nevertheless, Fonda’s films usually portray strong women, though the left liberal slant that informs the work usually skews these portrayals toward optimistic celebrations of the possibility of individual efficacy in changing society.
The filmmaker who most successfully links social criticism with alternate representational strategies during this period is Robert Altman. The trouble with Altman is that he was so successful that he managed to work his way out of Hollywood altogether. Thus, although he may prove how possible it is to do radical work within the Hollywood representational system, his case may also prove how impossible it is to remain within that system if you become too radical. Altman’s work is distinguished by the fact that he operates both on the plane of generic and action conventions and on the plane of image, narrative, and character formatting. His early seventies films (M*A*S*H, 1970, Brewster McCloud, 1970, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971) subvert the traditional war and western generic conventions and use exorbitant action ploys to satirize conservative values. M*A*S*H positions the audience against militarism and authoritarianism by injecting farce into the traditional war format. Brewster is based in an absurdist action device—a young man learning to fly— and it concludes with a title sequence that underscores the illusoriness of the Hollywood cinema—the actors appear as clowns engaging in buffoonish acts. And McCabe resorts to historical realism to undermine the traditional western conventions. The West is depicted as mean and direct, and the traditional action codes for the western hero (honor, romance, etc.) are left lying in the dirt.
In Nashville (1975), scripted by Joan Tewkesbury, Altman intensifies his social criticism at the level of image, narrative, and character construction. The film follows the lives of numerous characters—a BBC reporter, a political campaign worker, a folk group, a housewife, an aspiring country singer, a successful country singer—in a fairly random manner during a weekend in Nashville. All the different narrative strands come together in the end at an outdoor political rally, highlighted by the appearance of a famous country singer, who in the final segment is shot by a neurotic young man. In this and in his next several films, he breaks more radically with Hollywood practices that produce an ideological vision of the world by inviting identification with privileged characters, or through narrations that connote a sense of world order, or through camera strategies that promote a false sense of dramatic intimacy. The narrative of Nashville is discontinuous; the characters are multiple (24 in all), with no privileged hero or even privileged object of sympathetic identification, since all are flawed, venal, or manipulative; and the images are constructed in such a way as to distance the audience from the habitual sorts of engagement with the spectacle. On the whole, the multiplicity of points of view and the narrative discontinuities require more attention and thought from the audience than is usual in Hollywood film, and indeed, a theme of the film is that Americans are passive victims of political and culture industry manipulation, so much so that they can sing “You may say that I ain’t free, but it don’t worry me” when someone has just been shot.
The film is concerned with the distance between image and reality, both on the broader cultural level and in personal relationships, and for this reason its reflexive signaling of its own departure from Hollywood illusionism (by, for example, having Elliot Gould and Julie Christie play themselves) is significant. Thus, what Altman was after was a certain materialism, showing what Hollywood never shows—the sleazy underside of the American Dream of success that is concealed by the stage of cultural spectacle. For this reason it is important that much of the action takes place on or around stages. Private as much as public life is a performance, often deceptive, and what matters is show, spectacle, and platitude, rather than honesty or fidelity. Even the presidential candidate never appears in person; he is only a set of slogans broadcast over a loudspeaker (although his one early slogan sets the theme of the film: “We’re all deeply involved in politics whether we know it or not.”)
Throughout the film the discourses of religion, family, and political democracy are shown to be out of sync with reality, and Altman’s editing juxtapositions unfold the contradictions between illusionary ideals and real social practices. Songs about love and family are contrasted with acts of crude manipulation and exploitation in relationships. In one scene the hypocrisy of religious righteousness is underscored by a sequence of shots at different churches depicting characters who have been shown behaving immorally in other contexts feigning piety and demonstrating the class and race differentials that underlie a supposedly Christian society. In the bicentennial world of Nashville patriotic sentiments conceal intolerance, public moralistic stances conceal corruption, and the semblance of romance conceals opportunistic exploitation. It is, with other films and film strands we have noted that culminate around 1977, the cinematic highpoint of mid-seventies cynicism.
The film contains few close-ups and few shot-reverse shots that privilege individual points of view and elicit identification with characters. Its style is distinguished by the use of medium and long shots, even for extremely intimate scenes that usually require a different, more personal camera rhetoric. The camera work instantiates a sense of alienation, since no one seems very close to anyone else. This is particularly evident in one scene in which a woman who has just slept with a man gets dressed while he calls another woman he wants to sleep with. His back is to the camera, while all we see of her is her legs. Similarly, the narrative randomness—that the plot shifts have no determinate logic—seems a correlative for the dominant ethos of this world: infidelity. The film is faithful to no story line nor to any character; both the camera and the narrative treat all with equal coolness, as if they were themselves characters in the world—aloof, indifferent, manipulative.
The film departs from individual-based Hollywood narratives by depicting characters as part of social relations and collectivities. This is the point of the intersection of so many different narrative strands during the film, and at the end. It also suggests everyone’s complicity in what goes on in society. Indeed, the strategy brings out the theme of failed responsibility. The complex narrative is the objective correlative of social responsibility; it underscores the networking of metonymic social relations between people and the embeddedness of individual subjects in society.
Nashville is a striking example of a metonymic representational rhetoric which projects a world that is egalitarian, nonhierarchical, negotiable, and oriented toward the continual displacement of all instances of power and authority. The film emphasizes the displacement of meaning, the constant movement away from the absolute stabilization of conservative metaphoric social ideals. The narrative moves without any paradigmatic order through a number of different strands or chains of events, none of which moves toward a teleology of resolution. Instead, a contingent event interrupts the climax and institutes an indeterminacy which classical narratives usually occlude or avoid. No character is granted special metaphoric status as a hero who transcends social context. Altman’s world is one without conservative monuments or ideological myths.
Yet if Fonda seems occasionally to pander too much to popular prejudices, Altman’s cosmopolitanism seems to feed into an excessively derisive attitude toward American popular culture that risks losing the very audience that probably stands most to benefit from the critiques his film offers. In addition, Altman’s left-liberal political vision is limited; it does not target the underlying institutions of American society, but instead concentrates on fairly epiphenomenal problems like hypocrisy and crassness. He fails to see how those surface disturbances emanate from a social system that by its most fundamental laws promotes opportunism and manipulation. In Altman’s vision, those things seem instead to be faults of the very victims of that system and those laws. His films thus demarcate a major limitation of the antagonistic attitude toward mainstream culture we ascribed to the sixties sensibility. Altman’s films evidence all the wry cynicism of that era, laced with some mid-seventies nihilism. Indeed, the hope of the sixties seems entirely absent from later films like Quintet, which depicts a world of mercenary people who cannot be trusted. The films point to the giving up of hope by seventies left-liberals, the sense that no change was possible in a citizenry obsessed with celebrity, self-interest, and the spectacles of popular culture. Altman’s subsequent films pursue some of the same representational strategies in carrying out social criticism (Buffalo Bill, Health, A Wedding). But except for Popeye, all of his later films lost money, and eventually he managed to fall from Hollywood grace, and turned to non-Hollywood video production of theatrical drama (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, Streamers, Secret Honor, Fool in Love).
The lesson Altman offers is that what lies beyond ideology is neither realism (as traditional Marxists suggest) nor modernism (as other radicals argue) exclusively. What is missing from Altman is not a sense of experimentation with style or with the traditional conventions and representational forms, nor is it a sense of reality or objectivity. It is rather an ability to represent or conceptualize abstractly what the social system as a system is about, while also empathizing more justly with its victims and seeing the rules of the system in all their impersonality. His failures make all the more acute the question of what the most appropriate and most effective forms for a leftist cinema would be.
The acceptance of narrative realism as a viable terrain for leftist film work foregrounds the issue of figuration within realism. Rhetoric, the question of which figures will be used to represent and construct the world, shifts to the center of the analysis. Rather than the ideological operations of realist narrative, the crucial issue becomes the rhetorical operations for constructing the social world in a certain way.
The representation of the social world is political and that choice of modes of representation instantiates differing political positions toward it. Indeed, every camera position, every scene composition, every editing decision, and every narrative choice involves a representational strategy that embeds various interests and desires. No aspect of film merely reveals or depicts “reality.” Rather, films construct a phenomenal world and position the audience to experience and live the world in certain ways. We will consider here how differing political interests construct the social world in different ways through representation.
Left and Right vie for a shared terrain, and although each inflects the issues differently, they both deal with the same problems. Three aspects of that social terrain are the individual, history, and society. The Right makes the individual, conceived as an isolated unit, the basis of its political program. We have examined the ramifications of this in regard to the hero. The Left’s program also addresses the individual, but as a relational entity and a responsible part of a collective, not as a lone survivalist warrior battling others in the market jungle. Nevertheless, the statist and enforced collectivist biases of the Left have led Left theorists of ideology (Althusser particularly) to condemn the individual (the “subject”) as a political category. This position has been picked up by film criticism as the condemnation of all cinematic devices that reinforce an “ideological” sense of “imaginary” ego identity. We disagree with this position, and argue that in general the Left should not dismiss subjectivity as a primary concern, but that the ideology of individualism should be criticized. In film, this means that films that promote individual viewing pleasure or that adhere to representational continuities that reinforce the ego or that use individual heroes are not necessarily ideological. Indeed, psychological research has found that people are more amenable to therapeutic change when an empathetic atmosphere is created in which their fears, desires, and even their most neurotic fantasies are taken seriously and accepted, rather than being sternly dismissed. The same principle no doubt also applies to film.2
Just as the Left and the Right represent and use the category of the individual differently, both politically and cinematically, so also they conceive of and use the concepts of history and society differently. For the Right, history is tradition, an authoritative source of truth and power. Usually it is represented as a time of ‘‘simpler” (more conservative) social values and institutions (as in the Indiana Jones films or Star Wars). For the Left, history is not an authoritative tradition that sanctions the existence of inequality; it is, rather, a domain of struggle between the interests of inequality and those of inequality in which the outcome is undecided. In Left films like Little Big Man and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, for example, history as myth or as tradition is shown to be a lie, an exercise of representational power in a political struggle.
Similarly, society is conceived and represented differently by Left and Right. As we have seen in fantasy and hero films, for the Right, society is a potentially totalitarian power that threatens the individualist with curtailment of his property, engulfment of his identity, and diminishment of his sexual power. It is a faceless, deindividualized mass. For the Left, society is a source of cooperation and mutual help, as in films like 9 to 5 or Blade Runner. It is a network of multiple, interconnected, expanding relations.
Thus, both history and society, like the individual, are terrains of representational struggle shared by Left and Right. How each is represented on the screen helps determine how it will actually be formed or constructed in the world. In this section we will concentrate on Left films that deal with political problems and that all foreground some of the problems raised by trying to deal with such issues as the individual, history, and society within the traditional Hollywood representational codes without succumbing to the conservative ideologies that frequently inhabit them.
Two eighties films, Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) and E. L. Doctorow and Sidney Lumet’s Daniel (1983), exploit the traditional representational codes and push against their limits. Reds in part rewrites the traditional Hollywood formulae of historical representation, and uses traditional romanticist and individualist conventions for progressive ends, although it could also be accused at times of a fairly traditional male exercise of self-aggrandizement that requires an adulatory woman as well as masses of people as confirming others. The film depicts the lives of John Reed (Beatty) and Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), two early twentieth-century journalists and radicals who witnessed the Russian Revolution. Their love affair is the primary focus, although the film also represents Reed’s attempts to form a Communist Party in the United States.3
Reds’ most innovative feature is the use of “witnesses” who interrupt the narrative with comments about Reed and Bryant, both pro and con, as well as recollections of the era. The reflexive device works to establish the credibility of the historical narrative and gives it a documentary aura. And the witnesses take the film down off the screen, so to speak, by underscoring the historical reality of the events depicted. Thus the traditional audience tendency to distance itself from films (“It’s only a movie”) is undermined.
The strategy also demythologizes history; by making the characters seem everyday and real, it places them closer to the people in the audience. Frequently Hollywood narratives about historical figures do just the opposite. Thus, history itself comes to appear less as a distant tradition, the inevitable working out of a conservative and unchanging fate that is unamenable to reconstruction or intervention. When history is made to seem less mythic and more “real,” it seems more like something anyone could step into and change. In consequence, the representational strategies of the film position the individual in a questionably privileged place regarding history, but they also undercut the conservative representation of history as the property of an elite of great men or as a great tradition that is beyond human intervention. They display history as a malleable phenomenon.
Daniel breaks with the traditional sequential mode of historical narration; its dual narrative, shifting back and forth between the present and the past, creates a sense of historical embedding, of the continuity of struggles between the thirties and the eighties. If the establishing of continuities frequently is a characteristic of conservative narratives, which hope to make history appear as an organic development from a ground of authority to current social institutions, this film demonstrates that narrative continuities can also serve radical ends by keeping the memory of injustice alive.
Based on the novel by Doctorow that fictionalized the Rosenberg case, in which two Jewish radicals were executed ostensibly for treason, Daniel moves between the story of the parents and that of their two children (Timothy Hutton and Amanda Plummer). The film pushes as much as a Hollywood film probably can against the prevailing representational conventions, and this may in part account for its short life in the theaters (though the story is also decidedly downbeat). It resorts to a highly discontinuous narrative, and the cinematic illusion is broken by nonsequential editing and by direct addresses to the camera by Daniel regarding methods of capital punishment and their function in social oppression. Finally, the film both exploits and departs from a traditional use of sentiment and emotion to elicit audience attachment to characters or ideas. By focusing on the plight of the children, the film gains emotional support for the cause of the parents, yet it doesn’t hesitate to represent emotional alienation realistically—the child who withdraws from a condemned mother, the condemned father lecturing manically, incapable of displaying his feelings.
For the Left, there is a stake in representing a continuity between the struggles of the past and those of the present, but there is a greater stake in representing history as being discontinuous, a text yet to be written; it is a representation appropriate to those who have yet to win, just as the rightist representation of history as a closed narrative is appropriate to those who have power to protect.
The struggle of representations between Left and Right over the individual and society is particularly evident in films about the sixties. John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980) undermines the Hollywood narrative code of developmental action that reaches some dramatic resolution by using a discontinuous and collective story line; not much happens other than games, conversation, fights, and lovemaking between a group of ex-activists. And the film maintains a sense of collectivity and resists the ideology of individual heroism. As a result, it also raises a political problem characteristic of the difference between leftists and conservatives. The sense of narrative discontinuity is so strong that the ex-activists seem to have little direction in their lives. Conservatives, because they espouse a violent defense of power possessed, using ideals of authority, discipline, and aggressivity, usually come off looking firmer, more continuous. To an audience of dispossessed, powerless people, of course, that representation is likely to be more attractive, and this is a symptom of what we have called the tautology of power.
If Secaucus presents the sixties as a lost golden era that survives by fragile collective threads, Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) is a yuppie anthem celebrating the burial of sixties radicalism and the passage to a more “mature,” self-interested, upwardly mobile outlook on life, in which a group of ex-sixties friends gather to mourn the suicide of Alex, the one among them who had not sold out and who had attempted to maintain the sixties lifestyle.
The film has a dynamism that Secaucus lacks. Conservative money buys the best actors and editors, of course, and the film also more successfully deploys attractive representational strategies. “I Heard It through the Grapevine” plays while a woman hears news of the death and turns to look at her husband and child. The personalist/sentimentalist figure tugs the audience into a fast identification with the situation. The “group” in Secaucus simply does not accomplish the same thing; the characters’ lives are all too alien from mainstream mid-American concerns.
Chill’s dynamism is particularly evident in the character of Harold (Kevin Kline), the host for the weekend who is the center of the film. He is called “Christ” by accident at first, immediately after being privileged with an establishing shot of him looking over a fallow autumn field, and he lives up to his name—rejuvenating the group with revivalist music when they are in a slump, giving running shoes to all so they can jog their way to yuppie heaven, bringing Alex back to life in the form of Nick by allowing Nick to take Alex’s place on his land, giving a woman a child, and in general sowing seeds of emotional and economic enrichment that will guarantee the brown field will blossom in spring. And he also voices some of the most conservative lines of the film. Of blacks, he says “some of them are scum”; of his still-too-liberal friends, “help me with these bleeding hearts.” He is a model of conservative economic success, as well as being the only one of the bunch with a successful family. Thus, although it is a “group” movie, Chill is subliminally survivalist and individualist. It privileges the active jogging male as leader and provider. He is the only man not to be made to seem foolish in some way, and the film ultimately legitimates his cynical worldview.
Nevertheless, the film can be analyzed diagnostically to gain insight into the processes of successful ideology, in this case, the early eighties socially liberal yet economically conservative yuppie ideology. It is a worldview that privileges Harold, both for doing liberal things like domestic labor (bathing his child and inseminating his wife’s best friend at his wife’s request) and for doing conservative capital intensive things like trying to induct his friends into illegal, lucrative, opportunistic business deals. The schizophrenic character of that worldview is instantiated in the dominant attitude or pose adopted by the characters—cynicism. That pose consists of seeing the world as it really is without illusions and of having nonetheless to accept its premises in order to survive. One lives one’s life within quotes, and something of this emerges as the quotable character of so many of the lines of the film (“Friendship is the bread of life, but money is the honey”). They are delivered from a post-earnest position of cool detachment and enact a salving of guilty conscience through a tarnishing of all idealism. This attitude is historically derivative and is characteristic of the ambiguous position of an entire social group. It combines the socially critical insights of the sixties and early seventies with the recession-induced economic survivalism of the early eighties. It allows young yuppies to go for wealth while retaining a socially liberal conscience that nonetheless disparages radicalism. Nevertheless, like reactionary crime dramas of the early seventies, yuppie films tell something about the reality of American life. After a recession that redistributed wealth upward and increased poverty, the gentry is better off. And increasingly, money is the only means for obtaining just the basics of subsistence (let alone honey). Thus, the yuppies of The Big Chill may be less craven than realistic.
To use our rhetorical vocabulary, Chill is a metaphoric film, while Secaucus evidences representational traits that are more metonymic. Chill idealizes Harold, elevates him above the serial relations of the group and grants him special status. He provides the code for properly understanding their lives, and correlatively, the social structure constructed by the film’s rhetoric is more one of subordination than coordination, hypotaxis than parataxis. The implicit politics is individualist and elitist, one which sanctifies the singular ownership of wealth and justifies a defense of it along class lines, the sort of thinking that would claim that the poor deserve their lot because the rich so well deserve theirs.
Secaucus, in contrast, does not resolve around a singular center, a consciousness which, like the class to which it belongs, transcends the everyday world through an act of will. The camera assumes multiple points of view on different people, creating a sense of emotional and experiential stitching between them. For this to work, they must all be on the same general social level, and this leveling is evident as well on the plane of meaning construction. No paradigm is offered, no source of truth or motor of resolution. Instead, a syntagmatic or open-ended and progressive mode predominates. The people interact, move through encounters, and at the end, their relationships are pretty much as they were when they entered the frame. No transcendence occurs, no myth of rebirth which reaffirms the founding (capitalist) values of the group, as in Chill. At the end, their relations are indeterminate rather than resolved.
The self-idealization of the white capitalist male which operates in Chill also takes the form of the denial of materiality. In Secaucus, there are numerous references to bodily functions, everyday reproductive concerns. Nothing of this sort contaminates Chill, a world in which no one ever defecates and even the radical drives a Porsche. Such purity and idealization bolster the sense of a sacred self in the film, the inability to step outside one’s narcissistic frame, another characteristic of individualism defined as a sense of private superiority. Secaucus, on the other hand, is pervaded by a strong sense of self-irony, especially toward the sixties. If the yuppies of Chill never even discuss such key sixties terms as revolution and war, the ex-radicals of Secaucus discuss them in a way which makes clear their continued material commitment to the causes signaled by those terms as well as their self-debunking lack of righteousness regarding them. And of course, the title is itself an ironic reference to a failed attempt to reach an antiwar demonstration in Washington.
The extreme narrative closure of Chill says something about the difference between Right and Left representations of history. For a rightist like Kasdan, the history of the sixties is closed; there is no continuity between the past and the present. Sayles’s narrative is more open-ended, but that suggests a continuing historical stream that passes through the film and that has not yet ended. Thus, while closure does seem to serve ideological ends in this instance, a sense of historical continuity does not. In other political films like Under Fire and Missing, closure is used for radical ends, and narrative continuity shifts political valence as well, coming to represent the ideological stories that hold power in place and that must be interrupted if power is to be undermined. The representational tension in these films has to do with the problem of choosing between narratives of individuals and the representation of social movements, historical events, and structural social change that results from groups, not individuals. The Hollywood representational conventions and the reigning narrative regime enforce an individual focus, even when films deal with historical movements. Radical filmmakers who attempt to depart from this model risk losing audiences long habituated to thinking of history in individual terms.
Missing (1982), directed by Costa-Gavras, recounts the story of the disappearance of a young American in Chile after the American-sponsored right-wing coup that overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in 1973. The story focuses on the efforts of the father and the son’s wife to discover what happened to him. Narrative movement is defined by the transformation of the father, a conservative businessman who is at first skeptical of the wife’s story that the United States was involved both in his son’s murder and in its cover-up, into a critic both of the coup and of the United States, after he witnesses the brutality of the fascists and uncovers evidence of U.S. involvement.4
Missing can be said to use traditionally ideological representational codes to make a counterideological point. But it can also be justly accused of focusing on the personal tragedy of a white North American in a situation in which thousands of Latin Americans were murdered. The personal focus highlights a problem of historical representation in general. The events were the result of an exercise of imperialist power, yet that system of power is impossible to represent in a biographical narrative of this sort. Indeed, it is the prevalence of such narratives and of such ways of understanding life and history that creates the climate that allows structural and historical descriptions of events like those in Chile to be branded propaganda.” If individuals are involved, it’s a movie; if classes, it’s propaganda. Hollywood narratives tend to frame history as personal events, and while this enlists audience sympathy with broader concerns, it can also reduce those concerns to pathic rather than ethical matters.
Nevertheless, our survey suggests that the film was extraordinarily successful (in a political sense) with audiences: 27% said that it initiated doubts in them regarding U.S. foreign policy. Moreover, 13% said they were shocked and surprised at the events depicted, 23% said they were somewhat surprised, and 55% said that it was “hard to admit we do such things, but we do”; 60% claimed the movie provided them with new information regarding the events in Chile, and 75% said it convinced them that the “American government does wrong things for its own self-interest in foreign countries.” On the question of the focus on one American, 80% felt it was “a good way to enlist audience sympathy.” Still, as one might expect, the film appealed to a liberal upper-class audience. Only 40% of our sample saw it, and 75% of those earned over $30,000 a year, while the largest percentage of nonviewers earned less than $30,000. And liberals seemed more possessed of information on the events than conservatives or moderates; of the latter, 71% and 67% respectively said it gave them new information, as opposed to 43% of the liberal viewers. Nevertheless, in our interviews with people of various classes and races about the film, the most common words used to describe it were “upsetting,” “frightening,” “enlightening,” and “realistic.” A number spoke of being converted by the film to a critical position in regard to American foreign policy, although several people also seemed to indicate that the criticism the film inspired was directed at “the government” in general, rather than at any one specific group’s use of the government apparatus to attain its ends. For one, the “realism effect” tended to have a counterideological effect; very few people reported disbelieving what they saw on the screen. In fact, one interviewee remarked that she had not known that the United States “would or had gone that far.”
Films in the same leftist vein as Missing such as Roger Spottiswoode’s Under Fire (1983) also demonstrate the possibility of recoding the conventional formulas in ways that transcend some of their ideological limitations. It depicts how foreign journalists in Nicaragua come to sympathize with the Sandinista revolution against the Somoza dictatorship. While a white male hero “saves the day,” and the mass-based revolutionary movement is made to seem dependent on one great leader, the film nevertheless uses Hollywood representational forms to gain sympathy for a progressive movement. At one point, audience sympathy is elicited for a young revolutionary who loves North American baseball. This ploy is a familiar motif of war films, but in this case, sentiment is attached to a revolutionary, rather than to the usual patriotic figure when the young man is brutally murdered by an American mercenary.
The crucial (and perhaps unfortunate) importance of identification is clear in a comparison of the public fates of Haskell Wexler’s Latino (1985) and Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986). Latino depicts the problematic situation of an American soldier who is Latino, yet who must fight against Central Americans. Salvador portrays the worst elements of rightist repression and frankly points to U.S. participation in the atrocities. The importance of using formats which appeal to popular audiences is signaled by the relative success of Salvador and the box-office failure of Latino. Salvador employs a dynamic and comedic representational mode that situates the Right as a narrational nemesis and alternates scenes of violence with fairly traditional scenes of humor or romance. Latino is on the whole more didactic, less characterized by concessions to popular conventional representations. But the film is also a lesson in the limits on leftism within Hollywood. Most companies refused to distribute it.
What we are suggesting is that while certain formal devices, such as closure, subjective narration, and personalizing camera work, do serve ideological ends, this does not mean that all closure, all narration, and all personalization are inherently conservative. The Left must begin by reconsidering the values that inform such judgments (the critique of subjectivity, for example, which haunts much leftist thinking). “Personalization” and “subjectivity” can waylay structural understandings of class realities, but they also, as our survey has shown, work to enlist audience sympathies and advance such understandings. While we would argue that certain supposedly ideological representational forms can be recoded and used for counterideological ends, we also suggest that the question of the politics of form should be taken to a different level by emphasizing the way film representation fits into broader rhetorical procedures for constructing the social world. Rhetoric removes the question of politics from the realm of the simple condemnation of subjectivity or realism and brings it closer to the actual processes of political struggle over the construction of the social world in which representation plays a major role. And it makes possible a concept of progressive texts that sees them not simply as departures from identification or realism but as alternative modes for formulating worlds, different constructions of social realities.
The Left is on the whole more alive outside of Hollywood than inside. The social movements of the sixties and seventies in conjunction with the invention of new, cheaper filmmaking technologies (Super 8 cameras and video, most notably) gave rise to a thriving radical independent film and video movement. While the independents have made some remarkable political statements on film during this period—from documentaries like Harlan County, U.S.A. to fictional pieces like Born in Flames— their significance, we would argue, depends as much on whether or not they will succeed in insinuating their perspectives into mainstream cinematic culture as on the continuing development of an alternative culture of representational possibilities.
The independents came of age in the seventies. If one follows the work of filmmakers like Chris Choy (of Third World Newsreel) from Teach Our Children (1971), about Attica, to To Love, Honor, and Obey (1981), about domestic violence, the development from interventionist direct cinema to a more reflective and complex style that mixes representational strategies (from interviews to documentary) and examines the deep context of a social problem is striking. By the late seventies and early eighties a number of independent films had attained national distribution, including Harlan County and The Atomic Cafe. As the baby boomers grew up, they created an audience for alternative films. But independent filmmakers themselves were becoming increasingly sophisticated at their craft, to the extent that the mid-eighties witnessed the emergence of a distinct counter-current of semi-mainstream independent filmmakers like John Sayles (Brother from Another Planet), Jim Jarmusch (Stranger than Paradise), Lizzy Borden (Working Women), Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It), Victor Nunez (Flash of Green), Eagle Pennell (Last Night at the Alamo), and Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan).
The problem we see facing independents is how to translate superior political vision into a cinematic practice that will attain a sufficient audience to make that vision effective. By definition, avant-garde filmmakers like Yvonne Rainer and James Benning are unconcerned with this problem. In Journeys from Berlin, Rainer meditates on the relationship between public and personal politics as she examines the issue of terrorism in the seventies. Her use of discontinuous editing, scene repetition, multiple perspectives, disjunctive juxtapositions, and nonrealist narration is designed to question the sorts of perceptual procedures which accompany mainstream narrative. Benning’s Him and Me is a series of painterly images that suggest such social themes as industrialization and urban decay; radio voice-overs recall the struggles of the sixties; and ironic subtitles suggest parallels between modern urban life and Vietnam. These and other “deconstructive” films seem unamenable to a popular politics. They are sites of advanced research for the radical intellectual vanguard. Nevertheless, they may well be the testing ground for alternative representational strategies, alternative ways of constructing the social world.
Those independents who are most concerned with political effectiveness are the documentary filmmakers. In such important radical documentaries of this era as Hearts and Minds, Harlan County, Union Maids, Rosie the Riveter, The Wobblies, Controlling Interest, On Company Business, and Seeing Red, something like a distinct critical documentary aesthetic has made itself evident. While many of these films are fiercely partisan, some adopt a more “objective” style which allows the images to do their own proselytizing. In On Company Business, for example, there is no narration or evident point of view, yet the film clearly vindicates the position of the CIA critics through skillful contrast editing. Patrice Lumumba, a radical leader in the Congo before he was overthrown by CIA-supported reactionaries and murdered, is shown in historical footage as a world leader, and this is juxtaposed to images of him being taunted by soldiers after his fall. In another contrast, a rather disreputable-looking CIA man is shown describing how he drove around for days with Lumumba’s body in the trunk of his car, not knowing what to do with it. Yet concerned as the documentary filmmakers are with reaching audiences in ways that are convincing, the documentary form itself suffers from an essential drawback. Audiences of working people who generally go to films to be entertained may avoid them, even if the filmmakers are fortunate enough to obtain distribution—a much too rare event save for a few films like The War at Home and Harlan County. A number of people in our survey sample spoke of avoiding certain films because after a long day or week the last thing they want or need is a serious film. Consequently, many of the documentary films may be inherently limited to informed audiences of professional class people. Documentaries can, however, accomplish certain representational tasks which fictional feature films cannot.5
The example of Cine Manifest is instructive in this regard. The group made a documentary, Prairie Fire, in 1975 about the Non-Partisan League, a grassroots coalition of northwestern farmers who opposed banking, grain, and rail trusts. They followed up that film with a fictional feature about the same topic, Northern Lights (1979). Lights merges the personal and the political in a narrative about the radicalization of a farmer who becomes a League organizer. The film was quite successful and was widely distributed through a plan whereby the filmmakers would accompany the film to discuss it with audiences. Nevertheless, Lights was criticized for permitting the personal story to overwhelm the historical narrative.6 The historical context of the events, something more easily rendered in the documentary, is left out. But it could be argued as well that it was precisely the personal focus in the film which was more successful as a lure for audiences than the distant and impersonal style that documentary seems to entail.
A growing number of filmmakers are turning to fictional features, and it is in this movement that the most obvious direct possibilities for using film to help transform American cinematic culture are to be found. Two remarkable and controversial films in this genre are Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames. Killer is a highly praised film about a black man who works in a slaughterhouse. The effects of the oppressive conditions of blacks on his family are disastrous; he becomes impotent, and alienation pervades his everyday life. Nevertheless, the film is characterized by a sense of ironic humor, a tolerance that transmutes oppression into a resistant whimsicality. The dominant metaphor of the film is the relation between the slaughtering of sheep and the life to which most blacks are reduced in white America. The film privileges the everyday events of life, the ordinary as opposed to the extraordinary adventures that are standard Hollywood fare. In so doing, it seems to elicit a different order of recognition or identification from the audience, one based on shared memories of experiences rather than on fantasies.
Flames is a daring future fiction about a postrevolutionary social democratic society in which sexual oppression continues to exist. A group of women radicals grow fed up with the situation and stage a revolution. The film is concerned with collective solidarity, and so there is no singular focus of identification. Nevertheless, it succeeds in creating a plausible adventure plot, and its format includes the use of radio announcements to advance the story and to provide the sorts of background information that we noted above as being difficult to represent in fictional films. The film has been criticized for making it seem as if sexual politics should supersede issues of economic justice, but the film is probably more important as a statement against the leftist tendency to shunt sexual politics to the back burner until the supposedly more important issues are resolved.
Striking as each of these films is, especially in their representation of issues usually marginalized in mainstream cinema, neither was what one would call a major commercial success. Not that such success is a criterion of anything. But it is clearly important to develop a viable alternative cinema which would operate within the frame of popular film in order to be politically effective. Such effectiveness involves making some compromises with the Hollywood codes of representation in the hope of reinfecting their use and meaning, but increasingly it also entails having the funds to generate the Hollywood effect, something which is becoming increasingly expensive to produce, especially in science or future fiction films like Born in Flames, although Android manages to be a relatively inexpensive yet extremely high-quality radical science fiction film.
Several independent filmmakers have attempted to work more within the prevailing Hollywood codes of representation, and easily the most successful of these is John Sayles. His Brother from Another Planet (1985) is a science fiction film which uses the metaphor of an escaped black slave from another planet to criticize the exploitation of blacks in America. The mute slave wanders wordlessly through Harlem chased by two white bounty hunters. The ploy forces the audience to observe social conditions from a naive point of view that underscores their brutality. Moreover, the narrative consists of a series of displacements that suggest a network of decentered relations between people. Even the Hollywood-style apotheosis, in which the slave is freed, is due to collective strength, not individualist superiority. Because the primary character is mute, he is experienced through the effects he has on people. This strategy permits the creation of a web of relations between the characters, all of whom come to participate in his characterization.
A rhetorical and deconstructive approach to the problem of political effectivity through film would dictate a more malleable and multiple strategy than now emerges generally from the Left. Discussions of Left uses of film have been handicapped in recent years by a purism regarding form and an absolutism regarding contamination by popular media. Generally more educated and culturally sophisticated, Left film activists tend to favor forms more appropriate to their own taste culture—documentary realism and avant-garde modernism. Concentration on these areas of work has resulted in a tremendously rich variety of work. But such concentration leaves the entire terrain of mainstream narrative cinema untouched. When leftists do venture into the Hollywood mainstream, they do so usually to make fictional versions of historical events like Missing or Reds. Such work is extremely important, as our audience survey has shown. But effective work also needs to be undertaken in other cinematic arenas like fantasy, melodrama, and even comedy. Socialism won’t work if it doesn’t feel good, and the Left tends to be altogether too dour in regard to “politically correct” cinema, enjoining pleasure while privileging cinematic techniques that punish audiences. What is gained in self-righteousness is lost in effectivity.
Moreover, there are serious political problems with a model of progressive cinema which, like that prevalent in structuralist film theory, excludes pleasure and defines ideology in terms of self-identity or the ego. It should be remembered that Louis Althusser, who stands behind this approach to film, subscribed to the idea that the Party subsumes the will of the masses. Modernist film theory is equally committed to a philosophical program that denies validity to the self and that consequently points toward a political arrangement which would require self-denial and would marginalize self-development. Another, different Marxist theory would make the subjective potentials of the mass of people, their power of “self-valorization,” not the Party, into the basis of socialism. And it would promote a different sense of what a progressive cinema is.
Such a cinema would seek to reconstruct the dominant cultural representations which construct social reality. Rather than conceive of the Hollywood representational system as being inherently ideological, it would assume instead that what matters are the effects representations have, how they are used in specific historical contexts, and how they affect specific audiences. The notion of effect would not be limited to psychological reaction or opinion. It would also include the way in which representations posit worlds, construct a sense of social reality by orienting perception and feeling in certain ways, so that a common set of psychological dispositions results in a common phenomenal and institutional world. And as we have suggested, we find that the sort of representational rhetoric associated with the horizontal, leveling, and contextualizing movement of metonymy generates a sense of the world that is in effect more socialist, more equal and collective. Such a cinema would not, however, think of progressive film merely as a set of formal devices or representational practices. It would assume that the meaning and effects of films are always determined and shaped by historical and contextual constraints, by the audiences to whom films are addressed, and by the prevailing social contexts. Such a progressive cinema would be situational and contextual in approach; it would modulate its use of film conventions according to the constraints in existence as well as according to the particular effects or ends that are likely to be generated or gained. It would be a cinema that would, in a certain sense, be noncinematic, in that it would also rely on such things as studies of audiences in order to gauge what representational strategies are likely to be effective. We are clearly assuming that such a cinema would work within the formulae of mainstream cinema, importing to them the advances in representational (and socially constructive) rhetoric developed in the more sophisticated realm of independent filmmaking. It would be a cinema attuned to the desires and the perceptual codes of popular audiences in order to better work with them, reshaping and reinflecting their meanings. Not no narratives, as modernist theorists argue, but more, different narratives, narratives which posit a different world and allow the living of different life stories.