There is a specter haunting current thinking and writing about the cinema and its relation to society—the specter of Marxism. Given capitalism’s ideological prejudices, however, it is hardly surprising that Marxism should appear in spectral form. For bourgeois capitalist society there are two traditional responses to the specter of Marxism: silence (in the hope that it will disappear) and scare tactics (playing on people’s fears about the great bugaboo of Communism ).
Not so very long ago, of course, red-baiting was all the fashion in America. The right wing was on the offensive; and Joseph McCarthy struck terror into the Hollywood film industry.
At present the shoe is on the other foot. Crippled by the obvious moral, political, and economic bankruptcy of its policies on Watergate, Vietnam, and inflation, the right wing in America is very much on the defensive. And in an era of expedient détente with the Soviet Union and a new “open door to China” policy, red-baiting is not on the immediate agenda.
In the cinema, of course, the McCarthyist repression of Hollywood “pinkos” was a red herring all along. Capitalism had nothing to fear from Hollywood; and that has not changed in the slightest. What has changed, however, are the critical attitudes and intellectual foundations that a growing number of people are applying to the analysis of films. Such a change, of course, can hardly be said to threaten capitalism at its very roots.
On the other hand, one should not minimize its potential importance. With the American economy so dependent on widespread consumption of the type of goods that are luxury or indulgence items, the cinema and television play an extremely important role in shaping the average citizen’s fantasy-image of what the “good life” is like. Denouncing and demystifying the ideological distortions of the cinema and television can be important contributions to the growth of political consciousness.
In American intellectual circles, of course, there is still a solidly entrenched reluctance to deal with Marxist concepts and methods of analysis. But this ideologically conditioned attitude may be weakening somewhat. And the traditionally “liberal” circle of intellectual film buffs is a likely place for this bias to begin to crack. This is precisely what happened in France, for example, around the time of the May Events of 1968. Thus, by applying rigorous theoretical foundations to the analysis of cultural products (films) that achieve fairly wide distribtuion (compared to other cultural products like paintings, sculptures, stage dramas, or even books). Marxist film criticism can even function as an important vanguard both in breaking down intellectuals’ reluctance to acknowledge the validity and usefulness of Marxist approaches and in helping the film-goer to understand how so many films are manipulating the public in ways that make them easy prey for continued capitalist exploitation.
Among film scholars now in America and England there is a growing tacit awareness of the important emergence of interest in Marxist approaches to the cinema. Increasingly, students of our film schools and universities are applying Marxist concepts and methods of analysis to the study of films. But ideological prejudices don’t disappear overnight. And among the higher echelons of our educational institutions—and in our intellectual journals—there is only tacit acknowledgment, if that, of the fruitful new insights being achieved by Marxist film criticism.
Work that is explicitly Marxist is often simply ignored. Work that utilizes Marxist concepts and methods but not explicitly is praised for everything but its Marxism; and the insights produced by such work are attributed to anything but the Marxism from which the insights actually derive. (This is the case with Charles Eckert’s analysis of the film A Marked Woman.) Sometimes even the explicitly Marxist orientation of a critical approach is ignored if the work in question can somehow be passed off as an offshoot of structuralism or semiology. (An example of this is found in English-speaking film scholars’ treatment of the Cahiers du Cinéma’s collective text “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln”)
Let me state quite openly, however, that it is clear to me that what has wrought the profound changes in our current thinking about film is precisely Marxism. In particular the Marxist concept of ideology, which was given new impetus and refinement by the self-reflexive questioning of “culture” in the late 1960’s, has provided the theoretical framework for, among other things, a rigorous reevaluation and deconstruction of the old Bazin aesthetics of ontological realism. And yet, in discussions about current film criticism, people will talk glibly about the shattered unity of discourse now that we have entered a post-Bazin era of film aesthetics, but they will have no clear notion of what shattered the old foundations and of what new foundations are being set forth. As usual, there is among bourgeois intellectuals a conspiracy of silence rather than an acknowledgment of the validity and effectiveness of Marxist thinking.
In this state of affairs confusion is not only tolerated, it is ideologically preferred over the clarity, the threatening clarity, of Marxist analysis. At present the confusion in film theory and criticism takes many forms. Largely it is centered around misconceptions regarding structuralism and semiology. In fact the confusion has even reached the point where structuralism, semiology, and Marxist criticism get lumped together in the most indiscriminate fashion.
Let us consider, as a case in point, the 1973-74 debate in Film Quarterly between John Hess and Graham Petrie.55 Agreeing with Petrie that auteur criticism is dead and at the same time pointing out the abortive character of Petrie’s own approach to “alternatives to auteurs,” Hess has roundly criticized Petrie for a vaguely delineated, backward-looking approach that is characterized by glaring omissions. For example, “When Petrie calls for a reassessment of film criticism, he purposely ignores the three areas from which new discoveries about the cinema and our relation to it are emerging: structuralism, semiology, and Marxist criticism.”56
For his part, however, Hess is very vague about just what constitutes each of these critical approaches. As Petrie somewhat bitterly points out in a rejoinder to Hess, “having chided me for not providing any acceptable alternatives to auteurs after all, Hess hastily wheels out the fashionable troika of structuralism, semiology, and Marxism, and urges us to take his word for it that it is a sound investment for the future. . . . Like most advocates of these techniques in the English-speaking world, Hess prefers to assert rather than to demonstrate their usefulness.” 57
One cannot help sympathizing with Petrie on this point about name-dropping, whatever failings there may be in his own “alternatives to auteurs.” (And Hess has done a reasonably good job of pointing them out.) Moreover, Petrie’s indignation at the superficiality of Hess’s assertions is all the more likely to enlist our sympathies when we see the amazing way in which Hess goes on to lump together indiscriminately these three critical methods he is touting. For example, in Hess’s opinion “structuralists, semiologists, and Marxist critics all deny the autonomy of art, considering film an ideological link between individuals, groups, classes and societies. . . . In all three cases the examination of a film’s social context becomes more important than the film itself. Social ills, maladjustments, and manipulations come to be seen as more important than their manifestations on celluloid.” 58
In the first place it is simplistic, if not downright false, to say that “structuralists, semiologists, and Marxist critics all deny the autonomy of art, considering film an ideological link between individuals, groups, classes and societies.” It is not at all clear from the texts of various structuralists and semiologists that this statement in any way characterizes their positions. In fact, quite the contrary. For example, where the semiology of Christian Metz is concerned, as we have seen in the preceding chapter, Metz sets forth a critical methodology which in its systematic avoidance of ideology might just as well openly reaffirm the old bourgeois notion of the autonomy of art—so severely and, to our mind falsely, delimited is its object of research.
Second, it is also simplistic, if not downright false, to say that “in all three cases the examination of a film’s social context becomes more important than the film itself.” Once again, one has to go no further than the work of Metz to find this assertion totally inapplicable. For Metz focuses neither on the social context of a film nor on individual films but rather on the notion of cinematic language. And where Metz does devote any attention to an individual film (the one film he has chosen to study in any detail is the rather pedestrian Adieu Philippine by Jacques Rozier), the peculiar methodological blinders of Metzian semiology force him to ignore not only the social or ideological context of the film but also nearly everything that is not simply an element of the denotation of the narrative.
The fact that Hess blithely attributes the above positions to all three—semiology, structuralism, and Marxist criticism—is bad enough; but worse yet is the fact that in Hess’s hasty gloss, semiology and structuralism are made to sound almost indistinguishable from Marxist criticism; and the position—seemingly a Marxist one—ascribed to all three of them is so poorly formulated that in fact it does justice to none of them.
Where Marxist criticism is concerned, Hess seems to have in mind a “social issues” criticism that simply looks for political themes in films. This might have been characteristic of the oldstyle Marxist film criticism of John Howard Lawson, for example, but it is not at all true of contemporary Marxist film criticism. When Hess states that “social ills, maladjustments, and manipulations come to be seen as more important than their manifestations on celluloid,” this remark makes it sound as if Marxist film critics (and structuralists and semiologists) don’t really deal with films and how they work but only with their social and political content. Aside from making a naïve separation between form and content, Hess here seems to ignore the fact that Marxist film criticism today refuses to make an artificial distinction between form and content, and refuses to fall into the old habit and old theoretical impasse of treating film merely as a “window on the world’s problems.” Instead, with detailed analysis of the specifically cinematic relations between images and sounds, contemporary Marxist film criticism focuses precisely on the way the world’s problems— or, better yet, its contradictions—are manifested in images and sounds on celluloid.
In short, Hess’s pervasive confusion has unwittingly served those who would jump at the opportunity to discredit Marxist criticism and question its relevance to films. Thus, Petrie, in his rejoinder to Hess, is able to claim that “in effect, whatever titles he prefers to give them, Hess’s alternatives come down to little more than an obsolete and dogmatic Marxism.”59 And Petrie is quick to imply that perhaps if purified of the contamination by this “obsolete and dogmatic Marxism,” structuralism and semiology—either singly or in some new alloy—just might make a pot that, theoretically at least, might hold water.
This insidious attempt to boost structuralism and semiology at the expense of Marxist criticism not only reveals Petrie’s prejudices, it flies in the face of what little clarity has emerged thus far from all the critiques and counter-critiques of structuralism and semiology. For example, whatever disagreements there may be between Charles Eckert and Brian Henderson,60 it is at least clear that structuralism has not been capable of providing itself with valid theoretical foundations.
Moreover, in an extremely lucid piece of self-criticism, Eckert now recognizes that even the one structuralist approach that seemed useful—Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of the dialectical systems that operate in mythic thought—remains locked in an idealist, transcendentalist metaphysics, at least if one sticks to Lévi-Strauss’s eminently ahistorical conception of myth as a “found object,” authorless and without a history. Criticizing (without repudiating, however) his own insightful analysis of the way class conflicts are diluted into ethical dilemmas in Hollywood films (he focuses on the 1937 Warner Brothers production A Marked Woman, directed by Lloyd Bacon), Eckert rejects the Lévi-Straussian terminology of “transformational operations” for remaining at the level of “a pure mental activity—the activity of what Husserl calls a ‘transcendental ego’ exalted above, severed from, the contingencies of psychology, biology, and society.” As Eckert acknowledges, the conceptual shifts that occur when class conflicts are diluted into ethical dilemmas have, after all, a material base; and they can “only be comprehended through the Freudian operation of displacement, and accounted for by a recourse to the Marxist notion of class conflict and its censorship in ideology.” 61
This acknowledgment of the primacy of the Marxist notion of ideology is most heartening, especially coming from a perceptive critic like Eckert. But even without Eckert’s admirable insistence on setting matters straight, it ought to have been possible to see from his analysis of A Marked Woman that at a foundational level the basic theoretical framework of his insights was not structuralism but the Marxist theory of class struggle and its censorship/repression in ideology. In any case, now that Eckert has made this point explicitly, there will be no excuse for film scholars to persist in mistakenly treating his excellent materialist analysis of A Marked Woman as if it were somehow derived from structuralism or semiology.
Likewise, only bourgeois capitalism’s ideologically inculcated reluctance to acknowledge Marxism can account for Englishspeaking film scholars’ insistence on treating the Cahiers du Cinéma’s collective text “John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln” 62 as if it were a product of structuralism or semiology rather than Marxist analysis. (The editorial board of Cahiers du Cinéma has openly declared its Marxist orientation since as far back as the winter of 1968-69.) Once again, as with Eckert’s work on A Marked Woman, the Cahiers analysis of the various ways Young Mr. Lincoln dilutes “politics” into “moral questions” and transforms work and struggle into mythic destiny ultimately derives from the Marxist theory of ideology. The Cahiers text itself makes this point repeatedly; and yet English-speaking advocates of structuralism or semiology have persisted in trying to annex this text as a province of the vast empire of ambitious Lévi-Straussians.
Certainly any analysis of the structure and function of myth will have to reckon with Lévi-Strauss; but without explicitly criticizing Lévi-Strauss the Cahiers text certainly goes against the grain of Lévi-Strauss’s ahistorical conception of myth. In fact the whole thrust of the Cahiers analysis is to dismantle and expose the mythmaking function of Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. And the Cahiers text very pointedly observes that the film’s ability to make history and politics disappear in favor of myth and destiny is actually a very effective ideological maneuver. In fact, with detailed analysis of the political and economic background at the time Young Mr. Lincoln was produced, the Cahiers text shows how the seemingly innocuous terms in which the Lincoln myth is couched actually cover up (and thereby make more effective) the political biases (on behalf of Big Business and the Republican Party) which are cleverly set to work within the film’s mythic structure.
Clearly the basic theoretical framework of the Cahiers analysis of Young Mr. Lincoln is the Marxist one. And even their treatment of myth in this film owes infinitely less to Lévi-Strauss’s notion of myth than to the Marxist notion of the way ideology deforms our understanding of history. Granted, there are crossfertilizations from several strains of thought, especially from Lacan’s psychoanalysis; but even the Lacanian insights are set to work within the fundamental matrix of Louis Althusser’s Marxist concept of ideology.
Certainly the cornerstone to contemporary Marxist film criticism is to be found in the concept of ideology, whose specific relevance to the cinema I elaborated in the opening section of Chapter 6 on British Sounds. My arguments there (and elsewhere: see particularly the chapters on Le Gai Savoir, Wind from the East, and Pravda, Struggle in Italy, and Vladimir and Rosa) took as its starting point Louis Althusser’s emphasis on the extremely important economic function of ideology in assuring the reproduction of the labor force and of the existing relations of production.
A given mode of production, like, for example, capitalism, will entail certain “relations of production,” which must be reproduced constantly, day after day, by inculcating in individual consciousness values and a world view that reflect these dominant relations of production. (There can exist, of course, in any epoch several different, and antagonistic, relations of production. And, as Althusser aptly puts it, in class society the dominant relations of production (that is, the relations of production controlled by the ruling class) are also necessarily the “relations of dominance”— they are in fact the structural relations that ensure the dominance of the ruling class.63
The task of reproducing the relations of production is largely carried out at the level of ideology. In this, incidentally, it differs from the simple “reproduction of the labor force,” which is carried out through the payment of wages sufficient for the worker to sustain himself more or less acceptably, to render himself each morning at the factory gate (or the office), and to produce offspring who will ensure the future labor force. Nonetheless, “reproduction of the labor force” and “reproduction of the relations of production” are critically interdependent: the wage that ensur es the reproduction of the labor force simply ensures that workers will continue to be physically available, while the function of ideology is to ensure that psychologically, in their consciousness (and even in their unconscious), each individual acquiesces not only to the working conditions offered by a given mode of production but also to the patterns of consumption entailed by that mode of production, as well as to a whole host of related values and attitudes that serve to perpetuate the dominant relations of production on which that society is based.
What happens at the level of ideology, according to Althusser, is that through the various “ideological apparatuses of the state,” such as the schools, churches, courts, political parties, labor unions, family, press, and even the arts, the individual’s real relations to the relations of production get distorted because they are shortcircuited by the process that establishes individuals as subjects. 64 (The implication here, which unfortunately Althusser does not spell out, is that in class society individuals are actually treated as objects—to be used for the personal or corporate accumulation of capital—while the whole panoply of the state’s ideological apparatuses offers them the comforting illusion that they are being called upon—interpellé—as subjects.) Thus, conceiving of themselves as subjects, individuals do not make the conceptual connection that would enable them to see their real relations to the relations of production but instead get bogged down in imaginary relations in which ethical dilemmas conceived in terms of metaphysical Absolutes (in the schools, an idealist conception of Knowledge; in the churches, God; in the courts, Justice; in politics, the Party; in labor organizations, the Union; in the press, the Facts; in art, Truth and Beauty; and in the family, Proper Behavior) take the place of a materialist understanding of their real relations to the relations of production.
Ideology, then, in class society is above all a weapon used by the ruling class to inculcate in the masses the acceptance as a given of the existing relations of production which privilege one class at the expense of another. Ideology serves to suppress the asking of fundamental questions about society and its relations of production and to assure that what few questions do get asked are questions of how rather than why, of reform rather than revolution, of how to accommodate ourselves to “reality” rather than why this particular social system should exist at all, much less be elevated to the status of reality and accepted as a given.
Cinema and television, I have argued, have proved particularly useful ideological weapons in the past few decades, both because of the vast audiences they reach and because, as photographic media, they lend themselves so well to the ruling class’s need to present the status quo as if it were reality itself. Photography, after all, is said to reflect reality. Moreover, there’s an old adage that the camera doesn’t lie; and whatever shows up on the photographic image, barring obvious tampering, is automatically raised to the status of reality.
It has even been argued by Jean-Louis Baudry that the technological development of the camera lens is wholly consistent with the ideological project of the capitalist bourgeoisie.65 Thus, in this argument, the design of the camera lens has as its goal the achievement of “Renaissance perspective” (i.e., the illusion of depth on a two-dimensional surface, elicited by the geometric figure of the triangle, its apex functioning as the point on the “horizon” at which two diagonal lines are seen not to converge but to continue, as if parallel to each other, to infinity ). And this Renaissance perspective—with its illusion of limitless space and its ability to place the spectator where it wishes, instead of leaving his eye free to wander and to create multiple relations among the elements of an icon, for example—thus offers the ascendant bourgeoisie, particularly the industrial bourgeoisie, an ideological tool expressly suited for passing off as reality the image it wants the world to have of itself and of the existing socioeconomic system.
In cinema of course, as I have pointed out, the aesthetics of André Bazin effectively codifies all the realist rationale of photography and sets forth a whole series of “thou shalt nots” in which such devices as superimposition, multiple exposures, slow motion, fast motion, expressionistic sets or décors, theatrically stylized action—and even most types of montage—are rendered suspect under any conditions and are downright forbidden under most if not all conditions. Their sin? Tampering with “reality,” interfering with the “pure” reflection of reality.
For Bazin, who speaks of cinema’s ontological realism, the cinematic practice of realism involves far more than the choice of one particular style among many possible styles: it amounts to a religious vocation. If in criticizing Bazin I have insisted on calling attention to the religious terminology in his writings, it is first to point out the peculiar notion of reality—a mystico-religious, transcendentalist “reality”—in whose service Bazin seeks to enlist the cinema. Second, I have wished to call attention to the ideological ramifications of Bazin’s metaphysical, even theological, conception of reality and of the cinema’s relation to reality.
However, a word of caution may be needed here to avoid misunderstanding. It is by no means necessary for Bazin’s realist aesthetics to be built on such theological premises for them to be useful ideological tools in the hands of the ruling bourgeoisie. Today, in the mid-1970’s, the religious cast of Bazin’s thought may seem strangely anachronistic, for the ideological ramifications of his realist aesthetics continue to be exploited all too effectively by a capitalist ruling class which now finds alliance with the Church —any church—far less politically expedient, even in France or Italy, than it did immediately following World War II, when Bazin was writing.
Nonetheless, for an understanding of the concrete situation in which Bazin’s work was produced—as well as for an exemplary lesson in the relation between ideology and the production of knowledge, even knowledge about the cinema—there are many useful insights still to be accomplished in analyzing Bazin’s writings in the historical context of the postwar reconstruction of capitalist Europe. Although there has been some limited effort to sketch in at least certain intellectual currents of thought that influenced Bazin, there has been far too little recognition both of the fact that this intellectual context was part of an eminently political context (the postwar reconstruction of Europe was an extremely critical transitional moment for industrial capitalism) and, second, of the consequences of this fact, that is, of the specific repercussions by which the political pressures were felt in every sphere of social practice—including, of course, the cinema.
In Bazin’s writings, for example, it is important to examine the relation between the privileged position in his work of the Italian Neo-Realist films and the presence in so many of these films of themes susceptible to a religious interpretation. And this latter fact needs to be put in relation to the Italian political situation which saw fragile coalitions dominated by the Christian Democrats (the very name of this political party should give us food for thought), who were—and still are—desperately striving to stave off the continuing growth and influence of the Italian Communist Party. Moreover, one can trace extremely direct ideological repercussions: like direct orders from the Christian-Democrat-controlled governments to Italian film production units that they must assign to each film project scriptwriters, including Catholics, representing each of the major political viewpoints. And this kind of direct intervention, too, needs to be put in relation to Bazin’s appreciation of the “ambiguity” of the Italian Neo-Realist films.
And in France, the postwar situation needs to be understood as an eminently political situation in which the intellectual debates play their ideological part, however remote or specialized they may seem. Bazin’s association with the progressive wing of the French Catholic Church (which included people like Gabriel Mareel, Jacques Maritain, Teilhard de Chardin and Emmanuel Mounier) needs to be put in relation to the fact that in France the Catholic Church, tainted by its association with the collaborationist regime of Pétain, sought to refurbish its image after the war by launching intellectual counteroffensives against those twin bugaboos the atheistic existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and “atheistic Communism.”
At present, however, very little examination of these relations has been undertaken. The first effort along these lines—Gerard Gozlan’s critical reading of Bazin66—is still the best that has appeared. (One hopes it will soon be made available in English.) Annette Michelson has attempted to outline some of the intellectual context of Bazin’s writings and to draw up a general appraisal of his strengths and weaknesses; and her evaluation of Bazin67 at least has the merit of taking the ideological ramifications of his theory into some, albeit sketchy, consideration.
Then, too, there is Bazin’s English translator, Hugh Gray, who has also sketched in some of the influences on Bazin’s thought in his introduction to the English edition of Volume Two of Bazin’s What Is Cinema? But Gray’s focus on Mounier as a direct influencaspect of the rhetorical form he uses in ferrete on Bazin is too narrow to shed much light on the ideological context or ramifications of Bazin’s work. Finally, Brian Henderson’s recent evaluation of Bazin68 neglects both the historical context of Bazin’s work and the ideological ramifications (either then or now) of his aesthetics; concentrating instead on some rather hairsplitting logical inconsistencies Henderson purports to find (much to Gray’s consternation) in Bazin’s different uses of the concept of reality and relation to reality. (Henderson has subsequently acknowledged the beside-the-point aspect of the rhetorical form he uses in ferreting out logical inconsistencies in Bazin’s writings; but, justifiably, I think, he steadfastly refuses to recant, even at Gray’s insistence, and pretend the inconsistencies aren’t there.) 69
Today, of course, it is not so much the specifically religious underpinnings of Bazin’s aesthetics that are useful to the ideological needs of the ruling bourgeoisie, rather it is simply the codification of the realist rationale of cinema as a reflection of reality that fits in so well with the ruling class’s ideological needs. And the ruling class’s fundamental ideological task, let us not forget, is to pass off as reality—and thereby raise to the status of a metaphysical essence—a system of social and economic relations that is not objective, as they would have us think, but subjective; not neutral, as they would have us believe, but partisan (in their favor); not inevitable but arbitrary (and arbitrarily imposed); and, above all, not immutable, as they would like to have us think, but capable of being transformed in a revolutionary way.
Where the cinema is concerned, our examination of the eminently ideological character of the cinema has led us to analyze and to criticize Bazin’s realist aesthetics not only for what it says but also for what it does not say, for what it covers up and keeps quiet—namely, the class struggle that has been the basis for all social formations and transformations. And our continuing efforts in the theory and practice of Marxist film criticism must implacably bring to light the class struggle that is going on all around us but is so insidiously glossed over and hidden by the cinema and the mass media in general. And this means that we have to think not merely of the class struggle in the U.S.A. or in whatever country we happen to live, but of class struggle on a global scale.
At the same time that we think globally we must also think personally, for the division of society into classes and the struggle between classes are not mere abstract concepts in some disembodied and depersonalized thinking machine. We too are caught up in class struggle. And our revolution will not be liberating if it is aimed only at liberating someone else (the working class, the Third World, etc.). For each of us there needs to be a healthy, lucid coming together of the political and the personal. Revolution will only be genuinely liberating if it enables each of us to relate more freely in our own actual lives to men, women, and things.