A presentation by WSWS arts editor David Walsh
The crisis of American filmmaking & cultural life
17 March 2010
The following is an edited version of a presentation recently delivered by WSWS arts editor David Walsh in New York City and the Detroit area. This is the second, and concluding, part of the talk. Part one was posted March 16.
Things only got worse in American filmmaking over the next two decades, the 1990s and 2000s. These are some of the more interesting films. I don’t vouch for every title on these lists, and, in fact, we criticized some of them quite sharply when they first appeared.
This is not a wasteland, and there are some lively works. In 1995 (The Underneath, Palookaville, Welcome to the Dollhouse, To Die For, and Safe) and in 1998-1999 (Buffalo 66, Bulworth, The Newton Boys, Pecker, The Truman Show, A Simple Plan, The Thin Red Line, The Insider, Election, Rushmore, Boys Don't Cry) in particular, for some reason. There are also the last interesting movies by Woody Allen, Richard Linklater’s films, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Robert Redford’s Quiz Show.
I do like Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, which perhaps has Nicole Kidman’s best performance. She plays a young woman obsessed with fame and celebrity to the point of organizing the murder of her husband. As the narrator explains: “Suzanne used to say that you're not really anybody in America…unless you're on TV. ’Cause what’s the point of doing anything worthwhile...if there’s nobody watching?”
The decade produced a number of insightful works, but, interestingly, very few have been followed up on by the various writers and directors.
The World Socialist Web Site was launched in February 1998, and one of the first cultural issues we confronted was the immense success of Titanic.
(I would say the same on the whole about James Cameron’s Avatar, incidentally, although it does have some powerfully anti-militaristic imagery.)
We received hundreds of letters about Titanic, most of them protesting our view, but a discussion was initiated that has never stopped. Cultural criticism, film criticism in particular, is not an exact science. We have made mistakes, we have overvalued some films, undervalued others, but I think the general trend of our analysis has been vindicated.
I’d like to cite a few excerpts from film reviews or comments that referred to various social and cultural processes.
In A Simple Plan (1999), three people find $4 million in the cockpit of a crashed airplane, and eventually, of course, fall out, with tragic consequences. The movie, directed by Sam Raimi, better known these days for the relatively empty-headed Spiderman films, is set in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of winter. There is a general sense of straitened circumstances and narrowing prospects, the abandonment of the population by all official institutions, and the weakening of old allegiances.
It is a considerably more volatile and unstable mix 11 years later, as the recent episode in Austin, Texas, where an angry software engineer flew his plane into the local offices of the Internal Revenue Service, only underscores.
Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (also 1999) dealt with the horrific murder of Teena Brandon, who attempted to pass as a boy, in Nebraska. More than anything else, however, the film gave you a glimpse of life in small-town America, poor, isolated, desolate as hell.
This was a generally weak decade. I’ve highlighted a greater number of films, which reflects the relative closeness with which the WSWS follows the cinema, but, in fact, I would argue that the last two decades were probably the poorest for the medium since it was invented in 1895, or at least since the 1910s.
There are the last films of Robert Altman in the 2000s, the films of Wes Anderson, the Coen brothers, Michael Moore, Alexander Payne.… I thought Wim Wenders’s Land of Plenty was one of the most moving and complicated films about the American social situation and mood. Michelle Williams also appeared in Wendy & Lucy, which, along with Frozen River, indicated a deeper social interest and concern on the part of filmmakers—still very much a rare occurrence.
We noted a tendency, which I referred to previously: the inability of many filmmakers to follow up, mature, deepen initially interesting, even provocative work. One had to ask: why did the filmmakers find it so difficult to develop? Were they working from too narrow an intellectual, artistic basis?
At the same time, we witnessed the emergence of genuinely anti-social, malevolent trends: Quentin Tarantino and his imitators, from the mid-1990s onward. Indeed, we continue to see the flourishing of this sort of thing, in the raft of porno-sadistic horror films, and Tarantino’s films themselves.
This is what we said about his Kill Bill, Vol. 2, in 2004:
A number of interesting films came out in 2005, including Syriana, Munich, Good Night, and Good Luck, Gunner Palace (the documentary about the Iraq war), The New World and Brokeback Mountain.
About Munich, we commented:
Clearly, the films in mid-decade were associated with a growing horror over the Iraq war, the Bush administration and its open criminality, militarism and brutality, its contempt for democratic rights, its use of torture and secret prisons.
At the same time, we pointed to the real limitations of Hollywood’s “new seriousness,” that the filmmakers had far to go, and I think that warning has been confirmed. (The election of Barack Obama, in particular, has apparently occasioned a serious—and revealing—weakening of the critical faculties.)
If we turn to the films directly on the subject of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (or that are intended to refer to them), or the Bush administration, we can see some of the problems. This is not an exhaustive list either, obviously, but it is representative, I think:
There are numerous pointed works here (In the Valley of Elah, Rendition, The Situation; and Death of a President and Battle for Haditha, which were made by British directors), as well as some generally lamentable ones (Charlie Wilson’s War, Lions for Lambs, W., The Hurt Locker.…). Also, the documentaries by the team of Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein, and James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments.
Numerous pointed films…but if one may say it, these are primarily “small-bore” works, works that take up elements, specific aspects of the situation. If one compares them, as a body, with Apocalypse Now, or even Platoon, for all its histrionics—the latter were movies that attempted to make a broad statement about American involvement in Vietnam, to paint it as a crime, as an imperialist crime. This element is largely missing today.
The “non-political” war film finds its apotheosis in The Hurt Locker, whose claim to fame is its “neutral” stance in relation to the conflict itself. It’s no such thing. Director Kathryn Bigelow admits to being fascinated, mesmerized, by war and violence, and the film ends up glamorizing a new (or fantasized) kind of American hero. We called it part of a “deplorable trend” in our review last year, and we stand by that.
If we consider the films of the 1990s and 2000s as a whole, what overall picture could we draw? That a good number of colorful, lively, innovative and clever works were released, containing, in some cases, extraordinary moments. Today’s films, and the better television programs (HBO series, even certain network situation comedies), contain many attractive features, including remarkable individual characterizations and recreations of specific social circumstances, and, on occasion, the representation of historical events that are spot on.
Numerous intriguing films and series, but none of them attempted to trace problems to the social order itself, none of them traced social and historical evolution. There is almost no universal critique. Again, these are essentially small pieces, small-bore. We have witnessed a tremendous weakening of the ability to confront society as a whole.
I want to point once more to the events of the last decade or so. Because we’ve lived through it, because it is already our past, there is something of a tendency to take for granted, to accept as inevitable, what has happened to and in American society.
But consider for a second what the population has experienced: a manipulated sex scandal and a near coup d’état in the late 1990s; the hijacking of a national election (or two) essentially unopposed by the liberal establishment; a massive terrorist attack that has never properly been investigated or explained to the American people; a neo-colonial war in Afghanistan now expanding to Pakistan; the invasion and occupation of Iraq justified by shameless lies, with the full collaboration of the media and both parties; endless threats against Iran and other regimes that are perceived to stand in the way of the US; the locking up of suspects in secret prisons and torture sites; a sustained attack on long-standing constitutional rights; the illegal doctrine of pre-emptive war; the massive corporate looting of the economy, to the tune of trillions of dollars; a devastating crash and subsequent bailout of the banks, also to the tune of trillions of dollars; the growth of immense social inequality and social misery in the US, with tens of millions of people unemployed or underemployed; major cities ravaged (the city of Detroit is suffering from a 50 percent unemployment-underemployment rate).…
All this—and virtually none of it has been treated seriously in films (or novels or drama). From the point of view of formal logic, it’s almost incomprehensible. As though you were a photojournalist standing at the window with a camera in your hand, an extraordinary uproar erupted in the street, and you deliberately turned away and took pictures instead of your children doing their homework. Some considerable countervailing pressure must be at work.
These are unprecedented events. They haven’t gone entirely unnoticed or uncritiqued, but, one must say, in relation to the depth of the transformations, the artistic response has been entirely inadequate, statistically almost insignificant.
The power of money, extensive corporate control, and direct political pressure certainly play a role. However, there are also nominally independent film festivals. Individuals with video cameras and editing equipment can create their own works. There is very little of significance in this sphere, either. The only benefit of American “independent” cinema at the moment is that by and large it makes you long for Hollywood’s products. I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, but we are confronted for the most part with the self-involved, unenlightening products of 28- and 30-year-olds who have very little to say.
In our view, the artists have proven ill-equipped, unprepared intellectually for the developments.
The ideological pressures following upon the collapse of the Soviet Union and the other Stalinist regimes in 1989-1991, all the blather about “the end of socialism,” “the end of history,” as well as the decay of the old labor movements in every country, and the social conditions that have emerged for masses of people bound up with these problems—all this has had consequences.
The reactionary climate of the past several decades in general has had an impact. The enrichment of sections of the upper middle class and their lurch to the right are facts of American social and political life. There has been a fantastic accumulation of wealth by a relative handful, including in the entertainment industry.
This is a very conspicuous process in New York City. Woody Allen and others have either made that same transition or succumbed, or been laid low, by its pressure.
That is part of the explanation, but it begs the question: why were the intellectuals so unprepared for those processes, why were they so vulnerable?
A fundamental theme of this presentation is the need for a consciously socialist current in filmmaking and among artists in general. We’re not speaking of some sort of political litmus test, in other words, encouraging the emergence of artists who would win our ideological approval for some sort of short-term gain. That’s not the issue at all. This is a practical, artistic and social necessity. We are inundated with films, novels and plays that go so far…and no farther.
We have lived for decades in this country under conditions produced in part by official anticommunism, McCarthyism, the purges of left-wing forces from the unions, from film and television. Socialist thought was criminalized, marginalized, excluded. This is a central element in our current difficulties. And, it must be said, the radicalization of the 1960s did not make deep inroads here.
But art despises half-measures. It is untenable in the long run: making a half-critique, pointing to this or that surface development, this or that symptom.
Where is the artist today at total war with official society? Where is the artist who says: “I despise all this, patriotism, nationalism, war, the military, religion, the government, parliament, business, profits”? Who says, “I hate the hypocrisy, the criminality, the greed of the ruling classes. I want nothing to do with such people, I’ll search out and align myself with their enemies.” Artists have said and done this in the past, modern art is inconceivable without it.
The crimes of Stalinism threw an entire generation, or several generations, into crisis, from the mid-1930s onward. The terrible deeds carried out in the name of communism brought discredit on the noblest ideas in history. Stalinism itself, its twists and turns, its cynicism, its catastrophic policies, demoralized artists and intellectuals in the late 1930s and 1940s. Its crimes were then used by the witch-hunters and their liberal allies to justify the purges and the blacklist.
The artists are suffering from the combined effects of the traumatic events of the twentieth century. But these events and their consequences need to be studied, understood and overcome. Serious progress is impossible without that. It is simply not possible, in the first place, to represent truthfully the character of contemporary relations between people on this planet unless you understand the history of those relations as social phenomena.
What’s needed? A number of things, in our view.
Greater artistry and intellectual effort. Art is exhausting, unsettling, difficult work. We have referred numerous times to the film school graduate with the unfurrowed brow. There is the problem of what the younger generation of filmmakers has been through, seen, experienced.
The 20-year-old film student wasn’t born at the time of the last major successful strike struggle in the US, when the working class made itself powerfully felt, the miners’ strike of 1977-1978. He or she would have been born around the time of the demise of the Soviet Union.
The 30-year-old artist was born around the time of the miners’ strike and would have been 10 or so in 1991, when the USSR collapsed. In reality, you would have to be 35 or 40 years old simply to have experienced mass struggles in this country, or the existence of something officially supposed to represent an alternative to free market capitalism.
People can’t be blamed for what they haven’t lived through, but we have to tell the truth. We say to the artists: what you know, what is in your head, is inadequate. You have to be oriented toward bigger questions, questions of society and history first and foremost. That doesn’t have to be the substance of your work, it doesn’t matter how intimate your immediate subject might be, another War and Peace or a love lyric, but there remains the need for the broadest thought and understanding, for presenting complex and difficult problems, all of which require real intellectual struggles.
Texture, complexity, and depth come with knowledge, deep emotion, a deep understanding and feeling for the art form itself, its human and artistic possibilities, and not merely its technical capabilities, much less the desire to impress or to show off. Art is about showing life, not having a career.
As I’ve suggested, we need to revive protest, anger, and outrage, the desire to see the world changed from top to bottom. It’s hard to conceive of important work in our day without that. Absolutely critical, in our view: the artists must overcome the prejudice against socialism! Absolutely no major progress will occur without that.
If the artists brought together the technological innovations of the recent period, its freshness and cleverness, its color and rapid movement, and the ability to impart vast amounts of information quickly and clearly, with important ideas, artistic elegance and seriousness, and with a concern for humanity and its fate…that would open the road to important work, in our view.
In 1928, Soviet literary critic Aleksandr Voronsky—Left Oppositionist, co-thinker of Trotsky, and eventual victim of Stalin in 1937—addressed this problem. It was part of his struggle for more seriousness about life and genuine engagement with the world in Soviet writing. He commented:
I believe this is profoundly important. There is no going back to Ford or Welles. The greatest work, we have confidence, lies ahead. But the ingenuity of present-day filmmaking has to be combined with far deeper knowledge of the world, to bring out the true character of contemporary life, to enlighten and broaden the population, to appeal to what is best in it, to contribute to the cause of liberating global humanity from ignorance, exploitation and poverty.
A final point: what we have been discussing are objective problems, social problems, historical problems. We are farther than anyone from blaming individuals for the difficulties. We don’t (or we try not to) heap abuse, on the pages of the WSWS, on the artists who fall short, even those who fall very far short. The problem lies outside them, in historical traumas and difficulties that have yet to be overcome, in new realities that have yet to be cognized. We fight with great urgency for a different perspective, a different orientation, but we also understand that big popular movements will play a critical role in dispersing the “clouds of skepticism and pessimism” (Trotsky).
As the working class begins to move, and it will, many of today’s problems will seem trivial, or will disappear entirely. A new set of challenges and problems will arise, and we certainly welcome those. We will do everything in our power to assist the artists, the filmmakers, to arrive at a deeper understanding of the historical and social issues involved.