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January 1971: How Commercial Films Contain the Radical Movement Printer Friendly Version

How Commercial Films Contain the Radical Movement
Turning Revolution Into Liberal Mishmash

James Herod, January 1971

Revolution as Fashion as Containment

  The endless stream of films in recent years ostensibly dealing with protest and rebellion constitutes a form of social criticism and societal self-examination only for the unwary. In reality these films are powerful tools for reinforcing the status quo of Amerikan ruling class society.

  It is true, of course, that such films are made by capitalist enterprises in order to make money and that they must therefore reflect to some extent the current demands of the movie-going public, made up predominantly of young people, in order to succeed at the box office. That's probably why we now have movies about revolution in the first place. This is just another of the many contradictory aspects of a profit-oriented society. Publishing companies print Das Kapital; record manufacturers sell the Rolling Stones; film makers produce Easy Rider.

  Nevertheless, there is a critical difference between marketing literature and music produced by radicals, and producing films like Alice's Restaurant, Z, If, or Joe. These films were made by liberals not radicals. They are the products, the handiwork, of the Establishment. They are not the direct products of the radical movement or the youth culture, even though they seek to appeal to the needs and tastes of that culture in order to realize a profit. It is certainly true that the mere taking up of protest as a theme for a movie may spread a certain awareness that things are afoot in the society, an awareness that might not have spread so rapidly otherwise. It is unlikely however that the form and content of the awareness that is thus disseminated is likely to be very threatening to the established order.

  On the contrary, by placing these radical developments in a predominately liberal framework and by constantly repeating and updating the dominant perceptions and assumptions under girding the existing society, these films function primarily to keep people from becoming radical, to depoliticize people, and to derail them into harmless activities. These films thus serve to contain the radical movement by integrating people more tightly into the existing order, people who otherwise might have moved to the left.

  It is important to understand how this happens. It is obviously not the result of some grand conspiracy (even though at times it is hard to believe it could be anything else). Rather, for the most part, commercial films merely reflect the dominant ideas and interpretations of what is going on, i.e., the interpretations of the dominant class.

Reducing the Social to the Personal

  Perhaps the most common feature (which has a profoundly depoliticizing effect) of the social outlook of these dominant groups is the portrayal of protest in purely individual and personal terms rather than linking it to the way a society is organized.

  A fairly typical example of this is Alice's Restaurant (1969). This film sees itself as the story of a hippie commune established in a church in New England. But in fact it has almost nothing to say about communes. Far from it. The story revolves mainly around the private troubles of only four people, seen as individuals. The central plot centers essentially on the jealousy of the husband. He is a weak and unstable person, seriously dependent on his wife, Alice. Alice is portrayed mainly in sexist terms. Alice at one point goes to bed with a young hippie, the third person in the triangle, who is portrayed as strongly neurotic, a suicidal drug addict given to daredevil motorcycling (and this is a film about communes?).

  At one point the husband gives a sermon about high sounding things like love and peace – ideas that sound utterly ridiculous by contrast with what the film has been showing us about these people. To cinch the point about the husband, in the very next scene they show him getting stoned and making a total ass of himself in front of the other people (who are there only as stage props not as people). The husband's weakness and instability is thus driven home in no uncertain terms.

  The fourth main character, played by Arlo Guthrie, is shown throughout the film to be looking for a sense of direction, trying to get his head straight, trying to figure out what to do with his life. He never succeeds in this quest, however. The film ends and he is still wandering around not knowing what to do with himself. Guthrie is in a way the central character. He obviously doesn't know what he wants. This is a charge leveled against radicals all the time in real life. (``Well what do you want anyway?''; ``Do you have a better system?'')

  Toward the end of the story the young freak, Alice's lover, smashes himself up on his motorcycle. The verdict is that he killed himself. They have a funeral for him on a bleak snowy hillside. The various members of the ``commune'' are scattered over the entire hillside. It is a huge field; no one speaks to anyone else; no one comes within twenty feet of another person (except for couples, who are treated as individuals anyway). They walk up one by one and drop flowers and things into the grave. In other words, there is a complete absence of any sense of community. These people could not have been more isolated and estranged from one another. These are precisely the conditions – isolation and alienation – that gave rise to the commune movement which this movie is supposedly about.

  The import of the film is obvious: it reduces a social movement of protest against society to questions of personality disturbances. It derails completely the whole origin and intent of the commune movement, not through any conscious intent, of course, but simply because that is the way the directors perceive the world. The real concerns and struggles of people who join communes are nowhere to be seen in this film.

  There is an added moral: freaks have the same problems that everyone else has. They are lonely, insecure, neurotic, and can't relate to other people. You can't beat it. It's normal to be unhappy. It's part of life.

Up Tight (1968) attempts to do to the Black movement what Alice's Restaurant does to the commune movement. Ostensibly the film is about a black revolutionary group, but in fact it centers almost entirely on the personal pathology of one of the members of the group. We are shown in detail all about his inability to stay sober, his inability to make a commitment to his friends, his dependent and pathetic relationship to his wife, his willingness to sell out his buddies for a few bucks – and all this in psychological terms, as a question of personality disturbances. He ends up killing himself. No wonder blacks hate the film. It is a total distortion of what they are all about..

Rewriting History

  Sometimes whole historical epochs are reduced to this level of personal problems. Thus in The Damned (1969) the enormous social turmoil in Germany during the period of the rise of Hitler gets portrayed in terms of the moral and personal degradation of a single upper class family. It is not that this isn't an interesting and legitimate topic (if properly handled). The effect of social conflict on character structure is an important question. It is certainly interesting, for example, to follow, in Doctor Zhivago (1965), the impact of the Russian Revolution on the life and loves of a sensitive upper class poet.

  But this is not what films like this are really about. More significant by far is their consistent refusal to examine the organization of society, the structures of domination and inequality, which give rise to these personal troubles. It is their frame of reference that counts. They are, in spite of appearances, political films, with a political message, and that message is a conservative one. They perpetuate certain attitudes, assumptions, and explanations, all of which reinforce the capitalist status quo. The Russian Revolution, for example, is portrayed in very negative terms, both in itself and in its impact on Zhivago. Similarly, to drag out the Nazi terror in 1969 to show to audiences in Western Europe and the United States is significant in itself. At a time when the U.S. government is being charged with the same tyranny and crimes as the Nazis were, it is very convenient to stir up the old patriotism and remind people of the glorious battle against the tyranny of Hitler..

Romance as a Diversion

  A common variation on this theme of reducing questions of social revolution to the level of personal troubles is to derail protest into romance; largely, I suppose, because love stores sell, but of course the significance of the practice goes much deeper than that. Hardly a film escapes this, but a particularly striking example is The Graduate (1967).

  There is some great satire in the first part of The Graduate. Remember the scene at the swimming pool at his parent's house where he has to get all dressed up in a diver's suit to entertain the guests?

  About midway through the film however he runs off to Berkeley to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel to fall in love. This soap opera consumes the rest of the film, except for the very end when rebellion is revived long enough for him to crash the wedding to run off with the bride-to-be. But the closing scene reverses even this. The eloping couple gets on the bus and sits down in the back, and then they turn to look at each other in a very quizzical and ambivalent way; after that they stare blankly ahead. The message is unmistakable: ``What have we done? Will we really be happy together? What is there left for us to do now? Maybe we made a mistake?'' That is, ``Our rebellion was futile and misdirected.''.

Make Believe Criticism

  It is more than clear that while these establishment films may present themselves as social criticism they actually serve the opposite function: to reinforce the established order. Take Z, for example. Z sees itself as a critique of a military coup in an undesignated country (but commonly understood to be Greece). The film opens in the midst of a large, popular protest demonstration directed against the government in power. The leader of the movement arrives to address the crowd but is struck down in the streets. It is a powerful opening.

  Other leaders of the movement meet to work out strategy and plan a response. One person argues that it is time to start fighting back, that nonviolent demonstrations are no longer adequate, that people must begin resisting and fighting. Everyone else disagrees strongly, and this theme is dropped like a hot potato never to appear again in the film.

  At this point, only ten minutes into the film, the plot veers off to the right as the trial moves to the center of the stage. For the next two hours the audience is shot a huge dose of liberal values in the guise of the fair trial. We get soaked with an overwhelming reaffirmation of liberal democracy at work. The political struggle is completely submerged as the search for truth and justice is pushed relentlessly by the investigating attorney. He uncovers the murderers and their bosses, most of whom are prominent members of the government, and sends them all to jail. Then, in the very last two minutes of the film, in the form of a postscript, the viewers are informed that a military coup took place a few months later. All the convicted men were released, and the attorney and the various leaders of the movement were either murdered or locked up. That's it.

  A lot of people in the movement have seriously misinterpreted this film, it seems to me. The problem is that they have projected their own radical conclusion into the film rather than listening to the film's message. Radicals are prone to see the film as a warning of what could happen here, and to conclude that the military coup at the end proves that the politics of liberal protest do not work.

  The film itself however makes no such statement, and the average viewer would never see that in it. There is not the slightest doubt that the main weight of the film comes down heavily on the side of liberal democracy. That's what the film is about; that's what it praises incessantly and holds up as the ideal. The short surprise ending, lasting barely a minute or two, is much too brief and weak to counteract the preceding two hour celebration of the status quo. Most North Americans will see nothing more in the ending than an unfortunate turn of events. After all, military takeovers happen every other week in today's world. They will see no structural connection between the take-over and the protest movement, or if they do see a connection it will not rise above the level of the `corrupt politician' theory. The film itself does not expound any real explanation of the event so why should the average viewer see one? Only radicals see military dictatorships as simply a more severe form of ruling class domination that in normal times takes the form of the standard businessman's democracy (i.e., bourgeois democracy).

  In short, Z is an entirely liberal film and serves to reinforce the liberal ruling class status quo. It derails revolution into a celebration of the Liberal State. The criticism it attempts goes no further than the criticism that liberals like John Kenneth Galbraith and Charles A. Reich make in books like How to Control the Military and The Greening of America. This is criticism that takes the liberal capitalist view of society for granted and operates within that framework. What more can you expect from the Establishment?.

Grooving on Easy Rider and Missing the Point

  Another case in point is Easy Rider (1969). Easy Rider makes a brief but powerful attack on southern bigotry. Unfortunately this is not the whole story. Easy Rider is a story about two freaks who set out to find the true life. It is significant that this quest is conceived primarily in geographical terms rather than in social terms. They take a trip from Los Angeles to New Orleans (as if this could uncover anything new). They are linked with the drug racket at the very outset when they sell a package of dope for a pile of money. Neither character is very attractive. One is practically inarticulate. The other is stuffy and unbearably arrogant. Along the way they visit a totally unbelievable commune out in the desert, where the hippies, besides swimming nude in the creek, are shown planting grain about like a city slicker would milk a cow. Our two adventurers eventually reach the red light district in New Orleans, where they shoot their wads, in both senses.

  The film is an utter put down of the movement; and the only cost to the Establishment is a side swipe at southern bigots, which it can well afford. Our friends end up getting blown to bits by a couple of racists pigs who dislike freaks. But before that happens were are treated to confessions from both rebels that ``it was a mistake.'' Talk about containing the movement!

  Many of my friends liked Easy Rider and I have had several heated arguments about this film. They say that maybe I am getting too old to understand such things. They claim that it is light and fun (at least until the gruesome ending), and good entertainment. I remain unconvinced however. I don't see anything positive at all about it. It presents an enormous misrepresentation and put down of what is going on. It seems to me that my friends should have seen through a film like this.

  It is strange that while most of us have become highly sensitive to the use of TV, newspapers, magazines, and college curriculums as powerful political weaponry we still tend to look upon movies as entertainment, or even as useful social criticism (which is even more naive), and something that actually advances the radical movement! How could we ever expect a product of Hollywood or of any large commercial studio to be anything other than a political weapon?.

The Ever Present Generation Gap

  Everyone has heard of the generation gap. It is the favorite liberal explanation for the troubles of our times. If (1969) presents a film version of this idea. (Joe, 1970, is a more recent and more powerful statement of the same theme.) If portrays a rebellion at a prep school in England. It follows the development of the revolt from the students' first smoldering resentment at being pushed around, regimented, and beaten by the headmasters and senior whips who run the school, to their final savage outburst at the end when they cut down their oppressors with machine guns.

If is easily one of the most explicit treatments of rebellion made recently. The trouble is, the rebels kill the wrong people – their parents, teachers, aunts, and uncles. The movie does certainly develop a scathing caricature of these people – hypocritical and complacent, stuffy and inhibited, insensitive and tyrannical. However, the revolts of the sixties and seventies have never been directed merely at the shortcomings of the older generation, but always, from the very beginning, at the system, at the structure of domination and inequality.

  There is not the slightest hint in this film that most adults in our society are as oppressed as young people, or that this oppression is an inherent feature of a ruling class society. And so the rebels shoot down everyone in sight, making no distinction between the enemy and the people. The resemblance between this act and current descriptions of the Weather people as ``acting out of blind rage'' should not be overlooked. If is in fact merely an expression of ruling class interpretations (the liberal wing of it) of the events of the 1960s..

Midnight Cowboy: Workhorse for the Ruling Class

  These themes which we have been discussing are developed in even the most mundane of movies. Thus Midnight Cowboy (1969), although not explicitly about rebellion, is nevertheless about deviance, and serves the same functions as the other films mentioned so far.

Midnight Cowboy, you may remember, tells the story of a young Texan dude with grandiose illusions about his sexual powers who goes to New York to hustle a living among rich women as a male prostitute. He doesn't do very well and falls in with a rather sordid underworld character at the bottom of society. We are dragged through every gutter, sewer, and alley in New York, with murder, prostitution, and degradation at every turn.

  Finally, in order to help his friend recover his health, he leaves gloomy New York, goes to sunny Florida, leaves his friend dead on the bus, abandons his cowboy shirt and hat, and gets some regular clothes and a regular job. The closing scene shows him walking along with a broad smile and confident stride, obviously having turned over a new leaf and looking forward to a happy life as a regular guy.

  This film successfully accomplishes four tasks for the ruling class.

(1) It perpetuates the vulgar psychoanalytic view of people and society that is already deeply instilled in the American mind, thus diverting attention away from, and preventing an understanding of the structure of society. Throughout the film we are shown flashbacks of the hustler's childhood and youth. These scenes all play up sexual themes in one way or another and attempt to locate the source of his behavior in, among other things, an abnormal childhood relation to his aunt.

  (2) The poverty and human degradation portrayed in the film is taken for granted as a normal and inherent feature of the society. The question of the origin of these squalid conditions is not even broached. They are simply there as a backdrop to the main plot, which deals only with personalities. If conditions like this are natural and unavoidable then nothing can be done about them (the film implies). Each individual has to escape this fate as best they can.

  (3) How can this be done? Conform! The moral of the film is all too clear: don't try to be different; don't get involved with shady characters; stay away from the dark fringe of society (it is not accidental that there is no sunlight throughout the film until the very end when he gets to Florida and goes straight); be sunny and happy; get a regular job!

  (4) Finally, the very act of watching a film like this degrades the audience. I left that movie feeling very oppressed, like I'd really been worked over. I am convinced that one of the prime functions of Kapitalist Kulture is to bombard people constantly with all kinds of shit to keep them down and disheartened. Midnight Cowboy is not exactly an uplifting move..

Alienation is Normal

  The second point mentioned above, about taking the structure of society for granted, should be elaborated further because it is a central theme or tendency of ruling class thought. In ruling class art, literature, and science, modern society is always a given. That's because it is their society and they don't want it analyzed very carefully. Moreover, they like to see their society as both universal and eternal.

  Ingmar Bergman, for example, in Shame (1969), devotes a whole movie to the theme that war is an apparently senseless, futile, unintelligible, and ridiculous, but nevertheless normal activity of humans in which there are no good forces or bad forces, and in which common people get booted around from this side to that side, not understanding and not really caring what the fighting is all about. In so far as it depicts the profoundly demoralizing effects of war upon people, Shame is a very good description of the alienation of twentieth century people. But Bergman doesn't understand and can't explain this alienation at all. Indeed, he makes it appear to be an immutable aspect of life, whereas in reality it is primarily a characteristic of a particular type of society, a ruling class society.

  Godard pursues the same theme in Les Carabiniers. Both these films portray common people as dumb and gullible, mere pawns in a struggle between evil forces, and devoid of any feeling or humanity themselves. It is no accident that when the ruling classes are fighting it out among themselves – the Nazi and Amerikan elites for example – people are told that war is very meaningful and that the whole future of civilization hangs on the outcome. But now, in a time when most wars are class wars and wars of liberation, when ruling classes the world over stand united against revolution from below, people are told that war is senseless and futile. The focus, that is, is on violence in the abstract and all violence is portrayed as senseless. This is a powerful counter to the radical concepts of revolutionary violence and armed struggle..

Depoliticizing Politics

  Let's take three final examples, all of which exhibit in pure form the dimensions of liberal thought discussed so far: Medium Cool, Morgan, and Fellini's Satyricon. Medium Cool (1969) is the least sophisticated of the three. Its theme is also violence, and the increasing polarization of Amerikan society, as seen through the eyes of a news photographer. As usual, much of the story revolves around a love affair. Along the way however we are shown lots of violence – automobile wrecks, fights, pigs training for riot duty, political confrontations (the Chicago demonstrations of August 1968), and so forth. (The film is supposed to be a critique of violence but it seems to excel in the very thing it denounces.)

  The point of the movie has nothing to do with the plot, however, but rather with the tone and context within which this violence is examined. One of the questions the film is supposedly asking is whether a news photographer can be simply a neutral observer of the violent events he is photographing. The answer it gives is a weak no. Yet the film itself does precisely that: it stands back and views violence with an apparently objective eye without seeking to comprehend or explain it.

  The audience is left bewildered and confused. People complained that there didn't seem to be any point to the film. (``What was it all about?'') In addition therefore to the usual obfuscation caused by psychologizing, romanticizing, individualizing, and personalizing, there is now this calculated obtuseness in the technique or style of the film itself; rather like the style of abstract art or modern music, a denial of meaning. And so the social reality is rendered even more unintelligible.

Medium Cool introduces one further gimmick, which has the effect of depoliticizing radicals, although this is probably unintentional: film the present and depoliticize it later. (Woodstock, 1970, carries this technique a step further by staging an event so that it can be filmed so that it can be depoliticized, and sold for a profit of course.) The events being depoliticized in Medium Cool are the demonstrations surrounding the Democratic Convention in Chicago in August, 1968. These film makers anticipated the use of these events in their film and were there with cameras to record the events and an actress to mingle among the demonstrators. In their film however the meaning of these events is lost entirely. We see the events only through liberal eyes. The events are placed in a neutral, apolitical context, and exploited for exactly the opposite political ends from what they represented in real life. They are made to serve the interests of the ruling class..

Conform or Flee: Another False Dilemma

Morgan (1965) is in a different class altogether from Medium Cool. It is a masterpiece of the sixties. Yet the limitations of its liberal critique of the contemporary world are painfully apparent. It is the story of a freak, Morgan, and his inability to live in the modern, civilized world. The plot revolves mainly around Morgan's competition with Charles Napier, a straight jerk, for the love of a woman (I've forgotten her name!, but I'll call her Eronica.) Charles Napier is effete, dead, lifeless, buried under layers of convention. His desire for Eronica is ritualistic. It is merely part of life's plan – pretty wife, big wedding, good job, house with lots of things. Napier is incapable of strong feeling.

Morgan, on the other hand, is a person of deep emotion. He represents the uncivilized – spontaneous, free, uninhibited, passionate. With Morgan we are constantly being carried away – birds in free flight, people turning into apes, Tarzan swinging through the trees, chimpanzees laughing and playing. Morgan's love for Eronica is emotional and real.

  Eronica's position in this duel is ambivalent. She is deeply attracted to Morgan, but can't understand him. She doesn't really like Charles Napier, but identifies with his world. She ends up marrying Napier. Morgan crashes the wedding reception dressed up as King Kong the gorilla, but to no avail.

  This contrast between humans in their natural state (the free and spontaneous world of Morgan), and Civilized Man (the lifeless and boring world of Charles Napier) is central to the movie. And there is no doubt where the film makers stand. They identify strongly with Morgan. They portray Morgan as the only living person in the film. Morgan is the civilized person, Napier is the savage beast. But they also conclude, and this is the crux of the matter, that Morgan cannot survive in the modern world. There is no place for him.

  Thus we are caught in a terrible bind: civilization is unacceptable and intolerable; yet it is impossible to go back to the state of nature, to freedom and love. This is the famous tragic view of life that dominates the work of most honest artists and intellectuals who fail to break out of bourgeois ideology.

  Morgan rejects the civilized world. In a key scene near the end of the film, after he is caught and arrested for disrupting the wedding, and dragged into court, he tells the judge, ``I do not recognize this court.'' The judge replies, ``That's irrelevant.'' They lock him up. Thereafter, Morgan finds it more and more difficult to distinguish between reality and his own fantasies, and ends up completely berserk. The film makers evidently see only two options: conform to civilization and stop living, or reject civilization and escape into fantasy and insanity.

  The error in their argument is obvious: they take civilization as a given, as an immutable fact. The only choices are to accept it or reject it. At one point in the film we are shown Morgan doing a dance around Marx's tombstone. I can't imagine what the directors hoped to communicate by this scene, but for me the difference between Marx and Morgan is not very difficult to see: Marx sought to transform the world; Morgan only to escape it..

Commodities and Magic: The Mystification of Reality

  In Fellini's Satyricon (1970) we reach what will surely stand, as far as films go, as an unsurpassed expression of a capitalist culture's view of itself. Satyricon is about the travels of two men through the Ancient World, wandering from city to city, tribe to tribe, now being captured, then escaping, sometimes taken in, often attacked. There is no plot or story to speak of, only a series of happenings. The film is highly abstract and symbolic. It is not a movie in the usual sense; it's more like an experience. In some ways it is like the difference between Vermeer and Pollack.

  Nevertheless, Fellini does develop two powerful themes. The first theme is conveyed by the fact that each person in the film treats every other person in the film as an object. There are no exceptions to this. There is no friendship, love, trust, or any human ties of mutual respect and reciprocity, but only brute force and manipulation, culminating in the final scene where a group of people devour a human being. Fellini shows people teasing and torturing humans like mean children sometimes torture cats, or like the teenagers in Last Summer (1969) tortured the sea gull. Fellini has thus captured, without understanding it, the essence of a capitalist civilization in which all human relations are transformed into commodity relations, reified, and where each person endeavors to maximize their own self-interest in all interaction.

  Fellini's second theme is that people perceive the world in terms of magic. That is, people are incapable of understanding the world and rendering it intelligible. This message comes across in scene after scene as well as in the overall impact of the film. The whole tone of the movie is one of mystery and magic and much of the activity in the film consists of making magic. The two travelers, as well as the people they meet, are constantly evoking the Gods, or seeking to beguile or tap some mysterious power. There is not a single instance of rational behavior in the entire film. I would even argue, furthermore, that the lack of structure or plot in the film itself contributes, in a different way, to the feeling of mystery, incoherence, and unintelligibility.

  By bringing us back from the Ancient World to present times at the end of the film, Fellini further implies that these qualities of treating others as objects and of perceiving the world only in magical terms are timeless attributes of the human condition. Thus Fellini's Satyricon develops the same themes and serves the same functions as all bourgeois culture: it mystifies social reality so that people cannot understand the world they live it.


This essay was published in the Liberated Guardian.