Some months ago I was approached by Ronald Cox and David Gibbs, a couple of radical professors, about contributing to a new journal they were involved with named “Class, Race, and Corporate Power”. The journal will be premiering its first print issue in March 2014 but an accompanying website is up and running with an article by me titled “How Art Trumped Commerce at Miramax”, an analysis of the “indie” film revolution of the 1990s led by Harvey Weinstein that was fueled by Quentin Tarantino’s spectacular success as a Miramax director.
I am generally modest about my writing and even openly admit to being a “prolific buffoon” as Marc Cooper once put it. I love writing in the same way that a shock jock loves the microphone and am constantly planning out my next article. As far as being a buffoon is concerned, that’s a very perceptive comment given the fact that I try to include at least 3 or 4 jokes in everything I write. Of course, Cooper meant buffoon in an unflattering manner but let’s not worry about that.
In any case, the Miramax article contains some ideas that have been percolating in the old noggin for decades now. Anybody who cares about film will certainly find them interesting and even if you haven’t been to a movie in decades you still might read it for the jokes:
How Commerce Trumped Art at Miramax
By Louis Proyect
In 1960 Ingmar Bergman introduced his collected screenplays with an analogy to medieval Christendom.
People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.
Profound as this insight was, Bergman did not draw out other affinities between constructing cathedrals and filmmaking–the most obvious of which is that the movie theater functions as a secular church. People who are complete strangers to each other sit side by side in total darkness to achieve a kind of spiritual uplift, with the film constituting the service. In some ways this harkens back to the original intention of drama in Greece, which was to produce catharsis. Despite being dismissed by most critics as junk, “The Exorcist” struck a nerve in 1973 for its ability to summon up atavistic memories of demons and sacrifice for its largely secular audiences.
Since Ingmar Bergman was apolitical, it was not surprising that he missed the most important connection, namely the reliance of both Gothic cathedral and the modern motion picture on ruling class institutional support. To build a church or to make a film costing $100 million requires enormous outlays of capital. Under feudalism, only the church and the king had such sums at its disposals. Under capitalism, where there are no kings, the filmmaker has to rely on the Disney or the Sony Corporation instead. In the German Ideology, Marx stated: “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” In bourgeois society, the artist has much more license than those who supervised the construction of Chartres but there are limits to what can be said in a film. Hollywood had no problems hiring Communist directors or screenwriters, but it was only after they were blacklisted that Paul Jarrico, Michael Wilson and Harold Biberman could make “Salt of the Earth”.
Unlike cathedral building, film studios operate under the iron laws of competition. The bottom line is paramount, no pun intended. A publishing house will not go broke as a result of an unreadable novel but there are significant risks involved in making costly failures like Heaven’s Gate or Bonfire of the Vanities. In 1999 Steven Bach published Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists. Eighty years earlier Charlie Chaplin launched United Artists in order to wrest control of film production from cigar-smoking, mammon-worshipping studio bosses. It was supremely ironical that Michael Cimino’s fiercely anti-capitalist Western brought down United Artists, a function of the critical establishment’s outrage over the film’s admittedly overblown affinities with “Salt of the Earth” rather than its value as cinema.