Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2014

Reading Trotsky While Watching Kurosawa

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Kurosawa,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 8:28 pm
In Search of a Marxist Method for Film Criticism

Reading Trotsky While Watching Kurosawa


A couple of weeks ago an Australian friend and fellow Marxist raised some interesting questions about film:

I have just moved to the capital city of the state and attended my first film festival. I have always enjoyed movies but in the past have been living in regional centers.

It got me thinking about what constitutes a “good movie” and yourself and David Walsh are the only two Marxist movie critics I can think of. David never seems to like anything very much and his discussion of culture – which is interesting- relies heavily on Trotsky’s ‘Literature and Revolution’.

I know you have written in passing about the sort of movies you like but wondered if you’d written more systematic about Marxism movie criticism.

Despite having written over nine hundred film reviews in the past twenty years or so, I have never really given much thought to the question of “Marxist movie criticism”.

Unfortunately Walsh has stopped writing film reviews for the World Socialist Website, which for my money was the only thing worth reading there. It’s a dirty little secret but most of the material that appears on wsws.org is extracted from the bourgeois press and then spiked with Marxist rhetoric about how evil the capitalist system is, as if we needed any reminding. I’d rather read the NY Times and make such observations myself.

Unlike Walsh, I stay away from Hollywood films except for the end of the year when I am obligated to watch a sufficient number of films like “Gravity” or “Zero Dark Thirty” to make sense out of the nominations my colleagues in New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) put forward at our annual awards meeting. Most of what I review is either documentaries or gritty neorealist films from “foreign” countries (nothing is more foreign to me than Hollywood) so I have a much lighter burden than Walsh.

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  1. Reminds me of Mayakovsky who said ” Capitalism threw gold in the eyes of cinema; and made it blind ” .

    Comment by Indu Abeysekara — December 27, 2014 @ 3:41 am

  2. Confused by this. Do you think that art should be judged on its own terms and be totally free and open to all sorts of expressions (as the only way to really get to the heart of things), or do you think the pertinence of the artist’s work to the political and cultural concerns of the day is what matters? Thanks

    Comment by Tom Leo — December 27, 2014 @ 7:40 am

  3. Jonathan Rosenbaum has to be mentioned when we speak of the best writers on the movies who see life from the Left. He was head film critic at the ‘Chicago Reader’ from 1987 to 2008. Like a lot in Chicago, the ‘Reader’ ain’t what it used to be. But Rosenbaum’s influence can be felt in its younger reviewers. Like him they are open to the world beyond Hollywood and accountants’s bottom lines.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — December 27, 2014 @ 10:37 am

  4. I think the greatest films do incorporate a concern with the political and cultural but I also consider resolutely apolitical films as making major contributions as long as they are imaginative and intelligent. This exchange on the Marxism list this morning might make this clearer:

    On 12/27/14 5:02 AM, Charles Faulkner wrote:
    > s this meant as a complete definition? for art? film art? narrative art?
    > i like the sentiment but i want to say that it still seems a little
    > restrictive despite broadening a notion of art as pure propaganda. at
    > the danger of appearing ignorant, degenerate or even pedantic i think
    > there are itches i want to scratch that are not overtly humanitarian, or
    > humane even. perhaps “human impulses” fits better what i want.

    Not at all. Most comedy skirts the political. For example, Preston Sturges made the greatest film comedies ever, including “Sullivan’s Travels” that satirized a director’s yearnings to make social protest films during the Great Depression. Speaking of which, nothing will ever rival the frothy and apolitical Fred Astaire films of the same period. Laughter and dance elevate just as much as tragedy.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 27, 2014 @ 1:46 pm

  5. re: “Most comedy skirts the political. ”

    The greatest political movie ever made is Blazing Saddles.

    Comment by srogouski — December 28, 2014 @ 1:31 am

  6. Even Leos Carax ripped off that “taking yourself hostage” scene.

    Comment by srogouski — December 28, 2014 @ 1:35 am

  7. I suppose if you are a Marxist and also a movie critique, your movie reviews would be written from a Marxist perspective; apart from that, I’m not sure what the “Marxist movie criticism” means; in defining it, one may just reduce Marxism to yet another ideology.

    “[If art is] a way for people to connect with deeper humanitarian impulses that lay buried beneath the grime of daily life in a capitalist society growing ever more barbarian by the day”, I thought the movie “Pride” managed to have similar impact on most of its views who consider themselves part of the “99%”; the movie resembled committed filmmaking as it promoted community and progressive values while taking side with a struggle of the working class without being reduced to some cheap propaganda statements. When it was over, many clapped for the film they watched, as I could not think of any actions by our almighty far left organizations that could had the same impact on the viewers in those 120 minutes.

    On the other hand, Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times, gave the film one star out of five, describing it as “a parade of tricks, tropes and tritenesses, designed to keep its balance for two hours atop a political correctness unicycle,” which I think it mostly means his review and mine are just happen to be from different perspectives.

    Comment by Ramin — December 29, 2014 @ 2:03 am

  8. Bob Avakian also talks about movies.

    Comment by Rob — December 29, 2014 @ 8:01 pm

  9. I believe that there is something inherently socialist, inherently Marxist in any cultural creation that induces us to relate to people in their surroundings, their joys, their sorrows, their difficulties and tragedies without sentimentality. This is a precondition to understanding the experiences of people in the world around us so as to contemplate how to radically transform it.

    Fassbinder acknowledged that there was a pessimism that ran through many of his films, but expressed the hope that they would encourage people to imagine better alternatives, alternatives that they might realize some day. For this, and his brilliance as a director, scriptwriter and cinematographer, he has always been my personal favorite. Very few have presented the paradoxical allure and abuses of capitalist society as skillfully as he did.

    Among Japanese directors, there are also Kobayashi and Oshima. Kobayashi’s “Hara-Kiri” is one of most compelling samurai social tendency films ever made. The father-in-law’s revenge upon the clan for the death of his son-in-law provides great satisfaction for the audience, while it is simultaneously shown to be incapable of threatening the social order itself. As with Fassbinder, the audience must ultimately contemplate an alternative to the cycle of retributive violence. Oshima’s films, such as “Violence at Noon”, “Death by Hanging”, “Boy” and “The Ceremony”, among others, reveal the extent to which the repressive Japanese social order was able to easily integrate post-war capitalism. Again, rebellions are shown to be personal and ultimately inconsequential.

    More recently, Louis has rightfully praised the cycle of samurai films made by Yoji Yamada (“The Twilight Samurai”, “The Hidden Blade” and “Love and Honor”). Seeming melodramatic 19th Century samurai films with a dollop of shomengeki family life, they highlight how people are driven to scale the heights of heaven, to paraphrase an old revolutionary saying, because of their most intimate familial relationships. While the films emphasize how the emotional attachments of the family undermined Japanese feudal society, they also suggest how they might also result in challenges to capitalism, too.

    Many of John Sayles’ films have these features, too, which is why he is one of the great American directors of the last 40 years.

    There are also some popular entertainments that challenge the post-9/11 authoritarian attitude. While it can be admittedly manipulative in post-modern, game playing kind of way (it has been rightfully observed that you have watch a lot of episodes twice to understand them), “Doctor Who”, the BBC series has broadcast a number of episodes that implicitly indict the notion of mass violence and collective punishment, genocide is a recurrent theme, serving as the centerpiece of the 50th anniversary broadcast. Violence is more generally treated ambivalently as something that has serious consequences for those who rely upon it. A usually non-violent, propaganda by the deed type, the Doctor periodically confronts that most anarchist/Trotskyite of problems, the accumulation of power and the exercise of it. Cultural studies concepts of the commodification of life and even the afterlife are commonly interwoven into the story lines.

    Surely, if Rosa Luxemborg can have a revolution where she can dance, I can have one where I can watch “Love and Honor” and “Doctor Who”.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 29, 2014 @ 8:44 pm

  10. Oops, I think it was Emma who wanted to dance, but you get the idea.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 29, 2014 @ 8:59 pm

  11. Hi

    Thanks for that Louis. Its got me thinking more about the issues and to Peter for the heads-up about Jonathan Rosenbaum.

    Whatever their limitations at least WSWS has put some serious work into developing some cultural critique for their organisation. I had read over a number of lectures by David Walsh before putting my query to Louis and so I thought it might be useful to put my summary here of the classical Marxist position a la Walsh.

    In his lecture ‘Socialism and Cinema’ (http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2010/11/cine-n10.html) Walsh stated that “the best film work in the past—including at the US studios—was inconceivable without the powerful presence of socialist ideas and thus the revival of global cinema requires a socialist movement and “the emergence of a consciously socialist and revolutionary tendency in film making and criticism.” Historical events like Cold War and Collapse of Communism are ultimately the cause of the decline in quality of art since “all serious art contains the element of protest, direct or indirect, against the conditions of life, and that all serious criticism of social life gravitates toward Marxism” and the present state of the world is certainly crying out for more artistic creations that are about the big human problems we face. This is elaborated in two parts as “Film, history and socialism” (http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2007/01/york-j22.html) which are worth reading. In Part Two Walsh argues that ‘great films’ have ‘what Trotsky called a definite and important feeling for the world. They make a genuine engagement with reality, with the way people are, the ways in which they behave… Trotsky speaks beautifully of this quality, which, he says, “consists in a feeling for life as it is, in an artistic acceptance of reality, and not in a shrinking from it, in an active interest in the concrete stability and mobility of life.”’

    But it is in ‘The Aesthetic Component of Socialism’ (http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2008/10/aest-o11.html ) that Walsh takes up the importance of Trotsky’s ‘Literature and Revolution’. Walsh argues that the role of the critic is not to give a ‘Marxist’ blessing to this or that work, artist or style – we are partisans of free artistic creation and of access to those creations in art – just as we would be in science – in promoting scientific exploration of physical universe and education about their discoveries.

    Walsh goes on to say that Trotsky understood that culture was impacted by history and class relations and that culture (which Trotsky defines as “everything that has been created, built, learnt, conquered by man in the course of his entire history, in distinction from what nature has given….”) was *both* an expression of human powers and that these powers have forged art into a basic instrument of class oppression. It was in this contradiction that Trotsky urged workers to study and master the best of bourgeois culture. Walsh, following Aleksandr Voronsky, argues that just as sciences need to be mastered (analysis as rational conceptualisation in the form of laws) so too do the arts (synthesis as sensuous contemplation in the form of images). Trotsky suggests that the role of Marxist critique is to “to help the most progressive tendencies by a *critical illumination* of the road.”

    The tension is between seeing art and culture in instrumental terms – the aim of ‘good art’ is to ‘advance the class struggle’ or some such – and in solely individual expressionist terms (of ‘art of art sake’). If the former then why study Shakespeare? The latter posits that the artist is an isolated individual. Walsh goes on ‘a work of art, Trotsky observed, must speak directly to the reader or the viewer in some fashion, must move or inspire or depress him or her’ and this can happen across time and space. Great art can transcend its conditions of production – even as it expresses the very ‘way of life’ of its particular time and place – it shows us something about the human condition. There is a role for examining the social context and emergence of art forms but this isn’t strictly an aesthetic assessment – knowing the class outlook of an artist is hardly the end of the matter.

    Walsh argues that creating an audience for revolutionary ideas cannot be about mere political propaganda and cannot be separated from a culture. The socialist movement before 1917 ‘which brought into its orbit and assimilated the most critical achievements of bourgeois political and social thought, art and science’. A revolution requires the critical consciousness of the mass of the population and is not just expressed in political or scientific ideas but in art as well – ‘it’s great power consists in its ability to connect human beings, as though by invisible wires, at the most profound and intimate levels’.

    Walsh then asks since there is an objective aspect to art – what of the subjective? In what sense does art have a subversive or disturbing quality? Is this a matter of the content of a work as in a ‘political’ film? What then of abstract art or orchestral music? Walsh suggests that great art represents an impulse to freedom, the striving for a better existence, and quotes Breton saying that artistic expression ‘is the beginning of a protest. This protest, conscious or unconscious, is an element of every creative work’ and calls forth a reaction in us.

    Marx’s 1843 Letter to Ruge says “Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. *It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.*

    Walsh concludes: ‘Bringing this “dream of something” into humanity’s conscious and unconscious life is the eternal labour of art.’

    Comment by Shane H — January 3, 2015 @ 3:14 am

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