Friday, 23 June 2017


Even a radical film director who wished to portray crucially important social developments like the merger of two industrial concerns could only do so by showing us the dominant figures in the office, at the conference table or in their mansions. (Adorno 1991: 57)
In Jason Mittell's brand new book Narrative Theory and Adaptation. (sic) there is a section discussing ideological film criticism. He had this to say:
In brief, theories of ideology strive to understand how cultural forms like popular cinema work to maintain dominant power relations, ranging from economic inequality to norms of race and gender. The crucial insight of ideology theory is that popular culture works to normalize the status quo and make the dominant systems of power invisible and unquestioned, integrated into a viewer's common sense and outlook on the world. Film scholars have explored how conventions of filmmaking, from industry structure to norms of narrative and style, work to reinforce dominant ideology in both overt and subtle ways. (p. 124)
That reminded me of this prominent part of film theory/criticism and how peculiar it is, in different ways. To some extent ideological readings of art works is as old as art itself, but the kind which has been the dominant one the last century is based on Marxism. There have been different strains of Marxist theory in the west during the 20th century, some of it interesting and productive, some of it embarrassingly inadequate and unrealistic, and quite a lot unpleasant because of its intimacy (and celebration of) the homicidal totalitarianism of, especially, Stalin and Mao. But at the heart of much of these theories was a question that might be expressed like this: "Marx promised us a revolution but it did not come. Why is that?" Instead of blaming flaws in Marx's writings many of these thinkers and critics instead blamed popular culture, not least films, which allegedly kept the masses down; pacified them and lured them into not overturning their governments. It is sometimes difficult to say where the Marxist theory ends and a conspiracy theory begins, and sometimes they overlap. (Not surprising perhaps considering Marx himself was a conspiracy theorist rather similar to Joseph McCarthy (including seeing Russian spies everywhere) as Jonathan Sperber discusses at some length in his impressive Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life.) This is of course not to say that all Marxist critics and scholars are like this. The variety of Marxist thinking is large and some of the best critics of cinema have also been Marxists, with a much more positive view of humanity and the potential and value of mass culture. But there is a long tradition of the negative kind and it became especially prolific in the 1970s, not least due to the influential writings of Louis Althusser.

Cinema is "the ventriloquist of ideology" Daniel Dayan proclaimed in 1974 and for him and similarly thinking scholars/critics there are aspects of the very basic structure of films that are part of the problem, and is helping to "maintain the status quo" to the benefit of our rulers. Continuity editing is one such a dubious aspect. Endings is another, were a film is preferably to have an open ending because "an open ending doesn't confirm or reassure existing ideology; it questions ideology and demystifies it" as Eran Preis put it in an article in Journal of Film and Video. That too is a view shared by many, so let's pause there for a moment.

Is it just with regards to films that not having an open ending means you are supporting the status quo? Let's say I tell a story about how a man fell in love with a woman who was engaged to somebody else, and then they split up and shortly thereafter the man and she began dating and yesterday they were happily married. Am I supporting the status quo by telling this story? And if not, why am I doing so if I write down the same story and make a film of it? If I were to tell the same story but instead of having it end with saying they were happily married yesterday I end it with saying that he will now propose to her, and then leave the audience in the dark as to how it will go, the story will have an open ending. Am I then by default opposing ("mystifying") the status quo?

One might also wonder exactly what that "status quo" is referring to. Is it even possible to talk about such a thing with regards to something as complex as a society, or the world at large? (It is perhaps peculiar for Marxists to complain about the status quo when Marx's dream, communism, is the very definition of a status quo. After capitalism and then the state has whittled away, a new era of an eternal status quo is to emerge.) I suppose it is meant to refer to the larger economic system, capitalism, (or "late capitalism" as it is often called) which is how much of the western world as well as East Asia is arranged, but the particulars vary quite a lot. Should we assume that an American film without an open ending is supporting the lack of universal health care (as it is now) whereas a British film without an open ending is supporting the continuation of the NHS (which is the British health care system)? If a British film had an open ending, would that mean it was questioning the status quo of having free, universal health care? Alas, such particulars are never discussed when the "status quo" is mentioned. Or perhaps the status quo is the system of representative democracy, and any film without closure questions the persistence of democracy and is perhaps advocating for the overturning of that system in favour of, what? A revolution? Is that necessarily something worth pursuing? There are quite a lot of possible scenarios (from Nazis taking power to all out global war) that are a lot worse than what we have now. On the other hand, films with open endings would be impossible in, say, Cuba and Soviet Union, because that would mean that they were opposed to the status quo of communism.

There is another issue too. What exactly is an open ending? Are the endings of The Searchers (John Ford 1956) or Casablanca (Michael Curtiz 1942) open? What about The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman 1957) or L'avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni 1960)? Where are we with Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958)? One definition is that when a film has closure it does not have an open ending but that just leads to other obvious questions such as What is closure? and Closure for whom? In Se7en (David Fincher 1995) the crime story has closure but not the emotional story, so is it a tie then? Does it have half-closure? Supporting one half of the status quo, whatever that is? You might say that the ending of Dr Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick 1963) is as closed as it gets, the antithesis of an open ending, but what is the status quo that it then supposedly supports? The balance of terror or MAD (mutually assured destruction) is hardly what Kubrick wanted to preserve.

Another popular word when discussing ideology and film (and other art forms, not least theatre) is Bertolt Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt and his "epic theatre". The idea is that a realistic telling of a story, one that relies on creating an illusion of it really happening and making the audience forget it is watching something fictional, partly through identification with the characters, makes said audience passive and unable to question the truth about the world. If instead the story is told in a way that has its artificiality exposed (by for example having actors directly address the audience or having obviously fake sets, and so on) the audience will be awakened and can begin to question and criticise that status quo. So it is once again the very structure that is being addressed and blamed, and an alternative, the distancing effect, is put forward as the solution.
Haneke's opposition to Hollywood's cinema of manipulation can thus be seen as a call for alienation in the Brechtian sense of Verfremdung: as an attempt to tear the realities shown on the screen from the shadow of their 'being-so' into the light of their 'having-been-made-so.'" (Metelmann 2010: 168)
But this idea of the importance, even supremacy, of form strikes me as misguided and completely inadequate. For one thing, form and content must surely work together for there to be a given result. A Nazi propaganda film that uses distancing effects will not have the positive effect that Brecht and others had in mind. When people talk about the Verfremdungseffekt they will usually mention some film by Godard (especially Tout va bien (1972)) or Michael Haneke as examples, but if these films in themselves did not directly attack certain political and social issues in the society in which they were made, the distancing devices would not really matter. (Or Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter 1942) would have caused more riots and revolutions than any other film.) The opposite of this kind of film is usually said to be mainstream Hollywood, but there are untold examples of distancing effects there too (direct address, dream sequences, shock cuts, artificial sets) which are not called out as such. On the other hand films like Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake (2016) or The Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica 1948) aim for realism, of making the audience feel they are watching the real world, without any alienating effects. If the Brechtians are to be believed these films do not make the audience aware of society's injustices, and do not make them question the way the world works. It is safe to assume though that the films actually do just that, and that alienating effects would have made them less successful.

The problem is that while it might be appropriate to say about one particular film that the structure or the ending "enforce the status quo," however one might define that, it is not at all the case that what is true for one film is true for all films, or even all films of a certain kind. With this focus on the structure, it, at some point, becomes unimportant whether a film has a clear communist, liberal or Nazi theme and message, because if they have the same structure they are all supposedly in support of the same ideology, at which point ideology because a word with no meaning. A buzz-word among many others.


In the years before the Second World War there were three German Marxists who became especially influential: Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, all associated with the Frankfurt School and what came to be known as Critical Theory, trying in various ways to expand and elaborate on Marx's thinking. I will leave Benjamin for a later post and focus on Adorno here. He did not write about film per se but he (and Horkheimer) wrote a lot about popular culture (they used "the culture industry" as their term to describe the phenomenon they were concerned with), and how popular culture enslaved ordinary people, keeping them hooked for the consumption of more and more mindless culture, for which the primary purpose was to keep them docile and unthreatening for those in power.

"In so far as a film only recounts the fate of an individual, even if maintaining the most extreme critical awareness, it already succumbs to ideology." (Adorno 1991: 57)

Once at a university seminar (when studying the history of ideas) we were discussing two articles from the 1920s, one written by an American celebrating individualism and freedom and one written by a Russian celebrating the collective and the state. One guy in our group laughed at the American article and said that it was pathetic how that guy was so blind to the fact that he was just speaking from within his ideology, that he was not thinking for himself, whereas he said that the Russian writer told the truth and spoke freely, independent of any ideology. Well. For one thing nobody writing in Russia in the 1920s would have been in a position to publish anything else, unless they wanted to be shot by Stalin. In the United States writers actually had the ability to write freely, independently from the government's ideology, as opposed to how it was in Soviet Union. There were many in the United States in the 1920s who were Communists and wrote about it without inhibition, so both articles could have been written there, in the same street (or even office) in New York, whereas only one could have been written in Russia. Adorno makes the same mistake in the quote above. When he says that by making a film about an individual the filmmaker succumbs to ideology he is also saying that somehow a film which does not have the focus on an individual is outside of ideology. But how can that be? Surely that film is just within some other ideology, only one which Adorno happens to sympathise with. The idea that ideology is something that only others are slaves to is common enough.
Nevertheless, the favourite argument of the whole- and half-hearted apologists, that culture industry is the art of the consumer, is untrue; it is the ideology of ideology. /.../ By reproducing the latter (consciousness) with hypocritical subservience, the culture industry changes this reified consciousness all the more, that is, for its own purposes: it actually prevents that consciousness from changing on its own, as it secretly and, deep down, unadmittedly desires. The consumers are made to remain what they are: consumers. That is why the culture industry is not the art of the consumer but rather the projection of the will of those in control onto their victims. The automatic self-reproduction of the status quo in its established forms is itself an expression of domination. (Adorno 1991: 159-160)
This is a common idea, and one that Adorno frequently made. Mainstream culture keeps people from protesting and organising rebellions against the current regime. High art on the other hand helps cultivate a more critical view on society. I find this very dubious. The first implication is that if only people paid more attention to the kind of art which Adorno liked they would bring about the fall of "late capitalism," and that this is what everybody would really want if only they would come to their senses. But I think it is fair to suggest that were you to ask the people who actually are out protesting and rebelling you would find that they are much more likely to listen to pop music than to Arnold Schönberg, watch the films of Ridley Scott rather than the films of Straub/Huillet and read J.K Rowling rather than Samuel Beckett. It is also the case that it is quite common for people, not least younger people, to be out on the streets protesting, and not just during the summer of 1968. And sometimes they even force governments to resign and dictators to fall. But I do not think we can assume that this is because they stop listen to jazz and embrace Bach instead. And most people would probably not like to tear down the present system, regardless of what kind of culture they engage with.

At the same time Adorno had a rather conservative view of films, as suggested by this quote:
Film technology has developed a series of techniques which work against the realism inherent in the photographic process. Among these are soft-focus shots - a long outdated arty custom in photography - superimpositions, and also, frequently, flashbacks. It is about time to recognize the ludicrousness of such effects and get rid of them because these techniques are not grounded in the necessities of individual works but in mere convention; they inform the viewer as to what is being signified or what needs to be added in order to comprehend whatever escapes basic cinematic realism. (Adorno 1991: 159)
He was also rather relentless in his contempt for ordinary people, here with reference to those who listen to popular music (and Adorno's particular pet peeve, jazz):
There is actually a neurotic mechanism of stupidity in listening too; the arrogantly ignorant rejection of everything unfamiliar is its sure sign. Regressive listerners behave like children. Again and again and with stubborn malice, they demand the one dish they have once been served. (Adorno 1991: 44-45)
A lot of Adorno's thinking around art and popular culture suggests a lack of imagination. The quote at the top, about cinema's alleged inability to represent the merger of two industrial concerns, is just wrong. There is no reason to assume this cannot be done. There is a general unwillingness to actually engage with cinema, and mainstream culture at large, and instead he settles for high-minded contempt.

But then cinema was not a focus of Adorno's writings. Even his last, posthumously published, book Aesthetic Theory (1970) mentions films only very briefly. But his complete body of work is complex and vast, and he has been very influential, so these few quotes are not meant to undermine his life's work, they are only meant to be examples of what ideological critique of the art form might look like, and how that critique might be of limited value.

How it can completely derail is suggested by this quote, from the entry on Adorno at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "The Nazi death camps are not an aberration, nor are mindless studio movies innocent entertainment. Both indicate that something fundamental has gone wrong in the modern West.”

from Hellzapoppin'
Print sources:

Daniel Dayan, "The Tutor-Code of Classical Cinema" in Film Quarterly (1974) 
Eran Preis, "Not Such a Happy Ending: The Ideology of the Open Ending" in Journal of Film and Video (1990)
Theodor Adorno, The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture (1991)
Jason Mittell, Narrative Theory and Adaptation. (2017)
Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013)
Jörg Metelmann, "Fighting the Melodramatic Condition" in A Companion to Michael Haneke (2010)

An early post of mine on film criticism and ideology is about Robert Warshow.

There is plenty of Marxist film criticism, and Marxist literary criticism, but where is the Schumpeterian film criticism, or the Keynesian literary criticism? Film criticism inspired by Hyman Minsky? Ohlinian criticism? History is filled with economists after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment