Issue 68 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1995 Copyright © International Socialism
In March 1895 two French entrepreneurs, the Lumière brothers, gave private screenings of their first film, Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. In the same year in the United States the Latham brothers projected a film about boxing to a paying audience. The great commercial potential of films--first shown to patrons individually as 90 second scenes inside viewing machines at 'penny arcades'--was apparent from the beginning. Worldwide, the film industries of the US, France, Britain and Germany quickly became big businesses, as millions of people flocked to see the new form of entertainment.
The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, speaking in 1923, summarised the immense power and potential of the cinema:
In the struggle to build a socialist Russia, Trotsky called cinema a 'weapon, which cries out to be used'.1
The impact of the cinema described by Trotsky, while more often than not proscribed by the limitations of filmmaking as a mass industry under capitalism, is best exemplified by Serge Eisenstein's classic Battleship Potemkin, a path breaking film about a mutiny on a battleship during the 1905 revolution. A good short biography of his life and work, Eisenstein: the Growth of a Cinematic Genius, tells how in 1933 the crew of a Dutch battleship in Indonesia claimed at their court martial for mutinying that their actions were inspired by Eisenstein's film.2
In their history of 100 years, from silents to the 'talkies', from TV to the advent of cable and the video cassette recorder, films, and in particular Hollywood films, continue to remain among the most popular form of entertainment worldwide. Hundreds of books have been written on the cinema, most of them on Hollywood. They range from the pulp biography (there are at least three I noticed on the shelves about Elizabeth Taylor alone), and the movie goer guide--the latter two types being the most popular--to serious histories and academic books on film theory and criticism. With prior apologies, this bookwatch will focus on, but not be limited to, books about American film, only because that is what I know best.
Most of what we read about films comes from popular reviews that talk mainly about plots and acting. To learn about how films are put together (their form), their technological development, about film as a mass industry and mass entertainment, you have to delve a little deeper than Halliwell's Film Guide and Halliwell's Filmgoers' Companion. Nevertheless, these two books are among the most useful for cross-referencing information when you're watching a film on television. Say you're watching a Hollywood film--you think it's probably from the 1970s--starring Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson, about a private detective in Los Angeles who gets too deeply into a murder investigation and uncovers filthy corruption and greed in the highest places. You don't know the film's name, so you use the Companion and cross-reference the films that Dunaway and Nicholson both starred in. Bingo, you discover the film is probably Chinatown. You look up Chinatown in the Film Guide, and you discover it was directed by Roman Polanski in 1974. The guide, however, is marred by the author's snobbish disdain towards anything that wasn't produced during Hollywood's 'golden age', dismissing Chinatown, for example, as a 'pretentious melodrama'.3
For a more general overview of film--its origins, technical and historical development, and place in society--there are a few good books to start with. Gerald Mast's standard text, A Short History of the Movies,4 is the most thorough, recently updated to encompass the origins of film, through the Hollywood heydays of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s; the industry's decline and crisis in the 1950s and 1960s with the advent of television and the breakup of the studio system; to Hollywood's revival in the mid-1970s, the barren high tech 'blockbuster' driven 1980s, right up to the more eclectic 1990s. It is at its best detailing how films began and developed in Europe and the United States and has excellent chapters on the development of European cinema, including chapters on the great early Soviet filmmakers like Eisenstein and Pudovkin, as well as chapters on the innovative post-Second World War 'new wave' of Italian and French cinema which brought us directors like Truffaut, Goddard, Antonioni and Fellini.
Since 1920 Hollywood has held a central place in the world film industry, not least because it perfected a means to produce cheap, popular formula entertainment easily accessible to millions. By 1915 US film producers controlled 80 percent of the world's film market, and Hollywood reached its peak of popularity and profitability shortly after the Second World War. Most of the post-war period leading up to the early 1970s were, economically if not artistically, crisis years for Hollywood, but the advent of video and cable television has produced a massive revival of fortunes for the film industry since the mid-1970s.
There is no doubt that, as a mass industry producing commodities for mass entertainment, Hollywood executives have striven to produce a product that will appeal to the largest audience and offend the fewest, based upon tried and tested formulas which leave little room for experiment and unfettered creativity: films, therefore, which reflect to a large extent the ruling ideas of society. But films depend upon a mass audience, subject to historical shifts in moods and consciousness. That contradiction has meant that Hollywood has produced and continues to produce interesting films with limited insights. Robert Sklar's Movie Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies, probably the best single volume history of Hollywood, makes that clear by weaving together an economic, social and political analysis of the development of film technology, filmmaking techniques, subject matter and audience.5 He emphasises that from the beginning in the US films developed as a form of mass entertainment for the working class. Of the first mass produced and distributed films in the first decade and a half of this century, the majority, Sklar points out, were slapstick comedies that spoofed authority figures and institutions--'cops, schools, marriage, middle-class manners, all the fundamental institutions of the social order, were made to look as foolish and inane as the lowlife characters'.6 We learn also in Sklar's book that in the early 1990s Hollywood became the main site for movie production not simply because of the warm, even climate and variety of terrain in Southern California, but because Los Angeles was at the time an open shop town--movie producers moved there to escape unions.
Both Mast's and Sklar's books depart from many other general histories about film in that they take the time to look at how filmmaking techniques developed. From both, you get a fascinating look at how the movie camera was first used as the equivalent of a spectator in a vaudeville hall. The first films simply recorded, in one shot and within a fixed area, a natural event or staged action. Later, shots were spliced together to show a sequence of actions, and still later, Edwin Porter and the notorious D W Griffith would develop and refine techniques taken for granted today--varying the length and distance of shots to the action, varying the angle of shots, cross-cutting between more than one action, and so on. Eisenstein was heavily influenced by Griffith in his development of the theory of 'montage'--the idea that film meaning was conveyed by the juxtaposition of different shots.
There are several other excellent books that cover more specific areas of Hollywood's history. Thomas Shatz's The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era is the best overview of the period of Hollywood at its height of power and prestige, when a handful of companies controlled a fully integrated system of production and distribution.7 Victor Navasky's Naming Names, although weighed down with excessive detail and marred by an anguished preoccupation with the personal reasons for why some actors, writers and directors in Hollywood 'named names' during the McCarthy era in the late 1940s, is a useful history of that period. He shows the devastating effect the anti-Communist witch hunts had not only on the hundreds of individuals whose careers were destroyed, but on the character and content of films (though the book spends little time on the films themselves).8 More interesting in its account of how the climate of class struggle produced stirrings among Hollywood's writers who organised the Screen Writers Guild is Nancy Lynn Schwartz's Hollywood Writers' Wars, which provides a useful backdrop for the onslaught of the anti-Communist crusade that came soon after.9 A useful but sketchy overview of the political directors and films of Hollywood between 1930 and the 1960s can be found in Film and Politics in America: A Social Tradition.10
There are a couple of good books on the post-war decline and revival of Hollywood. Michael Pye and Lynda Myles's The Movie Brats focuses on the directors who were at the centre of Hollywood's resurgence in the 1970s, both commercially and creatively--Coppola, Scorcese, DePalma, Lucas and Spielberg.11 Many of them got their start working at Roger Corman's American International Pictures, infamous producer of the cheap horror/slasher/science fiction/bikers from hell films of the 1960s which catered to bored suburban youth. Brats is best at showing how these directors showed both the potential and tremendous limitations of Hollywood filmmaking. In the early 1970s, in the wake of the 1960s upheaval and severe crisis in Hollywood (summarised by studio bigwig William Goldman's saying, 'Nobody knows anything'), there was a creative space to make films like The Godfather (which became the first massive hit for Hollywood in years), Mean Streets and The Conversation. That space quickly closed up in the mid-1970s as Spielberg's Jaws and Lucas's Star Wars films proved that enormous amounts of money could be made from fast paced, high tech fantasy 'blockbusters'.
Stephen Bach's Final Cut: Dreams and Disaster in the Making of Heaven's Gate, takes us through the making of the film by Michael Cimino (of Deer Hunter fame) which at the time was the greatest financial disaster in Hollywood's history (costing $44 million--peanuts by today's Waterworld standards), bringing down United Artists and prompting a complete reorganisation of the industry's top personnel in the early 1980s.12
Final Cut gives you a good sense of how the conflict between the increased creative leeway given to some directors in the late 1970s and the studio's needs for assured profit flow came to a head around Heaven's Gate. Cimino, in choosing as his subject the battle of immigrant farmers struggling against avaricious cattle barons in Wyoming, didn't exactly ingratiate himself to the producers, who, alarmed at the mounting costs and length of the film, sabotaged its release. The film has been alternately praised as a masterpiece and denounced as a sprawling mess--and it is perhaps a little of both.
Shatz has also written an essay which covers the development of Hollywood from the 1940s to the 1990s which can be found in Film Theory Goes to the Movies, a book which also has some interesting analysis of contemporary films like Spike Lee's Jungle Fever and John Singleton's Boyz'n the Hood, although the book is full of annoying film theory jargon.13
Film as a Subversive Art by Amos Vogel, written in the early 1970s, is a good introduction to the history of more left wing and less mainstream films. With short essays interspersed with short synopses of films from around the world considered either in form or content to be on the cutting edge of the art, Vogel moves from the films produced in Russia after the revolution through the development of the Maoist Avant Garde in the late 1960s and beyond. Vogel praises the 'towering achievements' of the Russian filmmakers shortly after the 1917 revolution, citing the 'liberating, innovative tendencies freed by the liquidation of the former regime, the exuberant hopes for the creation of a first society of equality and freedom'.14
An excellent short book, Cinema in Revolution, tells the story of that period of intense creativity in Russia through essays and reminiscences of the great Russian filmmakers themselves: Serge Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Alexander Dovzhenko and others.15 Barna's book on Eisenstein, mentioned earlier, shows how that initial period of creativity gave way to the rise of Stalinism that crushed the creative impulse almost as quickly as it rose. Stalin apparently took a keen interest in film, even visiting studios to watch the editing process. In a late night visit to Eisenstein's studio, Stalin ordered several hundred metres of film removed from Eisenstein's 1929 film October, saying to the director, 'Lenin's liberalism no longer applies'.16
Most film theory is written by people who have nothing to do with films--more often than not academics. The exception is some of the early Russian directors, and particularly Eisenstein. His book, Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, develops his theory of 'montage'.17 Vogel's synopsis of Eisenstein's first film, Strike, describes beautifully how Eisenstein's concept of montage ('the art of conflict between images') worked in practice:
If most film criticism takes the form of reviews of plot and acting, film theory has gone the other way, emphasising not content but form--the language of film. This is an important starting point, since what makes films unique as a form of art or entertainment is the particular way in which they are put together. Nevertheless, much film theory has forgotten to reintegrate an analysis of the structure of films with content--what it is they convey. This meant for example that radicalised critics and filmmakers in the 1960s, rejecting the pat formulas of the Hollywood style narrative film, believed that simply making films which subverted the dominant conceptions of how to make a film constituted a subversion of the social order.
Modern film theory emerged from the upheavals of the late 1960s. It has been heavily influenced by Louis Althusser, and later by 'semiotics', 'Structuralism' and 'post-structuralism'. While it began, in however distorted a way (influenced as it was by Maoist idealism) to challenge the dominant methods and themes of cinema, it has become thoroughly absorbed into academia as film departments have sprang up in various universities and the political climate in Europe and the US has shifted to the right. Moreover, one of the results of the influence of Althusser and the Structuralists on film theory has been to see not only films, but film theory itself, as a form of 'theoretical practice', and therefore a 'site' of struggle to change society. Not only does this overestimate the impact of films on society as a whole, it helped justify the retreat from the class struggle into the ivory tower of academia; you could be a complacent academic talking to other complacent academics in an obscure jargon and still believe yourself to be engaging in a struggle to change society.
The best place to start with film theory is the standard text by Mast and Cohen, Film Theory and Criticism, which excerpts writings and essays by early film theorists like Eisenstein, Krakauer and Bazin, as well as writings on the now famous 'auteur' theory (that directors are authors of movies like writers are authors of books). It also includes an interesting and influential essay by Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.19
Unfortunately now out of print, Colin Sparks's essay 'A Marxist Guide to Contemporary Film Theory' in International Socialism 34, is an excellent introduction to film theory from a Marxist standpoint.20 As he points out, one of the results of the influence of Structuralism in film theory has been to deny that there is a single, Marxist (or any other) method of looking at films. Instead, influenced by writers like Foucault, film theory has paralleled the theory of the left in general; there is no single reality; the meaning of a film, or a 'text' (to use the lingo) is in the arrangement of the 'signs', not in their relationship to the world they inhabit. Sparks writes:
Thus film theory is as impressionistic and variable as the opinions of popular movie reviewers. It isn't clear how the insight an individual commentator might have on a particular film is because of, or in spite of, their theory of film.
As Richard Maltby and Ian Craven's Hollywood Cinema argues, Structuralist film criticism 'could explain neither how the texts themselves came into being as the result of a particular mode of production in Hollywood, nor what the wider relationship between those texts and the culture for which they were produced might have been'.22 Nevertheless, as Sparks points out, the influence of the 1960s on film criticism also produced some useful results. The influence of feminism on film theory helped produce a greater scrutiny of Hollywood and the way it has portrayed women. Molly Haskell's From Reverence to Rape, written in the early 1970s, is one of the first and most readable accounts of the sexist portrayal of women in Hollywood films.23 (Chapter 5 of Susan Faludi's Backlash is a brilliant chapter on how the 1980s backlash against women's rights was reflected in Hollywood films.24)
Hollywood Cinema, in addition to being a good overview of the industry and how films get made, has a good chapter introducing the basic ideas of film theory. Especially good are its criticisms of the elitism in film theory, which has tended to see the viewer of the film as being passively shaped by the film rather than interacting with it. The view that Hollywood is a manufacturer of the dominant ideas, and the ignorant masses who view them are unwitting dupes, both overestimates Hollywood's role in shaping consciousness and underestimates the contradictory consciousness that people bring to watching films. As the authors write, 'The dominant ideology, however, is only dominant; it never succeeds in being totalising'.25 Finally, V F Perkins' Film as Film, is a very short and accessible analysis of the narrative (mostly Hollywood) film.26
In the final analysis, it doesn't do much good to read about films unless you watch them. There is no substitute for seeing a Battleship Potemkin, a Citizen Kane, or a complete send up of the bourgeoisie like Luis Buñuel's Exterminating Angel, a surrealist film about a bunch of rich people who come to believe that they are trapped inside a mansion after they attend a party there, even though there is nothing preventing them from leaving. The best complement I have found in helping to look beyond the immediate impressions a film conveys to looking at how and why a film has the effect it does is in books which take a particular filmmaker and dissect his or her work.
I will recommend two. The first is Donald Spoto's The Art of Alfred Hitchcock, which reviews all of Hitchcock's major films, managing to artfully combine the analysis of form and content in Hitchcock's films.27 Probably the most fun book I've read about film is Hitchcock-Truffaut: A Definitive study of Alfred Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut, which consists of a series of interviews of Hitchcock by the French director.28 This book helps answer questions like what devices and mannerisms films employ through editing, lighting, music, shot composition and so on, to convey their idea or message.
Two other books of interviews are worth reading to get an idea of the opinions and ideas of writers and directors themselves on filmmaking. The Cineaste Interviews on the Art and Politics of the Cinema has a series of interviews spanning the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s with left wing and independent filmmakers like Costa-Gavras (director of films like Z and Missing), John Sayles (Matewan), and John Howard Lawson, founder of the Screen Writers Guild in Hollywood and a member of the Hollywood 10 who served time in gaol for bucking the House un-American Activities Committee in 1947.29 A good follow up to that, Reel Conversations, contains interviews conducted in the early 1990s with, among others, Martin Scorcese, Michael Cimino, Oliver Stone, Francis Coppola, David Lynch and David Cronenberg.30
The popular American film critic Roger Ebert published a book in 1991 called The Future of the Movies, with interviews with George Lucas, Stephen Spielberg and Martin Scorcese. While I would not otherwise recommend it as important reading--the questions asked of the three directors are far too limited, the conclusion by Ebert's film critic sidekick Gene Siskel is worth quoting here: