Issue 273 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

Hollywood

REWRITING THE SCRIPT

The movement against capitalism and war is having an impact on what's being produced by Hollywood, as Stephen Philip explains

Moore than the Academy bargained for
Moore than the Academy bargained for

With the rise of the anti-war movement, Hollywood is reaching back into the murkiest aspects of its history and reviving tried and tested techniques to try to crush dissent. Actors committed to speaking up against war are threatened with losing their jobs, like the rerun of a bad Cold War movie. The treatment of Martin Sheen, who plays the president in the television series The West Wing, is one such example. Perhaps he has put in too many unscheduled appearances on anti-war stages for the likes of NBC who are now under pressure to sack him.

This year's Oscars ceremony also saw anti-war sentiment come to the fore. Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's award-winning The Man Without a Past was nominated in the best foreign language category. He boycotted this year's Academy Awards in protest over the war with Iraq. In a letter to the Academy he writes, 'The United States is preparing for a crime against humanity for the purpose of shameless economical interests.'

Walking up to collect the Oscar for best documentary feature for Bowling For Columbine, Michael Moore was given a standing ovation. He said, 'We live in fictitious times. Fictitious election results, that elect a fictitious president. We live in a time when we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons'. Shouting 'Shame on you, Mr Bush,' Moore was drowned out by both cheers and catcalls and then music. Asked whether he thought he would be blacklisted in Hollywood for his comments, he said, 'I don't work in Hollywood. I am funded by Canadians and other people who don't live here. Hollywood voted for the film, though.'

There are many on the right who are incensed about this kind of political engagement, seeing a worrying trend. Right wing shock jock radio hosts and a newly set up website, 'Citizens Against Celebrity Pundits' regularly lambast the likes of Tim Robbins, Barbara Streisand, Rob Reiner and George Clooney.

Radical Hollywood

This talk of blacklisting actors, and right wing ideologues on the loose attacking politicised Hollywood actors is a definite throwback to the days when Tinseltown's concerns often went beyond mere entertainment. It's timely, then, that socialist authors and cinephiles Paul Buhle and Dave Wagner have written a book that will overturn our preconceptions of the classic days of Hollywood. Radical Hollywood is a sweeping and encyclopaedic survey of radical left wing screenwriters working in the 1930s and 1940s, and how they tried to express their vision about society in their work. It shows how left wing writers were at the very heart of the industry's creativity. It also shows how screenwriters, working against the backdrop of emerging fascism and a full-scale depression, sought political leadership in the US Communist Party and attempted to invest their work with a radical (left liberal) content.

What the authors argue is that the sensational political and cultural tragedy of the McCarthyite witch-hunt has obscured the work itself. In fact left wing writers were behind some of the classic films of the 1940s such as Casablanca, It's A Wonderful Life and The Maltese Falcon. Originally many left wing screenwriters found openings working in the B-movie genres in the 1930s. Eschewing the naturalist drama approach that dogs contemporary British left wing writers, they engaged with a range of genres--from horror movies such as Frankenstein to comic fantasy, slapstick comedy and family films. And yes, a major left wing writer of the period penned Lassie Comes Home. The book analyses how films from the 1930s gangster movies (such as Public Enemy) to even The Wizard of Oz were influenced by the screenwriters' left wing beliefs. Themes of workers' solidarity and humanity, trade unionism, a belief in collective effort, trenchant anti-fascism, mockery of corrupt politicians and exposure of greedy capitalists find their expression in various ways in a bewildering range of movies during this period.

You must remember this--a scene from 'Casablanca'
You must remember this--a scene from Casablanca

Film noir, heavily influenced by European cinematic styles, was a genre created by left wing writers in an attempt to challenge the censors. The sense of dread and unease, the quashing of optimism, and the disillusion with American life which underlies the imagery is explicable by reference to the clampdown on the left in the late 1940s. The authors' arguments may not always be watertight but they show that film noir was an invaluable subversive piece of work, which completely challenges more mainstream assessments of the classical Hollywood period.

So what about films today? Since the late 1990s there's been a new generation of writers and directors engaging in social and political themes in Hollywood. They are producing work which is obviously influenced by the protests in Seattle and onwards. The political consciousness is not as clear and coherent as it was in the great days of radical Hollywood. But the work takes up themes of anti-capitalism, the hollowness of the American Dream and the all-pervasive nature of social alienation. The tone is sometimes bleak and sardonic, sweetened with comedy and wit. Independent-minded film-makers who would normally be on the outside of the system find themselves working with larger budgets and big-name stars. The contraction of financing for independent production combined with the creativity crisis in Hollywood has pulled the most unlikely of film-makers into their system.

The family is often used as a working metaphor for the state of the American Dream in these films. This is clearly the case with the huge hit American Beauty (1999), which became a 'state of the nation' movie. Similar in vein and arguably even more powerful is Happiness (1998) by Todd Solondz, reputed to be the most shocking film of the 1990s. Here the search for happiness only exposes the loneliness, obsession and psychological disorder at the heart of family life. In one of the most unsettling scenes of modern American cinema a father explains to his 11 year old son his paedophile tendencies towards his son's friends. Instead of the conventional blanket condemnation, the director is working to build some understanding and insight towards this deeply disturbed and alienated character. Paul Thomas Anderson is not ostensibly a film-maker given to social critique (see Boogie Nights), but there's a sense of bitter regret in his magnum opus, Magnolia (1999). It's a baggy, intense film of disappointed dreams and the desperate yearning for reconciliation. His characters are eaten up by anguish and self questioning--the family is seen as a failing institution.

Corporate power

A key film in terms of anti-corporatism is the controversial Fight Club (1998). It reads like a Susan Faludi critique of masculinity put through the liquidiser of Naomi Klein's salvos at brand corporate culture. As powerless men beat each other up because they pathetically and desperately need some role in life, we get an overpowering sense of people negotiating their alienation. Their bid for authenticity, misguided and surreal, results in that magnificent scene whereby the protagonists gleefully blow up tower blocks signifying corporate power.

Alexander Payne's Election (1999) is a witty political satire about a spoilt young prim woman contesting a high school presidency. It prepares us for his more mature and darker work About Schmidt (2002). This engaging movie starring Jack Nicholson examines the life of an insurance executive who has gradually come to the realisation that his life working for the corporate machine has been utterly meaningless. Stark, bleak, wintry urban landscapes convey the soullessness of Middle America's existence and family life. Only the imagined bond between himself and a six year old Tanzanian boy can reaffirm his compassion and give some guide to his life. The Gulf War satire Three Kings (1999) is by now well known to the anti-war movement, but it's certainly worth seeing again. Directed by David O Russell, a one-time radical political activist of the 1980s, it is explicit in taking on political issues. It is a unique film for the warm solidarity and sympathy extended to the Iraqi victims of George Bush and Saddam Hussein.

The older generation of Hollywood film-makers haven't remained immune from the need to articulate their political views. Warren Beatty launched a blistering attack on mainstream politics in the recent film Bulworth (1998). Who could forget the peculiar sight of a suicidal liberal politician, sickened with cheating, lying and corruption, rapping badly and then chastening the right wing media for not promoting socialism? Finally Philip Noyce (Dead Calm, Bone Collector) has made an abrupt and conscious move into more political territory. He directed Rabbit Proof Fence, detailing the Australian government's mistreatment of Aborigines, and has also recently directed The Quiet American, a searing condemnation of US imperialism. Unfortunately, there is no organised left current working in Hollywood at present, as there was in the 1930s and 1940s. But the growth of the anti-capitalist movement over the last few years, and now the emergence of the anti-war movement, has had a significant impact on politics in Hollywood.

Radical Hollywood by Paul Buhle and David Wagner, New Press £16.95


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