Disclaimer: This review is a case study in overanalysis. It is extremely unlikely that any of the political conclusions drawn here existed in the minds of the writers when they created the screenplay for this madcap comedy caper. But one of the virtues of the Marxist method is its ability to provide new insights into things we would otherwise regard as ordinary or commonplace. Spoilers ahead.
“You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.”
- Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels
On its surface, Jerry Zucker’s 2001 film Rat Race is light-hearted comedic fare with little in the way of profound political messaging. The plot involves six teams of people at a Las Vegas hotel and casino who are recruited by the resort’s billionaire owner Donald Sinclair (John Cleese) to participate in a race for the betting pleasure of himself and his wealthy peers. A duffel bag containing $2 million in cash has been stowed away in a train station locker 563 miles away in Silver City, New Mexico. Each team receives a key to the locker, and whichever team reaches the locker first wins the race and keeps the money.
This amazing piece of film was made by N. Khodataev in 1924. It’s Soviet propaganda, but also an amazing relic of early animation. Watch it for yourself and try to figure out what’s going on, besides exciting modernism.
Above: David Holzman’s Diary demonstrates how TV works.
The above clip from David Holzman’s Diary demonstrates the functioning of a television set and why it is so effective. We can consciously (or cynically) disavow what we see, float in and out of attentiveness, or change the channel – but as in the above clip, the raw effect of television is to impress thousands of carefully curated images upon the brain. By showing television in its reduced form, this clip demonstrates the futility of conscious engagement with the medium.
Beyond offering this insight into television, David Holzman’s Diary is a classic of media criticism. It marks the inauguration of the mock-documentary genre, appearing as a novelty in1967. The film draws into question the assumption of objectivity that accompanied the cinema verité documentary movement. It concerns a New York filmmaker who, ironically sensing a disconnection from reality, decides to film everything in his life. As such, the film consists of diary passages in which David Holzman opens up to his camera, or alternatively ventures out into the public sphere. It mixes staged narrative passages with pure observational cinema, in the spirit of New York street photography.
In light of tonight’s Academy Awards ceremony, here is a review of an Academy Award winning film from an earlier competition. It should serve as a reminder that the 94% white, 77% male Academy, 86% of whom are over 50 years old, are in no way tethered to reality.
The Blind Side, racism, and money as the solution to everything.
Overflowing with stereotypes and racist assumptions, The Blind Side is a recent film with Academy Award recognition to spew forth derogatory ideals. It recycles the plot of Douglas Sirk’sImitation of Life (another academy award nominated film) wherein a sympathetic white lady ‘saves’ and adopts an impoverished black person into a position of economic dependence.
In the case of Imitation of Life, an aspiring white movie starlet saves a black mother and her daughter by employing the mother as a maid. In The Blind Side, Michael ‘Big Mike’ Oher (Quinton Aaron) is ‘saved’ by the unwavering generosity of an unreasonably wealthy suburban housewife named Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock).
Above: Tom Cruise stars as Brian Flanagan in Cocktail.
Applying a Marxist lens to Cocktail, this essay underlines the contradictions inherent in post-Reagan “populist” conservatism and demonstrates how this ideology simultaneously celebrates and belittles the working class. Spoilers abound.
Workers and Hustlers by Matt Gardner
The reactionary turn of U.S. politics embodied in the Reagan administration had an indelible impact on American popular culture, both in the 1980s and the decades that followed. As David Sirota argued in his book Back to Our Future, contemporary historiography blamed the unrest of the Sixties on the supposed liberal excesses of hippies and the counterculture, the antiwar movement, black civil rights activists, and the welfare state. These were to be remedied by a strong dose of conservatism, aiming to resurrect a mythical version of the Fifties. The New Right celebrated so-called traditional American values: patriotism, militarism, Christianity, the family, and – most importantly – free enterprise.
Above: Simon, the “bullshit-liberal hero” of a Hollywood student protest film – The Strawberry Statement (1970) is accosted by a cop.
Revolutionary circles are abuzz following the youtube release of a new Miley Cyrus music video (see below), which combines protest footage of the Occupy movement with a remix of Cyrus’s nominally political dance track “Liberty Walk” (nominally political in that it repeats the word “Liberty” a bunch of times and includes aphorisms such as “Free yourself, slam the door—not a prisoner anymore!”). This grand announcement of support for the Occupy movement has already elicited a semi-official response from OWS: Priscilla Grim—a co-editor of The Occupied Wall Street Journal—reacted to the music video with a challenge to Ms. Cyrus, telling TMZ in an interview that “I double dog dare [her] to fight on the front line of economic civil rights at LA City Hall,” and adding that “Revolutionaries occupy, Ms. Cyrus.”
It goes without saying that this gesture of support is very different from the sort of actual/egalitarian protest participation that, for instance, Lou Reed has offered by taking “stack” (speaker’s list) at general assemblies in Liberty Plaza. And it is both easy and justified, after so much commercial co-option and celebrity cluelessness, for Occupiers to remain cynical about new celebrity endorsers.
But a brief moment in revolutionary history, in which Hollywood made a concerted effort to capitalize on campus revolutionaries with a series of studio-backed student protest films, can teach us that ‘revolutionary’ cultural objects made from within the culture industry deserve close scrutiny rather than immediate dismissal—they are often ambiguous, but may hold the potential to politicize audiences outside the reach of radical-political culture. While we should remain aware that Miley Cyrus is maximizing the earning power of her personal brand with this pro-Occupy video, we should also take the video seriously as a potential piece of contemporary revolutionary culture.
Above: An iconic scene from John Carpenter’s They Live – starting at 1:30.
This clip from John Carpenter’s film They Live can teach us a great deal about the way that ideology works today.
What we should immediately notice is how there are two levels of messaging at play: the explicit ‘normal’ world and the implicit ‘hidden’ world, which is only exposed when the actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper puts on the sunglasses. This is what allows him to see the world underneath: all visual media content (billboards, magazines, television, etc.) are reduced to propagandas like “OBEY,” “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” “CONSUME,” and so on. Along with this, certain people are revealed to be weird aliens while satellite dishes broadcast strange signals from the top of every set of streetlights. Through this “beautifully naïve mise-en-scene,” as Slavoj Zizek describes it, “we learn to see dictatorship IN democracy.”
Network is a 1976 feature film revolving around a fictional television network, Union Broadcasting System. It picked up four academy awards: best actor, best actress, best supporting actress, and best original screenplay. Its main character Howard Beale, a long time news anchor, is fired due to poor ratings. In his last week, desperate and losing his mind, he announces he’s going to kill himself on air. As he devolves into strangely prescient lunatic ranting, his ratings skyrocket and his stay on the air is extended.
While the film has certainly aged – most notably in the naive hegemony of television as a medium that smacks of a pre-internet era – it remains funny and astute satire. Most surprising is the early islamophobic paranoia about “The Arabs.” Give the “best of” reel a watch, it’s only about 18 minutes long, or go for the whole film. Links after the jump.
Above: Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel on the set of Robinson Crusoe.
In this short statement from Film Cultures, Luis Buñuel talks about the unique power of cinema and gives popular film a smack-down.
A Statement by Luis Buñuel
1. In none of the traditional arts is there such a wide gap between possibilities and facts as in the cinema. Motion pictures act directly upon the spectator; they offer him concrete persons and things; they isolate him, through silence and darkness, from the usual psychological atmosphere. Because of all this, the cinema is capable of stirring the spectator as perhaps no other art. But as no other art, it is also capable of stupefying him. Unfortunately, the great majority of today’s films seem to have exactly that purpose; they glory in an intellectual and moral vacuum. In this vacuum, movies seem to prosper.
Above: the “Ideological Warfare” segment of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s Hour of the Furnaces (1968)
In this revolutionary Argentinean documentary, filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino demonstrate the indoctrinating functions of imported American and European mass culture. Below is an excerpt of an essay on revolutionary cinema, which outlines how this sequence works to break down the indoctrination of its audience.
. . . The film’s first section serves the function of teaching critical media reception—it adopts the strategy of détournement as developed by the French revolutionary collective, The Situationist International. The strategy entails transforming or displacing cultural artifacts to denounce and attack the capitalist culture from which they emerged. As Guy Debord and Gil Wolman wrote, in A User’s Guide to Détournement, “clashing head-on with all social and legal conventions, it cannot fail to be a powerful cultural weapon in the service of a real class struggle.” The recognizability of the distorted materials is crucial to the success of a détournement—the theorists maintain that “the main impact of a détournement is directly related to the conscious or semiconscious recollection of the original contexts of the elements.”
The film’s note on “ideological warfare” marks a particularly successful détournement of mainstream (and colonized) Argentinean culture—images and sounds from popular and “high” culture are appropriated and arranged to deliver their own condemnation.