Thursday, September 20, 2007

What is a political film?

What is usually indicated by the predicate ‘political’ when applied to narrative films in the U.S. (to set aside documentaries, just for now) is a liberal or leftist partisanship. This has been the case since at least after the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the achievement of almost total ideological hegemony by ‘the West' (before that of course there were plenty of John Wayne war movies that no one has any problem calling 'political,' those and Birth of a Nation). Have films with non-left, non-liberal allegiances given up the kind of overt antagonism that traditionally defines political cinema? The quick answer would be that the cultural environment dominated by the West is no longer safe for a film that straightforwardly identifies as Right – unveiled racism, imperialism, sexism are alienated from the ‘mainstream’ and even nationalism is less acceptable than it used to be. The second part to this answer would be that the real opponents of the left and increasingly traditional liberals as well are neoliberal and especially neoconservative ideologies. Is there a neoliberal or neoconservative cinema? Should this be considered a political cinema? The whole point of neoliberalism, from a political perspective, is to antiquate the term ‘ideology,’ striving instead for economistic ‘reality.’ It is against politics as they have been traditionally conceived, as conflicting viewpoints aired from within and addressed to a commons. Neoconservativism's twist is to attribute global agency to a single world power. When a film’s politics are criticized by the left/liberal press today, they struggle to establish that the film is political at all. Is 300 a political film (see the Iranian protests)? Is Passion of the Christ? Black Hawk Down? Deniers frame their counterarguments in terms of, respectively, ‘entertainment,’ ‘freedom of religion,’ and ‘even-handedness/compassion,’ the very language of traditional liberal politics. On the other hand, films like The Constant Gardener say, or Three Kings, have no problem bearing the responsibility of being ‘political’ and are praised for their critical stance; opposing critics (if there are any who oppose them on grounds other than taste) do not need to establish such an intent. Top Gun, a Hollywood film notable for its blend of cutting-edge advertising techniques, conventional narrative structure, and ‘50s-style jingoism, allegedly caused a surge in Navy recruitment during its release and remains popular today. Did three classic 'political' films from very different historical periods and with very different allegiances and intended audiences, Queimada (Burn!), Battleship Potemkin, or Tout Va Bien, have comparable effects? Why shouldn't they be expected to? These three films, chosen for their status among critics and broad identification with a 'left,' are not agitprop in the sense of being thought of as mere tools for the dissemination of preconceived ideas (I suppose a case could be made for Potemkin), but are attempts to present a certain reality within (not 'through') the medium of cinema. All 'effects,' all attempts to do things to the audience (through editing, graphic violence, scenes engineered to heighten specific emotions) are attempts to shape, reveal, or discover a particular kind of audience member, one that is political. Fredric Jameson's tentative definition of a political film as one which "tries to define a subject of history, which is always a collective subject," is apropos here. Its fundamental problem is how a collective story can be told by individuals, how the split between the existential experience of the viewer and the filmmakers can be reconciled with specific systemic consequences. But if this definition, this mapping of the terrain, is all film alone can do, can one film, alone, still be called political? Isn't a film that is conceived, produced, and propagated within a socius constituted by shared interests and 'values' -- which could include anything from the Navy, Tony Scott/Paramount, and young American patriots, to Eisenstein and the Soviet state, to Godard and international cineastes -- already subject to the politics of that community? Why shouldn’t a vulgar phrase like 'does it work?' be the criteria for determining how ‘political’ a film is, to be judged according to terms given by those who help produce it physically and socially as a film, and only secondarily by what outside critics allege are its 'views' or 'intentions?' This would refocus old arguments about whether a focus on form (such as Brecht/Godard-ian audience alienation) or content (Pontecorvo’s Romantic vision of imperialism that is also filled with realistic detail and critical analysis) is better suited to realizing political aims -- whose are they, anyway? Such a reframing seems especially pressing in a time when concepts like ‘ideology’ have become as imprecise as the theological ones they ostensibly replaced. A 'political' film would then be one that proves useful to and is only intelligible, on its own terms at least, from within a community, one with which the filmmakers have a a real social connection -- that is, one not prepackaged within the stock images of suffering children given by CNN, or by the celebrities, their number growing by the hour, whose mundanest activities have the power to infiltrate our dreams. First this connection has to be understood, and if incomplete it must be made.