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Film remains one of the most dominant cultural forms in the world today. Crossing classes and cultures, it permeates many aspects of our consciousness. In film, perhaps more than any other medium, we can read the politics of time and place, past and present. The history of Marxism has intersected with film in many ways and this book is a timely reminder of the fruits of that intersection, in film theory and film practice. Marxist film theory returns to film studies some of the key concepts which make possible a truly radical, political understanding of the medium and its place both within capitalism and against it. This book shows how questions of ideology, technology and industry must be situated in relation to class - a category which academia is distinctly uncomfortable with. It explores the work of some of the key theorists who have influenced our understanding of film, such as Adorno, Althusser, Benjamin, Brecht, Gramsci, Jameson and others. It shows how films must be situated in their social and historical contexts, whether Hollywood, Russian, Cuban, Chinese or North Korean cinema. The authors explore the political contradictions and tensions within dominant cinema and discuss how Marxist filmmakers have pushed the medium in new and exciting directions.
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About the Author
Mike Wayne teaches and researches in film and television studies at Brunel University and is the author of Marxism and Media Studies, Political Film: the Dialectics of Third Cinema and the editor of Dissident Voices: The Politics of Television and Cultural Change, all available from Pluto Press.
Read an Excerpt
Adorno, Benjamin, Brecht and Film
T.W. ADORNO AGAINST FILM
The eleventh of September 2003 was the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Theodor Wiesengrund Adorno. As one of the many public acknowledgements of this event, Alexander Kluge was interviewed about his former teacher who in 1962 became his friend. Given Kluge's own work as a filmmaker and television producer, he was asked to comment further on Adorno's relationship to film. Kluge recalls that 'Adorno dismissed film and cinema totally'. This blunt statement comes as no surprise. In various writings, Adorno dismissed film as a commercial industrial product of no value for art, or indeed for the living of genuine lives. The complement to this was that film was of considerable instrumental and economic value to the ruling class. For Adorno, film was a commodity, made for profit. While it sucked up their money, film enslaved viewers mentally. Film made itself easily available for purposes of domination for, unless it was abstract, adventurous or technically incompetent, film delivered a 'semblance of immediacy', that is, it conjured up a convincing look of reality. Film's immediacy increased its capacity to lie about the world, whilst appearing as if it were telling the truth. Film was infantilist and infantilising, in the sense that it turned its audience into passive children and it drew on their bad, sadistic and negative impulses. Film accustomed the audience to the repetitive brutalities of life under capitalism, in a sort of training for what Adorno called the 'life in the false', that is, a life lived in an over-technologised, brutal, mechanical, alienating environment. It was for this reason that film was enthusiastically received by audiences, who are complicit in their own subjugation and exploitation:
People give their approval to mass culture because they know or suspect that this is where they are taught the mores they will surely need as their passport in a monopolised life. This passport is only valid if paid for in blood, with the surrender of life as a whole and the impassioned obedience to a hated compulsion.
Adorno dismisses the oft-bandied about reason for films' success: the supposed 'stultification' of the masses generates a demand for film because these masses need easily assimilable culture of a simplistic variety. This is a line, he argues, 'promoted by their [the masses'] enemies and lamented by their philanthropic friends'. Instead Adorno insisted that the masses' eager take-up of film denoted something quite rational. Film's service as a training mechanism was important for those who watched films, as they felt they might understand thereby something of what those in power desired of them.
If Adorno was critical of film's visual capacities, on the issue of sound his judgement was equally sceptical. The palate of sounds in a film was one of its most predictable elements. In the book Composing for the Films (1944), written together with Brecht's collaborator Hanns Eisler, Adorno bemoaned the way in which film music relies on clichés or 'highly specific and thousandfold tested effects in specific situations'. Film music attempts to pre-interpret the action, so if a scene takes place in Holland or Venice some recognisably Dutch or Italian music is used. If a wedding is on screen, the Bridal March wells up. Life is represented as a set of predictable situations, from which one cannot escape, and reality is banalised through sound's library of effects. Music in film served reactionary ends, but it also impacted upon the existential experience of film. Film music sanded over what Adorno perceived as the terrifying cracks of the filmic experience, providing a 'soul', a kind of auratic effect that made the figures on screen appear less as shadowy ghosts and more as real human beings with emotions. Film music glues everything together in the experience of cinema, anaesthetising its pains and putting a veil over the reality of the experience – a human encounter with the machine. Film music
brings the picture close to the public, just as the picture brings itself close to it by means of the close-up. It attempts to interpose a human coating between the reeled-off pictures and the spectators. Its social function is that of a cement, which holds together elements that otherwise would oppose each other unrelated – the mechanical product and the spectators, and also the spectators themselves. The old stage theater, too, was confronted with a similar need, as soon as the curtain went down. Music between the acts met that need. Cinema music is universalised between-the-acts music, but used also and precisely when there is something to be seen. It is the systematic fabrication of the atmosphere for the events of which it is itself part and parcel. It seeks to breathe into the pictures some of the life that photography has taken away from them.
Sound as music and as speech populated film with characters who seemed human. Sound made film seem a fully human articulation, rather than a technical concoction, which, for Adorno, existed to make profits in a deeply anti-human age. Audiences were beholden to spectres, which were animated by a semblance of life, but this life was given it by the machinery of cinema. Real life is 'indistinguishable from the movies', Adorno and co-writer Max Horkheimer asserted in their chapter 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception', from Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). Sound film stunts the imagination, with speech nailing the meanings of the movies before the eyes of spectators who can but hastily and desperately follow the 'relentless rush of facts'. With film a technologically enhanced sense-experience is born, which replaces our vision with its own, asserting its consciousness in place of ours, and mollifying by its soundtrack the horrors attendant on our recognition of its mechanical deadliness, and, by association, the world's own technical lethality.
For Adorno, cinema is the consequence of the application of industry to the arts. Film is made purely with an eye to its exchange value.
Cultural entities typical of the culture industry are no longer also commodities, they are commodities through and through.
Involved in market machinations, film, like other products of the 'culture industry', loses its artistic integrity and quality, tending towards standardisation, stereotypes and simplicity. In the process film creates appropriate audiences, who are equally standardised and homogenised. Denial or resigned acceptance of the unhappiness in the world was what the culture industry was organised to promote. Adorno abhorred the manipulative effect on people's minds of cultural forms that conveyed easily interpretable messages. This was a residue of his experience of Nazi propaganda and his knowledge of propagandistic mass culture in the Soviet Union. It also stemmed from his experience in California, the apex of US commercial culture. Adorno distrusted work that gave instant gratification. Its effect, he thought, was to lead to a technologically dependent, uncritical populace susceptible to any totalistic ideology, be it fascist, Stalinist or consumerist. In 'Transparencies on Film' (1966) Adorno notes how film consists of 'mimetic impulses which, prior to all content and meaning, incite the viewers and listeners to fall into step as if in a parade'. The metaphor evokes the recent German history of Nazi pageants and rallies. In the 1940s essay 'The Schema of Mass Culture' Adorno notes how reality becomes its own ideology through the spell cast by its faithful duplication. Through a mimetic technology, a myth of the positive is drawn. A positive aesthetics represents the world positively. Pictures of happy people experiencing the world or images of objects in that world are shown in recognisable form, naturalistically. Through this very act of seemingly photocopying the world, the world as it exists now is affirmed and re-affirmed. No change can be imagined and art acts as a consolation, suggesting that this is really our happy world, attainable for us now. Through realism, art becomes a vehicle for showing the world as it is, though this 'world as it is' may be highly ideologically coloured. Such a realist aesthetic might also show misery in the world, with recognisable pictures of suffering. Again, though, this would act as an affirmation of what is, even as it denounces it, and it is unlikely to change anything, offering only catharsis and not opening on to reality but remaining self-contained. Art is deployed instrumentally as a vehicle to show a world 'out there'. Adorno's negative aesthetics aims to make art the focus of something different. Art should not be instrumentalised or deployed utilitarianly. Art marks a space for a relationship to the world that is not directed by the constraint to imitate the surface of reality. It holds on to autonomy: both for artists who create without constriction, including the obligation to imitate the surfaces of the real world, and for recipients whose imaginations are stimulated and who are born as active viewers in the encounter. This does not, however, mean that the world as it exists is absent from the artwork. In 'Commitment' (1962), Adorno insisted that work such as Kafka's disturbing novels or Samuel Beckett's absurdist drama, in their rejection of empirical reality, in their refusal of naturalistic representation and figuration, in their emphasis on distorting the real, arouse a fear, a shudder, an indignation in their audiences that is more in accord with the truth of our existence. In addition, their asceticism, internal complexity and intellectual snarls are a counterweight to the quick-fix popularisations of Hollywood and pop music. Their relentlessly negative visions provide maps of current unhappiness. As Adorno phrases it in 'Commitment':
He over whom Kafka's wheels have passed, has lost for ever both any peace with the world and any chance of consoling himself with the judgement that the way of the world is bad; the element of ratification which lurks in the resigned admission of the dominance of evil is burnt away.
T.W. ADORNO FOR FILM
Film's persuasive rhetorical power lies in its ability to mimic the external features of reality. 'Transparencies on Film' (1966) was written once Adorno had had time to reflect on the outcomes of this idea first voiced in the 1940s. Though generally consistent in his analysis, he mentioned that conformist and repressed behaviour everywhere had not been the only consequence. Adorno conceded one small point to film. The realistic portrayals of 'the dolce vita', wild parties, playboy lifestyles and the like, while often intended by the screenwriters to be understood as immoral, 'reflect an element of collective approval' in their very presence on the screen, such that sexual mores in conservative countries transform in a progressive, liberatory direction.
In its attempts to manipulate the masses the ideology of the culture industry itself becomes as internally antagonistic as the very society which it aims to control. The ideology of the culture industry contains the antidote to its own lie. No other plea could be made for its defence.
Film offers a chink of hope, through the very mechanism that makes it also so hopeless for resistance to the status quo. But this was too little for Adorno. There was, however, another aspect that presented some element of hope. Adorno was aware of the existence of a new German cinema, which had forcefully denounced the 'Daddy's cinema' of its predecessors. 'Transparencies on Film' opened with a defence of the 'incompetence' of this new wave of German filmmakers, one of whose number was Alexander Kluge:
Works which have not completely mastered their technique, conveying as a result something consolingly uncontrolled and accidental, have a liberating quality.
In error and incompetence there was a chance of escaping both the domination by the machinery and subjection to the filmmaker's limited worldview or the culture industry's ideology. In this essay Adorno insists on the 'refusal to interpret, to add subjective ingredients', arguing that thereby subjectivity is not relinquished as such, because it can never be – he makes an analogy with the fact that silence retains significance despite its non-articulation – but at least psychological intention is denied.
In the interview in 2003 Kluge reminisces about Adorno's attitude to film in the last years of his life. He suggests that Adorno was able to conceive of a film aesthetic that counters aspects of film's commodity-form in the culture industry: Kluge notes that Adorno 'respected the auteur-film, especially the French ones':
It surprised him that such a thing is possible at all within the film business. He found Godard's Breathless foolish, but interesting. It was too Protestant for his taste, but very decisive and radical aesthetically, in its montage. He was interested in the extent to which Eisenstein's montage is of a rhetorical nature, and how, in contrast, Godard's montage comes from the material itself, from the incompatibility of two viewpoints. It is the third image, the image between two images that are montaged together, which one does not see, but which keeps the film moving. That is typical Adorno, this thought that there are no images and only the invisible images count.
Adorno's film aesthetic refuses the image, for the image is liable to reproduce an illusion of reality, thereby confirming reality's coordinates. But, Adorno's aesthetic insists, film is not just composed of its ostensible images. Film is as much an art of what falls between each frame, each image. Film is as much composed of its absences, moments of decision for editor or director. In these gaps perhaps something interesting was hidden, precisely because it was obscured. Brought out into consciousness, this negative image might be telling. Through such a perspective Adorno might be able to bring film into the orbit of his negative aesthetics. A negative aesthetics is concerned with absence, the lack of a positive vision of life mediated through art. As a kind of intensification of this negative aesthetics of film, Kluge recounts the details of a discussion that he had with Adorno about a film in 1968:
We made a nine-hour film about the student movement in Frankfurt at the Institut für Filmgestaltung. Adorno said to us that we should film blind. If one records something without intention, then something will always be tracked down. What it is will only be seen subsequently. The film that is recorded without intention is cleverer than that which you intend. That was Adorno's point of view.
For Adorno, the film should be blind – or the filmmaker blind, for if there were blindness in this very art of vision at least then something objective and true might be caught. Adorno's 'blind film' offered the possibility of capturing filmic truth. Here – under fairly extreme filmic circumstances – was the possibility of making something that did not serve capital, corral the audience into ideological submission and banalise human existence. Adorno's 'blind film' would evade the clichés of planned filmmaking. It would allow film to record something objective in the world, without the conscious interventions of filmmakers or participants, who all conspire to produce something staged for the film. Perhaps something more akin to an unmediated reality would emerge, from this mediated form. Or perhaps what came out would be more authentically filmic, given that the filmic apparatus is, in some sense, solely responsible for the images recorded. The 'subjective' aspects of film – represented by a set of roles, director, camera operator, editor, screenplay writers, researcher etc. – give way to an 'objective' film, where the productive capacity lies with the machinery, the camera, its lenses, the recording material. It is as if film itself is endowed with a consciousness. This is a relatively positive reading of film, based essentially on a negation of what mainstream film had come to be by the 1960s – scripted, plotted, acted, dramatic cinema.
Excerpted from "Understanding Film"
Copyright © 2005 Mike Wayne.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Marxism, Film and Film Studies
1 Benjamin/Adorno/Brecht and Film
2 Gramsci, SembFne, and the Politics of Culture
3 The Althusserian moment revisited (again).
4 Jameson, Postmodernism and the hermeneutics of paranoia
5 'Making It': Reading Boogie Nights and Blow as Symbolic Economies
of Surplus and Sentiment
6 The Critics Who Knew Too Little: Hitchcock and the Absent Class Paradigm