There’s a famous story about the technical problems encountered by Soviet director Aleksandr Dovzhenko while shooting his 1930 film Earth, an admiring account of the effect of collectivization on the Russian peasantry. Working with non-professional actors, he was shooting a scene one day that showed the arrival of a tractor on a farm on the Russian steppe. Not getting the reaction shot of excitement he had hoped for from the peasants – the poor folk must have had less of a labour fetish than the party apparatchiks – he called in a clown from a local circus, whom the peasants were a great deal more taken with. Dovzhenko recorded their smiles and general pleasure and then spliced it with the shot of the tractor that had been left standing alone and forlorn far from the clown’s showboating, forgotten by all. Left-wing cinema has changed greatly since the day of the early Soviet directors and, following 1989, is rarely subject to the strictures of the party or state line, a rare example these days being Hugo Chávez’s projected Toussaint Louverture film in collaboration with Danny Glover. But the ideological entrenchment often lingers. While there is nothing to say that films with a leftist slant need be intolerable, vulgar or insulting to the intelligence, far too often you leave the cinema bridling at the hectoring of a film whose politics you are in full agreement with.
Of course bad political films have far less to do with politics per se than with bad film-making. It’s just that the moral righteousness common to any of those insufferable lefter-than-thou bores that buttonhole you in Grogan’s or Conway’s and subject you to their tirades about American imperialism or globalisation is too much for clumsy lefty film directors to resist.
The secret to avoiding those cursory political dramas with roughly hewn stock heroes and villains is one that is familiar to any fiction writer. A little bit of space between the film and your political (or even moral) standpoint is helpful. This is the essence of Mikhail Bakhtin’s Dialogical Imagination, in which he contended that good political narratives are always generated organically by a dramatic dialogue between its protagonists’ viewpoints. Jean Renoir put it more succinctly, remarking that ‘every villain has their reasons’, which has more recently been the cornerstone of David Simon’s excellent HBO crime series The Wire. Political drama or film that doesn’t bother to flesh out its ideological targets or the world it depicts only ends up making itself look silly and ineffective.
Political cinema most often means left-liberal, partly because most people involved in film are, ostensibly at least, that in political orientation. A more convincing argument would be, however, that the right doesn’t really need the movies, given that they control most other branches of the media and these are generally a lot more successful in moulding public opinion; you’d need to be a rare fool to imagine that the recent slew of Iraq war films would undo the convictions of anyone who gets their political sustenance from Fox News.
But sometimes films with a political slant that might be unpalatable to those of us on the left, such as The Searchers or The Deerhunter, are more illuminating of their subject matter than their more liberal counterparts (of which I’m thinking in the specific cases of those two films, Delmer Daves’s Broken Arrow and Oliver Stone’s Platoon). Both Ford and Cimino’s films’ strengths lie in assuming the perspectives and prejudices of its chief protagonists: distrust of Indians in the case of The Searchers and support for the Vietnam War among working-class Americans. Both films chip away gradually at those subjective certainties but they never feel the need to resort to chest beating to do so. The dramatic change comes from within the characters rather than from the filmmakers themselves. Interestingly, Ford’s least favourite of his films was the Oscar-winning The Grapes of Wrath, which is not surprising as its left-wing sentiments no doubt sat uncomfortably with his own reactionary politics.
Cimino moved to a radically left-wing stance in his next film, Heaven’s Gate, which, as well as being one of the most famed commercial disasters in film history, is also critically reviled in the English-speaking world. Yet it is an exemplar of great politically engaged cinema; the tale of land prospecting in 1890s Wyoming and the bloody repression poor European immigrants were subjected to by the political and capitalist class, it peoples its canvas with a mix of idealists and hucksters who each have their own reasons for their political action. It is also the only Hollywood film to my knowledge that contains the line: ‘the President of the United States can go fuck himself’, uttered by the recalcitrant hired gun, Nate Champion, played by Christopher Walken. Having seen it again a couple of years ago, the line still had a formidable jolt to it, comparable to seeing a blowjob in a Nora Ephron film.
Cimino has had a patchy career since his earliest successes, although he has continued in a broadly leftist vein, at one point in the 1980s trying to mount a Michael Collins biopic before Neil Jordan beat him to it. Generally the better left-wing filmmakers are those who are better dialecticians, such as John Sayles, the French Laurent Cantet and the Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf, for whom every film is an interrogation of political power – his superb 1996 film essay A Moment of Innocence saw him recreate the episode where he stabbed one of the Shah’s policemen as a young man with the collaboration of the cop himself. Belgian Dardenne brothers whose grim tales of working class life in their native Seraing are devoid of any explicit political commentary whatsoever.
Ken Loach is a big admirer of the Dardennes and he himself represents the extremes of good and bad lefty cinema. His films are generally better when they focus on the ‘little man’, such as My Name is Joe, Raining Stones and Kes. Loach’s efforts to expand his canvas to cover world historical events have had their admirers and drawn awards but I personally find Land and Freedom and The Wind That Shakes the Barley turgidly mechanical, not to mention cartoonish in their portrayal of historical injustice. Loach’s villains don’t have reasons, they have devilry hard-wired into them. The Wind That Shakes the Barley’s opening sequence, in which an inoffensive local hurling game is brutally interrupted by the Black and Tans, may have historical credibility but that is not always contingent with the stuff of good drama.
Being mindful of an international audience, one can understand Loach’s determination to cast the Tans (and, by extension, the British) as the dastardly villains early on, but was it really necessary to resort to such crude manipulation, especially as Loach had previously portrayed the British side of the Troubles with a great deal more subtlety in his 1975 TV mini-series Days of Hope? Loach has erred elsewhere in the name of a worthy cause, such as in his only American film to date, Bread and Roses, an account of the battle for improved work conditions by poor, mostly Latino office cleaners in L.A. It’s stirring stuff to watch as the workers ratchet up yet another demand won and ultimately bring their exploiters to their knees, but it’s little more than a sports movie for socialists, and as drama it’s stale and has a strong whiff of cardboard about it. Loach and his regular screenwriter Paul Laverty shot back to form this year with the brilliantly nuanced It’s a Free World, a bleak portrait of the social pressures that drive otherwise decent people, such as Kierston Wareing’s gang mistress Angie, to exploit others, in this case Eastern European immigrant workers. The film’s central message, that in order to undo the damage done by corruption, one must corrupt oneself further, is a devastating rejoinder to the usual trajectory of redemption in liberal cinema.
It is war, though, that has of late brought out the worst in the left-liberal filmmaker. While the Vietnam war produced a number of competent features, none of which were quite as good as most of us remember them to be, the most recent Iraq war has generated enough outrage among American and British directors to power a series of sloppily conceived films that reduce the U.S. occupation to a caricature. Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, in which former Military Policeman Tommy Lee Jones searches for the truth behind his serviceman son’s murder, is probably the best, saved by Jones’s own performance and its assumption of the opposing political position. Jones’s character has no doubt whatsoever about the validity of the war but he gradually comes to question the way it is being waged. Ultimately though, the film is hampered by a recourse to grotesquely lugubrious symbolism (this is, after all, the same Paul Haggis that directed Crash, possibly the Citizen Kane of bad left-liberal films).
Nick Broomfield’s The Battle for Haditha is a cinema verité take on the infamous massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines two years ago and its subsequent cover-up by the chain of command. Broomfield uses a number of former U.S. marines and makes crude attempts to give the Iraqi insurgents’ side of the story but the consequent effect of the massacre of two innocent families is perversely reassuring rather than genuinely disturbing. ‘Reassuring’ because it is, of course, preaching to the converted and one can’t imagine it reaching the audience it needs in the U.S. to do any heavy-duty converting.
Brian de Palma’s Redacted is even worse; it too tackles an atrocity committed by US troops, in this case the Mahmudiyah killings and gang rape of a 14-year-old girl in March 2007. De Palma has been here before, of course, in his 1989 Vietnam drama Casualties of War, and Redacted outdoes even that film for dramatic ineptitude. We are treated to absurdities such as a Woody Allen-esque dog handler, marines who debate the morality of the actions as if they were Biff and Happy in Death of a Salesman, and a Private aspiring to film school who decides to film the rape in a particularly desperate attempt by de Palma to work documentary-style footage into his multi-media smorgasbord. The fact that de Palma omits to mention that those responsible for the crime were convicted makes his charges less significant.
War crimes such as Haditha and Mahmudiyah are, of course, abhorrent, but to focus on them in a narrative paradoxically lets the U.S. war agenda off the hook; seeing the war through the prism of such incidents obscures the true ruinous wastefulness and immorality of the war and serves only to flatter the prefabricated indignation of both the liberal audience and de Palma himself. I have yet to see Kimberley Peirce’s forthcoming Stop-Loss, about the homecoming of a group of Texas marines, but I have, as they say in monster movies, a bad feeling about it. In fact, so unpersuasive are many of the Iraq war films thus far made that one wonders if the Pentagon is covertly financing them as a way of discrediting the anti-war movement. Now, there’s a conspiracy just crying out for a bad liberal film to be made about it.
The picture above is a still from the film A Moment of Innocence.
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