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Film Ideology

 

notes

 

Around the time Single White Female was released, Empire magazine ran an article commenting on the contrast between the lush apartments characters lived in, and the jobs they were doing that would not pay well enough to justify staying in such posh pads.  Here we have Bridget Fonda’s character a career girl on the first rung of the ladder but living in a huge apartment in an upmarket neighbourhood. Sure the film suggests she needs a flatmate to make ends meet, but we might propose that she would need a few of them to pay the rent on this New York property, no matter if the flat is rent controlled. Is this an ideological issue?

A Russian filmmaker once said, in Mark Litwak’s Reel Power, that he felt ideology at work every-time a character opened a fridge in an American movie. Apart from the private eye (who never has much more than a stale piece of cheese) just about everybody else has food aplenty. Is this again ideology at work? If it is, let’s call it covert ideology, an ideological position that isn’t overt and pronounced, but issues out of the cultural assumptions. Many films have covert ideological aspects, and sometimes it takes years before somebody comes along and picks them apart. While Birth of a Nation was a big if admittedly controversial success when it was released in 1915, now its warm attitude towards the Ku Klux Klan makes it a film that many are wary of even showing. Its relatively covert politics of the time (though of course there were many dissenting voices) has become especially overt given the move towards greater equality in the intervening years: most especially of course the de-segregation laws in the US in the mid-fifties through to the mid-sixties.

To pick apart a film, or in fact any cultural artefact’s ideological agenda, can sometimes be a complex operation, where often the critic utilises semiotics, the interpretation of signs, to get underneath the assumptions of the project. In a series of newspaper essays collected in Mythologies, Roland Barthes looked at the way covert ideologies permeate specific cultures. Thus in an essay on ‘Wine and Milk’, Barthes talks about the way “wine is felt by the French nation to be a possession which is its very own, just like its three hundred and sixty types of cheese and its culture,”  and sees wine as central to the mythology of the French nation. Sometimes, though, this ideological aspect can be much more immediate; where somebody is aware of the ideological assumption because it flies in the face of their own experiences; as we find in the Russian filmmaker’s comment.

To return to Single White Female, we might say that the flat doesn’t have to be realistic because the place is a backdrop, a little like the sets on a stage. Such a film doesn’t need a living reality, and only a pedant would care to take the film to task for the discrepancy between the flat’s opulence and the owner’s modest wages. What matters is that the space is cinematic: that it is big enough to allow for elaborate camera angles and tracking shots. But others would see this as very much part of the problem: what you have is an artificial, hyperbolic story told with the battery of technical wizardry that a movement like the aforementioned Dogme took to task. It is as though the film doesn’t want to enquire into the character’s ‘real life’, but uses an aspect of real life to tell a fairly clichéd narrative of a woman who takes in a lodger from hell, and who spends much of the film slowly realising just how psychotic her flat mate is as the psychotic needs be no more vividly presented than the environment. Because the film is hyperbolic rather than realistic, it doesn’t have to explore the nature of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character’s illness, it just utilises her loneliness and weak character for thriller deployment. Thus somebody watching the film who shares some of the character’s psychological problems might be immediately offended by the movie: it won’t require the complicated, hermeneutic, interpretive work of a Barthes, but an immediate sense of offence, closer to the Russian filmmaker’s.

 

We all have our own areas of ‘immediate’ ideological reactiveness, as opposed to the relatively disinterested one practised so skilfully by Barthes. What is interesting about a filmmaker like Jean-Luc Godard, is that he’s likely to put this aspect right at the centre of his film, to push upon the viewer an overt ideological position out of an immediate ideological reactiveness. This comes through in a number of scenes in Eloge de L’amour, where Hollywood producers come to buy up the story of a couple of now ageing Resistance fighters. Here the couple’s granddaughter questions the way Hollywood appropriates people’s stories for its own end, and cares little for the truth in the original action. This has led numerous critics to talk of Godard’s diatribes against America, but we should see it first and foremost as an inversion of the ideological covertness practised by many films.

At one stage in Eloge de L’amour someone says that Schindler’s wife is now living in poverty in Argentina, a comment on Spielberg’s successful humanist film and also its limitations: should a film about Schindler and how he saved the Jews from awful lives, not at the least talk also about Schindler’s wife’s destitution in the present? Shouldn’t it incorporate into its look at the atrocity, the continued suffering today? Instead the film utilises the present for a feel-good ending as various Jewish relatives put stones on Schindler’s grave. Wouldn’t they have been better offering a small donation to the struggling Mrs Schindler? But that wouldn’t have been so cathartic, and Spielberg’s movie is finally in the tradition of the feel-good liberal humanist film, Godard would insist.

For Godard, making ideology present was an extension of making the aesthetics of film overt so apparent in his earlier work. In films like A bout de Souffle and Vivre sa Vie he would break with cinematic convention. In the former film it was by using jump cuts; in the latter by, amongst other things, having the central character looking straight into the camera. It’s as though vital to Godard’s whole project is to leave nothing in sub-text, that everything can be dragged into text, foregrounded and discussed.  Some people will of course argue that such an approach makes the film didactic, one-sided and ‘unsubtle’, but others might argue that Godard allows his subtleties to arise elsewhere, and that any didacticism is very much in the first person: it’s merely a perspective amongst other possible perspectives. If Spielberg’s film suggests a nice, neat and clear story, adapted from Thomas Kenneally’s book, Schindler’s Ark, Godard will utilise numerous texts, from Simone Weil to Chateaubriand, to try to find an open-ended approach to his subject by offering something ostensibly didactic that would seem to resemble his own view, but also brings in numerous quotations that makes the work hard to pin down.

Spielberg’s film is we could say an overt ideological work with all sorts of assumptions about humanity, Jewishness and Germany (why do the Germans generally speak English except when offering appalling insults?). For some this type of covert ideology is finally more infuriating than an overt one.

 

Few would claim that Gillo Pontercorvo’s film about Algeria’s fight for independence, The Battle of Algiers, is unbiased, but its overt ideology has nothing to do with Godard’s obviously very personal pronouncements, and owes much more to the political cinema of some of the Soviet filmmakers of the twenties, as well as other politically active filmmakers of the sixties and seventies: Francesco Rosi (Salvatore Giuliano; The Mattei Affair) and Costa–Gavras (Z, State of Siege). Here the political statement wouldn’t lie in a clear comment made, but much more in the narrative, editing and music. The film explores the burgeoning Algerian search for self-determination and sees the Algerians less as terrorists fighting for a cause, as the French would perceive them, but as a people fighting for their country. Though set years before its liberation, Pontecorvo wants to show how a national self-consciousness can come into being, and charts this self-awareness and search for national meaning chiefly, though very far from exclusively, through the one character: Ali La Pointe, a petty criminal who goes on to become the leader of the underground resistance. Sure, this particular attempt at fighting for independence fails, but the film makes clear that this period of unrest left a consciousness that was deployed more or less by the whole nation several years later, when in 1960 a huge percentage of the Algerian people took to the streets to oust the French. Independence was achieved two years later.

Like a number of other political films made by Rosi and Costa-Gavras, The Battle of Algiers is first and foremost an investigation into a political situation, as if it wants to escape the ideological implications of the Great Man of History aspect often to be found in Hollywood films, movies like Braveheart or The Patriot for example. There the cult of personality demands a look at a life achieving its personal destiny colliding with a nation’s, with all sorts of political and social issues assumed rather than explored, and often just made up, as Colin McArthur shows in his book, Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots. The Battle of Algiers looks as if wants, for all its overt ideological purpose, to explore an issue rather than create heroes and indicate inevitable national self-determination. Why a film might want to explore an event rather than assume a destiny makes sense: in the logistics of a situation you have something that can be broken down and understood; in the notion of destiny you just have metaphysical mysteries that aren’t always useful to others seeking political control over their lives. If William Wallace is the chosen one, what are Scots supposed to do the next time they want to change their situation? Sit around and wait as if for the second coming? Obviously not, and so we can see how a certain type of ideological cinema that is very interested in the logistics and not just in the heroics, can prove immensely useful.

Thus in Salvatore Giuliano, Rosi used the titular character not as a presence, but as an absent hero, for he spends his time hiding out in the hills, and so functions as someone who is talked about rather than seen by the local people.His reputation allows others to feel brave enough and assured enough to escape from oppression. In Z, Costa-Gavras looks at the apparently accidental death of a medical professor and politician and finds all sorts of political machinations behind the scenes. In each instance, in The Battle of Algiers, Salvatore Giuliano and Z, the filmmakers are ideologically overt but not rabidly jingoistic. They propose the necessity of change, but not as an inevitability, but as a complicated, carefully worked through attempt at making sense of a situation. It’s out of the sense of understanding the variables that a people can surely then act politically.

 

When showing a clip from the mid-seventies Chantal Akerman film, Je tu il Elle, students usually laugh and say what does a woman moving furniture around her room have to do with feminism. That is a fair point but, let us propose, taking into account what various thinkers have said on the subject, two types of feminism. One we’ll call indeterminate feminism and the other assertive feminism. In the indeterminate we have an explored vulnerability. In Helene Cixous words, “Time and again I, too, have felt so full of luminous torrents that I could burst – burst with forms much more beautiful than those which have been put up in frames and sold for a stinking fortune. And I, too, said nothing, showed nothing. I didn’t open my mouth, I didn’t repaint my half of the world. I was ashamed. I was afraid and I swallowed my shame and fear.”

So often because of shame and fear, Cixous and others have proposed, women haven’t repainted their half of the world. This attempt at repainting the world, indeterminately, vulnerably and searchingly now has a brief but honourable literary history: we find it in Virginia Woolf, in Marguerite Duras, in early Margaret Atwood novels like Surfacing and in much of Doris Lessing’s work. It’s also present mainly in French cinema, in films by Catherine Breillat (Perfect Love!, Romance and a ma soeur!), and Laetitia Masson (En avour au Pas, and A Vendre) and in work by Duras and Akerman. In Je tu il Elle, Akerman herself takes the leading role of a young woman who wiles away her days in her flat, moving the furniture around and eating copious amounts of sugar. Very little happens until she embarks on a fling with another woman near the end of the film, but we’re asked to observe the way a young woman spends time alone, when apparently depressed, certainly lethargic, and with no immediate meaning in her life, an issue she would push sill further in her much commented upon following film Jeanne Dielman… Akerman has no interest in militant feminism here, beyond the sort of exploration suggested by Cixous above, no matter if some critics might see the brutal ending of Jeanne Dielman as a curious moment of revenge drama. As the titular character stabs a man to death, it remains as an unmotivated action, unmotivated by the specifics of power so present in feminism’s more assertive form.

In assertive feminism a certain type of militancy is often present. In a number of nineties films including Terminator 2, Alien 3, The Long Kiss Good Night and Titanic there is a ballsy feminism, with women proving their worth in a masculine world or in a masculine role. This was the era of the woman in a muscle vest and showing her trapezius, or, as in The Last Seduction, Body of Evidence and Basic Instinct, showing their legs (and sometimes more) to get what they want. In these assertive films a woman generally knows what she desires and determines to get it. The best punch delivered in Titanic comes from Kate Winslet’s fist.

In such instances the women don’t so much paint their half of the world as encroach upon the masculine environment and prove themselves equal or superior to it. Ostensibly it appears they have equality, but some might argue that they’ve merely sublimated their own instincts, possibilities and self-exploration for functioning successfully in a very male milieu. This isn’t to suggest that women are weak and men generally strong, but wouldn’t it be better if we had men exploring their less aggressive side, while women searched out their vulnerability, rather than having both men and women aggressively placing themselves in the world and painting, often in blood red, only the half of it?  The vulnerable films, we feel, usually try to explore the ideology of femininity in an overt but non-militant way; the latter are more likely to be covert and yet more militant.

 

If ever there was a masculinity in crisis film, Falling Down is it, and who better than that besieged symbol of maleness, Michael Douglas, to play the role? In a series of films from Fatal Attraction to Basic Instinct, War of the Roses to Disclosure and up to A Perfect Murder, Douglas’s characters were men who just didn’t quite know how to handle either the opposite sex, or class and racial differences. In A Perfect Murder his wealthy banker character refers to his wife’s apparently low-class lover as greed and bad genes, while in Falling Down he goes off on one with an Asian shopkeeper about the price of Coca Cola and the poor man’s English pronunciation. What Douglas is very good at capturing is the frustration of men of entitlement who no longer are quite so entitled. Though the films frequently take this entitlement for granted, the viewer should be well aware that what we are watching is a comfortable man who disintegrates as his expectations are no longer met.

Thus at the beginning of Falling Down Douglas has lost his job in the nuclear industry, and gets caught in an appalling traffic jam. He ends up walking back home and along the way confronts various types: Neo-Nazis, Korean shopkeepers and smug, ageing golfers. What the film chiefly works off is what we could call the resentment of privilege. Not quite luxury, mind, which is partly why Douglas takes the oldsters to task on the golf course, but a sense of entitlement that would make the film seem absurd if the role were played by a Black American or any other racial minority. The degree to which Douglas (politically a liberal on the one hand, a second generation member of the Hollywood establishment on the other) is aware of his characters’ privileged position in most of these films is moot. And yet that might be why they work so well symptomatically. It’s a little like the ideological position held by certain Marxists in the past: better a work that lacks self-consciousness illustrating the failings of a society, than a self-consciously political one. During this period – roughly ‘87 to ’97 – Douglas represents the Great While Male cracking up, sexually out of control yet selfishness and smugness personified. The character arc so often tends to be a downward spiral of entitlement giving way to disgruntlement, or a degree of self-control giving way to its abandonment. In the former category we might think of Fatal Attraction and Disclosure, and in the latter Basic Instinct and Falling Down. In Fatal Attraction he’s a happily married man who has a fling when his wife is out of town and can’t believe the woman might want a bit of emotional attachment. In Falling Down he’s an unhappily married man, estranged from his wife, who again can’t believe his misfortune. Though we might say there is a degree of ideological obliviousness to these Douglas films, that isn’t quite the same thing as saying the audience is expected to sympathise entirely with his character. In a number of them Douglas is an ambivalent figure to behold: a philanderer in Fatal Attraction and Disclosure, a trigger happy cop in Basic Instinct (he’s nicknamed ‘shooter’), and a would-be murderer in A Perfect Murder, Douglas is clearly a morally dodgy character with which to identify. But that doesn’t mean he’s ideologically overt, that his foibles are presented to bring out the degree to which he’s a smug white male; no he’s much more presented as an everyman who’s sometimes unlucky, and not always possessed of the best, but instead the basest, of instincts. An ideological attempt to make sense of these films would try to understand just how much of his character makes him not the everyman he’s presented as being, but very specifically a middle-class white male.

 

©Tony McKibbin