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Film Ideology and Political Theory



Ideology and politics in cinema are often deliberately interconnected, but probably more frequently kept apart. Indeed, for many politically oriented filmmakers the purpose of their work is to show how intertwined ideology and politics happen to be in relation to individuals’ lives, and to show how many filmmakers have refused to accept it. To help us explore the ideological and the political, a number of distinctions might be useful, including covert ideological cinema against overt ideological cinema, personal versus general responses to ideology, and political form as opposed to political content.

In week one, we mentioned in passing how a full fridge in an American film could have been taken as an ideological statement by a Soviet viewer: the fullness of the fridge indicating capitalist plenitude against communist austerity. This would generally be regarded as an example of covert ideology – a political aspect from a certain perspective, but possibly not an intentional one. In critic Judith Williamson’s collection of essays Deadlines By Dawn, taken from her work at the New Statesman, central to it is fishing out often unintentional political sub-texts in mainstream cinema. Frequently such an approach is laughed at – you’re accused of reading too much into things, Williamson says – when “you venture to suggest that some popular film is racist, or a Disney extravaganza reinforces gender roles.”

Yet sometimes the very reading too much into something can become an orthodox opinion about a work years later. When D. W. Griffith released Birth of a Nation in 1915, it is true it was received by many as a racist work, but this was also a film released forty years before desegregation, and over ninety years before a man of mixed race was voted into the White House: it was a huge hit, and not only in America. Karl Brown in his book Adventures with D. W. Griffith described it as an “enormous, worldwide success”. Looking at the film now, and especially scenes where the blacks take over the parliament, many of the moments seem laughable, yet how much of our laughter comes out of a contemporary discourse where such stereotyping is utterly unacceptable? We need only think of films in the past where much of the humour came out of laughing at blacks, to see that The Birth of a Nation may have been extreme but not exceptional. As Pamela Robinson Wojick in The Cinema Book proposes, Gone with the Wind is a cinematic classic that nevertheless embarrasses or angers many contemporary viewers, not only because of its “support of the Ku Klux Klan”, but also because of the way two of its black characters are presented: Mammy and Prissy. Though here, Wojick notes, white viewers generally had a problem with the presentation of only Prissy, “black viewers, by contrast, tended to see both characters as offensive stereotypes.”

What is important to keep in mind here is the subjectivity involved so often in issues of ideology. If The Birth of a Nation caused many people problems and yet still went on to become a huge commercial success, while Gone with the Wind, despite problems, remains much more loved than The Birth of a Nation, then there are at least two things worthy of  our attention at work here.

One is that of personal perspective; the other historical perspective. Imagine for example if a film like Braveheart, with its generally anti-English sentiment, became the key ideological tool for an extreme nationalism, and that thousands of English were massacred as a consequence. It would no longer only be a work of clumsy stereotyping that offends a few overly sensitive English viewers or ideologically aware viewers and critics (in other words the personal perspective), but a work where its casual racism would be amplified and resemble a nationalist tract (the general perspective). This would be close to the problems we have with a film like The Birth of a Nation, which pretty much gave birth to the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915 – the year of the film’s release. This hardly requires a perceptive critic or a subjective response to bring out its racist force; history makes it clear.

The Birth of a Nation, like Reni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, and Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, would be overtly ideological, while many Hollywood films that remain much loved would be seen as covertly ideological, though a film like Gone with the Wind may be an example of a film in between. It tacitly supports the South during the American Civil War, over the north that wanted to free the slaves. But it is not the ideological tool the other films purposely seem to be, and it was interesting that even Braveheart was overtly ideological enough to be co-opted by the SNP to represent nationalist feeling.

But if The Birth of a Nation, Triumph of the Will, The Battleship Potemkin and Braveheart are overtly ideological, nevertheless this overt ideology needn’t be equally categorical so. Two things at least can make overt ideological cinema unequivocally problematic. One resides in its impact; the other on its historical context, though often the two come together. If we return to Williamson’s comment of reading too much into things, this would hardly apply to films like The Birth ofa Nation and Triumph of the Will. Both were propaganda pieces that lead to atrocities: blacks were lynched; Jews exterminated. It would also be unlikely, though, for one to think we’re reading too much into a film that did not lead to such actions, but nevertheless the discourse has shifted enough to show certain presentations of character as absurdly stereotypical and limiting. The historical shift that has led to equal rights for blacks, makes Gone with the Wind look patronising, and pointing this out would again be unlikely to lead people to say we were reading too much into it; but there are numerous films where something might be taken as personally offensive initially, but culturally offensive years later. Some would say much of the importance of Edward Said’s book Orientalism rests in its skill in pinpointing cultural stereotyping that in its articulation makes such stereotyping no longer readily feasible. An insightful enough work can help move the discourse from the personally offensive to the culturally unacceptable. However, If Braveheart seems a moot point for all its cultural one-sidedness, it may reside in its anti-Englishness having almost no social impact, that it is a minority culture fighting a majority culture very much in the past. It could be argued that Braveheart is an overtly ideological film but one would still be reading too much into its representations of Englishness, because nothing came out of it, unlike The Birth of a Nation. However, as Colin McArthur explores in Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots, “by far the most worrying aspect of Braveheart [is] its appeal to (neo) facist groups…” It may have more similarities with The Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will than one ostensibly realises. In other instances, of course, there have been very good reasons more obviously for taking the politics superficially very seriously, as it impacts on people’s lives much more powerfully, with the personal very much becoming the political, as we’ve proposed in Triumph of the Will.

However if we have explored overt ideology, what examples can we come up with for covert ideology, where many might claim the critic is reading too much into it? A good example would be the Bond films. Let us put aside for the moment that many of them would seem also to be overtly ideological in their sometimes Cold War narratives; for the purposes of the Bond through line it doesn’t really matter whether the baddy comes out of the Kremlin in Moscow or lives palatially and apolitically in a huge house in the Bahamas. What counts is what Bond protects: and this seems finally less the free world than a rather expensive one. If we think of the first post-credit sequence in Goldfinger, the luxury lifestyle is immediately offered. As the film opens with an establishing shot from the sky of Miami, and then shows us a medium close-up of Bond getting a massage, so what counts is the salubrious lifestyle: this is consistent with the comment about the full fridge. When Bond reads out the baddy’s name he says it sounds like a French nail varnish. Bond may have been the great cinematic spy during the cold war period, but his purpose was perhaps less to be the hero for his generation, as the consumer par excellence, as every step of the way, whether driving a dinky Aston Martin, bedding various elegantly dressed beauties, or travelling the four corners of the world, his proselytizing of freedom comes chiefly through the viewer vicariously gobbling up the many material pleasures on screen. This is more than merely the full fridge.

Another example of covert ideology would be the British romantic comedies that seemed consistent with the Blairite assumption that we are all middle-class now: from Jack and Sarah to Notting Hill, from Love Actually to Bridget Jones’ Diary and About a Boy. Here social and economic problems are all but ignored or easily resolved, while romantic scenarios out of Jane Austen are brought to the fore. This is, as Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh noted, an English never-never land, where frothy cappuccinos are drunk, and good wine available in which to drown one’s sorrows. In this world a Prime Minister will marry his cleaner (Love, Actually), a movie star will fall for a book-shop owner (Notting Hill), and a grieving husband fall for his child’s nanny (Jack and Sarah). The ideological here often lies in the ‘un-problematized’, as the films seem happy working through narrative problems no matter how little the films have to do with reality: the sociological dimension all but disappears. In Notting Hill, for example, Hugh Grant and his sister have completely different accents, yet the film feels under no obligation to explain why. This seems less sub-textual subtlety, than a relaxed attitude to socio-specifics. An ideologically aware viewer might ask why these characters sound like they come from completely different class backgrounds. The reason it is never explained is presumably because the director and writer don’t want to complicate their film with class-consciousness and so instead, consequently, find themselves unthinkingly echoing Blair’s comment, though the reality around us would readily contradict it.

Another example of covert ideology would be Single White Female, where the central character is supposed to be struggling enough to take in a lodger, but the apartment she lives in would indicate someone very wealthy indeed: the flat is in a building that is a prime piece of Manhattan real estate, though this isn’t a point the film cares to acknowledge (though it is rent controlled!),  no matter if the space makes a mockery of the film’s storyline.

At the beginning of this piece we also mentioned the idea of political form as opposed to political content, and of films that wanted to confront the very aspects many ideological films denied. This raises some of the questions we addressed in relation to Structuralism, and central to many films produced out of what was called Third Cinema, cinema loosely from Latin America, Asia and Africa in the sixties and seventies and beyond: films where there was a need to find a form to contain the political. According to critics like Paul Willemen quoted in the Cinema Book this was not first and foremost a counter-cinema, working in clear opposition to dominant modes, it was a body of films adhering to a certain political and aesthetic programme: “the proponents of Third Cinema were just as hostile to the industrially and ideologically dominant cinemas but refused to let them dictate the terms in which they were opposed.” Examples would include Guttierez-Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment and The Last Supper from Cuba, Argentina’s The Hour of the Furnaces, Antonio das Mortes from Brazil, Ousmene Sembene’s Black Girl and Xala from Senegal, and Youssef Chahine’s The Sparrow and Alexandria, Why?

These were films where politics didn’t become sub-text but text, and theorists like Gilles Deleuze have interestingly invoked Kafka to understand some of the problems facing filmmakers from cultures perceived as minorities. Kafka in his Diaries proposes that in minority (small nations) as opposed to majority (large nations) literature, the personal was more readily political. Thus where a bourgeois man in a large nation can have a crisis he feels is his own, often in Third Cinema this crisis will also be nationally pertinent. This is the case with the central character’s impotence in Xala, where the man’s distance from his cultural heritage as he buys into westernised politics could be responsible for that impotence, while the young man’s disaffection in Memories of Underdevelopment is linked to Cuba’s revolution as a disaffected bourgeois stays in the country after Castro comes to power, though his family has left for the States. These would be examples of what we proposed at the beginning of this essay: that certain filmmakers want to make clear the intertwining of politics and the individual.

This is not only true though of ‘minor’ nations, and many filmmakers of the sixties and seventies in the West also wanted to make politically conscious films. Often this would follow the dictum: not to make political films, but to make films politically. Godard’s Numero Deux would be a prime example, where he takes a typical French family and shows up its dysfunction in relation to capitalism, all the while insistently showing the means of production. As critic Colin McCabe proposes in Godard: “using non-professional actors and video technology, Godard made a home movie which was as far from the genres and stars of the cinema as it was possible to get.”  Here Godard not only offers an analysis of a dysfunctional family to critique capitalism, he also insistently questions the means of production: both by using video technology rather than film, and constantly laying bear these means. In one scene we see him slumped over a table in the editing suite, the film he is making on a small TV screen in the corner of the image.

What we have explored here then is the way in which films confront or deny aspects of ideology, the degree to which the ideological is a personal or general response, both in terms of perceiving the images and for characters within the narratives, and how self-conscious the filmmaker wants to be in relation to form and content.


©Tony McKibbin