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Politics on Film

Splitting the Ideological Infinitive

How can we think about the question of ideology in film? To start with let us muse over a few terms, and also think about some approaches to the political in cinema. Here are the terms: theoretical and practical, interpellation, hegemony, suture, false consciousness, race, gender, class. Here are some approaches to politically oriented filmmaking: the triumphal, the implicit, the collectivist, the self-reflexive, the conspiratorial and the satiric. What we want to do in this essay is explore the terms and delineate the film types. We aim for nothing exhaustive and will nevertheless hope that we can achieve the suggestive: to give an idea of different approaches for both making and understanding cinema ideologically.

Perhaps the best place to start is by thinking of the six film categories we offer and providing a few titles for each. The Triumphal would include BraveheartLincolnGandhi and The Patriot. The implicit: Single White FemaleNotting Hill and in a much more complex manner A History of Violence; collectivist, Battleship PotemkinThe Battle of AlgiersLand and FreedomThe Wind That Shakes the Barley. The Self-reflexive: Tout va bienHistory LessonsLa ChinoiseMemories of UnderdevelopmentWeekendBefore the Revolution. The conspiratorial: ZThe Mattei AffairAll the President’s MenThe Manchurian Candidate. The satiric: The CandidateBeing ThereThe Great DictatorStarship Troopers.

What we want to do is look at some of these films and see how they function in the context of class as well as race and gender, and how they allow us to use theoretical language to open up the problems they address. When in Braveheart the English nobles fighting the Scots are offered prima nocta this is class politics as sexual right. The King grants them the opportunity to take sexual advantage of the female lower orders north of the border. This also, of course, incorporates gender too, as the fairer sex receives unfairer treatment. We might be appalled by such notions, but the film wants to suggest that this is justifiable in a culture where we have divine right of kings, and plenty rights too for the noblemen over the working poor. They have what we might call an hegemonic assumption: the cultural codes and mores that mean the peasant class is expected to know their place and accept the orders. If people believe there are those who are naturally their superiors, this is so much more useful and economic than constant acts of oppression. As political theorist Antonio Gramsci says “the problem of creating a new class of intellectuals consists, therefore, in the critical elaboration of the intellectual activity which exists at a certain stage of development in everyone, changing its relations with the muscular-nervous effort toward a new equilibrium and assuring that the muscular nervous effort itself, in so far as it is a general practical activity which is perpetually changing the physical and social world, shall become the foundation of a new and integral conception of the world.” (Prison Notebooks) Gramsci was writing this in the early years of the 20th century, so we should be wary of applying the ideas to Medieval Scotland. But Braveheart‘s skill as a piece of popular entertainment is to care little for historical specificity. According to Colin McArthur, historian Sharon Krossa noticed eighteen historical errors in the film’s first two and a half minutes. (Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots) The film will be well aware of the outrage it can generate utilising race and gender in the modern era as it recreates a period some centuries earlier. When William Wallace’s bride reacts so strongly to the men who grapple with her, this probably says more about the viewer’s need to see a feisty woman fighting her corner than it does about what might actually have happened given the circumstances. The film wants to work with the injustices of the past and the righteousness of the present, and in the process creates a complacent viewer who knows exactly which side they are on. Imagine a scene where Wallace’s wife was much more compliant, accepting that traditions are what they are and one knows one’s place even it is reluctantly in bed with a nobleman? Mel Gibson’s film doesn’t question our values in the viewing experience. It is there to confirm them as we have numerous scenes that tell us more about popular Hollywood entertainment than the moment in which it is set.

We will find this is often how ideology works in film: it draws from different cultures, different historical periods for little more than flavour. It is the seasoning on a main dish that hardly changes. When Dan Rubey in Jump Cut says “in the end, the meaning of the Star Wars and much of its appeal depend on the ways in which the striking special effects reinforce the fantastic and mythic echoes of the plot” this is the political critic coinciding with the apolitical script guru. As Syd Field says in Screenplay: “take a look at the epic Adventure Lord of the Rings…or the portrait of the modern family illustrated in American Beauty…the literary presentations of The Bourne SupremacyCold MountainRushmore…compare them to any films of the ’70s or ’80s and you’ll see the distinctions of this revolution: the images are fast’ the information conveyed is visual, rapid’ the use of silence is exaggerated, and the special effects and music are heightened and more pronounced…Yet while the tools and techniques of storytelling have evolved and progressed based on the needs and technologies of the time, the art of storytelling has remained the same.” Rubey is writing for a radical political journal; Field as politically neutral craftsman just telling people how it is done. Yet someone aware of the ideological would wonder how many of Field’s claims about screen craft rest on hegemonic assumption. Field insists, “to tell the story you have to set up your story, introduce the dramatic premise (what the story is about) and the dramatic situation (the circumstances surrounding the action), create obstacles for your character to confront and overcome, then resolve the story.” All those italics are doing a lot of work for Field, as if part of an ideological programme of their own. That is exactly how filmmaker Raul Ruiz would see it, saying “in this culture [the US], it is not only indispensable to make decisions but also to act on them immediately…the immediate consequence of most decisions in this culture is some kind of conflict (untrue in other cultures).” (Poetics of Cinema). This subsequently often leads to a conflation of politics with entertainment. “Such synchronicity between the artistic theory and the political system have been abundantly discussed: politicians and actors have become interchangeable because they both use the same media; attempting to master the same logic of representation and practising the same narrative logic.” What Field defends, Ruiz despairs over, and we might care to muse over the rise in reality TV shows in recent years and their insistent need to narrativise events to see why it is not at all surprising that a reality TV star like Donald Trump can make it to the White House. What we see at work in many films and TV shows is the pragmatism of devices rather than the mastering of craft: the films and shows create tension cranking moments, heroic actions and people desperately getting what they want. But at what price?

When the Scottish National Party used Braveheart for their own cause in the mid-nineties we could see Alex Salmond adopting a film for his own ends, but there were dangers there, and the rather more nuanced party that we have now would be unlikely to take the vulgarities of Gibson’s film as a justifiable representative for an inclusive Scotland. One cannot absorb aspects of the message and ignore the bits you don’t like; all the criticisms Ruiz sees in many a mainstream entertainment are present and correct in Braveheart. We might think of one of our key theoretical words, suture, and see how films that play up the triumphal as manifest destiny, whether Braveheart or The Patriot, give the audience a very clear view of where they should stand through form and function, through storytelling technique and clear moral values. Whether it is the Americans burnt in the church by the English in The Patriot, or the women raped by the Sassenachs in Braveheart, moral disgust is matched by predictable techniques and central conflict assumption. As an English officer insists his subordinate must follow his orders and burn down the church with numerous people inside it, so we have a momentary central conflict between the two of them as the latter thinks what the former is suggesting is beyond human. We know exactly where we are placed as director Roland Emmerich anachronistically steals a moment from Nazi history (burning Russians in a barn during WWII) and transposes it to the American War of Independence for maximum indignation. We can see from the point of view of central conflict it is a great moment: it can whip up righteous wrath on the part of the Americans, and can even create a micro-conflict within the scene as the good British officer disagrees with the bad British officer over the use of such atrocious methods. Yet what matters is the form and function over the ideologically nuanced, and we see now variations of central conflict in many areas of narrative at its most debased, from bake-offs to ball-room dancing. Competition is the thing: somebody wants something and others are stopping you from getting it.

To reject these underlying principles (as the script gurus would have it) is to defy the workings of our subconscious. As Robert McKee says in Story “no matter what they say, no matter how they comport themselves, the only way we ever come to know characters in depth is through their choices under pressure.” By this reckoning we understand people better through watching them on a TV quiz show than we might in a documentary that runs for several hours and examines in detail the daily workings of their lives. McKee might believe everything is conflict all the better to reveal character, but we would be inclined to say what is revealed is the workings of a hegemonic system based on competition. Hollywood characters are usually put under far more narrative pressure than those in a Bergman, Rohmer or Tarkovsky film, but do we ‘know’ Schwarzenegger’s character in Commando better than we know Erland Josephson’s in Scenes from a Marriage? In such an analysis we can understand an aspect of how ideology works. McKee might see himself as no right-winger (his talks have incorporated Bush-bashing according to Movieline magazine interviewer S. T. Vinairsdale) but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t absorbed a perspective that is detrimental to political change. This isn’t to suggest that a revolution is a good thing or that great art cannot be conservative; our purpose here is more to say that this notion of innate conflict is an ideological claim and needs to be questioned. A properly ideological cinema will interrogate many expectations, refusing to take for granted ‘human nature’, but that doesn’t mean of course that films that don’t have an aspect of self-reflexivity aren’t ideological as well. We have seen this clearly in Braveheart. Films like Notting Hill and Single White Female don’t want us to question how the characters can afford to live in such upmarket places in London and New York as they assume the viewer will forego the real when it comes to real estate as long as the story itself isn’t inconsistent. Yet an ideological reading of the films will insist on the implausibility of the characters’ dwellings and muse over what it says about believability in mainstream filmmaking.

This is where the notion of suture can seem so useful. A term commonly used in psychoanalytic political criticism of the seventies, often found in the politicised Cahiers du Cinema of the time, and also Screen magazine. Suture describes the way in which the viewer is stitched into the film, how we are placed both ideologically and formally in the film experience. When for example the film cuts to a reaction shot of someone looking on disapprovingly, the film might be expecting us to show equal disapproval, as if the action alone won’t be evidence enough. Even very fine films will do this, while creating subtler ambiguities elsewhere. In a scene from David Cronenberg’s History of Violence, Viggo Mortensen’s character takes out two baddies while his wife looks on. The expression on her face is matched by ours: the realisation that her husband is a ruthless and very violent man. Cronenberg’s film is a marvellous example of a film that plays on all the tropes of mainstream technique to grip us, but at the same time finds a space within the film to make us muse over whether conflict is always such a good thing. There is little that is obviously self-reflexive (and in this sense can seem ‘oblivious’) about the viewing experience, but if the viewer came out of it wondering whether the marriage will ever be the same again after Mortensen’s heroics, the director would see that as no bad thing. We are on Mortensen’s side as he takes out the various evil figures he encounters (including his brother), but siding with him is slightly different from approving of his methods. In Single White Female and Notting Hill, the directors would be unlikely to want us to ponder too much over the price of the flats the characters live in, and how they could afford them. The former film might show the modestly salaried Bridget Fonda’s need to get a bit of extra cash by renting a room, but that would hardly cover the exorbitant cost of the large apartment in an exclusive part of New York. The filmmakers want us to ignore the details and concentrate on the mise en scene: they want in the first instance an apartment large enough to create filmic suspense within it as the flatmate turns psychotic, and in the latter a trendy and exciting part of London in which the romance can be played out. There is narrative logic in Notting Hill that trumps ideological enquiry. Julia Roberts is a movie star so she would be likely to hang out in London’s more salubrious districts, but Hugh Grant is one of the area’s more impoverished souls and another movie character reliant on a tenant. But if Jennifer Jason Leigh is in Single White Female for horror movie suspense, Rhys Ifans is in Notting Hill as occasional comic relief. They have a function in the story much greater than the practicalities of economics and we in turn can put the characters to use as well. There are class and gender issues to be looked at in these films. Ifans is clearly the working class Welshman, a bit clueless and uncouth, wandering around in his tatty underwear. In Single White Female, Leigh is the hysterical woman, with all sorts of psychosexual issues the director can utilise for easy generic ends. Gender meets genre as the films play up stereotypes for the big laughs or for the big shocks.

But don’t viewers go to the movies to escape reality; that the Dream Factory was a useful counterbalance to the factory production line of Fordism or Taylorism, an attempt to avoid thinking about the mundane realities of their own lives by identifying with the lives of others more exciting? Perhaps, but we are suggesting that actually this Fordism was replicated in the movies with standard tropes and procedures not so different from the assembly line system that could allow Henry Ford to say famously that you can have any colour you like as long as it is black. Ford’s point was that he wanted a decent quality car that anybody could afford, even in the depression era. At the beginning of the thirties a baker could make around $30 a week, according to the Bulletin of the United States Bureau for Labour Statistics. An evening movie ticket would cost around 40 cents. (‘The Great Depression and Its Effects on the Movie Theatres of West Chester, Pennsylvania’.) This made film an affordable leisure activity; it also meant to keep prices down studios needed to create mass entertainments that would prove reliable money makers. Taking wild risks would be less likely to guarantee regular income. If Hollywood is the cinema that mastered better than any other genre filmmaking, then this perhaps resides more than a little in generic production not very different from Ford’s. Viewers might have sought out the dream factory, but which was the operative word? When we use the term implicit to describe many of the films made in classic Hollywood and that still continue to made today, we do not dismiss them out of hand; more that we are aware that they are films unlikely to bite the hand that feeds them. Any notion that films are forced upon viewers as an act of oppression has to be a bit more nuanced than that.

Thus while suture tells us how a viewer is stitched into the material, a word like interpellation is very good at helping us understand a much broader based incorporation of self and society. This is a structuralist notion that we don’t possess individuality but that the structures generate a self; that we are a subject even before we are born as we enter into an ideological relationship with the world. As Louis Althusser says, “the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection ‘all by himself'” ( Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays) While Marx thought that man needed to avoid delusion and thus saw the importance of false-consciousness, Althusser saw in the nature of our existence an idea of freedom that was constrained by numerous structures. To seek freedom it wouldn’t be enough to change our personal situation, nor even society, but also various principles underlying our societal make-up.

This isn’t the place to go into the theoretical disagreements between Marxists and post-Marxists, what interests us instead is to see how films can suggest change, societally or structurally, and hence we can turn to our categories, the collectivist and the self-reflexive. When Ken Loach once claimed we don’t worry about splitting the infinitive when we go to the barricades, a self-reflexively inclined filmmaker might reply that actually the grammar of film matters quite a lot. As Jean-Marie Straub says, “we followed the opposite course of the Taviani brothers or Pasolini, who look for pretty spots, postcards such as you see in magazines, in which the subject of the film is dissipated instead of being localised.” Speaking of a film he and Danielle Huillet made of the opera Moses and Aron using source sound, he reckoned that the Taviani brothers and Pasolini didn’t insist on fidelity to direct sound and so subsequently searched out the pretty picture over the totality of the environment, which is of course audio-visual. The Straubs could see that separating the word and the image might be pragmatically useful, but it orphans images and orphans sounds. The viewer may see in watching a Straub film a lack of professionalism – a failure of slickness – but the purpose is to show the viewer a reality that films often hide. “That’s another illusion of the dubbed film. Not only are the lips that move on the screen not the ones that say the words you hear, but the space itself becomes illusionary. Filming in direct sound you can’t fool with the space, you have to respect it, and in doing so offer the viewer the chance to reconstruct it, because film is made up of ‘extracts’ of time and space.” Straub adds, “it’s possible to not respect the space you are filming, but then you have to give the viewer the possibility of understanding why it has not been respected and not, as in dubbed films, transform a real space into a constructed labyrinth which puts the viewer into a confusion from which he can no longer escape. The viewer becomes a dog who can’t find its young.” (Landscape Suicide)

In this instance, the Straubs are asking us to be aware of the components of the image, to wonder how many filmmakers fail to respect film as a recording device and instead focus too strongly on it as a narrative machine, with each shot a unity of storytelling information rather than a space filmed. This can take various forms in their work, with History Lessons relying on long takes of a young man driving around Rome in a car, and the same young man, wearing modern garb, interviewing ancient Romans. Usually working from established material (Schoenberg, Brecht, Kafka, Vittorini, Pavese), the directors are interested in culture and history on the one hand, and the present that is the moment filmed on the other, with its construction in the editing suite. “Well, at the editing phase we find ourselves with 25 hours of synched film, Straub says. “We’ve burned 245,400 ft. of negative.” Shooting with a ratio sometimes of 20 to 1, the filmmakers acknowledge that reality isn’t a given but that it isn’t a story either, no matter if there is a pre-established text. One reason why a filmmaker can keep his ratio low rests on the idea that the film is already more or less made on the script level: the filmmaker’s job is just to film it. But the Straubs would say that there are so many aspects to film, why subordinate them all to one thing? The question is manifold. Film is an art form that combines the other arts; why would we want to reduce all of them to the written word, when there are so many other questions to be asked of cinema?

The Straubs are difficult filmmakers, evident in Straub’s claim that “we make our films so that audiences can walk out of them.” It is a quote offered by Nick Pinkerton in Frieze, and we might muse over what a cinema that allows for walking out consists of. How many people walk out of a mainstream Hollywood film even if afterwards they insist it was terrible? Someone might say they have wasted two and a half hours of their time, but they would be unlikely to waste just an hour of it and then leave. It is as though there is something in the narrative machine that demands the viewer stay, a belief that it is perhaps somehow impolite to leave a narrative experience while it is perfectly acceptable to exit from a more abstract one. This tells us something about the ideology of narrative that the Straubs are trying to violate and we might think in this context of Jean-Luc Godard and his insistent and constant interruptions. Godard’s work is often predicated it would seem on impoliteness. He will cut the sound off in the middle of a sequence (First Name: Carmen), work against the light (Weekend), be apparently and viciously anti-American as if deviating from the story to put on screen personal prejudices (the attack of Spielberg and co. in Eloge de l’amour), and settle for abrupt, often absurd deaths. (Vivre sa vieLe Mepris, Slow Motion). Michel Chion notes how Godard frequently will use dialogue to stifle rather than further narrative. “Godard generates dialogue in a kind of perpetual impasse” (Film: A Sound Art) as characters don’t react to another’s statement directly, but indirectly – noticing grammatical errors, the possibility of wordplay, of deliberate confusions. The shot choices are rarely invisible and often possess a virtuoso sense of critique: like the famous tracking shot in Weekend during the traffic jam, and also another at a supermarket in Tout va bien.

This is all part of Godard’s radical self-reflexivity. As James Roy McBean says, “Godard, it is clear, wants a revolution in both art and society; and he hopes to make his contribution to the revolution of society by accomplishing in film, the revolution of art.” Godard’s ambition isn’t so much for the viewer to walk out of his film in protest, but walk out of the film to protest: that what they see in the cinema contributes to what they can do to change the world. Yet this has nothing to do with the triumphal cinema of Lincoln or Gandhi which is ameliorative as we accept that slavery and colonialism are terrible things that need to be changed. No, this is instead about constructing change in the self as subject. The viewing subject isn’t perceptually subjugated but phenomenologically emancipated. As McBean notes: “Godard has very often acknowledged that in his view art is a very serious matter with a most important role to play in the social revolution which he sees taking place today in western civilization.” McBean was writing this in 1968 (in Film Quarterly), but we might wonder if Godard’s pedagogical possibilities have even remotely been learnt. We now have as president of the US a reality TV host who was pushing all the cliches of representation as the star turn in The Apprentice. Reaction shots and cue music, the delaying of decisions for the purposes of low-grade suspense are all present. In France people have chosen as president someone who is photogenic, Emmanuel Macron, and in voting for Brexit the British public accepted a campaign that was based on falsehoods and even racism – the amount of money that would go to the NHS; the billboards showing hordes of immigrants coming to the UK if the public didn’t vote to leave the EU. Media manipulation has become an alliterative truism, evident in an article on the French election in the Guardian by Olivier Tonneau. Tonneau asked journalists whether they had engineered a run-off between Macron and Marine Le Pen and the reply from one was yes. ““Why, of course,” he laughed. “We’ve been at it for a year.” Considering how obvious the strategy had been, I cannot claim to have revealed much of a secret. Still, it’s nice to know I was not being paranoid.”

Our purpose here is not to get lost in the politics of the present, but to understand how filmmakers like Straub and Godard might have seemed elitists with no interest in an audience yet were actually filmmakers prescient to the dangers of conventions commonly used in apparently ideologically neutral cinema, conventions that could be put to good use in many other contexts – indeed have for a long time now been put to use in the cinema that the script gurus believe are hard-wired facts rather than debatable ideological assumptions. A self-reflexive aesthetic can create a viewer wise to the techniques now prevalent throughout the media. Yet this is not quite enough in itself if divorced from the socio-political. Think of the knowing and often apolitical films that deploy an ironic tone and even hint at the cinematically self-reflexive. The tone is self-aware, but can seem like bad faith on the viewer’s part as a film that has no interest in questioning the societal values nevertheless gives the impression of generating a self-aware intelligence. Anything from Tarantino’s films to Wes Anderson’s possesses this aspect, but while they might ask us to muse over film form, they don’t quite ask us to question the society out of which the images come. Cinema becomes a self-contained universe and thus apolitical. There is no sense that the viewer is aware of their interpellated status even if the filmmakers are willing to question a little the nature of the suture. They undo the stitching enough to make us aware that we are viewers working with generic codes and narrative tropes, but not enough to get us to wonder how we can radically alter our position in front of the image and in the face of societal structures.

If Anderson and Tarantino’s films have something of the advert about them, collectivist inclined cinema suggests an element of propaganda. As F. Isaksson and L. Furhammar say: “Whereas advertising turns to me, propaganda plays on us. The ‘we’ feeling is a goal to strive for and a weapon to be used.” (Conflict and Control in the Cinema) Sometimes filmmakers eschew the self-reflexive all the better to emphasise the collectivist nature of political progress. The Battle of Algiers and Land and Freedom want to examine the push for political change. In the former film, Algerian freedom fighters terrorise the occupiers in an attempt to move towards self-definition. The film focuses not on the moment of independence, but its build-up years earlier as it explores the sacrifices involved and the approaches adopted to oust a colonising force from one’s midst. The collectivist importance of the struggle means we can accept atrocity if we feel the means justifies the end. As Isaksson and Furhammar insist: “There is an effective conflict between an oppressed mass and brutal military domination, and this directs our sympathies sufficiently to enable Pontecorvo even to show Algerian atrocities without seriously endangering the audience’s us; solidarity with the mass.” In Battleship Potemkin, the Odessa Steps sequence leaves us in no doubt a revolution ought to take place. Like The Battle of Algiers, Sergei Eisenstein’s film sets his film before the revolution (basing the film on a mutiny on board the ship of the title in 1905), but shows the sewing of seeds in the evident collectivist discontent. These are propagandistic films because they focus strongly on an us against them. In this sense Hollywood, less given to collectivist endeavour, might seem closer to advertising taking into account our earlier comments about central conflict: me against you.

In Land and Freedom there is a justly celebrated scene of various fighters and villagers for the anti-Franco cause discussing land rights: an attempt to turn the individual into the collective as they talk about whether land should be shared or kept under single ownership. Unlike the key scenes from The Battle of Algiers and Battleship Potemkin, the film can’t be seen merely as propagandistic in the formula the writers propose. Of course, Potemkin and Algiers are great films, too, but Land and Freedom is willing to forgo an aspect of its revolutionary thrust for the nuances of political enquiry.It remains collectivist, but also engaged with the nature of collectivisation. Yet The Battle of Algiers is seen as a great work of terroristic intelligence, a film that captures well the workings of an organisation fighting for freedom. On the extras to the Criterion DVD, there is an interview with the admiring Richard Clarke and Michael Sheehan: counter-terrorist experts, suggesting that for all the film’s fervour it didn’t fall short when it came to logistical exploration. Potemkin, meanwhile, revolutionised cinema as well as politics. The Odessa steps sequence influenced numerous filmmakers from Sam Peckinpah to Arthur Penn and was so obviously homaged within the context of the Hollywood cinematic idiom in The Untouchables. Its political point wasn’t so blunt that it couldn’t influence more than forty years later.

The nature of us and and them also has a place in the conspiracy film, but the us becomes isolated and the them often abstract. There is less the sense of a group against a crushing state force, than individuals semi-visibly pressurised. This would cover anything from the judge in Z to the ‘war hero’ in The Manchurian Candidate; from the journalist in The Parallax View, to the oil man in The Mattei Affair. Real power often needn’t crush people with their force but manipulate the self with mind games and shadowy authority. This is where in American film architecture becomes important as we find in Point BlankThe Parallax ViewAll the President’s Men and The Conversation: buildings dwarf the individual because their fight is rarely with an individual. State or corporate power make the little man a lot smaller than in a Frank Capra film, and whether the film ends optimistically (All the President’s Men) or pessimistically (The Parallax View) we have arrived at paradigmatic shift into the invisible. Fredric Jameson recognised in the proliferation of paranoiac texts in the seventies a need for one to understand how power works upon us in its various manifestations, no matter if he adds, “conspiracy theory (and its garish narrative manifestations) must be seen as a degraded attempt–through the figuration of advanced technology–to think the impossible totality of the contemporary world system. It is in terms of that enormous and threatening, yet only dimly perceivable, other reality of economic and social institutions that, in my opinion, the postmodern sublime can alone be adequately theorized.” (The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism) Conspiracy cinema, on the other hand, which acknowledges the aporia of the conspiratorial and the intricacies of the conspiracy, can help us understand the modern condition.

It is no longer the propagandistic film that indicates a collective positively or negatively – the mob in Lang’s Metropolis and Fury – the mass in Battleship Potemkin and Strike – the crowd in Triumph of the Will – but the man unsure exactly how power works and feeling isolated from that source of power. If Hitler stands in front of many thousands and insistently puts his message across, in conspiracy films we muse over where power resides. In The Parallax View at the film’s conclusion we see the preparations for a major rally, but director Alan J. Pakula isn’t interested in the speech; more the nature of what might be going on behind the scenes. The rally is ignored and the leading character is killed, unsure at the moment of his death who it will be who has killed him. It would make sense that the conspiracy thriller became a major genre in the seventies: the advances in sniper rifle technology and the series of sixties assassinations (JFK, Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Bobby Kennedy) stamped the paranaoic and the conspiratorial on the public’s imagination. As John Orr says “investigation as a labyrinthine search for truth is subordinate to paranoia as the imagination of endless pursuit.” Later he adds, “in two recent American surveys 77 per cent and 89 per cent of all respondents thought Kennedy’s murder was a part of a widespread conspiracy that has never come to light.” (Art and Politics of Film)

Oliver Stone’s JFK presented itself not as truth but as counter-myth. If so many people refused to believe the results of the Warren Commission, then that meant an awful lot of people were willing to believe a counter-narrative if well enough constructed. This is what Stone offers up as he insists that he wanted to explore possible angles left unexplored. When asked by a Rolling Stone journalist on the film’s re-release, twenty years after it was made, if he thought Kennedy’s successor President Johnson was involved in the assassination, Stone replied “no, I didn’t say that. That’s not in the film. There is a very clear line. We draw a line between the cover-up and the assassination. The cover-up is filled with another cast of characters. That is to say, the Warren Commission itself, who is in charge of the investigation; and the main man, Alan Dulles, the ex-chief of the CIA and one of the most powerful figures in government. He was fired by Kennedy, as were all his top officials, two years earlier. He was put in charge of the investigation and buried certain information. That’s part of the cover-up.” Stone is being more judicious than many as he insists on the importance of fictionalising on the one hand, and speculation without conspiracy on the other. If the term fake news has become so popular, this is where fair-minded exploratory artists and intellectuals have to be very careful. If many Americans believe that Kennedy’s death was a widespread conspiracy then this type of scepticism linked to the need for meaning can be a breeding ground for what has now fashionably been called fake news, deliberate misinformation. If the public doesn’t believe the official version of events, then that creates the space for numerous counter-narratives that the public might be more inclined to believe even if there is little evidence to back up the claims. Stone may be famous as a paranoid in the public eye, but next to the president now in the Oval Office, he would seem a man who backs up his claims and doesn’t try to obfuscate when challenged over them.

If Kennedy is the president whose death gave birth to the proliferating belief in conspiracy, how can we not see Trump as the figure who lends himself so completely to satire? The satirical political film has been around for a long time, and Charlie Chaplin’s takedown of Hitler in The Great Dictator remains one of the greatest. Yet often the political satire has been an exploration of suspect nuance and subtlety, of compromise and political bad faith, exemplified in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate at the time of Nixon’s presidency, pre-watergate, and Bush snr and Clinton era films Bob Roberts and DaveWag the Dog and Bulworth. What is odd is that looking back these latter figures, Bush Snr and Clinton, were formidable political figures, evident to anyone who goes online and seeks out their TV debates in 1992 and compares them to the Trump/Hillary spats. We might wonder what satirical tone would be required for a president that seemed to be appearing daily in his own comedy show as a straight man while others giggle. When Trump read out the immigration law proposals journalists couldn’t hold back their laughter. If satirical films in the past took the seriousness of the politician’s stance and generated satire out of it, in the tranquillity of creation, Trump offers what we might call real-time satire: an opportunity for the viewer to laugh at the moment of the statement so uninformed and inarticulate are the remarks.

It is as though the famous claim that history repeats itself, first time as tragedy and the second time as farce, becomes repeated through ever more exaggerated notions of the satirical. If commentators joked about a B-movie actor getting into the White House when Reagan was elected despite years of political experience as governor of California, then what about a reality TV star with no political experience whatsoever? False consciousness meets a viewer consciousness: the person has a degree of televisual exposure and this can pass for charisma in the 21 st century. It is a variation of advertising, but it is also false consciousness in Marxist terms because it can lead people to vote against their own best interests. The cultural, ideological and political forces convince people that Old Etonians are the best people to run the country because the opposition have ruined the economy, even if they have done so with policies the Old Etonians support; that a multi-millionaire who won’t release his tax returns is the best man for the job because he will refuse to kow-tow to Wall Street, that a party constantly putting down foreigners will nevertheless protect the little man as a country exits Europe. Two common phrases you will find on newspaper threads is “turkeys voting for Christmas” and “you couldn’t make it up”. They are obvious and overused phrases, but they carry a distant echo from concrete terms like false consciousness and hegemony. False consciousness means that the awareness we have of a situation is limited and we cannot see the reality of our predicament. A worker earning little more than the minimum wage, working for a company making huge profits, would rather see the unemployed person as the problem. The worker reckons the non-worker is taking money from their wage packet in taxes to pay for their ‘lifestyle’ choice, as the person on the dole can barely afford the necessities, rather than the worker looking at their possible exploitation by those above making large sums of money. Hegemony in this sense is a close cousin, with the idea for example of bourgeois soft power often functioning as common sense even it happens to be serving the interests of the few. Trickle down economic theory that relies on low-taxation so that wealth creation can generate money and allow some of the proceeds to trickle down to the poorer members of society might be an example. Even if it is all but discredited, it hangs around as common sense with many taking it for granted that this is how the economy works. Hegemony can, of course, function educationally too, as a means by which to propagate elite systems of power, even if the impression given is oppositional politics. A Guardian article on the Oxford degree PPE (philosophy, politics, economics ) went by the headline “PPE: The Oxford degree that runs Britain”. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband might have been fighting an election in 2010 from opposing political perspectives, but the educational institute they attended was the same, giving credence to the idea of the public being given limited choice for all the newspapers’ talk of Red Ed. A satirical approach can look behind the apparent choices available and see how compromised politicians can be.

The Candidate is thus a great exploration of political expediency even in an idealist. Robert Redford is the conscientious lawyer taking on a Republican shoo-in who gains in the polls and is then expected to rein in the strong views. What it illustrates is politics as a mediated machine. Some might believe that the film is outdated; that populism in the form of Trump and Brexit works. But in each instance, others might wonder whether it was the integrity of Trump and Nigel Farage’s perspective that counted, or more the media attention given to strongly expressed (rather than strongly held) views. Trump and Farage gave the impression of being their own men no matter if some might see the idea of being one’s own man very close to looking after one’s own interests. This a false populism that suggests better the person looking after themselves than the technocratic idea that others are looking after us. Is this not exactly what Trump was proposing when he said he boasted that he had taken advantage of various tax loopholes? 

To conclude let us flashback to a film that conjoins the popular with populism. In 1942 Charlie Chaplin made The Great Dictator: one of the most important icons of cinema took on the man terrorising the free world. Here Chaplin plays both the humble Jew and the titular dictator, unnamed but unequivocal in a film that challenges race as the gap between the Jew and the Gentile, between the Semitic barber and the Aryan dictator is so narrow that by the end of the film the former gets to imitate the latter and invert the values that dictator Hynckel had thus far been propagating. The film’s message at the end is nicely put and well meant, but the film is a great piece of cinema and an important work of ideological resistance because it uses burlesque genius to undermine racial stereotyping. The whole point of racism is to point up the enormous difference between one thing and another, between one race and another. The point of burlesque is the opposite. To see how two apparently distinct things can appear the same. We might have a tyre that resembles a wreath, a pan lid that functions as a cymbal, a boot that one can drink out of and so on. In The Great Dictator what makes Hynckel Hynckel is no more than a moustache that can easily be donned by someone who is supposedly his racial inferior and suddenly everyone mistakes him for the great man. Here Chaplin indicates there is little difference between two apparent opposites and calls into question racial assumption through burlesque humour.

Our purpose here hasn’t been an in-depth analysis of ideology in film; just to explore a few terms and a few modes in which the political in cinema can manifest itself. Lenin proposed that cinema was the most important of all the arts, while Hitler made sure that Goebbels’ propaganda machine utilised the full possibilities of celluloid. Yet its purpose needn’t always be to serve State aims. It can also serve just as readily to undermine and question them too. As Jean-Luc Godard once proposed: the purpose isn’t to make political films but to make films politically. We have looked at a few political genres, utilised a handful of ideologically useful concepts, and have we hope shown why ideology is indeed commonly practised in film, however consciously or otherwise.

©Tony McKibbin