Ideology and the Individual in Cinema part I
Posted by stalinwasarobot
“You don’t know it, but you’re doing it.” – Karl Marx
“For example, in painting the form arises from abstract elements of line and color, while in cinema the material concreteness of the image within the frame presents – as an element – the greatest difficulty in manipulation.” -Eisenstein
Among the necessary tasks which communists must undertake in this wild, untamed new time is a renewal of critiques leveled at all art and media which is produced within the framework of bourgeois hegemony; in particular, we must begin a renewed campaign against literature and film — which undoubtedly act as one of the major sources of cultural interpellation. While this may be a conscious or unconscious effort, I have concerned here myself with establishing the beginnings of a critique towards film, and hope to expand upon it in greater detail throughout the works that will come after this one. It is a subject which, when time is permitting, has held a great deal of my recreational interest (specifically in those dreamy, prepolitical years of my adolescence). My main concern revolving around this cultural critique is that film is not only something which an enormous portion of the American masses come into contact with, it is something by which the whole of the Earth knows us by (especially with regards to our blockbuster films). This subject, of course, should be of immense interest to anyone looking to uphold or anyone looking to cast asunder said bourgeois cultural hegemony, and the fact that this hegemony exists at all should be considered a priori when moving forward with this particular intro, as well as the future works which I contribute in relation to this series
The school of thought from which I approach this work is, first and foremost, heavily influenced by mostly French thinkers (Barthes, Lacan with a heavier emphasis upon materialism, and Althusser) as the discipline in question, Apparatus Film theory, is almost entirely composed of such thinkers. Firstly, within the sphere of historical dialectical materialist thinking the goal of later pieces will surely be an effort at constructing a larger body of work which, eventually culminating in to what I hope will be a worthwhile indictment on the use of none other than the protagonist itself.
You see, being that individualism (or at least, selective individualism) is the dominant segment of thinking within the sphere of bourgeois cultural hegemony, I think it is no wonder that the exceedingly vast majority of film, and literature for that matter, requires the irrational protagonist (that is, the hero, in all it’s manifestations, flawed or otherwise) as a main vehicle for narrative. Insofar as ones mind is driven towards the establishment of collective living, I think it neccessary that Communists begin the task of dissecting, and ultimately, destroying the protagonist as one of the sole means of narrative. It is a daunting task, of course, one which I shall spend a great deal of time upon, and shall attentively study what topics I encounter before posting further works on the matter, yet like this is the case with all tasks lying at the forefront of all which radical thinkers must contend with. And more than a mere critique of the modern film industry, I hope to comb through the historical tendencies in film (those which have persisted through the years, those that have been discarded) in order to try and firmly grasp an understanding of the medium of film as it currently exists.
First, to establish the tone of this and future works, I will maintain the Althusserian view that film, of course, is apart of the vast network of ideological tools which inoculates the masses for a certain mode of thinking.
To quote Althusser, film is a part of the system in which “…all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects”.
Viewing the phenomena of film through this prism, one is almost certainly going to find themselves at odds with the orthodox, petty-bourgeois view of film historians who’s historical logic is quite mired in formalism and Auteuristic thinking. As such, the view that, whether consciously or unconsciously, film produced in a bourgeois framework is inevitably gong to produce reactionary sentiments will always clash with the old guard of film theory (which, in the Western world, is vigilantly watching over the camp of formalist narrative). In an effort to unearth the many reactionary social relations which are exemplified in film, the tool which is the protagonist appears to us as among the most important.
I maintain this because the near-universal prevalence of the individual protagonist epitomizes the grotesquely American mentality of ”rugged individualism”, which daily haunts the efforts of proletarian artistic ambition — along with many other material factors (namely, economic opportunity, but that is a discussion for another time). Communists who are seeking to combat the cultural hegemony at work should not be bashful in their ambitions or in stating their intentions; rather, we should throw ourselves headfirst into the vast sea of historical tendencies towards reaction, which is heavily strewn throughout the pathos of cinema. With this, we should of course be reexamining our understanding of the Lacanian ”gaze”, and beyond the hopelessly amorphous Zizekian reasoning towards it.
The notion of the lone, individual hero, while almost omnipresent, is not a universal phenomena (for instance, in the television series the Wire there was not a heavy emphasis upon an individual protagonist, placing emphasis instead upon the totality of the city of Baltimore itself). There have been numerous and noteworthy examples coming from early Russian and Soviet cinema, particularly in the literary tradition of Ostrovsky as well as the cinematic tradition of earlier Eisenstein, all the way to the achievements in Chinese cinema under the pre-Dengist CCP. Elsewhere, there were some minute attempts towards protagonist deconstruction or even outright destruction in the Situationist movement, albeit with often mixed to mediocre results in terms of conveying this kind of thinking to the spectator (the subject, after all).
However, as we all surely understand, the vast majority of cinema, and quite nearly a hundred percent of what comes out of the West, depends upon narratives which are entirely driven by the tragedy and triumph of the individual, even when the suffering of the masses is present in the backdrop. It is nearly an inescapable phenomena, even in the most beautiful of cinematic pieces; from Delluc’s La Femme de nulle part, to Kuleshov’s We From the Urals, all the way up to a modern masterpiece such as Children of Men. Such a thing may very well help compose the essence of art under the hegemony of bourgeois reaction, wherein art (like all things) can very rarely escape the cultural artifacts which to make up the fabric of our interpersonal relations. Knowing this, it is simply a matter of nitpicking films which seem to speak to a revolutionary collective mindset (which would require the employ of opinionated metaphysics) and we instead must take up this sword of Democles against all cinema which has been produced in correspondence with the capitalist mode of production. We must do so with the full knowledge that destruction of the protagonist has only been done in the guise of experimentation, applied in practice with a ”touch-and-go” mentality — without ever once piercing the hull of mainstream, philistine cinema.
No doubt we shall encounter those more or less unversed in the now all too esoteric radical modes of thinking who will ask, ”Why is this, the destruction of the protagonist, of such artistic importance?”
Really, we must answer as honestly as we can by acknowledging, as I have stated, the fundamental use of film as an apparatus, especially in the context of this era. The fascistic drive towards focusing upon the individual hero, of the Overman protagonist, relies upon several subjective human experiences which, in turn, give it potency (various emotional responses, particularly pride, fear and anger). It can often be strange phenomena which, as Laura Mulvey has pointed out, can induce a sort of transsexual identification in the case of female protagonists in films geared towards male demographics, or vice versa (whenever the particular plot or target audience demands this be the case).
This is due not only to the conscious efforts of the studio itself seeking to convey a certain feeling upon the spectator (mostly in the name of profit and Capital, something which destroys the notion of total Auteuristic validity) but it is also due in part to the condition of individualism which is already present in the spectator. In this way, cinema and spectator (object and subject) can very often influence one another while the axis of ”the gaze” remains present. What film produced in bourgeois society does is to (again, consciously or unconsciously) come to terms with the condition of atomization which all those living in modernity experience. This is part of the Althusserian assertion of bourgeois hegemony being conveyed through film, i.e. the hero overcoming the adverse conditions which befall them, often or always upon the basis of their own merit. This should be a familiar mantra, something which the bourgeois state and cultural apparatus daily instills into our heads from the second we enter schooling to the second we are no longer a viable source of producing surplus value.’ And what a convenient narrative it is — and in film, it is forced upon the spectator in the form of that archetypical Ubermenschian who breathes ”the thinnest air of the highest peaks” (to paraphrase Nietzsche) in order to see above the rabble, and the struggle to do so almost always forms the fictional narrative itself. Shouldering this burden, however, are the masses who week-after-week spend countless man hours upon film, flocking into crowded theaters, or increasingly, hiding away in their living rooms or in front of their computer screens, to witness film after film made up almost entirely of grandiose fiction about (obviously) unrealistic heroic peaks. Perhaps this ethos of cinema is most apparent at the moment in the highly entertaining but nevertheless fascistic Django Unchained.
While this piece is intended to be a mere introduction to further periodicals on this subject, I think it’s important to begin the dialogue on this matter. In order to ascertain a bold, new and unflinching proletarian outlook upon the development of film, we who are captivated by this topic must go back through the annals of cinematic history — to the beginning, and back up again. Yet, it is not merely enough to draw upon hitherto established tendencies from the early Eisensteinian (breaking with films such as Ivan the Terrible for both it’s reactionary nationalism as well as raw individualism) or other traditions in the same vein (although that is of critical importance) but we must also travel down new, untested roads which confront the ever-present struggle betwixt the object and subject in the context of cinema. Our (that is to say, we Communists) central task being the confrontation of all things stemming from bourgeois hegemony, then a critical dialectical understanding of film in all its manifestations (film being at the forefront of consumable media) requires our immediate attention. In turn, the cultural vanguard elements, moving along with the masses, must gaze suspiciously unto the hero who confronts us with his harsh individualism. From the director to the protagonist, this sentiment, along with it’s callous disregard for the masses who inevitably are the source of all materials, must eventually be set aside and left at the door for broader horizons to open up before us. The fictional hero, who spreads his wings and soars overhead of the narrative (apart of it, but somehow, also above it) must be done away with. Whether this process is apart of the revolution itself or it forms the way in which the masses prepare for such an event is of no consequence. What matters is that it eventually reach a quantitative-qualitative conclusion, departing from the current (and now, increasingly artistically destructive) way in which a story is told.
These things being said, one of the central tasks of these coming pieces will not only be the opening up dialogue on the destruction of the protagonist of modernity but differentiating it from the hero-myths of past narrative — albeit, the latter is not something we can return to. However, as I will explore in later pieces, I think there is a stark difference between the cultural functions of the Achilles or Liu Bei archetypes, and the John McLeans or Jason Bournes (to name but two philistine examples). Of the former, it can be said that whether or not the character in question is derived from actuality (which very often they were) is of no consequence; rather, we must look at individual heros of antiquity as cultural summations which reflect not only a different mode of production (all cultural activity inevitably correspond with this) but also a different outlook on existence altogether. The hero of Hellenic or Asiatic antiquity does not work in spite of the environment from which he is produced, and when the hero does undertake such folly, it often leads to their demise. This is opposed to the modern incarnation of heroism, where in the realm of cinema, the role is taken one step further, and all things are done in spite of the environment from which the narrative is produced. Again, this struggle may compose the very story itself.
I highlight this difference and will continue to do so because it reflects the essential point of this piece; ideology, and it’s inevitable place spellbinding us in various artistic mediums. While I do not harbor any reactionary sentiment towards the heroic culture of old, understanding the contrasting functions which these two manifestations of story-telling is essential to understanding that cinema has become a medium of irrational individualism, as have most artistic ambitions in the framework of Capital.
If we are not yet prepared to begin the task of destroying the protagonist, which is something I would not hesitate to admit, then we must at least be honest with ourselves relative to the function of the protagonist in modern cinema. The pieces which will follow this, I hope, can serve as a catalyst for this necessary dialogue, which has considerably waned in intensity since the days of Lacan and Althusser, having only been recently employed by the likes of Slavoj Zizek, who’s clumsy analysis of it all has sent us looking further into the darkness. And while one has to begrudgingly admire Zizek for such efforts amidst the grim, lifeless state which academic study towards the subject is in, we simply have to push further towards a new, proletarian understanding of film, and art in general.
Posted on January 7, 2013, in Art, ideology, Left-turn, Marxism, Media, Philosophy and Politics, Polemics, RIght-turn, Socialism, Technology, Uncategorized and tagged Althusser, apparatus, Film. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.