Looking back on my life in higher education, I feel enough time has passed to be honest with myself; I was a lousy student. I didn’t have the stamina or discipline to ingest the necessary materials to construct an academic argument – and the more time that passes by, the more admiration I have for my lecturers for managing to drag passable work out of me; it must have been like pulling teeth at times.
Methodology was always the main thing that held me back – I wanted so badly to get on to analysing the films in question, and their political themes (or lack thereof). While I was fortunate enough to bluff my way to a Masters in Media and Culture at the University of East Anglia, by the time I ran out of funds to continue my self-funded PhD in film, I was fast running out of steam.
Working for a doctorate in film studies seems largely to centre on three years of justifying what you want to talk about, and three days of actually talking about those things. The process of that justification is excruciating – and it still amazes me that I managed to pass my first year panel – but looking back on it, I wonder if just finding the right source might have changed all that. With that in mind, I have to state flat out that I would likely have killed for a copy of Mike Wayne’s Marxism Goes to the Movies four years ago.
From the library, to the studio, to the theatre
One of the things that many a would-be film scholar has butted heads against at the start of a project is navigating the minefield of explaining why you can say anything political at all about film. After all, the moment anyone tries to analyse the themes of a movie, they will have to face the argument that art is subjective, and if that is the case then they will face claims that any meaning is created by a film beyond what the filmmakers explicitly state (and sometimes not even that) becomes to some extent ‘arbitrary.’
Fortunately, throughout its 218 pages, Marxism Goes to the Movies goes to extensive lengths to address this from all angles. Wayne’s comprehensive materialist explanation of the ways meaning becomes present in culture takes in the economic and social relationships of production, distribution and reception in the cinematic process, illustrating how a wide-ranging contextual examination of movies can help draw out important debates surrounding class, gender, race, sexuality, religion and a host of other social constructs.
Illustrating the occasionally nonsensical dead-end the idea that looking to discuss a film’s meaning can be ‘arbitrary’ or ‘prescriptivist,’ one of Wayne’s first attempts to counter the argument takes in a theory of language interpretation:
“Language is not to be conceived as dualistically separated from ‘reality’… The intelligibility of conceptual objects such as ‘ox’ depends on such social practices as farming and the specific role different animals have within farming practices… The word ‘ox’ is not arbitrary; the distinctions between ox and other animals derive from our social interaction and use of animals (which motivates classification). Conventions of any kind are not arbitrary; they make sense and become meaningful for communities that use those conventions in their social practices. They may not be universal… they may repress or marginalise alternative ways of making sense for subjugated groups within a given community, but to say that they are arbitrary is to deny the social basis of their emergence, use and intelligibility.”
I could spend longer in this review illustrating how Wayne systematically goes about showing the ways meaning can be produced in film – and the further issues that brings to the surface – but it would be unfair to fixate solely on this book’s academic functions. Importantly, it should also be highlighted that Marxism Goes to the Movies serves as an excellent jumping-off point for filmmakers, critics and wider audiences when considering their own relationships to cinema.
If your realm of interest is more practically oriented, then Wayne provides a blue print to examine your own filmmaking with. The book guides us through a detailed account of critical film practice, illustrating how filmmakers throughout the medium’s history have critiqued technical techniques, narrative styles and modes of production which were taken for granted, while looking to develop and advance new forms and structures that would ultimately transform storytelling well beyond the Marxist tradition.
By exploring the accounts provided; from the participative methods of early documentarians John and Ruby Grierson, to the innovative editing of Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, to the “father of African film” Ousmane Sembène, to European realists like Ken Loach, this meticulous trip through the evolution of alternative cinema provides food for thought for the current and next generation of independent artists. By standing on the shoulders of giants, and understanding the debates surrounding the depictions of life via art which came before, they will have an invaluable arrow in their bow, as they look to develop their own styles and make their own interventions in visual language.
Beyond the production of film and theory, meanwhile, Wayne also provides important insight into film criticism. The passing of movies through the digestive tract of film journalists – respected or otherwise – remains a crucial part of their consumption and reception via the broader public. While occasionally there are films that manage to defy this process – either thanks to mass public appeal such as Joker or the long-term accruing of a cult following as with Apocalypse Now – Wayne points out that more often than not, critics side-step the structural and ideological issues films raise; either pushing such dialogue to a highly subjective level where systemic context is diminished, or centring a review entirely on technical competencies.
“Even where middle-class empathy is widened to include those outside its identities and identifications they are typically used to, there is a characteristic difficulty in drawing the political conclusions of that new evidence of and feeling for lives far more brutalised than their own… [Such] ambivalences are quite typical of the film criticism surrounding art cinema, which likes to raise the problems it finds to a less politically fraught, more a-historical humanist level (the human condition), in which the specifities of phenomena such as western imperialism or capitalism and the political-moral demands these phenomena make on us, are weakened.”
Critics, as with the production of film itself, are still “nested in the dominant capitalist mode of production, both at the level of journalism as an industry, and at the level of social formation itself.” In this context, as with filmmaking, Wayne argues that Marxist frameworks, which help explain and explore the impacts of economics and political hierarchies on social norms, can help return questions of power and inequality to our view. After all, if film critics are only willing to discuss a film’s aesthetics from within the safe confines of a liberal-pluralist bubble, and unwilling to engage with the broader socio-economic debates films are inescapably intertwined with, not only are they selling short the art they are supposedly so passionate about, but they are hacking off their own relevance at the knees, and locking themselves in an ivory tower where ultimately society and culture will pass them by.
One area which did beg further elaboration was the potential for the appropriation of cinema for the sake of illustrating a political point. Analysing the material conditions of production or the ideological connotations of movies are not the only reason Marxists, leftists or progressives engage with culture – they can and do repurpose popular culture to help serve as a parable.
Perhaps the most famous purveyor of such a technique is the much-maligned Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek. While Žižek is prone to reactionary political lapses (to the extent that Facebook’s famous Socialist Meme Caucus once labelled him “the worst communist I have ever heard of”) he has arguably succeeded in coming closer to bringing Marxist theory to mainstream recognition than any other living theorist.
To do this, Žižek often takes hold of popular cinema to make a political point which it is highly unlikely it was ever intended to make. For example, he once pointed to Marvel’s Avengers franchise as an example of post-capitalist cooperation, where those rejected by the current mode of production – for example the disabled, or the homeless – would finally be empowered to utilise their skill-sets for the good of society in a way that the standard capitalist ‘ideal worker’.
Indeed, Žižek is conspicuous by his absence in Wayne’s otherwise exhaustive examination of Marxists and their interventions with cinema and culture. This is an absence further pronounced by the fact the author uses Children of Men, and it’s placing of a social collapse in the peripheral of its initially individualistic main narrative to point out the absurdity of a single hero thriving in spite of systemic injustice – something Žižek explored in a six minute commentary track on the R1 DVD release of Children of Men.
As mentioned, Žižek comes with a history of extremely problematic baggage, while his own philosophy often leans heavily on the work of others – so it may well be that this perceived snub is entirely justified. However, it is hard not to feel that Wayne should justify it in some way – especially as it seems there is something beneficial to be gleaned by the left at large from Žižek’s style of subverting apparently bourgeois culture to help popularise his politics.
Wayne rightly goes on to point out, “popular culture can be made relevant to political debates, even when the popular culture in question derives from outside the national context of reception.” However, it also needs to be noted that those deploying such tactics need to display a deeper level of buy-in than they often do.
While the likes of Žižek are visibly engaged with cinema – to the extent they make films about films – many more efforts on this front are of minimal effort, to put it kindly. For example, the casual leveraging of ‘zombie economics’ as a term on the left demonstrates only a casual engagement with the culture it alludes to. While zombies are undead, and the global financial system could be seen as being kept alive artificially, zombies in cinema are more often embodiments of sweeping change – sometimes overtly personifying the fears of the ruling elite. Capitalism might be undead, but its elite have much more in common with vampires (socially aloof, old-world types who live in castles and feed on the life-force of peasants).
This type of lacklustre approach to using culture for political illustrations is something which only ends up preaching to the converted as it were. While committed Marxists might be willing to look past a surface-level analysis of popular films however, consumers of that culture who Marxists might have hoped to reach via this ploy will be far more discerning, and may well see it as disingenuous.
If I ever return to complete my PhD (and it remains something I would dearly like to do) then this book is going to prove something of a godsend. Aside from the relatively minor point on subverting mainstream culture (which I admit I have probably made too lengthy a diversion to address), I honestly cannot recommend Mike Wayne’s book highly enough.
It provides filmmakers with insights to help them develop their own visual language and think at length about the techniques they previously deployed as second-nature. It hands academics looking to make interventions in political debates surrounding cinema a blue-print from which they can tailor a discerning methodology, justifying their analysis. It pushes critics to move beyond their comfort zone of simply identifying ‘good cinema’ to revaluate what ‘good cinema’ is aside from a list of technical proficiencies and subjective ‘feelings’.
All in all, Marxism Goes to the Movies is essential reading for anyone looking to engage critically and constructively with film, and as a multitude of systemic crises come to a head in 2020 and beyond, it resurrects an invaluable framework which was so hastily cast aside at the supposed ‘end of history’ in the 1990s. Wayne’s book shows just how vital that same framework will be in order to understand and change the economic, environmental, political and cultural maelstrom we are entering into.
Marxism Goes to the Movies is available for order for £31.99 from publisher Routledge.