Image -Tomás Gutiérrez Alea
“The world is already filmed, it’s now a matter of changing it.” Guy Debord – Society of the Spectacle
In the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution, one of the greatest challenges was how to educate the population in the ideals and possibilities embodied by the process. Due to the massive inequalities which had prevailed under the Batista regime, many of the population were illiterate, and film was deemed to be one of the best ways in which to reach the public and spread the word. Within the Dirección de Cultura del Ejército Rebelde (Culture Division of the Rebel Army) was set up ICAIC (the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry), which still maintains the Cuban film industry and archives to this day. ICAIC emerged from a radical pedagogical impulse, initially specialising in documentary, many of which are classics of the form.
If many Cubans couldn’t read, some in remote regions hadn’t even stepped foot in a cinema before, which is why cine móvils (mobile cinemas) were set up to reach outlying areas. This initiative is movingly documented in Octavio Cortazar’s Por primero vez (For the First Time), which follows one of these mobile cinemas, interviewing local people on their expectations of cinema, then documenting their reactions to their first ever screening – of Chaplin’s Modern Times. I can think of no other film that more revealingly demonstrates the transformative communal power of the cinematic experience.
Por primero vez
This period, known as the Golden Age of Cuban cinema, shows film quickly moving beyond a neorealist or simple educational impulse to explore the potential of film as an artform, in films as radical in their form as their content.
Santiago Alvarez’s documentaries are a case in point – beginning in newsreel, he would quickly progress to making didactic films using what he termed “nervous montage” to explore his themes. He once summed up his aesthetic as ”Give me two photographs, a moviola and some music and I’ll make you a film” – a perfect description of his approach in such films as Now! and LBJ, which looked beyond Cuba to criticise the US for its race relations and involvement in Vietnam.
This, of course, wasn’t the first time that a national cinema had been used to try and change a society; there was a clear precedent in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
Lenin considered film as the prime artistic medium to promote social change, issuing his “Directives on the Film Business” in 1922. The Soviet film industry was in chaos after the Revolution however, and the first major steps were taken by Dziga Vertov in his pioneering Kino-Pravda series (Film Truth), which, in their attempts to portray the quotidian reality of the new state, can be seen to lay the groundwork for cinema vérité. However, Vertov would soon progress beyond simple observation of reality, creating complex, disjunctive webs of montage that would confuse viewers and party apparatchiks, as he formulated his theory of the Kino-Glaz (the cine-eye). He aimed to elevate not just the social conscience but the consciousness of the viewer, and his techniques would reach their apogee with his Man With a Movie Camera, an attempt to make a new kind of cinematic language, which as one intertitle declares, would be “[separated] from the language of theatre and literature”.
While this film would prove to be massively influential in the history of cinema, it was largely met with incomprehension in its day (1929). Soviet cinema would come to be associated with the cinema of another radical filmmaker, one with a more direct and immediate approach, Sergei M.Eisenstein, who described Vertov’s film as “pointless camera hooliganism”.
Eisenstein would develop his own style of montage, what he termed a montage of attractions, seen to most famous effect in his account of a failed revolution, Battleship Potemkin (1925), whose Odessa Steps sequence is one of the most quoted – and most parodied scenes in cinema history. While the kinetic juxtaposition of soldiers’ brutality, bouncing baby carriage and stone lions appearing to rise up in rage at the outrage still carries a charge, the actual content of some of Eisenstein’s juxtapositions may seem a little obvious to modern tastes, as in the contrasts between, for instance, starving peasants and greedy bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, it was Eisenstein’s dialectical approach to montage that would come to be associated with radical political film for many years, and create a style in opposition to Hollywood’s, and most conventional cinema’s institutional mode of representation. Another interesting difference between Eisenstein’s and Hollywood’s approaches is that in his films he would follow the effects of action or a situation through a mass of people, a collective if you like, rather than Hollywood’s focus on the individual.
This period of Soviet cinema would only last for about a decade though, dying along with the promises of the Revolution. Both Eisenstein and Vertov would find their careers and radical modernist ideas put under pressure by Stalin and his new aesthetic of Socialist Realism. While Lenin had wanted art that could communicate with the people, his regime had allowed the avant-garde to flourish, in an attempt to find a new artistic language that could express the dynamics of a new society. In 1934, the writer Maxim Gorky defined Socialist Realism as the prevalent new aesthetic, one that dovetailed with Stalin’s mission to be an “engineer of human souls”, a didactic Marxist approach that would stress the positive, even utopian aspects of Soviet life, rather than acknowledging its complexities. Out were avant-garde experiments, in were heartwarming tales of peasant children and musicals about tractor workers – essentially, kitsch to get people through the famines and the threat of being sent to the Gulags.
This kind of work was similar to other Totalitarian art being produced in Europe, that of Nazi Germany. When one thinks of radical film, or of film’s capacity to change the world, one tends to think of left wing cinema. Yet one of the first films to have had a major impact on social change was D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), a film which, in its first half at least, would radically expand the possibilities of American cinema, before turning into a racist pantomime for its second half, with white actors in black face terrorising white women who would be saved by the Ku Klux Klan. As ridiculous, bizarre and offensive as this film may seem to us today, membership of the Klan actually surged in its wake.
Birth of a Nation
Hitler’s propaganda minster Goebbels was acutely aware of the power of film – as he stated, “We are convinced that films constitute one of the most modern and scientific means of influencing the mass. Therefore the government must not neglect them.” Neglect them the Nazis certainly did not; they were inheriting one of the most powerful film industries in the world, one that seriously rivalled Hollywood in the late 20s. Nazi cinema however, would produce a very different kind of film, one that would repel most of the country’s most talented filmmakers, many of whom were Jewish, left wing or both, and see them exile themselves in France and then the US, to those countries’ benefit.
The country’s top director of the day, Fritz Lang, was courted by Goebbels to become the Furher of the film industry. In response, Lang revived his old ubercriminal Dr Mabuse, made him a lunatic in an asylum spouting the kind of statements Hitler might make, and fled the country – fast. Lesser names would make such propaganda films as Hitlerjunge Quex, which celebrated the sacrifice of a Hitler Youth in the struggle against socialism, while films like Jud Suss would promote virulent anti-Semitic stereotypes.
These films are very rarely screened and barely remembered, for reasons of both ethics and aesthetics; what has survived of Nazi cinema are the documentaries of Leni Riefenstahl, who, in a bitter irony, would be the most successful female director in the world at the time.
Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will documents the 1934 Nuremburg Rally, and, given complete access to the proceedings and freedom to embellish them (Hitler considered her the “perfect German woman”) did more than any other film in establishing the iconographic power of Hitler and the party. Her record of the Berlin Olympics, Olympia, expresses a Fascist aesthetic just as completely as her previous film, as its Utopian celebration of perfect bodies in its prologue progresses to its documentation of the games themselves, Jesse Owens’ infamous win and all. There is, unfortunately, no reaction shot from Hitler to that.
Nazi cinema effectively helped brainwash much of its citizenry, a legacy that would haunt the country and its film industry for decades. Immediately after the war, Roberto Rossellini would explore the process of denazification of a young boy to pessimistic effect in his devastatingly bleak Germany Year Zero. Thirtyfive years later, Rainer Werner Fassbinder would hauntingly explore the career of star of Nazi cinema Sybille Schmitz, unemployable and addicted to morphine, in his majestic Veronika Voss.
Perhaps the only good thing to come out of Nazi cinema was German filmmakers themselves, many of whom had ended up in the US and were veiling social critiques of their new found land through the iconography of film noir. With Fascism defeated, another enemy was needed, and that would be declared to be Communism. Many American film writers, directors and actors were or had been members of the Communist Party, or had left wing leanings (so called “fellow travellers”), and paranoia was growing that they were smuggling socially progressive messages into their films. Certainly, a film like Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948) daringly juxtaposes the numbers racket and banking, and manages to speak more eloquently about Capitalism in the form of a B-movie than Wall Street does as a prestige picture. Polonsky and the film’s star John Garfield would find themselves under investigation by the House of un-American Activites Commission (HUAC), an organisation that would blacklist some of the most famous names in Hollywood (Chaplin included) and wreck many careers.
Force of Evil
One of the countries where radical film would reemerge was France, where many blacklisted filmmakers (like Jules Dassin of Naked City and Rififi fame would flee), and which, like the Soviet Union, had had a vigorous cinematic avant-garde in the twenties.
The Surrealist movement, while it may be primarily remembered as an art movement revelling in unsettling juxtapositions of images and objects, had originated as a literary movement, and the intention of these juxtapositions had been to undermine the fabric of reality, in order to change it. As the movement’s leader, Andre Breton, asserted, “long live the social revolution, and it alone!” The movement had also been active in cinema, the most famous products being the fruits of collaboration between the anarchist, anti-clerical filmmaker Luis Bunuel and artist Salvador Dali, who would be subsequently ejected from the movement for being too right wing in his sympathies.
Their first film Un Chien Andalou (1928), would open with an assault on vision itself, as an eye is sliced open on screen, This leads to a series of scenes designed to have no narrative or symbolic meaning as far as possible; if anything made sense, it was rejected. At the premiere, Bunuel provided the soundtrack by alternating between Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and an Argentinian tango on a pair of decks, with rocks in his pockets to throw at the audience if they rioted. They didn’t, the film was a success, and if any social change had happened, it was that Bunuel had perhaps inadvertently invented the art of DJing.
Their subsequent film L’Age d’Or, definitely was about something, being an attack on the church and bourgeoisie – too much for Dali, who fled the shoot – and succeeded in provoking the anticipated riot, when outraged right wingers attacked the cinema screening the film to burn it down, before the film itself was completely banned.
Radical cinema in France in the 50s was still being banned, especially when dealing with colonial issues. René Vautier’s Afrique 50 began life as a promotional film for the French colonial education system in West Africa, one which Vautier totally subverted into the first major cinematic attack on the process of colonialism, secretly filming sites of atrocities against the population. Vautier was jailed for a year and his film banned for 40 years, which didn’t deter him from a lifetime of radical filmmaking, engaging with such issues as the Algerian War and workers’ rights in over 100 films which saw him collaborate with such major figures in the French film industry as Louis Malle and Chris Marker, via the Group Medvedkine.
Marker would prove to be the most influential French radical filmmaker of the period; this may appear to go against received wisdom, as he was largely not even regarded as a filmmaker at this time, but rather as an editor, for the auteur director Alain Resnais. However, his reputation has come to eclipse the latter’s, partly as a result of his redrawing the very possibilities of cinema.
Les Statues Meurent Aussi
Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die) was their first major collaboration, a film which traces the trajectory of African art from its aesthetic and use value to its creators to its reduction to ethnographic displays in western museums, or reproduction as touristic kitsch, a progress from religious fetish to commodity fetish. Even more radically, it demonstrates how black bodies are also made spectacular when subjected to the white gaze in such social fields as entertainment and sports, and in its argument that black art should treated as seriously as European art, implies that black people should also be treated with equality.
While Resnais would go on to be an internationally famous creator of art films, Marker would plough his own furrow, deconstructing the clichés of documentary to find a new subjectivity that would pay witness to the world around him,creating his own form of documentation of the twentieth century, and eclipsing Resnais’s reputation in the twenty-first. This would see Marker travel from Siberia to Israel to Cuba and back to Paris, all subjected to his inquisitive analytic gaze. Cuba Si! (1962) is the definitive document of Cuba after the revolution, and the film that would do most to establish the country’s popular image amongst European intellectuals.
Sara Gómez in Salut les Cubains
Other filmmakers would follow Marker to Cuba, now established as a nexus of revolutionary promise, such as Agnès Varda, who was inspired by his example to make Salut Les Cubains from a succession of still photos she took there. The country and its political leaders were inherently photogenic; as Varda would comment, “(Castro) incarnates Cuba the way Gary Cooper incarnates the Wild West.” One of her subjects and collaborators on the film was Sara Gómez, who would go on to examine the intersections of race and gender as Cuba’s first female (and Afro-Cuban) filmmaker.
And rather than just being subjects for radical European filmmakers, Latin America and the so-called Third World as a whole were developing their own autonomous radical cinemas. This contentious term gave birth to the concept of Third Cinema, a reaction against the passive entertainment of Hollywood (First Cinema) and the self-indulgent egocentrism of European art cinema (Second Cinema), proposing a new radically engaged form of cinema where popular struggle would be prioritised. It took many forms in different countries; Glauber Rocha’s Aesthetic of Hunger and the cinema novo of Brazil, Juan Garcia Espinosa’s manifesto For an Imperfect Cinema in Cuba, and most famously Argentinian filmmaker Fernando Solanas’s concept of Third Cinema, which even called for covert screenings outside the commercial mainstream in order to avoid censorship. While both Brazil and Argentina would become embroiled in military dictatorships, one filmmaker involved with Third Cinema who did effectively instigate social change was Jorge Sanjines, whose work with and around indigenous people in Bolivia led to the expulsion of the Peace Corps from the country following his exposure of a sterilisation programme they were enforcing in Blood of the Condor (1969). Nevertheless, Sanjines would still come under criticism, on the charge that the indigenous peoples he was documenting couldn’t actually understand his films. In response, he simplified his style, to less international critical response – a common dilemma for the radical filmmaker, in the forms of address that they could take. Personally, I like French filmmaker and theorist Guy Debord’s dictum that “a film should be as difficult as the times it describes” .
Juan Garcia Espinosa’s Adventures of Juan Quin Quin
Additionally, the simple fact of a film being made in the developing world didn’t automatically exempt it from the charge of exploiting, exotifying or othering its subjects.
Columbian filmmaker Luis Ospina brilliantly parodied the vogue for filming the underprivileged in his coruscating The Vampires of Poverty, which followed the attempts of a local film crew to film the inhabitants of a shanty town for the benefits of the European market. Exploring his contempt for what he called pornomiseria, or poverty porn, this is a poverty safari that everyone should take, addressing the problem of what Deleuze diagnosed as “the indignity of speaking for others”, and should be essential viewing for all documentary filmmakers.
The Vampires of Poverty
Certainly, Latin American countries were fully participating in the vanguard of high modernism that would characterise cinema of the ‘60s, a modernism that was becoming increasingly politicised, as the Second cinema of the arthouse was metamorphosing into something new.
1968 would prove to be the most formative year. In Cuba, two films would be made that would put the country’s own cinema on the international auteurist map. Humberto Solas’s Lucia was an ambitious epic tracing Cuban history and the formation of Cuban identity by focusing on the situation of women, the gender who Solas believed were closest to social reality, by being the most affected by power structures in society. Tracing the stories of three separate heroines named Lucia, at three different junctures in Cuban society, the film adopts radically different stylistic approaches, ranging from neo Expressionism for the segment on the country’s liberation from the Spanish to a comedy of domestic abuse for the satire on machismo in the present day, a trend which the Cuban revolution hoped to replace with gender equality.
Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment is another extremely sophisticated examination of Cuban society, charting the disillusionment of an intellectual who stays on the island after the revolution, and simultaneously critiquing Cuban society and the bourgeois class. Set in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs crisis, and just before the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film also speaks of its times in that all over the world, people believed that they were on the verge of a revolution, a nuclear holocaust or even both.
Memories of Underdevelopment
In Europe, Jean-Luc Godard would chart the progress of the decade most symptomatically. Having reached the most elevated rank of Second Cinema as the most highly regarded auteur, for his immaculately stylish if disjunctive takes on the new social freedoms of the French, he would sum it up best when he described his generation as “the children of Marx and Coca Cola” in Masculin Féminin. Eventually, Marx would win out in his films, as the elements of social critique in his films would win out, and his films would increasingly abandon illusionistic characterisation and narrative. Deux ou Trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her) would lure viewers in with the promise of a prostitute in Paris to instead present a series of tableaux critiquing capitalism in all its aspects. By 1967, he was charting the (sometimes farcical) activities of a groupuscule of Marxist revolutionaries in La Chinoise, then the complete collapse of French society in Weekend. These films took much from the theories of German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, whose concept of the verfremdungseffekt (or alienation effect) sought to break the identification of the spectator with the performer or situation, and destroy the illusion of naturalism to provoke a distanciation from the situation, and the capacity to see it critically in order to change it.
They took even more, however, both stylistically and intellectually, from the French philosopher and filmmaker Guy Debord, whose work would help create the rebellion Godard was charting. Debord’s La Société du Spectacle (Society of the Spectacle, 1967) would chart a society where everything, from capital to social and human relations were mediated and replaced by images, which themselves would go on to constitute a simulacrum of reality. Debord’s work with film, repurposing existing footage to subvert and find new meanings within it, would also prove more productive than Brecht in the long run, inspiring a whole generation of artist filmmakers as well as Godard. Alongside other works from the Situationist International, a movement which he led, Society would be an inspiration for the student uprising (or les événements) of May 1968, which would see Paris, and eventually the entire country, brought to a standstill with rioting. Emerging from a protest at Nanterre University, the protests would spread to the streets of Paris, where students united with workers to throw paving stones at the gendarmes, while overnight posters with iconic imagery and such slogans as “All power to the imagination” would sprout on the walls. As this phrase might imply, this was a revolution which had more in common with the Surrealists than with Communist revolutions, one which, ironically, succeeded in occupying a theatre, one which was a success as a spectacle of revolution, rather than an actual one. Godard, Marker and Philippe Garrel would be on the streets each night documenting the events for their Cinétracts, which alongside the posters, provided a running commentary on the situation, almost like an analogue precursor of rolling news.
Society of the Spectacle
One film actor, Pierre , working in Rome with top auteur Bernardo Bertolucci, would abandon the set to come to film in Paris which had become like an actual film set for a revolution, making La revolution n’est qu’un debut, continuons le combat (The Revolution is Only a Beginning, Keep Up the Fight). This was an interesting example of an actor leaving Second Cinema to engage in what I’m going to propose as Fourth Cinema. Clémenti’s highly subjective, determinedly psychedelic account of events is part of a concerted attempt in work of the time to disrupt the division between intellectual and manual labour, to break through the spectacle into life itself, in the process suggesting that the actual practice of radical film is contradictory and self-defeating.
Clémenti was part of an informal network of French radical underground filmmakers, making films semi clandestinely and screening them to fellow artists and activists completely outside the commercial circuit, whose work was underappreciated until relatively recently. These films, like their compatriots in the American Underground Cinema, whose work was initially regarded under the rubric of cinema, and then slipped between the cracks of critical discourse, have now been rehabilitated by the art world, which is now providing many more opportunities for filmmakers to align their work with activism and explore these issues in a radical manner far from what we could term the Capitalist Realism of the mainstream social issue film.
Harun Farocki is exemplary in this regard. In 1968, he made the very model of a radical film, protesting against Vietnam and advocating direct action, in Inextinguishable Fire. If France, post 1968, lapsed into a fugue state, fuelled by drugs and anomie, Germany’s younger generation just became even more militant. One of Farocki’s fellow radical filmmakers, Ulrike Meinhof, would abandon film to become part of the Baader-Meinhof gang, and put into praxis the revolutionary violence that many filmmakers were happy to depict onscreen.
Farocki, mercifully, didn’t go so far, instead becoming one of the most significant film essayists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, analysing in scrupulous detail aspects of life from prisons to factories to supermarkets, but again, one who became revered by the art world, if completely unknown to mainstream cinema audiences.
Ultimately, May ’68 and the radical movements that followed in its wake would fail in their aims; capitalism didn’t fall, neoliberalism came in, and Brechtianism (which arguably failed because it was a theatrical import, rather than a cinematic technique) was thrown on the dustbin of history, as hyperrealism and Hollywood blockbusters came to dominate the 1980s. As critic Frederic Jameson would announce, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism”
I don’t want to suggest that the radical films of this period failed however; where they succeeded, subtly, was in promoting social change in the fields of gender and sexuality, identity politics, rather than class politics. As second wave feminists stated, “the personal is political”, and perhaps cinema as a medium deals better with the former than the latter.
One of the most significant films of 1968 was a film that may not even have been recognised as a political film in its time, Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey’s Flesh. Warhol was the best known figure in American Underground Cinema, a movement that had provided opportunities and provoked scandals for the opportunities it afforded queer and female filmmakers to make work that explored their sexualities and subjectivities. These films, made completely independently by artists in their lofts and often screened in those same lofts, centred around such networks as Jonas Mekas’s Filmmakers’ Co-op or Warhol’s Factory, occasionally getting busted by the authorities, such as the infamous case of Jack Smith’s polysexual fantasia Flaming Creatures (1963).
Warhol would turn his narcoticised, queer gaze on his own collection of creatures, his roster of superstars as he called them, and, by virtue of his fame, become the biggest file in FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s casebook. While part of Hoover’s interest was undoubtedly prurient, I don’t think he was being unduly paranoid. The scene that Warhol was documenting, and the lifestyles that he was facilitating, probably were the biggest threat to conventional American society at the time, with their casual acceptance of queer sexuality and gender fluidity.
Joe Dallesandro in Flesh
When Flesh was commercially screened to mainstream audiences, it was a sensation. Charting the routine of a male sex worker, and with so much male nudity that it becomes natural, it allowed for a more accurate exploration of American society than any Hollywood film could allow, even featuring the first instance of what would become that most clichéd trope, the Vietnam vet. By the next year, Hollywood would be producing its own – more melodramatic and sentimental – take on the scene in Midnight Cowboy. As radical films’ styles and techniques were appropriated by a Hollywood desperately realising it was out of touch with the younger filmgoing audience, obviously their social attitudes would influence Hollywood, to the extent where black, feminist and gay filmmakers could influence mainstream taste, even if covertly and subtly.
Warhol would go on to provide his own campy take on feminism in Women in Revolt, boasting a female cast of transwomen, forming their own radical feminist collective P.I.G. (Politically Involved Girls); now would be the perfect time to revisit this film. And Warhol ‘s example would inspire queer filmmakers from Werner Schroeter to Ulrike Ottinger to John Waters…
Indeed, there are far too many great filmmakers working in the field to be mentioned here, otherwise this piece will just turn into a list.
I have mainly been looking at the history of how cinema has changed society, and, like Warhol’s films, cinema may be changing society in a manner that we’re not even aware of at the moment. I’d like to conclude with three recent films that have considered how far cinema may have changed society. Godard, who effectively reinvented himself as an essay filmmaker, so I would say has decamped from the Second to the Fourth Cinema, produced a magisterial last film with Le Livre d’image (The Image Book), where he ruminated on the futility of a lifetime of radical filmmaking to produce any real change, regretting “the violence of representation” inflicted on the subject.
The Image Book
A couple of what I might take the liberty of terming “woke” horror films also examine the extent to which social change has occurred. Anna Biller is an artist/filmmaker based in California who parodies exploitation movie formats to explore feminist ideas. In her cult hit The Love Witch, what appears to be an erotic horror movie set in the early 70s provides its biggest shocks when its characters anachronistically whip out a mobile or use a laptop, and you realise this is beautifully retro tooled present day. The point that Biller is wittily making is that feminism hasn’t changed enough, and that women still willingly comply with stereotypes that society provides them with to succeed in a game where the rules are set by the patriarchy.
In 1968, George A. Romero found that the best way to portray race relations in the US was through the generic prism of horror, in Night of the Living Dead. Fifty years later, sad to say, a young black filmmaker, Jordan Peele, came to the same conclusion with Get Out. His film brilliantly satirises the assumptions of casual racism, especially amongst white liberals, and the manner in which they fetishise black bodies and viewpoints, to the extent where a blind art critic would want to possess a young black photographer’s body in order to see through his streetwise eyes. This film might assert that little has changed since Marker and Resnais’s Les Statues Meurent Ausis.
However, I would counter Peele’s film with the success of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. Working in the dominant mode of contemporary film, the Marvel superhero movie, Coogler created an Afrofuturist fantasy for all the family with a black cast that doesn’t condescend to an African American audience or consciously pander to a white one, and that was a massive hit with all audiences. Some, like Martin Scorsese, may complain about Marvel movies, but I’ll take Black Panther over Birth of a Nation any day, if only as an index of social progress over a century.
This text provides the basis for a lecture given by Brian Beadie for Glasgow School of Art on Nov 15 – Cineworld at 11AM.