Greil Marcus in “The Long Walk of the Situationist International” in ed. Tom McDonough, Guy Debord and the Situationist International: Texts and Documents (MIT, 2004):
…The “spectacle-commodity society,” within which one could make only meaningless choices and against which one could seemingly not intervene, had succeeded in producing fundamental contradictions between what people accepted and what, in ways they could not understand, they wanted.
This was the precise opposite of social science, developed at precisely the time when the ideology of the end of ideology was conquering the universities of the West. It was an argument about consciousness and false consciousness, not as the primary cause of domination but as its primary battleground.
If capitalism had shifted the terms of its organisation from production to consumption, and its means of control from economic misery to false consciousness, then the task of would-be revolutionaries was to bring about a recognition of the life already lived by almost everyone. Foreclosing the construction of one’s own life, advanced capitalism had made almost everyone a member of a new proletariat, and thus a potential revolutionary. Here again, the discovery of the source of revolution in what “modern art has sought and promised” served as the axis of the argument. Modern art, one could read in International situationniste no. 8, in January of 1963, had “made a clean sweep of all the values and rules of everyday behaviour,” of unquestioned order and the “unanimous, servile enthusiasm”… but that clean sweep had been isolated in museums. Modern revolutionary impulses had been separated from the world, but “just as the nineteenth century revoltuionary theory arose out of philosophy”—out of Marx’s dictum that philosophy, having interpreted the world, must set about changing it—now one had to look to the demands of art.
At the time of the Paris Commune in 1871, workers discussed matters that had previously been the exclusive province of philosophers—suggesting the possibility that philosophy could be realised in daily life. In the twentieth century, with “survival” conquered as fact but maintained as ideology, the same logic meant that just as artists constructed a version of life in words, paint, or stone, men and women could themselves begin to construct their own lives out of desire. In scattered and barely noticed ways, the desire to construct one’s own life was shaping the twentieth century, or the superseding of it (“Ours is the best effort so far toward getting out of the twentieth centry,” an anonymous situationist wrote in 1964, in one of the most striking lines in the twelve issues of Internationale situationiste). It was the desire more hidden, more overwhelmed and confused by spectacle, than any other. It had shaped the lettrist adventures. It was the Northwest Passage. If the spectacle was “both the result and the project of the existing mode of production,” then the construction of life as artists constructed art—in terms of what one made of friendship, love, sex, work, play, and suffering—was understood by the situationists as both the result and the project of revolution.
I’m interested in exploring how and why many recent independent and arthouse films are disconnected from the political implications I talked about in my previous post. To take an example that particularly intrigues me, the recent “Mumblecore” wave of low-budget American indies have, for all their admirable strengths, almost all been pathologically incapable of situating their twentysomething slacker characters in any kind of wider political or social context. I don’t say this to denounce or dismiss their work on these grounds—certain films of this group, such as Andrew Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002) or Frank V Ross’s Quietly on By (2005) I hold in high regard. But I do think this apolitical tendency is revealing about the problems facing this younger generation of independent filmmakers, and something I find just as problematic in my own work.
I wrote a feature screenplay recently focusing on a Dublin twenty-something guy, and I found myself frustrated by my own character’s passivity and confusion; I wanted him to engage with the world, try to impact on it in some way, and I wanted to somehow extend the film beyond his own personal concerns—but at the same time I knew I couldn’t lie about who this person was or where they were at that point in their life. A friend of mine argued that the character shouldn’t “be faulted for not taking action; rather, he’s unable to find a context where his action has any effect”, and I think this points towards the central problem that a lot of these filmmakers face. In trying to deal with their own experience (and these filmmakers have, like me, raised themselves on Cassavetean and Scorsesean notions of self-expression and filming what “you know”), the characters of Joe Swanberg or Aaron Katz are forced to depict characters stuck in a culture where, as Marcus writes above, one can only make meaningless choices and against which one can seemingly not intervene.
Joe Swanberg has been lambasted by some critics for his statement that “I don’t feel like I have anything to say right now about the Iraq war” and “the stories of my life and my friends’ lives are the ones I can tell most completely”. But he’s been less quoted for this statement:
The war in Iraq makes me really angry. The education system in this country makes me really angry. My wife teaches at one of the worst high-schools in Chicago, and she comes home with stories that are so fucked up you wouldn’t believe it. She is teaching seniors in high school who still can’t read! Almost totally illiterate. And they have been passed through the grades because nobody wants to deal with them. It’s infuriating.
So why isn’t this anger in his movies? I don’t want to put words in Swanberg’s mouth, but I can tell you why that kind of anger isn’t in mine: because I haven’t found a way to put it there yet. The disconnect between my anger against injustice and my appreciation of its root causes—and the world I actually experience and am able to create aesthetically, is still too vast. (The fact that my most effective films have dealt with characters seeking escape or refuge from everyday society is not lost on me.)
There are exceptions, and here are three prominent in my mind at the moment:
Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001, Alfonso Cuarón) is one of the few youth-oriented films of recent years that has attempted to bridge that gap between the middle class and troubling social and political realities—but it’s telling that the technique it uses for this is one of complete narrative disruption; periodically, the soundtrack cuts out and an objective voiceover interrupts the protagonists’ sexy road movie adventure to explicitly articulate the political contexts of the characters and environments they encounter and are usually oblivious to; as if the only way Cuaron could politicise his characters was to distance us from their solipsism.
Half Nelson (2006, Ryan Fleck) is a rare American indie film that attempts to tackle that disconnect and the sense of powerlessness head-on. Its story, of a drug addict inner city teacher (Ryan Gosling) and his friendship with a student tempted by the drug trade (Shareeka Epps), verges on cliche in the abstract, but is so sensitively pulled off by everyone involved that it becomes a nuanced depiction of people struggling to control their own lives, and in the case of the teacher, struggling to translate political ideals and understanding into some sort of meaningful action. There’s a scene where Gosling visits his parents, both resigned veterans of the ’60s New Left. His mother comments about their naivity back then of “thinking we could change the world”, to which Gosling replies “at least you stopped the war”. This seems connected to the question of why ’60s American independent cinema was so much more politically engaged than its contemporary counterparts—back then, people actually felt like there actions could have an effect.
Interestingly, the most political American filmmaking of late has often been on larger scale productions, and I think the five seasons of David Simon’s The Wire (2002-2008) are one of the best examples of it. To my mind, Robert Kramer was one of America’s greatest political filmmakers, and, perverse though it may sound, if there is any legacy of his work to be found today, there’s more of it in The Wire than in most American independent cinema (Kramer’s Route One USA  is like The Wire as a documentary road movie). In its intricate and humane depiction of every level of modern urban institutions, from government to drug gangs to police departments to schools, and its dramatisation of the implications and consequences of every player’s actions in a way that is at once naturalistic and incisive—it amounts to that rare kind of thesis that’s both implicit and scathing. People who complain of the show’s conventional appearance or straightforward narrative approach, miss the point that its project is narrative in a very radical way; showing us the connections between power and injustice, self-interest and failures to reform, that are usually obscured or confused. It is the antithesis of what Neil Postman called the “and now this” style of televisual discourse, and its perhaps inevitable that it comes from someone who began in newspaper journalism, and not by making movies with his friends in his twenties.
All this makes particularly tragic the amount of floppy discourse and gossipy fandom that exists around this show; most of its followers usually miss the point, or at least don’t follow through on it. How can people endlessly nitpick plot points and favourite characters on a show which amounts to a radical critique of capitalism and every kind of hierarchical institution? A show which vividly dramatises the intricate patterns of myopic self-interest that implicate us all in the failures of society?
(Incidentally, the fact that The Wire is Barack Obama’s professed favourite TV show, assuming he’s got more insight into its implications than the fanboys, is the most convincing thing I’ve heard in his favour. The show is the best lesson a would-be president could have in the disempowering machinations of power.)
Of course art doesn’t have to engage politically in the way the above films do, much as we need some art that does. Art doesn’t even have to facilitate change in the ways I’ve been describing. It can be palliative, restorative; it can just help you get through the day. But there are also deeper critiques to be made of the Mumblecore clan. There’s been a big discussion on Ray Carney’s mailbag page lately about the problems with these films, mainly on the disconnect between these guys and their oft-cited predecessor Cassavetes, who, while ostensibly apolitical, dealt with depths of interpersonal pain and dysfunction that are hard to find in this generation’s work. But the internet’s greatest capsule reviewer, Michael Sicinski, made one of the strongest critiques:
A retreat from the political into the aesthetic is comprehensible, and even logical at this historical moment. But a retreat from both the political and the aesthetic, into a semi-communicative, members-only argot whose “statement” is its reflexive unwillingness to take any stand or evince any clear desire, or even to form complete thoughts — this is deeply troubling, but also quite revealing…
The revelation is, of course, that these weaknesses have immense sociological import, something that becomes more pronounced in the weaker films of the group such as Four Eyed Monsters (2005). I don’t like the film (much as I respect its makers, Arin Crumley and Susan Buice), but I do think a great thesis could be written about the ways new technology have transformed our relationships using FEM as a basis.
Strangely enough, I came across a guy in one of Crumley’s videoblogs arguing that a lot of art is just “a symptom of the discontinuity that [the artists] experience spiritually” and that “actually what they seem to be putting so much artistic energy into is their own disease”—which is precisely what Sicinski objects to in much of this work, arguing that a film such as Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation “doesn’t just depict but embodies passive-aggression“.
If these films sometimes fail to transcend the limitations they depict, a paradoxical problem is that sometimes these guys don’t even seem to realise when they are being radical. The growing DIY movement that has grown around Crumley and others through the Workbook Project and their related endeavours, has developed models for independent fundraising and distribution that are radically anti-establishment, decentralised, participatory and in many cases anarchistic in principle. The Newsreel would have been proud. Yet because the frames of reference for those involved are completely divorced from the political, these revolutionary models are discussed purely in terms of a filmmaker’s desire to reach an audience and, if possible, “monetise” their efforts. Consequently, arguments for the democratisation of filmmaking through new technology are thrust together with the neo-conservative philosophies of Facebook without any apparent perspective on the possible distinction.
In the same interview quoted above, Swanberg also mentions:
I’m going to work with low-income and at-risk kids this summer making a movie, and hopefully I can give them the tools and encouragement they need to document their lives the same way my friends and I have been documenting ours.
I’d like to be involved in this kind of project too, but I can’t help questioning: is documentation enough?
One can see traces of Newsreel and the DVG in some of the phenomenons mentioned above: the grass-roots media ethos of indymedia.com and its ilk; the policy of directorial anonymity for Dogme films (even if, like Godard, directors did not shirk from using their names in publicising the films) and the independent and informally collaborative working methods of many of the “Mumblecore” filmmakers (which have often managed, incidentally to avoid traditional hierarchical modes of production without rejecting the idea of directorial control per se). On a broader scale, one can see some of the same critiques of traditional filmmaking modes in emerging technological practises such as independent internet distribution. Finally, many of today’s best auteurist filmmakers, despite generally using traditional modes of financing and distribution, are experimenting with form in ways at least as critical and politicised as their anti-auteurist ‘60s counterparts (Gorin has even cited filmmakers as diverse as Lars Von Trier and Hou Hsiao-Hsien as effective heirs to the DVG’s critical approach).
Yet in identifying these fragments of legacy, it’s striking just how fragmented they are, and how little dialogue exists between them—not least because there is no kind of critical discourse attempting to bring them together.
—From my thesis, “The Filmmaker-Activist and the Collective“.
This is the main point. The central evil of today’s culture is dispersion, disconnection, separation—from each other, from nature, but above all from ideas. The most radical thing to do in this context is to make connections. This is why Kramer was such an important filmmaker, why Adam Curtis’s documentaries are essential, why The Wire is such an important show (and why we should all really take another look at Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle).
The page from my notebook, presented as no. 2 of these loose ends, is an example of an attempt I made (when first brainstorming for my graduate thesis) to draw some of those connections across film culture, selecting things that seemed to have some radical relevance—if not always as a piece of art in itself, at least as an object of analysis. Things that could be better understood when one explored how they related to each other, and how this related to our society at large. Of course the great limitation of the links I draw is that they stay in the realm of cinema…
…And so what the fuck do we do? You know? What do we do? I’m one man, what do I do?
—Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson.
And this is the final rub: one of the other reasons I’m emphasising all this cultural politics stuff is because I don’t know how to put it into action in the the rest of my life yet. I want some kind of political engagement to be part of my life outside of art. I want to address my feelings of complicity, inaction and hopelessness. I would like to make a difference—but I also believe that nobody can change anybody, that at best you can give someone the opportunity to change, by pushing them or just being open. (I also think our notion of change is somewhat compromised in itself, mistakenly conceiving of it as instant, irreversible, or even linear, and then getting disappointed when this kind of change doesn’t occur.)
I like Naomi Klein’s call for “disaster collectivism“, arguing that real change only occurs when the masses organise and pressure their governments incessantly, giving them no choice but to compromise. But I also like Ran Prieur’s model of dropping out from the system as much as possible.
I think that the single saddest thing about this world is how so many people get so few opportunities and so few spaces, in their education or culture at large, to actually change. It’s easy to think of ways that such opportunities could be created.
But as for what I, myself, should do now, in this lifetime, about any of this, I really don’t know.
Given how hopeless things are on a larger scale (and I do think prospects like climate change, peak oil, overconsumption, financial collapse, mass extinction are going to have much more devestating impacts than is popularly accepted), the Leonard Cohen quote that I’ve taken as the slogan for this blog is what I’m working with at the moment: might as well ring the bells that still can ring.
This is one of the things about anarchy: if we were to take out all the leaders tomorrow, and put them up against a wall and shoot them— and it’s a lovely thought, so let me just dwell on that for a moment before I dismiss it—but if we were to do that, society would probably collapse, because the majority of people have had thousands of years of being conditioned to depend upon leadership from a source outside themselves. That has become a crutch to an awful lot of people, and if you were to simply kick it away, then those people would simply fall over and take society with them.
In order for any workable and realistic state of anarchy to be achieved, you will obviously have to educate people—and educate them massively—towards a state where they could actually take responsibility for their own actions and simultaneously be aware that they are acting in a wider group: that they must allow other people within that group to take responsibility for their own actions. Which on a small scale, as it works in families or in groups of friends, doesn’t seem to be that implausible, but it would take an awful lot of education to get people to think about living their lives in that way. And obviously, no government, no state, is ever going to educate people to the point where the state itself would become irrelevant. So if people are going to be educated to the point where they can take responsibility for their own laws and their own actions and become, to my mind, fully actualized human beings, then it will have to come from some source other than the state or government.
—Alan Moore, author of the graphic novel Watchmen (pictured above and below, illustrated by Alex Gibbons.)
… True violence is the work of the spirit. Every creative act contains a real threat for the person who dares it. This is how art moves the viewer or reader. If thought refuses to do violence, it exposes itself in vain to all the brutalities which its absence released.
—Denis de Rougemount again.