Category: Film theory

Forget the Oscars – where’s the politics?

The Oscars this year celebrated nostalgia and the overall quality was poor. Far more interesting was the attempt in a recent issue of Cineaste to raise discussion of ‘The Prospects for Political Cinema Today’. You’ll note that the cover of Vol XXXVII No 1 (December 2011) features A Separation, probably the best film on the Oscars list, coming from a country where making a film still seems like a political act. Nick’s recent postings remind us how rare it is to find films with political aspirations.

Cineaste‘s symposium rounds up the thoughts of 14 filmmakers with a variety of perspectives on what makes a political film. In his introduction to these responses British film studies academic John Hill, one of the UK’s leading writers on social realist cinema, offers some reasons why now is a good time to revisit the concept of political cinema. He suggests that recent political action in response to economic crises in the West and political crises in the Arab world in particular have seen the growing importance of the impact of ‘social media technologies’ and new types of political action which were inconceivable before the era of digital media. He then wonders what an ‘old medium’ like the cinema still has to offer.

We don’t have space here to summarise all 14 contributions and you can buy the issue concerned direct from Cineaste. Cineaste posed four questions to the filmmakers (as well as asking for any personal insights):

1. What do you understand by the idea of a political – or ‘politically oppositional’ – cinema in the current economic and political climate?

2. What specific role does political cinema have in an era of social media and instant communication?

3. What aesthetic models of political cinema do you believe are most relevant today? Which styles work best to engage an audience? What’s the difference between documentary and fiction in terms of political effectivity?

4. What are the main political and economic obstacles to making political films or getting them adequately distributed?

In response to Q2, Costa-Gavras said: “Film needs time and space in order to be thought out and created. Instantaneousness the enemy of film’s thoughtfulness.” Amos Gitai refers to the “image rebellions expressed through social media” as being “almost in the midst of a Jean-Luc Godard wet dream. The image is becoming a very powerful vehicle of change. It’s not really cinema – they’re raw images, crude images. It’s not a coherent discourse, not articulated. It’s just images.” Gianni Amelio concludes on the same question: “Film must, above all, find in the new means of communication a stimulus to renew itself, without losing its own nature”. Kelly Reichardt ponders why there are so few Hollywood films referencing the economic downturn and she suggests that we should look back not at the 1960s and 1970s but at the 1950s: “Can you imagine Bigger Than Life getting made today?” (We commented on Nick Ray’s work in our review of We Need to Talk About Kevin.) John Sayles says that the biggest problem in getting his movies to a general audience is not their ‘political’ content but their complexity. He suggests that in mainstream cinema the place to find political comment is buried in fantasy movies like Iron Man where the audience is “free to attend to it or just let it slide past with the reassurance that this is ‘just a movie’.”

There are some good points here (and plenty more in the other contributions) so I’d like to invite our contributors to pursue some of them and discuss the four questions, perhaps selecting specific films as case studies? Contributions and comments please!

Westerns: A Routledge Film Guidebook

Westerns, A Routledge Film Guide Book by John White (2010), £16.99, 208pp ISBN 9780415558136

The Routledge Film Guidebooks are slim A5-sized books. The list so far includes director studies (James Cameron and Jane Campion) as well as genre guides such as Horror and Romantic Comedy. With the imminent UK release of True Grit by the Coen Bros., the appearance of John White’s guide is timely.

The first task for the reviewer in this instance is to consider exactly what can be fitted into a relatively small guidebook when dealing with a genre as extensive as the Western. Inevitably, what to leave out and what to make a focus becomes a major issue. The decision will also determine the address of the book to a particular audience. Unfortunately John White doesn’t give any direct indication of who he thinks his readers might be. Since he teaches undergraduates at Anglia Ruskin University but also writes textbooks for A Level film students in the 16-19 sector, his target presumably spans this range. The book’s blurb and the short explanation of the film guidebook project inside suggests that this will be an ‘introductory book’ and indeed all the guidebooks seem to have a similar structure: the evolution of the genre/movement/directorial career, discussion of a variety of critical approaches that could be applied to the films and then a more detailed discussion of key films.

Herein lies a problem. White argues in his opening that many books on the Western spend too much time re-telling the stories of a wide range of films. His focus instead will be on the exploration of different critical approaches, so he tells us that his outlines will be kept to the minimum and he will assume that “readers are already familiar with the basic plot”. Well, he may well be right since the repertoire of elements of the Western has permeated not just American but global culture over a long period. On the other hand it seems to me that younger audiences viewing one of the relatively rare Westerns in contemporary cinema (such as Brokeback Mountain or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two of his key films) are coming to the Western in quite different ways than similar-aged audiences in the 1950-70s. Apart from any other contextual/conjunctural factors, audiences now are not being exposed to Westerns as ‘genre texts’, available everywhere in a more or less constant stream (during the 1950s literally dozens of different Western TV series played on American television every week). Instead, a Western is now a ‘one-off’ (unlike horror films which do still appear in a constant stream, even if some of them are marketed heavily as single titles).

But perhaps I am being unreasonable? John White lays out his aim and pursues it. The chapter on ‘the evolution of the Western’ manages to cram a great deal into under 30 pages and I found the material on ‘silent Westerns’ in particular informative and helpful. For students without detailed knowledge of the genre, this short section will provide a useful primer. White references key films and important scholarly work – and at the end of the book he provides a timeline of important historical events that inform the narratives of many Westerns set in the nineteenth century. He then continues the timeline to include the release dates of key films and the events in later American history that help to contextualise production and reception of the films. The guide overall is well served by its bibliographies, index and endnotes.

The second part of the book offers 5-6 pages on each of a range of critical approaches: genre, semiotic analysis, representation, ideology, discourse analysis, narrative structure, realism, auteur theory, star theory, psychoanalytical theory, postmodernism and audience response. In each case, two or three films are used as case studies. The film choices seem to me to be pretty sound, but the brevity of each analysis means that students will probably need supplementary material to get the most from them.

The third section then applies combinations of the critical approaches from section two to eight key films: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Shane (1953), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Again, this seems a good selection and offers a film from virtually each decade from the 1930s onwards. All the films are easily available and many of them are accompanied by extensive online critical commentaries. I do wonder if some films/directors could have overlapped a little more – enabling more depth at the expense of more examples. For instance, the critical approaches section references another two John Ford films, plus John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as actors and directors. But suggesting other ways of organising the material is not particularly helpful – we will all have our own preferences.

This little book does what it sets out to do. It’s well-referenced and will provide a good introduction. You can’t ask for too much more.