Psycho (1960)

The following review is an excerpt from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents Class Struggle” written by Mervyn Nicholson which appeared in the December 2011 issue of the Monthly Review. It is posted here with permission from the author and magazine.

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Consider Hitchcock’s big one: Psycho, one of the best-known movies ever made. Its terrifying “shower scene”—of the murder of Marion Crane (Janet Leigh)—is arguably the most famous sequence in film history. In the enormous body of commentary on this film, what is rarely acknowledged is that Psycho is all about class.7 The plot is clear about this. The central character, Marion Crane, has worked for years as a secretary in a Phoenix real estate office. Her boyfriend, Sam, lives in another city, the mythical “Fairvale.” She is at a point in life where she wants marriage, not an affair, but Sam does not make enough money to get married. So their relationship consists of Sam’s brief sex visits; they make rushed love in a grubby hotel during Marion’s lunch break, resulting in her being late for work in the afternoon. Meantime, the unhappy secretary who shares her work space keeps an eye on Marion’s comings and goings. She cannot be trusted. Marion is fed up.

This is a movie about money. It is a movie about money far more than it is a movie about over-the-top psychiatric problems. Marion makes enough to live on—and that is it. Her boyfriend may be a hunk, but he has a nothing career (clerk in a hardware store is hardly the American Dream come true). Marion’s basic, simple desire for what everyone is supposed to have is blocked. She cannot start a family or do the respectable things she longs to in the era of Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver—the glorious 1950s, when everyone was supposed to be happy and everything was just fine, and the American Dream was available to all who were worthy of it. In the face of this “Great American Celebration,” in C. Wright Mills’s phrase, Marion is frustrated enough to pose an ultimatum to her boyfriend—we get married, or it is over. Her angry dissatisfaction already marks her as a class outlaw. She is simply not fulfilling her assigned function of willing submission.

Something then pushes her over the edge, something that looks minor. Back at the real estate office after rushed sex in the grubby hotel over lunch hour, the boss comes in, accompanied by a rich oilman in a cowboy hat. They have just closed a sale: Cassidy, the rich man in the cowboy hat—shades of the noble Hopalong Cassidy—has purchased a house as a wedding gift for his teenage daughter. He has in hand enough physical cash to pay for it. Mortgages, like taxes, are for little people, plainly. As soon as he spots the beautiful Marion, Cassidy is on her, leering shamelessly; he parks himself on her desk, invading her space and asking rude personal questions. He demands to know if she is happy; he casually invades her private life as well as her work space, as though unlimited access to her was his right. But that is what being rich means. You can treat people like Marion as you please—there are lots more where they come from, whereas rich people are scarce and precious, indeed they are where wealth comes from. Marion is not permitted to express her feelings; the strain on her face is evident. Cassidy concludes that what she needs is a vacation—in Las Vegas, “the playground of the world,” he ecstatically proclaims. He waves his wad of bills in her face and announces that he “buys happiness.” He has plenty of cash because, he boasts, he does not pay taxes. The boss, nervous at having so much cash in the office over the weekend, tells Marion to deposit it at the bank—clearly he trusts her with a lot of money on a Friday afternoon. Cassidy, deliberately embarrassing the boss, then announces that the two men are “going to get some drinking done,” leaving the “girls” to their dull tasks.

Marion experiences a wave of rage in this scene. After years of boring semi-drudgery, she has nothing. Her youth is slipping away, but she cannot get married to the man she loves—or start a family—because there is not enough money. Years of work have brought her nil. Ditto boyfriend: burdened by debts from his dead father, he is resigned to a fate of debt peonage. This is a class situation, not just an individual one. Marion is very, very stuck. Screwed, in fact. Now this dirty old man Cassidy, wad of bills in hand, tells her that Las Vegas, whorehouse to the world, is where she should go so she can “buy off” unhappiness: a man who is rich and rude, who pays no tax and who does no work. In a moment of terrible frustration, Marion absconds with the Cassidy cash. No longer will lack of money stand in the way of her American Dream. She will boldly take and live her fantasy, finding it, with her boyfriend, in Fairvale. It is the kind of dangerous impulse that overwhelms even hard-working and conscientious people in a spasm of frustration. As Norman Bates instructs her later, everyone goes a little crazy sometimes.

Marion’s boss assumes that she will do as she is told with the money—but Marion clearly does not feel much loyalty to the business she works for. She is not even out of town before she is spotted—by her boss. Hitchcock goes out of his way to make sure that her impulse and her theft are doomed (note also his interest in the details of the work situation). Academics are inordinately fascinated by voyeurism in Psycho, and there are many scenes of Marion being observed by others. But watching and being watched has another, more important meaning, and it has nothing to do with the kinky sex that obsesses psychoanalysis—and academic and tabloid culture generally. Surveillance of those who work for a living is part of what it means to work for a living. As Cassidy’s ritual invasion of Marion’s space makes clear, access to every aspect of the life of those who work for a living—as opposed to those who own for a living—is a normal feature of working-class existence. Privacy is not a right. It is certainly not taken for granted, as it is by the rich.

Despite having been seen in her car by her boss (after being excused from work because of a “headache”), she persists in her flight to mythic Fairvale. In the grip of churning emotion, Marion loses her way in a rainstorm. Enter Norman Bates. She stops for the night at a motel (as she was warned to do by a menacing policeman): the Bates Motel. The boyish Norman hospitably invites her into his creepy parlor for a bite to eat before she turns in. In a disturbing speech, he expounds a nihilistic theory of misery and meaninglessness, in which people are caged in a boring routine existence and can never get out. He sneers at people, like Marion, who try to escape. He “doesn’t mind” his cage, he proclaims. Norman’s speech is the movie’s heart of darkness, a manifesto of despair and hostility: do not think you can escape—there is no escape. Accept hopelessness. Resistance is futile. The friendliness and frankness with which he ushers her into his parlor are not his actual feelings; the happy face is a construction. Behind the façade is a vicious belief in the pointlessness of existence and therefore the further belief that if you have the power, you can do anything you want to anyone you want to do it to, the belief Cassidy flaunts in the real estate office. It is the principle expounded by the rich young men of Hitchcock’s Rope, who illustrate it by murdering a friend. It is the fascist ideology that lurks within capitalism. In such a regime there are no “friends”—there are only people you can use in various ways.

Norman’s crazy harangue shakes Marion out of her crazy dream: her big impulse was a big mistake. She must go back to Phoenix. She must return the money. And she will be deeper in the hole than ever. She has much on her mind as she returns to her motel room. The scene of Marion flushing the toilet, a first in movie history, has excited much academic heavy breathing, but it really refers to the fact that that is where her life is, in the toilet, down the tubes, in the hole. She must find a better way to deal with frustration. Norman meantime spies on Marion. Through his secret peephole, he watches her strip for a shower. Norman then dons his murderer outfit, and takes her by surprise as she unwinds under the soothing hot water. He slashes this beautiful rebellious woman to death. He does it when, in the shower, she is utterly vulnerable—naked, alone, tired, expecting nothing (certainly no harm), relaxed. The point of this scene is that she is totally unable to resist. She cannot fight back. He attacks her at her most vulnerable. It is a truly terrible moment. This, it seems, is what you get when you are trapped in a dead-end job, and allow your frustration to momentarily drive you crazy, to act on an impulse that magically promised freedom, like winning the lottery—fantasy cash to solve all problems—market magic: the same dream, in short, that sustains a lot of real people, lottery tickets in hand, in the real world.

Psycho is all about money—about deprivation, frustration, and the privilege of property. It is about those who work for a living and have nothing—and those who do not work and have everything. Academic discussion of this astounding movie is more interested in Norman than in Marion.8 Nor is Norman treated as himself subject to economic forces, even though a lot of the movie deals with his financial situation and the horrors of the small-business world.9 No: Norman is endlessly explained—and explained away—a prize specimen for psychoanalytic exposé, no matter how unsatisfying.10 But obsessing over Norman’s private kinks has a notable effect: the effect of taking attention away from Marion, distracting us from her alienation—and her revolt. Shifting attention on to the crazy (who knows why?) Norman demotes Marion, but it also does something else—it takes attention away from Cassidy and the incitement to revolt.

Hitchcock is fond of showing us rich people, but Cassidy is the only rich person in the film. His droit du seigneur boasting and rudeness are what trigger Marion’s doomed rebellion. A particularly important fact about Cassidy is rarely acknowledged, namely his class status. For Cassidy is the embodiment of property—of capital. He is, in Marx’s phrase, “a social hieroglyphic.”11 Psycho is subtly but visibly a movie about class struggle, a movie where class struggle forms the essential assumption of the story—there would be, that is, no story without it. The term “class struggle” sounds a bit grandiose for a movie about a foolish theft and a murder (or two or three or four), with a dressing of Gothic frisson and film noir cinematography. Besides, when the term “class struggle” is heard now, it is usually just capital swearing at its enemies. In the view of today’s masters of the universe, the term means the threat of undeserving people taking property away from the deserving rich—the owners of capital—and thus a threat to the very essence of civilization and its survival. But that is precisely what Marion does. Marion is not a thief by nature or vocation; she appropriates the property of capital, and redistributes it, from the greedy to the needy. She does so as a matter of genuine justice, as opposed to the property justice imposed by the powerful, even though it is an act of madness. In so doing, she commits the ultimate archetypal crime—appropriating the property of the wealthy, the most terrible anxiety that exists in the regime of capital.

Class struggle is waged by the owners of capital against those who work for a living. It goes on all the time, simply because the extraction of surplus value requires constant pressure, constant forcing, constant aggression—otherwise it does not function. The work world is the world of forcing. And that is where the Marion Cranes of this world are—as well as, in fact, most of the audience who watched Psycho. Money in Psycho is not just an abstraction or a symbol, a Lacanian “signifier” for instance, a “phallogocentric” marker, as in much discussion of this film: it is a force. It is the power of life and death, the power of capital. Motivation is not simply personal and private: it is a function of class relations. The effect of class-forces is wide-ranging, subtle, and complex—not simple. To interpret the anxieties and wishes of people as solely private motivations is to misunderstand them, without also attending to their class context, which is strangely extremely hard to do. Devoid of this class context no rational explanation for the alienation that besets them is to be found.12

Unless its aggression is constant, capital does not get what it wants. But class aggression must meet cost-benefit analysis, like everything else. Thus, the less workers resist, the lower the costs of class aggression. In order for surplus extraction to proceed at maximum efficiency, that aggression must disguise itself. Generating and distributing illusion is a primary function of capital. It must propagate the belief that “the wealth and privileges of the few are based on natural, inborn superiority,”13 the belief that working people choose freely, that the existing system is efficient and just. Or, if not exactly efficient and just, it does not matter, because it is all there is. Thus not only is the system efficient—it is the only system. Even thinking about anything else is an invitation to chaos. Given the stakes involved, it is better for capital to erase the notion that there is a system at all. And that is indeed a common belief: there is no “system”—capitalism is simply reality, or nature, or the random workings of existence. It may not always have been there but it certainly always will be. Even the word “capitalism” must be handled with care: it is just “reality.” Since capitalism is not a system, whatever goes wrong is an accident or the result of the “bad choices” strangely popular with foolish victims. In this reasoning, Marion causes her own mutilation and death, by her “bad choices”; if you run off with the rich man’s money, you forfeit your rights. Anything might happen to you. In order to continue, capital must constantly inculcate a series of illusions that disable people’s thinking processes and their power to act in any way other than that desired by capital itself, or, like Marion, to act out some program of self-destruction. How this conditioning works is a question that has engaged the attention of almost all progressive thinkers, from Karl Marx, Emma Goldman, and Antonio Gramsci to E.P. Thompson and Pierre Bourdieu. We may not understand how this process works, but it does work. One of the effects of oppression is to impede the capacity to know that you are oppressed. The intensity of brainwashing cannot be overestimated.

In Psycho, Cassidy is marked as a “capitalist” in cartoon fashion: the big man with the big cowboy hat and the big swagger—emphatically different from his companion, “Mr. Lowery,” Marion’s nerdy boss. (The cowboy hat updates the Monopoly-game top hat, insignia of the capitalist of an earlier era.) Marion, by contrast, is powerless. She is also isolated. Above her desk Hitchcock has hung a huge picture of an empty desert. She is literally in a desert. There is no solidarity. The other worker in the office cannot be trusted—just as her man Sam pointedly cannot trust his coworker in the hardware store where he sells his labor, as we are shown in another grim worksite moment. There is no social scene in this film, no community or mutual aid. Everyone is atomized in the regime of Psycho, separate from everyone else. Everyone—except Cassidy—is trapped.14 Cassidy buys what he wants, including “happiness,” he says, vaunting the miracles of capital. What accumulates wealth at one pole of society accumulates misery at the other. Provoked by the rich man’s conspicuous consumption, Marion cannot control the impulse that hits her. But her revolt is doomed. She is inept as a thief, because she is plainly a responsible, hard-working individual. Far from being crazy, she is, as Hitchcock said of her, “perfectly ordinary.”15

Psycho is a thriller, a horror movie, indeed the inaugurating film of the “slasher” genre, a movie with sensationalist scenes and bizarre twists. But, at the same time, it deals with a real set of real problems of people who are deliberately presented as ordinary (well, a bit better looking than ordinary). The bizarre and melodramatic features of this film shift attention from what the film also shows: the struggle of ordinary working people to find some measure of control over their lives, in a social context of alienation and frustration. Contrary to the Cassidy ideology of freedom to choose, such control is out of reach of so many working people, while others, of no greater merit than the Marions and Sams of this world, have more than enough, even though they do not work. Not only do they not “earn” what they possess, they have veto power over the lives of others. Others serve, indeed exist, at their whim. Marion’s impulse looks simple but is in fact complex. On the one hand, she wants to find happiness with her man. But on a more important level, it is to strike a blow against Cassidy. Or more precisely, against not Cassidy personally, since there are other Cassidys, but against the power and arrogance that he wields and that he represents, and that she can no longer accept, any more than she can accept the frustration of not having the basics—a husband and a home, precisely what Cassidy hands gratis to his teenage daughter. Cassidy is not just an individual: he is a class. Marion’s revolt is a blind revolution against a system that oppresses her but that she cannot resist, except by actions that harm herself and that have no effect on her oppressors. Cassidy will get his money back, most of it, even if, after its detour in the swamp accompanied by a decaying body, it does not smell so good.

The fact that Marion fails so disastrously is, again, not simple; it is not a matter of accidentally happening to run into a psychopath. The “psycho,” Norman Bates himself, begins to look rather different, in the context of class aggression. He is not simply a loony. He is himself trapped by the economic circumstances he inherited from his parents—a failing business he cannot “unload.” At the same time, he functions as the “enforcer” of the system—the hidden violence that makes the Cassidys of this world safe, that enables them to consume Las Vegas, without responsibility and without caring about anybody or anything, except whatever turns them on. He acts on behalf of Cassidy without acting on behalf of Cassidy. As enforcer, Norman is conveniently “insane.” Being “insane” means that you can be utterly uninhibited in aggression against those who do not conform to authorized requirements. He has a license to kill. He can assault a defenseless naked woman he had made a big deal of befriending—and with no hesitation, no restraint, no compunction. His violence recalls the facts of class society. Marion’s impulse to take what she needs is like a spontaneous protest demonstration, like a food riot. Norman in practice functions like the thugs who attack demonstrators, like the torturers in the dungeon beneath the police station, the ones who know how to make people hurt, who are “crazy.” Marion is “disappeared” by Norman; she vanishes down the drain, down into the swamp, as if she had never existed. She is an error that has been corrected. She is now nothing, what she really was all along, anyway, according to the values of class society, another nobody.

What I am suggesting is that Psycho is not about a psycho who kills women: it is about oppression and alienation and blind revolt; it is, in short, about the power of capital and the fearful consequences of resisting its regime. It is about the violence that happens to those who revolt. These realities—oppression, alienation, blind revolt, the power of capital and the powerlessness of the worker—are the realities that make the story possible. Yes, from the conventional point of view this is a horror movie about a crazy person, but from a more realistic point of view, it is all about something else. The “psycho” is a psycho, because this is a society, a social order, that is “psycho.”16


The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Director: Christopher Nolan

This review contains serious spoilers, don’t read if you haven’t seen the film or don’t want it to be spoiled

After seeing posters for The Dark Knight Rises all over town, I had been anticipating a film that contains serious commentary on social change and revolutionary struggle. One possibility that I had considered was that this was a marketing ploy to capitalize on the past year of protest and revolution to get folks to see the film, yet after seeing it Thursday morning: it certainly does take the subject seriously. The only problem of course is that The Dark Knight Rises is what could be described as an anti-revolutionary, anti-populist, conservative film. That may sound a bit off-putting, but if we analyze the film as a political intervention, or rather a film that seriously deals with politics, then a political analysis and response is appropriate.

So what are the politics of The Dark Knight Rises and why are they problematic from a left wing perspective? To answer this we should look at the major conflict in the film: Bane’s attempt to control, and ultimately destroy Gotham City. The film starts off with Batman/Bruce Wane ruined and depressed by the experiences of the previous film. What returns him to his suit is Bane’s arrival in Gotham, a villain who was trained by the same organization that Wane was, who has come to Gotham to “finish the job” of destroying it (which was the conflict of the first film). Bane likens his method of destroying Gotham to that of escaping the prison that he experienced: letting people see the light and giving them false hope before accepting total despair. In other words, Bane’s motivations for wrecking havoc on the city are to first manipulate the people of the city into thinking that they are being empowered, while at the same time secretly plotting to destroy them all (this particular motivation is partially explained in the first film: that the city has “become too corrupt at every level”). He is a classic “mastermind” in this sense, as he works both with the rich and the “common criminals” to fulfill his goals and raising populist consciousness, each being a pawn in his game. A series of events in the film lead to Bane essentially seizing power in Gotham and declaring that he is ruling on behalf of the people.

While this may sound like something that would excite the Left, his ascendance is based on the threat of unleashing a nuclear device that would destroy the city if anyone leaves or the if outside world interferes with their plans. Bane thus forces the people to be “free,” and instead of being a “man of the people” he is secretly a manipulator of the people which mirrors the dominant Western narratives of revolutions of the past (for example we are taught that folks like Lenin and Castro helped lead genuine revolutions but were really secretly motivated by their lust for power). One problem with this of course is that it is a portrayal of a populist anti-rich group that is motivated by “evil” or malevolence, and thus much of the audience will certainly be reminded of recent events in New York City (which is essentially what Gotham is) like Occupy Wall Street and their populist anti-elite messaging here. The association is similar to what other major media releases like the video game Call of Duty are doing in their attempts to paint populist movements as evil terrorists, as David Sirota pointed out in a recent Salon article that compared politics of the film to the game.

A more significant problem with the film is not just the motivations of the villains as they are used in the plot device, but rather how that plot itself plays out. The villains are not only populists who resemble Occupy Wall Street, but in the film they actually seize power and thus challenge the State, or in other words: they carry out a revolution in the heart of capitalism. Now of course this doesn’t quite play out in the same way it would if Sergei Eisenstein had written the film, but the seizing of power and the question of the state play a central role for the film: for example there is a scene where the recently freed police force goes up against the new army of Bane’s Gotham. One of the police officers even says something along the lines of “there can only be one police force,” this line alone could help launch us into an in depth analysis about the monopoly of violence, the State, and how these questions are ideologically present in cultural products like Batman. This seizure of state power isn’t depicted as a mass uprising, but is rather part of Bane and his organization’s devious plans. Thugs and criminals are the new State in Bane’s Gotham which even includes an absurd kangaroo court with the delusional Scarecrow character presiding over the show trials, unfairly sentencing people to death. So the revolution of The Dark Knight Rises is a far cry from Battleship Potemkin and is instead more of a cautionary tale against allowing such disturbances of the social structure to occur.

So in the context of this plot device, Batman’s character plays a fundamentally conservative role. His status as a wealthy capitalist who secretly protects all the people of Gotham translates into his being the guardian of the very structure that allows folks like himself to have such wealth. It may be a stretch to call him a “counter-revolutionary” in the context of The Dark Knight Rises, considering the revolution itself is portrayed from a right wing perspective. But it isn’t just the portrayal of the motives and the revolution itself that makes the film politically problematic for the left. The secret motive of the revolutionaries to destroy Gotham with a nuclear weapon is related to what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek has said about major catastrophes in Hollywood films:”So the paradox is, that it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism” (from the documentary Zizek!). This film highlights this claim about ideology and culture perfectly: even the seizure of power by the people against the rich can really only be understood as the end of the world or as a disaster for all humanity rather than a mere rearranging of social relations. Batman is thus the hero of Gotham who saved it from being rearranged, which would have lead to total destruction for all, or in other words, the very attempt at rearranging those social relations was a threat to all of humanity (or at least the whole city in this case) that only someone like Batman could prevent. This ideological content of the film cannot just be seen as “being read into it” but rather is what the film revolves around.

There are many more things that could be said about the film form both a political and cinematic perspective. But those of us who identify to some extent with social movements like Occupy Wall Street should be taken aback when we see the year’s most anticipated Hollywood film try to equate messages of populism to either being easily manipulated or secretly motivated by “evil destructive ends.” The fact that the film even deals with themes of revolution and social change is an interesting development itself, but framing is important and this film engages in a seriously problematic framing of the popular movements to challenge inequality.

Should Contemporary Sci-Fi Relaunch the Space Program?

The spaceship Prometheus

Jon Spaihts, a screenwriter for the recently released film Prometheus, recently wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal titled “Can Sci-Fi Relaunch the Space Program?” In it, he details the relationship that science fiction has had and can have to space exploration. He details how space travel “originated” with the Cold War and how the “space race” helped to produce a rich volume of science fiction that was tied to the competition between the USSR and USA.

In a way he romanticizes the Cold War, which is not dissimilar to many academics and pro war politicians who long for the days of clear national competition and what they see as an easier appeal to patriotism (in other words: having the big Other to remind the public to fear). Spaihts’ brief history of science fiction here leaves out important historical ties between SciFi and space programs, most notably the “Star Wars program” (see the role of The Citizen Advisory Panel on National Space Policy where SciFi authors were encouraging the implementation of the military  program).

Many on the Left and the Right want to see a sort of space exploration, but what kind of space program does Jon Spaihts want to see revived? Aside from the end of the article where he is implicitly promoting space tourism as a potentially exciting new trend for rich folks who have always dreamed of space, the most telling phrasing is when he discusses trends in SciFi:

Although these trends are cloudy, one can argue that in the last fifteen years the space epic has fallen from favor, as sci-fi films have concerned themselves more with cyberpunk scenarios and Earthly dystopias than travel between the stars. As if our culture as a whole had turned its eyes away from external adventures to internal struggles.

David exploring a space map

So in essence, he sees the “internally looking” science fiction sub genre of cyberpunk as problematic and is advocating for a more outward and escapist space exploration style of the genre. We can certainly see this in Prometheus: a rich corporate boss wants to fulfill his life by funding a trillion dollar space ship to discover the meaning of life. While the film does not necessarily promote this sort of expansionist ideology, nor is it as much of a critique or warning against the corporate lust for profits in space as we find in earlier influential Scott films like Alien. This is problematic for science fiction: the ignoring of the internal contradictions that genres like cyberpunk offer in favor of “outward looking” space exploration stories that move our attention from real struggle to a dream of future prosperity and wonder (which is interestingly very similar to the “American dream” itself).

It would be interesting to hear Ridley Scott’s take on this question, considering he was not only the director of Prometheus but of perhaps the most influential cyberpunk film of all time Bladerunner which is a clear “inward looking” science fiction critique of a future ruled by corporate power.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is the fourth film of the original Planet of the Apes series and is perhaps the most “radical” of them all (which is not to discount the political importance of the original film).  It is the account of how the apes came to power through a revolution lead by the main character named Caesar.  The film was made in the context of the later civil rights era and during a time of revolutionary upsurge in the United States and around the world, and while it had revolutionary undertones throughout, including an ending that was “sanitized” to be less radical.

The atmosphere of the film is one where apes are driven into what is essentially slave labor by a “dystopian totalitarian” human society.  The subordinate role of the apes in the film was the result of a plague that killed off all of the pets that humans used to own, so they turned to apes to be their “servants” as a result, with the backdrop of the prior film where it was revealed that apes would one day rule humans: thus leading to an authoritarian control over how apes were owned and disciplined.  This drive for satisfaction and ownership while looking to be serviced could perhaps be seen through the lens of a critique of possessiveness and perhaps even a more Marxian notion of commodification.  It was the humans desire for pets to own, not necessarily companionship, and their fear of their “new pets” that lead to the conditions of the society portrayed in Conquest.

The film is itself a portrayal of a revolutionary situation under the leadership of Caesar who gets to work with “the governor” under the top section of the security of the city while secretly plotting a revolt by training and arming many apes in the city.  Small acts of resistance skyrocket in the city, showing the discontent of the apes who are preparing for revolt and spreading the idea of resistance amongst the general population.

The “Authenticator”

There are many important themes dealt with in the film, including the opposition to the brutal repression of the apes within the government of the city (in a sense representing the “liberal” opposition to a McCarthy style witch hunt).  Another interesting scene is when Caesar’s former “master” is being interrogated by a device called the “authentacator” which is essentially an advanced lie detector test that makes the subject tell the truth.  The dialogue contained in that scene is reminiscent of the calls for transparency in today’s world, yet in this context: that very transparency is used to reinforce the existing power structure.  While this analysis may seem overly analytical, it does remind one of certain criticisms of the post-modern phase of global capital, or the “capitalism with a human face” that is appealed to that attempts to justify continued aggression by the system.

The film depicts a very violent revolution, and while the original ending (spoiler alert ahead) has Caesar ordering the death of the oppressive governor, the studio (supposedly due to negative audience reactions) had the ending changed to make Caesar more forgiving in the end.  This effected the entire structure of the following film as well.  This is an excellent example of an ideological intervention in an otherwise seemingly subversive film for the era.

Overall it is also an example of how a film at this level (a highly grossing franchise) can be “subversive.” This is important in that it demonstrates that not only small independent films can contain messages relevant to liberation and struggle. The shortcomings of the venue and arena where it was made (like the forced change in the ending), however, cannot be overlooked. The double edged sword of “subversive film” that is simultaneously a major Hollywood production and an attempt to critique the existing system provides plenty of questions about film and the film industry.

También la lluvia (2010)

English Title: Even The Rain

Director: Icíar Bollaín

The set of the “film within the film”

Even The Rain is a film about the “Water Wars” of Boliva that took place in late 1999 and early 2000. The plot revolves around a director (played by Gael García Bernal) who is making a film about Christopher Columbus’ early brutal encounters with indigenous populations in the “New World.” This fictional film is depicted throughout Even the Rain as a parallel struggle to the water wars.

Instead of just framing the problems of water privatization and issues of global capital, Even the Rain is as much a film about the actual resistance to those attempts by capital than it is just about the process of (foreign) capital’s attempts to acquire basic resources like water. Throughout the film, one of the main actors hired for the “film within the film” is a leading activist against the water privatization who also plays one of the main ingenious figures who resisted the violence  brought onto indigenous peoples by Christopher Columbus. This perspective of the film provides voice to the resistance to such measures by global capital in ways that go beyond telling the story of globalization as a story of victimizers and victims and instead gives agency to those who are part of the process and attempt to challenge the process itself.

The revolt

The film opens with a nod to Howard Zinn, whose style of telling history from the eyes of the oppressed is quite clear in the film through the use of the “film within the film” to depict the parallels of the struggles of the past as similar to contemporary struggles. The complexities of oppression are also present in the film, for example a scene in the car of the filmmaker includes a conversation about language and privileged (an argument breaks out about not filming in English, which would have made more money, and the lack of presence of indigenous language).

The main event of the film, or climax, revolves around a revolt in the city of Cochabamba. This famous event eventually helped lead to the ascendency of the Evo Morales government to power. The revolt is certainly portrayed in a positive light (which even emotionally affects some characters who had clearly been skeptical to the demands of the local residents).

Overall, the film has an important message of social justice, and is a cinematic achievement in itself. It does an excellent job at capturing a revolutionary period while at the same time avoiding cinematic cliches about such struggles.

Les Noms des Gens (2010)

This post was submitted by Anna Lekas Miller who is a writer for Alternet

Director: Michel Leclerc

English Title: The Names of Love

So, France has a new president.

In a close election, François Hollande, of the French Socialist Party, defeated the infamous Nicolas Sarkozy. There were many symbolic moments—instead of celebrating in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, as Sarkozy’s supporters had the year before, Hollande’s supporters gathered to rejoice at the other end of the city at Place de La Bastille—the historic site of the French revolution and the numerous social movements, general strikes, protests, marches and celebrations that have characterized the French Left ever since.

François Hollande is part of a growing electoral theme in Europe—tired by austerity measures, and the successive, costly bailouts, the results at the polls are swinging towards the (politically palatable) left.

But will the election of a socialist president translate to a socialist re-configuration of society, where wealth is radically redistributed, bailouts that save the asses of the elite while sacrificing the well-being of the people are off the table, and everyone—immigrants, nationals, bourgeoisie and working classes—lives in harmonious, indistinguishable equity?

Probably not.

Instead of sorting through twitter, and trying to find the balance between the cynics who see a reflection of Barack Obama’s unfulfilled promises in François Hollande and my French friends surrounding me celebrating the end of Sarkozy, I decided to do what any sensible, politically-engaged woman trying to make sense of the left would do on the night of a significant election. I opened a bottle of red wine, lit some candles and watched my favorite French movie in the world, Les Noms des Gens for what has to finally be the ten millionth time.

Les Noms des Gens—translated as “People’s Names”—is a love story based in French identity politics. It opens with Arthur Martin, an ordinary and at first mundane man who makes his living doing autopsies on dead geese. He is predictable, and as his name might imply, comes off as very classically and comfortably French.

Quickly, the camera cuts to Baya Benmahmoud—his polar opposite. She is young, vivaciously sexual and rabidly outspoken, and as she says, “No one in France shares my name.” She is half-Algerian, and half French—and like many French children of Algerian immigrants, struggles with reconciling her white skin and French appearance with her disgust towards racism, colonialism, and the treatment of immigrants.

She has an unabated adoration of the left—which she displays through only sleeping with right-wingers with the sole purpose of converting them to the left.

“When I say I fuck them, I really do,” she says, while explaining her practices to Arthur. “Someone from the Front National takes about ten days. But a centrist, he can be converted in an afternoon.”

Gradually, the two polar opposites begin to fall in love—but not without hilarious moments of political differences punctuating their relationship. In one scene, Baya’s ebulliently leftist mother tries to convince Arthur to marry one of her friends for her citizenship. In another, Arthur tells Baya all the topics of conversation that she must avoid when she meets his parents. Exasperated, she blurts out,

“So what are we supposed to talk about? The weather?”

“Yes! That is perfect!” he replies.

Baya finds out that Arthur is actually Jewish—and his mother’s family experienced the genuine suffering of the Holocaust. She falls even more deeply in love with him.

“This is great,” she says as they are sitting at a bar, “I am Arab, and you are Jewish! Together we are two forgotten pieces of France’s history. We wont have true world peace until we are all mixed.”

In a flurry of personal emotions, Arthur suddenly decides to cut things off with Baya. The relationship has become too serious, and he fears that Baya is making too many waves in his once quiet, predicatable life. However, life without Baya—and her unabated adoration of all that makes the left and how she manifests this in her daily actions—is a dull life. There is no one to hold the subway doors open while an elderly couple struggles to make the train, no one to save the crabs at the market place from being eaten, and no one to blame everyone who doesn’t ardently adhere to the left for being a fascist.

Also, there is far less sex.

In the end, the two lovers reunite—this time when they are at the polling place together, Baya is very pregnant. At one point, she looks down and realizes that she accidently voted for Sarkozy. Her blood curdling screams cut to her in the hospital in labor, giving birth and looking at the TV in horror as Nicolas Sarkozy is elected to La Marseillaise.

“His name?” the nurse asks

“Chung. Martin. Benmahmoud” they say

“His background?”

“His background, we don’t care,” the two reply, smiling at one another.

Baya would have celebrated in the streets when François Hollande was elected—but will he really be the leader that the left wants to see transform France? Perhaps the deregulation and austerity measures started under Sarkozy will be halted and curbed, but the racism, anti-immigrant sentiment and remnants of a colonial past that still plague France, and the many different types of people who make up France won’t be washed away overnight. These aspects of French culture—or any culture—are ingrained in the history, in the family tree that traces its French origins back to the 1500s and in the awkward dinner conversations where a daughter brings her Algerian boyfriend home to meet her father who had also been in Algeria for “different reasons.”

It’s in the streets and the schools, the micro-aggressions and conversations that dictate whether one population feels tolerated or welcomed far more than political parties or policies. It’s in the unlikely friendships and relationships—and, as more and more opposites make love and create a new generation of multiple identities, differences become less distinct and more celebrated and, as Baya says, as our identities mix and mingle we get a little bit closer to world peace.

So, I’m not so sure that an elected leader—especially one who despite his socialist label seems ready to pander to neoliberalism, and doesn’t seem to have anything particularly radical to say about anything—will change France, or any country for that matter. But maybe the people—through meeting one another, sharing stories, being frank about their identity politics, opening each others minds through personal relationships, and making lots and lots and lots of love just might.

The Edukators (2004)

The following review was written by Kate Devlin

Director: Hans Weingarnter

The title in German has been translated both as “The Fat Years Are Over”, a phrase from the German Luther bible, and “Your Days of Plenty Are Numbered”. The film stars  Daniel Bruhl as Jan, Stipe Erugen as Peter, and Julia Jentsch as Jule.

Cabin where the hostage is held

This film concerns three young leftist activists living in contemporary Berlin. The character’s lives are introduced in the opening scenes showing them to be active in anti-corporate protests. For example, one scene shows activists at an anti-sweatshop protest, disrupting a shop selling high priced sneakers made by sweatshop labor.

Jule is financially “up against it,” working in a low paid job as a waitress, serving meals to wealthy customers who are often arrogant and abusive towards her. One evening at work, after an evening of abuse from both customers and her boss, Jule takes a break and chats with a male co-worker, who himself as been previously reprimanded by the boss. Unfortunately for Jule and her co-worker, this happens to be a busy time for the restaurant. When the boss sees his employees doing what he regards as “goofing off” he flies into a rage and fires both of them.

She is soon after evicted from her apartment for paying her rent late. And although this is set in Berlin in 2004, Jule’s situation is easy for contemporary young people in the US to identify with and reflects the predicament of many young people in the US; saddled with un-payable student loans and stuck in low level, dead end service sector jobs famous for abusive working conditions.

While Jule and Jan are painting, they develop a friendship. Soon after Jule ends up accompanying him in his and Peter’s van. Jan tells Julia what he and her boyfriend really do at night. Instead of posting advertising signs around Berlin they are the “Edukators”, anarchists who have gained publicity by breaking into wealthy people’s houses, rearranging furniture, and putting up signs saying, “You have too much money.” Jan explains this as their form of activism. They educate the wealthy ruling class in the dangers of having too much money and educate radicalizing youth and the working class to struggle against capitalism. Jan explains that he feels that an anti-capitalist revolution will occur in the near future.

They then break into the house of someone Jule indebted to. Jule is amazed at the lavishness of Harding’s home, a vast contrast to her and her friends squalid surroundings .She appears emotionally mixed, in this scene and though out the movie. She hates the rich, the stranglehold they have on society and the denial of opportunities to those not in the ruling class. At the same time she is adamant in her pacifist beliefs of strict non-violence and in not stealing property from Harding’s house. Jan is not as strict in these beliefs and there is a debate between the two.

A few days after the break in of Harding’s house Julia realizes she has left her cell phone there. She tells Jan. Together they plan another break in to retrieve it. It takes them quite some time to find the phone. Shortly after the phone is located Harding unexpectedly arrives home. He is seen talking on his phone to his wife explaining the details of why he ended his vacation early. Through a frantic reaction of how to act, they decide to kidnap Harding.

Most of the remainder of the film takes place at the cabin located in the Austrian Tyrol. At first Jan, Jule and Peter are hostile and mistrustful towards Harding. They are also unsure of what to do next. They seriously discuss “going for broke,” carrying out an attack on a TV tower as an anti-capitalist gesture. They have discussions about capitalism with Harding. The three young people see the capitalist system as being inherently exploitive and based on greed. Harding seems to believe in a meritocratic system in which success is the result of hard work and having creative ideas. Jule mentions how sweatshop workers in the Third World are left out of this “meritocracy” “What about their good ideas?” she asks.

The anti-capitalist points  raised by the three young  people are interesting but somewhat maddening from a more Marxist perspective. Their anti-capitalism seems to be based on moral grounds and they do not appear to have a theory of the underlying workings of capitalism or what an alternative to it may be like. The film of course was made four years before the current economic crisis and reflects a milieu which did not fully understand Marxist or other leftist economic critiques. The attitude and earnestness of the three is to be admired however.

During an early discussion Jule mentions the fact that the debt she incurred though her accident ruined her life. Harding tells the three, to the effect that, “you should have told me, we could have worked out something.” Harding’s wealth and seeming obliviousness to the situation of those less privileged and lack of social consciousness do not make him sound convincing though.

The rearranged furniture

The three anarchists and Harding very gradually warm up towards each other.  One time they begin talking after a joint is past around. Harding tells the three that he had once had similar beliefs as they do. It turns out he had been in the leadership of the German SDS (Socialist German Student Union), a 60s/70s organization somewhat more radical than the US group of the same acronym, and had been personal friends with Rudi Dutschke and other well-known activists of the German New Left. The four of them discuss leftist lore and the history of the German New Left. While the attitude of the three towards Harding is still wary, they loosen up towards him after this.

Harding describes how he gradually changed his leftist philosophy. He says “when you first buy a new car, you feel guilty. Then you find you gradually make other changes.” He describes a process of gradually fist accommodating to and then embracing capitalism as a way of life. Musing while he and Jan are chopping wood and doing outdoor tasks, Harding appears to rethink his life, saying he is sick of the corporate world and longs for a simpler life in the countryside.

Harding makes a deal to not call the police if he is released, and the activists agree. The concluding scenes show Julia, Jan, and Peter sleeping together in a large bed. Anti-terrorist police are shown clammering up the stairs. It appears that, predictably from a Marxist view that “conditions produce consciousness” that Harding, back in his comfortable home, has gone back on his promise. The film ends with an interesting twist.

Overall this is an excellent film. The conditions facing many of today’s youth, especially those in their 20s though out much of the developed world are movingly shown. The film also shows the differences and continuities between the struggles of the original New Left 60s/70s generation and those of radicalized youth today. The film reflects an anarchist viewpoint which relies more on individual anti-capitalist activism and education as methods of struggle. Most Marxists would favor activism based on helping workers increase their level of class that is moving people through struggle, of an understanding that their interests are different from that of the ruling class and those who own capital.

According to Wikipedia in 2009 a statue was stolen from convicted swindler Bernie Madoff was returned with a note that read “Bernie the Swindler, Lesson: Return stolen property to rightful owners”. It was signed “the Educators”.

Harlan County, USA (1976)

Director: Barbara Kopple

This academy award winning documentary is itself an important contribution to the 20th century working class movement of the United States.  While it not only played an important role in documenting a violent struggle for unionization in Kentucky, the presence of the film crew was itself cited in helping achieve victory for the miners who were the subject of the film.

As with many cases of violent struggle with attempted unionization in coal mines, Harlan county was one where company thugs, workers, and police all played an all too cliche role. Thugs and police helped (with the interesting exception of the complex role of the Sheriff) maintain the company’s power while the workers had to face legal challenges, attempted murders, and intimidation to form their union. This familiar narrative is not only the result of the same struggle taking on a similar form various times throughout American history, but the film itself inspired other films, for example Matewan. (John Sayles on Harlan County)

The most striking thing about the case of Harlan County is how similar the film’s structure is to that of the various other films/narratives about unionizing efforts in other coal mining areas that date back to the late 19th century. The exception in this case, however, is a demonstration of some serious corruption at the union level. While the story of the drive itself is familiar, one significant difference is that this was not the beginning of the United Mine Workers of America but rather that there had been decades of development for that organization. There is even a case where a rank-and-file candidate runs for the presidency of the union and is murdered by folks connected to what is perceived as the corrupt leadership.

These struggles demonstrate the real problems that go into organizing that is not simply a romanticized version of “the workers vs the bosses” but rather demonstrate the complexities. The “labor aristocracy” is shown to be quite clear in this film and the future of the union is questioned even with the optimistic overtones towards the end of the film and victory of the particular drive. Some of the members remain quite unsatisfied with the contract that they won, for example.

Further reading:

Woman Rebel (2010)

Director: Kiran Deol


Woman Rebel is a short documentary that aired on HBO in 2010 that follows a woman named Uma Bhujel during her times as a Maoist rebel in Nepal. Throughout the film Bhujel (whose codename in the military is “Silu”) describes the various aspects of the experience of fighting the war. Early on, while being introduced to her family, we learn that her brother had joined the Royal Army. This framework makes her story a sad “classic case” of civil conflict splitting a family. Although unlike the cliche “brother vs brother” notion, Nepal’s Maoist rebels are composed of 40% women and are trying to fight gender inequality in Nepal and this departure from the cliche represents how important gender is not only for the conflict’s impact on Uma’s family, but for Nepali society.

The rebellion itself is not shown as the result of an ideological battle (although this is implied to an extent in the Maoists calling for and end to the class inequality). Rather, the conflict is shown in the backdrop of a deeply unequal and unjust society where people are rising up, for example a story of a woman who committed suicide after her husband’s family (in which the marriage was prearranged) treated her poorly is used to highlight the gendered inequality that exists in Nepali society. There are none of the anti-Communist declarations or cautions that we would find if this were to appear as a history channel show which makes the film a refreshing look at a contentious issue.

A Maoist fighter and her child

The director of the film claims that she wants the viewer to “see a portrait” of a fighter in a complex struggle. She also claims that the film is meant to “focus on agents of change instead of victims of circumstance.” This intention is quite important, as it portrays those living in the Global South not as helpless victims that are just in need of help from Western NGO’s and “freedoms” but rather that those very impoverished people have the ability to mobilize and get what they want directly.

Overall, the film is an interesting look into the conflict that is not covered often in Western media which ended the long standing monarchy of Nepal and established a republic. There have been continued issues with the pace and nature of social change in the country (of which are out of the scope of this film review), but the most important part of this film is that it shows the conflict through the lens of a fighter who sees her struggle as part of a movement for social justice. The structure of the short film keeps it interesting the whole way through, with stock footage of the conflict going back to the 1990s to the contemporary countryside. It serves as an excellent introduction to those unfamiliar with the conflict, and for those familiar it is a way to promote education and discussion about the issue.