Elysium (2013)

This review contains spoilers for a film currently in theaters

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Earth in poverty

Earth in poverty

Elysium is a major blockbuster set in a dystopian future where the rich people of Earth have fled for a space station in orbit named Elysium. In this version of the future, Earth has deteriorated to such an extent that the rich no longer find it habitable and thus only make trips to the planet to manage corporations or oversee the oppressive legal system. There are various social issues that the film deals with that are of interest to the Left which has of course alarmed Fox News and right wing blogs. While there is more to the film than the political content, we will mostly focus on the politics of Elysium and what we should take away from it.

Matt Damon plays the films main character (named Max) struggling to make it by as a factory worker troubled by a criminal past. Max’s struggle in the film exposes the various social and political struggles that we can see prevalent today: class struggle, lack of health care, immigration, and to an extent the military industrial complex. The contradictions of the society are highlighted simply in a sequence where he is on his way to work: he leaves his home and is harassed and assaulted by the police (who have been replaced by androids instead of actual humans), has to speak with his robot parole officer who extends his parole because of the incident, arrives at work late to be told he is too injured to work but will be docked half a day’s pay instead, and then starts his job which is itself to produce more androids like the kind that injured him in the first place.

The automatic parole officer of the future

The automatic parole officer of the future

The major turning point for Max is when he is told by his supervisor to enter an unsafe situation which ultimately leads to an accident where he is exposed to radiation and is essentially left for dead by the company of which CEO just wants Max to leave the building (this of course wouldn’t happen if they had a union!) This leads to a set of events where Max works with a criminal organization that he had previously associated with to attempt to steal information from the rich CEO to make it easier for the organization to sneak people into Elysium.

While Max’s drama plays out, a plot to carry out a coup is being attempted on Elysium by Jodi Foster’s character who in some sense could be seen an analogy to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen. The coup plans fall into the hands of Max through their data heist of the CEO and they discover that they have the power to make all of Earth’s population citizens of Elysium. Through the typical twists and turns of a major action film, this is eventually carried out, making the struggle for legalization for all and access to health care (both of which were motivated by a reaction to unsafe working conditions) the major conclusions of the film. This of course is not typical for a Hollywood blockbuster, which led Vice to go as far as to claim that Hollywood was tricked into making a radical film.



The film itself is not without flaws. Evil bad guys like the main paramilitary man trying to capture Max are a bit shallow, and the action scenes were a bit cliche at times. But if we are to look at the less-than-subtle political message that comes through to an audience of millions, the film is praiseworthy. The cliche shortcomings and sometimes strange story developments aside, the film is also entertaining and stands out as a sci fi film on its own, although it would be hard not to be excited about a major film where providing healthcare to all citizens of Earth is the conclusion. Elysium has received mixed reviews, not for the political content which has been the focus by political commentators of course, but rather for the problems of the film itself. While the director apparently denied that the film was political, it would be quite difficult to ignore the fact that almost every major plot point in the film corresponds to a major social issue that the Left focuses on today.


Fruitvale Station (2013)

Director: Ryan Coogler

fvstation2Fruitvale Station is a dramatization of the murder of Oscar Grant. While it doesn’t contain any explicit political overtones, its existence is politically significant. Usually dramatizations of people’s lives are reserved for artists, world “leaders” and the like rather than victims of police brutality. Yet this film is an attempt to put a human face on a prominent recent victim of such an incident.

For those who are not familiar with the case, Oscar Grant was murdered by police in Oakland, California in 2009. The subsequent trial of the officer who shot Grant resulted in a mere 2 year sentence, and only 11 months were served. These events led to riots and an intensification of the anti-police brutality movement in California and this film can, in a sense, be seen as part of that movement.

The film closely details the last day in Grant’s life, from his struggle to stop selling marijuana to his attempts of getting his job at a supermarket back, to the emotional (and adorable) interactions with his daughter. These sequences did not in themselves contain much politically significant content, but rather need to be situated as the “humanizing” of a victim of the state. Usually when the police kill someone, the media and entertainment industries either don’t pay attention or assume that it was the victim’s fault. This film turns that narrative on its head (and was able to because of the blatantly obvious case of wrong doing on the police’s behalf for this particular incident).

fvstation3Some reviews of the film so far have focused on this humanizing effort that the film engages in to criticize it. The AV club says that “[p]utting a human face on a public tragedy that already had a human face, Fruitvale Station plays like an uncomplicated eulogy, with little more to say on its subject than ‘what a shame this bad thing happened.'” Variety says that the film is guilty of promoting a “relentlessly positive portrayal of its subject.” While I would usually agree that over humanizing of politically significant events like the death of Oscar Grant cheapen and oversimplify these issues (which discourages political responses in favor of “case by case” dealings), I would say that the very nature of this film makes it a rare exception.

What sets this humanizing effort apart from other stories set in the United States can be made clear from the questions raised by AP writer Jesse Washington: “If Grant was a real person, what about all these other young black males rendered as cardboard cutouts by our merciless culture? What other humanity are we missing?”

The very project of humanizing the subject of a police murder is an attempt to bring light to not only his case, but effectively brings light to the issue of police violence in general. On top of the social and cultural role the film plays, it is also well done and should be watched on that merit alone.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Italian title: La battaglia di Algeri

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Ali looks on to the city

Ali looks on to the city

The Battle of Algiers is a notorious film of its time and has remained important in the context of the major geopolitical affairs of today. It presented a challenge to Western imperialism, and continues to play a provocative role. The most prominent example of  how it remains important decades after its release was its screening in the Pentagon after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, where the State Department was quite clearly attempting to draw lessons from the French experience in Algeria to better understand how to fight anti-colonial struggles they predicted would arise in Iraq. The themes of the film, an occupying Western power trying to subdue a local population, saw striking similarities to contemporary Western adventures. Certain scenes of the film were censored in France for their depiction of the French military using torture.

The film portrays the events leading up to Algerian independence from the French and was released during the wave of independence movements across Africa. It was based on a book by an Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) fighter Saadi Yacef, who wrote the book while in prison during the conflict the film is based off of. While it attempts to “show all sides,” it’s quite clear from the style and narrative of the film that the French are acting as oppressors and occupiers trying to prevent a national liberation movement. It does not attempt to blindly cheer lead the FLN movement, and certain tactics (like targeting civilian populations) are called into question, the film cannot help but to be an expose of the horrors of colonial rule.

The film received renewed attention after it was screened by the Pentagon which prompted many to make the obvious comparisons between the French occupation of Algeria and the US invasion of Iraq (on top of the eerie fact that the Pentagon screening seemed to show that the US itself was drawing this connection). The torture scenes in the film (which were censored in France, along with the film itself having been banned for a period) in the context of the occupation of Iraq served as an example of the film as a predictive warning for what can come from a colonial occupation. With multiple accusations of the use of torture by the US during the so called “war on terror,” those who put on a screening at the Pentagon seem to have missed the films key points.

People of Algiers being kettled

People of Algiers being kettled

The liberation movement in the film is shown to engage in acts of terror,  but not in the way that contemporary Hollywood films depict the perpetrators. Rather in Battle they are highly contextualized and even placed within a broader movement for social justice (something that would be unthinkable even amongst progressive filmmakers today with few exceptions). While they aren’t exactly being justified, the broader movement for liberation from France itself takes on the role of the “main protagonist” even more than leading actor Brahim Hadjadj in some ways. In other words, it is not a story about a personal journey that various characters must engage, but rather about an important turning point for the history of Algeria and France.

The Battle of Algiers has been a film with much written about it since its release so no brief synopsis can do it justice, although perhaps this post can be a starting point an encourage more investigation into the film. It serves as an excellent example of the role that progressive narratives can play (even if under the veil of “not taking sides”) in film.

South of the Border (2009)

Director: Oliver Stone

"The Bolivarians"

“The Bolivarians”

With the death of Hugo Chavez on Tuesday, an important film to revisit is Oliver Stone’s South of the Border. This documentary follows the rise of the Pink Tide in Latin America and the accomplishments that the various governments in question have made.

I first saw this film during a screening at the 2010 United States Social Forum in Detroit. The crowd’s optimism about the developments (that are still ongoing) in Latin America was quite clear: from cheering on in various scenes, to hissing when Stone claimed that he believed there could be a “benign capitalism.” The screening was followed by a Q and A with Venezuelan and Cuban representatives to ALBA to continue the optimistic appraisal.

Hugo Chavez plays a key role in this documentary, as well as in facilitating the rise of this so called Pink Tide. Almost all of the leaders that follow in a sense play as a footnote to his historic victory in the late 1990s. His Presidency is something they all (with the exception of Raul Castro of course) acknowledge an indebtedness to throughout the film.

Chavez and Stone

Chavez and Stone

Towards the end of the film, there is a great hope expressed for the Barack Obama’s administration taking a new path. As we now see the administration in its 5th year, it has demonstrated no significant signs of change toward Latin America (The Honduran Coup being the prime example, along with continued support for the Venezuelan opposition) and has instead remained mostly consistent with previous administrations. This previous feeling of hope could be met with plenty of “I told you so” by the Left. But it fits in with the overall positive tone of the film which saw one of the primary messages as simply debunking US media conceptions of leaders like Hugo Chavez.

Along with Chavez’s electoral victory, the film contextualizes the history of IMF imposed structural adjustment and mass movements in response that helped pave the way for left leaning parties to assume the helm of governing the various countries in question. Evo Morales, in discussing Tupac Katari’s quote about dying as one and returning as millions, proclaims at the end of the film that “now we are millions.” This is the underlying theme of the film: the populist movements of Latin America are something to be admired and praised, not demonized. The film is mostly successful in promoting this counter-narrative and on top of its positive political message is an achievement in documentary film making.

Promised Land (2012)

Director: Gus Van Sant

(Spoilers follow)

The Small Town

The Small Town

Promised Land is a film about the energy extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking” for short). This process has become a flash point for environmentalists over the past few years, and this film staring Matt Damon serves as an attack on the way in which companies enter small towns to secure the rights to being using the method. The way the film portrays the struggle between the town and the fracking company is interesting and not boiled down to a simplistic “good vs evil” narrative with unlikable company men and heroic townsfolk. Instead, a more realistic portrayal of how complex story is told, although the message of the film clearly comes through.

Matt Damon’s character and his partner, played by Frances McDormand, visit the small town to convince the people living there to sell their land so the company can begin the process of fracking. As they gain momentum, a small town hall meeting is disrupted by a high school science teacher who points out the major flaws with the practice. This sets off a series of difficulties for the company that become further aggravated by the arrival of a small environmentalist group.

The sequence of the environmentalist, played by John Krasinski, gaining popularity in the town is where the film demonstrates its aim of a populist anti-corporate message. It sometimes feels that each scene is structured in such a way as to show support by the folks in the town for the environmentalist message over the corporate attempts to begin their work. One excellent example of this is a karaoke scene where the woman from the company attempts to sign a song and is largely ignored, while the environmentalist’s performance is met with enthusiastic participation and camaraderie from the locals who frequent the bar.

The citizens opposing the company

The citizens opposing the company

This dichotomy between “the people” and the company is one which tends to be absent from major Hollywood releases, so to see it in this film was a refreshing social commentary that is often too just not present. One problem with the way it plays out in this film, however, is how the events unfold in the latter part of the film where it is revealed that the environmental presence was actually set up by the company to discredit any opposition to their efforts. It is revealed that many of the claims by the environmentalist were fabricated, and the company was able to get evidence of this to discredit him. The night before a major vote is to take place, Damon’s character learns that he was being fooled by the company into believing this as well and has a change of heart. At this major vote the next day, he reveals to the people of the town that the environmentalist was actually working for his company, and we are left to assume that the town in turn rejected the proposal for the company to being operating in the town.

A problem with this turn of events is that the agency of the people of this town was reduced to the will and drive of different people in the company. This leads the conflict to be resolved by the “guilty feeling” and moral turn by one of the main drivers of the company’s profits. While depicting this “switching sides” so to speak is not in and of itself problematic, what is troubling is how the resolution of the conflict relied solely on his moral compass: not on the residents of the town themselves who had been so active throughout the film. They had been empowered every step of the way in rejecting the company, with a strong populist feeling of “us vs them” that had guided their clear move away from the company’s line. Yet once we discover that they were all being tricked (the company was “playing both sides” as the fake environmentalist had said), all of that empowerment was assumed to have just given in to the company’s ability to control the narrative. That’s not to say that when “both sides are being played” that people don’t get tricked, and that the ruling class doesn’t often get what it wants: but the endogenous, or homegrown opposition to the company ceased to be a factory in the conflict resolution of this film. This is the issue that should have been further explored.

The overall structure of the film is not itself challenged by this resolution, but it does take away from the overall progressive tone of the film. But in general the film deals with many important issues beyond fracking, namely the future of small towns where factory jobs and investment continue to leave and more and more they rely on deals with companies like the one depicted in this film.

Dear Mandela (2011)

Directors: Dara Kell, Christopher Nizza

Dear Mandela is a documentary about the struggle for housing in post-apartheid South Africa. It follows a community organization called Abahlali BaseMjondolo (which means “people of the shacks”) in its fight for housing rights (which are supposed to be guaranteed in the constitution of South Africa). In the film, the ANC is portrayed as having “fallen from grace” to an extent in that they have failed to deliver in their promise to bring equality after apartheid.

The structure of the documentary is reminiscent of films like Harlan County, USA that follow a community through a significant amount of time during a specific struggle. In this case, Abahlali BaseMjondolo decides to take the fight for housing to a constitutional court, arguing that the demolition of shacks is unconstitutional considering that they are not being provided with adequate alternatives. They find that the ruling ANC is willing to use violence and coercion to prevent its victory in the courts, and there is even a moment when ANC supporters come and harass them while they’re outside of the courtroom. This exposes a serious contradiction in post-apartheid South Africa, as the ANC continues to command much respect for its role in bringing about the end of the apartheid regime. For example, one of the activists is in the midst of a community meeting and denounces all political parties, and when he denounced the ANC: the room grew silent. This contradiction in South Africa continues to be a significant political question as related to recent events like the massacre of 34 miners this year and the complex relationship between the ANC and the mining unions.

This difficult fight against the state in the courts is an example of what many have called the “new apartheid” or “economic apartheid” in South Africa. While the formal racist rule came to an end with the victory of the ANC, class inequality continues. This film sharply highlights this inequality, showing that many of the folks who live in these shacks are workers who just cannot afford to live in the cities in which they work.

Abahlali BaseMjondolo wins their court battle, which was an important victory. This victory was an important step in achieving real housing rights for South Africans, although there is still a long road ahead, as this documentary points out through its optimistic message.

At the screening of the film I attended (that was put on by the Center for Place Culture and Politics), the film makers were encouraging people to set up screenings of the film to help promote the film itself and raise awareness of the struggle in South Africa. http://dearmandela.com/

​Children of Men​ (2006)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Children of Men is a science fiction film that paints a picture of a “hopeless future.” Like most dystopian fiction, the “purpose” of the film is social commentary. The premise of the film is that women have en masse become infertile and as a result, much of the world has “devolved” into chaos and war except for the United Kingdom which is supposedly the “only remaining” stable civilized society. This stable civil society is exposed throughout the film to be based on repression and organized violence against the victims of the worldwide troubles which leads the viewer to believe that this so called stable society is living in a state of denial.

Of course the concept of a chaotic violent world doesn’t require science fiction to showcase, yet as with most science fiction: painting it as an alternate reality or possible future to an extent gives room for commentary. So we see the British military kettling people from around the world, who have moved to the UK to find refuge from the tumult of their place of origin, into cages and camps while sending them off to a ghetto that is separated from the rest of society. We are lead to believe that this is a “possible world.” If the film had taken place in contemporary Afghanistan or Iraq, showing the same actions, the response to the film would be much different, even though the film itself is inspired directly by those very real events. In an interview, Cuarón says that “[e]verything has to have a reference to the state of our times,” which demonstrates the role that the style and particular depiction of this future plays.

There are many social issues dealt with the film, and the infertility question ends up to an extent merely being a plot device to explore these issues. For example, one of the main characters (who is the first pregnant woman in over a decade) is a refugee named Kee and is being escorted by a resistance group called the “fishers” who want to use her pregnancy as part of the resistance to the British state. While the theme of gender seems to be de-emphasized, this usage of the main character who is a woman to simply achieve the aims of political groups could be seen as an exposing the gendered nature of both oppression and resistance (one need not look far for feminist critiques of the Left). These issues playing the primary role in the film shows that the film is not about the future per sey, but rather our current social situation. For example, the director himself said that while making the film, they “didn’t want [the audience] to be distracted by the future. We didn’t want to transport the audience into another reality.”

This sense of not wanting the audience to be distracted by the future contrasts the film with a film like Blade Runner which is the sort of dystopia that focuses on the affects of technology on social change directly. Cuarón actually even said that Children of Men was “the anti-Blade Runner” in terms of the mise en scene (or art and visual standards of the film). This different take on the future offers contrasting visions of how social commentary and science fiction can play out, and Children of Men‘s attempt proves quite successful both politically and in terms of film making. It demonstrates the potential that science fiction has as a tool for exposing social relations of today and what film makers who understand this are capable of doing.

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.

The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008)

Kate Devlin

2008 Germany (English subtitles available)
Directed by Uli Edel

“The Baader Meinhof Complex” is based on a bestselling 1985 novel of the same name by Stefan Aust. The film covers the early period of the German revolutionary organization, the Rote Armee Fraktion, which was active from 1970 to 1998. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards in 2009.
While the group preferred to be called the Rote Armee Fraktion (Red Army Fraction) it was often referred to in the media as the Red Army Faction, the Baader-Meinhof Gang or Baader-Meinhof.
The film opens with the origin of the RAF within the West Berlin and broader German leftist and anti-imperialist movements. Though out the 1960s large numbers of German young people became alienated by US imperialism in the Vietnam War and elsewhere and by authoritarian elements remaining in German society. Although the Federal Republic of Germany was a bourgeois democracy and had been “de-nazified”, much of post-WWII German society remained deeply authoritarian. Many former Nazis held elective or appointed positions in government and much of the legal system was dominated by Nazi era holdovers and deeply conservative legal philosophies. In 1966 Kurt Georg Kiesinger, a former Nazi, became German chancellor, a fact which outraged many leftists. There was also severe repression against the left, with the German Communist Party being banned in 1956 and known radicals banned from government jobs in 1972. The social democratic SPD was seen as complicit with a pro-NATO, pro-imperialist rightist regime. In addition to this many young people were upset about their parent’s or grandparent’s lack of resistance to the Nazis. Along with the political stagnation of the bourgeois parties and the seeming inability to break from Cold War politics, dissatisfaction with conservative West German society fueled the creation of a large leftist mileu in the 1960s and 1970s.

In June of 1967 the Shah of Iran visited Berlin. The film vividly portrays an incident in which the West Berlin police deliberately allow Savak, the Iranian security of the time, infamous for torture of dissidents and killing Iranians outside Iran, to brutally beat a crowd of protesters. In the melee which followed a protester, Benno Ohneburg was shot and killed without provocation by a West Berlin police officer, Karl Heinz Kurras. Kurras was later acquitted of the murder (after German unification it was revealed that Kurras was an East German double agent).These specific incidents outraged and radicalized many people.

This led to the formation of what became the RAF. The film follows Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and others, active in the Berlin leftist scene, planting a bomb in a Frankfurt department store to publicize their protest against the harassment and killing of leftists. Ensslin and Baader are quickly arrested and put on trial. Ulrike Meinhof, a young left wing journalist, attends the trial and interviews Ensslin and Baader. She sympathizes with them and quickly comes to admire their dedication and how they’ve given meaning to their lives.
Baader and Esselin are released on bail and after setting up a semi-communal household, attract a network of sympathetic young people.

Shortly after this, egged on by a hysterical anti-leftist campaign by the right wing Axel Springer media group (roughly analogous to Fox News today in the US) a young right wing extremist shoots Rudi Dutschke, an activist and student spokesman popular within the German left. Dutschke suffered head wounds from which he later died in 1979 in London. The rightist media campaign resulting in the shooting of Dutschke enrages Berlin’s leftists. Springer newspapers are destroyed and delivery trucks are sabotaged by groups of leftists. In retaliation for the shooting Baader and Ensslin plant a bomb in the Springer press room. This was meant to destroy property but not injure people. Unfortunately the Springer switchboard operator refuses to take Ensselin’s called in bomb threat seriously and several people are killed.

Baader is arrested at a traffic stop. Ulrike Meinhof, using her credentials as a journalist, visits him in prison and with the help of sympathizers helps Baader and Ensslin escape. The RAF nucleus, which consists of Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin and now Peter Horman, spend a brief time in Rome. Their lawyer, Horst Mahler, tries to convince them to return to Germany and begin guerrilla warfare. At an outdoor Rome cafe Baader begins shouting ethnic slurs against Italians.

Instead of Germany the core members go to Jordan to undergo military training with a radical Palestinian faction. The German’s cultural insensitivity and lack of discipline alienates them from their Palestinian hosts. Baader especially begins to act increasingly sexist and culturally chauvinist and becomes something of a bully.
Peter Horman is the first to leave Jordan, with the covert assistance of the Palestinians, after falling out with the rest of his group and receiving death threats from Baader.

The group returns to Germany and embarks on a campaign of guerrilla warfare. A series of bank robberies begins. An RAF member , Petra Schelm, is killed at a roadblock and an escalating war between the RAF and West German police and security ensues.

Baader and a companion are arrested after a shootout with police and Gudrun Ensslin is reported by a store clerk who sees her gun while she is changing clothes at a department store.

The leading members, Baader, Meinhof, Ensslin, and now Jean-Carl Raspe, are put on trial. Embarrassing the authorities, the RAF had a wide degree of sympathy from radical youth and even the general public. In a memorable scene after Baader and the other RAF members insult and public humiliate the judge the courtroom audience erupts in wild cheers.

After an initially highly repressive prison regime at the Stammheim Prison, the now imprisoned RAF go on a hunger strike. Siegfried Hausner , one of the RAF prisoners, dies in an incident which sympathizers believe could have been prevented. This elicits public outrage and sympathy for the surviving prisoners. The authorities relent and allow the prisoners to meet and socialize.

Meanwhile a second generation RAF continues the war outside the prison. The German embassy in Sweden is briefly taken over in a botched attempt to take hostages. An RAF member is brought back to Germany and dies in what is regarded as medical murder. Meanwhile Ulrike Meinhof, experiencing severe depression and after apparently having a falling out with the other RAF prisoners, is found hung in her prison cell.

Not believing official report of Meinhof’s suicide and in retaliation for her death, the second generation RAF escalates their campaign. A federal prosecutor is killed, a bank president is killed in a botched kidnap attempt and a major industrialist, Hans-Meyer Schleyer, a former SS officer, is taken hostage to force the release of the RAF prisoners.

Amid increasing tension, the Baader ,Ensslin, Raspe, and Irmgard Moller are convinced that the prison authorities will soon kill them. In an interesting scene Ensslin tells unbelieving visiting Protestant clergymen that she doesn’t have long to live.

When the RAF together with radical Palestinians, hijacks Lufthansa flight 181 (an action which Baader strongly opposes) leading to an epic airplane hostage crisis, the RAF prisoners believe their deaths are inevitable.

Shortly thereafter Ensslin is found hung in her cell and Baader and Raspe are found shot in their beds. Irmgard Moller attempted suicide by stabbing herself three times in the chest.

Overall the Baader-Meinhof Complex is a vivid psychological portrayal. The film does not fully convey the political atmosphere creating the feeling of alienation which led to German youth radicalization. It does a good job of showing the various incidents, the killing of Benno Ohnesburg, the shooting of Rudi Dutschke, and other events and the escalating tension connected with the RAF war against the German state. The film explores more the psychological drama of the protagonists in action, rather then what led up them to pursue their course of action.

The actual RAF continued into a “third generation” up to 1998 when a “cease fire” communique was released by “third generation” members declaring that the “project is over”. Though out its existence the RAF is credited with killing 34 people.

The alienation and radicalization of the RAF and their mileu are understandable but the tactics were wrong. Most Marxists would say that terrorist campaigns conducted by groups like the RAF are useless and counter-productive. Terrorism kills innocent people, provides an excuse for state repression, can divide the working class, and is incapable of accomplishing change in society. The Marxist method relies on education and mobilization of the working class as a class. The RAF , especially its founding members came from an intellectual middle class milieu. Unfortunately they came of age when the once vibrant historic German left had long since been crushed and been dissipated. They lacked contemporary models of struggle. Their activism was divorced from the working class, whom most Marxists would see as important to orient towards.

In a 1977 interview the German-American Marxist Paul Mattick, in discussing the role of violence in revolutionary socialism and obliquely referring to the RAF , said,
“For revolutionaries it is psychologically quite difficult, if not impossible, to raise their voices against the futile application of “revolutionary justice” by terroristic groups and individuals. Even Marx, who despised all forms nihilistic actions, could not help being elated by the terroristic feats of the Russian “Peoples’ Will” As a matter of fact, the counter-terror of revolutionary groups cannot be prevented by mere recognition of its futility. Their perpetrators are not moved by the conviction that their actions will lead directly to social change, but by their inability to accept the unchallenged, the perpetual terror of the bourgeoisie unchallenged. And once engaged in illegal terror, the legal terror forces them to continue their activities until the bitter end. This type of people is itself product of the class-ridden society and a response to its increasing brutalization. There is no sense in forming a consensus with the bourgeoisie and condemning their activities from proletarian point of view. It is enough to recognize their futility and to look for more effective ways to overcome the ever-present capitalist terror by the class actions of the proletariat.”


This film does not adequately convey the political background leading to the RAF but it does a very good job of showing the organization itself. It is definitely worth seeing although it should be supplemented with further reading on this era and subject.