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.

​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.

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.

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.

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2008)

Director: Mark Boulos

All That Is Solid Melts Into Air is a short film by Mark Boulos that contrasts the excesses of capitalism in the depiction of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with one of the most exploited parts of the world, the Niger Delta. The brokers in Chicago passionately trading oil futures are contrasted with members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, which is a militant movement in the region to resist companies like Royal Dutch Shell and for expropriation of that oil wealth.

The title of the short film/project comes from a line from The Communist Manifesto. The dialectical nature of such a contrast (two screens directly facing each other showing two extreme ends of capitalism) could not be any clearer. The mere existence of what each screen depicts demonstrates a contradiction of the system of global capital: the dispossession of people from their own resources and land and the foreign ownership of it.

This exhibit/short film is straight forward and to the point and should be a starting point of conversation about neo-colonialism and the continued attempts by the West to dominate places like Africa and the Global South in general. The simultaneous format of the exhibit is an example of how dialectical reasoning can be utilized in art to build consciousness and display methods of resistance.

At the time of this writing the exhibit is on display at the MoMA