Understanding Film: Marxist Perspectives

Mike Wayne (ed.),
Understanding Film: Marxist Perspectives.
London and Ann Arbor, Mich.: Pluto Press, 2005.
ISBN: 0 7453 1993 9 (hb) US$85.00
ISBN: 0 7453 1992 0 (pb) US$29.95
(Review copy supplied by Pluto Press)

In his introduction to Understanding Film: Marxist Perspectives, the editor Mike Wayne sets out the contribution Marxism can offer to film studies: an emphasis on socioeconomic relations; the potential for large-scale analyses beyond the level of textual readings of individual films; and respect for both the past (with historicisation an indispensable methodological tool) and the future (openness to the utopian, the ideal and the possible). This capsule summary may suggest that Wayne – and the book as a whole – postulates a simplistic, one-size-fits-all Marxism. Not at all. Rather, the book is structured to provide examples of several categories of Marxist film interpretation: pieces on key theorists; film criticism; institutional analyses, and studies of national cinema.

Wayne does offer one generalisation to link Marxism and film: that both are interested in the masses. This is undoubtedly true, although it does ascribe an uncanny level of agency and embodiment to film. In Marx and Engels’ first joint publication, The Holy Family, or Critique of Critical Criticism (1844), they insisted that man made history: “History does nothing…It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights…”. I think cinema should be understood in the same way: cinema doesn’t make itself, cinema isn’t made for itself, cinema is made by and for us. Film’s relation to the mass becomes a question of how to understand its situation as a medium capable of reaching many millions of people, potentially disparate in place and time.

The book’s title suggests it is addressed to those who share the contributors’ interest in understanding film; most likely, film studies undergraduates. I doubt, however, if film studies undergraduates have sufficient understanding of Marxism itself to make sense of the pieces here. That is not a putdown of undergraduates: Marxism is a minefield for the unwary. Who would claim to be in full command of base, superstructure, historical materialism, hegemony, ideology, as these terms have been coined and debated, some now for well more than a century? I wouldn’t. Think of Roland Barthes identifying Marxism as a sociolect, a group language governed by stereotypes and deadening terminology, intimidating to those who feel excluded from it, and constraining to those who participate in it. Indeed, think of Marx saying he was no Marxist.

However, placed in history as we are after Marx, if and when we try to understand or assess Marx’s contribution to modern thought, we are – for that moment, at least – Marxists. Relating this endeavour to film studies, Wayne describes “a remarkably rich tradition of analysis and debates central to understanding an industrial cultural form such as film” (31). That is the ground he stakes out for the book: Marxist perspectives harnessed in order to understand film. “Understanding Marx” must take place elsewhere.

The first four chapters take up the work of some key Marxist theorists. Esther Leslie writes on Adorno, Benjamin and Brecht; Marcia Landy analyses the films of Ousmane Sembène within a Gramscian framework; Deborah Philips details the vexed history of Althusserian theories of ideology in film studies; and the editor Mike Wayne contributes a chapter on Jameson, postmodernism and paranoia. It is not appropriate to describe these as introductory overviews for the beginner, as they all assume familiarity with the work of those under discussion. Esther Leslie offers an insight with a broader application, pointing out that the different views of Adorno and Benjamin on film (in a nutshell: pessimistic versus optimistic) makes clear that Marxist approaches to film can lead to greatly varying interpretations. Perhaps their aim is to inspire the reader to seek out further texts where the ideas and concepts touched on here can find a fuller explication. Certainly, each chapter contains detailed, accurate references enabling readers to follow the trail.

The next two chapters offer readings of films and a filmmaker. Anna Kornbluh’s analysis of Boogie Nights(USA, 1997) and Blow (USA, 2001) as economies of surplus and sentiment is a worthwhile idea failing at the level of execution. Kornbluh’s prose becomes enmeshed in the Marxist sociolect at its most turgid and insufficient space is devoted to the films themselves. Colin McArthur’s chapter on Hitchcock and ‘the absent class paradigm’ is the only reprint in the collection, first appearing in Film Studies in 2000. It is readable and enjoyable; discussing the ‘vanishing category’ of class in film studies and academia generally, and identifying Hitchcock as a member of the English petty bourgeoisie. Once again, McArthur barely discusses individual films. From reading this book, one could form the – erroneous, I hope – impression that Marxist approaches to film studies eschew close readings as the inalienable territory of other academic and theoretical traditions. Surely Marxism is robust enough to encompass both institutional and textual analyses.

Two institutional analyses of film are the strongest section of the book: Douglas Gomery analyses contemporary Hollywood as a paradigm example of monopoly capitalism, and Toby Miller labels Hollywood a ‘cultural policy citadel’. Gomery singles out Lew Wasserman as the creator of modern Hollywood, his career trajectory moving from agent to Universal studio boss. Gomery argues that Wasserman inaugurated five practices which have become standard operating procedure in the six multinational corporations (Warner, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Sony, Disney and Universal) that now dominate Hollywood. These practices are: the packaging of talent agencies’ clients ‘sold’ as corporate properties for studio projects; the development of film libraries for sale to television and video; the production of movies and series specifically for the television market; the creation of the blockbuster motion picture from Jaws (USA, 1975) to E.T. (USA, 1982); and saturation marketing campaigns. These may seem like common practice to us now, but the historicising drive of Marxism utilised by Gomery points out that these things don’t just happen by themselves: they have a history, and serve an ideology. Toby Miller’s polemical piece argues that old binaristic conceptualisations of the economic structure of film production (free market model versus state-funded model) are due for reconsideration. To Miller, the modern-day Hollywood film industry benefits from massive state investment, governmental censorship, copyright protection and monopoly restrictions, making it remarkably similar to the national film industry model.

Understanding Film: Marxist Perspectives concludes with three chapters on national cinemas: North Korea, China and a comparison of Soviet and Cuban cinema. It is impossible to address national cinemas in depth in pieces of this length: all the authors can do is touch on some issues. This is, in fact, a recurring dilemma throughout the book. Marxism is complex and polymorphous, as is cinema, as is the discipline of cinema studies. Mike Wayne was not so foolish as to suggest that this book is enough in itself to provide an understanding of cinema informed by Marxist approaches. I’m just not sure that this book – excluding the honourable mentions noted above – offers sufficient depth and breadth to aid understanding of either film or Marxism.

Mas Generis
Melbourne University, Australia.

Created on: Thursday, 2 March 2006 | Last Updated: 2-Mar-06

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Mas Generis

About the Author

Mas Generis

Mas Generis lives in Melbourne where she reads library books and goes to the movies.View all posts by Mas Generis →