24 February 2011

The Official Image Will Be Revealed as a Fraud

An Interview with David Walsh, film critic, World Socialist Web Site

David Walsh has been a socialist film critic for twenty years. He started in 1991, when the political organization he works for, the International Committee of the Fourth International, was publishing a newspaper called the Bulletin. In 1993, that paper became the International Workers Bulletin, and in February 1998 the ICFI established the World Socialist Web Site, where Walsh also works as Arts Editor.   

Although he is from New York, Walsh lives near Detroit, away from the capitals of filmmaking and film criticism. He covers the Toronto Film Festival every year and writes regular film reviews for the WSWS, where he and his colleagues are the only regular reviewers of movies in North America who are also avowed socialists, the only ones who cover filmmaking from this perspective on a daily basis, as films come out.

In addition, Walsh sometimes travels to other cities to lecture on movies in places where you don’t expect to find a socialist film critic lecturing on movies. I first met him in February 2010, when he had come to New York to deliver a talk at the Roosevelt Hotel called “The Crisis of American Filmmaking and Cultural Life.” His lecture covered the history of American narrative cinema and its relation to American literary history and politics, posing questions like “What kind of picture of the world would you assume from the images in Hollywood films?”; “Where is the film artist today at war with official society?”; and “When will filmmaking in the US become as radical as reality itself?” He asks these questions in an effort to expose and change “the domination of all life by a financial aristocracy that people hate.”


N1FR: Why does it often seem as though there is no film criticism on the left in North America, even in leftist publications?

Walsh: If your question excepts the World Socialist Web Site, which I hope and trust it does, I would direct you to our generally low opinion of what passes for the left, not only in North America, but globally. It is not a matter simply of this left’s lack of film criticism, but its general lack of serious, substantive, critical thought on any subject.

A sharp shift to the right has occurred in the upper middle class left. The generation of protesters of the late 1960s and early 1970s has established itself firmly in academia, the media, various think tanks and research institutions, the trade unions, and other lucrative callings. In many cases, this layer either inherited wealth or made a good deal of cash on the stock market and in real estate, or both.

Somewhat shallow in their opposition to begin with, such people abandoned concerted opposition to capitalism decades ago. Instead they adopted identity politics, gender politics, lifestyle politics, and travel in the closer or more distant environs of the Democratic Party and, at present, the Obama re-election campaign. The members of this relatively affluent left would like life to be made more comfortable for themselves and their friends and families. They are even in favor of greater social justice and equality, as long as it does not threaten their stock portfolios or social positions. They are very distant from and, when push comes to shove, hostile toward the broad layers of those who work for an hourly wage.

Serious art in our time must contain a strong element of protest, direct or indirect, against the conditions of life. It must go to fundamentals, it must be prepared to demystify social relations, it must be committed body and soul to art and to life. Creating, encouraging or polemicizing for richer, stronger, more critical film work, which must inevitably take up the lives and conditions of the vast majority, as well as great historical issues and problems, is beyond the abilities or interests of such left layers, as filmmakers or critics.

N1FR: What role do you see for cinema in the Occupy movement? What do you make of the Livestream broadcasts? There are now 24-hour live stream channels often shot in a single take by filmmakers at the various occupation events. Often they film for 13-18 hour periods without stopping, in the process capturing all of the minutiae and drama of a protest event or general assembly. Is this a new or at least valuable cinematic form?

Walsh: The first part of this is a very broad question. The simple answer is: it has a considerable role, insofar as it represents life and society accurately and entertainingly. One of our chief accusations against the US film industry is how weakly and inadequately it has depicted American life in recent decades.

The Occupy movement has punctured many fantasies, including the one about how Americans were so in love with the capitalist free market. It did not arise, with all its contradictions and confusion, around the issues that the so-called left has devoted itself to over the past three decades, associated with identity politics. Rather it immediately gravitated toward the questions of inequality, poverty, and corporate dominance of American life. Now that the mood has begun to shift, the task of the filmmaker is to investigate life and its immense complexities. Simplistic or vulgar efforts will not help anyone.

As for “13-18 hour periods without stopping,” I’m a little skeptical. It may be interesting and even exciting now because this movement is such a new phenomenon. In the end, however, filmmakers will have to be more selective and learn the ability to distinguish the essential from the non-essential. But this is bound up with a wider and deeper political perspective.

Art involves a process of abstraction, condensing and transforming the immediate facts of life to bring out their underlying truth. A simple reproduction of surface events does not strike at the most important, underlying currents. Art, like science, must deal with the difference between what one can see and what one cannot see.

N1FR: For many people, OWS has heightened (or renewed) the awareness that we are living in a police surveillance state. We’ve now seen video after video of police brutality in pristine high definition. Now, in addition to their hidden cameras, police are carrying larger, more obvious cameras to counter-counter-surveil protest populations. Does this expansion and intensification of the cinema of surveillance have any implications for cinema more broadly?

Walsh: It may have implications for cinema, but it has far more important implications, for democratic and constitutional rights. Over the past decade in particular, using the 9/11 attacks as a pretext, the ruling elite has built up the foundation and infrastructure of a police state. We are beginning to see the fruits of that build-up in the repression against the Occupy movement. Democracy in America is democracy for the rich; as soon as the population begins to voice its opinions, it faces batons, kettling, pepper spray, and nighttime raids.

Filmmaking can respond by exposing this reality, on the one hand, and creating a democratic and popular-oriented cinema culture, on the other. The answer to the conspiracies and provocations of the powers that be is the creation of a broad-based socialist culture, with deep roots in the population.

N1FR: Did you see the 99% “bat signal” projected on the Verizon building? Can much be done to raise awareness or galvanize support by projecting soundless video into unauthorized spaces?

Walsh: I think inventive and imaginative use of soundless video in public spaces, unauthorized or not, would be all to the good. I suspect if images of UC Davis police pepper spraying defenseless students or New York City police on the rampage were broadcast in every major public space in America, it would have a salutary impact on popular opinion. But that also goes for images of night raids in Iraq and Afghanistan, drone attacks in Pakistan, NATO bombings in Libya, and the daily atrocities committed by the US military and its allies around the world. 

N1FR: What do you think of the way OWS has been inspired by the movie V for Vendetta?

Walsh: I don’t have a strong feeling about it. I haven’t experienced the impact myself. The demonstrations I’ve seen have shown little such influence. I didn’t much care for the film; I thought a lot of it was very poor dramatically and confused politically, but I understand that it struck an anti-establishment chord with many viewers, so I would not disparage that. 

N1FR: When we last spoke in person a year or so ago, the Tea Party was prominent in the media and seemed to be growing. Despite that, you predicted a left uprising in the US that would mirror that of the Arab Spring, calling the state we found ourselves in a “pre-revolutionary situation” and describing what is now called the 1% as a classic aristocracy. Events have proven you right. Why did you feel so strongly at the time that this would happen, and how do you think this will progress?

Walsh: The Tea Party phenomenon was largely a media creation, blowing up a small group of ultra-reactionaries and their confused followers into a mass movement. The general movement of the US population at present has been to the left, especially among the young. This is hidden from view because the American political set-up is entirely impervious to the sentiments and needs of the population; real public opinion has had no way of making itself felt.

In a very pale fashion the election of the Democrats in 2006 and 2008 reflected public hostility to the corporate stranglehold over American society, social inequality and the ongoing wars. However, Barack Obama and the Democrats have picked up where George W. Bush left off, so the population, ultimately, had no choice but to go into the streets. What has happened so far is only the beginning.

Anyone who paid close attention to the social indices, the growth of poverty, the destruction of jobs and living standards, and the overall immiseration of wide layers of the population, had to understand that a social explosion was inevitable. The working class, despite the worthlessness of the existing trade unions, is not going to accept the destruction of a century of social progress so that a handful of bankers and CEOs, the American aristocracy, can live like kings. The argument that there is no money for education, health care, social welfare, and infrastructure rings a little hollow while trillions flow through the markets every day.

We are not for occupying Wall Street, in the end, but expropriating Wall Street. The healthy elements in the Occupy movement need to turn toward the working class, which is largely sympathetic to the protests, but correctly does not yet see in them a serious way out of the crisis, and make a decisive break with the Democratic Party, embracing openly socialist politics. The prejudice against socialism, built up through decades of official anticommunism, has to be overcome if any progress in art or politics is to be made.

The situation today is fundamentally different from decades ago in this country. America is now a third-rate power in many ways. There has been a massive decline in manufacturing, producing goods. The major exports a few years ago, I don’t know whether it’s still the case, were entertainment products and military aircraft.

The emergence of a mass, anti-capitalist movement in the US will have a galvanizing impact on populations around the world, including the Russian and Chinese, who were fed lies about the wonders of the market for years, with disastrous results. The official image of American life, shamefully echoed or reinforced in so many films and television programs, will be revealed as a fraud. 

The working class will enter into protest when it becomes convinced that the movement is serious, that something fundamental will come out of it. The Mao Years (La France des années Mao) a French documentary by Bernard Debord from 2005, is not a very good film, but it contains a brief scene from the general strike of May-June 1968 that is illuminating. I wrote in October 2006 about the film that it “has the merit of containing footage showing a young woman worker, at the time of the betrayal of the strike and the return to work in 1968, who breaks into tears at the thought of going back into the factory under the old conditions. ‘I’m fed up,’ she says, ‘I don’t want to go back into that damn place.’ Workers like her thought the world was going to change. That’s why they walked out, not to play games, to ‘rebel’ for the sake of it.”

N1FR: What changes in the production and distribution of cinema—or any other art—would you like the Occupy movement to work toward? Should the goal of the occupation be to create an alternative mediascape? Or as the New German cinema writers put it, a counter public sphere?

Walsh: The issue is not so much insisting that the Occupy movement do this or that, but to emphasize the need for a broad turn to the working class. Whatever becomes of the immediate protests, they are an anticipation of a far larger movement, with all sorts of inevitable strengths and weaknesses.

I’m convinced that the emergence of a mass anti-capitalist movement in the working population, with the interests and appetites that will certainly arouse, will produce no end of changes in film and video production and distribution. The American people will show great ingenuity, as will the entire global population, in finding ways of reflecting on and communicating its thoughts and feelings. Given the new technologies plus (and this is critical) greater social and historical knowledge, the sky’s the limit. The “counter  public sphere,” in other words, will emerge organically alongside the growth of anti-capitalist sentiment. It cannot be created artificially or by laboratory methods.

I think it would also be wrong simply to write off the present film and television industry and its personnel. A different social atmosphere will bring forward all sorts of surprising allies, who are intimidated or overwhelmed at present.

N1FR: Are there any films you’ve seen this year that impressed you, either in general release or in festivals? 

Walsh: The ones in general release that come to mind include The Fighter, Todd Haynes’s remake of Mildred Pierce for HBO, Miral, Win Win, Margin Call, and perhaps Moneyball. I didn’t think Haynes’s Mildred Pierce was a flawless piece, but I thought it was intriguing because it brought together money and emotion in a way that has not been done in the American cinema or television for decades. Directors such as Orson Welles, Michael Curtiz, Douglas Sirk, and others made that connection, but the purges and the reactionary climate of the 1950s largely put an end to such examinations in the movies.

At the Toronto festival in September, these seemed the most interesting: Omar Killed Me, from France, about the frame-up of an innocent Moroccan immigrant for murder in the 1990s; Think of Me, about a single mother trying to stay afloat in contemporary Las Vegas; Rebellion, about the suppression by the French authorities of a revolt in New Caledonia in 1988; Future Lasts Forever, a moving film about the legacy of political repression in Turkey; Habibi, about the plight of a Palestinian couple in Gaza confronting many obstacles to their love; The Tall Man, an Australian documentary about the police killing of an Aborigine in custody in 2004; 11 Flowers, about life in small-town China during the mid-1970s; Beauty, the portrait of a brutally repressed and repressively brutal middle-aged Afrikaner in South Africa; Free Men, about Algerian Muslims in Paris during World War II rescuing Jews from the Gestapo; Wim Wenders’s documentary study of the late dancer Pina Bausch and her company, Pina; The Deep Blue Sea, a new consideration of doomed love from Terence Davies; and Edwin Boyd, about a small-time bank robber in Toronto during the postwar years. 

These films, it seemed to us, made some attempt to grapple with our present situation, in very different ways, and in a serious, artistic manner. They demonstrated some sympathy for people and their difficulties.

Image: V for Vendetta (d. James McTeigue, UK, 2005)

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