Friday, 15 September 2017

Personal and public politics and prejudices

In Senses of Cinema recently there were several interesting interviews with distinguished film scholars from around the world and one of them was Dana Polan. Towards the end he spoke about the special relevance of teaching Howard Hawks in the age of Trump. This got me thinking about one of the most convoluted aspects of artistic appreciation: to what extent an artist's political beliefs, or private thoughts and behaviour in general, influence our response to their work, and how much it should influence us, if at all. That is a loaded question. When a fellow film blogger and critic wondered on Twitter whether Jean-Luc Godard had ever shown any remorse for his support of Mao Zedong, quite a few people got upset and wondered why the question was even asked, and there were musings about alleged political correctness running amok (incidentally one of the most clichéd and tired reactions in contemporary culture). But it was a perfectly legitimate question and there was no judgement of Godard's films stated or implied, yet people got anxious. One might get the sense that some prefer not to think about such matters, as if acknowledging, say, Godard's Maoism, would contaminate them.

There are those who demand purity on the part of the artist, and then there are those who believe that whatever an artist does in her own time is her own business and should not be considered at all when discussing the artwork. But I do not think anybody really hold firm to either approach. There are just too many variables involved. Imagine for example that you have always loved the books or the films of a given person, and then you learn that this person was racist in some form, even though there is no trace of this in the artworks. It seems pretty drastic to completely throw away that body of work which you have enjoyed and which have been such an important part of your life. Yet with some people it sounds as if they would never engage with an artwork before thoroughly vetting the artist. There is something unsettling with these kinds of purity demands, and it almost inevitably leads to defeat because few people are beyond reproach. It is just a question of where you yourself draw the line. And, the further back in history you go the more likely it is that writers and artists will have beliefs that are unpalatable for most people today. This also means that people in the future will find us to have pretty unpalatable beliefs, however conventional they may seem now.

At the same time though there comes a point when a person is found out to be so utterly horrible that it becomes impossible to ignore that part, usually when it comes to actions and deeds, rather than just beliefs. Take for example V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, whose brutal behaviour towards people around him, not least his wife, was shockingly revealed some years ago. It is almost impossible to shrug off when reading something he has written. Likewise, many people are understandably concerned about the allegations against Woody Allen, even though they are as yet unsubstantiated.

There is also a different, although somewhat rarer attitude, exemplified with Leni Riefenstahl. She is often said to be a really great filmmaker, maybe one of the best, not least by people who are also clear about her making Nazi films. But she is not really that good, and it often feels like people get a kick out of saying "Yes, she made Nazi propaganda but she was still a great artist." as if revelling in their own broad-mindedness. With Riefenstahl it is also the case that her politics are obvious in the films she made. This is also true for Russian cinema of the 1920s (like Dziga Vertov, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein) where most films were more or less propaganda for the Stalin regime. There is a double standard here because the politics and the mass killings during Stalin's reign were as awful and indefensible as those of Hitler, yet Stalinist propaganda is not treated the same way, and can often be found, and celebrated, without the kind of critical contextualisation that usually follows Riefenstahl's films, or Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915).

Such contextualisation is always useful. Consider the 1930s, when antisemitism was widespread and depressingly common, and across the political spectrum from the far left through the middle to the far right. It is highly likely that some, perhaps even a majority, of the filmmakers we know from that time also were antisemitic, in the mainstream fashion of the day, in Sweden, France, the U.S. and elsewhere as well. Jean Renoir is sometimes mentioned for example, and Preston Sturges and Hawks too. (Whether they actually were antisemitic, even by the standards of the time, remains unclear, and books about them still grapple with it.) If the antisemitism is visible in the films it should be a concern but if it is not, and if it is not even clear as to whether the people behind it were guilty of it, then we should be able to enjoy and appreciate the films in their own rights.

La Grande illusion (Jean Renoir 1937)

But let's return to Polan and his thoughts on Hawks. Here is the full quote:
I've tried to avoid this in the Hawks course because I don't want to make it just about relevance, but there are many things in Hawks. For instance, his fascination for masculinity. He has a libertarian side. His biographers guessed that he was probably Republican, he was certainly anti-New Deal. I don't want to make out as if he leads up to Trump. You don't want to falsely make things relevant. But you want to make the connections. America has a history which is now a shameful history, and it's going to be worth unpacking how we got there. And movies are part of how we got there.
There are a lot of confusing statements here. Many filmmakers can be said to have a "fascination for masculinity", but what does it actually mean and what has it got to do with Trump? In Hawks's films there are frequent gags to undermine that masculinity, which is not something you would associate with Trump. What does it mean to have a libertarian side? To the extent that libertarianism is about personal freedom I certainly have a libertarian side, but that puts me in opposition to Trump who is in favour of corporate freedom, not personal freedom, nor does it mean I would support the Libertarian Party. (Which, by the way, is not associated with Trump. Their presidential candidate of 2016 was the hapless Gary Johnson.) It is quite possible that Hawks was a Republican (although he seems to have been apolitical and did perhaps not even vote) but so was Eisenhower and Lincoln, so should they also be taught as a way of explaining how the U.S. ended up with Trump? Is there in fact anything, at all, in Hawks's films that could be meaningful for "unpacking how we got there"? Something like Robert Rossen's fine adaptation of All the King's Men (1949) does a good job of showing that there is a long tradition, which has always been shameful, of dangerous demagogues in American politics, and there are many other films that are useful for exemplifying that. My major point though is that there is a strong element of guesswork and irrelevant focus on Hawks's personal political beliefs, so you would be teaching that, not the films. And then you might just as well teach anybody.

I am much less lenient when it comes to philosophers who support dictators and brutal regimes or devious causes. Whether it is Heidegger and the Nazis or the long line of French and American philosophers celebrating Stalin and Mao and others, it seems to me to be impossible to disentangle that from their general thinking. Alain Badiou's philosophy does feel like an elaborate effort to mathematically prove that the Chinese Cultural Revolution, organised by Mao, in which over a million innocent Chinese were randomly killed was the greatest thing (or event) in human history.

Todd McCarthy addresses the issue of Hawks and antisemitism in Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood, in connection with Lauren Bacall, who was Jewish and Hawks's protégé. The evidence is inconclusive.

Renoir seems to have been against antisemitism, so the opposite of his father, although sometimes a stereotype slips by. As an example of writing on it, Maureen Turim looks at Renoir and antisemitism in her chapter in A Companion to Jean Renoir.

It seems that Budd Schulberg accused Preston Sturges of being antisemitic, which is interesting as it was also a similar accusation by Schulberg that was behind that recent, disgraceful book The Collaboration - Hollywood's Pact with Hitler. Even the title is disgraceful since there was no collaboration and no pact. But that is another story.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Richard Quine detour

This week I have been working on an article about Richard Quine for another publication so there will be no new writing here today, alas. But I can provide some Quine material. See you in two weeks.

Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

The World of Suzie Wong (1960) 

The Solid Gold Cadillac (1956)

If you want to read more about some of Quine's films you can do so here:

And in print only: Film Comment's May/June issue of 2016 where Glenn Kenny wrote about Strangers When We Meet (1960).