From the Chicago Reader (August 9, 1996). — J.R.
Rating *** A must see
Directed and written by Thom Andersen and Noël Burch
Narrated by Billy Woodberry.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
When Peter Wollen wrote about canon formation in the English film magazine Sight and Sound three years ago, he conceptualized “a motley set of cultural gate-keepers and taste-makers.” Archivists come first, determining which films to acquire, preserve, and screen; then come the academics and critics, singling out the touchstones and masterpieces; they’re followed by filmmakers and, finally, the audience. As Wollen notes, “The process of cultural negotiation among these many gate-keepers of taste results not only in the surface phenomena of lists and programs, but also in the crystallization of an implicit aesthetic paradigm at a deeper level.”
I can think of several sources critical to the formation of my own canon. When I was in my early teens, the only sources I could find were library books like Arthur Knight’s The Liveliest Art, which is useful as a beginner’s survey, and Agee on Film, which is hampered by its limited coverage. During my freshman year in college I purchased my first film magazine: the Winter 1961-’62 issue of Sight and Sound, which contained the results of an international poll of critics about the ten best movies ever made; I resolved to see as many movies on the composite and individual lists as possible. Two years later, in the Spring 1963 issue of Film Culture, I came upon Andrew Sarris’s “The American Cinema,” a catalog-essay describing and evaluating the styles of films by dozens of Hollywood directors. By the time this essay was expanded into a book, five years later, I was well on my way to becoming a die-hard auteurist, part of whose life mission was to see as many of the films in Sarris’s canon as possible, underlining each title after I saw it. Then, after I moved to Paris in 1969, I bought a book published the same year, Noël Burch’s Praxis du cinéma, that offered a formalist canon, international in scope, radically different from Sarris’s stylistic model — the work of a filmmaker, teacher, and theorist who offered prescriptive ideas about cinema as well as critical observations about what it had been. (The differences between style and form are not to be sneezed at, especially if one agrees with Roland Barthes that style is a miscarriage of form.) Meanwhile, attending the Paris Cinematheque on a regular basis provided me with plenty of movies cited by Sarris as well as Burch.
Burch’s book was translated into English in 1973 as Theory of Film Practice, but it was Sarris’s book that prevailed as a guide to budding cinephiles in the English-speaking world — hardly surprising, since his work provided information about the Hollywood movies being shown on television, whereas many of the titles in Burch’s book were hard to come by, particularly outside of Paris. Meanwhile Burch himself — an American expatriate living in France — became politically radicalized by the events of May 1968 and wound up denouncing his own book for its formalism; eventually his interest turned almost exclusively to political and social content in popular films from the United States and France.
Though academics and critics of the 70s and 80s effected a few minor changes in the American canon proposed by Sarris, and he and others made a few modifications and updates to his list, eventually his evaluations froze into an orthodoxy — a course for extended study and enlightenment that hasn’t been supplanted or even challenged by any comparable survey since (apart from the popularity polls of the annual Oscars and the weekly and yearly tabulations of box-office grosses).
This stagnation in film taste has dire consequences for the future of film. Because “changes in the canon are crucially linked to changes in filmmaking,” as Wollen suggests, “a new cinema will create a new film history with it, perhaps deliberately, perhaps by accident. And we can be sure that, in its absence, the canon will continue to petrify. The art form of the 20th century will dwindle and die, as stained glass and tapestry died before it. Only a new revolution of taste can rescue cinema from the jaws of death.”
Given the many new ways that film taste can change and that film information can circulate in the 90s, I’m not at all sure I agree with Wollen’s apocalyptic prognosis. But there’s no question that we need new canons, in the American cinema as well as internationally. And Red Hollywood (1995), cowritten and codirected by Burch, offers some invaluable clues about how we might start reconstructing our view of Hollywood movies made since the birth of talkies. A two-hour video, it’s receiving almost simultaneous world premieres at the Locarno film festival in Switzerland and at the Film Center next Friday, August 16. As a useful supplement, the Film Center is also showing four of the many features Red Hollywood discusses in detail — two of them this Friday, Johnny Guitar and Force of Evil, and two next Saturday, August 17, Tom, Dick and Harry and Marked Woman.
As expressed by Burch and Thom Andersen — Red Hollywood‘s other writer and director — the video’s aim is simple: “The victims of the Hollywood blacklist have been canonized as martyrs, but their film work in Hollywood is still largely denigrated or ignored. Red Hollywood considers this work to demonstrate how the Communists of Hollywood were sometimes able to express their ideas in the films they wrote and directed.” Canon formation in the usual sense is not the work’s stated agenda; we aren’t being offered a list of undiscovered masterpieces (though at least three of the features being shown at the Film Center — Johnny Guitar, Force of Evil, and Marked Woman — are masterpieces). But there’s no question that we’re presented with a good many movies of substantial interest that we’ve never been asked to consider before.
Red Hollywood includes clips from 53 films, only a few more than a dozen of which (including Johnny Guitar and Force of Evil) are well known; the others are mainly Hollywood movies being discussed for the first time. In other words we’re presented, quite deliberately, with a new film history that explicitly asks us to rethink the past of Hollywood cinema and, implicitly, its present and future.
The true instigator of Red Hollywood is not Burch but Andersen, currently a film teacher at the California Institute of the Arts; in 1985 he published a groundbreaking essay of the same title. (Eleven years before that, Andersen completed the hour-long Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, which remains one of the best works of film history ever committed to film — an admirably economical and ingenious documentary exploring the philosophical, sociological, scientific, aesthetic, optical, technical, and theoretical implications of Muybridge’s motion studies without belaboring any of them.) One of the many benefits I reaped from this multifaceted essay was the discovery of two major Hollywood filmmakers blacklisted and hounded into European exile, Cy Endfield and John Berry — both ignored in Sarris’s The American Cinema and elsewhere, both former employees of Orson Welles, and both figures of formidable talent as well as political intelligence.
Two years ago Andersen and Burch expanded Andersen’s essay into a book published in France, Les communistes de Hollywood: autre chose que des martyrs (loosely translated, “The Hollywood Communists — Something Other Than Martyrs”). Their video represents a further development and recasting of many of the book’s arguments; it includes interviews with several blacklisted writers and directors as well as dozens of film clips.
Andersen and Burch are for the most part a highly successful match. Though I suspect I’ve learned more about film from Burch than from any other living film theorist, he hasn’t been a fully reliable film historian or critic in the past, either in his books and articles or in his films and videos, such as Correction, Please (1979) and the video series “What Do Those Old Films Mean?” (1986). He tends to begin with his theses and look only for examples of films that support them; his work is packed with stimulating and often valuable ideas, but some of them need more testing than he tends to do himself. On more than one occasion I’ve come to regard his theories as speculative rather than conclusive — a species of science fiction brimming with possibilities but requiring adjustment (“correction, please” indeed). Andersen, on the other hand, is a rigorous historian, theorist, critic, and polemicist who never takes the same kind of shortcuts; thanks to his participation, Red Hollywood unfolds with a dialectical sense of argument, a full set of historical scruples, and an overall intellectual openness rarely found in Burch’s work.
For the past four decades the received wisdom about the blacklisted communist writers, directors, and actors of Hollywood — who were asked to inform on their colleagues’ political affiliations and, when they refused, systematically drummed out of the industry — is that they became martyrs even though the social and political value of their work, and often its aesthetic value, was negligible. Billy Wilder’s celebrated quip (cited in Red Hollywood) about the notorious Hollywood Ten — “Of the ten, two had talent, the others were just unfriendly” — has tended to discourage further reflection or investigation. One of the first items on this video’s agenda is to reveal the glib inadequacy of that remark.
More implicit and more radical is the way Red Hollywood, simply by broaching the question of political content in Hollywood movies at all, defies a major taboo in most mainstream writing about current movies. For starters, it asks us to reconsider the role played in movies by screenwriters, whose marginalization is by now so thoroughly entrenched in most film discourse that reviewers rarely think to challenge it. (The press books for Hollywood releases typically profile writers last — after actors, producers, directors, cinematographers, editors, set designers, and effects specialists — and often in less detail than the others, implicitly urging critics to follow suit.)
Red Hollywood has even more formidable Augean stables to clean out when it comes to communist thinking, given the hysterical anticommunist mythologies that have predominated in our culture over the last half century. The notion that communist ideology is unyielding and monolithic is challenged by the disagreements here among the communists profiled and interviewed. That same diversity implicitly raises the question of what makes an individual a communist: is it party membership (as in Berry’s case), activism (as in Endfield’s), both, or neither?
Divided into seven key sections — “myths,” “war,” “class,” “sexes,” “hate,” “crime,” and “death” — Red Hollywood covers a lot of territory in two hours but its streamlined pacing makes it fun and easy to watch. In “myths,” for instance, we pass from John Wayne sneering at commies testifying in Big Jim McLain (1952) — whimsically intercut with real-life commie John Howard Lawson defying the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 — to Ayn Rand’s demented testimony before the same committee about Song of Russia (1943) to a more historically balanced recent commentary from former communist screenwriter Paul Jarrico about the same movie.
Among other high points in the “war” section are a clip from the only Hollywood film that dealt directly with the Spanish civil war, the 1938 Blockade (written by Lawson); a glimpse of how Ring Lardner Jr. — a former communist isolationist interviewed here — managed while cowriting Woman of the Year (1942) to undercut Katharine Hepburn’s internationalism with wisecracks and sneers from Spencer Tracy during a party scene; the evocative opening sequence of the 1941 comedy Tom, Dick and Harry (written by Jarrico); the communist rhetoric contained even in a number in the 1943 MGM musical Thousands Cheer, scripted by Jarrico and Richard Collins; and screenwriter Alfred Levitt’s discussion of the antiwar aspects of Joseph Losey’s first feature, The Boy With Green Hair (1948).
In “class” we not only breeze through clips from films written between 1932 and 1951 by such communists as Robert Rossen, Lester Cole, Nathanael West, Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker, Lawson, Hugo Butler, Abraham Polonsky, Millard Lampell, and Sidney Buchman, we also learn, among other things, that the 1932 Hell’s Highway (written by Ornitz and Tasker) was the only Hollywood film of the 30s to treat a strike sympathetically. This section begins with the commentary “In the 30s, class solidarity was still an ideal. The homeless were not yet the excluded.” Four sections later, during “death,” the defeat of class solidarity is poignantly, powerfully illustrated in a passage of dialogue from John Garfield’s last film, released in 1951, He Ran All the Way, directed by Berry and written by Butler, Guy Endore, and Dalton Trumbo.
Under “sexes,” after an extended kinky clip from the 1934 Success at Any Price, we get pungent scenes from two of the features showing at the Film Center: a dazzling, creepy surrealist dream sequence satirizing capitalist ambitions from Tom, Dick and Harry and a scene showing feminist solidarity among prostitutes in Marked Woman (1937), a gritty and uncompromising Warner Brothers crime movie featuring Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. Sandwiched in between these clips is some juicy Trumbo dialogue from an obscure 1939 item called Sorority House. And at the end of “hate,” which deals with Hollywood’s handling of race prejudice during the 40s, we pass provocatively from a corrosive communist critique by one V.J. Jerome of Ben Maddow’s 1949 adaptation of Intruder in the Dust (as well as William Faulkner’s source novel) to Jarrico’s dismissive critique of Jerome’s criticism.
We’re fond of thinking that the freedom of 90s movies to spout four-letter words and explode guts all over the screen represents an improvement on what Hollywood in the 30s, 40s, and 50s was allowed to show. But if we stop to compare the political and social content of movies during these decades with what we’re likely to find today, it’s debatable that we’ve gained more than we’ve lost. I suspect that even during the darkest days of the blacklist we could have found more interesting material about the way we live than we do in this summer’s “big” releases. This is my argument, not Red Hollywood‘s, but it’s part of the video’s merit to stir up such reflections.
Some of the most suggestive formulations appear in the “crime” section. “The crime movie had often been a privileged genre for social commentary, from both left and right,” we hear over a clip from The Asphalt Jungle (1950). “The right portrayed crime as a symptom of social disintegration, the left presented it as a form of capitalist accumulation.” Elsewhere, as the commentary addresses the “Hollywood left’s…sophisticated critique of criminal economy and the class relations it produced,” it’s noted that “a crime thriller might show how a safe is cracked but not how it is filled. That required a move from the workplace to the back rooms where the financiers and takeover artists did their work.” This leads beautifully into a clip from Polonsky’s extraordinary Force of Evil (1948), followed by its writer-director asserting today, “All films about crime are about capitalism, because capitalism is about crime. I mean ‘quote unquote,’ morally speaking. At least that’s what I used to think; now I’m convinced.”