Magazine article Filmmaker

Reactionary Wokeness

Magazine article Filmmaker

Reactionary Wokeness

Article excerpt

Near the beginning of Peter Watkins's still-astounding 1971 fictional dystopian documentary Punishment Park, one of the African-American defendants, Lee Robert Brown, is hauled in handcuffs before a makeshift, extra-legal tribunal in the sweltering California desert, where he is instructed to defend his counter-cultural militancy. He says, in part: "You talk as if this is some great, civilized, nonviolent place. It ain't. America is as psychotic as it is powerful and violence is the only goddamned thing that will command your attention."

These lines floated to the top of my head while sitting though James Mangold's Logan, widely praised for its unusually (for a superhero movie) complex and textured character development, and also for its not-so-subtle commentary on the debates about immigration, borders and walls that were in circulation during the film's creation. "Logan is a Powerful Allegory about U.S. Immigration" read one headline, while Mangold himself said, in an interview at Slashfilm, that he "thought putting mutants in the immigrant experience, on the run, trying to get across the border, would be really interesting for this film."

This all seems pretty obvious and typical of the soft-progressive mores of Hollywood films, so obvious that it disguises the profound contradictions at play, the ways in which the film's liberal good intentions are bathed in blood and a kind of hyper-fetishization of guns and weaponry. To ask how many people are murdered by the film's Kick-Ass-like heroine Laura (Dafne Keen) is just the sort of wet-blanket question you're not supposed to ask in an action-hero movie, and yet Logan opens the door so widely because, in humanizing and deepening Logan, as well as dosing-up the psychological complexity of his relationship with Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Logan's daughter Laura, the film wants us to care - but only some of the time. Maybe a few of the dozens (hundreds?) of characters murdered in the film had lives that, too, were precious.

And yet this critique only scratches the surface of the tightly woven together, inseparable political tendencies of a film like Logan. Still useful despite - or maybe because - that it comes from the grand old days of pure "high theory" is the weirdly prescient 1969 Marxist-structuralist essay "Cinema/Ideology/Criticism" by Jean-Luc Comolli and Paul Narboni, who laid out, like scientists working over a cadaver ("a rigidly factual analysis" they called their essay) seven types of cinema, ranging from those that are "imbued through and through with the dominant ideology" to those that come closest to resisting (never successfully, alas) their ideological systems of creation.

Comolli and Narborni write: "[There are] films which attack their ideological assimilation on two fronts. Firstly, by direct political action, on the level of the 'signified,' that is, they deal with a directly political subject. 'Deal with' is here intended in an active sense: they do not just discuss an issue, reiterate, paraphrase it, but use it to attack the ideology... This act only becomes politically effective if it is linked with a breaking down of the traditional way of depicting reality."

I think what Comolli and Narboni are getting at here is not that far off from Marshall McLuhan's famous "the medium is the message." Resistance depicted in familiar ways (and with the tools and through the lenses of the so-called dominant ideology) is only so effective. …

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