The Anarchist Cinema

The Anarchist Cinema
by James Newton

Intellect, Bristol, UK, 2019
173 pp. Trade, $93.00 ; ePub: $73.00
ISBN: 9781789380033; ISBN: 9781789380057.

Reviewed by
Mike Leggett
February 2020

Theories of cultural intervention into the social and political superstructures of the Euro-Western orbit have constantly kept artists (and more recently scientists), mindful of the moral and ethical issues concomitant to their research and its outcomes.

An anarchist cinema, moving between the cracks in the dominant cinematic culture, stirring the imagination of the individual within the mass audience often by ways incidental to initial perceptions, produces pre-revolutionary activity the author of this study contends. Changing minds or at least stimulating audiences to thought or even action is a necessary goal, beyond the slighter task of simply accumulating knowledge or worse, providing entertainment where any semblance of thought has evaporated.

Confidently employing the definite article in the book title, the survey begins with the notion of the unruly, leading quickly to a succinct summary of anarchistic attitudes and tendencies as applied to the traditional objectives of subverting morals, good order and the institutions of state and church. The real discussion shifts between the three structural elements of the film industry – production, distribution/exhibition, and audience, examining the selected films that in whole or in part exhibit anarchist tendencies or traits admired by anarchists; cultish cinema of the 1930s and 50s predominates.

Anarchy and anarchism is case-studied in a selection of films: Predictably, the 1930s French classic, Zéro de Conduit (Zero for Conduct), set in a boys’ school, deadly serious. Less predictably the St Trinian films, set in a (very) English 1950s girls’ boarding school, employing cosy and eccentric British comedy. The link? “These re-evaluated elements of Vigo’s films then became the standard by which I began to re-appropriate the St Trinian’s series for anarchism.”

Intriguingly, a series from the 1950s of women in prison and other B-movie movies receive lengthier and novel analysis, films which reacted ‘..violently against the mainstream orthodoxies of content, form and structure. In doing so it demonstrates an anarchic resistance to these norms, even when conforming to the norms of Exploitation Cinema’, a ‘degraded cinema’. ‘It is this that makes them anarchic’. The reasonable contention is that capitalism, patriarchy, and racism are the three structural problems exposed. Through the crude construction of narrative using improvisation built around a scenario setting prisoners against jailers, a readymade anarchist dynamic for picturing 1950’s society is transposed to contemporary conditions.

At the time many of these low budget movies were made exploiting those who made them and those who paid for the titillating experience of observing women in jail, enables discussion of the development of critical film studies during the same period, diverging from Hollywood and art cinema into social critique.

Is interpretation of cinematic metaphor a productive exercise? Through use of the literature comparing differing interpretations by other scholars (rather than film critics) enables the reader to construct an understanding of the anarchist political position more nuanced than earlier encounters. The approach adopted, if successful, achieves for the anarchist ideal an elucidation through example, though employing on a couple of occasions a list of ‘criteria’ (numbered 1,2,3….) probably goes counter to the generally implied spirit of the cause. There is a fallacy in ascribing interpretation and meaning consistently across a general audience; the value of the discussion here is in highlighting the discourse running through anarchist activism and requires a resolute questioning by the reader of the methodology employed by the various commentators whose contributions are referenced.

Film festivals are cited as a source of films worthy of anarchist admiration – but are they not simply business meetings for cinema owners and thereby sites of exclusion to non-marketable filmmakers and audiences unable to attend restricted screening times? Film scholars notwithstanding, the more focussed progressive festivals are rallying points for the many causes and campaigns in need of ventilation.

Anarchist values – how are they achieved? Is it through a film product or through a social program that emerges as an anarchist aesthetic, “one that moulds the popular and its focus on affect, with the intellectual. The Anarchist Cinema would begin to form in the screening of diverse and challenging films in a space designed to be community focussed.” The author cites a more contemporary filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, who said, “The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically.” There is useful evidence from Britain in recent years that such initiatives have surfaced, battling mainly with the distractions of television and a generalised apathy toward the social condition. But the author has little to say of today’s online entertainment that channels audience tastes evermore and does so, as with television, in the comfort and isolation of the living room. Breaking through the front doors of confused and frustrated audiences, manipulated by global corporate interests into states of acceptance, is unfortunately a project barely touched on. The book concludes with a filmography, references, and an Index.