Editorial Note: An Apology and an Explanation

First, I have to apologize sincerely for whiffing on so many due dates for my history on film series. I have to push the Red Detachment of Women article back a couple of days because I haven’t found the copy I meant to watch. Also, I had to work on graduate school applications, which has led to the previous delays as well as this one. I will do my best to get everything back on track as soon as possible, and you will have the final article in the series––at least as far as I’ve planned––delivered on time. In the meantime, enjoy the new article on Archie’s World I wrote.

Christian Kitsch #9: Archie’s World

Tigers keep large territories, but tend to be insular creatures, preferring the superior company of our own thoughts to the intrusions of others. This is why it’s hard for tigers to develop a cosmopolitan streak; why fantasize about pouncing on some poor sap on the Champs d’Elysee if there’s a stagnant pool right around the corner just waiting to be waded in? I, on the other hand, have acquired a taste for the exotic, the kind of wanderlust that pushed Marco Polo down the Silk Road and led to the hoarding fetish that produced the modern British Museum. Luckily, Archie is here to take us on an adventure that’s sure to satisfy that restless streak.

Where are the "We are not a costume" people when you need them?
Where are the “We are not a costume” people when you need them?

Well, this is no an auspicious beginning. Not only has Archie plainly appropriated other cultures’ hatwear, but has also paid the ultimate price––beheading. No sign of anything below the neck on this cover. Maybe that’s a stylistic choice that will carry throughout the entire issue. Possibly indicating something about how your physical form gets “lost” when traveling because of all the newness you have to absorb.

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Well, the first page seems to continue the trend, though luckily we are not going to be subjected with a cavalcade of Archie heads solipsistically chatting to each other about foreign cuisine. A few things stick out to me about this page. 1.) The globe is entirely covered in water, suggesting that Waterworld has become a reality and fish people now rule the universe. Either that, or we’ve been able to terraform Europa and founded submarine lobster-fishing colonies there. 2.) Big Ethel seems to have a startlingly binary view of both geography and morality. Luckily, the world is a sphere and not shaped like a gigantic sheet of notebook paper. I know Marx wrote that history progresses on its bad side, but I don’t think that’s what old Al Hartley, son of a union buster, had in mind when writing that. 3.) The Earth is smoking and has dizzy stars cascading off of it. Apparently, the oceans have become far more geologically volatile in the Archie universe. Enough with the first page! We have yet to scratch the racist surface of this issue.

The next couple of pages explain our plot: Archie and friends are going gallivanting around the world on a quest to visit missionaries and see them propagate the Word of God to the heathens all over the world. What is their first destination? None other than Travis Bickle hometown New York City! Naturally. Hopefully they can get to the poor guy before he, well, spoils the end of Taxi Driver for everyone. One of the flight attendants (?) on the plane hears their destination and gasps:

Archie New York City
Time’s Square had such a distinct flavor before Giuliani, I must admit. I honestly prefer the fedora-sporting thugs to the costumed kitsch merchants.

Apparently the writers of Jungle 2 Jungle actually had something. Not much, but something. After looking at the weird post-deluge globe on the first page, you might assume that Archie is referring to the fact that the world’s cities were mostly reforested in kelp and coral reefs after the Second Flood. But no, he mostly means that cities have become hives for heathens and dens of degeneracy. Archie could make Rorschach and Travis Bickle proud, now that I think about it.

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Archie’s whirlwind tour has already taken him from New York to London and to Paris in a single page. Despite all that jet lag, the jolly crew has managed to accost, encourage, and leer at multiple sinners. Though their sins seem restricted to looking like they take drugs and hanging out in somewhat Bohemian locations. Since we’re given no reason to believe that the orange-haired, black-moustached chap in the second panel has a good reason for speaking to the poor woman there, I have to presume that he’s offering her Jack Chick tracts or something. Those tracts and that hair are probably both grounds to be arrested as a public nuisance. At any rate, we continue with the cavalcade of urban locations before settling into the meat of the issue: short stories about exotic locations.

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I checked, and there are in fact crocodiles in Tanzania. You got me this time, Al Hartley.

Yes, we can expect a bonanza of cultural sensitivity from what follows, I am sure. Of course, this being the 70s, these kids would be familiar with the American-backed plot to overthrow the socialist republic of Zanzibar and forcibly unite it with the friendly regime in mainland Tanganyika to form modern Tanzania. Armed with such information, they just traipse into the rain forest with nary a bit of bug spray. Shame, that.

Naturally, Jughead has difficulty adapting to his new environment, leading him to pine for McDonald’s. The missionary gives the following retort:

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Have to wedge that panel of a toucan and a monkey right in there, don’t you, Hartley?

Of course nothing about American culture seeps through when American missionaries are allowed to proselytize an American religion to complete strangers in Tanzania. I’m against all forms of proselytization in public places, which I’m sure is a minority position in some places, but one has to agree that the naivety here is astonishing. Of course, the role of American missionaries in, say, getting bills that will execute people for being gay in Uganda hadn’t become an issue yet. Plus, this is for children and you need to whitewash the whole enterprise in order to make its subtle colonialism more palatable.

A couple of short stories later, we’re in Kashmir, the disputed territory between India and Pakistan that has remained a semi-active war zone for decades. Suffice to say that they stumble into a nameless city during a “carnival” celebration and immediately set up a rock and roll band in the open. For some reason.

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While I’m not sure you would be able to openly set up a Jesus concert banner in the middle of a non-Christian (they never specify which religion) holiday, nor would I imagine the reception being so immediately warm, I am sure that this idea about people just attempting to buy random women with cow barter is complete hogwash. Cow-wash.

Screenshot 2014-11-30 13.04.11

Of course, the core message of the book isn’t hard to glean at this point. People who embrace Jesus no longer have any serious problems. Or, at the very least, they know that all problems can be solved with Jesus. Human trafficking could never happen in a Christian country, says this idea. Women are going to be enslaved wherever Christ isn’t. Of course, that last panel is meant as a direct jab at feminism, appropriating the concept of a liberated woman and tying it directly to simply converting to Christianity. Lurking in the background here at all times is the notion that the United States is a superior nation because of its Christianity, which is an idea that stretches far back in the colonial period. It directly fed the British idea of the “white man’s burden” and the French “civilizing mission” in Africa and India. Spanish colonization had an especially cozy relationship with conversion, that being one of the major justifications for forcibly interning native people in plantation labor and forcing them to work in the mines. Archie’s World might be a relic of a less judicious time, but that by no means implies that these kinds of attitudes don’t still contaminate all missionary work today. American missionaries work under the protective banner of the world’s most powerful military and a state that might mete out major punishments if these missionaries are forced out or not admitted in the first place. And there would be no point in being a missionary if you didn’t believe that you were somehow superior to the people you were coming to, at the very least by virtue of being Christian while they are not. It’s messianism of the most vulgar sort.

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This very well-educated man––he knows English so he must have had some schooling––has a point. Of course, he is a prop written by a conservative hack who has a blatant streak of paternalistic racism running right through his coronary artery. So I think we can safely put the rest of this issue to bed rather quickly. Oh, but first we have to discredit other religions with a catchy parable.

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Buddha and Confucius are just jerks. That’s what it comes down to. Anyone who knew a thing about Siddhartha Gautama or Confucius would know that they were models of ethical fortitude. If anything, Confucianism has a far more elaborate and sophisticated moral code than Christianity, the latter of which has tended to downplay acts of righteousness in favour of the idea of grace. That is probably the message here. What’s going on is that these people are metonyms for their religions. Christ for Christianity, etc. Confucius is a doddering old moralizer. Buddha just told people to think their way out of their problems––yeah, I’m sure that’s what Buddhism teaches. And Jesus, though divine grace, lifts the human race out of its predicaments. Let’s move on. I’m going to skip the anti-Communist tract about Hong Kong or the patronizing story about Myanmar and close out our discussion.

Screenshot 2014-11-30 13.19.38Luckily, the comic leaves its message crystal clear by the end. Namely this: it reaffirms the traditional Christian commitment to missionary work. The twist is that it argues that introducing Christianity to the world will be some kind of panacea for global problems. Accepting Jesus is the key to “the good life,” in their word, establishing a one-to-one correlation between conversion and life improvement. In many ways, it’s not too distant from the self-help and New Age craze the hippies inaugurated in the 60s. It’s a simple restatement of old Christian/American values with a groovy coat of comic printers’ ink.

Archie’s World is probably the most difficult of the old Spire comics to get through. It’s short on hilarity or absurdity except in short bursts, and its constant stereotyping and patronizing make it a slog to read. Unfortunately, the missionary industry is still thriving today, and you can hardly walk into a church, especially of a more conservative bent, without the requisite bulletin board celebrating junior colonizers’ escapades into the pagan wilderness. OK, I’m done. Time to gnaw on a deer carcass and reflect on the wonderful fact that, no matter how much filth he may have put into the world, at least Al Hartley is in a cold grave.

Fantastical History in My Winnipeg


Properly speaking, My Winnipeg is not a work of history. Rather, it’s a work of autobiography inflated to include an entire city. Director and writer Guy Maddin transforms the entire city into his own phantasm, interpreting it for the audience in such a surreal fashion that it manages to communicate something tangible about his hometown despite its complete lack of respect for factuality. Rather, the kinds of facts it wants to communicate are those that can’t be vetted by researchers, and most of the events described in the film are embellished or fabricated. Maddin mythologizes the city, but the stories he tell are not mythical in the usual sense of the word. Myths are generally the common property of a community, whereas the above tale about couples making love on top of gruesome frozen horse heads is probably a purely private invention. At the same time, film as a medium exposes and implants this dream into all of those who see it; no doubt there are some more credulous folk who actually believe that Winnipeg has a secrete network of unnamed streets with its own taxi service. Yet the real importance of the film is how it communicates some real truths about cities and the way they begin to function as characters in our autobiographies. Their fabric is constitutive of our very subconscious, which is an idea worth exploring.

The film’s plot is similar to that of Maddin’s earlier fantasy-autobiography Brand Upon the Brain, in that it is staged as a reminiscence of the protagonist, Guy Maddin. Trapped in a liminal state between waking and sleeping, Maddin attempts to escape the city by train but finds he is unable to do so. As he sits on the train, the audience peers into his mind and listens to the poetic and often bitter descriptions our interlocutor offers to us.

Maddin, since he is going nowhere fast by train despite his desperation to escape the cold city of his origin, tries to settle accounts with the city though reenactments of pivotal moments in his past. These are dominated by his Mother, played by Ann Savage, with whom Maddin has a typical-for-his-films Oedipal tension. She is fiercely protective of her daughter’s sexuality and curiously distant. Branching out from there, the director/narrator gives us narrative distortions of the city’s history, talking about swimming pools with bizarre rules, strange all-girl schools, and the wrecking ball of “progress” that demolished the old hockey arena and department stores downtown. Because of his disregard for critical history, Maddin’s use of actual footage of the demolitions while spitting bile at the nameless demons who would dare touch such a formative location for him acquires a strange potency. After so many half-remembered scenes and subjective half-truths, the fiery anger with which he decries these obviously real events strikes home.

Of course, there are no object lessons here for real historians who want to do history. At the same time, the film shows the emotional power of such a fantastical approach to the past. These scenes have the conviction of folklore, the flickering vitality of dreams. History intervenes in Maddin’s tale as a disruptor, the Reality on which his phantasmagorias ultimately founder. All of his digressions and escape attempts cannot bring him closure or escape because the city was and remains a material fact of his life. Even if he settles accounts with the city and adopts, as he does here, a bitter and ironic posture towards it, it weighs on his mind like a nightmare. Even his adult world is haunted by the terrors and joys of his childhood––his omnipresent mother and often-distant father still mark him. My Winnipeg is a perfect title. No one else shares these impressions. They are his alone, a singularity. That is, until we get into the theatre or start watching the Blu-ray at home. At that point, the dream becomes infectious.

Scientific Revolution: Marxism Beyond Social Criticism


Labouring over papers and articles makes me restless at times. It’s not just a matter of extended physical inactivity that does it, though that can certainly be unhealthy. Sunrise to sunset, I’m committed to responsibilities as a student and, to a much lesser extent, a writer for this blog. Since I’m living through a physical form forged in prehistoric times to hunt, kill, and stockpile food, slothfulness in itself can be enervating. I can work on a sentence or paragraph or section for hours and have done little other than typed or taken a brief walk. More to the point, however, I find the kind of work I do more confining than I ever have before. Poring over tomes that are exciting in the academic sense leaves me brimming with energy, ready to take these frameworks and use them in active work. I’m confronted with a situation where I have a lush, overgrown sense of certainty about theory but lacking much useful knowledge.

For the vast majority of the time, this blog is dedicated to social criticism. Even before I embraced Marxism––not to speak, for now, of becoming a Marxist––I’ve focused on that form of analysis. This lark of a blog, founded to help facilitate conversations with a close group of fellow students, is now a freestanding outlet for my writing. As it’s gotten further and further from its inciting purpose, this blog has gotten better but also opened up more frustrations. Namely, I’ve become cognizant of the limits of social criticism. In effect, I’m dedicated to taking objects and trends and running thought experiments on them. Take certain overarching concepts B, apply them to object A, and write down the results. No doubt I’ve grown in my understanding of culture and the world of social relations and objects around me. I hope that I’ve helped my readers in the same way. As my awareness and understanding have grown, so has my agitation. Marxism is not, first and foremost, a mode of social critique. It’s a revolutionary science, a theory of the mechanism and causes of social change and of the means to create a political process with the wherewithal to overthrow capitalism.

That is the summit to which we aspire. In speculative fevers, we can imagine that it’s some transcendent truth. Most of the time, I succumb to the temptation to practice it as if it were much less than a revolutionary scientific and political project. It posits that there is a real world, that the social and political spheres are part of this world, and that they can be comprehended objectively and changed radically. Social criticism, the use of Marxism as a “critical theory” primarily oriented towards producing readings and ideological perspectives on this or that bit of ephemera––that’s not why I’m here. Even if that is the primary function of the blog, it’s worth keeping in mind that the knowledge we are producing has to be used if it is to be worth anything. Theoretical practice and political practice cannot be separated “all the way down.” At some point, the question of political power will weigh on our minds as Marxists, even if we often forget that we have within reach the most powerful means of changing most of the social ills we spend our hours pondering.

Some may find it ironic, even comical, but these thoughts arose from a reflection on arch-theorist Louis Althusser. In his Elements of Self-Criticismthe French philosopher defends Marxism as a scientific practice. If we believe that we can effect powerful and permanent transformations without the kind of rigorous and powerful knowledge Althusser talks about, we are stuck in a hallucination. Without lapsing into intellectual lounging, we can weaponize theory, philosophy, history, the very objective knowledge we are so often told is neutral in the political sphere. It is anything but. It demands that we wage just as fierce a battle in thought as we do in the fields and streets. I leave you with the excerpt that sparked this musing, and hope you find it as enlightening as I do.

We therefore have the right, and the duty, to speak (as all the classics have done) of Marxist theory, and, within Marxist theory, of a science and a philosophy: provided that we do not thereby fall into theoreticism, speculation or positivism. And, to touch immediately on the most delicate point: yes, we have the right, as far as theory is concerned, and the duty, politically, to use and defend — by fighting for the word — the philosophical category of “science”, with reference to Marxism-Leninism, and to talk about the foundation by Marx of a revolutionary science. But we must then explain the reason for, the conditions and sense of this unprecedented combination, which brings about a decisive “shift” in our conception of science. To use and defend the word “science” in the context of this programme is a necessity, in order to resist the bourgeois subjective idealists and the petty-bourgeois Marxists who, all of them, shout “positivism” as soon as they hear the term, no doubt because the only picture they can conjure up of the practice and history of a science, and a fortiori of Marxist science, is the classical positivist or vulgar, bourgeois picture. It is a necessity if we want to resist the petty-bourgeois ideologists, Marxists or not, who like to weep over the “reification” and “alienation” of objectivity (as Stirner used to weep over “the Holy”), no doubt because they attach themselves without any embarrassment to the very antithesis which onstitutes the basis of bourgeois legal and philosophical ideology, the antithesis between Person (Liberty = Free Will = Law) and Thing.[12] Yes, it is quite correct for us to speak of an unimpeachable and undeniable scientific core in Marxism, that of Historical Materialism, in order to draw a vital, clear and unequivocal line (even if you must — and you must indeed — continue forever to “work” on this line, to avoid falling into positivism and speculation) between: on the one hand the workers, who need objective, verifiable and verified — in short scientific — knowledge, in order to win victory, not in words, but in facts, over their class opponents; and, on the other hand, not only the bourgeoisie, which of course refuses Marxism any claim to be scientific, but also those who are willing to content themselves with a personal or fake theory, put together in their imagination or according to their petty-bourgeois “desire”, or who refuse the very idea of a scientific theory, even the word “science”, even the word “theory”, on the pretext that every science or even every theory is essentially “reifying”, alienating and therefore bourgeois.

Polemical History in Derek Jarman’s Edward II


Wikipedia Plot Summary of the Film

Context is the historian’s most treasured word. It can even become a fetish. I believe that we can all avoid such distortions if we remember that context is not a given that can be simply appropriated. Rather, it is a concrete web that allows us to glean an all-sided view of a historical conjuncture. This web is a tool that enmeshes abstract and simple things in a many-leveled structure of other abstract, simple things. Putting them in relation to each other clarifies their similarities and differences, in other words their content. It is these relations, therefore, that matter and need to be clarified. Context is woven from the raw material of a theoretical field, forged finally though the asking of questions. Research questions are the substance of context, and these questions are obviously made rather than simply assumed.

Given all of that, we wonder, what questions is Derek Jarman asking Edward II? They’re not as such historical questions, though the subject of his film is a historical person. And the text he’s interrogating is not strictly historical either, even if it shares that subject. It is, rather, a play written by Christopher Marlowe in the early 1590s. From the outset, the film’s barren stone sets and chiaroscuro lighting, not to mention Isabella’s (Tilda Swinton) lavish and anachronistic wardrobe, alerts the viewer that Jarman is not interested in “period” accuracy. To say so isn’t even scratching the insertion of 1980s gay militants into the role of a loyalist army.

Not so fast, though. He has left the language of the play almost entirely intact. A few lines are transferred to other characters, some figures are melded into groups, and there are omissions. But on the whole the language is kept entirely accurate to the play. We might also argue that the economical mise-en-scêne has a certain affinity with the Elizabethan theatre, which also employed minimal props and sets. So we can’t brand Jarman’s interpretation “inauthentic” through and through. It must be employing a specific approach to the text to produce this division between fidelity to some elements and radical changes to others.

That specific approach can be termed the “context” Jarman chooses to frame the play. As suggested by the appearance of gay rights protestors and the highlighting of Edward’s relationship with his male lover Gaveston, Jarman is using this story in a polemical way. By ignoring the enormous gaps between how an English audience in the late 16th century would see a homosexual male relationship and the way modern audiences would see it, he is infusing the play with a renewed relevance. Take the following example. In the play, the source of tension between Gaveston and the king’s court was the fact that the king was consorting with a French peasant and elevating this nobody to noble titles. Homosexual partnerships were tolerated in the aristocracy of those days, a fact that is noted in the play. Jarman reconfigures this so that the hostility of the king’s court and his generals stems from their homophobia, a very modern and virulent form of it no less. The director retains the old words, perhaps because he was enamored of their beauty, but contextualizes them in the present. He uses the play as polemic, forcing the audience to see modern day bigots, gay men, and police officers where the Elizabethans saw kings, peasants, and tragic heroes.

Unlike in Che, history here is not imagined as a process or procedure that is lucid and continuous. History here appears as fragmentation and anachronism. It parallels Jarman’s disgust with the modern world. Here we have a king and his lover speaking ancient words but showing themselves to be, in some ways, more enlightened than the “modern” forces of reaction. This is not to say that Edward II the film is a hagiography. The king’s diffidence toward his responsibilities is palpable, as is Gaveston’s often wanton cruelty. The latter even appears somewhat feral at times, and yet he is given a positive and privileged position in the narrative. Meanwhile, Mortimer, the tragic hero of the play who restored order to the kingdom, becomes a jackbooted thug and reactionary, conspiring with the Queen to destroy the king and his “deviant” partner. Jarman militarizes the story for his own time, which does two things. First, it produces the shock of juxtaposition. When the heir to the throne is listening to a Walkman and wearing socks on his ears, having put his mother and Mortimer in a cage, we can laugh or scratch our heads at the strangeness of it. On the other hand, Jarman abolishes the hard line between the past and the present that characterizes professional historical practice. Edward’s time is stitched to ours in order to condemn the present and the past.

The result is what I call “polemical history.” It’s taking history out of time and creating a radical continuity. Figures of the past blur into those of the present, sometimes literally. Suffering as he was from AIDS and the organized repression of the British state––not to mention severe funding difficulties––Jarman produces the most appropriate work I can imagine. It’s postmodernism is not the kind that revels in jarring genre mixing or collage for its own sake. It’s rather a deeply moral––even moralistic––kind of history that stems from its creator’s intensely bitter relationship with modern capitalist Britain. It unmasks the pretense of the present. It’s also a partial corrective for what is perhaps Jarman’s greatest flaw as a political artist, that being his nostalgia for the early modern world. Within films like Jubilee and The Tempest, there are moments where he seems to see the Elizabethan age as an Edenic state from which industrial capitalism was a predestined fall. Here, even if his ire is directed at present-day Britain, he shows us the cruelty of the Elizabethans as well, their domineering and scheming. There’s still an element of fetishism going on in Jarman’s depiction of the past, but I can’t fault his politics in this case.

In watching this film, I learned something about the practice of historical study. It’s a matter, as I said in the beginning, of proceeding from questions. The way these questions are formulated has much to do with the results entailed by them. Jarman asks “what does Christopher Marlowe have to say to post-Thatcher England?” That preconditions the answer to a certain extent. Being attentive to context as a conscious, constructed tool of the historian means refusing the gift of a given question, a given attitude. It means a more rigorous and difficult road to truth, but I can’t imagine that an easier road will yield truth in any case.

Further Reading:

Bette Talvacchia, “Historical Phallicy: Derek Jarman’s ‘Edward II,'” Oxford Art Journal 16, no. 1 (1993), 112-118. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1360540 .

Procedural History in Che


Steven Soderbergh’s Che is one of the few filmed biographies that is resolutely anti-psychological. In no way is it a “humanizing portrait” of the famous revolutionary leader, war strategist, and Marxist theorist. Rather, it is a depiction of him at war, in one arena or another, throughout the late 1950s and early 60s. Part one follows the successful Cuban Revolution from eastern Cuba to west, ending with the triumphal drive to Havana. This is intercut with scenes of the later Guevara speaking at the United Nations and with American leftists and journalists. Part two focuses on his failure to export his foco theory of guerrilla revolution to Bolivia as the Communist Party there refused to support him. It culminates in his capture and execution by the Bolivian military.

Shot with the then-prototype RED camera, Soderbergh is able to shoot beautiful images in a “guerrilla style,” whether in sweeping action scenes like the Battle of Santa Clara in the first part or in tense close-ups and winding handheld shots in the second. The effect this has is to “objectify” Che and the events depicted. Until the moment Che is executed at the end of the second part, the only subjective shots we see are at the ends of a gun, usually from the vantage of enemy troops. This perspective allows the film to treat its subjects as external actors, conveying information without overcomplicating the narrative with speculation about Che’s mental state at a given moment.

Everything unfolds as in a procedural, with the details of preparation, organization, discipline, and deployment occupying most of the running time. The result is a film that has a nearly scholarly aura that refuses to romanticize its subject mater.

History in Che, therefore, plays a role similar to the one it plays in nonfiction. The cinema verité style and narrative framing emphasize political and geographical features over personal biography. We see no childhood scenes, nothing about his motorcycle journeys or his career before meeting Fidel Castro. In that way, it bears less resemblance to a typical biopic and more to a pair of war films, each one parallel in structure and yet quite different in result. Each begins with Che’s entrance into the country and has a denouement in a lengthy battle scene. In part one, as mentioned, the latter is the Battle of Santa Clara, the climactic urban battle that sealed Fulgencio Batista’s defat in Cuba. The second part ends with a battle in a ravine with Che and his guerrillas pinned down by advancing American-trained Bolivian troops. While Part One begins with Che at his lowest point, suffering from asthma attacks and fleeing capture in the jungle, Part Two ends in similar fashion. The structures are parallel and yet in many cases inverted, meaning that the two parts are each tailored to the actual events.

This treatment of history makes the narrative structure and visual construction of the two films worlds away from the usual American way of conforming the narrative to a three-act plot.

In some ways, of course, this shears off any way that the film can make larger points about its subject matter. It forgoes over political commentary despite having an intensely political story. There is a certain way in which it favor Che in adopting him as its subject, which casts the various American operatives as antagonists, but the way the film “objectifies” the people and events onscreen essentially reduces them to matter in motion. There are glimpses here and there of interior life and motivations, but that tends to either be blatantly stated in speeches or relegated to the background while the real conflict of the story plays out. I don’t say any of that as a value judgment, since I think the film succeeds spectacularly at depicting revolutionaries and guerrilla warfare as a process. At the same time, as a historian, I can take issue with this kind of presentation as it excludes deeper analytical reflection than simple observation. In other words, there’s little “theory” to Che, which leaves the polemics and the politics to its protagonist.

History on Film: New Series Introduction

Sadly, I won't be getting to this film anytime soon.
Sadly, I won’t be getting to this film anytime soon.

My amateur interest in film my professional interest in history work well together since Marxism forms the underlying foundations of my thought on both. Still, I tend to keep them separate because they have different goals, different means of understanding, and different subjects. This new series of posts is designed to get these two interests into a conversation. This does not mean evaluation films on the basis of their fidelity to historical sources or scholarly interpretation. That method betrays the specific way that movies construct meaning and should be criticized. Rather, I’m interested in what uses history has for filmmakers in telling stories.

To understand better, imagine that history was a character in the films I’ll be addressing. That character plays a larger or lesser role and that role has a different substance in each film. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor has a rather different aim in using history than a Pasolini film, which again differs from how history works in period dramas or biopics. In short, I’m interested in films that use history to achieve a certain effect. That effect might be a better or worse one, but my focus is not on accuracy but the way that films appropriate history for their own stories. Whether using history as backdrop, as a politically charged message, or a moral parable, these filmmakers all take historical subjects and run with them one way or another.

Below is a list of the first set of films I will be covering along with expected release dates. This series will be regular, published every Saturday on as consistent a basis as I can manage along with school work and grad school applications. They will be shorter or longer depending on what kind of material I can get into and how inspired or incensed I am by a particular piece.

  1. Procedural History in Che directed by Stephen Soderbergh (November 8, 2014)
  2. Polemical History in Edward II directed by Derek Jarman (November 15, 2014)
  3. Fantastical History in My Winnipeg directed by Guy Maddin (November 22, 2014)
  4. Inspirational History in Red Detachment of Women directed by Xie Jin (November 29, 2014)
  5. Documentary History in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 directed by Göran Olsson (December 6, 2014)

History For a Revolutionary Audience

We hail from all corners of the country and have joined together for a common revolutionary objective. And we need the vast majority of the people with us on the road to this objective.

Mao Zedong, “Serve the People”

One of the virtues of the academy is that everyone in the community is presumed to have a minimum standard of education. Unlike a commercial filmmaker––independent or within a large studio system––the presumed audience of an academic writer is a limited and highly interested segment of the population. People within your field are assumed to be both capable of reading your work and interested in it, assuming that it reaches a certain level of quality. Unfortunately, this virtue has an unintended vice attached. Academic audiences are in some ways less demanding of a writer since disciplinary terminology has become self-evident to them and shorthand and inference can save space and time. Writing for the masses, in particular a Marxist writing for the working class and revolutionaries, requires a different set of priorities and stylistic elements. In brief: the proletariat is not interested in history for its own sake. Baroque discussions of historical minutiae do not animate revolutionaries; intellectual weaponry does.

Marxist historians should, because of their political positions, produce writing for non-academic audiences. Abandoning the academy might not be possible for most intellectual workers, but the fact remains that historians can never change the world without engaging that world. Even if you are working within the academy, institutional concerns should not dominate your work; politics should. At no point, however, should this appeal to the masses entail an abandonment of scholarly principles. Nor should intellectual production ever be purely instrumental or polemical. History without factual foundation and correct theoretical explanation are useless to the proletariat, which can only overturn capitalism armed not only with physical weapons but with an accurate understanding of their situation. Nonetheless, that truth has to be made comprehensible to people without graduate educations and relevant to their political needs. These connections have to be drawn out explicitly in historical writing, meaning that Marxists shed any hesitations about using fiery or explicit language in criticizing capitalism.

There is another point worth exploring, which I have never seen addressed in my readings of Marxist historians: the question of political organizations. Should historians work not only from the academy but also from communist parties and mass fronts? I believe that, for some historians, the answer is yes. Obviously this presumes that the parties in question have a healthy respect for fierce debate within a democratic centralist framework, but I think that being engaged in concrete political work will have a leavening effect on historians’ usual aridity. Documents and other sources might be the lifeblood of historical analysis, but a writer without a real sense of the stakes of their political, economic, or cultural histories will be more susceptible to the allures of idle speculation or lazy apathy. On the other hand, romantic dreams of revolutionary glory are not helpful either. The reality of political work is largely its drudgery and the painstaking work of self-education. Anchoring oneself in a political organization dedicated to the change you are advocating appears as a fantastic solution to historical timidity. This is not to prescribe party membership as a panacea for the problems of Marxist political or historical thought: most of our problems have to be resolved through our own labour. Still, the greatest fear I have about entering a full-time academic career is that this will be politically sterilizing. The academy is hungry for commitment and it tends to brook no competition.

These problems are worth engaging because the historian’s audience will determine to an extent what subjects they write about, what priorities they take in their research, and the amount of effort they put into writing in a lucid fashion. It’s not “condescension” to write for large audiences, and writing a book meant for workers is not equivalent to putting out another pop-history that flatters petty bourgeois vanity. Obviously, detailed historical problems can require fairly dense treatments because of the complexity involved, but unless we take what we learn in our scholarly work and put it in the service of the masses, what use are our social criticisms and clarion calls?