Cracks in the Mirror: Pop Criticism’s Vulgar Reflectionism
Today’s launchpad for discussion is David Bordwell’s article “Zip, zero, Zeitgeist,” a critique of film criticism published on his blog. In it, he excoriates critics for substituting vague appeals to “the zeitgeist” for substantial commentary on a film. Critics, he contends, pad their articles and think pieces with the idea that films and other kinds of art reflect a popular “psyche” that can be analyzed by piercing the movie screen. He sarcastically summarizes this phenomenon in the phrase “All popular films reflect society’s attitudes. How do we know what the attitudes are? Just look at the films!”
I’ve commented on this confusion before, this idea that because Hollywood produces and markets its films for a popular audience, they must reflect the “zeitgeist” or the cultural feeling of the people who consume them. Bordwell notes that this is an easy way to fill space with minimal effort, “the last refuge of journalists writing to deadline,” but I want to focus more on the way that analysis of a film’s social relevance can get sidetracked by this specious faux-analytical method.
At first blush, the “reflectionism” Bordwell despises bears some resemblance to the dialectical materialist approach to criticism. After all, Lenin argues that human thought “reflects” the material world, following Engels.¹ The latter writes:
“From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”²
Althusser summarizes this notion as “the primacy of being over thought” in his Reply to John Lewis.³ So, on first blush, the idea that you can read a film as a reflection of social attitudes and relations seems solid. Only at the superficial level, however, does the vulgar “reflectionism” Bordwell describes bear any resemblance to Marxist criticism. To see why, let’s look at one of the examples Bordwell cites as a reflectionist document. Stephen Holden’s Top Films of 2013 is a worthy candidate because it is the product of an established, well-known writer and perfectly exemplifies the specimen of reductive criticism we are considering.
Holden writes that, in 2013, “serious films are reacting to runaway capitalism and its fallout with suspicion, disgust and nihilistic exuberance,” citing examples of prestige fare like Nebraska, Wolf of Wall Street, American Hustle, and The Great Beauty as markers of this trend. Putting aside the controversial notion of “serious film,” we note that films themselves have agency in that sentence, as if they autonomously assess and react to economic dissatisfaction and the tumult of the capitalist world.
No doubt both “runaway capitalism” and “its fallout” are material concepts, and the films he cites do deal with narrative themes of greed, excess, and other capitalist vices, but films themselves are not reactive agents. Rather, they originate in the minds of individuals caught up in an organized, profit-driven production system that, as Bordwell observes, produces products over the period of years rather than months or weeks, making the claim that a film can anticipate or “capture” the feeling of a present time difficult or even impossible to substantiate. Such an observation on Holden’s part reveals a mistaken conflation of subjective attitudes with an objective “reflection.” Holden (and, we’re told, psychiatrists he’s spoken to) feels future shock and malaise, and projects these impressions onto a group of films that all, in myriad ways, capture some aspect of life under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Films are consciously constructed artifacts, and though we can certainly detect unintended meanings and resonances with historical events, we must remember that films are produced by and consumed by limited populations. Bordwell observes of Hollywood filmmakers: “these workers, living hermetic lives in Beverly Hills and jetting off to Majorca, are far from typical. How can the fears and yearnings of the masses be adequately “reflected” once these elites have finished with the product?” Because creating them is a complex and social process, movies often contain a variety of contradictory conscious and unconscious attitudes all flattened onto the surface of the screen. Film production is an elite business subject to corporate oversight, artistic whims, and rigorous market testing. This makes it difficult, and somewhat foolhardy, to try to account for an individual movie’s success at the box office. It’s doubtful that even a majority of people who saw Transformers: Age of Extinction in the theatre agreed with its regressive politics; they attended for a number of reasons ranging from schadenfreude to their attachment to a particular brand identity. Does Transformers in some way reflect the objective conditions of life in this era of capitalist society? Yes, but its reflection is more of a refraction, filtered through a particular class perspective and the individual labors of those who produced it.
It bears repeating Marx’s assertion in Capital: “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”⁴ Likewise, its success is likely attributable to the product of effective marketing and distribution strategies, mobilization of brand loyalty, the commoditized names of its director and cast, and the series’ reputation for confounding spectacle. Systems of production and consumption and the deliberate creation of public taste are social qualities that we can analyze in a film, but this is very different than simply arguing for a “zeitgeist” model of cultural analysis. Such an approach flattens art and allows us to shortchange the specific qualities of films, their narrative and visual techniques and the way they depict objective social structures through a highly subjective lens, substituting pat statements like “Forrest Gump is a typical Clinton-era movie.” Such stock characterizations can be useful conversational props but quickly show their shallowness as critical conclusions.
So what is a proper historical materialist to do when criticizing film? David Harvey argues that a proper interpretation of the mass media rests on “an analysis of cultural production and the formation of aesthetic judgments through an organized system of production and consumption mediated by sophisticated divisions of labour, promotional exercises, and marketing arrangements. And these days the whole system is dominated by the circulation of capital.”⁵ Marxist analysis has to contend with the wrinkles and twists through which the relations of production are reproduced and reflected in ideological forms, including artworks like film. In doing so we cannot appeal to the vague abstractions of a mass “general public” or “cultural moment” as if the class character of the producers and consumers vanished while we sat in the theatre. Truly understanding the political and social aspects of film depends on a close attention to details as well as a grasp of materialist theory and the general laws of motion within capitalism. We would do well to heed Walter Benjamin’s warning at the end of his essay on art and mechanical reproduction:
“The film makes the cult value recede into the background not only by putting the public in the position of the critic, but also by the fact that at the movies this position requires no attention. The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one.”⁶
Ignorance of the role of social conditions in the production of film results in criticism of objects suspended in aether with no political relevance in creating profit and shaping taste. On the other hand, analyzing films as mirror images of mass psychological states (if these even exist) debases the social itself and places it in an abstract realm. It makes it easier to add a “social edge” to one’s opinions, but ultimately doesn’t ground those notions in anything deeper than subjective impressions of what “everyone” is thinking.
1. Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. http://marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1908/mec/one1.htm#v14pp72h-040
2. Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch24.htm
3. Louis Althusser, Reply to John Lewis. http://www.marx2mao.com/Other/ESC76i.html#s1a
4. Karl Marx, Capital vol. 1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch07.htm
5. David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity, p. 346.
6. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/ge/benjamin.htm