Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: On Cinema and Ideology

By  · Published on April 19th, 2011

Ideology is inescapable from cinema. I’ve yet to encounter the situation in which Paul Narboni and Jean-Luc Comolli’s thesis from their essay “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” in which they assert “all cinema is political,” isn’t true. Movies are products of various industries, are situated within a culture, and emerge with assumptions intact surrounding the values intrinsic to that culture, and thus movies are inevitably, in some way or another, products of ideology. How this ideology functions in cinema can be explicit or implicit, didactically deliberate or simply a rarely acknowledged and often expected trope, but ideology persists in cinema nonetheless. Whether it’s an argument made by an advocate documentarian in an independent production or the story of a superhero whose heroism venerates individual accomplishment in big studio tentpole filmmaking, ideology is articulated through movies.

But while ideology is always present in cinema, individual films should never be reduced to ideology. I’m certainly not saying that cinema and ideology should be evaluated separately, or should not examined as mutually determining of one another, but we should acknowledge that when we examine cinema and ideology, we are in many ways examining two things which are not separate, but are different in many ways.

The reason this particular topic has come of interest to me this week is, not surprisingly, because of the release and subsequent reactions to Paul Johansson’s adaptation of Ayn Rand’s controversial magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. I’m not interested in talking about the film nor necessarily the reaction to it specifically (in full disclosure I haven’t seen the film or read the book, thus I will not pretend to have the authority to speak about either), but I do think the heated cultural conversation surrounding the film provides an opportunity for us to assess as cinephiles how we deal with ideology in cinema.

For me the rules are simple, but perhaps deceivingly so. Good cinema is good cinema no matter what ideology it covers, endorses, rejects, selects, or wrestles with. There is no objective standard for good cinema, of course, and in my personal definition what makes “good cinema” “good” shouldn’t be reduced to factors such as characterization, story, technique, or even budget and production value (to define a good movie as containing “good character” or “good story,” as many people do, ignores an entire history of art and experimental cinema). In a sense, each film for me is deemed good or bad on its own terms. I do not give the same standard of critique to Iron Man 2 as I would to Last Tango in Paris, and I think both these films are interesting within their own intents, which could never be expressed in both. Incidentally, both these films have their own unique, difficult ideological hurdles (comprehensive privatization in Iron Man 2, Brando and Bertolucci’s sexism in Last Tango), yet at the same time the former is still a successfully entertaining action film and the latter a beautiful art film (IMHO).

Which brings me to my point that movies aren’t reducible to their ideology. Triumph of the Will is a good movie. I’d even call it a masterpiece. Its ideology is reprehensible. These two things are not contradictions. Why? Because to reduce cinema to its ideology is to no longer look at it as cinema, but simply as a technological delivery system designed for the purposes of edification. This is to deny cinema’s experiential aesthetics as well as the notion of film as artistic practice. This is also to deny the value of cinema’s history. Battleship Potemkin, after all, is not only an important film to or for Bolsheviks.

That said, we shouldn’t get rid of ideology altogether. Cinema does indeed have the power to embolden or represent powerful ideas, and this has its repercussions. As much as Birth of a Nation is important in understanding anything from parallel editing to early narrative construction, it’s still a profoundly racist film. As I said before, these things aren’t contradictions. And because these aren’t contradictions, and because cinema and ideology cannot be reducible to one another, “good” cinema never forgives “bad” ideology, and “good” ideology never forgives “bad” cinema.

Marxist film theorists like Comolli and Narboni argue that the institution in which cinema emerges is inherently ideologically oriented in favor of capital, and feminist film theorists like Laura Mulvey argue that the technological apparatus itself embodies a male gaze that objectifies the female body. These ideas have since been problematized but hardly thrown out altogether, but they both propose that aesthetics and ideology are inseparable. I agree that one informs the other, but what is undervalued in scholarship like this are the readings of the film aesthetics as a delivery system of ideology through form and style: the style delivers the ideology, not determines it, which means that style is capable of doing many things and can deliver a variety of messages. Just as ideology has no direct relationship with a film’s quality, the aesthetics of film are not conducive to one predetermined meaning or another. Put simply, aesthetics and ideology interact, but they are not synonyms. To examine ideology through aesthetics is essentially different than examining that ideology alone.

Cinema is political, but it’s not necessarily politics.

Art that is explicitly oriented toward disseminating a certain ideology is often mediocre art (think of anything from murals made under dictatorial governments to Christian rap music), for it favors ideology first and artistic practice second. The only people who stand to benefit from blanket praises given towards art because of its ideology, regardless of other aspects of its quality, are clearly ideologues, not lovers of art. The same goes for film lovers specifically. There is such a thing as loving film for film’s sake, regardless of the context from which the film arose.

I’m personally not interested in hearing defenses of films by those who advocate simply because they are a proponent of the ideology within them, while overlooking any other potential flaws. It lacks critical thinking, and reveals the individual to be purely an ideologue with an agenda rather than someone who genuinely loves movies. An endorsement of a film from someone who stands to benefit politically from that film is disingenuous and boring. In examining ideology and movies, one should be able to adopt a varied, nuanced critique of both. Good cinema, in many ways, should come first and ideology after, for to orient oneself to only liking cinema that echoes your existing beliefs is not only to close yourself into a narrow bubble of ideas, but also to deny yourself the value that all of cinema has to offer. Both cinema and ideology exist, and they inform each other, but it’s a mistake to assert that one eclipses the other.

If given a choice between good ideology and good cinema, I’d choose good cinema any day.

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