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Archives: Hollywood Propaganda vs. The Movement (1969)   (Views: 15,575)

Contributed by skip on July 9th, 2002

By John Hunt

Those who applaud Hollywood's occasional "New Look" ventures are motivated by a desire to find some crumbs of comfort in what they basically regard as a hopeless situation; it seems "hopeless" because they are overawed by Wall Street's cultural dominance, unwilling to concede the possibilities of a broad movement for a democratic culture.

John Howard Lawson wrote these lines before going to jail for contempt of the House Unamerican Activities Committee proceedings in 1952. Feeling that the capitalist film industry could be "pressured" into making concessions which would eventually lead to real gains on the road to a people's film art, Lawson pleaded for audience organization. He felt change could come from within-and not without good reason: Lawson made his living writing films. He had hopes at that date of continuing his work. He was not allowed, however, and was one of "The Ten" blacklisted writers and directors who were shut out by the studios. But Lawson never lost his optimism, nor his clear vision of what film was all about. And he was ready to fight: "The idea that it is futile to attack Hollywood's film propaganda indicates lack of confidence in the capacity of the masses to grasp the issues, and to organize effectively to influence the content of films. It indicates failure to see the ideological struggle, the struggle to expose and defeat fascism and war propaganda, in its necessary connection with the political and economic struggle."

For Lawson to see the ideology behind the Hollywood film, to probe through its subtle surface, was to preview the issues we are facing today. in Film in the Battle of Ideas, published in 1953, long before Women's Liberation, he was writing this: "Many film artists seem to be unaware of the political purpose underlying the increasingly degrading roles assigned to women." And: "An attitude of tolerant amusement toward the film's mockery of women indicates failure to grasp the political significance of the woman question. Hollywood's vulgarities cannot be dismissed as adolescent sexuality, or even senile decay. Films degrade women because their degradation is an economic and political necessity of the drive to fascism and war."

I stress these comments because of their importance in creating a total awareness in an area which has been relatively excluded by the New Left. That this area has been ignored, or left unexplored, is inexcusable. The media have embedded themselves in our brains by a long process known popularly as "entertainment"; unless one is aware that every single piece of information garnered from radio, TV, films, etc., has been encased in the enemy's crust, one runs in circles trying to penetrate into the guts of today's problems.

In "14 Notes on Television and the Movement" (Leviathan, July/August 1969), Todd Gitlin aptly dissects the monster. He calls for a sharpened awareness of our roots, which means analysis of the media. At the risk of overloading this article with other people's words, I quote him: "Whether the cool acceptance or the cool skepticism triumphs, whether skepticism turns to disgust or even directly to revolt, depends on the magnetic power of the movement to define an alternative. The revolutionary black movement and some hip communes come closest to embodying a totally opposed consciousness transcending the commodity riot. Finally, only a totally opposed consciousness can counter the culture's total assault." The point is, 1953 to now is a long time to sit around waiting for someone else to take care of business.

Going back to Lawson's statements concerning what can be done to move "Toward a People's Film Art," as he calls one section of his book, we see his alternative, broadly stated, as turning the guns around. "Underlying the passive acceptance of Wall Street's power over films and other forms of communication is disdain for culture: since its class function is not seen, its value as a weapon in class struggle is not respected: the danger of its use by the bourgeoisie is belittled, and the possibilities of its use by the masses are ignored" (italics added).

It is impossible to divorce the movement from the very tools which, in the hands of the capitalists, have formed it. It is impossible to be "pure," standing outside the media (or any of its appurtenances), when the media have things under control. To effectively counteract what has been done, and then build up from the ashes, the movement must supply alternatives, as Gitlin says, a "source of values, network of relations and standard for authenticity."

In 1952, Sam Goldwyn made I Want You, a blatant piece of fascist propaganda, in which the necessity of "war to protect democracy" is defended. The hero, Martin Greer, a middle class, married, typically happy American, questions himself about going to fight in Korea. Greer is a specialist and his country needs him. His younger brother, after protesting mildly about his draft notice, has been patriotically persuaded by Greer's own wife to do his duty. The clincher comes when Greer wonders what he will answer when his son in future years asks, "What did you do, daddy, in the war against Communism?"

Few critics were taken in by this fright line, and the film was a box office failure, indicating audiences were small. But there were other films not so easily detected and far move successful, i.e., financially rewarding and effectively subtle as propaganda: Viva Zapata!, for example, doubting a great revolutionary's mental capacity, reminds me of the pat liberal reply to one of the solutions available to the oppressed peoples, that the land belongs to those who work it: "It's too simple"; A Streetcar Named Desire or Westward the Women, in which women are "dumb cows" deserving of any violence they receive: How Green Was My Valley, which treats a capitalist workers' nightmare as a fairy tale romantically set in the hills of Wales, far removed from the sweatshops of Chicago, or the fields of Delano.

"Salt of the Earth"

In contrast, there is only one film from this entire period that deserves mention as perhaps the first American people's film, Salt of the Earth. The film was begun in 1951, written by Michael Wilson and directed by Herbert Biberman, one of the HUAC's "pinkos"; it wasn't until March, 1954, that it was premiered, following years of struggle against the whole film industry. The industry was so against the production that even the tabs, usually uncommitted in any direction except cash, refused to handle the film's processing.

Th film is simple, and unrelenting in its pursuit of the issues, A group of miners in Zinc Town, New Mexico, both Anglos and Mexican-Americans, go on strike for improved safety conditions. The company, with the aid of the local police and the courts, tries to break the strike. The union fights hard but at one point, with the arrival of an injunction prohibiting the men from picketing, it looks as though the strike is finished; but, against their husbands' wishes, the strikers' women rally and picket in place of the men. The strike continues to be effective and a new power has to be reckoned with. The men are forced to confront not only their position with the bosses, but to re-evaluate their family relationships. At the end the strike is won only temporarily, and there is a premonition of future struggle; but in their solidarity they have won a battle. The film is truly a call for a united front.

One description in the scenario points out that the makers had full understanding of what they were about. During the early part of the film, before the strike, there is an accident at the mine and the men have sobered to protest. The wounded man is taken away and the boss orders them to return to work; they are silent, staring high over the mine shaft to where their families have stood watching the confrontation: from their angle, long shot: the women and children standing on the knoll above the mine. They are silent and grave. Vie women's skirts billow in the wind, like unfurled flags, like the tattered banners of a guerrilla band that has come to offer its services to the regular army. Fade out.

Compare this to a great people's artist, Bertolt Brecht, and four lines of a song in Congress of Whitewashers, a play which, understating grossly, calls for cohesion in the face of oppression:

If a skirt is a fancy dream

It's alright just so

We can use it for a flag

Long live Kai Ho [a revolutionary leader].

One question arises from all this: what happened to Biberman, Wilson, and rebels like them? Many, of course, returned to the fold. Lawson didn't and he grows old in Los Angeles, forgotten by the industry he loved, but didn't know well enough. If it hadn't been for the HUAC hearings and the subsequent blacklistings, I doubt if a film like Salt of the Earth would ever have been made. Basically it was outrage at their being financially cut off from, their "trade" that caused men like Biberman, Lawson, and Dalton Trumbo to revolt. Trumbo, for instance, after a clandestine period of writing under a pseudonym, returned with Stanley Kubrick to concoct Spartacus, romantically putting down a revolutionary struggle and being hailed once again as the great artist.

It's interesting to note that films like Spartacus, which could deal with current issues, and do appear relevant, sidestep many of the real issues. Because they are no threat to anyone-except the movement-they are allowed wide release and great press coverage. Up till now, a review of Salt of the Earth aired on the Canadian Broadcasting System sums up with few exceptions the American film: "Salt of the Earth is an American movie about workers, which fact alone makes it unusual. The idea that workers are people, and have conflicts and problems worthy of attention, has never impressed the American film industry. . . "

What about Grapes of Wrath? Let two lines suffice. Again Lawson: "During the 1930's, one film, Grapes of Wrath, dealt seriously with economic struggle. But it did not touch the problems of industrial workers, and its portrayal of the tragedy of migratory farm labor in California was marred by a negative and defeatist ending."

Fonda and $$: The Loner

And what of today? Has anything changed?

The Green Berets is up-front, laughable, and can be compared to I Want You. But what of a film like Easy Rider? Peter Fonda has said he has chosen not to give us any hope, because, I suspect, he is unable to get it together in his own head and align himself with an ideology which offers solutions-no matter what he may say. There is no such thing as "no hope," because conversely the intimation is that at one time there was some. Hope stems from false bourgeois sentiment: Dream. Hope is the great divider, the disorganizer which spreads dissidence and chaos among "good intentioned" souls: a dreamer faced with the cold reality crumbles into powder, which the fascists then piss on, knead, and reshape into the "new democratic man." There is only what is; and there are solutions. Fonda's portrayal of America's face may be accurate, but it is misleading, being only a manifestation of the real problems. It takes no great genius to know what he shows us. It's been here for quite some time and requires a deeper look than he gives us. To have the bikers in the film seem "right," and have them destroyed by a couple of fascists, is to point down. Up is the way, through organized resistance, by involvement in the movement, and not as loners, on their super SS choppers trying to escape.

There is no place for loners today. The opposition is so well organized it is ridiculous even to comment on it. In this light perhaps Fonda's fate in the film is exactly what should have happened-anyone standing alone will be crushed. Why weren't he and his sidekick (the director, Dennis Hopper) taking the cash from their deal and dumping it into a breakfast program for kids, or a bail fund? For the same reason Fonda admits he will probably return to Hollywood to work in other people's films, because he "needs" a couple hundred thousand dollars to support his family. Because he rides a $3,000 chopper. Because he makes films which subvert the movement. In other words, Fonda is the enemy. Columbia Pictures did what!?!

Or perhaps he was out to create a new folk hero, something like Bonnie and Clyde. Before Arthur Penn, Bonnie and Clyde were folk heroes of a sort. But Penn was only interested in putting down violence. Penn has no idea of a people's film, and although Bonnie and Clyde does not make gratuitous use of violence, the ending does have a mollifying effect-kind of a violent lesson turned around, demanding more and more violence-for no end.

And then folk heroes who become popular are always suspect in a capitalist society. A good recent example is Johnny Cash's song "A Boy Named Sue," near the top of the "pop" charts across the country on AM radio. (Written, incidentally, by Shel Silverstein.) Cash, once again, appears to be saying something, when in the song he wants to kill his father for having named him Sue, an incident which has made him the brunt of derisive jokes and the center of many fights. But, after all, the fights have really built up his character-as his father points out in the end. Cash comes -away "with a different point of view," satisfied that his father's intentions were really good, even though he was a drifting drunk unable to see the "outside" forces which broke him in the first place.

The revolutionary movement in America is not about to kill anyone over a name. The issues are far deeper, infinitely more important, and keenly visible. Popular "art" and performers such as Johnny Cash and Peter Fonda cloud things over with their drivel. They present clear images about irrelevant issues, thus pushing the real issues underneath. They do this because they are incapable of seeing clearly, and because they are making much money. They are fat, and have no wish to jeopardize their positions within the industry; until they prove otherwise, there is nothing else to say.

Rebellion Is the Only Way Possible

On the other hand, "If", Lindsay Anderson's second feature film, presents the issues clearly, then offers the only possible alternative. If that's the way you want it, that's the way you'll get it, and the small group of resisters pick up their guns. His last scene, though violent, shows no trace of blood or death, because these we know will occur; the scene is positive, constructive, metaphorically stating what has to be done. Revolution is never pleasant but is necessary and inevitable under present conditions. The only point I would bring up is that instead of "If", perhaps it should be "Why Has It Taken So Long?" But again, by presenting the issues in a way that cannot be considered didactic by even the most liberal members of the audience, "If" forces idealists and non-action people to come up against the rational deduction of the film's statement. (And if education is the aim, "If" is the proper title.) And the movement's communicators must recognize that a large number of people are still questioning the validity of revolution. These are the people who must be reached, not turned off. Turning off people as an end in itself is separation, as destructive as anything coming down from the capitalists. That's why Anderson's film is important. Fonda is trying to be the great existential artist, glibly denouncing hope, because he has had his personal hopes wiped away in the Hollywood shithouse. Anderson has never shown liberal sentiment, always keeping the real issues in front of him. For this reason, of course, he has only made two features.

Also for this reason filmmakers like Luis Bunuel have always had limited showing, in this country particularly, because Bunuel is unassimilable. "In a world as badly made as this, rebellion is the only way possible," has been his life's creed. Belle de Jour is an excellent example of the slickness of the package baffling the distributors. It was advertised as a very daring, sexy film. Audiences didn't understand it when the twisting around of their own morality was presented to them. The images, will not easily be easily erased. It is because Bunuel is so conscious of class morality that he was able to take the opposing premises and proceed to prove them incapable of dealing with reality-a reality, by the way, created and nurtured by our existing morality. This, the paradox of modern society, must be eradicated before any sort of lasting change can come about. (Complementing this, in true Bunuelian fashion, he has said that he took something he hated-the book-and made it into something he loves. At least this was his intention at the beginning of the project.) It is because he always cuts away the fat, penetrating to the bone, that he is able to tie up complicated situations with simple symbols, clearly understandable once one realized that his morality must be adjusted. His early documentary Land Without Bread, made in his own country, Spain-where he has only returned once to film Viridiana-is documentary in that it gives you the facts, but presents them in a way that makes catharsis-and therefore a. sense of resolution-impossible. There is nothing false-sentimental about the film; the falseness is in us, the viewers.

Many times the films of Newsreel, the movement's only real organized film producers (as distinguished from co-ops), give us a sense of action taking place, involving us rather than forcing us to involve ourselves; these films make viable situations out of last-ditch, too-late efforts on the part of an oppressed people outside the US who have been just as propagandized by our (and their own) media as we ourselves, and are still not able to understand fully the media's function. In other words, as information aimed at those within the movement, Newsreel succeeds. As education for those on the periphery, they are passed off as being didactic, forcing no conflict of morality, often using the exact same cultural images which have gotten us where we are to start with, not challenging the entire class morality which is the superstructure of Culture.

Newsreel of course is right; but audiences are nonetheless scared off, frightened at even inquiring as how to best become involved. And following involvement comes commitment. There is therefore room for a subtler approach.

Bunuel made Viridiana in Franco Spain, with government-backed money, even having his script approved. When the film was completed he had to scurry across the frontier, clutching his negative firmly in hand. if anything, the film shows the fascists' inability to come to terms with a symbolic representation of their own milieu; many workers, it's true, are unable to get a total perception out of the film. This is not critical, but merely shows the need for both types of approach. To limit the movement's media in any way is merely to replace the enemy's restrictions with our own. The thing is, it is necessary to become alert to all possibilities, both in attack, and in defense. Unity is the only end we can strive for. If someone refuses to see what is clearly in front of him, then-at this point of development-it is up to us to utilize another method. No one can be given up on unless he proves himself the enemy by choice. It is true that when there are two armed camps there will only be need for information and guns. At that time the greater numbers will defeat, or control, the lesser numbers. But only by refusing overtly our alternatives can a member of the middle join the opposition's camp. Until that choice is made it is up to the movement, through its media (and don't forget, it's Mass Media), to penetrate into the lives of those who do not see. It is necessary to break down the old moral codes, and at the same time offer new ones, giving vitality to life where now there is only existence.

I heard an old black man say to a government worker one time, "You can't reach me, because you can't see me."

It works both ways.

It is also interesting to note that for Bunuel a blind man is always a symbol of evil.

And so, many filmmakers today have resigned themselves to the fact that they may never be able to make the films they want to make: there are far too many important things to be done with the money today, and every penny must be weighed and justified as to the effect the film will have. Whatever they do, though, their sight should never be limited, and, as I have used Bunuel as an example, let me finish up with him: "But that the white eye-lid of the screen reflect its proper light, the Universe would go up in flames. But for the moment we can sleep in peace: the light of the cinema is conveniently dosified and shackled."

Bunuel confronts this dilemma in his films and his life style. It is up to us to do the same, bringing light and destruction to the darkness and corruption we have come from.

Source: Leviathan 9/69

Hollywood Propaganda vs. The Movement (1969)
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