Film as a Subversive Art
Contemporary America – a late capitalist colossus, owned by large corporations while parading as a democracy and dominated by rabid commercialism and consumerism – is attempting to dominate the world via transnationals, Hollywood cinema and television, the export of American cultural ‘values,’ the Disneyfication of the globe. It is not the dinosaurs and extra-terrestrials that the rest of the world ought to be afraid of, it is the commodification of all spheres of human existence, the seemingly unstoppable commercialization of human life and society, the growing international blight of the theme parks, the all-pervasive malling of the world. Our fate seems to be the homogenization of culture: an universal leveling down, an anesthetizing, pernicious blandness.
The space in which this infantilization of the human race is most clearly revealed is in the monstrous structures of American television. For the first time in history, the most powerful mass medium of a society is totally controlled and dominated by advertisers and the market, totally driven by commercial imperatives, saturated by ubiquitous commercials that deliver audiences to advertisers (not programs to audiences), and an ever larger spectrum of channels delivering primarily garbage 365 days a year. Thus has the marvelous potential of this medium been betrayed. And the American cinema – today the most powerful in the world – is not far behind in its successful stultification of audiences. We are inundated by meretricious stories, a failure to explore the marvelous aesthetic potential of this medium, a pandering to the lowest common denominator, a truly horrifying concentration on the most cruel violence, a smirking perversion of sex hobbled by hoary prohibitions. This is topped by an obscene (profit-driven) blockbuster obsession leading to more and more films in the 100 million dollar range.
For those who still have resources of personal identity – an increasingly difficult and perilous endeavor – there exists no more important obligation than to attempt to counteract these tendencies. Otherwise, future generations may accuse us of having been ‘good Germans’ all over again, cooperating with evil not by our deeds but by our silence. Silence, under such circumstances, is complicity.
There were moments in the last blood-drenched century when there seemed to be hope: the equalitarian impulses behind the 1917 Russian revolution (perverted within less than ten years), the Kibbutz movement’s attempts in Israel to establish socialist communes (today they exploit Arab/Third World labor), the promise of the 1960s (eventuating in the current world situation). Now several years into the Millennium, these humanist impulses seem behind us.
And yet, everything in past human history teaches that these attempts to transform us into humans will inevitably continue. In terms of cinema, this explains the very large importance of independent showcases and independent festivals. It explains the ‘exceptions’ (from the Hollywood drivel), both those that constitute the content of this book as well as, even more importantly, those that continue to be made today. Not those fake ‘independent’ films whose makers only aspire to become the next Hollywood stars, but those true iconoclasts and independents – feature, avant-garde or documentary filmmakers – who even under today’s bleak circumstances audaciously continue to ‘transgress’ (i.e. subvert) narrative modes, themes, structures, and the visual/aural conventions of mainstream cinema.
What a pleasure, then, for a man of cinema, to help discover and support these ‘exceptions.’ Though I am now in my 80s, my search continues unabated. I attend film festivals, museum series, special showcases, serve on juries and selection committees, write articles and reviews, inform potential distributors and exhibitors and compose supporting letters to foundations and governmental institutions for grants and subsidies.
Momentous changes have occurred since the original edition of this book, among them the disappearance of the Soviet Union and East Germany, the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the global triumph of American commercial cinema and television. Yet I find no reason to modify or change any of the basic theses or structures put forth in the original.
For me, the most important conclusion I came to then remains as true today. Realizing its significance, I had stealthily placed it at the very end of my book, neither highlighting nor situating it in a separate paragraph, thus making sure that the real message of the work would be appreciated fully only by those who had kept on reading to the very end. There is therefore no better way for me to conclude this forward than by once again not drawing my new readers’ attention to it.
© The Estate of Amos Vogel
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