Politics and film—paradoxical yet inevitable bedfellows caught in a hapless tail-chase of opinion humping and moral panic. Few were gratified by The Contender‘s rather Nixonian McGovernism or Finding Forrester‘s Jeffersonian folk tale of race relations, while the bingo jingoism of Rules of Engagement was transparent opportunism. Politics in movies may be where you look for it and nowhere else: Hollow Man‘s blithely implied sporty rape raised hackles, but American Psycho won smiles for pinning its bedroom battery on the same caricatured moneymaker that got recycled into The Family Man. If anything, the desire to be neutral meant that Thirteen Days evaded jump-ugly truths about neoimperialism and back-channeled power; starter-mansion Democrats were gladdened, if few others. But take Traffic: a movie so Rorschachian that voices along the entire political spectrum—from neocon senators to weedheads—are claiming it as theirs. Which is tantamount to saying it has no point of view—a troubling alternative reading no one wants to consider.
For many filmgoers, it seems, the scent of righteousness is all that’s required; be it Mel Gibson flag-waving colonials into crossfire or Julia Roberts lobbing magoos at corporate evil, the essential political point is never as relevant as the tingle of triumph. But for some of us—or at least, for left-leaning, urbanized culture consumers—the civics of a film is how we’ve come to measure its carats, privileging clarity of perspective over aesthetic or even visceral weight. Gentleman’s Agreement, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Thelma & Louise, and The Cider House Rules are typical for having been awarded and lavishly (albeit temporarily) praised for their progressive correctness. Movies are honored with hosannas for echoing back to us what we already believe.
As is apparent in MOMA’s in-progress series of political cinema, “The Path of Resistance” (running until March 23), there’s no shortage of reformist outrage in the archive—here, realpolitik and the grandly polemical are chosen for their social combustibility, from Scorsese’s The Big Shave to Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames to Marker’s Le Joli Mai. Distending the notion of “political” until it defines virtually any film with a social context, the series folds in M*A*S*H, The Last Wave, and Blazing Saddles with the Sembenes, the Pontecorvos, the Rainers, and the Godards.
Certainly, the opportunity to see Rosi’s Salvatore Guiliano, Fassbinder’s Whity, and Emile de Antonio’s Underground shouldn’t be underappreciated; the breadth of avant-gardisms (Kubelka’s Our Trip to Africa, Brakhage’s 23rd Psalm Branch, VanDerBeek’s Science Friction) and seminal documentaries (Hiroshima-Nagasaki, August 1945; Top Value Television’s Four More Years; Richard Leacock’s Chiefs) is equally vital. All the same, this isn’t a unilaterally “political” series; it’s exclusively liberal. Despite the declared “wide range of political themes,” you won’t find Triumph of the Will or The Green Berets or Dirty Harry on the dance card. For the here and now, a consideration of “political” film is no longer a dialogue. It’s a soliloquy.
Granted, there are few right-wing movies out there that weren’t narrowly state-manufactured, at home or abroad, for agitprop purposes. The lion’s share of politically inclined moviemakers have always leaned left of Stanley Kramer. But MOMA’s presumed and total leftiness is a symptom, just like the Oscar nominations for Planned Parenthood pamphlet Cider House Rules, the tolerant reception of Spike Lee’s retarded point-maker Bamboozled, and the fact that Chocolat is being held up by Jesse Jackson as a balm on the wounds of the social soul.
A twinge of agnosticism seems required. “Political films,” after all, have to be agreed with to be declared masterpieces—the works themselves aren’t considered so much as how they confirm the viewers’ own identity-specific outrage and exaltation. But is a movie great or notable merely because we sync up with its political point of view? Should we ghettoize our positions toward art depending on what axes we ourselves have to grind? Does, for instance, the radical courage of the woefully clumsy Salt of the Earth make it anything more than a historical landmark, and does the macho, xenophobic frame of reference of, say, The Deer Hunter make it a dismissable banality? Does it matter that they both reflect the tangible concerns and vantage point of the American working-class majority?
More problematically, how often have we lauded a movie because we semiconsciously believe unspecified viewers less enlightened than us will learn from it what we already know? Do we worry about how groups are “represented” in films only because we fear those same unenlightened viewers might sponge up a cretinous idea or two?
Just askin’—but you can reach a chokepoint after reading for the umpteenth time how a vengeful, havoc-wreaking woman can elevate abject trash (from Ms. 45 to The Rage: Carrie 2) by representing “empowerment,” or how a story line rotating leftward around abortion or capital punishment or welfare or interracial relationships or any issue at all makes that movie “powerful,” or more than fair and decent in its basic assumptions. Cutting a movie down to its sociopolitical thrust is like sucking on the bone marrow and neglecting the meat, the skin, and the sauce. Under the most uncorrupted of real-life circumstances, politics is a matter of conflict and compromise, and opposition is our insurance against absolutism. In America, movies can only be so democratic, but why can’t moviewatching be so much more so?