Political Scientists in Public Debate: Movie Criticism Edition

Jonathan Kirshner (Cornell) in the Boston Review, on the days when movies were real movies, and critics were real critics.

The New Hollywood was a cinema of moral ambiguity. The notorious Production Code Authority, in ruins by the close of 1966, had insisted on movies about right and wrong, with right winning in the end. By contrast, in the world portrayed by the “’70s film” (and in tune with the tenor of the times) choices are not always easy and obvious (Klute, The King of Marvin Gardens), authorities and institutions are compromised (Medium Cool, The Friends of Eddie Coyle), and, finally, the “hero” rarely wins (Chinatown, Night Moves). Individually ’70s films offer character-driven explorations of troubled, imperfect protagonists and complex interpersonal relationships, with no obvious solutions or clean resolutions proffered (or expected). Collectively they reflect a thriving and identifiable film culture—movies that “don’t supply reassuring smiles or self-righteous messages,” but share “a new openminded interest in examining American experience,” as the critic Pauline Kael put it at the time. “Our filmmakers seem to be on a quest—looking to understand what has been shaping our lives.” These were movies to talk about, and fight about, and accordingly it was also the decade when the critics mattered. An ambitious cohort of film critics, shaped by new sensibilities, expectations, and experiences, led a tumultuous public debate about the movies, their meaning, and their relationship with society. Of these critics, the argumentative, bohemian Kael was the most influential.

Kirshner writes about 1970s film-makers’ willingness to embrace ambiguity – a good reading, perhaps, to assign for ‘Movies and Politics’ classes

2 Responses to Political Scientists in Public Debate: Movie Criticism Edition

  1. AGH March 15, 2012 at 6:20 pm #

    If political scientists really want to take advantage of the medium, they might avoid Hollywood films altogether. While mainstream 70’s films feature more ambiguous narratives than most contemporary fare, perhaps students should be challenged with work that isn’t just mass entertainment – after all, they can watch Chinatown on Netflix anytime, but they might not have the willpower to sit through a long, demanding political documentary from the 60’s on a Friday night.

    The work of Octavio Getino, Fernando Solanas, Chris Marker, Patricio Guzman, Jean Rouch, Su Friedrich, Travis Wilkerson, James Benning, John Gianvito, Thom Anderson, and many others offer political arguments in formally inventive ways. These films mix fiction and documentary, engage the spectator directly, and use duration and narration as critical strategies. Film doesn’t need a narrative to be political; ambiguity is just the tip of the iceberg. Alongside this article, I’d recommend assigning Solanas and Getino’s “Towards a Third Cinema” and perhaps selections from “Representing Reality” by Bill Nichols.

  2. RDJ March 15, 2012 at 10:10 pm #

    Plenty of movies today embrace ambiguity, there are loads of recent examples; Margaret, The Tree of Life, Melancholia, Meek’s Cutoff, Drive, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Never Let Me Go, J.Edgar, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and plenty others.
    Also I’m pretty sure Pauline Kael didn’t like a lot of those ambiguous 70s movies, most notably Chinatown and The French Connection, and complained that filmakers were going to far away from the traditional hollywood structures, so that the movies had no impact and their ambiguities were just easy ways to make a movie appear more serious and “real”.
    Night Moves is the epitome of everything wrong with this type of movie, its attempt to subvert noir conventions by forgoing any kind of compelling mystery kills the entire second half of the movie. Nothing interesting happens it just wallows around in some bullshit thats supposed to say something about the seedy underbelly of America, but completely fails on every level.