Enduring Images: A Future History of New Left Cinema
Revolutionary movements not only attack the ruling representations, but they also create their own images. We saw that in 2011 during the Arab revolts, where social media played a central role in the organisation and dissemination of the protests against the local-lumpen despotic regimes of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Assad, etc.
Of course, it was the presence of thousands of people in the streets, occupying, marching and protesting, fighting the police and the military, that caused the regime changes in Tunisia and Egypt, but social media was an important tool in preparing the upheaval and mobilising people against the despots.
The book is a compelling analysis of a prior protest cycle where cinematic representations played a central role in the fight against the ruling order.
The square occupation movement in Southern Europe and the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US that soon took over the baton in 2011 were similarly characterised by a combination of bodily slowness in occupying squares and public places, and the fast micro-communications of new media. The protests were recorded live on camera in Cairo, Athens and New York in 2011. Cell phones and platforms such as Facebook enabled protesters to become the Victor Serge of a new era, documenting and broadcasting live the formation of new collective-protest movements outside the traditional mass media of state television and large TV networks.
Cinema as a battleground
Morgan Adamson’s book Enduring Images: A Future History of New Left Cinema presents a compelling analysis of a prior protest cycle where cinematic representations played a central role in the fight against the ruling order. In the late 1960s cinema became a battleground for a whole generation of filmmakers who sought to put the medium to use in a revolutionary fight against imperialism and the spectacle.
Adamson frames her analysis as a contribution to the analysis of the New Left that emerged in the 1960s in opposition to the Stalinist version of communism with its iron laws of development and its privileging of the male industrial working class.
The New Left cinema was characterised by a move from expressive subjectivity to collective thought.
The New Left sought to make visible new revolutionary subjects, such as women and migrants, that did not fit the dialectical-materialist model that was prevalent in the Soviet Union and all its local communist parties across Europe and the so-called «third world».
According to Adamson, cinema showed itself to be an important medium, making visible new subjectivities and new lines of fracture that critically followed the dictates of dialectical materialism. The New Left challenged the «economism» of dialectical materialism and pointed to new forms of control and subjection that occurred outside the space of the factory.
Adamson uses Guy Debord’s spectacle thesis as an entry to the expansion and rethinking of Marxism that took place in the 1960s. Debord argued that the alienation of the factory was being supplemented by a new kind of alienation taking place in everyday life.
Everyday life was being colonised, as he put it. Ever more areas of human life, leisure, culture, the family and human imagination as such were being subjected to the image-form of the commodity. Late-capitalist society is characterised by an intense and accelerated production and circulation of images that reproduce an ensemble of ever more hollow subjects.
The films Adamson analyses were all part of a particular historical context of social upheaval.
As Adamson shows, Debord and the New Left considered the cinematic image to be a dominated form. But a dominated form that could be wrested free from the spectacle and used against it, producing analyses and encounters. As in the case of Debord, an analysis of an almost totally impoverished life of mere survival was combined with strong claims for rebellion and resistance.
Capitalism had managed to enter into the very core of the human, but it was still possible to fight back. Adamson analyses a number of film projects where filmmakers fought back and used the medium of film as a tool of resistance, making visible the brutal violence of the uneven and combined development of capital (Trotsky).
Cinema as analysis and confrontation
The films Adamson analyses, including but not limited to The Society of the Spectacle by Debord from 1973, Columbia Revolt by the Newsreel collective from 1968, The Battle Front for the Liberation of Japan – Summer in Sanrizuka by the Ogawa Pro collective from 1968, Finally Got the News from 1970 by the Detroit Newsreel collective and the Roman Feminist Cinema Collective’s The Adjective Woman from 1971, are all essay films. But not essay films in the traditional sense of being auteur films.
The New Left cinema was characterised by a move from expressive subjectivity to collective thought, where the expressive principles of auteur cinema were done away with. As Adamson puts it: «New Left cinema opens a space of conflict in which each self-contained entity – including the author – is subjected to an invasion from the outside.» The «outside» – all the colonised areas, both geographically and mentally – was given a screen in New Left cinema and fought back. It was a question of making visible both the repression and exploitation of capitalism, but also of visualising the anti-imperialist and revolutionary resistance to the colonisation of everyday life and the Global South. The subject of enunciation in the cinematic New Left is thus a «we» or an impersonal «it» endowed with a historical agency. Film was not a medium of thought for the individual filmmaker but became a collective mode of insurgency where structural problems like colonialism and alienation were subjected to analysis and critique.
As Adamson explains, the films she analyses were all part of a particular historical context of social upheaval. In that context, cinema became something different from not only entertainment, but also from formally experimental films. Cinema was part of a collective political struggle against both material repression and a new immaterial image-based alienation. Cinema was the battleground where new politics had to come into being.
We still live in that space – what we, with Walter Benjamin, can call the image-space («Bildraum») – where politics is not only represented by images, but also takes the form of a superabundant volume of images in circulation. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 is the banal confirmation of that development. A development the New Left cinema tried to wrestle with in order to visualise another world. In a moment of intense counter-revolution, it is worthwhile to look back on previous attempts to intervene in the saturated image-world of late capitalism.