Last Sunday, UnionDocs co-presented, alongside Red Channels and DocTruck, a screening of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s Hour of the Furnaces at 16Beaver. The film, released in 1968, is a three-part, four-hour-plus indictment of the neocolonialist exploitation of Argentina, an account of the failure of Peronism to satisfactorily confront it, and a call for violent Marxist revolution. One of the film’s major preoccupations is the treason of the country’s liberal intellectuals, so infatuated with the “eternal” virtues of European culture that they become instruments of its reactionary colonialist ideology. The film is then marked by Solanas and Gentino’s attempt to find a uniquely Argentinean, legitimately Marxist form. The result is a stirring, furious mixture of didactic historical essay, Eisensteinian montage, interview, vérité factory scenes, long blocks of text, and a handful of brief narrative excursions. Their project necessitated a film that could not be casually consumed — taking their cue from Frantz Fanon’s remark “every spectator is either a coward or a traitor”, which appears on screen, they intended to incite debate and action. To this end, the film is presented in the three parts, the third of which ends with a command to continue to the conversation it has started.
The event was titled “Resurrecting a Revolutionary Cinema” and implicit to it was an attempt to connect the dots between the culture that could produce The Hour of the Furnaces and our contemporary American one, in which the commitment and courage to create such a film seems inaccessible. During the discussions that took place following each segment, participants frequently lamented the dearth of contemporary political films, arguing that filmmakers had abandoned their social charge. Given the flurry of issue-oriented documentaries released in the past decade, this accusation is, on its surface, incomprehensible. But Solanas and Getino’s film is of a different order. Missing today is not just The Hour of Furnaces‘ revolutionary ardor, but its glorious unification of theory and praxis.
This is the long held desire of leftist cineastes: films whose aesthetics are as radical as their politics. “The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically” is how Godard famously articulated it. It is leveled as a complaint with every by-the-numbers social issue documentary. It is premised on the widely shared belief that form is always political — a film’s assertions can be as radical as possible, but if they take a conventional shape, the work can do no more than confirm the status quo. By fitting securely within a defined cultural framework, they are defanged, presenting no more than a choice among many in a thriving market. But the critique does not end there. It insists that formally radical films are the only ones that can be politically useful — that only by transforming an audience’s sense of what is possible on the screen can a filmmaker transform their sense of what is possible in the world.
This is not an issue that troubles most people. Committed leftists will find it picayune, overly aesthetic. If a film is necessary for the revolution, it hardly matters whether or not it’s any good. Non-politically-minded cinephiles have no use for the question at all. But it persists because there are still plenty others out there, in, say, documentary collaboratives or university film departments, consumed equally by questions of social justice and film aesthetics. The reverence commanded by filmmakers like Godard and Solanas, predecessors like Eisenstein and Santiago Álvarez, and the few who have been able to hew closely to their line such as Harun Farocki and Peter Watkins, attests to this. It is practically taken for granted in some circles that this tradition represents an ideal to which all films should aspire. If you spend enough time in the right places, it is something you start to hear a lot, and maybe even believe.
It is not hard to see why this notion is so alluring. In his autobiographical essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchids”, Richard Rorty describes a similar impulse that lead him to philosophy:
“Insofar as I had any project in mind, it was to reconcile Trotsky and the orchids. I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework which would let me – in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats – ‘hold reality and justice in a single vision’. By reality I meant more or less, the Wordsworthian moments in which, in the woods around Flatbrookville (and especially in the presence of certain coralroot orchids, and of the smaller yellow lady slipper), I had felt touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance. By justice I meant what Norman Thomas and Trotsky both stood for, the liberation of the weak from the strong. I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity – a nerd recluse and a fighter for justice.”
But this desire can only carry us so far. And when it serves merely as a cudgel, it becomes particularly destructive. Solanas and Getino’s film concerns a particular historical situation forty years in the past. The world has not suddenly become just, but it is nothing more than nostalgia for an imagined golden age to insist that we are capable recapturing their spirit. As the filmmakers wrote in “Towards a Third Cinema”, their ex post facto manifesto (collected in the invaluable reader compiled for the event by Rachael Rakes and Matt Peterson):
The new political positions of some filmmakers and the subsequent appearance of films useful for liberation have permitted certain political vanguards to discover the importance of movies. This importance is to be found in the specific meaning of films as a form of communication and because of their specific characteristics, characteristics that allow them to draw audiences of different origins, many of them people who might not respond favorably to the announcement of a political speech. Films offer an effective pretext for gathering an audience, in addition to the ideological message they contain.
Those specific characteristics have been greatly altered since 1969, when the piece was published in Tricontinental. Film, particularly the kind of formally rigorous art cinema around which this issue centers, is no longer the populist medium it once was. It has become a minority pursuit. This does not mean that cinema is somehow relieved of political obligation, but the notion that radical cinema is somehow necessary for the revolution is a fiction that is increasingly hard to maintain. In the late 60s, The Hour of the Furnaces was screened, at the exhibitor’s peril, in union halls and apartments, at cell meetings, as well as cinematheques and museums. In the idiosyncratic communities where it circulates today, the pretext described by Solanas and Getino has been reversed: political speech is the sugar that helps the movie go down.
But we are kidding ourselves (and ourselves alone) if believe that the hours we spent at 16Beaver will do any good for the homeless outside, let alone today’s victims of neocolonialism in Port-Au-Prince or Ciudad Juárez. The idea outlined above — that the only truly radical film is formed as hieroglyph of its politics — has become nothing more than alibi for the time we spend in dark rooms. This is politics as a festish. It is underpinned by the desire for films about which we can say interesting things rather than the desire to make the world more humane.
Richard Rorty spent most of his career as a philospher rejecting the urge that brought him into the field in the first place:
one should try to abjure the temptation to tie in one’s moral responsibilities to other people with one’s relation to whatever idiosyncratic things or persons one loves with all one’s heart and soul and mind (or, if you like, the things or persons one is obsessed with). The two will, for some people, coincide – as they do in those lucky Christians for whom the love of God and of other human beings are inseparable, or revolutionaries who are moved by nothing save the thought of social justice. But they need not coincide, and one should not try too hard to make them do so.”
Films are not orchids. We do not have to follow him this far. I am not sure how we can continue to find social meaning in our passion for films, but I am confident that this debate is no longer useful for doing so.