Monday, March 31, 2008

Marx at the Movies

Last week I happened to see two (relatively mainstream) movies that referenced Marx in some way. The first was the delirious Southland Tales; a movie that famously was booed at Cannes, seen by like twelve people in the US, and quickly shuttled onto DVD release. I was ready to love this movie, to embrace it as a work of genius, or maybe I was just excited to see Sarah Michelle Gellar as an ex-pornstar turned neo-marxist radical who drives around in an ice-cream truck (that particular description turned out to be inaccurate). I did not love the movie, but not did I hate it, I found myself occupying a middle ground that I would have thought was impossible. I loved certain scenes like the following hallucinogenic dance scene with Justin Timberlake.

But what of the film's reference to Marx, or Neo-Marxism? As Steven Schaviro points out, while the film engages with a alternative future, it is very much made up the visual economy of our present: its aesthetic is mostly flat, like a television image, occasionally punctuated by news feeds (the effect is one of the common practice of watching tv while surfing the internet), and everything about the film, right down to its casting bears witness to our celebrity obsessed culture. I would say that it treats Marx in a similar manner. Marx's image is used several times, and various bits of his life are "name dropped" in the film, everything from the name Jenny Westphalen to Trier Germany is referenced in the film in the oddest manner possible, becoming the name of corporations or futuristic zeppelins, but little is said of class struggle or exploitation. As a friend of mine put it, "so all they did was read the wikipedia entry on Marx." This is not really a complaint about the film. In the world of the film Marx simply becomes one more image, in a flow of images.

Marx is treated very differently in the film Persepolis. In this film it is less the name of Marx, Marx the celebrity, than the spirit of Marx, or communism that is referenced. The film deals with life in Iran and is split into three parts, the first dealing with the rule of the Shah and the revolution, the second with the war with Iraq, and the third dealing with Iran after the war. In the middle section the main character, Marji is sent to live in Vienna to avoid the war. In this section the film follows a rather typical coming of age story, in which love is found and lost. The difference is that at this point both the protagonist and the audience is aware that the trials and tribulations of this coming of age story pale in comparison to the real pains and suffering of imprisonment, war, and persecution. Nevertheless they are treated as quite real, after losing her home and boyfriend, Marji nearly dies from heartache. This to me is where the film's Marxism lies, in the recognition that although the pains and pleasures of the bourgeois life are all situated against a backdrop of comfort, comfort which is made possible by exploitation and suffering elsewhere, these pains and pleasures are nonetheless experienced as very real. The class nature of conscious is the constitutive inability to situate one's own perspective, to not see how one's anxieties fit into a larger whole which dwarfs them. The film does not just leave it at that, however. In the third act, when Marji returns to Iran, all of the bourgeois pleasures of love, alcohol, music, and sex are now seen to be political acts. The same pleasures that were seen as narcissistic in the second act are now understood to be in some sense directly political. This could be seen as a difference of context or situation, a matter of "always historicize," but I think that it reflects a larger point about Marxism, or materialism, which is understood as not an opposition to the realm of pleasure and sexuality (as it would appear in the second act) but to the system in which the pleasures are distributed. I perhaps did not state that well, but the film does a brilliant job of demonstrating how daily life can become a terrain of political struggle. In this way it stands in sharp contrast to Southland Tales, in which the "everyday" is completely filled with images of celebrities and pseudo-events, to the point of becoming entirely empty. The sad part is that it is probably more accurate.


  1. That was an amazing clip. Thanks for posting it. All that plus Sarah Michelle Gellar in an ice-cream truck? I may have to risk renting that one.

  2. It is a good clip, probably the best thing in the whole movie. (I consider that to be a friendly warning). Needless to say, I enjoy your blog.

  3. Well, I saw the movie... and I didn't hate it either. I have an extremely high tolerance for sci-fi films, though, so I can certainly see why Southland would be a non-starter for most folks.

  4. Really interesting post.

    Southland Tales was unwatchable to me. I watched a few minutes of it, after a screening of another movie.

    Persepolis I liked, for one reason the story is much like the life of my blog team member Maryam Namazie, except she is a leader of the worker-communist movement in Iran. The main character worried more about her sex life, than revolution.

    Good blog.