“Sous les paves, la plage!” [Under the paving stones, the beach]

Under the paving stones, the beach - graffiti on a wall in Paris, May 1968
[Ed. note: this post is part of an editorial discussion on “Media and the City in Light of Trump, Brexit, and the Global Far Right.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

This roundtable has provided us with a valuable opportunity to reflect on the complex relationships of cinema, media, and various kinds of lived social space – urban, rural, and suburban (not to mention national, regional, and global). In my post last week, I suggested that one important response by film and media scholars to the methodological challenges posed by the election of Donald Trump and other right-wing populist movements must be a recalibration of the range and variety of our objects of study and a re-examination of the various spatial categories. Other posts have suggested directions in which this activity might be taken: Sabine Haenni in relation to cinema about migrants and refugees; Caitlin Bruce on cinema’s long-standing role in the demonization of the city; Stan Corkin on the structured absence of black urban experience and inner city poverty in US screen media; and Johan Andersson on recent war movies’ apocalyptic blurring of the line between foreign conflicts and US urban crisis.

Los Angeles and Hollywood Today

In my own post last week, I suggested some other ways we might adjust our angle of viewing to better understand the current situation. To those, I would now also add what I see as an urgent need to further examine right-wing political organizing and media financing in Hollywood and Los Angeles. Those are places often characterized by right-wing commentators as cesspits of leftist and liberal bias, but they are also places where, in previous generations, right-wing elements in US politics often thrived (think of the Hays Code, the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the rise of Ronald Reagan). They have now also, at least partly, contributed to the ascent of Trump (as well as White House Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin). Going forward, this requires me to ask if Trump’s victory will or won’t bring renewed pressure on Hollywood multinationals to adjust their product and their target demographics to take more account of conservatives, whom they have supposedly been ignoring until now. How does the fact that Bannon, Mnuchin, and Trump – who are all from the East Coast but have spent good amounts of time in Los Angeles and are associated with its media industries – sit with L.A.’s clear electoral strength for the Democrats and its role as a sanctuary city?

Despite a relative decline in the political power of Hollywood feature films, it certainly remains essential to understand the politics of the moment in what is still one of the world’s leading creative conurbations. For example, what are the politics of RatPac Dune Entertainment and its films? That is the production company owned by Mnuchin, director Brett Ratner, and Australian media mogul James Packer, from which Mnuchin has pledged to divest now that he has been appointed to the Cabinet by President Trump. How will the tension between the apparently liberal majority and conservative minority among Hollywood’s creative personnel play out? What tensions may emerge between its creatives and corporate management? Is there a greater likelihood now of direct interference in the movies by government elements in Washington, D.C.? Johan’s reference to the possible renewed relevance of 1970s conspiracy thrillers reminds me of the Nixon administration’s antipathy to liberal Hollywood and rumors of White House machinations that circulated at the time, such as reports that the FBI monitored Michelangelo Antonioni’s location shooting of Zabriskie Point and that the Justice Department engaged in a campaign to sabotage production of the film, which amounted to an effort at ‘prior restraint’.1Louise Sweeney, “Zabriskie Point Lives”, Show, February 1970, 41-3; Jack Hamilton, “Antonioni’s America”, Look, November 18, 1969, 36-40. There’s no evidence yet that Hollywood’s freedom of expression is due to be curtailed, but at a time of rapid political upheaval it’s surely sensible to watch for any change.

Mass and Non-Mass Media

While these comments pertain mostly to mass entertainment, at the same time I value Sabine’s important reminder in her second post that “small” pictures and small-scale local film cultures, cumulatively, can also offer an important form of resistance to right-wing reaction. After all, Robert Redford founded the Sundance Institute in 1981, the year in which Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as President, and much of the early history of US “indie” cinema (and all of New Black Realism) can be seen as a critique of Reaganism. The L.A. Rebellion, too, was first formed in the crucible of the Nixon era. Likewise, Brendan Kredell and Erica Stein’s second editorial helps us think through the important question of whether or not we should expect any resistant culture to be most effective in mass or non-mass media. I think it needs to be both. If those who want to challenge the far right “stop assuming socially effective media is media that forms broad consensus”, as Erica hypothesized, it seems to me they run the risk of being divided and conquered – at least, if they give up on broad consensus altogether. David James’s Allegories of Cinema offers some crucial lessons here. James applauds the creative and political achievements of minority and underground filmmakers in the 1960s, most of which were urban-oriented, while regretting that sometimes the sheer variety of filmmakers restricted their potential for cooperation, growth, large audiences and production finance, and risked collapse of the era’s mass movements into “a babble of competing idiolects.”2 David James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 166.

Television and Urban Identity

At the same time, I share Brendan’s curiosity about television’s tendency to skew negative in its portrayal of the city, and his desire for “a local TV news broadcast that [is] pro-urban in its worldview.” This may simply be a gap in my knowledge, but it seems to me we need more research into the existing range and future potential of locally-produced, place-specific television that celebrates the city. Indeed, given the heightened tension between the urban and the national at the moment, U.S. and other cities might benefit from increasing their investment in municipal television in general – and, of course, in municipal web-based media as well. And municipal television has an important history, though it has not been comprehensively studied, and some of the best work is not widely known because it was designed and broadcast only for a local market. My current research on Los Angeles in the 1960s, for example, encompasses the ground-breaking L.A. local interest shows Ralph Story’s Los Angeles and Citywatchers, both of which celebrated aspects of the city’s diversity and beauty while often engaging with its controversies and injustices (the former with a wry sense of humor, the latter with a more sociological eye). In this sense, I share other contributors’ concerns that the city is often placed in a bad light by media representation, but I’m also struck by its ability to motivate and inspire.

Two Historical Precedents for the Present Day

This leads me to what may be the most important current question we’re all grappling with. Which previous historical era most resembles our own? Contributions to this roundtable have especially highlighted comparisons between the present, the 1930s, and the end of the 1960s – and similar comparisons have become frequent in the media too. If we were to make a film tomorrow that would begin to express our concerns, would we want it to look like The Spanish Earth (Ivens, 1937) or The Great Dictator (Chaplin, 1940) or more like Ice (Kramer, 1971) or The Parallax View (Pakula, 1974)? I won’t rehearse the historical comparisons in detail, for want of space, though examples of others’ evaluations of them can be found here and here. To my mind, right now, our situation recalls aspects of both eras – the question is where we’re headed.

The 1930s seem to have a special (disconcerting) resonance at this time: in this roundtable alone, Sabine has drawn inspiration from Walter Benjamin, Johan has pointed to Fritz Lang and Siegfried Kracauer, Stan has cited the 1937 founding of ‘critical theory’, and Brendan has called for updating that in a “critical theory of social media”. Reading Johan’s discussion of Lukacs, whose The Historical Novel (1937) argued for realism and class struggle as shaping forces, I recall that, in earlier works such as Soul and Form (1908), Lukacs was not yet a Soviet Marxist but a romantic socialist about to be propelled to the left by the horrors of WWI – a reminder that politics may shift unexpectedly depending on the events that transpire. Stan’s second post, in which he reflects on media-savvy demagogues in the 1930s, reminds me that since then claims of American exceptionalism have mostly been deployed and rehearsed on the assumption of a threat from the left – whether the doctrine is so well-equipped to explain away (to my mind, potentially greater) threats from the right seems an open question. On the other hand, I don’t want to equate right-wing populism with fascism – there are important differences between them, even if one might eventually lead to the other.

Reflecting on the 1930s has prompted me to re-read Walter Benjamin, whose life provides an uncannily timely lesson in the fragility of progressive urban society and the suffering of refugees: forced by Nazism to move from Berlin to Paris in 1933; deprived of his German citizenship and dispossessed of his Berlin property in 1938; interned at Nevers, south of Paris, at the outbreak of war in September the following year. As Michael Jennings has poignantly explained, Benjamin and his fellow internees arrived at Nevers after a long forced march in “filth, cold, and hunger [but] began to organize, soon after their arrival, a full array of activities. These included an unusual diversity of intellectual opportunities. … Benjamin delivered lectures and offered, for a fee, philosophical seminars. The fees were paid by his ‘students’ in the currency of the camp: nails, cigarettes, and buttons.”3Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, volume 4: 1948-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott and others (Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 438.

Walter Benjamin at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, late 1930s, photograph by Gisele Freund

Returned to Paris a few months later, Benjamin wrote to Theodor Adorno, who had moved to New York in 1938. He thanked Adorno for his feedback on his recent essay, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire”, and for writing to him while he had been interned (“You can imagine how important it was to me psychologically, for months on end, in that situation.”)4 Walter Benjamin, “Letter to Theodor W. Adorno on Baudelaire, George, and Hofmannsthal”, May 7, 1940, in Eiland and Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin, 412-23. In June 1940, as the Nazi occupation of Paris began, Benjamin fled a new threat of internment, hurriedly entrusting his papers to Georges Bataille, securing passage to Marseille, and awaiting a decision from the U.S. consulate on his application for entry to America. In August, having secured a U.S. visa, but unable to get an exit visa from the new Vichy French regime, Benjamin opted to walk by a clandestine route over the mountains into Spain, reaching the Spanish border town of Port Bou. Just at the point of salvation, however, he learned he would be turned back to France for probable deportation and chose to end his life with an overdose of morphine.

A New 1968?

Jennings explains compellingly that, even in his bleak final year, Benjamin was driven by his passion for sharing ideas. He wrote: “Every line we succeed in publishing today – given the uncertain future to which we consign it – is a victory wrested from the powers of darkness.”5Quoted in Eiland and Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin, 440, from a letter of January 11, 1940. The story of his final days is heart-breaking, but his writings on cities continue to lift the soul. So it must be fitting for me to end this reflection on a hopeful note. Next year, in 2018, whatever other activities we pursue, all those who hope for a multicultural, egalitarian, and sustainable urban future have a perfect opportunity to express those values by commemorating and celebrating the legacies of 1968. That year was the epicenter of a larger era of progressive and constructive urban protest, a creative upheaval of cities, global in scope, which Benjamin would surely have loved to see. It ought to remind us what progressive mass mobilization can achieve. On the one hand, it unleashed some of the most intensely innovative cinema and media in history – let me just remind you here of New York and Columbia Revolt (New York Newsreel, 1968), Chicago and Medium Cool (Wexler, 1969), Milan and Teorema (Pasolini, 1968), Tokyo and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (Oshima, 1969), Paris and the Cinétracts, Mexico City’s superocheros, and the ‘expanded cinema’ scene first articulated by Gene Youngblood in the Los Angeles Free Press. On the other hand, it re-energized progressive thinking worldwide with regard to the importance of cities and the urban sphere, as the work of Reyner Banham, Michel Foucault, Dolores Hayden, Edward Soja, and Manfredo Tafuri attests (to name just a few). This is not to romanticize the past – ‘1968’ deserves a constructively critical eye. However, recalling it, studying it, and sharing knowledge of it, offers at least a small antidote to pessimism, an opportunity to remember that, even in difficult times, “La beauté est dans la rue” [Beauty is in the street] and “Sous les pavés, la plage” [Under the paving stones, the beach].

Notes   [ + ]

1. Louise Sweeney, “Zabriskie Point Lives”, Show, February 1970, 41-3; Jack Hamilton, “Antonioni’s America”, Look, November 18, 1969, 36-40.
2. David James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 166.
3. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, volume 4: 1948-1940, trans. Edmund Jephcott and others (Cambridge, MA, and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 438.
4. Walter Benjamin, “Letter to Theodor W. Adorno on Baudelaire, George, and Hofmannsthal”, May 7, 1940, in Eiland and Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin, 412-23.
5. Quoted in Eiland and Jennings, eds., Walter Benjamin, 440, from a letter of January 11, 1940.

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