The Front debated

from Jump Cut, no. 14, 1977, p. 8

These are conversations around Michael Rosenthal’s review of The Front, reprinted in this issue of Jump Cut from Common Sense (Newspaper of the Northern California Alliance), Nov., 1976.

Responses: The Front is great!

Michael Rosenthal’s review of THE FRONT sparked some interesting responses which we are reprinting from the Dec.-Jan., 1977, issue of Common Sense.

1. From Stephen Barton

I strongly disagree with the review of THE FRONT in your November issue. It is a fine, enjoyable film, which while it does not present a thorough overall analysis of the political situation of the early fifties, does at least present many of its elements. I think it is great to see the basic formula for Westerns—spineless weakling stands up to the bad guys in the end—used in a political context. This stock plot should not simply be sneered at. It is part of the American democratic tradition, where the common man can rise to the occasion out of the pettiness of daily life, though usually it is applied to reactionary situations.

It was part of the tragedy of many Communists that they had subordinated themselves to a party which in their minds represented the inexorable forces of history. Part of the tragedy of the forties and fifties was the people who were torn between their commitment to a socialist society and to a party which was subservient to Stalin.

I do not believe that THE FRONT contributes to making the “potentially explosive history of the fifties” harmless. It approaches the question of which side are you on at the gut level. It is for future films to better delineate the sides.

2. Fr0m Charles Perkel

I was profoundly disturbed by the review of THE FRONT which appeared in Common Sense recently. I feel that despite its “left” veneer, Michael Rosenthal’s review imitates the clamor of the establishment media that THE FRONT was enough of a “...threat to the foundations of anticommunism” to justify blasting it out of the water.

The main contribution that THE FRONT makes from a “political standpoint” is that it sets the record straight. It is difficult to miss the connection between the bombs that fell over Korea in 1952 and those that fell over Vietnam in 1972.

THE FRONT shows one instance (out of many) in which an ordinary person was capable of extraordinary courage. The fact is that many spoke out and were ruined, and that if there had been more courage among the hypocritical liberals of the entertainment industry, it would have been harder for the witch hunt to succeed.

Michael Rosenthal compares the film to a western melodrama. He claims it is on the level of a third grade pageant. He says it only helps to reformulate history “in a harmless and apolitical fashion.” He says all of this without once backing up his claims with examples from the film.

People I have talked to who experienced the witch hunt, including one of the Hollywood 10, felt THE FRONT said what needed to be said. I will leave it to the infantile arrogance of Michael Rosenthal to disagree with them.

3. Response from Michael Rosenthal

The criticism of my piece, in these letters and elsewhere, advance two basic arguments. 1) THE FRONT opens a wedge toward the understanding of the cold war, and should be treated primarily as a progressive phenomenon. By failing to do so, I am allying with the bourgeois reviewers who trashed the film. 2) The use of conventional plot devices is a positive thing in helping the film’s message reach the mass audience.

The first point involves questions of tactics, concerning both filmmaking and film criticism, that I have rarely seen rigorously discussed. Consider, for example, the Hollywood anti-racist film, from HOME OF THE BRAVE (1949) to THE DEFIANT ONES (1958). When they were made, they could legitimately be said to have “opened a wedge” of some kind. Now they are generally seen to be patronizingly racist in their treatments and mawkishly insincere in their resolution. Can these pictures meaningfully be considered “progressive” then and “racist” now? I do not have a clearly worked out position on this. But it is evident that some consideration must be given to the treatment of a theme, and not merely its presence.

This brings us to the second argument. I probably should not have drawn my example from the western, since this gave the impression, despite my demurral, that I opposed the use of “conventional plot structures” in general. What I wanted to get at was the film’s moralism—its posing of social and historical conflicts in abstractly moral terms. Certainly many people took courageous and moral stands. But they did so as a product of, as well as actors in, a specific historical process, not as exemplars of an abstract struggle between “commitment” and “cowardice.”

The moralistic treatment of a theme I am discussing here is not one the left can turn to its own ends. It is most pervasive, in fact, in the “socially uplifting” and not very popular products of cold-war liberalism. This treatment rests on an ideological foundation which is essentially religious. It presents a universe which is the stage (against shifting backdrops) of an eternal division between good and evil, between grand souls with noble ideals and lesser souls limited to what Barton calls “the pettiness of everyday life” above which the hero of THE FRONT manages to rise.

This moralism actually suppresses concrete historical and political factors, by excluding them from the center of dramatic interest. Here is a film that “sets the record straight” on a nationwide anti-communist campaign, but for all we can tell Communists were believers in the Vitamin C cure for the common cold while anti-Communists brutally favored aspirin. When all the politics are removed from a film about anti-communism what is left? A film about an anti-anything crusade, about the contest between “conformity” and “individual pluck.”

Such a war of moral categories—applied to rather than drawn from the material context—can and has been used effectively to support just about anything. Elia Kazan, one of those who named names in the Congressional inquisition, made ON THE WATERFRONT to celebrate the moral splendor of informing. Recently, critic Molly Haskell described her trip to Iran to legitimate the Shah’s “feminist film forum” as a courageous defiance of the “totalitarian” dictates of “the knee-jerk left” (Village Voice, 6/21/76) In each case, abstract moralism is enlisted to sanctify a position which might otherwise be abhorrent to the “common man” my critics cite. The question is whether it is proper or possible to outmaneuver the dominant ideology on its mystical flank.

I am aware that many people who struggled and suffered in the fifties feel personally vindicated by this film, and that they have had more experience than I have in both politics and film. Nevertheless, their opinions are not final. The film was not (or should not have been) made for them, but for an audience which has never had the opportunity to come to terms with the meaning or lasting effects of the cold war. The central issue, it seems to me, is whether THE FRONT provides this audience with any of the tools it needs to do so, or whether it merely relocates the signs that tell the audience whom to cheer and whom to boo.