Critical dialogue
Johah who will be 25 in the year 2000

by Richard Kazis and John Hess

from Jump Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 35-36
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1978, 2005

We are reprinting the following excerpts of an exchange of letters between Richard Kazis (who wrote on Walter Benjamin in issue 15) and John Hess, because it brings up a number of issues which are important to us, and especially to our on-going concern to develop a significant radical film criticism in the USA. — The Editors

Letter from Richard Kazis to John Hess

I have been reading JUMP CUT #15, The Last Word section was especially interesting. I'm glad to see such openness--also that it is only Part I. A few reactions to the rest of the issue prompt me to write.

I worry a bit when I see leftist film magazines lately. It is getting to be quite predictable which films will be reviewed and analyzed. JONAH, THE FRONT, HARLAN COUNTY, Wertmuller, and anything closely (or remotely) related to Godard or Brecht. Granted, people like to write about the issues and the films which speak to them forcefully-- either intellectually or emotionally. I am no different. I ran out and wrote an article on JONAH myself. [Socialist Revolution #35, Sept.-Oct., 1977] We do what seems most compelling. We also do what comes easiest.

But, somewhere down the line, that becomes a problem. Yes, it is good that the McCarthy era blacklist is brought to the screen in popular form in THE FRONT. But no, the film's ending is not satisfactory. But yes, the film is "good" enough to support. But no, it doesn't have a clear enough political perspective. And on and on. Back and forth. Until everyone agrees that it is better than Bond but not the film that s/he would make.

The problem is that the writing is all well-argued, helpful and deserving of publication and discussion. But so many times? So many variations on a theme? Three weeks after I finished writing my review of JONAH, I read Todd Gitlin's piece in Film Quarterly [30:3 Spring, 1977] Although we approached the film a little differently, there was not that much difference between the reviews. Wasn't there something else I could have been doing instead?

The reality seems to be this: a glut of intelligent, politically concerned and aware film freaks and writers. We have all turned to cultural criticism, arguing--and rightly, I believe--that it is the tyranny of the dominant ideology over everyday life and thought that frustrates the movement for social change and that must be challenged and unmasked. So, cultural warriors all, we go off in search of the dragon. But we all have a tendency to locate the same soft spots. We sit and write, alone, maybe in pairs. We have shifted from political activity and movement building to the thrill of publication and the excitement of intellectual activity. And, without thinking about it, we create a new generation of left superstars.

An overstatement, obviously, and I haven't made any concrete suggestions yet. So let me correct that. Needless to say, cultural work must continue. Some people are more suited for writing than for organizing. And they should use their skills where they are most effective. But the isolation (and the tendency toward a self-importance which can accompany publication) must be broken. The fragmented and somewhat listless American left cannot afford arm-chair musings and further fragmentation and isolation on the part of some of its strongest supporters.

And, if we are going to write cultural criticism, let's broaden our horizons. Let's write about mass culture films, films which do not necessarily warm our intellectuals' hearts and minds. JUMP CUT'S reviews of LIFEGUARD (#12/ 13), TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (#14), BAD NEWS BEARS (#14 and #15), WHITE LINE FEVER (#9 and #4), etc. are good efforts in the right direction. It is perhaps a more difficult direction, but it is an important one. We do not want to make radical film criticism a closed club of friends playing mental ping-pong. We want to widen the appeal of our work by widening its focus. We must still--even though the sixties are over--try to be relevant. In part, our decisions about topics should reflect which films are popular with Americans at large more than which films are popular in our own small circles. We should understand why certain films are popular, what they are selling and how they sell it, and what that all means in terms of strategies for organizing and political work.

That means getting out of our own circles somewhat, trying to end our isolation in aesthetics. Organizers do the work that is necessary, not just the work that they would like to do. The same should be true of cultural workers.

Having said that, let me engage in some mental ping-pong on JONAH. I think that your dialectical approach--two reviews--is a healthy catalyst to clearer understanding. One always tends to overstate in making an argument. The corrective is necessary.

One major reaction to your response (with Linda Green and Robin Lakes) to the film and to Robert Stam's review: Much of your argument revolves around Tanner's failure to present life as it is for most Swiss workers (and immigrant laborers as well). The characters, true enough, do have the power to make choices that most workers never have. They do search for meaningful lifestyles and do not bear much resemblance to traditional portrayals of the working class. But, one is tempted to ask, so what?

Who is Tanner talking about? And who is he talking to? It seems to me that he has captured the questions and desires and life situations of some groups of workers, of proletarianized intellectuals like ourselves. Why do we enjoy the film? Not just because the characters are optimistic but because they are like us. And there actually are a lot of us, a lot of people who went to college and learned that they could think. But then they learned very quickly that they could not make a living from thinking and certainly not from thinking politically. So, after the freedom and flexibility of four years (or two years) at college, it is back to the realities of making a living. Like us, the characters in JONAH can make certain choices, but the film does show the limits of these choices. And, clearly, those limits are ones of very real political and social repression.

The working class is not a monolith and it would be a grievous error in oversimplification to think that it is. And the working class of the seventies, as Braverman's Labor and Monopoly Capital makes clear, is not the working class of the thirties. Making a film for one segment of the working class might require a very different vocabulary and set of issues than a film for a different segment.

Now all of this gets a bit murky, since hiding behind my difference with your reaction to parts of JONAH is an assumption that artists and intellectuals are producers and that all but the most successful are workers forced, like other workers, to sell commodities on an exploitative market. If we view ourselves as incurable bourgeois (which is also a legitimate reading) then the reaction to Tanner's film and perhaps to our own work will be different.

If one assumes that Tanner is addressing not all Swiss workers but only one segment--and an educated, "initiated" segment at that--then some of the complaints that you raised in your article become less important. The analysis of the film's sexism remains important and powerful, but some of the other complaints about what is left out of the film become less so. Maybe the film is no more than a pep-talk, a reminder--emotional, yes--that a lot remains to be done, but that there can still be joy in the process.
A call to keep on working, not to stop and leave it to the next generation. There is not one kind of film which should be made. Mao spoke of the two line struggle which must go on in cultural work. Before we critique a film, we must know who the film is reaching, and how what it is saying is perceived by those who do see it.

Reply from John Hess to Kazis

I certainly share your worry about left film criticism. We've always felt that the film reviews, which we see as essential, are the weakest part of JC and, in part, for the reasons you mention--predictable movies, predictable analysis. And I certainly also agree that we should cover more B movies. In fact, we have written a number of editorials on this question (#2, #7, #8). But I also think that the problem is more complex and less gloomy than you make it.

The weakness of the reviews represents both the low level of Marxist thought in the USA and also the anti-intellectualism/ anti-culture bias of many radicals and people on the left. It is so strong that we ourselves can easily fall into it, into U.S. pragmatism, as I think you do when you question the value of cultural work in your letter (see editorial, #10/11). By bringing important commercial and independent political films to the Magic Lantern Basement Cinema in Washington, and by helping develop a left criticism in your articles and reviews, you are doing important political work.

JUMP CUT, like your theater, is one effort to raise the level of discussion of Marxism in this country. For many of our readers and most Americans Marxism is a completely foreign way of thinking and seen as "foreign." It's not just the concepts and the strange words, but the materialist and dialectical way of approaching problems that seems very difficult. Thus I see JUMP CUT, Cineaste, Radical America, Socialist Revolution, etc. as important institutions for spreading left culture here. It must happen; historical necessity has produced these magazines just as they are influencing history.
I agree that we should cover more of the popular films, the B movies, and TV too. But we should also cover much better than we do the many political and feminist independent films that come out. In the beginning we advertised that we would give voice to workers, women, gays, lesbians, blacks, chicanos and other minorities. I think that we have done a fair job of covering women's filmmaking and criticism, but we have failed all the rest. Our special section in #16 on male gays is a start, but we've failed to get material by and for lesbians, blacks, chicanos, etc. We've tried and there are obvious reasons why we have got material in the sequence that we have, but we haven't done enough.

As for JONAH, I think our (Robin's, Linda's and mine) criticism was more of the reception of the film than the film itself. The film is a warm, charming, clever, light-weight film about petty-bourgeois young people in search of a more fulfilling lifestyle. If we overlook the sexism and the racism (a little hard to do, don't you think?), the film is not that offensive. It is probably good for liberals to see it. But to call the film a great revolutionary masterpiece or some sort of a model for political filmmaking is a little much. That calls for a closer look at the film's politics--which are sorely lacking.

I agree that Tanner is not addressing himself to the Swiss working class, but rather to the petty bourgeoisie. It's the little entrepreneur against the cold, impersonal corporate Switzerland. But to sneak these people or disaffected U.S. intellectuals into the working class by calling on the idea of proletarianization is to confuse things very badly. It's true, as Braverman demonstrates, that the working class now is not like it was in the 1930s, but that doesn't mean we're all in it. He writes,

"I cannot accept, the arbitrary conception of a 'new working class' that has been developed by some writers during the past decade. According to this conception, the 'new working class' embraces those occupations which serve as the repositories for specialized knowledge in production and administration: engineers, technicians, scientists, lower managerial and administrative aides and experts, teachers, etc." (p. 25)

Now the point is, I think, that most of the people in the film and most of your proletarianized intellectuals could get exactly those kinds of jobs EVEN DURING THIS RECESSION. From a combination of class privilege, lack of family responsibilities, commitment to a non-consumer lifestyle (too often seen as a revolutionary act in itself) and commitment to politics, many of us hobble along on part-time work, unemployment, welfare, etc. But I have known lots of people who in their late 20s and early 30s got real tired of that and have gone back to the mainstream at much higher levels than most working class people ever reach. I don't condemn this necessarily. Much good and important political work has been done by people who have stayed out of the mainstream for ten or more years, often at great personal sacrifice (civil rights movement, anti-war movement, and ongoing in the women's movement). But it is a mistake to call these people working class because they have set aside their privileges for a period of time. When disaffected intellectuals begin to see themselves as working class, they very quickly identify their interests with those of the working class in general. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, this cross-class identification of interests would serve as a good definition of social democracy.

It seems very important to me to see films for what they are and not make them into what we want them to be. I certainly agree that there is not one kind of film or one possible audience. But even if we all could agree that Tanner made JONAH for "an educated, 'initiated' segment" of the Swiss people, this doesn't let him off the hook. In fact, it seems to me that a political film made for a more educated audience should be more complete and complex in its description and analysis of society.