Whatever happened to
Marxist film theory?

review by Matthew Ellis

Mike Wayne, Marxism Goes to the Movies (New York, Routledge: 2000. $44.95, paper; $40.45, e-book. ISBN 9781138677876. 228 Pages

Anna Kornbluh, Marxist Film Theory and Fight Club. New York, Bloomsbury: 2019. $20.65, paper; $16.52, e-book. ISBN 9781501347306.

By now it is all but passé to note there has been something like a return to Marx in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. New periodicals with an explicitly socialist editorial line have popped up on either side of the Atlantic, staffed by Millennials saddled with student loan debt and a general antipathy towards the promises of the End of History capitalism they were born into. Anti-capitalist social movements from Occupy to Black Lives Matter have emerged alongside the surprisingly popular electoral campaigns of Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, all of which were described in the bourgeois press as either disorganized tantrums or orchestrated plans to roll out the guillotines depending on how best to stop them at any given moment.[1] [open endnotes in new window] During this time, the currency of many social media networks began to revolve around popularized sentiments straight out of Marx’s Grundrisse, or in a particularly Twitterfied form, memes imagining a “Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism” culled from Marxist science fiction literature and the work of Aaron Bastani.[2] There seems to be a real growing dissatisfaction with the status quo on behalf of a generation of young leftists without a living memory of the Cold War—a break from what Mark Fisher saw as a “capitalist realism” organizing the entire horizon of the thinkable in a generation who had known no other alternative.[3] Ideas which had a mere decade earlier been relegated as extreme now have the currency of celebrity. Marx is not only no longer an unsayable name—he is cool again.

In recognition of this renewed engagement with Marx, Mike Wayne and Anna Kornbluh offer two books that begin from the prescient realization that one might no longer need to argue why reading or historicizing with Marx is important. Wayne’s Marxism Goes to the Movies (London: Routledge, 2020) and Kornbluh’s Marxist Film Theory and Fight Club (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019) both return us analytical frameworks that had been declared long obsolete during the 1990s, when communism was on the retreat worldwide, and dreams of a digital utopia for the global spread of liberal democracy seemed unstoppable—even to critics on the left. Wayne and Kornbluh’s accessible primers on Marxist film theory are written with educators of film and media studies in mind in this moment. This is all the more important so as to ensure the next wave of Marxist thought does not run into two of the constitutive problems we faced in the 2010s: a lack of popular historical and economic education of and within the sphere of cultural production, and careful attention to the methods of reading outlined within the Marxist tradition.

Wayne and Kornbluh offer what I might argue are two distinct yet necessarily complementary methods for incorporating explicitly Marxist analyses into a film and media studies curriculum. Wayne pays careful attention to the history of twentieth-century Marxist thought and its entanglements with the field of film and media studies, as well as the need to understand the distribution of power and labor within the media industries that are increasingly consolidating back into a monopoly stage of capitalist organization. Kornbluh reasserts the necessity of ideology critique and the symptomatic reading of popular culture at a time when capitalists themselves are appropriating calls for racial and sexual justice in their marketing strategies. Both texts are addressed to these respective problems through their organization. Wayne  offers a chapter-by-chapter conceptual breakdown useful for a survey course; Kornbluh  provides an exemplary close reading of a particular film (Fight Club) suited well to a course more focused on textual analysis.

What Wayne and Kornbluh both understand is that this return to Marxism within our current moment provides scholars with an opportunity to revisit the question of what happened to Marxist film theory. This is a chance not merely to engage in debates for the already initiated (or the always already skeptical) in academic journals, but for new readers hungry for tools to interrogate an unfolding present. Just as Kornbluh points to Marxism’s “insistence that philosophy is always invested in its own social situation,” these texts crucially situate themselves within our own present, offering overlapping yet at times contrasting genealogies of the history and development of Marxist film theory in an attempt to situate how it might be put to use in film and media studies moving forward (Kornbluh 1). And yet, as we will come to see, these genealogies amount to two distinctly different stories about Marxist film theory, what happened to it in the academy, where and how it went wrong (or was wronged), and what remains its potential for our political, historical, and intellectual present.

In what follows, I will outline the distinction between Wayne and Kornbluh’s historical accounts while asking how we might place their own work within the history of Marxist film theory. I then turn to a brief reading of the role of aesthetic and formal analysis utilized by each text. If one can suggest the legacy of Marxist film theory offers emancipatory potential for analyzing not only popular cinema but new media platforms such as TikTok, the question of what happened to Marxist film theory is just as salient as the question of what Marxist film theory can actually do in 2022. But it is this latter question, I argue, that is ultimately the most important for thinking through how one might use these two texts moving forward . And addressing this question demands not so much a doctrinaire commitment to this or that Marxist tendency, but rather the care to note the way our present is shaped by the past and our conceptions of it.

The books

Organized thematically (and somewhat chronologically), Mike Wayne’s Marxism Goes to the Movies is structured through eight chapters focusing on different aspects of how one might begin thinking through and alongside the Marxist tradition. This schema, I imagine, would be quite useful for students awash in what otherwise might appear to be two hundred years of abstract arguments. Beginning with a chapter on Marx and the dialectical method (1), Wayne then recounts the history of canonical Marxist entanglements with film and media studies in the twentieth (2) before moving to a chapter on methodology (3) which travels out of the Western Marxist tradition into a call for the importance of political economy alongside the legacy of Cultural Studies in the British tradition. Throughout the remaining chapters, Production (4), Form (5), Ideology (6), Realism (7), and finally Culture (8), Wayne peppers his text with brief readings and synopses of films to help him articulate, for instance, how Children of Men (2006, Alfonso Cuarón), Atomic Blonde (2017, David Leitch), and the documentary Capitalism: A Love Story (Michael Moore, 2009) operate formally through different “realist” logics despite being quite different films in nearly every regard. This style of analysis seems readily teachable. And while the details can begin to accumulate rapidly even for the already initiated—206 pages of a proposed metahistorical account on method does add up—the text can clearly be chopped up into sections, perhaps week by week, in and out of order to introduce students to the discrete concepts Wayne unpacks.

Much of the story Wayne tells about Marxism and film studies speaks to his grounding within a British Marxist tradition. At times, he goes to great lengths to distinguish himself from what he suggests are the “excesses” of the post-Althusserian theoretical turn. In Wayne’s account of the development of Marxist film theory, a clean-ish line can be retroactively drawn from Gramsci through a briefly confused interregnum of psychoanalytically-inflected Marxist theory dominated by Althusser . Marxist theory finally finds stable footing in the late 1970s with the re-emergence of political economy’s attention to the material conditions of a film’s industrial production, and cultural studies’ insistence on centering the study of audience reception versus the ‘ideal subject’ of theory associated with the journal Screen in the 1970s (Wayne 58-70). Wayne’s account of the discipline makes an important intervention in a field that cannot afford to draw lines between Marxist approaches, whether one feels their theoretical abstractions are easily intelligible to the lay reader or the inverse. At a time when corporate monopolies are expanding at a rate not seen in the film industry since the 1930s (or ever), questions of labor and of the creative destruction wrought by the turn to streaming must be at the forefront of any Marxist analysis of film and media industries. Wayne’s insistence on the explanatory power afforded to Marxist film theory by a return to the economic and material conditions by which films are made is crucial for Marxist film theorists operating today in a moment of industrial transition, financial upheavals, and the increasing precarity of film labor in the global cinema industry.

At times Wayne can lean heavily on a critique of capital-T Theory; arguably, he oversimplifies the way in which theory is not ultimately a mere classroom obfuscation. Theory itself has become something like a mode of cultural capital in parts of the online left—from bot accounts tweeting phrases from canonical texts to the use of social media to self-organize reading groups outside the academy for members of organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America. It seems to me the problem is less Theory itself and more that a belief in Theory’s inherently obfuscatory nature. Such a belief is a stumbling block to understanding how young Marxists are using theory to make sense of their changing world either within the academy or without—to say very little of the way in which the popular leftist publishing industry is increasingly staffed by precariously underemployed adjuncts with PhDs who are by nature of necessity bringing their analyses out of the classroom and online. Wayne notes of Althusser that

“Marx’s base-superstructure model would alert us to the fact that Marxism’s entry into academia would be difficult and problematic” (52-53).

Few would disagree that Althusser offers anything like a ready-to-go method for decoding ideology in dominant cultural (or institutional) practices without the use of heavy-handed jargon. But it seems clear that the larger problem of access has less to do with discourse and more with the commodification of higher education and the marketing of Theory as inherently epiphenomenal. Perhaps this institutional approach could tell us a more robust story of the decline of 1970s film theory than one that leans into the nature of its problematic abstraction. [10]

Wayne's institutional approach could also help sidestep a critique of 1970s film theory that has found purchase in some corners of the discipline over the past few decades. One such case can be found in David Bordwell and Noël Carroll's edited collection, Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996), which took as its target the Lacanian film theory of Joan Copjec, among others (footnote to citation: David Bordwell and Noël Carroll, eds. Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. Approaches such as these critiqued scholars of 1970s film theory for their elitism and reliance on jargon, for substituting obfuscation for evidence that they often argued could not be found in the films themselves. But to rely on this account for the decline of Marxist film theory since the end of the 1970s (to say little of the incorporation of many theorists into institutionalized film studies departments during the same period) runs the risk of ignoring the widespread intellectual heterogeneity of many of the moment's theorists.

Nevertheless, finding a way to thread the needle between abstraction and materiality remains a worthwhile pursuit. Just as U.S. scholars have found (and will continue to need to find) new strategies for keeping left intellectual traditions alive in spite of red-scare style attacks on the academy, Wayne’s account illuminates this story for the survival of Marxist film theory that runs counter to many traditions within the U.S. academy. In this sense, Wayne’s account of the Birmingham School’s arrival in the history of Marxist film theory suggests a necessary corrective to the excesses of the 1970s moment in this tradition, proposing that the burgeoning Marxist film theorist today must situate its address not merely within the realm of textual analysis, but instead, must be prepared to ask questions about the consequences of corporate reorganization and mergers since the 1980s (60). This, I argue, makes this text an incredibly useful analytic framework for providing students with tools for understanding cinema not merely as just another industry in a media-saturated environment, but rather as a mode of production itself . Cinema needs to be understood through Marxist economics and not as a site for the production of liberal subjectivity which so often leads to the cooptation of empty calls for diversity in front of the camera (and not behind). In this sense, Wayne’s text provides one of the most concise and clear solutions to the problem of historical and economic education for media analysis in the classroom. The text could, I argue, be a welcome addition to the necessary work that film and media educators have in front of us for the next decade.