Politicizing Cinema: Defining It on the Left | Introduction
In the 1930s, the political left embraced cinema as its own. In claiming dominion over it, leftist writers and film theorists sought to define what cinema should be. Most striking in that regard were the contending viewpoints. The left proved to be as divided over cinema as it was over politics. The two essays comprising this section recount diametrically opposed conceptions of cinema, nonetheless revealing a common conviction that cinema should play a critical role in constructing the society of the future.
The magazine Close Up was launched in 1927, the same year that Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, inaugurating the revolution in sound. Its sister publication, Experimental Cinema, founded three years later, joined it in insisting on the formation of a new world cinema. In the middle of the decade in Spain, anarcho-syndicalists, led by the director and film theorist Mateo Santos, advocated an entirely different conception. Most important for Santos was the creation of a Spanish national cinema. In the case of the little magazines that Louise Kane writes about in “Little Magazines, Postwar Internationalism, and the Construction of World Cinema,” their contributors believed that nationalistic divisions had caused the Great War and should therefore be merged in a world culture where cinema would play a key role. Both magazines therefore shared a commitment to the development of a world cinema that would encourage the emergence of a transnational global culture. While neither magazine could agree on exactly what constituted a world cinema, some aspects of the “global interwar cinema” they sought included a reliance on the director and privileging directorial creativity over other elements of production. The little magazines argued for “non-commercial avant-garde films.” They loathed what they regarded as profit-driven productions from Hollywood with their underlying “imperial agenda.” Rather, they extolled Soviet films and production methods which they regarded as opposed to Hollywood and its lack of experimental artistry.
Within two years of the demise of the little magazines, left-wing film critic Mateo Santos produced a film that provided an entirely different answer to the question of what cinema should be. He advocated for authentic working-class productions. In “Mateo Santos and the Documentary of Occupation: ‘Cine Social’ in the Spanish Anarchist Revolution,” Ameya Tripathi focuses on Santos’s film Reportaje del movimiento revolucienario en Barcelona (1936), “the first [example] in world cinema,” he writes, “where workers film their own revolution as it is happening.” Santos, in contrast to Close Up and Experimental Cinema, has no interest in world cinema. His concern is the creation of a Spanish national cinema that is made by and for the workers, in particular those who support the anarcho-syndicalists who in 1936 controlled Barcelona.
Santos does share with the little magazines a disdain for Hollywood and its commercial film style, but beyond that he does not go. For example, unlike Close Up and Experimental Cinema, he is critical of Soviet cinema and rejects the use of it as an exemplar for a new approach to movie production. Only the French cinéma du peuple, he believes, can serve as a model for the “filmic revolution” in Barcelona that he envisages. That conception in its Spanish guise, like the cinematic experimentation embodied in Santos’s film Reportaje, were all crushed in May 1937 when the anarcho-syndicalists of Barcelona were defeated in the fighting of the Spanish Civil War. Cinematic conceptions on the left from the 1930s nonetheless remain as part of the heritage of international cinema that originated in that turbulent decade.
The Jazz Singer. Directed by Alan Crosland, performances by Al Jolson and May McAvoy, Warner Bros, 1927.
Reportaje del movimiento revolucionario en Barcelona. Directed by Mateo Santos, 1936.