Political Interests and Motivations in Cinema, by Alexander Miller
Politics have been a part of movies since their inception. Essential film techniques were born from the silent era of Soviet propaganda and DW Griffith’s controversial epic Birth of a Nation is still profoundly important in the overall creation of modern movie structure. Throughout the years some American directors flirt with politically relevant content; others take a forward approach and use film as a means to uncover or expose culturally relevant issues. The motivating factor with American filmmakers feels like an interest, opposed to the trenchant devotion you see from European and Asian directors regarding politics.
American directors who are frequently cited as political (Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, Sidney Lumet) center on a social/political platform. However, they more often than not veer into more traditional dramatic structure. Not that there’s anything wrong with expanding one’s creative scope, but the passion that comes from a directors idealism is so distinctive and compelling their later work tends to pale in comparison. It’s important to look at the dividing line; that is directors whose work shows an interest in politics opposed to directors whose work is motivated by their political ideals.
The case with many American directors is that they seem to delve in and out of the subject; turning out films that reflect current sociopolitical concerns only to return to more traditional, accessible fare. One director of interest is Oliver Stone; Stone infiltrated American sensibilities with his jarring recreation of Richard Boyle’s coverage of the Salvadoran Civil War in his film Salvador. Followed by his equally compelling more personal Platoon in 1986, Stone’s autobiographical dramatization proved that intelligent and accurate historical recollections of America’s (not so flattering) involvement in South America and Vietnam could succeed in Hollywood. Stone’s pragmatism was partially consistent with Born on the Fourth of July, JFK, and Nixon, however, his later work, (political or otherwise) lacks the incendiary spark that set screens ablaze with his earlier output, Stone has shown us that his political ambitions are still present with his documentary work. His films may vary in quality but his commitment to his subjects indicates that he is politically motivated. Stone’s oeuvre offers a duality not frequently associated with very many directors, political or otherwise.
Sidney Lumet is the creator of notable titles of political or social relevance. Lumet’s somewhat traditionalist approach to issues such as the justice system in 12 Angry Men, the Cold War in Fail-Safe and in his more infamous (if on the nose) media satire Network enabled him to function in the studio era and flourish in the new Hollywood without drawing too much attention to his liberal tendencies. A reciprocating relationship with commercially friendly films, (a pattern not uncommon with American directors) it would be safe to say that he is a safe traveling, politically motivated auteur. Ironically, American directors (like Lumet, Preminger, and Pakula) operate in an allegedly democratic state that practices free speech. However, they have to self-censor their career choices to maintain commercial relevance.
Otto Preminger’s later career exhibited a capability to execute taboo subjects in films like The Man with the Golden Arm, Anatomy of a Murder and Advise and Consent. Stanley Kubrick is an interesting case; his percussive anti-establishment tone is evident in his sobering anti-war film(s) Paths of Glory, and the disarmingly hilarious Dr. Strangelove. A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket aim for the same impact, but his sense of style was so decisive that it would appeal to any subject he had chosen, political or not. Kubrick’s stylistic emphasis took precedence over tonal punctuation, making him more interested in politics than motivated by them.
The evocative work that accompanied the New Hollywood era broadened public awareness of (at the time) current issues, yielding trenchant and subversive films. Notable works from Alan Pakula include his assassination thriller The Parallax View, and the penetrating expose of Watergate in All the President’s Men. Pakula’s elaborate political thrillers are high ranking because of his strength as a director; unfortunately, his following filmography distanced itself from more subversive stories.
Altman’s irreverent MASH redefined political satire and his anti-establishment attitude towards, well, just about everything is what places him on both sides of the politically motivated and politically interested fence. While so much can be said for a handful of idiosyncratic directors like Altman and Stone there are some directors whose utilization of film is for the purpose of their political standing.
Outside of America, filmmakers who have similar reputations tend to show more commitment to their work, which is consistent throughout their careers.
The response to WWII from Italian directors was tremendous and neorealism captured this despair entirely. Where De Sica and Fellini took off into their separate careers, Francesco Rosi and Roberto Rossellini did not. Rossellini’s rough-hewn War Trilogy (Open City, Germany Year Zero, and Paisan) put him on the map in the neo-realist movement but his politically incisive films continued throughout his career. Even his later English language features with Ingrid Bergman maintained a stalwart agenda.
After the great Holocaust film Kapò, Gillo Pontecorvo made one of the most taut and urgent political dramas of all time, The Battle of Algiers. Pontecorvo’s raw execution orders and commands all off the accolades it deserves as it is one of the most influential political movies ever made. In his next movie, Burn!, about William Walker’s failed Nicaraguan campaign (retitled as the fictional island of Queimada), Marlon Brando delivers what he considers some of his finest work. The film isn’t as compelling as The Battle of Algiers it retains the defiant tone that was consistent throughout the rebellious auteur’s career.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, a dedicated Marxist whose neo-realist depiction of Christ in The Gospel According to St. Matthew is from the neo-realist school of thought; unembellished, rebellious and driven by idealism. While his unrelentingly scatological Salo is the subject of controversy, his flagrant anti-fascist allegory is hard to ignore, if sensationalistic and unpleasant.
Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s career consists mainly of war stories and historical recreations of historical events. His most well-known films, aptly dubbed “Wajda’s War Trilogy,” A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds, are praiseworthy and his subsequent records of historical allegories are not limited to just Polish history. His 1983 film Danton, a restrained look at the final days of the titular figure’s life in the French Revolution, is a superlative artistic piece of political filmmaking.
Many great directors emerged from Japan’s postwar years; the most outspoken of them is likely Nagisa Oshima. Brimming with enough wit and cynicism to breach manner of Japanese cinema Oshima left no stone unturned. His highly sexually and politically charged films transcended contemporary to period melodramas using modern social issues and the overall oppression of Japanese culture, and government as a basis for their storylines. In his 1969 film Boy (based on real events), parents use their child to feign injury to extort money from motorists. Death by Hanging is a diversely satirical look at Japanese treatment of the Korean population, bureaucratic incompetence, and capital punishment. Samurai machismo is deflated by homosexuality in his final film Taboo (aka Gohatto), and his (mostly) English language film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence is a classic anti-war fable. Frequently cited as “The Godard of the East” and vice versa the two idiosyncratic directors share a lot in common, however there is only one Godard.
While Godard had already made a name for himself with his nouvelle vague classic Breathless, his politically motivated titles began in 1963 with his controversial film about the Algerian struggle, Le Petit Soldat. Godard would veer in and out of various genre’s but throughout his career Godard’s anarchistic, assaultive and unembellished style of filmmaking shows not only he is a dedicated Marxist, but his refusal to conform to a traditional formula.
Another filmmaker of interest is the overlooked and staunchly political Yilmaz Güney. Güney’s political dedication doesn’t need interpretation seeing as he directed a handful of his films from prison; his first sentence – for harboring anarchists, after which he murdered a judge – is when he wrote some of his most successful work. Instructed from incarceration, Yol paints society (both Turkish and French, where he was eventually exiled) as a hostile and relentless backdrop where the lower class struggles to exist.
Deciding what makes a politically motivated director seems to lie in their nationality and cultural influence. Throughout Asia and Europe narrative structure underwent a sea change through a heavy use of propaganda, which helped shape and sculpt many technical and narrative devices. Secondarily politically reflective films spawn from those whose experience is developed in times of great upheaval. The French New Wave, Italian neorealism, Japanese New Wave, even Turkish cinema flourished in the years following WWII. While it may seem reductive or simplistic just to state that WWII is the leading influence in a country’s film movement, many sign point in that direction. However, if you account for the role propaganda played, and aspiring directors seeing cinema as a tool instead of just a device for art and entertainment, it’s easy to understand why this pattern has taken the shape that it has.
Political films are hard to perform. You can easily aggrandize your subject and appear preachy. Demonize a figure and your film is one-sided. Approach something too objectively and you’re accused of not caring. Events can be glamorized, deglamorized, or even glorify violence or prejudice. At the end of the day, political films are a matter of perspective and experience. It’s impossible to understand truly or determine what motivates certain directors while others wear their sympathies on their sleeves.