When sound was introduced to the cinema in 1927 most people in the industry regarded it as a mere novelty, the appeal of which would soon wear off. Michael Powell recalls that Alfred Hitchcock was alone among those he knew in seeing that the talkies were here to stay. This attitude was not simply resistance to change or contempt for the giddy tastes of the general public. Serious film-makers felt that sound would reduce the artistic potential of the young medium: Charlie Chaplin, for instance, did not make a sound film until 1940. While, as Cnut demonstrated, it might be fruitless to attempt to order back the incoming tide, this does not mean that they were wrong. Though only a few decades old, cinema was beginning to reach a level of sophistication and artistic expression which made it the seventh art. Contemporary with The Jazz Singer were the exhilarating expressionism of FW Murnau’s Sunrise and the austere formalism of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, two films which rank as high as the best films of the eighty or so years since. Sound did reduce Hollywood cinema to a series of talking heads or brash musicals and it was not until Orson Welles that a really visual art form re-emerged. In part this was due to the fact that dialogue made story-telling easier so less visual imagination was required and in part due to the restrictions of recording sound. It was not possible for some time to use the fabulously mobile camera that Murnau exploited to such great effect and many films became static and what we would now think of as ‘televisual’.
One of Hollywood’s more appealing habits is self-mythologisation. The genre of movies-about-movies is surprisingly rich, ranging from the romance of The Barefoot Contessa to the satire of The Player. Probably the two greatest films of the genre, Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain are concerned with the arrival of sound and the disruption it caused to the industry. The former is distinctly ambivalent in its attitude while the latter celebrates progress whole-heartedly. Michel Hazanavicius’ film, The Artist, fits into this sub-genre perfectly with the unusual distinction of being a silent film about the arrival of sound. This gives the film an odd sense of being out of time, as though it were predicting the future, rather like a baroque opera about World War One.
As a pastiche (in the non-pejorative sense) The Artist is near perfect. There is barely a frame in the film which would not pass for the genuine article. The sets, costumes, hairstyles etc are entirely convincing and even the dog seems to belong to a breed reserved for black and white movies. If anything gives the game away it is that The Artist is too good. For one thing the film is not covered in scratches and there are no frames missing. Inter-titles are used much more sparingly than in many silent movies, which often grind to a halt during dialogue scenes and seem to anticipate an audience with the reading speed of a six-year old. The editing is much sharper and so the scenes flow more smoothly. The performances are ideally pitched between an expressive mime and the more naturalistic style we expect today. Acting techniques have changed as much as film grammar in the decades since the silent era and it is to the credit of Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo that they are able to play to both eras, as it were. The film avoids the more overt and clichéd symbolism of the time while retaining enough to convince. The score, likewise, maintains a balance between brashness and effectiveness.
What marks The Artist apart from Sunset Boulevard and Singin’ in the Rain is that it depicts the coming of sound as a problem for a male star rather than a female one (Norma Desmond and Lina Lamont in those films). In fact it sets up a series of oppositions between male and female, silence and sound (or speech), past and future which the protagonists must negotiate. As the title implies, The Artist is about an actor who has too high an opinion of himself and is accustomed to his male privilege. His fall from prominence and the concurrent rise of Peppy threatens his sense of identity as a man. Alone in his dressing room, Peppy wears his costume in a scene which prefigures her buying his effects at auction. The earlier scene is sweet and funny but the scene in which Valentin discovers his possessions in her mansion most resembles a role-reversal of Bluebeard and prompts his great crisis. Valentin has found that his identity has been reduced to the shadow thrown on a screen by the light of an empty projector. It is only by accepting the help and love of a woman, renouncing an identity based on male superiority and splendid isolation and entering a relationship in which he is not dominant that our hero can move into the future. And it is through music and dance that this can be achieved. The one transcends speech and the other (at least traditionally) is an activity which requires cooperation between the sexes. Seeing the talkies as female is quite accurate because women were the ones who gained most from the arrival of sound. The 1930s were the golden age of romantic comedy in Hollywood. The screwball heroines like Rosalind Russell, Ginger Rogers and, most notably, Katharine Hepburn were witty, wordy, wise and effortlessly the equals of their male counterparts. It is in these films that Hollywood has come closest to portraying anything close to gender equality.
It is, however, its formal qualities that make The Artist outstanding. By being denied sound the film relies on visual wit and flair to tell its story. It is a corrective to those who mistake being cinematic for reliance on panoramic landscapes or special effects and a reminder that widescreen is a most unsatisfactory and inhuman ratio in which to film. Lastly, the surprising success of the film reminds us of one very important thing which was lost with the invention of sound. Silent cinema was a universal medium. It effortlessly transcended linguistic and cultural barriers and helped to make the world smaller. Charlie Chaplin achieved a level of fame far beyond the hopes even of Bollywood stars today for precisely this reason. With sound the barriers returned and cinema lost its potential to unite the world. Is it a coincidence that the arrival of sound was followed so swiftly by the rise of fascism in Europe? The Artist is a reminder that, however much it may be used to warmonger, cinema can still be a unifying force.
It has become clear to everyone except the professional political class that things cannot go on this way. As the world economy limps from crisis to crisis and world leaders gather to discuss the best way to maintain their positions of power, occupations are spreading around the world and gathering support from, not only the people, but also intellectuals, artists, economists and even religious organisations. The magnificent response of the people of Oakland, California to the savage suppression of democratic rights by the local authorities is one clear sign that the people have had enough. We have reached the bizarre position where only politicians believe that the rich should not pay more tax. Led by Warren Buffet, many of the wealthiest people in the world have expressed support for more progressive taxation. While Republicans vying for the Presidential nomination argue about whether an electrified fence or two fences would better protect the Mexican border the fact is that people are actually leaving the US because Mexico currently offers more opportunities.
The most important fact is that the neo-liberal experiment of the last few decades, what one might call the Great Leap Backward, has failed. In fact this project must be considered to constitute as great a crime against humanity as Stalin’s or Mao’s. Like Stalin and Mao the Washington Consensus argued that ends justified means and that present suffering was necessary to bring about a future paradise. The victims of neo-liberalism are spread around the globe and therefore harder to quantify but by effectively enslaving the developing world with debt, stealing natural resources, refusing medicine and backing violent psychopaths such as Pinochet to quash democracy, the West and the US in particular have damaged the world in a way which will take generations to heal. The best defence of Thatcher, Reagan and the others who supported this policy is folly. Either they were too stupid to realise that the results of deregulation and the forced opening of developing markets would be disastrous or they acted with full awareness of the consequences. Given Reagan’s actions in Central America the latter interpretation is not excessively cynical. Since the end of colonialism proper capitalism has allowed the West to continue plundering the former colonies with the added twist that through debt the exploited now pay their exploiters for the privilege. In the East the rise of China has exploded the myth that capitalism and democracy go together. A pessimist might suggest that without a radical break our future can be seen in China today. Democracy in the West has become less accountable and states have been accruing the powers of tyranny to themselves, possibly in compensation for the fact that the overbearing influence of the financial markets has left them with little power over anything else.
In economic terms the measure of capitalism’s failure is the growth of inequality. The gap between the global rich and poor has increased over the last few decades. Wealth does not ‘trickle down’, on the contrary it is siphoned up. The poor of the world have been aware of this for years but it was inevitable that the same process should also occur in the rich nations themselves. This inequality has become very apparent in the US and the UK and the political class of neither country has any plan to reverse it. We should bear in mind the importance of inequality. There is good reason to believe that financial inequality is one of the biggest causes of a whole range of social problems. There is for instance, a greater correlation between inequality and violence than between poverty and violence. More equal societies score better in measures of health, education, etc. It can thus be seen that inequality is bad not only for abstract reasons of justice but for sound economic reasons. High crime rates are bad for the economy and expensive to the state. The question is thus, how do we create societies which are more equal and therefore, not only more just, more happy, more democratic, but also better functioning.
It seems to me that there are three options or courses we might follow. Two of these are essentially utopian, though as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out, the real utopians today are those who believe that the current system can continue. The safe course must be a move toward greater regulation, more state intervention, more progressive taxation, mixed economies, etc. This can be combined with serious banking and democratic reform, wiping out third world debt, allowing developing nations to nationalise their own resources and raise import tariffs to protect their economies while they develop. A serious crackdown on worldwide tax evasion could raise enough money to seriously address the problems of world poverty and disease. At the same time real things could be done to protect the environment from the depredations of the market and begin a move toward some form of sustainable economy. This is more or less the old social democratic agenda, long since abandoned by many of the left parties in Europe. The great advantage of this course is that we already know that it can work and, while doubtless angering those who have grown rich by pillaging the planet, it could be achieved without violent revolution.
The first of the utopian options is directly opposed to the previous course, i.e. the genuinely free market. The most likeable of the proponents of this course is US Congressman Ron Paul who always reminds me of Tigger. (And it takes a Tiggerish enthusiasm to maintain his principles and his sanity while forced to debate with idiots in front of a crowd literally baying for blood.) The argument is that the world’s problems are caused by excessive regulation and interference. The opening of developing world markets was not the problem, it was the fact that the US hypocritically maintained its government subsidies and other forms of protectionism while insisting on the right to flood foreign markets with cheap goods. If the free market were only allowed to operate properly then a fair society could be achieved. Whether this is true or not, it is important to bear in mind that this vision is utopian. A genuinely free market of the kind Adam Smith envisaged has never existed so we have no historical evidence that it would work. Free marketeers are rather like Trotskyites in this respect. If one claims that capitalism/communism has been shown not to work they both reply that they have never been properly tried. The Soviet Union did not represent real communism for the one and neo-liberalism does not represent real capitalism for the other. The prospect of an unregulated free market also begs the question, what of democracy? It seems to me that we would have to give up many cherished notions about representative government if this course were to be followed.
What neither of the options above address is capitalism itself. What if Marx was right? Thus, the third course would be to do away with capitalism altogether. To say that capitalism is the problem is not to deny the power, dynamism and innovation of the market. In fact the very strengths of capitalism may be the problem as they threaten to overpower us. It is worth bearing in mind that among the most recent innovations of capital were those very financial instruments that precipitated the banking crisis. If Marx was right, or if the problem is money itself or our attachment to the idea of private property, then there is no point in trying to create a ‘capitalism with a human face’. It is quite possible that the power of the market cannot be tamed and that any solution that does not address this is no solution at all. Finding and building a viable alternative would represent one of the greatest challenges humanity has faced and a huge risk. I can see no way that capitalism could be ended without violent revolution taking place in most of the developed world so it seems only fair that those who propose it should be prepared to accept that consequence. And this raises the biggest question of all: what should replace it? There are many visions competing for attention in this regard and they all have passionate advocates. I do not intend to discuss them all here but would simply say that if capitalism is the problem then ‘what comes next?’ is the most important question of our time.
It is worth bearing in mind, however, the truth, unpalatable particularly to the young and idealistic, that the fact that there is a problem does not mean that there is a solution. It may not be possible to create a society that lives up to our ideals of justice and liberty. There is, in fact, no good reason to think that we should. This must not be cause for defeatism, however. It is clear that we can do better than this and if we can’t then we don’t deserve to survive.
On Saturday afternoon Occupy London expanded their protest to a second camp in Finsbury Square. While the media have been suggesting (hoping) that the closure of St Paul’s Cathedral signalled the end of the occupation, the opposite is true. The number of occupiers has grown and their resolve has remained firm. Whether or not this will lead to any real change remains unknown but we can be optimistic that the protest will not end to suit the convenience of broadcasters’ news-cycles or the cathedral’s accountants.
The only criticism of the protest which is not simply the spluttering incomprehension of the 1% that any of the little people should dare to complain, is the one that they have no ideas. Of course, anyone who has had any contact with the camp knows that, quite to the contrary, there are far too many ideas. All thinking people know that the current government’s programme of cuts is bad for the economy and only serving to continue the recession. One is left to consider that either Cameron, Osborne, etc are pursuing a deliberately vindictive policy aimed at punishing the vulnerable, the poor and the under-age while lining their own pockets and those of their cronies in ‘Millionaire’s Row’ (as Dennis Skinner describes the front bench) or they actually believe that they are acting in our interests which qualifies them as grossly incompetent (if not actually insane) and unfit to run a stall at a church fete let alone our national economy. As such it is no surprise that the protesters oppose, as all rational people must, the austerity agenda. Beyond this, however, one finds expressed a dizzying range of ideas for reforming the tax system, the financial sector and the banks. It is precisely this wealth of ideas and the movement’s commitment to a fully democratic process which has meant that a workable manifesto has yet to emerge. It is a matter of some urgency that a coherent policy should appear and that, finally, a popular left movement should begin to take shape.
One reason for optimism is that the movement is driven by young people, people who do not associate radical politics with interminable dry discussions about Marxist interpretation, power struggles in trade unions or vicious infighting between Stalinists and Trotskyites. (I overheard an older union activist today express his approval of the new movement’s open debating process as compared to meetings of the old left.) The older heads in the occupy movement are mainly of the generation that grew up during the anti-capitalist protests of the late 1990s. Somebody recently was asking where this new movement had sprung from but he/she had clearly forgotten the May Day protests, Reclaim the Streets and even the peace camp in Parliament Square of just over a year ago. Like everything that seems new, the occupy movement has roots in the past and it is worth bearing this in mind if you hear anyone say ‘where were they when the economy was doing well and capitalism was working?’ (It would also be worth pointing out that the question rests on a false premise.)
The most common ‘criticism’ of the protest comes in the trusty form of the ad hominem attack (first refuge of the clueless). I would simply point out that there are people at the camp who do have jobs and that it is possible for somebody to do a day’s work and sleep in a tent outside St Paul’s. What worries me is the hostility one finds expressed. Why should a peaceful protest make so many people so angry? Many people seem desperate to find reasons to dismiss or ignore the protest and I witnessed today a man white with fury at the idea that anyone should dare to say ‘down with capitalism’ without immediately presenting a fully worked out plan for what should replace it. I fear my attempt to illustrate with historical examples the fact that, for instance, the French and American revolutions pulled things down before working out what to do next had little effect on his alcopop fuelled thoughts. Public reaction, however, has been largely positive and donations from well-wishers mean that the on-site kitchen can provide free meals to not only protesters but also local homeless people.
As well as working out a programme it is vital that the movement can reach out to the rest of the ‘99%’. Across the country there are small local campaigns against library closures, school and NHS budget cuts, and groups formed to campaign in the interests of pensioners, the disabled, workers, etc. If the occupy movement can serve to bring these groups together and convince them that radical change is necessary then it has a chance of really achieving something. This is already being done and speakers representing trade unions, feminist groups, the disabled, LGBT groups and others addressed the crowd on Saturday afternoon. The sight of a vicar (who works with the unemployed of Tottenham) sharing a platform with a representative of the Sex Workers’ Union suggests that this assembly was somewhat more diverse than our ‘representatives’ in Westminster. There has been much rhetoric about the occupy movement providing an ‘alternative space’ outside the system in which openness and egalitarianism could thrive. I must admit that this seemed rather vague and ‘hippyish’ to me before I actually visited. Having been, however, I would say that the feeling of community is palpable. To be in a place in which people feel goodwill to strangers because it is assumed that they share a common cause is quite a relief compared to the class-conscious, status-obsessed, ladder-climbing, dog-eat-dog, I’m-alright-Jack, kick-them-when-they’re-down, me, Me, ME culture of everyday life. As long as that remains I think people will stay. They know an alternative is possible because they’re living it.