Books

The Radical Activist Ambitions of New Left Cinema

A new book chronicles how leftist directors of the 1960s and ’70s used the essay film as an activist tool.

The cover of Enduring Images (image courtesy the publisher)

In Enduring Images: A Future History of New Left Cinema, a new book from University of Minnesota Press, media scholar Morgan Adamson explores the political potential of essay films, in the context of the New Left activism of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. While Adamson addresses aesthetics, her primary focus is on film as an activist tool: her subjects include the American Newsreel Collective’s documentary studies of the antiwar movement; feminist cinema in Italy; early video groups such as Videofreex; and the Marxist work of France’s Dziga Vertov Group and Argentina’s Third Cinema.

One of the book’s central arguments is that a documentary image is far more than an index. This is not a highly contested claim — post-Susan Sontag, we readily accept that an image’s meaning changes depending on context. Adamson’s contribution, however, lies in her close analysis of how essay films create shifts in context, and in doing so, help raise political awareness. One of the most pointed examples is Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), a found-footage sci-fi film, in which Marker repurposes photographs he took of political struggles of the 1960s. Adamson argues that Marker finds the seeds of the Left’s defeat — failing to stymie the rise of neoliberal forces — in the images that portrayed organized youth protests in distant places, such as San Francisco and Japan, and, at the time of their creation, had a more victorious tone. What emerges then is Marker’s unique understanding of the present, which then paves the way to the future.

By tracing the essay form to its pioneer, 16th-century French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, and drawing on the work of 20th-century philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Guy Debord, Adamson stakes out a claim for the uniqueness of the essay film as a truly dialectical form, one that stresses process and rejects cheap entertainment value and claims to objectivity. Debord’s critique of cinema as spectacle, in his seminal book, Society of the Spectacle (1967), is particularly important to Adamson’s thesis, since she frames essay film as a spectacle that turns against itself. At its purest, New Left essay film is also anti-auteur. Adamson notes, “The widespread critique of the hierarchies endemic to the film culture (…) was part of the struggle to disrupt the division between intellectual and manual labor.” New Left Cinema thus reflects a broader class struggle and models a reorganization of labor that addresses economic inequality.

The essay films discussed are thus mostly collective efforts. Among them is Newsreel Collective’s 50-minute cinema verité-style Columbia Revolt (1968), which captured the chaotic standoff between Columbia University’s administration and antiwar student protesters. While Adamson acknowledges the film’s shortcomings in not giving the black leadership of the protest a voice, she praises its articulation of a communal spirit and demonstration of the organizers’ tactical inventiveness. Another key film, Finally Got the News (1970), depicted Detroit’s black workers organizing, up to the riot known as the Great Rebellion, thus refuting the idea that America’s booming industry countered racial inequality.

Just as the films that focused on race struggles exposed the vastly white movement’s hidden prejudices, so did feminist films reveal the patronizing attitudes of male activists towards women’s issues. Films by the Italian feminist group Colletivo Femminista di Cinema-Roma, which Adamson analyzes, took as their motto Carol Hanisch’s assertion that “the personal is political” — suggesting that no revolution could take place as long as domestic work wasn’t seen as labor, and reproductive rights weren’t addressed.

Finally, in the chapter dedicated to early video, Adamson traces how what later came to be called “video art” originally had more political objectives. For early cyber activists in the 1970s, video was a countercultural gesture, one that held promise of social change. Cyber thinkers and video artists such as Paul Louis Ryan, author of the 1971 manifesto “Cybernetic Guerilla Warfare” — the title of which echoed the Third World Cinema’s idea of film as a gun — considered the role new technologies might play in the future of democratic media production.

Given the Left’s current crisis, Adamson’s book couldn’t come at a better time. If her research were to extend to today, it would no doubt include such contemporary activist collectives as Mídia Ninja, Brazil’s citizen journalist group. And while Enduring Images doesn’t always illustrate how a film viewing might bolster real-life organizing, it persuasively demonstrates the role of cinema in broadening the Left’s rhetoric and agenda. In her ardent belief in the value of collectivist, participatory modes, Adamson conveys a hope that cinema, especially at the fringes, will continue to play an important role in radicalizing its viewers.

Enduring Images: A Future History of New Left Cinema by Morgan Adamson is available from Amazon and other selected booksellers.

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