Lessons From Leftist Movie Club

SPOILER ALERT: Spoilers ahead for Tout va bien, La Chinoise, Reds, 9 to 5 and Josie and the Pussycats

Last summer, I started a leftist movie club, and so can you! 

Logistically, it’s pretty simple. Every two weeks or so, I meet with a few friends over Zoom to talk about a movie through a leftist lens. To keep the programming diverse, we alternate between mainstream flicks and films with an experimental or historical bent.

We use Slack to schedule meetings and pitch movies, which we draw from a hat. In addition, we’ve set up channels to discuss spoilers, share relevant readings and post memes.

Lefty Movie Club has nourished my soul and my brain in recent months. During the pandemic, I’ve enjoyed having a low-key routine with my friends where we spend time together and take part in a shared project. And discussing movies in a study group has led me down some fascinating rabbit holes of leftist analysis and theory. 

I love Malcolm Harris’ line about how Marxism is a “method of understanding the real relations between people over time.” No matter which left tendencies inspire our pursuit of a better world, we can apply their analytical methods to all kinds of movies and make connections to our own lives. 

There’s a long tradition of leftist filmmaking and criticism that extends from early Soviet cinema to today’s YouTube essays and heated Twitter arguments. But navel-gazing cinephiles shouldn’t monopolize our present and future Lefty Movie Clubs — these groups should be accessible to anyone who is curious and willing to share a streaming service password or two (if you need a free option, sign up for Kanopy with a library card).

Unique people and picks will take every Lefty Movie Club in different directions, but here are a few lessons I’ve learned about socialism and the silver screen.

The Medium is the Message

How might movies advance radical ideas in ways that other forms of art and entertainment can’t? 

Leftists have explored this question dating back to the Bolsheviks, who formed the world’s first film school in 1919. Watching Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent films Strike and Battleship Potemkin taught me about Soviet montage theory, an editing technique that juxtaposes different shots based on imagery, tone and pacing in order to convey specific associations and emotions. 

Although montage editing later became standard fare for filmmakers — used by Soviets and capitalists alike to reinforce their ideologies — it makes for a great introduction to dialectics. Motion pictures allow images to collide, conflict, contradict each other and synthesize new meanings. This mirrors our larger project as leftists: understanding the contradictions and conflicts of capitalism and leveraging them to “birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” 

French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard is another prominent leftist who has experimented with the medium of film as a vehicle for radical ideas. In La Chinoise (1967) and Tout va bien (1972), he employs German playwright Bertolt Brecht’s distancing effect to “alienate” the audience from emotional investment in the plots and characters, creating space for viewers to critically reflect on what they’re watching.   

Today’s popular movies and TV shows regularly make meta jokes and casually break the fourth wall. By comparison, Godard’s Brechtian storytelling techniques are disorienting and borderline psychedelic, challenging us to think differently about our surroundings. Tout va bien begins with a sequence where Godard signs the checks that financed the film’s production, and in La Chinoise he feeds actress Anne Wiazemsky improvised lines through an earpiece to debate revolutionary tactics with the real-life French activist Francis Jeanson.    

The presence of these techniques in Eisenstein’s and Godard’s movies doesn’t make them inherently effective in a strategic or propagandistic sense, especially given the way they’ve been co-opted and mainstreamed. But as historical artifacts I found these films to be provocative and inspiring. In 2021, can motion pictures — shown in theaters or spontaneously circulated on social media — help radicalize people? What roles can art and culture play in our struggles for liberation?      

Subversive Storytelling (or a Lack Thereof) 

Learning about Godard and Brecht also equipped me with new tools to analyze more mainstream Lefty Movie Club picks. 

It’s no secret that Hollywood is a prominent arm of the bourgeois, capitalist culture industry, one that’s historically been far kinder to the US military than to leftists. But when I encounter a mainstream movie that appears to harbor genuinely subversive, anti-capitalist politics, I’m curious to know what the catch is. 

How do lefty-friendly Hollywood movies get made? And what makes them “safe” for consumption by the masses?  

One theory comes from the late Mark Fisher, who argued in Capitalist Realism that every cinematic triumph over a group of corporate bad guys effectively “performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.”  

I think Godard’s experiments with the distancing effect can also clarify how these movies get defanged. In essence, Hollywood’s “non-distanced” stories, which encourage viewers to emotionally identify with plots and characters, rely on subtle storytelling choices to dilute anti-capitalist commentary and calls to action.   

For example, Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) — a historical epic about radical journalist John Reed and the 1910s American left — is full of strategic debates and “The Internationale” singalongs that’ll likely resonate with many DSA members. 

But Beatty’s Reed turns out to be an ideal Hollywood maverick, rejecting the dogmatic Comintern in hopes of settling down with his love interest, fellow journalist Louise Bryant. The narrative is interspersed with interviews of elderly “witnesses” from the era, which make for some intriguing segments but clearly frame the story’s radical movements as harmless relics, fading from memory and never to be repeated again. 

In the hit comedy 9 to 5 (1980), Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton star as corporate workers who kidnap their horrible boss. It’s a fun movie with no shortage of dark humor, but its feminist, pro-labor politics are undercut by its narrow focus and fantastical plot. 

While Godard’s Tout va bien (which also stars Fonda) depicts a full-blown factory occupation from several perspectives, 9 to 5’s protagonists have a more individualistic mission: keeping the domineering, sexist Franklin Hart Jr. locked up in his own house and covertly implementing office policy reforms on his behalf. Unfortunately, their awful boss is one of many, and although Hart gets his comeuppance at the end of the film, his boss rolls back the most radical reform (equal pay for women) and the exploitative hierarchy of the workplace remains unquestioned and unchanged. 

One of my favorite Hollywood movies we’ve watched is Josie and the Pussycats (2001), a surprisingly subversive musical comedy that satirizes capitalist consumerism and vomits product placement onto nearly every shot. 

There’s a great scene in which Parker Posey’s Fiona, the CEO of MegaRecords, monologues about how the major labels, corporations and the US government are all in cahoots, inserting subliminal messages into pop songs that convince teenagers to buy stuff. It’s a clever riff on Marx’s base and superstructure that demonstrates how the story of Josie and her bandmates exists within a much larger web of profits and control. However, when we learn later on that Fiona was a high school social outcast who’s been adding subliminal messages to boost her own popularity, her motivations become individualized — she’s a narcissistic “bad apple” rather than a typical capitalist acting on the incentives of a bad system. 

All-Genre Analysis

I find Lefty Movie Club to be most engaging when we don’t dwell too much on personal taste. Movies with incoherent politics can be entertaining, just as explicitly leftist ones may fall flat. 

To return to Malcolm Harris’ quote, radical left traditions offer us analytical tools that we can apply to blockbusters and experimental films alike. Here are a few questions that I keep top of mind when watching and discussing Lefty Movie Club picks:

  • Which characters are doing labor, paid or unpaid?
  • Which characters have power over others or their environment?
  • Which characters have agency or mobility?
  • Which characters have notable relationships?
  • Are the characters’ motivations shaped by specific historical developments?
  • Was the production of the movie shaped by specific historical developments? 
  • How does the movie make viewers emotionally invested in or distant from the plot and characters? 
  • How does the movie encourage viewers to reflect on the immediacy (individuals and local settings) or totality (structures and systems) of social relations?  
  • How does the movie challenge or reinforce the status quo?
  • If the movie has subversive elements, what elements might make it safe for consumption under our current social order?

Every movie we’ve watched so far has given me something to think about. 

RoboCop (1987) explores how capitalist labor destroys workers’ bodies and identities.  

Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), famous for its factory floor sequences, posits The Tramp as a precarious member of the reserve army of labor

In Stanley Kubrick’s film noir The Killing (1956), hierarchy and assembly-line alienation doom an attempted heist.  

The gripping French drama La Haine (1995) weaves together views of immediacy and totality in its examination of identity, mobility and class solidarity in the Parisian suburbs.  

And most recently, we watched In Fabric (2018), which uses a cursed red dress to connect bizarre, emotionally distant vignettes about ideology and commodity fetishism

I don’t think we’ll build an alternative to capitalism from the comfort of our couches, but movies can help us imagine what one might look like. If we’re up to the task, they can compel us to flex our critical muscles and consider how art might contribute to both our subjugation and our liberation. 

So, this is a call to gather your friends, family, roommates and comrades — your very own Lefty Movie Club awaits. It comes highly recommended!  

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