Film Studies

Drive in Cinema

Drive in Cinema
Below extract by Bradley Tuck

In a scene from Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 ode to the Cuban Revolution, Soy Cuba, student revolutionaries enter a drive-in cinema and hurl Molotov cocktails at a screen showing newsreel footage of the pre-revolutionary president of Cuba, General Fulgencio Batista. The screen bursts into flames. In a similar vein, the drive-in is also the site for revolutionary violence in John Waters’ Cecil B. Demented, where a bunch of outlaw filmmakers enact cinema terrorism against the Hollywood system and find themselves battling police and Hollywood apologists on the very site of film projection itself. Both films suggest a re-politicization of the cinema space, which, by interrupting the screening, takes us from bourgeois propaganda to propaganda of the deed. In Cecil B. Demented most explicitly, the interruption of the screening is a means to radically renew it. Violence serves to tear down the old to make way for the new. This book is also an attempt to renew or radicalize cinema, sometimes in the form of an attack, other times through critical engagement with its masters. Drive in Cinema can be seen as an intellectual ‘Molotov cocktail,’ bringing together diverse theoretical elements in order to ignite the cinema screen with the flames of radical theory and avant-garde practice.

If this book attempts to re-ignite radical politics within the cinema frame, it is not untimely. War is upon us; austerity is the order of the day, with poverty for the majority and plunder by the elite. Three decades of neoliberal ideology, combined with the crippling defeats of the left, have cemented the belief that there is no alternative to capitalism. This ideology ruptures. In these times the demand for new ideas resurfaces. The demand for genuine universal emancipation slowly breaks through the neoliberal ‘success’ story. The search for an alternative emerges in the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, student protests, new experiments in piracy, open source and the digital commons, new forms of ecological contestation and the intellectual resurgence of ideas on communism, communization and the commons. But our victory is far from secured. This revolution is slow coming and risks being hijacked by religious extremists, reactionary nationalists, ineffective liberal do-gooders and a politics of envy that turns the poor upon themselves. It is in such times that the need to reinvent radical culture becomes imperative.

John Waters, Cecil B. Demented, USA, 2000. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

John Waters, Cecil B. Demented, USA, 2000. Courtesy of Lionsgate.

This renewed emancipatory radicalism might be understood in terms of what Alain Badiou calls the militant of truth, a subject who retains fidelity to a particular hypothesis, most notably the ‘communist hypothesis,’ which, against Third Way compromise, would persist in continual experimentation in the name of emancipatory justice and equality.1 Marc James Léger adds to this a companion hypothesis: the avant garde hypothesis. Léger’s writings persistently seek to revitalize the avant garde by finding its renewed expression in the work of contemporary artists, activists and filmmakers. Léger characterizes the avant garde hypothesis as the ‘“subtractive tendency,” the willingness to sacrifice art, in the artistic gesture itself, rather than give up on the real.’2 But what of the violence that the notion of the avant garde calls to mind? As Slavoj Žižek puts it, ‘Radicals are […] possessed by what Alain Badiou called the “passion for the Real”: if you say A – equality, human rights and freedom – you should not shirk from its consequences but muster the courage to say B – the terror needed to really defend and assert the A.’3 For our purposes, it might serve as useful to locate these two tendencies in the work of André Breton and his two Surrealist manifestos. On the one hand, for Breton, Surrealism has a moral and progressive character. He tells us that ‘the realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit.’4 He goes on to add: ‘the law of the lowest common denominator finally prevails upon them as it does upon the others.’5 Surrealism reacted against positivism in the name of moral advancement against the law of the common denominator, not as conservative moralism, but moral advancement and the creation of a new man. On the other hand, Surrealism might be understood as pure terror: ‘Surrealism was not afraid to make for itself a tenet of total revolt, complete insubordination, of sabotage according to rule, and why it still expects nothing save from violence.’6 This violence not only provides a symbolic rupture with the past but violates the traditions and norms that regulate the aesthetic dimension and its institutionalization.

Drive in Cinema123_PDF prf

Alexander Kluge, News From Ideological Antiquity: Marx – Eisenstein – Das Kapital, Germany, 2008. Courtesy of dctp Info & Archiv.

Twentieth-century art and politics converge in this passion for the Real, not in the desire to represent the people or to artistically represent reality, but to create it. Such a passion plays an important intellectual and critical function in Léger’s work, which has persistently sought to renew the transformative power of art and politics. Central to his work is an attempt to distinguish the genuinely radical from the ‘pseudo-radical’ through critical engagement with everything from community and over-identification art, Condé and Beveridge’s critique of the commodification of water, and ATSA’s advocacy for the homeless, to art made in the context of anti-globalization protest, art in the context of the Québec Maple Spring, the art of the Black Panthers and the black bloc tactic of smashing windows and destroying corporate property.7 His work extracts a radical core within such diverse practices, reconnecting radical aesthetics with radical politics in the manner of the Situationist International’s critique of everyday life.


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