An Interview with Jordy Cummings
An Interview with Jordy Cummings
Jordy Cummings says: "I'm writing a book that focuses on what I believe, with input from a lot of people, are the most important anti-war or anti-imperialist films." Cummings is a Canadian-based writer who seamlessly blends pop culture with political theory in his articles, essays, and "Pure Polemics," a popular blog he has just revived.
"There have been a few books released over the last couple of years dealing with progressive films - Paul Buhle's books about the Blacklist, a few others, but none have focused specifically on anti-war films," he explains.
"My intent is to remind film buffs about their favorite movies' politics and radicals about great films for organizing, with I hope some cross pollination."
To follow is a brief Q&A I enjoyed with Jordy:
MZ: How did you develop an interest in anti-war films?
JC: My politics were heavily shaped by film. I had a very eccentric and left wing high school social sciences teacher, with a cut-out that he made of the five Marx brothers, Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, Harpo...and Karl. On Fridays, we would watch what he believed, or so he said, were historically important films, "Dr. Strangelove," "Citizen Kane," what have you. Since then, my passions have been radical anti-authoritarian politics, and film, and they often intertwine.
MZ: When you talk about the concept of "anti-war films," are you referring to overt political cinema or can it be more subtle than that? In the age of "shock and awe," is there a place for celluloid subtlety?
JC: There's a variety of ways to approach the matter, but it can be simplified in terms that a film that can both strengthen the "faith," as it were, of an anti-war activist, and at the least, turn the pro-war types around, and inspire those on the fence to become historical actors.
As you note though, in the age of "shock and awe," which is really an extension of what Guy Debord calls the "spectacle," the means of symbolic production (as an aside, I recommend the book by the collective "Retort"
called "Afflicted Powers" on how images dominate our consciousness regarding
war) - everything on either side of any war that has been going on in the world right now, from Islamists to Americans to warring factions wherever, has been seen in a movie, and is being re-enacted, whether consciously or not. And this extends to the anti-war movement, which is too caught up in imitating the sixties, and the American sixties at that. One could argue that everything we do is mimesis, to an extent, at least those of us in North America.
MZ: Talk to your average American movie-goer about anti-war flicks and you're likely to hear Michael Moore's name mentioned.
JC: I thought "Fahrenheit 911," despite its flaws (mostly in regards to the anybody-but-Bush stance) was brilliant and important agit-prop, not because it reinforced my faith or yours, but because it was popular and told at least some of the truth. At the same time, I recall that there was some heated criticism of F911 from one of my favorite film artists, Jean Luc Goddard at the time that both of their anti-war films were playing at Cannes last year. So sometimes subtlety, as in Goddard's far-superior work, doesn't take into account the urgency of the message, but artists have their own niche. One couldn't see "Notre Musique" at a Multiplex even if it played there. To our eyes, the Goddard who grew up on film noir and Sam Fuller - American films - seems like "art" so must be segregated to "Art Houses" that are mostly in coastal Metropolises, and even his fans kind of like it that way. So the age of the spectacle, of shock and awe, of "Bombs over Bagdhad" as Outkast presciently sang, nearly negates the notion of a subtle message. On the other hand, plenty of Hollywood films have snuck in a few anti-war, even anti-imperialist plots, subtly but not as a main point to their story. I'm thinking of Star Wars' most recent episode, or the last few Spielberg films.
MZ: For those not familiar with it, tell us about "Notre Musique."
JC: Goddard's film "Notre Musique," semi-documentary, with Goddard (not unlike Moore, actually) playing a prominent role as himself, taking place in Sarajevo ten years after the siege there, focused on the human toll of war, and particularly the plight of Palestinians, with their great national poet Mahmoud Darwish having very emotional conversations with Israeli women, for example. It also focused on what I was touching on, in regards to how images dominate our lives and how they can be subverted. All that said, it was more subtle than Moore's film, which Goddard said was counterproductive, which perhaps it was in a sense, but in others it was not.
"Notre Musique" is brilliant but only scratches the surface of JLG. A theorist of great repute, Goddard has made more radical films, in every sense of the word than anyone. I think outside film circles, more needs to be known about the great radical European filmmakers like Goddard, Vischonti, Pontecervo, or Passolini.
MZ: Of course, just because a film uses war as a backdrop doesn't mean it's hoping to make a political statement.
JC: One can read one's own politics into just about anything, like a Rorschach blot. But a truly " anti-war" work should not necessarily be intended and taken as such, but to classify as capital A anti-war should reinforce faith and convert nonbelievers, as I said. Therefore, we can talk about films like "Platoon" or one of my favorites "Cross of Iron" which show the lives of soldiers on losing sides fighting for the "bad guys" as it were, or we can talk about films like "Coming Home" or "The Men" about veterans. We can talk about even film noir - heavily written by leftists - that came out of the disillusionment of a post-World War II America, or a film like "Taxi Driver" about a Vietnam veteran's psychosis.
But films like "Apocalypse Now" or "The Deer Hunter" even if they intended to critique the Vietnam War, did not do so. The former portrayed it as a psychedelic mess in which the soldiers could just drop acid, but with no historical context. The latter was arguably a justification, and reactionary at that, with its white workers fighting the yellow hordes, and Christopher Walken being forced by crazed Vietnamese to play Russian roulette. At least, in regards to Nam, "Platoon" and "Full Metal Jacket" (which could both fit any war) don't decontextualize American imperialism.
MZ: Will your book include comedies like, my favorite, "Duck Soup"?
JC: Nothing shows the absurdity of war like comedy, and one could say that the Marxists - Marx Brothers fans - have plenty of examples, particularly in "Duck Soup" - of American/machismo absurdity and stereotypes. "Duck Soup" is one of the films that I plan on having a longer section, like other comedies, from "The Mouse that Roared" to "Wag the Dog" to "MASH" to the great Argentinean film "Funny, Dirty Little War." As well, I plan to have shorter capsule" reviews/sections on a variety of anti-war comedies.
As an aside, there is a risk with comedy that people will take the opposite message as what is being shown. Like the Trey Parker/Matt Stone (of "South Park" fame, celebrated by conservatives who take them at face value) films, particularly "Team America." This is a great comedy, in which American Imperialism is satirized, blowing up the Louvre and all, meanwhile David Horowitz's fantasmic "network" is shown - Kim Jong Il, Barbara Streisand and Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore as a suicide bomber. Yet audiences tended to take that part of the film as completely realistic. I read it as firmly anti-war, but it could be the other way around, I'm not sure.
MZ: What role can film play in creating a more just society?
JC: If you look at American history, or for that matter Soviet or Chinese or European history, the most critical statements could be made in film, and I think that continues today. People are often more prepared to accept radical messages from popular film than popular literature. Unfortunately, we haven't seen enough critical statements - unless cloaked in allegory and hard to discern - about the current bout of imperialism, but we see Stephen Bochco creating a TV series about "grunts" in Iraq, with apparently no context whatsoever. Hopefully Hollywood, and the world will start making serious films about Empire, and I'd like to think that I can perhaps have some influence.
Jordy Cummings can be found on the Web at:
Mickey Z. is the author of several books including the soon-to-be-released "50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism" (Disinformation Books) and "There is No Good War: The Myths of World War II" (Vox Pop). He can be found on the Web at http://www.mickeyz.net.