Cineaste Book Review (Spring 2000)
by Howard Besser

Film and the Anarchist Imagination
by Richard Porton. London: Verso, 1999. 313pp., illus.

Historically, Anarchism has received a bad rap. Education and the mass media provide us with a set of lenses with which to view the events around us. These are the lenses that tell us that Democrats and Republicans are in the center of our frame, and that any other politics lies out-of-focus in the margins. From the 19th century French assassination attempts (Anarchist "propaganda by the deed") to the late 20th century Unabomber, those lenses designed for mass consumption have placed Anarchism outside the frame of "legitimate" discourse. Alternative lenses designed by Marxists to enlarge the field of vision and challenge the hegemony of capital have still placed Anarchism outside their frame of legitimacy.

But in the last decade, the widespread deligitimization of a Leninist State Capitalism model has chipped away at those alternative lenses. This has left an opening that may permit new alternative lenses with a wider viewing angle that places Anarchism squarely within the frame of legitimacy. Among activists, we have seen ecologists increasingly embracing traditional Anarchist tactics of militant direct action, affinity group structure, decentralized decision-making, and even calling themselves Anarchists. Popular bands like Chumbawamba have brought Anarchist topics to a broader consuming audience. And the Anarchist activities at the recent World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle have placed Anarchism and Anarchist tactics squarely at the center of most discourse about the event (though traditional lenses still place the philosophy and tactics outside the frame of legitimacy).

This is propitious timing for Richard Portonís Film and the Anarchist Imagination. Though Porton expends quite a bit of effort deconstructing the lenses used to marginalize Anarchism, his agenda here is much more ambitious: to critically review films that concern Anarchism. In this epic book he discusses hundreds of films either about or by Anarchists, as well as films that encompass an Anarchist spirit. He also gives intense critical reviews to dozens of them, extensively quoting established film critics, and incorporating the views of critical theorists such as Deleuze, Bourdieu, and Bakhtin. He highlights the films of lesser-known interesting filmmakers such as Craig Baldwin, and those with niche followings such as Yvonne Rainer and Lizzie Borden, as well as treating mainstays of political/aesthetic filmmaking such as Godard and Gorin. Each of his reviews is intensive, and approaches the film from a variety of angles: as a social document, as a text, and as an aesthetic work.

This is an immense undertaking, due to the vast number of films that feature Anarchists, the variety of ways in which those films treat Anarchism, and the large number of philosophical strands that fall under the umbrella of Anarchism. Think of the ambitious task of tackling the portrayal of socialism throughout film history (or democracy, or labor), and being able to intelligently discuss the various philosophical strains and historical events that concern these. Porton has done his homework, and manages to convey to his reader the rich history of Anarchism, its multitude of philosophical disagreements, its interplay with labor and other political movements, and its relevancy to late 20th century society.

But, ultimately, the thrust of the book is film critique. On the broad level, he uses the works of political and critical theorists to situate this body of films within a social and aesthetic role. On a narrower level, he intensively analyzes dozens of films, relating them to the broader theories, examining them in relation to Anarchist history and philosophy, and situating them in the process of social and cultural reproduction. He does close readings of these films as texts, and at times even examines previous reviews and reviewers and the role they play in the larger cultural apparatus.

Films covered range from mainstream Hollywood productions, to low-budget foreign and independents, to avant-garde. He only treats films having a significant narrative structure (though does not confine his choices to those with a linear narrative). And though he appears to have a good grasp of all these strands of film, he occasionally exhibits some limitations in his understanding of historical avant-garde events (for instance in taking Surrealist proclamations by Bréton and Buñuel literally rather than as bombastic posturing designed to épater la bourgeosie).

Most of the films are analyzed primarily as social documents, and hence examined for what they say about Anarchists and Anarchism, what they say about popular opinion of the time, what they say about the views of the director and of the culture industry, etc. But by no means is his critique limited to a film's content and the environment in which it was created. As befits a film critic, his reading of the film as text also includes the more formal filmic elements.

Because Porton deals with both well-known films and extremely obscure ones, the reader will sometimes have difficulty following detailed analysis of films s/he has not seen. Porton does his best to explain the film and situate the reader within it, but there is a limit to how effective he can be with this. In any case, many of his reviews will inspire the reader to find and view the films he analyzes.

Porton is not afraid to point out that, when filmmakers from the Anarchist community fail to live up to Anarchist principles, they do a disservice to their cause. For example, he demonstrates how, in Anarchism in America, Pacific Street Films set out to confront traditional filmic lenses painting Anarchists as mad bomb-throwers, and to reframe Anarchism to be as American as apple pie. But Porton shows how, in doing so, the filmmakers glossed over internal differences and radical stridency that Anarchists believe are so important to air in public. Anarchism is a philosophy that prides itself on the fact that its criticality extends far beyond just Capital to encompass all forms of social relationships, and Anarchists tend to be proud of how radical they are. Porton points out the irony of a film on Anarchism "lacking the process of critical interrogation", and trying to make Anarchism so acceptable to middle America that, in one sequence, the directors' "compulsion to make anarchism an acceptable stance for the age of Reaganism reaches a farcial zenith".

Many readers will find lots of small things to quibble about -- from which films should be covered, to what methods of analysis should be brought to bear on these films. Which films to include is highly loaded and subjective, and any decision is bound to generate controversy. I, for one, have trouble understanding how Porton's scope can include films that "encapsulate the anarchist amalgamation of antinomian individualism and collective direct action", when he devotes only a single dismissive phrase ("anti-Stalinist avant-gardism") to films like Makavejevís WR: Mysteries of the Organism and Sweet Movie, and totally ignore films like Niccolo Caldararoís A Meeting with the Enemy. In a book like this, however, the author must make subjective decisions on where to draw the lines, and any line-drawing will draw objections from some segment of readers.

Likewise, many readers favor particular discursive methods for confronting political issues, and are highly biased towards films and filmmakers that employ those methods (ranging from straightforward good-versus-evil discussion of issues, to the polemics of a Godardian Dziga-Vertov critique, to the employment of irony and satire, to approaches where the filmmaker leaves a choice between multiple interpretations or political stands completely up to the viewer). Portonís critiques attempt to navigate between these approaches. His bias towards a confrontational didacticism will irritate some readers, but an attempt at completely neutral coverage of all discursive approaches would have resulted in a bland and confusing book.

Most readers will occasionally get lost in the voluminous details and references; few will have sufficient depth of background in Anarchist philosophy and history as well as film theory and history to immediately understand all the details dished out in this book. But that should not affect the overall impact of the work. In fact, as a by-product of the book, the reader with a filmic background will become well versed in Anarchist history and philosophy, and the reader with an Anarchist background will gain a deep appreciation for film history and theory. That, coupled with the important shift of focus that moves Anarchism from the margins to within the frame of legitimate discourse, makes Portonís work an important contribution to turn-of-the-(21st)-century critical literature.

Last modified: 4/3/2000