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red-alert

An academic study of film published in 2016 which references the sibling directors, producers, and screenwriters as "the Wachowski brothers" no less than eighteen times—sixteen of which appear in an essay explicitly about them—inspires little confidence. That’s a lowercase "B" every time as well, which puts to bed the possible argument from branding; and a reference within the article dating to 2015 does the same for the inertia of academic publishing. Malevolence seems unlikely, but then so does oversight.

This consistent misgendering of the Wachowskis—which I have to assume is an editorial decision, given that one of the two other instances is in the introduction written by the editors (Ewa Mazierska and Alfredo Suppia)—is as indicative of the relative lack of care given to the construction of Red Alert: Marxist Approaches to Science Fiction Cinema as it is disappointing in and of itself. For all that the title offers, it is the most unassuming of the words in the subtitle that ultimately seems to guide the editorial vision: "approaches." Red Alert includes subversive readings of Hollywood blockbusters, discussions of exemplary science fiction films made in Communist countries, and examinations of how the material conditions of productions influence global products. Each essay within these rough groupings—none of which are formalized in the structure of the book—carries with it a different analysis of and emphasis on the various terms that are being approached.

Mazierska and Suppia address this, in an oblique way, in their "Introduction: Marxism and Science Fiction Cinema." In framing the book, the two discuss the "three entities [of the title]: Marxist philosophy, science fiction (SF), and cinema" (p. 1). Among the arguments the editors make include that all three are in some sense connected by their "scientific orientation." Referring to Suvin's concept of the novum (as paraphrased by the editors, "a concrete innovation in lived history that awakens human collective consciousness out of a static present to awareness that history can be changed" [p. 4]), Mazierska and Suppia argue that "when we read a science fiction novel or watch a science fiction film, we believe that we bear witness to something that will become possible thanks to scientific discovery," whereas for film the scientific orientation comes into play "because no other art is so dependent on the development of technology as film" (p. 4). The two connect this to Marxism by claiming that this orientation can be seen in how Marxist philosophy "comes across as based on solid foundations … the term 'historical materialism' expressed [Marx's] ambition to upgrade philosophy to the position of (objective) science" (p. 3).

There is a pretty obvious breakdown in that characterization of the three entities: scientific orientation does not cross the gap between technology (SF, cinema) and process (Marxism) without hitting a bump. The conflation of science with technology has a long history, of course, and so Mazierska and Suppia's statements read as reasonable. But there is a massive difference in relying on or fostering belief in technological advancements and developing a system for considering the world according to scientific principles like testing hypotheticals, delivering reproducible results, and theorizing objective systems according to available evidence. While this is not the only way that the editors bring together their "three entities"—they discuss an orientation toward the future, as evidenced in projection and utopianism, as well—this gap is most instructive at understanding why Red Alert, approached as a cohesive text, is so uneven.

There is a "well, actually" that is worth attending to here. As a collection of academic essays, there are two primary ways that Red Alert will get read: cover to cover, as discussed up to this point, and (probably, or at least hopefully, much more commonly) distributed as photocopies or Dropbox links to undergraduates, one or two essays at a time. In this second context, Red Alert has no small amount to offer.

Centralizing the idea of Marxist approaches to science fiction cinema does allow for a diversity of content that more focused engagements might preclude. To a certain extent, Red Alert's unevenness is a measure of how much interest the reader has in any particular approach (or, at a more granular level, in the movies themselves; my own lack of love for Neill Blomkamp's films and Neveldine & Taylor's Gamer meant that I at the least approached those essays more skeptically than others), but it runs deeper than that. The best case in point is Tony Burns's essay "Marxism vs. Postmodernism: The Case of The Matrix." Burns's essay is largely concerned with providing a Marxist reading of The Matrix against the popular understanding of the film as exemplary of postmodernism, specifically regarding its explicit citation of Jean Baudrillard. Burns's analysis rests largely on the contention that "a core element of Marxist political economy … is the belief that we can make a distinction between how things appear and how things really are" (p. 154), unlike the "philosophy and social theory associated with postmodernism … which rejects metaphysics as traditionally understood" (p. 155).

Burns's case is made relatively well on its own terms, as he takes the film's central conflict and maps it onto the two compared philosophical systems. The strain of postmodern philosophy that Burns is interested in is largely dismissive of the dichotomy of surface/depth, if not outright insistent on the purity of the former. And the strain of Marxism that Burns is interested in is very interested in precisely that same dichotomy; as Burns himself says: "It has sometimes been argued that Marxism itself is nihilistic and that Marx, together with a number of later Marxists, explicitly repudiated the idea that an ethical critique of contemporary society is something that should or even could be associated with Marxism … it is not true of the young Marx, or of the type of Marxism commonly associated with the work of Marcuse and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School" (p. 163). This is in response to the question of nihilism, which Burns notes is crucial because "[the Wachowskis] have Neo open his copy of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation at the very point where the chapter on nihilism begins" (p. 162). While noting that he "do[es] not have sufficient space to give it the attention it deserves here," Burns then notes that nihilism "has been associated with anarchism," albeit in ways that are perhaps indefensible, and that "Lewis Call has claimed that Baudrillard, in particular, ought not to be associated with nihilism" (p. 162).

Some amount of this sort of boundary policing is necessary in dealing with three categories as broad as Marxism, Science Fiction, and Cinema; no book, let alone a single essay, could grapple with all of the factors involved in any one of these things, much less all three. Focusing the scope is not a bad thing, by any means. What Burns ends up doing, however, is focusing it so much that the argument ends up being largely meaningless. The Matrix is a movie with Marxist, rather than postmodern, roots, according to him. But not any kind of Marxist roots: specifically young Marxist, anti-nihilistic Marxist, cultural studies Marxist, as opposed to not any kind of postmodernism, but some readings of Baudrillardian postmodernism, some very narrow readings of post-Nietzschean postmodernism. On top of that, it siphons all the energy out of the film itself, reducing it to an instance of belief in metaphysics and basically nothing else. Nearly every popular reading of The Matrix runs into this problem, reducing the film to one narrative or another: postmodernism or Christianity or as a particularly good example of cyberpunk. But the film's most important legacy at this point is its image of the "red pill," which has been appropriated by neofascists and misogynists in the pick-up artist and "alt-right" movements. This reactionary upswing means a reading of The Matrix that displaces the possibility of this reactionary appropriation an urgent, if not sufficient, epistemological task [1]. Burns and Red Alert's consistent misgendering of the Wachowskis does the opposite.

If Burns's essay can stand in for the worst aspects of Red Alert, Alfredo Suppia's "Remote Exploitations: Alex Rivera's Materialist SF Cinema in the Age of Cognitive Capitalism" is more indicative of the whole. In discussing Rivera's 2008 film Sleep Dealer, set in a world where telepresence is advanced enough that immigrant labor between Mexico and the USA can be conducted entirely through it, Suppia embodies the subtitular idea of "Marxist Approaches." Calling on a litany of philosophers in the Marxist tradition allows Suppia to make points from any number of angles about quite a few aspects of the film (and about Rivera's previous short, Why Cybraceros?, on which it was based), often using interviews with the director himself to cement them. On top of this, including critiques of elements of Hardt & Negrian orthodoxy and cognitive capitalism, Suppia links together formal elements such as "the documentary rhetoric as a narrative resource in insightful mockumentaries," which he claims have "efficiently served to reconcile SF with a long tradition of literary satire" (p. 204). Suppia engages genre as well; taking on Carl Freedman's "Marxist analysis of the dialectics of science fiction and film noir," which "propose[s] that (good) science fiction cinema (of literary descent) is inflationary, that is, it propagates the ideal that 'life offers much more than expected,'" as opposed to film noir which does precisely the opposite (p. 214). According to Suppia, Sleep Dealer presents a balance of there being more to the world and there being less, and so it strikes a properly Marxian dialectical balance.

What this all amounts to is that Suppia makes a whole lot of compelling arguments each of which seems to fit into one or two very small academic niches, in a way that is relatively coherent. Which, for all its faults, doubles as a pretty succinct summary of Red Alert as a whole.

The first two chapters of Red Alert are good examples of this. In the first, "First Contact or Primal Scene: Communism Meets Real Socialism Meets Capitalism in Early Czechoslovak Science Fiction Cinema," Petra Hanáková goes into detail about two films from the early sixties, translated as Man from Outer Space (1962) and Icarus XB 1 (1963). According to Hanáková, "these two remain the only Czech films that depict people traveling into space" (p. 25). Hanáková's argument is that "both films center around the motif of first contact … but both diverge from their original and also generic aim to reflect on another confrontation: the direct encounter of humanity with itself in different stages of political and cultural development" (p. 26).

According to Hanáková, Man from Outer Space is "a rather conventional light comedy with only a few 'cardboard' special effects" (p. 30) which, despite this (and Hanáková's citation of one of the film's writers' intent to keep the film apolitical), focuses on "the mental, psychological growth of mankind toward the communist mindset" (p. 33). In Hanáková's summary, Man from Outer Space is about a man from our time traveling to the stars and back and landing five centuries in the future. This future society, where money has been abolished and work is done for personal and communal fulfillment, is confusing and disorienting to the protagonist, who is still inculcated with capitalist value systems. Icarus XB 1, on the other hand, is a film about a ship taking off to find signs of intelligent life, and which hinges on the discovery of a destroyed twentieth-century spaceship that the crew discovers and investigates. Hanáková's ability to frame these films with not just an analysis of the political economy of Czechoslovak cinema at the time, but also contemporaneous reviews and specific insights into narrative choices, in addition to the uniqueness of the films themselves, helps to expand the understanding of the position both cinema and science fiction had in communist states.

The second chapter, Eva Näripea's "Soviet and Post-Soviet Images of Capitalism: Ideological Fissures in Marek Piestrak's Polish-Estonian Coproductions," functions somewhat similarly, albeit with a slightly different scope. Näripea focuses on a specific director, Piestrak, whose international collaboration resulted in 1979's The Test of Pilot Pirx, 1987's Curse of Snakes Valley, and 1992's Tear of the Prince of Darkness. By focusing on a single director with a complicated relationship to any singular national cinema—but still firmly within a shared Soviet context—over a lengthy period of time, Näripea is able to discuss not only interesting, historical particularities, but bring to bear more broad understandings and critiques of the development of topics as various as economics and genre. In discussing the context of Piestrak's coproductions, for instance, Näripea discusses how "the Soviet film industry of the Brezhnev era was characterized by a conscious emphasis on the production of genre films, in pursuit of mass appeal … [without] losing track of the strategic role of cinema as a tool of enlightenment and indoctrination … In economic terms, major reforms were initiated in the Soviet film industry in the mid-1960s, which redefined spectators as consumers and films as commodities" (pp. 52-3). She continues, referring specifically to Poland: "The historical ferment of the second half of the 1980s coincided with further commercialization of the output on the one hand and a marked increase in films about past and present atrocities on the other, accompanied by abolishment of censorship, diversification of funding schemes, and decentralization of production models" (p. 53). By establishing these contexts, Näripea creates space to dive deep into the ways that camera movements reflect ideological themes or the particular kinds of misogyny that these films are constructed by.

The best of the essays in Red Alert is Mariano Paz's "Rags and Revolution: Visions of the Lumpenproletariat in Latin American Zombie Films." Paz offers a genuinely complex and interesting reading of Juan de los Muertos (2012), the first Cuban zombie film, and Plaga Zombie, an Argentinean trilogy made up of Plaga Zombie (1997), Plaga Zombie: Zona Mutante (2007), and Plaga Zombie Zona Mutante: Revolución Tóxica (2012). Like Hanáková's essay on Czechoslovakian space travel films, Paz can focus very closely on an underdeveloped genre within a particular national cinema with Juan de los Muertos, while still getting the broader, international understanding and temporal extent of Näripea's essay with the Plaga Zombie trilogy.

The Plaga Zombie trilogy, according to Paz, is not straightforward horror: in fact, the zombies themselves are pretty purely sfnal constructs, as pods for alien reproduction. Juan de los Muertos, on the other hand, does not identify the origin of the zombies, but instead has the film identify them as "political dissidents and 'imperialists'" (p. 242), according to the film's government, as well as "anarchists" (p. 244), with the protagonist misidentifying them with genre creations: "Juan and his friends attempt to eliminate them as if they were vampires, by driving a stake through their hearts. They reject the possibility they could be werewolves, though in any case they lack … the necessary silver out of which bullets could be made. But they do attempt to perform an exorcism on one of the zombies" (p. 242). In interpreting this, Paz allows for the possibility that "these misadventures may imply a critique of Cuba's isolation in contemporary world order (after all, who would not recognize a zombie nowadays?)," but pushes us to consider that instead, the movie is attempting "a self-conscious reflection on the difficulty of identifying and defining the zombie in metaphorical terms" (p. 242). Paz himself has already offered a reading of the zombie that discounts the images or metaphors too fraught for classification; he concludes that "if there is one thing zombies tend to have in common … it is that they are dressed in rags" (p. 232).

Paz's claim that these films in some way conflate the zombie with the lumpenproletariat—a Marxist term which refers to the destitute class of people who are neither bourgeois nor proletariat—hinges on his own aesthetic definition of the zombie. But he does not simply identify the one in the other and move on to a different topic, as many of the authors do in Red Alert. He takes this identification and builds on it in the local context in which he is working. For instance, Paz cites Sara Armegot's observation that the first zombie encountered in Juan of the Dead is wearing clothes that could be read as "those worn by inmates of the Guantanamo Bay prison" (p. 243), a fact that not only signals political engagement with the world but orbits around the fiction in ways including potentially bolstering the governmental claims of imperialism and a self-conscious desire to comment on the global isolation of Cuba. For the Plaga Zombie trilogy, Paz dives into the economics of Argentinean film production in order to contrast them with Farsa Producciones, the producers of the trilogy. Unlike the bulk of films made in Argentina which, according to Paz, rely on either government funding or foreign investment, Farsa eschews both of these things. He goes on to explain that "Farsa's films subvert not only Hollywood narratives and characters but also, and most importantly, institutionalized filmmaking practices, through its independent and exceptionally inexpensive approach. These countercultural strategies are enhanced further by the fact that all Farsa films, after initial releases in film festivals, are distributed free online, not illegally but through the company's official YouTube channel" (p. 241).

It is something of a shame, then, that Paz's "Rags and Revolution," which is so adept at capturing the particular in Marxism, in science fiction, and in cinema, is trapped in a book which seems incapable of deciding on anything other than that these things must be approached. At the same time, the essay shares company with articles that are crucial to a broader understanding of science fiction cinema under Marxism, like Hanáková's and Näripea's, as well as pleasant and informative pieces of Marxist readings of science fiction cinema like Mark Bould's "Paying Freedom Dues: Marxism, Black Radicalism, and Blaxploitation Science Fiction," Sherryl Vint's "The Biopolitics of Globalization in Damir Lukacevic's Transfer," and the earlier-discussed article on Sleep Dealer by Alfredo Suppia. Taken individually, the bulk of Red Alert: Marxist Approaches to Science Fiction Cinema is absolutely worth the time of anyone with any interest in the three subjects approached, whether scholarly or amateur. As a book, however, I find it hard to recommend, as flaws with organization, theory, and (presumably) editorial decisions loom over the whole, making each of the interesting aspects less so, and each of the grating more.

Endnotes

  1. The best example of a reading that potentially allows for this is Bootleg Girl's "Bootlegging the Matrix: In Which Bootleg Girl Explains The Matrix Sequels," a coherent reading of the films as an extended metaphor for coming out and living as a trans woman.[return]

 



Benjamin Gabriel lives on Island Demeter, where he writes across media. Find him on Twitter: @Benladen.
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