The Heritage of Political Modernism

Alex Juhasz did not like The Social Network:
I’ve written extensively here about the mis-steps of the usually celebrated terrain of convergence: the too easy, sloppy, ill-conceived contemporary media moves between documentary, fiction, and hybrid back again. To my mind, Social Network is a textbook case for why I’d rather wait for what can be best delivered by a plain old doc....

In fictionalizations of contemporary real-life, even with great screenwriters and directors in charge, and fine actors playing the parts, or perhaps because of them, the complexities and contradictions of the real social networks of daily living, business codes, and personality get conveniently and conventionally condensed into types (nerd, socially adept entrepreneur, playboy), themes (unsatisfied sexual desire, male bonding), and (three act) structures that gut people and activities of the confusing, amorphous messiness that defines real life—and makes it so pleasurable to watch in a good documentary (and so hard to live well).
Like Juhasz, I value what a good documentary can do and recognize that documentary has, among other things, an economy of analysis impossible in even the most intellectual of narrative films. I mostly disagree with her assessment of narrative, because I think narrative film has a value, both as an aesthetic form and as popular culture.

Disagreement aside, I was drawn to Alex's post because it so clearly expresses a political modernist critique, very much of the sort championed by 1970s film theorists like Colin MacCabe, Laura Mulvey, or Stephen Heath. You do occasionally see it today - E. Ann Kaplan's work on historical trauma is a good example - but not all that often. Cultural studies and the historicist turn in film studies each from their own direction challenged the monolith of the spectator and the model of the classic realist text. Arguably, newer theoretical readings are sneaking political modernism in through the back door by privileging art cinema and a certain philosophically-inflected spectatorship. But rarely do I see scholars explicitly argue for political modernism.

Which does not necessarily make Juhasz wrong, of course, since unfashionable ideas can be right. Rather, it makes me wonder if I overestimate the consensus in the discipline on these matters. What is the heritage of political modernism in film studies today? This might be a good occasion to revisit D.N. Rodowick.


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