I often wonder how much attention I should play to politics in the evaluative elements of my reviewing. As someone who is normally quite cynically detached from the culture that surrounds me, I am –to borrow a turn of phrase from Peter Mandelson and thereby prove a point — intensely relaxed about the consumption of right-wing culture.
I can watch Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation just as easily as I watch Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. I can watch and appreciate these films because I take them all to be well-realised expressions of particular world-views. The fact that I have more personal sympathy for the politics of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning might encourage me to return to that film slightly more often and hold it in slightly higher regard but ugly politics are no impediment to the creation of beautiful films. At least in principle…
There are times when right-wing culture annoys me and those times are usually when the film is quite obviously tapping into existing trends in right-wing propaganda in order to connect with an audience. My go-to example for this type of thing is Ciaran Foy’s The Citadel, a low-budget horror film that draws on a variety of racist and classist stereotypes in its efforts to depict modern-day council estates as madness-flecked sink holes filled with feral dog-children who would just as soon rape you as smear faeces on your front door. This type of shit bothers me because these are notions that are still ‘live’ and still doing damage to the people who live and work on those council estates. Fascism and racism are still very real social problems but I feel that cultural politics have shifted far enough that it is easy to gain some distance from films about Nazis and Klansmen. This may be a reflection of my white privilege, but it is also how culture works… time and distance make it a lot easier to be objective.
An excellent example of this process at work is my review of Guy Green’s workplace drama The Angry Silence, which has now gone live on FilmJuice.
The film is set in a period of British history where capitalism had not yet been completely unbound. The story revolves around a factory-worker who is forced to choose between financial security and group loyalty when a communist agitator manipulates his local union into a series of wildcat strikes:
It is at this point that the film’s right-wing politics begin to manifest themselves as Curtis is positioned as a righteous individual standing up to both the inhuman collectivism of the working class and the selfishness of ruling elites who inexplicably single him out as a ‘lone wolf’ and general trouble maker. What makes the film right-wing is the way that it paints the working class as a collection of cowards, sheep and thugs. Easily manipulated by what would appear to be Soviet spies, they strike out of vanity and blind conformity rather than as a means of securing fairer wages or safer working conditions. The Angry Silence is not set in our world but in a parallel universe where capitalists increase wages, workers remove their own safety rails and still people turn out on strike. The situation explored in The Angry Silence is as much of a paranoid right-wing fantasy as the ticking terrorist time bomb that invariably serves to justify the use of torture… no wonder this film was universally praised by the right-wing press.
The Angry Silence is a piece of right-wing propaganda that aped the kitchen sink realism and working-class focus of the British New Wave at a time when those themes, methods and politics still had an audience. It’s not just that the film’s politics are wrong and harmful, it’s that the producers Richard Attenborough, Bryan Forbes, and Jack Rix took a set of tools devised to help set people free and used them to construct an argument in favour of the blasted neoliberal hellscape in which we are now collectively entombed. The Angry Silence is a well-made film in the same way as Triumph of the Will and The Birth of a Nation are well-made films in that it articulates its right-wing worldview with real panache in a film that is well-constructed, well-written and very well-performed.
The Angry Silence is a well-made piece of right-wing propaganda and the only reason I am able to enjoy it is because the argument the film participates in about the merits of collective action and group solidarity have now been lost. I can understand why the right-wing press praised this film and I can understand why the (then) predominantly left-wing film culture absolutely hated it. I hate what this film represents and yet I have enough distance from the argument that I am able to appreciate the skill with which its clauses and conclusions are laid out. Yet another good film in service of an ugly argument.