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Marx and the cinema: labour on screen

Den­nis Broe traces the his­to­ry of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of labour on screen, and finds inspi­ra­tion for cel­e­brat­ing May Day and con­tin­u­ing Marx’s strug­gle against cap­i­tal­ism.

This is Bro on the World Film Beat Break­ing Glass on the sub­ject of Marx and the cin­e­ma, as we approach May Day, a world­wide day of hon­our­ing labour, and falling this year just four days before the 200th anniver­sary of Karl Marx’s birth.

To talk about Marx is to talk about labour, since one of his main con­tri­bu­tions to econ­mics is his labour the­o­ry of val­ue, which reversed the typ­i­cal view of econ­o­mists, who saw val­ue cre­at­ed by the own­ers. Marx called these econ­o­mists ven­tril­o­quists (mouth­pieces) for cap­i­tal and instead pro­posed that val­ue was cre­at­ed by work­ers, and that cap­i­tal­ist val­ue amount­ed to what might be called social theft, steal­ing the time of the work­ers who were forced to work well beyond the hours need­ed for their sub­sis­tence. These excess hours, Marx said, were where prof­it was cre­at­ed. Cap­i­tal though did serve a func­tion in that it brought these work­ers togeth­er, con­glom­er­at­ed them in a way that actu­al­ly meant that all labour, rather than pri­va­tized and indi­vid­ual, was now social. It was just that cap­i­tal appro­pri­at­ed this labour and redis­trib­uted the prof­it from it into the hands of a wealthy few. And of course, in our day, that few is for­ev­er and rapid­ly shrink­ing.

Marx’s goal was “to ren­der the world more con­scious of itself,” that is, to make this process, which cap­i­tal­ist scribes had obscured, clear. If we start to speak of labour in the cin­e­ma and imag­ine how Marx would have con­ceived it, we might first look at a his­to­ry of rep­re­sen­ta­tion of labour on the screen, then a his­to­ry of off-screen labour, that is, of orga­niz­ing in the cin­e­ma which also affect­ed what appeared on the screen. Final­ly, we might look at how the cin­e­ma itself is an intense process of all kinds and lev­els of labour, which its own­ers con­tin­ue to efface, claim­ing that they are its ulti­mate cre­ators.

Labour on screen

The very first image to appear in the first pub­lic show­ing of any film is work­ers exit­ing a fac­to­ry, in this case in the 1895 screen­ing in Paris by the Lumiere Broth­ers of male and female work­ers stream­ing out of their father’s pho­to­graph­ic fac­to­ry in Lyon. The cam­era is set up in front of the exit and records the var­i­ous moods (elat­ed, morose, bored) and modes of trav­el (bicy­cle, foot, horse) of the exit­ing employ­ees. So labour takes front and cen­tre as the cin­e­ma begins and in many ways there has been a grad­ual process of eras­ing that image, shunt­ing it to the side and obscur­ing it.

Steven J. Ross in Work­ing Class Hol­ly­wood details how work­ers and unions orga­nized their pro­duc­tion hous­es in the ear­ly silent peri­od fol­low­ing the Lumieres, and how much a sub­ject class strug­gle was in these films. D.W. Griffith’s great­est film is per­haps the 1909 Cor­ner in Wheat which inter­cuts the poor strug­gling wheat farmer bare­ly mak­ing it from sea­son to sea­son because of the low price paid for his labour, the besieged con­sumers of wheat who once the mar­ket is cor­nered must pay an increased price for bread, and the spec­u­la­tor in wheat, the wheat king, who in the com­modi­ties mar­ket crush­es his foes by buy­ing all the wheat and then rais­es the price.

A fol­low-up, longer film titled Con­trast, direct­ed by Grif­fith actor Guy Hed­lund cross-cut the pover­ty of coal min­ers with the extrav­a­gant and lush lives of the own­ers of the mines. This is not even to men­tion the more overt depic­tion of worker’s strug­gles in Rus­sia after the Rev­o­lu­tion in Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike and Bat­tle­ship Potemkin.

Work­ers and their lives were a con­tin­u­al sub­ject until their sto­ries were pur­pose­ly struck from the screen with the com­ing of the Motion Pic­ture Pro­duc­ers’ Code, the Hayes Code, which along with inter­ra­cial rela­tions and more frank dis­plays of sex­u­al­i­ty essen­tial­ly for­bid work­ing-class modes of relat­ing and ush­ered in an era of a more white­washed mid­dle-class cin­e­ma in the mid­dle to late 1930s. This embar­go was bro­ken some­what as the crime film, the film noir, began again to deal now in a more dis­guised way with work­ers’ lives and atti­tudes, often around the law, which was con­stant­ly encroach­ing on them. This peri­od of re-emer­gence begins around 1940 with Warner’s film about truck­ers They Dri­ve By Night and con­tin­ued into the 1950s with Fritz Lang’s mur­der in the fish­ing or can­nery indus­try in Clash by Night.

This was the sto­ry in Hol­ly­wood but across the globe work­ers and their lives were emerg­ing onto the screen in the peri­od in France in the 1930s in what is called Poet­ic Real­ism, with Jean Renoir’s The Crime of Mon­sieur Lange about a pub­lish­ing col­lec­tive where the own­er returns to re-appro­pri­ate the prof­its of the col­lec­tive and is killed by the writer whose work has led to its suc­cess, and Mar­cel Carne’s Le Jour Se Leve, which has fac­to­ry work­er Jean Gabin, who is dying slow­ly from the fac­to­ry fumes, instead gunned down in a sud­den burst of vio­lence by the police for his destruc­tion of a jeal­ous bour­geois type who attempts to ruin his life.

The film was remade in the U.S. under the title Day­break with Hen­ry Fon­da, a work­er pro­to­type from his role in Grapes of Wrath. There were also out­bursts of work­ing-class or mid­dle-class fugi­tives in trou­ble with the law in Britain (They Made Me a Fugi­tive). In Italy, the neo-real­ist move­ment dealt more direct­ly with the lives of the poor in such films as Vit­to­rio de Sica’s tril­o­gy of the three ages of humans: Shoeshine, about des­ti­tute boys in the street; Bicy­cle Thief, about an unem­ployed work­er in the prime of his life with a last chance at sal­va­tion which fails; and Umber­to D. about an old-aged pen­sion­er try­ing to pay his rent. In Japan Aki­ra Kuro­sawa in Drunk­en Angel and Stray Dog high­light­ed Japan­ese pover­ty and Ken­ji Mizoguchi in The Vic­to­ry of Women and Street of Shame focused on the role of female work­ers in a patri­ar­chal soci­ety.

The McCarthy anti-com­mu­nist witch­hunt in Hol­ly­wood which spread across the globe again tried to cur­tain these out­bursts and erase them from the screen. But con­cerns with labour reemerged in the wake of the 1960s cul­tur­al and social upheaval in the U.S. in such films as The Mol­ly Maguires about a secret soci­ety of Irish work­ers in the Penn­syl­va­nia coal fields and lat­er in Nor­ma Rae about the union­iz­ing activ­i­ties of a female tex­tile work­er. This film though, in 1979, was on the cusp of the neolib­er­al peri­od in which the cin­e­mat­ic focus was and has remained much more on the own­ers and the elite, with work­ers or the major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion now seen as a spe­cial inter­est group.

This has been coun­tered by film­mak­ers whose sub­ject has remained the work­ing class, with the most pro­lif­ic and most com­mit­ted of these being Ken Loach. His cin­e­ma is also crit­i­cal of the way the work­ing class has con­tributed to its own demise in films like Fam­i­ly Life, about the sti­fling of a young girl to make her ready for fac­to­ry labour, and the vast­ly under­rat­ed It’s a Free World about how the entre­pre­neur­ial log­ic destroys work­ing-class modes of col­lec­tiviza­tion.

Labour off screen

The cin­e­ma also has a long his­to­ry of its own work­ers, like those in the Lumiere pho­tog­ra­phy plant, orga­niz­ing for their rights. This ranges from the Hol­ly­wood screen­writ­ers’ con­tract in the 1930s, and the begin­ning of the cre­ation of the cre­ative work­ers’ col­lec­tives, to a cru­cial strike by the Dis­ney car­toon­ists in the ear­ly 1940s, and the orga­ni­za­tion of painters and oth­er trade work­ers called the CSU, which around the end­ing of World War II closed Warn­ers and oth­er stu­dios, before being black­list­ed in the HUAC and McCarthy peri­ods. In Japan like­wise, after the war, film work­ers struck at the major stu­dio Toho and closed it for a num­ber of months, cel­e­brat­ing their own inde­pen­dence inside the stu­dio gates before being threat­ened to be bombed by Gen­er­al MacArthur and the U.S. author­i­ties.

Final­ly, the cin­e­ma process­es them­selves are the cre­ation of a col­lec­tive of work­ers, often con­cealed with­in the cor­po­rate frame­work of the stu­dio. One of the great tech­ni­cal cre­ations of Hol­ly­wood was The Wiz­ard of Oz which is often talked about as the crown­ing achieve­ment of the stu­dio sys­tem, and of it epit­o­me, MGM. A cru­cial scene, which begins in black and white has Dorothy then open­ing the door of a drab Kansas house to reveal the panora­ma of col­ors and flo­ra that is Oz, shown in a crane shot that high­lights the work of a whole range of cin­e­ma tech­ni­cians and is more a trib­ute to the labour of these stu­dio work­ers than to the stu­dio itself.

Part of the work that is effaced in the con­tem­po­rary era is the work of the spec­ta­tor who in the Net­flix scheme is con­stant­ly pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion on them­selves that is then fed back to them in view­ing sug­ges­tions, with the data also used to rope in ever more view­ers.

Marx’s solu­tion to all this was to note that the new chal­lenge, after cap­i­tal­ism had cen­tral­ized work but kept the prof­its in the hands of a few was, in the final stage, the expro­pri­a­tion of the “ill-got­ten gains of this lit­tle num­ber of usurpers by the mass of peo­ple.” As May Day dawns, and as the inter­net draws us all clos­er and con­tin­ues to cen­tral­ize our work, by look­ing to the his­to­ry of labour in the cin­e­ma we may find the hope and per­haps the means of con­tin­u­ing the eco­nom­ic, polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al strug­gles strug­gles against an ever more rapa­cious and ever more bel­li­cose few that in their des­per­a­tion are becom­ing more and more dan­ger­ous to the rest of the world.

This is Bro on the World Film Beat sign­ing off and wish­ing every­one a Hap­py May Day.

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