Mike Wayne reviews Allegories of The End of Capitalism: Six Films on the Revolutions of Our Times, by Milo Sweedler, Zero Books 2020
Milo Sweedler’s book is an unfailingly interesting and indeed fun read from start to finish. Focusing on six films which conjure with various images of revolt against capitalism and even with capitalism’s demise, Sweedler offers accessible and intelligent decodings of the films, contextualised by reference to key cultural thinkers and political scientists.
The six films selected are Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011), Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012), Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino, 2012), Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015), Elysium (Neil Blomkamp 2013) and Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013) by the director of Parasite (2020), the first non-English language film to win best picture at the Oscar.
For Sweedler, what unites this ‘diverse array of films’ (a point I will come back to later), is that ‘each of them allegorizes disenchantment with the neoliberal world order and proposes a vision of the system’s violent demise.’ (p.1). The notion that films are ‘allegories’ suggests that the stories and characters can be read as warnings or lessons of a moral-political kind about our situation. The term was popularised as a means for thinking about film by the Marxist cultural theorist Fredric Jameson. He began his career as a literary theorist, which perhaps explains why the term allegory, historically a literary form, crossed via him to film studies when he turned his attention to cinema. Of course, reading popular films in this way has a long pedigree. As early as 1948, Robert Warshow’s short essay ‘The Gangster as Tragic Hero’ explored this quintessential American film genre as a meditation on the ambivalent feelings around individualism, success, rational enterprise and brutality within American capitalism.
But in the 1970s, popular cinema within film studies was largely seen not as a way into such issues, but as an ideological operation that primarily worked to shore the social order up, valorising it and dealing with any problems within it in as contained a manner as possible. Fredric Jameson’s intervention, while not entirely breaking from that overall assessment of film, began to open up the possibility that film could also express popular anxieties about capitalism. It is this possibility of film giving (not so disguised) expression to the dangers of our times and the often unacknowledged sentiments of millions of people (unacknowledged by the mainstream news media for example as well as the political elites), which has become stronger in the decades since.
Globalisation, in the form of transnational corporations and supranational organisations such as the IMF, the World Bank, the EU, the World Trade Organisation, trade deals, etc., etc, have made visible the economic power and might of capital. The internet and digital communication tools have in turn facilitated the transnational circulation of images of revolt in response to the power of capital, as the international protests sparked by the death of George Floyd at the time of writing, suggest.
Sweedler begins his contemporary focus on the years since the 2011 Occupy movements that connected Tarir Square in Egypt with protests in America, Spain, the UK, Turkey and other places. This is the context in which to read the six films discussed here, only one of which was made by a North American (Tarantino). The chronology of the discussion suggests increasingly stark critiques of the capitalist order, the progression of a deeper and more generalised sense of crisis, the manifestation of large scale revolts, violent assaults on the symbolic representatives of the capitalist order and culminating in the revolutionary overthrow of ‘the system’ in Elysium and Snowpiercer.
It cannot be a bad sign that if you have not seen all the films discussed here, Sweedler’s discussion will likely spark your interest in doing so and if you have seen them, revisiting the films with the benefit of his analysis in mind. Sweedler weaves a range of key thinkers into his discussions, such as the aforementioned Fredric Jameson, Slavoj Žižek, David Harvey, Jacques Rancière, Naomi Klein, Mark Fisher and others. But he does so in a way that never feels clunky, but genuinely contextualises the films, making his political readings all the more plausible.
Sweedler’s text is perhaps illustrative of the very high cultural level that thinking about film as a contemporary and important art form has now reached. The detailed micro-attention to and sophistication of his reading of film form are two of the book’s many strengths. For example, he rescues Tarantino’s Django, a film which like much of that director’s output could disappear into a hole marked ‘de-politicised postmodernism’, by his attention to the meaning of the lead character’s changing sartorial presentation in the film, and how the costumes which Django wears, with their intertextual references to film and visual culture, are indeed helping to make politically acute points.
One might quibble with aspects of the book. In his determination to read these films as revolutionary parables, he perhaps plays down their limitations. For we have not quite passed into an altogether different era as the one that characterised film studies in the 1970s. Film still is entangled with ideologies. The two popular films the book concludes with, Elysium and Snowpiercer, clearly are tapping into fantasies and anxieties around capitalism and its overthrow, but only in quite broad brush strokes. They are arguably not attuned to the complexities of situations and processes, such as the emergence and consolidation of class consciousness and action, collective struggle, the contradictions within the system and to the difficulties involved in confronting it. Perhaps the film selection could have been a bit more diverse, going beyond films which, if they were not always made by Hollywood studios, are all English language films and did all circulate widely in and through Hollywood and its distribution system.
This however is a minor quibble. Sweedler’s book is a great read, lively and intelligent and will help people see that film is one way in which we can see the truth of Marx’s assertion that: ‘the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality.’