JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2014, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 56, winter 2014-2015

Hollywood and counter-cinema:
the roots of Jump Cut (1985)

by Peter Steven

Jump Cut. The Book.   

In 1985 I had the pleasure of editing an anthology of articles selected from Jump Cut’s first ten years. The book included a short introduction which sketched out my thoughts on the magazine’s origins, its strengths, and its contribution to film education.[1] [open notes in new window]

The anthology brought together what I felt were some of the strongest articles from the magazine, covering many topics and countless films. Even at that point in Jump Cut’s history I was struck by the enormous amount of material. It was certainly a difficult task to select only a few pieces from such wealth. To reflect that, the cover featured children from Chicago, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and women in Nicaragua—film stills from In the Best Interests of the Children, directed by Elizabeth Stevens, Astaire and Rogers in Barkleys of Broadway, by Charles Waters, and Women in Arms, by Victoria Schultz.

Now, thirty years later that array of strong writing from countless international film scholars represents a significant achievement for the magazine and its three founding editors.

There’s no easy way to sum up the changes in the world of Film Studies since then. No way that I could easily ‘update’ my introduction.  I’m buoyed by a quote from Thomas King’s new book, The Inconvenient Indian, which he dubs a “chronical” because, he says, “history is like herding porcupines with your elbows.”[2]

Perhaps, however, a few elements stand out a little clearer about the magazine’s ongoing value. From the first issue Jump Cut has performed a delicate balancing act (a dancing dialectic if you prefer) between independence and commitment. Independence from the state, from institutions, from advertisers, and from the dominant film industry, yet paired with a commitment to the social and political movements working to change society.

Specifically, here’s what we can find over the forty years:

Another long-time editor, Victor Navasky of The Nation, writes in his memoir A Matter of Opinion that his main task was to “dispel the myths about small magazines of opinion…”  That their circulations are “too small to be significant,” that “they preach only to the converted,” that they are “perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy,” that “their shrillness limits their audience, that they lack credibility because they take ideologically driven positions.”[3]

This act of dispelling should be applied to Jump Cut as well. To me, the magazine’s longevity and success go a long way to disprove those myths.

Jump Cut stands for the commitment to the original goals of left-wing film studies. In other words, popular education for the 99% (what we used to call the “masses.”)

And what’s so important about popular film education from a left perspective? 

Because commentators, and reviewers, industry touts, and the fashion industry—on-and-on, tell us every day of the week how to interpret what we see, pushing their ideologies, their values and goals.

Because the public, not merely graduate film students, are keenly interested in knowing more.

Because all of us are drowning in the cultural values of the dominant media. We need the tools for coping with this deluge, just as much as in the 1970s heyday of media literacy.

Notes
(2014)

1. The book was certainly helped to a healthy life by its striking cover conceived by my father, Arthur Steven, a celebrated book designer. [return to text]

2. Thomas King, The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Toronto: Random House, 2012).

3. Victor Navasky, A Matter of Opinion (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

Hollywood and counter-cinema:
the roots of Jump Cut (1985)

Jump Cut: Hollywood, Politics and Counter Cinema, edited Peter Steven, Toronto: Between the Lines Press, 1985. 400 pages.

"JESUS Elegant $71,000
Seattle Oct. 3, 1979.
The rains have arrived, sparking first run grosses. Also providing a lift this week are some snappy newcomers. JESUS, Warner's religioso release, is pacing the B.O. race with a great $56,000 at four Seattle hardtops. "— Variety

Variety magazine and its rave reports of “box office magic” represent the voice of dominant cinema. It’s a voice magnified many times over: Hollywood, Wall Street, People and the vast machinery of other mainstream U.S. media have the money and the clout to cast it into every nook and cranny of North America and around most of the planet.

But at the same time there are other, different voices — different languages — calling for radically new types of films, and for a new approach to cinema. These voices don’t have the backing of Wall Street and Madison Avenue but they are present nevertheless and very active in parallel nooks and crannies in North America and beyond, and especially in the Third World. Some of those voices can be found in this book.

Hollywood talks about product. The writers here talk about specific audiences and how certain films produce a particular blend of art and ideology. They call for a political criticism of the cinema.

Of course, this analysis doesn’t come out of thin air. It represents the logical parallel and catalyst for a number of cinema movements that have emerged worldwide to challenge Hollywood and the dominant media. Over the last 15 years radical Third World filmmakers, the women’s movement, gays and lesbians, and the independent left in North America have produced four strong alternatives to the mainstream cinema. In fact, these four movements of film activity stand for more than an alternative. Because all four embody political movements that challenge the dominant society, and because many of the key films consciously challenge conventions of style and approach in dominant cinema, they are often referred to as counter-cinema.

Political films are most often associated with the great European directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, Bernardo Bertolucci, Andrzej Wajda and Margarethe von Trotta. I have no wish to dispute this orientation. Works as diverse as Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) and Godard’s Tout Va Bien (1971) will continue to influence the European political scene and world cinema. But we need to extend the political-film category and recognize that movements of radical filmmaking are flourishing in other parts of the world. This book concentrates on three areas—North America, Africa and Latin America.

Independent political filmmakers in North America are less well known and generally work on a much more modest scale than their European counterparts. Sometimes they have been completely ignored or misrepresented by the critical establishment. But I would insist that their work is no less important. Stylistically it is inventive; politically it is rooted in the major conflicts of our era; and above all it has found devoted and growing audiences. In scale of operation, Third World cinema lies somewhere between North America and Europe. The new African and Cuban cinemas especially have found large audiences in their home countries and some of the filmmakers work with substantial budgets. They are as a result often better known than most North American independents, yet they receive little of the critical or industry support accorded the Europeans.

A few major films from these counter-cinemas are widely known: for example, the documentaries of U.S. filmmaker Emile de Antonio, such as In the Year of the Pig on Vietnam (1968) and Millhouse (1971) on Richard Nixon; Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, U.S.A. (1975); the feature films of Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene; or Diego de la Texera’s El Salvador: The People Will Win (1981). But these works also form part of much broader movements of filmmakers and audiences. The films coming out of these movements tend to lack funding, adequate distribution, and a mass audience (in Hollywood terms). But the connections of this counter-cinema to a social and political base plus the conviction and inventiveness of many of the filmmakers guarantee a continued growth in the years ahead.

There is a wealth of such films and filmmakers: from the innovative Film and Photo League in the United States of the Depression era; to the feminist cinema of Chantal Akerman and Michelle Citron in the 1980s; the comic avant-garde of Jan Oxenberg; or the documentary work of Joris Ivens in revolutionary Cuba and the grassroots video in the new Nicaragua. This body of filmmaking and the political movements represented have provided a subversive counterpoint to the work and experience of the dominant cinema.

The magazine Jump Cut not only emerged as part of the course of these counter-cinemas, but also helped to shape their direction and analysis. At the same time it offered an important new political and social critique of the dominant cinema, a critique that benefited greatly from its juxtaposition—or integration—with the traditions and practices of radical filmmaking and politics. Jump Cut's style and approach found their source and inspiration in both the political activity of the New Left of the 1960s and selected older views on film and culture developed by the Old Left of the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time—and just as importantly—these political roots were supplemented by the specific evolving practice of filmmakers aligned with those movements. That practice, in conjunction with the politics, led to the left counter-cinema that continues to thrive today.

The roots of Jump Cut: the New Left

Jump Cut's low-budget appearance, tabloid format and plain graphic style exemplify its New Left origins. Cartoon and irreverent humor, usually directed towards more solemn film publications, maintain the counter-cultural style and feel associated with the underground press of the 1960s. But the magazine’s New Left roots run deeper than that.

Jump Cut prides itself on being absolutely independent of political parties and institutions. The magazine receives only minimal advertising revenue. But its financial independence does not imply a purely subjective agenda lacking connections to other movements and groups in society. Rather, Jump Cut sees itself as accountable to a whole range of independent left and women’s groups and activities. Unlike the 1930s, when most progressive politics in the United States centered on the Communist Party, the industrial unions, and the New Deal, political debate and activity since the 1960s have revolved around specific coalitions: a diverse set of complexities and contradictions often referred to as The Movement. The contrasting political notions of independence and accountability established within this movement have set up a dynamic tension for Jump Cut's politics and aesthetics. This tension provides a unifying force for the magazine’s editorials, and a context — though often unrecognized — for much of the critical writing.

As an offshoot of the U.S. New Left, Jump Cut remains strongly critical of academia. During a period filled with campus revolts over the Vietnam War, the New Left directed a vigorous attack against the entire educational system, especially the lack of contact between university learning and the serious issues facing U.S. society. Students and radical academics began to question the traditional division of disciplines, and the disregard for women’s and Third World history, for African American, Latino, Native and Asian American cultures. In addition to this, film and media studies in general presented new problems that did not fit tidily within the conventional boundaries of academia.

Therefore, Jump Cut continually attempts to widen the kinds of discourse appropriate to serious film criticism. The articles in this book on film-use for political activists (Julia Lesage on Central American films), on the experience of various audiences (Claire Whitaker on lesbian viewers), and on film teaching (Michelle Citron and Ellen Seiter) all attest to this goal of pushing film study into a broader context than usual for academics.

There is a difference, however, between anti-academic and anti-intellectual. An anti-intellectual stance often rejects attempts to theorize from everyday or popular experience. The ideology of populism supports that stance and considers popular culture naively, as a true reflection of popular tastes and ideals. In Jump Cut a healthy disdain for populism runs through most of the writing, a disdain directed especially at the “popular cultism” so readily available in film magazines. It is a form of populism found not just in the “fanzines.”

In the early issues Jump Cut made a point of taking Hollywood seriously, including a limited acceptance of genre studies and auteur theory (see in particular John Hess’s two-part critique of French auteurism in Nos. 1 and 2, 1974). A number of articles dissected the cycle of Youth Culture Films fashionable at the end of the 1960s. This made sense to the editors and followed from their background in the New Left and its interest in popular culture. The editorial in Jump Cut No. 2 outlined the editors’ basic approach to Hollywood:

"A true radical criticism must understand the role of entertainment in society and recognize uncomplicated amusement as a worthy human activity.

We are especially wary of two fallacies frequently held by radical intellectuals interested in film. The first is to see Hollywood films as the most direct type of indoctrination: a kind of propaganda for the status quo which is mindlessly swallowed by the mass audience. This is not only wrong, it is elitist, for it implies that the critic by virtue of his or her radical and/or intellectual nature is insulated from the effects of commercial films, while common people are totally naive in their viewing. The second fallacy—an inverse of the first—assumes that films are unimportant because “politics” is more important than “culture” (as if the two could be readily separated in practice), or because films are just distractions. But clearly Hollywood films are a significant part of bourgeois ideological hegemony. And as such they influence the consciousness with which objective conditions are perceived."

It seems appropriate then to begin this book with a study of Hollywood, because Jump Cut’s first two years were characterized by attempts to grapple with that bastion of culture and ideology: the dominant cinema.

From the first issue Jump Cut also took up feminism, the politics of racism, and the role of liberation movements in the Third World. This clearly represented a shift away from the Old Left’s hopes for revolution based largely on the working class. Jump Cut’s more broadly defined sense of politics has, if anything, become more pronounced in subsequent issues. The exchange between Chuck Kleinhans and Tom Waugh on gay male politics in Part Four shows this development and provides an example of self-criticism and the conscious evolution of the magazine. Where the Old Left’s cultural criticism might have subsumed most political issues into class dynamics, Jump Cut argues for healthy diversity within the left.

As part of the New Left, Jump Cut has criticized the Communist Party U.S.A., not so much for its position on the Soviet Union, but rather for the narrowness of its cultural theory and the secretive tactics of the party in the Popular Front Days. Thus many articles and editorial comments stress the need for a more open politics. For example, the essay by Linda Gordon on Union Maids in Part Two criticizes the film for accepting the timidity of the Old Left and suppressing the CP background of the three women organizers who star in the film. In addition, the editorial in Jump Cut No. 2, quoted above, makes it clear that one of the magazine’s main aims has been to argue for the political nature of culture. The Chinese Cultural Revolution exerted a strong influence here, and on the rejection by most Jump Cut writers of the orthodox base-superstructure model of Marxism as rigidly applied in most Soviet aesthetics.

Yet Jump Cut as a New Left project was certainly not cut off from the political and cultural debates of the 1930s and 1940s. There are deep roots here as well. As editor John Hess puts it,

“The search for a bridge was very conscious. We felt that the dismissal and ignorance of the Old Left by the New Left was a mistake.”

The roots of Jump Cut: the Old Left

Jump Cut retains many elements of the Old Left’s cultural criticism. Nearly all its writers adhere to a class analysis of U.S. society, despite differences in emphasis about class boundaries and the potential of various class fractions. Of course, the concept of social class means different things to different writers. The leap from simply recognizing class to analyzing cultural institutions and the role of artists in class terms involves a more precise theoretical and empirical understanding. Nevertheless, for nearly all the essays in this book, the basis for studying texts and audiences rests on categories of social class.

An important distinction can be made here between social-democratic and socialist analysis. Social democrats often recognize the existence of class divisions in society; socialists take this one step further and argue that class divisions also inevitably produce class conflict and struggle. The distinction between these two kinds of analysis seldom appears explicitly in the articles in this book, but the tension between the positions of class-in-itself and class conflict often arises as the authors wrestle with questions of ideology, the role of progressive artists in Hollywood, and the tensions between nationalism and socialism in Third World cinema.

A specifically socialist approach to class and culture also emerges. The use of class analysis by the writers in this book often leads to a series of related questions. For instance, does the class outlook of artists visibly affect their work? How does the class nature of the film industry affect the content and style of particular films? Can contradictions in works of art be related to class contradictions? Do class differences among audiences affect the character and very existence of film genres? How do class differences among audiences determine the meanings of specific films, or the ways a film functions in society? The essay on working-class heroes by Chuck Kleinhans, in Part One, lays out an approach to many of these questions of social class and begins to weave a thread that runs throughout the rest of the book.

It is difficult to generalize about the traditions of Marxist aesthetics, but three groups of writers stand out. Clearly, Brecht, Lukács and Sartre tower above all others as major artists and theorists for the twentieth century. They make up one group that also includes many important iconoclasts, humanists, and Utopians, who have all found in Marxism a vital source for their creative and critical work. A second body of more orthodox writing, deriving from Soviet models, is elaborated in the film criticism of Harry Alan Potamkin, John Howard Lawson and Irwin Silber. These critics’ analyses of popular cinema pay considerable attention to the specifics of the medium, and many of the questions they addressed remain important in the 1980s. Lawson in particular was astute in relating thematic trends in Hollywood to concurrent issues in the society at large. A third group, usually only party hacks, has had little interest in the specific qualities and emotions of art production. They merely apply generalized Marxist concepts onto the cinema with little regard for specific films and real audiences. To my mind Jump Cut writers have inherited both the legacy of the iconoclasts and some of the baggage of the orthodox.

Many writers within the Marxist tradition have emphasized the need to study particular works, usually making an attempt to trace connections and parallels between art production and society at large. Here there are essentially two areas of concentration: studies of great bourgeois artists (Marx on Balzac, Lenin on Tolstoy, Lukács on Scott); and studies of work in popular genres and traditions, such as folk music, the music hall and the early cinema (Brecht and Benjamin on working-class entertainments, Eisenstein on Chaplin and Griffith).

By and large Jump Cut writers have eschewed the high-art, great-artist orientation, in fact going some distance to debunk cherished icons — especially the “fathers” of the world cinema. Julia Lesage’s essays on Jean Renoir’s La Regle du Jeu and D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (the latter included here) provide models for the reworking of great-artist studies within the sphere of Marxist-feminist criticism.

The traditional Marxist interest in popular working-class entertainments becomes greatly extended within Jump Cut, as part of a general post-war trend towards more comprehensive definitions of art itself. Many Jump Cut writers refer back to earlier questions posed by Marxists concerning popular art, and extend that analysis onto a broader terrain. John Howard Lawson would never have written about Shirley Temple, and so Charles Eckert’s essay “Shirley Temple and the House of Rockefeller” reveals a clear break with the past. Yet Eckert develops a number of issues well known to earlier radical critics. For example, he aims to trace connections (however complex) between Shirley’s capacity for love and the ideological needs of the U.S. ruling class in the 1930s. In another vein, writers tracing the growths of Third World cinema point to ways in which filmmakers have used popular and traditional forms to create new works of decolonized art. The essays by Clyde Taylor and Julianne Burton emphasize the overwhelming power of cultural imperialism yet they also stress the forms of resistance embedded in much Third World popular culture.

The realism-naturalism debate—a series of questions that stretches back to the writings of Marx and Engels—remains alive in many of the essays in this volume. These debates over realism grapple with creative representations of the world, both in description and in tendentiousness: the class viewpoint. Classic Marxist aesthetics draws a distinction between two types of description. There is naturalism, a form of empiricism in art, which is satisfied to record, describe, or document observable phenomena; and there is realism, an approach that attempts to document structures and patterns not necessarily immediate or observable. Much of the film criticism in Jump Cut rests on this kind of distinction. For example, in her criticism of “Positive Images” in Part Three, Diane Waldman places that distinction between naturalism and realism at the heart of her argument.

However, for many of the writers here, a work of realism also goes beyond documentation to provide analysis from a clear social point of view. For some Marxists in the past, art with a social point of view led straight into the den of Socialist Realism; for others, then and now, realism need not correspond with any one set of formal approaches. Radical filmmakers themselves confounded easy definitions of realism, of what revealed and raised consciousness, of what worked and what didn’t. So, one further set of roots should be examined in order to know the context in which Jump Cut originally appeared. It is a context that continues to nourish the magazine.

The roots of Jump Cut:
a documentary and experimental renaissance

In the 1960s lightweight 16mm cameras and tape recorders became widely available, quickly followed by Super 8 in 1965 and portable video in 1968. These developments coincided with and stimulated the renewed interest in documentary films of all kinds, an interest that had been underway since the advent of cinema verite and direct cinema in the late 1950s. The combination of technological developments and the documentary renaissance crystallized in at least three movements of radical film practice in the early 1970s, which in turn formed the basis for the more fully developed counter-cinema later in the decade.

One movement emerged from the growing opposition to the Vietnam war and was fed by a critique of the way the dominant media handled not only the war but also the opposition itself. Thus the attempt to document and explain the anti-war movement was the immediate aim of the Newsreel documentary group formed just after the 1967 March on the Pentagon. As John Hess argues in his essay on U.S. radical film in Part Two, Newsreel was a catalyst for a rebirth in left filmmaking, which had been dormant since the 1940s. Many of the people involved in the late 1960s remain active today, building a counter-cinema that can trace a direct lineage to the early Newsreel group.

Second, the women’s movement quickly grasped the value of documentary filmmaking—especially the observational style. In the late 1960s and early 1970s many feminist documentaries were produced—a form that especially encouraged the technique of drawing on the speech of women in the “real world.” Of course, women took up narrative and experimental work as well, as Ruby Rich points out in her article “In the Name of Feminist Film Criticism.” But these early documentaries were especially important, states Rich, because of the "validative” role they played in emphasizing the faces, relations, and speech of women previously ignored by Hollywood and the male avant-garde. By 1974, the year Jump Cut started, a solid base for left and feminist film and distribution had been established.

Finally, the 1960s saw a tremendous upsurge in documentary filmmaking in the Third World. In addition to the great anticolonial movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the introduction in the Third World of the new lightweight equipment encouraged filmmakers to document the cultures around them, celebrate their rich history, and communicate with others. These new forms of film practice have been a direct stimulus to the criticism and theory produced by Jump Cut writers.

In addition to documentary production, another very different connection was created from the incredible energy of experimental and avant-garde filmmakers. They stirred up new interest in questions of film aesthetics, radical form and content, sexuality, and visual literacy, questions that many Jump Cut writers have found provocative for political filmmaking and criticism. The relations between the demands of political criticism and experimental work have often been tense, but the influence of experimental cinema has perhaps played more of a role in the magazine than has been acknowledged. It’s a subject for further discussion.

Counter-cinema of the independent left

In the 1980s, Jump Cut's areas of concern are somewhat broader than those associated with its origins and antecedents. Many issues of film theory, such as the meaning and applicability of semiology and psychoanalysis, are a source of continuing debate within the magazine, and at the same time the magazine has continued to explore the new openings in the political environment and radical film movements: the counter-cinemas.

Since the mid-1970s it has been possible to talk of a left counter-cinema: a cinema practice that looks to and identifies with political movements in society and has developed a conscious critique of the dominant media. Above all, the counter-cinema has produced a tremendous range of films. The essays in Part Two illustrate these achievements.

The film Union Maids (1977) provides the best-known example of the entire movement. Union Maids is certainly not a radical film in form, but in it Julia Reichert and Jim Klein created a structure and tone of oral history that proved to be an immensely fruitful model for many filmmakers. Also, the film continues to be widely distributed and often used explicitly as a work that challenges the dominant media through its socialist-feminist point of view and its emphasis on oral history rather than Voice of God narration.

Third World Newsreel stands as an equally important achievement. In an interview with Sherry Millner, Newsreel member Christine Choy, a major figure in left film since the early 1970s, raises many of the vital issues of left counter-cinema. She speaks, for example, of funding problems, of the pressures for a slicker style, of racism in the media and on the left.

There has also been a feeling of renaissance in black cinema in the United States, yet the wide range of work being produced by African American filmmakers has not yet gained the critical attention it deserves. This is partly due to neglect and partly because the black cinema is generally not oriented to the same cultural sources as the white left. As Clyde Taylor argues, many filmmakers of color have preferred to work with fictional or mixed documentary forms, to a greater degree than white independent filmmakers. Because of these differences it remains difficult to generalize about left counter-cinema across the board—no one style dominates.

Part Two concludes with two pieces on the Quebec film A Wives’ Tale (1980), certainly one of the strongest and most complex works of political cinema made in North America in the 1970s. Both the essay and the interview with the filmmakers stress the relationship that was built up between the filmmakers and the working-class women who were the subject of the film. The political background of the women’s movement and close relations with the women in the film encouraged the filmmakers to examine the complexities of the union, the families, and the women’s group with a sophistication that is rare in documentary filmmaking.

Yet despite the strength of these films and their widespread use in political and community organizing there has been little critical attention paid to their specific strategies as films. In contrast to the theory and criticism devoted to narrative fiction and experimental work, documentary criticism is underdeveloped. Also neglected is the whole question of film-use by various audiences: how political documentaries succeed or fail in arguing their case and engaging spectators.

The articles here point the way forward to this kind of critical work and suggest strategies for the future.

Women's counter-cinema

An emphasis on Jump Cut’s left-wing character does not, however, do justice to the magazine’s feminism. At the time of its formation Jump Cut was strongly influenced by the magazine Women and Film, produced in California. That publication was a source of ideas as well as a compatible project, and in fact some of the same people were involved in both journals. The demise of Women and Film in 1975 probably went unnoticed by most Jump Cut readers, but certainly galvanized Jump Cut's editors to pay more systematic attention to feminist criticism. Since then there has been a steady advance in feminist cinema debate: from women’s responses to male-dominated film production to a film criticism based firmly on women’s concerns.

The debate in feminist film has grown in scope as well, developing feminist theory around woman as spectator. Of course these developments aren’t unique to Jump Cut. They’ve taken place against a background of the growing power of the women’s movement. What is impressive, as the essays in this book show, is the range of serious work, including criticism arising from the experience and political struggles of lesbian artists and audiences. 1 think it is important to stress this range; discussion on a number of fronts has always been a goal for the women writing in Jump Cut. For example, in an article not published here, Sara Halprin argues strongly for such a range of interests in her critique of a “dominant discourse” of feminist criticism. Halprin disputes histories of feminist criticism that set up an absolute progression from “sociological” approaches to “structural, semiotic, psychoanalytic theory.” (See “Writing in the Margins,” Jump Cut No. 29, 1984.) In this volume. Ruby Rich’s groundbreaking essay provides a model of openness to many different types of feminist cinema. It is a model of advocacy as well, urging feminists to study and to “name” women’s films in all their variety lest they be lost in the margins.

The essays in Part Three argue on a number of levels for the need to develop theory based both on women’s personal experience and on a wide political agenda. All the writers reject a simplistic sociology and emphasize the specificity of cinema as a practice and an institution. Yet they retain a commitment to take social contexts seriously, and this results in a continual widening of the areas of discourse appropriate to feminist criticism.

Many Jump Cut editorials have pushed to establish socialist-feminist criteria for all cinema practice—from North American avant-garde to Third World documentaries, from filmmaking to film viewing. In addition, the editors have sought the writing of women from different fields, not only those who have specialized in the film-theory jungle of academia. The writing in this book reflects those aims. The women’s movement and feminist theory have influenced the essays in all five parts.

Gay and lesbian counter-cinema

A new era of openly gay and lesbian politics and film began after New York’s Stonewall riots of 1969. By the mid-1970s many films from the perspective of the gay and lesbian liberation movements had been produced. In criticism too, an exciting process of rediscovery and re-evaluation of homosexual artists in Hollywood and the avant-garde was well under way.

Jump Cut No. 16, published in 1977, featured a Special Section on gay men and film. The collectively written editorial, which was the first treatment of gay cinema in the magazine, argued for the need to take up gay and lesbian criticism within the left:

“Active support for lesbian and gay male liberation emerges as a logical concomitant of the feminist struggle against patriarchy.”

But this process of the magazine “coming out” had not been without difficulties. In the introduction to the Special Section, editor Chuck Kleinhans summarized the history:

"While Jump Cut has already published the work of lesbian critics, submissions have been fairly rare—not surprisingly given the seemingly straight identification of the publication and given the left-wing political orientation of Jump Cut which doubtless further restricts possible contributions. ...

Few radical lesbians see writing film criticism for a magazine whose readers are mostly straights as a priority issue. ...

But, if it is difficult for straights of both sexes and particularly men to publicly take a position on sexual politics today, it is also essential that one try to do so."

Two main themes emerge from these statements:

1. The lesbian and gay movements of the 1970s, including the issues connected to film and critical practice, stem from and remain closely connected to the women’s movement.

2. The issues of lesbian and gay cinema must involve more than support for the civil rights of minorities. Filmmakers and critics must address the whole question of the patriarchy—an ideology and set of institutions that affect all sexual relations.

The cinema plays a crucial role in constantly recreating a sexist and anti-gay social fabric. In particular, two areas of daily life—sex-role stereotypes and a narrowly defined family ideology—are often learned and reinforced primarily through films and television. For these reasons, criticism of Hollywood and the construction of lesbian and gay counter-cinemas are of crucial importance to the entire left.

The authors of “Lesbians and Film,” in Part Four, give specific reasons for their work:

"Creation of a lesbian film criticism is particularly urgent, given the intensified use of the lesbian as a negative sign in Hollywood movies and the continuing space assigned to lesbians as gratification of male fantasy in pornography and a distressing number of male avant-garde films....

There is the lesbian as villainess... the lesbian as vampire, both metaphorically... and quite literally... in the genre of lesbian vampire movies. There is the brutal bull dyke."

The article goes on to treat the major issues facing lesbian criticism and the goals of a counter-cinema, including the desire for, and problems with, positive images; the open representation of sexuality; the role of lesbian filmmakers within the avant-garde; the use of traditional versus experimental cinematic forms.

Third world counter-cinema

The articles collected here on Third World cinema represent another driving force behind Jump Cut's project as a whole, particularly in the 1980s. Since the 1979 Bard College Conference on U.S. Alternative Cinema, African American, Latino and Asian American filmmakers have become a stronger presence within the left media. Consequently, there is a growing knowledge of radical Third World filmmaking—films made in the Third World and those made by people of color in North America. Clyde Taylor, in his essay which opens Part Five, argues for the need to study Third World filmmaking for its own sake and also for what we in North America can learn from it.

Following Taylor’s argument I have highlighted articles on the African and Cuban cinema. These chapters show the need to do more than simply appreciate the vitality of radical Third World filmmaking. They outline how Third World films often establish models for forms, content, relations with audiences, the nature of popular culture, and the political role of cinema. A film such as Sarah Gomez’s One Way Or Another, discussed by Julianne Burton, is more than a fascinating vignette of Cuban life. It provides a model for political filmmaking that engages its audience and could prove to be fruitful to filmmakers and critics here in North America. The Cuban cinema is also important since it goes right back to the early 1960s, and its dynamism and militancy have strongly influenced radicals in both Latin and North America.

Much of the new African cinema is at once political and formally innovative. This is quite clear in the incredibly rich films of Ousmane Sembene. In his article about Sembene’s film Xala, Teshome Gabriel explains:

"If we accept the notion that artistic choice also connotes ideological choice, we must begin to investigate the ideological weight carried by a film’s formal elements. Spectator involvement in Xala does not come, I would contend, from the plot and story structure alone but also from the execution of some basic cinematic elements such as editing, composition, camera positioning and movement."

The use of films in Europe and North America for Third World solidarity work dates from the 1930s with films such as Joris Ivens’s The Spanish Earth, and reappears in the 1960s linked with the world-wide Vietnam solidarity. Tom Waugh’s essay on Ivens shows the kind of cinema that can be achieved by progressive filmmakers working in co-operation with local people in the Third World. Ivens’s representations of the underdeveloped and socialist countries are especially revealing when contrasted with those regularly presented by the dominant media.

This contrast is further developed by Julia Lesage in "For Our Urgent Use.” She not only compares radical and mainstream films but also stresses differences between radical North American films and latino films from Central America. She argues,

"For example, what a North American film audience may interpret as an image connoting ‘poverty’ may signify ‘a farm family’s daily life’ in its country of origin.”

African American and Asian-American filmmakers find a natural solidarity with artists in Africa and Asia, and look to the Third World for political and cinematic models. Yet Third World cinema continues to be avoided in the generally racist atmosphere of academic film studies. The growing strength of counter-cinemas made by people of color in North America should spur the left to study and support Third World cinema here and abroad. I expect that writing on Third World film will play a greater role in Jump Cut in the years to come.

Why don't they like anything?

Some Jump Cut readers have complained that the magazine tends continually to present a negative response to films. This feeling on the part of readers may stem partly from the fact that Jump Cut sets itself up stylistically and semantically as non-elitist, youthful, non-academic, and in format like a tabloid. Many of the covers use familiar Hollywood faces. Readers assume that a tabloid format makes for light reading, preferably in bed. Thus some of them are surprised and disappointed when the articles turn out to be more demanding, politically and theoretically, than they expect.

In fact, Jump Cut's seemingly "hard line” towards Hollywood is usually balanced by a range of enthusiasms for independent North American and Third World cinemas. This is a tendency illustrated by Michelle Citron’s appreciation for the work of Jan Oxenberg and Clyde laylor’s call to study Third World cinema in order to "rehumanize international film craft.” As for Hollywood itself, on closer inspection even the hard line taken in some essays contains complexities of enjoyment, response, and identification. Julia Lesage's fascinating essay on Broken Blossoms and the vigorous debate about Shirley MacLaine, both included in Part Three, make explicit the many levels of critical response possible in approaching Hollywood fiction.

But there is also a legitimate criticism here that Jump Cut editors and writers need to recognize and address. In the past too many of the articles on Hollywood seemed like sour grapes. Too often the result was a grim trashing of genuinely popular films, while the explicit political criticism only served to disparage the enjoyment (innocent or not) that audiences found in the film. That sort of criticism makes readers feel ignorant or foolish, and in the end fails to provide the tools necessary for understanding texts and contexts.

At the same time Jump Cut demands a lot from its readers, and questions easy assumptions about what constitutes a “popular” film. The magazine does not cater solely to the tastes of cinephiles or film buffs: the kind of people who know everything about Westerns but nothing about Native Indians. There is another type of filmgoer: the people who may attend movies regularly but are continually frustrated, shocked, or bored by what they see. Jump Cut is more inclined to consider this other rather alienated audience than most film publications. This springs from a belief that there is a large potential audience that wants to look at film from a more critical, broad perspective, not simply that of the dominant cinema. This is not to say that all those who do attend Hollywood films have bought all the ideological goods. Because of these complexities, it remains for students of Hollywood to be precise with terms such as “mass audience” and “popular cinema.”

From the beginning Jump Cut has been critical of the left’s treatment of dominant cinema. In the early issues that criticism remained somewhat subdued. Ten years later (Jump Cut No. 28) editors Kleinhans and Hess delivered an explicit attack on left film orthodoxy, showing the similarities of left and bourgeois reviews of Warren Beatty's Reds (1981). For Hess and Kleinhans both kinds of reviewing offer only a personal response and fixed position on the film; neither kind of review offers the reader tools for understanding, nor do the reviews accept the possible diversity of response.

Obviously, criticism that offers tools for understanding remains an ideal, certainly not always achieved in Jump Cut or elsewhere. To my mind the articles in this book all stretch beyond personal response and fixed positions and help us understand Hollywood as a whole—preparing us for the next hot subgenre and wave of special effects just around the corner. The articles also highlight the radical alternatives of counter-cinema, now developing on many fronts.


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