Critical Methods: Film

Marxist/Ideological Criticism II

Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Narboni



      Comolli & Narboni are writers for Cahiers du Cinéma

      film critique magazine begun by André Bazin in 1950s



      “a system of meaning that helps define and explain the world and that makes value judgments about that world”

      similar to  “worldview,” but broader


      dominant ideology = the worldview of the powerful within a culture or society


Some Principles of “American” Ideology

      capitalism (rampant pursuit of wealth and materialism)

      equality (in theory)

      liberty and freedom

      justice (for “good” citizens)

      self-reliance and individualism

      hard work and dedication

      perseverance and determination

      ingenuity “good old American know-how”

      pursuit of happiness

      pride and patriotism (even jingoism)



C & N’s Assumptions

      each culture has a dominant ideology in place to maintain existing power structures

      France (and USA) under capitalist ideology

    all are “conditioned” by this

    no escaping this

    their magazine part of capitalist system

      because film is a material product of the capitalist system, it is also an ideological product of the system

      “every film is political” (even if unintended)

      primary task of the film critic is “to help change the ideology which conditions them”


C & N’s goals

      not to produce “culinary criticism” (all about consumption)

      basic goal: to decide which films allow an ideology a “free and unhampered passage”

      they propose a “scientific” type of analysis (Althusser)

      attempt to determine relationship between a film’s  form  and its content


      with CATEGORIES!


C & N’s Categories

      Category A: (film imbued throughout with dominant ideology)

   form (-) classical Hollywood—no form

   content (-) straight message

      Category B: (truly political films)

   form (+) disturbs picture of reality    

   content (+) overtly political

      Category C: (subtle political films)

   form (+) political picture of reality

   content (-) nonpolitical


C & N’s Categories contd.

      Category D: (pretending to be political)

   form (-) uses Hollywood conventions

   content (+) political content

      Category E: (reactionary conservative)

   form (+)

   content (-)

> internal tension between form and content

>   “dislocates” content between start and finish

>   pushes ideology so far it brings it into crisis

>   “cracks” ideology (film turns on itself and comments on itself)


C & N’s Categories contd.

             Category F: (live cinema #1)

­ form (-) traditional “depiction” (reliance on traditional narrative traditions-same old, same old)

­ content (+) (political)

             Category G: (live cinema #2)

­ form (+) director uses alternative “depiction”

­content (+) content communicates alternative ideological message


Cahiers critiques John Ford’s
Young Mr. Lincoln

      argues the film is not a reflection of history, but a mediation of history for contemporary purposes

      YML produces its own exaggerated ideology

      argues film was made to promote Republican cause during Democratic reign of Roosevelt

      film actually undoes its own political project

      Cahiers critics pay attention not only to what is there, (in the film) but also what is not there (textual repression)

    overdetermined instances (restatements over & over)

    structuring absences (Lincoln’s sexuality and politics)



      context for critique

      ideology defined

      elements of an “American’ ideology

      Comolli & Narboni’s assumptions and goals

      categorical critical method

      application to Young Mr. Lincoln