Red Hollywood

18 February, 2015 - 20:00
BOZARcinema, Brussels
screening of Red Hollywood and a talk with Noël Burch

“To the mass of filmgoers, after all, what is in focus is, indeed, the diegesis, the illusory “world experience” of film. The work of the signifier, however sophisticated, so long as it keeps a low profile, so long as it does not draw a curtain of semantic noise between that “world beyond the screen” and the “average spectator,” is invariably so out of focus as to be quite invisible.”

At a time when corporatists and politicians alike all seem to have a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged on their nightstand, at a time when her self-styled brand of “radical capitalism” is promoted as a revolutionary and emancipatory force to be reckoned with (after all, aren’t the unreasonably persecuted one-percenters ultimately the symbol of a free society?), it’s pretty daunting to watch her demented testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947. Fulminating against the Hollywood movie Song of Russia – a bland melodrama about a symphony conductor who visits the Soviet Union, falls in love and joins the anti-Nazi resistance – Rand refuses to see the film in relation to the wartime alliance and furiously dismisses it as communist propaganda, because it shows too many Russians “smiling”. This is just one of the many scenes in Thom Andersen & Noël Burch’s Red Hollywood that illustrate the anti-communist hysteria in the throes of Mccarthyism. But who remembers the victims of the Hollywood blacklist, even the notorious “Hollywood Ten” who paid time for their refusal to give in to the coercion? In their film, Andersen and Burch reconstruct this faded period in the history of American cinema and give these screenwriters and filmmakers their due, not by simply confirming their historical status as non-talented martyrs or rejecting the allegations of the witch hunters, but by suggesting how they were actually able to express their ideas in the films they wrote and directed. The film recasts some of the arguments that Thom Andersen already made in his groundbreaking essay ‘Red Hollywood’ from 1985 and that he expanded upon in the book Les communistes de Hollywood. For the making of both the book and the film Andersen found a natural ally in Noël Burch. After all, who else could match the historical knowledge and aesthetical insight of this fellow dissenter? Ever since his Praxis du Cinéma (1969), Burch has explored – both in his writings and films - the cinematic tension between presentation and representation, statement and articulation, showing and telling, a tension that at one time used to be designated as “ideological”. The heyday of ideology critique may be long past by now, but some of its underlying questions keep on lingering today, not in the least in regards to the relation between appearance and reality, form and politics. To paraphrase the beautiful title of one of Burch’s books: how do we give life to those shadows? This Dissent! Session will take the ventures of the “left front” in Red Hollywood as a starting point to address this stubborn conundrum.


DISSENT! is an initiative of Argos, Auguste Orts and Courtisane, in the framework of the research project “Figures of Dissent” (KASK/Hogent), with support of VG.

In collaboration with BOZAR Cinema.

Red Hollywood

Thom Andersen & Noël Burch

Made in collaboration with Noël Burch, the video Red Hollywood (1996-2013) is one product of Andersen’s years of research into the Hollywood blacklist, a larger project that comprises several essays and a book, Les communistes de Hollywood: Autre chose que martyrs, also written with Burch, that has never appeared in English.

At the heart of Andersen’s project is the conviction that, contrary to the claims of their milquetoast liberal apologists, many of the writers, directors and producers who refused to testify before HUAC were not only committed leftists of one sort or another, but that many of them produced films of political significance. As he wrote in his first essay on the subject: “It would be an injustice to those who were blacklisted to say they did nothing to deserve it. A history of the blacklist must first be worthy of them all.”

In the video, this argument is persuasively advanced through Billy Woodbury’s narration. But it is much more than a cinematic extension of the arguments Andersen and Burch have made elsewhere. Through extended excerpts from more than 50 films, and in interviews with blacklisted artists, including Abraham Polonsky, Paul Jarrico, and Afred Lewis Levitt, Andersen and Burch give the films and filmmakers space to speak for themselves, sometimes to confirm, sometimes to contradict the filmmakers’ own claims.

The video’s dialectical structure produces a three-dimensional monument to the polysemous powers of cinema. Even more than any of its particular claims, Red Hollywood insists upon the political necessity of popular art forms and the dignity of the sometimes unpopular artists who use them.

Colin Beckett