A gay Marxist film scholar who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994 (at the age of just 42), Andrew Britton began his tragically short career with the words that may stand as his epitaph. In his early 20s and writing for the magazine Framework, the young critic reviews two recent films by Jean-Luc Godard: Tout va bien (1972) and Le Vent d’est (1970). Comparing the ways in which they succeed and fail – respectively – to articulate a commitment to Maoist revolutionary politics, Britton dares to ask a question that has long eluded Godard himself. Just what is a commitment, anyway?
“Commitment,” writes Britton, in “Living Historically: Two Films by Jean-Luc Godard” (1976), “is a specific act of the whole being.” (p. 365) Taking Godard to task for the hyper-intellectualist dogma of Le Vent d’Est, the young scholar marks out his own aesthetic and political turf. “One cannot commit oneself to anything – one cannot even be aware of the issues involved – without a complete (emotional and intellectual) grasp of them.” (p. 365) Writing over the next two decades, Britton would articulate his own commitment to a humanist Marxism, defying the bourgeois distinction between “high” and “low” culture while deriding the trendy cult of postmodernism. His work, invariably, is “an attempt to create that feeling awareness of our own context which makes us fully individual, and which makes responsible commitment possible.” (p. 365)
It’s a tall enough order for a writer. One can only lament the fact that Britton did not live long enough (or get enough exposure in his lifetime) to become the doyen of his own critical school. Born in England in 1952, he taught at universities in Britain, Canada and the United States – contributing all the while to Framework, CineAction, Movie and other small-circulation journals. Yet apart from a single book – his 1984 study Katharine Hepburn: Star as Feminist (1) – none of his work was ever available to a wide public and most of it has long since been out of print. This new anthology from Wayne State University Press is a bold last-ditch attempt to rescue a complex and thought-provoking and – potentially, at least – highly influential body of work from the depths of total obscurity and terminal neglect.
As you may have guessed from that quotation on Godard, the film criticism of Andrew Britton takes in a whole lot more than mere movies. Reading Britton’s work (assuming you can digest his dense and, at times, overly academic prose style) involves a crash course in literature and politics, sociology and psychology – and many of his insights seem more apt, not less, now that two or three decades have passed. In one seminal essay from the ’80s, Britton views with dismay the neo-liberal economic revolution of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and prophesies glumly:
A second industrial revolution organized by capitalism can mean nothing but mass pauperization, a drastic exacerbation of inequality and, correspondingly, a strengthening of the coercive apparatuses of the state. (p. 109)
All this from a man who died several years before the election victories of George W. Bush and Tony Blair – and missed out on the current world economic crisis and “war on terror”.
In the same essay, “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment” (1986), Britton offers a clear-eyed analysis of the role of contemporary Hollywood (exemplified by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas) in fostering an ethos of mass passivity. “We are not told not to think,” he writes of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Spielberg, 1982) and Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy (1977, 1980, 1983), “but we are told, over and over again, that there is nothing here to think about.” (p. 102) By marrying its neo-conservative values with the latest in high technology, Britton warns, “Reaganite space fiction is there to tell us that the future will be a thrilling replay of the past – with special effects.” (p. 115)
Yet Britton’s most vitriolic attacks are not on the movie brats of Hollywood but on those (nominally left-wing) artists and academics who succumb to the sterile lure of postmodernism. Dismissing the postmodern discourse as “a game of Trivial Pursuit for highbrows” (p. 483) in his 1988 essay “The Myth of Postmodernism: The Bourgeois Intelligentsia in the Age of Reagan”, Britton nonetheless identifies it (correctly, I feel) as “the program of a class fraction which is no longer capable of expressing significant opposition to the dominant tendencies of capitalist society and which has no pressing interest in doing so.” (p. 472) Postmodernism, for Britton, is no more than a safety valve by which a liberal intelligentsia can celebrate its own defeat in the face of right-wing hegemony.
What remained to Britton – and what sustained him, if anything could, through the two demoralising decades of his adult life – was his deep and abiding love of popular culture, however “high” or “low” a form it might take:
If I, for one (offered the choice), would prefer to spend the evening watching reruns of “Falcon Crest” or “The Price Is Right” than reading [Jacques] Derrida, looking at recent Godard, or listening to Philip Glass, it is because the popular television shows, ghastly as they are, do at least make contact with the way in which the majority of human beings in the North America of the 1980s actually lead their lives. “The Price Is Right” may be awful but it is, for better or worse, alive. (p. 484)
Britton, in full-on provocateur mode, is here invoking popular culture in its most degraded (and degrading) form. Yet his love for the classic product of the Hollywood studio system – melodrama, horror movie, musical and film noir – is both lucid and heartfelt. It is here that he leaves his lasting legacy as a critic.
In his essay on the commercial Hollywood melodrama, “A New Servitude: Bette Davis, Now, Voyager, and the Radicalism of the Woman’s Film” (1992), Britton sets out to erase the artificial and counterproductive distinction between “high” and “low” forms of art. Comparing the “women’s pictures” of the ’40s to the novels of Charlotte Brontë and Henry James and the bel canto operas of Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini, he points out how “today’s high culture is the ‘entertainment’ of yesterday and the day before, fetishized and surrounded by barbed wire.” (p. 25) The genius of Hollywood lay in producing “a large number of works in which the contents of high culture were released from their ideological quarantine, and in which the great gulf fixed (itself a bourgeois invention) between ‘high’ and ‘plebeian’ culture was effectively abolished.” (p. 25)
It is this insight, developed over two decades, that enables Britton to mount a lucid and spirited defence of such critically reviled movies as The Other Side of Midnight (Charles Jarrott, 1977) and Mandingo (Richard Fleischer, 1975). More valuable, perhaps, is the fresh light shed on such established classics as Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli, 1944), Spellbound (Alfred Hitchcock, 1945) and Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945). Seen through Britton’s eyes in a 1993 essay simply titled “Detour”, Ulmer’s no-budget film noir becomes a searing indictment of American capitalism at its worst; its characters are “free agents in a world which privileges the material well-being of the atomized individual above all else and which unofficially encourages the most vicious, unprincipled and irresponsible forms of personal rapacity.” (p. 205)
The miracle, for Britton, was that such works should be produced in a Hollywood whose ruling moguls were no less reactionary (in some cases, more so) than the neo-conservatives who blighted his own lifetime. In “The Philosophy of the Pigeonhole: Wisconsin Formalism and ‘The Classical Style’” (1989), he extols the studio system as
the last point at which it was historically possible for a bourgeois art form to be rigorously and systematically conventional while at the same time subverting, and throwing into confusion, all existing cultural boundaries and proprieties and the ideologies of culture guaranteed by them. (p. 456)
He goes on to write:
It is rather like holding a fireworks display in a gunpowder plant: the enterprise is both dangerous in itself and subject to severe penalties. Some works blunder heedlessly into peril and, having become aware of the fact, struggle frantically to extricate themselves without being caught. Others again proceed with sufficient caution to get away with it, but they pay a price in the more or less diminished glory and audacity of the display. A third group of works, however, sets out to raise the roof while also escaping detection, and they are able to do so because Hollywood’s “classical” decorum permits the dramatic realization of the compressed, combustible materials which, at the same time, it actively contains. (p. 457)
This may or may not be a fair description of the day-to-day working practices at Warner Bros or MGM in the 1940s. It stands, however, as a glittering metaphor for the life and work of Britton himself.
Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, edited by Barry Keith Grant, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 2009.