Swans Commentary » swans.com April 11, 2005  



The Art And Politics Of Film
A Conversation at the Swans Café...


John Steppling & David Walsh


Part II




Read the first part of this conversation, published on March 28, 2005.


(Swans - April 11, 2005) 


I recognize you may be anxious, legitimately enough, to plunge into a discussion of particular filmmakers, but I am a little reluctant to abandon quite yet a consideration of some of the broader issues. In any event, making sense of individual artists and trends is difficult for me without arriving at an overall picture, if only in outline form, of artistic and cultural problems and their relation to social evolution.

First of all, let me say I am strongly convinced that artists will make decisive headway only if they proceed with some confidence in humanity's future. This was, after all, one of my initial points, that it is precisely the demoralization and disappointment brought about by the defeats suffered by the cause of social liberation in the 20th century that have in part produced the present crisis. Everything must be done to restore hope, and not only among artists. What will impel the artist to represent life in the most profound manner if not a deep and abiding concern with humanity's fate? The film and art not driven by that concern are of no real interest to me.

I am not speaking of unthinking optimism. Hardly. There are many difficulties in the present situation. No one is denying the painfully degraded state of American life in particular at the moment. The Bush administration is odious and criminal; the Democratic "opposition" impotent and cowardly, a second bourgeois party, one degree to the left of the Republicans. One only feels contempt for the once-liberal upper middle class layers for whom principles are all very well as long as they don't interfere for an instant with the value of their stock portfolios. The corporate media, Murdoch-owned or otherwise, has largely been transformed into an arm of the Defense Department. The war crimes in Iraq are of a world-historic character; the media makes it their principal business to hide the blood and filth.

Popular culture, by and large, is in a horrible state, mindless and instantly disposable. Are there more than a handful of figures in the "entertainment industry" whose names will be recalled a decade from now? The advertising-entertainment-media complex has turned television into something largely unwatchable. One feels unclean in the presence of so many of its personalities.

The Russian revolutionaries, as I mentioned to you, used to speak openly of "our terrible Russian reality" with its almost unbearable backwardness, without thereby throwing up their hands in despair. We have to do the same in America today. One must say what is.

I don't know how the Schiavo affair has been covered where you are, but it has been quite horrifying. Hours and hours of cable television time have been turned over to religious fanatics and proto-fascist elements. This case has proven that not only is there no serious constituency within the American ruling elite for democratic principles, there is virtually none for rational thought. There is a deep alienation and hostility toward science and scientific reasoning. Every form of backwardness is encouraged and promoted in official circles and by the media. As I say, it's quite horrifying.

Opinion polls indicate a vast majority of the population rejects the religious zealotry, but there is little conscious opposition. Social understanding is at a low point. In these circumstances, the obscurantists have an influence far exceeding their actual numbers. There has been a systematic lowering of the political level, the intellectual level, the educational level, and the cultural level.

(Of course, even now, this is by no means the entire story. Millions of people despise Bush with a passion of which I have never felt the equal. Maddeningly pragmatic at times, the healthier sections of the American population are also irrepressible, crazily optimistic and resilient. We have developed a large, active and growing global readership at the World Socialist Web Site; it has been a success exceeding our expectations.)

This complex reality should be at the center of American filmmaking. It is obviously not and that's what currently helps render American cinema largely a waste of breath. Present-day filmmakers have found more pressing issues, turning out 'erotically charged psycho-dramas, done with a comic, hip-hop flair, oriented to the youth market.' Why should anyone give a damn about these empty market products or the people who are responsible for them? I prefer Belinsky's notion that art is "the poetical analysis of the life of society."

The present socio-political situation is distressing in many ways. One would have to be blind not to recognize this. However, John, to describe the terrible reality in America has something in common with describing the deep crisis of American capitalism. These are not signs of a healthy, confident social order. The assault by the present administration, with the support of the Democrats, on the rest of the world, as well as the social and democratic rights of the population at home, in the final analysis, is a function of the intractable economic crisis of US imperialism. It is attempting to overcome the loss of economic superiority through military means, a disastrous project in the long (or not so long) run.

When I reacted negatively to your comment that "We, as a society, are alienated from ourselves," etc., it is because I accept no responsibility whatsoever for the general state of this society. There is no "We," as far as socialists are concerned. This is not "Our" society, it is "Their" society. They are leading it into the abyss. There are two Americas, one comprised of the wealthy elite, criminal and parasitic, the other composed of the working population. I am not idealizing the latter, but this absolute and objectively irreconcilable divide is a social fact.

Our confidence does not arise from blind faith, but from insight into law-governed social and historic processes. Are there objective tendencies within the present system that provide the impulse for social revolution? Is there a social force -- the working class, which has been vastly increased by the proletarianization of entire layers of the population -- whose fate is bound up with the revolutionizing of society? Or have social antagonisms disappeared and conflicting social interests been reconciled? My attitude should be obvious. We see our task on the WSWS as offering a rational explanation of events and a way out of the social and historical impasse.

The media is powerful, but it is not as powerful as the social contradictions of American imperialism. Social being will assert itself, in an explosive fashion.

One hundred years ago the first Russian Revolution erupted. Socialism arose to solve the problem of capitalist society. Will reality cut a path to the consciousness of masses of people? We can say with Lincoln, "The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion."

In my view, intellectuals and artists will have to think about these problems; above all, the character and lessons of the 20th century. They will need to arrive at some definite conclusions about the Russian Revolution, Stalinism, Trotsky's struggle against the bureaucracy, fascism, reformism, nationalism versus internationalism, the nation-state, globalization, the trade unions and a host of other issues. There will be no genuine progress, in my opinion, without a serious, critical study of history and a turn to the crisis of perspective in the working class.

And this might perhaps explain why I hesitate to throw myself into a discussion of individual artists and trends. A great deal depends on how one sees the evolution of art in the past century, a century of global civil war. Art is the most sensitive and complex element of culture, the most prone to damage by social trauma. Unlike the 19th century, the century of classical bourgeois culture, how many artistic tendencies or even individual careers were able to flower fully in the 20th century? After all, in a good part of Europe, fascism or authoritarian rule predominated from the mid-1930s onward. Soviet cultural life was largely stamped out after 1934. In those capitalist countries that could continue to afford democracy, the U.S., Britain and, for a few years more, France, disillusionment and disorientation accomplished nearly as much as outright repression.

One doesn't see as a rule in the 20th century the type of lengthy, more or less organically-evolving career of a Verdi, an Ingres, a Flaubert, a Tolstoy, etc. Careers and often lives were cut short by war, repression, death or, as I say, bitter disappointment. Trotsky noted that the various schools of the early 20th century -- "cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism -- follow each other without reaching a complete development."

So if I'm asked who my favorite artists are, including filmmakers, in the past century, my answers are much more conditional, provisional.

The Hollywood film industry would seem to be something of an exception to this rule, but only insofar as a commercial enterprise its fate was bound up with the rise to dominance of American imperialism, hardly the most auspicious trajectory for an artistic trend. More on that later.

My own feeling, and this will perhaps bring abuse down on my head, is that the greatest cinema still lies ahead of us. I have a certain sympathy for Walter Benjamin's comment that, "So long as the movie-makers' capital sets the fashion, as a rule no other revolutionary merit can be accredited to today's film than the promotion of a revolutionary criticism of traditional concepts of art." This is overstating the case, but the emphasis on "the movie-makers' capital" is entirely appropriate.

Cinema will never come into its own as long as it remains a business (Hollywood and other commercial film industries), nor can it fulfill its proper social function, in my opinion, as a largely private, inward-turning undertaking (European and Japanese art film). I think both have essential elements missing. Hence the history of cinema up to this point, in my view, is in large measure a history of exquisite moments with a relative dearth of entirely satisfying, fully realized works.

This question of religiosity is not an unimportant one in this regard. Obviously for centuries Western art was inconceivable without Christ and Christianity. Religious imagery clearly had great spiritual meaning to the artists and viewing public of the time. Artists and viewers alike drew consolation from the death and resurrection of Jesus, who felt deeply for their suffering, who had died for them, whose return held out the promise of a paradise on earth.

Social development, marked and advanced by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, did a great deal to drive Christianity's "double-keeping" (a promissory note redeemable in the next life) and mysticism out of art, rightfully so. Nature no longer hung over human society like a fate. The mysteries of one domain of existence after another were rationally explained. I think religion and mysticism have no place in contemporary art. However, that is, if you like, a programmatic statement, not a proscription or a description of an empirical reality.

Various circumstances, including the defeats suffered by the social revolution in the mid-century, conspired to create conditions in which certain serious artists continued to be inspired by religious faith. But I think one has to be careful and examine these situations historically.

Tarkovsky is an excellent example. He no doubt saw himself pursuing the spiritual in human existence against the soulless, corrupt and morally bankrupt Stalinist leadership. And against the coarseness and vulgarity and stupidity of the bureaucracy, a pantheistic and purified religious faith might appear attractive, more humane at least.

In Stalker someone says, "They [the intellectuals] believe in nothing. The organ of faith has atrophied." However, Tarkovsky's "return-to-God-and-nature" conceptions turned out to be thin gruel indeed when he was outside the Soviet Union. Except for a few minutes The Nostalgia and Sacrifice are, in my view, very weak and sometimes embarrassing efforts.

Bresson too no doubt saw himself as a champion of the spiritual against the cold, bureaucratic character of post-war French life. I tried to address his religiosity in an obituary:

A legitimate question will be raised: how could an artist in the modern age hold on to Christian dogma and contribute so much?

In the first place, there is the general fact that the development of social life and ideology is never harmonious. People hold on to all sorts of conceptions, long after they have been objectively consigned to the dustbin of history, with great stubbornness. This "merely shows how limited the human imagination is," to cite Trotsky discussing a slightly different problem, "and how man tries to maintain an economy of energy in every kind of creation, even in the artistic."

And there is the intellectual unevenness between the different portions, often sealed off like the compartments in a ship's hold, of each individual's brain and soul. The ability of one and the same human being to hold on to quite contradictory and even sharply opposed ideas is well known and has had many celebrated illustrations. ...

From what one knows of Bresson's views, it seems safe to assume that the great tragedies of the century had a profound impact on his thinking. I'm not suggesting that those events made him a Christian, but they certainly must have served to deepen his conviction that only a spiritual revolution could save mankind.

And, I might add, it's impossible for me to admire wholeheartedly a film like Diary of a Country Priest simply because I do not find the situation as tragic as Bresson would like me to. Pickpocket, Mouchette, Une Femme Douce, I'm sorry, but for me these are entirely secular films.

In any event, it's one thing to recognize that religious belief has inspired certain artists even in our day within quite definite limits, it's another to make that into a positive program. I'm in favor of the richest, most complex, most truthful attention to life and reality in art. That obliges the artist, in my view, to turn his or her attention to the human condition, freed from mysticism about its origin or character. A serious attitude toward all aspects of life will inevitably include the psychological and spiritual, because human reality is not exhausted by the externals of everyday life.

I agree with Trotsky that the most important thing is to have a powerful feeling for life, not to shrink from it in any way. To accept life, not in its present social condition of course, but to accept "our life of three dimensions as a sufficient and invaluable theme for art."

Which film artists have most successfully done that? I would draw up different lists of those who mean most to me, my own form of "double book-keeping," a list of art film directors and a list of Hollywood filmmakers (as I suggested, I think Chaplin and Welles are the two who could transcend these lists or fit on either one of them). On the former I would include (in part or in whole) Visconti, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Bresson, Tarkovsky, early Godard, perhaps Ophuls, Eisenstein, Fellini and Kurosawa; on the latter, Hitchcock, Hawks, Sirk, Ford, Curtiz, Mann, Walsh, Ray, Keaton, Fuller. But, as I say, these are quite provisional choices. I have large gaps in my film education.

I think we ought to discuss as well how the present situation can be turned around and on what a cinema of the 21st century ought to be based.





I have no anxiety about the direction taken here... It's only that I have a hard time separating specific filmmakers and their work from these broader issues. For me they are one.

That said; let me start with this notion of "our" society. Clearly it's not mine, nor yours -- but we do live in it. I often worry about just how much it affects me, how I am internalizing things I am unaware of (in part this is why I left the U.S.). So I agree in large measure with this question of studying history, and I see the lack of such study each week in my students at the film school. The first class to be avoided was Art History (until art history was dropped). This is how society now operates; it's just another means of control....keep people in the dark about the past, about the contradictions and dynamics of history. Without such study the effects of the prevailing corporate-owned reality machine become even more acute, and effective.

Today's artists seem, at the moment anyway, to be avoiding such analysis. Part of it is just economic reality, the fear of losing one's job. I know this from first hand experience. The competition is fierce and people are taught to embrace a kind of fear, or anxiety as something natural. Hollywood runs on fear, at every level.

I want to talk a bit about notions of the "spiritual" too, for I fear we are going to start going round in circles. Tolstoy (who, interestingly you mention in the pantheon of the 19th century) said the following:

"True religion is that relationship, in accordance with reason and knowledge, which man establishes with the infinite world around him, and which binds his life to that infinity and guides his actions."

Tolstoy hated organized religion -- and found some strange (often contradictory) form of personal spirituality. Whatever one thinks of his short body of religious writing, it does demonstrate a sense of that region where art and the spiritual meet. Paul Bowles once answered an interviewer who asked why he lived in Morocco by saying he wanted to be closer to the absolute (the open silent desert). These are thoughts and remarks made by artists who are looking for a vocabulary more responsive to the natural world around them. I don't find them "religious" in the same way I find the barbaric hypocrites of the DeLay variety religious, or the dead medievalist Pope. They have nothing in common with them.

So, when you talk of some of Bresson's films as secular, I neither agree nor disagree. Bresson was making those films with his own vision of the spiritual in mind. We take what we take from them, but it's clear he had a project that was wedded to something religious (in the better sense of that word). I don't think that disqualifies him from being called a serious analyst of the concrete historical. He is many things, and among them is a Catholic. I can't quite understand his Catholicism, but I certainly love and am inspired by his work. I worry that one can become reductive when trying to separate intention from result, and with suggesting any sort of outcome for any particular artist. Art is indeed a terribly complex thing, and hence its importance.

I do agree about film and capital. The medium has been mediated totally by economics since its inception. This is clear, and this is also why I find certain directors, a Fritz Lang for instance, so fascinating. When Lang came to the U.S. he was given a lot of bad scripts, and yet his fingerprints are visible on even the worst of them. In a film like Human Desire he managed to transcend the limitations of the studio system and an average script. He did this through what I keep referring to as mise-en-scene-itude. This is where I might argue a bit with you about your double-book-keeping. Look at Godard's Contempt. A film funded by Hollywood to some extent, but which became a critique of that kind of Capitalizing and of what it does to the human soul. And yet, is it an "art" film? I don't know. A film like Edgar Ulmer's Detour, made for nothing, ends up being both a sort of genuine modern tragedy and a genre crime film. Ulmer sensed the dialectic tensions at work and exploited them artistically. I think this has always been, to some degree, the case. I can think of Goya and El Greco, among others, or even Bach and Mozart.

I also think talking specific directors, at least for me, helps clarify some of these issues. You listed Sam Fuller, a fascinating director who, for me, is at the end of the day a really minor figure. I can't watch Fuller much at this point for I find a kind of interesting visceral visual style, but coupled to such an astoundingly one dimensional vision of life that the result is like the visual equivalent of a retarded man shrieking at the empty walls around him and getting only an echo in return (I would argue for John Sturgis as more important). I watched Robert Wise's The Set Up recently, a great noir boxing film. Here is, again, a studio film of the period that must be seen as an art film, too. Now Wise went on to become the man who directed Sound of Music. What does this say? Was he the real author of The Set Up? Maybe in a partial way, it's hard to say, and therein lies another of the paradoxes of film as an art form. It is a cooperative form, perhaps more than any other. I will come back to this later.

I also agree the best of film may well be ahead of us -- unless total extermination is ahead of us first. Film narrative is quite different from literary narrative. Dostoyevsky took six pages to discuss the opening of a door, but in a film the equivalent is more about juxtaposing image and sound and language and duration of image and editing -- it might only take six seconds, however. Herein lies some of the truth about bad books being easier to adapt (and making better films) than great ones. Film simply does something very different than literature. It is, probably, despite its narrative dependency, closer to poetry. So when you ask on what a 21st century cinema should be based, I will return to the cooperative aspect. I suspect some form of guild situation will have to exist in which individuals will join together to produce film works that resist the notion of commodity much more than even today's art films do. This is not something I have much thought through, except to say that film as product has come to so dominate the medium that it's hard for most artists (and consumers) to even imagine an alternative. If films were, additionally, more "ongoing" and less seen as "finished product" we might find a way to "look" and "listen" to film that is quite new. The filmic vocabulary (that is different from a Dostoyevsky or Dickens) would seem to lend itself to this sort of openness. Narrative must stop being simply "plot" and become more about the "looking." This takes me perilously close to a kind of mysticism, I know, but I find no other means of talking about it at this point. Artists must engage with history and must question the endless assumptions of art as product. Films must stop being seen as something to consume. My "guild" notion seems, also, a way to become more self sufficient, and less beholden to the corporate-Imperialist hegemonic rulers of culture.

When I say "ongoing" I must admit I have no idea what I really mean. I am trying to point toward a form that allows more cooperation and more revision. I think the technology might allow for several versions and constant re-working, and, in the right kind of guild situation, I think this could become very interesting. However, this is (I admit) a kind of mystified idle speculation, and dangerous for one in which to engage.

People are discouraged from being left alone with their thoughts these days. Silence is threatening because it doesn't encourage consumption. The meditative aspects of man walking amid nature are almost outlawed at this stage. This kind of rhythm must be restored and it's crucial that filmmakers oppose the obvious ethos of "distraction" as it now prevails. You mention the human condition, and I think we are saying the same thing using different language when I speak of the bigger forces or the natural world. My experience teaching both theatre and screenwriting is that, increasingly, students seem unable to open themselves up and grasp even the idea of big questions. They can't form opinions or develop critiques of history and society except in the most restricted sense. Stories rarely seem to suggest the wider world or nature and history, but rather fold inward (in a narrow way) to repeat the clichés of pop-psychology and revisionist history. They are relentlessly a-political. Now, there are many ways to look at the wider world, and a Beckett did it with a very serious but intensely focused strategy. A filmmaker like John Ford did it in his own way by sticking a camera in the middle of a river every time he found a river. An Eisenstein (whom I forgot to put in my pantheon) is yet another strategy, and a Mizoguchi yet another. They all created worlds, and all asked questions. Today's filmmakers seem not able to ask real questions. It's the same in theatre, I think. It's also the same in literature. If one looks at what is published of new fiction each year one sees the most mind-numbingly jaw-droppingly boring and pointless writing imaginable. I suspect good writing is going on out there, but it isn't being published. I could, however, be wrong.

I return to the corporate media again. This media is probably more powerful than you think -- at least that's my opinion and might account for why I sound pessimistic at times. I hope you're right and I'm wrong. In any event, the media (which is, as you rightly say, run by the Defense Department) shapes people's notions of the world. It creates values and regulates life today. This brings me back to my fear about how insidious it is, how it affects us even when we try to resist (media giants as the new Church!). The noise and image pollution in our modern lives is acute and it continues to grow. Part of the project of resistance to this stuff is simply to throw one's TV out the window or use it as a planter. The trend toward de-aesthetisizing culture is almost complete. I wrote earlier about how ugly today's films are, and I think this is rather important. The directors we refer to as our favorites all included within themselves an understanding of art history and composition. They understood something of language and the dynamics of storytelling. The instincts of people like Welles or Visconti are nearly flawless -- they were genuine artists, even when existing within a system run by business. So yes, imagine them free of all commercial limitation!

When I talk of mise-en-scene, I mean, additionally, the way that filmic vocabulary actually created meaning. If one looks at how Welles shot a sequence in Othello, and then imagines a hack doing a version of it, one would see the deep structure Welles brings to his work. This deeper layer is what provides that mythic resonance, and it's almost impossible (as maybe it should be) to talk about or define. Art is not science, it's mysterious in a way not meant to be solved. I think this is where art becomes profound. It can't be measured or weighed and it isn't practical. It's spiritual.

I am reminded of Wittgenstein, in one of his lectures on aesthetics, saying that if a person is to admire English poetry, he must know English. He also says that someone with judgment (taste) is someone who reacts in a consistent way over a long period of time. These are interesting remarks because they touch on the whole issue of what a culture is. Wittgenstein believed, for example, that in architecture one might look at a door and say it was "correct." The post-modern influence would immediately question this because they would ask where the criteria are for "correct." To ask this question is to miss the essential point of culture. To appreciate Shakespeare one must know the King James Bible. One must at least have some idea of the history of personal expression. This is taste. I think having taste is extraordinarily important, and yet today there is a fake populism that says taste is elitist. This is just wrong headed. Students who play hooky from art history are going to make ugly movies. Those who internalize Rembrandt and Delacroix are going to have a better shot at making movies that are not just beautiful, but good. Art isn't about pleasing the audience. It's not a restaurant review, or how pleasing the newest soda pop is. It certainly isn't about having fun. The satisfaction one feels from viewing a great film is quite a different experience from the satisfaction one gets from eating a cheeseburger when hungry. There is nothing spiritual in a cheeseburger. If you grasp the truths of a Rembrandt -- and those truths are many layered -- you might really grasp the fuller world view and the political implications of Bush's empire. I see them as connected...directly connected. A film like Who'll Stop the Rain, based on Robert Stone's novel Dog Soldiers, and with a script by Stone, exudes intelligence. A film like Alexander, by another Stone, exudes stupidity and an embarrassing lack of historical literacy. In fact, it exhibits, like so much that comes from Hollywood these days, a kind of contempt for facts and for reason. I should make clear that great artists, like a Kafka, often invented their own version of history but then that invention was based on another distillation of history that they achieved through some strange alchemy of personal myth and personal history. At this point I find myself spinning off into realms probably too broad for our discussion, but I think this all touches on the starting point of our dialogue -- the crises in filmmaking.

I think what you say about Nature not hanging over man like a fate is a comment worth analyzing. I simply do not agree that the Enlightenment drove away all mystery about nature and fate and destiny. This is where I feel the rational corrective that was the Enlightenment threw away too much. The hyper-rationalism of "science" is often just more bad myth making, and in the case of today's corporate driven science we have a totally compromised mechanistic tool for commerce. I fear I don't see one realm after another rationally explained. This is not to say, I want to emphasize, that science is bad -- quite the contrary -- or that the Enlightenment was bad -- again, it was a clear corrective to Church dogma. However, the idea that we are marching forward to some goal of total explanation does seem wrong. I hope I am not misunderstanding you. Science does one thing, art another. If one looks at a Meister Ekhart or the Gnostics, one can see the very thing that was repressed by the organized Church and its priest class. It's important to be clear about this word "religion." I am never thinking, when I use the term, of things like the death of Jesus...which just seems tawdry cheap theatrics, and rather irrational and contradictory. That said, all religions seem to begin with some notion of sacrifice on the part of a god -- enabling a Universe to be formed. The empty rituals and intolerance of organized religion are, in fact, the exact opposite of all that one thinks the spiritual should be, and all that early forms of religion seemed to teach.

I emphasize again that I agree art and artists must include history and material forces -- they must examine the world they are living in and must ask questions. The grotesque crypto-fascism of the current US empire, for example, must be included in today's artistic output, for if it's not, then the artist is simply lying. The questioning must be courageous, however, and not the vapid empty liberal platitudes of a Tim Robbins. I think the road to the spiritual passes directly through the political. The Greek tragedians saw fate as connected to the gods...and it's a huge topic as to exactly how they saw the role of the gods...but I think if the forces of destiny and the dark heart of man were already explained, then we wouldn't still be performing Sophocles and Euripides. Wittgenstein said, "even if everything were explained, the mystery would still remain," or as, I think it was, Tillich said, why is there something and not nothing?

This is that borderland where art and the spiritual intersect.






I agree with a number of your points, and disagree, or need clarification, on a number of others.

First, on Bresson, I could have been more precise. What I take from the films is purely secular, a fierce commitment to honesty, human dignity, a hatred of cruelty, ignorance and exploitation. More than that, a commitment to the humblest human personality as something transcendent, "world-historical" and worthy of respect and love -- and artistic forms that correspond to that deep commitment. No doubt, Bresson had other things in mind as well.

On Fuller, I think you're probably quite right, although a number of his films intrigue me. He is a minor figure. He was included in part by some process of inertia. I hadn't really sorted out the issue, and stuck him on to make an even number. No, the "double book-keeping" won't quite work, of course, I am aware of that. The immediate result was leaving out all sorts of figures who cannot quite be characterized as European or American, "art" or "commercial" filmmakers (Lang, for example, von Stroheim; even von Sternberg, although he was quite American).

My point, essentially: the social character of filmmaking -- requiring a cooperative effort, large resources, considerable productive forces, means of distribution and exhibition, etc., an appropriately modern art form, born with modern industry, in fact -- this social character, which has inevitably made cinema a commercial enterprise under capitalism, has from its earliest days found expression in the separating out of "commercial" and "art" film, a separation -- which today has reached truly ominous proportions -- that seems to me to hold cinema back from attaining its full height. Altering that requires a social solution, not simply an aesthetic one, i.e., a change in property relations. Cinema, so to speak, cannot save itself. A transformation in social life is necessary.

The guild notion has promise, and I agree with a number of your observations about film and some of its present-day difficulties.

I agree with you as well about the Robbins-type effort: weak, pale and, frankly, rather pusillanimous.

The unreflective character of so many films today, including so-called political or "left" films, is so disturbing. Films are insubstantial, lacking texture, depth, lacking complexity; art also teaches people to feel, think about and work through difficult, life-and-death problems, to exhaust themselves in a struggle for life and reality; nearly all of that is missing at present.

(In recent times, I do think highly of several films by Abbas Kiarostami (Close Up, Through the Olive Trees and A Taste of Cherry), as well as Salaam Cinema and A Moment of Innocence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and a number of other Iranian films.

And from East Asia: Hou Hsiao-hsien's City of Sadness, Good Men, Good Women and Goodbye South, Goodbye, among his numerous works, as well as lesser known Taiwanese works, such as Heartbreak Island (Hsu Hsiao-ming) and Super Citizen Ko (Wan Jen). Lee Chang-dong's Peppermint Candy from South Korea.

A number of recent or relatively recent Chinese films: The Postman (He Jianjun), So Close to Paradise and Drifters (Wang Xiaoshuai), Blind Shaft (Li Yang), Cry Woman (Liu Bingjian), The Orphan of Anyang (Wang Chao) and the various films directed by Jia Zhang-ke (Xiao Wu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures, The World).

Certain films by Edward Yang and Tsai Ming-liang from Taiwan; also Wu Nien-jen (A Borrowed Life), Lin Cheng-sheng (Murmur of Youth) and Chang Tso-chi (Darkness and Light) from Taiwan, Hong Sang-soo, Song Hae-sung (Failan) and Bong Joon-ho (Memories of Murder) from South Korea, Fruit Chan (Little Cheung) from Hong Kong and others.)

I think we are in agreement about certain problems, but I'm concerned about a number of questions, particularly religion and mysticism. And, I think, with good reason.

Let me set the scene. For the past several weeks we have been bombarded non-stop in this country with the Terri Schiavo case. A "culture of life" proclaimed itself, formed out of the crowd of war criminals around Bush, the Christian right bigots and a section of crazed, anti-abortion Catholic priests. We were treated to their rubbish unendingly.

Science and rationality are under attack in this country. We recently wrote on the World Socialist Web Site:

Its intervention into the Schiavo case is only the most visible example of an anti-science inquisition that is being organized by the Bush administration. The distortion and degradation of scientific research is finding ever-wider and ever-crazier manifestations in the public life of the United States. For example, in 2003 the US Department of the Interior placed in the official bookstore of the Grand Canyon National Park a new book, titled Grand Canyon: a Different View. The book argues against the scientifically established understanding, based on more than a century of geological research, that the Canyon evolved over millions of years. Instead, it claims that the Grand Canyon is the product of a single catastrophic event that occurred a few thousand years ago -- something like the Biblical flood. Despite angry protests by geological associations, this religious tract is still being stocked in the bookstores of this government-funded national park ("The Attack on Science," by Majorie Heins, December 21, 2004, Common Dreams News Center, www.commondreams.org).

The Union of Concerned Scientists called attention to the seriousness of the situation in a report it issued in March 2004, "Scientific Integrity in Policymaking: an Investigation into the Bush Administration's Misuse of Science." The key findings of the investigation were:

"1. There is a well-established pattern of suppression and distortion of scientific findings by high-ranking Bush administration political appointees across numerous federal agencies. These actions have consequences for human health, public safety, and community well-being.

"2. There is strong documentation of a wide-ranging effort to manipulate the government's scientific advisory system to prevent the appearance of advice that might run counter to the administration's political agenda.

"3. There is evidence that the administration often imposes restrictions on what government scientists can say or write about "sensitive" topics.

"4. There is significant evidence that the scope and scale of the manipulation, suppression, and misrepresentation of science by the Bush administration are unprecedented."

"This report was signed by more than 60 leading scientists in the United States, including many Nobel laureates.

"Only in a country where scientific thought is under siege would it be possible for the insane, shameful and degrading spectacle of the Terri Schiavo case to assume such immense political dimensions. The White House, Congress and the governor and legislature of the state of Florida, in alliance with the fundamentalist right, have trampled on the Constitution to 'save' a woman whose conscious life ended 15 years ago." ("The case of Terri Schiavo and the crisis of politics and culture in the United States" by David North, 4 April, 2005, WSWS)

One could add that "creationism," or its slightly more sophisticated cousin, "intelligent design," is on the school curricula in an increasing number of states. Another Scopes Trial is entirely within the realm of possibility.

Now, with some amazement, we have been treated since Saturday to 24-hour-a-day coverage of the Pope's death and surrounding events. Since his passing the cable networks have provided "all-Pope, all-the-time" coverage. It is unwatchable. One cannot turn on the television without being told that "we" all loved the pontiff, prayed for him, cherished his role in the liquidation of "communism" and now believe he's gone to a better place. It's almost beyond belief. One feels oneself living in a quasi-theocracy. A great percentage of the population is either uninterested or entirely fed up, but the ruling elite and its media are utterly dedicated to this, for reasons, again, bound up with the decay and decline of American capitalism.

Religion has come to the forefront with the growth of economic insecurity, deteriorating living standards and the collapse, for all intents and purposes, of the so-called labor movement. Conditions of precariousness exist in America like no other time since World War II, and workers, without organization, feel entirely vulnerable to anything the employer might demand. The "decent job" is disappearing as a social category. The pressure at work is utterly relentless. The social safety net has been shredded, with the help of Clinton in particular. Credit card debt is at a record high level, along with personal bankruptcy. An extraordinary level of tension exists, which often finds expression in individual, anti-social acts.

The vast chasm between the super-rich and nearly everyone else is not merely obscene and immoral, it makes the rational allotment of resources an impossibility. Everything is organized at present to facilitate the unfettered accumulation of personal wealth, with terrible consequences: a failing educational system and a semi-literate population, a crumbling infrastructure, etc. The situation is untenable.

Many people feel the ground slipping beneath their feet; it is no surprise, under those circumstances, that appeals to "traditional moral values" and "family values" and such have a certain resonance, as the last election campaign demonstrated.

The ruling elite hopes to utilize the political confusion and religious resurgence to build up a mass constituency for what are, politically, very unpopular policies: destruction of Social Security and the remnants of the welfare state, moves toward authoritarian rule, war against Syria, Iran and/or North Korea and more.

A resolute struggle for science, for rationality, for progressive thought and ideas is absolutely essential at this moment in history. We intend to pursue that with the utmost vigor.

I'm fully aware that what I've described above is not what you had in mind by the "spiritual" and even the "religious." You've made clear that you have little use for "organized religion." Unfortunately, John, there is also a lot of "disorganized religion" out there that will do a great deal of damage. I think these things have to be thought through thoroughly. One can make concessions to the current retrograde atmosphere -- the pressure is intense and pervasive -- without intending to.

For me, spirituality in art means the human condition treated in all its dimensions, in all its vast body of experience, interconnections and potential. Spirituality involves charging representations with the greatest possible meaning. It means giving feelings and moods and relationships such intense, indelible expression that they achieve a "universal" character, they rise above the limitations of their time and place. So we continue to read and watch the Greeks, the Elizabethans and others, although their immediate social conditions have disappeared. Artistic imagery has that extraordinary ability; it creates grains of absolute, enduring truth. But it is imagery of this life of ours in its three dimensions.

We read Euripides and Shakespeare, but human psychology changes and art progresses, although in its own very peculiar fashion, with many detours and regressions, even century-long regressions, or partial regressions (content develops, form declines, for example). I read Shakespeare continually, but there are works that mean more to me, although they are weaker in cosmic terms as art. Dreiser's American Tragedy, Döblin's Berlin Alexanderplatz, Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, Fontane's work, Pasolini's poetry. His Accattone, Visconti's Ossessione and Senso, Fox and his Friends, Mother Küsters Goes to Heaven by Fassbinder, the films I mentioned by Bresson, Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, Mr. Arkadin by Welles. Contempt, Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind, Vertigo. And of course many slighter films or moments in slighter films (Out of the Past, Band of Angels, They Live by Night, Woman in the Window, The Naked Spur, etc.). Antonioni's The Passenger, Ophuls' La Signora di Tutti, 8 ½, Tarkovsky's The Mirror, Mr. Hulot's Holiday, The General, The Long Goodbye. We need works, above all, about our life and reality.

This experience, when one confronts in a novel or film something essential, when we discover the world, when we discover ourselves, when the veil that covers the world of phenomena so much of the time is torn away, that to me is the spiritual in art.

Aleksandr Voronsky, the Soviet literary critic and editor, Left Oppositionist, murdered by Stalin, wrote: "Art opens the world to us in a new and beautiful way not because the artist has made it so by endowing it with his feelings, but because it is beautiful in itself, independently of us and almost always despite our impressions. Beauty is not only our subjective state, it exists in nature. ... The ability of a person, of an artist, to re-embody oneself, i.e., to renounce oneself for an instant and to live the life of other people or the life of another world -- returns the world to oneself and makes it beautiful, independently of us."

He went on: "[I]f the artist surrenders himself to the world, if, to use philosophical language, he reproduces the thing-in-itself rather than the thing-for-us. By surrendering to the flood of his initial supra-rational perceptions, by re-embodying himself, the artist virtually dissolves his 'ego' into these perceptions, not, however, in order to run away from his own being, but to find the world as it is in itself, in its most lively and beautiful forms." (A. Voronsky, The Art of Seeing the World)

This is the spiritual element, in my view.

If, on the other hand, you are leaving a window open a crack for the after-life, I'm afraid we will not see eye to eye on this.

I'm concerned about a tendency to place art and science in apparently separate and opposed realms. Humanity makes one history, the history of the production of its material and spiritual life. Art and science are means of cognizing life and reality, art in the form of images, science in axioms. Of course they have different tasks and, within limits, different subject matter. However, they are both capable of attaining objective (and subjective) truth. Art since the Renaissance is unthinkable without science. Who was Leonardo? An artist-scientist. The Renaissance would have been inconceivable without the direct influence of science on art.

The great novelists of the 19th century were also social scientists. Balzac dissected class society in France. Marx wrote that "The present splendid brotherhood of fiction writers in England [Dickens, Thackeray, Charlotte Brönte and Elizabeth Gaskell] ... have issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together." Of course, establishing this type of social truth is not the only task art sets itself, but it is not an insignificant one.

One of the things we most desperately lack today is any degree of scientific analysis in art and film. Intellectual vagueness and imprecision dominate everywhere. The most interesting work at best "catches" at certain contemporary states of mind or social relationships. One of the first tasks of a 21st century cinema in America would be an unmerciful demystifying of its class-stratified society, a scathing critique of the ignorant, brutal elite, the cowardice and impotence of the intelligentsia, the avariciousness, opportunism of various petty bourgeois layers. And where is satire, genuine, blood-drawing satire? This is a country, after all, where many events should not provoke groans of outrage so much as howls of derisive laughter, this is a country where a Bush, a DeLay, a Sharpton, a Lieberman is treated with seriousness and deference!

There is no reason whatsoever in my view why social-scientific insight ought to exclude or be considered the opposite of the most profound emotional and intuitive response to the human situation. I've just finished Cécile by the German writer Theodor Fontane, written in 1887. It's not up to the level of his greatest work, Effi Briest (filmed by Fassbinder), but it's still a remarkable book, compassionate, erotic, psychologically acute and socially observant to an extraordinary degree.

These things go hand in hand. The human soul, unless one believes it has been placed there by a Divine hand, is made up of the deepest and most persistent social conditions, education, work, existence, relationships of various kinds. "The social conditions in historic human society are, first of all, the conditions of class affiliation." One arrives at the common, the human soul, through social life. The treatment of Everyman, of the empty, abstract Universal, deprived of the historically and socially specific "here and now," is death to art. See Hegel on Dutch art's grasp of the fleeting. There is no "Tree" apart from, in and through particular trees.

One cannot concern oneself with the human condition today, in my view, without addressing the social revolution and its problems and perspectives. The spiritual is bound up with the social, the social with the spiritual. They cannot be held part in art without harmful consequences. This is precisely what dominates currently.

I'm not in favor of mystery as such. Mystery hangs over human beings, confuses them, oppresses them, makes them seek out false and often harmful solutions. We have that in spades at present. Their own social organization is a mystery to most of the population. I'm not in favor of dark places that terrify people. There is a great difference between the mysterious and the unknown, which will always exist. The approximation of human thought to objective reality is an infinite process, made up of ever closer and deeper approximations, but never arriving at some final goal. Art and science both contribute.

(Clearly, I'm not in favor of a positivist "scientism," a reductionist, technocratic blueprint. However, I reject Horkheimer and Adorno's argument that the Enlightenment led to totalitarianism, except in the commonplace sense that it was a bourgeois Enlightenment and bourgeois society, in crisis a century and a half later, moved toward authoritarian rule. [And that's not what they meant.] But this would be the equivalent of blaming a flowering plant for its ultimate decay and death. The Enlightenment "failed," as the US Civil War "failed," only in the sense that neither created the kingdom of reason or democracy, nor could they have. They were historically limited events. A further social revolution is necessary. However, they were enormous milestones in human development, prepared and fought for by giants [Rousseau, Diderot and others], clearing the path of massive amounts of muck.

The Enlightenment and the French Revolution created the modern world, with a new set of challenges and contradictions. That is the nature of the historical process, at least until humanity masters its own social life. The destruction of nature by one of its own component parts, mankind, reveals that humanity is still at the mercy of an unplanned, wasteful, profit-driven social order. Trotsky suggests that in the future mankind will arrange its life and its planet in such a manner that "the tiger won't even notice the machine, or feel the change, but will live as he lived in primeval times. The machine is not in opposition to the earth. The machine is the instrument of modern man in every field of life." Of course this will not be done without contradiction or struggle, but the overthrow of capitalism is an absolute prerequisite.)

We know certain things, we don't know others. Art is not born out of ignorance, but not out of "total" knowledge either. Works that merely "flesh out" preconceived ideas are not serious or enduring art. We make art about things we don't yet understand, or only partially understand, wish to understand. In the course of the work some clarity may emerge; if the work is authentic, the reader or audience goes through something of the same process.

A reader just wrote in telling me that the novel is finished; after all, if the theme of Anna Karenina can be summed up in one sentence, why waste everyone's time with an 800-page book? This manages to miss everything. The art work creates a space in which truths about human existence are not merely stated, off the top of the head, as rational concepts, but established-proven dramatically, emotionally and intellectually through the most intense reworking and experiencing.

Anyway ...





I am writing you from Krakow, Poland, where I live these days. There is a death of irony moment here I think, as we speak of bogus and empty religion.

Of course the intolerance and authoritarianism of Bush and his fundamentalist pals, and constituency, are the result of concrete historical factors. The empty obedience of millions to a thoroughly corrupt institution like the Catholic Church is another example of the control exercised by the ruling elite. I would be the last person to want to, in any way, suggest anything other than horror at the anti-intellectualism of the movement for "creationism" being taught in US schools, for example. Then again, education has been devolving for decades in the U.S. My only point regarding science was that, it too can be, and often has been (and is now), co-opted by the Imperialist machinery of domination. When science is in the service of the profit scheme of big corporations, then one is going to soon get a pretty mystified science.

We have studies and research to find out whether children suffer when taken away from their mothers too early. Do we really need such studies? Of course not, but they are usually paid for by baby food makers or something, and usually the result is pre-determined, one way or the other. This is not to say science and medicine (in particular) haven't made extraordinary advances. I only feel that one of the problems these days, when speaking of science, is a confusion of what it does, and what it doesn't do. Science is not philosophy, nor is it art. They overlap, but they are about different things.

Science has all too often become its own form of bad myth making. This didn't just start with Bush, either, which I know you realize. The selling of science and technology as a "solution" has been under way for many decades -- maybe for a hundred years -- but now it is totally under the sway of corporate growth. Now, here is where we reach a fascinating crossroads; the role of art and science for man. Your quote by Voronsky reflects, in different language, a lot of what I was trying to say. I think of Artaud, who wanted actors "naked" on stage, emotionally, and open to the moment. This is an almost Buddhist ideal, actually. Lifting the veil of illusion is most certainly part of what art is supposed to do. When one loses oneself one finds oneself. Richard II only finds his king-like capacity when giving away his crown. In Melville and Dostoyevsky, in Broch and even Hemingway, one finds an endless search that nobody really thinks will succeed. It is the looking that matters.

I think, however, that it is a good deal more complex than Voronsky's quote might suggest. The way we define "nature" is important, and it's probably impossible to really arrive at a satisfactory definition in this context.

Adorno said, "In natural beauty, natural and historical elements interact in a musical and kaleidoscopically changing fashion. Each can step in for the other, and it is in this constant fluctuation, not in any unequivocal order of relationships, that natural beauty lives. It is spectacle in the way that clouds present Shakespearian drama, or the way the illuminated edges of clouds seem to give duration to lightning flashes. While art does not reproduce those clouds, dramas nonetheless attempt to enact the dramas staged by clouds..."

I use the term mystery, perhaps, in my own way. It is not mystification. The unknown can also be used. The point is that a recycling of familiar material is simply a deadening experience -- and that is what we have today. The marketers out there know very well how to neutralize opposition. As soon as one attempts a serious analysis one is called pretentious. Ignorance is called authenticity. War is called peace. When one walks in the virgin forest (the few that are left...and mercifully Poland has a few remaining) one feels mystery. One feels the unknown, and one, if attentive, can feel something like the cosmos. I suspect nature is neither beautiful nor ugly, neither friendly nor menacing. It is more and less than those kinds of opposites.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (and I paraphrase) said all of nature is a metaphor for the human mind.

My notion of the mysterious is such that it must remain a mystery. I don't see that as a bad thing. I don't see it as a hindrance to anything. I worry, as I've said before, about ideas that suggest art must be instructional. This is a deeply backward looking idea. I agree that art is about both the spiritual and the social. Film, like theatre, is inherently civic and social. The future of film, and art in general, is inextricably connected to a clarity of vision in regards to the social injustices and rampant irrationality of modern life. An understanding of the political and historical is, simply, essential. On this I agree totally. This doesn't mean one should look for purely didactic art...and you've made clear you don't...and what we are trying to define in some way as "spiritual" is that ineffable something that seems just out of the frame. For me it is, partly, what one feels when walking in a virgin wild forest, and reminds me where fairy tales come from. It is what one feels when one looks at a night sky (at least in an area where electric lights don't obscure the stars) and it is, equally, what one feels when confronted with the panorama of human history. It has nothing at all to do with a divine hand or an afterlife, at least in the sense you refer to.

I have some very smart students at the film school. I knew some very smart people in Hollywood, too. In both cases, perhaps for different reasons, these same smart people seem to have trouble asking big questions, and more than that, they seem to lack some of the pre-requisites for knowing HOW to ask. The students, of course, are not encouraged to ask these questions. As I've said, the emphasis is on technique and technology, and on a certain mundane form of "realism." This realism is just a kind of sociological banality, and it is here that I feel the lack of the "spiritual" most acutely.

I also want to say that I think you are correct to pint out that film can't rescue itself. It is a product, made by workers, and created within a given system of economic relations. This reality means there are inherent ideological dynamics in all films, and on some level it's hard to imagine an escape from this until the entire system is overturned -- or at least until film artists and critics start to question and analyze these things more concretely. The question of class analysis is crucial in this respect. The de-mystifying of the class structure, as you put it, is foremost for young artists, I would say. Young and old artists. In the U.S., the idea has been handed to people that there is no class, and certainly nobody wants to identify with being part of the working class -- even though most people are working class. In America everyone is "middle class" and that is what you see in movies, a pretended middle class of happy families, free from debt, worry, and secure in their jobs.

Now, André Bazin has said that it's possible that painting and sculpture exhibit something of a mummy complex. Like ancient Pharaonic Egyptians, all people fight against death. These death defenses are part of what drives the creative process. I suspect there is truth in this, and here again I feel we are touching upon something like the "spiritual." I hope this isn't going to be confused with cheap religious mystification again -- because it's quite different, I believe. The Egyptians found statues to be a way to preserve life (by representing it). This is talked about in Victoria Nelson's book, The Secret Life of Puppets. Our endless fascination with automata and puppets, with statues and marionettes, and robots. Man has always created, always looked at the world around him and tried to find meaning in it. This striving toward meaning is the spiritual, I think, and it includes reproducing ourselves in some fashion or other. Reproducing our own image, and in film this takes on really interesting dimensions. Art is not a duplication of reality (or, rather, some bad art IS) but is a strange process of accessing the truth of our individual and collective experience. To do that, one has to do more than just observe, and yet it includes observation and it includes duplication. In directors as varied as Lang and Von Stroheim, as Tashlin and Ophuls, one can see visual remnants (if that's the word) of the world of miniatures and doll houses and folk art. Those links need to be there, I think, and in the world of digital mush they are disappearing. They are part of history.

A couple final thoughts here on theatre and film. I suspect one of the differences between film and theatre has to do with how an audience reacts to the actor -- what is often called the "presence" of the actor. From a sort of psychoanalytic point of view, there is a transference in theatre. The analyst of the audience and the analyst and actor...or sometimes is it the other way round? There is the phantom director/playwright hovering over it all. The analyst and speaking lines that are not his. What is the relationship an audience has to live actors that changes when the actor is in a film? The film is not recreated each night, it is simply shown again, and it doesn't change. Is this why theatre contains a kind of Aristotelian catharsis? I'm not sure. If I am correct at all about transference, then the counter-transference would happen in theatre, and not in film. Sartre (so Bazan says) thought film dealt with decor first, and actors second. This is not so in theatre. There is a dead end to the transference loop in cinema and this raises disturbing questions that I think filmmakers haven't really answered yet. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, it might be argued, came the closest to this catharsis, and that was many years ago (note how utterly "unrealistic" that film is!). Today's actors, in both mediums, express a kind of hubris (there are obvious exceptions), and I was reminded of this when the BBC did a show on theatre and showed clips of Paul Schofield's Lear. They then showed a recent Royal Shakespeare Company production of Lear -- the comparison was startling. The recent production was self involved -- narcissistic -- and posed. The earlier production seemed to listen more to the language. The small roles seemed to exist almost magically within the world of the play, the actors served the play. I've always taught that character comes out of dialogue and not the other way around. Language is the forgotten dimension of today's film -- language and voice. Too many of today's actors seem not to be interested in serving the play or film.

Theatre is in a more dreadful state than film, if that is imaginable. It may be that film allows for less discomfort than theatre, I don't know. Has it to do with how audiences feel more secure with the knowledge that the film is "complete"? This brings me back to my notions of constant revising of film. Something needs to be done to tear apart both the commodity aspect of film, and the cathartic cul-de-sac that seems to be part of the medium. How much of this will have to do with actors remains to be seen, but quite possibly more than a lot of us think.

Now, having said this, I also realize there is a lot more promising film out there today than there is theatre, certainly in the U.S.

I will leave it there for now, and hope we can address a bit of this in Part III.





I'll be briefer this time too.

It is impossible to leave the question of religion without citing the beautiful and truthful passages of Marx from 1844 (from Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right):

[Read the third part of this conversation.]

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About the Authors

David Walsh is arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site, and the author of many incisive and critical essays on contemporary art and culture from a Marxist standpoint. You can read his film reviews at http://www.wsws.org/sections/category/arts/walsh.shtml - You can also read a lecture, "The Aesthetic Component of Socialism," David delivered on January 9, 1998 to the International Summer School on Marxism and the Fundamental Problems of the 20th Century, organized by the Socialist Equality Party (Australia) in Sydney from January 3-10, 1998.

John Steppling on Swans (with bio).



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Of Margaret Mitchell, Blind Willie McTell, Wonder Bread, New York City Real Estate, And The Road To Proto-Fascism - Phil Rockstroh

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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published April 11, 2005