Sunday, October 18, 2015

Peter Watkins: A Revolutionary Film-Maker (2015)

Peter Watkins
From the October 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
To mark the 80th birthday of film-maker Peter Watkins, we examine his unfairly neglected work.
Peter Watkins, the film auteur, has been subject to massive marginalisation of his work. His entire oeuvre has seemingly met with extreme disapproval by the state, the power structures in capitalism and its ideological support structure, the mass media. Watkins can be a difficult film artist but he is essential cinema, the pioneer of the faux docudrama where he dissects historical events, the present day, or the near future. He described himself as a libertarian socialist and campaigns against false, stale and authoritarian film-making.
In the mid-1970s, Watkins’ experience of film-making and his studies of mainstream cinema and television led him to develop his theory of the ‘Monoform’, the predominant style used by the ‘Mass Audio Visual Media’ (MAVM) industry. A film or programme produced in the Monoform would be edited with a rapid succession of different images which don’t allow the viewer long enough to digest and consider what they have seen. This style manipulates the viewer into interpreting the film according to what the film-makers determine.
This theory influenced how Watkins would make his films. For example, The Journey (1987) did attempt in its use of time, space and alternative structures to counter the Monoform. His later preference for lengthy films gave the viewer more time and information to consider the subject matter, although he recognised that non-monoform movies don’t have to be as long asThe Journey’s14.5 hours! His use of non-professional actors and improvised scenes (even before he developed the theory of the Monoform) were intended to give a voice to people outside the media industry.
His theory of the Monoform includes a discourse about the ‘Universal Clock’ which refers to the synchronisation and the global movement of the televisions in the world, calibrated anywhere, at any time, their programming constructed without meaning, context or feeling but fitting within time constraints determined by commercials.
The Monoform treats audiences as receivers, consumers, passive spectators when faced with news, television and film. People are trained to accept the mass media in a non-critical light as if the media is neutral  and informative. The Monoform precludes any critical analysis of technique, structure, or effect, and is based on pre-formed moulds, from which there is no real freedom. The public are viewed as inherently stupid so that it needs authoritarian, simplistic, rapidly-moving language forms in order to absorb consumer ideas from TV.
To counter the Monoform, Watkins advocates an organic relationship between the film-maker and the audience; using non-professionals furthers his cause of involving the public in a democratic media. Watkins has laid out new possibilities for meaningful audience interaction with media, not just for viewers and those involved in production, but on a personal level. He endeavours to remove the comfortable avoidance of reality inherent in conventional programming on television by challenging the mainstream media’s handle on the way we view the world through television and film. Watkins has wrought more truth from the faux docudrama genre than the documentaries of the so-called vérité school.
Watkins himself pioneered the docudrama genre of dramatising events in the style of newsreel footage, right from the early years of his career. In the mid 1950s, he was part of the Playcraft amateur theatre group in Kent. He acquired an 8mm camera and directed the group in short films set in the first and second world wars, and during the 1956 Hungarian uprising. By the early 1960s, Watkins was working as an assistant producer at the BBC. He had already noticed that ‘much of the commercial cinema in the 1950s and early 1960s, and television in general, felt extremely stilted and conventional, holding the public locked into set and authoritarian agendas’, and he wanted ‘to offer a way of countering the effects of soap-opera historical reconstructions and TV news broadcasts’ ( So, when he had the opportunity to produce his own film for the BBC, he built on his newsreel style, and Culloden (1964) was the result.
The film showed the 1746 battle between forces loyal to the Stuart and Hanover royal dynasties, and its aftermath, as if a TV camera crew had been there to record it. In less than an hour, over 2,000 soldiers were killed, and the victorious Hanoverian Duke of Cumberland’s troops then went on to hunt down any remaining members of opposing clans. One of Watkins’ aims was to draw parallels between the resulting destruction of the clan system and the American army’s impact on civilians during the then-current Vietnam War.
Many of the cast were non-professional actors, including descendents of those who fought at Culloden. This wasn’t just an artistic decision in order to elicit more naturalistic performances, but also a political statement. Watkins wanted his films to provide a voice for anyone, rather than the biased, unrepresentative media industry. The film received enthusiastically supportive reviews, especially for its pioneering techniques.
After Culloden, the BBC commissioned Watkins again, and he produced the 1965 harrowing, bleak, nuclear war docudrama The War Game, 47 minutes in length. It concerned a nuclear attack on Britain focusing on the North Kent area, and featured instant flash blindness, a firestorm, radiation sickness, widespread psychological damage and suicide. We see the Army burn corpses, the rationing of resources, police shooting looters during food riots, civil disturbance becomes a capital offence, and people are executed by firing squad. The cast was almost entirely made up of non-actors, and Watkins filmed in the style of a news magazine programme.
The BBC violated their own Charter when in September 1965 they screened the film to senior members of the Home Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Post Office, the Military Chiefs of Staff, and the Secretary to Harold Wilson’s Cabinet. As a result, the BBC suppressed transmission before the screening date in October 1965, stating ‘the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting, it will, however, be shown to invited audiences.’ A Parliamentary question in December 1965 ‘asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department what representations he made to the BBC concerning the Civil Defence film called The War Game; and why he exerted pressure to prevent its showing to the public’. But the Labour government denied any outside pressure on the BBC. There had also been pressure from Equity, the British actors’ union, who were angry that non-professional actors had been used.
The War Game was released to cinema in 1966, and picked up the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and a BAFTA. Hypocritically, the BBC picked up the awards although the BBC had also said the film was banned because it was an artistic failure! Today both The War Game and Culloden have been available for some years on DVD but it is difficult to obtain these films for theatrical screenings which is related to restrictions imposed by Equity. The BBC eventually broadcast The War Game twenty years later in July 1985 during the week before the fortieth anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
The film essentially stated that civil defence policies did not prepare the public for a nuclear attack. Watkins said later that ‘I was interested in breaking the illusion of media-produced ‘reality’. My question was ‘Where is ‘reality’?’’ Watkins disassembled the fourth wall to uproot the MAVM complacency, and characters deliver direct Brechtian statements to camera. Patrick Murphy, a senior lecturer in Film and Television at York St John University, quotes Watkins: ‘The War Game and Culloden are signposts to a direction that TV could have taken, but refused. Television could have been a plurality of forms and processes.’ Watkins’ disillusionment with the way television programming was heading meant that he left the BBC and turned instead to film production.
His reputation as a talented new voice meant he could attract the backing of major studios such as Universal Pictures. This led to Privilege (1967), a docudrama about Steven Shorter, a manufactured pop idol of the near future. Shorter’s career is dictated by his management company, which is working with the government to distract his millions of fans from society’s problems. His stage act uses violence to provide ‘the public with a necessary release of all the nervous tension caused by the state of the world’. Shorter’s popularity with the masses means that he can be used to manipulate them. So when the state wants to promote religious and national unity, Shorter is rebranded as repentant and faithful. The singer Paul Jones from Manfred Mann plays Shorter, giving a tense, awkward performance which reflects how the character is trapped and unable to express himself.
Privilege was dismissed by contemporary reviewers as ‘paranoid, hysterical and unconvincing’ (Privilege DVD booklet), and was shown by few cinemas. Consequently, it has been largely forgotten, whereas it should be recognised as a lively and perceptive critique of the mass media’s power, echoing Herbert Marcuse’s views about consumerism as a form of social control. The directions that Watkins’ career would take next reflect his growing awareness of how the media industry stifles intelligent debate. The concluding part of our look at his work will follow in the next issue.
Mike Foster & Steve Clayton

One Man's Meat . . . (1982)

From the June 1982 issue of the Socialist Standard

"They use everything about the hog except the squeal", joked the guide. He was showing the wonders of the Chicago stockyards and packing plants to a group of Lithuanian immigrants at the start of this century. In The Jungle Upton Sinclair gives a graphic description of what that joke meant for those who worked in the appalling conditions of the packing plants, and also of what went into the cans: 
. . . and if that were not enough, there was a trap in the pipe, where all the scraps of meat and odds and ends of refuse were caught, and every few days it was the old man's task to clean these out, and shovel their contents into one of the trucks with the rest of the meat!
The Jungle was published in 1906. Since that time there have been considerable improvements in the standards of public health and hygiene, and the exploitation of the working class appears less blatant. But it is still the same social system.

Government draft regulations for new minimum standards in the manufacture of meat products will come into force next year. Manufacturers will have discretion over the contents and labelling of a wider range of products. Consumer groups are concerned that the labelling on meat products should accurately represent the contents, and would prefer to give prior approval. They are hoping to influence the Ministry of Agriculture to improve its proposals before the final version of the new regulations is published. The proposals were in general welcomed only by the meat manufacturing industry. Among those expressing hostility were farmers worried that in future fewer pigs might be needed for the present output of pork products.

Advancing technology means that there is not much of an animal which cannot be used within a loose definition of "meat". "Crushed pigs' head are already used in some pork sausage manufacture, with only the teeth removed" (Guardian 13/4/82). A "meat product" is defined as any food consisting of "at least 10 per cent meat". A 3oz meat pie would have to contain at least 5/8 oz of meat but up to half of that "meat: could be fat or gristle.

What is the reason for new regulations? If the concern was how to remove the obscenity of starvation and malnutrition from the world, we would expect every method of producing and processing food to be examined. Should it then prove that ways to produce sufficient food would need to include grinding up all skin, bone and gristle from animals' carcasses and using a minimal amount in "meat" products—there would be nothing more to be said!

However the aim is not feeding hungry people.
The object of the Government, of course, is to enable meat products to be manufactured at prices that most people can easily afford. This is also true of the meat product makers, although they clearly also want to maximise their profits. (Guardian 13/4/82.) 
Government interest is easily understood since the price of food is a major factor in pay claims (and in their ability to reduce unemployment benefit). Meat product makers would be unusual members of the capitalist class if they did not wish to maximise their profits.

Contrary to popular belief prices cannot be set at the whim of manufacturers. If it were so they would not need to worry about production costs. Concern for the contents and accurate labelling of meat products should be seen in the context of a social system where the motive for producing food, and every commodity, is sale and profit; where the choice of what anyone eats is qualified by what they can afford to pay. Food produced cheaply enough for "most people" to easily afford means that a privileged few have a different choice.
Pat Deutz

Workers against The Gulag (1981)

Book Review from the June 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

Workers Against The Gulag, edited by Olga Semyonova and Viktor Haynes. (Pluto Press 1.95)

"I am a Russian worker, aged 46. I have worked in production for 30 years, 22 on electrical work, repairs. The archives of the KGB hold three folders of documents confirming that I am a skilled electrician, conscientious in my work, practically don't drink, and don't smoke.

"I will list some of the reasons which led me in 1959 to take the risk of illegally crossing the border, and in 1964 and 1966 to ask for permission to emigrate.
(1) The low level of pay  . . . I have spent the best years of my life slaving for a crust.
(2) The lack of free Trade Unions.
(3) The cruel, humiliating treatment of men in Labour Camps. I spent many days in freezing solitary confinement in Camp No. * of the Omsk, UMZ.
(4) The continual ever-growing tendency of the KGB to use "psychiatry" to strengthen its punitive powers."

On the 21 December 1976, V. A. Ivanov appeared in Revolution Square in Moscow with a placard: "To the Soviet Authorities. I demand permission to emigrate. I have gone through Hell in your Camps and Gas-Chambers. What else is left?" Ten minutes later Ivanov was seized, spent 24 hours in the police station, and was then sent home, out of Moscow. In November he addressed a letter to George Meaney, President of the American AFL/CIO: "I am a Russian worker, a highly qualified electrician with thirty years record  . . . I ask you to help me leave Russia and thereby escape further persecution."

This book is one of the most damning indictments to come from Russia so far, consisting of a series of documents smuggled out and published, for the first time, in Britain. These documents tell the facts behind the glossy government propaganda tracts. Ninety per cent of the Russian working-class are on piece-work rates, based on impossible so-called "norms". The minimum official poverty line is 50 Roubles a week; 10,000 families in Leningrad alone fall below this line. Every Soviet citizen has to carry an "internal passport" (just like under the Czar), which is also a residential permit. In addition, every worker has to carry his Labour Book, giving his work record, and without which he cannot get employment. Food is dear, in winter often unobtainable, especially butter, milk and eggs. The average Russian citizen gets less than half as much meat as West European workers. Serious widespread strikes have broken out as in Novcherkass, and been brutally suppressed. These workers in their protests actually betray the same naiveté as their grandfathers did in 1905 when they appealed to the Czar (the Little Father); asking "Comrade Brezhnev to intervene on their behalf, and the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party to prevent the local Communist officials from persecuting them is as futile.

In their appeals they declare their support of the Russian system and say they want to "make it work". The most moving, harrowing parts of the book are the accounts of the brutal persecution and ill-treatment of workers by the criminal thugs of the KGB and the Russian CP. For daring to protest against corruption (more rife in Russia than in New York), thieving of state property, swindling workers of their pay, rigging elections to the official state "unions", workers have been dismissed, had their furniture and children thrown out on the street, in the depths of Russian winter, been beaten up in police stations, and sent to "Psychiatric Hospitals" and Labour Camps.

All of which shows how terrified the authorities really are. In spite of everything, with incredible courage, Vladimir Klebanov and his friends have formed a free Trade Union, demanded recognition, and appealed to the west for help, which the KGB with all its powers has failed to suppress. The first Russian Free Trade Union has been driven underground, but still exists. This book confirms our view of the anti-working class politics in Russia.

The new Russian ruling class (1981)

Book Review from the February 1981 issue of the Socialist Standard

La Nomenklatura by Michael Voslensky (Belfond, Paris)

This book, written in German by a dissident who left Russia in 1972 and here translated into French, will also no doubt sooner or later appear in English but meanwhile we can already mention some of the information it gives on the privileges of the Russian ruling class.

Russia is a state capitalist country where the means of production belong to the state which in turn is dictatorially controlled by the single political party allowed to exist. The means of production are thus effectively monopolised by the top layers of the party, who constitute the owning, exploiting class. They are in fact a capitalist class, even though their ownership is collective rather than individual (as was for instance that of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages). Similarly, the proceeds of their exploitation of the Russian working class are shared out as bloated "salaries" and various institutionalised privileges and benefits in kind rather than as dividends.

Although Voslensky does not use the term "state capitalism" he shows that Russia is a class society in which the workers and peasants are exploited by a ruling, owning class as the "nomenklatura", a social group who occupy the posts which the Party, at various levels has the sole right to fill. It is a clearly defined group—a special document proves membership—and Voslensky estimates their number at 750,000 (with their families, 3 million) or 1.5 per cent of the population, a tiny minority like the capitalist class in the West.

The official average monthly wage in Russia is 167 roubles. The basic pay of a head of sector at the Central Committee of the Party is 450 roubles, but this does not take into account that he is paid a 13th month, receives a cure bonus and tickets called kremliovka which entitle him to obtain good quality food cheaply. According to Voslensky, these extra perks bring his monthly income up to 750 roubles.

Then there are the various privileges in kind. A member of the nomenklatura lives in a luxury flat and has at his disposal a chauffeur-driven car, a dacha in the country and rest and holiday homes in the mountains and at the seaside. He also has access to special shops and restaurants where only the best is on sale, at cheap prices. Every station and airport has a special waiting room reserved for members of the nomenklatura only. Since the death of Stalin, membership of the group is virtually for life; even if you make some mistake you are not expelled from its ranks, but only transferred to a less important post—and so you still keep the privileges. Similarly, and even official Russian sociological studies show this, the nomenklatura is tending to become hereditary: new members increasingly choose fathers who are also nomenklaturists. Voslensky says that the nomenklatura could be said to live in a separate country which he calls "Nomenklaturia":
Here are to be found special housing constructed by special firms, special country houses and special holiday centres, special cure homes, polyclinics and hospitals; special products sold in special shops; special cafeterias and canteens; special hairdressing salons and special car centres; special petrol pumps and special number plates; a special information service with wide ramifications; kindergartens, schools and boarding schools of special educational establishments (giving degrees), exclusive clubs where films are shown in exclusivity; special waiting rooms in stations and airports. And even a reserved cemetery. (pp. 249-250).
And these privileged exploiters hypocritically proclaim that classes have been abolished in Russia and that social equality reigns there! But the Russian people are not completely taken in, as shown by the following widely-circulating Russian joke which Voslensky quotes—Question: what is the difference between capitalism and communism? Answer: capitalism is based on the exploitation of man by man. Communism is the opposite.
Adam Buick

A reconstruction (1980)

Book Review from the October 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French village, 1294-1324, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Penguin Books.

It is the turn of the 14th century; a small French village high in the mountains continues a tradition of life that has been rolling on for as long as anyone knows. There is a closely knit community of priests, minor nobility and peasantry, the latter free from the worst restrictions of feudal servility. Most peasants live as farmers, the poorer members being either shepherds (the men) or servants (the women). They are connected to, yet also cut off from, the mainstream of French social life.

The priesthood is more concerned with its own sexual appetites than any pretence at religion. Social values, which clearly predate capitalism, include freer sexual relations and a lack of the sexual prejudices which beset 20th century society. To take one obvious example, an unmarried mother is in no way discriminated against, either in terms of marriage prospects or generally. There is a lack of commitment to time keeping (other than by the seasons); little regard for money (very few money transactions took place); different social classes mix easily (the lady of the village sleeping with priest and peasant). But there is also a new and potentially subversive religion, Catharsism, the Albigensian heresy that threatens to undermine the Catholic Church by accepting a deity but rejecting the established priesthood.

Into this easy going, almost timeless, community descends Bishop Fournier, a fanatical Catholic who rounds up the Cathars in a series of inquisitions between 1318 and 1325. His enthusiasm for burning and imprisoning the Cathars knows no bounds. But the inquisitions are also meticulous and carefully document, incredibly lengthy statements from all the inhabitants of the village. These statements, painfully transcribed into Latin, have survived, and allow Ladurie to recreate the life of the community in minute detail.

It is a remarkable record and Ladurie's patient reconstruction allows one to see into the very minds of the people of Montaillou. It is one of the most detailed pictures of the rhythms of pre-capitalist life of the non-privileged classes to have been published.

There are, however, problems with Ladurie's work; no historian is neutral and Montaillou does suffer from contradictions. Ladurie seems to make no allowances for the potential distortion (conscious or otherwise) in the depositions of the rounded up villagers. He tends to be repetitive; the same story about the same love affair will appear in different contexts on several occasions. But perhaps this was almost deliberate; life was repetitive and the minutiae of the "sophisticated" peasant world of Montaillou needs time to appreciate. This book's length may be part of its own structure. Anyone who wants to find evidence of the stupidity of the arguments about "greedy human nature" or the inevitability of conflict could do worse than get on the time machine and pay a visit to Montaillou.
Ronnie Warrington

The World on Our Backs (1980)

Book Review from the January 1980 issue of the Socialist Standard

The World on Our Backs by Malcolm Pitt, Lawrence & Wishart, £2.95

The 1972 Miners' strike was classic confirmation of the socialist case on industrial action: by combining in unions, and by appropriate use of the strike weapon, workers can force their capitalist employers to disgorge a little more of the wealth taken from them in the process of exploitation.

This book, written by one of the Kent miners, is a somewhat anecdotal account of their picketing of power stations and coal depots in the South East, and particularly the London area, in the course of the strike. It was of course this picketing which, by closing down the power stations, eventually forced the Conservative government of the time to back down through the face-saving formula of a Court of Enquiry. In record time—the strike was still in progress—the miners were awarded a substantial wage increase, way outside the limits the government was trying to impose.

Normally, the longer a strike goes on the less chance there is of a successful outcome, but in this case the miners enjoyed considerable public sympathy, which deterred the government from taking tough action (such as using the troops to move coal). Above all the strikers benefitted from the solidarity of transport workers, without whose refusal to cross picket lines the power stations would not have been closed.

A point which is often overlooked regarding the strike is that it was essentially defensive: most miners had suffered a cut in their living standards and were merely demanding that a previous standard be restored. As Pitt makes clear, many faceworkers, especially in Yorkshire, Nottingham and Kent were actually earning less money than they had been five years previously—thanks to a new wage structure introduced with the agreement of the National Union of Miners which essentially only benefitted face workers in low productivity areas. It was this that made the miners so determined to fight.

According to Pitt (who joined the so-called Communist Party in 1974) "the miners' determined offensive on the picket line sparked off a whole process of united trade union action that opened up a completely new stage in the progress of the working class to Socialism". This is nonsense. The miners' strike of 1972 (and of 1974) was purely defensive action on the issue of wages. Necessary, heroic even, but still nothing to do with socialism—the abolition of the wages system by political action. Until socialism is achieved trade union activity, including strikes, will be necessary, just to maintain living standards. However, such running fast to stand still will not remain forever the objective which the working class sets itself.
Adam Buick