Seventy-five years ago, Christopher Caudwell’s Studies in a Dying Culture was published posthumously. Caudwell, a brilliant young British Communist writer and poet volunteered to fight for the Spanish Republic and was killed in 1937. If Caudwell’s assessment of capitalist culture was appropriate to the mid-twentieth century, that culture has reached a terminal phase in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
The artistic and personal liberties unleashed by the escape from the repressive, conformist 1950s and the energy and optimism accompanying the civil rights and anti-war movements were methodically and overwhelmingly suffocated by corporate cooption. Any and every new spring of creative originality—whether it be a new popular musical form or an original film director—has been damned and channeled by the monopoly entertainment industry. As a result, cultural products with any claim to broad popularity are reduced to either formulaic, safe entertainments or vapid, lifeless expressions of “high” culture.
This is not to demean the tens of thousands of talented cultural workers who struggle at minimum wage jobs while studying and exercising their craft for the few willing to step away from the corporately constructed temples of culture. They labor even more heroically than their predecessors who were occasionally able to hew some measure of independence from the grasp of cultural moguls and business accountants. That is less possible today when only unrestrained vulgarity and violence or unchallenging distraction and fantasy offer the keys to entering the cultural big stage.
In an age where the promise of hip hop has been reduced to a grinding pulse of swagger, violence, and selfishness and the freedom of independent commercial film predictably delivers time-released, regular spasms of ultra-violence, nudity, and sex, relief from the tedium is especially delicious. More and more that relief is coming from documentary film.
I have in mind two documentaries that expose the worst and best of the US.
The Queen of Versailles
The best documentaries often rise to great heights on sheer dumb luck; the Irish film makers who, by happenstance, captured close-up the coup against Hugo Chavez and its aftermath were extraordinary examples of the film gods in action (The Revolution Will Not Be Televised).
Similarly, Lauren Greenfield’s 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles draws its drama from the impact of the economic crisis upon one of the richest families in the US. What begins as the capture of the excesses and embarrassing vulgarity of the nouveau riche devolves to a tale of blame, self-pity, and neglect, thanks to the impact of the unforeseen crisis.
On the way up, a fortune built around the hustle and shrewd entrapment of the time-share industry allows an orgy of self-indulgence, senseless consumerism, and smugness. David Siegel, the ruler of the empire, brags about his clandestine role in getting Bush elected President; he creates a glitzy tower in Las Vegas to signal his success, and he aspires to build the largest private home in the US to flaunt that success. Siegel embodies Marx’s infamous iconic capitalist: “… The less you eat, drink, and buy books; the less you go to the theater, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc, the more you save—the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour—your capital.” But as Marx acknowledges, your abstinence and single-minded greed is rewarded, for your accumulated wealth can “appropriate art, learning, the treasures of the past, political power…” And Siegel does all of this.
But the 2008 economic collapse brings the Siegel family to its knees. Dead, unattended pets; dog feces on carpets; fast food; cranky, spoiled children; and sullenness and self-pity replace the former swagger. “It’s the banks, the rotten, greedy banks,” the Siegels exclaim. They angrily protest that “ordinary” people like themselves are victimized by selfish bankers.
As the empire totters, the Siegels scramble to adjust. On a visit to her childhood friends, wife Jackie must subject her children to their first flight on a commercial airline. “Why are these other people on our plane?” they wonder. Jackie asks the rental car agent for the name of the driver; he responds with a puzzled look. The rich are not like the rest of us.
Through their “ordeal,” David Siegel sulks, whines, and wallows in self-pity. While Jackie’s untamed consumerism remains pathological, she shows more character and resilience, serving as both the family’s anchor and morale-booster. This snap shot of the very wealthy in full bloom and under duress shows the shallowness of that life choice and the ugliness of conspicuous self-aggrandizement. It is hard to feel sympathy for the Siegels.
Searching for Sugarman
If the Siegels conjure contempt, even disgust, Sixto Rodriguez—the focus of the documentary, Searching for Sugarman—counts as a glorious expression of the best of us. Rodriguez, a discarded cultural worker, exudes nobility, humility, warmth, and intelligence, whether working in small, marginal clubs, laboring on excavation or demolition sites, raising his children, or enjoying a belated celebrity.
Others have written of his strange, magical journey from a quickly emerging and falling talent forty years ago to the re-discovered celebrity of today. In between, Rodriguez worked and raised his children like millions of others, but with uncommon dignity and strength. The film, Sugarman, attests to the man’s resilience, but also celebrates his incredible impact upon others.
Unmistakably, Rodriguez, himself a former autoworker and the son of an immigrant Mexican autoworker, is a legacy of the US multi-national working class—a living example of the best of working class values. He, like his co-workers interviewed in the film, has an unassuming intellect and unqualified respect for others.
And he and his music are consummately “political.” Not in any clumsy or preachy sense, but in a way that speaks to and for the disadvantaged, that resonates with those who seek change. Early in his career he associated in Detroit with John Sinclair, the political commissar of the proto-proletarian-punk group, the MC5. Later, when his music arrived in Australia, he opened in live performances for Australia’s most widely known politically outspoken rock group, Midnight Oil.
But the greatest testament to his strong politics is the curious and bizarre impact on South African youth. After Angolan independence at the end of 1975, South Africa intensified its military interventions in that country and Namibia. Over the next decade, conscription of white South Africans into the military met further and further resistance. For reasons that remain obscure, the music of Rodriguez, commercially a flop in the US, found a following in South Africa. Rodriguez became the voice of resistance and change for many young, white South Africans. His music created the sound track for the anti-conscription movement. And by the mid-eighties he inspired other musical groups to propel the End Conscription Campaign. The Kalahari Surfers, Cherry Faced Lurchers, and other alternative musical groups gave expression to disenchanted white youth (see Forces Favourites, Rounder Records, 1986). The resounding defeat of the South African military by the Angolan military and its Cuban internationalist ally, the growing militancy of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party, and the disenchantment of white South Africans brought apartheid to its knees and paved the way to South African liberation.
In a real way, this modest worker in Detroit helped rock the foundations of the racist, repressive apartheid system in South Africa– quite an accomplishment for an artist without recognition in his homeland. Quite an achievement for a talent initially crushed by the gears of an industry driven by immediacy and profit.
Where The Queen of Versailles drains the spirit with its celebration of accumulation and ostentation, Searching for Sugarman brings joy and inspiration. Both are revealing. Watch them both, one after the other. Hang your head in embarrassment with the decadence that the unbridled capitalist system has wrought. Raise your head with hope for the nobility that people like Rodriguez bring to us.