Bright Lights Film Journal

Marxism Goes to the Movies: On Pioneering Activist Film Critic Harry Alan Potamkin

“He’s keenly sensitive to the immense possibilities of film as not merely an aesthetic medium, but given its mass influence, a social one as well.”

It would probably be an exaggeration to call Harry Alan Potamkin America’s first great movie critic. The country would have to wait for the advent of the mature Many Farber in 1949 for sustained, idiosyncratic greatness. (I intentionally bypass Otis Ferguson and, for all the pleasure his prose affords, James Agee). Read nearly any of Potamkin’s reviews or articles and his distinguishing faults become immediately apparent: the abstract terminology (“visual motor-graph,” “social idea”), his now-naïve faith in the Soviet Union as the most promising hope for civilization, the occasional clumsiness of his prose, his ultra-stringent criteria for a film’s accomplishments that left a personal canon of only about half a dozen films that were deemed worthy of inclusion. But for all that, Potamkin remains America’s first critic who produced a body of work of lasting value, the first to understand film’s role as a social medium that wasn’t either passive entertainment or isolated work of art, but one that played an active role in shaping the society that produced it.

Although he was always politically oriented, Potamkin’s dedication to parsing a film’s social content became decidedly more pronounced around 1930, when the Marxist fellow traveler began to move away from the more formalist orientation that had marked his previous criticism and pursue a mode of writing increasingly in line with his acute political commitment. Lewis Jacobs, the editor of The Compound Cinema,1) the massive 1977 collection of Potamkin’s work, attempts to mark the distinction by dividing the book into two sections, Film as Art (1920-1930) and Film and Society (1930-1933), but just as the dates of the pieces contained therein don’t exactly correspond to the section headings, so Potamkin’s work doesn’t so easily divide into two easily distinguishable chunks. In his pre-1930 writings, there was always an awareness of a film’s social function, while in his later work, he was still searching for a film that fulfilled the medium’s structural and aesthetic possibilities.

Writing at the advent of the sound era (contrary to Jacob’s headings, his career began in 1927 and lasted until his premature death in 1933), Potamkin applied himself assiduously to contemplating the proper deployment of the new device. Despite an early piece (written in 1927, published in 1929) in which, considering a silent film’s score, he labeled the sound element a mere accessory and singled out as the best accompaniments those that accompanied least, Potamkin was never an enemy of the new cinema; unlike peer Rudolf Arnheim, he did not consider the sound film the death of cinema. Rather he was interested in exploring how sound could be employed in innovative ways without disturbing the overall structure of the work. He proposed abstract experiments, praised uses of “speech-as-sound,” and generally considered possibilities rather foreign to the strict canned theater method that began to dominate the cinema. He conceived of the “garrulous film” as a “compound cinema” rather than a “hybrid,” not two distinct systems mashed together, but a structural, rhythmic whole.

In his early writings (and, with a different emphasis, in his later), this idea of structure stands as a dominant criteria for judgment. He derides films and directors (King Vidor, for example) who work for the momentary effect but fail to integrate these emphases into the overall warp and woof of the piece. For the Potamkin of the early years, the cinema’s peak achievement was Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film that takes what would be a mere effect (the close-up) in other directors’ work and turns it into a structural principle. Potamkin’s oft-repeated, and somewhat difficult to grasp maxim that “the cinema is a progressive medium aspiring toward intensiveness2” (roughly speaking “progressive” seems to refer to motion within the frame, while “intensive” is a sort of static motion achieved through montage) reaches its apogee in Joan, which the critic calls the “maximum of intensiveness” in the “mute cinema.”3 Although Potamkin was a writer often noted for his abstruse, academic prose, a 1929 review of the Dreyer film finds him waxing positively ecstatic. “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” he writes, “is a religious film, but not a sanctimonious film. Life, it urges, is transcendent. It is a transcendent film.”4

By around 1930, Potamkin had begun to develop a penetrating approach to a film’s often insidious social role, although he nearly derailed his project before it had properly begun by focusing too much on different countries’ distinctive national characteristics. In a series of articles from 1929 and 1930, he outlined a rather stereotyped catalogue of the tendencies of various international cinemas that flounders on too many broad generalizations (Germans are good on lighting, but are too studio bound and tend to allegorize the individual to the detriment of the society; the French are only good for a rather useless pictorialism); and his calls for each country to produce a film output reflecting its national character ignores the difference in artistic temperaments within each nation. At least initially, the most derided cinema in Potamkin’s personal canon is not surprisingly, and despite a few partial exceptions (Milestone’s The Front Page, Mamoulian’s Applause), that of Hollywood while his model cinema (with a nod to the Swedish output of the 1910s) is embodied by the output of the Soviet Union.

For Potamkin, the Hollywood apparatus is, above all, an instrument of mass control, and he uses a discussion of that industry to make pointed contrasts with what he views as the genuinely educational works being produced in Russia. His conception of the American film-going experience as one giant ritual in which we go to worship the on-screen icons in the modern cathedral of the movie palace gives rise to his description of uncritical cults in which the validity of the object of veneration is never questioned. (Writing in the age of tomato meters and forced consensus, in which fanboys use the anonymity of internet comment sections to blast anyone who dislikes the latest Christopher Nolan film, Potamkin’s observations here seem particularly prescient.) But more sinister for that critic is the propaganda of the Hollywood system embodied by both the predilections of the studio heads (who give the people not what they want, but what they “want them to want”) and the machinations of the industry’s “evangel,” censor Will Hays. As Potamkin notes, Hollywood tries to shield its impressionable citizens from the “insidious” messages being delivered by both the Russian cinema and the socially conscious American movie, while promoting its own class-serving propaganda, but this other form of propaganda is far more dangerous. It promotes the dominant power structures, condemns not just the social agitator but the worker generally and sows ethnic and racial tensions through its stereotyped portrayal of blacks, Chinese, and immigrants.

Of course, all this is now more or less obvious. Potamkin’s real insights come in showing how supposedly socially progressive pictures in effect do little more than enforce the dominant institutions they pretend to critique. For example, in a 1930 piece for the leftist publication New Masses, he cites a pair of prison dramas, The Big House and Numbered Men, which, while paying lip service to the idea of exposing jailhouse conditions, show us none of these alleged atrocities on screen; in the latter, conditions border on the idyllic. Through these works, Potamkin understands that “the director has not sought to make the entire film the vehicle of the attack, but restricted the attack to some verbal statements. . . . Whatever suggestion of social guilt they contain is dissipated by the events of the story, and their treatment.”5 The critic further applies these criteria to supposedly pacifist combat films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, perhaps becoming the first writer to suggest that no matter how anti-war a film’s intention or verbal rhetoric may appear, by involving us in the excitement of the battle, it encourages rather than deflects the viewer’s desire to participate in combat, while leaving the root causes of the conflict unexplored.

Being a committed Marxist, Potamkin necessarily sought out films that offered a systematic critique of society, but he was just as thorough in his criteria of an integrated, “compound” cinema as he was in his pre-1930 formalist days. In a series of four directorial studies written for Hound and Horn magazine in 1932 and 1933, his critical method in all its complexities receives its most thoroughgoing application. Most telling of the four pieces is his April 1933 essay “Pudovkin and the Revolutionary Film.” Having already called for a cinema that makes the “social idea” the very basis of the film’s structure rather than, as in the prison films, a mere appendage, Potamkin now goes further into his conception of the relation of the individual character to the masses and the overriding social structure. Decidedly anti-star (he critiqued the post-Kid Chaplin for putting his personality above the film’s social content and was a big deflator of the cult of the City Lights auteur), Potamkin found in Pudovkin’s early films Mother and, to a lesser degree, The End of St. Petersburg the ideal treatment of the individual. While Eisenstein — once greatly valued by the critic, but partially derided in a later Hound and Horn piece as too abstract and mechanistic — focused on the mass, Pudovkin’s more humane orientation favored the individual. According to Potamkin, “Where the mass in [Pudovkin’s] narration is close to the figure, the development is controlled so that its general historical meaning is conveyed; when the mass in the narration is at a distance from the figure, the historical meaning is less assured.”6 Thus, while the two earlier films posit an individual in his proper relationship to and as a member of the people, the follow-up Storm Over Asia, places the central figure of the “Mongol” at too great a distance from the mass, a “showman” on the field of battle rather than the embodiment of the revolutionary struggle.

This tipping over from an acceptable structure to one that relates its elements improperly is a common theme in Potamkin’s writing and indicates the nearly impossible demands that the critic places on the practitioners of his favored medium. And yet, in these late pieces (which in addition to Pudovkin and Eisenstein cover René Clair and G. W. Pabst), Potamkin betrays an optimism about the possibilities of the medium’s continued fulfillment. As he says of Storm Over Asia, “The error is one of ill-balance. The correction of the ill-balance is only just now taking place.”7 Whether lightly chiding Clair for his inability to focus his immense comic talents on out-and-out satire, which Potamkin defines as systematic social critique, or pointing out the inevitable limits of Pabst’s otherwise commendable treatment of the international worker solidarity in Kameradschaft, he constantly demands more of the medium’s top practitioners because he’s keenly sensitive to the immense possibilities of film as not merely an aesthetic medium, but given its mass influence, a social one as well.

In his introduction to the critic in the recent anthology American Movie Critics, editor Philip Lopate writes that “At bottom, Potamkin remained a passionately demanding lover of the movies who was perhaps more interested in film becoming deeply ‘introspective’ in a Dreyer-Dostoievsky sense, than in serving the revolutionary cause.”8 There can be little doubt about the “passionately demanding” part, but Lopate sells Potamkin’s social commitment short. While this dedication can sometimes mark his writing as too doctrinaire and not sensitive enough to a film’s singular achievements, his work more than makes up for it by being among the first to take the discussion of movies beyond the question of art vs. entertainment and illustrate the ways in which they served a distinct social purpose, an approach that would be refined and expanded by his national peers Siegfried Kracauer, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and J. Hoberman as well as such foreign writers as Andrew Britton and Robin Wood. Like any mass medium, film, simply by its presence in the host culture, can never be regarded as merely an ideologically netural entertainment, and if the above mentioned critics and their numerous cohorts have made a political awareness central to their work, they are merely following a path blazed eight decades ago by a now little-read Marxist who died of stomach ulcers at the tender age of 33.

  1. Potamkin, Harry Alan, The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin (New York: Teachers College Press, 1977 []
  2. ibid, 579 []
  3. ibid, 435 []
  4. Ibid, 640 []
  5. Ibid, 466 []
  6. Ibid, 424 []
  7. Ibid  425 []
  8. Lopate, Phillip, ed. American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (New York: The Library of America, 2006) 48 []