U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fascinating “Fascism”: the Other F Word in Seventies Cultural Criticism

I’ve been reading a lot of movie and music reviews from the 1970s recently. Somewhat to my surprise, I keep bumping into accusations of fascism.  The most famous instance of this is probably Pauline Kael’s review of Dirty Harry, which appeared in The New Yorker on January 15, 1972.  Among other things, Kael called the film “deeply immoral” and accused it of “fascist medievalism.”

But Kael was not alone in using the “f” word to describe Dirty HarryRoger Ebert’s review of the film (which appears on his website labeled January 1, 1971, but which must have run January 1, 1972, as the film was released in late December 1971), though generally more positive than Kael’s, simply declared “the movie’s moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.”[1]

The fascist label makes some rough sense, I think, applied to Dirty Harry. But it also shows up in more unexpected places.

In the January-February 1974 issue of Film Comment, Paul Schrader devoted one of the last critical pieces he wrote before devoting himself entirely to filmmaking to an analysis of the Japanese yakuza genre. In the middle of the piece, Schrader defends the yakuza genre from accusations of fascism:

The yakuza morality of giri-ninjo [duty-humanity] may seem potentially fascistic to [Japanese film critic Tadao] Sato, but to Americans, accustomed to the open fascism of films like The Godfather and Dirty Harry, yakuza movies seem clearly humanitarian.

To me at least, accusing The Godfather of “open fascism” seems odd.

So I decided to explore a bit the way the term was applied to American films of the 1970s in the pages of Film Comment, a journal that was enormously important to film criticism in that decade.  Here’s some of what I found.

In the May-June 1977 issue of Film Comment, Jonathan Rosenbaum published an iconoclastic comparison of Car Wash and Network (he much preferred Car Wash). Rosenbaum describes Network as displaying “quasi-fascist cynicism.”

Arthur Lubow’s review of Star Wars in the July-August 1977 issue (“A Space ‘Iliad’”) denies that Star Wars is a “fascist movie” (Lubow puts the words in quotation marks) because “its good humor and lack of rancor insure that it’s not.” But Lubow spends most of the review arguing that much of Star Wars’ popularity derives from its successful adaptation of “the Nazi myth.” Starting with Lucas’s famous visual quotation from Triumph of the Will as Luke Skywalker and Han Solo receive medals at the film’s conclusion, Lubow suggests that many other elements of the film also resemble Nazi narratives:  the pure farm boy, disgusted by Jawa merchants and barbaric “Sand people,” defeats the universe’s greatest technical achievement – the Death Star – by using the Force, “a version of Bergson’s élan vital and Jung’s collective unconscious.”  “A reviewer from the Volkische [sic] Beobachter would find much to praise,” wrote Lubow.

Stuart Byron, introducing an interview with director Robert Aldrich for the March-April 1977 issue of Film Comment, notes in passing that “it has been common to dismiss Aldrich as a fascist,” but rebuts the accusation: “In retrospect, the parabola of his career makes no sense unless he is viewed as a left-wing director.”  Byron speculates that the accusations of fascism are connected to Aldrich’s belief that “the forces of authority are so great that they can only be countered by an equal force that sometimes gets out of hand.”  Byron then references Sylvia Polonsky’s “suspicion that Aldrich is a Stalinist,” and concludes that “[h]e is certainly a most pessimistic democrat.”

What’s striking is how fast and loose all of these political accusations seem in retrospect. “Fascism” in these articles has something to do with authoritarianism, something to do with violence, something to do with a lack of humor. And whatever else it is, it’s far right-wing.  Though Pauline Kael was most famous for calling Dirty Harry a fascist movie, she also, as we have seen, described it as “medieval,” and elsewhere in the review called the film “a kind of hardhat The Fountainhead.”

The accusations of fascism certainly reflect the sense among a lot of film critics—and other cultural critics — in the 1970s that an insidious cultural and political conservatism was on the rise in America.  Watergate contributed to the sense of American democracy being undermined by the right.  Then Harvard undergraduate and future legal scholar Peter M. Shane even wrote a long analytic piece for the Harvard Crimson in September 1973 entitled “Watergate: A Miscalculation in Nixon’s March to Fascism.”

Of course, not everyone bought into these accusations of fascism.  In his Summer 1972 “L.A. Journal” column for Film Comment, Stephen Farber expresses impatience with the “eastern critics” who “continue to moralize about violence” in the movies.  Hollywood is simply “mass producing the ultra-violent fantasies that have continued to delight American audiences over the decades.”  Indeed, Farber, suggests,

the growing critical hysteria in regards to violence raises troubling questions of its own.  Over and over again, in reviews of Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs, Dirty Harry, Macbeth, The Cowboys, in thinkpieces on fascism and nihilism in films, the same shrill, stern point of view assaults us.

We ought to be as suspicious of “sermons about violence” as we are about “puritanical complaints about sex,” Farber argues.

Of course, accusations of fascism went way back in American cultural criticism, especially on the left. Though fascism was, from the start, a protean accusation. Pre-Popular Front Communist authors would label anything to their right “fascist”; even social democratic viewpoints were “social fascist.”  “Fascism” became a more limited category to Popular Front authors. And as a certain amount of precision in its use grew among political scientists and some other public intellectuals, its use as a mere epithet grew as well.  And by the end of World War II, the paradigmatic examples of fascism, Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, were no more.

Even while loose and semi-epithetic uses of “fascist” continued in the 1970s, more sophisticated critical understandings of fascism were also starting to appear.  In the February 6, 1975 issues of The New York Review of Books, for example, Susan Sontag published a review of The Last of the Nuba, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1973 collection of photographs of the Nuba people of Sudan.  Entitled “Fascinating Fascism,” Sontag’s essay argued that the aesthetics of Riefenstahl’s photographs was essentially fascistic.  Riefenstahl, who was best known as the director of Triumph of the Will, had claimed, since 1945, to have been politically naïve in the 1930s. Sontag’s argument that her later work bore the marks of fascism was both plausible on its face (given Riefenstahl’s connection to Nazism) and involved a much more sophisticated understanding of what might make a work of art “fascist.”

In late 1977, Ellen Willis, writing in the Village Voice, expressed a belated appreciation for the Sex Pistols.[2]  She had previously resisted both British and American versions of punk rock, finding it boring, derivative, cold, and misogynistic.  But earlier that fall, she had run into “punk evangelist” and fellow rock critic Robert Christgau:

He argued that people who put down the punk bands as ‘fascist’ were really objecting to their lack of gentility.  The English bands, he said, were overtly antifascist, and after all it was in England that fascism was a serious threat, not here.  I wasn’t so sure, I said, either that fascism wasn’t a threat here or that the punk rockers were incapable of flirting with it.

Willis writes that she didn’t have in mind punkers’ use of “Nazi symbolism” (which she saw as “both stupid and vicious”) but something more subtle, but pervasive:

I meant that sexism combined with anger was always potentially fascistic, for when you stripped the gentility from the relations between the sexes, what too often remained was male power in its most brutal form. And given the present political atmosphere, that potential was worrisome. The American right was on the move; the backlash against feminism was particularly ominous. Jimmy Carter, with his opposition to abortion, his fundamentalist religion, and his glorification of the traditional (i.e., male-dominated) family, was encouraging cultural reaction in a way that was all the more difficult to combat because he was a democrat and a populist. Closer to home, I found it deeply disturbing that so many liberal and leftist men I knew considered [mayoral candidate] Mario Cuomo some sort of working-class hero – that they were at best willing to ignore, at worst secretly attracted to, Cuomo’s antifeminist attitudes.  The punk rockers were scarcely defenders of tradition, but like pseudopopulist politicians they tended to equate championing the common man with promoting the oppression of women. That the equation was as inherently contradictory as “national socialist” was unlikely to deter men from embracing it.

What ultimately overcame this line of thought for Willis was a sudden appreciation of the sheer aesthetic qualities of the Sex Pistols, “the immediate, angry force of the music.” And through the Pistols, she came to appreciate the Ramones, as well.

Nevertheless, Willis’s passing concerns about punk and fascism are very interesting, both in the quite specific way in which she identifies fascism with a certain antifeminist gender politics and in the way she saw fascism as somehow immanent in American life in the late 1970s, visible even in figures like Jimmy Carter and Mario Cuomo.

Critics like Wills were right about at least one thing, conservatism was on the rise in the U.S. It would be worth exploring what happened to this discourse about fascism in America after 1980.

[1] Don Siegel, the film’s director, considered himself a liberal, most appreciated Paul Nelson’s positive review of Dirty Harry in Rolling Stone, which was one of the few publications on the left that defended the film and its title character (J. Hoberman, The Dream Life (New York, 2003), p. 331).

[2] This essay, under the title “Beginning to See the Light,” is reproduced in the collection of Willis’s rock criticism Out of the Vinyl Deeps (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), which does not say in which issue of The Village Voice it originally appeared.

21 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is very well done. And I think you make a great point in talking about how some of the critics make a connection between this fear of Fascism and the rise of the New Right at the same time.

    I can’t help but think about the New Left’s use of Fascism in the late 1960s. I recall a conference in Oakland in 1969 called the “United Front Against Fascism” which included the Black Panthers and other Left orgs such as the Young Patriots. Fascism was certainly not the force to fear for most people–but it seems many folks on the Left still considered Fascism to be an enemy, whether in the real world (such as the Panthers) or an enemy that had too much influence on American art (as was the case with these critics).

    Your final question about where this discourse went is interesting. I have to admit to, on the side, doing a little bit of research into left-and-right wing conspiracy theories. For such left-wing theories, Fascism is everywhere. But I also wonder if it’s a term that has, the further away we are from WWII, loses ideological meaning. It certainly hasn’t lost the rhetorical meaning (calling someone a Fascist is still pretty serious business) however.

  2. I just realized that I completely forgot to mention Richard Thompson’s long, weird, and wonderful interview with John Milius that appeared in the July-August 1976 issue of FILM COMMENT. Throughout the interview, Milius, who co-wrote the screenplay for DIRTY HARRY, wrote the screenplay for APOCALYPSE NOW, and later directed the original RED DAWN, exhibits all the qualities that might well have made him the object of accusations of fascism in the 1970s, such as his own aggressive hypermasculinity and a love of over-the-top film violence (he claims he wanted DIRTY HARRY to be even more violent). But fascism doesn’t show up in the interview as an accusation aimed at Milius. Instead, it’s Milius who uses the word to describe Francis Ford Coppola, with whom he had recently had a spectacular falling out over APOCALYPSE NOW. Much to Milius’s disgust, Coppola was a liberal sentimentalist and humanitarian, who ruined APOCALYPSE NOW by trying to turn it into an anti-war movie. But this view of Coppola apparently didn’t stop Milius from calling him a fascist. “He can’t stand to have other creative people around,” Milius opined, “Francis Coppola has this compelling desire to save humanity when the man is a raving fascist, the Bay Area Mussolini.”

  3. Another great read Ben! In the rock/pop world, I recall that Dave Marsh famously accused Queen of being “the world’s first fascist rock band” in Rolling Stone around ’78 or ’79…he didn’t like “We Will Rock You”, apparently. Bowie had a delicious twist on the subject with “Fashion” a year or two later. Then by the time Falco came out with “Der Kommissar”, no one cared any more, I guess.

  4. Of course, the Sex Pistols were probably the famous (or to my mind, the most memorable) hurler of the “f” word in the era: “God save the Queen / the Fascist Regime”

    I am curious about your methodology: did you find all of these references by browsing through film criticism of the era or is this something that was enabled through full-text searches? Not that it matters either way; I’m just fascinated by the new possibilities for inquiry that technology provides.

    • The only systematic searching I did was through Film Comment (looking for “fascism” and “fascist” and exploring uses that came up in connection with America and U.S. film). The other items (the Ebert, the Sontag, the Willis, and the Shane pieces), were things that I otherwise knew or had bumped into doing other research (as was the Schrader Film Comment piece, in fact). Were I to write an article or a conference paper on this, I’d of course want to do more of this sort of systematic searching in other places.

  5. Ben,
    Thanks so much for this post–such rich material and provocative questions.

    I wonder if, in addition to the tensions you note arising from the domestic political context, some of these debates over and accusations of fascism have to do with lingering tensions over the validity of auteur theory. The questions many of these critics seem to be asking is, can a film be objectively fascist regardless of the director’s intentions? That is, can certain types of content (violence) or certain genres (the yakuza film) or certain scales of filmmaking (Star Wars) produce a fascist film above and apart from the director’s own political tendencies?

    • Most of the pieces I cite above seem at least implicitly auteurist (in a broad sense) and associate the politics of films with the politics of their directors. I know that one criticism of auteur critics themselves was that their vision of film (or at least significant films) as the product of one great directorial genius was itself tainted with fascism, but off the top of my head I can’t remember when or where that critique originated.

      Another thing that’s going on in (academic) film criticism during the 1970s is a move away from old-fashioned social film criticism to more psychoanalytic approaches to reading films. For example, feminist critics like Laura Mulvey — whose “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” appeared in the mid-seventies — were by no means apolitical in their approach to reading films, but they understood the politics of Hollywood cinema very differently, locating it not in a director’s (or any other individual filmmaker’s) political intentions, but in patriarchy that was baked into the visual rhetoric of Hollywood cinema in general. In this regard, the accusations of fascism noted above were a bit old-fashioned in the mid-1970s.

      (Interestingly, the one time I ever saw Mulvey give a talk — at Princeton sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s — it was a seemingly un-Mulvey-ian analysis of CITIZEN KANE as a critique of fascism. This talk later would later become the basis of Mulvey’s bfi Film Classics volume on that film.)

  6. I don’t know if this bears on this particular story in any direct way, but a quick search of my memory for current uses of the accusation of “fascism” in political discourse turn up more right wing examples; I am thinking the Tea Party bringing signs with Obama dressed up as Hitler, etc. Also if you remember the manufactured controversy over kindergartners singing a song about Obama, Fox News ran with the idea that this was an exact correlary of indoctrinating the Hitler Youth, or something.

    Which is not interesting insofar as it is not news that the right wing media will play the spaghetti game and throw anything out that might possibly stick, but it is interesting that I can’t think of nearly as many examples coming from the left, even the left-left (i.e., not liberals). Even in my own circles of unapologetic lefty scholars, the term “fascist” to describe someone or something only pops up once in a while (not insignificantly, “neo-liberal” has most definitely taken over as the preferred epithet).

    No idea off the top of my head what to make of that, but at the least, it does seem like the liberal media has gotten more careful about throwing around the idea that something or someone can be described as fascist. Why so?

    • My guess is that the font of recent rightwing accusations of “fascism” against the left is Jonah Goldberg’s LIBERAL FASCISM, which tendentiously (and for more or less explicitly contemporary political reasons) rewrites the history of fascism as a movement of the left.

    • Because the contemporary Right gets a lot of its ideas from the Left (e.g. American exceptionalism, the new class, political correctness, etc.)? The Left, having succeeded in making the term “fascist” a universal epithet for all manners of unjust authority, was destined to have the Right take up the cudgel and direct it against liberals. Hence, Jonah Goldberg’s _Liberal Fascism_ and the post-911 vogue of “Islamofascism”. As a youngster in the 1970s, I remember that “fascist” was the all-purpose invective to describe any manner of “unjust” authority from parents, teachers, and employers–as in “I can’t go to the concert tonight because my mom is a fascist.” This _very_ loose use had the result of making the term utterly useless as a way to describe an actual political formation In contemporary leftwing discourse, the epithet of choice to describe conservatives is probably “wing nut,” which has the advantage of implying that your ideological nemesis is mentally ill.

      Ben’s discussion of film, I think, is somewhat different than this very loose use to describe persons and authorities, since it concerns the issue of representation, propaganda, and spectacle, and is tied into a consciousness of the power of spectacle and filmic representation as fascist media. The idea that film can glorify and romanticize violence and create a kind of heroic expression of personal integrity around the destruction of a pariah class speaks to issues that are more closely related to historical fascism.

      • Per Dan’s last paragraph, is the use of the term ‘fascist’ in film/art criticism connected to the rise of Critical Theory? Is it linked to the “authoritarian personality,” per Ben’s comment above about incorporating psychoanalytic theory? – TL

      • Tim: None of the pieces I discuss above is notably psychoanalytic in its approach, which isn’t to discount the possibility of such a connection (though when I think of emerging ’70s psychoanalytic approaches to film, I think more of Lacan and French feminism than of the Frankfurt School).

  7. It seems to me that Star Wars is a much more royalist picture, than a fascist one, given that secret prince Luke and the rebels (or the White Army) wage a struggle against the Imperial space Nazis to reestablish their vaguely constitutional monarchy. It’s an intergalactic fairy tale were the Hohenzollern family takes up arms against Hitler.

  8. Very interesting – one question I would have is are these critics ever explicitly engaging with the ’70s European films that are explicitly engaging the legacy of (actual) fascism? e.g. Pasolini’s Salo?

    • Yes, I suspect. FILM COMMENT certainly published plenty of essays on such films (THE CONFORMIST also leaps to mind) in the ’70s. I’m not sure whether any of the particular critics that I mention above wrote much about them.

  9. One note on Kael and her political analysis: she infamously wondered how Nixon won in 1972 since “no one she knew voted him.” Indeed, her liberal credentials were impeccable, but that did not prevent her from, I think, misapplying political labels such as fascist and liberal in her barbed style of criticism. So you get these strange inconsistencies–Dirty Harry is a fascist picture but Brian DePalma’s movies are not. And Bosley Crowther was a hopeless liberal, but Kael and her friends were not. On a related note, Ben, have you seen the documentary on Milius? It is pretty good and funny at the same time. It captures Milius’s brand of macho, militaristic, narcissistic politics.

    • I haven’t seen the Milius doc yet, but it’s been in my Netflix queue (er…My List) for awhile. Glad to hear that it’s worth a viewing.

      I agree with you about Kael’s politics. Maybe one moral here is that we need to pay close attention to (and, in a way, take seriously) the not-very-well-thought-out politics of people like Kael.

  10. Fascinating post. I looked up Ursula Le Guin’s review of Star Wars (Star Wars, Close Encounters, and the Tertium Quid) to see whether she uses the word “fascism,” as I’d remembered it as somewhat pointedly referring to Riefenstahl. But she doesn’t. Her complaint about the ending is that after a funny, silly movie, they ended up in a junior-high fantasy version of a military academy with authority figures handing out prizes. Her reason for disliking Close Encounters, though, is more or less that it’s Wagnerian (or, in other words, a Spielberg action movie). Both are anti-intellectual, not quite adult, and not very good as SF, but she doesn’t say they’re fascist.

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