Robin Wood

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1843

One of the most stimulating and valuable developments in recent film criticism has been the concern with ideology—particularly with the ideological content of Hollywood films, with the notion that the films are "determined" (or, at the very least, affected) at all levels by an ideology (definable roughly as "bourgeois Capitalist," but with specific inflections and emphases peculiar to America) so deeply entrenched as to be largely taken for granted, hence unnoticed and unchallenged, by filmmakers and audiences alike….

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Silk Stockings (Rouben Mamoulian's musical version of Ninotchka) offers itself as a convenient example precisely because its ideological project appears so clear, indeed blatant. (p. 28)

I discern in Silk Stockings four main ideological impulses, linked yet partly separable, listed in descending order of explicitness or obviousness:

1. The film's surface project, which could be summed up as "You're better off under Capitalism." The assumption is that all Communists would really rather live in Capitalist societies if they could, or if they knew about all the benefits from experience. The benefits are presented primarily in the form of material possessions, with a strong emphasis on luxury goods—perfume, champagne—the familiar Hollywood emblems of romance, success, and wealth. With this goes the upholding of beauty (Paris at night) against utility. Even on this simple, overt level, the film periodically produces elements or emblems that make the satire double-edged or ambiguous. An example is the absurdly dressed-up poodle in the restaurant which Charisse objects to as "useless" and Fred Astaire defends as "amusing." The connotations of poodles in American movies are, after all, primarily farcical-satirical; here the dog—de-animalized, prettified, constrained—inevitably stands for the sillier excesses of Capitalist society.

2. Less explicitly, but even more pervasively, the film is concerned with the ideological role of woman in Capitalist society—with woman-as-object, the mere embodiment of male wish-fulfillment. As a Communist, and with the sexually neutral title of Comrade, Charisse poses a threat to male supremacy; she must therefore learn in the course of the film to be a "real woman," and learn that that is what she really wants to be. (p. 29)

The richness of the film arises partly from the way in which the notion of woman-as-object is satirized in the overtly vulgar musical numbers involving Janis Paige, particularly "Satin and Silk," which at once enacts and parodies the idea that a woman's function is to be "a pleasure" for the male. The ideological project here, in fact, is somewhat called into question by the film's clear preference for Charisse as against Paige—the grounds for the preference being both the generic definition of the Paige role as comic support and its thematic definition as parody of the woman-object image.

One notes also the weight that is allowed Charisse's protest against the ludicrous musical film Astaire is producing, a moment which draws together a number of the ideological-thematic threads of the film. The musical itself parodies the mindless vulgarity and silliness of standard Capitalist popular entertainment. In it, Paige plays the Empress Josephine (with "titillating thighs"), her number reinforcing the woman-object parody. The score is a debased version of the music of the Soviet composer whose defection provided the starting-point for the action. Charisse's protest (which we are allowed to take unexpectedly seriously) is provoked partly by her recognition of the way Astaire has manipulated her and ignored her own feelings and commitments.

3. The validation of "entertainment" as against "art." "Entertainment"—as something to be passively absorbed rather than actively participated in, dedicated to the discouragement of awareness—is a central "bourgeois-Capitalist" concept and one inherent in the Hollywood musical as a genre, surfacing in the case of individual films as an explicit concern. (pp. 29-30)

A leading plot-thread [in Silk Stockings] is the conversion of the Russian composer's music (which is presented, rather awkwardly, as combining the highbrow with the Communist-utilitarian) into the score for an American musical; and one encounters the assumption that Borodin and Tchaikovsky were important composers because they supplied melodies for popular American songs. On the other hand, the tendency of Entertainment to trivialize and vulgarize is quite explicitly commented upon by the hilarious "Josephine" number; by the composer's outrage (which is treated as not at all unreasonable, and left unresolved and unmollified); and by the seriousness of Charisse's protest. One regrets that the ending of the film fails to find a satisfactory way of resolving these ideological tensions—it prefers to forget them.

4. The opposition between an inhibiting, depersonalizing system and freedom, self-expression, spontaneity. Dance is crucial here, and provides the vindication of transforming Ninotchka into a musical, dancing becoming not mere decoration but a leading thematic motif. Charisse's liberation comes when Astaire lures her into dancing. (Her learning to dance corresponds to the moment at the end of Alphaville when Anna Karina learns to say "I love you.") The implicit theme of dance-as-liberation, however, recurs throughout the film, starting from the splendid "We Can't Go Back to Moscow" number. Crucially, the emphasis in the mise-en-scène is on individual movement, in which even nondancers like Peter Lorre find some physical means of expression.

A statement at this point from my own personal ideology: I find the first three of these projects (leaving aside for the moment the ways in which they are disturbed or undermined by certain elements) ideologically unacceptable, the fourth wholly admirable. Yet in the film, while the fourth is not simply or comprehensively identifiable with the other three (producing further tensions), it is also not cleanly separable from them.

The beautiful Charisse solo number, for example, gives unified expression to all four simultaneously. She surrenders to the various allures of Capitalistic luxury, dressing to transform herself into the object of male desire, and thereby incidentally providing an archetypal Entertainment number. At the same time, the grace and freedom of physical movement (both of dancer and camera) throughout the sequence movingly express the casting off of repressive constraints. (p. 30)

One might argue (keeping in view the opposed parodies of "Capitalism" and "Communism") that the film implicitly proposes a third ideology, necessarily rather vaguely defined, but based on values of freedom, spontaneity, movement, which is set against both the ideologies that are defined explicitly. Some attempt is made to balance the two discredited ideologies: the degenerate commercialism of the Josephine musical against the exploitation of Russian ballet and Russian films as cultural propaganda. But one must note that the two "false" ideologies are not—could not be—presented on equal terms. We are encouraged to laugh unambiguously at "Communism," while our attitude to "Capitalism" even at points of the most extreme satire (the Janis Paige numbers), is partly one of complicity. Similarly, the third ideology is decisively and explicitly opposed in the film to "Communism" but ambiguously related to "Capitalism."

Inevitably, the "Capitalist" ideology (and male supremacy) is firmly reimposed at the end of the film. Cyd Charisse is brought back to Paris by Astaire's machinations; the climax of which has her seated in a night club (La Vieille Russie) to watch admiringly Astaire's solo-with-chorus dance number ("The Ritz Roll 'n Rock") which is a blatant affirmation of the material rewards of Capitalism (though, again, not entirely free from elements of parody that call this into question). She then, after a brief misunderstanding has been cleared up, rather lamely submits to him. Her earlier stand (in reaction against the Josephine musical) is forgotten by the film, though not necessarily by the audience. We are left with, at the very least, a sense of dissatisfaction.

There seems to me an alternative way of dealing with the ideological issues posed by Silk Stockings, and countless other films. I would suggest—somewhat hesitantly, for it is the sort of suggestion that gets hooted down in contemporary film criticism—that, rather than talk in terms of a "third ideology," one might talk of certain aspects partially escaping ideological determination. I would suggest, in other words, that there are indeed certain fundamental drives and needs that are not ideological but universal—drives which certain ideologies can suppress but which no ideology creates—and that such things as freedom of expression, delight in bodily movement, instinctual spontaneity, are among them.

Heretically, and despite Garbo, the Lubitsch touch, and the laughing scene, I enjoy Silk Stockings more than I enjoy Ninotchka—largely because of the extra dimension given by the musical numbers (or certain aspects of them), a dimension that affects the meaning and values of the film. (pp. 30-1)

The vitality of the musical numbers in Silk Stockings itself transcends their local ideological functions.

Consider the first number, "We Can't Go Back to Moscow." Its local function is to establish and celebrate the conversion of the three Soviet emissaries to the material delights of Capitalism, notably champagne and "available" women; every precise detail can be explained in relation to this function. What transcends the ideological purpose here is the energy of the realization, an energy expressed not merely in the physical movements of the actors but in the inventiveness of the mise-en-scène….

The use of abstract words (energy, inventiveness) here is inevitable. I am arguing that Materialism is not enough; that, even when every concrete detail in a given work can be shown to be ideologically determined, the details may be the product of fundamental creative drives that transcend ideology. The prevailing ideology, in other words, may determine (to varying degrees according to the artist's level of awareness) the forms in which the drives find embodiment, but it can't account for the drives themselves….

A part of the interest and richness of Silk Stockings lies … in its internal tensions and contradictions. If, for example, the element of parody of Capitalist ideology represented by the Janis Paige numbers, or the challenge to the image of woman-as-object represented by the Cyd Charisse dances, were absent—if there were no more to the film than the simple "Capitalism good—Communism bad" opposition on which it is nominally built—its interest would be severely diminished. Yet the film's creative vitality … cannot reasonably be reduced to its ideological contradictions. The inventions of the Cyd Charisse solo, for example the "silk stockings" dance—are almost entirely "within the ideology."…

The evaluation of works of art must always be a complex, delicate, and tentative business. Ideological issues cannot be irrelevant to it, yet no work can be justly evaluated on purely ideological grounds. Crucial, it seems to me, is the concept of creativity as at once transcending ideology, even when its concrete forms and details are ideologically determined. That is why it can transcend time and space, so that to listen to the music of Bach, or watch the films of Mizoguchi, can be an enriching experience however alien their cultural determinants; and why it is still permissible (and necessary)—the united efforts of Marxism and semiology to the contrary—to talk of "genius," of "personal expression," and of "individual creativity." (p. 31)

Robin Wood, "Art and Ideology: Notes on 'Silk Stockings'," in Film Comment (copyright © 1975 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center; all rights reserved), Vol. 11, No. 3, May-June, 1975, pp. 28-31.

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