“Dog Day Afternoon” as a political film

Image: Andrés Sandoval


Class and allegory in contemporary mass culture

One leitmotive to which the ideological repertoire of liberalism draws most, and one of the most effective anti-Marxist arguments developed by the rhetoric of liberalism and anti-communism, is the notion of the disappearance of classes.

This argument is usually conveyed in the form of empirical observation, but it can take a huge variety of forms; the most relevant for our analysis are the use of the argument of the unique development of social life in the United States (the so-called American exceptionalism) and the notion of a qualitative break, a gigantic leap from the old industrial models to what has come to be called society today. “post-industrial”.

According to the first version of the argument, the existence of a frontier (and, after the disappearance of the real frontier, the permanence of the “internal” frontier of a vast continental market, unimaginable to Europeans) prevented the formation of the old strictly European class antagonisms. at the same time that the absence in the United States of a classical aristocracy along the lines of Europe would be responsible for the impossibility of developing a classical bourgeoisie in the country – a bourgeoisie that would then generate, like the continental model, its opposition: a classical proletariat.

This argument is what we might call an American mythical explanation, which seems to thrive especially in American studies programs, which have a vested interest in preserving the specificity of their object and the boundaries of their discipline.

The second argument is a little less parochial and encompasses what used to be called the Americanization, not just of old European societies but also, today, of the Third World. It reflects the realities of the transition from a monopoly capitalism to a more properly consumerist stage, which assumes, for the first time, a global scale and tries to take advantage of the emergence of this new stage of monopoly capitalism to suggest that the classic Marxist economic model is no longer viable.

According to this argument, we are facing a process of social homogenization in which the old social differences are in the process of disappearing. This process can be described as the bourgeoisification of the worker, or, better still, as the transformation of both the bourgeois and the worker into the constitutionally neutral individual known as the consumer. In the same vein, although most ideologues of the post-industrial period dare not claim that value as such is no longer being produced in consumerist society, they are always ready to suggest that we live in what is becoming a “materials economy”. services”, in which production along the classic lines occupies an increasingly small percentage of the workforce.

Now, if the thesis is really true that the Marxist concept of social class describes the situation in Europe in the 1970th century and has no significant relevance to the circumstances of today, then it is evident that Marxism should be sent to a museum, where it can be be dissected by Marxologists (there are an ever-increasing contingent of them in activity among us today), and thus will no longer interfere with the process of dynamic and postmodern legitimization of American economic evolution, as it did during the XNUMXs and in subsequent years; this is undoubtedly the central issue today, as the old rhetoric of a classic New Deal liberalism has succumbed to unplanned obsolescence.

Meanwhile, on the left, the failure of a theory of class seemed to be less relevant, both from a practical point of view and from a political point of view, in a period like the 60s, characterized by an atmosphere contrary to warmongering, in which Attacks on authoritarianism, racism and gender prejudice had their own justifications and logic and, even more, a greater urgency due to the fact that war existed, and their content came from the collective practice of social groups, particularly those of students, blacks, mestizos and women.

What is clearer today is that the claims of justice and equality proclaimed by these groups are not (unlike social class politics) inherently subversive. Instead, the Slogans of populism and the ideals of racial justice and sexual equality were in themselves already an integral part of the Enlightenment itself, inherent in a socialist denunciation of capitalism, but also even in the bourgeois revolution against the old regime.

Thus, the values ​​of the civil rights movement, the feminist movement and the egalitarianism of the student movement are notably co-optable, because they are already – as ideals – inscribed in the ideological core of capitalism itself; moreover, we must consider the possibility that these ideals are part of the internal logic of the system, which has a crucial interest in social equality, insofar as it needs it to transform the greatest possible number of subjects or citizens into identical consumers, interchangeable with any other individual. The Marxist position – which includes the ideals of the Enlightenment but seeks to ground them in a materialist theory of social evolution – argues to the contrary that the system is structurally incapable of realizing these ideals, even where there are economic interests in doing so.

It is in this sense that the categories of race and sex, as well as the generation of the student movement, are, in theory, subordinated to the categories of social class, even where they may seem much more relevant – from a practical and political point of view. However, it does not seem adequate to discuss the importance of the notion of class based on a social reality structured by the division of classes, but which seems relatively devoid of class characteristics.

There is, ultimately, a reality of the appearance as much as there is a reality behind it; or, to put it more concretely, social class is not only a structural fact, but also, quite significantly, a function of class consciousness; the latter, in fact, ends up producing the former as much as it is produced by the former.

Here we reach the point where dialectical thinking becomes inevitable, teaching us that we cannot speak of an immanent “essence” of things, of a basic class structure inherent in a system in which a group of people produces value for themselves. another group, if we do not allow for the dialectical possibility that even this basic “reality” may be “more real” in certain historical conjunctures, and that the underlying object of our thoughts and representations – history and class structure – is, in itself, even as profoundly historical as our ability to understand it. We can take as the motto of this process the following quote, still extremely Hegelian, from the young Marx: “It is not enough for thought to seek its own realization; reality must also try to find its way towards thought”.

In the present context, the “thought” towards which reality tries to move is not just, or even not yet, class consciousness: rather, it represents precisely the prerequisites for the existence of class consciousness in social reality, whether that is, the requirement that, for class consciousness to exist, classes must already be, in a certain sense, perceptible as such.

We shall call this basic requirement, now borrowing the term from Freud rather than Marx, the requirement of figuration; for this requirement to be fulfilled, social reality and everyday life must have developed in such a way that their underlying class structure becomes representable in tangible forms. The same argument can be put another way, stressing the extraordinarily vital role to be played by culture in this process; culture not only as an instrument of self-awareness, but rather as a sign and symptom of possible self-awareness.

The relationship between class consciousness and figuration, in other words, requires something more basic than abstract knowledge and implies a more visceral form of existence than the abstract certainties of Marxist economics and social science: the latter simply continues to convince us of the determining presence, behind everyday life, of the logic of capitalist production.

Of course, as Althusser tells us, the concept of sugar need not taste sweet. Nevertheless, for true class consciousness to be possible, we must begin to perceive the abstract truth of class through the tangible medium of everyday life, in expressive and empirical forms; and to claim that class structure has become representable means that we have moved a step beyond mere abstract understanding and into the terrain that encompasses individual imagination, the stories we tell as a collectivity, narrative figuration – which is the domain of culture, and no more of abstract sociology or economic analysis. In order to become representable – that is, visible, accessible to the imagination – classes need to be able to transform themselves into characters: it is in this sense that the term allegory of our title should be taken as a working hypothesis.

In this way, we have already begun to present a justification for approaching commercial cinema as a medium in which it would be possible to detect an eventual change in the class character of social reality, since social reality and the stereotypes of our experience of everyday social reality constitute. the raw material with which commercial films and television are inevitably forced to work.

This is my response, in advance, to critics who, beforehand, object to the presence of any genuinely political content, since the high costs of commercial films that inevitably subject their production to the control of multinational corporations, make the presence of any genuine political content unlikely, while at the same time ensuring the vocation of films commercials for vehicles of ideological manipulation. There is no doubt that this is what happens, if we stick only to the intention of the filmmaker, who has to limit himself, consciously or unconsciously, to objective circumstances.

This argument, however, denies the identification of the film with the political content of everyday life, with the political logic that is already inherent in the raw material with which the filmmaker has to work: a political logic like this will not, therefore, manifest itself. as an explicit political message, nor will it transform the film into an unambiguous political statement. It will, however, contribute to the emergence of profound formal contradictions, which the audience cannot fail to notice, whether or not they have the conceptual tools to understand what such contradictions mean.

In any case, A Dog's Day (Dog Day Afternoon, 1975) seems to have much more explicit political content than one would normally expect from a Hollywood production. Indeed, one need only think of the CIA-style spy thriller or TV crime drama to realize that political content of this sort is ubiquitous to the point of inevitability in the entertainment industry. It really is as if the greatest legacy of the 1960s was to provide an entirely new code, an absolutely original set of themes – that of political dominance – with which, alongside sex-related themes, the entertainment industry can reinvest its paradigms. worn out without posing any danger to itself or the system; and we must take into account the possibility that it is the explicitly political or contestatory passages of A Dog's Day which will prove to be the least functional, from the point of view of class politics.

Before this becomes clear, however, we will start the analysis a little further back, with the anecdotal material that the film takes as its starting point. The event itself is not so far removed in time that we cannot remember it for what it represented; or, more accurately, remembering what the media found interesting about it, which made it interesting enough for it to become a feature film in its own right, as it would otherwise be a trite tape about a bank robbery and siege with hostages, identical to the countless television news and second-rate films we have become familiar with in the past.

Three novelties were the distinctive features of the robbery in which A Dog's Day would come to be based: first, the crowd sided with the assailant, booing the police and evoking the then-recent massacre in Attica; second, the assailant was discovered to be homosexual, or, more properly, that he had married a transsexual, and would later claim to have committed the robbery to finance his partner's sex reassignment surgery; finally, television cameras and live telephone interviews occupied such a prominent position in the negotiations, extending throughout the day, that they even provoked a surprising turnaround in the concept of “media event”; and to this feature we could add an additional novelty, that the robbery took place on the euphoric day of the convention that would nominate Nixon and Agnew (August 22, 1972).[I]

A work of art that had been able to do justice to any one of these peculiarities alone would have ensured inevitable political repercussions. Sidney Lumet's film, “faithfully” incorporating all three, ended up having little repercussion – and it would probably be too simplistic, although not incorrect, to say that they cancel each other out by projecting a series of circumstances that are too singular to have any generalizable meaning: literature, as Aristotle tells us, is more philosophical than history, for the latter only shows us what actually happens, while the former shows what can happen.

In fact, I think one can question the ideological function of overexploitation in commercial culture: the stereotypical use, repeatedly, of disturbing or unusual phenomena in the present social conjuncture – political militancy, student revolt, drugs, resistance and contempt for authority – provokes a containment effect on the system as a whole. To name something means to tame it; to refer to it repeatedly is to persuade a coerced and fearful middle-class public that everything is part of a known and cataloged world and is therefore somehow in order.

This process would then be the equivalent – ​​in the sphere of social life – of co-option by the media, of the exhaustion of new raw material, which is one of our main techniques for diluting subversive and threatening ideas. If something similar happened, then evidently A Dog's Day, with its wealth of antisocial detail, can be considered an enormous effort to reprocess alarming social materials to safeguard the tranquility of suburban moviegoers.

Returning to the raw materials themselves, it's worth quickly examining what the film didn't do. We live, after all, in a period when the public has a voracious appetite for the documentary, the anecdotal, the lived, fur news, for real history in all its unpredictability and sociological vigour. Even without going so far as to the failed, if symptomatic, "non-fiction novel" and the undoubted dominance of non-fiction over fiction on bestseller lists, one can detect a particularly surprising embodiment of this interest in a series of recent experiments on American television such as the fictional documentary (or “docudrama”): narrative reports, in which actors recreate sensationalist crimes, such as the Mason murders or the Shepherd case, or even the trial of John Henry Faulk, or news curious anyway, like the flying saucer seen by a couple of different races, Truman's heated confrontation with MacArthur, or a case of ostracism at West Point.

We would have understood a lot if we could have explained why A Dog's Day have nothing in common with these fictional documentaries, which are by far among the best productions made by American commercial television, with success, at least in part, attributable to the distance these pseudo-documentaries maintain between real-life fact and its representation. The most significant of them keep the secret of their historical content and, at the same time that they propose to give us a version of events, they end up exacerbating our certainty that we will never know exactly what really happened. (Such a structural disjunction between form and content clearly projects an aesthetic strategy very different from that used in classic Griersonian documentary, in Italian neorealism, in Kinopravda or cine verite, to mention just three of the previous attempts to solve the problem of the relationship between films and the fact or event, attempts that are currently no longer possible.)

Even though it is evident that A Dog's Day it has none of the strengths of these strategies and does not even seek to employ them, the juxtaposition has the benefit of dramatizing and reiterating all that appears in recent French critiques of representation as an ideological category. What marks the difference between Lumet's film and any of the aforementioned TV pseudo-documentaries is precisely their unity of form and content: we end up feeling safe in the illusion that the camera is witnessing everything exactly as it happened and that what it sees is all there is to be seen.

The camera is absolute presence and truth: thus, the aesthetics of representation destroys the density of the historical event, and reduces it to the condition of fiction. The old values ​​of realism, surviving in commercial film, drain the interest and vitality of their anecdotal raw material, while, paradoxically, the obviously degraded techniques of television storytelling, hopelessly doomed by their application and juxtaposition with publicity, end up preserving the truth of the event by marking the distance that separates them from it. However, it is Al Pacino's fantastic virtuosic performance that deprives him of any possibility of realism and inexorably condemns it to remain a product of Hollywood: the star system it is structurally and fundamentally irreconcilable with neorealism.

This constitutes, in fact, the basic paradox that I want to address and deepen in the following observations: what is good about the film is what is bad about it, and what is bad, on the contrary, is what is good, of course. many ways; everything that makes it a first-rate work of the film industry, with great actors, can make it a suspect production, from another point of view, while its historical originality must be sought in places that must seem accidental in relation to its qualities. intrinsic.

However, this does not represent a state of affairs that could have been corrected through careful planning: it is not an inadequacy that could have been avoided had the producers divided their material properly and planned, on the one hand, a neorealist documentary, and, on the other, a brilliant heist film. Instead, we have to work with that insoluble, deeply symptomatic element called contradiction, and we can hope, if we approach and examine it properly, to raise some basic questions about the ways of contemporary culture and social reality.

What is evident from the beginning is that A Dog's Day it is an ambiguous product with regard to reception; more than that, the film is structured in such a way that it can be concentrated in two quite different ways that seem to yield two quite different narrative experiences. I promised to show that one of these narratives suggests an evolution, or at least a transformation, in the possible figuration of the articulation of social classes in everyday life. But this is certainly not the most obvious or accessible reading of the film, which initially seems to be part of a very different tradition, which for us today is certainly much more regressive. This is what we can roughly call an existential paradigm, not in the technical sense of the term, but using it in the sense that the media gives to average culture, middle brow, which in the United States today has come to designate Mailer's novels or the ruse 22 (Catch-22).

Existentialism, here, does not mean Sartre or Heidegger, but rather the self-absorbed anti-hero, as in Saul Bellow, and a way of seeing alienation (a term also used more in the sense recognized by the media than in the technical sense) that reveals self-pity, frustration and above all – the all-American concept of yesteryear – the “inability to communicate”. Whether this characteristic narrative paradigm is the cause or the effect of the systematic psychologization and privatization of ideology in the 50s and early 60s, it is clear that events change more slowly in the narrative and cultural sphere than in the purely ideological, and this implies the fact that writers and filmmakers – who, otherwise, would have no difficulty recognizing a dated, no longer innovative idea – return to these old paradigms.

However, such “uneven development” of the narrative paradigms by which we explain everyday life is reinforced by another trend of contemporary consumerism, namely, the return to the 50s, the fever of nostalgia, or what the French call the retro mode, in other words, the deliberate substitution of unrealizable invention for suitable contemporary or post-contemporary styles (in a novel like Ragtime) by pastiche and imitation of past styles.

So, as if it weren't enough that the collective political urgencies of the 1960s consigned the anti-hero and the anti-romance to the ashes of history, today we see them reborn as a paradoxical sign of the good old days, when everything What we had to worry about were psychological problems, overindulgence, and whether television would ruin American culture. From my point of view, for example, not only the 1975 production of Um Estranho no Ninho (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) by Milos Forman (based on Kesey's 1962 novel) is a typical 50s nostalgic film that revives all the stereotypical protests of an individualistic past but also, being virtually a Czech film in disguise, reduplicates that particular time slot in another form of “uneven development”, more characteristic of Central Europe.

Acting by “Method”* consisted in the elaboration of the ideology of the anti-hero in the relatively more concrete sphere of gestures, voice and theatrical style that approaches behavioral postures and body expression, in short, the interpersonal languages ​​of everyday life, where it represents, in fact, not not only the stylization and effect of elements already present in the gears of the North American community, but also the cause and model of new types of behavior that adapt it to the streets and the real world.

Here, perhaps for the first time, we can understand in a concrete way how the best in A Dog's Day is also the worst we have in it, because the performance of Al Pacino in the role of Sonny, for being simply brilliant, sends the film more and more to the old-fashioned paradigm of the anti-hero and the actor who follows the Method. Indeed, the internal contradiction of his performance is even more surprising than that: because, as we said, from Fréderic Moreau and Joseph K., from Kafka, to Bellow, Malamud, Roth and others, the anti-hero has been erected on the basis of non-communication and the inability to articulate ; and the agonies and effluvia of acting by the Method were perfectly calculated to manifest this suffocation of the spirit incapable of completing its sentences.

But, in the second generation reappropriation of this style in Pacino, a paradox occurs, that is, the inarticulate becomes the most complete form of expressiveness, the hesitation devoid of words proves to be voluble and the agony of incommunicability reveals itself to be easy to understand. .

At this point, something different begins to happen, and Sonny's story stops expressing the pathos of the isolated individual or the existentialist loner, just as the raw material of which it is constituted – marginality and transgression – ceases to be considered antisocial and becomes a new social category in itself. The gesture of revolt and the outcry of anger begin to lose their frustration – the expression “impotent anger” (impotent rage) had been the stereotype of American storytelling since Faulkner, indeed since Norris and Dreiser – and to take on another meaning.

And this certainly does not happen with the presence of a new political content: for Sonny's assault, the politics of marginality, is not much more than part of the struggles of contemporary everyday life; rather, because the gesture simply “projects” and is understood. We have already mentioned crowd support (both in real life and in Lumet's film), but that is only the most conventional record of the tangible repercussions of Sonny's gesture in the context of the film.

More significant, it seems to me, is the manifest sympathy of the suburban spectators themselves, who, from inside the urban subdivisions of the consumer society clearly perceive the importance, for their own daily life, of the reconstitution of this very predictable kind of urban crime. Unlike the audience of Bogart's films, which stood by and saw the renegade ruthlessly destroyed by the monolithic and omnipotent institution of Society, this one witnessed the collapse of the legitimacy of the system (and the dissolution of the legitimations on which it is based): not only Vietnam or even Watergate, but certainly the most significant experience of inflation, which consists of the privileged phenomenon through which a middle-class public suddenly becomes unpleasantly aware of its own historicity – these are some of the historical reasons that explain the collapse of the values ​​modeled after the Protestant ethic (respect for law and order, property and institutions) that allow a middle-class audience to root for Sonny.

In the long run, however, an explanation must be sought in the logic of the commodity system itself, whose programming ends up liquidating even the ideological values ​​(respect for authority, patriotism, the ideal of the family, obedience to the law) on which it rests. the social and political order of the system.

Thus, ideal consumers—compared to their ancestors, observant of the Protestant ethic, with their repressive work ethic, thrift, and selflessness—turn out to be far more dubious than their predecessors when it comes to matters like fighting in foreign wars or honor debt commitments or even evade income tax. For citizens of a multinational stage of post-monopoly capitalism, the practical side of everyday life represents a test of ingenuity and a battle of wits between the consumer and the gigantic, faceless corporation.

These are, therefore, the people who understand Sonny's gesture, and their sympathies end up intersecting and dwelling on a quite different, countercultural theme, which is homosexuality. However, such spectators have their counterpart in the film not so much in the crowd in the street, which is only a sign, in the form of a chorus, of this public implicit in Sonny's act, but in the hostages themselves and in the employees of the bank branch, whose attitudes are they change in relation to Sonny and therefore become a significant part of what the film has to show us.

Indeed, it can be said that, on a second reading of the film, the relationship between form and background is inverted, and the character Sonny – the hero of a more conventional anti-hero plot – is now transformed into a simple pretext for the emergence and new visibility of something more fundamental in what could simply appear to be the background itself. This more fundamental thing is the sociological equivalent of the consumerist society's stock-burning of old ideological values ​​already spoken of: here, however, it takes the more tangible form of the ghettoization of old urban neighborhoods.

Historically, this phenomenon is not very recent; Nor is it unknown to sociological journalism or to literature itself, which, in a sense, can be said to have represented it in Balzac's descriptions of the solvent and corrosive effect of the monetary economy and the market system on sleepy communities of old provincial towns.

The fact that this process, which significantly accelerated in the United States after the end of World War II – contemporaneous, therefore, with the introduction of television and the beginning of the Cold War – is the result of deliberate political decisions capable of being identified and dated is not well understood.

The federal postwar road building program and the encouragement of individual family home construction by veterans' housing funds are essential components of the new corporate strategy: "The Buildings Act of 1949 introduced the idea of ​​federal government aid into private development of inner cities, an urban reform strategy highly driven by General Electric Company, large banks and insurance companies. Cities were not meant to be the site of urban development for working-class people […]. These political and economic decisions effectively determined the pattern of individual and residential development. The white working class was doomed to disperse; and cities would be reserved for the very poor and the relatively rich. Under these circumstances, purchases of durable goods – automobiles, washing machines, own homes – began to absorb an ever-increasing proportion of workers' incomes and had an enormous impact on work patterns”.[ii]

We might add that this vision of the future was first systematically tried out in Newark, New Jersey, which may thus be a candidate for sharing something of the sinister and legendary characteristics surrounding the names of targets in strategic bomb experiments during World War II. . However, there is a fundamental distortion in the way in which we are traditionally led to deplore events such as the destruction, in contemporary North American society, of the inner city and the rise of the culture of the mall.

Overall, I think it would be fair to say that we think of these developments as inevitable results of the logic of a consumer society, where there isn't much that politicians or individuals can do to reverse the situation; even radicals are pleased to point out the continuity between the present-day atomization of old communities and social groups and Marx's analysis of the destructive effects of classical capitalism, from the days of enclosures in England to the rise of the factory system.

What's new today, what can be seen both in the excerpt from False Promises by Stanley Aronowitz, quoted above, as well as in A Dog's Day, is the elementary awareness that someone was responsible for all of this, that social transformations of such magnitude are not merely part of the continuous logic of the system – although they also are – but above all consequences of the decisions of powerful and strategically positioned individuals and groups. However, the resurgence of these groups – the reiterated possibility of once again observing what Lukács would call the subject of history, of which the rest of us would still only be their – cannot be seen as the result of increased information about our role by so-called revisionist historians; rather, our ability to rewrite history in this way must be understood as a function of a fundamental change in the historical situation itself, as well as the power and class relations that underlie it.

Before we say what kind of change this is, we would like to remind you, however, how A Dog's Day so lucidly explores the space resulting from these historical changes, the neighborhood transformed into a ghetto, with its decaying small establishments being gradually replaced by parking lots and chain stores. In fact, it is no coincidence that the film's main communication circuit takes place between the little shop where the police establish their headquarters and the bank branch – the real-life original was, appropriately enough, a branch of Chase Manhattan – where Sonny keeps the hostages.

In this way, it is possible for the truth of recent urban history to be expressed within the setting of the bank scenes themselves; it is enough to note, first, that everyone in the agency is just salaried employees of an invisible multinational empire and, second, as the film's story unfolds, that the work in this already peripheral and decentralized space, essentially colonized, is done by those beings underpaid and twice as second-rate, which are women, and whose marginal situation, from a structural point of view, does not fail to present a certain analogy with Sonny's own situation, or at least serves as a reflection of it in the same way as the Third World proletariat may reflect the violence and crime of minorities in the First World.

One of the most realistic features about recent American commercial culture, indeed, has been its willingness to recognize and represent, at least in passing, the strange coexistence and overlapping, in America today, of separate social universes of a form as rigid as the caste system, a post-Bowey kind of existence* and/or permanent Third World in the heart of the First World itself.

This kind of perception does not in itself, however, constitute the class consciousness we referred to at the beginning of this essay, but only provides material for the rhetoric of marginality, for a new and more virulent populism. Indeed, a distinction must be made between the Marxist conception of class and the sociological-bourgeois-academic one, above all because of the emphasis given by the former to rationality. For academic sociology, social classes are understood in isolation from one another, in the form of subcultures or “lifestyles” of independent groups: the term “stratum”, often used, effectively conveys this vision of independent social units, which , in turn, implies that each one can be studied separately, without making references to the others, by a researcher who goes out into the field.

So you can have monographs on the ideology of the professional stratum, on the political apathy of the secretarial stratum, and so on. For Marxism, however, such empirical observations are not enough to penetrate the real structure of the class system – considered by him as essentially dichotomous –, at least in the later social formation of prehistory that is capitalism: “Society as a whole,” says a famous passage from the Communist Manifesto, “is increasingly dividing itself into two great camps of hostility, into two great classes in direct confrontation with each other: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat”.

To this we must only add (1) that this unmanifest and essentially dichotomous class antagonism only becomes fully visible, from the empirical point of view, in times of great crisis and polarization, which is to say, particularly, at the moment of the revolution itself. Social; and (2) that from a world-class system, the oppositions at play are evidently much more complicated and difficult to reconstruct than in the more representational context of the old nation-state.

In the face of these statements, it becomes evident that a Marxist class theory implies restructuring the fragmented and unrelated data of empirical bourgeois sociology in a holistic way: in terms, Lukács would say, of social totality, or, as his antagonist Althusser would express it, of “a pre-established complex hierarchical structure of dominant and subordinate elements”. In either case, the random subgroupings of academic sociology would assume determined structural positions, although sometimes ambivalent, with respect to the dichotomous opposition of the two fundamental social classes.

In recent innovative works – I think, for the bourgeoisie, in Sartre's Flaubert trilogy and, for the proletariat, in the aforementioned book by Aronowitz – have already been demonstrated, the mechanisms by which each class defines itself in terms of the other and constitutes itself as an anti-class in relation to the other, and everything from explicit ideological values ​​to apparently non-political, “merely” cultural traits of everyday life. However, the difference between the Marxist view of structurally dichotomous classes and the academic sociological portrayal of independent strata is more than simply intellectual: again, awareness of social reality, or on the other hand the repression of awareness of such reality, is " determined by the social being”, in Marx's words and therefore consists of a function of the historical and social situation.

A remarkable sociological investigation conducted by Ralf Dahrendorf has indeed confirmed that these two approaches to social classes – the academic and the Marxist – are themselves class conditioned and reflect the structural perspectives of the two fundamental class positions. Thus, those at the highest rungs of the social ladder tend to formulate their own view of the social order looking downwards as separate strata, while those at the bottom tend to map their social experience on the basis of pure and simple opposition. of “us” and “them”.[iii]

But if this is really the situation, the separate representation of the victimized classes – be it in the person of Sonny himself as an outcast, or in the office workers of the bank as an exploited group – is not enough to constitute a class system, much less , to induce the awakening of class consciousness in viewers. Nor are the constant references to the board absent from the bank enough to transform the situation into an authentic class relationship, since the term does not find a concrete representation – or figuration, to return to the term initially used – within the cinematographic narrative itself.

However, this representation is present in A Dog's Day, and it is in this unexpected appearance, in a part of the film where we would not normally look for it, that the greatest interest of the film in the present context is concentrated – our possibility of focusing on it as being, as we have argued, directly proportional to the capacity to detach ourselves of Sonny's story and to renounce old narrative habits, which condition us to follow the individual experiences of the hero or anti-hero, instead of following the explosion of the text and the functioning of meaning in other random narrative fragments.

If we are capable of doing so – and we are already doing so at the moment when we are predisposed to reverse the assault and read Sonny's role as a mere pretext for revealing that colonized space that is the bank branch, with its workforce which has become peripheral or marginalized – what slowly begins to occupy the film's center of gravity is the action outside the bank, particularly the conflict over command of the action between local police and FBI officials. At this point, there are several ways to explain this change of focus, and none of them are wrong: on the one hand, we can observe that, with Sonny effectively trapped inside the bank, he can no longer generate the events, and therefore the center of gravity is transferred outward.

Even more pertinent, since the effective paradox of the film – relegated to the background by Al Pacino's performance – is Sonny's fundamental ability to arouse sympathy, this external displacement of action can be understood as an effort by the narrative to generate a authority figure able to deal directly with him without succumbing to his charm. This, however, is not just a matter of narrative dynamics; At stake is also an ideological answer to the fundamental question: how can authority be imagined nowadays, how to conceive in our imagination – that is, in a non-abstract, non-conceptual way – a principle of authority capable of expressing the essential impersonality and post-individualist structure of our society's power structure which nevertheless continues to function for real people, in moments of palpable need in everyday life and in individual situations of repression?

It is clear that the figure of the FBI agent (James Broderick) represents a narrative solution to this ideological contradiction, and the nature of the solution is undermined by the character styles of the FBI agents and the local police chief, Maretti (Charles Durning), whose bouts of impotent rage and passionate incompetence are present, not so much to humanize him as to highlight his rival's cold, technocratic expertise.

In a certain sense, of course, such a contrast consists of what nowadays comes to be called the intertextual: it is not really a question of the encounter between two characters, who represent two “individuals”, but rather the encounter of two narrative paradigms, in effect, of two narrative stereotypes: “handsome” FBI agents, in the style of Efrem Zimbalist, with the 50s haircut, and the common urban cop, whose television incarnations are so many to the point of embarrassment: the FBI encounter with Kojak!

However, one of the most striking elements in the film, and the most haunting impression left by A Dog's Day in terms of acting, it's not so much the feverish heroism of Al Pacino as its stylistic opposite, the utter emptiness, coldness, lack of expression and emotionlessness of the FBI agent. This scrutinizing face, which hides a decision-making process reduced to (or developed in the form of) pure technique, even though its judgments and evaluations are explicitly inaccessible to spectators, inside or outside the filmic structure, represents one of the most alarming achievements of the American film industry today, and arguably embodies something like the truth of a very different but equally real genre, the thriller of espionage, in which it tends to remain overshadowed by the intricate theological apparatus of a dialectic of Good and Evil.

Meanwhile, the more existential and tragic-private visions of this type of figure – I think of the law enforcement officer (Denver Pyle) in the film A Burst of Bullets (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967), by Arthur Penn – project a kind of inevitable punishment, which is further fueled by an extreme reluctance to forgive, so that the process of following in the victim's footsteps retains a form of passion still recognizable as human; Penn's most recent work, duel of giants (The Missouri Breaks, 1976), represented an attempt to advance this personalized dramatization of the relentlessness of social institutions, providing its articulator with a generalized paranoia (and, incidentally, presenting Marlon Brando with the opportunity to perform one of his superb performances as a great actor); it is not, however, truly an improvement, and this vision remains cloistered in the pathos of an individualistic and self-pitying view of history.

Em A Dog's Day, however, the representative of the order is not reluctant to forgive, nor is he paranoid; in that sense, it is far beyond conventional melodrama and inaccessible to any of the psychologizing stereotypes permissible in most commercial representations of the power of institutions; the anonymous characteristics of the character indicate the unusual and frightening insertion of the real into the relatively predictable structure of the fiction film – and this, as we mentioned earlier, not through montage techniques or traditional documentaries, but rather through a type of dialectic of connotations in acting style, a kind of silence or marked absence in a system of signs where other forms of acting have programmed us to a different kind of expressiveness.

The basic contrast, that between the chief of police and the FBI agent, is the dramatization of a historical and social change that was once a major theme in our literature, and to which, because we are so accustomed, we have lost sensitivity; conversely, the novels of John O'Hara and the sociological investigations of C. Wright Mills have documented the gradual but irreversible erosion of local and statewide power structures, leadership, or authority schemes by national and, now, multinational power. Suffice it to recall the social hierarchy of Gibbsville making disappointing contact with the new wealth and new political hierarchies of the New Deal era; suffice it to recall – and, in this case, an even more relevant example for our purposes – the crisis of figuration implicit in this transfer of power from the “face-to-face” circumstances of everyday life in former small-town communities to the abstraction of the power of the nation as a whole (a crisis already suggested by the literary representation of “politics” as a specialized theme in itself).

In this way, the police lieutenant personifies the impotent and utterly meaningless bustle of the local power structure; and, through this inflection of our reading, with this interpretative operation, the entire allegorical structure of A Dog's Day suddenly appears in the light of day. The FBI agent – ​​now that we can identify what he supersedes – begins to take the place of that immense and decentralized network of power that characterizes the current multinational stage of monopoly capitalism.

The very absence of its characteristics becomes a sign and an expression of the presence/absence of corporate power in our everyday lives, capable of shaping everything and everyone, omnipresent and, nevertheless, rarely accessible in terms of figuration, that is to say , in the representable form of individual actors or agents. Thus, the FBI man is the structural opposite of the team of secretaries at the bank branch: the latter present themselves in all their existential individuality, but are superfluous and openly marginalized, while the former is so disembodied that he becomes little more than a marker – in the empirical world of everyday life, of news and from newspaper articles – from the position of ultimate power and control.

However, even with this indistinct incorporation of the forces of multinational corporate structures, which are the subject of world history at the present moment, the real possibility of figuration opens up and, with it, the possibility of an adequate type of class consciousness itself. From that moment on, the class structure represented in the film is articulated along three axes: first, the newly atomized petty bourgeoisie of the cities, whose “proletarianization” and marginalization are manifested both by female employees, on the one hand, and by male employees. lumpens, on the other (Sonny and his accomplice, Sal [John Cazale], but also the crowd itself, an incarnation of the logic of marginality, ranging from the so-called “normal” transgressions of homosexuality and common crimes to the pathologies of Sal’s paranoia and Ernie's [Chris Saradon] transsexualism).

A second axis is constituted by the impotent power structures of the local neighborhood, which represent something like Third World national bourgeoisies – colonized and stripped of their former content and left with little more than the empty shells and external marks of authority and status. decision-making process.

Finally, naturally, the multinational capitalism into which the ruling classes of our world have become, and whose primacy is inscribed in the spatial trajectory of the film itself, as it moves from the environment of misery, transformed into a ghetto, to the interior of the bank to the inhospitable and impersonal “science fiction” setting at the end, at the airport: an uninhabited corporate space, with all the technological apparatus and highly functional, a place beyond both the city and the countryside – collective, yet without anyone, automated and computerized, yet devoid of that utopian buzz that was anticipated about this space, lacking any of those still-distinctive attributes that characterize the dynamic yet “modern” futuristic vision of the future in our own recent past.

Here – as in the expressionless acting style of the FBI agents – the film presents a powerful non-conceptual argument, destroying its own intrinsic effects and annulling a cinematographic and performance language that, although conventional, enjoys great prestige.

Two final remarks about this work, one about its most significant political and aesthetic effects, the other about its historical conditions of possibility. Let's take the second problem first: on several occasions, we stress the narrative figuration of class consciousness in the historical context. We highlight both the dichotomous nature of structure and class and the dependence of class consciousness itself on the logic of social conjuncture and history. Marx's phrase, prescribing that consciousness is determined by social being, applies to class consciousness itself as much as to any other form.

Therefore, we must now try to prove our point and say why – if any possibility, new or renewed, of having class consciousness even if in a very little accentuated form seems even detectable – this is the moment to defend it. , and not twenty or thirty years ago. This question can be answered, however, succinctly and decisively; the answer is implicit in the very expression “multinational corporation”, which – however inappropriate it may be (since all multinational corporations are, in fact, expressions of US capitalism) – would not have been invented if an element had not emerged. new that seemed to demand a new denomination.

It seems to be a fact that, after the failure of the Vietnam War, the famous multinational corporations - what used to be called the "ruling classes" or, later, the "power elite" of monopoly capitalism - emerged once again in public of the behind the scenes of history to defend their own interests. The failure of the war meant that the advancement of the capitalist world revolution now depends less on governments and more on the initiative of corporations. The ever-increasing political pretensions of global corporations are thus inevitable, yet irremediably represent greater exposure to the public, and exposure carries with it the risk of increased hostility.[iv]

In our terms, however, the psychological language of the authors of global reach can be translated as “class consciousness”, and with this new historical visibility capitalism is objectified and dramatized as an actor and as a subject of history with an allegorical simplicity and intensity not dared since the 1930s.

Finally, a final word on the political implications of the film itself and the complexities of the kind of allegorical structure we ascribe to it. A Dog's Day Can it be considered a political film? Certainly not, since the class system we have been talking about is merely implicit, and can either be noticed or ignored or repressed by its spectators. What we have been describing is at best pre-political material, the gradual re-articulation of the raw material of a film of this type in terms and relationships that allow us – after having been subjected to the anti-political, privatizing and “existential” paradigms of the 1940s and 1950 – to recognize them, once more, as the paradigms of class.

However, we also have to understand that the use of this material is much more complicated and problematic than the terminology of representation suggests. Indeed, in the process by which class structure finds its expression in the film in the triangular relationship between Sonny, the police chief and the FBI agent, we miss an essential step. The complete disparity of this qualitative and dialectical relationship is mediated by the very star system and in that sense – far more appropriately than in its overt thematics of the media's exploitation of Sonny's siege – the film can be said to be about itself.

Indeed, we perceive each of the main actors in relation to their distance from the star system: Sonny's relationship with Maretti is the same as between a superstar and a secondary actor, and our reading of this particular narrative does not consist of a direct passage from one “actant” or character to another, but passes through the mediation of our identification and decoding of the actors' own situation. Even more complex and interesting is our decoding of the FBI agent, whose anonymity in the cinematic narrative is manifested very precisely through his anonymity within the structure of the film. star system from Hollywood. The face is illegible and undefined precisely because the actor is not identified.

In fact, obviously, he is not familiar only in the coding of the Hollywood system, as the actor in question, shortly after participating in the film, became a fixed character in a famous television series that remained on the air for a long time, Family (1976-1980). But the issue here is precisely that television and its references consist of a different production system and, more than that, television itself represents, in relation to Hollywood films, the new and impersonal multinational system that is emerging to overwhelm the system. more individualistic style of the old national capitalism and the old commodity culture.

Thus, the extrinsic sociological fact, or the system of realities, is inscribed in the internal experience intrinsic to the film, in what Sartre, making use of a suggestive concept and very little known in his work psychology of imagination call of analogue[v]: the structural nexus in our way of reading or observing an experience, during our operations of decoding or aesthetic reception, which can, from then on, have a double task and serve as a substitute and representative within the aesthetic object of a phenomenon that occurs abroad, which, by its very nature, cannot be directly “represented”.

This complex of intra and extra-aesthetic relations could be schematically represented as follows:

We found, therefore, a categorical formal confirmation of our initial hypothesis, according to which what is bad about the film is what is best about it and that the work is a paradoxical realization in which the qualities and defects constitute an inseparable dialectical unit. . For, in the last analysis, it is the star system – that phenomenon of commodification absolutely irreconcilable with any documentary or form of exploration of reality of the type cine verite – responsible even for that limited authenticity that A Dog's Day is able to achieve.

Post Scriptum

I would say today that this essay is a study on what I would come to call cognitive mapping.[vi] This concept presupposes a radical incompatibility between the possibilities of an older national language or culture (which still represents the foundations on which literature is being produced today) and the worldwide, transnational organization of the economic infrastructure of contemporary capitalism.

The result of such a contradiction is a situation in which the truth of our social life – in Lukács's terms, as a totality – is increasingly irreconcilable with the possibilities of aesthetic expression and articulation available to us; a situation in which it can be argued that if we are able to produce a work of art out of our own experience, if we can attribute to experience a form of story that can be told, then this experience ceases to be true, even as experience. individual; and if we can reach the truth about our world as a totality, then we are likely to consider it a purely conceptual expression, no longer able to stand in imaginative relation to it.

In this way, in the terminology of current psychoanalysis, we will be unable to insert ourselves, as individual subjects, into an even more massive and impersonal, or transpersonal, reality external to ourselves. Such is the perspective in which the limits of mere intellectual curiosity are surpassed by inquiring for traces, at least vaguely conceivable, of new collective forms in the artistic production of our time that may be able to replace the previous individualistic forms (of conventional realism or of the currently conventionalized modernism); this is also the perspective in which an unresolved aesthetic-cultural phenomenon such as A Dog's Day assumes the values ​​of revealing evidence.

* Fredric Jameson is director of the Center for Critical Theory at Duke University (USA). Author, among other books, of Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verse).

Translation: Neide Aparecida Silva


A Dog's Day (Dog Day Afternoon)

USA, 1975, 124 minutes

Directed by: Sidney Lumet

Screenplay: Frank Pierson

Cast: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Gary Springer, Sully Boyar, John Marriott, Jay Gerber, Carol Kane.


[I] For an interesting reference to news coverage of the Wojtowicz assault, see Eric Holm, “Dog Day Afteraste,” at jump cut, no. 10-11, p. 3-4, Jun. 1976.

* The author refers there to the famous acting method of the Actor's Studio (NT).

[ii] Stanley Aronowitz, False Promises (New York, McGraw-Hill, 1973, p. 383).

* Bowery is a part of Manhattan where there are a lot of homeless people (NT).

[iii] Ralf Dahrendorf, Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1959, p. 280-9).

[iv] See Richard J. Barnet and Ronald E. Muller, global reach (New York, Simon and Schuster, 1974, p. 68).

[v] Jean-Paul Sartre, The Psychology of Imagination (New York, Washington Square Press, 1968, p. 21-71); here analogue it is translated as “the analogue”.

[vi] VIEW Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, Duke University Press, 1991), authored by me, particularly the first and last chapters. [Postmodernism or the cultural logic of late capitalism, Attica]

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