“Red Hollywood” (1995)

Thom Andersen and Noël Burch’s Red Hollywood employs the same method of visual film criticism that makes up Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, and which Mark Rappaport used like a jump-rope in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and From the Journals of Jean Seberg. It’s mainly composed of film clips from scores of movies, only some of which are famous today, selected to explore, bolster or undermine various perceptions about the times and conditions they were made in. In fact, Red Hollywood is more interesting than most of the movies that make up its central subject, which is the produced output of the Hollywood Ten and other Communist filmmakers before the House Un-American Activities Committee began making paper airplanes out of the Constitution. Neither a history of the Ten (it assumes we know enough about that to keep up) nor a lachrymose elegy for the masterworks lost when they were imprisoned for refusing to kowtow to assholes, Red Hollywood  performs the useful step of examining how much of their progressive politics are actually detectable in the pictures they made. (The answer: “Plenty”.) A wide swatch of their work is given a seductively lucid reading even as Andersen and Burch pointedly withhold judgment on the films’ artistic merit. This refusal to play the thumbs-up/thumbs-down game has to be appreciated even if neophytes come away unsure whether Big Jim McLain or Johnny Guitar is the masterpiece of the two, or thinking that Salt of the Earth is any damn good at all. Red Hollywood may not be as continuously rich or nimble as Los Angeles Plays Itself, but God knows it’s lively enough: in addition to the clips, the movie contains latter-day interviews with a loquacious, profanely funny Abraham Polonsky as well as Ayn Rand’s thuddingly literal deconstruction of the wooden Song of Russia.

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