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Letter to Warner Brother's producer, Jay Preston Allen < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman Letter to Warner Brother's producer, Jay Preston Allen

By Bertell Ollman

Letter to Warner Brother's producer, Jay Preston Allen, on Roger Simon's script for the movie on the Class Struggle story (January 31, 1981)
(see my book Ballbuster? for further details)

Dear Jay,

In a word—the script lacks "envergure" (wing span). It is a little story about rather unimportant people. As you said on the phone, it's not clear—for all its occasional humor—why anyone should want to make it. Missing entirely is the dimension of my trying to use capitalism's contradictions against capitalism: "The tiger eats everything put in front of it. Let's feed it its own tail and see what happens." Will the system continue to work in the ordinary way—"everything for a buck," "anything that sells goes," "selling is winning," if the ordinary way in this case works to undermine the system? Could one use a simple little game as a political Trojan Horse? The other side of this coin is—will people and ideas that help to undermine the system cease functioning in that way when they become agents and products in the capitalist market-place? Smothered as the particulars are in fun, these are Big Questions.

Much in the manner of Faust, we sold our "souls" to the devil. In order to get our message to a much larger public, we agreed to become businessmen, not knowing at the time all that this entailed. The story of "Class Struggle" is the story of our journey through capitalism, half disguised as businessmen. Beginning as a chase after customers, we soon discovered that it was we who were being chased—by the banks, by producers and distributors, major customers, the union at Brentano's—and we had to run as fast as we could to stay alive.

The movie should present our Faustian bargain as part of the rationale for getting into the business in the first place—not just because it is true, but because it is much more interesting and offers far more potential for humor than the phony existentialist angst that serves as the main rational now (pp.17, 18, 21). The movie should also offer more incidents where this Faustian dimension is on display, where we try to use the logic of the system against the system (and eventually get trapped to some extent by that logic): for example, my talk to the N.Y. Chamber of Commerce in which I explain how capitalists as human beings will also benefit from socialism; also—my visit(s) to N.Y. banks trying to borrow money to finance the class struggle (game?); also—Canada's leading department store's banning the games as "subversive," which triggered off a storm of media ridicule and made "Class Struggle" the fastest selling game in Canada. These are three of the most important and, I think, most humorous incidents in the "Class Struggle" story. Each, in its way, says something about the stakes involved in our venture, shows the face of our real opposition, relates "Class Struggle" to class struggle. None of these incidents are in the movie.

Farce or satire? From our discussions, I had assumed that what you wanted to produce was a satire—but satires are about real situations. It also requires opponents who are something more that cotton candy. In a satire, attention must be given to setting up the situation and its problems. From there, its own internal logic carries us to the conclusion. If this had been done in the film, the end would have registered as logical, deeply funny and probably quite moving, instead of arbitrary and superficially funny. And I think this would have been the case even if one stuck to some version of the Brentano and Warner Brothers stories Roger chose to finish the film. In the framework I would like to see established, they would appear as the logical culminations of everything that has gone before. Becoming a capitalist to use the market against itself means, among other things, acting to preserve your investment. This does not go counter to the lesson in "Class Struggle." This is what "Class Struggle" is about: people who belong to a class are forced to do certain things by virtue of their membership in that class.

As inaccurate as it is, the movie's version of the Brentano affair shows this point very well, but then it loses it in some psychological drivel. If Marcel (our hero) has to break down in the way that he does, then someone—perhaps even Elaine (his girlfriend)—should point out that his actions are really a confirmation of what "Class Struggle" is about. Then Marcel should get scared as hell, thinking that he has lost his wager with the devil. He has not been able to control what he as a capitalist would do, but then the game has always said as much...Warner Brother's offer to do a movie on the Class Struggle story should also appear as a logical and still zanier next step in the strategy of becoming capitalists to sell socialism. In short, the end should appear as a further development of the same contradiction with which we began. The final end is still undecided, the basic questions unanswered—on to the sequel...

What I have outlined above are some of the main changes which are required to transform a trite and decidedly unfunny farce into a serious (despite its form) and deeply funny satire. Very little humor comes out of the overall situation and the logic of its unraveling. What a waste...

So far I have concentrated on what the movie is not, and on what it could and should be. Something must also be said about the script that Roger has actually written. Leaving the love stories aside, it is based in four tired, unfunny anti-socialist clichés: 1) socialist are easily corruptible, really suckers for money and the good life; 2) while loving humanity in general, socialists can't cope well with persons who are close to them; 3) socialists talk about serving the workers but are willing to sell them out if necessary; and 4) whatever they might say, the connection between socialists and Russia/China/terrorism//subversion is there. Overdone? I think not. I'll spare you chapter and verse, but let me just point out that comments which show or reference selling out appear in the script on pp. 53, 55, 59, 60, 61, 62, 64, 77, 78, 80, 85-87, 90, 94, 97, 126, 127.

A lot of the problem stems from Roger's total psychologization of the problematic. There really is an objective contradiction between using the market and being used by it. As I tried to show, it is this situation that is the locus of the pressures that produce and explain most of what happened. Ignoring this situation, Roger fell back on pop psychology and prejudice, either his own or more likely that of the audience to which he was pandering. But it doesn't tell people who grew up in America anything they don't already believe; nor does it say it in a particularly interesting and funny way. Then why say it?

I was particularly disappointed by the heavy emphasis on Russia and things Russian, though Marcel (my character) does speak up against making this connection in one place. I can see no reason for it other than whatever was the reason for making similar connections between Marcel and Russia/China/ terrorism/subversion on pp. 4, 14, 17, 31, 38, 48 (2), 52, 53, 54, 57, 72, 85, 92. Admittedly, some of these references are quite minor, but their overall impact is considerable. What does all this add to the film? Certainly, not humor. My message has always been that socialism is as American as apple pie (ouch). I've said it and I believe it, and I think all these allusions to Russia, etc., detract from the uniquely American flavor of the "Class Struggle" story.

For the moment, let me just skim the rest. There is a particularly silly speech of what purports to be Marxist thinking on the connection between socialism and business (p. 79). Roger is mixing up socialism and some kind of weird Christianity (so weird that Christians don't even practice it). His treatment of how socialists talk and act with one another is often hostilely caricatured when it isn't outright false (pp. 17, 29, 34, 49, 91, 104, 105). The treatment of the Class Struggle workers as dumb clods is if anything worse. Our Class Struggle manager, who is a poet, could have been a marvelously interesting character in a work of satire—but he obviously had no place in a farce.

I know Roger is going to deny it, but racism and sexism also rear their ugly heads (pp. 10-1, 30) (pp. 17, 88). The young Black and Puerto Rican kids who terrorize Billy (Marcel's son) at their high school feed into people's worst caricature (and fears) of Blacks (and New York). As for sexism, I don't know about any socialists who talk about "having balls" and joke about "rape" in the way Roger has Marcel do. Nor do I know anyone who swears in that 1960s New Left way (pp. 3, 3, 4, 7, 17) that Roger projects onto Marcel. Yes, I know Roger had to use some of his imagination in constructing Marcel's character, but what I am complaining about here is that he substituted his memory of the 1960s ("Big Fix" version) and transplanted characteristics that are totally out of keeping with the real story. It becomes doubly offensive when, due to his psychologization of the plot these characteristics are use to help explain Marcel's actions. The same criticism also applies to Marcel's work as a teacher where he talks down to his class, blows up at them and even accuses one student of asking a "dumb question"...

The contents of Marcel's lectures are mostly about workers and unions. I guess they are supposed to help set Marcel up for his big personal betrayal at Brentano's. In line with my suggestions earlier, I would recommend instead that Marcel lecture about the contradictions in capitalism, which would help set up his own entrapment by these same contradictions.

A word on the Dean and the tenure affair. I understand the reasons for not getting involved in the complexities of the University of Maryland affair, but not for depoliticizing it. As it reads now, there is a wicked Dean and Marcel is somewhat paranoid for thinking the refusal of his tenure has something to do with his politics. I would recommend recasting the conflict as one between Marcel and the Board of Regents (made up as usual of businessmen). The Dean can serve as a go-between, but it should be made clear that this is still part of the class struggle...

Finally, there are several references to the "Class Struggle" game, particularly to Chance Cards, which need correcting. The most serious of these is on p. 7, where a Chance Card speaks of "getting laid." Roger's addition actually make the comment on the card much less funny...

In conclusion, let me say that I too have heard the remark about no one ever going broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public—but for movies this is not necessarily true, least of all for the kind of audiences likely to be attracted to a movie about "Class Struggle." Roger's script misses this target by a country mile. It makes "Simon" look like a good movie, and Neil Simon look like a good writer (sorry about all the Simons, but there just might be something in the name). In retrospect, I think it was a big mistake not to go along with Louis' first suggestion that I co-author the script. I certainly could have saved it from the worst of these failings.

Where do we go from here? I would like very much to talk to you to get your reactions to my comments and to explain further what might need explaining. As you can see, I haven't "hit the ceiling," though I am profoundly disappointed in the script—not as you suggested because "that is not the way it happened," but because it is not a good script and because sticking closer to the way it happened would have made it much better.

Naturally, all the chapters I wrote for my True Confessions...book (almost 180 pages now) are available to you and any writer you might choose for purposes of improving the script.

Looking forward to hearing from you.


Bertell Ollman
*Incidentally, should you be wondering how I manage to combine a rational tone with so many profound criticisms of the script, I guess it's because I figure that as the person who wrote such intelligent movies as "Cabaret," "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," etc., you must already agree with much of what I say here.

(Jay never responded to this letter. Nor did she go ahead and make the movie based on Roger Simon's badly flawed script. And a year later, the option that Warner Brothers bought to do a movie on the Class Struggle story lapsed.)