The Aesthetic of Late-Capitalism: Changes in American Cinema

Updated: May 28, 2020

As the many nations of our world continue to adapt to our political epoch of ‘late-capitalism’, so too have our artistic intentions changed (Jameson, 1991). Once, artistic expressions of ideological alternatives to current political circumstances were common place. Since the rise of neo-liberalism and globalisation, it has become a widespread belief that alternatives are not viable. Consequently, our increasingly mass-consumption minded culture has similarly abandoned its expression for political alternatives. As per Marxist-theorist Frederic Jameson's analysis, this was apparent throughout post-modernism as an artistic movement (Jameson, 1991). Since Jameson's ground-breaking writings, debates have raged as to whether post-modernism has been superseded by other movements. If it has, it matters little. This is because late-capitalism's hegemonic hold continues to render political alternatives inconceivable in the artistic sphere. I believe this is particularly apparent in recent developments within American and Chinese cinema. I intend to highlight this by drawing upon a Marxist analysis so that we may, hopefully, better understand how aesthetic developments reflect our political climate.

As literary critic Terry Eagleton describes, the enduring relevance of Marxist criticism is its aim to 'explain the literary work more fully; and this means a sensitive attention to its forms, styles and meanings. But it also means grasping those forms, styles and meanings as the product of a particular history.’ (Eagleton, 1976) In other words, Marxist criticism is not concerned with merely degrading the work to a symbolic representation of class conflict. Rather, it is interested in uncovering the unconscious relationship between the text, in all its aspects, and the historical-political circumstances it is situated in (Jameson, 1981). The consequence is an analysis that, hopefully, situates the text in the totality of its societal circumstance.

One can see the enduring relevance of Marxist analysis by considering how contemporary American cinema has engaged with a technologically advancing yet societally stagnant late-capitalism. Jameson has written that the purpose of the text is to unconsciously solve those societal issues that we cannot resolve in the political sphere (Jameson, 1981). Certainly, the gangster-genre pieces of the Hollywood New Wave exhibited this. Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather saga (1974-1990), Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Martin Scorsese’s run of genre classics all engage with the many contentions in contemporary American society. They reconcile the contradiction between an Italian cultural tradition and the American promise of capitalist innovation by positioning them within an aesthetic unison. They answer the alienation and dehumanisation of capitalist modernity by presenting it as an emotional, human melodrama. This is not to say that these directors are intentionally attempting to suppress criticism of such problems. Rather, their artistic engagement with these social issues become, as with all products of a capitalist system, complementary to the reproduction of said issues. The Godfather (1972) highlighting the economic pressures involved in Italian-American diaspora did not reduce them. It has instead become the celebratory cultural symbol for a unanimous association of crime with the Italian-American identity. Fast forward to this decade and the gangster genre’s unconscious desire for societal resolution has been eschewed. One need only turn to the final sequence of The Irishman (2019) to see this in full display. Frank, our now elderly protagonist, sits alone in a care-home. He is estranged from his daughter and left only in the company of his regrets. His fate is the only one that can come out of a capitalist-driven, cyclical relationship with violence. The aesthetic form makes no attempt to hide or distort this fact. Each scene holds uncomfortably long shots and are marked by an absence of music. Gone are the sweeping long-takes of Goodfellas (1990) and Nino Rota’s stirring, romantic score for The Godfather (1972). They have been replaced with a solemn depiction of the inevitable result of America's societal, structural inequalities. David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) expresses another curious condition of late-capitalist America: the suspension of historicism. Historicism refers toour ability to relate to a historical epoch so as to position ourselves within history. Typically, this involves relating to the epoch's specific political or cultural value (Hacking, 1990) One may see this manifest in radical political transformation. Yet, as noted in Jameson’s writings on post-modernism, the lack of a conceivable political alternative to capitalism has meant we have similarly lost our ability to position ourselves in history (Jameson, 1991). If we cannot imagine a different present, how can we understand where we are in relation to our future?

This loss of historicism is a pervasive theme throughout Twin Peaks: The Return, a revival of the 90s cult-classic. While the original Twin Peaks (1990-92) similarly depicted a small American town lost in time, its aesthetic at least offered a semblance of societal-resolution. This was apparent in its aesthetic juxtaposing of idealistic 50s décor, modal-jazz and melodrama with the subversive surrealism of later 20th century fiction. In doing so, the original Twin Peaks expressed that the late-20thcentury’s increasing societal anxiety could be resolved with a nostalgia for golden-era America. By contrast, The Return’s narrative offers no-such resolution. Twenty-five years on, the residents of the titular town of Twin Peaks remain suspended in the same historical position. They work the same jobs, drink at the same bar and their children are condemned to repeat their parent’s mistakes. This is depicted, as per Lynch’s trademark surrealism, through multiple dimensions of reality. The narrative spans from the small-town tribulations of individuals to an ever-repeating, cyclical conflict between interdimensional entities. The significance is that, regardless of their varying planes of physical existences, all of The Return’s characters experience this loss of historicism. They are, to draw on cultural-theorist Mark Fisher’s words, haunted by their ‘lost futures’ (Fisher, 2014).

The Return’s visuals echo this inconceviebality of the future. While the original Twin Peaks’s suspension of time was draped in warm hues, The Return instead adheres to a markedly dour colour palette. The rich saturation of the original’s 35mm-film has been replaced with the cold, artifical sheen of digital cinematography. In turn, so is the audience’s suspension of disbelief dilluted. This is demonstrated to be intentional by Lynch’s use of crude CGI for surreal, immersion-breaking effect. The result is that we lack the capacity to truly believe in the reality presupposed by the narrative. Just as we have lost the ability to envision political alternatives, so too are alternative futures for The Return’s characters seemingly uimmaginable.

These significant aesthetic developments (or in-line with late-capitalism, it may be more appropriate to describe them as stagnations) in American cinema should not be disregarded as the mere stylistic preferences of individual filmmakers. Rather, we should see them as reflections of our contemporary cultural perspectives. However, the influence of late-capitalism on aesthetics is not only relegated to the West. I believe this is equally apparent in recent Chinese film, which this article’s second part will discuss.

Films Discussed Francis-Ford Coppola. The Godfather Parts 1-3 (1974-1990) Sergio Leone. Once Upon a Time in America (1984) David Lynch. Twin Peaks (1990) and Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) Martin Scorsese. Goodfellas (1990) and The Irishman (2019)


Eagleton, T. (1976). Marxism and Literary Criticism. London: Taylor & Francis. Fisher, M. (2014). Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. Winchester (UK): Zero Books.

Hacking, I. (1990). Two Kinds of "New Historicism" for Philosophers. New Literary History, 21(2), p.343. Jameson, F. (1981). The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. London: Routledge. Jameson, F. (1993). Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. London: Verso.

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