Socialist Realism Is Out. Environmentalist Realism Is In

November 24, 2014

Socialist realism was the style of art championed by the Soviets during the reign of Josef Stalin. The tenets of socialist realism were both remarkably simple and remarkably complex. Simple because the primary—the only, really—goal of socialist realist art was to educate the masses as to the "correct" way of thinking. Complex because, as we all know, the "correct" way of thinking in the Soviet Union was ever-changing, bound only to the whims of Stalin.

"Socialist realist art aimed to do away with the distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought,'" Peter Kenez wrote in Cinema and Soviet Society. "Through the medium of film, ‘reality’ became what it was meant to be according to Bolshevik, Stalinist ideology." The films that hewed closely to socialist realism were those that encouraged purity of thought and deed, denigrated the kulaks and the capitalists, and attacked whichever foreign power Stalin had arrayed the USSR against at the given moment.

Little things like "artistic merit" meant almost nothing to the fans of socialist realism: camera work, set design, acting—all secondary concerns to the plot and dialogue and theme.* Didacticism was all that mattered.

The release of Interstellar, and its reception on politically oriented websites, shows that the socialist realist impulse hasn't died out. But it has transformed for the times. We're now living in an age in which films are criticized for failing to live up to environmentalist realism. The distinction between "is" and "ought" has once again become a fuzzy one.

"No matter how you feel about Interstellar as a piece of entertainment, one thing should be agreed upon: As a climate-change parable, it fails," wrote Noah Gittell in the Atlantic. "Nolan fails to look inward and uncover the flaws and solutions in humanity; instead, he prefers to gaze up at the stars and fantasize. ... For those who care about climate change, the film feels like a missed opportunity."

"The thing that gnaws at me the most is the film’s terrestrial defeatism, the whole Earth-is-doomed scenario. I know in fashionable circles this is considered highly plausible, with climate change the go-to culprit," wrote Joel Achenbach in the Washington Post. "In 'Interstellar' we see an O’Neill space colony where kids can play baseball but where, I’m guessing, the elephants didn’t make the cut, nor the whales, nor most of the other species from Earth. ... If Earth dies and humans wind up somewhere else that’s not a W in my book, it’s a big L."

ThinkProgress' Joe Romm complains that Nolan did not spell out in big capital letters that the crisis in Interstellar necessitating human colonization of the stars is man-caused climate change. "From the perspective of Interstellar’s big themes and its political-cultural relevance, it certainly matters a great deal whether humans caused the eco-collapse that the movie is built around," he wrote. "If we didn’t, then humanity is just a victim of circumstance, and the movie’s larger themes are not particularly relevant to us."

I can't help but think of the denunciation of Sergei Eisenstein by "a third-rate director, Iu. Mar’ian" (Kenez's description, not mine). The specifics of the film in question don't really matter; just consider the words with which Mar'ian attacks Eisenstein:

How could you make a fire the central episode in a kolkhoz building? I do not understand what the artist wanted to say by that. … You said that the fire represented the struggle of the kolhoz peasants against anarchy. But don’t fascists and capitalists also fight fires? There was no socialist element in it.

Emphasis mine, because that complaint gets at the heart of the socialist realist critique. And it gets at the heart of the critique of Interstellar by those who think it needed to hit the issue of climate change harder. "There was no environmentalist element in it! Show us how the world can be saved! Don't look to the stars, Coop! Look to the dirt."

Of course, as I've noted previously, it seems clear that the brothers Nolan have made a film that very explicitly rejects the worldview of those critiquing it. Interstellar is a film that smiles and gently laughs at the egocentric nature of man, his assumption that he will be his own downfall, that his generation will be the last. It's not a movie about climate change. It's a movie about man's need to expand and grow, to explore and discover, to do great things.

But there is no environmentalist element in it. So for some, it fails.

*Sergei Eisenstein, now considered one of the great Soviet filmmakers, was roundly condemned for failing to live up to the standards of socialist realism because he works, though truly revolutionary in nature, did not appeal to the masses. And, if the masses were not interested in your work, how could they learn the lessons you were supposed to teach them?