Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, February 22, 2007

From Hegemony to Hot Fuzz - On Simon Pegg's 'Marxism'

I am not sure quite what those who live outside Britain will make of it, but I really enjoyed Hot Fuzz. It was kind of like Police Academy meets The Wickerman (the original version obviously, - indeed it even starred Edward Woodward), only written by and starring some of the finest talent in British comedy today. It was not that funny - but parts of it were and are genius - and it is far better than the trailers make out. Go and see it anyway.

This post however is not really about Hot Fuzz as such but about the main writer and actor in it Simon Pegg, and aims to be nothing more than a simple outline of what I think is his creative dialogue with cultural Marxism.

Star Wars and Gramsci

Pegg first came to prominence in about 1999 in his cult TV show Spaced, which was one of those shows which begins as a late night show on Channel 4 which only school and college students really watch but if successful within a few years almost everyone claims to have watched it religiously right from the beginning. However, before then Pegg was a student himself studying Drama at the University of Bristol and it was here he seems to have discovered Marxist theory.

In many interviews, reference has been made to the fact that Pegg wrote his University thesis attempting a Marxist analysis of Star Wars:

'I studied film theory at university and I love it. It’s great fun to dissect and pick apart films to see what their social impact is. I wrote my thesis on a Marxist analysis of “Star Wars.” It was great fun! I’m a huge fan of the first three films, but not particularly the new ones. “Star Wars” was an expression of post-Vietnam, Reagan era, kind of desperation of trying to get back to being heroes when after this time when good and evil had been so difficult to distinguish. Suddenly you get these big grand bad guys, and grand good guys. The good guys are young, white American people and the bad guys are these older English Imperialists types. It’s all there on the page and it’s not difficult to dissect. I’m a big fan of that stuff.'

While I have not read his thesis, nor to be honest am I ever likely to, and while I certainly would not want to challenge his knowledge of the Star Wars films, it seems to me that some of his analysis here is a little flawed. I buy the thing about the American elite wanting and needing to rediscover their sense of 'right and wrong' after the horror of Vietnam but I disagree a bit with this bit: 'The good guys are young, white American people and the bad guys are these older English Imperialists types' - as if Star Wars is primarily an attack on the (by then falling) British Empire. While some of the Emperor's officials appear to be kind of old English imperialists (Peter Cushing's role for example), I would have thought that the 'evil Empire' if anything rather represented the Soviet Union in the context of the Cold War. The most 'English' character after all is C3PO - who is a 'goodie' while Alec Guiness as Obi-Wan is also obviously an enemy of the 'Darkside'. Still it is an interesting thesis - and perhaps does throw some light on the way in which American power was spread around the world without direct colonisation as in the British Empire.

In his Guardian interview, Pegg revealed his interest in the work of Antonio Gramsci, noting his dissertation was entitled 'a Marxist overview of popular Seventies cinema and hegemonic discourses'. As the interviewer noted, 'when I roll my eyes and say, "Oh there's nothing like a bit of hegemony," he [Pegg] tells me that "an awareness of the postmodern condition is still the intellectual bedrock" of his comedic method.' This method manifested itself first in Spaced, which incidently in episode five apparently featured a character selling Socialist Worker who had a dog called Gramsci who was trained to bite rich people, and then bit his SWP owner when he won the pools or something. As one reviewer wrote:

'There's a wee bit of philosophy and science in this episode, Bilbo talks about the class war (Minty is selling 'Socialist Worker') and the Italian Marxist Gramsci. Brian makes a foray into the world of Mathematics when he muses on the influence of chaos theory in the Star Wars trilogy'.

Pegg's career however took off when he made Shaun of the Dead in 2004 - a pisstake off the popular zombie movie Dawn of the Dead (incidently, though I still need to confirm this, there looks like there is a bit of 'Stop the War' flyposting is on the street when the main character lives) and Hot Fuzz is clearly a spoof of US cop films like Bad Boys II - only with 'N.W.A.' standing for Neighbourhood Watch Association instead of anything else. However, what is interesting I think is what Pegg does next, now he is a massive star. Merely spoofing popular genres of films (Zombie films/Cop films etc) is brilliant - and the team he has around him do it brilliantly - but it arguably only gets you so far.

Pegg does bring some politics into Hot Fuzz (albeit in a subtle way) and I am not suggesting that Pegg should get directly political and aim to become 'the new Ken Loach' - whose The Wind that Shakes the Barley I have also seen recently and was quite simply not only the best introduction to Irish history in the twentieth century one could wish for but also an outstanding film in its own right. All I suppose I am saying is that if one takes the apparent current 'postmodern condition' too seriously, there are dangers. Most people in Britain today have a rather different experience of the police today than that reflected in Hot Fuzz. Most people do not see them as essentially good people or bumbling fools but rather as almost psychopathic bastards with very little social conscience whatsoever, who are acting on the orders of a Government which is currently extending police powers and ordering 'terror raids' on Muslim communities with often tragic and dangerous consequences. The real world is marked by the 'war on terror' - scarred by it, to use George Galloway's phrase. Yet just as the Vietnam war led to the birth of not just films like Star Wars but also the whole Zombie genre of films - so might something completely new and far more satirical ultimately emerge out of the barbarism of Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems to me that Marxist students of film should always be attentive to the possibilities of the new - rather than simply honouring and paying tribute to the achievements of the old.

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At 7:35 pm, Blogger steffaction said...

how's your retirement going then? good piece. i'd heard murmurs that Pegg was a bit of a lefty, and this kind of coheres it nicely

At 9:32 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers comrade. Yeah, my 'retirement'...hmm. I guess some things - such as a quick off the cuff Marxist analysis of Hot Fuzz - are of such critical importance that one feels compelled to put the needs of the class before one's own personal interest.

And too many SWP blogs seem to be 'doing a Dead Men Left' and giving up the ghost at the moment that I felt an instinctive need to rebel.

At 11:21 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David Brin or someone similar did a very good analysis of Star Wars. In a nutshell (from the first 3) a band of reactionaries try to re-install a monarchy, overthrowing a democratic federation.

At 10:52 am, Anonymous Rob said...

May I be the first boring pedant to point out that "Spaced" was on Channel 4 and not BBC2?
Good post.I never thought of Simon Pegg as being that political before.

At 11:30 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Rob - yep - Channel 4 right. I'll change this.

David Brin's thing - which I hadn't seen - is here. He makes some good points but it is not that interesting to be honest. I think the attempt to overthrow the 'democratic' federation comes from 'The Phantom Menace' - a shite film which it is not really worth discussing. In the first three films, it seems to be a pretty straight fight going on between an Empire and a Rebel Alliance. And Marxists cannot side with the imperialists in such a conflict - however 'reactionary' and 'backward looking' those who are resisting them happen to be. Read Trotsky's article 'On Dictators and the Heights of Oslo'.

At 12:38 pm, Blogger Victor S said...

Hmmm. Not entirely convinced of Pegg's crypto-socialism. He did appear on Top Gear earlier this week.

At 4:30 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Victor S - Yes, appearing on Top Gear is irredeemable from a socialist point of view. However, it was my catching (by accident) Pegg on that show that I learnt about his Marxist analysis of Star Wars in the first place - an analysis that to his credit he defended from Jeremy Clarkson. It is not everyday that one hears the words 'British Imperialism' and 'Marxism' on primetime TV, (and you could see Clarkson trying to change the subject...)

However, Pegg did kind of ruin things by then getting distracted by Clarkson into a slightly odd discussion about C3PO and 'emasculated homosexuality'...

At 5:50 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

You can find anything online thesedays. Here, for example, is the exact dialogue for the bit in 'Spaced' with Gramsci the Dog:

Bilbo Bagshot: I used to know this guy, Minty. He had a dog who he’d train to attack rich people. He was into the whole class-war thing. He called the dog Gramsci after an Italian Marxist. Rumour has it, it could smell wealth from up to 20 feet. The thing is, it all backfired. Minty won 100 grand on a scratchcard and Gramsci bit his knees off.
Tim: That’s terrible.
Bilbo Bagshot: Not really. He used the money to buy new knees.

At 10:35 am, Blogger Victor S said...

Yes - I should also add that I too watched that bit of Top Gear by accident. Didn't catch the earlier bit about the Marxist analysis of Star Wars - only came in during the C3P0 discussion and thought, 'Well, this is just a reheated version of the same discussion from some years back surrounding Scar in the execrable Lion King.'

I'd never watched Top Gear before. My God, is it a very bad programme indeed. That Clarkson berk actually taunted the short fellow about how one can no longer 'pull socialist birds by driving 4x4s as they all now believe in this global warming bollocks'.

At 4:53 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Victor - It was a good few years ago now that I watched Lion King and I really can't remember much discussion about 'Scar's homosexuality'. Come to think of it though, as evil lions go, he was rather camp...

The classic all time Clarkson as berk quote for me was when he was sitting in a car and describing the power of its engine. Either the car firm was German and the makers of the engine were Italian (or vice versa - I can't remember). Clarkson was awe-inspired anyway and said something like: 'The Germans and Italians haven't worked as well together to create something as remarkable as this since they teamed up in the 1930s to try and takeover Europe...'

At 2:37 pm, Blogger steffaction said...

Lion King is a massive bugbear of the American Christian right, as apparently, Timone of Timone and Pumba fame is a normalised and acceptable homosexual - also, it sexualises and anthropomorphises love for lions outside of the normal marriage context. I am literally not making that up. Another interesting thing to note is that the hyenas who are the minions of Scar, talk with black accents, are stupid, and march in a Nazi fashion.

Something for everyone to get offended by there.

At 1:28 pm, Anonymous chjh said...

Fast cars and socialism don't mix? Has anyone told Iain Banks?

At 2:30 am, Blogger James R said...

A few other socialist references in Pegg's work:

- Bill Bailey's character is constantly reading Iain Banks in Hot Fuzz. (The fact that Bill Bailey {an ex-Trotskyist I think?} is involved in so much of Pegg's stuff - Spaced and Hot Fuzz is telling in itself).

- Edgar Wright, who wrote Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz also acted in George A. Romero's Land of the Dead which is an obvious comment on neo-liberal capitalism (and where a band of socialist revolutionaries saves the day!). Wright and Pegg and others on Spaced all loved Romero's stuff, which is where they got the idea for Shaun of the Dead.

- Also, in keeping with Romero's use of Zombies as a critique of capitalism, the final sections of Shaun of the Dead is hilarious - i.e. zombies being used as cheap labour for the expanding services industry, etc. hehehe

At 9:27 am, Anonymous tuxedo tails said...

he makes some good points but it is not that interesting to be honest.

At 10:19 pm, Anonymous Sophie Miee said...

you made and some up the things quite beautifully hats off


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