Few Hollywood genres and subgenres seem to carry their political “message” as clearly and as forcefully as the heist film. Most readings of this genre agree on some version of the following interpretation: behind the surface-level crime story, which must in the case of the heist film include an adventurous and complicated robbery performed by a group of individuals, lies the deeper, subversive and utopian, idea of unalienated collective labor. As attractive as such a reading may be, it nevertheless calls for a supplemental shift in perspective analogous to the gesture of Freudian dream interpretation. As is the case with dreams, we can say that the true “message,” the “secret,” of the heist genre (as well as any other genre, for that matter) cannot consist simply in the latent content (utopia of labor) that hides behind the genre’s manifest appearance (crime story), but must instead be sought in the work of form that “translates” this latent idea into what we encounter as the text’s surface. Discussing the sequence of Hollywood heist films made between 1950 (Asphalt Jungle) and 1980 (Thief), the talk will test out in what way such a shift in analytical perspective might expand our grasp of the heist genre and how our understanding of the utopian idea of labor itself might have to change if seen in the strange and murky light of formal operations that anchor it in the text. In particular, does such an approach help us make legible the mess of historical grief, desire, and anxiety that cannot be thought consciously by the utopian idea but which nevertheless traverses it as a kind of decentered, unconscious thought.
Luka Arsenjuk works as associate professor of cinema and media studies and comparative literature at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he also directs the Program in Cinema and Media Studies. He is the author of Movement, Action, Image, Montage: Sergei Eisenstein and the Cinema in Crisis (University of Minnesota Press, 2018) and has written essays on cinema, philosophy, political theory, and the relationship between politics and art. In 2018, he won the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Award for Best Essay in an Edited Collection for his essay “to speak, to hold, to live by the image: Notes in the Margins of the New Videographic Tendency” (in The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia. His next book is entitled Counter-Logistics: Cinema and the Politics of Movement and will be published by Northwestern University Press. He currently serves as one of the editors for Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture.