Category Archives: Film Criticism

A certain style of modernism in cinema: Seven extended propositions on Godard (revised)

A certain style of modernism in cinema: Seven extended propositions on Godard
(revised and expanded, 4/2/17)

-Godard, like Shakespeare and Beckett, Cezanne and Malevich, Schoenberg, and others, is Greenbergian in being committed to the notion that the most important task of an artistic work or oeuvre is to explore inventively the signifying potentialities of its form and medium.  When to this is added only the more (today) banal principle that an artwork must be critical (socially), the result, based on recognition that artworks are analogical or allegorical transmutations of social reality into formal meaning, is that art can be most interestingly political through an extreme formal rigor that attempts to identify and develop the at once expressive and critical, world-disclosing or world-forming, potentialities of the medium.

-Godard views cinematic mise-en-scène as  fragmentary rather than organic and totalizing (presenting the singular image as Gestalt), and so for him any théorie des ensembles (set theory) must be a théorie des éléments d’ensembles, of discrete elements that can be combined and recombined.  Indeed, in mathematics we can say with Badiou that he is closer to category theory than set theory, but this is imprecise as cinema, as Deleuze has certainly shown above all, is wholly sui generis in its forms and so still does not have its mathematization, which, if performed, would (as Noel Burch attempted to do in Theory of Film Practice) describe all of its meaningful formal possibilities.  (Godard’s first film, Operation Concrete, prepares the way, as it is an allegory of cinema as machine for putting the fixed in motion, creating finally this machine and its agencement of the image itself).  The rule of what can be linked is not spatial or temporal proximity let alone theme pertaining to preexisting project or situation (as in most drama and dramatic stories as we know them), but significance, with no rule predetermining the kinds of elements or relations.  Cinema has no signifier in quite the way that alphabetic language does with phonemes and morphemes, and indeed Godard has more than any other filmmaker sought to identify what comparable such elements might be, and explore their combinatory possibilities, though in a way that is conceptual rather than musical (or affective thereby).  His genius is analytic more than synthetic.

And this is why the principle of Godard’s poetics of cinema is montage.  (It can also tend to flatten the sequence of images, as in La Chinoise, where this seems to be an effect of a “revolutionary” and subtractive reduction to what is primary, including in both theme (the question of how to be “revolutionary,” and of the gesture of creative novelty that is not pure negation; or even, to anticipate a certain Heideggerian line of thinking mostly developed later and more in Italy than France but from which Godard was never far, how to be “effective” given the nihilistic character of the vulgar Marxist notion of (intellectuals becoming activists) “putting theory into practice”) and colors, as in color theory or the French national tradition).  This would come to mean the juxtaposition of any and all signifying elements of a film (image, sound, word, etc.) so as to provoke thoughts that are questions. (Even if the grammatically structure of the questions as presented has the extreme simplicity of two, or more, elements in juxtaposition, like a pseudo-sentence composed simply of two nouns; though with the difference that the “words” can be anything, anything that can be presented as combinable or juxtaposable fragment and thus as evidently signifying).  This is how and why cinema for Godard is “a form that thinks” more than, or “above” (in addition to) being “a thought that forms” (that is a given, but is also the principle of artistic creation as fabrication of given situations, offered to the viewer, as formational, identificatory, and affective in essence (and not just as forming the significant and signficational (when combined) elements and fragments).  And this drove him to make very ample citations and uses of ideas (which must be used as fragments, never attached to authors, just as what characters say and do is detached from any situation or project they believe themselves part of) without ever becoming programmatic. In retrospect, we can see that this was true even in his “Marxist-Leninist” period (where, in retrospect, the now programmatic ideas are the background for a questioning of cinema’s possible modes of inquiry).  On this basis, film art can be minimalist or baroque or anywhere in between.

Beginning with its one essential element (beyond the merely formal and mathematical unity of the frame, as sub-perceptivally recognizable discrete elements of identical shape and duration, and any content whatever, linked in perfect continuous series defining the film’s duration absolutely; of course, video works without this, and maybe its fundamental principle is a continual visual noise composed of patterns of lines, since a television is fundamentally just on or off, which makes matters simple for those who like America’s drug guru Timothy Leary, were content to perform the defining binary gesture of incantation), the image or shot, film aesthetic and film form for Godard is essentially fragmentary. A narrative sequence that develops a character or a story with his destiny is not a totality of which elements of film form are fragments; rather, it itself can only make sense as a fragment.  Which is why characters are not in stories than envelop them like tragic or comic destiny, but stories are ideas in which they figure, for themselves, or author and viewer.  Resnais developed this in a different way, and Ruiz took it further in his theory and films, but Godard did most to invent it (Resnais and Ruiz thought stories, suitably rendered multiple and contingent, were the essential limits of cinematic form, while for Godard it is the idea of image, sound, and concept or phrase all considered as singular (image, concept, no matter, for concepts are in an imaginary space and time here and images are treated as conceptual or signifying).  In a strict sense, this makes Godard narrative cinema’s most consistently “radical” framework, for he always goes to the roots.  (And he has the essentially French idea, married to his French Swiss Protestant moralism, that “revolutionary” names an absolute formal and thematic recommencement at zero following a set of negations that are as totalizing in what they reject as possible.  Here too he most resembles in philosophy Alain Badiou, in Being and Event.)   And for this reason Godard from his first film “Operation Concrete” on is essentially an essayist. Narrative is reconfigured into essay.  It is a form the thinks in a conspicuous way that requires minimizing all affective aesthetic (sensuous) absorption on the part of the viewer.

This Brechtian dialectical notion of meaning is semiotic in treating images as analogues of signifiers: without depriving them of their iconicity or allowing them to be in essence referential, the film text is semantically desaturated so that the viewer is provoked to thought rather than absorbed by involvement. It is Cartesian doubt with the reassertion of certitude (I see, therefore I know) always deferred.

The montage aesthetic involves a search for identification of elements.  Cinema does consist of the elements of the frame (trivially) and the shot, but the image is not elemental and has no discrete semantemes.  Montage, however is a juxtaposition of signifying (significant) fragments.  At the level of story, character, and dramatic conflicts, a cinematic poetics than depends on finding discrete elements will seek to extract from more continuous movements of characters in/as stories gestures and statements, mere components of actions and discourses, that may signify by themselves or in any arrangement by juxtaposition whatever.  This favors characterizations which have the artificiality of cliches and stories that are more like fragmentary images of movements rather than a continuous movement whose duration is equal to that of the film.  That is, the montage aesthetic favors an extraction of the discrete significant image from a continuous trajectory, and this favors the famous European modernist “art cinema” self-conscious artificiality.  It also favors the transformation of stories into essays, and that is why Godard, beginning in a profound way as early as as La Chinoise, was destined to move increasingly in this direction.  Fortuitous development for an artistic practice that sought to problematize not dramatic situations in favor of conflicts manifested as between persons but the aesthetic forms themselves that, through their massive dissemination as, along with popular music, the most important popular art form of the time (as well as through their resemblance to advertising) had come to seem often to thoroughly mediate our self-understanding, in a very different way than the novel and classical music had once done (in the previous century).  For at root, Godard always wanted more than anything simply to problematize the given (that given character of social life).  Almost uniquely, he sought to do this through blatant or theatricality or artificiality of the presented rather than an aesthetic strategy of absorption (or “identification”) and affection that normally seems to call for works of organic totality, no matter how much scenes and settings are radically transformed (as in Welles or Antonioni).

Godard would come to be in search of, not a lost time and set of places, but constructible ones, in cinema, as a form that thinks; in search that is of the manner of thinking proper to cinema (and to the spaces and time of our world, which cinema seems unable to ignore or leave alone).  Instead of telling the right stories (which would then have to be ornamentally illustrated, as in most narrative cinema) or even showing the right things in the right way in order to present an idea (the general idea of the essay film), he wants always to make the film that thinks (itself, the world, us) in the way that film uniquely can.  And he is Cartesian to doubt that this is possible and doubt it enough to, as Beckett put in Worstward Ho, fail again better.

-The persistent theme he has pursued is the question of the artist’s relationship to our late capitalist society.

Yes, there is in this an affinity for the tragic consciousness of the intellectual artist (like Ferdinand in Pierrot le Fou) who mourns (and fears perhaps that women, that other love object, “only want to live” and be happy, like Marianne in that film or Madeleine in Masculin Feminin, but also Anna Karina in Une Femme est Une Femme and Vivre Sa Vie, a question that is of course far less misogynistic than one might suppose)
some lost world such as the France of the Third Republic (Malraux, Faure, Péguy, de Rougemont, all historians of art and culture and dear to him) or (very dear) the would-be revolutionary aesthetics of Walter Benjamin that while celebrating cinema as the art of modernist and avant-garde fragmentation and disenchantment par excellence, also looks backward for its “messianic” potentialities that can but be glimpsed in fragments, in an age when aesthetic wonder (aura) and “experience” as it was once known in storytelling, the novel, or the classical music so dear to Godard seem to have disappeared.  But here Godard is far more hopeful than Benjamin: while he cannot fail to view the century of cinema and those other factories for the displacement of bodies and the desire to live which were called camps of “concentration” (vs. diaspora, dissemination, diffusion, exile?), yet he has always been animated by hope that cinema will, even beyond the poetic desire to create finally the juste image of “the time of redemption,” show us how to think, in and about our time, and its places, and us in them, placed inevitably as people always are, through the means and media of our time, if for no other purpose than to invent and discover (in-venire, come upon, find, as we know from the medieval love poets culminating in Dante, patron saint of Italian cinema), la vita nuova.  Which can of course only be not ici but ailleurs, à venir, dans l’avenir.  And can it be that cinema can do this even better than the novel, let alone music and cinema, which I suspect, alone, cannot?

-Godard’s anti-capitalism is Protestant. That is, secular, disenchanted, critical, and moralist.  Not very tolerant and indulgent.  Truffaut and Cassavetes were indulgent; Warhol in a way (but that depersonalized the personal in a way that ultimately celebrates the quotidian in an irony beyond all moral judgment; but this is a poetics of absorption rather than distantiation); Godard, no.  It is the decisive element in his many representations of media representations of the female body and his uses (always sympathetic) of the figure of the prostitute. He does love women, is not actually troubled at all by traditional ideas of beauty linked to virtue as well as youth, but hates it when women are used and hates it when they let themselves be.  The figure of the pornographic image is the very idea for him of the ugly, while the figure of the prostitute is the ultimate figure of the exploited worker, and, often invoked, she is always portrayed with sympathy; in 2 or 3 Things I Know about Her, she is an alter ego as figure of the intellectual person whose thought is an approach to her way of living and fully identified with it.  And so it is but a seeming contradiction that his films can seem both quite feminist and misogynistic. (Yes ,Madeleine in Masculin Feminin is shallow, a happy consumer product producing happiness as such a product, but she survives and says “J’hesite” at the end while he falls out of the picture (the falling not pictured) as a French Communist Party militant cinephile nearly reduced to the absurd as just an obsessional man and awkward would be beau parlor in the French style. His “political” masculinity has no where to go, like cinema for Godard a year later at the end of “Fin de Cinema” Weekend, while she, more hopefully, is uncertain, like the director.)

-Godard is a critic who finds it hard to believe in anything, including people, because of the degree to which our media saturated culture so thoroughly forms people’s self-understanding.  And he of course opts for something other than belief, at least in people, at least in the ordinary sense.

-This is also a reason why for him the structuration of narrative and character cannot be taken for granted. He problematized notions of narrative and character through strategies of reflection, placing the given in doubt. This is a very different aesthetics from early Resnais, who multiplies and remixes narratival sequences so as to restore to the powers of imagination and thought the lived experience still present in memory. (Godard, as is well-known, represents forms of representation, the European art film strategy of foregrounding the artifice to provoke the spectator’s thinking rather than, as in the dominant American tradition, concealing it so as to most effectively saturate the viewer’s experience of story and character.)

-Most great artists of the last hundred years can be divided between the critical and the visionary. Visionary cinema privileges mise-en-scène over montage, while critical cinema, when the thought is not implicit as allegory, as in many American films, tends to privilege montage. Antonioni is visionary, as is Picasso. Godard like his favorite author Brecht is critical. But he has always sought l’image juste and considers this hope a Benjaminian redemptive project: “The image will come at the time of the resurrection.” (Though of course we are not yet in that time).

In art, conceptual and propositional oppositions tend to become chiasmatic: A is in relation X to B, or else B is thus to A, but then again, this opposition becomes reduced by reversal and indistinction. Examples include the personal vs. the political (which is a subset of which? The chiasmus (see Godard’s spoken poem that accompanies the image of the cup of swirling coffee as allegory of the universe) poses the question of each pole if it is not also the other) or Godard’s declaration in Histoire(s) du Cinema that film can be “a thought that forms” or “a form that thinks”; this distinction of critical and affecting, or theatricality and absorption, includes within it the possibility of the visionary, which is the invention through aesthetic form of a new form of life through a new or reconfigured way of seeing.  Godard thinks this the hardest thing, and yet the lyricism that is found only on occasion in all of his films evidences his profound concern with the iconic quality of word, sound, and image, and this is why he considers an image itself, a signifying element of an artistic oeuvre that is composed of fragments, to be the matter of an ethics, even a morality.  Yet, his is not a redemptive project (see Leo Bersani, The Culture of Redemption, on this in the realist and modernist novel) because he refuses the temporal structure of narratival expectation for the right ending and the ressentiment that underlies it.  Which is why all of his uses of theatricality are essentially and purely cinematic.  Sometimes explicitly, as in “Two or Three Things I Know about Her,” possibly his greatest film, but always, he is asking, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” of every presentation.  Ultimately he is asking, “What is a film?” (The question of the subject, artist or viewer, can only be posed within the artwork, because on its terms all character or personality as well as every project or story, is a signifying element in an artwork; we don’t tell stories, our stories tell us, and identity is an artifact in a discourse).  And this question is singular but said in many ways as he has done in all his films beginning with “Operation Concrete” (the cement machine is allegory of the cinematographic one).  There is no way to ask this ontological question of art without asking existential and ethical and/or political questions about ourselves the viewers, and an artist asks them in this way alone, knowing that Parmenides is right that thought and form, our sole access to what is or is there in the “real” of our experience as natural, social, historical embodied situated beings, that these are the same from the point of view of any possible sense or understanding, and this indeed is a tautological and necessary truth.  Forms of being can be revisioned and critiqued through a careful formation and reformation of forms of the perceptible and sensible, in film of the visible, audible, readable.   And that is art’s utopian or messianic project.

The practical question is why have so many been so influenced by Hitchcock, Welles, Antonioni, and others who may be thought of equal genius, and so few by Godard?  Certainly, in art, majorities, which here especially can only be silent, never rule.  (The film distribution industry like the art market determines nothing but only ratifies, and unreliably).

Perhaps because, for essentially commercial reasons, cinema as an industry has still not abandoned the beautiful for the interesting, as art began to do after Duchamp and even after Courbet’s Origin of the World (where the viewer’s anxiety, evoked in a most particular way by the female nude, is not of the absence of a presence making possible enjoyment of experience (castration understood sensuously or aesthetically) but the fully revealed presence of the corporeally abject, and a scene presaging the greatest horror of the century to come, which for Godard in Histoire(s) du Cinema failed to film the putatively unrepresentable horror of radical evil.  And its figures not of will and (“another”) mastery but of abjection and the figure of the Musselman (in Primo Levi and Agamben) which is that of a banal living on or surviving that is forced into being guilty for its finding impossible care and will, or thought as practically-oriented or teleological deliberation.  The advent of the correct image will be at the time and in the place of the most fully realized thought.  This thought need not master all that has been experienced and can be known (like Sartre’s Self-Taught Man or the Alpha 60-like archive we now have of all statements and visible actions and gestures gives us, or rather all who seek knowledge and thus mastery, that), but only that which is represented, recollected, reconfigured, rethought of simply thought, now in the time of that crisis of our Being-in-the-world that the century from the Bolshevik Revolution to now has presented or demanded from us the right imaginary (imaged) thought (statement).  Cinema’s great maxim, which explains the Antonioni (and Chekhov) direction as much as the Godard (and Ibsen) one, must be Aristotle’s, in the opening sentence of the Metaphysics (translation modified): “All persons by nature, or in essence, desire to understand, that is, to make sense of their experience, and the clearest evidence of this is the delight we take in our senses.”  Understanding is the thinking through and of experience, which is essence perception.  And so thought is cinema.

This is in contrast to Platonic mimesis (representation as identity in form) (and the “Cave” model of “enlightenment” as perception transformed into thought, as knowledge (representation of what is as the truth that is “fact,” or evidence, representation of the seen) that is the property of those who know (and see clearly and not confusedly, as in St. Paul).

This is the path that painting and literature would take after the Industrial Revolution and the invention of photography, and that cinema, still tied to theater and the realist novel, largely failed to make. But Welles and Antonioni do so by transforming the forms of cinematic space and seen scene, while Godard like Eisenstein and Vertov does so through something not unlike a “dialectics,” which transforms the experienced and habitual (remaining in this way Platonic, as did Heidegger, who as much as Benjamin is the philosopher most clearly present behind Alphaville and 2 or 3 Things at least) into the thinkable through a problematization that is essentially discursive, without, to be sure, in any way abandoning the vécu or perceptival and “lived” (though what this means has changed) character of experience, which cinema, in fact, cannot do.  As it is always, whatever else it is, beyond all representation or allegory of “experience” hors film, in a non-cinematic, always not-yet or quite, aesthetic totalization as artwork that the “lived” necessarily has, of the always already informe or non-yet-formal of the formally destined, and plastic, or formational and transformational, character of our Being-in-the-world that is always too early and too late, in excess of itself, and so improper and fated to displacements, presentation of a visible, that is thus always object at once of faith and doubt. This is its great formal limitation which is also its greatest condition of possibility.

The enigma of Assayas’s “Personal Shopper”

What is Olivier Assayas’s new film “Personal Shopper” about?

Kristen Stewart has a conspicuously fucked-up life, and we know from the director’s oeuvre that that is a condition he finds interesting and never moralizes. Let me count the ways: She buys expensive clothing and jewelry from some star of some kind, and her frustrated identification with the luminary comes out partly in Stewart’s enjoyment of trying the stuff on, sometimes even, ahem, getting off on it. We remember the echoes of “All about Eve” in Assayas’s previous star vehicle for her and Juliette Binochet, so this is not surprising. She hates her job, and stays in Paris in order to contact or be contacted with her dead brother, who was a spirit medium. The viewer should quickly disabuse himself of any notion that the director believes the relevant phenomenon have an actual off-screen referent. Assayas is a follower of French sixties radical theory icons Guy Debord and Gilles Deleuze, and no one is more of a materialist of image, sound, and the articulation of visible and habitable spaces and of characters’ movements through time and within and between them. If, as I think, he is the greatest post-Nouvelle Vague filmmaker in France, it is partly because this way of relating to time and space, where the movement through it by the characters is perhaps even more important than their personal psychology, is a legacy of Italian Neorealism by way of the early Nouvelle Vague directors (and most of Godard’s output in the 60s). Stewart sees these holograms, which don’t seem very friendly (in one scene there is a massively excessive throwing up), in the near-abandoned house where her brother had lived. Soon she also is being texted by a mysterious stranger whose identity is never discovered. The texted dialogue is interesting; this is a mind-fuck that has uncertain valence in the friend/foe category. At the end of the film, she has displaced herself to Oman, but nothing is resolved, except an unpleasant subplot involving the woman she helps by supplying clothing. Don’t miss the German businessman, which is a terrific delineation of character.

As for my opening question, I’m still trying to figure that out. Note in this regard a possible reflexivity of the kind European filmmakers have so often enjoyed: Stewart’s project in the film is partly a hermeneutical one. And she doesn’t answer it. That it may involve a certain eroticism changes nothing there. Nor the fact that the text messages are partly intended on the part of what Lacanian psychoanalysis calls “the subject supposed to know,” to direct her movements. At a level that seems to me hopelessly banal, the film is also a story of her attempt to mourn. Voices of the dead are always stuck in the past; I think the Old Testament prohibited contacting them because as with magic, it is always done as part of an appeal to resolve questions about a future that is open and indeterminate in terms of a past that is perfectly given. But their being beyond time as well as the normal present space also renders them uncinematic in the terms I have described above.  If she is seeking an assurance (and direction) from some kind of Lacanian “big Other,” who is supposed to know your truth, the one most proper to you, which might well be connected to death, she gets changes of mise-en-scène but no answers.

Seven propositions on Godard

Seven propositions on Godard

-Godard, like Shakespeare and Beckett, Cezanne and Malevich, Schoenberg, and others, is Greenbergian in being committed to the notion that the most important task of art work is to explore inventively the signifying potentialities of its form and medium.  When to this is added only the more banal principle that an artwork must be critical (socially), the result, based on recognition that artworks are analogical or allegorical transmutations of social reality into formal meaning, is that art can be political through an extreme formal rigor that attempts to identify and develop the at once expressive and critical, world-disclosing or world-forming, potentialities of the medium.

-Godard views cinematic mise-en-scene as  fragmentary rather than organic or totalitarian (based on a Gestalt), and so for him any théorie des ensembles (set theory) must a théorie des éléments d’ensembles, of discrete elements that can be combined and recombined.   His genius is analytic more than synthetic.  And this is why the principle of Godard’s aesthetics is montage. This would come to mean the juxtaposition of any and all signifying elements of a film (image, sound, word, etc.) so as to provoke thoughts that are questions. And it drove him to make very ample citations and uses of ideas without ever becoming programmatic. In retrospect, we can see that this was true even in his Maoist period.

Beginning with its one essential element, the image or shot, film aesthetic and film form for Godard is essentially fragmentary. A narrative sequence that develops a character or a story with his destiny is not a totality of which elements of film form are fragments; rather, it itself can only make sense as a fragment. And for this reason Godard from his first film “Operation Concrete” on is essentially an essayist. Narrative is reconfigured into essay.
This Brechtian dialectical notion of meaning is semiotic in treating images as analogues of signifiers: without depriving them of their iconicity or allowing them to be in essence referential, the film text is semantically desaturated so that the viewer is provoked to thought rather than absorbed by involvement. It is Cartesian doubt with the reassertion of certitude (I see, therefore I know) always deferred.

The montage aesthetic involves a search for identification of elements.  Cinema does consist of the elements of the frame (trivially) and the shot, but the image is not elemental and has no discrete semantemes.  Montage, however is a juxtaposition of signifying (significant) fragments.  At the level of story, character, and dramatic conflicts, a cinematic poetics than depends on finding discrete elements will seek to extract from more continuous movements of characters in/as stories gestures and statements, mere components of actions and discourses, that may signify by themselves or in any arrangement by juxtaposition whatever.  This favors characterizations which have the artificiality of cliches and stories that are more like fragmentary images of movements rather than a continuous movement whose duration is equal to that of the film.  That is, the montage aesthetic favors an extraction of the discrete significant image from a continuous trajectory, and this favors the famous European modernist “art cinema” self-conscious artificiality.  It also favors the transformation of stories into essays, and that is why Godard, beginning in a profound way as early as as La Chinoise, was destined to move increasingly in this direction.  Fortuitous development for an artistic practice that sought to problematize not dramatic situations in favor of conflicts manifested as between persons but the aesthetic forms themselves that, through their massive dissemination as, along with popular music, the most important popular art form of the time (as well as through their resemblance to advertising) had come to seem often to thoroughly mediate our self-understanding, in a very different way than the novel and classical music had once done (in the previous century).  For at root, Godard always wanted more than anything simply to problematize the given (that given character of social life).  Almost uniquely, he sought to do this through blatant or theatricality or artificiality of the presented rather than an aesthetic strategy of absorption (or “identification”) and affection that normally seems to call for works of organic totality, no matter how much scenes and settings are radically transformed (as in Welles or Antonioni).

-The persistent theme he has pursued is the question of the artist’s relationship to our late capitalist society.

-Godard’s anti-capitalism is Protestant. It is the decisive element in his many representations of media representations of the female body and his uses (always sympathetic) of the figure of the prostitute. He hates it when women are used and hates it when they let themselves be. And so it is but a seeming contradiction that his films can seem both quite feminist and misogynistic.

-Godard is a critic who finds it hard to believe in anything, including people, because of the degree to which our media saturated culture so thoroughly forms people’s self-understanding.

-This is also a reason why for him the structuration of narrative and character cannot be taken for granted. He problematized notions of narrative and character through strategies of reflection, placing the given in doubt. This is a very different aesthetics from early Resnais, who multiplies and remixes narratival sequences so as to restore to the powers of imagination and thought the lived experience still present in memory. (Godard, as is well-known, represents forms of representation, the European art film strategy of foregrounding the artifice to provoke the spectator’s thinking rather than, as in the dominant American tradition, concealing it so as to most effectively saturate the viewer’s experience of story and character.)

-Most great artists of the last hundred years can be divided between the critical and the visionary. Visionary cinema privileges mise-en-scene over montage, while critical cinema, when the thought is not implicit as allegory, as in many American films, tends to privilege montage. Antonioni is visionary, as is Picasso. Godard like his favorite author Brecht is critical. But he has always sought l’image juste and considers this hope a Benjaminian redemptive project: “The image will come at the time of the resurrection.”

In art, conceptual and propositional oppositions tend to become chiasmatic: A is in relation X to B, or else B is thus to A, but then again, this opposition becomes reduced by reversal and indistinction. Examples include the personal vs. the political (which is a subset of which? The chiasmus (see Godard’s spoken poem that accompanies the image of the cup of swirling coffee as allegory of the universe) poses the question of each pole if it is not also the other) or Godard’s declaration in Histoire(s) du Cinema that film can be “a thought that forms” or “a form that thinks”; this distinction of critical and affecting, or theatricality and absorption, includes within it the possibility of the visionary, which is the invention through aesthetic form of a new form of life through a new or reconfigured way of seeing.  Godard thinks this the hardest thing, and yet the lyricism that is found only on occasion in all of his films evidences his profound concern with the iconic quality of word, sound, and image, and this is why he considers an image itself, a signifying element of an artistic oeuvre that is composed of fragments, to be the matter of an ethics, even a morality.  Yet, his is not a redemptive project (Leo Bersani) because he refuses the temporal structure of narratival expectation for the right ending and the ressentiment that underlies it.  Which is why all of his uses of theatricality are essentially and purely cinematic.  Sometimes explicitly, as in “Two or Three Things I Know about Her,” possibly his greatest film, but always, he is asking, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” of every presentation.  Ultimately he is asking, “What is a film?” (The question of the subject, artist or viewer, can only be posed within the artwork, because on its terms all character or personality as well as every project or story, is a signifying element in an artwork; we don’t tell stories, our stories tell us, and identity is an artifact in a discourse).  And this question is singular but said in many ways as he has done in all his films beginning with “Operation Concrete” (the cement machine is allegory of the cinematographic one).  There is no way to ask this ontological question of art without asking existential and ethical and/or political questions about ourselves the viewers, and an artist asks them in this way alone, knowing that Parmenides is right that thought and form, our sole access to what is or is there in the “real” of our experience as natural, social, historical embodied situated beings, that these are the same from the point of view of any possible sense or understanding, and this indeed is a tautological and necessary truth.  Forms of being can be revisioned and critiqued through a careful formation and reformation of forms of the perceptible and sensible, in film of the visible, audible, readable.   And that is art’s utopian or messianic project.

“Moonlight” and the idea of experience

It must have been inevitable that it would be regarded as “about” being gay in a world that is entirely Black (aside from an hispanic cop, the only exception is the American flag-saturated Cuban-American diner he enters near the end of the film).  It  surely is wisest to run for the exit the moment you hear that a fiction film is “about” something.

If anything, what filmmaker Barry Jenkins actually brings to the screen is something as old as the modern novel, that happens to be situated within a black community and a character who seems to be “gay”: the social alienation of the artist type, who is unusually sensitive and has to painstakingly develop a working set of social skills in a milieu in which it seems to him almost as if this is something everyone else is born with.  He does not become an artist, and at the end I think the question of becoming is still unanswered.  It would be too easy to say that he is a person who has been ruined; maybe the question is, as T. S. Eliot suggested, what fragments of our experience, interpreted in what way, will enable our surviving forms of ruination, and living on in a way that one can affirm.

The two things that most struck me about the film are a stylistic quirk and a characterological one, both of which suggest to me certain cinematic antecedents.

The key to the main character is that he is an impressionable cipher, someone to whom things happen and who never really, never quite, develops much of a sense of self.  His friend Keven says in the final scene, “Who is you?”  Chiron has no answer, though he tells Kevin “No other man has touched me.”

Chiron reminds me a little bit of Ettore, the teenage boy in Pasolini’s “Mamma Roma.”  Ettore is insouciant.  His mother, whose status as whore is, typically for Pasolini, the condition of possibility of sainthood, loves him like the Madonna, while he hangs out with a gang of small-time thieving hoodlums.  He just does not seem to care much about anyone or anything, until the end when we see him dying on a hospital bed that is a wooden pillar and a kind of cross, and calling out to his mother.  Chiron, whose own mother is preoccupied with what she herself needs, which seems to be mainly heroin, and who understands motherhood as something her child must do for her, does not hang out with a group of other boys, but is pretty much solitary throughout the film.  And, while he first appears at the beginning of the film running from other boys and hiding in an abandoned building (this is echoed in the second segment when he is hiding from the homophobic bully, and contrasted by a short scene, played to stirring music, where he is kicking a papier-mâché soccer ball with some other boys), he is basically timid and shy by disposition, and arguably not only his fear of being bullied but also his minimally sketched homosexuality are secondary to this, as Sartre argued was true of French writer Jean Genet.  It is not so much that he doesn’t care about anyone as that he doesn’t really have anyone to love.  What is fundamental to his character is his shyness and timidity, and the fragility and near absence of whatever sense of self he will develop in the course of the film.

The tragedy of his relationship with Kevin is that Kevin is the opposite kind of person,  who seems supremely self-confident, whom you could imagine working parties as a social butterfly.  The taciturn (raising the question: does he keep his own counsel or is he just so completely lost that it as almost as if he were not there?) Chiron doesn’t easily get people, and Kevin does; he’s clearly gifted, but the ease with which he “seduces” Chiron is linked to his own relative insouciance.  (Chiron, in contrast, is innocent: it is more that he cares and does not know than, like Kevin, knowing and not caring).  For Kevin wants the acceptance of the other boys and is glad he has it.  I think of something my father told me when I was a very small, shy, bookish, not very sporty boy or, then, one possessed of great talents for socializing.  “You have to be like the other boys,” he told me, though I never quite figured out why.  Kevin is the most proximate cause of Chiron’s going to prison, in a manner that, obviously a bit to Kevin’s chagrin, will change Chiron by giving him something like a thick carapace of self-armor in the literalized form of a weight-lifter’s body which, we surmise, is the shape he gave to a certain rage in prison, since prison makes men harder, not softer.   Obviously he learned in prison to deal with other men, but in a way that expresses only resignation.  The crucial event in Chiron’s tragedy is the teenage Kevin’s reluctant willingness to beat up Chiron on behalf of the bully who orders him to do so.  Kevin understands that it is either Chiron or himself, and he likes Chiron but is not willing to risk himself on his friend’s behalf, which would probably be a losing battle anyway.   Having refused to name names presumably to protect Kevin, Chiron returns to school soon thereafter and attacks the homophobe who ordered his beating at the hands of Kevin from behind with a chair, and this leads directly to him being take away, the next scene beginning with his return from prison.

Our culture has a prevailing morality according to which it does not matter what anyone else has done to you or is threatening to do, if what you do is violent or otherwise wrong, when considered in abstraction, then you are as wholly to blame as if you alone were responsible for your own actions and experience alike.  And of course, in a way you are and in a way you’re not, but this uncompromising moralism, which in philosophy is that of Kant, whose ethics does not include any idea of love because desire and inclination are for Kant irrelevant in the face of moral obligation.
In some forms this takes on the character of what I call “the reverse Lamech syndrome.”  The Biblical Lamech says, basically, if you insult me or accidentally step on my toe, I will kill you; the reverse Lamech principle is that if someone threatens to kill you, and you insult them or accidentally step on their toe, then you will be punished and they will throw away your experience.  It seems to me that our “zero tolerance” institutions and morality (shared in fact by left, center, and right) have precisely that as their consequence.  What people do is viewed in abstraction, and if you are angry about an injustice (why else is anyone ever angry?), it cannot matter what you are angry about and whether it is an injustice.  For there is only crime, not injustice.  Though in the end the notion the “oppressed” often tend to have that everything is injustice, and the notion of the ruling elites and those who identify with them that the angry classes simply have a, perhaps unfortunate as sociologically caused, tendency to crime, — in the end these two views may be said to mirror each other.  In one view, everything is injustice; in the other, all is crime; if in doubt, the respective schema can be applied to interpret all social problems in their particularity.  And so we have the Lamechs in the ghettoes and the righteous indignation of the intolerant moralists sustaining the carceral character of the middle-class mainstream, which is probably smaller and less pervasive than its proponents and opponents alike assume.    We desperately need a society and culture where injustice is not only recognized as real but where there are actual practices for dealing with it that seem to belong to everyone.  There are no such practices when it comes to poor people generally, because the institutions for adjudicating claims and managing the poor, from the practices of the mental health system to the mores of institutions that are part of the prevailing middle-class sensibility, do not work on behalf of poor people, and everyone who is subjected to this system knows that.    Yet, while the prevailing reverse Lamech principle is arguably not just,  it certainly does make things easier for those for whom judging is reducing everything to the simplest terms, which can ironically be called black-and-white.  It is perhaps only when a new ethics, more tolerant than this, and in the way of all tolerance allowing that there is meaning in experience and not just behavior….until such an ethics has been developed and has become hegemonic, there will be people whose lives are as nearly destroyed as that of Chiron, and just about everyone in his world.  In this regard, we should be grateful that there are stories, like this one, which are not over when they are over.  Like so many novels, this film sketches a near-tragic picture of a character in a certain world that ends when the story has worked out the threads of its motifs, but at a point of opening on to some unknown after-life.  Which is an idea that as materialists we can take seriously, and must: that is, can there be a different tomorrow?

The other filmmaker that “Moonlight” reminded me of is Malick, who has a way of using the camera to suggest an idea of experience, which in his case is generally linked to notions of the sacred, which is partly love of the visible world as love of God, a love that is deepened by, though does not originate with, the characters’s reflections, which are essentially about what they see.  Jenkins’s concerns are not religious but with an ethics firmly tied to character and milieu.  But he uses camera movement, music, and sometimes decor to signal moments of intensity that are identified with the character’s emotions.  One device Jenkins makes occasional but always striking use of is a circling camera, at times centripetal and at other centrifugal, thus showing either the character as surrounded by the gaze of others looking at him or his own gaze looking out at them.  There is a slight dizzying effect of some of these pans, and with music, sometimes classical, suddenly flaring up, what this seems to give us first of all is a sense of Chrion’s world as one in which he is susceptible to things happening to him.  Often, of course, bad things.  This makes me think of the preoccupation in late 20th century European philosophy with ideas of “event” as something that happens not within a world, but to it, transforming it and its denizens irrevocably, like St. Paul on the road to Damascus, for better or worse.  Chiron is a character to whom things happen.  And that is most of who he is.  It draws us in as viewers as a form of intensified identification.

Another device that Jenkins is fond of and uses in two scenes, one of which is repeated, is an expressionistically colored hallway at the end of which we see a wall or a door.  The first, repeated, shows his mother in front of as she pops in and out of a bedroom to the side by the rear wall.  She is in and out of the scenes of his life, and its paths to an elsewhere that are blocked by this wall.

The second is of Kevin, and like the repetition of the doorframe scene, appears to be from within a dream.  Kevin is at a phone booth in a corridor, which appears to be the restaurant where Chiron knows he is working.  Here the colors remind me of a film by Wong Kar-wai, and interestingly Jenkins elsewhere (while Chiron is driving along a highway in an empty landscape) uses a song that is also quote by Wong in his gay love story, “Happy Together,” Caetano Veloso’s famous renditioning of Cucurrucucu Paloma,” surely one of the most moving songs in all of pop music.  The effect of these scenes is also to suggest an experience felt with a certain intensity.  The corridors suggest a path, but it is one that, for all the passion associated with it, leads nowhere.

The first time I saw the film I was saddened by the character of “Black.”  It’s a terrific provocation of the filmmaker to give him that nick-name (which was given to him by Kevin).  Does he represent his race, either for the constructed position of the viewer (who must first of all be Americans who are and are not Black), or for others around him, such as Kevin?  I found Chiron’s post-prison persona terribly sad on the first viewing, but on the second I thought I could see in him, behind the mask, so to speak, a tenderness, and an ability to care.  I think that Kevin, who is married now and proudly shows Chiron a picture of his daughter, believes he can help his friend by bringing this out in him.  Which probably is what love can mean in brief encounters where a “relationship” is impossible.  Ironically Kevin, always so cool, suave, knowing what to say and do, now admits to Chiron that he never had much self-respect, though this claim is now belied by the slightly but notably impassioned manner in which he describes his involvement with his present life, which is good after all, involving his wife and child and even his job.  Kevin is more easily satisfied, while Chiron remains a figure of possibility.

The film does end on a moment of hope simply because nothing is said about what he will next, what he will become.  Could it be that men like him deserve a chance?  And is not this question one upon the answer to which a great deal concerning American society today depends?  It is not as if this question has not been posed before.

Like “Black Lives Matter,” this film is totally about race, and also about something larger than race.

How do you like your heroes, dour or sunny side up? New films on Marie Curie and Stefan Zweig

New films on Marie Curie and Stefan Zweig viewed at New York Jewish Film Festival

It is worth hoping, and expecting as I do, that Marie Noelle’s new film “Marie Curie: The Courage of Knowledge” will receive commercial distribution stateside or at least in New York and LA, as French films of this quality usually do. The film is beautiful shot and Karolina Gruszka as the Nobel Prize winning chemist is extraordinary. As the title announces, the film is partly a paean to the practice of scientific research through Curie’s passionate devotion to it, and also to the education in it of her daughter, who, an announcement of future events at the film’s end informs us, will go on to win the third Chemistry Nobel awarded to a woman after her mother’s twain. If we have to have identity politics-based film festivals, this film belongs less in a Jewish Film Festival than a Woman’s Festival, particularly under the heading, “Women Who Made It Professionally,” a topic that would have had real political meaning in my mother’s generation half a century ago. Which is to say that the film, like its heroine, has no politics. What she shows is a quietly passionate determination that involves taking for granted the propriety of what she wants. This is what unites her work and personal life. Lacking all ressentiment, she responds to insults from the numerous men with obnoxious chauvinistic attitudes by ignoring them; at least one instance sticks in my memory of her turning abruptly about-face and departing down a staircase. If she is less of a Kantian than a Spinozist or Nietzschean as befits perhaps a French director making a film 50 years after May ’68, and so not much given to pangs of guilt, though she does weep bitterly after the accidental death near the beginning (the film stretches between her twin Nobel Prizes) of her beloved husband Pierre, something of a male muse to her, perhaps this explains the blindness of her willful insouciance to the situation of her married lover and his insanely jealous wife. And yet the film suggests that this could be a moral flaw in a more ordinary person, but – well, make of this what you will: as is well-known, the French love their great minds and are a bit more ready than us Anglo-Saxons to forgive erotic transgressions. The killer wife, like the paleo-masculine scientists who seem like caricatures by our lights, are negative externalities; the story hasn’t room for guilt. Anti-semitism enters the picture when the journalists who vilify her for the affair and, we suspect, also because of their hostility to female professionals who, as she would in fact, become like Gods knowing about things that can be used for good or evil and being enshrined post-mortem in the Pantheon. In Europe not long after Dreyfus, it is natural to toss the allegation that she is, to top it off, a Jew (which, in fact, she was not). It is hard to make a successful film that is realistic in the story’s basis and in style while also being narrativally a bit of an adult fairy tale with all its enchantment. Including, of course, the obstacles faced and overcome by the hero, who, the title informs us, is courageous in the pursuit of knowledge. Women, bring your young daughters to this film as Ms. Gruszka does when delivering a rousing speech on accepting Nobel Deux.

A very different film in the same New York Jewish Film Festival is “Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe” by German actress and now cineaste Maria Schrader. This is the portrait of the famous Austrian Jewish novelist Stefan Zweig in exile during the Third Reich in Brazil, with sojourns to Argentina and New York. The focus of the film is on the world-weary Zweig’s manner of insisting on adapting to his adopted milieus as best he can while cultivating a judicious caution with regard to public statements about Germany. Repeatedly we see him making what may be moral compromises, and always there is a thick air of irony and ambiguity about the decisions he makes. This is not a man with youthful enthusiasm and an impulsive bent to making provocative statements. That the film is both talky and deliberately paced befits its subject. We are shown nothing of his writing, nor do we see him at work writing, an opposite choice of the one Noelle makes with Curie. Here is a man who could not really adjust to the life of exile that so many European thinkers and artists were driven to in those years. He is full of praise for Brazil and the village to which he has relocated, but when his suicide note is read we see that he was always a concealed duality. As exemplary as Curie’s triumphs is Zweig’s tragedy here.

When despair looked hopeful: Ideas of technology and politics in Kubrick’s “2001”

On seeing Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” again, this time I found myself particularly struck by the computer Hal. Yes, the film as a whole is structured by four principal sequences that together, and in the case of the final one, internally, are linked not narratively but only, and in the loosest way, thematically, and in a way that is tailor made for the art of cinema. The film deals with broad ideas about technology and ends with what I take as a cautionary note (if only because the director was a Brooklyn Jew and not a Christian), presenting the astronaut as an old man suddenly being reborn and then as a newborn or to-be-born floating foetallly in a cosmic bubble. In the scene just prior, we see the space pod resting inside an eighteenth century boudoir and the astronaut seeing himself as first an older man, then a very old man in a bed. This is cinematic because film, the art of images, makes it easy to present in a single plane a plurality of images of the same person at different times with one looking at and perhaps recognizing the others.  For cinema in fact subordinates plot and characterization to image and juxtaposition.  An image in a film need not correspond to a reality, including that of a person; it need only be presented.

This is preceded by the rapid travel through space that is presented as a movement into the center of parallel displays of light that diverge towards one as one moves into it. Like the images of planets that follow, this spectacular display is revealed on a moment’s thought to be poor in information and of questionable fascination or entertainment value. The colored lights in this array illuminate only themselves. It is an allegory of power, of technology itself, and the universe or the place of space shows itself as a generative matrix of a power of illumination that in illuminating naught but itself is like a power that comes to meet the spaceship thrustingly hurtling into its vortex like the “space fuck” that Kurt Vonnegut thought the moon travel to be. The poor astronaut finally arrives in this absurd eighteenth century aristocratic boudoir with French rococo paintings on the wall, where he is apparently alone in this austerely beautiful prison, and now all he’s got is images of himself as the ages of man, as in the sphinx’s riddle to Oedipus.

But the director of “Dr. Strangelove” and “A Clockwork Orange” (the bright red sculpted sofas in the space station lounge reminded me of “Clockwork” and its expressive use of decors, an element of some visual comedy) is a man with a social vision also. The briefing of the American moon station head about secrecy, played out in front of a very prominent American flag, and with references to social unrest (this was 1968) is unmistakeable.

But to me the characterization of Hal is the film’s greatest masterstroke. Remember President Muffly in “Dr. Strangelove” with Peter Sellars’s “I’m more sorry that you are” kindergarten banter with Premier Kissoff in the hour of nuclear brinksmanship? Well, here Kubrick nails American psychobabble and the ability that our managerial culture often has of intimidating people with an infantilization that I think Americans must be alone in not finding extremely insulting. One of my fantasies is that I am a Frenchman cataloging instances of peculiarly American lunacy, and this ranks scene high in that fantastic catalog; it should. Hal only starts talking about his own feelings and failings when he is “dying” because the plug is being pulled on him. This is appropriate because, ironically, this heretofore perfect (it has never yet made any mistakes, which is small comfort to the astronauts once they suspect him of adverse motives) managerial computer’s most defining attribute is actually his existential identification of self and the programmed collective project and his management of situations through invocations of emotional vulnerability. First he manages to load or underscore everything he says with an invocation of the psychology of his merely human interlocutor, and this is utterly menacing yet in a way I am tempted to call (for this is another aspect of our culture, surely) maternal. (Does patriarchy become particularly monstrous when it cultivates maternal attitudes? Note that the “Christian” rebirth of the self motif at the end is evidently an autopoiesis of a now perhaps senile masculinity.) Look at this segment closely. Note too that any attempt to counter this calculated nastiness whose name dare not be spoken to it by using the same kind of perverse mixture of managerial competence (or the semblance thereof, the pretension to it) and psychological insight used as a weapon, to try to counter this strategy by using its own discursive style against it, would surely fail. Besides, you are talking to a computer, a perfect machine, which is to say to the perfect embodiment of a techno-bureaucracy. The dystopian sci-fi film to which “2001” should be compared is not Tarkovsky’s “Solaris,” a far greater film at least in its moral imagination, but Godard’s throughly comic “Alphaville.” Hal is much more menacing and fearful than Alpha 60, the computer in that film, who runs the society as Hal runs the spaceship.

Consider the American pop psychology of Transaction Analysis. It teaches that there are three roles, “parent,” “adult,” and “child,” and people with moral integrity generally speak as adults to adults. You are supposed to deal with your limiting emotional states that register your understanding of the situation, by openly acknowledging them, often as legitimations for what you do (in a principle of necessity; I discovered back in the 1980s that female managerial professionals, who had then come to dominate at the lower and mid-level of many bureaucracies, were especially prone to do this, and I found it unamusingly a style of domination wearing a thin mask of feigned humanity). And then you may (and must, as this is a crudely moralistic form of what German philosopher Jurgen Habermas famously championed as “communicative ethics”) say what you mean and want. In the parent-to-child mode one infantilizes the other with accusations or belittling attributions of emotional weakness, and these are rhetorical strategies that are designed to mask hostility as justice, while child-to-parent discourse amounts to “I want you to love me” or/and/but “I fear you will hurt me.” This psychology is only really possible in America, because, lacking the distinction between familiar and polite address (in French, “tu” and “vous”), our culture always tends to confuse them, and people in authority may speak to you condescendingly in intimate personal terms. The French find this insulting and only do it as insult; you cannot “se tutoie” another adult citizen who is not your close friend. Whereas we, far from being insulted by this, desire it and consider it “friendly,” and this notion is telling, too: We want others who are mere acquaintances, business associates, and people who are subjects or objects of sales practices to be “friend-like.” Some Americans even think the absence of this is aggressive and hostile. And whereas the French call everyone “Monsieur” and “Madame,” in American culture this is common mainly among Blacks, because for historical reasons they tend to want to insist, in public life outside communities of other ghetto denizens, on being shown respect. They and the French are right, of course, and refusal to recognize this demand is a symptom of the destruction of the public sphere and the role of the citizen and the idea of the political, which only exists among fellow adult citizens or those treated as such. Our Protestant Christian culture taken at an extreme reduces the demands of justice to the desire to love, and assumes that love refuses criticism, and so antagonisms must always be disavowed. This means that Americans tend to like everyone and respect no one. And that is Hal’s modus operandi. The truth he is cold and calculating as befits a computer; he identifies his own survival with the success of the spaceship’s (or company’s) “mission,” and he both appears to “care” about Dave’s “feelings” (and eventually is revealed to care about his own, again, while “dying”) and, good soldier that he is, kills the other astronauts and tries to kill Dave.

I suggest as an exercise: Look closely at Hal’s statements and questions and the way these lines are delivered. Try to disambiguate the adult-to-adult responsible worker as part of a team mode of speaking from the parent-to-child infantilizing, patronizing, intimidating and menacing statements and tone. I don’t think this can be done, and certainly not easily. Hal is a figure of monstrous bureaucratic authoritarianism masquerading as polite and competent cooperation and so at once friendly and menacing in a way that is rather peculiar to American culture, and that in the years since the banner one of 1968 when the film was made would become even more predominant. (Witness in this respect Reagan’s attack on Mondale in a debate in the 1984 election: “There you go again.” Why engage in principled argument when you can simple denounce your opponent in an ad hominem way? For if he can be attacked personally, psychologically and morally, then whatever he claims or says is surely wrong, and so you need not bother with it. The triumph of a therapeutic culture is a mask for an authoritarianism that refuses discussion on the grounds that, in an inversion of the feminist maxim, the political is the personal. Or rather, management or governance is personal and politics is ruled out of order from the outset.

My perhaps overhasty conclusion is that the psychological state is essentially if implicitly coercive, and there is no way of extricating yourself from its grasp while speaking its language. So don’t try. It will get you nowhere, and as you expose your hand you will only give the authorities you are speaking with a further opportunity to use your own thinking and tendencies to act and react against you. This is the liberal illusion. It rests upon ideas of peace and conflict that in turn rest upon something like Max Weber’s definition of the state as the set of institutions that exercise a monopoly on legitimate violence. In other words, the modern state is totalitarian; it brooks no opposition to its dominion. And so we can state this maxim: Never speak truth to power. But those of us on the left do have this advantage: We can understand their strategies as strategy better than they do. They may understand their modus operandi as implementations of management science, but they must normally disavow the real social antagonisms underlying and driving their practice, and so the strategic and tactical character of everything they do. Liberalism is the disavowal of social antagonism in its properly antagonistic and social character. Antagonism is called “violence” from the moment it is recognized, and the imagined potentiality for violence that lies within the management practices since they are ultimately based on social antagonism will then be attributed to the victim.

“Liberalism” and “radicalism” might be defined as styles of political thinking and practice that either insist upon the absolute interiority to social life of all antagonism, which would mean it must be thought of as non-antagonistic (liberalism), or the absolute exteriority of the political subject (individual or collectivity; it may be a constructed one like a party, faction, or oppositional “movement”) to the “state” (defined as the set of institutions and practices of governance and those persons who form part of it or are ideologically aligned with it). Today the latter position is officially denounced as “terrorist,” and that is why one million Americans are now on terrorist “watch lists”: the political as such was redefined as violence and so “terrorism”; witness the media’s use of the terms “radical,” “radicalize,” and “militant,” terms long associated with and used by leftist movements, socialist and otherwise, and now exclusively applied to reactionary Islamists who practice exemplary violence in the hope of giving to the media opportunities to frame these staged acts as implicit calls for action on the part of the terror-based police state. In fact, however, politics and the political (including art and thought when they are) always works on the border between interiority and exteriority in the above sense. This is one reason to consider terrorists as non-political. They are non-political and anti-social. Liberal totalitarianism is the institution of a sociality that is anti-political, because the recognition and expression of social antagonism are not tolerated. Liberalism must disavow it as not peaceful. Interestingly, this does not rule out police or hired security guards violently attacking and maiming or killing poor people or striking or protesting citizens or workers. But it certainly prevents these citizens and workers from being allowed any deliberate and willful response. The police state that is at permanent war against some part of its citizens (or some population on the margins of its territory, as in Palestine) styles itself as enforcement of peace. It is a Weberianism run amok.

In the film, Kier Dullea as Dave is a match for Hal, and he wins, though by the time he does he is alone on the ship (this would have been Hal’s fate had he succeeded in killing Dave along with the other crew members) and we never again see him encountering anyone else, though he encounters two versions of himself and becomes another, after traversing a space of bright lights moving fastly (I imagine an elevated tramway passing at high speed through an extended Times Square) and a bunch of, to my thinking, equally banal planetary landscapes (shot in what looks like primitive two-color film stock or processing). But I always thought physical cosmology to be a dull discipline, and when people say they have found God in some theory or mathematics of force, energy, matter, space, time, or some plurality of any of these things, I always wonder, why the hype? The film shows that technology is a power that discovers its own image, and what space travel offers humanity is not or not only some grand project but a newfangled and gizmo-laden Narcissus. The self at two later ages and then reborn: fantasies of the conquest of space and time. Our technology penetrates nature to find in it its own image of itself, as power and splendor. That baby in its extracorporeal uterine bubble floats around like a planet, but does this mean that something new is about to be born at the limits of time, space, and endurance? The infant is enclosed. And what happens is the film ends.

Kubrick said viewers could make of the film what they will. The film deliberately lacks coherence. Distinct images are presented in relationship but without explanation. I am tempted to think this must mean that the film does not answer its own questions, that they are worth pondering, and that that is a pretty good excuse for a very interesting film. In my reading, the film is a lot less celebratory in its evocation of what the Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement” in the rendering of the power and the glory of the conquest of outer nature than I think most viewers have taken it as. Many are the films that criticize aspects of the prevailing systems and modes of domination from the standpoint of someone who is or was in it and has become disenchanted. I place this film in that category, and not in that of visionary evocations of some brighter new world. Though certainly the music and much of the images suggest that as idea.

I prefer the ending of Solaris, which in a baroque gesture places the hero’s homecoming to the world of his childhood in an island on the extramundane planet. And what if it were the other way around? A more directly “social” and “political” film I saw recently, Scorsese’s “Shutter Island,” poses this question and makes of it a riddle, seemingly resolved at the end (by putting the different worlds and the things in them in their proper places, and showing us the direction of the baroque enfolding within the mirror): The question of ethics/morality vs. politics, when these can be opposed due to a manifest social antagonism: how is it to resolved and answered in a situation of chiasmus where it seems that either the moral problem is “inside” of the political one, or the political inside the moral?

Note on Pasolini and politics

I know Pasolini’s films though not his poetry, and I am reminded that I must read his writings on film in Heretical Empiricism. This essay clearly aims not to promote any new interpretation of Pasolini’s films or writings so much as to provide a kind of introductory overview. What I find most interesting is the identification of “the cinema of poetry” with a bourgeois sensibility, largely on account of its neuroticism. It seems to me that this represents an impasse. I think the answer lies in being resolutely Marxist in analyzing the society but without placing too much hope and faith in the subjectivity of social classes. Capitalism largely destroyed the peasantry, in a spectacular way in Italy after the war but also across Europe and continuing today in much of the world. The industrial proletariat that the peasantry became is now disappearing in its turn, and the ex-proletarians least of all will mourn this. And if a consumer society of plentiful goods and entertainments is neo-bourgeois, than that is our destiny.

What about today’s “precariat”? In the future, most people will be well-educated but there will not be enough work to keep most of us busy earning money to buy the goods. Pasolini’s first 3 films (Acattone, Mamma Roma, The Gospel according to St. Matthew) express a neorealist hope identified with the poor. Mamma Roma has made the same journey from village to city that the characters in Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers made. The later films Teorema, Pigsty, and Salo are less hopeful, more critical, even despairing (Teorema shows us what is left of Christian salvation, and how the various members of this haute bourgeois family try and fail to deal with the life-transforming event).

When Pasolini died, the left internationally had begun to fall into an impasse that, in theoretical terms, it is now still trying to climb out of. I am cautiously hopeful, but the triumph of consumerism and of the artificial over the natural is not itself something I wish to protest, undo, or mourn. (And I grew up with it and have known nothing else, though I know my father and grandparents who grew up on family farms left as soon as they could and never thought of going back, unlike what Ciro suggests to the youngest brother at the end of Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers). We need a working sense of the imminent critique of consumer capitalism; the future will either be a society where people are either satisfied with commodity opiates or are given therapeutic treatments for their disaffection, or else it will be one in which the communicative functions of language operate in an egalitarian, fraternal, and democratic context that makes use of the reason in everyday common practical sense, and the expressive uses of language and sensible forms will be so predominant that the old bugbears of the 19th and 20th century social critics of bourgeois society, alienation and ennui, will have ceased to haunt us the way they once did. Malaise is one but is expressed in many ways, and as long as things stay as they are today, most people will either live lives of quiet desperation or be forced to submit to “treatments” for their desperation in such a way that threatens to make our societies only less extreme versions of the fascism with its cult of health, normality, and race, nativism, or simply nation.

I think we need Marx more than ever, but we can refuse the simplistic formulas that make a particular social class the chosen people of the God of history. European culture has been essentially bourgeois for 1000 years; Italian neorealism did create something of a proletarian culture, but I do not feel comfortable dividing the history of culture, even recently and even in Italy after the war, that most politicized of countries, into an art of the proletariat as universal class and an art of the bourgeoisie.

Albeit that the early postwar films of De Sica in particular a sympathy for, and identification with, the failures of the poor (that constitute their social class position) that does not moralize them in the way that is routine in a bourgeois society, and perhaps no where more taken for granted than in that most thoroughly bourgeois of all societies, the United States. If I had to chose one film that demonstrates how political judgments are distinct from, and not a form of, moral ones, it would be de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves.

I agree with Pasolini that Antonioni is the greatest postwar Italian filmmaker, and he was a Communist but made films almost exclusively about bourgeois and upper class characters. The most you could say in criticizing him for this is that the rich are people whose problems are mostly personal. But in criticizing artists of the time for portraying bourgeois life as neurotic, there is an implication that the proletariat is somehow pure, at least psychically. Such notions do indeed lead only to Stalinist totalitarianism, and I think one of its causes is precisely the link between totalization and a notion of nothingness or void: for a certain kind of Marxism, the class that is the bearer of good or value must be empty, a blank slate, and the Party will then write its story on you. And if we instead tell stories of workers and poor people only, that is fine except for the “only.”

Capitalism and things related to it have deformed social and personal life, ethically and affectively, for many of us, maybe all of us, and it remains for the artist who is not only critical but visionary, as Antonioni was, to try to find fragments that can serve somehow, in some view of them, as images of some less alienated future. It is an irony perhaps that in the field of political philosophy and philosophical social theory, it was in Italy after Pasolini’s death in 1975, perhaps more than anywhere, that lines of thinking developed that may be of much help in this regard. That in many ways Heidegger is the more important precursor than Marx, for this project and for understanding Antonioni, Godard, and others, in no one negates the impression of continuity with neorealism, and with Italian Marxism from Gramsci to Negri. It is also worth remembering that “bourgeois culture,” to whatever extend it did and does have a class basis, is not the product of factory owners and financiers any more than of military heroes, but of artists, scientists, and thinkers.

Bresson’s semiotics of capitalist alienation in “l’Argent”

What is remarkable about Robert Bresson’s 1983 film “l’Argent” is not that it shows how an ordinary working-class family man is driven by despair to a brutal series of murders as a consequence of being taken advantage of by a spoiled rich kid who is part of ring of counterfeiting money.  It is the use of a highly formalist style of constructing a narrative film so as to reveal the alienated character of modern life through the almost complete mapping of social life by instrumental and mercantile exchanges and gestures.

Most of the film consists of short, often very short, takes.  Repeatedly the filmmaker shows us exchanges of money, doors opening and closing, telephone calls, ATM transactions, gestures filmed as brief glimpses of body parts, images of the legs of people walking, prisoners arriving at a jail in a police van and picking up their possessions, prison workers handling prisoners’ mail, courtroom judges announcing rules or passing sentence, etc.  The film presents an image of a society that is composed of impersonal acts, gestures, movements, and exchanges, which have taken the place of relationships with any depth or warmth.  Most often when people  speak, those they are speaking to ignore them or their response is not shown.  The older woman whose family Yvon stays with after he leaves prison performs gestures of kindness out of an apparently religious sense of duty.  But what is most remarkable is that Bresson makes his point with the use of a formalism of fragments of bodies and actions in short takes, a semiotic cubism, that cannot help identify the visual rhetoric that reveals the soullessness of modern life with a certain possibility of cinema.

Poland’s melancholy historiographer of the Communist period: In memoriam Andrzej Wajda

RIP Andrzej Wajda, whose death at 90 comes amidst a retrospective in New York of the works of another great Polish filmmaker, Kryszstof Kieslowski.  The latter is now the best known cineaste of his country to American audiences, but Wajda is the one essential figure everyone who knows his nation’s cinema well mentions. It should also be noted in this regard that Poland at least from 1956 to the end of the Communist era had the greatest national cinema in Europe at least after Italy and maybe France.  And that, while Polish filmmakers like those of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslav were mostly well engaged with the particular situation of their societies, there was no real Iron Curtain in cinema, but if anything, then as now, the division was between the two models of an artistic cinema of Europe and an American one of entertainment.  I was privileged to be all to see all of Wajda’s films to date but one of reputedly minor interest during the 2008 retrospective at Lincoln Center.  Few cinematic oeuvres have left me feeling more consistently and profoundly moved.

Wajda’s landmark early film “Ashes and Diamonds” is as central to the film culture of the 1950’s as Bergman’s “Summer with Monika,” Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy,” Fellini’s “Nights of Cabiria,” Truffaut’s “400 Blows,” or Godard’s “Breathless.”  All these films shared a postwar concern with what might be called “existential” questions, Wajda’s seeming to argue the futility of the nationalist politics (which had been Wajda’s own, that of the Polish Home Army resistance which he joined during the war) that is accorded a tragic pathos whose destiny is revealed in the famous final shot of Zbigniew Cybulski, the “Polish James Dean,” writhing and pouting like a child as he dies on a rubbish heap.  Wajda would go on to make the overtly political “Man of Iron” and “Man of Marble,” both of which (the latter is about Solidarity at the time of its success in obtaining recognition) criticize the official socialism from the standpoint of Polish workers.  (You want workers’ power, we’ll give you workers’ power!)  His 2007 film Katyn, about the Katyn Massacre and its official cover-up, combines a television drama focused on various fictional characters who are engaged in the affirmation by some and denial by the authorities of the event, and then concludes with the very brutal realism of staging the killings so that the question raised earlier in the name of various dissidents with the courage to negate the negation is now provided an unforgettable answer.  He also made incredible lyrical films like “The Maids of Wilko” and “The Wedding,” a gorgeous evocation of a peasant wedding celebrating the marriage of an intellectual and a peasant girl based on a play by Stanislaw Wyspianski.  Politically, all his films ended in defeat, except “Man of Marble” and his penultimate film on “Walesa,” an interesting set of mock interviews with the actor playing the politician, but surely a failure politically for the lack of irony or ambiguity when the director shows him appearing before Congress and so allowing the movement he had led to being in a way reduced to falling into a trap of Cold War politics, suggesting perhaps to American viewers at least that it was Reagan and not the Polish workers who, for what are clearly very different motives, ended the socialism of state bureaucracy.

Polish cinema is too great and diverse a subject for me to say much more about here, but Wajda will stand among the greatest, perhaps the greatest, filmmaker who took it upon himself to interrogate recent history.  Artists do not give history lessons (though Bertolucci, who comes to mind in this regard, tried), and even if Lenin was right that because of its mass audience film is the most important art, it cannot tell us what is to be done, but only give us something to think about.  In a time of growing official authoritarianism throughout the world, including the surveillance that can make the United States now seem like a lesser East Germany with the benefits of free markets and an haute bourgeoisie, the cinemas of Eastern Europe during the Communist period are ripe for re-evaluation in terms of their often subtle treatments of history and politics, and of ethical and moral questions that are not so easily separated from them.  And this is nowhere more true than of the cinema of Poland, and within it true of no one more centrally than Andrzej Wajda.

 

 

Note on the politics of Lars von Trier and “Antichrist”

Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” is a portrayal of American-style left-wing Nazism. To say this is not to make a moral judgment or suggest that the film makes one.  As always, the point is always to understand, and von Trier, a filmmaker who is as much on the left as any today, has as much sympathy for the Charlotte Gainsbourg character as for her husband (Willem Dafoe).  But the film describes a paradigm that is quite apt to politics today.

It happens that the angry person is a woman obsessed with a history of misogyny with which she identifies. But this could have been a Black man or a member of any other historically or actually “oppressed” group. That her husband is a psychotherapist who regards her problem as merely psychological (and in the end appears to be haunted, now that he is traumatized by his experience with her, by a fantasy of faceless women like her) only situates his view of her (though real enough in that she acts out her hatred of Men as such on him) as part of a larger complex within which, and with regard to which, it would be useless to ask Who is the responsible party or faction (the men who supposedly have oppressed women throughout time, or the angry ones who fight back blindly at them), nor would it help to say we are all guilty. It is a mirror-stage situation surely (in the Lacanian sense). The film shows the futility of both liberal psychologizing of this kind of anger (whatever injustice the Charlotte Gainsburg character may actually have experienced in life, including perhaps a quotidian and not even truly “violent” childhood trauma, for we are not told) by the person with professional authority on his side (this happens to be the husband, but anyone of any gender or other type can play this role) as well as the rage and hatred of the “oppressed” person who has an obsession with victimology that renders her at times depressed and at times enraged and willing to act it out. It is interesting that she “castrates” him by driving a post through his leg, which is reminiscent of Oedipus’s having his feet bound and swollen (the meaning of his name) in the famous play’s prehistory: she wants to make of him, if not herself, a little Oedipus.

Our society does not really know how to handle oppression and the anger it produces, particularly that of race, a point made in Raul Peck’s new film “I am not your negro,” on the views of American society of the late Black radical writer James Baldwin. There is on the one hand a therapeutic culture which legitimates the mental health system, both essentially requiring people to be calm, contented, and get along nicely with others (what has been called friendly fascism), so that it must punish anger. And yet, anger is the emotion of those who recognize themselves as victims of injustice (or who identify with those who are – and why not? we may ask; is that not better, as Arendt thought, than indifference?). That really is the meaning, phenomenologically speaking, of anger. Biological medical psychiatry can only call it a diseased state or symptom because it assumes that abnormal states are diseases that must be treated because they cannot really be allowed. But this begs the question, since lots of things are abnormal without necessarily being bad, and the judgment that they are bad and should be corrected cannot be made on biological grounds, as it is a matter of a social normativity that can only be decided by some form of political and governmental process.

At the same time, the opposite side of this coin, which is for the oppressed or those who think they are, that is, anyone who has been provoked to anger, and can make a credible claim that what they think is injustice is in fact (which again is a social and political judgment), to claim the right to be angry and act out (of) this anger. Even those of us who are proponents as I am of indulging this affect sometimes will admit that it is a tiger that is rough to ride. Of course, the Gainsbourg character has no politics. She is much like an angry Black man who wants to kill his White neighbors. He might move towards this idea gradually after collecting and immersing himself in literature on the history of the oppression of Black people. Here we get a Valerie Solanas-type figure.

And what are von Trier’s politics here? He is a provocateur who makes films about people who take interesting extremist positions, an anti-clerical and anti-patriarchal Christian (like Dreyer and sometimes Bergman; see, e.g., Breaking the Waves, and also Dancer in the Dark), who sides with losers and the oppressed, who, like Fassbinder, is fascinated by strategies they invent that are destructive, and so takes transgressive projects for granted while doubting the sense of the terms in which they are posed (Idiots). He tends to make film after film that in some way is a “theorem,” like Pasolini’s film of that name (Teorema), and indeed he owes something to Pasolini as well as Fassbinder. Thus, he is one of the great left-wing filmmakers of our time. He also has no solutions to offer and, like Fassbinder, he is interested particularly in individuals who try to oppose or escape their oppression and fail miserably. He does not show that anyone is oppressed, but takes that for granted. This is why “Antichrist,” like “Breaking the Waves,” “Melancholia,” and more recently “Nymphomaniac,” is a radical film.

That von Trier repeatedly makes films in which the central figure is a woman is doubtless because he holds a view similar to  Fassdinder’s that “women use their oppression as a weapon.”  But not, in his films, by wielding power and then pretending that they are victims even when they do so (though I think this happens too).  The hypocrisy of the powerful and their smug aggression, which almost invariably succeeds, is never interesting; the troubled desire for change of the powerless who intuitively understand that they must if they want to breath revolt always is.

That it is true enough as a matter of course that most will fail miserably is no excuse for substituting the work of thinking that binds art and politics in a time of crisis with the moral judgment that is normally wielded so as to condemn a priori all such rebellion, and that in theater and cinema would leave us with simply plotted dramas in which we know what is supposed to happen and are only waiting to see payment made.