Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 1, 1992
Radio - Sound
Edited by Niall Lucy

Reconsidering the film-politics relation

Noel King

I don't think an image or a chain of images can change something directly. (Godard 175)

The function of critical practices cannot be prescribed independently of the institutional conditions which regulate who, within and across such practices, is speaking to whom and in what circumstances. (Bennett 127)

In an article in Framework in the mid-'80s discussing the politics of avant-garde cinema in that decade, Paul Willemen suggested that an earlier period of self-reflexive film practice had been moved beyond:

In the interface within the avant-garde formed by Godard and Straub-Huillet, Godard's still crucial ability to remind us of the facts of signification must now begin to be seen as a necessary but nevertheless secondary aspect within a cinema that does not just ask the question of cinema historically but asks the questions of history cinematically.

A characteristic feature of this new form of cinema was said to be evident in its attempt 'to represent subjectivity as one and only one process within and overdetermined by the forces that shape social existence'. Overall, it was a cinematic practice which 'no longer solely appeals to an interest in the way "stories" are constructed: it seeks to address an audience's knowledge and experience of history. As such it is no longer a theory of discourse or of representation that is at stake, but a theory of history, of social change' (68).

I do not think Willemen was suggesting that a film practice concerned with a 'theory of history' and 'social change' suddenly should drop all questions of discourse and representation. Rather, his point could be glossed as saying that it was necessary to shift away from a conception of cinema which had as its central focus the question, "where do stories come from, why do we need stories, why this image with this sound?"; and towards a cinema more concerned with, say, the activation within the institution of cinema of techniques and practices which have a social currency much wider than that of "cinema in itself".

For example, in political-historical documentaries, anecdote could be considered as an institution capable of producing a specific kind of memory. The principal issue for the history-cinema relation - within the genre of political documentary - would then be to move away from the familiar insistence that "history" is always "story" or "narrative" and move instead towards an interrogation of an available way of talking (the anecdote) which is activated within a specific institution (the interview) to produce a particular effect (historical memory).

Before pursuing Willemen' s argument in more detail, it might be useful to recall some of the characteristics of that earlier self-reflexive political film practice and also to recall the dominant cinematic practice against which it counterposed itself. The terms for this recollection are provided in Ian Hunter's article "Realist Cinema and the Memory of Fascism", where an opposition is set up between a cinema of 'political experience' and a cinema of 'political address'.

Very broadly, a cinema of political experience can be expected to deploy realist characterisation and narrative structure and to conceive of politics as an element of the world waiting to be pictured or represented; that is as an aspect of a subject's experience. Examples of this form of cinema cut across the fiction-documentary divide to include The China Syndrome, Norma Rae, Union Maids, A Wife's Tale and Rosie the Rivetter. The cinema of political experience understands politics as "subject-matter" and makes its calculations in terms of how accurately and persuasively it pictures political events (All the President's Men) or adequates a subject's political experience (Silkwood). One consequence of such a cinematic practice is that the viewer is conceived as an experiencing subject at one remove, a subject awaiting politicisation by empathy.

In the case of many political descriptions (and by that term I mean both film practices and practices of film criticism) the goal is to produce "oppositional" or "resistive" subjects by way of a version of a totalising, exhortatory critical-artistic practice. Such a conception depends on the assumption of a secure relation existing between these critical-artistic practices and subject-formation. But as Tony Bennett has remarked:

Not all practices of textual commentary acquire their social effectivity by organising the reader as a subject who takes a meaning from the text with subsequent consequences for his or her consciousness and mode of relating to and acting within a generalised public arena. Others do so by producing the reader as an agent who performs a practice within specific institutional domains to become the bearer of specific certificated competences. Some fulfil these two functions simultaneously. (140)

Accordingly, Bennett wants attention paid to a more pluralised activity: namely to criticisms and their 'varied institutional domains and their varied publics, in which such practices are operative' (142). He proposes a variable conception of criticisms and their functions, espousing a view which recognises that '[film] and other cultural texts are differentially inscribed in the social in such a way as to be involved in a range of practical affairs rather than just one: the formation of subjectivities' (142).

To return to the notion of a cinema of "political experience", we find it contrasted to a cinema of "political address", which operates on the assumption that the domain of the political does not exist independently of a set of apparatuses, techniques and practices, amongst which one finds cinematic techniques. In this understanding of the film-politics relation, cinema is itself treated as a material mechanism capable of various insertions in political domains. The cinema of political address does not try to evoke the experience of these domains (thereby effecting a politicisation of the viewing subject by way of the category of "experience") but rather concentrates its attention on the relation between itself as an institution (a set of techniques and practices) and those it addresses. As Lesley Stern has neatly phrased it: 'if radical politics has to do with transformation then it involves changing and creating - not merely reaching audiences' (95) . Such a remark picks up - and moves on from - the observation that 'to make a film is to submit oneself to the rules and meanings generated by classic Hollywood cinema and by television documentary for it is these dominant cultural modes which have set standards of visual literacy and readability for us' (Johnston and Willemen 103).

One implication of this state of affairs is evident in the way Godard's film practice in the late 1960s and early 1970s frequently had as its main area of reference other texts, other uses of film techniques, other organisations of sounds and images rather than a pro-filmic "reality" (in the case of documentary) or "the plausibility of the fictional world" (in the case of fiction film). It was a cinematic practice which conducted its own interrogation of sound-image relations by way of a process of repetition (the "same" image appearing at different points in the film - as a gradual process of learning what to say and do with it is presented to the viewer - in Tout Va Bien and Vent d'Est), intertextuality and quotation.

So, for example, the close-up of Belmondo and Seberg kissing in Breathless doesn't so much refer to kisses in the "real world" or kisses between two psychologically individuated characters whose interaction might generate a fiction (as could be the case with a kiss in a classical-narrative film). Rather than straightforwardly signifying "emotion", it points to a particular convention (developed within the history of the studio system) for representing emotion. It signifies that this is how emotion habitually is signified, and in this way the sequence can be taken to constitute a playful unmasking of traditional modes of representation. This would then become a specific example of a film practice which, in Willemen's phrase, "reminds us of the facts of signification" and which, more generally, is aimed at opening a gap between cinematic techniques and conventions and the meanings which usually attach to those techniques. It is a film practice which stresses that there is no natural, self-evident unity between the two. It is a way of showing the rules rather than showing the meaning usually produced by the rules. The rule is displayed rather than being concealed behind its usual, familiar fictional effect and affect.

This strategy is evident here at the level of one shot from one film, but it also extends to the level of narrative across many of Godard's films. A different example would be the 'Joan of Arc sequence' from Vivre Sa Vie where the Anna Karina character, Nana, goes to the cinema and watches Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc. There follows a play between Karina's Nana and Falconetti's Joan until the sequence ends with a close-up of Nana's face, a tear streaming down it. This close-up repeats the Dreyer close-up of Falconetti's tear-lined face; that is, the sequence works by quoting from an earlier repertoire of film techniques (silent cinema) while also interrogating the relation of words to images. The shots from the silent Joan of Arc for a short time become the images of Vivre Sa Vie. Obeying the rule of classical-narrative cinema which says that every sight and sound should have an origin, the images are "justified" by Nana's presence in the cinema: she provides the point-of-view for the sequence. But insofar as this is the case, the sequence would be no different from, say, the start of Play It Again, Sam where Woody Allen is watching the end of Casablanca and miming the words. In the Vivre Sa Vie sequence, however, dialogue heard earlier in the film (from exchanges between Nana and other "characters") is transposed onto the images from The Passion of Joan of Arc. For a short time, a property not available to the era of silent cinema - sound - is given to it, just as a "lapsed" mode of composition and editing - from the period of silent film - is adopted by a film made in 1962. At the same time the sequence, in a small instance, indicates a distinctive feature of Godard's work; namely the commitment to an historical and materialist understanding of the development of film technology and film language. (This segment from Vivre Sa Vie is therefore similar to the more extensive analysis of "the history of the image" provided in Vent d'Est).

At the same time the Vivre Sa Vie sequence breaks with one of the distinguishing features of the classical-realist text, namely the constant effort to naturalise these rules by a process of excluding or negating any competing ways of organising a text. This is the result of what Colin MacCabe called the "meta-language", working as it does to provide the viewer with a point-of-view that is unproblematic, outside the realm of contradiction and struggle. Claire Johnston and Paul Willemen provide a convenient summary of MacCabe's argument:

In his essay on the classic-realist text ... Colin MacCabe described as one of the fundamentally reactionary practices of classic-realist cinema precisely the petrification of the spectator in a position of pseudo-dominance offered by the metalanguage - a higher degree of abstraction which speaks the truth of the other discourses in the film text. This meta-language, resolving as it does all contradiction, places the spectator outside the realm of struggle, ultimately outside the realm of meaningful action altogether. The meta-language offers to the spectator a point of view which is both self-evident and unproblematic and is presented as a sufficient basis for struggle. The dominance of the meta-language not only characterises most classic realist film texts made within the system but most of those made outside it. (103)

Here one needs to insist that these rules are "in" the viewing subject as much as they are inside a formal textual system. To occupy the position of viewer means that one has been trained, informally and publicly, in the techniques required to decipher narrative, character and mise-en-scene. The point at which a film achieves intelligibility or readability is the point at which those techniques and discourses which simultaneously make possible the text and its reader lock into place.

Traditionally, part of the project of oppositional cinema has been to refuse to allow the various levels at work in a text to be resolved at a final level of realism-narrative-catharsis. Recall the opening and closing of Tout Va Bien or ponder the effect of One Plus One on a Rolling Stones fan (denied the pleasure of the final mix/rendition of "Sympathy for the Devil"). This form of "oppositional cinema" initiates a didactic commentary on itself, refusing to present itself to its viewer as "intact", "complete", waiting" to be talked about in terms of story and character. Rather, it already has initiated a process of analytical talk. Godard's British Sounds and Helen Grace's Serious Undertakings, in quite different ways, investigate the means by which particular meanings usually are produced: the "subject-matter" thus becomes the processes by which certain kinds of meaning-effects are made possible. Each film refers its viewer to precisely those mechanisms and discursive systems which enable the reading of texts.

To take a different example to illustrate what is at stake in these first two conceptions of political cinema ("experience" vs "address"), one could point to the way Rosie the Rivetter is organised by a master dichotomy which opposes the "falsity" of an official, archival history to the "truth" of a history grounded in the testimony of the witness-narrators. Rosie is a film which presents "contradiction" solely at this level of opposing a false history (propaganda) to a true history (the women's memories). Indeed, Rosie cannot afford to introduce contradiction into that second half of the equation (the remembrances of the riveters) precisely because it functions to expose the ideological dimension of the other half of the equation (the archival footage and commentary). To produce a more hesitant, equivocal, equivocating account would be to surrender the force of the polemic and would oblige the film to recast its aesthetic strategies.

The issue I am raising here can be focussed more sharply by considering the following remark from Bill Nichols:

There is a difference between criticising films because they fail to demonstrate the theoretical sophistication of certain analytical methodologies and criticising them because their textual organisation is inadequate to the phenomena they describe. (30 n. 12)

This formulation overlooks the fact that it is precisely the activation or deployment of particular discursive techniques which results in 'the phenomena they describe'. In an important sense the opposition to which Nichols alludes ('textual organisation' vs 'phenomena') cannot be sustained. An elaboration of my earlier example concerning the way "memory" works in Union Maids and Rosie the Rivetter should clarify my point here. In both those documentaries "memory" functions as a bedrock, an unmediated source of insight into historical events. Alternatively, and not altogether perversely, one could regard "historical memory" as the effect or achievement of the anecdote as an institution or discursive mode. If "historical memory" is reconceived in this way, then a different conception of the documentary film/social history relation could follow. An alternative account would see memory not as returning us to a point in history at which we discover what it was really like, but rather as taking us no farther or deeper than the discursive mode in which historical anecdotes are able to appear and be told. "Memory" need not be treated as foundational, an explanatory bedrock. Indeed if memory is foundational, a base of irreducible difference, at once individual and individuating (we all have our memories) then how does one account for the fact that in Union Maids all these different memories take the same form? Similarly, in some television chat shows, regardless of which celebrity appears (politician, film star, sports person), the mode of talking is invariant. The interview moves remorselessly towards the stage where the interviewee is asked at what point he or she first exhibited the signs of the "unique" talent which one day would bring them to, say, the Parkinson or Donohue shows. The irony here is that there is an utterly uniform, univocal way of declaring one's uniqueness.

Introducing this perspective, which might be called "neo-rhetorical", allows one to avoid the implication (contained in the Nichols quotation) that an historical event is separable from its more-or-less adequate "textual" or "theoretical" representation. For the "historical events" of Rosie the Rivetter are unrepresentable outside the activation of certain cinematic and non-cinematic techniques (eg. the articulation of anecdotal reminiscence and continuity editing).

To return to one of Paul Willemen's opening remarks, concerning the extent to which an avant-garde for the eighties reconceptualised subjectivity as "one and only one process within and overdetermined by the forces that shape social existence", we would now have to add that the effect of subjectivity is formed equally on the "surface" of a set of compositional techniques (the rules for producing an interview) and reading protocols and competences (the capacity to recognise the "interior" of a witness/narrator). Accordingly, a contemporary political film practice might begin its investigations at the point of this double-determination of subjectivity rather than continuing to assume subjectivity (political or other kinds) as a given.

Works Cited

Bennett, Tony. "The Prison-House of Criticism." New Formations 2 (1987): 127-44.

Godard, Jean-Luc and Pauline Kael. "The Economics of Film Criticism: A

Debate." Camera Obscura 8-9-10 (1982):163-84.

Hunter, Ian. "Realist Cinema and the Memory of Fascism." Australian Journal of

Communication 5-6 (1984): 52-56.

Johnston, Claire and Paul Willemen. "Brecht in Britain - The Independent

Political Film." Screen 16 (1975-76):101-18.

Nichols, Bill. "The Voice of Documentary." Film Quarterly 36 (1983):17-30.

Stern, Lesley. "Feminism - Cinema - Exchanges." Screen 20 (1979-80): 89-106.

Willemen, Paul. "An Avant-Garde for the 80's." Framework 24 (1984): 53-73.


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