Monday, December 18, 2006

A Few Words

A paradox:

"In his last works, Rossellini loses interest in art, which he reproaches for being infantile and sorrowful, for revelling in a loss of world: he wants to replace it with a morality which would restore a belief capable of perpetuating life. Rossellini undoubtedbly still retains the ideal of knowledge, he will never abandon this Socratic ideal, but he does need to establish it in a belief in simple faith in man and the world. What made Joan of Arc at the Stake a misunderstood work? The fact that Joan of Arc needs to be in the sky to bleieve in the tatters of this world. It is from the height of eternity that she can believe in this world. There is a return of Christian belief in Rossellini, which is the highest paradox. Belief, even in the case of holy characters, Mary, Joseph and the Child, is quite prepared to go over to the side of the atheist."

--Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (trans. Tomlinson/Galeta, p. 172)

I don't know how much I agree with the above passage, in part because I'm never totally sure I understand what Deleuze is talking about, and also (here) because I haven't made up my mind really about "late Rossellini," other than that it's likely one of the peak achievements in cinema. But I wanted to mention it here because I have been thinking about it and want to suggest that Rossellini be discussed in terms of his rhetorical strategies as a filmmaker of which an engagement with realism is one part, rather than being a "realist" who went astray, or who became a "minimalist." Meaning--Rossellini's films are expressions at certain points in his life of a drive to "believe in the world," which could maybe try to build some kind of important direct line between image and referent, but might also be a case of deliberate and remarkable "artifice" (his Joan of Arc film with Bergman), or his late work as an offering of morality--or as I'd put it if asked to do so without thinking for a while about it, an exercise in logos, rationalism, and a very subtle historicism. I'll try to unpack that last part at a later date, see what I really think that proposition means and if I really think it holds water.


"Let us now imagine a spectator unable to follow a film's story line, someone who could only follow the involuntary forms that have managed to creep into the film, that is, its mistakes. This spectator, a kind of experimental delinquent, follows a film composed of obsessional details. Let me serve as my own example. For years I watched so-called Greco-Latin films (toga flicks, with early Christians devoured by lions, emperors in love, and so on). My only interest in those films was to catchs ight of planes and helicopters in the background, to discover the eternal DC6 crossing the sky during Ben Hur's final race, Cleopatra's naval battle, or the Quo Vadis banquets. That was my particular fetish, my only interest. For me all those films, the innumerable tales of Greco-Latinity, all partook of the single story of a DC6 flying discreetly from one film to the next."

--Raul Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema vol. 1 (trans. Holmes, p. 60)

Once before I touched upon the idea of generic complexity as a spectrum whereby a certain amount of richness might warrant destructive readings, alterations, and behaviors as in the case of Situationist détournement. I'm not intellectually convinced that this reflex of mine is a good idea, but certainly I'm emotionally attached to it. I don't want my Genuine Genre Art attacked and degraded! But this is precisely because my "taste" or my "knowledge" aren't very good shields against certain abrasive artistic effects--effects which may even have worthy social and political ends, mind you. (Relevant anecdote at the end of this post of Andy Rector's.) What's hard for some of us--it certainly is for me sometimes--is to trust in the durability of art ... as though we're afraid our masterpieces can't stand up to criticism outside the parameters we've learned to hold them to (formalist, dramatic, political). Frame a question a certain way, and I will debate vehemently in favor of art's autonomy and the necessity of its freedom. For instance this was the case with my Sátántangó posts almost a year ago, where I questioned the drive to have everything immediately available as exchangeable commodities: the implicit assumption that widespread DVD availability is an unconditional good thing. My fundamental problem was with the mentality which, to me, celebrated the smooth space of the digital marketplace as a way of masking imbalances, gaps, and inequalities present in the 'pre- or ur-digital' cinema, its own broader (but latent) inavailabilities, and the cultural incomprehension that might accompany this vending machine of film history + cultural capital. But any opinions expressed in this line are, insofar as they make up my personal theory (ahhhh, semipsuedotheory) of art and its relation to the world, exist in dialogue with my impulses which (I hope) empower viewer agency.

Perverse readings of films, "anti-viewing," deliberate forays into trivia and marginalia ... these are healthy activities. If (film) intellectuals, in the Gramscian sense, have valuable roles to play in film and media culture today--and who knows, maybe they really don't--it is in pointing people to the ways in which people may better know the differences and uses of viewing/engaging/participating/consuming with or against the grain of a work in question. I feel as though people are culturally encouraged to have opinions about artworks without facets to them--"rate it," 1-to-10, as though your own subjective interaction can be viewed as a monolith, as though one can't filter a work through different grids or dimensions, to understand individual shortcomings or the shortcomings of an originary system, or to recognize real achievements within such limitations--'lines of flight' outward, to suggest it in Deleuzian terms. (I'm not blindly embracing pomo contradiction here--there are despicable films I would not recommend anyone to find a way to defend, and which I would actively campaign against in conversation with people ... for instance, by my judgment, We Were Soldiers, or, less offensively if no less ineptly, the recent King Kong. [The original had a lot of awful baggage too, of course.] But I love Zoolander, e.g., even while I recognize that it's part of a system & industry I oppose and all its parody does nothing to subvert this fact.) In other words, it's not my opinion that really has to prove correct, but rather my knowledge of how my opinions work--on a personal and psychological level, and in a social and material sphere.

Hence, reading against the grain in ways that Ruiz suggests, or in completely different ways, is a good strategy, a good set of options (not instructions). It's a whole potential world of operations--perhaps one day we'll be very good at it, audiences can learn to appropriate all manner of things according to their own terms (and, importantly, also be very conscious of the fact that they're doing this). This is one of the reasons why the notion of avant-garde traditions is important to me--for its social functions. (The Surrealists, like the Situationists, were all about new ways to engage with artworks.) I don't believe, like Marcuse, that great art always holds a liberatory potential in it. I think that we can call great art that which is durable to the treatment those human beings who have had cause to encounter it.

What I'd like to say is that these two quotes, the Deleuze and the Ruiz, serve to me as good reminders to be willing to believe in a film, any film, without ever feeling obligated to grant it the final word.

If/when I teach cinema to students one day, particularly if it's film theory, I would love to bring in one of Deleuze's Cinema books and a volume of Ruiz's Poetics of Cinema to the classroom and try to read and incorporate random readings from both books into each other and the day's topic.

It may be early 2007 before I come back with another substantial post (or maybe I can get one more out before then). On the agenda for the near future--I will return to the topic of the Baroque, as well as Modigliani, Soviet art and cinema of the 1920s, hopefully some words on comic books, more on Ruiz and Rossellini (not necessarily together), returning to Godard, deeeep breath, and a few other things.

No comments: