Monday, September 24, 2007

Ethics of Cinematic Dissemination

A bit dense and labyrinthine and wound up into a ball of yarn in my head; please forgive because I'm going to try to unpack later ...


Let's not think of this in terms of market freedom alone, i.e., the ability for corporations to disseminate practically whatever they want for profit, on terms that suit them. Look at cinema under an authoritarian regime: invisibility, inscrutability, in fact even esotericism, might be good things in terms of evading authority and censorship (meaning authority does not recognize the weapon that passes beneath its gaze). The benefits of so-called universalism, of a mostly, easily culturally-translated mass-produced (but, remember, never actually "popular") vernacular (like the Hollywood/HK action film-product), include a big forum for discussion which can be a good. The solution is not a homogenization of these two polarities ("neither totally mainstream nor obscure = ideal"), but the strategic dialogue between elements of both and all that exist in the regions between each theoretical extremity. It's common sense, but almost never practiced ...

I think this impulse is part of what has connected some makers of avant-garde cinema, as well as theorists and scholars (e.g. Burch), to early cinema, pre-Institutional Mode of Representation. A utopian desire, and maybe a naive one in some ways? Perhaps. (I'm not the historical expert to have a noteworthy opinion on the matter.) Under classical narrative cinematic conventions, things like editing, plot structure, camera movement, etc. are often made to feel invisible, or at least seamless--we are trained as viewers to experience these as seamless under the IMR and its close relatives (low-budget or 'authorial' exceptions acknowledged). There's the highly untrue truism, 'good direction is direction that you can't see.' Whereas in a work of early cinema, as in much avant-garde cinema (or 1920s Soviet montage cinema), the artwork has a non-formulaic or alternatively formulaic make-up. A cut awakens us, keeps us on our toes, because it hasn't fallen into a pattern we've been trained to receive. That reception-training is bound inextricably with the education of the senses that modernity's technological culture instilled upon its inhabitants ... thus, to experience a work (or even simply an instance in it) against the grain of a dominant set of pedagogical-aesthetic patterns is to make one infinitesimal movement against that very culture. (Perhaps only one small movement, though: let's not oversell the "revolutionary" potential of the underground film.)


So the ethical dimension of a shot, a cut, a pan or zoom, whatever, exists because


(a) it bears a relationship to viewers (individual, class), and

(b) because it exists in a system with certain aesthetic patterns finessed and employed in the interests of a (ruling) class for those (mass) viewers' consumption.


Understand, of course, that this is no argument about the greatness of mainstream works: the Hollywood style, or mainstream formal-invisibility, a number of dominant narrative and spectacle-presentational patterns all work because they are on some level effective. We needn't "reject" Trouble in Paradise or Notorious because they operate under the auspices and political program of 'the Hollywood style' (more a stable of stylistic potentialities, really). The question is simply being realistic about how we understand the role of form in sociopolitical discussions of cinema/media.


Special knowledge: the ecology of what we might call anti-mainstream, or anti-IMR practices (production & reception) in cinema and media--which could include digital piracy and sampling as well as it could include anti-bourgeois (!) seizure-producing flicker effects--need not fit the model of avant-gardism. I think this has been a mistake, that some of the literature which deals with alternative practices foregrounds vanguardist purity when it should be foregrounding 'alternativity' (not necessarily marginality)--and aesthetic and thematic self-sufficiency from the mainstream. This posture of exceptionalism has already been co-opted, if it hadn't been from the very beginning. (Look at IFC's smarmy commercials about how it's good because it's, so, like, not cheesy Hollywood crap.)

10 comments:

Alex said...

Ah, excellent. You're heading towards Leo Strauss' hermeneutics. As I'm exploring though my own analysis of the possibility of an aristocratic cinema, the modern avant-garde is but one potential understanding or interpretation of the system / reality / modernity (whatever you wish to call it). I would argue a more profound and more radical way to examine "the system" is through classical philosophy.

David Lowery said...

This post called to mind the last cut of The Sopranos...

Joel said...

Zach,

Random question, but I thought you might know:

On ubuweb/film, under Man Ray's films, do you know who composed the first piece heard during "Les Mystères du château de Dé?" I can't seem to find this anywhere; I can only imagine that Man Ray had no hand in the music added to the online version, but possibly...? Regardless, it's beautiful and I'd like to know...that is, if you have any idea.

Joel said...

That last post came out wrong - obviously Man Ray had no hand in the music added to the ONLINE version - what I meant to say is that I imagine Man Ray had no hand in music added to any versions of the film.

Zach Campbell said...

Alex, I've only read a little Strauss; he seems to me a fairly valuable thinker in a lot of ways (opposed though I am to a lot of his normative or ethical conclusions). But if interpretation is variegated, fragmented among an audience--if signification isn't fixed--then it behooves any of us to look at the ways in which those fissures and potentialities might be anticipated/exploited politically, no?

David, at the end of the post I just ran out of steam, and when I went to revise it, realized I had nothing more. (Maybe David Chase felt the same?) I figured I'd come back to the topics anyway.

Joel, I have no idea. At first I thought if it was a major composer it'd be Satie or Debussy, but before long I thought that'd be a foolish wager--somebody newer, somebody evoking those guys. But I'm the wrong person to ask, my ears and my knowledge are quite subpar. I'll try to look into it, though. Paper & digital research, I'm a little better at.

David Lowery said...

Ha! I actually meant that the contents of the post called to mind that particular cut, and the mainstream reactions to it (a dynamic in which is implicit an affront to mainstream sensibilities waged from within a pop-cultural landmark). But your reading of my comment suggests a terrific smartass meta-criticism!

Zach Campbell said...

That's funny--I guess I was self-conscious about the way I abruptly ended the post, I totally thought you were (good-naturedly) pokin' me.

I'm going to mull that cut for a little bit though ...

jmac said...

Z, when you have a free moment, could you review my post, Cinema Today . . .? I think that you can provide input and/or a different perspective that I am not able to right now . . . Thanks!

Alex said...

"Alex, I've only read a little Strauss; he seems to me a fairly valuable thinker in a lot of ways (opposed though I am to a lot of his normative or ethical conclusions). But if interpretation is variegated, fragmented among an audience--if signification isn't fixed--then it behooves any of us to look at the ways in which those fissures and potentialities might be anticipated/exploited politically, no?"

Well, that's what Strauss argues esoteric writing allows one to do - in effect, esoteric writing exploits those splits in order to address different groups at different levels. Furthermore, especially for the careful reader, the act of intrepreting esoteric writing trains that careful reader to become accustomed to thinking deeply (or philosophically).

For example, Machiavelli's The Prince is, to princes (typically neither careful readers nor philosophic men), a guidebook on how to rule tyranically - but tyrannical rulers will probably not even bother to read the book of a disgraced political outcast and university professor. To persons who support democracy (and thus open to Machiavelli's teaching, a proven and creative politician within a noted republic)and read well but not perhaps at the highest level, The Prince gives them tools so they can overthrow monarchic regimes and so the people can then rule.

To philosophers and very careful readers, The Prince is about the nature of the state and society.

Zach Campbell said...

Well, that's what Strauss argues esoteric writing allows one to do

Yes, yes--I'm sorry, I think the "but" that begins my second sentence you quoted gives the wrong impression. I should have written "and."