Friday, July 04, 2008

What Is Cinema (For)?

To what all can we equate the cinema? For starters: lost causes, mirror images, failures, dream-food, a drug, a certain form of reality, lèse majesté, toadying, bullying, pleading, pornography, a captured sequence of sounds/images that may give a reasonably identical experience to the viewer over multiple viewings, a substitute for action, a displacement of life, a patriarchal funhouse, today's Grand Guignol, faith, celluloid, maybe pixels, beginnings and ends, a two-lane blacktop.

(The more I disregard “dominant” cinema and try to distance myself from it, the more refreshed I think I am in looking at it, finding more clearly its parameters, its strengths and weaknesses. For those movie-mad folks who watch only television shows and feature-length narratives [brought to you by DVD]: don't you ever get bored? Staring at the image of my former self, my adolescent self, that I hold in my own head, I am furious. How, why, did I have no sense of foundations, of supplementation? I was a very smart child and am spending my twenties trying desperately to reclaim some of that freedom and some of that focus, against the obstacles of deeply worn-in damage caused by my teenage years. This is why pedagogy matters to me: I am convinced I, and others, have been robbed of a proper education—I'm hardly using this as a synonym for schooling—and must grab it back by force, inches at a time, before it's too late. Too late for what? What makes it too late? I don't know and yet feel compelled, propelled all the same.)

The suspicion is that the best way to answer the question, What Is Cinema?, is to ask, What Is Cinema For? Which means: for whom is the cinema (and the true answer is complex but this doesn't mean diffuse beyond interpretation); how the cinema got to be; why; how it has developed—all of which is inseparable from the prior question of for whom.

The fundamental issues of cinema & politics are neither content nor form but, underlying it all, ownership and use. They set the terms of debate for form/content; they inform them. Of course I do not mean to say that they replace or displace form/content (though frequently we may find the prior manifest in the latter). Obviously, form/content matter. The playing field has not always been correctly identified, however.

In late 1940s Italy, as in 1960s Brazil, people were hungry, and the powers weren't always able or willing to help, and the films said something meaningful about this hunger, spurred by this hunger. Out of desperation they could reach beauty and intensity and significance. The poverty of means of production eclipsed the merely cosmetic to arrive at genuine aesthetics. (This is why a routine Hollywood production will look "better," "more professional," than Killer of Sheep but Burnett's film is more powerful, more aesthetically gripping and richer, than all but a tiny, tiny handful of Hollywood's finest masterpieces. It's not merely "superior content" or "intelligence"—it is also a clear difference muddied by a common confusion about the references available to us from our word, aesthetics.) Spurred by the recognition of hunger, people like De Sica and Zavattini and Rossellini and Rocha made films—some good, some bad, some masterful. They weren't always produced with pure anti-imperialist money, either. (For shame to expect such angelic origins always!) Still we see the popular, the resonant, quickly co-opted, transformed. To see the "vulgar" pink neorealist film of the 1950s, or the hip-exoticist poverty film of Brazil (like City of God) we must not think them only as products of a perverse, empowered sociopolitical motion, though that they are. We must understand that they are origami, sculpted garbage heaps, reactions as much as appropriations. This is as true of them as it was of the films which they twist and distort and perhaps even mock (perhaps even from the vantage point of the capitalists themselves).

6 comments:

Ana said...

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craig keller. said...

"In late 1940s Italy, as in 1960s Brazil, people were hungry, and the powers weren't always able or willing to help, and the films said something meaningful about this hunger, spurred by this hunger. Out of desperation they could reach beauty and intensity and significance. The poverty of means of production eclipsed the merely cosmetic to arrive at genuine aesthetics. (This is why a routine Hollywood production will look "better," "more professional," than Killer of Sheep but Burnett's film is more powerful, more aesthetically gripping and richer, than all but a tiny, tiny handful of Hollywood's finest masterpieces. It's not merely "superior content" or "intelligence"—it is also a clear difference muddied by a common confusion about the references available to us from our word, aesthetics.) Spurred by the recognition of hunger, people like De Sica and Zavattini and Rossellini and Rocha made films—some good, some bad, some masterful."

This is exactly correct, and it's a notion I've been obsessed with for years. Confining the discussion to America, there was a time in this country when poor wasn't just poor, it was also complete disconnection from the means to any ends whatsoever. It was the poor of Walker Evans, of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha, of the Depression-era photographs (and earlier) of my own Pennsylvania family. That is, not merely cellphone/TV/Internet-owning/accessible poor — if not at all exactly an 'upwardly mobile' poor, an outwardly mobile poor — and I wonder whether this, in tandem with the fact that our generation has never been outright forced to fight in a war, or experience cultural disaster, has contributed to a cinema, and art, disassociated from experience, from the same hard-nosed confrontations of a Wanda or a Shadows or an Anticipation of the Night or a Titicut Follies or a Citizen Kane or, let's go back even further than Killer of Sheep, a Several Friends.

Even posing to myself a completely rhetorical question, based on a near rhetorical premise — "Back when men were men" or better "When people were people, and it wasn't enough merely to live they had to seize living" — and that question is "How to reclaim this?" — I don't have an answer, but I've got some ideas. It's drawing them to their conclusions which is necessary. And this is what we have to rediscover, in our cinema, its aesthetics, its images — how and what we're presenting, and how to make the images think, again. Not with a "thought-cloud," but with, and inside, the cloud of thought.

Recently I saw Allen Baron's Blast of Silence...

jmac said...

Hey! Your comments on your former self and your attitudes toward the dominant cinema, kind of made me smile . . . :) Maybe we arrive at certain insights not through intellect alone ...?

By the way, Marcel Proust has written that when we look back on who we were in the past with an unrecognizing anxiety, it means that we have truly lived!!!

jmac said...

P.S. I recognize this still, but I am unsure of the exact source. Is this still from a PS1 exhibit? So many incredible things to see right now at this museum. Especially, the underground rainbow . . .

Zach Campbell said...

Jen, the still is from Godard's Passion. In the film (don't know if you've seen it) there are some tableau recreations of paintings, including this one.

Craig, it's a crucial question. I feel like the last that Hollywood cinema made any kind of real pass at the poor was in the 1980s--and that was really more working-class/single-parent stuff. (Teen movies are full of it: The Karate Kid and Pretty in Pink have their limitations, obviously!, but they're more forthright about class issues than most new commercial films I seem to catch.) But now it's like the popular films about people who don't have much money are more bohemian (or bobo-aspirant) than necessarily proletarian or lumpen. This is something I want to think about more, though. Where are the films about real poverty (and I'm not saying this rhetorically, I want to try to put together an informal list of the films and from where/whom they're coming)? More on this later ...

MovieMan0283 said...

Zach & Craig,

This reminded me of a quote from Cahiers du cinema in '68 or '69. It was basically a delineation of the different forms a film can take; essentially a Marxist/structuralist reading but with a hole left open for their former auterist romanticism to peek through. One of the forms they classified as most interesting was movies made more or less unconsciously within a system, but in which some force (usually the director, though theoretically it could be something else) brought something idiosyncratic to the proceedings, creating a gap between the strictures of the system and something "other." Hmmm. I'm doing a piss-poor rephrasing of this (wish I could find the article online, but I can't even remember the title) but hopefully you get the idea. It informed their reading of Young Mr. Lincoln, among other things.

[Even posing to myself a completely rhetorical question, based on a near rhetorical premise — "Back when men were men" or better "When people were people, and it wasn't enough merely to live they had to seize living" — and that question is "How to reclaim this?" — I don't have an answer, but I've got some ideas.]

War, suffering, disease, oppression - all of these will lead to greater understanding and vivacity (at least for some) but would anyone willing volunteer themselves for this? One problem with present society is its immobility and segregation -- in some ways there is actually less movement between groups than formerly, or at least individuals are more readily changing their identities upon leaving one group and entering another. Group characteristics including class, education, politics, geography, or simply a specific outlook on life. Films are made by, and discussed by, people who are increasingly similar, hence bringing less to the table and weakening the exchange of ideas and outlooks (and this goes beyond skin-deep signifiers like color and gender).

Oh, yes, we live in the "information age" but this just sends us down our individual tunnels further and further apart from one another. Given that there's less of a coherent ideology which people are raised in (and can either reject or embrace), this is becoming more true. Best thing to do, if one really wants more exposure to life and hence "self-realization", is maintain contact with all of the elements (people, places, ideas) that one can.

I'll close with one of my favorite quotes, by Jean-Pierre Gorin, which provides some food for thought:

"And, as an added bonus, for those who want to understand the sixties beyond the banalities that are ritually uttered about them, every scene of Fists in the Pocket, with the convulsive beauty of its framing and composition, amply proves how much this period was made by people so steeped in classical culture that they fantasized it could be solid beyond its fragility, shaking it to the core and ultimately ushering in a world they could themselves hardly live in."

http://criterion.com/asp/gorinten.asp