Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Tribalism of Cinephilia

"The international emergence of Aleksandr Sokurov was perhaps inevitable, but no less welcome for all that. He is but one of a whole international generation--a word not taken in the biological or chronological sense--of great auteurs, who seem to renew the claims of high modernism in a period in which that aesthetic and its institutional preconditions seem extinct. Any festival program supplies a short list: Bela Tarr, Abbas Kiarostami, Victor Erice, Tsai Ming-liang, Raoul Ruiz, Theo Angelopoulos, Alexei Gherman, Alexander Kluge, Manoel de Oliveira, even Peter Greenaway. These figures certainly have some of the aura of Bergman or Fellini, Antonioni or Bresson, although they did not have to break the ground broken by those predecessors (and thus might better be termed late modernists rather than modernists tout court); they are also a good deal more unreadable (or "writerly") and difficult, boring and demanding than those more popular modernist figures and are in that sense comparable to the more extreme and enigmatic literary modernists (Stein, Pound, the Joyce of Finnegans Wake, Raymond Roussel, the Mallarmé of Le Livre, Duchamp, and so on) rather than the stereotypically accessible ones (Mann, Proust, the Joyce of Ulysses, Kafka). A case could certainly be made for the nonsynchrony of the dialectic of film modernism with respect to literary or fine arts modernisms; and in that case Sokurov and the new auteurs would be the nonsynchronous equivalents of an immediate post-World War II literature. But these new figures do share one modification of the modern with their new-wave forebears: the desacralization of the cinematographic art, the waning from this very insistently art cinema of the religion of art that had reassured its earlier modernist practicioners. Yet, as we shall see, this confidence in (or additiction to) cinematographic production as an activity in its own right that needs no external or transcendental justification is not enough to rescue the works themselves from a typical modernist autoreferentiality; indeed, it explains the latter and justifies this cinema's structural need to justify its own existence."

-- Fredric Jameson, the opening paragraph of "History and Elegy in Sokurov" (Critical Inquiry 33, Autumn 2006)

People have long noted how cinema & cinephilia employ certain truisms in an effort to fortify itself or bolster its sense of exceptionalism (a youngest-child syndrome?). "Cinematic" is a compliment in some circles when people would balk at describing a novel as "novelistic." Wasn't it Nicole Brenez who, in her letter in the first round of Movie Mutations correspondence, said she's never seen a film that's made her turn away from the cinema? Well--what of it? Are we to understand that, deep down, to turn away from one's livelihood is a very real possibility? (That is, is there just a tiny seed of defensiveness in Brenez's comment?) Can anyone think of an instance in which, say, an art historian said that she'd never seen a painting that made her want to stop looking at paintings? What makes people say these kinds of things about films?

That's one of the refreshing things about Fredric Jameson's magisterial, sometimes byzantine dabblings in high-level film criticism and the like; there's no sense that he ever needs to justify his interest in films on personal terms. Consequently one can't imagine him giving into some of the weaker impulses that maybe don't do justice to us awestruck hardcore cinephiles: the impulse to centralize the cinema. This impulse is "fine" from the point of view of a hobbyist-consumer; but it makes cultural criticism through the consideration of cinema very difficult. (This is why so many of my film critical heroes seem to be pointing with one hand ever deeper into the films, trends, authors they examine, but using their other hand to point always outward: this includes militant Brenez, gonzo-humanist Möller, Adrian Martin--well, readers here know the list already.)

Speaking of Martin (from one of his letters to James Naremore, published in Movie Mutations):

"In the mid 80s, the celebrated Australian cultural historian and critic Sylvia Lawson wrote a searching piece called 'Pireces of a Cultural Geography.' [Note to self: Track this piece down, already. --ZC] It offers an account of a month or so in which Sylvia attended a number of different public forums that piqued her interest--one was a film conference, another was an art world seminar, and the last a political forum. Sylvia records her impression that, while some of the faces in the crowd--and even some of the speakers on the panels--recur, there is a strong sense of non-overlap between these pieces of cultural terrain: they simply don't communicate with each other. Each one becomes a kind of box, with its own history, its own language, its own concerns. They each become tribal centres, massively self-generating and self-sustaining--like all institutions, I guess. And even when individuals with wide interests and open, synthesising minds like Sylvia travel from one to the next, they experience a kind of alienation, as if they have to reorient, reconfigure, even reinvent themselves upon entering each new space."

Now part of all this is my own personal desire for mastery (and world domination). I envy a certain fluency of "cultural spheres" that some people are able to practice. But I also fear there's a greater and greater niche-formation happening, culturally, largely predicating one one's "interests" (which means, to an extent at least, what you buy) and that the mastery of multiple niches is going to mean less and less a cultural roundedness and fluidity, a balance of energies, and more and more a status as good "smart" consumer, a balance of the checking & credit accounts. (When I say meaning "less and less" and "more and more," I want to be careful here--I'm not attempting an historical evaluation, what I'm really expressing are the evolution of my anxieties, the way I understand these things...)


David McDougall said...

In the last few years, there have been a few different books with the title or subtitle "The Last Man Who Knew Everything." These books are mainly biographical, but carry a hint of exoticism towards the idea of the successful polymath; often they suggest that such achievements are no longer possible. Of course this is fiction; the institutionally authorized sources of learning benefit from this myth of unbreachable (and hence unquestionable) expertise. What I think has faded is the culture of polymathism. Where intellectuals once strove to achieve in disparate fields, now most choose to remain firmly enclosed in their discipline, or create cross-disciplinary approaches that unify their areas of interest. I don't believe this shift from multidisciplinarity to interdisciplinarity is true of the arts. Art is always a polymathic enterprise.

One of the people who taught me the most about filmmaking had 3 rules for being a filmmaker:
1. Take drum lessons.
2. Do physics.
3. Watch 2 movies a day.
Which is to say, learn to feel rhythm deep inside yourself, to improve the rhythm of your cuts and your sense of music in the world; be a student of the world, and an observer of the way things work around you; and keep your mind sharp with the techniques of your art. I do my best to keep to these rules (the spirit, if not always the letter) because they are, in a way, an extension of my polymathic impulse.

ZC said...

That's a great distinction, Dave (polymathism vs. culture of polymathism). And even in my own chosen academic/publishing field, film studies, I feel like there's almost a sense in which "generalist" indicates nothing more than a mainstream-centered dilettantism, as though someone interested in cinema "in general" is going to be like David Denby rather than Adrian Martin--you receive wisdom rather than go spelunking all over the map. I think this applies to culture in general, too. But polymathism is alive--just look at Girish, left-brainer by day, right-brainer by night, musician & sketch artist in his free moments, etc.

Those three rules are good ones. And they apply even if one has no special interest in films or being a filmmaker--cinema needn't be the object.

alsolikelife said...

great post. For years I have wanted to write an essay provisionally titled "Against Cinephilia", inspired in some part by Sontag's "Against Interpretation". Your gleanings and comments get at some of the points I've wanted to lay out. My main point though, kind of tied to yours, has been consternation at the cinephilic impulse to "consume" movies as a fanboy hobby rather than tapping into a greater sense of purpose and appreciation for life beyond the screen.

That line you attribute to Brenez made me think of David Thomson and his eventual disgruntlement with cinema and regret of having spent so much time watching movies under the supposition (a false one, he eventually determined) that it was as good as if not better than living in real life. (I'm paraphrasing from an essay Kent Jones wrote which took to task Thomson's last iteration of his Dictionary of Film). I think cinema inspires that kind of all-consuming passion due to how easily it may supplant lived reality. It comes back to that balance you speak of at the end, feeling that you are in possession of your life regardless of however you spend it (rather than how exactly you spend it?)

That paragraph on Lawson can easily describe my own alienated moments while foraging the blogosphere.

Looking more closely at the Naremore paragraph, I'm kind of put off by the cavalier tone by which he regards all those great filmmakers he lumps together as the new modernists. He seems to imply that their interest is chiefly in their own production and formalistic practices, not in anything greater. I'd be hard-pressed to say that about nearly all of the filmmakers he names.

PS: Joyce of Ulysses - stereotypically accessible????

ZC said...

Kevin, I'm glad you could get something out of this.

Jameson's "lumping" of the new modernists is the sort of thing he sometimes does with too much ease, and as I alluded to in my post on violence above, I also think Jameson--like a lot of "moonlighters" in film studies--sometimes settles too easily for generalizations of whatever they know from DVD or arthouses or big film festivals; hence Jameson always uses this shorthand for the 'great auteurs of the 1950s' (Bergman, Kurosawa, Fellini) and the great late modernists like Yang or Sokurov. (He doesn't always let his hand show as to the extent to which he considers these 'greats' personal favorites versus the extent to which he's merely letting them be identified by their stature, so that he can examine them & their work as cultural artifacts. I think he does have much genuine affection for Yang & Sokurov, though.) Anyway, the article itself (on Sokurov) is pretty good at delving into what Sokurov does, his significance, and contextualizes the forms he uses rather than indicate they're merely difficult "writerly" play.