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Europe and Love in Cinema
By Luisa Passerini, Jo Labanyi, Karen Diehl
Intellect LtdCopyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd
All rights reserved.
Cinema and academia: of objects of love and objects of study
It all started in the Sixties
One of the many remarkable but paradoxical legacies of 'the Sixties' is the transformation of the cinema from an object of (transgressive) love into an object of (normative) study, from 'cinephilia' into 'film studies', and thus the makeover of a passion bordering on addiction into a discipline elevated to one of the 'growth areas' in the humanities. The change raises many questions: about the crisis in the humanities since the 1970s, which required a new subject-mix; about new alliances between language studies, national literatures and visual culture; as well as about the ways that Europe has been redefining itself as both more multicultural in its demographics and more marginal in its geopolitics. In these shifting contexts, cinema has emerged not only as one of the more effective means of asserting a specifically European contribution to 'world culture' (in terms of the continuity of its practice in most European countries and of the consistency of its artistic and critical engagement among film auteurs and intellectuals), but also as one of the most receptive and responsive ways of negotiating the new alignments that typify the European adventure in the twenty-first century: alignments of identity and place, of sharing and belonging, of history and memory. In this respect, love of cinema, however much it may have started as a solitary, furtive form of self-indulgence, can indeed become the symptom of – and conduit for – many other passionate engagements, focused and fixed by the academy, before fanning back out into the urban fabric and community life and cross-fertilizing with cultural politics, whether via film festivals or centres of visual art and cinema.
But here is another paradox: film studies became academically respectable at a point in time when many film-makers, critics and cinephiles proclaimed the 'death of cinema'. Was 'film studies' perhaps an elaborate funeral service for a dying art, and cinephilia – insofar as it survived as that special devotion to the projected image in a darkened room – a culturally sanctioned form of necrophilia? Cinephilia: a nostalgic, melancholy return to eternal adolescence, or the aesthetic conscience of our (much diminished) public sphere? In its latter role, as a legacy and an excess, as a remainder and a reminder, cinephilia may well have been the ingredient that initially gave film studies – compared to its more established sister disciplines like literary studies, art history and philosophy – its special, 'performative' position in the academy, making it at once opportunist and subversive, the antennae of the Zeitgeist and the memory of political resistance to the Zeitgeist. The latter especially would be one of the historical contexts to invoke when trying to understand the genesis of film studies out of the 'spirit of the Sixties'. In what follows, I want to sketch some of the circumstances that in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s contributed to the realignment of cinema as a cultural force both inside and outside the academy, notably around what came to be known as 'identity politics'. This may also explain why, in the new century, film studies has had to cede to cultural studies – and to the love of society in motion – some of the energies initially inherent in cinephilia as the love of the image in motion.
One particular postwar origin of film studies: cinephilia UK-style
The Brighton film club I joined in 1964 defined itself in the mirror of French auteurism of the late 1950s and worshipped Hollywood. My new friends quickly attacked the German middle-class taste for Ingmar Bergman, Vittorio de Sica and Italian neorealism I had brought with me when moving to the UK. Initially, the idea that a Western with John Wayne might be more serious than Smultronstället/Wild Strawberries (Bergman, 1957) or Det sjunde inseglet/The Seventh Seal (Bergman, 1957) seemed inconceivable to the aesthetic orthodoxy I grew up with, but they eventually browbeat me into agreeing that Bergman's Tystnaden/The Silence (1963), despite its sexual frankness and existential 'angst', was not as important for the cinema as John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962).
What made cinephilia so completely distinct from other juvenile obsessions was the encounter with the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Mesmerized by À bout de souffle/Breathless in 1960 and Vivre sa vie/My Life to Live in 1962, baffled by Le petit soldat/The Little Soldier in 1963, it took a screening of Le mépris/Contempt (1963) in London in 1964 to make the idea of devoting my life to cinema an urgently felt necessity. Le mépris was an exciting film not just in and for the present, but because it opened up the past: it had Fritz Lang playing himself; it was about the movie business; and it made me curious about Vincente Minnelli when Michel Piccoli insisted on wearing his hat at all times only because Dean Martin did so in Minnelli's Some Came Running (1958). Godard propelled the wish to reflect on cinema, but he did so in a dramatic/traumatic way. He lodged the desire for a theory of cinema through cinema itself, but his films foreclosed that very possibility, because the standards he set were so far in advance of everything else that had happened in cinema up to that time. The experience was so traumatic, and Godard became so emblematic, because his films fostered the illusion that writing about films was already halfway to making them, and that making films was the most authentic manner of being engaged in the world; in fact, of transforming the world – not only one's own, but that of one's culture and society.
Thus, for anyone interested in cinema in the 1960s, the pull of Paris was irresistible. No sooner had I finished my first university undergraduate degree and begun a doctorate, I enrolled at the Sorbonne. I did not take any courses, but spent my daytime hours at the Bibliothèque Nationale, and the evenings at the Cinémathèque. Armed with a copy of Andrew Sarris' American Directors and Directions, I shuttled every night between the Palais de Chaillot and the Rue d'Ulm. Henri Langlois was famous for his inspired programming, which would combine a rare Mizoguchi melodrama with an Allan Dwan Western, or show Jacques Tourneur's Build My Gallows High (1947) on the same evening as Marcel Carné's Le jour se lève/Daybreak (1939). I must have seen 600 films in the eight months I spent in Paris, and filled several spiral-bound notebooks with comments scribbled in the dark. No sooner had I returned to England, I started a university film magazine in late 1968, the Brighton Film Review. Its slightly better known but relatively short-lived successor was Monogram, begun in 1971. The name was chosen to advertise our allegiance to Hollywood (with a nod to Godard who had dedicated his first film À bout de souffle to Monogram, a B-movie studio). The fact that Monogram promoted Hollywood in the early 1970s, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests and in the wake of May '68, was an act of loyalty in the guise of provocation: instead of writing about Glauber Rocha or Michael Snow, we published articles on Michael Powell and Raoul Walsh, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Aldrich. Besides celebrating Douglas Sirk, Vincente Minnelli and Joseph Losey, we also attacked British cinema and David Lean; yet, almost in spite of ourselves, we kept faith with Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel.
What was so special about French cinephilia, and why was it important for what became film studies in Britain? Antoine de Baecque has, somewhat stiffly, defined it more recently as 'a way of watching films, speaking about them and then diffusing this discourse' (de Baecque and Frémaux 1995: 134). De Baecque – himself an editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1990s – judiciously includes the element of shared experience, as well as the need to write about it and to proselytize, alongside the pleasure derived from viewing films on the big screen. The cinephilia I became initiated into around 1963/4 in Brighton and London did include dandified rituals strictly observed when 'going to the movies', either alone or, less often, in groups. Cinephilia meant being sensitive to one's surroundings when watching a movie, carefully picking the place to sit, fully alert to the quasi-sacral feeling of nervous anticipation that could descend upon a public space, however squalid, run-down or rowdy, as the velvet curtain rose and the studio logo with its fanfares filled the space. But cinephilia was also a gesture towards cinema always already framed by nostalgia and other retroactive temporalities, by pleasures tinged with regret even as they register as pleasures. Without cinephilia, there would not have been film studies, certainly not for my generation in Great Britain, but film studies – some would say – was also the gravedigger of cinephilia.
Film theory as Screen theory: mourning work for cinephilia?
During the same years that I founded a film magazine in Brighton, there also appeared in London Afterimage, Cinemantics, Cinema Rising, Enthusiasm, Cinema (Cambridge University), with a little later Framework (University of Warwick) and Filmform (Newcastle University). They all kept their distance from but certainly felt the gravitational pull of Screen, re-founded in 1971. Pilgrimages to Paris similar to mine (as well as to Rome) had been undertaken a few years earlier by Peter Wollen, Laura Mulvey, Geoffrey Nowell Smith and Jon Halliday: regular writers for Screen, all close to New Left Review, and major figures in the emergence of British film studies.
Screen's intellectual lineage was also in Paris, but owed fewer debts to Cahiers du Cinéma and Langlois' Cinémathèque than to the journal Communications and Christian Metz's and Roland Barthes' seminars at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique. By 'Screen theory' we now understand the volatile blend of Saussurean linguistics, Levi Straussian structuralism, Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, which together elaborated a theoretically very sophisticated, but for their opponents hermetically sealed and tautological, critique of bourgeois (psychological) realism, patriarchal modes of gender representation, and the 'realist effect' of the 'cinematic apparatus'. Terms such as 'suture', 'interpellation', 'subject-construction', 'mirror-stage' and 'the gaze' are identified with Screen theory, which developed the early insights of Levi-Strauss, Barthes and Greimas in the direction of a theory of gendered subjectivity and vision, which has had an enormous influence on film theory, feminism, visual culture studies and art history.
Yet at the time, Screen appeared to me as the dark side of cinephilia: at the National Film Theatre (NFT), where almost all of us editors and writers met, we watched the same films and followed the same directors, but we wrote about them in quite different ways. Were I to analyse Screen theory in retrospect from within its own theoretical premises, I might claim to detect a dynamic of desire and its disavowal, as much caught in miscognition and the mirror-phase as that characterizing the viewing subject of Screen theory itself. Given the common 'cinephile' origins of almost everyone in British film culture in the 1960s and '70s, the subsequent ambivalence shown towards Hollywood filmsleads me to conclude that what was at stake were the painful dichotomies of a lover's discourse, as conjugated by Roland Barthes (1978): 'I have loved and love no more'; 'I love no more, in order to better love what I once loved'. In this sense, Screen theory's decade-long deconstruction of Hollywood can be seen as a kind of extended funeral service or mourning work for cinephilia, where the very loss of the once-loved object intensifies the effort to master this loss by a theory of 'subjectification' and 'interpellation'.
Therefore, a closer look at the London scene in the 1970s indicates the presence of several kinds of Oedipal ambivalences and of Melanie Klein's good/bad object relations. It may explain Screen's 'discovering' Douglas Sirk (as a 'good' auteur, because of his associations with melodrama and the woman's film), the dissenting reassessments of neorealism, or the rivalries over who 'owned' Hitchcock: Sight & Sound, Screen or Movie? The argument would be that it was a deferred but also disavowed cinephilia which proved part of the driving force behind Screen theory. The intellectual brilliance and theoretical difficulties of the theory both covered over and preserved the fact that ambivalence about the status of Hollywood as the good/bad object persisted, notwithstanding that 'love of cinema' was now called by different names: voyeurism, fetishism and scopophilia. Such terms, beyond their technical meaning within Freudian discourse, make it evident that by1975/76 the cinephilia to which our generation owed its knowledge of cinema had been dragged out of its closet, and revealed itself as a source of disappointment: the magic of the movies, in the cold light of day, had become a manipulation of regressive fantasies and the place for masculinity to protect itself from castration anxiety and sexual difference. It is not altogether irrelevant to this moment in history that Mulvey's call, at the end of her famous essay 'Visual pleasure and narrative cinema', to forego visual pleasure and dedicate oneself to unpleasure was not always heeded.
On the contrary, pleasure, consumption and popular culture became a political issue par excellence in Britain; but not for Screen, whose writers had maintained a very explicit commitment to the pared-down Marxist aesthetics of the historical avant-garde (notably Russian constructivism and Brecht) and to the (London-, and to a lesser extent, New York based) anti-aesthetics of the political avant-garde. As film-makers, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen were themselves part of this avant-garde, with films like Penthesilea (1974) and Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) and as writers of a number of key articles redefining modernism and avant-garde practice for a contemporary and, by the 1970s, highly politicized generation. Godard's own turn away from citing, appropriating and pastiching Hollywood films towards a militant, ascetic and verbal cinema during the years of the Dziga Vertov Group served as an example also for Mulvey/Wollen, occasionally leading to polemical exchanges with film-makers from the London Co-op, such as Peter Gidal, Steve Dwoskin and Malcolm Le Grice, who had a more formalist understanding of film, more in tune both with the New York avant-garde and with film-makers in Germany and Austria, for whom Screen showed little interest. Journals like Afterimage and Framework had a wider coverage of international cinema – including European avant-garde and art cinema, Asian and 'Third' cinema, as well as the new film cultures that began to develop around the smaller film festivals in Italy, Canada and Latin America. Yet, by the same token, these magazines exerted only a limited influence on the formation of film studies as an academic discipline, for which Screen and the British Film Institute (BFI) ultimately provided the necessary intellectual pedigree and institutional momentum.
Also apt to be forgotten when focusing only on Screen's foundational influence on academic film studies is one of its great achievements: namely, the bond it managed to forge between theory and practice, between intellectuals and avant-garde directors. In this it renewed a tradition from the 1920s. If, for instance, we trace back film theory to its 'origins', we find that the most significant impulses have come from film-makers (Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc, John Grierson) and film critics (Rudolf Arnheim, Béla Balázs, Siegfried Kracauer, Lotte Eisner), with the occasional art historian contributing an important essay (Élie Faure, André Malraux, Erwin Panofsky). The central thrust of this intervention was to defend (and define) film as an art form (and a 'language'), and to free cinema from the stigma of being a mere mechanical reproduction of reality. While it can be argued that the coming of sound put an end to such efforts, the manner in which Screen revived this tradition, adopted the rather dry academic discourse of Metz's semiology and adapted it as the weapon for a new militancy of the cinema as political art, does indeed deserve the epithet 'heroic', however brief this moment was to have been.
Excerpted from Europe and Love in Cinema by Luisa Passerini, Jo Labanyi, Karen Diehl. Copyright © 2012 Intellect Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Intellect Ltd.
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