Explorations in Film Theory
The following introduction was published in 1991 in the book Explorations in Film Theory: Selected Essays from Cine-Tracts CINE-TRACTS began in 1976 with a burst of creative and collective activity. The idea of starting a Canadian based film journal was largely the work of four people and in some respects CINE-TRACTS could not have been created without the bonds of friendship, the emotional, philosophical and ideological ties which are the foundation upon which projects like CINE-TRACTS are built. More than just a magazine CINE-TRACTS was a project because we originally saw the journal as a tool for political debate, a context where a community of scholars, filmmakers and students could engage in a form of praxis somewhat alien to Canadian cultural life.
This idea, this ideal of a place where the artificial divisions between intellectual and practical work could be redrawn was only realised in a marginal way not because of a lack of desire but because the fundamental changes which we envisioned could not be created within the context of a journal. In the beginning CINE-TRACTS provoked more incredulity than faith among the members of the film community in Canada. After its first two issues it was ostracized by filmmakers, rejected by most of the people teaching in colleges and universities and looked upon with disdain by other publishers. At the same time the journal exploded in the rest of the world. Subscriptions, enquiries and manuscripts came pouring in from the United States, England, Italy, Germany, Australia, India, etc.. This rather strict division in support lasted for the life of the magazine and though we tried to ‘locate’ ourselves more fully within the community we most wanted to address it quickly became clear that the politics of Canadian culture operated in a very different way from what we had expected. In an ironic parallel to the way in which the cinema operates we were most fully present as an absence in Canada. As much as we attempted to resist it we were slotted (by funding agencies for example and by other media who rarely if ever examined what we published either critically or in a supportive manner - in fact when the journal stopped publishing it was a British magazine, FRAMEWORK, which wrote an emotional article about our demise) into that tiny and peripheral spot most fully expressed by the word “theoretical.” As ‘theorists’ we were supposedly divorced from practice, in fact we were accused of perpetuating the very divisions which the magazine had been created to dispel.
This question, which still today haunts the teaching and creation of the cinema and television (in Canada and elsewhere), is perhaps the most artificial and politically suspect of debates and yet it remains tenaciously enshrined in the very curricula which should be disputing its premises. Many schools, all production houses, certainly most universities remain locked into a division between practical and theoretical and historical approaches to the mediums of film and television. Ironically, media professionals regard universities with distrust, rarely engage in debate, rarely believe that debate per se need be a serious part of their work. When they do get involved it is in the promotion and financing of schools where the ‘craft’ of filmmaking for example is taught from within the ‘bowels’ of the technology as if in some mysterious way the technology has transcended both its own history and the discourses which have enabled its practicioners to understand and use it. Universities and colleges share the same problems. There are an untold numbers of ‘practical’ courses now available to students. Their identity is dependent on their perceived difference from ‘theoretical’ or ‘historical’ courses. What is demeaned by these divisions is the discourse available to students with which to examine their own interests in the media, but what is undermined at a deeper level is the very notion of practice itself. It is as if the act of using a camera can be divorced from the user, since this kind of pedagogy relies on the mystification, if not the elision of discursive practices which underly the complex relationship between subjectivity and creativity.
Once CINE-TRACTS was identified as a ‘theoretical’ journal it was quickly accused of using a language which no one could understand and thus divorcing itself from the community. Symbolically it came to represent that division between theory and practice which the community itself was installing. I was astonished by the vitriol which was often directed our way, mostly by members of the Canadian film community. I was often taken aback by the lack of institutional and subscriber support in Canada. I still believe that it was of great value to struggle with these problems but what I didn’t realise was that the journal was fragmenting from the inside because of them. As the pressure increased, many of the core members of the editorial staff began to look for a different intellectual and discursive model for the magazine. Ironically when our subscriptions zoomed over the one thousand mark they questioned the direction of the journal more and more. As the journal became increasingly well known throughout the world, as between ten and fifteen manuscripts began arriving every month, as suggestions for issues poured in from everywhere but Canada the group running the magazine disintegrated. I mention this here because CINE-TRACTS was conceived as a collective and political activity and once the former disappeared the latter weakened as well. If we are to understand the extraordinary success of CINE-TRACTS we must also understand how the pressures on the journal and on its editors finally succeeded. Those pressures were enframed by a profound anti-intellectualism, by the divisions mentioned above, and by preconceptions as to what role a journal should play in the community from which it springs.
The following collection of essays brings together all of the strengths and reveals few of the weaknesses of CINE-TRACTS. History is present in the selection, represented by the obvious desire to both explore and articulate the conjuncture of politics and theory, the growing awareness of gender as a central issue, the profound influence of feminist thinking. History is absent because the process through which the journal decided on the publication of these articles cannot be rendered in anything but a skeletal form. The following remarks are somewhat personal which I feel is important, crucial. Hopefully EXPLORATIONS IN FILM THEORY adequately represents the legacy of CINE-TRACTS and also the legacy of one of the most important periods in the very recent history of the discipline of film studies. EXPLORATIONS IN FILM THEORY.
Plenty to See Everywhere
by Bertolt Brecht (Reproduced by permission)
“What did you see, wanderer?
I saw a pleasant landscape; there was a grey hill against a clear sky, and the grass waved in the wind.
A house leaned against the hill like a woman leaning against a man.
What did you see, wanderer? I saw a ridge good to position guns behind. What did you see, wanderer?
I saw a house so tumbledown that it had to be propped up by a hill, which meant that it lay in shadow all day.
I passed it at various hours, and there was never smoke rising from the chimney as if food were being cooked.
And I saw people who were living there.
What did you see, wanderer?
I saw a parched field on rocky ground. Each blade of grass stood singly.
Stones lay on the turf. A hill cast too much shadow.
What did you see, wanderer?
I saw a rock raising its shoulder from the grassy soil like a giant that refuses to be beaten.
And the grass standing up stiff and straight, proudly, on parched ground. And an indifferent sky.
What did you see, wanderer?
I saw a fold in the ground.
Thousands of years ago there must have been great upheavals of the earth’s surface here. The granite lay exposed.
What did you see, wanderer?
No bench to sit on. I was tired.” (Bertolt Brecht) 1
I have lived in the same area of Montreal for over twenty years. My desks have always been in front of large bay windows facing onto one of the few parks in the east end of the city. Over time the habit of staring out of those windows, sometimes for minutes on end, became an everyday part of my work routine. Strangely, as the years have passed, the experience of observing the park has not led to any certitude about what is actually going on. I don’t mean that I haven’t taken notice of the many events in the park ranging from all manner of sports activities to people picnicking, to children playing, etc.. I mean that often, it is looking through the windows themselves more than the events outside which has fascinated me, leading to a rather strange sensation, full, yet empty, a sense that my knowledge was, is, and always will be very fragmentary. The events which I have observed don’t lead in a ‘natural’ manner toward a synthesis, toward a preferred narrative, though I could always invoke some kind of broad cliché about the “passing parade.” In other words, to tell the story of my relationship to the park more is needed. The events themselves raise questions about my own status as an observer. A history of that process will inevitably be a meta-discourse and it will in effect rewrite the past. The join between language and observation will thus be under stress, but it is precisely this tension which the act of looking, the activity of being a viewer, a spectator, brings into the foreground. Interestingly enough, the “more” that is needed is discourse which necessarily acts as an arbiter between my viewing and my efforts to reconstruct the history of what I have seen.
Continuously, repetitively, the act of looking through the windows raises questions about “what” I am seeing and there is an endless interplay between memory and vision. For example, did I see a tall man with long hair flying a kite? Were there one or two large dogs chasing each other at high speed past sunbathers and frightened squirrels? The effect is not dissimilar to the experience of viewing a film where the activity of viewing is perpetually enframed by the knowledge that something has already (before any realization about the act of viewing comes to consciousness) been viewed. It is this difficulty, the present slipping away into the past and the past into pastness, an endless regression through which images, for example (and our thoughts about them), exist within memory almost as quickly as they have existed in fact, which Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Plenty To See Everywhere” explores and which is at the root of one of the major concerns of this book. Questions of subjectivity, sexual difference, identification and viewing, questions which go to the heart of how the cinema both produces meaning and is understood are a central theme of the essays which follow. Bertolt Brecht’s poem was written during one of the darkest periods of his life and one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century (1938-1941).
To me the poem is about the precariousness of seeing and the inseparability of the act of viewing from thought. While this may seem obvious, it is precisely the hidden ambiguities of the obvious which Brecht’s poem explores. A fold in the ground cannot be seen for what it is without also investigating its history. History cannot be explored without overcoming the temptation to equate the act of viewing with knowledge. For every landscape or object or person the wanderer sees there is inevitably a story, and the story develops into a metaphor about the “scene” as well as a statement about the viewer, about the wanderer and what is inevitably questioned is the manner in which the metaphor replaces the event and comes to represent the act of viewing, the moment of experience. Following on from this argument, I could create a story about the events in front of my window. I could hypothesize a whole series of things about the people I have seen and with time fit those elements together into a narrative. Limited only by my imagination, this narrative would come to “stand” for my knowledge of the park. Its meaning would be derived in part from my experience, but only in part; yet, depending on the manner in which I chose to communicate the narrative, it could develop into a replacement for the experience. The dilemma would always be; was there some finite moment when the narrative was not there? Or does the act of looking inevitably generate narrativity - the ongoing creation of a story? Does the window stand for a perpetual activity of replacement where what is seen is being continuously altered by a plethora of processes that are never “out there” or simply in my head? Substitution, (ranging from the construction of narratives to the act of writing to the creation of a painting) is an inevitable and perhaps desired outcome of the activity of viewing, but what are the boundaries between the “replacement” and what I have observed? Does the narrative necessarily depend on the experience of observation?
In Brecht’s poem a ridge, part of a “pleasant landscape” is transformed into an emplacement for guns. Initially, a house in this pleasant landscape is shown to be a shack propped up by the ridge. That the house never has smoke rising from it, suggests that the people who live in it can’t afford food or fuel. As the poem develops the landscape changes into a parched field. Increasingly the poem focuses on the deterioration of the environment until it is only the rocks standing above the soil which resist the dry emptiness, which resist the obvious fact that these are killing fields. They hold the dust of the soldiers who have died. The field is covered by an “indifferent sky” and it hides the history which has determined its look. For it is not natural forces which have created the landscape, but human beings. Yet that history is not part of the “visuals,” suggesting that it is metaphor which will allow us to grasp and perhaps understand what has happened. It is the capacity of language to break down the visual, to “break into” the screen of images which will determine how much of the history can be reconstructed. But it is also the capacity of language to subvert the very terms of its own enunciation which brings the poem closer and closer to a rewriting of history. The windows have now become a screen. It is the very arbitrariness of the events in the park which has allowed me to define their usefulness for this introduction. If, to some degree, arbitrariness is at the heart of the process of substitution, then the windows have shown that substitution, per se, need not be an unproductive outcome of viewing.
Given that this book is appearing during a time of intense discussion about postmodernist theories, I would like to initially situate some of its emphases by examining what is “different” about this collection, what distinguishes it from and perhaps puts it in opposition to many of the concerns of postmodern theorists and cultural analysts. Substitution (which should not in this instance be equated with representation but without which the latter would not be able to communicate meaning) suggests how language and seeing, for example, are inseparable, how narrativity and knowledge are indivisible, how what Jean Baudrillard describes as “simulacra” are merely the continuing torrent of sign-systems which arise with every act of interaction with the world. In a more hysterical yet derivative vein, Arthur Kroker, by now a “classical” postmodernist, virtually equates the process of substitution with death, the death of culture, the viewer, and the possibility of social change. But if it were that simple, if for example the bay windows were my only contact with the park, or, by extension, if the media were my only contact with reality, or if images were my only vehicle for understanding the world around me, then processes of substitution would indeed represent the danger which Kroker, Baudrillard and Jean-Louis Lyotard have suggested.2 Clearly, as Brecht’s poem so beautifully points out, the ability to narrativize what one sees (among many possible strategies) transforms the seen into one of a number of fragments in a continuous chain of signifiers. The danger is not that these signifiers initially stand for the real and then in an endlessly regressive sense lose contact with the reality upon which they depend. Their link to reality (the word ‘real’ on its own is a ‘sign’ of this) as Umberto Eco has often pointed out is through the activity of semiosis.3 Sign systems don’t produce meaning outside of the social and cultural context from which they have developed.
The “appearance” of autonomy is just that, and, though signifying systems often seem to take on a life of their own, that “illusion” persistently breaks down through historical activity. Substitution, representation, and signification are inherent to the activity of communication and are never, singly or as a whole, imported into reality, nor do they come to determine or overpower the real. The division, for example, between reality and representation is more a matter of degree with neither the former nor the latter in a privileged position, since they are inseparable to begin with. In the world of Jean Baudrillard the viewer of a film becomes the screen as an effect of the screen itself. The driver of a car becomes an effect of the car. Objects signify in order to manipulate and overpower subjects. Signification creates a world beyond the control of those who, so to speak, bathe in its waters. “Harrisburg, Watergate, and NETWORK form the trilogy of THE CHINA SYNDROME — an inextricable trilogy in which we cannot tell which is the effect or the symptom of the others: is the ideological argument (the Watergate effect) only the symptom of the nuclear (the Harrisburg effect) or the informational model (the NETWORK effect)? — is the real (Harrisburg) only the symptom of the imaginary (NETWORK, THE CHINA SYNDROME) or vice versa? Marvellous indistinguishability, ideal constellation of simulation.”4 The world of simulation precedes the real, and thus history, in a paradoxical and undialectical twist, has already been written. It is as if the future has overpowered the present, rendering all human activity, praxis, into an overwhelming and oppressive pattern of predictability.
“What else does the media dream of if not raising up events by its very presence? Everyone deplores it, but everyone is secretly fascinated by this eventuality. Such is the logic of simulacra: no longer divine predestination, but the precession of models, which is no less inexorable. And it is for this reason that events no longer have any meaning: not because they are insignificant in themselves, but because they have been preceded by models with which their own process can only coincide.” 5 As Robert Hughes has so eloquently put it, “The machinery of “communication” communicates little except itself. Baudrillard is something of a McLuhanite; not only is the medium the message, but the sheer amount of traffic has usurped meaning.” 6 It is the usurption of meaning, the emptying out of the vessel in favor of the vessel itself, which leads toward the mystification of media control, media effect. Outside of human praxis, unaffected by histories which have, so to speak, already been written, the universe of the simulacra becomes a place without subjectivity, unchangeable, unattainable, truly the universe of the Gods, a restatement and reinstatement of an all-powerful patriarchy. “What did you see, wanderer?” It seems that in the case of images, very little. For it is an altogether extraordinary paradox that as more and more images have spread their way through our culture, as more and different types of stories have been told through images, the antipathy to the world of images has actually grown. This is particularly the case with postmodernists who would somehow like to proclaim the death of meaning in much the same manner as surrealists in the 1920s proclaimed the death of language.
Surrealism, however, was a strategy to language, a way of rebelling against the use to which language was being put in an increasingly bankrupt culture, while postmodernism, most fully represented by Jean Baudrillard, sees the death of meaning as an inherent and inevitable part of cultural processes in late twentieth-century society. In contrast, in regard to the spectator, I would argue that viewing is a creative act, never just consumption, rarely passive. This is because there is no absolute moment without signs, without language, without, in other words, a whole host of mediations between seeing, experience, and knowledge. The mediators can take many forms, can act in many different ways, but they remain, as do signs, part of a multi-tiered process. For analytical purposes it may be necessary to isolate the sign, to de-contextualize its role and placement in the construction of meaning, but at no point does the sign transcend context or create a world independent of the material reality within which it plays so definitive a part. This would be like saying that language did not develop through, and as a result of, human history or that the images which surround us have somehow come from outside the social and cultural processes which made them possible in the first place.
The collection of essays in this book originated in CINE-TRACTS FILM MAGAZINE and it seems approprate to quote some of the central aims of the journal from its first editorial, ” [CINE-TRACTS will try and link] … together the issues of self-reflexivity, subjective positioning and hegemonic social structures, [and] propose the outline of a possible theory of culture which embraces both the critique of ideology and the problematic of praxis.” 7 This was a rather broad if not pretentious goal, but one which nevertheless guided the magazine for many years. It grew out of a desire among the first group of editors associated with the journal to publish a “political” magazine and to bind (if not to “suture”) theory with practice, not only as a way of critiquing dominant ideologies, but also as a prelude to altering the way in which film institutions functioned in our society. In our second issue Teresa de Lauretis and David Allen continued this line of thought: “Within the general problematic of positioning the subject in relation to a hegemonic social structure operative in the institution of cinema in general and in the cinematic apparatus in particular, the papers presented here examine the perceptual and conceptual codes established by that apparatus, including self-reflexivity, excess, and the relation of image and sound-tracks. Explicit or implicit in these discussions is the critical awareness of the irreducible, insuppressible dimension of the socio-historical context in the film text, i.e., the social foundation of the most “personal” or “original” work.
These problems are addressed in both general and specific terms, and examined in the perspectives of cinema as institution, of the codes established by a particular genre, or of the textual strategy of a single film.” 8 In large measure as the essays in EXPLORATIONS IN FILM THEORY detail, the journal remained faithful to the direction suggested by the above editorials. The division of this book into four chapters along thematic lines was arranged not only for clarity but to properly represent the main ideas which the magazine pursued. By the time we reached out tenth issue we had published authors like John Berger, Saul Landau, Peter Harcourt, Barbara Leaming, Jean-Louis Comolli, Sandy Flitterman, Anthony Wilden, Bill Nichols, Michael Silverman, Laurence Benequist, Douglas Gomery, Kristin Thompson, among many others. None of the above writers are in this collection not because they didn’t deserve a place but because from an editorial point of view the selection was designed to highlight those debates which most fully suffused the journal during its seven year existence. EXPLORATIONS IN FILM THEORY opens with an essay by Patricia Mellencamp on the way in which the classical Hollywood cinema codifies meaning in order to design a particular position for the viewer of narrative films. Her far-reaching discussion examines the many different techniques through which the ‘look’ of the spectator coincides with the process of identification. She examines the work of Stephen Heath, Christian Metz and Jacques Lacan all with the aim of explaining how narratives, in this case musicals, create a context for viewing and in a reciprocal manner how spectatorship is contained within the very look of one character to another. Many of the questions which she raises are at the center of modern debates in film theory but in particular she suggests further research in sound-image relationships as a necessary base for understanding viewer position. This essay both supports and pre-figures later research in feminist film theory. Mary Ann Doane then deepens the discussion of identification through an historical overview of the way in which film theory has appropriated notions of identification from psychoanalysis. She discusses sexual difference and spectatorship in the cinema, the way in which the classical Hollywood cinema is, in a sense, a mirror for the male viewer, a privileged port of entry for the male which restricts and prevents women from gaining the mastery over the image which men have. Her conclusion, that identification is not an ideologically neutral term foregrounds the difficulty which psychoanalysis itself, as well as film theory has had in coming to grips with the relationship between sexual difference and processes of representation.
Chapter Two of EXPLORATIONS IN FILM THEORY consists of a series of debates on the documentary cinema. Jeanne Allen and I ask questions about the legitimacy of the distinction between documentary and fictional film, all with a view to reopening a debate which has haunted film theory throughout its history. For, as Raymond Williams points out the heart of the discussion may not be whether a cultural representation is real or not but whether there is an adequate historical base for examining the relationship between a film and its context. The iconic authority of the image is effective only in those circumstances properly suited to the spectacle of the cinema. This performative power will effect the message and means that the documentary cinema cannot be thought of purely in terms of its content nor simply as a function of its presumed intention. The fetish of the visible, the equation of the visible with the real, all lead to a cinema which presumes that it has found the formula for the relationship between the production of meaning and human understanding. Two of the essays in this section deal specifically with Quebec cinema. There are many reasons for this but the most important is that one of the key purveyors of the documentary form in the world is found in Montreal, The National Film Board. It is with a critical eye towards the traditions which the N.F.B. has put in place and supported that much of Chapter Two either directly or indirectly addresses itself. There was no room in EXPLORATIONS IN FILM THEORY to include a long interview with the documentary filmmaker, Johan Van Der Keuken whose cinema is as much a theoretical exploration of the genre as it is an effort to self-reflexively transform the way the documentary cinema is made and performed. I have included a short quote from that interview because it so effectively highlights the questions which are raised in Chapter Two.
I fictionalize in order to arrive at truth. In SPRINGTIME you have people speaking and there is the pretension of truth—because that is the commitment of the filmmaker— to go and see these people, listen to them talk etc…. I cannot guarantee that what they are saying is true but I can establish relationships between the people speaking. In this way I try to create a comprehensive framework for the different speeches. and where the framework is foregrounded the use of the means is made clear. In relation to my film THE PALESTINIANS, there is, at the beginning of the film a photo of an old Jew in the Ghetto. I had each frame printed five times. It is on the screen for two minutes with a small text and phase-like music. I think that this in itself goes against the ethos of the documentary tradition. Here the image is totally flat, it cannot deliver more information than it did at first glance. So you are presented with an image which empties itself out so to speak, and the text that is spoken by me has the characteristic of being a text spoken by a person. I think that in this way you establish a very different relationship to the documentary. It is quite clear that the photo is not there for two minutes to prove anything. It only gives a material basis, an image and a text to the spectator. It also leaves things open, it leave things unsaid which the spectator can fill in and which establish a framework in which the more truly recorded elements find their place. Also, what I have tried to do in THE PALESTINIANS with the commentary was never to present commentary as such, over a determined action but to make a separate place for the commentary so that it would speak over the more aesthetic, passive elements in the film—not dynamic elements. In that way the commentary itself would never interfere with the action itself. I think these are some tools which may enable an audience to see that here there is no pretense to a claim to history or authenticity. 12
The documentary cinema’s claim to authenticity and truth is based in large measure on its filmmaker’s rather limited understanding of the viewing process and on their efforts to reduce the complexity of subject position to a function of intentionality. Thus of the many thousands of films made at the N.F.B. during its fifty year history very few incorporated the kind of self-critical and experimental approach which a film like MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA took. Chapter Two traces out the various dimensions of what I have called a crisis of meaning because, although there are more and more documentary images in circulation, the concern for the relationship between form and medium for example, that is between iconicity and the means of communication is more often than not marginalized by the films themselves. Of all the essays in EXPLORATIONS IN FILM THEORY Judith Mayne’s is the most fully reworked from the original and though she does not categorize MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA as a documentary film it is clear that its effort to describe “a day in the life of a Soviet city” both implicates and sets it apart from the documentaries of the 1920’s. Dziga-Vertov’s experiments with the genre, which Mayne characterizes as an investigation of the relationship between perception and representation, are also, as she suggests, an exploration of gender and social formation in a society in transition. Mayne generates a powerful argument to explain the film’s use of male and female workers. She describes how Dziga-Vertov’s images explore the ideological and formal foundations of the cinema while also highlighting the connections which link the activity of working with representations of it. She concludes that MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA, though profoundly self-reflexive cannot evade the male point of view which governs its filmmaking. This is an argument which needs to be applied to the documentary cinema in general where discussions of realism tend to overwhelm a more historical overview of gender position as it influences both the production and comprehension of films. One of the first definitions which I encountered when reading about the cinema in the early 1960’s was ‘moving pictures in time’. I was in the first instance attracted to the simplicity of that explanation since it linked duration with the pictorial process. But what does the definition actually mean? Movement presumably refers to change or to development, though that still explains very little about the suggestion that there is movement in time. I was puzzled by the way in which the cinema both uses and and is used by time. Ironically the discontinuities between production, performance and viewing do not distort time, instead they give a film the appearance of harmony, a ‘sense of the present’. Films, particularly narrative ones manage time very effectively despite their inherent fragmentariness. It is this management of time which is at the heart of narrativity.
Different mediums have different ways of producing narrative forms but in Margaret Morse’s essay in Chapter Three of PLENTY TO SEE EVERYWHERE she examines the conjuncture of narrativity in the novel and film. She finds similar unities of space and time and suggests that the transparency of narrative film, that is its capacity to tell a story without explicit reference to the production mechanisms which have made that telling possible, are not dissimilar to the novel. In particular, identification and seeing are inherent to the process of reading and novels are after all, mechanically produced visual media. Morse extends this dialectic of fragment and whole to a variety of different experiences in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from telegraph to train to telephone to the generalised use of electricity, to the relationship between the automobile and perception in space and time and then of course to the phonograph and cinema. All of these technologies have different ways of overcoming the manner in which they break the visual and auditory into fragments and each has creatively accommodated the need for some sense of unity. But it has been left to the novel and to the cinema to incorporate all of these diverse experiences into their formal structure, to in fact structure their form around the unification of difference. And in so doing both the cinema and the novel have tried to create a reality-effect as a way of integrating and harmonizing their narratives. Morse ends her piece by questioning whether this strategy will work anymore given the present proliferation of stories and images, the interface between fiction and reality, the influences of television. She claims in fact that the imperative to faithfully record the experience of everyday life through the cinema and the novel has become impossible. The context for this change is explored in greater detail by John Fekete who scrutinizes Walter Benjamin’s pivotal position in modern cultural studies. Benjamin’s concern with the patterns of discontinuity manifested in culture and society parallels his efforts to revolutionize and overturn what he saw as bourgeois traditions of realism and narrativity. Benjamin’s aphoristic prose presages the work of McLuhan though Fekete is careful to distance Benjamin from McLuhan by pointing out how Benjamin’s concerns were derived from a creative mix of Marxism, The Frankfurt School and Bertolt Brecht. The aphorism was an intellectual counter-strategy towards ideological totalizations, a reflection of the need to find a new language for talking about the many different and radically innovative cultural forms of the twentieth century. It is in the relationship between the new technologies and their language of expression that Fekete finds the most fertile example of Benjamin’s contribution to cultural theory. Benjamin recognized the potential of the cinema for example to revolutionize an audience’s understanding of the world and while he can be accused of over-optimism he at least tried to situate and contextualize the potential effects of the new mass media at a time when critics like Theodor Adorno were disparaging their very existence. Even more importantly and in line with the concerns of Bertolt Brecht which are examined in great detail by Ben Brewster in the fourth part of Chapter Three, Benjamin was very attentive to the position of the audience and concerned with their capacity to creatively and critically respond to the experience of the new media. For him it was a matter of democracy, of the democratic right to challenge the unidirectionality of the then rapidly developing new technologies. Fekete critiques Benjamin’s precarious assumption that there is a certain rationality and potential to mass audiences. He also questions Benjamin’s desire to produce a new future, an apocalyptic “novum ” which will wipe out the past and put a new and more democratic society in place. The revolutionary impulse is what differentiates Benjamin from other cultural critics though this in and of itself doesn’t guarantee that Benjamin will escape the theoretical pitfalls of a kind of mysticism about the effects of mass media communication which can lead to an overinvestment in their potential for radical change.
Chapter Three contains the second essay by Stephen Heath in this book. The essay was written after the death of Martin Walsh, one of the founding editors of CINE-TRACTS. It was originally presented in the context of the first Martin Walsh Memorial Lecture, an annual talk given during meetings of the Film Studies Association of Canada. Heath’s analysis of the image looks at the contradictions of equating the visible with meaning, of reducing signification to a function of what can be ‘read’ on the screen. This is because Heath’s emphasis is on the role of the imaginary, on both its creative and disruptive potential. He asks how images can be resisted? How can the regime of identification be overcome? How can the implication of the spectator in a circuit of desire and narrative completion be foregrounded? As alternatives he mentions some of the films of Straub-Huillet and Godard. For Heath the resistence to meaning is a political act, one which works against the seeming inevitability of the cinema’s narrative machine, against its use of the female body, against its repeated support for the imperatives of the male gaze. The image in the narrative cinema depends for its very coherence on a relay of looks, with woman at the center, in a kind of specular exploitation often hidden under the guise of entertainment. Heath’s radical redefinition of the image is in large part rooted in his desire to historicize not only the place of the image in the production of meaning, but the very notion that images are at the heart of how meaning operates in films. He thus poses the possibility of a different kind of analysis of the cinema and joins that, as does a filmmaker like Godard, with the assertion that a political cinema must reevaluate the context for the statements which it makes and the epistemological basis for its use of images. The echo of Bertolt Brecht’s ideas can be heard throughout PLENTY TO SEE EVERYWHERE.
Ben Brewster attempts to distill the particular and often contradictory relationship which Brecht had with the cinema. One of the most important ideas which Brewster brings out was Brecht’s concern with pedagogy. Brecht was quite aware of the many contradictory effects which his plays had. He puzzled over the gap between performance and comprehension. He wanted to produce a revolutionary art which would entertain and instruct at the same time, but which would not reduce the complexities of class conflict for example, to a simplistic struggle between good and evil. In the twenties and thirties he came up with a model for a “learning theater” and wrote pieces which he labeled “learning plays”. These were intended to radically alter the performance of a play. In fact they were to be performed by the audience so that the content of the plays would be something which the audience would both feel and be able to reflect upon. Brecht knew that this kind of approach could not be applied to the cinema and in some respects he despaired of it as a medium precisely because of its inflexibility with regards to performance. Brewster tries to show, with reference to some specific examples how the cinema often subverts its own premises from within and how entertainment films for example, can end up creating a new knowledge base for their audience within the parameters and restrictions of the cinematic presentation.
The distribution and exhibition of films need not end up supporting the possible closures of performance and it is Brewster’s conclusion that part of the solution will ironically be found in Brecht’s ideas and proposals for culture in general. Teresa de Lauretis, who joined the editorial board of CINE-TRACTS from its second issue on was a key figure in the history of the journal. Her contribution extended far beyond the essays which she wrote. Her suggestions for articles and her sensitivity to the complexities of putting out a magazine were a continuing source of inspiration to the editors in Montreal. I consider her article in this collection to be of central importance if we are to understand the evolution and history of the theoretical concerns which have so heavily influenced an entire generation of film theorists and writers. It is significant that she begins her essay with a distillation of the centrality of semiotics for cultural theory. Much maligned, not very well understood, semiotic theory can I believe be appropriated as a politicalizing influence for the analysis of cultural objects like film. It is true however that some if its formalist and empirical tendencies have been taken up by film theory (e.g., close or frame by frame analysis of a film). But, as de Lauretis points out a history of the semiotic enterprise reveals as many conflicts between formalists and materialists for example, as might be found in any other discipline.
Thus a good deal of her article is devoted to uncovering the history of one such set of conflicts as they arose in Italy from the fifties and sixties on. De Lauretis explores the appropriation by Italian theorists of early structuralist thought and their transformation of structuralism into the semiotic enterprise. She sees that transformation as a positive thing, as a political act of some import in line with a desire to examine and more fully understand the workings and effects of popular culture on Italian society. In Italy the alliance between semiotic enquiry and the study of ideology was a crucial component in the exploration of how sign systems construct and communicate meaning. Communication and signification, often studied in isolation of each other, are shown by de Lauretis via Umberto Eco to be interdependent since communication can never occur outside of a specific historical context and since signs gain their meaning as a consequence of social and political processes. May ‘68 keeps reappearing throughout de Lauretis’ essay as a fundamental, almost apocalyptic event. Italian semioticians experienced it as a crucial shift in the way in which the political and cultural fabric of their society could be understood. May ‘68 pointed out the necessity for new models, for a new approach to signification, for a more radical understanding of how bourgeois ideologies both failed and succeeded in a moment of crisis. “The emphasis is no longer on the sign systems as mechanisms that generate messages (i.e., on the sign systems seen as the “machinery plants” of semiosic processes); instead semiotic research focuses on the work performed through them, which constitutes and/or transforms the codes, the subjects using the codes (i.e., perform the work), and, however slowly, the systems themselves.” Crucially, raising the problematic of how ‘subjects’ use the codes means that questions of sexual difference must be included in debates about semiotic theory. De Lauretis ends her essay by calling for precisely that kind of intellectual endeavour, later to be realised by her book, ALICE DOESN’T.
Chapter Four has six parts to it and they all, to varying degrees, dwell on problems of film form and film history. Will Straw for example questions the methodological track record of film history itself. He lays bare the often innocent use of archival materials and asks whether the archive is itself no more than an imaginary construction designed to support historical research. Archives don’t house the past in a simple empirical sense but are themselves subject to the context during which they have been created. For film history this is particularly important because archival material classifies information on the cinema as if the archive is a source of truth and in some cases this can overwhelm the way in which the films of a certain period are understood and interpreted. One of the problems in the writing film history is the ephemeral nature of the object itself and Straw discusses the way in which the archive can fill in the gaps and how this can have a detrimental effect on historical research. George Mitchell has so to speak plumbed the depths of the archive and his article on the consolidation of the film industry in the United States during the early part of the twentieth century is full of the detail which was often missing in earlier histories of the cinema. As Straw points out it has been in the area of economic history that the greatest advances have been made in film historiography. Mitchell describes how the demand for films between 1910 and 1920 was so extreme that in response the film industry was essentially made up of small firms guided by the spirit of entrepreneurial capitalism. A large number of films were made and many were political and took an overtly pro-working class stance. The consolidation of the industry was as much an economic concern as it was an ideological one. It affected the internal organization of the production process and it led to a dilution of the power of the director in favour of a more industrial model with the real power in the hands of bankers and producers. It is Mitchell’s thesis that this had profound effects on the content of the films which were made and it is certainly a thesis which Peter Watkins upholds in his piece on the media. The move towards almost complete monopoly ownership in the media has been a central part of the 1980’s and though there have been many efforts to establish alternative film and television production and distribution mechanisms only a few have succeeded and only in the face of tremendous odds. The range of political activities in relation to the media has increased but actual access has only marginally improved. This is what makes the film, SONG OF THE SHIRT so interesting and the efforts of the Film and History Project in Great Britain so important. The film was made collectively. It was designed not to be shown in one sitting in a cinema. Its style is fragmentary and full of self-reflexive commentary. It is both narrative and anti-narrative at the same time. It challenges the viewer and then interrogates the validity of its own motives. It reconstructs historical events and then foregrounds the difficulties and potential pitfalls of a cinema which attempts to reconstruct the past. The result is a pastiche with the past as yet one other discourse among many, with history stripped of any possible relationship to some kind of transcendent truth. Yet another and more radical kind of history comes out of this film, a history which takes the suppressed voice of women and restores what has been elided. Even more important is the way in which a new history is written, one which is unafraid of its own ideological premises, which in fact takes great pleasure in revealing its political priorities. Beale ends her article by showing how the encounter between psychoanalysis and feminism influenced the film and how its search for a new way of talking to its audience could only have been possible through that encounter.
While many of the essays in EXPLORATIONS IN FILM THEORY mention television Phil Vitone’s article takes up the debate about the role of television in our culture through a comparison of the pedagogical strategies which conventional T.V. and educational T.V. use to address their audiences. There is a tendency in the latter to presume an almost direct relationship between information and understanding. This fundamental reduction of the complexity of viewing which has also been challenged by film theory is shown by Vitone to be at the heart of the formal strategies which educational broadcasters use in the production of their programs. The links then between the formal and the ideological characteristics of film and television emerges as a major theme of EXPLORATIONS IN FILM THEORY. The need to understand the production of meaning as a discursive and practical activity governed in large part by institutional and political imperatives is a part of many of the articles in this book. Most importantly what emerges out so many of the essays is the importance of foregrounding and theorizing the role of sexual difference as an integral part of any history of the cultural forms of mass media, especially in relation to the cinema. And without a clear step in that direction studies of the spectator, of subject position, and of films themselves will inevitably reproduce precisely the idealism and the politically regressive stances of so much that has stood for film analysis in the past. Footnotes
1 Bertolt Brecht, Poems: 1913-1956 ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (New York: Methuen, 1976), pp. 358-359.
2 See Arthur Kroker and David Cook, The Postmodern Scene:Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics, (Montreal: New World Perspectives, 1986); Jean Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images (Sydney: Power Institute Publications, 1984); Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
3 Aside from Umberto Eco’s many books I would refer the reader to a recent interview, Umberto Eco, Magazine litteraire, 262, (February 1989), pp. 18-33.
4 Baudrillard, The Evil Demon of Images, p. 19.
5 Ibid., p.21.
6 Robert Hughes, “The Patron Saint of Neo-Pop,” New York Review of Books, Vol. 36, No. 9 (June, 1989), p. 29.
7 Cine-Tracts , Vol 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1977), p. 5.
8 David Allen and Teresa de Lauretis, “Introduction,” Cine-Tracts , Vol. 1, No. 2, (Summer 1977) p. 3.
9 For an important critique of post-structuralist notions of subjectivity see, Gillian Rose, Dialectic of Nihilism: Post- Structuralism and the Law, (London and New York: Blackwell Publishers, 1984).
10 See Cine-Tracts , Volume 4, No. 4., (Winter, 1982).
11 Part of a trilogy by Van der Keuken on the impact of modern technology on everyday life.
12 “A Dossier on Johan Van der Keuken,” Cine-Tracts, Vol. 1, No. 4. (Spring-Summer, 1978), pp.12-29.