Month: March 2009

AAR Proposal

I received word that my proposal for this year’s AAR has been accepted.  Here’s what I’ve proposed (it may sound vaguely familiar):

Cinema and Subjectivity: On the Possibility of Theological Films

The relationship between theology and film is often characterised by the use of film to illustrate theological concepts or present Biblical narratives.  In this paper I argue that only by redefining this relationship is it possible for film to function appropriately in relation to theology.  It is only in the context of the process of such a redefinition that film can be used to teach theology.  In the process of this argument, I will also review the importance of recent continental philosophy for understanding cinema as a distinct discipline.

 

This argument will proceed through fourth stages.  First, I will briefly present examples of films typically regarded as theological.  These may be separated into two categories: 1) films which are explicit in their attempt to be theological, such as The Passion of the Christ; and 2) films which explore theological themes (i.e., sacrifice, redemption), such as 300.  Having divided ‘theological’ films into these two categories, it is possible to demonstrate how nearly any film can be regarded as theological.

In the second stage, I will argue that this categorisation demonstrates an inadequate understanding of the relationship between film and theology.  Using the work of Alain Badiou, Peter Greenaway, and John Mullarkey I will begin to redefine what it means to call a film ‘theological.’  Greenaway argues that the first century of cinema has largely been confined to a process of illustrating texts.  Film, as a medium, is often constrained by enduring connections to nineteenth century literature.  In Badiou’s terminology, film remains part of a statist configuration.  Badiou also offers a way of reconceiving the role of film.  He describes art as one of four truth procedures.  Truth procedures, within his model, are modes of subjectivisation.  I will argue that the key to film operating as a truth procedure, and hence operating theologically, is the examination of film as a medium.

The theoretical impetus for this redefinition stems from an important recent work by John Mullarkey entitled Refractions of Reality.  In his book, Mullarkey argues that film must be understood as non-philosophy.  In other words film cannot be reduced to cinematic explorations of philosophical concepts; film is its own thought.  Similarly, I would posit that film cannot be understood as theology, but only as non-theology.  To use a more theologically familiar bifurcation, it might be said that theological films are idolatrous; non-theological films are iconic.

To explain this difference, it will be necessary to examine cinematic subjectivisation.  In this third stage I will argue that as film engages itself as a medium it embraces its capacity to subjectivise the viewer.  This process of subjectivisation is the site of films non-theological potential.  As Greenaway’s films explode film from within, the viewer is presented the opportunity of subjectivisation; he or she is granted agency as a viewer who has been promoted to participant.  This promotion opens the possibility of creative responses to cinematic experiences instead of being trapped within predetermined statist responses.  This stage thus provides the point of conjunction of the paper’s three major resources: Mullarkey demonstrates that film must be understood as non-philosophy, Badiou provides a schema that allows non-philosophy to be considered in relation to subjectivisation, and Greenaway reveals how this process of subjectivisation is dependent on film’s examination of itself as a medium.

In the fourth and final stage, I will consider the importance of this reconfiguraiton for thinking the role of film in teaching theology.  Books and courses on theology and film have become as numerous as those on philosophy and film.  Yet in both instances film tends to be consigned to illustrating concepts.  In order to demonstrate how film might function non-theologically in the classroom, I will briefly examine Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad.  To show this non-theological operation, I will explain how the film challenges the four tyrannies that Greenaway argues threaten cinema as a medium: 1) the tyranny of the text; 2) the tyranny of the frame; 3) the tyranny of the actor; and  4) the tyranny of the camera.  I will show the dismantling of these tyrannies through a variety of cinematic techniques enable a film to function in a non-theological fashion.  This dismantling might be summarised in the film’s four refusals: 1) the refusal of plot; 2) the refusal of point of view; 3) the refusal of chronology; and 4) the refusal of naturalism.  These refusals do not correspond to specific theological doctrine, but engage in the practice of non-theology. 

This paper hopes to not only to relate recent advancements in film theory, but to indicate the continuing need for theology to have an aesthetic theory that is not subordinated to doctrine.  This argument challenges recent attempts within some North American Christian communities to develop an alternative Christian film industry.  In contrasting these developments with the efforts of directors such as Greenaway and Resnais, I will show how non-theological work has been underway and deserves the attention and respect of the theological community.

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More on Althusser and the critique of political economy

I found another passage that lends support to the hypothesis I offered yesterday on the relationship between politics and economy. In this section of his essay ‘Contradiction and Overdetermination,’ Althusser is arguing against various interpretations a well-known quote from Capital: ‘With Hegel, the dialectic is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.’ The main goal in the essay is rejecting readings of Marx which remained in Hegelian idealism. These readings are legion apparently (or at least were when Althusser was writing), so he describes and critiques a variety of the existent possibilities.

One such temptation is to interchange the role of the economic and the politco-ideological. ‘While for Hegel, the politico-ideological was the essence of the economic, for Marx, the economic will be the essence of the politico-ideological. The political will therefore be merely pure phenomena of the economic which will be their “truth”’ (108).

Althusser responds to this by arguing, as is his habit, that this swapping of roles remains within the structure of Hegelian dialectics. ‘The logical destination of this temptation is the exact mirror image of the Hegelian dialectic – the only difference being that it is no longer a question of deriving the successive moments from the Idea, but from the Economy, by virtue of the same internal contradiction. This temptation results in the radical reduction of the dialectic of history to the dialectic generating the successive modes of production, that is, in the last analysis, the different production techniques’ (108).

Althusser goes on to render Hegel’s internal contradiction problematic, and instead argues for his own notion of ‘overdetermination.’ This concept exposes the reductive simplicity of Hegel’s understanding of contradiction and combats another frequent foe of Althusser, the geneticist structure of Hegelian dialectics. Anyway, overdetermination renders economics only determinative in the last instance, and the last instance never comes. I confess I’m still struggling with this last point; I don’t quite follow his argument about the relation between overdetermination and ‘in the last instance.’

(These quotes are from the edition of For Marx in Verso’s Radical Thinkers series)

Althusser, Badiou, and the Critique of Political Economy

At the recent ‘Idea of Communism’ conference at Birkbeck in London, Badiou reiterated his position regarding political economy.  If I understood him correctly, Badiou was arguing that the answer to capitalism is political not economic.  One cannot move from economics to politics (I’m pretty sure that’s a direct quote).

 

I find this position troubling.  After all, Marx wrote on political economy, right?  It also troubles my more economically minded friends, who see a necessary economic element in the challenge to capitalism.

 

Though I won’t go so far as agreeing with Badiou’s argument, I came across a passage in Althusser which rendered his position clearer (for me at least).  It comes from his essay ‘On Marx and Freud,’ which can be found in his Writings on Psychoanalysis.

 

Althusser is here discussing the process of abandoning bourgeois or petty-bourgeois positions in favour of proletarian ones:

 

‘In the “displacement” that has him occupying proletarian class theoretical positions, Marx discovers that despite all the merits of its authors, political economy as it exists is not fundamentally a science but a theoretical formation of bourgeois ideology, playing its role in the ideological class struggle.  He discovers that it is not only the detail of existing political economy that is to be criticized but that the very idea, the project, and thus the existence of political economy – which can be thought of as an independent and autonomous discipline only on the condition of disguising class relations and the class struggle that it is its ideological mission to conceal – deserve to be called into question and doubt. Marx’s theoretical revolution thus arrives at the conclusion that there is no political economy… and that it is all the more emphatically the case that there is no Marxist political economy.  That does not mean there is nothing; rather, it means that Marx rejects the object that political economy was alleged to be with an entirely different reality that becomes intelligible through entirely different principles, those of historical materialism, in which class struggle becomes determinant for understanding so-called economic phenomena’ (113).

 

Allegiance to Marx is much more of a concern for Althusser than for Badiou, but this passage seems to indicate a potential source for Badiou’s understanding.  The accuracy of Althusser’s reading and the efficacy of Marx’s argument, of course, are an entirely different matter.

 

I wonder if Althusser’s statement could be reworded like this: the ideological role of political economy is to complicate the terrain of resistance by claiming that it is a network of political and economic relations that determine class relations.  In contrast, Marx is arguing that class relations are political (this fits with Engel’s definition of political power as ‘merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another’).  So without denying the reality of economic relations, one can state that these relations are simply a weapon in the arsenal of oppression of one class by another.  I think this formulation then raises a larger question: if class oppression is not reducible to economics (both in its means and its goals) what are the motivations of these tyrannies?

Thinking Cinema with Greenaway, Resnais, and Godard (part 3)

In the previous posts I used Peter Greenaway’s four tyrannies to analyse two films that I think engage film as a medium.  At the beginning of this series, I posed a dilemma: if I am right and film’s goal should be to challenge its limits as a medium, what does this mean for regular movies?

I think a series of qualifications need to be made before further addressing this impasse.  First, Greenaway’s criteria are only one example of film challenging itself.  For instance, the famous long take in Children of Men does not challenge the tyranny of the camera in the sense described by Greenaway.  It makes the viewer aware of this tyranny.  It refuses to allow the viewer respite from the rapidly unfolding action.

Second, there are films which are challenging, but are not necessarily challenging as films.  The films of Michael Haneke are an example of this case.  While one might argue that it is challenging in that he rejects cinematic conventions, I would respond that he challenges cinematic conventions that are in fact literary conventions illustrated cinematically (I should here admit that I have not yet seen his films and am going on second hand information).  Similarly, the famous money down the toilet scene in The Seventh Continent is disturbing, but I think it is arguable that is disturbing as an image.  A photograph of a similar situation would also be disturbing.

Third, Greenaway does not make room for the figures and films which established these tyrannies.  Eisenstein and Hitchcock could not challenge the tyranny of the camera because they were too busy challenging the capacity of the camera.  That is to say, this present project is historically specific.  I think this allows these films to be appreciated in their own right without diminishing the critical capacity of Greenaway’s schema.

By regular films, I’m talking about what you find in your typical chain cinema complex and probably 90% of what wins Oscars.  In understanding these films, Alain Badiou’s Handbook of Inaesthetics is quite helpful.  Badoiu is describing art’s relationship to truth and he presents four possible understandings of this relationship.  The first two, didactic and romantic, do not bear on the present argument.  The issue arises in the classical and inaesthetic approaches.  The classical approach is, in brief, an Aristotelian position.  Art’s relationship to truth is inconsequential because the purpose of art is not to relate to truth.  As Badiou writes, ‘within the classical schema, art is not a form of thought.  It is entirely exhausted by its act or by its public operation… we could say that in the classical view, art is a public service’ (5).

As I mentioned a few posts back, I am concerned with developing a theory of aesthetics which values art as a distinct practice of thought.  So it would seem that I should reject the classical view.  Badiou’s approach, inaesthetics, is the one that delineates the space for my own (developing) theory.  My question is whether it is acceptable to allow for a classical operation of mediums by differentiating these forms of expression from art.

I love the show House (at least the first few seasons), and there are films that I have an inexplicable attachment to, despite knowing that they are absolutely terrible.  The Transporter movies come to mind.  My instinct is to say that these movies are relatively harmless and that they do operate in a kind of Aristotelian fashion: you sit down, get lost in ridiculous plots, and at the end of the show the predictable resolution provides a cathartic effect.  Maybe we can just call this ‘movies’ and use ‘film’ and ‘cinema’ to describe what Badiou and Greenaway are talking about.

It’s not long, though, before you realise that these films are part of what Badiou calls the state of the situation.  On the one hand, they reinforce practices within mediums which inaesthetic endeavours try to combat.  If I think that film qua film is defined by the tracing and challenging of its limits, then it doesn’t make much sense to say that the films that sit comfortably within these limits are inconsequential.  On the other hand, these films perpetuate logics, values, and narratives that are politically troubling (I should note here that I have a theory that at the heart of all truth procedures is a political core, so I see Greenaway’s project as a political one.  Badiou, at least from what I’ve been able to read, rejects this conflation, but I nonetheless maintain that all truth procedures are disruptive acts of fidelity).  I put this issue to a friend recently and he pointed out that everything we do is complicit in the state of the situation.  Even if I try to live in fidelity to an event, it is unlikely that nothing I do will avoid complicity

In the end, I don’t have an answer.  I’ll just keep watching House while I hope that the next film sent from my Lovefilm queue is Godard or Greenaway.

Thinking Cinema with Greenaway, Resnais, and Godard (part 2)

Godard’s Passion is another example of exploding cinema from within. Like Marienbad, the film doesn’t have a traditional plot. Loosely, the film centres on the efforts of enigmatic director, Michel, who is attempting to complete an increasingly expensive film. A secondary story is spliced into this one, featuring a young woman organising the workers of a factory.

Lets again consider Greenaway’s tyrannies, though without the convenience of a neat schema like Vincendeau’s. First, there is the tyranny of the text. In case you miss Godard’s rejection of traditional narrative, Michel frequently has conversations about plot. Potential financial backers ask for a summary of the story and he erupts; there is no need for a plot, why do they always ask for the plot, etc. The film consists of recreations of paintings, so the scenes on set often involve motionless figures caught in dramatic lighting. In the other story line, there is a scene during a meeting of the workers, where one of the women, Hannah, is reading lines from socialist literature. Whilst the text makes sense in the context of a workers’ meeting, its mechanical presentation can be taken as a rejection of texts determinative presence.

Second, and perhaps most effectively, is Godard’s rejection of the frame. A good deal of the film takes place on the set of the film being directed by Michel. Often the scene transitions from one framed world to another; that is, from the frame of the camera in the film to the frame of the camera filming the camera in the film. The characters of the scene sometimes shatter this border. The film is constantly reminding us that there is something occurring outside, before, and after the frame that presently restricts the gaze.

Third, is Godard’s rejection of character. It is an ensemble cast and the viewer’s identification is left shifting from character to character. In terms of Greenaway’s schema, this point is the weakest in the film.

Finally, Godard effectively rejects the tyranny of the camera. Even in the film, the director views the film one of his two lovers, Isabelle, who is in the film. As they watch the film on a screen surrounded by audio-visual equipment, we are exposed to the malleable nature of the celluloid medium.

All in all, I find Godard’s effort, in this instance, less effective. Granted, Godard did not start out to address Greenaway’s criteria, but he did want to transgress cinematic convention and, in my opinion, this effort is thwarted by his heavy-handed approach to the rejection of plot. In relation to the ‘thin line between brilliance and intellectual pretension’, I think Godard falls on the side of pretension. The film lacks the geometric sophistication and deft touch of Resnais in Marienbad.

Thinking Cinema with Greenaway, Resnais, and Godard (part 1)

If this post had a subtitle, it might be ‘Travelling the thin line between brilliance and intellectual pretension.’  Picking up on my invocation of Peter Greenaway’s four tyrannies towards the end of my previous post, I want to examine two films that I watched this weekend, and suggest that they both represent refusals of these tyrannies.  Yet I find that demonstrating these refusals brings one to an impasse: does this understanding of cinema negate the legitimacy of ‘normal’ movies?

 

First, it is helpful to recall that Greenaway suggests that there are four tyrannies that govern film:

 

1)      the tyranny of the text

2)      the tyranny of the frame

3)      the tyranny of the actor

4)      the tyranny of the camera

 

This weekend I watched Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, which I’ll just refer to as Marienbad for hereon).  The film garnered quite a lot of attention upon its release in France.  The producers initially rejected it, so Resnais resorted to showing it in a series of small screenings attended by the likes of Breton, Sartre, and Deleuze.  Indeed, according to the presentation given by Ginette Vincendeau (I love bonus features), Deleuze found this film to be a prime example of time-image.

 

Vincendeau also presents the film as a series of four refusals, which, conveniently enough, line up quite well with Greenaway’s four tyrannies:

 

1)      the refusal of plot

2)      the refusal of point of view

3)      the refusal of chronology

4)      the refusal of naturalism

 

Roughly, it could be argued that 1 and 3 refuse the tyranny of the text, 2 and 4 refuse the tyranny of the actor, and 3 and 4 refuses the tyranny of the camera.  The tyranny of the frame kind of disrupts the neatness of this schema, but more on that later.  A brief note: for simplicities sake, I will use the letters assigned to the characters in the original book by Robbe-Grillet. X is the male narrator, A is the woman he speaks to, and M is maybe her husband.

 

The film’s plot, to the extent it can be said to have one, could be summarised as a man’s attempt to convince a woman that they had a love affair the previous year (or at least some previous year).  Yet there are constant challenges to this summary.  We’re never sure if the two actually have actually met before.  We’re not sure if it was actually a love affair or if it was some form of sexual violence.  If it was sexual violence, we’re not sure if it was perpetrated by X or if A is responding to some repressed sexual experience.  At times X seems to dictating the plot; scenes appear and he rejects them as wrong (with it never being clear if this is because the scene didn’t happen or because it’s not happening the way he wants it to).  The scenes cut back and forth suddenly.  Sometimes the background changes while the characters’ clothing remains the same.  Sometimes their clothing changes but the background remains the same.  To the extent the film has a present, we’re unsure if it lasts minutes or weeks.  Thus Marienbadeffectively casts off the chains of nineteenth century literature, which Greenaway claims sits in the seat of power in the tyranny of the text.

 

It is not very long into the film that we begin to doubt the reliability of X’s narration.  For one, A seems to find the retelling unconvincing.  Moreover, as mentioned above, we cannot trust the narration of a character who changes the story to meet his desires or dubious memory.  Marienbad, in rejecting the authenticity of the narrator, leaves the film without a trustworthy point of view.  This situation could be contrasted to Fight Club or The Usual Suspects, where, respectively, we join the narrator in the journey to his realisation or are tricked by the clever narration of the story.  The rejection of the character amounts to a rejection of the actor. This rejection is further demonstrated by the refusal of naturalism.  The characters move in an odd stilted fashion.  The character A frequently seems to obey X’s description of scenes, mechanically moving into position.  A scene in the ballroom depicts dancers moving all in step with one another.  As Vincendeau puts it, in regard to A, what we watch is not a bad actress giving a bad performance, but a good actress giving a bad performance intentionally.

 

At the end of the previous post, I explained that the tyranny of the camera suggests that for too long the camera has determined film.  Marienbad refuses this tyranny in its refusal of chronology.  The editing process is key; it constructs the story that circles the absence of a plot.  It constructs odd situations.  We find the character standing in a garden scarred by their harsh shadows, but the geometric trees lining the avenue cast no shadow.  So the editor participates in the refusal of naturalism as much as the awkward motions of the actors.

 

 The tyranny of the frame is the only form of slavery to escape Vincendeau’s schematisation of Resnais’ triumph.  I think the overcoming of the frame comes in the frequent use of mirrors to create shots containing infinite regresses.  The characters are seen disappearing into infinity.  I suppose it could be argued that this infinity remains bound by the frame, both of the screen and of the mirror, but I think it remains arguable that the frequent reflections manage to at least challenge the frame’s dominance.  Alternatively, perhaps the tyranny of the frame is cast off in the final scene where A and X escape the screen, leaving it empty save for the solemn figure of M.

 

This second option is underscored in an interpretation favoured by French writer Pierre Andelotthat.  It sees X as the only self-conscious character in a cinematic world.  X is thus attempting to liberate A, dare we say, from Greenaway’s tyrannies, defeating text, actor, and camera before escaping the frame.  This fits with the idea of X as director, instructing A and rejecting scenes until at last he frees A.  The couple renders the camera powerless which, as they elude the hold of the frame, refocuses on M, who remains victim to celluloid.

 

I found Marienbad a thoroughly enjoyable film.  Regarding the subtitle, it manages to destroy cinematic convention without slipping into self-indulgence.  The film is beautiful full of geometric shapes and movement that are as much a part of the film as the dialogue.

 

This post is getting quite long, so I’ll leave my thoughts on Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion and the discussion of my impasse to a future post.