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.