Film theory is very much in a state of flux at present. And so is film criticism, or at least the only film criticism worth taking seriously—that which attempts to base the practice of film criticism on sound theoretical foundations.
Among film scholars there seems to be general agreement now on only one thing: we have entered a “post-Bazin” era of film theory and criticism. There was not even this much general agreement as recently as the winter of 1970, when I launched a controversial reevaluation of Bazin s aesthetics in a guest-lecture at UCLA. But although I have been in the forefront of those pointing out that Bazin s aesthetics of “ontological realism” lacked valid theoretical foundations and were rife with hidden ideological bias, nonetheless, there is one important way I would like to pay homage to André Bazin. And I find it particularly timely to point out now, when most attempts at film theory are so turgidly abstract and abstruse, that Bazin had a wonderful ability to do theory and criticism simultaneously. He utilized his marvelous sensitivity and intelligence to elucidate individual films and the workings of cinema throughout film history; and he developed the theoretical position of his aesthetics in the practice of the critical analysis of particular films.
Not that I am arguing that all film theory should be developed within the format of a criticial analysis of individual films. But I am pointing to a gap between theory and criticism that has been growing wider for some years now. And the situation has reached the point where theoretical critiques and counter-critiques of various forms of structuralism and semiology are carried out in a vacuum, with hardly a reference—much less any critical application of the “theory”—to particular films.
Too often in the hands of pedants whose academic penchant for writing commentaries upon commentaries upon commentaries rivals the obscurantist excesses of medieval scholasticism, today’s attempts at film theory are retreating further and further from the critical discussion of films. Not only does this impoverish our discourse about film, it also raises serious doubts about the relevance of film theory in general.
My own approach has been quite different. Deploring that ever-widening gap between theory and criticism, I have sought to develop theory in the critical analysis of certain key films that have forced us to pose the theoretical issues in new ways. These films have not only challenged our expectations of what a film should be; they have also challenged our notions about how the cinema—and art in general—functions in the advanced industrial societies of Western Europe and America.
Numerically, of course, such challenging and politically provocative films represent a tiny drop of water in the huge torrent of worldwide commercial film production. However, because of the peculiar “tastemaking” function of that marginal and politically shifting class of petit bourgeois intellectuals, it occasionally happens that in an industry like the commercial cinema, where the vast majority of products (films) are so appallingly mediocre, a film that seriously challenges the status quo may be given the sort of critical attention that establishes it as a kind of cultural benchmark. As such, its influence is potentially quite important.
However, the bourgeois press and the petit bourgeois intellectual journals usually deal with potentially subversive films in the same way they deal with all the other films. Thus, reviewed in terms of whether or not this particular consumer product offers enough spectacle to make it worth the price of admission, or critically examined in terms of its place in the pantheon of film masterpieces, even an explicitly militant film is to some extent coopted by the commodity structure of the intellectual art market.
But it is only relatively co-opted; and we must be careful to emphasize that by no means all of the subversive power of a politically militant film gets defused; quite the contrary, the struggle at the level of conflicting ideologies can be extremely effective, for the hegemony of bourgeois ideology may be pervasive but is by no means absolute. Nor is bourgeois ideology itself some eternal, impregnable entity that is invulnerable to attack.
Thus, it is of the utmost importance to deal with politically challenging films in another ideological context, which, unlike the commodity context of bourgeois capitalist ideology, will enable us to illuminate and emphasize the political as well as the artistic challenges manifested in these films. This is the direction, then, and the urgent task to which my own critical and theoretical work has been devoted.
In this undertaking, the films of Godard—and of Godard and Gorin—have obviously proved particularly fruitful. But not only can the Marxist theoretical analysis developed in this book be applied fruitfully to Godard’s films and to the other films I discuss, but also it can be applied successfully to all films. My own choice has been to concentrate on films that not only challenge and demystify capitalist ideology but also offer, either explicitly or implicitly, a socialist ideology. And I made this choice because I believe it is of the highest priority to seize the offensive whenever we have the opportunity.
In the cinema, unfortunately, there are few films that enable us to take the offensive against capitalism and the ruling bourgeoisie; and it would be a drastic error to let such opportunities pass us by. But it is also useful—although in my mind it is a secondary task—to apply the Marxist analysis to some of the multitude of films that serve to reinforce the dominant bourgeois capitalist ideology. Two fine examples of this other application of Marxist film criticism are the Cahiers du Cinémas’s collective text on John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln 1 and Charles Eckert’s insightful analysis of the 1937 Warner Brothers production A Marked Woman.2 (For more extended consideration of the issues explored by these texts, see Chapter 17. )
In any case, I think it is fair to say that the films of Godard— and of Godard and Gorin—have been seminal influences on all of us who have been developing a Marxist critical methodology to apply to the cinema. And many of our insights into the relations between cinema and ideology could not have been achieved if Godard and Gorin had not pioneered the way by performing their own analysis of these relations in images and sounds.
For myself, I readily acknowledge how closely involved my own work is with Godard’s. Some of the same radical developments are clearly evident in my writings as in his films. And this of course is no accident. Not only am I working in the same conjuncture of art and politics as Godard, but, more directly, I developed a great deal of my own theoretical position in the process of examining the issues raised by the films of Godard.
The reader can trace this development quite easily in the section of Film and Revolution dealing with the Godard films. Thus, in the chapters on La Chinoise and Two or Three Things I Know About Her, Made in USA, and Weekend (chapters 1-3 ), theory is dealt with implicitly rather than explicitly, at least to a large extent. And in the succeeding chapters the Marxist theory of ideology, which underlies all that I have written, only gradually comes to the forefront in an explicit and pointedly political way.
Between the “Critique” section of the chapter on Le Gai Savior and the “Auto-Critique du Critique” section of that same chapter, there is clearly some sort of break. In some ways one can even speak of an “epistemological break” here. (Certainly, it is not one I take any personal credit for: it derives of course from my reading of Althusser at that time,3 and, indirectly, from Godard and Gorin’s reading of Althusser, which clearly influenced their film-making.) In any case, what is involved theoretically are the epistemological foundations of our understanding of knowledge. And what involves us, in film, in these issues are the epistemological foundations of the cinema’s way of getting at, or producing, knowledge.
The philosophical issues are complex. But let us say simply that Althusser credits Marx with founding in Das Kapital a new, more scientifically valid conception of knowledge in which the emphasis is on the practice of the production of knowledge. This materialist theory of knowledge rejects the empiricists’ subject/ object split and its bias toward contemplation, which conveniently removes knowledge to a detached, passive, and purely mental (idealist) realm. Thus, in simple terms, turning even Hegel around and standing Hegel’s idealist dialectic back on its feet on solid ground instead of on its head, Marx asserts that knowledge is not “found” by a thinking subject’s contemplation of objects but is rather produced in the practice of material interaction between men, women, and things.
As Julia Kristeva expressed it in the pages of the influential French journal of Marxist film theory, Cinéthique:
Practice thus becomes ... the locus of the contradiction (identity and/or difference) between the subject and the object, between sense and matter. Practice is thus the hinge on which turns the relationship between the subject (and thus of its “signifying systems”) and its exterior, or, if you will, its negative. There is no object which is not already given in a practice (of the subject, a signifying practice); but neither is there a subject which is not refounded, modified, by practice, within the object as its negative.4
For film-makers like Godard and Gorin, the concern with epistemology has entailed some major shifts in our understanding of the relations between film and “reality.” And this in turn has entailed some major shifts in the relations between a film and its audience. Rejecting as illusion (and as an ideologically biased illusion) André Bazin’s notion that film somehow “reveals” the essential, transcendental “truth” of reality, Godard and Gorin openly acknowledge the practice and work of the film-makers not just in producing a film but also in producing significations about reality. Moreover, “reality,” itself, comes to be understood as having no meaning apart from the significations we produce in our social practice with men, women, and things. Making a film—and likewise viewing a film—are thus ways of producing significations : they are signifying practices. And “truth” itself is no longer understood as immanent in things and beings, as if lying there waiting to be “revealed” (like God’s grace); it is ultimately nothing more and nothing less than the significations and material transformations we produce in social practice.
It is only appropriate, of course, that where the cinema is concerned, an epistemological break should occur when one really begins to understand Le Gai Savoir. For in that film Godard himself (he was still working alone at that time) attempted to explore the epistemological issues raised by Althusser, to express in cinematic terms that coupure (break) which was more than a break with the system (although it was definitely that too) ; and to lay out the ABC’s of a new, epistemologically valid cinematic approach to the production of knowledge.
A difficult task, to be sure, and even in Le Gai Savoir the underlying theory is far more cryptically implicit than explicit. And that is also the case obviously for Godard’s next film, One Plus One. And this still not very explicit character of theory (in films which contain very little that one would recognize as spectacle) is precisely what makes these transitional films of Godard’s own break such maddeningly difficult films to grasp.
Let us not assume, however, that theoretical explicitness is as much of a virtue in art itself as it is in art criticism. After all, even Brecht guarded against overexplicitness in his art. And when I asked Gorin and Godard recently about the increased theoretical explicitness of their films, Jean-Pierre laughingly replied that “the most explicit film of them all, Struggle in Italy, was undoubtedly our worst.” And Jean-Luc’s comment was “Why be explicit? That’s just playing God.”
In any case, let’s avoid making another fetish of “theoretical explicitness.” Even in film criticism let’s not overreact to the absence of theoretical foundations in what passes for film criticism but is mere journalistic reviewing, for if we overreact we are in danger of making such a fetish of theoretical explicitness that we may never get around to examining critically even the few films that would help us to pose the theoretical issues in a more useful, productive way.
For example, where Godard’s work “before the break” is concerned, I find much that is useful—even if theoretically implicit rather than explicit—in all his films, but particularly Two or Three Things, Made in USA, La Chinoise, and Weekend. Epistemological breaks aside, I have not ceased to appreciate La Chinoise 1 s lucidly self-critical exploration of the artist’s role in society. For it has seemed to me that this must be the central issue for the artist who seeks to carry out his or her* political commitment not just on the side, in press conferences or fundraising speeches, but right there, as Walter Benjamin put it (in “The Artist as Producer”), where he works, where he really produces something. Godard, it was clear even at the time of La Chinoise (and let’s not forget that this film came before the French “May Events” of 1968), accepted the responsibilities and limitations, or, better yet, the contradictions, of his position as an artist who sought to involve himself in the political struggle . . . in his work as an artist.
Moreover, as the French May Events and our own “events” in the U.S.A. bore out, what was particularly electrifying was the fact that students, artists, and intellectuals were at last beginning to recognize and rebel against the way in which they too, like the blue-collar workers, are invariably exploited, alienated, and co-opted, even in their limited avenues of protest, by a bourgeois capitalist system whose ideology permeates all social relations and which threatens—as Godard’s Made in USA and Weekend offered grim reminders—to reduce all of us to “one-dimensional men,” passive consumers of la société du spectacle.
For me, writing film criticism has meant fighting that rulingclass ideology where it operates in the cinema, and that has meant carrying on class struggle in what I wrote. As Walter Benjamin put it (again, in “The Artist as Producer” ), “The place of the intellectual in class struggle cannot be situated, or better chosen, in any other terms than according to his positon in the process of production.”
To put it plainly, the much-heard phrase “bring class struggle into your own life” does not mean that everyone should immediately become a factory worker; but it does mean that everyone should stop to analyze the class struggle, sometimes blatant, more often hidden, that operates in our everyday relations to men, women, and things. And, of course, once that analysis is made, we are confronted with the imperative of choice. The first ques־ tion is simply whether we take sides with the exploiters and oppressors or whether we join the struggle for revolutionary liberation. The second question, more difficult, is what is to be done?
The present book took shape from my own commitment to the struggle for revolutionary liberation and from my growing conviction that the struggle must be carried out on all fronts, even in film criticism. As I developed my own understanding of Godard’s films—and as I encountered other films like La Hora de los Hornos, Ice, WR: The Mysteries of the Organism, and The Working Class Goes to Heaven, which also probed the potential and the need for revolutionary liberation—the more I realized that there were more useful and more urgent tasks than adding to the bookshelves yet another “auteur” study, and that the real subject of my writing was not Godard alone (and by this time Godard was no longer alone ), but film and revolution.
However, in examining the relations between film and the struggle for revolutionary liberation, I have purposely resisted, for the most part, the temptation to stake out boundaries and to define characteristics of some new genre of film that might go under the rubric “the revolutionary film.” Categorizing films this way does not seem particularly meaningful to me. And the task of exploring relations between a given film and its ideological situation seems to me a far more fruitful and urgent task than simply carving out a new compartment of film history.
Thus, the films examined in this book range from explicitly militant films like Solanas’s La Hora de los Hornos and Godard’s British Sounds (two films that would almost certainly figure on anyone’s list of “revolutionary films”) to certain other films like Rossellini’s La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV and Marcel Ophuls’Le Chagrin et la Pitié, which, although they seem to me to explore certain relations between film and revolution, would nonetheless hardly be categorized as revolutionary films.
On the other hand, I would contend that the richness of insight with which Rossellini develops a materialist analysis of history in La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV and the insistent emergence within Le Chagrin et la Pitié of a class analysis of French political attitudes make these particular films more productive in heightening revolutionary consciousness than such films as The Battle of Algiers, Burn!, or State of Siege. These latter films are useful in stirring up emotional support and sympathy for the revolutionary cause, as well as in stirring up a healthy sense of revolutionary outrage at the paramilitary machinations the ruling class uses to maintain its power and privileges. But The Battle of Algiers, Burn!, and State of Siege (to name only the best of such films) do not go very much beyond the emotional level; and we have seen from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will just how frighteningly easy it is to use the emotional power of the cinema to arouse masses of people to support even the most unjust and ignominious causes.
If revolution is to be truly liberating, it must be much more than just the emotional revenge of the oppressed. And if a filmmaker’s commitment to revolutionary liberation is more than just an emotional identification with the oppressed, then his cinematic practice must address itself to the viewer in a way that calls forth all his human faculties, rational and emotional, instead of relying on the emotional manipulation of the viewer’s tendency to identify with the characters on the screen.
For me, then, examining the relations between film and revolution has meant, among other things, not artificially separating content and form, and then privileging content by simply noting that a given film takes sides either for the ruling capitalist bourgeoisie or for the proletarian and Third World forces of liberation. Instead, whether writing on individual films or (as in the third section of Film and Revolution) examining the theoretical foundations of film criticism, I have found it necessary to concentrate on the whole range of relations between film and ideology that are manifested as much in the relations between images and sounds on celluloid as in the film-makers (or the theorist’s) selection and treatment (or omission) of political themes.
* I have tried in this book to avoid using the male pronouns he, his, and him in the generic sense. Hereafter, if these forms slip in because of habit, I do not mean them to exclude women.