Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Thesis work #1

Paola Marrati – Gilles Deleuze: Cinema and Philosophy (2008)

Paola Marrati’s key idea is that the Cinema books are as concerned with politics as aesthetics. In particular, they introducing new ideas of action and agency that Deleuze would further develop in What is Philosophy? – a book that, significantly, takes up the question and its title from the closing lines of Cinema 2 (x, 89).

Within What is Philosophy, co-authored with Guattari, Deleuze develops a notion of immanence diverging from that found in earlier works, such as Difference and Repetition. In these, Deleuze had characterised immanence as a marginal tradition, practiced by occasional figures like Duns Scotus, Spinoza and Nietzsche. In What is Philosophy? he argues that immanence is in fact more prevalent, but that the historically tendency for it to be subordinated time and again to transcendence has prevented us from seeing this (90-91).

Relating this back to the Cinema books, Marrati emphasises that the idea of immanence is also central to the notion of the time-image advanced in Cinema 2, such that filmmakers in the post-war period were (asymptotically) in advance of their philosopher and political theorist counterparts (xv).

This claim is founded upon a series of distinctions between the movement-image and the time-image, which might be summarised as follows: The movement-image cinema was based upon 19th century understandings that were transcendental and historicist. Filmmakers such as Griffith and Eisenstein believed in a world to come and the effectiveness of human agency, as epitomised by the sensory motor schema of the action-image and the large SAS’ form, to actualise this world. Compared to these common elements the differences between them, of Griffith’s emphasis upon the individual and the US as Christian utopia, and Eisenstein’s emphasis upon the collective and the USSR as Communist utopia, were unimportant:

If Griffith and Eisenstein privilege the active form of montage, it is because they share a faith in human agency and in history. However different their conceptions of history might be, they share the belief that history is made through humans’ actions, and in this respect it matters little whether what triggers the events is the passions of a traitor, the love of a woman, or class struggle. The form of classical cinema – American cinema, doubtless, but not only American – is constructed around the action-image. (51)

Belief in transcendence, historical telos and the efficacy of human action were then shattered by the Second World War, clearing the way for the emergence of the time-image cinema based upon immanence. The breakdown of the action-image and the concomitant emergence of the seer, the long take and other new figures and concepts in the time-image allowed filmmakers to explore new ways of thinking about our place in this world: “The greatness of the filmmakers of time is that they were able to create other livable [sic] configurations of thought in images themselves; this is how they attained a force comparable to the now failing force of the action-image.” (79)

Though Marrati does not specifically mention him, there are possible affinities here with Siegfried Kracauer’s (1960) notion of cinema as the “redemption of physical reality,” albeit taking place within a specifically time-image understanding of ‘reality’.

More important for my purposes, however, is to relate Marrati’s reading of Deleuze to modernity and post-modernity. The issues here is that, like Deleuze, Marrati uses the former term but not the latter. I would contend, however, that her analysis, as it implicates a single meta-narrative within the movement-image followed by a multiplicity of language games within the time-image, can be understood in postmodern terms. What we have, that is, are a ‘classical’ cinema of the movement-image which is (19th century) ‘modern’ insofar as it believes in a transcendent Truth and a ‘modern’ cinema of the time-image which is (post World War II) ‘postmodern’ insofar as it denies this in favour of immanence and localised, performative, contingent truths.

Relating Maretti’s analysis to my filmmakers would seem to have differing implications. Leone,
as an Italian pessimist sceptical about the “American dream,” would seem presents an obvious modern/postmodern/time-image counterpart to the classical/movement-image John Ford, with his optimistic belief in this dream.

While Ford himself admittedly became more questioning of the US utopia in his later films such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”) and Cheyenne Autumn, it is significant that these were the films Leone felt came closer to his own understanding of the west. As Neil Campbell (2008) summarises Leone’s remarks on Once Upon a Time in the West:

My version of the story of the birth of a nation” acted by “the most worn-out of stereotypes: the pushy whore, the romantic bandit, the avenger, the killer who is about to become a businessman, the industrialist who uses the methods of a bandit. These “worn-out” figures exit the stage to leave the whore to be transformed and transforming, to symbolize this “birth” of a new nation and the end of another world—“the beginning of a world without balls,” […]The “ancient race” (as the film calls them) of mythic men linked in chains of brutality is “worn-out”

As I will also argue Leone’s ‘America’ trilogy thereby provide different, immanent, alternatives to a faith in a transcendent utopia.

For Argento’s gialli thrillers the obvious point of comparison is Antonioni’s anti-gialli, most notably Blow-Up. The apparent problem here, besides the near-unassailable position of Antonioni as one of the masters of the time-image/postmodernist cinema, is that Argento’s films tend to present a re-engagement with action following a period of becoming seer: Whereas Blow-Up’s Thomas is witness to a murder and proves unable to act, his Deep Red double/virtual image Marcus (both characters being played by the same actor, David Hemmings) resolves to solve the case and as such becomes (something of) an agent again. Argento’s own journalistic criticism of Blow-Up, as Antonioni’s “abandonment” of his “duty” towards the audience, is instructive: The two filmmakers would seem implicated in different language games here. Blow-Up suggests a lack of faith in any truth (there is no body and thus no murder...), Deep Red a faith in a “will to truth” (there was murder, as demonstrated by this body...). The point, of course, is that Antonioni and Argento’s language games can only be judged in their own (performative) terms, of what works best in their particular contexts, not by some universal criteria. What worked for Antonioni’s arthouse audience (along with the mass audience brought in by the promise of a flash of pubic hair, as first for 1967; we must not forget the exploitation cinema and its configurations of "sex and violence") was not necessarily what worked for Argento’s crossover audience in 1975.

Crucially Marrati also suggests that the time-image itself allows for action, so long as it was sufficiently considered, rather than automatic, and geared towards immanence rather than utopia:

It is not out of passivity, powerlessness, or resignation that one is no longer capable of immediately and “appropriately” responding to a given situation or event. It is quite the opposite: the response is suspended because one has become aware that certain actions are powerless. Habits of conduct, patterns of behaviour, are deemed to express weakness or strength, love or contempt, indignation or revolt. Not to engage in the appropriate response, not to express the appropriate affect may seem to imply passivity, or worse. Deleuze’s point, though, is that sometimes, perhaps even often, “acting in the appropriate way” is precisely the lack of response and the refusal to acknowledge our helplessness. (xii)

The issue then becomes that of interpretation, of one filmmaker’s time-image formulation against that of another, alongside the point at which a refusal to act, or the apparent inaction, paradoxically itself constitutes a form of action.

In Leone’s cinema we may think, for example, of Noodles’ refusal to accept the role of assassin-avenger than Max assigns him in Once Upon a Time in America, and of whether this refusal occurs in actuality or virtuality. We might also consider the likes of Dr Villega’s refusal to jump from the explosives-loaded train in Duck You Sucker, despite the forgiving Sean’s imploring that he do so, along with the alternatives of desperately trying to escape versus stoically facing death that are presented to other revolutionaries as they face firing squad. In Questi’s cinema, meanwhile, we might think of the passivity of Tomas Milian’s unnamed protagonist in Django Kill, his refusal to act for gold/dollars or revenge, as would conventionally provide the spaghetti western protagonist, as seen in Leone’s films, amongst others, with ample motivation. (Perhaps Deleuze’s anti-phenomenological, post-modern, existentialism does not provide us with the clear guide to action that Sartre’s ‘no excuses’ phenomenological, modern, existentialism did? The limit situation of facing an executioner, of giving a gaze of defiance or attempting to escape at the likely cost of others’ lives, would presumably represent the test case here.) This combination of classical movement-image generic situation, that Django Kill is a western which should present a clear SAS’ narrative as Milian’s character gets his revenge and/or the gold, followed by a time-image development, as he passively observes, might also help explain the film’s and Questi’s marginality relative to Leone and Argento: As a postmodernist avant la lettre who refused the high/low, art/popular, time-image/movement-image binaries still extant in a structuralist 1960s, Questi made films which confounded audiences on both sides of each binary. Leone and Argento by contrast were less extreme in their images and more adroit at performing a balancing act on these either/or binaries.

Related to this, the problem is perhaps that we cannot use postmodern in brackets: If we say ‘postmodern’, in whatever formulation, we immediately bring into play a set of assumptions about what this ‘postmodern’ is, with these inevitably defined positively or negatively in relation to the ‘modern’. We lack a vocabulary which is both/and or neither/nor, that something may be ‘modern’ and ‘postmodern’, or neither of these, depending on how we define our terms. In relation to Deleuze’s Cinema theories, this is compounded by his movement-image/time-image distinction, as one which he identifies as being about the ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ cinema rather than, for example, the ‘modern’ (1920s) and the ‘neo-modern’ (1960s), as in Orr (1993).

[Let me know if you want more, as I can happily post one or two thousand words a day of this stuff; apart from anything else I would like comments from the ordinary and academic audiences.]

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moustapha said...
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