Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Yet more notes to self

There are a multitude of ways in which we can study film: Aesthetically, technologically, culturally, economically and so forth. The value of any given film for the discipline of film studies could be seen as lying in the extent to which it will support different interpretive perspectives. A film which can be looked at both for its aesthetics and for its wider significance is arguably thereby more valuable, than one which offers little or nothing in aesthetic or formal terms. On this basis, Italian neo-realist and modernist films are undoubtedly more important than most other films released in Italy from the mid 1940s through to early 1980s. However, there were also aesthetics other than neo-realism and modernism, such as the post-modernist aesthetic I will argue was explored by my three figures, Sergio Leone, Dario Argento and Giulio Questi. Similarly not everything made by the neo-realist and modernist auteurs made was of equal significance, other than from an auteurist perspective. Vittorio de Sica's late films, such as Sunflowers and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, are a case in point. While conventional, well-made films, they have little to offer aesthetically for this selfsame reason. Indeed, the most interesting other aspect of Sunflowers is an awkward one: The fundamental unreality of its treatment of Italan prisoners in the USSR and general portrait of the Soviet regime in the Stalinist and immediate post-Stalinist period, such that it might be read as an ageing humanist filmmaker's being taken advantage of by the then-regime in the USSR.

Also of issue here is the quality-quantity relationship. Is it better to have a film that is 'correct' in both its form and content, as famously espoused by the Cahiers du cinema editorial collective in the heavily politicised post-1968 context – one in which both Leone and Argento operated, albeit in its Italian rather than French form? Is it better to make compromises on one of these axes in order to be more accessible? Or is it better to be excessive, in the manner of the collective's Category E. By this the works of favoured auteurs were often rescued through recourse to (these) readers interpretations, in the manner of Barthes' notion of the Death of the Author. What was perhaps lacking, however, was the absolute freedom of those readers whose interpretation differed from that of the Cahiers theorist, that freedom of thinking differently, of seeking other (no less readerly) “Pleasures of the text”. From a postmodern perspective a right-wing reading of Ford's Young Mr Lincoln (1940) is not necessarily more or less valid than a left-wing one, nominally against the grain. Or, we may be able to deconstruct the deconstructive text that wrongly attempts to exempt itself from deconstruction, or the text that goes with the grain of the against the grain text. Put another way, we should consign ourselves to permanent opposition, of always refusing the doxa, perhaps more particularly when the former paradoxa has become the doxa.

All this is compounded by the national-international aspect: The more an Italian, French or German film talks to its specific national audience, arguably the less it says to a wider international one. Or, by addressing itself to a particular international audience, particularly that of an intellectual revolutionary elite arguably with a tendency towards abstract theory over specific contextual details, it has less to say to a broader national audience more characterised by the opposite tendencies.

In all this I am challenging modernist positions in favour of postmodernist ones: Form should not necessarily be privileged above content; quality over quantity; the elite over the mass, the general (international) over the specific (Italian). Rather each term needs to be put into “free play” or association with the others, the relative gains and losses recognised. For instance, if the Leone film was not as pure as the Antonioni, it reached many more people; as I write this with my word processor, Leone is recognised as a word, like Hitchcock, whereas Antonioni is not. I would, however, argue that in productive terms, in encouraging us to think about phenomena in a fresh way the popular-postmodernist text has now more to offer than the elite-modernist one.

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