Jacques Rancière’s books, Film Fables and The Future of the Image, are really trying to do what his work in politics often does. If his collection of essays, On The Shores of Politics (1), proposes that we shouldn’t take the end of history seriously, and that politics isn’t necessarily about end goals but ongoing struggle, then in his recent books on the cinema (Film Fables) and on the image more generally (The Future of the Image), Rancière is again wary of declarative eschatology, of making statements that suggest the end of anything. As he says on the first page of The Future of the Image, he wants to examine “how a certain idea of fate and a certain idea of the image are tied up in the apocalyptic discourses of today’s cultural climate” (p. 1). But, he adds, “does not the term ‘image’ contain several functions whose problematic alignment precisely constitutes the labour of art?” (p. 1). Central to Rancière’s project is an aesthetic optimism: a sense that there are stories still to be told, and images constantly awaiting creation.
In The Future of the Image, Rancière wants to save the image in its singularity from the image in general. So, for example, he addresses the singularity of Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966) not as pure cinema opposed to impure television, but he tries to find the purity of the image as an image, rather than some ontological given of the medium. Hence, whether we see Bresson’s film on television or in the cinema, the image is essentially the same, just as if we were to see a show like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? on a big screen it will not especially change the nature of the image; it will just expand its banality, just as a TV screen shrinks Bresson’s gracefulness: “…the intrinsic nature of Bresson’s images remains unchanged, whether we see the reels projected in a cinema, or through a cassette or disc on our television screen, or a video projection” (p. 3). To make it clear that Bresson’s approach isn’t ‘purely’ cinematic, Rancière draws comparisons with Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:
The camera’s fixing on the hand that pours the water and the hand that holds the candle is no more peculiar to cinema than the fixing of Doctor Bovary’s gaze on Mademoiselle Emma’s nails, or of Madame Bovary’s gaze on those of the notary’s clerk, is peculiar to literature. (p. 5)
Thus, it is really about perceptual options. Just as Rancière wants to save the image from end goal assumptions, so he also wants to rescue it from presumptuous ontological givens. He wants to rescue the image from the tautology of cinema being cinematic. We can see here how the two reservations dovetail to generate Rancière’s argument. If we accept that an image is not simply a product of its medium, but an issue first and foremost of perception, then the argument that proposes the end of the image, or the proliferation of empty images, swallowed up by the dubious nemesis of television, is greatly weakened.
If Rancière is a congenial optimist who still has faith in singular images, he also has more faith than most in the continuing possibilities of the story. In Film Fables, he opens with a quote from Jean Epstein where the director and theorist proposes cinema is not a medium that does justice to storytelling. Epstein, according to Rancière, wanted cinema to discard the “‘fable’ in the Aristotelian sense: the arrangement of necessary and verisimilar actions that lead the characters from fortune to misfortune, or vice versa, through the careful construction of the intrigue [noeud] and denouement” (p. 1). Yet, while various filmmakers and theorists have questioned the importance of the story and found ways to counter it, Rancière isn’t entirely convinced. For example, later in the book he talks of those who have proposed this shift: of Gilles Deleuze’s notion of sensory motor collapse, and Jean-Luc Godard’s mourning for what the cinema never quite managed to become. Of Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema (1997-1998), Rancière says:
If [D.W.] Griffith had not filmed the sufferings of martyred children and [Vincente] Minnelli two lovers dancing, if [Fritz] Lang and [Alfred] Hitchcock had not brought to the screen the manipulations of cynical and deranged calculators, if [Erich von] Stroheim and [Jean] Renoir had not filmed the decadence of the aristocracy and [George] Stevens the tribulations of a latter day Rastignac, Godard would never have had the opportunity to tell a thousand new versions of the history of the cinema and the century with the fragments of their fictions. (p. 186)
In Rancière’s view, Godard shouldn’t mourn the missed opportunities, but celebrate the opportunity he’s been given to seize upon cinema’s treasures and turn them into his own narrative. In his chapter on Deleuze, meanwhile, Rancière opens by saying:
let’s assume that there is a cinematographic modernity and that it confronted the classical cinema of the link between images for the purposes of narrative continuity and meaning with an autonomous temporality and the void that separates it from other images. (p. 107)
He suggests that this break has “two model witnesses” – Roberto Rossellini and Orson Welles – and it also has “two model thinkers” – André Bazin and Deleuze. For Bazin, of course, this break could allow for “concrete instants of life, no one of which can be said to be more important than the other, for their ontological equality destroys drama at its very base.” (2) For Deleuze, it means the image moves from the often narratively driven expectations of the movement-image, to the freer, more loosely linked thought possibilities in the time-image. Rancière, however, isn’t so sure about the purity of Bazin’s images, or the differentiations between Deleuze’s many sub-categories within the movement-image and the time-image. As he says of the latter, “the same images – from [Carl Theodor] Dreyer and Bresson, or from [Sergei] Eisenstein and Godard – are equally analyzable in terms of affection image or opsign [in Deleuze’s take, movement-images], or organic description or crystalline perception [time-images].” (p. 114) Near the end of the chapter on Deleuze, Rancière writes, addressing Bresson:
…the fragmentation of bodies and shots is itself an ambivalent procedure. Deleuze sees in it the infinitization of the interval that disorients the spaces and separates the images. But we could also see the fragmentation as doing the inverse, as intensifying the coordination between the visual and the dramatic: we seize with our hands, no need then to represent the whole body; we walk with our feet, no need to show our heads. The fragmented shot is also an economic means of bringing into sharp focus what is essential in the action, what classical theories of painting used to call the pregnant moment of the story. (p. 122)
This may be true, but aren’t we still, in Bresson’s work, very far away from the sort of fragmentation Hitchcock adopts and which seems much more in keeping with pregnant moments? It is as though in Hitchcock we have the unknowable as the MacGuffin (the detail that is irrelevant in its specifics yet which necessarily sets the story in motion) where in Bresson we have an ontological inexplicability that means we have to understand something of ourselves in the Kierkegaardian sense of the term: to assume an obscure sickness unto death that leaves life missing some key dimension. Bresson’s ellipses are often moments that disarm psychology: Une femme douce (A Gentle Creature, 1969), Le Diable probablement (The Devil Probably, 1977). Hitchcock’s ellipses often arm his narratives: the way Scottie is left dangling off the roof at the beginning of Vertigo (1958), for example, or the way the central character in Saboteur (1942) escapes from his friend’s mother’s house near the beginning of the film. Frequently, Rancière is a subtly convincing thinker, but he is not always subtle enough to offer the fine-grain distinctions that make Deleuze’s two books on cinema still the best ever written.
What is perhaps missing from Rancière’s two fine and important books is not an acute persuasiveness, but a hermeneutic incisiveness, a sort of interpretative empathy that runs throughout Deleuze’s work. In Film Fables’ essays on Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray or Rossellini there aren’t so much insights offered as dialectical arguments resolved. We see this when Rancière looks at Ray and says:
such is the romantic double law of beauty, exemplarily illustrated in this film [They Live by Night (1948)]. It is a law of composition – an image is made of many images; and it is a law of subtraction – an image is made from the mourning of another image. (p. 103)
Here we sense less the intuitive grasp of the film’s affective importance, more the resolution of Rancière’s dialectical argument. Deleuze says of the same director’s work:
the more violent he [the character] is, the more of a child he becomes (this remains the theme of Rebel Without a Cause ; although the hero seems to succeed in his wager to “become a man in a day”, he does so too quickly to be pacified by it). (3)
Here Deleuze offers not the double law of beauty proposed by Rancière, but the double law of empathy: he manages to empathise with what he believes are the director’s intentions, and then adds to this an empathy for the character in one of Ray’s films. For Deleuze, cinema remains an opportunity for affective hypotheses; for Rancière, it is a tool for logical argument.
We could even stretch the point and say this is partly why Rancière is still in thrall of the story, of a plot logic that remains consistent with his own logical through-lines. When he talks of Chris Marker’s work, and specifically Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (The Last Bolshevik, 1992), he doesn’t see so much a cerebral collage, but Marker more “working out a narrative structure”: this “is how ‘the classical’ story of fortune and misfortune, of ignorance and knowledge, that ties one man’s life to the Soviet epic and catastrophe assumes the ‘Romantic’ form of this narrative” (p. 165). No matter the apparently anti-narrative drive of the filmmaker under analysis, Rancière’s reasoning demands narrative focus, a sort of reasoning process that seems to work brilliantly in a book of politics like the essays published in On the Shores of Politics. In such a work, Rancière’s grasp of politics traced to its Greek roots – and the conceptual reservoir that the Greek vocabulary provides him with – allows for sharp analysis. In these books on aesthetics, however, we might find the instrument partially blunted.
This is not to attack philosophers for leaving behind their areas of expertise, even though we might be reminded of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s comment that “it is almost an axiom in contemporary academic film theory that the fewer films one has seen or knows about, the better and clearer the academic mind is in following its own theoretical bents.” (4) Clearly, Rancière lacks the wide range of references of a film critic, but we could hardly say the same of Deleuze, or even Stanley Cavell. Finally, we might surmise this seems less an issue of ignorance on Rancière’s part than the desire to keep the line of thought uncomplicated, and not litter it with too many examples – perhaps a positive variation on Rosenbaum’s acidic remark. Rancière’s approach, if we allow ourselves a brief digression, resembles in some ways the philosopher Alain Badiou’s short piece on cinema in Infinite Thought. As Badiou suggests, the piece works from “two foundational axioms” (5): one is that cinema is capable of being art, and the second that there has been a major rupture, “between its identificatory, representative and humanist (‘Hollywoodian’) vocation and a modernity which is distanced, involving the spectator in an entirely different manner” (6). Badiou then goes on to sprinkle his thesis with a few general observations about, for example, Godard’s use of ‘dirty sound’ as an “attempt at formal purification” (7) to counter the endless noise of mainstream productions, and the use of car sequences in Abbas Kiarostami’s and Manoel de Oliveira’s cinema that work against our expectations of the moving vehicle in most films, “where the opening scene of two films out of every three is a car sequence.” (8) Badiou exaggerates, of course, but he’s offering a thesis with general principles. If Badiou’s short piece were a book and the same generalisations were expected to hold, and the double empathy practised by Deleuze was still missing, it would be exhausting.
This, then, isn’t to suggest philosophers have no place commenting on cinema; it is really a question of what brings out the freshness of thought. Usually, Rancière’s thinking is distinctive and he often develops an argument quite ingeniously, as we see in the chapter in The Future of the Image called “The Surface of Design”. Here he draws analogies between the radical poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, on the one hand, and Peter Behrens, “an engineer in the service of a major brand producing bulbs, kettles or heaters” (p. 92), on the other:
Between Mallarmé and Behrens, between the pure poet and the functional engineer, there therefore exists this singular link: the same idea of streamlined forms and the same function attributed to these forms – to define a new texture of communal existence. (p. 97)
However, one sometimes feels Rancière is more ingenious than insightful.
Perhaps the ingenious versus the insightful is a key difference in the way one can think philosophically about film. If Badiou and Rancière suggest the logical analysis of the image, Deleuze and Cavell seem much more to suggest the multiplicity in the image. Whether it is Cavell showing his obvious love and knowledge of classic Hollywood in The World Viewed, or Deleuze finally more sympathetic to the possibilities in the time-image than the expectations of the movement-image, it is through the bountiful number of examples that particularly subtle thought can come. When we think of Deleuze’s manifold differentiations, they come out of the many filmmakers whose work he analyses. As Deleuze says at the beginning of Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, “it is not sufficient to compare the great directors of the cinema with painters, architects or even musicians. They must also be compared with thinkers.” (9) Deleuze is here talking about comprehending the complexity of their film world. To understand the ‘thinking’ of Ingmar Bergman, Hitchcock, Welles, Alain Resnais, Godard is inevitably to find oneself working with very subtle gradations. In The World Viewed, meanwhile, Cavell reckons:
we no longer grant, or take it for granted, that a man who expresses no feeling has fires banked within him; or, if we do grant depth, we are likely not to endow him with a commitment to his own originality, but to suppose him banking destructive feeling. (10)
Cavell goes on to mention Michelangelo Antonioni’s leading men, as well as most of those in Godard and Bergman. He then muses over Hollywood and says, “Yul Brynner and James Coburn and Sean Connery and Michael Caine measure the distance we have come, along the line of silent strength, from Gary Cooper and Henry Fonda and James Stewart and [Humphrey] Bogart and even Alan Ladd.” (11) We might not entirely agree with Cavell, but we would need to know our cinema to contradict him, just as Cavell knows his. It would also require some fine-grain thinking, and some empathic memory of the films and the characters’ feelings in them.
This is not at all to suggest Rancière’s an unsubtle thinker who knows too little about film; it is just that the subtlety of his thought is not an especially empathic subtlety – it isn’t the sort of co-feeling we’ve suggested Deleuze so often practises, a cinematic variation of his work on other philosophers when he claimed that friendship was “intrinsic to philosophy, because the philosopher isn’t a sage, but a ‘friend’” (12). For Rancière, films – their makers and their characters – feel less like friends than argumentative tools, and in this sense these two books are finally less works of affective feeling conceptualised, than tools that allow for analytical propositions. We notice this, for example, in the last essay of The Future of the Image, “Are Some Things Unrepresentable?”. Here he says that his line of enquiry has been “motivated by a certain intolerance for an inflated use of the notion of the unrepresentable, and a constellation of allied notions: the unrepresentable, the unthinkable, the untreatable, the irredeemable” (p. 109). Rancière doesn’t especially want to get into the feelings attached to the problem of the unrepresentable. Though in many ways Rancière’s argument is intricate, he nevertheless takes the unrepresentable at face value and impressively demolishes it, showing that indeed often the ‘unrepresentable’ isn’t just representable, but even conventionally so. Here again Madame Bovary comes to help out, as he compares a passage from Flaubert’s novel with a passage from a novel on that ‘unrepresentable’ subject, the Holocaust: Robert Antelme’s The Human Race. Rancière says that what Antelme wants to highlight is a resistance “that transforms the concentration camp’s reduction of life to naked existence into the affirmation of fundamental membership of the human race, even in its most basic gestures” (p. 124). In this “paratactic” writing, where a series of blank observations follow one from the other, Rancière sees something similar in Flaubert’s book: “the concentration camp experience as lived by Robert Antelme, and the invented sensory experience of Charles and Emma, are conveyed according to the same logic of minor perceptions added one to another” (p. 125). For Rancière, this tells us more about the shift in storytelling from the traditional to the modern than it does about the unrepresentable. As he informs us earlier in the chapter, “Aristotle contrasted the kath’olon – the organic totality – of poetic plot to the kath’ekaston of the historian, who follows the empirical succession of events. In the ‘realist’ use of resemblance, this hierarchy is overturned” (p. 121): the apparently unrepresentable is absorbed into modern realism. Hence when Rancière talks of Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985), he says, “nothing is unrepresentable as a property of the event. They are simply choices” (p. 129). Yet the choices Lanzmann makes, as opposed to the choices Steven Spielberg makes in Schindler’s List (1993), contain within them so many differences of perspective that one needs a pretty complicated metaphysic to differentiate Spielberg’s assumptions from Lanzmann’s probings. Rancière might be right to question Jean-François Lyotard’s conflation of what he sees as Kantian and Burkean ideas on the sublime, and to suggest that the powerlessness of the imagination can find in realist tropes a representability, but it seems only a partial victory. It is a victory of thought over sense, of reason over feeling.
Once again, we come away from Rancière’s musings admiring the brilliance of the thought, but perhaps believing that it is a reasoning process better adapted to another form. It returns us to Rancière’s observation that opened this review, on Bresson and the limitations of medium specificity. Rancière wins his point brilliantly, yet we may wonder whether there isn’t finally a world of a difference between Bresson’s cinematic image and Flaubert’s literary one. It is that world Rancière often bypasses.
Film Fables, by Jacques Rancière, trans. Emiliano Battista, Berg, Oxford, 2006.
The Future of the Image, by Jacques Rancière, trans. Gregory Elliott, Verso, London, 2007.
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- Jacques Rancière, On the Shores of Politics, Verso, London, 2007.
- André Bazin, What Is Cinema?, vol. II, essays select. and trans. Hugh Gray, University of California Press, London, 1972, p. 81.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, The Athlone Press, London, 1997 , p. 135.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1995, pp. 179-180.
- Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought: Truth and the Return to Philosophy, trans. and ed. Oliver Feltham and Justin Clemens, Continuum, London, 2005, p. 83.
- Badiou, p. 83.
- Badiou, p. 85.
- Badiou, p. 85.
- Deleuze, p. x.
- Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film, Harvard University Press, London, 1979, p. 67.
- Cavell, p. 67.
- Deleuze, Negotiations, trans. Martin Joughin, Columbia University Press, New York, 1995, p. 162.