Cinephilia – the very specific love inspired by cinema – has been repeatedly declared deceased. However, whether one takes cinephilia as a historical phenomenon now outshined, or asserts that the magic power of cinema is still alive, as Luis Skorecki does with a hint of nostalgia in Les ruses de Frédéric, it is undeniable that the traces left by this emaciated ghost are still productive.
It is precisely in the place occupied by this love for the cinema that one finds the ground for the attention recently paid by leading philosophers to the possibilities of cinema. Alain Badiou in a recent interview has defined himself as a “fierce cinephile”, (1) describing the lasting impressions left by his encounters with Tati, Bresson and Franju at the Cinémathèque in rue d’Ulm. It is from cinephilia that Badiou arrives at the reasons for philosophy’s interest in cinema. For Badiou there are good and bad reasons for philosophy’s love for film. The bad reason points to philosophy’s need for mediation. Cinema is part of a shared experience and therefore offers itself precisely as a site of negotiation. In other words, cinema helps translating the concepts philosophers create and work with. Cinema is therefore instrumental to philosophy. The good reason expresses on the other hand, a certain lack at the heart of cinema. While Andrè Bazin has guaranteed cinema’s place among the Muses and Godard has transformed it into a political battlefield, nowadays cinema is restructuring the specificity of its questions. Philosophy intervenes precisely because cinema is in the process of re-defining its own space; cinema lacks its own question (2).
In Film Fables (2006), Jacques Rancière devoted a series of important studies to the questions of cinema, engaging with the work of Ray, Marker, Godard, Rossellini and attempting to expose the contradictions of Deleuze’s conceptual moves and of Godard’s Histoire(s). The concept of fable was deployed there as a way to highlight a tension between norm and accident, between representative and aesthetic regimes. In his new volume Les écarts du cinéma, Rancière focuses on the gaps (écarts) at the heart of cinematic fables, while elaborating in more specific terms his own intervention in the (missing) question of cinema.
Before entering the densest part of his discussion, Rancière reveals the trajectory of his own cinephilia, showing how love and passion, the logic of the amateur/lover, have been crucial in defining his engagement with the moving image. This trajectory of unauthorized love begins on a winter night in 1964 with Rossellini’s Europa 51 (1952) and Irene’s walk from bourgeoisie to sanctity. It then continues in the backyard of a little restaurant in Naples where “on some kind of badly hanged sheet, James Cagney and John Derek, spoke Italian in a black and white, dubbed version of Run for Cover by Nicholas Ray” (‘sur une sort de drap mal tendu, James Cagney and John Derek parlaient italien dans une version doublée, en noir et blanc, d’un film de Nicholas Ray qu s’appelait All’ombra del patibolo’) (p. 7). It is within the boundaries of these encounters that Rancière frames his volume. Cinema itself becomes this play of gaps and chance encounters. The first encounter is precisely one with passion, the gap between passion and knowledge. Cinephilia is here defined as “a blurring of places” (“brouillage des lieux”) (p. 8), but also, much in the way of Daney, cinephilia opens the way for the crossing between art and entertainment. Cinephilia, with its rough phenomenology of cinema as relationship to the world (a phenomenology that has been since then refined by Rancière himself, but also by Cavell, Badiou and Nancy), serves to put into perspective the entire history of art. As Cavell already noted in his The World Viewed, while art was moving towards abstraction and a questioning of the possibility of various media, the cinema was moving back to the representative regime, the splendor of “the most common spectacle” (“le spectacle le plus quelconque”) (p. 9). By introducing the impurity of cinema into art, cinephilia then opens the way for the second gap, that between the emotional sparkle of the movie theatre and the need for an emancipatory politics. The gap is here between “cinephilia and communism” (“cinéphilie et communisme”) (p. 11) and continues to agitate the book under the heading ‘politics of films’ (‘politiques des films’) (p. 110). A cinema that retains its fascination while pronouncing the utopia of a new order is able for a moment to bridge this gap, as when a character in Mizoguchi says: “Enjoy yourselves, rich people! Tomorrow belongs to us!”. This moment though simply reinstates the problem, for it is impossible, Rancière writes, to embrace Marxist theory without renouncing cinema’s visual seduction and vice-versa. The problem of reconciliation between the totalizing ambition of theory and the multiple senses of cinema, defines then the third gap. It is from this that Rancière moves his definition of cinema as “a system of irreducible gaps between things that bear the same name, without being members of the same body” (“un système d’écarts irréductibles entre des choses qui portent le même nom sans être des members d’un même corps”) (p. 12).
Writing on cinema means therefore to insist on a double demand: not to reduce cinema to a set of concepts that while attempting to validate cinema’s presence would wrap up cinema’s questions; not to renounce the task of naming the common space between thinking and the movements of cinema towards the outside. It is in the encounter of these almost opposite forces that Rancière inscribes his own trajectory: a thought that attends to cinema’s irreducibility, while collaborating to cinema’s spurious singularity. The writing on cinema retraces the writing of cinema.
Each of the three gaps just named shows the impossibility to extract the essence of cinema, since its language constantly insists on the devices of other arts, on political preoccupations and conceptual abstractions. In other words, cinema constantly structures its essence by exposing its procedures to the outside. In turn, this indicates that there is no single point of entrance from philosophy to cinema and no privileged relationship between philosophy and cinema. For this reason Rancière stresses the idea of the amateur, the unauthorized lover. Philosophy does not prepare or announce the truth of cinema. Rather philosophy must constantly loosen its categories, open its very margin, in order to respond to the gaps of cinema.
To imagine cinema together with art and as art means to think cinema after literature. The task then is to “think the relationship of two movements” (“penser la relation entre deux movements”) (p. 25): the unraveling of the appearances proper to a language of images (cinema’s promise) and the progress of the narrative towards its own truth. The attempt to reconcile and flatten these two movements generates a further interruption. This interval between two vertigos, Hitchcock’s and Vertov’s, delivers one to a new series of gaps, between cinema and literature, cinema and politics, but more importantly within cinema itself. Hitchock’s narrative machines and Vertov’s material performances cannot be rejoined. Godard’s attempt to do so in his Histoire(s) du Cinema ultimately fails, Rancière says, since the Vertovian energy deployed to undo the story, ultimately stumbles against Godard’s need for image-signs (p. 45) entangled in infinite connections. For Rancière, Vertov’s communist cinema as disjunction of the eye from movement, displacement of the centrality of the look, impossibility to SEE, remains the greatest utopia of cinema. It is the rehabilitations of this utopia (a reversal of Bazin’s dream of depth of field and long takes) that can make of this gap between two cinematic machines, the promise of modern cinema.
Rancière’s attempt to understand cinema after literature is also the attempt to retroactively think cinema within literature and the cinematographic import of literature. This other type of gap is created through the search for pure cinema. Bresson’s cinematographic modernism inevitably makes of the cinema a linguistic system, so that through Bresson’s Mouchette one understands that the gap between cinema and literature is not simply an impossible reconciliation, but the re-marking of literature’s possibilities. To say that cinema comes ‘after literature’, does not mean simply to examine the modes of adaptation, it means to understand cinema following “the literary revolution, after the upheaval of the relations between signifying and showing” (“après la revolution literaire, après le bouleversement des rapports entre signifier et montrer”) (p. 49). This cinematographism of literature thus challenges cinema and orients its choices. The result is a double writing, a double function of the shots. Another gap is opened within cinema, between an image-relay and an image-screen (p. 73).
The relationship Rancière identifies between text and image in the first part of the volume seems then to be reversed in the text on Rossellini. Instead of mapping out a philosophical reading of cinema, the analysis charts a cinematographic understanding of philosophy. Rancière focuses here on two pedagogical films, Cartesius and Blaise Pascal, in order to show the gap that cinema reveals to philosophy between the philosopher’s corpus and the philosopher’s body. Cinema opens this risk at the heart of philosophy, that the body of the philosopher could revoke his word. However, Rancière inverses the relation once again: while Socrates shows this to be a false problem for philosophy, it is still a crucial one for Rossellini. In particular it is a crucial one for the pedagogy of cinema. The problem therefore is that “trying to give body on the screen to the word of a philosopher, means to risk having the image and the word reducing each other to nothing” (“vouloir donner corps sur l’écran à la parole du philosophe, c’est courir le risque de voir à l’inverse la parole et l’image se frapper mutuellement de nullité”) (p. 96). The “pedagogical filmmaker” (“cinéaste pedagogue”) (p. 97) has three strategies available: to present the philosopher with his own time, against his own time or within his own time. Rossellini privileges the third one, showing “the march of reason, taken within the material density of an epoch” (“la raison en marche, prise dans l’épaisseur matérielle d’un temps”) (p. 100). This choice is dictated by the pedagogical assumption of the film. Rossellini is looking for ways to mediate between bodies and ideas. Here another gap is opened within cinema: choosing between the ideas and the bodies that bear these ideas. This gap offers itself again as non-reconcilable, because on the one hand one risks “that the ideas will be won over by the weakness of bodies” (“que les idées soient gagnées par la débilité des corps”) and on the other “that the bodies will be devoured by the language of ideas” (“que les corps soient dévorés par l’énoncé des idées”) (p. 108). This gap is also that between pedagogy and cinema, where one risks losing both the structure of concepts and their sensual evidence.
This same risk is run when cinema encounters politics. The positions here discussed echo those passages devoted to the paradoxes of political art in Rancière’s Dissensus. The conclusions reached there, that artworks “may open up new passages for political subjectivation, but they cannot avoid the aesthetic cut that separates consequences from intentions”(3) form the ground for much of the conceptual engagement with political films deployed in Les écarts du cinéma. Once again Rancière highlights the impossibility of a politics of cinema and discusses instead singular figures that engage with the two regimes of the ‘just’, on the one hand “a matter of justice” (“une affaire de justice”) and on the other “a practice of justness” (“une pratique de justesse”) (p. 111). In discussing the work of Straub and Huillet, Bela Tarr or Pedro Costa’s Letters from Fontainhas, Rancière declares the end of the Brechtian mode linking performance with emancipatory politics. Instead he advocates the disclosure of another gap: between a model of denunciation, that coerces films to produce political effects and a more affirmative practice, capable of inverting the relation art-politics, of re-opening the modes of the ‘just’, by showing how people react to the situations they are in. This second model should be able to imagine political forms “reinvented from the many modes through which the arts of the visible invent looks, organize bodies in space” (“réinventées à partir des multiples manières dont les arts du visible inventent des regards, disposent des corps dans des lieux”) (p. 136).
While in Films Fables cinema was analyzed according to aesthetic and representative categories, here these two regimes are exposed to show the many fragmentations that follow from them. While Rancière declares that he is looking for the gaps between cinema and art, theory, politics, in fact he manages to delineate the many gaps within cinema itself. As a consequence one loses sight of what distinguishes cinema from other discourses in favor of the intrinsic heterogeneity of cinema itself: image-icon/image-sign, image-relay/image-screen, idea/body, causality/surface. The conceptual movements within the book thus engage in a charting of cinema’s internal gaps. These gaps are made evident in cinema’s encounter with other art forms, conceptual concerns or political goals, however they are constitutive of cinema itself. Rather than witnessing the outward movement of an identity towards other formal organizations, the volume names cinema as a shifting ground invested by continuous ruptures from the outside.
While the idea of cinema as an impure art is by no means a novelty (Badiou has recently explored it in a number of texts), Rancière seems to insist on the argument of cinema’s impossibility to assure for itself a set of properties. Each gap opens up a binary structure that discloses one further gap. This series can finally be interrupted from within cinema only through a decision over that which does not yet belong to cinema.
The volume thus presents a double thesis structured around the equation between love and amateurism: cinema as impure art indicates that cinema’s structure always lies beyond the boundaries of what is known to cinema; philosophy as impure theory on the other hand signals the possibilities of philosophy to intervene there where a question offers itself in terms not known to philosophy.
This is not a book of film-theory, it is a rigorous exercise that puts at stake a series of heterogeneous gaps, from which it becomes possible to present two hybrids, philosophy and cinema. It is in the end the return of cinephilia’s imprecise phenomenology that resonates throughout this volume. What is questioned here is never simply cinema as a resource for philosophy or philosophy as a privileged account of cinema. What is revealed is that both cinema and philosophy necessitate an act of love, the very specific kind of love that could trigger an unauthorized transgression outside the confines of their own authorities.
Jacques Rancière’s Les écarts du cinema. La Fabrique editions. Paris: 2011.
Cavell, S. (1979), The World Viewed, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rancière, J. (2006), Film Fables, trans. Emiliano Battista, London; Berg.