The emergent arena of film philosophy, or rather “film-philosophy” has, over the last decade, given rise to, in roughly sequential order, a popular discussion list, a series of conferences and some outlying events, an online journal and multiple edited collections. Naturally it has also given rise to some, if fewer, monographs, of which Hamish Ford’s book is a clear example. However, questions remain as to what exactly film-philosophy is from both disciplinary and ontological perspectives. Is it a way for philosophers, of both analytic and continental persuasions, to sex up their troubled discipline and give it contemporary and popular relevance? Is it a way of continuing to do film theory in an era in which film studies has largely turned its back on abstract theories in favour of more empirical, historical, production or social science approaches to cinematic practices? Is it a response to the series of philosophers including Stanley Cavell, Gilles Deleuze and more recently Jacuqes Rancière and Alain Badiou who have turned their attentions to cinema without abandoning a philosophical approach consistent with their various philosophical projects? Or is it, finally, a way of acknowledging, as some of these philosophers have, that films are not only worthy of philosophical attention but may, in some instances, be themselves philosophical agents, posing questions of ontological, epistemological or ethical significance? There is no easy answer to these questions, since all of the above can be true in any given film-philosophical work, and it is only by paying attention to individual texts, that the ongoing elaboration of film-philosophy, can be grasped.
Hamish Ford’s book proceeds by an apparent minimalism, focusing on just four films and, largely limiting itself to two key twentieth-century philosophers: Deleuze and Theodor Adorno. The selection of films it engages with is uncontroversially modernist; all four are formally experimental yet canonical European art films, made between 1961 and 1966, by well-known filmmakers, and all four have provoked substantial critical responses, from the 1960s until today. However, the choice of philosophers is interesting; if Deleuze might seem an obvious choice since he devoted two volumes to cinema, and was especially interested in the kind of post-war modernist cinema dealt with in the book, Adorno is less so, having dismissed cinema in its Hollywood varieties as a key component of the culture industry, even if he somewhat modified this view in his later writings. Even more surprising is the combination of two seemingly incompatible philosophers; what could seem more different than Adorno’s focus on negativity – and not only in his proposition of “negative dialectics” – and Deleuze’s affirmative reading of “crystals of time” that one can only imagine the former would be all too happy to smash to pieces. This points to a larger division within continental philosophy between a broadly Hegelian, dialectical tradition, and a Nietzschean, immanent, affirmative lineage, one that is still being played out today, for example in Benjamin Noys’ critiques of what he calls “affirmationism” in The Persistence of the Negative 1
This is partly dealt with by Ford “assigning” each philosopher and their attendant concepts to different parts of the book; Adorno is used to bring out the negativity in the films Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) and Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Two or Three Things I know about Her, Jean-Luc Godard, 1966), while Deleuze is used in relation to temporality in L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961) and L’eclisse (The Eclipse, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962). Ford clarifies his approach to the film/philosophy relationship as one that is primarily focused on the films themselves: “its primary energy and suggestiveness comes from the films themselves […] it is my contention that the modernist films I address more than satisfy [the] notion of cinema ‘doing philosophy’.” (p. 4) Further he indicates that “all four films […] constantly provoke challenging, substantive, philosophical questions” in their engagements with post-war realities, beyond any pre-given thesis (p. 4). In other words, philosophy is already located within the films themselves. Nevertheless, for Ford there is more to Adorno’s negativity than negative dialectics, and his later writings share a good deal with the films discussed in the book. He therefore engages with Adorno: “less to mount an interrogation of cinema’s ubiquitous conservative incarnations and role in sustaining regressive aspects of contemporary life, and more in considering its radical potential for formal and philosophical portrayals thereof.” (p. 5) At the same time as presenting a different Adorno than the one familiar in media studies, Ford also seeks to emphasise those aspects of Deleuze’s work on cinema that also bear traces of negativity; after all concepts like “non-chronological time”, or “powers of the false”, are in their own way no less “negative” than Adornian aesthetics, even if presented in a dramatically different register. Therefore both philosophies are seen as useful for “charting the complex real-world effects of cinema’s ontological violence.” (p. 9)
After the introduction, which also gives a useful rethinking of the relations between cinema and modernism, Ford sets out to confront this ontological violence, by means of a sustained engagement with the Godard and Bergman films with the aid of Adorno’s philosophy. However, it is striking that in this and all the chapters of the book, there is predominantly a focus on close reading of the films, mixed with the references to appropriate film theory and criticism that one would expect to encounter in a non-philosophical work on film. It is only in the “stressing the negative” section (pp. 54-61) that the Adornian approach to negativity is laid out, and this is done with little reference to the films. However, the core of Ford’s reading here is to discern, in the films themselves, similar procedures to those adopted by Adorno’s negative dialectics in their presentation of the self-destruction of Enlightenment reason, by offering “renderings of and engagements with the inadequacies, failures, domination, repression, suffering, and anguish of mid-twentieth-century Western culture.” (p. 63) Interestingly Ford confronts both Adorno’s thought and these hyper-reflexive films with Bazin and Italian neorealism, not in a simplistic opposition between realist ontology and modernist negation but as different types of negation. But the Adornian view that the only adequate response to modernity is the kind of radical aesthetic gesture evident in these films, goes beyond both a Bazinian belief in the powers of cinema and any affirmation of its realist connection to the world. As Ford puts it “the work critiques modernity, while participating and exemplifying it.” (p. 65) The second chapter of this section, “formal violence” (pp. 84-140), provides a close reading of both films, as works that conduct this radical gesture of negativity. While it could be argued that these readings are not that far removed from those of the numerous critics and academics Ford cites, many of whom have already pointed to these negative gestures, the Adornian framework he adopts allows for a fuller account of the philosophical work the films do, not merely as formal aesthetic objects, or sociological critiques, but as the staging of philosophical problems in their own right.
The second part of the book similarly starts form the films themselves, and presents the different ways that each of them stages issues or difficulties of temporality, the flooding of cinematic images with the time that is inherent to cinematic production and experience, but repressed by classical forms of cinematic construction. Bringing these films together with Deleuzian concepts, Ford states that “the emphasis on a vertiginous foregrounding of time makes for a decentred, unreliable world that cannot be assumed beyond its rendering in the image.” (p. 172) Ford introduces a selective array of Deleuzian concepts and these inform his close readings of the films, that are done with every bit as much rigor as those in the preceding sections of the book, without some of the same difficulties in integrating the two poles of written and cinematic philosophy, since Deleuze has already engaged substantially with just these modes of “time-image” cinema including these specific films. This is again combined with key critical references, once again to Bazin but also to Gilberto Perez, an author who adds some richness to Ford’s readings.
If the first chapters focused on how cinema enacts ontological violence through negativity, the third and fourth are more concerned with the ways that “temporality enforces cinema’s ontological subversion” (p. 143), which turns out to be less in opposition to negativity, than another turn of the screw in its presentation of negativity now in relation to the lived experience of time. The films chosen for this task are Last Year in Marienbad and L’eclisse – two works that are justly celebrated for their disturbances of linear temporality. While not devoid of political implications, Marienbad is famous largely for formal reasons, for being the near canonical example of art cinema modernist anti-narrative. Antonioni’s cinema was no less seen as disturbing in its deformations of linear temporality, with L’eclisse going even further than the already controversial L’avventura (1960), especially in the way its closing scenes abandon the two protagonists in favour of an empty and banal urban space where apparently nothing happens. Ford insists on reading these two films together as presenting a disabling of the subject via temporal manipulation, however different their strategies. In the end both films enact what Deleuze calls (after Nietzsche) the “Powers of the False”, which Ford nicely sums up in relation to his readings of the two films at the end of chapter three: “Antonioni and Resnais are radical time-image film-makers precisely because their work shows the extent to which feature films can allow omnipotent temporality to threateningly take effect within and beyond the frame.” (p. 182) For Ford this allows the fabrication of an “unbearable emptiness” in the viewer, the on-screen characters and the film itself, that fundamentally problematises any metaphysics of presence. In other words, these films – no less than the first two discussed – enact ontological violence, albeit on a different and more subjective level. It is this insight that is developed in chapter four through more in depth readings of the two films, examining the oscillating temporal gaze in L’eclisse alongside the more obvious “formal violence” (p. 211) apparent in Marienbad. While the crystalline construction of the latter has been stressed by Deleuze and others, the emphasis that Ford places on both films’ relations with what he calls “the void” is an original and productive reading that places both films in proximity with the thematics of negativity introduced earlier. This opens onto a partial critique of the more utopian tendencies of Deleuze’s work on cinema, since his affirmative reading of these films often contradicts the negative affects they most often generate in viewers. These include – in addition to being disorienting and frustrating – being downright depressing, bleak and existentially violent. This is not an argument against using Deleuze’s highly generative concepts with these films, and time-image cinema in general, but an exhortation to use them with an appropriate degree of caution, and a dose of Adornian critical suspicion, which is rather the point. This is perhaps the greatest contribution of Ford’s book, in its bringing together Deleuzian creative generativity with Adornian sceptical negativity which, as Claire Colebrook has said, “shouldn’t work but it does”.2
In the conclusion to the book Ford makes some useful remarks on the relevance of examining such formally complex and difficult films in a contemporary twenty-first-century context. For one thing the kind of ontological crisis these films were addressing has only deepened, and so engaging with the negativity and complex temporalities of these films is not merely of historical or academic interest – as part of the museum of canonical film history – but has the potential to open up new spaces and practices in the present; in a sense these films seem to come not from the past but from a future still yet to come, and operate as forms of aberrant time- and space-travel. As Ford puts is, “this challenging vision of multiple pasts, presents and futures, while certainly enlivening and even inspiring in aesthetic form and philosophical substance, also denies any romantic, idealistic, or utopian choice between worlds.” (p. 254) What might have seemed a drawback in terms of the limitations of the period, number or provenance of these films, as well as the philosophies used alongside them, is actually revealed as the strength of the book in its presentation of the films’ various confrontations with the same “ontological violence”, that we also are also obliged to deal with in the only world we are given the opportunity to inhabit.
Hamish Ford, Post-War Modernist Cinema and Philosophy: Confronting Negativity and Time(Palgrave: Houndmills, Basingstoke, and New York, 2012).