A few years back in The Cinema Book, Rob White proposed that one reason why it took so long for Anglo-American academics to absorb Gilles Deleuze was theory “fatigue”(1). After working their way through structuralism and semiotics, psychoanalysis and so on, who needed yet another thinker on the stage? Some might well feel the same about the presence of Alain Badiou, and the new book Badiou and Cinema. Written by Alex Ling, the fundamental difference here, though, is that Badiou gives little impression of the cinephilia so vital to Deleuze’s writings on cinema, and of course Ling’s book is an explication, not an original work.
Yet the question remains, and it is a question well worth asking; whether one is tired or energised, fatigued by theoretical discussion or alive to the debate: what does the new emperor have to say? If Deleuze’s books were coats of many colours; Badiou’s ideas on film seem of a duller attire, monochrome in their logical analysis, rather than a burst of theoretical colour. The main point of Badiou’s take on cinema is that its aesthetic possibilities lie in its being a bastard art, a parasitic art that feeds on other art forms, and yet can still achieve purity out of this relationship. On the other hand cinema is a mass art, and can out of its very impurity attract an audience unlike other art forms. In some ways these are antithetical notions, but perhaps out of their apparent contradictions come ideas that could be usefully opened up for fresh pathways into film. How many who love film are themselves caught in the double-bind of seeking a cinema that has a popular capacity to transform the world, and an intimate form of film that subtly changes the way we think? If the former often appeals to our sense of collective renewal, the latter allows us to think the un-thought, to find in our inexplicable reactions the chance to create new pathways to thinking. Indeed, is this not one of the vital and apparent contradictions that Deleuze brilliantly works off in the cinema books: with the former often allowing for images of movement; the latter of time, and the subtle ways in which movement and time function in film?
However, if one notices the same inner conflict in the image in Badiou and Deleuze, in many other ways they greatly differ, and it is in this difference that Badiou can be useful to film. After all, if one feels the need to take on another thinker from outside the field of film studies, we must expect from the philosopher new ways of thinking about the moving image. But what are these new ways? One lies in cinema as not an inclusive art but an extractive one, and this is where cinema seems not a popular art form but a difficult one by virtue of its eliminative procedures. As Badiou says, writing on Beckett, “Beckett’s method is like Husserl’s epoché turned upside down. Husserl’s epoché consists in subtracting the thesis of the world, in subtracting the ‘there is’ in order to turn toward the movement or the pure flux of that interiority which is directed at this ‘there is’.” Beckett’s method, though, “is precisely the opposite: it is a question of subtracting or suspending the subject so as to see what happens to being” (p. 74). If we think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, of Eric Rohmer’s, of Abbas Kiarostami’s, of Manoel de Oliveira’s, we can see how in different ways an extractive aesthetic is at work. In Antonioni it lies in the depopulated shot where the conventionally positioned and placed social self is obliterated. In Rohmer it might lie in his refusal to include music in his films and thus to emphasise the thoughts of the characters over their actions. If Rohmer’s characters often have one thing on their minds and another thing coming out of their mouths, music would probably kill that sense of ambiguity. In Kiarostami, think of the ellipses he works with where we wonder exactly why the central character wants to kill himself in Ta’m e guilass (Taste of Cherry, 1997), where we never get to watch the football game in Mossafer (The Traveller, 1974), or never see the film the characters are watching in Shirin (2008). In Oliveira, cars and bodies lack acceleration: it is as though Oliveira removes energy from film, the very kinetics that many see as its raison d’etre. As Badiou says in an essay, “Cinema and Philosophy”, in the collection Infinite Thought, “the operation consists of making an action scene [the car sequence] into a place of speech, of changing what is a sign of speed into a sign of slowness”(2). Here is an extractive cinema that can usefully help explain cinema’s potential for subtlety and abstraction.
Are we, however, simply saying nothing other than less is more? Not really, or not especially – otherwise would we not be including classical Hollywood, with its eschewed sex scenes and tamed violence? Was Hollywood under the Hays Code not a subtractive cinema as Badiou would seem to define it? Obviously not, yet Badiou does seem to suggest that all cinema is by its nature subtractive. As Ling says,
as we have seen, cinema’s basic operations are subtractive in nature (the image is first subtracted from the visible, the local movement subtracts the image from itself, the impure movement subtracts the arts from their proper position). Moreover, we have determined cinema’s power to lie first and foremost in the dis-appearance of space, in the subtractive movement which directs image toward the void. (p. 162)
Yet only certain films make us aware of this void; others mask it by giving the impression that there is no off-screen space; only onscreen presence. It is more a question of how cinema subtracts from the world. In films by Oliveira, Kiarostami and Antonioni, the absent is part of the image’s presence. The absence of the leading characters at the end of L’Eclisse (1962), whilst Antonioni films the spaces they have failed to turn up in, for example, the sense that in Oliveira (as in Bresson) the actor is somehow absent from the role; that they offer the script rather than act a part. In Kiarostami there is the feeling not only that the director has eschewed the speed element of the vehicle, but also used the vehicle as a mode of communication: the car as conversational tool, an adjacent conversational form that needn’t require the vis a vis conflict of Hollywood; the confinement of the vehicle, the limitations of it – Ten (2002), Taste of Cherry, Zendegi va digar hich (And Life Goes on…, 1992) – creates communicative possibilities. This is not at all the censorial subtractions of classic mainstream film but the parti pris of the artist refusing to allow cinema to become the easy art Christian Metz fretted over when saying: “an easy art, cinema is in constant danger of falling victim to this easiness”(3). Badiou’s subtractive notion can help explain how filmmakers refuse to allow cinema to become so complacent.
Yet this is only half of the story, and if this side of the cinematic equation is explored well in “Philosophy and Cinema”; the other is analysed by Badiou in an essay called “Cinema as a Democratic Emblem”. Here he asks, “what does cinema retain from painting? The pure possibility of changing the sensible beauty of the image. It does not take the intellectual technique of painting” and adds, “what does cinema retain from music? Not the extraordinary difficulties of the musical composition, not the subtle arrangement of harmonic verticality […] what is important for cinema is that music, or its rhythmic ghost, escorts the happenings of the visible.”(4) It is this latter sense of cinema as a magpie form that can lead Ling to claim easily that “cinema is an impure art”. “This thesis”, Ling says, “central to Badiou’s cinematographic writings, has been espoused in various ways throughout cinema’s short history” (p. 163). Ling mentions, for example, André Bazin’s notion of impure cinema, “the paradox of artistic impurity, or impurity with regard to the other arts” (p. 45). In this type of cinema, however, absences are not felt; they are pragmatically eschewed. It is why we have no problem accepting the studio locations in Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), and why Lars von Trier’s comments in relation to Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Dogville (2003) are amusingly disingenuous: “I daresay I know more about America from various media than the Americans did about Morocco when they made Casablanca. They never went there either. Humphrey Bogart never set foot in the town.”(5) Dogville is problematised subtractive cinema; Casablanca un-problematises it. As Dogville pushes into the further reaches of elimination as the film is set in the Rocky Mountains but gets filmed on a European sound stage, so the subtraction becomes a question over form. In Casablanca the subtractions are easily absorbed into the form. It is these twin issues that seem most to fascinate Badiou, and subsequently Ling. “Put simply, my contention is that modern cinema is less the result of the collapse of the sensory-motor schema in the wake of the horrors of the second World War”, Ling says, “than the realisation of cinema’s inherent subtractive potential” (p. 125). The difference between modern and classical cinema is chiefly modes of subtraction, and the degree to which modern cinema manages to purify itself from impurities; the classical with accepting these impurities and where the subtraction lies elsewhere.
Badiou is basically a philosopher interested in inherent notions. Badiou is both Platonic and mathematical – in other words he believes in a notion of fundamental truths, and has couched his truths in the language of set theory. “Against Deleuze”, Ling says, “Badiou holds that it is only through a ‘return to Plato’ that a simultaneously radical and entirely immanent conception of truth – or truth as novel universality pure and simple, distinguished from both a priori transcendality and conservative veridicality – might be reached.” (p. 8) In relation to set theory, Badiou says in Infinite Thought, “We must say for example, if being is inconsistent multiplicity the consequence of this thesis is that ontology is necessarily a sort of set theory, a consistent theory of inconsistent multiplicity”(6). Plato allows Badiou to escape from the belief, in Ling’s words, “that truth is relative and relativism absolute […]. To step outside this shadow world (of relativism) demands something of a ‘return to Plato’.” (p. 2) But it is a return to notions of truth through the practice of set theory, which makes, according to the introduction of Infinite Thought: “one initial existential claim, that is, it begins by saying that just one set exists. This particular set is subtracted from the conditions of every other set in set theory: that of having elements. That is the null-set, a multiple of nothing or of the void.”(7) The Platonic that Badiou seems interested in, then, isn’t the solidity of the forms, but it is nevertheless paradoxically grounded in a notion of the void. How to hide or reveal the void seems central to cinema’s project.
Without turning this review into a philosophical analysis of Badiou’s work, we can nevertheless perhaps see how notions of set theory and the Platonic feed into what is most useful for us about Badiou’s ideas on cinema: the subtractive purity of its aesthetic procedures; the cluttering often involved in its entertainment ones. When Badiou looks at extreme violence and cruelty in “Philosophy and Cinema” he notes, “the element of cruelty, the slashing, the crushing of bones, the torture, prevails over suspense and fear”(8). But Badiou adds: “before judging these bloody torturing images, one must remember that tales of horrendous executions, the variety of murders and the monstrosity of actions, were all major elements of the most refined tragedies”(9). In other words, can truth be extracted from all this violence, or is the film simply littered with images of extremity? The great mainstream films needn’t be especially subtractive in their form, but they must at least be extractive in their truth seeking. If films like Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946) are such durable classics, wherein lies that durability? Is it in their sentimental moments or is it in their moments of sentiment: not in how they make us cry, but why they might. If in the sentimental lies meretricious manipulation; in the sentiment a more fundamental value seems to be extracted out of the material. Casablanca and It’s a Wonderful Life are sentimental films, but they also comprehend a sentiment within them that might finally be much greater than the devices used to make us cry. In Casablanca, we could wish in the scene between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman where she asks him for their letters back that Max Steiner’s music were less insistent and a close-up on Bergman less Hollywood haloed, but that is part of film’s impure purity as it doesn’t want to risk leaving a dry eye in the house. Equally, in It’s a Wonderful Life, do we need quite so many people telling us how wonderful George happens to be, with the music insistently aggrandising everyone’s soul? Yet as Ling says, “not only does cinema democratise the other arts and impurify (or ‘idealise’) the Ideas they give rise to, but it can equally be seen to ‘popularise’ those truths drawn from other amorous, scientific and political worlds” (p. 167 ).
In such great works the truth is extracted but the art itself is hardly subtractive. At the other extreme the truth isn’t buried in the work, but created out of it. If the excesses of Hollywood hide the Platonic idea – ideas like Love, Community, Sacrifice, Trust, etc. – in the sentimental, the subtractive film demands much more that we find the idea as an act of thought in the face of the artwork. Now some might claim that such films are reactive. As Badiou says in “Philosophy and Cinema”, “the Godardian technique of ‘dirty sound’ (inaudible phrases, superimposition of sounds, parasitical noises, etc.) is an attempt at a formal purification of what has invaded contemporary production”(10). But he also says “artistic activity can only be discerned in a film as a process of purification of its own immanent non-artistic character”(11). This might take the form of finding the sentiment through the sentimental as we often see in the mainstream production that nevertheless achieves the quality of an idea, but can also be found through denying much of the art form’s impurity as its seeks the idea in reproducing philosophy as conceptual possibility. If Badiou believes cinema “transforms time into perception”(12), then often it is in the minimising of narrative event that time becomes possible; one feels the essence of time in the viewing experience, and the viewer produces thought out of this time. Is this not why we call the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Kiarostami and Bela Tarr meditative – as dead time produces thought? It is perhaps the difference between mediation and meditation: the former mediates the truth it seeks for us through the “fast” images the film offers; in the latter “we” produce thought out of meditating upon the “slow” images the filmmaker creates.
Perhaps this review hasn’t been entirely fair to the range and scope of Ling’s book, perhaps a chapter by chapter account might have much better summarised Badiou’s take on film, and Ling’s often tortuous but determined attempt to draw out every last drop of Badiouan thought on the subject. But at the beginning of the book Ling says, “the question that guides this book – namely that of ‘thinking cinema’ – reveals itself to be threefold in nature, being: “what is cinema? (the ontological question); what does cinema think? (the artistic question); and how is cinema to be rethought? (the philosophical question)” (p. 8). These are questions we have hopefully addressed here, no matter if it might demand an over-simplification and eschewal of many aspects of the book. As Ling himself says, “At the same time I try to elucidate Badiou’s thought wholly befitting the art of cinema, making more approachable his at times extremely difficult philosophy” (pp. 8-9). What we asked at the beginning of the review was what can Badiou bring to cinema, and in answer the most useful notions seem to concern questions of the subtractive and the popular. As Badiou says in a passage from “Cinema and Philosophy” quoted by Ling, “this art has been traversed by 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” (p. 39). It is this rupture – similar to the Deleuzian dichotomy yet not at all the same – that we have tried to elucidate in an attempt to escape theory fatigue. Badiou will be unlikely to impact on film studies with the permeating fertility of a Deleuze, but Ling’s book is a useful contribution to the ontological questions cinema poses.
Alex Ling, Badiou and Cinema, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2011.
- Rob White in Pam Cook and Mieke Bernink (eds.), The Cinema Book, BFI, London, 1999, p. 340.
- Alain Badiou, Infinite Thought, Continuum, London, 2005, p. 85.
- James Monaco, How to Read a Film, Oxford University Press, London, 1981, p. 130.
- Alain Badiou, “Cinema as a Democratic Emblem”, Monthly Review 5 June 2009: http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/badiou050609.html.
- Stig Björkman (ed.), Trier on von Trier, Faber and Faber, London, p. 245.
- Badiou, Infinite Thought, p. 138.
- Badiou, Infinite Thought, p. 12.
- Badiou, Infinite Thought, p. 89.
- Badiou, Infinite Thought, p. 89.
- Badiou, Infinite Thought, p. 85.
- Badiou, Infinite Thought, p. 84.
- Badiou, “Cinema as a Democratic Emblem”.