Outside of France, Jean-Louis Comolli is principally known in the film studies world for his stint as the editor of Cahiers du cinéma in the years 1965-1973, a period during which his name was attached to such landmark texts as “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”, “Technique and Ideology” and “Film/Politics”. As the titles suggest, it was a period of heightened political radicalism and theoretical exigency. His work since this time is, unjustly, of far less prominence in the field, but this neglect masks the fact that Comolli has been singularly prolific in the last four decades, in both filmmaking – he has directed dozens of documentaries and a handful of fiction films – and in film theory, with a steady stream of articles and books.1 This work is perhaps all the more remarkable for Comolli’s determination to bring theory and practice into dialogue with each other, continuing a tradition of filmmaker-theorists (a la Eisenstein, Vertov, Pasolini, Godard) that has precious few representatives today. This was the motivation behind his 2015 book, Cinéma, mode d’emploi (co-written with Vincent Sorel), a theoretically-informed handbook for budding filmmakers in the age of the digital image.
More recently, Comolli has turned his attention to a much more specific aspect of present-day image culture: the ISIS clip, those gruesome video shorts depicting the torture and execution of those captured by the Islamic fundamentalist movement, which are produced using digital cameras and distributed via the internet. Daech, le cinéma et la mort (whose title translates as ISIS, the Cinema and Death)2 is a concise, polemical essay, with a bumpy quality that occasionally shows signs of a hasty writing process, disgorged in a couple of breaths at a time when France was assailed by a spate of terrorist attacks, but which is no less theoretically incisive or politically pertinent for the urgency with which it was composed. For anyone concerned with the fundamental questions besetting the cinematic image in the contemporary era, Comolli’s pamphlet is a vital reference. We can only hope it finds an English translation sometime soon, particularly in light of the shifting political and technological sands that will (and have already) ineluctably move the terrain from under Comolli’s feet. In the meantime, the present review is intended to give readers without access to the original text an idea of the main contours of its argument, and to test out some of the more provocative claims Comolli makes within.
The logic of Comolli’s reasoning in Daech, le cinéma et la mort does not appear from out of a void. In fact, his preceding works of film theory carefully lay the groundwork for the propositions he now articulates. In Cinema against Spectacle, for instance, he divided moving images into two broad categories. “Spectacle”, for Comolli (taking inspiration from Guy Debord), is the uninterrupted flux of audiovisual entertainment, never-ending, all-consuming, beaming out from millions of screens and displays, all with the purpose of ensuring our acquiescence to the continued smooth functioning of global capitalism: “The holy alliance of the spectacle and the commodity,” he writes, “has now been realised. It governs our world. From pole to pole, across the tropics, capital in its current guise has found the ultimate weapon for its domination: images and sounds combined.” “Cinema”, therefore, necessarily entails a resistance to this state of affairs. But this “combat to salvage and preserve something of man’s human dimension” takes place chiefly on the level of forms, rather than content: “This struggle must be carried out against the very forms that the spectacle employs in order to maintain its domination. The struggle of forms lurks in most forms of struggle.” 3
Devising parameters for formally distinguishing cinema from spectacle is, however, not such a simple process: they both comprise moving images and sounds, they both utilise the same technologies for capture and reproduction, they both appeal to the same social layers for their intended audience. Comolli nonetheless ventures some points of demarcation. Central to the cinema, for the theorist, is the role of the frame, which delineates the field of the visual image from its off-screen counterpart (the hors-champ, in Comolli’s parlance). A cinematic image is one where there is a productive tension between what is inside and what is outside the frame. The co-presence of bodies, with each other and with the camera, is thus a vital element of the cinema, as is the act of recording, and the final gesture of showing the images on a screen. When these elements are mobilised in an active and inventive manner, the image is capable of becoming truly cinematic. This can be amply seen in the contemporary filmmakers Comolli holds up as paragons of the medium: Abbas Kiarostami, Pedro Costa, Jia Zhangke, Wang Bing, and others. As Comolli puts it in Daech, le cinéma et la mort: “I call ‘cinema’ all those images that are framed when recorded, and that, still framed, are subsequently shown on a screen.” (pp. 10-11)4
In tackling the ISIS video clip as a media object, then, nothing would appear more straightforward than for Comolli to consign these debased forms of the moving image to the inferno of 21st century spectacle, ensuring they could never rise to the empyrean heights of the cinema. This would have made them easy to disavow, easy to disassociate from his own practice. The cinema in its entirety could be relied upon to struggle against the spectacle as embodied, in particularly grisly, objectionable fashion, by these audiovisual entities. Eh bien, it is precisely this move that he rejects. Despite the fact that these ISIS clips will, we can assume, never be screened in a cinema, despite the fact that they were made purely for the purposes of propaganda, sowing terror among the wider public and forming a node of attraction for those susceptible to enlisting with the movement, Comolli does not hesitate to categorise them as cinema: “The clips produced by the Al-Hayat Media Centre (ISIS) adopt the fundamental parameters of the cinematic image – framing + recording + showing – such as they were defined by the vues of the Lumière brothers.” (p. 11) Or, alternatively: “Hence, through their inscription of a frame, their elapsing in a specific duration, the ISIS clips do indeed belong to the category of the cinema.” This, Comolli readily admits, “shocks me, it overturns what remains in me of my young cinephilia, but it is a fact.” (p. 12) What could have been framed, following the precepts of Comolli’s earlier theoretical work, as a titanic struggle between two antagonistic configurations (cinema against spectacle), is instead cast as an intra-cinematic battle, an audiovisual civil war (cinema against cinema).
Indeed, Comolli places the ISIS clip within a long lineage of cinematic artefacts that have shaken our ethical understanding of the mechanically-reproduced image: from the footage of the concentration camp survivors recorded by shocked Allied troops (among them the filmmakers George Stevens and Samuel Fuller), to the morbid images of torture surfacing from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Boy in the early years of the “War on Terror”. This is not to deny the novelty of the media strategy adopted by ISIS. The Nazis, famously, refused any audiovisual documentation of the death camps in action (the Holocaust was, Himmler told his commandos, a “never-to-be-written page in Germany’s history”). The photos of hooded POWs humiliated by American torturers in the bowels of Baghdadi prisons were never intended to circulate around the world. Even when Al-Qaeda filmed its executions, there was a sense that it was at most a secondary consideration for the terrorist group. In the case of ISIS, by contrast, the group’s acts of unthinkable brutality, abetted by the cheap digital cameras and ubiquitous social media networks of the 2010s, are entirely organised around the principle that they will be filmed and globally disseminated, on an almost instantaneous basis.
As this lineage shows, therefore, the degrading of the screen is not a civilisational question. It is not a matter of the “barbaric” Orientals defiling the invention of the noble West. The US military and its consorts may be rattling their sabres ever more loudly against the bands of militants circulating in the deserts of Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. But, as the image of captives in orange jumpsuits which ISIS seems expressly to have adopted from the iconography of Guantanamo Bay suggests, this belligerence only serves to mask a deeper, underlying complicity between the two, a mortal embrace that unites the vicious mediaeval archaism of radical Islam with the insatiable depredations of Western technocapitalism: “We now know that for the Google phase of Capital, the goal is to padlock the world. Without slipping into an overly simplistic ‘parallelism’, I would say that ISIS, too, wants to strip the subjects it commands of all freedom. Islamic extremism and unbridled capitalism go well together. […] The entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley and the killers of ISIS profess and share the same idea of power and subjection: no place is left to the slightest doubt, they possess the truth.” (pp. 23-24)5
Contemporary Hollywood is similarly prone to this complicity – but here the collusion takes place on the level of forms. ISIS’s real-life savagery is mirrored by the fantasies of brutality purveyed by the “dream factory”, which now, in its stage of digital decadence, delights in depicting acts of violence in an ever more direct and unexpurgated fashion. Both the Al-Hayat media centre and the blockbusters of today are united by a shared aesthetic principle: “the reduction of the spectator to a montage of sensations: fear, hallucination, stupefaction, fascination, shaking, trembling, horror… The effects and the forms used to produce them are pretty much the same.” (pp. 32-33) Rather than a respect for the agency and autonomy of the spectator, both Hollywood and ISIS seek to cow the consumers of their images into terrified paralysis through their saturation of the desire to see, by means of an aesthetic strategy based on visual shock. Both, for Comolli, are counter-posed to the “other Hollywood”, that of the great auteurs of the classical era (Ford, Hawks, Tourneur, Hitchcock, Lang), who “preferred the invisible to the visible”, and who, as a rule, confined moments of violence and death to the concealed realm of the hors-champ, where they were all the more horrifying for having an existence that was purely imaginary (the paradigmatic case here being, although Comolli does not mention it, the Nazi torture scene in Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt ).
Of course, an objection immediately surfaces to the conflation of the aesthetic dominant in late Hollywood with that practised by ISIS propagandists. American cinema may bombard our cinema screens with untold deaths, but they are mere simulations. They are faked for the purposes of spectatorial titillation, and beyond this have no sadistic intent. The “victims” of Hollywood violence are actors, the blood that drenches their bodies is red dye. When the camera stops rolling, they will stand up and continue their lives, absolutely unscathed. The deaths recorded by ISIS, by contrast, are indisputably real. At the end of the take, we know that the on-screen figures will remain dead. This distinction – an extreme instantiation of the documentary/fiction divide – is at the centre of the argument developed in Comolli’s book: “It is the very question of the cinema, it is the question without answer posed by the spectator: true or false, real or simulacrum?” Indeed, he is not the first film theorist to have posed the conundrum. André Bazin famously wrote about the “ontological obscenity” of watching Shanghai communists executed by the Kuomintang in newsreel footage from pre-revolutionary China: every afternoon, as the film was played over, the unfortunate souls were subjected to the same punishment, again and again. Other arts, Bazin inferred, could simulate death; only the cinema was capable of actually tracing the passage from vitality to lifelessness, and endlessly repeating it for our viewing pleasure.
Something, indeed, innately links death to the act of filming. The cinema films death at work, Cocteau famously said; the message of every photographic image, Barthes rejoined, is: “he is going to die”. For Comolli, meanwhile, the distinction between the simulated representation of death in “fiction” films, and the “real” recording of a dying being in “documentary” footage, is not as clear-cut as we might suppose. Returning to the terminology of his Cahiers du cinéma days, Comolli argues that both forms engender in the spectator a particular form of denial that the psychoanalyst Octave Mannoni dubbed “I know very well… but all the same…” I know very well that the deaths in a Hollywood blockbuster are faked, but all the same, for a second there, they felt real. I know very well that the murdered bodies in the ISIS clip really are dead – but all the same, it all looks so… cinematic. In both cases, the same dialectic of doubt and belief is exercised, each intertwining with the other in an endless tourniquet. In Comolli’s words: “When death becomes visible and thus filmable, it is not death, but a metaphor of death that is filmed. Even when the death is real, it becomes a filmed death, and thus inscribes itself in another signifying chain: that of the innumerable ‘deaths’ whose apparently living traces the cinema has preserved.” (p. 42)
Admittedly, it is here that Comolli’s line of argumentation becomes more contorted, less easy to follow, with a series of contradictory positions circling around each other, never quite able to be reconciled with one another. A symptom, no doubt, of the supremely paradoxical nature of the cinema’s relationship with death, which exacerbates the already aporetic nature of cinematic representation itself. Does the photographic image shared in the ontological existence of the model, as Bazin would argue, or is it merely an illusory impression of reality that serves to mask the real materiality of the image, as the apparatus theorists would have it? Both factions, in a way, are right. Film theory, much like the spectator, is caught in an eternal oscillation between two mutually exclusive standpoints.
At certain points in the text, Comolli becomes more concrete in his Cartesian scepticism, flirting with the idea, even hypothetically, that the ISIS execution clips are staged, that they are merely the product of a particularly sophisticated special effects studio. Would this change anything in our response to seeing such images? Indeed, the question of spectatorial ethics haunts the entire book. Once upon a time, the decision to watch or not to watch was mostly out of our hands: and was instead in the control of film companies or television newsrooms. Bazin may have seen filmed executions, but the newsreel footage he viewed was accompanied by an authoritative voiceover, delicately guiding the audience through the footage they were shown (and giving them the opportunity to leave the theatre or avert their eyes if they wished). More recently, newscasts have made prodigious use of censorship devices (black strips, blurred images) to conceal moments of extreme violence in the clips produced by terror groups, even while playing the questionable role of alerting the broader public to their existence. Now, we the viewers are in absolute control over what we see: every conceivable image, no matter the content, is available on our computer screens, on demand, requiring no greater effort than the click of a mouse button. To watch or not to watch? To click or not to click?
Comolli respects those who make the ethical decision to refuse to watch these clips, and sympathises with the desire not to “sully one’s eyes” (the phrase comes from Rossellini), all the more legitimate for resisting the “doxa of the image market […] that everything should be showable and visible.” (p. 11) But he baldly asserts that this choice is not his own:
On the contrary, I think that it is necessary to see, with one’s own eyes, one or more of these little films, to tolerate the images of violent death made by an executioner and thrown up onto a screen, not only in order to observe that the ignominy of those who show such images can go beyond abjection […] but, I will not deny it, in the hope of saving the cinema from what sullies it, condensable in the formula of the all-visible. (p. 11)
We ought to watch these videos, this argument has it, so that we can critique them and more effectively combat them.6 Comolli thus took it upon himself not only to watch a great number of the propaganda videos produced by ISIS, but also to relay their content in painstaking detail.
I must confess that this is where he and I part ways. Before reading Daech, cinema et la mort I had never personally watched any footage of this kind – not out of a rationally thought out code of spectatorial morality, but more because it had never struck me as something that I particularly needed to do. After finishing the book, I decided to subject myself to the experience, choosing as my test case a clip recounted by Comolli which, while in some ways subtler than the standard imagery of bloody throat-slittings and decapitations, seemed particularly chilling (Comolli admits that, when he showed the clip during a seminar in Lagrasse, there were numerous walkouts from the room). Here is his description:
Four men in a large cage. The crane of a truck lifts it from the ground and carries it over a body of water. The crane drops the cage into the water until it is completely submerged. We wait. This time is, by itself, unbearable. Nothing moves. Suddenly, the crane lifts up the cage. The four men are lying on the floor, drowned. The camera approaches the face of one of them: we see the water he had swallowed trickle out of his lips, mixed with bloody saliva. (p. 15)
To find this footage, I had to wade into a particularly murky corner of the internet. I pressed play and began watching. But when the cage hit the water, I couldn’t take it anymore. I had to press stop. I felt physically ill. Beyond any ethical precepts, the law of the human stomach had spoken. From the brief extract that I did see, however, I could draw a few impressions. The first was that the quality of the image was astonishing (I’m speaking here of film technique, obviously, not content). Nothing could be further from the grainy, almost unwatchable cellphone footage of Al-Qaeda’s early efforts. The resolution was crisp, the colours were saturated, the framing precise, the editing meticulous (and highly constructed). There was even a psychologically expressive use of shallow focus. There was little to distinguish the clip from a contemporary cinematic image. Hito Steyerl may well have spoken, in an influential article, of our time as being the era of the “poor image”. But if even a militia of Islamic fundamentalists in one of the most impoverished countries on Earth is capable of producing such footage, it is perhaps high time to declare that the era of the poor image has come to an end.
Secondly, the enmeshing of terror groups and Silicon Valley is even more concrete than Comolli proposes. The clip I saw was evidently shot on an Iphone. I can confidently make this claim not owing to any expert knowledge of the Iphone’s video capabilities, but because, early in the sequence, we can see an ISIS militant on-screen, filming the cage with his phone. Indeed, the inclusion of this element almost makes the whole clip come across as an incongruous promotional vehicle for the Apple product (along the lines of the “Shot on my Iphone” billboards). It is the company founded by that idol of feel-good neoliberal globalisation, Steve Jobs, which, on the most basic level, enables ISIS to create its hate-filled propaganda.
Finally, it was striking just how different my reaction to this footage was from the typical response I have to violence in neo-Hollywood films. Truthfully, I am not a fan of “torture porn” or other gory genres, but the principal sentiment their cartoonishly improbable CGI imagery instills in me is not one of nauseous dismay, but nihilistic indifference. They are fundamentally incapable of moving me, and are evidence only of an aesthetic system that has well and truly exhausted the formal arsenal at its disposal.
On a theoretical level, then, I can generally assent to the sinuous logic of Comolli’s argument about the ambiguities of the documentary/fiction divide. But on a gut level, there is no disputing it. One is real and the other is fake. One is distressing to watch, the other is, at the most, mildly unpleasant, but usually tiresome. In one of them, the fundamental ethical and aesthetic stakes that have marked the cinema during its century-plus existence are still, devastatingly, in operation. In the other, they have been evacuated of any substance. Thus, my conclusion would be a little bit more radical in its perversity than Comolli’s. Not only does the ISIS video clip belong to the category of cinema, but it does so in opposition to the current output of the Hollywood studios, which has become fundamentally uncinematic in nature, and totally absorbed into what Serge Daney called “the visual” (or, indeed, what Comolli calls the “spectacle”). As noxious as their imagery is, as odious as the ideology they convey is, as unbearable to watch for any normally constituted spectator as they are, it is in ISIS video clips that, today, the cinema finds its refuge.
It is for us to change the world so that this may no longer be the case.
Jean-Louis Comolli, Daech, le cinéma et la mort (Lagrasse: Verdier, 2016).
- Alas, little of this output is available in English. I will signal here the chief exception: Cinema against Spectacle: Technique and Ideology Revisited (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015). The translation was my own modest contribution to overturning this regrettable state of affairs. ↩
- Daech is the Arabic acronym for ISIS, and is now widely used to refer to the organisation in France. ↩
- Ibid., pp. 49-50. ↩
- All translations of this text are my own. ↩
- Comolli’s personal background affords him unique insight into the historical background of the present conflicts in the Middle East: born into a pied-noir family in Algeria, he witnessed first-hand atrocities committed by both sides in the Algerian War of Independence, biographical episodes that are recounted in the book, and which left a profound mark on the young Comolli. ↩
- In truth, the critique side of the ledger takes up more of Comolli’s book than the combat side, although he does mention the Syrian filmmaking collective Abounaddara, which takes direct inspiration from Godard in its use of internet-based filmmaking to oppose ISIS. ↩