Michael Cramer’s new book, Utopian Television, is an impressively constructed work of scholarship that does more than display certain utopian trends in its three subjects; it traces a discursive movement of utopian thinking through technologies. Utopian Television is divided into five chapters, the middle three dedicated to analyses of the works of Rossellini, Watkins, and Godard. In his introduction, Cramer introduces two concepts that undergird his project. The first is the concept of utopia as put forward by Ernst Bloch and Fredric Jameson. Jameson’s “utopia as method,” in particular, is a way of thinking that recasts things that are negative as being fixed, bettered, or made good. The method is a “revalencing” of a current situation for the future. Cramer argues that all three of the figures under consideration partake in some variant of utopian thinking. The other concept Cramer brings out in this chapter is Jacques Ranciere’s partage du sensible (distribution of the sensible), the way information is distributed across the senses. This is dependent upon technology, societal values, and other cultural factors, which calcify ways of knowing. Cramer sees this concept as inherent to the utopian method insofar as the method first identifies the current partage du sensible along with its underlying problems, and then projects a new partage du sensible that exists without those problems.
In the opening chapter, Cramer outlines his project and introduces the economic and production contexts of European public service broadcasting between the 1960s and the 1980s. During this time the values of public service broadcasting were concretised, and funding was given for a wide range of projects, some more successful than others. The period allowed for visionary thinking about what television could be, and what images could mean on television. This is the platform from which the filmmakers in discussion started, each coming to the medium in a different way. What makes the early period of television an interesting time for media studies is its openness to how information could be distributed. In other words, the partage du sensible was not locked in place, but unsure and open.
The second chapter contains an explication of Rossellini’s optimistic view of television as being a part of his anti-modernist mindset in which the visual could be harnessed as a tool for mass education. The Italian director saw film as being corporate, without imagination, and only existing for the profits of its producers. Television, on the other hand, where “the critical spirit of the individual is more accentuated” (Rossellini, cited on p. 73), was ready to be put to use, though not aesthetic use. Rossellini was thoroughly humanist, and his goal with his television works was to make present what he saw as the determining moments in Western history. He attempted this in order that viewers might be able to see history’s arc, all the way through the present and towards the future. These moments, Rossellini writes, “represent the articulation and the unfolding of fundamental ways of thinking” (cited on p. 49) and their reproduction would encourage not experts, but renaissance men. Cramer explores how Rossellini could not sidestep the innate aesthetic qualities of the televisual medium, even though he tried. Rossellini’s position about art is similar to the Frankfurt School (especially Adorno), yet in some ways even more pessimistic. What emerges from Rossellini’s use of non-actors, monologues, and old-fashioned painted glass backdrops, however, is a stripped-down and economically inventive quality of narration ripe for scholarly dissection as an aesthetic object.
While Rossellini attempted to ignore the aesthetic qualities inherent in the televisual medium, Peter Watkins turned the medium against itself. In the chapter “Inform, Educate, Aestheticize,” Cramer focuses on two of Watkins’ early films, Culloden (1964) and The War Game (1965). These works were controversial upon their release (or non-release, as the case may be), and continue to be provocative media texts. Culloden presents the 1746 battle between Jacobites and Loyalists. It contains interviews with leaders and members of both forces. The clearly anachronistic display allows for some distance between viewer and content, but in The War Game there is far less. The War Game presents an imagined near future in which nuclear war has been declared. It focuses on Britain’s then-current response policies to such a situation, also using short interviews and seemingly raw footage of radiation injuries. Cramer sets out Watkins’ agenda as upending the solidified form of television documentary in his employment of documentary and news techniques within the context of a fictional scenario. The collision of viewers’ trust in the televisual image with Watkins’ images and script incited anger and indignation in members of the BBC’s review committee, and The War Game was deemed too horrifying to air. Cramer writes that even when the narration posits the images as hypothetical, there is still some belief in them that stems from a trust in the informative rhetoric of television documentaries. Moreover, Cramer points out that the narration cannot neatly deal with the images, using conditional language for the situations and present tense when referencing the images onscreen. This puts into question what sort of existence these images have and what reality they depict.
Cramer compares Watkins’ work with the earlier Griersonian model of television documentaries developed in previous decades. In these, John Grierson and other producers used abstract and artistic imagery to express the complexity of new technology, and also dignified manual labor with the addition of modernist music. These sorts of modulations spoke to a deeply held value that “it is only through a process of aesthetic transformation that image can express anything at all.” (p. 109) Watkins took this idea to the level of form, employing one form for a related but different purpose. Watkins’ films educate and inform, but they do not have any illusions about a direct flow of information from television to viewer. Instead, they employ this model to destabilize the viewer’s trust, forcing viewers to engage with a hermeneutic of suspicion. Cramer calls the impact of this strategy an appeal to embodied spectatorship. The interplay between image and viewer is complex, involving the belief that the documentary television form engenders, then disbelief and anger at having been “tricked” because the text did not adhere to the norms of the form, and perhaps confusion about what is actually being displayed, or even what the film is trying to produce. As Michael Haneke would do for art cinema decades later, Watkins forces the viewer into a position of agency, as they must cast off the belief that they are used to holding. Cramer writes of Watkins’ interest in pedagogy, and particularly the idea of “education as pain” (p. 116). In Watkins’ work the medium is important, since it exists within the private and domestic spaces of the home. By bringing violence and horror to this medium, Watkins would have a platform for education unlike almost any other.
The third filmmaker Cramer focuses on is Jean-Luc Godard. In the fourth chapter, “Radical Communications”, Cramer outlines Godard’s work in the 1970s, paying close attention to his relationship to counter-cinema and political modernism. At the end of the previous decade, Godard was taking a militant Maoist approach, using Brechtian techniques to present an alternative to dominant modes of media and entertainment. This began before the formation of the Dziga Vertov Group with works like La Chinoise (1967), but the forms developed into more straightforward political discourse with British Sounds (1969). Cramer makes a distinction between “counter-information” and Wollen’s counter-cinema; Godard’s work just before the Dziga Vertov period exemplifies the former and those of the Dziga Vertov Group the latter, where questions of form and aesthetics hold importance alongside political values. These works, which predate Godard’s main involvement in television, “are not utopian ones […] but rather a kind of ground-clearing” (p. 127), allowing for positive claims in later works. Cramer examines a few of these films and shows their theoretical underpinnings, some of which, as in the case of British Sounds, are not persuasive or even cohesive. In this film there is a critique of current visual capitalist rhetoric, yet Godard simply replaces the content of that discourse with his own Marxist content, effectively applying the very thing he was critiquing. Following this film, there is an increased focus on the forms of communication, and a more nuanced mode of engagement with these forms, as they are treated no longer as stable mechanical functions but as fluid processes. In Ici et ailleurs (1976), Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville parse through footage taken in Palestine, displaying it alongside advertising and televisual imagery to better understand the way television brings together disparate places, things, and people in ways that do not always make linguistic or narrative sense.
Godard’s most prolonged engagement with television came with his two series, Six fois deux: Sur et sous la communication (1976) and France/tour/détour/deux/enfants (1978). The former work offers one of the most significant televisual discoveries Godard made, namely the exploration of what Deleuze calls the interstice, a layering of one image over another where neither has precedence, and the meanings interpenetrate one another. Godard performs these in interviews with a variety of subjects, mostly working class, unemployed labourers. He also uses video technology to draw and write upon images, a technique that would serve him throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Although Godard often judged TV harshly, favoring cinema, Cramer argues that for a brief time TV offered Godard a mode of exploration that cinema could not. These works Cramer considers utopian because they “imagine themselves as something like future television, one that does not explicitly imagine some utopian condition but rather imagines what its television, its communication, would look like and transmits it to us from another world.” (p. 173)
It is this chapter that is perhaps the one where Cramer has to work hardest to incorporate the utopian themes of the rest of the book, since Godard does not seem primarily interested in these, or in television, for that matter. Although there is some awkwardness in fit, the chapter is also one of the richest in its discussion of Godardian communication theory from a specifically televisual perspective.
The final chapter of Utopian Television traces how both the work of Godard and Watkins and television’s financial structures shifted after the works discussed earlier. The developments in thought by the two artists went in different directions, Watkins toward a resistance to traditional modes of visual communication, expressed in long form works that construct dialogues and educational opportunities regarding nuclear arms (Resan, 1987) and political resistance (La commune (Paris, 1871), 2000), and Godard in video works like Soft and Hard (1985) and Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998). Cramer contrasts their evolved positions, clearly favouring that of Godard over that of Watkins. At this point the book borders on the uncharitable in its treatment of La commune, demonstrating its failure without much interaction with the many positive responses critics and scholars have had toward the film. A broader discussion would have been helpful here, which both acknowledges the film’s critical success while demonstrating its failures in utopian and political capacities. This being said, the final chapter is strong when it begins to engage with Godard’s later work. Although Godard gives precedence to the cinema and seems to look back more often than forward in the wake of his television works, his late period does not lose sight of a utopian methodology, retracing the failures and paths not taken in history and thereby resurrecting the possibility for new action and new paths.
In a final note, Cramer briefly discusses Alexander Kluge’s work in television and the web in relation to the archive, asking where utopian thinking can migrate in the age of new media. Just because cinema and television are not what they once were does not mean the potential for utopian thinking has been lost.
Cramer’s book is a dynamic and engaging work that will be of interest to more than television scholars, dealing with movements between cinema and television, concepts of the image, and in-depth discussions of auteurs. His pace remains lively, and he is sure to make connections between chapters and between thinkers. The book as a whole makes a strong case for the role of utopia as method within the works of these directors, yet what I found to be of most value was not the book’s general project but the individual claims of its chapters. All three of the chapters on the individual directors are fascinating and their arguments compelling. The first and final chapters take a more general approach, bringing historical connections to bear and speaking to the larger technological landscape.
Michael Cramer, Utopian Television: Rossellini, Watkins, and Godard beyond Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).