Notes on: Vila, J. (2013) 'The Power of Political, Militant, "Leftist" Cinema.  Interview with Jacques Rancière', trans H Vilalta.  Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema 1(2): 9-17

Dave Harris

Rancière can be seen as pursuing 'in– disciplines', such as the history of workers and cinema.

Q.  Has there been an aesthetic turn from workers history to aesthetics?, Or was aesthetics always at the heart of your work?  You have talked about political subjectivation as 'an interval to be occupied between two identities'(10).  Do art works illustrates such intervals?

A: I have no general theory of subjectivation.  Instead, I'm interested in 'the phenomena of un-identification and in the material and symbolic intervals that authorise them'.  In Proletarian Nights, the interest was in the interval between the imposed identity of worker, and the gap introduced when workers occupied different universes, those of culture but also ways of speaking and of 'affects that weren't made for them' (11).  Implications for the political subject appeared, in contrast to those accounts stressing solidarity and belonging.  In turn, this led to an interest in how the arts can present interference with standard identities, especially if they have 'an uncertain status' as does cinema - mechanical reproductions of the world,  bringing together art and entertainment.  This is why radical cinema emerges as symptoms of cultural upheaval like May 1968.  In particular, there were two new waves, one focusing on a new kind of youth living a more liberal life, but then radicalized by making 'a figure of ironic distance', as in the characters played by Jean-Pierre Leaud.  Godard made him represent the 'Chinese' militant, for example, admittedly a posture, but one which 'corresponded to a certain political subjectivity important at the time'.  Such figures did play an important role in political subjectivation.

Q: You do not claim to be a film theorist, just a cinephile.  You say that your position is best understood as 'the "politics of the amateur"'(11), and then claim this as a theoretical position after all - 'cinema as a crossover of experiences and knowledges', and a political one - 'cinema belongs to all, not only to specialists'.  Does this tie in with the notion of the emancipated spectator?  If so, is there still a role for theorists [one of whom is Deleuze]

A: The politics of the amateur denies that cinema can be understood by any academic specialist as such, because there is no agreed definition, nor an agreed set of objects for study.  The most essential problems nonetheless are those which cross disciplines, combinations of 'the genre of discourse, of action, of spectacle and, finally, of human beings.  The notion of the amateur was already developed in my interventions in social history 'without holding a passport'.  The position seems particularly important when discussing spectacle and a combination of pleasure and judgment.  Cinephilia reclaims cinema for the spectators and therefore alters the notion of taste.  We see this with early valorizarion of popular genres like the western or the musical, against dominant tastes.  All this took place before the development of academic departments and critics.  Critics have their place, but cinema is not 'the sphere of homogeneous objects that depends on the same form of rationality' (12).  The effects depend on such matters as theories of movement, learning the use of the camera, different techniques, different forms of narration, and the feelings that the audience bring, and the notion of movement images as in Deleuze.  There used to be a debate about whether we could construct a cinematographic language, but it was soon seem to be too restricted.  Cinema was not just a language, but an entertainment, an art form and an industry.  Theories are best seen as 'circulating in that world', investigations of segments of, it  or bridges between its 'different realities' (13).  Selection begins already with describing effects as words.  Reviews and theories also themselves produce cinema by connecting different realities.

Q: So is this about the link between entertainment and politics?  Can we apply the politics of the amateur to less popular arts, such as opera or theatre?

A: The division between popular and elitist art is not constant.  For example, opera is now a spectacle for the wealthy, but various forms of classical work including operatic melody appeared in various 'lyrical theatres', where a variety of music was offered.  Some still appear as soundtracks for films or advertisements.  19th century theatre was also a mixture.  I have commented before on how this mixture itself affects 'the meaning and effect of the works' (12), and I have also shown how a new artistic sensibility appeared in theatres combining poets and popular performance, and how this in turn 'influenced so strongly the art of theatre and performance later on' (13).  The cinema developed some of these effects.  The early cinema escaped official regulation as well.  Cinema audiences 'could feel a certain emotion without the need to decide if it was art or entertainment', and they could also 'unfold their passion for art' in works officially designated as entertainment: 'undisciplined spectators'.  This is actually necessary for cinema to develop.  Later specializations in cinema have attempted to re-regulate the power of amateurs by 'predetermining the relationship of the films to their spectators'

Q: You have distinguished Brechtian and post-Brechtian paradigms in cinema, with the first attempting to display the tensions and contradictions, to sharpen the gaze and judgment, but to support Marxist explanations.  The second offers no such resolution of tensions.  Is there a connection with the shift in politics from the 60s to the 70s, shown in, say, the change from Dziga Vertov to Straub-Huillet?

A: There were experiments after 1968 to bridge the gap between specialists and the people, or by offering cameras to those in struggle, for example.  This was based both on Marxism and 'on the material existence of those struggles'.  No one has ever shown that Brechtian distance, or militant films by Dziga Vertov have actually produced an increased awareness or fed into the struggles of the 1970s.  When material and ideological circumstances changed, the bases for these approaches crumbled.  Critical distance was applied to Marxist critique itself.  This is what we see in Straub-Huillet [the example cited is History Lessons].  There is another shift of emphasis from showing the reasons of oppression to encouraging the capacity of the oppressed [lots more examples from Straub-Huillet, 14].  Here, the deliberately artificial and distancing factors are attempting to 'show the elevation of thought and of language to which the common people can aspire', not to give a lesson about society but to express a 'sensible capacity'.  This corresponded 'to a thought movement and to the politics of the last decades', the construction of new sensibilities rather than an analysis of domination.

Q: You have described Eisenstein [The Old and the New] as showing a faith in a new system as well as in a new filmic language.  Are there any equivalents today?  Should any filmic language be avoided at least?  What do you make of the current ones like Occupy Wall Street?

A: There is no simple correspondence.  Eisenstein and Vertov both wanted to use the new medium to develop the construction of a communist world, but this direct connection 'pretended to suppress the mediation of images'.  Their project is unthinkable today with the technical, commercial and artistic developments in cinema.  The question now is how to represent new situations and conflicts, but not 'with the dominant logic of representation'.  For example, how to break with the figure of the immigrant as victim, or the stereotypes of the Middle East as ruins [and some examples of Palestinian cinema are given].  These experiments have broken the barriers between documentary and fiction.  However, there are also many images circulating on the Internet, and with video.  The old constructivist cinema of the Soviet era is no longer possible, since the images can no longer be ignored.  'Internet, social media and the videos that circulate through these channels are rather used as a great common tissue that serves to bring together people and, at the same time, to extend such union via its images' (15) [in a positive radicalizing way?].

Q: You have discussed the political power of images in an interview, distinguishing European cinema and American cinema [the first one apparently focuses 'on the mythological order, the affects of the real on the code of representation', while the latter focuses on 'the order of legends and their genealogy'].  American cinema often refers to some unified originating community, but European fiction would find this impossible.

A: I was not opposing European to American cinema,  but rather showing different sorts of figures of the nation or people.  This was not an historical account.

Q: But is any distinction still valid today?  And what of other fictions of the nation in other cinemas?

A: The point then was to intervene in a French situation, when the culture of the left was being reestablished during Mitterrand.  There was a cosy family image of collectivity, and I wanted to contrast this to the American model based on some foundation, as in the Western, with collectivity emerging from conflict between mythological figures.  That particular moment passed.  The landscape of the American legend also altered with things like spaghetti westerns, or aggressive critiques [Heaven's Gate].  The powerlessness of law and the impotence of community has also often been demonstrated.  Meanwhile, European cinema, driven by the market has exploited this particular vein, sometimes as comedies about French customs, or traditions, or even the 'out-there family tale a la Almodovar'(15).  New Asian cinema has introduced a new complexity, with tensions between urban and traditional culture, the intrusion of American life, relations between the imaginary in the real in particular forms of religiosity and others.

Q: You have argued that leftist cinema offers an artificial 'nationalist imaginary through the workers struggle' which glosses over contradictions of that struggle.  What about current films [with examples, the only one could recognize was Michael Moore's films]

A: it was also a distinction between films made for the wider audience, supporting leftism and films actually made for militants including documentaries of actual strikes, designed to show the reality of collectivism [Tout va Bien?].  There were popular until the workers' defeats in the 1980s.  Today the dominant form seems to be the documentary, usually about catastrophes and how particular systems produce them.  There are also 'vain manifestations of "critical" self satisfaction, as in the case of Michael Moore'(16).  It can give insightful analyses, say of the financial system, but even the authors know they will not generate revolt.  Moral indignation has 'been able to display a renewed force', but, by definition, does not address the laws of the system.  Fatalism combines with 'the constitution of the sentiment of what is intolerable and in the sharing of that sentiment'.  The new collective sentiment is intolerable of the dominant order, and also promotes a communal trust.  The appeal takes the form of 'the sort of common bet on the union of anonymous peoples and in the power of images'.  Whether images are really rehabilitated is still an important question, and one that probably makes more radical uses of cinema less relevant.

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