In an article a while ago, I quoted critic David Thomson as follows: “This may be an era when the movies have to decide whether their subject is self- loathing or human aspiration.” To which I flippantly responded, well, we can have both, and then went on to muse for a while on the limitations of Thomson’s premise, which of course wasn’t that hard to do. But then a few days later I was reading a book about one of my favourite directors, Jacques Rivette (by Douglas Morrey and Alison Smith), in particular a chapter on the criticism he wrote in the 1950’s and 1960’s (which I’ve only encountered in the past in brief snatches), before he devoted himself entirely to making films.
Based on Morrey and Smith’s account, the underpinnings of Rivette’s writings would be easy to dispute, if not to lampoon, and as they acknowledge, his films suggest he might himself have later reconsidered many of his fundamental assumptions. Even so, as I was reading it I suddenly felt my own approach to cinema, even after nurturing and refining it for so many years, was tragically insufficient, built too much on lazily pragmatic, untested reactivity to whatever might be before me; an analytical equivalent of the nice guy who duly finishes last.
An Obscene Realism
I’ll try very briefly to summarize the Morrey/Smith summary. Rivette, as a critic, argued for an emphasis on capturing the totality of reality. He brought a rigorous moral dimension to this belief: “…certain subjects demand to be filmed in certain ways, and it would be unethical to film them otherwise.” He articulated this most famously in a rebuke of the largely forgotten 1960 film Kapo, a drama set mostly in a concentration camp (directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, who later made The Battle of Algiers, itself regarded as a kind of milestone in cinematic realism). Rivette argued “that Pontecorvo has not given sufficient consideration to the aesthetic questions posed by this difficult subject, opting instead for an obscene ‘realism’ that ultimately renders the spectacle of the camps tolerable for the viewer and thereby implies that they were also tolerable for their victims.” He denounced in particular a tracking shot moving toward a woman who’s thrown herself against an electric fence: “the point is that the horror of the camps requires no such emphasis, indeed that to emphasize it in this fashion reduces it to the level of any other subject.”
As this suggests, Rivette generally argued for a self-effacing directorial style, but this doesn’t merely mean one of minimalism and restraint. Morrey and Smith summarize his view of the dialectic of cinema like this: “If one takes the world as starting point, one risks missing the idea and presenting a flat and unquestioning copy of the world that demonstrates no more understanding of it that does a cow fascinated by the trains flashing past its field. If one takes an idea as starting point, however, then the risk is in never attaining the density of the real world, never fleshing out the idea with the weight of reality. The goal, then, is that the idea, by the necessity of its own internal movement, of its dialectic, should, little by little, recreate the world before our eyes, or rather create a different world, all the more ambiguous for being an incarnated idea, and a real shot through with meaning.”
There’s much more where that came from of course, and I may not have selected the most illustrative extracts. But my point, again, is that on reading this, and reflecting on it even briefly and inadequately, I felt very keenly the meaninglessness of most assertions (including my own) about cinema. I enjoyed it. I didn’t enjoy it. She was good. He was bad. It was too long, too violent, too sentimental, too complicated. The book was better. Some smart writers may explain these reactions more fastidiously than others (or at least express them more eloquently, so the lack of an explanation slips past you), but when you sort through it, they’re still just reactions, even if you intuitively agree with every word they say.
One can easily locate more analytical or theoretical writing about cinema, but a lot of this tends to be aimed at extreme specialists. Is there a visible, accessible figure who writes consistently about film from a rigorous moral position? I don’t use “moral” to mean someone who freaks out every time you see a bare breast - I’m sure the Internet is laden with those – but rather someone who writes about film as a way of writing about the world, and no more accepts certain cinematic practices than she or he would tolerate living in the midst of pollution? Whether or not you thought he or she was correct, either on the foundation of the reasoning or on the specific application, wouldn’t such a writer be more useful than just another self-contained opinion (in the way say that some columnists or commentators, even if one doesn’t usually – or ever – agree with them, contribute to synthesizing and sharpening one’s own thoughts)? Especially if such a writer were free of the primary obligation of responding to whatever happens to be new (which already means their role is driven by the demands of commerce) and wrote instead about what seemed to him or her necessary.
The Fascinated Cow
That’s why I found Thomson’s choice between self-loathing and human aspiration momentarily intriguing, even if trite and illogical for any number of reasons. We don’t need more responders – we need guides. The accumulated span of cinema is vast now, far outweighing our resources of time and money and knowledge and concentration. Sure, we can surrender to it and take the easy route, eating from whatever limited menu Hollywood and other service providers happen to be pushing, but that’s the kind of choice made available to laboratory mice. I’m pretty good at avoiding that – this week for instance I watched films by von Sternberg, Resnais and Hou Hsiao-hsien among others – but I fall into another trap, of trying to devour everything on the premium buffet table, forgetting that liking just about everything easily shades into appreciating nothing, like that cow fascinated by what flashes by.
Jacques Rivette, by all accounts, lives a very austere life, but most of us don’t. Who cares if we’re like that cow, you might say, if what flashes by allows us a period of untroubled contentment? And sure, you can make that choice, but only (I’d say) as a kind of defeat: I don’t think you can brag about it, any more than you could brag (unless you really don’t care) about eating solely at Macdonald’s. At this moment, I’m feeling more like that cow than maybe I should. But I truly intend to start figuring out how to turn away from more of those trains, and then to analyze my patch of grass like I never have before…