Articles can be theoretical or practical; however, we are not 5 stars reviews based. We believe and want to encourage a thorough and critical analysis of filmmaking and its social and cultural effects and implications. Contributors should not write from a consumer perspective, or merely a theorist. All articles should be influenced by the act of filmmaking to a greater or lesser extent. We encourage a wide variety of articles whether autobiographical, journalistic, historical, philosophical, socio-political or whether they are manifestos, letters, diaries, sketchbooks or interviews. However the perspective of the filmmaker or the critical re-invention of film, as a theme, is of central importance. One+One always tries to tread the fine line between straight up academic prose and popular writing, we encourage articles which can reach a popular audience of filmmakers, artists and intellectual laypersons without becoming anti-intellectual. All articles should cover at least one of the topics listed below.
§Filmmaking practice (including articles written from a practical viewpoint.)
§Broader social, cultural and economic issues for filmmakers
§Film piracy, the internet, new technology and its social, cultural and economic implication.
§Social and political issues in films
§Contemporary Independent and World Cinema (This could include little known or important films or filmmakers from all over the world)
§Pornography and sex in film
§Art and cult cinema
§Activism and Filmmaking
§Film as part of a “Revolution in Progress”
§Underrated or under-acknowledged filmmakers or acknowledged filmmakers who have radically and experimentally broken boundaries in some way.
§Redesigning cinema space and film experience
§Filmmaking and film in relation to cultural theory such as psychoanalysis, phenomenology, psychogeography, queer theory, body politics and Marxism
Articles can range from 500-5000, Although the length should be appropriate to the content.
We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig in a mine the whole day through
To dig dig dig dig dig dig dig is what we like to do
Heigh Ho in Snow White
In every job that must be done
There is an element of fun
You find the fun and snap!
The job’s a game
A Spoonful of Sugar in Mary Poppins
Now, as the ladder of life ‘as been strung
You might think a sweep’s on the bottommost rung
Though I spends me time in the ashes and smoke
In this ‘ole wide world there’s no ‘appier bloke
Chim chim cher-ee!
A sweep is as lucky
As lucky can be
Chim chim cher-ee! in Mary Poppins
In Disney’s anti-Nazi propaganda cartoon, Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943), Donald Duck wakes up in Nazi Germany where he is forced to continually salute the fuehrer, even while he works 48 hours a day on an assembly line. There is no let up for poor Donald, work dominates and alienates him. Overworked Donald is driven crazy; his world becomes a surreal cacophony of Nazi iconography. Donald wakes up to discover that he is in America; he runs over and embraces the miniature statue of liberty on his windowsill. Nazi Germany pushes the protestant work ethic to its extreme. There is no room to whistle while you work here; work is nothing but a tiring, alienating experience. The lines “Arbeit macht frei” or “work will set you free” is entirely perverse in Nazi Germany. Whatever truth resides in the formula, the Nazi reality is quite the contrary.
How about over the other side of the Atlantic? What sort of alternative would Donald face under the dominance of his rich Uncle Scrooge? Throughout the early Disney films the theme of work is continually addressed. Disney films constantly explore the possibility of transforming work into play. Work must be transformed, as if by magic, into a game. Pleasure in work can be found in a host of Disney characters (as exemplified in the quotes above). Here, work is largely a positive thing; provided you know how to do it well, it can be spiffing good fun-diddily-fun fun!
It would be wrong, however, to assume that all Disney films have a single message: they don’t! If Snow White and Mary Poppins seem to promote finding pleasure in work, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice in Fantasia (1940)and The Sword in the Stone (1963) are exceptions to this rule. In The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Micky Mouse attempts to seize the production process itself, transforming his miserable alienating servitude into a magical enchanting spectacle, but he fails and must face the wrath of the sorcerer when he returns. Maybe Micky had failed to learn the transformative power of the whistle; instead he had attempted to harness the power of magic (as if it were technology) in order to overcome work itself[i]. In a parallel vain, yet contrary conclusion, Merlin in The Sword in the Stone uses magic to overcome work. When Walt is expected to wash huge amount of dishes, Merlin sets his magic to work and the plates leap into the air. “But I am supposed to do it…” exclaims Walt. “No one will know the difference son, who cares as long as the work gets done” says Merlin paving the way for work free ethics of beatnik bears (The Jungle Book, 1967) and carefree cats (The Aristocats, 1970). Work is not so much transformed into play, but eliminated altogether. If there is not necessarily one clear message that runs throughout these films, there is however a theme: the relationship between work and play. It is with this revelation that we should pay a visit to number 17, Cherry Tree Lane…
Tension and Unrest in the Banks Household.
It is 1910 and a storm is brewing in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Banks. Tension and unrest is bubbling away under the surface of the Banks family, although they are far too uptight to notice it. For this bourgeois family is run in accordance with the principles of “Tradition, discipline and rule”, they have no time to show how they really feel. At least that is how Mr. Banks would like it. Mr. Banks, a banker by trade, believes in banking so much that he wishes to run his home in the exact same way (with precision, consistency and as little emotion as possible.) Mrs.Banks is a defender of woman’s rights and has a somewhat more relaxed attitude. Yet in both characters there is a kind of bourgeois solipsism, or in Mary Poppins’ words, an inability to “see past the end of their nose.” George Banks is the prime example of this; his consciousness is conditioned almost completely by the ideology of banking and he appears unable to comprehend any perspective outside his own. His family is therefore treated in a formal and emotionless manner. When the admiral comments on the weather saying, “Bit chancy, I’d say. The wind’s coming up and the glass is falling.” Banks simply replies “Good, good, good”. Banks only has ears for banking and is unable to register any threat of impending crises outside of finance. His consciousness is merely directed to the forward march of capital. Slavoj Žižek seems to encapsulate this capitalist consciousness.
“All one has to do here is to compare the reaction to the financial meltdown of September 2008 with the Copenhagen conference of 2009: save the planet from global warming (alternatively: save the AIDS patients, save those dying for lack of funds for expensive treatments and operations, save the starving children, and so on) –all this can wait a little bit, but the call “Save the banks!” is an unconditional imperative which demands and receives immediate action.”[ii]
In Mr. Banks’ outlook, everything else can wait (even, maybe, if the threat is the entire destruction of life on earth); all that matters is the practical, level-headedness of capital!
Mrs. Banks, however, fairs only a little better. A defender of women’s rights she may be, but her feminism is also shortsighted. Keeping ‘The cause’ out of the sight of Mr. Banks (knowing how much it infuriates him) she relies upon female nannies and servants to look after the children. She is so dedicated to the cause that she is unable to perceive her own complicity in the subjugation of the women who work for her, not to mention the children who invariably go unnoticed by both parents. The limitation to their approach is reflected in their criteria for nannies. After the most recent nanny has lost the children and quit, Mrs. Banks says to Mr. Banks “I’m sorry, dear, but when I chose Katie Nanna I thought she would be firm with the children. She looked so solemn and cross.” George banks replies “Winifred, never confuse efficiency with a liver complaint” What both parents seem to have failed to notice is that rather than it being the case that the nannies have not been strict enough, instead they have been too strict, never really getting the children on their side or thinking on the children’s level. What is needed it a kind, tolerant, nanny with a cheery disposition. Enter Mary Poppins.[iii]
Mary Poppins (or How to Tidy the Nursery)
Mary Poppins, practically perfect in everyway, descends from the heavens to preach the message of work as play. She becomes a nanny for the Banks family and is introduced to Jane and Michael Banks (the children). She sets to work getting the children to tidy the nursery. This is not a mere task, but a lesson. Here, Mary Poppins teaches the child how to transform work into a game. It is a strikingly different work ethic to the stern formalities of their prudent father. For Mary Poppins “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” One should learn to enjoy work, to transform it into fun via the power of imagination. Of course, it is hard here not to think of Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark in which Selma, a Czech immigrant in America, is rapidly going blind and working as many hours a day as she can to pay for an operation for her son as the blindness is hereditary and he is likely to suffer the same fate. Yet the factory work itself is incredibly alienating and in order to get through, she makes a Disneyan move; she imagines she is in a musical. Here the work ethic of Mary Poppins is put into practice: Don’t just accept the drudgery of your working condition, instead turn it into a game! Thus the clatter, crash and clack of heavy machinery become the soundtrack for a work-time fantasy.
A Trip to the Bank
In Balzac, an artist tries to marry into a bourgeois family; he carelessly remarks that money is there to be spent—since it is round, it must roll. The father of the family, reacting with the deepest mistrust, replies: ‘If it is round for prodigals, it is flat for economical people who pile it up.’ The opposite approaches of the bohemian and the rentier (by the end of the tale they have comfortably fused) converge in images of the concrete pleasures of money. Both are thinking of the ways in which hands unconsciously encircle coins, a physical sensation. One man high-spiritedly lets them roll loose, the other deliberately stacks them on top of each other, with greedy precision. The spendthrift and the miser both feel the coins between their fingers.
The children are not the only people that Mary Poppins wants to educate. Mary Poppins manipulates Mr. Banks into taking the children to the bank. He, believing it to be his own idea, declares it to be a “capital idea, a perfect medicine for all this slipshod, sugary female thinking they get around here all day long.” The children, excited that their father is going to show them attention, do not interpret the trip in quite the same way as him. For them it is an opportunity to see the city and all the sights. The city bifurcates: for the Banker, the city is the site of business and commerce, for the children the city is a space for “seeing sights”, for seeing things with no obvious practical purpose that excite and enthrall them; sites of aesthetic curiosities and fun.Throughout the film these two perspectives are forced into dialectal conflict. Mary Poppins, no doubt, fuels this conflict when she points out to the children one of Mr. Bank’s many blindspots: the little old bird woman selling bags of crumbs to feed the birds. To their father, the miser, this is a waist of money, and simply passes him by. Their father has no time for charity and abhors the waste of money, thus the old lady selling her wares means nothing to him. For the children, she becomes the focal point: the very centre of the city. For the father the bank is the centre of the city, for the children it is the little old bird lady. This doubling of the city draws their coins in different directions. For the father, money is for investing and therefore money should be deposited in the bank, whilst for the children it is the capacity to buy a particular pleasurable experience: ‘feeding the birds’. When Michael asks to use this tuppence to feed the birds, his father replies “Michael, I will not permit you to throw your money away. When we get to the bank I will show you what can be done with your tuppence and I think you’ll find it extremely interesting.” On arrival at the bank a further doubling of perspectives takes place. Mr. Banks introduces his children to the chairman of the bank, the elder Mr. Dawes as “a giant in the world of finance”. Michael is puzzled by the father’s description and asks himself aloud “A giant?” The father perceiving the world in terms of capital and status sees in the elder Mr. Dawes a giant. Michael, by contrast, does not perceive this class differentiation, he sees only a hunched wizened old man. If for the father sees the banker dressed up in all his class paraphernalia, Michael sees that the emperor is naked; he is simply a human being like you and I. In this sense, Michael is unable to perceive the unconditional imperative that motivates his father: capital. Rather Michael is driven by a childlike communism where all social customs and hierarchies are reduced to equivalence. These two perspectives come to a head, the children are not persuaded by the opportunities of investment and want to feed the birds; the bankers want to invest. Here the fathers’ solipsistic consciousness is put to the test. Being unable to see beyond the end of his nose he cannot empathise with his own children and has no way of reassuring and communicating with them. As a consequence, this split of perspective turns into a conflict. A scuffle breaks out which frightens the customers into withdrawing all their savings from the bank. A run on the bank ensues. A mere father-son conflict over a tuppense turns into a crisis of capitalism itself. Mr. Banks, unable to manage his own domestic conflicts, manages to muddle his home life with his work and in the process loses his own children, who, frightened and confused, run out of the bank. His whole frame of reference is capital and economic calculability and thus he is unable to perceive the very needs of his own children. Things go full circle and now the father is placed in the same place as the nannies he earlier scorned. Meanwhile the children are thrust into the dark underside of London’s financial capitalism: the slums. Here the reality that remains hidden in the two perspectives of London (the sight seer and the miser) is revealed: the brutal, miserable life of the excluded.
The Lucky Chimney Sweep.
The children are lost in London and with this disorientation, the secure idyllic magical London disappears and, maybe for the first time in the film, there is a genuine sense of danger. From a dog’s bark to an old lady who appears ready to sell the children into slavery, the film takes an unsettling turn. We are faced with a London without the security of money or the safe distance of the sightseer. However, this is a Walt Disney picture and brutal confrontations with reality are not their inclination. We do not remain in this brutal reality for long. It is as if an alternative vision of poverty is needed, one which is less dark and haunting. The figure of Burt, the chimney sweep, easily fits the bill; he is more a middle class fantasy of what the working classes are like than a real pauper. Burt appears offering a safety net, which momentarily disappeared. In this pinnacle scene Bert makes a speech that reveals the film’s overall work ethic.
“You know, begging your pardon, but the one my heart goes out to is your father. There he is in that cold, heartless bank day after day, hemmed in by mounds of cold, heartless money. I don’t like to see any living thing caged up. […] They make cages in all sizes and shapes, you know. Bank-shaped some of ‘em, carpets and all.”
It is not the Chimney sweeps and the poor that are the real exploited, but the bankers and wealthy, those weighed down by money. The chimney sweeps, free from the chains of money, can leap across the skyline singing and dancing: they are the truly liberated! They know that just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and they can do the most horrible jobs, because they know that just a little song will help turn the job into a game. Thus, in the world of Mary Poppins the worker and the poor are the truly liberated. In contrast the banker doesn’t have such privilege and is weighed down by money and respectability. In light of this it is worth bearing in mind Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s account of Odysseus’ encounter with the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey. When sailing home, Odysseus must pass the Sirens whose lure “remains overpowering. No one who hears their song can escape.”
“[Odysseus] knows only two possibilities of escape. One he prescribes to his comrade when faced with the beautiful He plugs their ears with wax and orders them to row with all their might. Anyone who wishes to survive must not listen to the temptation of the irrecoverable, and is unable to listen only if he is unable to hear. Society has always made sure that this was the case. Workers must look ahead with alert concentration and ignore anything which lies to one side. The urge toward distraction must be grimly sublimated in redoubled exertions. Thus the workers are made practical. The other possibility Odysseus chooses for himself, the landowner, who has others to work for him. He listens, but does so while bound helplessly to the mast, and the stronger the allurement grows the more tightly he has himself bound, just as later the bourgeois denied themselves happiness the closer it drew to them with the increase in their own power. What he hears has no consequences for him; he can signal to his men to untie him only by movements of his head, but it is too late. His comrades, who themselves cannot hear, know only of the danger of the song, not of its beauty, and leave him tied to the mast to save both him and themselves. They reproduce the life of the oppressor as a part of their own, while he cannot step outside his social role. The bonds by which he has irrevocably fettered himself to praxis at the same time keep the Sirens at a distance from praxis: their lure is neutralised as a mere object of contemplation, as art. The fettered man listens to a concert, as immobilized as audiences later, and his enthusiastic call for liberation goes unheard as applause.”[v]
In the above account, the worker and the bourgeois are both trapped. The bourgeois are consigned to their social role, they have become masters of their own bondage, which only the worker could liberate them from. Yet the worker is oppressed and unable to perceive the beauty that lies beyond their situation, they must simply keep their heads looking forward and row. However in the Poppinsian universe we are only given half of this equation. The bourgeois are bound by their social roles and they must deny themselves happiness, yet the worker does not have his ears plugged at all. Quite the contrary, the chimney sweeps are the liberated; they have the music already playing in their ears. In the Poppinsian universe utopia has come early, the workers do not need liberating from capitalism and as such no actual social reform is needed. However horrible the conditions of a chimney sweep’s life is, the “sweep is as lucky as lucky can be.”
Bankers who Fly Kites
In Mary Poppins the truly “oppressed” is the capitalist and the middle class family. They are the ones who have to learn to lighten up, have fun and go fly a kite. Thus Mary Poppins does change the social condition of work and co-ordinates of the bourgeois family, but in a way that leaves the lives of the workers the same. Work is supplemented with leisure (flying a kite); parents come to understand the needs of children and everyone comes to understand the need for a bit of fun. Even the banker comes to understand the Poppinsian alchemy (the transformation of the job into a game). Mr. Banks’ new found sense of humour not only earns him his job back, but a promotion. The age of remorse is over and the capitalists learn their lesson. What lesson have they learnt? Instead of learning the problems of ‘the speculation of hedge funds, derivative markets and an economic system based on consumption and debt”[vi], they learnt to have a bit of humour. Capitalism is not overthrown, a run on the bank cannot stop the forward march of capital; instead it acquires a human face. The turn to the tolerant fun-loving family is accompanied by a return to the market and anti-authoritarian fun becomes the order of the day. Here we see a perfect example of Žižek’s account of postmodern tolerance. He contrasts two fathers, the first the “good old fashioned totalitarian father”, the second the “tolerant postmodern father”. It is Sunday afternoon and you have to visit your grandmother, Žižek points out that the “good old fashioned totalitarian father will tell you “listen I don’t care how you feel you have to go to your grandmother and behave appropriately.”” Here the child is able to kick and scream and resistance remains possible. However, the “so-called tolerant postmodern father” uses a different tactic.
What he will tell you is the following - “You know how much your grandmother loves you. But nonetheless you should only visit her if you really want to.”Now every child who is not an idiot, and they are not idiots, knows that this apparent free choice secretly contains a much stronger order, not only do you have to visit your grandmother, but you have to like it. That is one example of how tolerance, choice and so on can conceal a much stronger order. [vii]
Not only does the fate of the workers not improve, but it is also dressed up in garb that quells any resistance and struggle. Mr. Banks becomes the happy-hearted banker issuing fines and re-mortgaging houses, just as David Cameron becomes the new Tory implementing drastic welfare cuts and austerity with the language of participation, democracy and the big society. Justice and equality are abandoned in the name of freedom, fun and participation. Throughout Europe, the failure to challenge capital has required placing the burden on the workers (and the public generally). The irresponsibility and greed of the banker and the structural problems of capitalism are increasingly re-interpreted as “too much public spending”, thus acquitting the banker and placing blame and burden on the people. As a result, the public, not the banks and the commerce, are being made to shoulder the costs. Rather than seeking alternative solutions, our one-dimensional discourse does nothing to challenge the hermeneutic of neo-liberalism, which serves only one interest: capital. Yet such measures are unpopular and must therefore dress themselves in rhetorical niceties. From the workplace to parliament, misery and toil appears as play, participation and choice.
The strange irony may be that the more that play is introduced into work the more the worker becomes trapped under work’s spell. As Sven Lütticken notes, “Play demands active involvement, not passive submission”[viii]. Those elements appearing to offer more participation and more playtime at work, may in fact disguise its opposite: the transformation of the worker into an all-singing, all-dancing chimney sweep. The more we are given the illusion of our own choice, the less we feel that we can complain and in turn the more we become compliant in the system that enslaves us. Because “emphasis on creativity and playfulness is perfect for legitimising ever-increasing in-equality in a stationary or shrinking economy”[ix] the idea of work as play increasingly becomes its opposite and a genuine liberation within work remains unachieved.
What differentiates the overworked Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer’s Face and the Chimney sweeps in Mary Poppins is that the Chimney sweeps have learnt to accept their servitude.Mary Poppins conducts the perverse chimera of treating the workers as free when they obviously aren’t. True freedom cannot be found by simply whistling while you work. In this respect the happy hearted roustabouts in Dumbo who “slave until they are almost dead” are the possible flip side to the chimney sweeps who step in time. Work itself remains a tortuous grind, but must be layered with a sweet sugary coating, something to keep the workers happy and distracted as their conditions worsen.
Mary Poppins II: The Chimney Sweeps’ Revolution
Disney often has a tendency to give unsatisfactory endings. Cinderella must escape servitude by marrying into wealth; Dumbo must escape discrimination by becoming a star. Society itself never changes; some people just get lucky. Mary Poppins is no exception. Yet it is hard not to notice the lost potential in Mary Poppins. Not only is there a substantial critique of bourgeois society, but also the energy of the chimney sweeps seems to present us with a misplaced revolutionary fire; this energy builds throughout the chimney sweep section of the film and, in the process, distinctions and hierarchies erode. After leaping across the rooftops, the chimney sweeps descend down into the Banks’ household still leaping and dancing. In moving from their assigned zone on the chimney tops to the family house the chimney sweeps transgress a boundary that keeps the workers at a ‘safe distance’ from the bourgeois private sphere. Yet the workers appear not to acknowledge this boundary and leap and dance all around the floor. Just as Michael is unable to comprehend how a wizened old man could be a giant, so too, do the chimney sweeps seem unable to comprehend the public/private distinction that keeps them at a safe distance. In the process further social categories disintegrate. First the maid is incorporated into the jig. Her first reaction is shock, “Ow!” she exclaims, but the “Ow!” is simply incorporated into the song, as the chimney sweeps sing “Ow, step in time”. She is incorporated into the dance and soon her cries of “Ow!” transform into some form of enjoyment. Nor does Mrs. Banks’ return put a stop to this transgression; she too is quickly incorporated into the dance when the chimney sweeps call “Votes for women, step in time.” Her first reaction is “Oh, no, really, not at the moment.” but this soon transforms into a determined passionate call, “Votes for women!”, and she joins the chimney sweep’s dance.It is as if the chimney sweeps dance is a revolutionary fever, which rips through the house acquiring momentum and broadening its base as it goes. Here a more radical conception of work becomes possible. Instead of seeing the Chimney sweeps as glorifying work as it exists, we could imagine this revolutionary fever fueling a kind of work that would overcome the conditions of work as they exist: the work of the revolutionary. If the work/play dichotomy is to be truly overcome it will require more than learning how to whistle. For Adorno, the positive side of work “lies in the teleology that work potentially makes work superfluous”. In the same document Horkheimer adds “A shaft of light from the telos falls onto labour. Basically, people are too short-sighted. They misinterpret the light that falls on labour from ultimate goals. Instead, they take labour qua labour as the telos and hence see their personal work success as that purpose. […] A shaft of light from the telos falls on the means to achieve it. It is just as if instead of worshipping their lover they worship the house in which she dwells. […] The shaft of light must be reflected back by an act of resistance.”[x] Work contains the means for overcoming of work and the path to human flourishing; this is the genuine purpose of work. But work is fetishised and drained of its true meaning. To combat this, the telos must be reflected back, not by supplementing work with play but via resistance and struggle for work as a drive towards a genuine purpose.
What if this was the missed possibility of Mary Poppins? It is in this respect that we should imagine an alternative Mary Poppins, a sequal maybe, where Mary Poppins is blown into the future, returning to empower the chimney sweeps, who, clasping their little red (Mary Poppins) books, join her in the social struggle and a long march to liberation, thus setting into motion a genuine synthesis of work and play.
[i] In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engles makes a remark that hints at an alternative reading of TheSorcerer’s Apprentice.“Modern bourgeois society,” they write “with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.” In light of this we may propose an alternative reading of the scene. The sorcerer, his apprentice and the brooms can be read as referring to three separate sections of society: the feudal landowner, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie seek to liberate themselves from the feudal system and conjure up the magical spell which is modern industrial capitalism. The bourgeoisie are liberated from the daily grind by the proletariat, who work to ensure the bourgeoisie’s freedom. Yet in conjuring up modern industrial capitalism, they lose control of capital itself, a process of valorisation and devalorisation takes hold and capital takes on a character of its own. The bourgeoisie become unable to take control of the world they brought into being. In this situation the industrial worker that the bourgeoisie brought about, becomes a revolutionary worker and rises up against them.
[ii] Slovoj Žižek, Living in the End Times. Verso: London. p. 334
[iii] It should be noted that Mary Poppins is a rather different Nanny in the P.L. Travers books. Rather than having a cheery disposition, Mary Poppins is generally stern; always cross, as well as being vain and easily offended. These character traits almost seem to disappear in the film. Whilst the book tends to be a collection of separate short adventures, Disney attempted to weave them into a unifying story. It is here that the ‘work as play’ theme comes to prominence. The trip to the bank and Mrs. Banks’ joining the suffragettes are also invention of the film. Overall the film tended to politicize aspects of the book, not the other way around.
[iv] Joachim Kalka, Money as we Knew It? New Left Review 2/60. November-December 2009. p. 65
Ideas are great and powerful things. A great idea can have far reaching effects. In December 2010, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was imprisoned for 6 years and banned from making films for the next twenty, simply for having an idea. Panihi certainly isn’t afraid to defend great ideas in the face of danger (a risk he took in his film The Circle which challenged Iran’s treatment of women). He stands as one of the great testaments for filmmakers who aspire to ideas. The charge of “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic” is clearly an attempt to suppress ideas and Panihi knows it. In his final statement before being sentenced he declared:
"You are putting on trial not just me, but Iranian social, humanist and artistic cinema – a cinema in which there is no absolutely good or absolutely evil person, a cinema that is not in the service of power or wealth, a cinema that does not condone or condemn anyone … a cinema that is inspired by [addressing] social malaise and ultimately reaches out to humanity."[iii]
This issue is dedicated to all those who take up the eternal struggle for great ideas, those who risk death and imprisonment to use cinema for the service of justice and equality. This issue is dedicated to a cinema that serves neither wealth, nor power; but a cinema against social malaise, that reaches out to humanity. This issue is dedicated to the eternal revolution.
Philosophy only exists insofar as there are paradoxical relations, relations which fail to connect, or should not connect. When every connection is naturally legitimate, philosophy is impossible or in vain.
Philosophy is the violence done by thought to impossible relations.
Today, which is to say “after Deleuze,” there is a clear requisitioning of philosophy by cinema — or of cinema by philosophy. It is therefore certain that cinema offers us paradoxical relations, entirely improbable connections.
The preformed philosophical response comes down to saying that cinema is an untenable relation between total artifice and total reality. Cinema simultaneously offers the possibility of a copy of reality and the entirely artificial dimension of this copy. With contemporary technologies, cinema is capable of producing the real artifice of the copy of a false copy of the real, or again, the false real copy of a false real. And other variations. This amounts to saying that cinema has become the immediate form (or “technique”) of an ancient paradox, that of the relations between being and appearance (which are far more fundamental than the relations everywhere exhibited between the virtual and the actual). We can thus proclaim cinema to be an ontological art. Many critics, André Bazin in particular, have been saying this for a long time.
I would like to enter into the question in an infinitely simpler and more empirical manner, removed from all philosophical preformation, starting with the elucidation of a statement: cinema is a “mass art.”
The syntagm “mass art” can be given an elementary definition: an art is a “mass art” if the masterpieces, the artistic productions that the erudite (or dominant, whatever) culture declares incontestable, are seen and liked by millions of people from all social groups at the very moment of their creation.
Adding “at the very moment of their creation” is especially important, because we know that we are dominated by a melancholy historicism, which creates a pure effect of pastness. Millions of people, regardless of their social background (apart of course from the base proletariat) are able to go to museums, because they like the icons of the past as treasures, for the modern passion for tourism extends to a kind of tourism of treasures. It is not of this kind of tourism that I am speaking, but of the millions of people who love an exceptional work at the very moment of its appearance. Yet we have, in the short history of cinema, incontestable examples of such love, examples that can only be compared to the public triumph of the great Greek tragedies. Take, for example, the great films of Chaplin. They have been seen throughout the world, even in the homes of Eskimos, or projected on tents in the desert. Everybody immediately understood that these films spoke in the profound and decisive way that I have proposed to call (when writing on Beckett’s prose) “generic humanity,” or humanity subtracted from its differences. The character of the Tramp, perfectly placed, filmed in a close frontal manner, in a familiar context, is no less a representative of generic “popular” humanity for an African than for a Japanese or for an Eskimo.
It would be wrong to believe this kind of example is limited to the comic or burlesque genre, which has always been able to reflect the vital energy of the people, the strength and cunning of social survival. We could as easily cite an extraordinarily concentrated film of staggering formal invention, doubtless one of the greatest existing cinematic poems: Murnau’s Sunrise. This pure masterpiece was a phenomenal success in the United States, a sort of Titanic, without the industrial flavour.
Cinema is without a doubt capable of being a mass art on a scale which suffers no comparison with any other art. Certainly in the nineteenth century there were mass writers, mass poets: Victor Hugo in France, for example, or Pushkin in Russia. They had, and still have, millions of readers. However, the scale — at the moment of their creation — is incomparable to that of the great success of cinema.
The point is thus the following: “mass art” fixes a paradoxical relation. Why? Because “mass” is a political category, or more precisely a category of activist democracy, of communism. The Russian revolutionaries were able to define their actions in terms of a time when “the masses climbed onto the stage of History.” We usually oppose “mass democracy” to representative and constitutional democracy. “Mass” is an essential political category. Mao said that “the masses, the masses alone, are creators of universal history.”
However, “art”, which is the other half of the syntagm “mass art,” is and can only be an aristocratic category.
To say that “art” is an aristocratic category is not a judgement. We simply note that “art” comprises the idea of formal creation, of visible novelty in the history of forms, and therefore requires the means of comprehending creation as such, necessitating a differential education, a minimal proximity to the history of the art concerned and to the vicissitudes of its grammar. A long and often unrewarding apprenticeship. Broadening of the mind. Pleasures, certainly, but pleasures which are sophisticated, constructed, acquired.
In “mass art” we have the paradoxical relation between a pure democratic element (on the side of irruption and evental energy) and an aristocratic element (on the side of individual education, of differential locations of taste).
All the arts of the twentieth century have been avant-garde. Painting was an avant-garde art and only ceases to be so at that crepuscular moment when it is introduced into museums. Music was an avant-garde art, and, from the days of Schöenberg, has not ceased to be so (unless we also call “music” the groaning of popular music). Poetry exists today only as an avant-garde art. We can say that the twentieth century is the century of avant-gardes. But we can also say that it is the century of the greatest mass art that has ever existed.
The simple form of the paradoxical relation: the first great art which is mass in its essence appears and develops in a time which is the time of the avant-gardes. The derived form: cinema imposes impracticable relations between aristocracy and democracy, between invention and familiarity, between novelty and general taste.
It is for this reason that philosophy takes an interest in cinema. Because it imposes a vast and obscure complex of paradoxical relations. “To think cinema” comes down to forcing the relation, to arranging the concepts which, under the constraint of real films, shift the established rules of the connection.
I believe, however, that there have been five major attempts at such a displacement. Or rather, five different ways of entering into the problem: “to think cinema as mass art.” Firstly, from the paradox of the image. This is the classic entry which I mentioned at the beginning: the ontological art. The second traces the paradox of time, of the filmic visibility of time. The third examines the difference of cinema, its strange connection to the established system of the fine arts. To put it another way: the paradox of the seventh art. The fourth establishes cinema at the border of art and non-art, its paradox being that of artistic impurity. The fifth proposes an ethical paradox: cinema as reservoir of figures of conscience, as popular phenomenology of every situation wherein we must choose.
Let us say a word about these five attempts.
1. On image. We will say that cinema is a “mass art” because it is the height of the old art of the image, and that the image, as far back as we go in the history of mankind, has always been ruthlessly fascinating. Cinema is the height of the visual offered as semblance. And since there can be no identification without the support of semblance, we will say that cinema is the final mastery of the metaphysical cycle of identification. Movie theatres, dining rooms, bedrooms, even the streets surprise the masses through a deceptive network of disparate identifications, since the technique of semblance outdates the religious fable and universally hands out the loose change of the miracle. Cinema’s masses are at base pious masses. Such is the first explication.
2. On time. This approach is fundamental for Deleuze, as for many other critics. It is tempting to think that cinema is a mass art because it transforms time into perception. We have with cinema the most powerful becoming-visible of time. It creates a temporal feeling distinct from lived time. More precisely, it transforms “the intimate sense of time” into representation. It is this representative gap which destines cinema to the immense audience of those who desire to suspend time in space in order to push fate aside.
This hypothesis moves cinema closer to music, which, in its basest form, is also a mass production. But music — and again “great” music more than popular music — is also an organization distanced from time. We can say very simply that music makes time audible, while cinema makes time visible. Certainly, cinema makes time audible as well, since music is incorporated into cinema. However, what is proper to cinema, which was for a long time mute, is definitely making time visible. The production of this visibility is universally enchanting. Such is the second explication.
3. The series of arts. It is clear that cinema takes from the other arts all that is popular, all that could, once isolated, filtered, separated from their aristocratic requirements, destine them to the masses. The seventh art borrows from the other six what in them most explicitly aims at generic humanity.
For example, what does cinema retain from painting? The pure possibility of changing the sensible beauty of the world into reproducible image. It does not take the intellectual technique of painting. It does not take the complicated modes of representation and formalisation. It retains a sensible and framed relationship with the external universe. In this sense, cinema is a painting without painting. A world painted without paint.
What does cinema retain from music? Not the extraordinary difficulties of the musical composition, not the subtle arrangement of harmonic verticality and thematic horizontality, not even the chemistry of timbre. What is important for cinema is that music, or its rhythmic ghost, escorts the happenings of the visible. What it imposes everywhere — today even in everyday life — is a certain dialectic of the visible and the audible. To stuff all representable existence with a musical paste is the immense work of cinema. We regularly succumb to the emotion provoked by a strange mixture of existence and music, a musical subjectivization, a melodious accompaniment of the drama, an orchestral punctuation of the cataclysm… All this inserts in the representation a music without music, a music freed of musical problems, a music borrowed and returned to its subjective or narrative pretext.
What does cinema retain from the novel? Not the complexities of subjective formation, nor the infinite resources of literary montage, nor the slow and original restitution of the taste of an era. No, that of which cinema has an obsessive and insatiable need, and in the name of which it ceaselessly plunders universal literature, is the fable, the narrative, which it renames the “screenplay.” The imperative of cinema — artistic and commercial, indivisibly, since it is a mass art — is that of telling great stories, stories which can be understood by the whole of humanity.
What does cinema retain from theatre? The actor, the actress, the charm, the aura of the actor and the actress. In separating this aurafrom the powers of the literary text, so fundamental to theatre, cinema has transformed actors and actresses into stars.2 This is one possible definition of cinema: a means of transforming the actor into a star.
It is absolutely true that cinema takes something from each of the other arts. But the operation of this appropriation is complex, because it takes a common and accessible element from its sophisticated artistic conditions. Cinema opens all the arts, it weakens their aristocratic, complex and composite quality. It delivers this simplified opening to images of unanimous existence. As painting without painting, music without music, novel without subjects, theatre reduced to the charm of actors, cinema ensures the popularisation of all the arts. This is why its vocation is universal. Such is the third hypothesis: the seventh art is a mass art because it is the active democratisation of the other six.
4. Impurity. Let us directly examine the relation between art and non-art in cinema. We will thus be able to affirm that it is a mass art because it is always at the edge of non-art. Cinema is an art particularlycharged with non-art. An art always invested with vulgar forms. Cinema is, by a high number of its ingredients, always beneath art. Even its most obvious artistic successes comprise an immanent infinity of wretched ingredients, of obvious pieces of non-art. We can maintain that in every stage of its brief existence, cinema explores the border between art and that which is not art. It stands on this frontier. It incorporates the new forms of existence, be they art or non-art, and it makes a certain selection, albeit a selection which is never complete. So that in any film, even a pure masterpiece, you can find a great number of banal images, vulgar material, stereotypes, images seen one hundred times elsewhere, things of no interest whatsoever.
Bresson was particularly irritated by this resistance of artistic non-being. He desired pure art and called this purity “cinematographic writing.” But to no avail. With Bresson as well one must endure the worst of the visible, the incomprehensible invasion of the sensible baseness of the times. As essential as it is involuntary, this impurity does not prevent a number of Bresson’s films from being artistic masterpieces. They just show that the cinematic art can be a mass art. For you can enter into the art of cinema from that which, always present in it in abundance, is not art. Whereas for the other arts it is the other way around. You can only enter their non-artistic part, their failings, from art, from the grandeur of art. We can say that in cinema it is possible to rise. You can start from your most common representations, from your most nauseating sentimentality, from your vulgarity, even from your cowardice. You can be an absolutely ordinary spectator. You can have bad taste in your access, in your entry, in your initial disposition. This does not prevent the film allowing you to rise. Perhaps you will arrive at powerful and refined things. But you will not be asked to go back. Whereas in the other arts you always have the fear of the fall. This is the great democratic advantage of the art of cinema: you can go there on a Saturday evening to rest and rise unexpectedly. Aristotle said that if we do good, pleasure will come “as a gift.” When we see a film it is often the other way around: we feel an immediate pleasure, often suspect (thanks to the omnipresent non-art), and the Good (of art) comes as an unexpected bonus.
In cinema we travel to the pure from the impure. This is not the case in the other arts. Could you deliberately go and see bad painting? Bad painting is bad painting; there is little hope it will change into something good. You will not rise. From the simple fact that you are there, lost in bad painting, you are already falling, you are an aristocrat in distress. Whereas in cinema you are always more or less a democrat on the rise. Therein lies the paradoxical relation. The paradoxical relationship between aristocracy and democracy, which is finally an internal relationship between art and non-art. And this is also what politicises cinema: it operates on a junction between ordinary opinions and the work of thought. A subtle junction that you don’t find in the same form elsewhere.
Such is the fourth hypothesis: cinema is a mass art because it democratises the movement by which art drags itself from non-art by drawing from this movement a border, by making from impurity the thing itself.
5. Ethical figures. Cinema is an art of figures. Not only figures of visible space and active places. It is foremost an art of the great figures of active humanity. It proposes a kind of universal stage of action and its confrontation with common values. After all, cinema is the last place populated by heroes. Our world is so commercial, so familial, so unheroic… However, even today no one would imagine cinema without the great moral figures, without the great American battle between Good and Evil. Here, even the gangsters are nothing but cases of conscience, redemptive decisions, sincere abolition of Nastiness. The most sordid cruelty is a cunning of reason toward a didactic enlightenment. The cops fare no better. Among them angelic inspectors, nowadays often women, keep watch . The ridiculousness of these fables, their dogmatic impurity, their dirty hypocrisy, by no means prevents their also possessing something admirable. As admirable as the Greek tragedies could be, cinema of Antiquity, of which we have the most noble yet false idea, since the innumerable turkeys played in the amphitheatres were not passed on to us. We only have a few dozen masterpieces, something like three Murnau, one Lang, two Eisenstein, four Griffith and six Chaplin. So that we do not see the impurity and massive banality of these spectacles. But we can recount their common end: to present an immense audience with the typical and excessive figures of all the great conflicts of human life. To speak of war, of passion, of justice and injustice, of truth, with, for ordinary material, all the cock-and-bull stories of old crooks, of female poisoners and mad kings. Cinema also speaks to us of courage, of justice, of passion, of betrayal. And the great genres of cinema, the most coded kinds, like the melodrama, the western and the “space opera,” are precisely ethical genres, that is to say genres which address humanity inasmuch as they propose a moral mythology.
We know that philosophy began as a vast discussion with tragedy, with the theatre, with the impurity of the visible and performing arts. The essential interlocutors of Plato were on the stage, and included in this broader rhetorical visibility are the public stage, the democratic assembly, the performance of the sophists. We should not be surprised today that philosophy is, for an increasing part of its activity, a vast discussion with cinema. Because cinema and its derivatives, including television, represent on a human scale, after Tragedy and Religion, the third historical attempt at the spiritual subjugation of the visible, available to all, without exception or measure. Also present at the meeting, the democratic politicians and their sophist advisors, renamed “public relations consultants.” The screen has become their supreme test. The question has changed in destination only. It goes: “if there exists a sovereign technique of semblance, and if this technique, when it is cinema, is also capable of producing a mass art, what torsion, what metamorphosis does this art impose on that by which philosophy supports itself, and which has the name ‘truth’”?
Plato looked for the answer in a transcendent mimesis. To the figurative semblance, we will oppose everything that shows itself to the Idea which does not show itself. This gesture required the support of that which subtracts itself from semblance: the mathematics of finite perfection, numbers and figures. We will search rather for that which in the visible itself exceeds its visibility, tying semblance to the immanent but eternal register of its infinite form. One also needs mathematics of infinite perfection: sets, topologies, sheaves.
So, just as Plato dominated semblance with allegory, saving the image in the very place of Truth with his immortal “myths,” we can in the same way hope that cinema will be overcome by cinema itself.
After the philosophy of cinema must come — is already coming — philosophy as cinema, which consequently has the opportunity of being a mass philosophy.
One+One has always triumphed truly independent films; films that are both independently financed as well as being subversive and explorative. The Medea Legacy, a film by Liz Soden and Greg Scorzo, is a prime example. 33 minutes long and made for only £300, the film is an unsettling and provocative exploration of motherhood. It is one of the genuinely fresh and exciting independent films made this year and seems a perfect antidote to post-political, post-feminist apathy. I was excited to hear what they had to say about this film and filmmaking in general.
How did you come to make this film?
Liz Soden: I’ve worked in moving image for the last thirty years. Most of my work has always had a political with a small “p” motivation behind it and I’m particularly interested in gender roles. I think that is a theme that runs through all my work because I was initially a socialist feminist. I gradually become disengaged with the woman’s movement because I thought there were a lot of problems with simply treating patriarchy or men as the enemy. I felt that gender roles oppressed both sexes and that sometimes feminism could deify women in a way that doesn’t really help women’s equality. I think a lot of my influences, when I first started, were from women’s punk groups. I was really into Patty Smith, The Raincoats and The Slits. They were women who came from the edge of the feminist movement but had a bit of humour and irony. They represented a great way for women to get rid of that passive “we’re there for men’s pleasure” type of identity. However, what they stood for didn’t seem to catch on. We seem to be more entrenched in that passivity thirty years on. When I was younger, I was looking at how women were depicted in films. As a young feminist I bought the line that you must always have positive images of women in films. Films by Hitchcock and Kubrick were read by a lot of feminists as being misogynist. I started to realise that whenever you have images of women that are negative people read the images as being anti-women. On the other hand, I think a lot of women that people don’t see as bad women are actually the scary women. Sometimes they’re the evil women. Initially, I thought I should make a film about the depiction of evil women and then I was driving along the road and heard this programme on Radio 4. They were discussing the Greek Tragedy play Medea and this woman said, in a lovely middle class radio 4 voice, “ women are capable of violence, they are capable of coldness and deep deep revenge. This is something we don’t like to look at but it’s a fact of life. Mothers can be evil, they are capable of coldness and violence and revenge. This is just a fact of life, but no-one wants to look at this.” And suddenly at that point I thought: Mothers! This is what the film should be about! There was a lot of stuff in the news at the time about “evil mothers” like the mother of baby P. The public was starting to hear about various other cases that had come up through social services of women who had murdered their children. The ultimate in evilness in terms of motherhood seems to be actually murdering your children. So I thought Medea is the epitome of the evil mother and she’s a character that has been there through all our history. It was at that point that I asked Greg to get involved with the film.
Greg Scorzo: I got involved in The Medea Legacy because Liz told me she wanted to make a film about evil mothers. She knew she wanted it to be a film that dealt with the subject of motherhood and conflicting viewpoints about what constitutes an evil or good mother. She liked the fact that I had a background in academic philosophy and she knew that I had always wanted to make a dramatic film. So she asked me to collaborate with her on this film. When we started initially brainstorming about motherhood, we noticed that, in popular culture, people seemed to be simultaneously making two claims while never assuming that these claims were in tension with each other. The first claim was that motherhood was a choice - women shouldn’t be pressured into having babies just because they are women. The other thing that people were claiming was that motherhood is a women’s destiny, something that a woman was biologically programmed to be unhappy for not doing. Often the same people would make both of these claims in the same paragraph. So the film dealt with the subject of evil mothers by pointing out that the second of these claims promotes a neurotic fetishizing of motherhood which is generally bad for human beings.
What was the process involved in making it?
GS: We came up with a very basic strategy of describing various philosophical positions that the characters in the film would hold while they were fighting in the bar. It was then a matter of creating personalities around the philosophical positions that each of the characters hold. After we filmed the characters in profile speaking to the camera enunciating these views we filmed them fighting with each other in the bar. After that we assembled all the footage together with found footage that we cut from YouTube and other places on the internet. Juxtaposed on top of that we put different sounds, electronic compositions and acoustic musical pieces written by my father to create the film’s soundscape and soundtrack. That is pretty much how the film was done. We went into the filming with very rough plans and the procedure was very intuitive.
LS: We had done a brainstorm around the idea of interviewing woman in their 20s, 30s 40s and 50s, from each decade since motherhood had become a choice. We talked about the typical viewpoints that were thrown at women during those decades. We didn’t want to not pay people and spend lots of time filming, so we restricted the locations and we decided that the dramatic scenes would have to be quite minimal because of time. So we thought, right, what we should do is interview the characters and make a mockumentary. We were interested in playing with the idea that documentaries seem to offer an objective truth. That’s rubbish because, as a documentary film-maker, I know that you basically control everything if you have a camera and an editing suit. So we were interested in playing with the idea of whether we were making a documentary or a fiction film.
The film explores how the roles and expectations of women have changed since the arrival of the contraceptive pill. What do you think has happened over the last fifty years?
GS: People have developed an incredible amount of insecurity over the fact that for the first time in history women have a choice about whether or not to be mothers. This is why on the one hand people want to defend this choice and on the other hand say lots of things that conflict with the idea that motherhood is a choice. The standard liberal position tends to try and have it both ways. According to the liberal position, yes, motherhood is a choice, but on the other hand, women have maternal instincts that must be heeded or else women will face the wrath of their own bodies in the form of existential malaise for the rest of their lives. This liberal position is something we both felt is really reactionary and something that needed to be more heavily scrutinized in the public discourse. There is so much defensiveness any time anyone questions the two claims that make up the liberal perspective, it is almost always assumed that in criticizing the liberal perspective one is professing a kind of misogyny. That was why it was important to have all female characters in the film. If we had male characters, it would be easy to write off the positions of the characters as examples of misogyny. People accuse critics of the liberal position of being misogynists, I think, because they don’t like accepting the legacy of birth control within the last 50 years. The culmination of that legacy is that the concept of motherhood is changing. It is becoming conceptualized as more of a particular lifestyle choice than a phase of adult life for women. This is what it always should have been, this is progress. This is what is healthy for children, this is what is good for the promotion of gender equality, this is what is healthy for women and men. Any residue of the view that motherhood is a necessary condition of every woman’s happiness is just wrong. That view is unhealthy, reactionary, and something that people, at this point in time, cling to because they are uncomfortable with how the conceptualization of motherhood is positively changing.
LS: You hear a lot of women talk about this broodiness that you feel at a certain age that makes you feel that you have got to have a child. Even women I knew that never wanted children got to the age of forty and started to think “Dong! My body needs to have a child”. Those women might think they want to have a baby, but they don’t really realize what that means. It’s true that if I hadn’t been able to have children, I would have been really upset. I have always been someone who loves children and wanted that experience. But there are some women who don’t seem to love children and yet they still want the motherhood experience. They think they have to become a mother because their body is telling them to. But they don’t really think about it beyond that. Of course it’s a really strong urge. But women talk about men and say men shouldn’t heed their biological urges. Men may feel a biological urge to implant as many women as they can with their seed. Society accepts these male biological urges, but society also expects men to control those urges and settle down monogamously. With women society says women can just do what their urges tell them to do because the urges are biological. There seems to be a double standard there. And yet what we are talking about is human beings.
Could you tell us a little bit about the four central characters and what you think they represent?
GS: Imogen represents the liberal view about motherhood. She’s confused because she wants to hold the claims that motherhood is a choice and motherhood is a maternal instinct that must be heeded or else women will be punished. She’s a bit confused because I think she senses there is a tension there. However, she’s too afraid to actually examine that in more detail. She is an extremely unreflective character. She is also not aware of the fact that she doesn’t like being a mother. And largely she has had children because she just thought that’s what you do. Her children, in a way, are symbolic extensions of her career success. They’re not actually an element of her lifestyle that she enjoys. That’s why she is constantly finding ways of trying to get away from her children. That is why she’s always on the hunt for older nannies. She wants to spend as little time with the children as possible and she is completely unreflective about this.
LS: Imogen was based in on women of the late 90s and early 00s like Myleene Klass or the women from Sex And the City. She’s an example of that ‘have it all mother’, who can have a career and be a mother and be conventionally attractive to men all at once. Post-feminism, which is what we have now, celebrates the idea that women can have it all so it winds up celebrating that women can be shallow, aggressive capitalists like men. We celebrate that women can have a great career and earn loads of money and still have a baby, but only if the women remain conventionally attractive to men. I find this tendency really disturbing and you see a lot of it in women’s magazines. You see pictures of celebrities or very successful career women who have just had a baby and the nanny looks after the kid while celebrity mommy gets in a bikini two weeks later. There are bits of Imogen in a lot of young women. They may not be as privileged as her or as rich as her. However, they still feel they have to try to be a career woman and be beautiful and have a baby in order to be happy. They often wind up exhausted, attempting all three of those jobs at the same time.
GS: The Gracie character represents one half of the liberal view, namely the view that motherhood is a woman’s biological destiny. The irony is if you subtract the choice component from the liberal view, you get your standard conservative view of motherhood. Gracie is a proponent of that conservative view of motherhood. She is neurotic, she is overbearing, she denies gender equality, she denies appropriate freedom for women and she denies appropriate freedom for her own child. She is also completely insecure and is choosing to be a mother under circumstances which, psychologically, she is unfit to be a mother in. Unlike Gracie, the two non-mothers in the film are very much in opposition to the conservative view of motherhood. They affirm only the choice component of the liberal view. Colette, the cultural studies academic, thinks that motherhood should be conceptualized as a choice by society because not all women should be mothers. Collette thinks motherhood is not simply a woman’s destiny but a specific career that has specific requirements, requirements that the majority of women don’t possess. She thinks motherhood, like being a surgeon, or a professor or a lawyer is something that only a select group of talented, capable, hardworking people should have the legal capacity to do. She thinks this is what children deserve so in a way, she is a child’s rights advocate. Collette thinks that the government should be involved in deciding who does and who doesn’t get to be a mother. She is disgusted by the fact that any woman can be a mother. She is disgusted by the fact that motherhood is seen as a right, because she thinks that if you look at what motherhood actually is, calling it a right is grossly unfair to children. If motherhood were a right then that would mean that child abuse was a right. If motherhood were a right that would mean mothers have a right to bring children into the world under almost any circumstance imaginable. She thinks that is absurd. So she rejects the idea that motherhood is a right very strongly. She thinks it is something that only a specialised class of people should do. In that way her views on motherhood are very elitist and very influenced by Plato. She is the most controversial character in the film because she is very arrogant and the things she says are quite shocking to the audience. On the other hand, to actually reject everything she says involves having to assert some claims that might make you feel uneasy. For instance, if you reject the idea that only a select group of people can be mothers you have to embrace the view that any woman should be able to be a mother. If you embrace the claim that motherhood is something any woman should be able to do then you have to affirm the view that psychologically damaged women who would, in all likelihood, psychologically scar their children should be allowed to be mothers. That’s difficult. In general, if you look at all the variety of women that there are in the world it seems quite obvious that many of those women shouldn’t be mothers for lots of different reasons. Children deserve better than just to allow any adult female the capacity to be a mother. On the other hand, having the government step in to decide who gets to be a mother and who doesn’t is quite dangerous and scary. Everyone acknowledges that. What people often overlook is that psychologically damaged women raising children is also dangerous and scary. Collette is the one character in the film who doesn’t overlook this.
LS: In the film it is supposed to be ambiguous whether or not she would ever have children. She never actually says she doesn’t want children. She has lots and lots of views about how children should be raised and by whom. And I think what we wanted her to be is one of these people who is an expert on child rearing, but who has never experienced motherhood and would probably never go near a child. And in my mind she represented all of these books that get thrown at you when you are a mother. There are so many conflicting child experts that are trying to guide you. So there was an element of that in her character. She is the self-identified expert on parenting even though she has never had a child.
GS: The character of Viv, the other non-mother in the film, is our radical feminist character. She is a journalist who thinks that the celebrity culture obsession over motherhood is just a product of women being duped by patriarchy. She thinks that motherhood is not something that an intelligent woman would ever want to do. She thinks that motherhood is a mundane waste of time where a woman is choosing to be in servitude to a child. A child, after all, could literally grow up to be anybody. For Viv, to choose to be a mother is to choose to devote your day to day life to a stranger. Viv would say that’s degrading for women. Motherhood is something Viv has an active desire not to do because she values her freedom. She thinks the idea of helping a child develop basic skills all day is the most obnoxious lifestyle choice that anyone could ever possibly make. She doesn’t like children and she likes men even less. She’s a good guitar player though.
How was the style in which you made the film used to bring out the ideas?
GS: We chose to do the film as a mockumentary. In a way it is a parody of a mockumentary, because it is not funny to a large extent. It is more uncomfortable than funny. But it is done in the style of a mockumentary. We chose to do it in that style because one of the things we noticed is in a documentary the audience tends to sympathise with the characters speaking to the camera from the moment the film starts. Occasionally the audience thinks the person speaking to the camera is crazy from the moment the documentary starts. In a mockumentary the person speaking to the camera is crazy in a funny way, but that is, again, normally established as soon as that person starts talking to the camera. With The Medea Legacy we wanted to do a film where people start out talking to the camera and in some ways seem very reasonable. As the film progresses the things they say start to get more and more unreasonable. However because all the things they say are in conflict with each other there is a sense in which all of them are crazy. It is difficult for the audience to decide who is crazy and for what reasons. This creates an interesting effect in the psychological experience of the viewer. The viewer doesn’t have the security of knowing that the camera is sympathetic to the characters like you do with a documentary. The viewer also doesn’t have the security of knowing that the person speaking to the camera is just a crazy, funny bit of comedy like you do in a mockumentary. That’s something that the film does quite differently to both documentaries and mockumentaries. That is one of the things about the film that is formally unique. The found footage illuminates much of what the characters are saying in much the same way that the characters advocating a philosophical thesis illuminates their thesis. I think when you use found footage that relates to the subject of motherhood, you can really see how neurotic and unhealthy the way we view motherhood is. It is very rare that you can actually find footage of motherhood that is healthy and not completely neurotic. That is one of the reasons we wanted to use a lot of found footage in the film.
LS: The creativity really began to happen and the film started to take on a life of its own during the editing process. This was because we didn’t use the traditional script-to-screen method. What we did was much more spontaneous. It is a really interesting way of filmmaking and things start to happen that you don’t expect. You start to juxtapose images and sounds and the meaning of the images can change. You get loads of different layers of meaning and you might have a happy image and then find a very jarring sound that makes the image look really sinister. We had Harry Scorzo’s music as the core soundtrack and then we built sound effects and our own little electronic pieces that we put on top of Harry’s music. Most of our electronic music consisted of little punctuations of noises that created atmosphere and tension. But we didn’t want to make it tense in a traditional film way. We were interested in jarring and shocking people in ways they don’t expect to be shocked by a film. A lot of the emotional content of the film is in the soundtrack and a lot of that content is non-verbal. There are a lot of jarring juxtapositions in the sounds and the images.
What has been the response to the film so far?
GS: This is a film that divides people. People tend to have very different interpretations of it. Many people have a pretty hostile reaction to it. A lot of people take the film to be a criticism of motherhood. We didn’t intend for it to be a criticism of motherhood. None the less, I am in no position to say that a viewer’s interpretation of the film is less correct than mine. All I can say is that from what I know of the film, the film was not created or intended to be an anti-motherhood film. If it was intended to be anti-anything, it was intended to be anti the fetishizing of motherhood. But being against the fetishizing of motherhood and being anti-motherhood are not the same thing.
LS: The majority of women who are mothers who see it say that the film makes them feel guilty. This is interesting because we showed it initially to a group of largely female art and design students and they thought the characters were much too prescriptive and harsh and they really hated Collette. They wanted to throw things at the screen because they hated all those definitive viewpoints and that dogmatism coming from the characters. They understood that all the characters were not designed to be very likeable people. But the characters were also women that the audience wasn’t used to seeing on screen, because you are not supposed to see horrible women characters on film. So they were taken aback by it. Other test screen audiences, like a group of largely male analytic philosophers that we showed the film to, weren’t so hostile towards the characters. They thought Collette was the hero of the story and they totally agreed with her. There has been so many varied reactions to the film that it is difficult to gage what people think of the film. None the less, the reactions have thankfully provoked lots of discussions. One thing our screenings suggest is that women generally react very strongly to our film because it critically examines all the things that are thrown at women on an ordinary WH Smith Mother and Baby magazine rack.
Where do you think the future of filmmaking lies?
LS: I have been reading Stanley Cavell and he talks about films doing philosophy. There is an interesting thing he wrote about the inception of early philosophy and how Socrates used to wander around and ask people questions in the Market place. Early philosophy was a living thing that was about dialogue, getting people to look at the world and through dialogue things were revealed. So I like that idea as a filmmaker, where we’re working to provoke thought in the same way that Socrates wanted to provoke thought. The discussion that happens afterwards is possibly more important than the film itself. It would be nice to do a film about the discussions about the film, because they are not comfortable and they not do not tie everything up nicely at the end of the film. The interesting thing about making low budget films and being guerilla filmmakers…
GS: …monkey filmmakers…
LS: …we’re more monkey filmmakers than guerrilla filmmakers …is that I think those budget boundaries can often really make you focus on what you really want to do in a way that if you have limitless financing you can’t. To me it is very important that we have creative control. It is no good getting loads of money for a film if you then have to please the person who’s funded it or you have to make a film that pleases what the biggest audience will like. That is when ideas get compromised. Luckily nowadays you can make interesting films that aren’t necessarily targeted at mainstream audiences and you can find ways to distribute them. I haven’t seen a lot of British films that are controversial. They seem to be very safe and I think the way British film has been funded by the UKFC is such that you know they want to make money. So if the purpose is to make money then the films have to be nicely tied up at the end or not upset people when they leave the theatre. They have to be Richard Curtis films and have Keira Knightley and Hugh Grant and costumes. There is also a tradition of realism in British cinema that occasionally produces a good film. In the midlands we have Shane Meadows and I find his work interesting and I am really glad it’s made and I enjoy quite a lot of his films. But they are very much films that are about this is how things are, rather than why things are the way they are. They are not really philosophical films. They are very “this is the working class, this is how they live, isn’t it awful, but they are really alright people actually. Most human beings have good sides and bad sides. The end”. And I think we need to be getting more controversial and we need to be asking questions and provoking the audience in the same way that punk did. Punk doesn’t answer questions, but it does try to break people out of distractedness. There are so many things that distract us in society, things that we see as wallpaper. I think we need to be shocked out of that complacency. We need to be shown things that make you go “Fuck!”.
GS: I think there are lots of good political films that have been made in the last five years because of the Iraq War and the Bush administration, and the subsequent elections of Barack Obama and David Cameron. Those elections in the west have precipitated a whole host of films and filmmakers that are making films about political issues. The one area that I think I would like to see film get more courageous is in the uncomfortableness a film is willing to create in order to really illuminate it’s subject matter. Cinema recently has explored the topic of terrorism in a way that would have been too uncomfortable for people ten or fifteen years ago and I think that is really good. But I would like to see cinema explore some other topics with the same level of bravery and insight.
LS: I think we are entering an age where, politically, things are happening. This is breaking people out of their complacency and I think there are a lot of films that are starting to reflect this. A lot of narratives that we have created in the Left need to be re-examined. We need to be taking a look at ideology again. Concepts, things we believe, and things we take for granted we need to actually be more critical of. We need to ask ourselves, “is this a good way of thinking?”, and “is this a good way of being?”. I think filmmaking should be provocative and should be shaking people out of complacency. You can show people how things should or shouldn’t be through film and you can play with that and hopefully the audience starts to question other aspects of their lives and become politically engaged. That is what I think is exciting about this particular time: Guerrilla-monkey filmmaking is back!
It is late at night; Clive solemnly walks down a generic London backstreet. He passes an electrical store where stacks of televisions show Tony Blair promising a better future, but the boarded up shops and rundown streets do nothing to substantiate his pledges. A car alarm sounds in the distance as Kylie Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” bellows out from an overbearing tower block. The concrete city looms above him. Clive slowly walks up the stairs of his tower block and unlocks his door. He walks in to a dimly lit flat to find his wife waiting for him.
“It’s midnight, you left the office at six o’clock. Where have you been Clive?”
Unable to imagine a better excuse, Clive recounts a familiar yet unbelievable tale. Her stern face remains unchanged…
“That’s actually the plot of “Hotel California” by the Eagles. Where have you been Clive?”
His head sinks and he looks downwards in shame, “I’ve been spit-roasting a hooker with your Dad”.
Such is the portrait of Noughties Britain in the BBC3 Animated TV series Monkey Dust. Set against the backdrop of a gritty urban nightmare, the characters struggle for some sensory hedonistic escape. Clive seeks to escape the banality of his existence, but all transgression and all hope ends in failure. Far from liberating him, Clive’s act of “spit-roasting a hooker” does nothing but reinforce the painful triviality of his day-to-day survival. In the world of Monkey Dust, Blair -The New Hope, has not saved us. The Blairite and Thatcherite worlds could hardly be distinguished. If Labour had once been a party of hope, this was no longer; hope lies strewn in the gutter.
The End of Hope?
Haloed by a sprinkle of politically correct multiculturalism, the so-called “Left” shifted from class politics and equality to diversity and identity. Mixing Affirmative Action with Thatcherite Neo-Liberalism, these new Centrists could now say that even if the gap between rich and poor was growing, at least both rich and poor would be more ethnically and sexually diverse.
Stalinism was over, but so was most Libertarian Communism and Socialism. Now the bricks of the Berlin wall were being re-built in the name of capitalist hegemonies. Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” (1) has been almost universally internalised by most major political parties. Cultural Studies courses also internalised the end of Socialism, privileging race, gender and sexuality, but ignoring class. Sub-cultural movements shifted towards apathetic meandering or mindless escapism adopting figures such as Jordan and Marilyn Manson in contrast to the politically vibrant John Lennon and Johnny Rotten of decades gone by. However, if the Enlightenment is over, the need for it grows evermore. Whilst Market-led capitalists grow stronger, they become increasingly unable to divert the risk of environmental catastrophe a9nd the increasing divide between rich and poor. Placing our faith in “the invisible hand of the Market” does nothing to secure a fruitful and flourishing continuation of the human species. In 2007 the UNDP reported that “The 40 percent of the world’s population living on less than US$2 a day accounts for 5% of the global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three quarter of the world income” (2). A world legitimated by Human Rights Laws has not done enough to support those too poor to afford them.
The putrid state of the modern human condition breeds inequality of the most degrading and despicable kind. However, help is at hand in the form of “kind philanthropists” (Bono, Madonna or Bill Gates) who generously give the scraps off the side of their plates, keeping for themselves only a few excessive millions or billions. With these small excesses they could only save a few extra billion lives, and so they put their efforts into more important things like owning private jets, carrying little dogs in bags and snorting cocaine with Bill Clinton. They flurry and fuss about the dire state on the world with the subconscious hope that this serves to distract from and justify the vast greed and despicable evil they hold in their wallets. They are much akin to the Plantation owners who let their slaves go to church on Sundays, justifying their evil through minimal acts of generosity. The Western celebration of the end of slavery should be completely mocked for this farcical absurdity. With an estimated 27 million people living in slavery (3), celebratory rhetoric only hides the true reality. In a world with an increasing divide between rich and poor, venerability makes possible the trading of people on a mass scale. If the causes of slavery are poverty and venerability then the path of modern liberal capitalism only perpetuates it. With the excluded and disenfranchised still in need of a voice and with the demise of the mainstream Left, those left by the wayside find a voice in the far-Right groups, such as Al Qaeda and the BNP, whose ultra-traditionalism offers “liberation” to its supporters but a dark icy night of repression to anyone in the world who does not or cannot assimilate. The demand for us to think and re-think our world and our order becomes increasingly pressing. The Enlightenment narrative of continual progress can only be fully endorsed by those who are wealthy, short-sighted or pig-ignorant enough to perceive it.
With the Western media closely aligned with the Washington Consensus and the art-world becoming increasingly caught up in the cultural colonisation of the social reality and dominated by consumerist logic, the need for artistic resistance becomes ever more urgent. As art, especially film, becomes increasingly concerned with what is marketable and can be tailored to bring in large audiences, the function of such films becomes not to elevate humanity but rather to give people “what they want” or, more to the point, what executives think will sell. However, artistic resistance has become equally banal. On the one hand, the appropriation of avant-garde rhetoric is used to justify the artist’s lack of subversivity and serves to produce only an elite bourgeoisie experience. The most notorious example is certain strains of Performance Art, which despite its subversive intentions ends up serving exclusively a status buffing, pseudo art-loving, mentally-impotent ‘intellectual’ elite who can watch in horror and fascination as Franco B bleeds or as Orlan undergoes cosmetic surgery in front of a live audience. Similarly, the artistic preoccupation with identity politics, however noble and progressive, often enforces, rather than subverts, the dominant ideology. In a world where Western political parties legitimate themselves with the rhetoric of identity politics and liberal democratic compromise, such art is often co-opted for their own personal agenda. For example, identity politics risks loosing its subversive potential in a world where even the Tories have floats at gay pride parades. The “good old days” where Tories were Tories and Commies were Commies is over.
In such a situation, the Art world is lead down the path of apathetic misdirection, sensual escapism, aesthetic and conceptual pre-occupations or commercial inanity, rather than toward anything that is genuinely progressive. If Art and Filmmaking as a vocation is in crisis, couldn’t Filmmaking (and Art) as vocations also provide some form of remedy? In light of this, what ought to be the vocation of the filmmaker of the future? In what ways does filmmaking contain what is needed for the becoming of a new humanity and a new order?
1.Subverting the Process
The characters in John Waters’ Cecil B. Dementedtake a vow of chastity and a set of rules aimed at purifying cinema. On course they subvert the process of filmmaking on a grand scale. They kidnap, shoot, disrupt and die in order to bring about an end to bad Hollywood movies. Through their set of rules they transform the cinema into a revolutionary act, where the actors become activists and the film project becomes an attempt to bring about social change, rather than merely commenting on it. Their film stops being merely an aesthetic form and also becomes a revolutionary act, in a similar way to how French culture slips from La Nouvelle Vague into the Paris riots of May ‘68. The process of cinema-making at its most radical promises to turn film into a radical Vanguard. Film no longer simply tries to represent the world from a distance, it tries to change it.
Waters’ film has parallels with the filmmakers of the Dogme95movement. Whilst more moderate in ambition, the Dogme95manifesto still contains radical import.The founders ofDogme95 sought a new order by creating rules that would purify filmmaking. Amongst other things, these rules demanded that the filmmaker make their films on location without the aid of props and sets, that they used a handheld camera, did not use optics or filters and did not make a ‘genre film’. These rules served as an outline for a new order designed to both increase the freedom of the filmmaker and decrease reliance on money or budgets to avoid Hollywood cliché. Sometimes the radicalism of Dogme95 was not so apparent in the content of these films, rather, its radicalism was the way that it engaged and attempted to change the social mechanisms of filmmaking itself. Questions of how a film is financed, how it divides its labour and creates hierarchies are concerns that contribute to the becoming of Filmmaking as a vocation. Film should be prepared to practice what it preaches and this implies revolutions in process as well as content.
However, this doesn’t mean that Hollywood isn’t laced with a little radicalism of its own. The emigration of European directors (Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Edward Dmytryk, Nicholas Ray etc.) to America’s shores during the Second World War created a foreign element in the development of America’s film style. Faced with a new alien environment of McCarthy paranoia and suspicion, their depiction of the American-Hollywood dream was unsettling. The name for this unsettling vision was Film Noir. Implicit within this Hollywood formula is a suspicion of it. At certain moments American cinema creates discordances that point to its own dark side. In Billy Wilder’sSunset Boulevard and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive the vision of Hollywood is ruptured in a distinctly Hollywood way revealing its dark underbelly. However, if Hollywood is laced with the dream of its own demise, this does not mean that it will be brought crashing down. On the contrary, Hollywood’s internal self-criticism does nothing to undermine the industry which allows it to function. Just as 60s protest music and 70s punk is neutered by the industries that re-invents them, Hollywood re-invents and re-claims moments of its own transgression. However, transgressions are not without radical import, in this respect that we can talk of a contrary motion where the dormant radicalism of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas and other Hollywood motifs are re-claimed by European radicals like Fassbinder and Godard. There is a to-ing and fro-ing between Hollywood and its antithesis, which can only achieve its real potential when critical elements are brought to the fore.
2.Film as Social Criticism
In Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba, Kubrick’s Dr. Strangeloveand A Clockwork Orange, Godard’s Weekend, Solondz’s Palandromes and Von Trier’s Dogvilleaesthetic devices are used to direct the audience’s attention towards its social content. In this sense, these films are continuous with Brecht’sEpic Theatre which aimed to distance the audience from the action and turn the audience’s attention to critical engagement with what was happening on the stage. To achieve this Brecht sought to continually disrupt the realism with “alienation devices” (verfremdungseffekts) “such as characters talking directly to the audience, a “detached” style of acting, captions, projections, posters, song and dance”(4). These mechanisms would rupture the narrative causing the audience to reflect upon the social content of the piece. The narrators in Soy Cuba and Dogville play a similar role, turning the audience’s attention to the social content of the story. The story, or stories, do not require strong emotional engagement, but are instead reminiscent of biblical tales taking the form of moral parables upon which to reflect. In Soy Cuba, the Narrator reinforces the social content by poetically illuminating the message it seeks to express. In contrast,Dogville’s narration often jars with the action on screen, underplaying the horror of the events portrayed and giving a homely story-time feel, which only serves to reinforce the injustice. The film is full of jump-cuts and is set on a stage, where chalk lines stand in for real rooms and props are kept to a minimum. Whilst we soon forget the stage and let the dialogue shape the world that these characters inhabit, the set simultaneously creates enough distance to allow for critical reflection. Similar jarring moments are created in Dr. Strangelove and A Clockwork Orange, where classical music or camp popular songs are ironically juxtaposed to horrific and terrifying images. In Weekend captions flash up upon the screen and characters directly address the audience with long political monologues and in Palindromes the central character is played by multiple actresses. The point of these aesthetic methods is not simply novelty, but rather to redirect the audience’s attention from emotional and psychological engagement to critical social reflection.
Critical reflections are created when, for example, inPalindromes, pro-abortionist liberals are presented as mirror images of anti-abortionist fundamentalists, or in Dogville where supposedly “average, normal people” are judged and condemned for their evil. In such films, juxtaposition, metaphor and exaggeration are used to force us to see the world in a new way. It is here they come close to what Axel Honneth calls “disclosing critique”.
A Disclosing critique of society that attempts to change our beliefs by evoking new ways of seeing cannot simply use the vocabulary of argumentative justification; rather, it can achieve its effect only if it employs linguistic recourses that, by condensing or shifting meanings, show up facts hitherto unperceived in social reality.(5) A disclosing critique employs literary methods, to create a new way of perceiving reality. It is the coincidence of literary and aesthetic methods and realist social criticism that disclosing critiques gain their distinct character. Whilst appealing to artistic methods, it is reality, not fiction, that they are concerned with. It is for this reason that Honneth associates them with theory, not art. It is in terms of this circumstance that we can explain the difference between a disclosing critique of society and a work of art: whereas the opening of new contexts of meaning can transpire without bounds, as it were, in aesthetic reproduction, in social criticism it remains bound to the limits set by the actual constraints of social reproduction. (6)
For Honneth, disclosing critique uses an aesthetic mechanism in order to create new ways of perceiving social reality, but must be distinguished from art in that it is not a well of boundless creativity. Disclosing critique uses artistic tools to present reality, whereas art has no duty to present “reality”. Whilst there is truth in this claim, the task of (re)presenting social reality is not one that is foreign to Artists and Filmmakers. Directors such as Brecht or Von Trier seem far more preoccupied with revealing social reality than they do with boundless expression. It is in this context that they shift towards re-revealing social reality and engendering its social critique.
For Cinema and the vocation of Filmmaking, the future of hope resides in both its process and its critiques. Social Critique becomes redundant if it is not also translated into social change. Whilst social critique can provoke social change it can also become neutered and repetitively assimilated back into the system. Subverting the system requires engagement with the process, but subverting the process alone risks becoming yet another empty “avant-garde” façade. Only when the two interweave with each other can their truly subversive potential manifest. Film as a social critique must be accompanied by an awareness of the process which maintains it and sometimes undermines it and an engagement with the process should not be treated as subversive in its own right unless also supplemented by critique. Only then can a cinema of despair become a cinema of hope.
I do not intend to provide here a recipe for a “Brave New World” – nor is it likely that cinema alone could provide one. Cinema will always risk becoming a silent cry into a crowded auditorium, a complicity in the very system it wishes to overthrow. If the hope of a new Humanity, a new Enlightenment and a new becoming is to be found within it, this will require diligence, scrutiny, struggle and even error. Only time will tell if it will remain a helpless gasp in an age of suffocation or a blossoming of hope for the future.
1 See Francis Fukuyama The End of History and the Last Man.
Free Press. 1992.
2 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development
Report 2007/2008. Fighting Climate change: Human solidarity
in a divided world, Palgrave, Macmillan, 2007.
3 Kevin Bales, Zoe Trodd, Alex Kent Williamson Modern Slavery:
The Secret World of 27 Million People. Oneworld, 2009.
4 Angela Curran, ‘Bertolt Brecht’, in Paisley Livingston and Carl
Plantinga, ed, The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and
Film, Oxen, p. 324
5 Axel Honneth, ‘The possibility of a disclosing critique of society:
The Dialectic of Englightenment in the light of current debates
in social criticism’, Constellations 7/1, 2000, p.123
Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini was famous for his romantic, sumptuous and often bawdy representations of the historic, agrarian lifestyles in such films as The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron and The Arabian Nights. Salò - his final master-work made in 1975 - was a stark departure however, and would become infamous for its sheer brutality, starkness and pessimism. Sam Rohdie, writing in The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini, notes how the filmmaker saw modern society as “utterly evil, vulgar, corrupt, inhumane and unregenerate”. Perhaps he could keep the colourful nostalgia up no longer.
The story transposes the Marquis De Sade’s novel The 120 Days of Sodom from 18th Century Switzerland to the town of Salò at the end of World War II. Pasolini had first hand experience of the real Salò – Mussolini’s last Fascist republic in 1944 - as a young man, where there are particularly notorious instances of wartime massacres by Nazi occupying forces. The film therefore was Pasolini’s vision created from a reality he lived through. To represent this utter inhumanity, Pasolini depicts the rounding up and imprisonment of a group of young, naked man and women who are subjected to a series of physical and sexually degrading tortures by four wealthy libertines. The libertines are represented by, interestingly, establishment figures often regarded for their supposed morality - a Duke, a Bishop, a President and a Magistrate. In Salò, they are presented as ruthless, inhumane and sexually immoral. The Palazzo setting becomes a microcosm of a society where those in power are repressive, selfish and fundamentally indifferent to the suffering they create. Pasolini died shortly after making the film. His last message to the world would become a warning; not so much about humanity’s propensity for creating horror - for this was obvious enough - but to our lack of ability to recognise its potential in ourselves.
Importantly, Pasolini did this by putting the viewer firmly into the seat of the oppressors. Watching the film, structured as a Dante-esqe journey downward through 9 levels of hell, we are forced to view sexual degradations, often in detached, wide angle shots, jaundiced yellow and bleached of saturation. The mise-en-scene frames naked bodies in space, effectually dehumanising them. We are unaware of most of the young men and women’s past lives - the narrative spending most of its time devoted to the oppressors actions, shot from their point of view. It is decidedly anti-erotic in its depictions of sexual acts - the oppressors using the bodies as mere mechanical functions for sexual gratification. The conventional fragmented framing of erotic, pornographic or even Hollywood filmmaking is eschewed for this distancing device.
Salò confronts the viewer with its own passivity, detachment and possible implication in the evils of such dehumanisation. The final scene in the film is most successful in highlighting this point. Here, many of the young victims are punished for previous rebellions by being subjected to genital burning, branding, removal of eyes and tongues, anal rape and hanging. The torture is shot from the point of view of each libertine as they take turns in overlooking the proceedings through binoculars whilst sat in a room overlooking the tortures. The cinematic device of point-of-view is used in this scene to show the torture. We cannot hear the screams of the victims because of the window, and can only view the suffering through the binoculars of the libertines. The screams are substituted for the sounds of poetry on the radio - Ezra Pound declaring a glorious springtime. The libertines have chosen to view the suffering from a distance, through a window that both physically and emotionally separates them from the scene of punishment. At one point, the Duke even turns his binoculars around, so as to see the scene from an even greater distance than the human eye would. As well as emphasising the idea of the bourgeoisie’s detachment and lack of direct involvement with the suffering their class is responsible for, it also puts the viewer into the position of the bourgeoisie. If cinema works on the viewer’s unconscious, then here the audience becomes part of the system that is inflicting the torture - seeing through the libertine’s eyes. Also, just as the libertine views the cruelty through the square window of the house, the audience views it through the square cinema screen.
For the torturers, the acts are gratifying, and sometimes simply common-place and pedestrian. It is a complete subversion of all that we expect from civilised cultures, from civilised peoples. To depict this he made an unexpected film - anti-narrative, anti-sutural, anti-erotic. This is why Salò is so distressing for a viewer. Whilst it proposes a deeply depressing evaluation of humanity when stripped of social conditioning - it is the positioning of the camera and audience that shocks the viewers subconscious. We watch this, unable to stop it, but at the same time somehow at a safe distance. The audience is put into a very difficult moral position, and forced to contemplate itself as part of a social system that encourages passivity and detachment from reality. It is uncomfortable indeed when one’s own inward-looking culture is shown the light so uncompromisingly.
What happened in Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison is by now well known. In 2004, accounts of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, including torture, rape, sodomy, and homicide of prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (also known as Baghdad Correctional Facility) came to public attention. These acts were committed by personnel of the 372nd Military Police Company of the United States Army together with additional US governmental agencies.
The images of these atrocities tell a very painful and revelatory story. Taken by the soldiers themselves, the images are more than reminiscent of Pasolini’s film. Yet again, we are forced to observe the gruesome act through the eyes (or cameras) of the torturers, and the consequences of humanity stripped of its civility. In one image, two soldiers stand facing camera, thumbs up, behind a group of male prisoners who are stripped naked and piled on top of each other. The indifference to human suffering so acutely rendered by Pasolini is brought to life within our War on Terror myth. The content of the photograph so strongly resembles Pasolini’s depiction of naked young men and women grouped together for an inspection of their rear ends, that Pasolini’s final level of hell was indeed the desired destination, it seems, for those implicated in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. According to Jamil, a detainee at the facility, a soldier explained the purpose for their treatment; “These are the orders we have from our superiors, to turn your lives into hell.” Like in Salò, physically degrading acts seem to focus on the shame of nakedness, sexual acts and closeness to animals in stance and body positioning. In another image released from Abu Ghraib, prisoners are seen being held at the end of leads, dog collars around their necks. Pasolini’s victims similarly bark like dogs at the ends of leads for scraps of food. Unlike Salò however, as Western viewers, we are made aware of the victim’s “otherness”. The characters of Salò are predominantly white and the status line is drawn between age and political class. With Abu Ghraib, we recognise the racial and religious otherness (from a Western perspective) of the victims, subjugated and demeaned by the white (Christian?) Western power that has installed itself. The abuses of such power here are not only political, but historical, bringing into questions of colonialism, empire and its often associated guilt.
Why the images from Abu Ghraib are so important is simply that they tell a truth that is so hard to face. The Iraq war itself, so shrouded in half-truths, lies and myths - occurring thousands of miles away and observed from the armchair - became victim to propaganda and censorship. As the adage goes, the first casualty of war is truth. The revealed images from Abu Ghraib finally opened our collective eyes; leaving us asking if this is just the tip of the iceberg. Journalist John Pilger highlighted how images of the war seen in the West would often be heavily cropped to make sure the worst of the human suffering be kept hidden. Somehow, to witness the full extent of what our country’s leaders were doing would be “tasteless”. The Arab world’s taste was not spared by its own media however. From the USA’s played-down (read undercover) involvement in numerous bombings and Latin American regime changes through to the Hutton Enquiry and illegal renditions, this attempt at whitewashing to protect our delicate civilised tastes (and sense of superiority) is nothing new. An estimated 100,000 have been killed in Iraq, and yet the memory of 3000 killed on September 11th dominates.
Today, the debate in America isn’t so much “is it wrong to torture”, but “is what we are already doing torture?” Water boarding, effectively drowning a detainee to the inch of his life, is a practice not yet recognised by many on the Right as torture and so is therefore considered an acceptable practice. Even two high profile names in the USA (Christopher Hitchens, and right-wing radio “shock jock” Erich Mancow) being water boarded on camera - albeit with the guarantee it would stop if they were suffering too much - couldn’t convince the Right that it was indeed torture; although it convinced Mancow in less than 6 seconds! As I think of the Duke sat observing a young man’s tongue being cut off whilst listening to the sweet disarming language of poetry, I cannot help but consider its real life contemporary equivalent - let’s all imagine a nation sat watching Big Brother or Strictly Something Or Other whilst some of its soldiers are accused of mutilating prisoners on their behalf in Abu Naji. Or let’s just put our fingers in our ears, screaming “la la la” at the top of our lungs.
Pasolini’s indictment of our own involvement (personal or cultural) in, and navel-gazing ignorance of atrocities remains as potent and awakening as it was in 1975. The torturers of Pasolini’s victims can observe the human suffering they create from a distance as they wallow in luxury. They can convince themselves that any number of acts are not only acceptable (indeed, “standard operating procedure”, as it is known), but indeed gratifying. Pasolini was responding to the fascism of his time, but was also sending a stark message for the industrialised world. The hope for this new age is of course citizen journalism and internet imaging, as we have seen in the case of Iran and in demonstrations within our own country very recently. The ease with which information can be shared now makes the injustices of the powerful less likely to go unseen. At least by those with their eyes and ears open. Now as much as ever, we must be prepared to face - in close-up - the effects of our own nonchalant passivity.
One+One Filmmakers Journal is named after the 1968 film One Plus One by Jean Luc Godard. The film is in part a document of the Rolling Stones in a studio, recording the song Sympathy for the Devil and part staged scenes of political revolutions over which we hear extracts from various revolutionary texts. A reoccurring image is of slogans being painted on to walls and cars but each time the shot cuts before the slogan is completed. This is a film made in a time of upheaval and revolution, it captures the sense of a revolution in progress, a revolution that has not yet concluded.
When the studio released the film they made two changes which significantly altered the meaning of the film - the first was that they changed the title to Sympathy for the Devil and the second was to include the full version of the song at the end of the film, both done in order to make the film more commercial and both were made against Godard's wishes. To have the completed song at the end of the film contradicts the theme of revolutions in progress that is the movie's focus. Godard was so angry about this that he punched the film's producer at the UK premiere.
We are on the side of Godard, we are on the side of all filmmakers that have a vision that cannot and should not be compromised for commercial or any other reasons. One+One seeks to be the fist in the face of those that force a compromise of the artist's voice.
One+One is never the final word, it is a part of a process for all who write for and all who read it, a centre for thought and discussion, we will fight to break open the process of film making and give attention to the art of film rather than the industry. In fact industry is no longer needed, film no longer has to be a part of industry, film makers now more than ever before in the history of the medium can make films as art in the purest sense without giving an ounce of energy to industry or commercialism. No longer should film be seen as product.
Please check out our website at oneplusonejournal.co.uk/