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.
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Issue 7 features new articles on: Brent Green & Brecht by Donna K; Violence & a Clockwork Orange by Greg Scorzo; Tati & anarchism by Diarmuid Hester. Also includes an interview with Marcel Schwierin, a co-curator at Oberhausen Short Film Festival, by Treasa O’Brien and a personal tribute to the late George Kuchar by Clara Pais. Out now! Available for free! Online and in print!
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
To accompany Bradley Tuck’s vision of an “alternative Mary Poppins” in his article, we asked designers to submit a Mary Poppins One+One cover image in the style of a communist poster. We had a very high standard of responses. Four in particular stood out. Thank you to all the illustrators who got involved.
Dense, shocking, and thought-provoking, Lars von Trier’s Antichrist is a film which calls for careful analysis. This web-exclusive exchange between Film Quarterly editor Rob White and philosopher Nina Power is meant as a first attempt at the in-depth debate that this major film deserves.
SPOILER WARNING: Please be aware that the piece assumes familiarity with Antichristand does contain major plot spoilers. For ease of reference, a synopsis is provided at the end.
Rob White:Antichrist is already making headlines because of the explicitness of its sexual violence (especially two acts of genital mutilation). There are comparisons to be made with the current vogue for “torture porn” horror, but a better initial reference point is a group of 1970s films: The Night Porter, In the Realm of the Senses, and Salò, all of which relate sexual violence to mid-century fascism. Antichrist’s concerns are contemporary—gender, ecology, science—and its accomplishment, easy to recognize so long as one is not too distracted by the gore, is to explore these philosophical themes cinematically.
Antichrist is also a carefully plotted thriller. Recalling Don’t Look Now, it begins with a child’s death while mother and father (simply credited as “she” and “he,” played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe) have sex. The next scene is the funeral, the couple filmed, in a shot reminiscent of the trapped hero’s view from the coffin in Dreyer’s Vampyr, through the hearse window. It is as if the dead child, Nic, were taking a last reproachful look at his parents. The true extent of their negligence will be revealed toward the end, when a flashback discloses that she was watching as the toddler climbed onto the window ledge from which the fatal fall then occurred.But Antichrist has not stinted on clues to her wrongdoing: the ragged chick devoured by its bird-of-prey parent, a self-taken Polaroid showing Nic playing behind his glassy-eyed mother who looms menacingly in the foreground, a flashback in which Nic wails as she forces the wrong shoes on him. The man is not exempt from blame. After he confronts her about the coroner’s report of Nic’s injured feet, he seems only interested in what the revelation of child abuse tells him about her psychology (via a ridiculous pyramid graph of her fears). This is a calamitous, solipsistic couple. He is a therapist without an MD. Some kind of drop-out? Struck-off? And one wonders if her rattle bag of a dissertation—which she cannot finish—on “Gynocide” has ever had any institutional ratification. These two are failures, lost in their own mirror world of goading games and compulsive sex.
Nina Power:The blanked-out faces of not only the other funeral-goers, but also of the massed women at the end, indicate that this is a story whose explicit focus is indeed the unhappy bourgeois couple and its miseries. After the abrupt death of Nic, the only other substantial characters are the animals, with perhaps the tree and cabin playing minor supporting roles. The Polaroid of an unhappy-looking she with Nic relegated to the background, and her neglect of Nic in the woodshed even as she follows what she thinks are his plaintive cries, demonstrate that this is a couple so profoundly turned inward that not even their child (or his death) can alter the course of their headlong mutual destruction.
“What are you afraid of?” His question to her, near the beginning of his “treatment” of her, jars. Surely the thing we would expect a young mother to be “most afraid of” has already just happened—the death of her child. Is his therapy so cutting-edge that he simply skips over the small matter of his child’s death (a fact which he seems surprisingly casual about), or is this further evidence of his poor therapeutic technique? His calming exercises seem to worsen his patient’s fears, and he seems unable to accept that what she is truly afraid of lacks an object. This is the Heideggerian definition of Angst—fear is always fear of something, an object or an outcome; Angst is the generalized feeling of not being at home in the world.Antichrist is a film about this deeper kind of anxiety, the kind that makes everything feel wrong: even when the stars align, their pattern resolves nothing. The film’s “Three Beggars,” Pain, Grief, and Despair in their various iterations, are a mythos suited to the malformed gnostic vision of von Trier’s Eden: a world where everything is a kind of abomination. If she is ultimately somehow attuned to the evil of this abortion of a universe, then perhaps it might do better to call her a kind of witch, skip over the flat and uninteresting charges of misogyny, and investigate the nature of her unholy powers.
Rob White:She first speaks about her anxiety when she is woozy with drugs at the hospital, having collapsed at the funeral. Grief has, it seems, overcome her, while he studiously maintains a medic’s detachment; she is the patient, but after he instigates—over her doctor’s objection—the trip to Eden, the question of whose mind is most disturbed becomes increasingly hard to answer. He fails to stay professionally calm and before the talking breaks down he starts to lash out at her, castigating her for statements about evil he has purposefully elicited. Antichrist is withering in its depiction of this cranky therapist, but the critique goes deeper than the one character, much as her angsty distress spreads to infect the environment. When he frantically protests at her claim that nature is “Satan’s church,” his rational objection is unpersuasive: “the evil you talk about is an obsession; obsessions never materialize, it’s scientific fact.” In this hellish world, delusion and reality seem redundant ideas: certainly the injured animals he encounters are fairy-tale perversions for which science has no category.
Antichrist plays narrative and visual tricks which never give us a settled reality—no viable distinction can be made between a normal outside world of hearses and hospitals, and a crazy, abominable one of forest fiends. Is the best explanation of this monstrous universe that the whole Eden trip is a fantasy (whether his or hers) which begins after the down-the-rabbit-hole transition when, instructed by him to visualize the cabin, she imagines herself lying on the grass outside and turning green, melting into the landscape? But this is just a version of his “obsession” theory and overlooks stylistic features of Antichrist’s cinematography which suggest eerier scenarios, in which he is a puppet not the disengaged scientist who can define reality. We first see, for example, the scarred, bleached-out wasteland outside the cabin during her visualization; she limps in super-slow-motion past the blasted tree stump. In the film’s penultimate sequence, we see that landscape again, filmed in just the same way. He strangles her, incinerates her, and drags himself away. But he limps through the landscape ofher imagination. If we are to infer any meaning from this visual symmetry, it could be that she has a witchlike power over him.
Nina Power:The role of witchcraft inAntichristshould, in part, be understood in a context more complicated than that of Christianity. In some respects,Antichrist is a misleading title, implying a simple reversal of the Christian opposition between good and evil. It is unfortunate for us that our capacity for imagining nature is overdetermined by its depiction in the Bible: Adam gets to name the animals, Noah gets to pick them up in pairs, making sure to have more of the “good” ones than the creeping (and creepy) ones. But the disturbing hybrids of Antichrist resist easy description, reminding us more of Shakespeare’s dark litany of disturbed animals (Macbeth’s horses, “turn’d wild in nature,” start to eat each other). The use of contemporary techniques for getting the fox to speak, and the computer-game-like dream sequences which she conjures up and he stumbles through are the formal equivalent of the animal wrongnesses that Antichrist depicts. This is not a straightforwardly evil universe, but it is a world out of joint, a world which one god or other started but gave up on, perhaps having given language and insight to all the wrong animals. Chaos reigns.
If nature is itself unnatural, incomplete, why bother trying to give it a meaning? The “dissertation” she works on, nothing more than a teenage scrapbook of hacked-out woodcuts and increasingly incomprehensible scrawls, leads her only back to herself, the “Me” at the top of the pyramid of fear, a narcissism so pronounced that even her own child can be accused of neglecting her (“Nic wasn’t there for me either”). Crippling his feet and attaching a lathe to her partner’s leg seem to be the only way she can keep the men around her from leaving. Not unlike Kathy Bates’s character in Misery, she literally arrests and creates the narrative which binds men to her. But she appears to misjudge the extent of her powers: it is she who is in control of the landscape, who can “just turn green,” who understands what the acorns are up to. Perhaps it is she who better performs his awful therapy-speak phrase “what the mind can conceive and believe it can achieve,” which is quite possibly why, in the end, he has to burn her.
Rob White:Oedipus is named for his “hurt foot” and perhaps her urge to hobble man and boy is some extreme protest against the trademark Freudian “complex”; as if she had decided—“enough of word games and mind games, let me make it for real.” One way of thinking about the film’s subversion of rational, psychological, scientific meaning is to take its violence rather seriously, disregarding charges of arty self-indulgence. Antichrist’s world has undoubtedly gone wrong. It is a world of deformity, whose occupants are increasingly traumatized. In, that is, the root sense of the word—wounded—as much as its twentieth-century psychological variant. Physical injury as against its mental simulation; flesh not mind. The penetration shot right at the beginning is relevant: thoughtless, instinctual fucking, body entering body, as opposed to the emotional paraphernalia of Handel’s mournful aria or the baggage of this family unit—“daddy-mommy-me” (to use the formulation of a book which is relevant in more than just its title, Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus).
There is definitely an affinity with the Shakespearian macabre, but the more direct reference is to Shakespeare’s contemporary, Robert Herrick, whose spiteful poem, “Upon Some Women,” she quotes: “False in legs, and false in thighs; / False in breast, teeth, hair, and eyes.” Murderously minded these lines may very well be, yet they speak most plainly of the body in bits, and Antichrist insistently visualizes corporeal fragmentation and dismemberment, especially in the bookend sequences of close-ups of parts of her body, the subliminal image of her screaming face imprinted on the landscape outside the train window, the arms among the tree roots. Antichrist progressively reasserts the primacy of the body, albeit an oozing and hurt body. The three “primal scenes” in which he encounters the animals (deer, fox, bird) underline this: in each case he hears a rustle that prompts a studious look of curiosity which soon turns to horror when the creature is revealed. He wants nature to reward his curiosity, but he gets instead a bloody, messy, obscene revelation, “red in tooth and claw,” and perhaps the only reward is that, with a little help from her, he gets to have just such a body himself.
Nina Power: But what kind of body are we talking about? In the post-psychoanalytic age, Freud might be dead, as she suggests at one point, and yet our language is nevertheless shot through with his words, and no body is fully “natural.” Nic, a mere toddler, performs a spectacular and speedy fusion of the primal scene and Oedipal misery in his early leap from the window, his ghostly figure in the snow making a mockery of any life force that protects the young. Grief may be a “natural, healthy emotion” as he suggests, but the really complicated affect here is anxiety: the symmetrical scenes of the back of her head, the way her pulse turns from a physiological reaction to grief to a vital force altogether more sinister in nature—if she is “false” in “teeth, hair, and eyes” (among other things) it is because beneath this conventionally attractive façade something much more primal lives, like the Dantesque hands and bodies lying in sexualized sympathy with the roots of trees.
There is darkness under cover of beauty, there is murk in the midst of hygiene: the roots of the plant dirtying the water in the tidy hospital, the bloody crow in the quiet of the foxhole. If she can change semen into blood (albeit with the help of a handy block of wood), does this mean that transubstantiation is, pace Catholicism, far more common than we think? After all, sexual organs with the power to bleed are hardly “unnatural” for half of humanity, or at least we’re not supposed to think it odd.
He may get the identifiable animals, but she gets everything that swarms, those things that make the ecology feel unsafe and excessive: the acorns, the burning ground, the ants crawling on the runt chick at the end of her “therapeutic” exercise. Bitten by a host of bugs when he dangles his hand out of the window, his final vision is of an endless stream of women marching ever upward.
Rob White: The ending of Antichrist is wholly strange, perhaps in fact the oddest thing in an unusual film. Just before the epilogue begins, he limps out of Eden, no Eve by his side, no flaming sword to light the way. For a film so skeptical about modern ways of thinking, the image is appropriately medieval, redolent of Old Master eschatology (Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights), with perhaps a dash of Wagnerian Götterdämmerung too (our heroine has, after all, been burnt on a pyre). And then back to black-and-white, and a sudden bucolic tranquility as he forages for berries, smiles at the animal ghosts, and—with the blank look of curiosity again—sees the smudge-faced women parading toward some invisible meeting place. The ending feels like a belated retraction of what has gone before. The mood is harmonious, even heavenly; this seems like a place of healing rather than hostility. Is this a repudiation of “red in tooth and claw”? It is hard to say, but certainly it is an alternative world, one more hospitable to him, whereas the forest world had been a place where she was at home.
The epilogue exudes a culty calm. After several viewings, I thought of the drug-induced pastoral hallucinations in the first season of the TV vampire show, True Blood, but my first association was with the bizarre interplanetary salvation at the end of the Nicolas Cage movie, Knowing. Although the symbolism in much of the film belongs to “Old Europe,” the setting is in fact Washington State. (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks is also set in that area, and there are other parallels between Antichrist and Lynch’s films—the use of droning sound design, for example, and a shared sense of exactly “darkness under cover of beauty … murk in the midst of hygiene,” as with the severed ear in Blue Velvet.) This is a New World. We seem to have moved from a European imaginary to an American one—to the culture of Robert Bly, hippies, scientology, Mormonism, the Rapture.
Nina Power: The most interesting aspects of the film are not the predictably headline-provoking elements, neither the sex nor the violence. What is perhaps most interesting in some ways is the absence of knowingness, and of recognizable place (though the film is “set” in Seattle, Washington and in their cabin, Eden, they take a train to get there, as Europeans would do, and the bulk of the film was shot in Germany). This is not an urban film, a sex film, a commentary on American foreign policy, or an arch nod to other genres, but it certainly attempts a certain kind of arthouse horror—part of the dismissive huffing and puffing aboutAntichrist is about the clunkiness of its themes and affects: depression, sexual difference, theology, and human nature. These are not themes well-suited to irony, and there is no post-Buffy wit and patter to temper the abyssal artlessness of the stilted dialogue and the grimness of the self-devoured yet self-replicating nature (“OK, Mr. Nature, what do you want?” / “To hurt you as much as possible”).
But Antichrist is a serious attempt to undermine the unthinking acceptance of modern rationality and the flat utility of technology. The toilet she both bashes her head against and throws her pills down has the seat up, as if, for all his caring liberal humanism, he knows in the end that it’s a man’s world. When he enters the cabin, he casually touches both the lathe and the toolbox, reassured that these are his playthings, not hers. Antichrist is ultimately a film about the other side of these routine assumptions, about the relation between man and nature, women and men, and what happens when these things are horribly, cosmically misaligned.
Rob White: Calling Antichrist “misogynist” is an opt-out from serious engagement, a critical short cut which reduces the film to the schematics of unconscious desire that von Trier so artfully dismantles in order to reach out to more visceral, counterscientific causalities. Maybe a better way of approaching the film’s gender politics is to observe that she is much the more interesting of the film’s characters. What a misfortune it would be to arrive in his consulting room! Whereas one could expect from her at least some crazy folkloric ruminations; she could be counted on not to be tiresome. It could be inferred from Antichrist that she is all the time playing along with his idiotic therapeutic games, as contemptuous of headshrinking as Humbert Humbert in Lolita (the novel). Thus the odd tonal quality of some of the things she says when they get to Eden, whether it be the flatness of the “Mr. Nature” dialogue or the earlier incongruous perkiness of her claim to have been cured. She will never get her Ph.D., but hers is surely the greater intelligence. In their Battle of the Sexes, he is outmatched in this respect at least.
Though brutalization and death often await von Trier’s female protagonists, there is a world of difference between, on the one hand, the heartbroken innocents in Breaking the Waves andDancer in the Dark and, on the other hand, the resourceful avenging women in Dogville andAntichrist. She is kin to Grace at the end of Dogville, who says “I want to make this world a little better” and then has gangster henchmen put the town to the sword. If the hegemonic social institutions (couple, family, medicine, psychoanalysis) really are as oppressive as the 1970s critique (Reich, radical feminism, queer theory, Anti-Oedipus) claims, then such a slash-and-burn response may even be justified—though there is no getting away from one fictional face of that critique in action: her supine vigilance as Nic climbs up to the window. There are smudged faces elsewhere, but this merciless gaze is unexpurgated.
Nina Power: Von Trier’s fascination with female violence goes back a long way, and his 1987 Medeaasks the same question thatAntichristraises: is there anything more frightening than the idea that mothers may wish to commit infanticide? If you flip the film over and listen to what she says (“you shouldn’t have come here, you’re just so damn arrogant, but this may not last, ever thought of that?”), it becomes clear that for all her play-acting at his clumsy therapeutic games, the initial scene had been set in motion by her at least a year before: the teddy bear tied to the helium balloon tantalizing Nic to reach for it, the baby monitor on silent, the reversed shoes, the windows opening twice to let in the acorns and let out her son. Antichrist is a fascinated yet horrified disquisition on the ambiguity of witchcraft, a set of spells and strange incantations not unlike those practiced by the filmmaker himself.
In Malleus Maleficarum, the fifteenth-century treatise on witches, there is a description of the hailstorms alleged to have been caused by two women in Ratisbon, Germany. It is this supposed power to control the weather that she invokes at the base of the tree while finally getting her wish that he hit her: “the sisters from Ratisbon could start a hailstorm.” The couple-form has comes to dominate all relationships, particularly in arthouse films about bourgeois life, but there is also, or was, a sisterhood, and the fear of this female bond (with each other and with an unholy vision of nature) is invoked throughout Antichrist. If a certain kind of order is restored at the end, with the deer looking over Nic’s suicide and overseeing the provision of berries for his father, it is a washed-out image of the world, a version of the Christian mistake which imagines that animals belong to man and that nature will always provide. The swarming masked and gloved women at the end are not touched by this hierarchy of man and beast, however, and plough toward a darker, but perhaps less divided, new Garden of Eden.
Prologue. A couple, simply known as He (a therapist) and She (a researcher into the history of witchcraft), are having sex at home. Their toddler son, Nic, gets out of his cot, climbs to the windowsill, and falls to his death.
Chapter one: “Grief.” She collapses at the funeral and is hospitalized. After a month, he insists that she discharge herself. He wants to take over her treatment; his theory is that she must re-live her deepest fears. She says she associates fear with Eden, a cabin in the woods, where (with Nic) she spent the previous summer trying to finish her dissertation on “Gynocide.” They travel there by train and start hiking through the woods. She tires and while she sleeps, he sees a deer whose stillborn fawn is still partly contained in its womb.
Chapter two: “Pain (Chaos Reigns).” He directs her in therapeutic exercises, while they continue their dialogues, breaking off for sex. He finds Polaroids of her and Nic. The conversation grows more intense. “I understood that everything that used to be beautiful about Eden was perhaps hideous,” she says. “Now I could hear what I couldn’t hear before, the cry of all things that are going to die.” He opens the report of Nic’s autopsy. Out walking, he sees a wounded fox which speaks: “chaos reigns.”
Chapter three: “Despair (Gynocide).” He finds her disturbing research materials in the attic. Later he initiates a role-playing exchange: “I am nature, all the things you call nature.” The encounter takes a disturbing turn. “If human nature is evil,” she says, “then that goes for … the nature of all the sisters.” They have sex beneath a tree, human arms materializing among its roots. She finds the discarded autopsy report. He confronts her with its observation that Nic’s feet were deformed, pointing out that the Polaroids show the child wearing his shoes on the wrong feet. She knocks him unconscious, batters his genitals, masturbates him, and bolts a lathe wheel onto his leg. He manages to crawl into a foxhole under the cabin, where he finds an injured bird.
Chapter four: “The Three Beggars.” She is remorseful. They return to the outhouse where, in flashback, it is revealed that she was watching Nic as he climbed up to the window. Agitated and delirious, she mutilates her own genitals with scissors. Her scream alerts the deer, fox, and bird, which come to the cabin. Seeing him about to extract the wheel, she stabs him. He fights back, strangles her, and burns her corpse on a pyre.
Epilogue. He limps away from the cabin. Doll-like human bodies litter the landscape. Later he forages for berries and sees the ghosts of the animal trio. He watches a host of women, their faces smudged, climb up a wooded hillside.
NINA POWER is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Roehampton, U.K, and author ofOne Dimensional Woman (Zero Books, 2009).
ROB WHITE is editor of Film Quarterly and author of Freud’s Memory: Psychoanalysis, Mourning and the Foreign Body (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
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 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/