Politics in Film
Fireside Conversation: Straub and Others
There is no politics of cinema, there are singular forms that filmmakers use to connect the two meanings of the word ‘politique’ which can be used to describe a fiction in general and a cinematic fiction in particular: politics in what a film is saying – the history of a movement or a conflict, exposure of a situation of suffering or injustice – and something more like ‘policy’, meaning the specific strategy of an artistic approach: a way of accelerating or slowing time, shrinking or expanding space, harmonizing or de-harmonizing gaze and action, making or breaking the sequence of before and after, inside and outside. The relation, one could say, between what is seen in public and the precise detailed practice behind it.
How should we approach the ways cinema today can make use of the relationship between the certainties of injustice, the uncertainties of justice and judging the right thing to do? The best method seems to me to take an older film as a point of reference. I have chosen one from 1979, De la nuée à la résistance by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. I choose it not as a model political film but one that is significant for three main reasons. Firstly, it operates an idea and a practice of the relationship between politics and cinema which belong to a broader paradigm of the relationship between art and politics. Let us save time by calling it the Brechtian paradigm: an art that replaces the continuities and progressions of the narrative and empathic model with a broken-up form that aims to expose the tensions and contradictions inherent in the presentation of situations and the way facts, what is at stake and outcomes are formulated. This paradigm has influenced various forms of the relationship between cinema and politics, for example Godard’s dialectical exercises. But Straub’s films represent the most systematic form, thus the most apt for fixing its image and defining a perspective from which to view contemporary films, including those outside this paradigm.
Secondly, De la nuée à la résistance represents a turning point within this model. Classically, the fragmentary form and dialectical confrontation of opposites was aimed at sharpening the gaze and judgement so as to raise the level of certainty supporting adherence to a particular explanation of the world, the Marxist explanation. In this film they become, both through the texts chosen and through the way the words are staged, the basis of an unresolved tension that was to characterize all Straub’s subsequent films. I propose to name the form constructed in this way post-Brechtian, and to reflect on the relationship contemporary film directors have with ‘doing politics’ and this post-Brechtian form.
Thirdly, this turning point in the approach of two filmmakers corresponded with a historic turning point. The film came out in 1979, at the end of the leftist decade. This had been liquidated in Germany, Italy and Japan through the armed confrontation between a radicalized extreme left and the state; in Portugal by the ending of the era of open dissent of the Carnation Revolution; in the United States and Great Britain with the triumph of programmes for liquidating social advances; in France through the simultaneous rise of a socialist left eager to turn the energy of the leftist decade to its own advantage and an intellectual opinion eager to disown that decade along with the whole revolutionary tradition. It was also the end of a certain phase in the relationship of cinema with politics, marked first by militant forms like those of the Medvedkine and Dziga Vertov groups, then by historical/political frescoes of which Novecento offers the most spectacular example. The post-Brechtian formula suggested by De la nuée à la résistance thus becomes the emblem of a politico-cinematic approach now turned less towards the exposure of mechanisms of domination than the study of the aporiae of emancipation.
This film is thus a good reference for locating the transformations of the relationship between politics and cinema and examining the continuities and breaks that characterize this relationship today. Let us now analyse more closely the paradigm it operates. This is not a matter of expounding the principles that guided Straub and Huillet, but only of constructing as a spectator the logic of what we see on screen and inscribing it in a history of the relations between the palpable forms presented to us by cinema and the political promises it permits them to carry. For that, let us begin with a privileged episode of the film, the sixth entitled Les Feux. The episode is privileged because it is at the articulation point between the film’s two parts. The first part consists of six of Pavese’s Dialogues with Leucò, the second is inspired by Pavese’s last novel, La luna e i falò (The Moon and the Bonfires). Les Feux is the last of the six dialogues used. In the context of a ritual performed to bring rain, a shepherd and his son discuss the ancient custom of making human sacrifices to this end. The father is trying to justify this custom, which angers the son. Both are sharing their surroundings with two non-human ‘characters’: the bonfires they are stoking and the moon which illuminates the scene.
This episode calls for two preliminary remarks. One concerns cinema in general, the other the film’s ‘politics’. First of all the ‘nocturnal conversation around a fire’ is a familiar cinematic scene. Think of its role in westerns where it gives a double depth to the action it is interrupting. Firstly it is a biographical enrichment: a period freed from the rhythm of the action the characters telling their stories about where they have come from and where they would like to go. Then comes reflection on the justice of the action under way to assert a right, exact revenge or collect a reward. The conversation between the father and son espouses the outlines of this familiar form. The difference is that in the western the questions raised by the nocturnal discussion are always resolved when the action resumes. In Mann’s The Naked Spur or Preminger’s River of No Return the discussion is about whether men with a troubled past have the right to pursue criminals for personal profit or revenge. But in these films the question is answered by the criminal himself, who confirms that right by being the first to draw his gun. It does not happen like that in Straub and Huillet’s film. No action will settle the object of the discussion. The action of the film consists solely of these dialogues in which the characters do nothing apart from discuss justice and injustice. And the film will end on the evocation of an execution – that of the young Santa in The Moon and the Bonfires – whose justice will remain uncertain for ever.
This leads us to the second remark which bears on the relationship between subject and form. While the conversation form is generalized here, the fact is the object of disagreement goes beyond the limits of what a western plot could resolve. It concerns in effect an injustice that even the lowest scoundrel in a western could not tolerate, but that the honest family man justifies: the use of innocent human victims sacrificed on the fire to ensure good harvests. Here we are no longer in the moral universe of the western, but that of classical tragedy in which justice is defined in relation to gods who do not themselves need to be just.
Before seeing how the aporia of unjust justice is dealt with, it is worth examining the implications of the choice of dialogue form. At first sight this choice seems to insert the politics of the film into a frame not specific to cinema: political art seen as dialectical art. We are, it seems, a long way from the period considered the very essence of cinema and its politics – the era of montage as a language of images, whether regarded as something that binds (Vertov) or something that opposes (Eisenstein). The film is turned more in the direction of the other major form of fragmentary politics, the theatrical dialectic. This form has been associated with the question of justice since Antiquity. From Aeschylus to Brecht and Sartre, the theatrical dialogue has often concerned itself with discussion of the relationship between two injustices. It has done so under two main forms which make the dialectical morality supporting the dialogue function in opposite ways. The first is the tragedy form, which is openly indecisive on the relationship between two injustices: Agamemnon’s and Clytemnestra’s, Creon’s and Antigone’s, that of the Trojan Paris and the Greeks who murdered Polyxena. The modern world is eager to claim, after Hegel, that it has been relieved of that indecision by Orestes’s acquittal in the Eumenides. That decision was thought to inaugurate the rule of law bringing tragic indecision to an end. But the nub of the problem lies elsewhere. It bears on the nature of injustice and on the subjects it relates to. While staging the dialectic of equivalent injustices, Greek tragedy limited its scope. If the decisions of its heroes were unjust, it was so because their pride led them to believe they knew more about the will of the gods than they really did. But only great figures whose very status obliged them to make decisions and inclined them to irrationality were susceptible to this injustice. A second form asserts itself in the modern age, when injustice becomes a wrong done not to gods but humans and conflict over injustice bears on the very division between the small number of those deciding for others and the multitude of those subject to their power. Deciding then becomes a task for the oppressed themselves and dialectic is the weapon they need to seize. At that moment the dialectic unfolds: it is the tension between opposed arguments but it is also the science of means and ends. And this last ranks injustices in the interest of the majority. So theatre decides between injustices: with Brecht in The Decision the young comrade has to be left to die to save the town, with Sartre in Le diable et le Bon Dieu assent must be given to the injustices and lies that prop up the authority the leaders need to pursue the struggle of the oppressed. But it decides, not in order to give a model of behaviour, but rather to awaken the capacity of combatants to judge situations and arguments. This tension between bold decision and the ability to hold opposing arguments in balance lies at the heart of the politics of Brechtian dialogue.
Now the dialogue imagined by Pavese is remarkable in that the relation of two injustices (the human sacrifice denounced by the son and the class exploitation argued by the father) is also a relationship between two dialectics: the ethical dialectic of tragedy among the Great and the political dialectic of struggle waged by the humble. To grasp the consequences of this displacement, we need first to examine the relation established by the film between the aporiae of justice, the dialogue form and cinematic visuality. In theatre, however important the intended role of movement and scenery, the concrete starts with the words. A conversation around a fire can dispense with fire, grass and wind. Indeed justice and injustice assume an even more palpable force as a result. Inversely, cinema, whatever the effort made to intellectualize it, is bound to the visibility of speaking bodies and the things they speak of. From that are deduced two contradictory effects: one is intensification of the visual aspect of the word, of the bodies that carry it and the things they speak of; the other is intensification of the visible as something that disclaims the word or shows the absence of what it speaks of. The fire, grass and wind augment the palpable presence of the speaking bodies and the obviousness of the concrete things they speak of. But they only do it at the price of revealing their powerlessness to show what is at stake in the dialogue: executed bodies of course, but also justice itself.
So on one hand the film adds bodies, gestures, attitudes to the verbal joust: the father’s roundness, his stocky, solid body, the confidence of his voice that gives powerful words the palpable presence to otherwise unimaginable things the rhetorical gesture of the hands deploying the dialectic in which the injustice of sacrifice has to be understood; the son’s thinness, the voice not totally broken, the adolescent fuzz above the lip, the sharp profile resisting the dialectical demonstration, the final close-up of the palm of a hand extended in a sign of refusal. On the other hand, the film confronts the arguments with what they speak of but also the cause lying behind the whole issue: the rich grass and the bowl of milk, metonymy of the absent flocks, the moon which determines the success or failure of the sowings, the sacrificial fire lighted to bring rain, the wind which fans the one and may presage the other. It confronts them finally with the invisibility of justice and injustice.
This cinematic interplay of presence and absence seems at first to redouble the aporiae of the dialectical debate. The calm pastoral setting effectively encourages deployment of a dialectic that turns in on itself. In the father’s mouth, the reasoned arguments for adapting to circumstances and choosing the lesser of two evils seem as inconclusive as the examples given in support. The story he recounts of King Atamante offers two conclusions: it rained because Atamante was going to be sacrificed and it rained because he had not been sacrificed. There remains the very simple question put by the son: how could just men burn innocent men? Because of an unanswerable fact, the father replies: the heat wave. But this answer contains two others which do not agree: one is that the summer heat turns men into ferocious beasts blind to all justice; the other is that it is fair to sacrifice for the general good those individuals – cripples, vagabonds – who do not have an important role in the community. What counts is not the suffering of the victims or its emotional force, but knowing who is crying out. This is the classic argument of the end justifying the means. But the argument is false-bottomed because to justify the murder of innocent people by the need to bring rain, it must be considered a given that rain is the product of sacrifice. It has to be admitted that superstition itself is good if it procures the good of the people. That is the argument of Nuto, the wise Communist in The Moon and the Bonfires, on the superstitions about effects of the moon dismissed by the practical commonsense of ‘the American’: popular beliefs are good or bad depending on whether they serve the cause of the people or its exploiters. Now, the father says in this film, the equivalent of the heat wave is the bosses. And while burning a vagabond was once enough to make it rain, how many masters’ houses have to be burned and how many bosses killed to make the world a just place? No conclusion emerges from this reflection, except perhaps that gods and bosses are in agreement to retain the privileges of their idleness and that the oppressed should observe the principle of maximum utility in their choice of victims. The ‘Marxist’ dialectic produces nothing more than a sober resignation to the commission of injustice since that is how the world is. What the son argues, from his side, is a rebellion that leads to another resigned attitude: it is that the oppressed are justly oppressed since they accept injustice.
That is what the son says. But, at this point, the indecision of the dialectic gives the filmmakers the opportunity for an intervention that breaks through the silence of the material place and the aporia of the commonplaces. They take, in fact, two initiatives. The first relates to the text alone: they give the final word to the son’s interruption while Pavese’s dialogue gives it to the father who calls him ignorant and dares him to repeat the criticism. The second is to accompany his words with a gesture in close-up: a hand sweeping down the tunic a multiple gesture whose possible messages the audience has the task of synthesizing: designation of the land, declaration of refusal, hand opened to another future … the irresoluteness of the gesture is at the same time a power of resolution that breaks the pulley of dialectical exchange. So, the tension between text and image has a double meaning. There is a good reason Straub and Huillet replaced at the end of the 1970s the Communist dramaturge Brecht, master of dialectical certitudes, with the Communist writer Pavese, who noted the return of the ancient order on the hilltops where the partisans had once operated, and even wondered whether the world of hills, earth and harvests was compatible with promises of revolutionary upheaval. ‘The Greeks too practised human sacrifice. Every peasant civilization has done the same. And all civilizations have been peasant ones,’ Pavese wrote in an exergue to the dialogue.1 Integrating this proposition with the dialectical exercise would clearly mean opening it to a new form of tragic irresolution, compelling reflection on any future of Communism to include the provocation of that myth and its repetitive history. It would mean suspending the promises of dialectic to restore its palpable strength to the gap between acquiescing to injustice, which has always been a ‘rational’ thing to do, and the simple statement of rejection. But it also means overturning the platitudes, the topoï of the dialectical argument, transforming them into palpable blocks of words imbued with historical experience. Immemorial myth and destiny are then no longer barriers on the way to the struggle for justice, they are the palpable richness of a collective experience and the capacity to speak it. From this viewpoint, the father’s wisdom and the son’s rejection are equalized, affirming in similar fashion the ability of shepherds to speak at the level of their destiny and everyone’s destiny. It is not immaterial that this palpable equality of opposite arguments is deployed here by non-professional actors, blue- and white-collar workers associated with the Primo Maggio circle from a small Communist town in Tuscany. That ability of anyone to give the greatest palpable intensity to the most difficult speech would become central to Straub and Huillet’s subsequent films. Their camera work aims to augment that palpable power. The son’s gesture does not just interrupt the father’s dialectic, it incorporates the wealth of palpable experience in his blocks of words and experience. It weaves it into the present richness of light, landscape and wind. From there, the moon and bonfires, the grass and vines, the crunch of footsteps on the sandy road, the sound of the stream or the wind in the trees, the very confusion of apparent opposites would be felt in their dual aspect of palpable common riches and the cutting-up of the world that renders justice invisible.
The tension between dialectic and myth is thus absorbed into the lyrical condensation of presence and absence. This metamorphosis of dialectic takes on meaning when it is compared to another, demonstrated by Godard’s career. Éloge de l’amour, shot more than twenty years after De la nuée à la résistance, but in the same period as Operai, contadini, has a number of features that recall the earlier film: a common reference to the Resistance and its wasted heritage, a similar bold interleaving of texts recording a historical experience with places of history now fallen silent. But the development of Brechtian dialogue takes very different paths. On one side, the dialectical confrontation of words and things turned, in Godard’s work, to nostalgia, historical signifiers confronting the emptiness of their place or their time running out. Thus, the erratic courses of the characters in an SNCF train depot or their station facing the Île Seguin – once the heart of the Renault factories, now awaiting demolition – the play on the words ‘empty fortress’ referring simultaneously to the trade union citadel and an autistic person’s brain, the four gardeners as a metaphor for the vanished workers, the song from Vigo’s L’Atalante symbolizing the popular past and the breathless voice of the old woman who carries in her mind the memory of the Resistance. On the other side, the collision of heterogeneous elements sharpens provocation to the point of producing a radical inability to choose between injustices. The celebrated quotation from René Char, ‘Notre héritage n’est précédé d’aucun testament’, quoted by Hannah Arendt who translated it as ‘Our inheritance was left to us by no testament’, is answered in Éloge de l’amour by a ‘testament’ in the style of Villon, that of the executed collaborator Robert Brasillach, chanted by the assistant lent to the director by the despoiled Jewish collector. His words end in a café bearing the sign ‘La Liberté’, before we are introduced to the exposé of a witness just back from Kosovo whose words on the horrors committed by the Serbs are intercut with those of a Kosovar journalist deploring his brothers’ recourse to comparable horrors. The equivalence of the injustices is not allowed to be interrupted by any gesture or emphasized by any actor’s voice. The director retains for himself alone the power to bring tension into play. Books are only half-opened to let a few aphorisms slip out before colliding with each other or confronting the emptiness of the setting.
The scene is reproduced differently in Godard’s Notre musique, set around another empty place: the burned-out Sarajevo library. Into that library, destroyed by Serb shells after the bridge at Mostar was destroyed by Croat shells, the filmmaker brings three Indians from old-time westerns, while the discourse compares the injustice today being endured by Palestinians with the fate – both military and poetic – of Troy, with that of the Jews murdered in the camps and with the silence of a former French Resistance member. Not far off, the director is showing students the similitude of the Jew and the Muslim in the Nazi camps, the impossibility of identifying one of these battlefield ruins which all look the same, or the inability of the director Howard Hawks to differentiate a reverse shot of a female face from a shot occupied by a male face. To put it briefly, the word and image are fiercely confronting their power to denounce endlessly and their powerlessness to ever make a decision. The relationship between word and image now presents itself in Godard’s work under two forms. In Histoire(s) du cinéma they can slip over each other, melt into each other or separate out. They are seeking that graphic community by means of which Vertov, at the time of The Eleventh Year or A Sixth Part of the World, was trying to weave the sensorium of the new communist world. But they find it in the place of shadows, of death and of art. On the other hand, where living bodies have to make them agree, where cinema puts itself forward in judgement on the living and on their chances of taking action, they resume their distance: on one hand the Indians make their word echo in the empty library, a word that can never forget the European dialogue of the unjust. On the other, the Redskin’s horse and satirical feathers in front of the bridge at Mostar denounce the clichés of European imagery. But the two denunciations, which should join together, cancel each other out. The bodies on screen lack the autonomy to make the synthesis. Denunciation of stereotypes of the image robs them of the power of speech. It hands it over to the sovereign voice organizing the endless confrontation between the commonplaces of discourse and the brutality of the images that interrupt them, between visual stereotypes and the poetic word that undermines their obviousness.
De la nuée à la résistance avoids this ironic fate of dialectic by articulating the palpable richness of text and visual with the power of bodies capable simultaneously of the gesture of rejection and of the vocal performance that appropriates the capacity for assertion contained in the very words of the science that advocates resignation. The young shepherd’s gesture of rejection was to be repeated throughout the oeuvre of Straub and Huillet: in Umiliati (2003) through the words of the old worker who drily interrupts an impeccable Marxist demonstration of the backward nostalgic illusions of his small community. Straub and Huillet’s cinema politics is thus rooted in the art of arranging working-class bodies able simultaneously to connect together the dialectical power of division and sum up in a single movement the opposition of justice to every argument. This resistance asserts itself as visually equal to its opposite: nature’s resistance to all argumentation of the just and the unjust. With Godard, dialectical politics makes the words turn without conclusion around the shot/reverse shot which bathes the Israelis in fictional colour and reduces the Palestinians to documentary monochrome. Straub and Huillet place the dialectic in the response of quasi-choruses who together extract from the dialectical exchange a lyrical power of the word, a power of palpable blocks equal to the power of the nature which is its setting.
That Communist-cantata politics offers not a model for cinematic politics, but a point of reference: marking a time when dialectic could see the historical movement that had carried it receding and needed to construct a new place, a new distribution of words and gestures, times and spaces; but also a fixed point from which to evaluate the ways filmmakers since that time tried to approach the fractures in history, the disruption of passages between new territories, new injustices and conflicts. And there is surely nothing in common between the communism of films by Straub and Huillet and the version Béla Tarr stages in Sátántangó as a story of fraud built around the suicide of a young girl whose brother has persuaded her that burying her savings will make them bear fruit, with a view to stealing the money. Nevertheless, even in this story of crooks and victims, a form of rejection emerges that is not entirely unrelated to the gesture of Straub’s shepherd. Consider the images of the little girl’s final journey. First we see her through the window of the bar where her mother, with the other peasants, is
„caught up in the excitement of dancing and drinking. She rushes to the doctor to tell him something we do not hear and she knocks him over before running back out and then follows, in two very long shots, the muddy road that will lead her to the ruined church at dawn where she will swallow rat poison.
No doubt here we are as far from Straub and Huillet as we can be: that grey, perpetually drizzling landscape refuses to be raised to the rank of nature or to dress itself in any mythology. And the dialectical word is shown up as pure rhetorical mechanism, when the swindler Irimias uses his gift of the gab to exploit the child’s death and the guilt of her family, and pocket the villagers’ money after sending them to claim their false purchases in a non-existent community. And nevertheless, the resoluteness of the child under the rain, her dead cat under her arm, walking towards the place she has chosen where she will swallow rat poison in the morning, asserts on the screen a visual power of rejection superior to the crook’s seductive
„power. Her obstinate walk outlines an image of resistance that interlocks very naturally with others: the outstretched arm of Straub and Huillet’s young shepherd, but also the obstinate air of Bresson’s Mouchette and her muddy feet conscientiously wiped on the professional mourner’s carpet or, in Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, the gesture of little Ana transforming her fear into solicitude to offer an apple to the wounded deserter whom she associates with the image of Frankenstein. And, even in Sátántangó, the image of peasants smashing and burning their furniture to prevent themselves from ever coming back contains this power of resistance, the resolute gesture opposing the emptiness of the environment and the illusions of the word. The pessimistic observer of the end of historical Communism may seem a long way from the eternal Communism extolled by massed choirs in Operai, contadini. But one has to remember that, after Operai, contadini, Straub and Huillet made Umiliati in which the word is entirely appropriated by the two figures in a courtroom that judge the community: the prosecutor who opposes the universal law of property, and the partisans who denounce the backwardness of an old-time cooperative. The father’s immemorial wisdom has become the son’s judgement of history. Only the gesture then remains to answer the dialectical sentence. Umiliati ends on a woman’s clenched fist reproducing the young shepherd’s gesture of rejection. But that ending is then dismissed by an additional ending with nothing but the soft sounds of water and wind in the sunshine, in the deserted setting of the dispute.
But, behind the different mises en scène cinema may suggest for staging the promise or betrayal of a historic experiment, there is a politics bound up with the specific relationship of the art of moving images to the stories it recounts or the indictments it lists; there is its way of squeezing the narrative or dialectical topoï into the flat frame of the screen, and the way space is deployed and light flickers. In the Preface I mentioned this tension in reference to Sansho the Bailiff, a political film from another era, which deals with justice and kinship using the narrative model of sequenced action and on a basis of certainty as to what is just and unjust. The narration in this film unfolds in exemplary fashion. To keep his promise, Zushio escapes and succeeds in getting the new Shogun to rehabilitate his dead father and appoint Zushio to a governor’s post, which he uses to decree the liberation of the slaves in his province. But as soon as that decision has been taken, Zushio resigns and goes in search of his mother whom he finds eventually on an island, blind and insane.
So the story about justice ends twice: in the narrative, by the liberation of the slaves – which Zushio and the audience know will be ephemeral – and visually, through the shot of two bodies enlaced which a final camera pan causes to vanish into the serenity of a coastal landscape. There is no reparation for the injustice suffered by the mother and her children. But there is that ultimate reconciliation, the slow movement that brings together the bodies separated by the violence of the plot and fades them into the peace of the image. The exactness of cinema comes at the cost of maintaining the suspense between two directions of the moving image: the one that points to the world’s injustices and the one that transforms any injustice plot into a surface ripple.
It is in reference to this tension between outside and inside, common to the classical narrative form (Mizoguchi) and the dialectical form (Straub), that the evolution of the link between cinema and politics may best be considered. I will raise just a few examples, taken from filmmakers who have a different way of using the sense of fiction and the relationship between interior and exterior. Pedro Costa breaks with the narrative model after Ossos and reverts to the model used by Straub and Huillet by filming the performances of autonomous bodies, freed from all narrative servitude. But Costa’s anxiety to bestow on the humiliated all the riches contained in their world is also released from any dialectical discussion. Around the brazier in the Fontainhas alley there is no debate over the reasons for just and unjust. Gods, bosses and revolutionaries are equally absent from In Vanda’s Room and from the flats squatted by her friends. Those living there and passing through are local inhabitants whose existence is independent of the filmmaker’s wishes and who are not provided with a text to express their experience. Thus, the politics of Costa’s films operates on a more radical level, the level evoked at the beginning of Aristotle’s Politics when he distinguishes the word that reasons from the voice that carries the tone of complaint. There is no longer any wish to show that men of the people are capable of standing up in broad daylight to grasp great texts that argue the aporiae of the just and the unjust. The question is whether a backdrop of leprous walls, mosquito-infested hovels and rooms echoing with outside street noise constitutes a world; whether the recumbent bodies and hoarse coughing voices that evoke ‘witches’ dens’, the only environment these young people have known, form a conversation; whether that conversation itself is the sound of suffering bodies or meditation on the life that some beings have chosen for themselves. The camera harvesting in these places of social relegation the infinite variety of light and colour shows that it really is a world that these beings inhabit – a world of experience that can be held up against the nakedness of the white cubes in which the municipality re-houses them, or the closed space of museums where gilded picture frames isolate the play of light and colour from the noises of the world and the journeys of emigrants. The riches of the palpable world are no longer the background against which the dialectical quarrel takes place. Those riches are constantly in question, constantly in the process of finding or losing themselves in the tense relation between the plays of light and shadow that Costa has inherited from John Ford or Jacques Tourneur rather than from militant cinema, and the passages between different regimes of the word: thus in Colossal Youth the prosaic conversations in Vanda’s room, the silences intensified by Ventura’s feline gaze, the sibylline words supported by the stiffness of his dark silhouette or the lyrical word that conveys the experience of travellers from Africa at the cost of mixing it with another word, as in that love letter in which extracts from the letters of immigrants are mixed with the last letter written by Robert Desnos on the road to Therezienstadt. Riches of a common world and the capacity of ordinary individuals can no longer be put into any dialectical formula. They are distributed in the form of a multiplicity of singular condensations: a cameo of greens and blues in a narrow room, a still-life composed of four bottles in a hut, a dark silhouette accentuating the silence of a picture or refuting a discourse with an outstretched arm, a monologue in which the unemployed immigrant transforms himself into a lord from distant lands, poetic gifts promised in a love letter read by all, and so on. All of these condensations function as substitutes on the surface of the screen for a great lost art, perhaps the art of life itself, the art of sharing palpable wealth and forms of experience.
The politics of cinema is played out, then, in the relation between the ‘documentary’ principle – observation of autonomous bodies – and the fictional principle of rearrangement of spaces. A politics of this sort is applied in a different way by Khalil Joreige and Joanna Hadjithomas in I Want To See whose ‘fiction’ consists of a short journey in which the ruined landscape of South Lebanon is seen and traversed by two different troupes of actors: a famous French actress there to ‘see’ but embarrassed both by the locals staring at the star actress’s figure and by having to walk through the ruins she had wanted to see; and a Lebanese actor-performer accustomed to walking through ruins and laughing about them when needed, but puzzled in these particular ruins by the impossibility of recognizing visually the remembered layout at the site of a flattened house. Another confrontation of spaces is the one organized by Tariq Teguia in Inland whose fiction can be told in two ways: as a story about invented characters but also as a system of gaps between ways of constituting a territory. There is an initial gap between a country (Algeria) as it might be described in the language of government or the discourse of radical intellectuals, and the same country as passed through by a body removed from their group, a former militant’s body now become a thin and silent outline, as if made in the image of his work as a surveyor, obliged to peer through a lens to trace on the landscape the exact routes to be followed by future power lines. This surveyor character seems at first to be the metaphor of a cinema doomed to detailed enquiry which rediscovers, behind the ideological wars that cover it, the materiality of a visible territory: the bloodstains left by recent fighting in a mobile home, destroyed farms, flocks grazing among battlefield debris, the fire around which villagers celebrate their recovered friendship and peace or the shouts of those announcing a new war. But that first gap is backed up by a second when the tracks of the surveyor committed only to seeing, step by step, the reality of the country, crosses the thick line followed by black African migrants heading for Spain, the line of people making for the place where it seems possible to make a living. The politics of the film is thus identified with the change in which one way of crossing space and doing justice to its inhabitants is intercepted and diverted by another. The surveyor’s stage-by-stage progress is jostled by the unexpected body of an unnamed young woman, doubtless headed to Spain from Mali but now wanting to return home. Her line of patience is pulled onto a convergence line, a line meant, inversely, to devour some smooth spaces at full speed to reach the abstract point called the frontier. This crossing experiences a salient moment which is a moment of condensation of the different Algerias crossed by the film and of the different speeds and timescales that take shape in them. It occurs towards the end of the film when Malek, whose car has broken down in the middle of the desert, goes to a southern town to find a friend who will get him another means of transport.
The episode shows us Malek and ‘the girl’ in the scenery typical of a ‘developing country’ with flimsy walls that could either be part of a future construction or abandoned building projects; Malek knocks on a door behind which appears the territory of hospitality – a virtue generally associated with traditional societies – a space keenly opposed today to the Islamist violence of yesterday and that becomes something of a metaphor for the aesthetic and political project of the film; when the host has found the motorcycle for Malek that will enable him to reach the frontier, we cross the abstract, desert territory of the flight in which the young woman has involved the surveyor. But that desert is itself intersected by another in which two intellectuals are taking an invigorating hike intended to revive their political radicalism. They belong to a group we see throughout the film arguing about the ideal society while Malek travels through the hinterland. One might think that dialectical conversation has here become a pure parody contrasting with the reality of the country, but not at all. This conversation between intellectuals ‘cut off from the masses’ is also part of the common riches the film compiles like an inventory, an island among others that comprise an archipelago-like country. At the beginning of the film one feels like laughing at these talkative men in their restricted surroundings proclaiming their growing feminism and praising ‘the intellectuality running through the whole of society’. But that androgynous tendency of collective intellectuality is already being staged in the desert crossing on the motorbike carrying the surveyor and the fugitive, two inverse forms of movement, two heterogeneous figures of justice, brought together by the power of cinema in a single motion. Thus the dialectical argument on justice takes the form of a confrontation between spaces. And the crossing of those spaces itself obeys the law that orders the cinematic fable to declare itself as such by leaving the screen to take the outlines and trajectories back into itself. At the end of Inland, the shapes return to the undifferentiated sand colour from which they had emerged in the first place. But there is not even any need for deserts or big spaces to produce this effect. The ending of Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche’s Dernier Maquis is certainly more militant. Narratively speaking the film ends on an armed vigil in the enterprise whose sacked workers barricade the entrance with a mountain of the red pallets that constitute the business’s output and the film’s décor. The light passing through the gaps in the pallets transforms the barricades at night into a new kind of ‘workers’ fortress’, only to admit straight away its playful character by giving it no narrative consequence and by obscuring it in the final black screen.
This transformation of yesterday’s dialectical plays on language into plays on space may seem remote from certain expectations where the politics of cinema is concerned. But in its way it follows the development that displaces theatrical forms of the argument about justice in two directions: in one direction manifesting the capacity of ordinary beings to express the wealth of common experience; in the other, the dubiousness of any attempt to find signs of justice on the surface of visible things. The reason why Straub and Huillet’s film serves as a point of reference is the balance it achieves between these two developments: on one hand cinema transfers to nameless individuals the theatrical power of the quarrel on injustice; on the other, it transforms the quarrel into a projection of luminous images and rescinds the theatre’s claim to be identified with life, a claim it based on the real presence of speaking and moving bodies. Let us call this cinematic counter-movement surface calm. And let us note that the balance has today clearly tilted in the direction of that calm. But rather than a retreat from fulfilling certain militant expectations, I see this as an opportunity to reflect on those expectations themselves. Two and a half centuries after Rousseau’s Letter on Spectacles, some people are still strongly attached to the idea that the political effect of a work is measured by the arousal of defined feelings of attraction or repulsion, of indignation or vigour. They still hold onto models of causality that claim to connect modes of perception, forms of knowledge and mobilizing emotions. But they attribute these powers to oeuvres only the better to catch them out when they are deficient and diagnose them as impotent. I think that more common power is preserved in the wisdom of the surface, in the way questions of justice are measured there by the imperatives of exactness. But these stories of spaces and routes, walkers and journeys can also help us to see things from another angle, to imagine no longer an art adapted to serve political ends, but political forms reinvented by reference to the multiple ways the visual arts invent gazes, arrange bodies in particular locations and make them transform the
„spaces they cross.
1 Pavese, Dialogues with Leuco, (trans. André Coeuroy), Paris: Gallimard, 1964, p.181.“