Sunday, 5 September 2010

Nice to See You

Why write about a film?  To make money, to show off your latest designer jewellery – Marx, Foucault, Lacan –; or do you write to understand, to make sense, of what you have seen?

We all need a living, so the first reason seems acceptable; especially if the reviewer gives an honest account of the film.  The last reason is the most rewarding, both to the writer and the reader; for it has the possibility of giving new depth and meaning to a movie.  The third reason, lets call it the Zizek phenomenon, after its pre-eminent superstar, Slavoj Zizek; seems an almost pointless exercise; the academic as nouveau riche.

In his review of a history of Cahiers du Cinema Jonathan Romney mentions a recent article by Zizek in which he attacks the surface radicalism of Avatar: it is really, he believes, a reactionary film.  Though in the following edition of the magazine our intellectual celebrity admits he has not watched the film – all based on secondary sources.  Utter contempt for the medium, of course, for the film is just a springboard for his own virtuoso display, like Diana using the Taj Mahal as a backdrop to her unhappiness.  In both cases the original article ceases to exist in their own right and is turned into a mere prop or shop dummy.

All art and popular entertainment can be reduced to concepts.  And the more crudely popular the more likely their content will be just formulas; simple ideas that are endlessly repeated within set patterns.  In this respect popular art forms are easy for intellectuals to write about – they are only ideas to start with.  However, if a film is to have any life it must be something more than a few concepts; it must have a texture and feel of its own.  A simple analogy: imagine someone defined only as an aristocrat; and that is all they are.  Thus they have no individuality, for everything about them conforms to type.  And this is their only interest: a human being turned into a social science category…

Avatar, which I haven’t seen, has been created, at least for some people, into a particular kind of film, a radical attack on imperialism (think of the Palestinians enacting this out to get media attention to their plight); and now our sophisticated superstar comes along to show how wrong anyone is. For he scoops up this idea and plays around with it, like a kid with coloured balls, until out pops: it’s a reactionary film!  The kind of thing we expect from clever adolescents (like many academics, unfortunately).  Here is something from the playground:

This does not mean, however, that we should reject Avatar on behalf of a more "authentic" acceptance of the real world. If we subtract fantasy from reality, then reality itself loses its consistency and disintegrates. To choose between "either accepting reality or choosing fantasy" is wrong: if we really want to change or escape our social reality, the first thing to do is change our fantasies that make us fit this reality. Because the hero of Avatar doesn't do this, his subjective position is what Jacques Lacan, with regard to de Sade, called le dupe de son fantasme.

It may interest reader that I wrote my second sentence before I read his article.  I have a fantasy that Tony Blair is to be tried as a war criminal at the Hague; it sustains me while I read of his latest book, the honour and idealism, of the dictators he removed….  Then a close friend tells me, it’s just a fantasy, and my whole world ‘loses its consistency and disintegrates.’  Of course, these are just words, devoid of any substantive meaning; Saint Paul comes to mind: there is a time when we must put away childish things.

A virtuoso concept player Zizek doesn’t seem to realise that ideas in themselves are not important: it is their relation to reality that gives them their status.  If I say the moon is made of pink saffron its an idea, but a rather foolish one; pure kitsch if the truth be told.   Compare this with actual scientific knowledge of the moon’s composition.  For if we are interested in understanding the world we will want content to our ideas; however, if we’re in the entertainment business facts do not matter – we’ll want the biggest sofas, and the largest TVs. 

Any film or art criticism, if it is to have any value, must be based on the art object (see Uncertainty of the Poet for wider analysis), though other people’s ideas can be used to elucidate it.  If the film is not seen there will no new insights; which is no doubt why Zizek plays this particular game.  It’s so easy to juggle ideas around, and then shock! us by giving them a different value: Stalin the great progressive; Reagan the supreme visionary….  It all becomes rather dull.

In the review Romney seems to delight in Zizek’s antics: ‘Empiricist Anglophone critics were horrified.’  I’m not sure why he refers to empiricism, another ritual formula, I guess.  If critics were “horrified” they are taking it far too seriously – Scrabble has more value than this kind of thing.  However, the review then compares Zizek’s performance with the effect of a review on Serge Daney:

[Reviewing Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapò, Jacques] Rivette took exception to a tracking shot in the film, showing a woman who had killed herself.  For him, the intrusive camera movement was a serious moral trespass: ‘The man who decides at this moment to track forward and reframe the dead body  in a low-angle shot… deserves only the most profound contempt.’

This passionate application of moral criteria to an aesthetic device struck Daney forcibly: ‘Over the years “the tracking shot in Kapò” would become my portable dogma…’ [for although he hadn’t seen the film] I’ve seen it because someone showed it to me – in words.

Rivette’s review shows the effect of actually seeing the film and conveying something of his reaction onto the page.  This, at least it seems to me, is the complete opposite to Slavoj Zizek, who merely copies other people’s ideas; giving them a different spin.  He is not Jacques Rivette writing the review, but Serge Daney consuming it.  Nothing original here, all shop worn to be discounted in the bargain bins.  Will Zizek ever create a new Nouvelle Vague, like the great contributors to the Cahiers du Cinema in the fifties?  Who believed film writing was to both understand film and to influence its future direction – to create new films. You are answering the question for me….  No, Slavoj Zizek is the Bruce Forsythe of the intellectual world, turning it into a game show; The Generation Game for the knowing and the sophisticated.

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