CINEMA AS CRIME: Appendix to "Films Politically"

For “Films Politically”, a series of four screenings I curated and presented at the autonomous social centre Seomra Spraoi, four essays were written, building on some of themes that have emerged on this blog over the past few months as well as the research and the ideas I developed for my degree thesis a year ago. The essays, originally intended to be context-setting programme notes, ended up mutating into a thing all their own. However, I touched on many issues in each essay that I didn’t get to delve into fully; some other points I had to sacrifice completely to the (in retrospect) lost cause of brevity; and then there were some things I just left out because they softened the more polemical edge of my argument. They’re inroads along a line of thought that I intend to pursue further, so to that end I wanted to follow them up with an appendix which will, hopefully, also become a thing of its own; maybe even the foundation for something new.


With Peter Whitehead’s The Fall, one key dynamic cropped up again and again on both a cinematic and socio-political level, and my essay only really scratched the surface of it. This was the relationship between the objective and the subjective and, emerging from that, the experience of intersubjectivity against that of objectification. The starting point is Whitehead’s focus on his own position in the film, and the nature of the act of filming itself. These themes are expanded and developed through everything he sees around himself in 1960s New York, and linked to an understanding of modern alienation that seems very much in keeping with Debord’s contemporaneous The Society of the Spectacle. In Debord’s theory of the spectacle-commodity society, ”Spectators are linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other.” Within this set-up of alienation and powerlessness, an array of solutions are offered that themselves reinforce the problem:

The reigning economic system is a vicious circle of isolation. Its technologies are based on isolation, and they contribute to that same isolation. From automobiles to television, the goods that the spectacular system chooses to produce also serve it as weapons for constantly reinforcing the conditions that engender “lonely crowds.” With ever-increasing concreteness the spectacle recreates its own presuppositions.

Whitehead’s film is a portrait of the contradictory and confused forms that resistance to this state of affairs took in the late ’60s—forms that Whitehead acknowledged as “young and immature” while at the same absolute necessities. Indeed, Whitehead’s decision to film these things was his own emergent attempt at resistance: “My problem was to make my film an act itself, if possible.” What was at stake in this struggle against alienation was the achievement of its opposite; some kind of deep connection, communion even, with the world, and a sense of agency over one’s own existence.

There must be a return quickly to an education, a cultural education, that leads people into the revolution and beyond it, beyond simply destroying the outside world of THEM, to creating OUR world, outside, in which there will be far, far more we can identify with and with which we can happily and proudly communicate.

However, there is an implication in Whitehead, or at least a palpable fear, that there is something inherently regressive about the cinematic medium, that an exploitative and dehumanising subject-object dynamic may be inevitable, no matter how noble or radical a filmmaker’s intentions are. It’s certainly clear to Whitehead that this is the tendency of most moving image culture, and part of a wider social problem. It’s no accident that Debord’s metaphor of the spectacle finds its closest parallel in the cinema. Echoing Debord’s “vicious cycle of isolation”, Whitehead wrote:

In the culture we live in, images are used to alienate us, not to invite us to participate. The only participation is to go and buy it. … They are alienating us in every possible way… from everything, including ourselves, our own feelings, and our own natural selves. … They are not just persuading us, they are trapping us into a situation where we simply feel anxious if we do not respond to this barrage of seductive images and go out and spend. 

These images alienate (make the world “other”), precipitating a crisis of subjectivity (corrupting our sense of identity) and leading to mass objectification (making everything things)—all of which, in a capitalist context, is basically an economic necessity (as a photographer comments in The Fall, you must objectify something in order to sell it). The result is a world in which the practice of intersubjectivity—authentic encounters between unique individuals—is threatened from all angles. Debord:

Society has become what ideology already was. The repression of practice and the antidialectical false consciousness that results from that repression are imposed at every moment of everyday life subjected to the spectacle — a subjection that systematically destroys the “faculty of encounter” and replaces it with a social hallucination: a false consciousness of encounter, an “illusion of encounter.” In a society where no one can any longer be recognized by others, each individual becomes incapable of recognizing his own reality. … The triumph of this separation-based economic system proletarianizes the whole world.

How might all of this be inherent to cinema? The argument is two-fold. Firstly, there is an unavoidably one-way, hierarchical aspect to the relationship between those who are filmed and those who film: as Miéville says in Ici et Ailleurs, “It’s always the one who is directed that is seen, never the one directing”. Secondly, the relationship between the spectator and the completed film is also one of subjugation: “linked solely by their one-way relationship to the very center that keeps them isolated from each other”. I recall a conversation with a filmmaker friend of mine who argued vampirism was the most apt metaphor for the filmmaking process, and there is something undeniably extractive about the cinematic process. As filmmakers, we mine people for their powers and affects, then distort and reproduce these for others, divorced from their original owners. While some films foster a sense of identification or empathy with these “owners”, they are always essentially absorbed into an aesthetic whole; moreover, an objectified whole. There is no intersubjectivity possible with light on a wall, or pixels on a screen. As I quoted Serge Daney saying in relation to Ici et Ailleurs:

The cinema [is] the place of a crime and a kind of magic. The crime: that images and sounds are taken from … living beings. The magic: that they are exhibited in another place (the movie theatre) to give pleasure to those who see them. The beneficiary of the transfer: the filmmaker. This is true pornography, this change of scene; it is, appropriately, the ob-scene.

Whitehead was well aware of these issues, but was not convinced (yet) that they were insurmountable. He once called his films “acts of aggression against film, against limits put on me by the nature of film itself”:

My confusion and conflict, which I do admit to, comes from using a debased language. But I refuse to let it win! My problem therefore is to create a language to confront this fragmentation and aggression in culture, which does not itself suffer from the same faults. Perhaps it’s impossible, or may take a long time.

Whitehead’s acknowledgement of this “debased language” reminds me of Alan Watts’ assertion that some of the limits of Western philosophy were attributable to the structures of our languages; our wholly artificial distinction between verbs and objects, for example. Watts, of course, never suggested we should stop speaking. The climactic middle section of The Fall is Whitehead’s attempt to reinvent his debased language, employing an experimental tour de force of abstract and kinetic montage that highlights the important kinship between Whitehead’s work and avant-garde cinema, a tradition in which many have attempted to reinvent the terms of the cinematic relationship. The third and final section, documenting the occupation of Columbia University, is a figurative exploration of this kind of freeform, non-hierarchical intersubjectivity, an embodiment of Debord and company’s aspiration “to be recognized and to recognize themselves in a world of their own making”. 

But this project is quickly seen to be short-lived and unsustainable, and Whitehead’s depiction of it is…well, just a depiction. In the end Whitehead is left in his editing suite, haunted by his own images, with the sounds of ”I Am Goya“, a Russian poem of embodied suffering by Andrey Voznesensky, playing untranslated on the soundtrack.

In The Fall, my protagonist is trapped by images, by his conflict with what he sees. It is hard to have to fight against the whole structure of seeing in order to re-assert one’s identity. In the end he destroys reality, which means he abandons his effort to make sense of the outside world, and gives himself to images, to disintegration.

The end result for Whitehead was one of profound discouragement. The film’s formal innovation is undeniable but as Whitehead would later comment (in response to an analysis of the film by critic Raymond Durgnat):

I had been trying to change the world not the language of cinema, confront the fascist tyranny of objectification of everything and everyone. I felt defeated, betrayed by film, my own film most of all. Vicarious avoidance of participation; a preoccupation which was its own predicament.  

The film played at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1969, but would be screened only a handful of times over the next forty years, receiving its first New York screening in 2007. By 1977, Whitehead had given up filmmaking completely (he made two more films following The Fall, but considered them “afterthoughts”).


The other two filmmakers in the “Films Politically” programme, Robert Kramer and Jean-Luc Godard, never stopped making films (Godard is still at it). But they both nonetheless withdrew from both the social and political concerns that their work had been intimately intwined with, and any concerted attempt to find or create contexts for their work to be seen. Part of this may be the understandable weariness that comes with age (a weariness that in their cases thankfully never diminished the desire to make the work itself). Godard’s fatalism and reclusive nature is well known, but Kramer was perhaps a more complex situation. Deeply concerned in his final years with the legacy of his ’60s experience, Kramer wrote movingly about the potential for communication and exchange with younger generations. But, in an interview with Cahiers du Cinema in 1998, he struggled to see hope in contemporary society: “your generation accepts the discourse of the powers that be … which states that life cannot progress in any other way.” (He died two weeks before the Seattle protests of 1999 that defined the burgeoning anti-corporate activist movement.) Perhaps the deeper reasons for their withdrawal, however, is the effective failure of both the films and the Movement they were made in response to and, consequently, the sheer unsustainability of their political engagements: as Kramer (whose Ice is all about the exhaustion of political energy) said in the mid-’70s, “We didn’t have the stamina. We didn’t have even a perspective that could carry us through.”

Another filmmaker of this generation, who could have fit into the programme just as well and may help expound some of these issues, is Jon Jost. The great American independent has, in recent years, made the unusual decision to publicise his unashamedly jaded outlook via two personal blogs. Still admirably prolific in his filmmaking, Jost (who is fond of saying that his films are now made for “an audience of (n)one“) is completely free of any expectations or ambitions regarding the visibility or viability of his work. As Jon sees it, he continues

making films as an extremely bad habit, making them for a world in which, for some time, there has been absolutely no ‘market’ for what I do, and frankly I don’t give a damn.

It’s a sober outlook that Jost—who, like Kramer, was a member of Newsreel in the ’60s—extends to his take on global politics (a topic which he nonetheless researches and blogs about obsessively). While Kramer saw ’60s activism as a stunted but still-potent example, Jost avers no illusions:

…. Unlike many of my friends, I do not look back on the 60’s or Chicago 68 with any nostalgia.  It was, bluntly, a failure.  We (all of us) were young and more or less stupid regarding the larger world.  Idealistic maybe, but ignorant and easily taken by romantic notions. 

These two perspectives converge in Jost’s assertion of the uselessness of making “films politically”, something he outlined in an excellent essay which primarily critiques conventional “political” cinema:

…. For 40 years, I have wrestled with this, trying to (not always, but most of the time) in some manner make things that are politically/socially/morally charged. In very differing manners, but always with the underlying intention that this is not just “entertainment” but something to provoke the viewer into thinking/feeling outside the norms which our society sets up, with the hope that this will lead to some consideration/improvement, some social and self-awareness. For some time I have considered this a delusion, both personal and social, as if culturally artists are in a sense encouraged to think that what they do matters, when in truth they are little more than playing chips in a larger financial poker game: “art” – be it paintings or novels or whatever – that “succeeds” makes lots of money; the artists, like anyone else would also do, is usually in effect corrupted by the money, and all involved succumb to this mutual self-delusion… And those who are not in this manner “successful” – among whom I would include myself – are reduced to miniscule blips on the social radar, allowed (if lucky) a handful of screenings in festivals (a most inappropriate setting for the absorption of serious work), are patted on the back, given a modest round of applause and then kicked out the door to fend for the rent.

And the brutal fact is that, in social-political terms, never mind the cruder matter of film world career/professional ones, my attempt is in my own mind a total failure. … And perhaps an inherent, necessary and required failure, having to do with how society is structured and how it speaks to itself. In plain, crude terms, it boils down to a simple equation: to have a “mass audience” – which is to say in reality a “political” audience – one must speak within a certain range, and in that certain range are limits in æsthetics, form and, as if they were actually separate, “content”.

… In the face of such a circular system, I guess, reluctantly, I prefer to fail. And, while I think one should “try”, I frankly at my age, and after my experience, don’t really think that this (or any such) system can be really changed: it is how humans are, a fundamental evolutionary error which I think is rapidly drawing our particular show to a close. Each passing day seems only to confirm this grim prognosis, as the spectacles of Hollywood and the broader media pervade the world as Himalayan glaciers melt, and disaster – real disaster – lurks just around the corner. 

And that’s not even the worst of it.

While I have never really given any serious consideration to having an audience, and have always accepted my place far on the margins not only of the larger culture, but even the “arts world” one, I must admit it rankles a bit to find oneself in a near empty cinema, screening to a fistful of people, while outside the door the hurly-burly of life swarms on, with inane “entertainments” serving to distract and warp the soul.   Not so long ago, while scarcely competitive with the commercial business of film, there was a little pocket of interest, sustained by art houses and museums, and supported academically and in the critics notices in the papers, and back then I might have had 100 or 150 at the Walter Reade.  But no more. 

In appraising these films and filmmakers, one needs to take into account this bitter taste of “total failure” that Jost is not alone in feeling (something I admit I largely avoided in my series of essays). If one objects to the disengaged (and sometimes arguably self-defeating) outlook of these filmmakers in their later years—or even agrees with their assessment—it need not diminish the importance of the work they’ve created. The films still stand, if not as “successes” in any real world sense, than as still-potent vehicles for thought and practice. These films didn’t change anything, but they could, if only by influencing a new generation of filmmakers (and critics and programmers and viewers) who could take the implications of their work further. But to do so, the limits and misconceptions of these artists also needs to be confronted. It has to be recognised that it’s not enough to get, as Jost wistfully recalls, “100 or 150 at the Walter Reade”, or even to think of success in such terms. Perhaps Jost’s biggest misstep is his false framing of a choice between between obscurity and “selling out”; between making films for no one and making films for the market. Or perhaps there’s a bigger, deeper one: the implication that this is all just about watching films.

As Whitehead asked in one of his characteristic moments of doubt:

How could my film be really revolutionary? Revolution is action. I’m for Mayakovsky in this. Poetry is the only art for revolution. You can sing it and shout it; you don’t have to sit down to do it!

Which is, for me, a roundabout way of saying: 

The film is not the most important thing. It’s what you do with it. 


[Stills from Ici et Ailleurs, The Fall and Godard's Notre Musique.]


[Read the second part of this essay, "Cinema as Magic", here.]


lineemail address