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I. Taking a view (1970-1972) - Violence and representation (saving the screen)
1968: the events. Two years of exotic-obsessive travels and a real disease. Back to Cahiers, which had become Maoist (“Marxist-Leninist” to be more precise, “m.-l.”). These three texts are written by an already old cinephile between 1970 and 1972. Yet it’s still a disaster.
Something is going to be served up to mourning, to melancholia, and to re-reading. A little while ago, cinema was self-evident, life was edited in the rectangular frame, auteurs were crystallised in their “politique,” the waves of young cinema were hitting shores all over the world. And then, the gaze opens itself again, evidence breaks, a way of life cracks. A “politique des ôteurs [those who take away]” begins: taking away illusions about cinema and its powers.
The dark room gets associated with obscurantism, there is suspicion at the very place that gave us pleasure. The cinephile’s loneliness is somewhat asocial and makes him ill-prepared for the seriousness of political work, for the militant’s modesty. A book* talked with contempt of the spectacular future of all things, and saw the world doomed to the irony of détournements and simulacra. We talked of “society of the spectacle” and not yet of the “media.”
In front of these strange events demanding so much of the idea of spectacle, many showed common sense: re-politicise the contents of (the scenarios of) films and shoot, Italian-style, tons of Z “to help the struggle” – an easy and bankable option. Others had the idea to re-politicise the old question of the form, re-reading the epic Brecht-Eisenstein saga under the corrosive light of structuralism (Althusser, Barthes, Lacan). Cahiers took part in the latter.
A period began that was marked by what Christian Metz gently called “theoretical raids.” Weak souls were terrified. The terrifying ones weren’t so sure either. They tried to convince jeering amphitheatres that the study of Nicht Versöhnt (Straub) and Vent d’Est (Godard) was useful to the revolution. Their loyalty to their tastes honoured Cahiers.
The Chinese watchword “that the ancient serves the new” otherwise allowed to re-read “classic cinema” and to take, again and always for the last time, the path of unforgettable pleasure. We had to extract its essence and transmit it to the politicised students in new teaching modules at “red” universities, Censier or Vincennes.
At that time, violence (even verbal) was accepted but representation was distrusted. For a long time it had been badly treated by modern cinema. Leftist politics relegated it to the bourgeois and the “révisios”**. Lacanian psychoanalysis and Althusserian Marxism were seeking articulations (not reflections) and overdeterminations (not simple causalities). Nietzsche was being re-published and read again. As a result, we no longer knew what use representation was serving (the true question at the time was rather: “whose use?” and the answer, always the same: “The bourgeoisie!”). But we felt that this wasn’t right, and was already obsolete. We didn’t know yet how to say, with Barthes’ brilliant simplicity: what is represented is not the real.
These three texts could be subtitled: “Violence and representation” or “Representation as violence.” They belong to a genre of that time: radical-regressive, or absolutist involution. To write in Cahiers was to inherit, even unknowingly, Bazin’s idée fixe, one which can’t be easily dismissed: cinema is a gaze upon the world. Bazin had said “Forbidden montage” and Rossellini had added “Things are here – why manipulate them?”.
So we inherited the resulting aporia. For what allows this gaze to be set upon something – the screen, that is – becomes an impossible object, both window and hiding, hole and hymen. Invisible, it makes things visible; visible, it makes them invisible. At the beginning of the 60s, “MacMahonism” had already been a far-right fallout of Bazinism. These three texts belong to the side of the post-68 Cahiers (this “I” not yet pronounced) which took heart in attempting to get rid of this MacMahonism.
The paradox is to have gone all the way to de-naturalise film representation where it was considered natural, self-evident. For example with Bazin who stuck to “the seamless garment of the real,” or with this fetish filmmaker of Cahiers about whom Rivette had written this definitive sentence: “Evidence is the mark of Howard Hawks’ genius.”
These texts call on psychoanalysis to undo the false evidence of classic film representation, to reveal the type of desire that it betrays and inhibits at the same time, to say (blaring discovery!) that this desire is, structurally, obsessional, and that the cinephilic cult is akin to the eponymous neurosis. This writing is an exorcism. And this exorcism “saves” the screen. It saves it from the dubious violence that were then advertising (the violence of prostitution display: “On Salador”), circus games (Bazin, the beasts and “Nero’s complex”), and the obscenity of time eroding faces (“The one grows old”).
* I’m talking of course of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle.
** Translator's note: accused of revisionism of Marxist-Leninist theory, communists (party members) were called “révisios” in Leftist slang.