Cinema for pleasure or cinema for protest?

Several of you have asked about the work I do in the graduate Cinema Studies program at New York University. Readers of this blog know I sometimes enlist the help of film analysis and critical theory in shedding light on the worlds of politics and culture. Some of the most overwhelmingly positive responses I get are to posts in which I do just that (see here, here, and here), so I’d like to follow up by sharing a bit of what I think film can tell us, not just about what we’re up against in the struggle for a free and just society, but also about how we might be able to get there.

In March, I noted that the film Zero Dark Thirty uses a pretty standard stylistic convention (point-of-view editing) to invite the audience to identify not with a detainee being brutally tortured, but rather, with his CIA torturers. Even the film’s most vocal critics neglected to point out this fact, which should have settled the heated debate about whether the film is “pro-” or “anti-torture”.

In a later post, I tried to address the question of how mass media manipulate their audience by way of the theory of the culture industry, as laid out by Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer in their Dialectic of Enlightenment. I want to highlight that theory’s flaws here, and then point in a more progressive direction by sketching one possible answer – that of Adorno’s student (and my favorite filmmaker of the moment) Alexander Kluge – to the question of how a cinema of liberation is even possible today.

Briefly, in the chapter on the culture industry in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that mass entertainment has a key ideological function in late capitalism: to commodify both art and the subject. Defining your identity by your choices as a consumer works to reproduce an ideology of sameness and obedience, one that fascism was able to exploit, to well-known effect.

This point needs to be stressed: Although the critique of the culture industry was first written in exile from Hitler’s Germany in California, the theory is haunted by the specter of the Holocaust and National Socialism. For Adorno, the interchangeability of individuals as consumers and workers reached its logical extreme in the willful arbitrariness with which individuals were wiped out en masse in the Nazi death camps. In other words, Adorno reads the Holocaust as proof positive that mass culture’s elimination of difference entails, in turn, the threat of liquidation, the elimination of life itself. Passive, collective submission in the realm of “entertainment” carries with it the promise of passive, collective submission in the realm of politics.

Adorno runs into some problems, however, on the question of whether an oppositional artistic practice can actually counteract cinema’s role as a tool of ideology. While he and Horkheimer claim, dubiously, that culture industry products are determined exclusively by formula, they also admit that it’s sometimes profitable for the culture industry to allow an artist some license to experiment, if only for the sake of an authorial brand (“a film by Almodovar”, “a Spike Lee joint”). But instead of asking how this might open up a space for real freedom within the belly of the beast, Adorno and Horkheimer dismiss any subversive potential out of hand as an illusion.

In a 1966 essay for the newspaper Die Zeit, entitled “Transparencies on Film”, Adorno goes a bit further in explaining his view. His concern here is that film as a medium depends on movement and the “collectivity” of its reception: “The movements that it depicts are mimetic impulses. Prior to all content and concepts, these movements incite the viewers and listeners to move along with them.” What he means is that the sensory experience of cinema has a sort of immediate, compulsory effect on the audience, who are then mobilized (as a group) to “move along with” the stimuli. The argument is much more complex, but I just want to note two things: First, whatever Adorno thinks happens when we watch films, it’s more or less true of all films; second, his imagery here strongly evokes fascism and mob terror.

“Transparencies” was written in support of the young modernist film movement in the Federal Republic of Germany. These West German filmmakers, none more openly than Kluge, took the critique of the culture industry as a challenge. Upon receiving the Adorno Prize in 2009, Kluge reflected on his dialogue with his teacher: “Adorno tended not to consider film an original art form…I maintain that in the end, I convinced him to correct his assessment.” Kluge’s answer to Adorno was to reinterpret montage, an influential Soviet theory of editing based on the idea that cinema creates meaning not through the content of shots, but through the cut, the relationship between shots.

Although Kluge pokes fun at Adorno’s saying, “I love to go to the movies, the only thing that bothers me is the image on the screen,” Kluge’s theory of montage also holds that the real source of cinematic meaning isn’t the “raw materials” onscreen, but the “information hidden in the cut which would not be contained in the shot itself.” Hollywood has shunned montage, partly because it calls viewers’ attention to the fact that the image isn’t just given to them, but created.

Kluge’s montage goes further, emphasizing the fact that viewers put their own imaginations to work in the process of creation. As Kluge puts it, “Since the Ice Age approximately (or earlier), streams of images, of so-called associations, have moved through the human mind, prompted to some extent by an anti-realistic attitude, by the protest against an unbearable reality.”

While it’s the technology of cinema that allows this exchange between fantasy and reality to play out, the filmmaker’s choices can empower spectators by calling attention to their active role as co-authors. Although Adorno didn’t live to see it, Die Patriotin (The Patriot, 1979) may be Kluge’s most stunning attempt at undermining cinema’s authoritarian potential.

The main character, history teacher Gabi Teichert, is unhappy because the material she has to teach makes it impossible to tell a “patriotic” version of German history – one that “takes an interest in all the Reich’s dead”, the individuals who across the ages have experienced the flow of history, suffered through it, and more often than not, been crushed by it. The film frequently cuts away from Teichert’s personal quest for “new material” to show us

images (illustrations and documentary film clips) of political history from Napoleon to Stalingrad; curiosities from the history of everyday life, ranging from the wish list of twelfth-century peasants to the price of geese in Silesia in 1914, references to the history of the imagination, from Grimms’ fairy tales to comic strips; a plethora of anecdotes and life stories; quotations from the history of music, painting, and film. (Anton Kaes, From Hitler to Heimat)

The film interweaves the history “written by the victors” with the stories left out of that history (the German Geschichte can mean both stories and history). For Kluge, the division between fiction and documentary, tightly enforced by conventional narrative cinema, robs images of their potential to do justice to the actual relationships between individuals and history. By itself, documentary film denies history its basis in “the emotions, actions and desires…the eyes and the senses of the people involved.” On the other hand, since “it is equally ideological to assume that individuals could determine history”, documentary elements help to ground the “fiction” in the real conditions of existence.

In The Patriot, montage breaks down this barrier between fiction and documentary. For example, at several points in the film we are shown Allied aircraft bombing the German countryside. In each case, the film cuts from external shots of the bombers in flight to point-of-view shots of the planes firing their deadly payload, repeatedly and (apparently) indiscriminately. The film then cuts to a shot, obviously staged, of a woman hiding with two children in a bomb shelter. Kluge’s narration interjects: “I do not know if it was this bomber whose bombs are striking. All I know is: It is up there.”

Montage, by mixing discontinuous images and representations, dispels the illusion that history and reality have only one (authoritative) interpretation and only one (inevitable) trajectory. This allows our minds’ indicative and subjunctive tenses, so to speak, to bleed into each other – to disrupt passive acceptance of “the way things are”.

I’m not arguing that Kluge’s films are “the best”, nor am I saying that the only subversive or daring films are ones based on the principle of montage. But Kluge’s theory and practice offer one compelling answer to the question of how spectators can be empowered to think critically whenever we see images – not just at the “arthouse”. If a film’s true significance is found in the gaps between images, gaps filled in by the emotions and experiences of the viewer, what’s to stop us from filling in the “raw materials” of reality with our hopes, our desires, and our will to see them realized?


5 thoughts on “Cinema for pleasure or cinema for protest?

  1. Good piece. I am interested in any recommended reading on the subject of film (the essentials perhaps, and what you are personally interested in).

    • The general consensus about the basics of film form is that David Bordwell covers it the most clearly and completely. His textbook “Film Art” with Kristin Thompson is standard reading in intro Film Studies classes. I recommend his book “On the History of Film Style”, which isn’t terribly long. Look for any essays of his you might find online, I know he keeps a blog at I have my problems with Bordwell, but there’s no way around it.

      Essays crucial to understanding film theory’s diverse levels of engagement with politics and ideology:

      * Sergei Eisenstein, “A Dialectic Approach to Film Form” and “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram”
      * Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility”
      * Andre Bazin, “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, You might also look into Bazin’s monograph on Orson Welles (especially if you’ve seen Citizen Kane)
      * Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”

      Those are all important texts for my focus, which is currently German and Scandinavian cinema, the relation of film aesthetics to politics, and Frankfurt School Critical Theory. The best intro to the latter two points is Miriam Hansen’s Cinema and Experience, which explores the different ways Adorno, Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer (the only real film expert in the Frankfurt School’s circle of affiliates) thought about film and its role in modernity.

      As for primary texts, any excerpts you can find from Kracauer’s “From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film” would be right up your alley. The book basically charts the way the ideology of fascism was prefigured in the aesthetics of Expressionist film in 1920s Weimar Germany. It was actually the work that convinced me to stay in Cinema Studies after my BA.

      • Filed under: stuff to look at when I finally finish my hectic job search. Thank you for taking the time out to answer this though.

  2. Pingback: The Chomsky-Žižek beef shows why political action needs theory | The Red Fury

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