Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Andrew Gibson

Sense of an Ending

 


 

 

Timothy Murray

_Like a Film: Ideological Fantasy on Screen, Camera and Canvas_

London: Routledge, 1993

0-415-07734-6

267 pages

 

Timothy Murray's book begins by asking the reader to imagine a script for a horror film: a car smashes its way into a crowd in an American urban park, killing three people and injuring many more. Onlookers pull the woman driver from the vehicle and accuse her of murderously reckless driving. Yet this is no cinematic sequence: the events in question actually happened, in 1992, in Washington Square Park, New York City. What particularly interests Murray is those eye-witnesses' accounts which made it clear that, for the persons concerned, the disaster happened 'like a film', that their narratives of events coded the latter in cinematic terms. Indeed, since Murray is shrewd enough to be aware that there is 'nothing there' other than representation -- he is also interested in how far, for the witnesses, the events themselves *were* filmic.

 

Murray's initial argument, thus, is that 'the cinematic 'happenings' of a culture of identity, identification, and politics . . . are often believable precisely because they are structured so much like film' (5). The case is to some extent familiar, at least, since Metz, and Murray does indeed quote the latter on the ready naturalization of cinematic codes. More recently, however, the argument in question has been given a specific and vigorous new lease of life by Zizek, and Murray proceeds to set up a promising Zizekian framework for an investigation into cinematic ideology, not as an escape from social reality, but as social reality itself in escape from a trauma that cannot be acknowledged. 'Universality and immediacy', Murray writes, 'can be structured only like a film . . . as materializations of the many contingencies of enunciation and its social conditions' (6). It is precisely thus that, in Chapter 4, he reads the Olivier _Othello_ as camouflaging the cultural diversity of its characters by the production of a composite subjectivity which is particular to the aesthetic domain. 'Not truly wishing _Othello_ to portray the historical differend of racial identities,' writes Murray, 'Olivier acts out the cultural desire to efface difference through identity' (112). The result is film as ideological fantasy, a fantasy that indeed exists *as* cinema, and the articulations of which are precisely cinematic. In _Othello_ the aesthetic realm becomes the realm of politics as fantasy.

 

We have been here before, of course, and the questions that come to mind are questions one might want to ask of a whole post-Metzian tradition in film theory and criticism. Fantasy for whom, exactly? For the cinematic equivalents of the eye-witnesses in Washington Square Park, Murray might reply. But whilst in the case of the Washington Square Park incident the subjects are empirical, no such subject is at issue in Murray's account of _Othello_ or any other film referred to in the book. Nor, indeed, are such subjects a concern for the theoretical tradition within which Murray is working. The point may seem to be trivial, absurdly commonsensical in its premises. But what other basis does the theorist have for his or her construction of a spectator in thrall to ideological fantasy? Might such a spectator not be a fantasy figure him- or herself, fantasized that is, as the Other of the theorist? Does not the theorist establish his or her own eminently modern transcendence -- the transcendence of critique itself -- precisely in opposition to this Other and as a logical extension of the operation by which this Other is constructed? Is there not an argument for theorists like Murray taking greater heed of the Baudrillardian case, and asking more awkward questions about the privileged position supposedly afforded by theory; about the relation between the modes of simulation adopted respectively by film and theory?

 

Murray's book would certainly look open to such questions if it were the largely Metzian or post-Metzian project it appears initially to declare itself to be. However, it is not simply such an enterprise. To a certain extent, Murray's first few pages are in danger of misrepresenting his interests: his explorations sometimes appear to have less in common with Metz and certainly with Zizek (who, for all his early importance, scarcely makes an appearance after the introduction) than they do with Lyotard. Not that the latter's work is an explicit point of reference throughout the book. But Murray's best chapter is nonetheless on a topic still too often neglected by film theorists: Lyotard's writings on the visual arts, writings which, as Murray understands, have large implications for some of the future directions of film theory. The chapter concentrates, in particular, on Lyotard's essays on Adami, Francken and Arakawa. What interests Murray about these essays, and about Lyotard's work on art in general, is the extent to which they turn aside from criticism as a project whereby a subject masters the alterity of the visual. This concern goes as far back as _Discours, Figure_, as Murray is well aware. The relationship between discourse and figure opens up as a gap or, more Lyotardianly, a differend. Like reason and imagination in the experience of the sublime, they are incommensurables. Thus Lyotard 'speaks alongside images rather than about them' (176). He produces art criticism as a mode of 'ironic narration' which puts into question 'the figures of aesthetic judgment as such and the academic models of research and analysis constitutive of the language of judgment' (179). He thereby resists 'the colonial figuration of undifferentiated space, what we might even wish to call the authoritative personification of *le corps blanc*' (181). The effort is to effect a displacement or at least a complicating distortion of the discursive by the figural, of 'graphic sense by plastic *sensibilite*' (188), to move away from the discourses of history and commentary to a more oblique attentiveness to image and affect together as conjoined in 'the question-filled period of the Now' (188). It is thus that 'today's fragmenter of critical discourse' may 'learn from Lyotard's irresolute texts to respect the precariousness of the motion of their fine lines through discourse' (204). And what has Murray learnt? 'To be doubly cautious in attempting to write beyond, whether beyond struggle *per se* or beyond what is happening' (204).

 

Murray actually does learn, and it is the sense that it partly charts a learning process -- whether Murray is aware of it or not -- that constitutes one of the book's more attractive features. It ends, for example, with a three-page last chapter in which Murray clearly intends to have figure warp discourse as it does for Lyotard, say, in Mallarme. Murray is not a poet, but the quality of the writing is less important than the attempt to produce a discursive transformation that pursues certain consequences of the earlier argument and thus enacts a performative resistance to what Murray calls the 'centring machines' (238). Equally, the chapter immediately after the one on Lyotard itself seeks to produce an account of an artwork in what is, at least to some extent, a Lyotardian mode. The artwork in question is a mixed-media eco-commentary: Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison's _The Lagoon Cycle_. According to Murray, it is concerned with the Harrisons' twelve-year long experiment with a Sri Lankan crab known as *Scylla serrata*. The bizarre and partly comic incongruity, here, is intended as a long-range reflection of the craziness implicit in the current destabilization of fragile aqua-systems which is a principal theme in _The Lagoon Cycle_. Indeed, incongruity or a sense of double-bind is a crucial feature of the Harrisons' work: _The Lagoon Cycle_ rethinks 'the analogical function of art' in 'seriously playing out its own imprisonment in the traumatic kernels of the past' (217). In this manner, it serves as a critique of 'signifying systems of violence and destruction' (215) that also recognizes and insistently points to its own complicity with them.

 

This chapter, however, is less Lyotardian in its writing -- in its concern with the relation between theoretical or critical discourse and the materiality of the artwork -- than in its commitment to a familiar postmodernist strategy which pits the avant-garde against classic realism, Hollywood, commercial cinema and what Marxists still wistfully call late Capital. This particular Lyotardian emphasis is likely to seem congenial to a post-Metzian. For the oppositional structure in question, of course, has been commonplace in film theory as elsewhere for more than twenty years, since Barthes, Heath, et al. In the late nineties, it now looks eminently open to question (or at least to re-assessment). Why, for instance, should this particular binary remain untouched by deconstruction? Might it not be time to consider the avant-garde and mainstream cinema less as opposites than as different points in a material continuum that needs to be rethought in its *generality*? Why is the classical/avant-garde binary apparently still so precious? Like the opposition between theorist and ordinary cinemagoer, might it not be a phantom structure whose theoretical importance is more institutional than anything else, a question of maintaining and consolidating the distance between a professional elite and the uninitiated which the institution has recently so obviously required? Can the politics of the avant-gardes -- in particular, the elite, leftist, academic avant-gardes -- ever be unambiguous? Is that not a question we need to take into account in assessing the (severe) limits to the historical and political effectiveness of the various avant-gardes, notably the academic ones? These are not questions Murray is interested in asking, because he is writing very much from within the established parameters of film theory. But his chapters on Lyotard and the Harrisons -- and also his absorbing chapter on Barthes -- allow us to come back to such questions and meditate on them afresh, precisely in pursuing the familiar theme intelligently whilst giving it some interesting new twists.

 

All the same, there is a kind of irony to Murray's enthusiastic endorsement of Lyotard's withdrawal of investment 'in the fixity of meaning, production and moral order' (196). For the categories of a 'moral order' exist quite emphatically as *a prioris* for Murray himself, and he is as energetically concerned with production and 'the fixity of meaning' as those figures to whom he takes Lyotard to be opposed. This is particularly evident in his chapter on Jarman's _Caravaggio_. On the one hand, again, Murray wants to present the film itself as affecting the progress of the chapter itself, deflecting its 'analytical course' from 'the kind of 'return of the same' cherished by classical cinema' (126). On the other hand, it is quite clear that the real agenda of the chapter is categorically dictated from the start, and has to do with producing an account of the film that will negotiate successfully between gay and feminist imperatives, a negotiation that, to say the least, Jarman does not make easy. Neither imperative must been seen to suffer, of course, particularly since Murray himself is a heterosexual male. The terms of a 'moral order' are so clearly dictated here -- above all, institutionally dictated -- that there is practically no possibility that Jarman's film will *seriously* blow Murray off course. What must be avoided at all costs is any suspicion that Jarman might actually be saying something really uncomfortable, something, that is, that is not reconcilable with any prior structure of value. But the low point of the book is undoubtedly the first chapter, 'Like a Film'. It begins with Maria Torok's post-Kleinian work on 'penis envy in women' (29) and subsequently splices it with Kaja Silverman's more Lacanian perspective. Murray is concerned to account for cinema's function as, he claims, a supposedly effective promoter and transmitter of penis envy in patriarchal institutions. At the same time, he also wants to show how feminist film-makers (notably Yvonne Rainer) have 'opened up discursive windows' (25) in cinema precisely in order to challenge the power and hegemony of the symbolic order in question. The problem, here, is not to do with Torok and Silverman, still less with Rainer, but the question of how we get from the first two to the third. In other words, the logic that binds film to psychoanalysis and the 'unconscious relation' itself seems to me to be exposed, here, in all its radical tenuousness (44). Is there really an incontestable relation between the 'somatic and psychic screens' (45) -- assuming the usefulness of such terms in themselves -- and the film screen? Are we not close to a kind of magical thought that proceeds by imaginative analogy, even by conjuration? How plausible is the assumption of identity between a discourse that never has any proper visibility and sensory concreteness (that of the dream-work) and one that is principally and immediately known as visible and concrete? What about the fact that films don't talk back? When Murray patiently and responsibly worries over how film can possibly 'mimic' the unconscious relation (44), doesn't the real problem have to do with the assumption that there is or should be anything like a relation of 'mimicry' between the two? Are not all the skilful and ever more ingenious accounts -- of which Murray's is a good example -- of exactly how film and (for instance) Lacanian terms of reference fit together avoiding the question of why one should even start to imagine such a fit?

 

As a source of either theoretical or practical knowledge of its subject, in fact, this particular chapter seems to me to have the persuasiveness and weight of a medieval book of charms. Shorn of all the sophisticated provisionalities that hedge it round in the work of a Freud or a Lacan, and converted into something much closer to a positivist discourse, psychoanalysis itself begins to read like free association. The problem is a historical one, and concerns, not just Murray, but a whole tradition in film studies. What has in many ways been the most powerful and gripping recent tradition in film theory began in the seventies with the _Screen_ critics, and grew out of what was then an adventurous and ground-breaking blend of Marxism, psychoanalysis and semiotics. As other disciplines grew more theory-conscious, however, some of the most interesting minds in film studies moved on elsewhere (or back to their former areas of interest). At the same time, disciplines like English were increasingly grappling with newer kinds of theory, or different ones. These disciplines were also exploring a much wider range of philosophical and theoretical work than film studies dared to engage with, caught (as it continued to be) in a kind of seventies Marxist (later incipiently postmarxist) moralism. By and large, for example, film studies has not really been ground through the deconstructive mill (and nothing is more ripe for deconstruction than Murray's kind of psychoanalytic discourse). The result is that, in the academy, film studies -- or at least, a particular and particularly important tradition in film studies -- has declined from vanguard status to a comparatively minor and inconspicuous place. In comparison to, say, geography, film now often looks like a rather dull discipline. This, however, has nothing to do with the objects and practices it deals with, which continue to emerge and proliferate in fascinating ways. It is rather to do with the extent to which a set of historically specific theoretical discourses, which were once immensely enabling, have now in their turn become confining. Indeed, these discourses begin to look like ways of trying to *contain*, even to neutralize, a given set of cultural phenomena. In effect, for all its more enterprising forays -- and all its Lyotardian interest in a different mode of writing -- Murray's book still seems to me to be too frequently a prisoner of these discourses; a prisoner, in the end, of a kind of thought that is now begging to be superseded.

 

Royal Holloway College, London, England

 

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Andrew Gibson, 'Sense of an Ending',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 7, February 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n7gibson>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999

  

 

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