Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 6 No. 29, September 2002

 

 

Jerome Cornette

 

Identification of a Journal: _Studies in French Cinema_

 

 

_Studies in French Cinema_

Volume 1 Number 1

Bristol: Intellect Press, 2001

ISSN 1471-5880

64 pp.

 

A new, wonderfully lean film journal has entered our homes and libraries, which begs the question: what can or should a film journal be? _Studies in French Cinema_ is made of a magnificent seven: seven good-sized articles probe the 'seventh art', while what is arguably the finest piece of this inaugural issue deals with Benoit Jacquot's _Septieme ciel_. The journal's very title, by including the word *cinema*, subtly links the enterprise to the French tradition of film criticism. [1] Moreover, the happy choice of a lovely silhouette of a nineteenth-century travelling peep-show for its cover illustration evidences that this new journal presents itself under the best auspices.

 

However, the opening one-page 'Editorial Comment' is a slightly awkward manifesto, at once too humble and too ambitious. The humility resides in the journal's willingness to open itself up to multiple critical approaches, all the while shying away from articulating a strong line. Indeed, one is nonplussed by the editors' contention that 'the journal's purpose is a sustained investigation into three main areas', namely 'film history', 'film genre', and 'film technique and theory' (4). First of all, such division is in itself questionable: film genre is hardly separable from film technique, while the relationship between cinema and history raises pressing theoretical questions. [2] Instead of elaborating on their selection of these three areas, the editors merely fill each one of them with the customary buzzwords, such as 'francophone post-colonial cinema' (illustrated by an inquiry into Sembene's _La Noire de . . ._) and 'women film-makers' (two articles on Dominique Cabrera and Agnes Varda). [3] On the other hand, the ambitious and sweeping 'compass' (4) advocated by the journal pertains not only to the methods, but also to the historical coverage, which in this issue ranges from the aftermath of World War I (Elizabeth Ezra's illuminating pre-September 11 contribution on 'French Disaster Films of the 1920s') to the contemporary (Mireille Rosello on Agnes Varda's 2000 _Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse_). Lastly, _Studies in French Cinema_ vows to harbour 'both young and established scholars' (4). One finds oneself somewhat bewildered by this cornucopia of attentions: it is as if anything goes!

 

Still, what gives the journal its overarching unity is its Gallic focus, prompting the editors to boast, quite correctly, that 'a journal in English devoted entirely to French cinema' constitutes a world premiere (4). To borrow a word from the current American president: swell! The journal's point seems to be none other than to buttress an already established, albeit jaded, national tradition. Wouldn't a _Studies in Iranian Cinema_ or _Taiwanese Cinema_ be timelier? Yet a case can be made for a journal on French cinema (though the editors of _Studies in French Cinema_ refrain from any such claim) if one agrees with Godard in _Histoire(s) du cinema_ that there is a peculiarly French tradition of art criticism that harks back to Diderot, and flourished with the advent of moving pictures, a line of flight by which pass, say, Baudelaire, Andre Bazin, and Serge Daney. [4] For Godard there was no separation between writing criticism and making movies. So the dignity of _Studies in French Cinema_ resides, to a large extent, in its capacity to engage the best of French theory. That it winds up doing so, perhaps in spite of itself, is a significant accomplishment.

 

The journal's two distinguished editors are based in the UK. [5] Phil Powrie, a French Surrealism scholar, notably of the 'Grand Jeu' around Rene Daumal and Roger Gilbert-Lecomte, has authored two survey books on French cinema from the past two decades. For her part Susan Hayward, the journal's original founder, has published a monograph on Luc Besson and a study of French national cinema, although she is perhaps best known for her handbook: _Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts_. Little evidence of any conceptual elaboration is to be found in the 'Editorial Comment'. One witnesses an odd schizophrenia. Their books downplay philosophy, whereas the journal welcomes philosophical investigations. Indeed, after looking up Hayward's _Key Concepts_ (which, already in its second edition, has become a standard reference work), I was baffled not to find any entry on the philosophy of cinema; nor could I find the name of Gilles Deleuze. How generous to have opened themselves up to a philosophical investigation which is not their type, not unlike Swann's Odette. In fact, perhaps unfairly, they single out the two theoretical pieces which, they hope, will 'provoke a debate that we can subsequently pursue in this journal', thus welcoming 'responses to those two pieces in particular' (4). [6] Indeed, these two pieces stand out, and their strong theoretical bent, psychoanalytical in one instance and philosophical in the other, make them of particular interest to _Film-Philosophy_ readers.

 

T. Jefferson Kline's 'Benoit Jacquot's _Septieme ciel_: Revisiting the Boundaries Between Cinema and Hypnosis' pinpoints a 'hermeneutic device' (39) that illuminates the enigmatic relationship between Mathilde, a depressed married woman, and an unnamed Hypnotist, around which Jacquot's movie revolves. Such a device takes the form of a book, Francois Roustang's _Qu'est-ce que l'hypnose?_, which Mathilde reads at a moment of impasse. Kline goes to some length to show how Roustang's praise of hypnosis, which constitutes a departure from Orthodox Freudian or, more pointedly, Lacanian theory of the subject, [7] is played out both within the film's diegesis (through a scene of hypnosis) and in the 'meta-cinematic elements of the work' (40). Drawing from Roustang's concept of 'paradoxical waking state', itself coined by analogy with the notion of 'paradoxical sleep', Kline works out a deeper analogy between the 'generalised waking state' of which the induced hypnotic state partakes and the cinematic screen. The parallelism between the title of Roustang's essay _What is Hypnosis?_ and the one of Bazin's seminal volume, _What is Cinema?_, points to an ontological closeness between cinema and hypnosis. Kline's inquiry into the 'double questions' raised by Bazin and Roustang doubles Jacquot's own beautiful 'meditation' (46). Unfortunately, the parallel with Bazin is not really worked out. One step in that direction might be, I think, to look for the Bergsonian elements in Bazin. [8]

 

The foregrounding of Roustang's book had eluded me when I saw the movie three years ago, but the discussion of its implications for a critical reassessment of Jacquot's movie, and, more broadly, of the Bazinian ontology of cinema, are indeed potentially productive. Kline's insight that 'like dreams, the paradoxical waking state's contents are *fictions*, cut off from all exterior perturbations' (43) will resonate with many films, notably Jacques Rivette's 1973 _Celine et Julie vont en bateau_, for Marianne belongs to the same family of unabated plotters, effectively challenging the boundaries between the screen and the spectators. In Jonathan Rosenbaum's eloquent words,

 

'the screen transforms itself into a mirror, their laughter and amazement fuse with ours, and in the netherworld between film and spectator, dreaming and waking, a collaborative enterprise of creating spectacle as well as watching it begins to take shape'. [9]

 

Several passages that Kline quotes from Roustang come across as uncannily Deleuzian: Roustang's unconscious 'is really composed of over-connectedness and multi-connectedness . . . The realm of our intuitions is immense in comparison with the few representations that reach our conscious mind' (42). Kline himself registers a Deleuzian echo by concluding that Mathilde's 'very status lies somewhere between perception and representation' (45). For its part, the other theoretical piece of this premier issue, is, as we shall see, more explicitly Deleuzian, which brings us to a closer look at the relationship between film and philosophy.

 

Jerome Game's essay, 'Cinematic Bodies: The Blind Spot in Contemporary French Theory on Corporeal Cinema', seems to dialog with Kline's, which immediately precedes it, by adding to the latter's twin questions a third ontological interrogation: 'What is a body in cinema?' (47) However, by scrutinizing the two 1998 essays that hinge around this 'unusual concern in cinematographic theory' (47), namely, Vincent Amiel's _Le Corps au cinema: Keaton, Bresson, Cassavetes_ and Nicole Brenez's _De la figure en general et du corps en particulier_, Game is less interested in discussing the validity of their arguments than in unveiling their unstated philosophical assumptions, though the article begins by masterfully summarizing the main thesis of each study. Brenez, in her attempt to 'think a corporeity without materiality' winds up attacking the classical model of film as 're-presentation, mimesis' (49) to bring forward the 'concrete sensitive presence' of the medium. For his part, Amiel's book complements Brenez's interrogation inasmuch as it focuses on the capacity of the three eponymous film directors to 'extract the corporeity of an image'. From that perspective, the cinematic body takes the initiative and becomes the agent, thus superseding the plot, not unlike Mathilde's replacing of the analyst-hypnotist with the screen in _Le Septieme ciel_ (44). To Amiel's autotelic body, which 'autonomises itself by undoing itself' (49), Game adds moving examples of his own, like the 'world before the word' of Catherine Deneuve's solitary rejoining with her lover at the beginning of Philippe Garrel's 1999 _Le Vent de la nuit_ (50). The 'pure gesture' of putting her hair up finds an uncanny echo in the way 'Cassavetes's stories are supplanted by acts hypostatised in gestures' (50).

 

Game locates in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze the underpinnings of such a 'cinematographic theory of the body' (47). He convincingly reassesses Amiel and Brenez's contribution in light of 'pure immanence' (51) and its corollary shattering of the traditional subject, as undertaken by Deleuze and Guattari in the two volumes of _Capitalism and Schizophrenia_. Indeed, in Brenez's book, the figure 'inhabits its body while remaining autonomous' by 'always escaping territorialisation' (48). Yet another Deleuzian concept. One could multiply the examples. In the end, Game rules that there is in these two books 'a philosophical radicality which seems to elude its own authors' (52). It is especially interesting that Game moves forward and urges us not to limit ourselves to Deleuze's _Cinema_ by arguing that the most productive concepts are to be extracted 'also -- and foremost -- [from] _Anti-Oedipus_ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1985), _A Thousand Trails_ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987), _The Fold_ (Deleuze, 1993), and _Foucault_ (Deleuze, 1988)' (52).

 

One can only marvel at Game's forceful and brilliant injunction. Yet, it makes me feel uneasy. Elie During, whom Game quotes, raises the problem of the use of Deleuzian concepts after Deleuze, [10] and one could raise the same problem for film studies. Game should take During at his word and embark on a genuine 'constructivism' (51), whereas he does not really take off, in this piece at least, from a seemingly hermeneutic undertaking. Keeping up with the Deleuzian legacy would entail creating new concepts, or at least assessing the use of Deleuzian concepts, instead of merely producing a Deleuzian watchword. Uncovering the blind spot of the theory of cinematic bodies risks blinding oneself to the double bind entailed by the application of philosophical concepts to artistic realms. Like Mathilde in Jacquot's movie, our task is not to remain the receptacles of these hypnotizing theoretical objects, but rather to manufacture them as the end products of our reading. Yet, Game's joyful assessment, bringing together the love for cinema and the love for philosophy, cannot help but point us toward that direction, so that the exhilarating coda of his article would also, to some extent, apply to himself: 'film studies -- and all the more when their goal is to assess the status of filmic corporeity -- are at the very core of postmodern theory, even if they do not always know it' (53). A marvellous recent anthology, _The Brain Is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema_, together with the chapter on Deleuze and classicism in Jacques Ranciere's just released _Fable cinematographique_, move toward an assessment of the productivity of Deleuzian concepts for film studies. [11] Game probably had not had a chance to look at _The Brain Is the Screen_ when he wrote his piece. In any case, it provides a fitting springboard for any future investigations. No piece in the anthology focuses on the body -- though its editor, Gregory Flaxman, offers some interesting views on the body as image [12] -- which makes Game's contribution all the more precious.

 

Beyond its commendable precision, steeped more often than not in rigorous formal analysis -- for instance, the use of black and white in Sembene's movie (20) -- this first issue of _Studies in French Cinema_ displays magnanimity in its kaleidoscopic vision and hospitability to fresh voices. This somewhat redeems the absence of a strong agenda. What lies ahead is mainly the problem of realizing an unscripted potential. The journal's theoretical investigations will be challenged to keep up with the flurry of activities that have stemmed from the journal's inception. [13] The task will be to multiply intersections between film and philosophy. Deleuze once stressed that 'cinema not only puts movement in the image, it also puts movement in the mind. Spiritual life *is* the movement of the mind. One naturally goes from philosophy to cinema, but also from cinema to philosophy'. [14] In the same spirit, Game's piece generously identifies a maxim at the core of Brenez's book: 'an interesting film is a film that makes us think, that unsettles us, that puzzles us' (48). Providing that _Studies in French Cinema_ cultivates that self-critical quality, it promises to leave its mark.

 

Columbia University, New York, USA

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. A cursory library search indicates that only a few serials published in English use 'cinema' as part of their title, a number of which cover non-Western national cinemas (e.g. Indian Cinema, Korean Cinema). _British Cinema Studies_ was defunct in 1967, so the only other current academic publication would be the American _Cinema Journal_ (Austin, Texas). Of the 237 English language periodicals dealing with the moving image, the majority include 'film' in their title, whereas virtually all French periodicals include 'cinema' in their title, with the notable exception of _Positif_.

 

2. In this respect, see first and foremost Jacques Ranciere's two books on cinema: _Arret sur histoire_, edited with Jean-Louis Comolli (Paris: BPI/Editions du Centre Pompidou, 1997), and _La Fable cinematographique_ (Paris: Seuil, 2001).

 

3. The journal's intermittent feminism is best played out in Agnes Calatayud's mutual problematisation of gender and genre in the films of Dominique Cabrera. Moreover, it is noteworthy that four contributors out of seven are women, a distinctive and welcome feminisation of film studies.

 

4. See the conversation between Godard and Daney at the beginning of part 2a of _Histoire(s) du cinema_.

 

5. _Studies in French Cinema_ was incepted in the UK and its context is primarily British. Yet two of this issue's contributors belong to the American academy, while French institutions are represented via Editorial Board and Advisory Board members. This constitutes a nice triangulation, though one hopes contributors from other areas will also feel welcome in the future.

 

6. Special attention is also given by the editors to the potentially incendiary impact of the volume's final piece, Nicholas Harrisson's, which challenges the politics of Truffaut's pastoral utopia in _Fahrenheit 451_, sharply concluding that 'in important respects, the bookpeople finally resemble censors as much as the victims of censorship' (60).

 

7. Kline shrewdly contextualises the longstanding anti-Lacanian stance of Roustang against the backdrop of Jacquot's own television documentary on Lacan, entitled _Television_ (see 39-40).

 

8. A useful point of departure to do so could be Bazin's own review of Clouzot's _Le Mystere Picasso_, which he labelled a 'Bergsonian movie'.

 

9. Jonathan Rosenbaum, 'Work and Play in the House of Fiction: On Jacques Rivette', in _Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism_ (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), p. 150.

 

10. See Elie During, 'Deleuze, et apres?', _Critique_, no. 623, April 1999, pp. 291-310.

 

11. I also touch upon this problem in my article, 'Raoul Ruiz: une pensee-cinema de Proust', _Critique_, no. 646, March 2001, pp. 197-208.

 

12. See Gregory Flaxman, 'Cinema Year Zero', in Flaxman, ed., _The Brain Is the Screen: Deleuze and the Philosophy of Cinema_ (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 94-95.

 

13. Indeed, the journal dovetails with an association which is poised to organize annual conferences: the first of these was held last March, while the 2002 symposium will focus on the under-scrutinized French cinema of the 70s. In addition, a new series of anthologies entitled 'Studies in French Cinema' is in the works. Updates on the association's projects can be found on its Web site: <http://www.ncl.ac.uk/crif/sfc/default.htm>.

 

14. Deleuze, 'The Brain Is the Screen', in Flaxman, ed., _The Brain Is the Screen_, p. 366.

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2002

 

Jerome Cornette, 'Identification of a Journal: _Studies in French Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 6 no. 29, September 2002 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol6-2002/n29cornette>.

 

 

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