Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 8 No. 21, June 2004

 

 

C. Jason Lee

 

Scanning Occulacentrism Across Continents:

_The Seeing Century_

 

 

_The Seeing Century: Film, Vision, and Identity_

Edited by Wendy Everett

Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000

ISBN 90-420-1494-6

210 pp.

 

In her Introduction to Volume 14 in Radopi's Critical Studies series, Wendy Everett makes the point that during the 20th century sight conflated with cognition and understanding. For Everett, notions of identity are changing due to globalisation and becoming increasingly paramount. Many of the essays in this volume deal with these complex issues concerning identity, and the most interesting do so with regards to gender.

 

The book is split into three sections: the first, '(De)constructing History: Memory, Language and Identity', contains three essays concerned with autobiographical film; the second, 'Imaging the Self: Personal and National Identities', contains six essays on films from six countries (Iceland, Ireland, Sicily, Romania, Spain, and Senegal); the final section, 'Gendered Visions: Sexuality, Identity, and Representation, contains five essays traversing three continents.

 

In the first essay in the collection Phil Powrie discusses Terence Davies's _Distant Voices, Still Lives_ (1988), attempting to explain how, through the use of the photograph, this film obliges the spectator to confront the spectre of time, and the joy and pain of memory. The contemplation of the family is elaborated via Barthes's work on the photograph, the violent father being the one who has the capacity to freeze-frame the family. Powrie points out that the 'family portrait' here occurs five times while the mother is replaced in the photograph by the pony. What makes the film so distinctive and evocative is the music. Music returns the spectator to childhood, to the mother. A great deal has been written both on Barthes's work on photography in _Camera Lucida_ and on the mourning of his mother, more than on any other subject in this field. The use of the theory does not go deep enough but there is something here for those coming to the work of Davies for the first time.

 

Following this is Peter Wagstaff's article on Georges Perec's _Recits d'Ellis Island: histories d'errance et d'espoir_, which again focuses on memory and stillness, which was made in collaboration with Robert Bober and broadcast on the French channel TF1 in two parts in November 1980. Ellis Island, which over its history received sixteen million immigrants into the US, is depicted not as the beginning but as the end. As Wagstaff puts it, this is a reflexive documentary film haunted by death. The film is a pretext for a reflection on continuing themes in Perec's work: the need for identity based on family, community and tradition; the nature of memory in this; the primordial role of language in defining identity and providing order; and the theme of loss through which all the other themes are filtered.

 

Importantly, Perec's own mother was taken to Auschwitz with no record of her ever being discovered, and his career as a writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker has the undercurrent of articulating this absence. The question is how to cover such an enormous movement of people, and this is achieved through lists and numbers that control the chaos. Two percent of people were turned away while three thousand committed suicide at Ellis Island. Perec's family history contains this despair and is evoked in his work here. There is a montage of past and present, black and white and colour, which relates to the 1950s French documentary filmmaking of Georges Franju, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker.

 

Again Barthes is referred to, as the photograph is concerned with time and mortality. For Wagstaff, Alain Renais's 1955 film _Night and Fog_ casts a long shadow over Perec's film. While the first part of Perec's film contains early photographs and segments of a tour guides spiel, the second shows interviews with Americans of European origin who now revel in their memories. Wagstaff emphasises Perec's lack of memories, which leads to an absence of mawkishness. The last time Perec saw his mother was when he was seven, suggesting all of this is a search for her. Again, importantly, for this analysis as a whole and filmmaking and criticism in general, for Perec the image and word is all there is to be said. There is no room for analysis.

 

Next, Christopher Shorley's article on Louis Malle's _Au revoir les enfants_ stresses how the film is an interweaving of experience, recollection, and narrative. This contrasts with the previous article, for here memory is more obviously malleable. For Shorley the final extradiegetic narration by Malle is exceptional in impact, making the film jump forty years in an instant. Shorley discusses the work of Lynn Higgins, who claims it matters less what the film's protagonist Julien knows in 1944, than what Malle knows in 1987 and what we know with him. Memory certainly changes, on a personal level and nationally, with a shift in France's memory about itself.

 

Henry Rousso's study of 'the Vichy Syndrome' appeared the same year as _Au revoir les enfants_. Rousso identified four phases in France's collective memory of the Occupation years, ranging from a mourning phase from 1944 to 1954, to an emphasis on the Resistance, to finally an obsession with Jewish memory and concern with the Occupation in France in the late Eighties. Other films have explored the issues in a complex fashion, such as Marcel Orphuls documentary -_Le Chagrin et la pitie_. Malle's earlier co-written _Lacombe Lucien_ (1974), a fictional film concerning a young collaborator, did not endorse the myths of 'resistancialism', and for Rousso led to later works such as Jacques Audiard's --_Un Heros tres discret_ from 1996. This article points to the political aspects of memory and autobiography, the personal and the collective, while all three in this first section cover memory in relation to photography and how the image itself becomes iconic, always signifying death yet offering hope to the living.

 

The 2nd Section marks a shift from personal to national identity with the editor's article on the Icelandic film _Cold Fever---_- (1994), the fourth feature film by Fridrik Thor Fridriksson. Everett places the film within a European tradition, with its emphasis on transition and change, one of many narratives of migration and transgression, with mass migration stressing the ambiguities of borders and cultural identity that have been enhanced since the Second World War. The generic form of the road movie is alluded to, this film satisfying the four main criteria: breakdown of the family unit and destabilising male power; the protagonist at the mercy of the road; the car containing a human and spiritual reality; and the escapist aspect of technology linked to masculinity. Astushi crosses Iceland and his self is opened up, and for Everett the film subverts the standard myths of the road movie, highlighting the conflicts between European and American popular culture. Despite her comment from Barthes that it is the modern Gothic cathedral, the Citroen car (particularly the film's DS and the DX) is even more iconic than Everett allows, as it is consistently voted in the top three cars of the 20th century.

 

For Everett, Iceland's landscape represents the inner spaces through which Atsushi progresses. Personal and national identity blur, as do divisions between self and other, inner and outer. Therefore the subject of the film is Iceland, not the central character. We learn that there are more writers, more Nobel Prize winners, more sheep, and more beautiful women per head in Iceland than anywhere else. For Everett, the spaces of Iceland are its identity. As nothing can be represented directly it transgresses the limits of any map. The pure white screen gives the filmic spectator creative freedom. Everett highlights Lefevbre's work on space but she could have gone further in explaining this unmappable freedom and its relationship with forms of madness, memory, and film.

 

Gretchen Bisplinghoff's article on Mike Newell's_ Into the West_ (1992) examines Irish identity. The film's characters, Tito and Ossie, discuss whether they are cowboys or Indians. It is explained that Britain colonised Ireland at the same time as America and the natives of both at the time are equated. We are taken through a swift history of Ireland and Irish cinema (which can be found easily elsewhere). There is a split between the city of Dublin and the land to the West, the film playing with all the myths of the Western. Just as in the previous article, the obvious point is made that a physical journey can also be a spiritual one, but here the male process of redemption comes through removing memory of females in the film.

 

The next article, on national identity, concerns Italy, with 1988 being seen as the crucial year which divided an older generation of filmmakers, such as Bernardo Bertolucci and the Tavian brothers, from emerging figures of 'New Italian Cinema'. Ernest Hampson looks at the Sicilian film-_The Uncle from Brooklyn_ (1995) by Daniele Cipri and Franco Maresco, a surrealistic attack on materialistic Italian society. For Hampson there has been a Sicilian revival, with the naturalistic dramas of Aurelio Grimaldi and Marxo Risi, the historical reconstructions of Pasquale Scimeca, and the mafia musical _Time to Die For_ (1996) by Roberta Torre. Hampson explains that Cipri and Maresco are radicals, as their work is unique in an Italian context because it completely rejects mainstream production's obsession with elegant pictorialism, conventional narratives, and dramatic denouements. Everything in _The Uncle from Brooklyn_ is reduced to a minimum, with the portrait of the Sicilian condition presented in a style characterised by abstraction. There are no crowds, cars, or any form of authority, with only the coffins mass-produced. There are also no women and children, producing an apocalyptic postmodern reality.

 

Anne Jackel tackles recent developments in Romanian cinema, pointing out that, with the nationalisation of the Romanian film industry in 1948, approved adaptations were the main film product. Even when Ceaucescu's regime silenced filmmakers, the Buftea studios outside Bucharest produced twenty to thirty films a year. The 1989 revolution allowed exiled filmmakers back, but brought the industry to a halt due to political and economic paralysis. The law of the market economy replaced the law of censorship. The new pro-government Romanian press attacked directors such as Mircea Danieluc, Lucian Pintilie, and Dan Pita for damaging the image of Romania. 1992 became a significant year with Pintilie's _The Oak_ and Pita's _Hotel de Luxe_. _The Oak_ is a social satire of Communist Romania while _Hotel de Luxe_ is a dark parable concerning totalitarianism, and both films had to be financed from abroad. Other than horror films made with northern American partners, there was little compromise by Romania filmmakers in the first half of the 1990s, with over half the films made between 1990 and 1996 set around 1989 and concerning individuals searching for a new identity. The parallels between issues concerning _The Oak_ and the Balkan conflict are also highlighted, showing the importance of cinema. The conclusions are depressing. With a few images of Romanian orphanages on international TV screens and cinemas closing down whilst multiplexes spring up, the country has disappeared from global consciousness.

 

Next, Maria Cami-Vela's work on Pedro Almodovar's _The Flower of My Secret_ calls for a re-examination of his work with regards to Spain's move from dictatorship to democracy. The article reveals how Almodovar subverts national and Catholic myths promoted by the Franco regime. With regards to Spanish identity, there are the tensions between Europeanisation and macro-regionalism that are brought out in this analysis of the film, adding to the wider debate. Then, Patrick Williams's work on Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mamberty's _Touki Bouki_ and _Hyenas_ stresses the conflicts between urbanised modernity and utopian rurality. Filmmaking itself, Williams maintains, is so quintessentially western, modern, technological, and, above all, profoundly enmeshed with capitalism. Yet Mamberty in _Touki Bouki_ uses a modernist style to provoke. Williams utilises Marxist theory, concluding the catastrophic dimension of history comes more readily to post-colonial cultural producers than to those in the overdeveloped world. The narrative of _Hyenas_ -- concerning guilt, betrayal, revenge, and individual and collective responsibility -- is grounded in an image of catastrophe visited on Africa in the form of imperialism and the schemes of the World Bank and the IMF.

 

Section 3 is perhaps the most interesting of the book, and engages with sexuality, identity, and representation, the first essay by Susan Hayward being an analysis of Luc Besson's _The Fifth Element_ (1997) and the spectacular. The saviour figure Leeloo is a hybrid. The cyborg, through its transgressiveness, as Hayward puts it, exposes the ideological constructedness of otherness that is based in the principle of deferment. But here we never get to read Leeloo's body as transgressive. Her virginity will redeem the capitalist world. She is not threatening at all, and, Hayward agues, this is a misogynistic representation in a film that parodies genre and stereotypes, raises issues about race and the permanency of male sexuality, but stops short of challenging the social order. Leeloo is a child, not a sexualised woman, and a conventional character.

 

Lorna Fitzsimmons' work on film versions of the Faust myth furthers the discussion of sexuality, identity, and issues concerning creativity. _Limit Up_ (Richard Martini, 1989) links the subjects of race and ethnicity with the expression of sexual stereotype and transgression, while _Faust_ (Jan Svankmajer, 1994) exposes misogynistic aggression towards women. Elisa Bussi on _The Piano_ (Jane Campion, 1993) points to the use of fairy tale and archetypes in the narrative, particularly in relation to journey, muteness/silence, the role of confidant, feminine skills, husband as ogre, the tied or severed hands, and the forest. She ends her chapter by pointing to the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm, and how the wound can heal, how it is possible to grow new hands. Perhaps more sociological and historical background to the position of women in the 19th century may have enhanced the detailed elaboration of the mythic.

 

Interestingly, Steve Wharton argues in his chapter on Collard's _Savage Nights_ (1992) that films that express a different form of sexuality should not have to proselytise on this subject. The film concerns an HIV-positive bisexual filmmaker Jean and his friendship with Laura. Parallels were drawn and controversy raged over the film as Collard was himself an HIV-positive bisexual filmmaker. Wharton argues that, despite Jean's apparent selfishness, the film is a medieval Morality Play, with recognition and love for another becoming a cleansing act, a moment of enlightenment. For Wharton, the handheld camera, the improvised dialogue, and the naturalistic pseudo-documentary approach creates a film that is non-judgmental.

 

Finally Raya Morag's chapter on _Full Metal Jacket_, Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film, argues that the film exploits the shift between US and Vietnam psycho-geographic space, with the change in mise-en-scene, the parallel traumatic events, and the narrator's voice. It does so in a more complex fashion than other Vietnam movies such as _Born on the Fourth of July_ (Oliver Stone, 1989). By doing so the film establishes the masculine-feminine binary opposition as pathology, but simultaneously offers no alternative, which, as Morag puts it, is consistent with the anti-humanism of Kubrick's film. Sergeant Hartman is associated with the Oedipal drama: the infantilisation of the recruits and the confiscation of their bodies, relearning day-to-day tasks -- with the control of oral pleasures all underscoring this. There is a rupture between maleness and masculinity, and even though Susan Jeffords work on Vietnam War films concludes the work to remasculinise American culture, for Morag she completely overlooks this tension between maleness and masculinity. For Morag, Jeffords unveils the unattainability of phallic coherence and power. Anger towards the father figure is directed through that figure toward the feminine. This is revealed to be part of what Baudrillard argues to be the pimping of difference, where racism exposes the temptation to fetishize difference. Hartman is a racist in his treatment of the other and otherness, and uses binarism to advance training. Morag uses the term mask-ulinity to stress that the mask is authenticity, the only option that exists. Gender and trauma are connected, and for Morag none of this is apparent in other films produced in the 1990s, which transform trauma into simulacra and avoid confrontation and encourage social forgetfulness.

 

Overall _The Seeing Century_ offers a number of varied readings of films and national cinemas but never quite attains to what Everett suggests it sets out to do, that is, to elaborate specifically on how film constructs personal and social identity. Perhaps this is an impossible task. Martin Jay's seminal _Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought_ unfortunately goes unmentioned, and the philosophical depth of the text is minimal. What the book does achieve, particularly in the work on gender and identity, and Romanian and Senegalese film, is a furtherance of the complex sociological, political, and historical debates about cinema.

 

St Martin's College

Lancaster, England

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2004

 

 

C. Jason Lee, 'Scanning Occulacentrism Across Continents: _The Seeing Century_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 8 no. 21, June 2004 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol8-2004/n21lee>.

 

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