Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 4, January 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Caws

 

Theory as Criticism:

Bersani and Dutoitıs _Forms of Being_

 

 

Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

_Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity_

London: British Film Institute, 2004

ISBN 1844570150

185 pp.

 

Given its title and subtitle, Bersani and Dutoit's _Forms of Being: Cinema, Aesthetics, Subjectivity_ might lead us to expect a general treatment of some rather comprehensive philosophical topics. The topics are not entirely neglected -- the book makes serious if often contestable suggestions about (among other things) individuality and identity, aesthetic (as opposed to psychological) subjectivity, and the ontological status of the past. However these tend to be asserted rather than argued, and to be embedded so thoroughly in the commentary on the films (around which the book is constructed) that the whole enterprise inscribes itself rather on the side of criticism than of reflection. Its effect on me was therefore, in the first place, to provoke some reflections on criticism.

 

A work of criticism, for Roland Barthes -- he was perhaps the first to see it in just this way -- is a work in its own right: at one remove from, but strictly analogous to, the work that inspires it. 'The book is a world', he says. 'The critic experiences in relation to the book the same conditions of discourse as the writer experiences in relation to the world'. [1] A film too is a world. But film criticism, while in some respects in the same situation as literary criticism, suffers from one disadvantage: it can't quote. In Godard's _Le Mepris_ (1963), one of the films discussed in _Forms of Being_, an argument arises between the producer (Jerry Prokosch, played by Jack Palance) and director (Fritz Lang, played by Fritz Lang) over a film version of the _Odyssey_. After watching some takes Prokosch explodes 'that's not what is in the script!' -- and yet, on consultation, there it is. Lang explains patiently: 'you see, Jerry, in the script it's written, on the screen it's pictures'. The two are incommensurable -- no wonder such slippages occur between them.

 

The criticism and the film are both forms of text, but they are discursive in different ways. In the best of worlds -- Claude Lelouch at any rate suggested, in a 1967 interview -- criticism would leave language behind and move on to the screen. Responding to queries about his work he said 'I don't think in sentences, I think in sequences. The ideal for me would be to answer by projecting images for you'. [2] Having grown up in one of the first families in France to own a television, he learned images on the screen before learning to read in the conventional sense. The children of the future, he says, having been educated audio-visually, will be like that: 'even if they are not called to become film-makers, they will read the cinema, as today one reads a book'. [3]

 

The idea of reading a film is now familiar; a very successful textbook, James Monaco's _How to Read a Film_ (2000), takes it as a premise. But the book is still in language, albeit copiously illustrated. The same is true of _Forms of Being_, and 'copiously' is certainly the word here -- there must be 150 reproductions of shots from the three main films discussed, and their quality, given their scale (four frames to a page, in a standard octavo paperback), is remarkably good. For the most part, though, pedagogy and criticism have not moved to the screen -- there are (no doubt) didactic films about film but it is still hard to comment on images, and the works filmmakers construct out of them, without resorting to words. Perhaps, though, this constructs the concept of criticism too narrowly.

 

Suppose we start from the proposition that a text stands (for me) in a critical relation to another text if my reading the first makes a difference to the way I read the second. In a full development of this idea it would be necessary to specify what kind of difference is created (if someone writes down the name of the culprit it will certainly make a difference to the way I read a murder mystery for the first time, but this will not be critically helpful). It will be enough for the moment to say that we can look for critical relevance in the difference one text makes to the reading of another. It will immediately follow as a theorem that every text stands in a critical relation to itself. The phenomenon of second or third, etc., reading or screening probably deserves more attention than it has received. There's an interesting anticipation of it in an unexpected place, namely the Introduction to Descartes' _Principles_, where he gives advice about how to read his book: the first time through, he says, read it as if it were a novel; the second time, mark passages you don't understand; you'll probably understand them the third time, but if not try a fourth, and so on. This seems psychologically sound -- the brain takes in more than we realize and can be trusted to do a lot of work for us, so that stopping in the middle of the first read to ask whether we've understood may not only be anxiety-provoking but actually inhibit the process of understanding. Things can become surprisingly clearer the second time around.

 

Descartes's advice really does work for philosophical texts and I think it works for films too. The recommendation that we should first read a work as if it were a novel might be translated, paradoxically enough, as a recommendation to view a movie for the first time as if it were (merely) a movie. I find it awkward to be asked what I think of a film after having just seen it for the first time -- not that there's nothing to be said, and people do regularly say quite a lot, but that in the case of any film worth talking about it will seem quite different after the second time, when it has had a chance to do what might be called its autocritical work, and in the case of some great films many more screenings do not exhaust what is to be found in them. ('Autocritical' and 'heterocritical' would be good words to describe the critical relation between a work and itself on the one hand and the relation on the other between two different works standing in a critical relation to one another. Unfortunately 'autocritique' has inherited connotations from revolutionary practice, in which it meant something like public self-denunciation. Perhaps in the present context they can be used in the sense I need without ambiguity.)

 

Heterocritical relations between films are harder to come by. They may be found to hold between different films by the same *auteur*, or between films one of which has had an obvious influence on another; also perhaps, exploiting the very broad concept of criticism with which we started, in intertextual relations between films. Here however it looks as if language may have to come to the rescue. Someone may have to point out the influence, of which I hadn't been aware. Then again, if I notice an intertextual reference in a particular film -- for example, in Almodovar's _Todo sobre mi madre_ (1999) a glimpse of the Mediterranean through the window of the Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, which brings to mind the Mediterranean as seen from a villa in Capri in Godard's _Le Mepris_ -- it doesn't yet function critically with respect to either film (I'm watching one, don't know whether I'll ever watch the other again). But it may set up a train of reflection that will have its effect on a whole series of films in the future, in which an outlook on the sea may remind me of death. And I might not even have noticed the connection had something not suggested it -- in this case the fact that I was watching the one film, and remembering the other, in the context of reading Bersani and Dutoit's book.

 

That suggestive something, which conditions in however small a way the reading of a work, is one of the great contributions of criticism. A generative intertextuality may be set up simply by the juxtaposition of otherwise heterogeneous works -- otherwise, that is, than in the specific critical context in question. _Forms of Being_ brings together three main films, the two just mentioned plus Terrence Malick's _The Thin Red Line_ (1998), and it is safe to say that I would not have thought of looking at them together had it not been for the book. There is also a fourth film, Godard's _Helas pour moi_ (1993), alluded to only briefly in the Introduction (and not illustrated), but for me more than holding its own along with the other three. Taking these particular films as a sort of tetralogy proves to be both stimulating and illuminating.

 

I am taking the main function of _Forms of Being_ to be critical, but a case could be made -- has been made, in the blurb on the back of the book ('new ways of approaching cinema as visual art') -- to the effect that it is really theoretical. This would not take the critical relation out of the picture but we might think of it as reversed: now the works would be making a critical difference to the way in which we regard the theory, as confirming it or failing to confirm it. (In fact this reversal might apply generally: certainly after seeing or reading a work the experience will reflect back also on the adequacy of any criticism already, or to be, encountered.) Regarding it as theory would enable it to stand in its own right, independently of the films it discusses, making it analogous to a work in the 'science of literature' that Barthes envisages in the text I quoted at the beginning. [4] But that won't quite do in this case, because the book is so tightly connected to the films and depends so heavily on them. In fact it suffers from one of the besetting problems of criticism, which is having to tell the plot before making the point. This necessity -- or should I say compulsion? -- is what spoils so much writing about literature, which should ideally be addressed to readers who have done the reading on their own.

 

The point of literature as such, after all, isn't just the bare bones of the story -- you could get that from any summary -- but precisely the textuality of the work. Textuality for me has two main components, which I call 'linearity' and 'laterality', borrowing from the warp and woof of the weaving from which 'text' gets its name. The story could be linear (and is potentially so even when it isn't -- the brain sorts out discontinuities and flashbacks, or tries to) but it's what is packed in by way of cross-connections, vectors pointing to a linguistic or cultural context, stylistic tropes, intratextual allusions, etc., that bodies it out as text. All this laterality can hardly be captured in any summary way -- it can be pointed out, but only to people who have access to the text itself, or are soon to do so. The same remarks apply to film. It is one thing to give a general theory, which the intelligent viewer can apply to any film that comes along, another to tailor theoretical observations to particular films -- and even that can be useful if for example we are all about to watch the film in question. But it doesn't help much to be told what to watch for when that is exactly what we can't do.

 

Very well then: watch the films! But then you won't need to be told the story. If in fact you do that, as I did, after reading _Forms of Being_, you will be rewarded, as I was. But how much of the reward comes from the book, how much from the films themselves? Or how much of what comes from the films was set up by the book? It's hard to tease that out after the fact, but for myself I admit that a lot of what I got out of the films was in reaction against claims made in the book, rather than in confirmation of them. Even then, though, would I have seen what I saw if not for having been sensitized to it by those claims? Here's an example. In _The Thin Red Line_ there are two coupled characters (Bersani and Dutoit are big on couples): Sergeant Welsh or 'Top' (Sean Penn), and Private Witt (James Caviezel), one representing a this-worldly pragmatism in the face of the evil of war, the other representing an other-worldly idealism bemused by that evil -- 'where did it come from? how did it steal into the world?' Witt's rather detached, almost dreamy look is read by Bersani and Dutoit as that of a neutral eye, which watches the war 'much as Malick shows us nature witnessing it' (159), or 'indiscriminately registers the world's appearances' (163). But I found it difficult to resist the thought that behind Witt's eyes was a depth of feeling traumatized into immobility by the sheer inhumanity and brutality of what was going on around him. So I watched his look carefully, and sure enough, during a sequence shot in a rest camp between engagements (and before the one in which he gets killed), as he is contemplating his exhausted comrades on their cots, Witt turns away from them and the camera catches a single tear that rolls down his cheek. The unbearable poignancy of the situation, as expressed in that one tear, seemed to me wholly incompatible with the neutral-observer reading. And yet I might not have noticed the tear (there's no evidence that Bersani and Dutoit noticed it) if not primed to expect something of the sort by my reaction to that reading.

 

_Forms of Being_, then, seems to me the more I reflect on it to do a superbly provocative job of preparing us for the films. This is what it does best, by means both of its commentaries and of its excursions into philosophy. (To put an earlier point in a different way: it is not that these are not philosophical, but that they are excursions: not the main journey.) One of the obvious things it doesn't say (no doubt because it is obvious) is how many readings, totally different from the ones it advances, a viewer can get out of them. Polysemy, multiple interpretations, is a familiar notion, but it is worth remembering that they don't work unless the text is rich enough to sustain them. And the four films Bersani and Dutoit have chosen live up to that splendidly. Two of them have essential second-order elements of dramatic process, theatrical in _Todo sobre mi madre_, cinematic in _Le Mepris_. By way of movie trivia: in both of these films one of the characters identifies with a well-known screen personality: La Huma, 'Smoke' (Marisa Paredes), in the former takes her stage name by inspiration from Bette Davis, who smokes in _All About Eve_ (1950), while Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) in the latter wears a hat and smokes a cigar, even in the bathtub, in imitation of Dean Martin in _Some Came Running_ (1958).

 

_Le Mepris_ -- a film in which Godard, according to Michael Wood, 'managed to imitate a ponderous version of his lighter self' [5] -- seems to me the weakest of the four, and Paul Javal easily the most unpleasant character in the lot. The couple of Paul and Camille (Brigitte Bardot) is supposed to be paired with Ulysses and Penelope in the _Odyssey_ (which, as remarked earlier, is being filmed by Fritz Lang in the film), and Bersani and Dutoit reject the analysis of the break-up of their marriage in terms of conventional tensions, either internal (they get on one another's nerves) or external (Jerry Prokosch comes between them). But I could not follow the book in elevating such a banal story, so badly told, to the level of Greek drama. To begin with, Jerry Prokosch does come between them, literally, in his red Alfa-Romeo, in the first scene in which all three are together. And then in spite of the attempt to make the parallel between classical and modern convincing, no reading of the _Odyssey_ could possible make Ulysses into the sort of jerk that Paul consistently is. There is plenty for Camille to find contemptible. When, finally, Camille dies, along with Jerry, in what must surely be one of the most implausible car accidents in all of cinema, Paul seems singularly unmoved, and the film in effect fizzles out. Paul will go back to Rome, Ulysses will go back to Ithaca, Fritz Lang will finish his film ('you should always finish what you start'), Godard will finish his -- has to finish it somehow -- by looking out on to an expanse of sea, Ithaca nowhere in sight. In the penultimate shot, Ulysses, standing on the roof of the bunker-like villa where the action of the last part of the film takes place, is supposed, arms raised (in triumph, in challenge, in greeting, in astonishment?), to be looking at his homeland for the first time since setting off for Troy. But Godard leaves him there, immobilized for ever, in order to sweep the camera out towards a featureless horizon.

 

The film that receives the least attention in the book, but that deserves as much as any of them (and redeems Godard), is the extraordinary _Helas pour moi_. It provides the context for the theoretical claim that opens the Introduction: 'A major virtue of the visual arts is their capacity to make the invisible visible' (1). Whatever one may make of that claim, there is something consistent in its application, especially to the Almodovar and Malick films. There is the invisible father in the former, whose son Esteban (Eloy Azorin) knows only that he must have existed (he is the torn-off half of early photographs of his mother), and the invisible son, whom the father, also an Esteban but now the transvestite Lola (Toni Canto), never even knew existed, until Manuela, the mother (Cecilia Roth), tells him of his son's death as he is on the point of his own. And there is the invisible world in the latter, that Witt can see but Top can't. 'Are you still believing?' asks Top, late in the film -- 'How do you do that? You're a magician to me'.

 

Magic, or at any rate mystery, is at the heart of _Helas pour moi_. It is a re-telling of the story of Amphytrion and Alcmena (another couple), in the persons respectively of Simon and Rachel Donnadieu (Gerard Depardieu and Laurence Masliah), Simon doubling as Zeus for the purpose of being, for one night, Rachel's lover. Or that is how it may have been. As Aude Amiel (Aude Amiot) remarks to the 'buyer of stories', the reporter Abraham Klimt (Bernard Verley) who comes to investigate, 'seeing the invisible is tiring', and it is hard for anyone to get a good grip on the story. What is remarkable about the film, though, is the series of texts that Godard inserts into it, which stand in a critical relation to the film itself and perhaps to film in general, rising indeed quite effortlessly to the level of theory. Rather than falling into my own trap of telling any more of the plot -- of the film, or of the book under review -- I will just translate two of them. The first is a voice-over to accompany the arrival of Klimt in the lakeside town where the events take place, and it seems to me a powerfully compressed rendering of the cultural history that has left us, in our own time, with so many films and so few other traditional forms:

 

'When my father's father's father had a difficult task to accomplish he used to go to a certain place in the forest, light a fire, and immerse himself in silent prayer. And what he had to accomplish would come about.

 

'When later on my father's father found himself confronted with the same task he went to this same place in the forest and said: We no longer know how to light the fire but we still know how to say the prayer. And what he had to accomplish came about.

 

'Later my father also went into the forest and said: We no longer know how to light the fire, we are no longer familiar with the mysteries of prayer, but we are still acquainted with the exact place in the forest where all this happened and that should be enough. And it was enough.

 

'But when in my turn I had to face the same task I stayed at home and said: We no longer know how to light the fire, we no longer know how to say the prayer, we don't even recognize the place in the forest, but we still know how to tell the story'.

 

What this text does not say is whether telling the story is enough to meet the conditions of the task -- whatever the task may be. And stories themselves are more or less complete, more or less detailed, more or less moving. Of the directors whose work appears in _Forms of Being_, Almodovar is the one who tells the most rounded story -- it ends with the third Esteban, the second son of Lola (the death of whose mother, Sister Rosa (Penelope Cruz) is presaged by the glimpse of the Mediterranean through the hospital window), as a child who has conquered AIDS, a symbolic purification of all the deviant couplings that populate the film. 'It's a miracle', says Manuela.

 

It may seem that miracles come more readily to hand in film than in the circumstances of daily life. But nothing worth having, even in film, comes without work. That is the force of my second text from Godard, which appears as an intertitle as Klimt tries to establish a sequence of events that may or may not have happened in the past. I give it first in French because it does not translate well: 'ainsi peu a peu le passe revient-il au present a travers la mise en scene imaginaire d'une experience visuelle qui toujours sollicite plusieurs regards' ('so little by little the past returns to the present through the imaginary mise-en-scene of a visual experience that always calls for multiple observations'). It's that last phrase, Œqui toujours sollicite plusieurs regardsı, that comes over so awkwardly in English -- 'solliciter' has a suggestion of a moral or intellectual imperative, somewhere between 'call forth' and 'demand', and we have no adequate word (look? viewing?) that quite captures 'regard', the essence of what it is that people do when they look at something. But the lesson for film is clear: we have to look more than once. Many times, if possible. Books like _Forms of Being_ encourage us to do that.

 

As a final self-referential caveat I must say that, in spite of Descartes's advice, I have only read Bersani and Dutoit's book once. It might well be that a second reading, and a third, would lead me to see more in it, philosophically, than I did the first time around. I plead two extenuating circumstances: the need to get this review written, and the temptation of going back to the films themselves. That in the end I spent more time watching the films than reading the book may be taken as a tribute to the interest in the films that was aroused by the reading of the book.

 

George Washington University

Washington, District of Columbia, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. Roland Barthes, _Criticism and Truth_, trans. Katrine Pilcher Keuneman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 84.

 

2. Claude Lelouch, Interview, _La Quinzaine litteraire_, no. 41, 15-31 December 1967, p. 28.

 

3. ibid.

 

4. Barthes, _Criticism and Truth_, p. 73.

 

5. Michael Wood, 'Taking Reality by Surprise', _The New York Review of Books_, vol. 51 no, 17, 4 November 2004, p. 54.

 

 

Copyright İ Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Peter Caws, 'Theory as Criticism: Bersani and Dutoitıs _Forms of Being_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 4, January 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n4caws>.

 

 

Read a second review-article and a response by the authors:

 

Patrick ffrench

'Potential Not To Be: Bersani and Dutoit's _Forms of Being_'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 3, January 2005

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n3ffrench

 

Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit

'A Response to Patrick ffrench and Peter Caws'

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 5, January 2005

http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n5bersanidutoit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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