Iam going to begin at the beginning, with A. Perhaps with the collaborative film A & B in Ontario that Joyce Wieland made with Hollis Frampton, and completed after his death—in which each film-maker in turn shot a segment of their own for the other to respond to, like a game of tag, or a cinematic dialogue? No,
A is going to be for Aristotle.footnote1 This may seem a strange choice, but I believe that Aristotle can be seen, convincingly enough, as the first theorist of film. Certainly he was the first theorist of narrative and, in his Poetics, written or recorded in the fourth century bc, he wrote about tragic drama as an art-form that had six components—plot, character, dialogue or screenplay (counting both as content, or signifieds—what Aristotle called ‘thought’—and as form, or signifiers, what Aristotle called ‘diction’), music and spectacle. These are also, of course, the basic constituents of the cinema and so it becomes relatively simple to transpose Aristotle’s theory of tragic drama into a theory of film. Aristotle’s approach was marked by his own experience of life, the social and political context in which he lived. His father was a court physician, serving the King of Macedon (Philip, the father of Alexander the Great) and, all his life, Aristotle was inevitably involved with Macedonian politics. He served as tutor for a while to the young Alexander, before he became king, and he remained on close terms with the authorities after the Macedonians went on to conquer Greece itself.
Aristotle’s life was far from calm. He lived through an extraordinary period of history, one during which Alexander extended his empire far to the East, to what is now Pakistan. It was also an extremely bloody and destructive period. Struggles for power were customarily settled by one family member assassinating another. Aristotle’s protector during his period of exile in Asia Minor, his wife’s uncle, was betrayed by the Macedonians to the Persians and killed. Aristotle’s hometown of Stageira was razed to the ground and its inhabitants slaughtered. His nephew was cruelly murdered by Alexander. When Aristotle himself left Athens, shortly before his death, the column erected in his honour was torn down by angry Athenian nationalists, who seem to have regarded him as a Macedonian agent. In effect, his life was marked by a torrent of unexpected and appalling reversals of fortune—peripeties, as he called them—by fatal misunderstandings and miscalculations, and by bloody struggles within the ruling family to which he was connected. In this sense, Aristotle’s view of Greek tragedy as an imitation of life was perfectly plausible. It portrayed events which, however horrific, must have seemed quite normal to him—the Œdipus story, the troubles of the ruling House of Thebes. More than once, Aristotle received unexpected word of some terrible event that would change the course of his life.
I think we can see the cinema as reflecting, in the same kind of way, our own bloody and tragic century. This may seem strange for an art-form created largely in America, where whole cities have never been levelled to the ground, but it is not so hard to understand in the rest of the world—in Europe, Africa or Asia. Like Greek tragedy, cinema has continuously echoed the violence and terror of our century. At the same time, it has distanced itself from them. As Aristotle argued, narrative—or emplotment—distances art from the history it mirrors. It focuses on the ways in which actions are caused and have effects, so that the spectator can learn from them, can gain an understanding of events which may at first seem simply meaningless and arbitrary; and thus gather the practical wisdom necessary to survive and cope in turbulent times. My own reading of Aristotle is not so much that he thought tragedy purged the emotions—he mentions the word ‘catharsis’ just once in passing—but that he thought it enabled us to learn about history and how it works, even—especially—in its most frightening and overwhelming aspects: the fateful moments when hidden truths are revealed, when families and dynasties fall apart and the passions destroy public order. Narrative is interwoven with the shocks and peripeties of fortune.
Paradoxically, I began to read Aristotle in order to understand the writings of his great antagonist, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht himself directly attacked the idea of an Aristotelian theatre, seeking to replace it with what he named ‘Epic’ theatre, but I now think his polemic was based on a common misunderstanding. Aristotle’s idea of tragedy was very far from the kind of psychologically involving theatre that Brecht attacked. Like his fiercest critic, Aristotle saw tragedy as essentially didactic and political. Brecht’s tragic vision of history, a vision shaped by World War, by successful and failed revolution, by the civil strife of the Weimar Period and the rise to power of Hitler, was not so very distant from that of Aristotle, shaped by Alexander of Macedon and the crisis of the Athenian polis. For Daney, cinema—true cinema—began with Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a film about our personal response to an immense historic tragedy. Resnais’s film became the measure against which all others were judged. It was in their relation to Hiroshima, Mon Amour that Daney came to see Rossellini and Godard as the great moral film-directors of our time, an epoch marked by the Holocaust, by the use and proliferation of weapons of unimaginable destruction, by endless episodes of violence and terror—in Algeria, in Cambodia, in France itself. As time went on, the historical and political context of the cinema became increasingly central to Daney’s writing about film, as he turned Godard’s maxim that travelling shots (mise en scène) are always a matter of morality into the touchstone of his critical reflection. Later, I shall have a little more to say about travelling shots.
B is not for Brecht, although of course it could be. Or even for B-movies, much as I always loved them. It is for Bambi. Bambi was the first film I ever saw and it left, no doubt, a deep mark on me, even a traumatic one. After seeing it, I repressed it, I put it out of my mind—until one day, on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, California, I was driving down the road with friends, sitting in the back of an open car, when I looked up and suddenly had a vision of my terrifying childhood memory, right there: the forest fire in Bambi. At first I couldn’t grasp what I had seen but, as I recovered from the shock, I realized that there was a huge drive-in movie screen right across the road and we had happened to drive past it precisely at my traumatic moment. Horror and pity—Aristotle’s categories—had stayed with me, more or less suppressed, for years which, increasingly, I spent in the cinema, without ever thinking back to the trauma. When I did, after my Santa Barbara ‘return of the repressed’, I started to realize that the horror and pity were not simply explicable in terms of the little Disney deer. There was something else at stake. Bambi was made during the War and, in a hidden sense, it was a war film. In fact, it was released in August 1942, at the onset of the Battle of Stalingrad.
My own memories of the war—a little later, when I lived in a small industrial town in the North of England, just south of Manchester—were of air raids: what has become generically known as the Blitz. I remember the sirens, when I had to get out of bed and go down into the closet under the stairs, or crouch under the table in the larder, listening to the buzz of the rocket bombs overhead, aimed at Manchester, but often straying off-course to fall on Macclesfield. Looked at this way, it is easy to interpret Bambi as a war film, with the hunters as the Nazis, the forest fire as the Blitz, the father as missing, away at the front, and the mother as a casualty of war. Aristotle again—the horror stems essentially from political conflict and barbarism. I still think, secretly, that Bambi is one of the great films. Snow White is more admired by connoisseurs but, in an un-Aristotelian way, it has a happy end—in his terms, it is a comedy, and therefore a lower form. From an artistic point of view, Three Caballeros is the most adventurous, less overwhelmed by kitsch than the grandiose Fantasia. But Bambi is the Aristotelian tragedy, the film about trauma. Serge Daney notes, in the very first sentence of his book, Persévérance, that he had never seen Bambi—or, indeed, he boasts, any other Disney film, ever. Instead, he remembers quite a different film—Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, which he saw when he was twelve, the age of the boy in the film, persecuted by Robert Mitchum’s terrifying preacher. The films we remember best from our childhood always seem somehow autobiographical, always seem to be about ourselves in an especially strong sense. But Daney’s flight from Disney has another explanation—Disney represents for him the limit of cinephilia, the point where it becomes complicit with the Society of the Spectacle. Obviously, I can’t entirely agree with him. Bambi has a different meaning for me. It was the source of my cinephilia.