‘Cinema is true. A story is a lie.’ So wrote Jean Epstein in 1921 in Bonjour cinéma, heralding the arrival of a modern art form that would supersede previous plots. Just as modernist painting had overturned the conventions of pictorial representation, cinema would undo the Aristotelian chain of action and consequence, revealing through the succession of images the fragmentary, open-ended truth of contemporary existence. But although several of Epstein’s contemporaries—Dziga Vertov or Walter Ruttmann, for example—seemed to be working towards the creation of just such a cinema, narrative convention, whether in epic, melodramatic or comic forms, was at the same time driving Hollywood’s inexorable rise, and has from the beginning remained stubbornly immune to avant-garde assault.
The persistence of narrative could be taken as a defeat for cinematic modernism, marking the consolidation of the more retrograde tendencies of the ‘culture industry’. This is a view Jacques Rancière’s new book resists. The most brilliant and wayward of Althusser’s pupils, Rancière has had a remarkably versatile and productive career since the days of Reading Capital; he has moved from philosophical reflections on the division of labour (Le Philosophe et ses pauvres) to historical research on the working-class imagination (La Nuit des prolétaires), critical analysis of the poetics of Michelet and the Annales School (Les Noms de l’histoire), political interventions on contemporary usages of democracy (Aux Bords du politique) and, most recently, a wide-ranging account of successive metamorphoses in the status of art (Le Partage du sensible), of which a powerful summary can be found in his essay ‘The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes’ (NLR 14). La Fable cinématographique offers a vivid, detailed application of his basic theoretical framework for understanding the ‘aesthetic revolution’ to the art of the cinema. With it, Rancière takes his place in the distinctively French line of outstanding film theorists that stretches from Epstein to Bazin, Daney to Deleuze—thinkers who have combined a passionate knowledge of the medium with an intellectual depth, drawing on philosophical, literary and art-historical resources, rare in the Anglophone world. In range and originality, La Fable cinématographique is fully the equal of its illustrious predecessors.
Rancière begins by noting that Epstein’s dream, in essence, was to bid farewell to an ancient Aristotelian principle: the primacy of muthos—intelligible plot—over opsis—sensible effect of the spectacle. But the very filmic materials Epstein used for his argument were, their setting temporarily obliterated, taken from a conventional silent melodrama of the time, The Honour of His House. Such a paradox, in Rancière’s eyes, is constitutive of the cinema as an art form. An ambition to supersede conventional representation for direct sensory affect—displacing mimesis by aisthesis—was inscribed in it from the start. At work here was what Rancière has described more generally as the ‘aesthetic revolution’ in art, when stable codes of artistic expression were overturned and matter released from its subordination to formal constraints. The classical norms of a ‘representational regime’ gave way to the ‘aesthetic regime’, in a break that brought with it a series of strains and ambiguities—not least a tension between the active exercise of a creativity now unbounded by rules, and a passive adherence to the expressive force deemed inherent to the things of the world.
Cinema could be taken as an ideal resolution of this tension—the conscious eye of the filmmaker teamed with the unconscious, mechanical eye of the camera. But Rancière suggests that the very passivity of the camera effected a restoration of the representational regime: form once again commanding matter. The paradoxical nature of cinema—stemming from the contradiction between its technical means of conveying images and its imperial aims of recreating the world—set up a spiralling dialectical relation between ‘classical’ traditions of mimesis and a ‘romantic’ surge towards direct expression. Rancière traces oscillations and reversals between these across a long historical span, from Eisenstein, Murnau and Lang, through major Hollywood directors and the moment of Italian neo-realism, to the epoch of video in the late work of Godard. Originally published as separate essays, which could stand alone as perceptive studies of their subjects, here they have been reworked as a coherent argument covering most of what might still be called a Cahiers canon.
Rancière opens with a subtle reassessment of Sergei Eisenstein, defining the latter’s project as an alternative both to the mimetic conventions of the ancien régime and to the post-Revolutionary urge to document the forms of the new collective life. What Eisenstein instead proposed was a cinema that would not wrap ideas in plots and characters, but rather convey their force directly through images—creating what Rancière terms ‘an ecstatic art’. Eisenstein made use of imagery both of the modern and rational—tractors and sleek modern houses in The General Line (1929)—and of the ancient and mythological—cow skulls and peasant rituals in the same film. Though artefacts of industrial modernity were nominally deployed in triumphant contrast to relics of superstition, Rancière notes that the net effect of the mise-en-scène is to combine the two, in an ecstatic fusion of bright future and primal past. The famous milk-separator sequence in The General Line is the clearest conjunction of this kind, a celebration of mechanical rhythms with unmistakable sexual overtones.
The General Line has often been criticized as propaganda for Stalin’s brutal collectivization, in which millions were killed, imprisoned or starved; the very force of its misappropriated primal motifs providing euphoric cover for atrocity. Rancière, however, maintains that the unease caused by The General Line today stems not so much from its ideological alignment as from a contemporary discomfort with the delirious ambitions of modernism—a malaise brought on by the uncompromising, uncontainable nature of Eisenstein’s project.
Following a splendid discussion of Murnau’s Tartuffe (1926), Rancière looks at Fritz Lang’s M (1931), a crime story whose narrative mostly conforms to the demands of Aristotelian drama, yet also inescapably undermines them. For the film also contains numerous scenes that briefly suspend the action, not merely as a pause for breath or a device to heighten tension, but with a logic of their own as what Rancière terms an ‘aesthetic plot’. Their purpose, in contrast to the thriller’s progress towards the apprehension of the criminal, is to make the viewer feel the force of ‘empty time’. This treatment of time, Rancière observes, is a prime characteristic of the aesthetic regime of art—‘the lost time of flânerie or the suspended time of epiphanies’ that has been integral to literature’s affective powers since Flaubert. But while critics such as Epstein believed that between them these shots could form a language of images, Rancière notes that Lang never entertained any such illusions, since cinema necessarily combined the twin logics of its story and of its images. Whilst the interruptions to the action in M mark a break with representational logic, Rancière sees the dominant mode of Lang’s films as one of critical mimesis—as in M, when the murderer is tried by a group of low-lifes, their courtroom roles paralleling and parodying those of the upright citizenry.