Why politics and sexuality should (still) be at the heart of critical analysis

cahiersducinema

In the seventies, Cahiers du Cinema – arguably the single most important magazine of film theory ever – radicalized their views on film analysis by centring it on ideology. Their basic points of criticism would revolve around politics and sexuality, i.e. Marxism and Freud. Other influential thinkers that helped shape this critical stance included Althussier’s philosophies and, perhaps even more prominently, Lacan’s psychoanalysis (all of which also played a big role in the development of theories on film linguistics, which sought a definition that would support the theory that “cinema is a language.”)

This politicized stance by Cahiers was very much a sign of its times and, to a certain, degree, its settings – it was the fruit of the disenchantment of post-May 1968 in France. It was also a time of the War in Vietnam and of serious national and international tension. It is impossible to encapsulate all the many reasons that led a group of film thinkers to establish what is ultimately the most sensical legitimate take of a film. Its underlying ethos is that it is simply not enough to say that a film is bad as a matter of taste.

A film can be purposefully bad – for instance, Godard’s Les Carabiniers, an anti-war film, is meant to be unappealing because, in Godard’s views, it is not moral to make a film about the war that will appeal to millions. Likewise, to draw an example from a more traditionalist form of storytelling, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan is a powerful and moving film, but it is not anti-war precisely because of its glorification of heroism on the war field. While it may make use of unappealing, horrific depictions of the war as part of its narrative, on a larger scale the film remains entertaining and therefore inevitably makes war seem glamorous.

In fact, in many ways, it was understood that the ideological nature of film as a product/artform (a capitalist one) could only be attacked through structure. More often that not, this would mean that a film should never aim to fool the viewer into thinking that what they were watching was real. In other words, the filmmaking process should be exposed, in one way or another, stylistically or otherwise. Examples of this type of filmmaking are numerous and diverse (Vertov, Godard, Pasolini, etc.).

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It is important to understand, according to Cahiers, that film is a product of its dominating ideology because it is part of a chain of commerce (production, money, labour etc.) as much as it is an art form. This, from a neutral viewpoint, is at once a good thing and a bad thing for relatively similar reasons. The good thing is that this balanced mixture of accessibility and otherworldliness makes it the most powerful cultural art form to this day. The bad thing is that its power can be used and has been used for ideologically unsound reasons; this is the case of propaganda, most explicitly, but also less explicitly, in standardizing a commercial type of cinema along the lines of a male-dominated outlook on the world. (This is a matter that should be discussed in another article).

Every film is absolutely integrated in its dominating ideology and because the part of the world that has the most access to films and cinema is largely of a capitalist mould, to this day film is primarily a capitalist object.

The ideology of a film is defined even before shooting even begins simply because, firstly, a language of traditionalist cinema has certainly been defined and has remained widely unaltered in the last over 100 years of cinema (yes, arguably even from before the arrival of synchronized sound); secondly, the outlook on the world of a filmmaker and/or the audience has been shaped by the dominating ideology. In the case of the audience, any given object (shot by the camera or projected on a screen) is not only recognized as an object, i.e. colour in space, but as the object and its meaning. Because the object is framed, it also places the viewer in a situation in which it is an observer.

(Nevertheless, as Bazin firmly stated, film, much like photography, offers the most realist representation of an object because, unlike a painting, for instance, it is subjected to mechanical intervention that neutralizes man’s effect on the finished product.)

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Film usually has a tendency to focus a viewer’s attention on a specific audience, and this, a part of film language itself, is facilitated by montage (film editing). Montage is also an explicit tool of ideology. The point is that whether or not the film follows a specific political agenda or is simply shaped by a filmmaker’s interests and psychology, it will be moulded according to a certain ideology, which will itself have been the result of a universal ideology, present in the physical world. In other words, the ideology of the physical world influences, without a doubt, the world of a film, i.e. the diegesis.

There is therefore no doubt that ideology shapes film, and that ideology is itself shaped by politics (a particular set of political beliefs or principles which extends from the personal to the absolute) and sexuality (an expression of humanity, identification, desire, psychosis). Politics and sexuality have overlapping traits and definitions; these can result in problems, paradoxes and so on. These are also very important in tracing out an outline for the analysis of  cinematic work.

Furthermore, film can be considered a product of what it isn’t as much as a product of what it is. This means that what we do not see on the screen is just as important in the world of the film as what we see on the screen. What should be analysed is what is not seen on the screen, more importantly than what is easily noticed. On the other hand, what is not easily noticed in a film can be subdivided into two categories; the kind that does not need to be seen and that which is not seen because it is absolutely integrated into the ideology of film. For example, a romantic comedy will always end with a kiss (at most, it will be followed up with a scene of a wedding or a humorous prologue). It is unlikely to show the moment after the kiss; this is where the genius in The Graduate lies. As Nichols’ camera allows the audience to look at the pivotal lovers for a little longer, it adds an unsettling twist to an apparently harmless “happy ending.”

Cahiers‘ outline of film criticism should not be seen as one focusing exclusively on themes and narratives; it is just as important to place the film in a socio-historical context, i.e. when was the film made and the reasons why it may have been made at this specific time in history, and to look at the technical aspects of the film that led to the final product, i.e. cinematography, montage, acting, screenwriting, sound design, music etc. Nevertheless, in order for film criticism to be culturally relevant and downright justified, it should be geared towards decoding a work rather than observing a work (and often stating the obvious, or the subjective).

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