Wisdom of the Surface


“There is no politics of cinema, there are only singular figures according to which filmmakers apply themselves to bring together the two meanings of the word ‘politics’, with which we can consider a fiction in general and a cinematographic fiction in particular: politics as what a film speaks about – the story of a movement or a conflict, the unveiling of a situation of suffering or injustice, and politics as the strategy of an artistic approach: a way to speed up or slow down time, to diminish or widen space, to match or unmatch look and action, to link or unlink before and after, in and out. We could say: the relation between a matter of justice and a practice of justness. How to think about the way cinema can nowadays put into action the relation between the certainties of injustice, the uncertainties of justice and the calculation of justness?”
— Jacques Rancière

A new book by Jacques Rancière on cinema is always reason to rejoice. Drawing from his experiences related to the cinephile movement in the 1960’s – when he found himself confronted with the tensions between a lingering passion for cinema and an outspoken Marxist worldview – Rancière’s approach to cinema has developed into a highly singular and necessary one, stemming from an interest in the possible relations between a materialism of the mise-en-scène and a global materialism of the world, but also the relations between specific procedures of “sensible” arrangement and what we generally tend to call “cinema” – that what we have come to expect and desire from cinema. For him, these gaps and intervals – “les écarts du cinema”, as his new book is titled – are where the philosophical play is situated. Rancière has never been interested in film analysis or theory in itself: there just is no concept that integrates all the different conceptions of cinema, just as there isn’t a theory that unifies all the problems they pose. With his self-proclaimed position of “amateur” he tries to find a balance between this heterogeneity of cinema and its simultaneous homonymy which paradoxically also lays out a common space to think. It’s in this space where Rancière’s thinking of cinema is situated, always exploring the nodes between different ideas or problems: between cinema and art, cinema and politics, cinema and theory. This amateur position is also an outspoken political one, from which he refutes the authority of specialists and, as in all his work, seeks to reexamine the ways in which the borders of their specific domains intersect or overlay with crossings of experience and knowledge. He writes: “the politics of the amateur affirms that cinema belongs to everyone that has explored the interior of the system of gaps that its name signifies and everyone can take up the authority to trace, between different points of the topography, a singular path that adds to cinema as a world and its knowledge.”

In a way, his conception of philosophy can be considered as cinematographic in itself. Indeed, his work has always been about scanning given landscapes for passage points and transit zones that allow to cut and configure them differently; trying to describe and inscribe particular paths and passages within those landscapes, defined by the coexistence of heterogeneous plans or the connection of opposing points. Isn’t his notion of “partage du sensible” in essence cinematographic too? After all, it deals with a sensibility for the “frame” – what is inside and outside, within and beyond; it deals with with a sensitiveness for the partition of a traversed landscape; with ways of presenting the visible and linking together different sensations and perceptions. The distribution of the sensible is also where his ideas on politics and cinema come together: in the construction of landscapes and ways of seeing that deconstruct consensus and highlight uncovered possibilities and capacities. But at the same time Ranciere has always contradicted the well-spread assumption that this reconfiguration of the landscape can be used as a simple instrument to mobilize militant energies or inform political strategies – an utopian idea that can be traced back to, for example, Vertov, whose work was grounded in a believe that cinema could, in effect, close the gaps between art, life and politics. But once the doomed marriage between communism and cinema was over, writes Rancière,

“the politics of cinema found itself captured in the contradictions that were proper to the expectations of critical art. The view we have on the ambiguities of cinema is in itself marked by the duplicity of what we expect of it: that it gives rise to a certain consciousness due to the clarity of an unveiling, and to a certain energy due to the presentation of a strangeness, that it unveils at the same time all the ambiguity of the world and the way to deal with this ambiguity. We project on it the obscurity of the relation between the clarity of vision and the energy of action. But if cinema can clarify the action, it’s maybe by questioning the self-evidence of that relation.”

In one of the last chapters of Les écarts du cinéma, titled ‘Conversations autour d’un feu’ (first presented in a talk at Centre Pompidou in June 2010) Rancière takes the work of Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, in particular their film Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Cloud to the Resistance) (1979), as a starting point to reflect on how this “questioning” has, over the course of the last decades, taken different forms and attitudes. He writes

“This politics of the communist cantata does not offer us a model of cinematographic politics but a point of reference: the mark of a time when dialectics finds itself scattered from the movement of history that carried it and has to construct a new place for itself, a new distribution of words and gestures, times and spaces; but it is also a fixed point to evaluate the way in which filmmakers have, since that time, wanted to tackle the fractures of history, the shaking up of paths between territories, injustices and new conflicts.”

Dalla nube alla resistenza – based on two works by Cesare Pavese – is not used as an exemplary model, but rather as a significant moment in the thinking of cinema and politics. Rancière indicates three reasons for his choice: first of all, the film ties in with the so-called “Brechtian paradigm”, of which the work of Straub and Huillet is perhaps the most systematic cinematographic form; at the same time, this particular film also represents a sort of turning-point in the dialectical tradition, resulting in a form which Rancière proposes to call “post-Brechtian”; and this critical moment in the work of the two filmmakers also corresponds with a historical juncture: namely, the end of the “leftist” decade, marked by a worldwide diminution of social achievements and revolutionary ideals. Around this period a certain era of cinema-political relations came to an end – characterized by the militant work of Vertov or the Medvedkin Group on the one hand, and historical fresco’s such as Bertolucci’s Novecento on the other. The “post-Brechtian” formula, according to Rancière, thus stands for a certain approach to cinema and politics which is “less focused on the revelation of mechanisms of domination and repression, and more on the examination of the aporia’s of emancipation”.

Rancière’s venture takes him from a thorough analysis of Dalla nube alla resistenza to a juxtaposition with the more recent work of Godard, notably Eloge de l’amour and Notre musique. Although all these films seem to have certain traits in common – reference to the Resistance, confrontation of historical text and place etc. – their take on the Brechtian paradigm has taken different directions, which are manifest in the relations between what is said and what is shown, between the visibility of speaking bodies and the things they are speaking about, between gestures of justness and the intricacy of injustice. According to Rancière, the politics in the work of Straub and Huillet, exemplified by the sixth episode of Dalla nube alla resistenza, situates itself in “the art of arranging bodies that are at the same time capable of phrasing the dialectical force of division and summarize in one single gesture the resistance of justice to all arguments. This resistance itself proves to be visually equal to its contrary: the resistance of nature to all argumentation of just and unjust.” On the other hand, the dialectical play in Godard’s recent work, loaded with irony and nostalgia, is amplified in such a way that it gives way to “a radical impossibility of choosing between injustices”.

Beyond these two singular takes on the post-Brechtian paradigm, Rancière traces contemporary figures of cinema-political relations that, at first sight, couldn’t be further removed from the dialectical tradition. He finds them, for example, in the images of a young girl’s final journey in Bela Tarr’s Satantango – which depicts a figure of resistance which is not unlike the shepherd boy’s stretched arm in Dalla nube alla resistenza, or, for that matter, the stubborness of Bresson’s Mouchette. Tarr’s pessimistic view on the historical breakdown of communism, wrapped in a devastating tale of villains and victims, might have nothing left in common with the communism in Straub and Huillet’s work, but it’s the visual force of this particular resistance, opposing the overwhelming emptiness and deceit in the film, that gives it its political dimension.

“It’s only behind the mises-en-scène that cinema can propose promise or betrayal of a historical experience, there is politics that holds on to the very relationship of the art of moving images with the stories it tells and the process it instructs; there is its way to bring the narrative and dialectic topos to the flat frame of the screen, to the way in which space deploys itself and the light vibrates.”

This tension is evoked in Rancière’s account of Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sanshō Dayũ, telling the story of the family of a governor of a Japanese province, sent into exile because of his stance against oppression. His wife is taken away, his children are sent to the mines. In a particular moving scène, the daughter slowly drowns herself in a lake, in order for her brother to be able to escape, look for their mother and fulfill his promise to free the slaves. For Rancière, this moment indicates a double logic: “on the one hand, cinema participates in the struggle for emancipation, on the other, it disperses into circles on the surface on a lake.” The same double logic is apparent when the son, after freeing the slaves, leaves the battlefield to search for his mother. In the end, the film offers no reparation of the injustices done to them, but there is a final reconciliation of mother and son, filmed in “a slow movement that at the same time assembles and sweeps away, in the serenity of the image, the bodies that the violence of the intrigue has separated.” It’s here, writes Rancière, where all the “écarts” of cinema come together: in this movement in which the film, after demonstrating the struggle for emancipation, finally says: “these are the limits of what i can do. The rest is up to you.”

“The justness of cinema depends on the suspense held between two directions of the moving image: that which opens it to the injustices of the world and that which transforms all intrigue of injustice into vibrations on a surface. It’s in relation to this tension between outside and inside, shared by the classical narrative form (Mizoguchi) and the dialectical form (Straub), that we can think of the becoming of the link between cinema and politics.”

Rancière discusses some recent examples of how this relation between inside and outside, but also the sense of “fiction”, can be challenged. He dedicates a separate chapter to Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas trilogy, in particular No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room) and Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth), two powerful works whose politics does not lie in dialectical discussion or demonstration, but in finding a way to give back the residents of Fontainhas, an impoverished quarter of Lisbon, all the sensible wealth their world holds. Rancière states: “the wealth of the common world and the capacity of any individual cannot be put in a dialectical formula anymore”. Rather, they deploy themselves under the form of a multiplicity of “condensations” of light and color, bodies and objects, words and silences… all of which function as substitutes, floating on the surface of the screen, “of a great lost art that would be the art of life itself, the art of sharing of sensible wealth and forms of experience.”

Thus, “the politics of cinema plays out in the relation between the ‘documentary’ principle of observation of autonomous bodies and the ‘fictional’ principle of recomposing spaces.” It’s this kind of politics he also sees in Tariq Teguia’s under appreciated Gabbla (Inland), where “fiction”, as defined by Rancière, reveals itself in two ways: in the story of certain invented characters (a topographer, a refugee, a group of militant intellectuals, …) but also as a system of “écarts” between different ways of constituting a territory (Algeria). Here the political project is situated in the confrontation of various spaces, movements across those spaces, and figures of justice, exemplified in the scene where all the main characters are seen traversing the desert. “The dialectical arguments about justice take the form of a confrontation of spaces. And the crossing of those spaces in itself obeys the law that commands the cinematographic fable to declare itself as such, by letting the screen recapture the silhouettes and the trails.”

“This transformation of games of dialectic language of former times in games of space can seem far removed from certain expectations related to the politics of cinema. But in its own way it continues the movement that displaces the theatrical forms of the struggle about justice in two directions: on one hand the manifestation of a capacity of ordinary beings to express the richness of common experience; on the other, the uncertainty of all attempts to ever find the signs of justice on the surface of visible things. if the Straubs’ film is a point of reference, it’s because of the balance it produces between these two movements: first, the cinema passes on to the anonymous the theatrical force of the quarrel on injustice; second, it transforms the quarrel in the projection of luminating images and revokes the pretension of theater to identify itself with life, this pretension that it wages on the reality on speaking bodies in action. Let’s call this cinematographic counter-movement wisdom of the surface. And let us note that today the balance has clearly shifted to the side of this wisdom.”

As he also made clear in his previous writing on “critical art” and the relationship between esthetics and politics, Rancière radically questions and overturns the expectations and presuppositions that come with the notion of politically engaged art and cinema: the believe that there’s a clear line between a way of presenting things and the determination to act; between raising a certain consciousness and provoking political action. But today, the real political power of cinema, according to Rancière, does not lie in conveying outspoken political messages but in what he calls the “wisdom of the surface”.

“Some still hold on strongly to the idea that the political effect of art works depends on the production of well-defined feelings of attraction or repulsion, fury or energy. They still hold on to models of causality that pretend to link modes of perception, forms of knowledge and mobilizing affects; but if they grant these powers to the works, it’s only to make them trip up, to be able to extract a diagnosis of impotence. I think that there is more common power preserved in the wisdom of the surface, in the way in which the issues of justice are weighed according to the imperatives of justness. But also the stories of spaces and trajectories, marchers and journeys can help us to inverse the perspective, to imagine no longer the forms of an art put in the service of political goals but the political forms reinvented on the basis of multiple ways in which the arts of the visible invent gazes, place bodies, making them transform the spaces they traverse.”

Notes on Jacques Rancière, ‘Les écarts du cinéma’, published by La Fabrique Editions. Apologies for the rough translations.