Politics of Form,
Forms of Politics
Dudley Andrew has called film studies in the late 1960s “a garden in the Prague spring of academia.” If any text can be said to have germinated this flowering of film theory, then it is the editorial penned by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni and published in the October 1969 issue of Cahiers du cinéma, “Cinéma/idéologie/critique” (“Cinema/Ideology/Criticism”). Part manifesto, part polemic against their critical rivals, and part theoretical elucidation, the editorial set the basis for Cahiers’ activity for the next five years, as the journal sought to develop a Marxist approach to the critical analysis of cinema. A short, incisive text, whose political stridency transported the ebullient spirit of the May ’68 protests into the realm of film theory, the brevity of “Cinéma/idéologie/critique” belies the profound impact it has had on the study of cinema, particularly during the nascent period of the academic discipline’s development in the late 1960s and 1970s, such that it now holds a prominent, even canonical place within the history of film theory.
Having assumed editorial direction over Cahiers in the mid-1960s, Comolli and Narboni represented a generational shift in the journal’s composition, dealing as they had to with the legacy of the nouvelle vague auteurs who had preceded them – Éric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut among them. This shift coincided with a stark political turn: if Cahiers, in the late-1950s and early-1960s, was marked by a formalism that vacillated between dandyish disengagement and a flirtation with the political right, in the second half of the decade it had moved decisively to the far-left. When France erupted in the events of May ’68, the journal’s editorial team threw themselves wholeheartedly into the uprising: having played a central role in the protests against cinémathèque director Henri Langlois’ dismissal by the de Gaulle government earlier in the year, they now joined the barricades in the Latin Quarter, participated in student occupations, and organized the États-généraux du cinéma, which sought to reorganize the French film industry along radically collectivist lines. In all this, the journal’s critical activity continued unimpeded: receptive to the blossoming of new wave cinema across the world, Cahiers held up the work of Godard, Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Robert Kramer, Miklos Jancsó, Nagisa Oshima and Glauber Rocha, among others, as models of politically engaged and formally experimental filmmaking. At the same time, they came into the orbit of contemporary currents in French critical theory, drawing influence above all from the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser, but also from Lacanian psychoanalysis, the literary theory of Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida’s deconstructionist method.
From a historical standpoint, then, the publication of “Cinéma/idéologie/critique” can be seen as Cahiers’ own May ’68. Not only did it provoke a rupture with the journal’s owner, leading to a months-long, successful struggle to wrest control over the publication, but it also represented a moment of crystallization, when the diverse tendencies and influences of the preceding years manifested themselves in a bold cry of political and theoretical self-assertion which would usher in a period of frenetic militant activity. From this point on, Cahiers would be unequivocal in its project of developing a Marxist approach to the analysis of cinema.
“Every film is political,” Comolli and Narboni proclaimed. In line with Althusserian theory, the editorial duo stressed the importance, to a putative Marxist film criticism, of understanding the economic ideological determinations of films, rather than considering them as works of art autonomous from broader social conditions. If this represented a departure from the “politique des auteurs” that had earlier prevailed in the journal, there were also notable continuities. The films to be defended were those that were capable of provoking “discrepancies” or “ruptures” with the cinema’s overarching ideological function, thereby contributing to a “critical de-construction of the system of representation,” and included not only European modernist cinéastes but also classical Hollywood directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks. This line formed the basis of the famous “seven categories” of films proposed by the Cahiers editors, tentatively dividing film production into a classification system that stretched from unquestioning vehicles of capitalist ideology to works of revolutionary cinema, traversing filmmakers whose œuvre was capable of opening up ideological contradictions and faultlines. Importantly, this distinction largely operated on the level of a film’s form, rather than its overt content, and Comolli/Narboni placed a distinct emphasis, in the critical work they called for, on films capable of functioning “against the grain” – that is, those in which it was their formal structures that did the work of questioning and subverting the cinema’s dominant mode of representation – at the same time as they rejected “political” films which relied on stylistic conservativism.
The publication of “Cinéma/idéologie/critique” contributed to a series of polemics with a constellation of other French film and cultural journals, including Tel Quel, La Nouvelle Critique and its old rival Positif, but the most trenchant dispute was with another Marxist film magazine, Cinéthique. While often bitter and even pedantic, these debates, taken in their totality, can still serve today as critical points of orientation for navigating the field of politically engaged filmmaking, and should also be placed within the broader tradition of Marxist aesthetics, which encompasses tendencies as diverse as Brechtian dramaturgy, the situationism of Guy Debord, the Soviet avant-gardes of the 1920s (including Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov), British cultural studies, and theoretical/philosophical discussions of aesthetics and politics that stretch from the work of Antonio Gramsci and György Lukàcs in the early 20th century to Fredric Jameson and Alain Badiou in the present day.
For Cahiers, meanwhile, the “Cinéma/idéologie/critique” editorial ushered in a period of intense and theoretically fertile critical activity, which yielded such landmark texts as “Technique et idéologie” (Comolli), “La vicariance du pouvoir” (Narboni), “La Suture” (Jean-Pierre Oudart), “‘Réalité’ de la dénotation” (Pascal Bonitzer) and collective analysis of films such as Young Mr. Lincoln, Morocco and La vie est à nous. By 1973, however, the project announced by “Cinéma/idéologie/ critique” had faltered: the journal’s political evolution had taken it to the impasse of dogmatic Maoism, and a fractured and fatigued editorial team reflected a general downturn in militancy in France. When Comolli and Narboni left the stewardship of Cahiers to Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, the journal embarked in a new direction which would increasingly leave behind its post-1968 orientation and return it to the critical mainstream.
But the text’s resonances continued to be felt long afterwards, both in France and internationally. In the English-speaking world, translations of “Cinéma/idéologie/ critique” and other Cahiers texts became widely available and closely studied in journals such as Screen, Wide Angle and Jump Cut, serving as key theoretical tools for the generation of film studies academics who established themselves in the 1970s. This process was mirrored in other countries, as organs such as Filmkritik in West Germany or Cinema e film in Italy sought to follow in the footsteps of the French journal. Indeed, it was chiefly through these efforts that the original text gained such a wide readership.
If “Cinéma/idéologie/critique” has become canonized within film studies, this has unfortunately come at the expense of a historical distancing effect, which has seen the text treated largely as an artefact from a bygone period, politically and culturally remote from our own situation. The 50th anniversary of its original publication, however, calls for the article not to be solemnly treasured as a fossil of film theory, but to be re-activated within a contemporary context and explored for the plural critical pathways it can offer.
The text, and the conditions in which it was produced, indeed prompt many questions for scholars, critics, filmmakers and activists. What was the nature of the resonance this text had for film theory in the years following its publication? What effects did it have on the later activity of the journal’s editors themselves, who have continued to think about, write on and make cinema up to today? How can we insert Comolli/ Narboni’s ideas into a longer tradition of political aesthetics, which can also encompass other national or theoretical contexts? What is the relevance for the present day, with its markedly different ideological contours, of the intertwining of political engagement and formal experimentation advocated by Cahiers? At a time when the function of the film critic, and the very definition of the cinema itself, are coming increasingly into question, what lessons can this period of radical insurgency have for the making and critical analysis of films? How much can its lessons be applied not only to the cinema, but also to the vast field of audiovisual media production, whose omnipresence in 21st century societies could only be faintly divined in 1969?