"In the writing of movement with light," Jacques Ranciere muses, "fictional and sensible matter coincide: the darkness of betrayal, the poison of crimes, and the anguish of melodrama come into contact with the suspension of specks of dust, the smoke of a cigar and the arabesques of a rug." Films, in other words, simultaneously capture thoughts and objects, and it is from this that cinema can claim its uniqueness. Stories are imbued with a vision of reality closer to the truth than we are able to see in everyday life.
Ranciere, in the tradition of Jean Epstein and Andre Bazin, believes that our understanding of reality is deepened through cinema--and through cinema's storytelling mode of communication. By elevating the role of fable, Ranciere also challenges nostalgia and condescension, two recent ways of thinking about the art. For the nostalgists, cinema long ago relinquished its potential as camera style, becoming storytelling's "most faithful champion" by restoring the old representative hierarchy the other arts had strongly challenged; plots, typical characters, expressive codes and genres are reintroduced in film more strongly than before. On the other side is straightforward mockery-we were foolish to expect so much in the first place because what is cinema but a dream factory designed to tell stories?
Although Ranciere has written on cinema since the Seventies, when he contributed to Cahiers du cinema, this is his first book devoted to film (published originally in France in 2001 as La Fable Cinematographique). He continues to write film criticism and is on the editorial board of the late Serge Daney's bimonthly journal, Trafic. For the most part, his oeuvre, starting with a provocative contribution to Le Lecon d'Althusser in 1967, has been dedicated to philosophy.
In Film Fables Ranciere orients his approach against the separation of story and idea when considering the art of film and maintains that there is a false division in the defigurative approach practiced by Gilles Deleuze and his focus on the time-image and movement image and Bergson's emphasis on the internal, autonomous lives of images. To prove his points, Ranciere travels through the major shifts in European cinema by discussing some of his favorite auteurs: Eisenstein and Lang represent the transition from silent to sound films; classical or romantic narratives are captured via Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray; Rossellini and Godard represent modernist works; and Godard's archival project made for television, Histoire(s) du Cinema, and works by Chris Marker exemplify what Ranciere presents as the most recent development in the medium: "documentary fiction." Gilles Deleuze, despite his deployment of the defigurative gaze, is Ranciere's major philosophical referent--his work is hailed as the full realization of Andre Bazin's "occasional" philosophical project.
Ranciere's approach is standard politique des auteurs. Each chapter is delivered in a playfully varied and always passionate style, depending on the subject. While Ranciere writes lyrically of Ray, the chapter on Rossellini takes a quite different form. Employing short extracts from particular films--identified by various rubrics starting with "location, a morning in Rome," or "Berlin," or simply "home," and the characters in question (Irene, Pina, Karin)--we follow Ranciere's thoughts directly through analyses of scenes from Open City or Stromboil Rossellini is viewed as a director who proceeds by "fables of vocation" that combine his characters' newfound liberty--a historically specific moment--with an adjoining "absolute subjugation to a command" that can be linked either to their passions or particular social roles. Thus, the story becomes suffused with a reality external to the film itself.
The analysis of La Chinoise (1967) constitutes Film Fables" most politically oriented chapter. It is a fine study of how Godard's esthetic expresses specifically political questions and quandaries. How, Ranciere asks, are ideology and critique evoked through La Chinoise's cinematographic practice? According to Ranciere, Godard "made cinema with Marxism" in his sound, editing and use of color--red was used to trace the "line of thought." The film's famous accompanying dictum, "to give vague ideas a clear image," is a guiding esthetic principle that at the same time captures the predicament the characters struggled with at the time. Crucially, Godard's film underlines the tension between "two conceptions of the dialectic": the actual Chinese notion of dialectics during the Cultural Revolution and the one that "fuelled the Western Maoist imagination." Godard achieves this in the film by his use of text flashing up on screen ("words make images. They make us see") and what Ranciere calls the "bowl-and-toast principle," the way dialog combines with image: a character speaks of why he joined the Communist Party as he butters his toast and drinks his coffee, "the realistic weight of his words is entirely dependent on these accessories ... the 'popular gestus of this 'popular' kitchen." Godard's aim is "to consistently split in two the One" (as the Maoist formula goes) through his cinematic techniques of association and disassociation.
Tackling the enigmatic Chris Marker, Ranciere draws out the contradictions that exist within his oeuvre. Marker's "documentaries" merge history (being documented) with the history of film (expressed through the treatment of images). Thus, what Ranclare calls "documentary fiction" is a genre that fuses cinema as an art, the "best" language, able to "embrace bodies in movement," with the more rugged and real documentary approach that presents images for themselves, without creative intervention. The real paradox in Marker's work reiterates Ranciere's "fable cinematographique": Marker may constantly emphasize the autonomy of images, but he never trusts them completely, rather than let them speak for themselves, "he feels compelled to punctuate [every image] with an imperious voiceover commentary that tells us what they say." Indeed, is this narrative not one of Marker's trademarks? And is this not what makes him a great storyteller? In addition, Marker adds other fictional flourishes to films to augment their factual content; salient examples that came after Ranciere finished this chapter include his 2000 "documentary" on Tarkovsky or his account of the 2002 French protests, Chats perches (2004).
The book's original title, La Fable Cinematographique, posits story as a universal and timeless aspect of film, within a philosophical framework, something the Anglicized Film Fables fails to suggest, evoking only playful vignettes. There are, however, some broader limitations to Ranciere's reflections on film here. His canon does not include works from outside Europe or America, nor ones made after 1995. Given the richness and importance of other directors and traditions-Brazil's Cinema Novo, Tarkovsky's Russian masterpieces, Hou Hsiao-hsien's consistently fine works from Taiwan to name a few--it is a disappointing and disabling absence.
Although it is compelling to note how necessary the fable is, even for Deleuze's defiguring gaze, or Godard's scissor-touch, one is left uncertain about how Ranciere might approach contemporary cinema, or the impact of television. More of a thinker than a critic per se, he does not bother with directors or movements he does not like. But these would provide key challenges to his central theses. Time for Ranciere is registered only through his three regimes of art--ethical, representational, and esthetic-making postmodernism a redundant periodization, despite the fact that this historical context is fundamental for a coherent engagement with cinema today.--Emilie Bickerton
Named Works: Film Fables (Book) Book reviews
Bickerton, Emilie. "Film Fables." Cineaste Summer 2007: 95+. Academic OneFile. Web. 5 Dec. 2009.
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