Film Fables

Jacques Rancière,
Film Fables.
(Translated by Emiliano Battista)
Oxford & New York: Berg Publishers, 2006.
ISBN: 1 8452 0168 X
£16.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Berg Publishers)

Readers familiar with Jacques Rancière’s writings on historiography (Les mots de l’histoire), aesthetics (L’Inconscient esthétique and Malaise de l’esthétique), cultural history (Courts voyages au pays du peuple), and philosophy (Le partage du sensible) will welcome this collection of articles on classical and contemporary cinema. Rancière’s work on film history and theory makes clear the orientations of a writer and philosopher – along with Michel de Certeau, Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault – marked by the ferment of May 1968 and its aftermath. Mostly drawn from Trafic and Cahiers du cinémaFilm Fables makes clear a program that uses history and theory to politicize the aesthetic domain of film studies. Three concepts, all of which emerged from a time in which inherited political systems were severely called in question, are woven through eleven studies that range from silent film to newer creations in video and digital media.

First and foremost, Rancière understands a “fable” to be a narrative composed of visual and discursive elements that move with and against each other. The “tracks” along which stories unwind are at odds with their own form and that of film. The novelty of cinema, he contends, is that the laws that shape it reach back not only to the Poetics of Aristotle, on which cinematic narration is based, but also, less visibly on cursory view, to German Romantic philosophy. For the Schlegel brothers and Schiller a work of art is defined, on the one hand, by the “pure activity” on the part of its creator seeking to impose a form and signature on given matter while, on the other, its indelibly rich character is made manifest by “the pure passivity of the expressive power inscribed on the very surface of things, independently of every desire to signify or to create” (8). A film is composed thus of conscious and unconscious elements, the former residing in the realization of the director’s aims and the latter in what the lens registers or allows to be read independently of authorial control. The conscious eye of the film maker is doubled by the unconscious eye of the camera, and as a result the Aristotelian privilege of muthos, what makes narration possible, is countered by a visual order, “this writing of opsis” (9), that runs against the grain of narrative. The cinematic fable, Rancière concludes, is une fable contrariée, what Emiliano Battista elegantly translates as a “thwarted fable” (11). Seen thus, a film is by its own nature a critical object, a site where conflict promotes interpretation, and interpretation gains access to an arena in which politics and aesthetics are set in play in multifarious ways.

The concept that issues from this view of cinema, tied to Rancière’s political philosophy, is that of distribution. Hardly of the kind known to economic historians of film, the term specifies those areas where inherited or pre-given components of cinema, what might be called its “division of aesthetic labor”, witnesses notable shifts of direction, especially in areas of perception and sensation. Such is the inscription of televisual media in Fritz Lang’s While the City Sleeps (US 1956), a film of otherwise classical facture, in which the limits of the medium are brought forward as soon as the televisual eye, what in the 1950s was called “the tube”, occupies the cinematic screen; the strange reversals and complications of the motif of pure action in Anthony Mann’s post-war westerns, in which oepidal scenarios require decipherment of signs where the viewer would prefer to follow a narrative of pure action; or the uncanny combinations of letters and words mapped over filmic quotations in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema, in which unconscious associations are made to happen. How themes and effects are replotted, and how they recast and even fracture inherited narrative style, whether in the tradition of poetic theory or cinematic practices at given historical moments, becomes the central question that the critic addresses by way of formal and thematic analysis.

Though not spelled out as such in Film Fables, a third and related concept inflecting the work is that of dissensus. Made clear in his later writings, especially in Malaise dans l’esthétique (2004), Rancière argues that the vitality of political life depends both on dissent and on our need to foster dialogue that can encourage its expression. Awareness of political systems that impose consensus to legitimate unethical actions (unwarranted war, torture, extortion, consolidation of executive privilege to enable more actions of the same kind) can be gained through new distribution of cinematic forms, notably those built upon contrariety and contradiction. Rancière thus confers the study of film aesthetics with agency. Godard and Deleuze are exemplary, respectively, in their practice and theory. In a chapter on La Chinoise, a film of 1967 that both anticipates and sums up much of the labors of May 1968, Rancière shows that a common ground of politics and art is found when continuity is interrupted, and when an endless insertion of words in the image causes lexical matter to be “seen” and visual composition to be “read”, both then (in 1967) and now (in 2006), in new and different ways. When words and images are disjoined or displaced their received – and often implicitly consensual – meanings are fractured. So too are the modes of representation that, when “they go without saying”, mobilize powerful ideological programs.

The gist of the work on Godard applies to Deleuze. When, in The Movement-Image and in The Time-Image the reader of Deleuze discerns how much the one inheres in the other – time pertains to motion, and vice-versa – a constructively different sense of film history is born. Rancière uses Deleuze, it appears, to have the idea of distribution lead to other and alternative registers of perception and sensation. They are felt in dissensus, especially in the features of post-war directors who create what Deleuze calls a “stratigraphic” cinema, one that uses geology to express what in general cannot be indicated about the timelessness of duration and different visual strategies to reorient sensation and perception. A recurring motif of Film Fables, as Rancière makes clear in his reading of La Chinoise, is that “the task of art is to separate, to transform the continuum of image-meaning into a series of fragments, postcards, lessons” (147). The resulting “quasi-words” and “quasi-images” (that indeed Deleuze also discovers in his pages on the same director) are signs of a “dissensual” cinema that fuses art and practice.

Each of Rancière’s chapters works in accord with these conceptual tools. The design of the book is implicitly historical, but its itinerary does not follow the chronology of most histories of film. The principles of the cinematic fable are found in Jean Epstein’s remark (written in 1921) that “[c]inema is true. A story is a lie” (1). Rancière departs from the early theorist and filmmaker to test the productive mendacity of cinematic narratives and to have them bring forward, in the style and form of many of the established auteurs of cinema, the specific qualities of their composite “fables”. Included are Eisenstein, Murnau (especially Tartuffe), Lang (notably, MWhile the City Sleeps, and Moonfleet), Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray (They Live by Night), Rossellini, Chris Marker, and Godard. Each of the critical appreciations, written with wit and invention, brings new perspectives on a variety of films and directors. In each Rancière inspires his reader to rethink and thus to “redistribute” the findings of most manuals of criticism and history. This is a compelling study that will leave an enduring mark on film and media studies.

Tom Conley
Harvard University.

Created on: Monday, 20 November 2006 | Last Updated: 20-Nov-06

About the Author

Tom Conley

About the Author

Tom Conley

Tom Conley is the author of The self-made map and Film hieroglyphs, and is currently writing a study of cinema and cartography.View all posts by Tom Conley →