Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism.
London: The British film Institute, 2001.
ISBN: 0 85170 853 6 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by British Film Institute)
Uploaded 1 December 2001
Promised Lands deals with struggles waged between affect and science. In initial allegiance with André Gide the author avows that an affinity for the scientific rigor of geography hides a drive to roam and wander. And so does the book, that on cursory glance is a register of diverse reflections: divided into fifteen chapters whose titles are toponyms in Rohdie’s life and travels, the book begins with a memory of an amorous encounter taking place in Rome forty years ago. Most of the first seven chapters are set under European place-names while the last seven are generally situated in Africa. At the geographical center of the book (chapter 8, the line of demarcation drawn between 1-7 and 9-15) is “Xanadu,” a chapter marking an axis where Rohdie’s wanderings converge with those of the narrative of Citizen Kane. At the end of his travels the author returns to a “promised land,” the memory of his affair in Rome, before he appends Borges’s “On the rigor of science,” the famous story (of four sentences) telling of the collapse of an Empire after its cartographers had conceived and executed a map of the kingdom on a scale of one-to-one.
And so Promised Lands wanders with rigor. It aims to be without a center or a destination. “Nothing in the writing of this book, nor in my search of its subject, has been exterior to me…. I have pursued the writing for no ambition, no good cause, nor duty, but for pleasure and compulsion” (vi). The words recall the preface to the Essais, the work of the first vagrant ethnographer of France, in which Montaigne wrote, “Reader, here is a book of good faith. From the outset it informs you that I have proposed no goal for myself, other than domestic and private…. Had it been in order to seek the favor of the world, I would have dressed myself in better finery and would present myself with a studied step.” Following the serial order of a vanguard film such as Vivre sa vie (France 1962) or Pierrot le fou (France/Italy 1965), each chapter is broken into numerically ordered fragments ranging from zero (in chapter 15) to eighteen (chapter 2). A mosaic effect results, the mix of text and numbers forming a virtual webbing of graticules, rhumblines, and windroses of an autobiographical and historical cartography. The book thus follows the plans of what geographer David Woodward calls “center-enhancing” and “route-enhancing” maps. Within the configuration are placed terse discussions of affect and space in cinema, especially Italian classics from Rossellini to Visconti and Fellini, but also keynote directors of the Nouvelle vague.
Much of Promised Lands treats of geography and its relation to ethnography and cinema. In a first section Jean Brunhes’s project of Human Geography (subtitled “an essay of positive classification”), in which man and his works are explained by the places from which they emerge, is opposed to the tenuous but vital relation that we hold with images of places. Rohdie contrasts the reifying effects of Brunhes’s positivism to the ways that perception and its misprisions remain at the crux both of life and cinema. Brunhes becomes the model for the kind of ethnographic representation that post-colonial anthropologists – Michel Leiris, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean Rouch – call into question. In a second section Rohdie recounts the career of Père Francis Aupiais, a missionary of the Société des missions africaines de Lyon, an agency founded in 1856, at the height of French colonial activity. A student of Brunhes who also met Marcel Mauss and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Aupiais shifted his affiliation with French Catholicism from an ideology of conversion to one of assimilation and identification with African religions. “For Aupiais, the task of the mission was not to tear away the fabric of social beliefs in Africa, but to build on them and seek to conserve them” (187). His Catholicism, hints Rohdie, is strangely similar to those of Italian neorealists, filmmakers for whom, as Bazin also observed, “reality is identified and set free by film, unencumbered by interpretation, not reduced to a singularity of a linear narration of events,” by which is obtained “a view of the muteness, silence, grandeur and terror of reality, its obscurity and mystery…through which meanings and interpretation might pass but may never be fixed” (194-95).
Approaching that ideal was Aupiais’s project of the second of two films, respectively, Le Dahomey chrétien and Le Dahomey religieux. The former was realized while the latter, for reason of conflict with Catholic authorities, was never finished. The seven hours of rushes indicate that much followed the principles of Brunhes’s human geography while other material dealt with the fusion of African and colonial sensibilities. Where the Christian part of the film is religious propaganda the remainder of the work on Dahomey religion becomes a reality unto itself, of Bazinian ontology, in which the images constitute the emotion and tact of African religion. Contrasted to Aupiais is an account of Gide’s Voyage au Congo (France 1927) and its accompanying film that the young Marc Allégret shot during his travels with the novelist. Gide “negotiated his understanding of Africa with a literary past he brought with him” (224); by contrast, Allégret eroticized the country by caressing nubile African bodies with the lens of his camera, turning natives into primitive versions of Josephine Baker.
Readers may be irritated by the brevity of the author’s sentences until noting (219) that Rohdie is seeking a verbal measure that states at once too much and too little, in other words, that numbs by virtue of its exactitude or that, as Hemingway noted, gains force through citation of proper names and places. Some will also ask why Buñuel’s Tierra sin pa (1932, photographed by Elie Lotar), an ethnographic film ironically subtitled a work of “human geography” (following a study of Las Hurdes by Maurice Legendre) is not included in the discussions.
In all events Rohdie’s book is a prismatic creation that draws the observer into the history of ethnography, geography, and travel in twentieth-century Europe and its colonies. The sketches of the origins of scientific representation in film, anthropology, and human geography will inspire further research on cinema and space. The material on Brunhes will lead to correlative study of intellectual France of the Third Republic (Durkheim, Tarde, Péguy), of the legacy of Comte’s positivism in French ethnology (from Mauss to Lévi-Strauss) and perhaps, too, of the tensions of science and fantasy in literary spheres concurrent with the beginnings of geographical cinema (what Balzac called “la toise et le vertige,” a mix of measurement and frenzy that informed the science of Emile Bernard and Zola). At the same time Promised Lands begs closer examination of the representation of geography in cinema. If, as Bazin argued in “The evolution of film language,” the event of film is our perception of its quiddity, cinema by nature embodies and displaces geography. Our perception of filmic images shows us “where we are not”. Such is what Rohdie discovers in the pathos of wanderings that seek at once to retrieve and to lose his ties with different places.
[see also: Sam Rohdie, “Geography, photography, the cinema: Les Archives de la Planète”, Screening the Past, Issue 4, 1998,http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/reruns/rr998/SRrr3a.html ]