Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema

Ivone Margulies (ed),
Rites of Realism: Essays on Corporeal Cinema.
Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press, 2003.
ISBN: 0 8223 3066 0
US$21.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Duke University Press)

Editor Ivone Margulies nails her colours to the mast early on in this anthology, stating that it is “inspired by, and pays tribute to, André Bazin’s thoughts on the dilemmas of performance … and filmic reproducibility.”(3) Implicitly resisting crude contemporary academic categorisations of Bazin as passé, the collection attempts a fresh take on the thorny concept of realism in cinema by focusing largely on the body. It also eschews the post modern, poststructuralist assault on notions of the real, as well as any narrow concept of verisimilitude susceptible to attack on the basis of illusionism, striving for a more nuanced approach to debates about realism, by scrutinising a variety of practices including performance, portraiture, re-enactment, documentary and experimental filmmaking.

Margulies divides the topic into three parts. Essays in the first section, entitled “Bazinian contingencies”, which specifically engage with Bazin’s writings, are uniformly illuminating. Key concepts such as indexicality, phenomenology and the enunciation of an ontology of film hover over the contributions here, alternatively invoked and challenged. Proceedings begin with Bazin’s classic article “Death in the afternoon”, a meditation on cinema’s unique ability to capture the passage of time and the movement from one state to another at the moment of death. In re-framing the concept of the real, this essay sets up a discussion of the significance of time and transformation in subsequent pieces. Serge Daney’s “The screen of fantasy (Bazin and animals)” attacks facile, overdetermined interpretations that equate Bazin’s advocacy of the unedited moment with a desire to preserve “reality” in aspic. Closely examining Bazin’s writings, Daney persuasively points out how heterogeneity, or “difference, rupture, discontinuity” (33), is at the centre of Bazin’s discourse. The prohibition of montage in filming the real is thus equated with unpredictability and transformation.The relation between images of death and the real is also raised later in the collection by James F. Lastra, who probes the context and significance of the notorious shot of a goat falling to its death in Luis Buñuel’s Las Hurdes: Land Without Bread (Spain, 1932).

It’s back to the ’70s, in the high tide theoretical sense, at the beginning of each of the next two essays. Philip Rosen’s “History of Image, Image of History: Subject and Ontology in Bazin” outlines the contrivances by which subject theory was schematically opposed to Bazin, citing theorists from Jacques Lacan and Jean-Louis Comolli to Colin MacCabe and Stephen Heath. Rosen insists upon the centrality of the subject in all Bazin’s writings, and on Bazin’s consideration of time as being at least as important as spatial or perspectival accounts of realist representation. His argument, developed through reference to Bazin’s notion of the “mummy complex”, i.e. “the preservative obsession” (55) reflecting a subject’s desire to “overcome time” (63), hinges upon the apprehension of the filmed image as referring to an absence from the present, “a different when than that of the spectator” which is “inferred” or “provided” by the subject (51). Pointing to depictions of Stalin in Soviet cinema, Bazin noted a different form of mummification in “historical films that abolish history” (61). Suppressing the subject-object gap, such films stretch any referential link to breaking point.

Mary Ann Doane approaches the dilemma of theory in the digital “Post Theory” age by referring approvingly to at least one element of 1970s apparatus theory: the “effort to actively think the limits and identity of an object of knowledge rather than to take for granted the prior existence of self-evident and indisputable objects” (81). Contingency, or the capture of “fugitive images”, is at the centre of Doane’s examination of theory in the digital age. Citing Miriam Hansen and Paul Willemen, she links cinephilia and nostalgia for cinema to contingency and indexicality. Her historical survey leads her to read contingency as “a witness against technology as inexorability” (88) and a link to future technologies.

As with any such anthology, there is a strong “curate’s egg” factor at work in Rites of Realism. If the first section is tightly focussed on time, Bazin and indexicality, the second section, “Cultural Indices”, is much more diverse and accordingly less coherent, ranging across subjects from 1960s American portraiture to cinematic representations of Beijing, Buñuel’s Las Hurdes and Mike Leigh’s oeuvre. This divergence, reflected further in the gulfs in style, content and quality, gives the chapters contained within it a “catch all” feel. The best, such as Paul Arthur’s examination of two poles of the 1960s portrait film emanating from the direct cinema movement and Andy Warhol’s Factory, bristle with ideas, engaging with broader history and theory in reading these “slice[s] of contingent history” (114). Moving away from tired old debates pivoting on the authenticity of such portraits, Arthur places performance and time at the centre of his analysis of films which, through their radically different truth claims, move beyond mere period pieces.

Two chapters in this section have an Asian focus. In the first, Abé Mark Nornes places Hara Kazao within a tradition of Japanese documentary. For those readers better versed in the Anglo-Continental debates about documentary epistemology and practice, Nornes produces a fascinating account of the parallel development of documentary theory within Japan – a different sort of third way! Due to haphazard distribution outside Japan, most non-Japanese viewers are unlikely to have seen much of Hara’s work beyond The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987). Demonstrating how Hara uncovers “the performance in the everyday, a performative enunciation that makes documentary itself possible” (157), Nornes’ article made me want to rush to see every other work he discusses. The other chapter dealing with Asian cinema, “In search of the real city: cinematic representations of Beijing and the politics of vision” takes a completely different approach, looking at Chinese Fourth Generation filmmakers’ representations of Beijing in Black Snow (1989) and Good Morning Beijing (1990). Closely analysing the films, Xiaobing Tang examines the distinct traditions they invoke.

Like Nornes, Richard Porton situates his subject Mike Leigh in a national and international framework in “Mike Leigh’s Modernist Realism”. Giving the lie to the superficially social realist and naturalistic tone of Leigh’s work, Porton considers the influence of both Brecht and British theatrical comedy traditions in key films such as Meantime (1984), Bleak Moments (1971), High Hopes (1988), Naked (1993), Secrets and Lies (1996) and Career Girls (1997).

Unpackaging Buñuel’s Las Hurdes was never going to be a straightforward task, and in the final chapter of this section, “Why is this absurd picture here? Ethnology, heterology, Buñuel”, James F. Lastra produces an essay to match the complex layers of its subject. Dealing with a film which constantly engages in a “double movement, embracing and repelling the Hurdanos” (187), Lastra poses the question as to why Buñuel fashioned a text “so morally, politically and epistemologically ambiguous” (189). His answer partly revolves around Buñuel’s adoption, in describing the Hurdanos, of the pejorative language and oppressive stance taken by the dominant culture, in order to expose its pernicious attitudes. The foregrounding of this scapegoating process (within a work featuring perhaps the most famous goat in film history) chimes with the exploitation of the Hurdanos both as embodiment of, and a stain on, the dominant culture.

The final section of Rites of Realism, entitled “Retracings”, investigates many works and directors associated with modernist impulses (including Carl Theodore Dreyer, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Maya Deren). The first two articles in this section, Ivone Margulies’ “Exemplary Bodies: Reenactment in Love in the CitySons and Close-Upand Noa Steimatsky’s “Pasolini on terra sancta: towards a theology of film” set up a general thread in terms of echoes of reality, repetition and transmutation. Steimatsky’s article examines Pier Paolo Pasolini’s search for locations to film The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (Italy, 1964), linking this pursuit to the auteur’s notions of “analogy” and “contamination” (246). Pasolini astonishing mix of the sacred and the profane in his depiction of a revolutionary Christ is often attributed to a script taken verbatim from the gospel itself; here Steimatsky locates another aspect of Pasolini’s radicalism through his “anthropomorphism of the landscape” (269).

Margulies notes the general tendency of re-enactment films, where people re-enact events from their lives, to move from a mimetic or evidentiary approach towards an exemplary or redemptive dimension akin to that of a morality tale. These films foreground questions of performance, authenticity and perfectibility through the presence of the “authentic body” linked to past “real” events. Iranian and Chinese cinema provides numerous examples of this tendency, including The Apple (Iran, 1998) and (China 2000). Margulies traces a movement away from such forms of judgement in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (Iran, 1991) and Zhang Yuan’s Sons (China, 1996), which focus instead on fissures and injustices inherent in the dramatic material, employing melodrama and mise-en-abyme structures to stymie any reductive readings.

Catherine Russell’s “Ecstatic ethnography: Maya Deren and the filming of possession rituals” ranges widely in scope. It revisits many of the issues and concepts discussed in other essays within this collection, including the nature of spectacle, the body, consciousness and subjectivity, and the link between cinema and possession, film viewing and trance. Russell identifies the fundamental dilemma for western theorists and practitioners such as Deren, analysing possession rituals which

from a post-colonial perspective … inscribes an encounter between the orientalist desire for primitive spectacle and an ethnographic reality that resists representation. Possession poses a challenge to the ideology of realism, confounding the principles of visual evidence. (286)

This challenge derives from an alternative, even less explicable illusion of reality than that provided by photography. Russell incisively probes the nature of this reality which proves impossible to contain or represent.

James Schamus reads the tension between text and image (the most famous close-up faces in cinema history) in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (Denmark, 1928) as mirroring a larger battle, reflected in Scandinavian literature, between woman and the authority of the textual regime. Yet Robert Bresson’s Trial of Joan of Arc (France, 1962) displays the same degree of “textual realism”, i.e. “an aesthetic practice based on the authority of its documentary sources” (318), in drawing largely verbatim from the trial records. It may have been worth considering to what extent the riveting nature of the source material compelled these two filmmakers, so often bracketed together due to their supposed “transcendental style”, to produce such different versions of the story.

There is, unfortunately, one area in which this anthology is below par: too many avoidable errors mar the generally high standard of the articles assembled by Margulies. It’s not being niggardly to expect the subeditor of a text on realism to prevent Rossellini from being misspelled “Rosselini” (17), Bill Nichols as “Nicholas” (289), or Jean Louis Comolli as “Commoli” (339). Other howlers such as “nec (sic) plus ultra” (38) or “drauftsman” for draughtsman (296), or the absence of any index references to Paul Willemen, who is cited throughout Mary Ann Doane’s chapter “The Object of Theory”, leave an impression of sloppiness. This impression is reinforced by the failure to adopt a uniform policy in relation to providing years of production for films cited – some chapters include these, others do not.

These concerns aside, this is a stimulating and diverse range of essays which reappraise the legacy of Bazin. The best take the reader beyond the positions (p)reached in relation to realism and cinematic representation throughout the 20th century, while simultaneously acknowledging the vital contribution made by these debates to our current state of knowledge. Rites of Realism reminds us to always be wary of throwing the baby out with the bathwater: it represents a welcome return of the real.

Tim O’Farrell
La Trobe University.

Created on: Tuesday, 7 December 2004 | Last Updated: 7-Dec-04