National Cinema Essentialism vs Constructivism

The first signs of a renewed debate around national cinema in Britain took place in the early 1980s, on the fringes of emerging film studies, as part of a polemic about the relation between two kinds of internationalism: that of Hollywood and its universalizing appeal, and that of a counter-cinema avant-garde, opposed to Hollywood, but also thinking of itself as not bound by the nation or national cinema, especially not by "British cinema." At that point the problem of nationality played a minor role within academic film studies, compared to the question of authorship and genre, semiology, the psychoanalytic-linguistic turn in film theory, and the rise of cine-feminism. With the shift from classical film studies to cultural studies, however, the idea of the "nation" once more became a focus of critical framing, almost on a par with class and gender. Broadly speaking, the term "national cinema" thus fed on oppositional energies derived from the avant-garde and the new waves, in parallel to the more sociological attempts to critically identify what was typical about domestic mainstream cinema and the ideology of its narratives. Yet it also responded to the changing function of cinema and television, each "addressing" their audience as belonging to the "nation." These were potentially contradictory agendas, and for a time it was the contradictions that marked the vitality of the debate.

Cultural studies, for instance, took a resolutely constructivist approach to analyzing the nation as "produced" by television, just as it did with respect to gender or race. But from a historical perspective, the classic analyses of national cinemas were on the whole "essentialist," meaning that they looked to the cin ema, its narratives, iconography or recurring motifs with the expectation that they could reveal something unique or specific about a country's values and beliefs, at once more authentic and more symptomatic than in other art forms or aspects of (popular) culture. It makes Siegfried Kracauer's study of the cinema of the Weimar Republic From Caligari to Hitler (1947) the founding text for such a study of national cinema. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, his blend of sociology, group psychology, and metropolitan-modernist fieldwork ethnography influenced many studies that purported to investigate the "national" character of a country's cinema, and it yielded some remarkable books on the sociology of cinema, but it also influenced - more indirectly - Donald Richie's volumes on Japanese Cinema or Raymond Durgant's A Mirror for England. One could call this the period when national cinema connoted a nation's unconscious deep-structure, the reading of which gave insights about secret fantasies, political pressure points, collective wishes and anxieties. The danger of this approach was not only essentialism regarding the concept of national identity: it also risked being tautological, insofar as only those films tended to be selected as typical of a national cinema which confirmed the pre-established profile. Grounded in sociology, such studies used the cinema for the distillation of national stereotypes or significant symbolic configurations, such as the father-son relations in German cinema, contrasted with the father-daughter relationships of French cinema.12 Narratives of national cinema in this sense pre-date the European nouvelles vagues, and besides Kracauer and Durgnat, one could name Edgar Morin and Pierre Sorlin in France, or the social anthropologists Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites in the US. From within film studies, these writings stand apart from the aesthetics of "auteur cinema," indeed they are almost diametrically opposed to them, which may be one of the reasons "national cinema" returned on the agenda, when the author as auteur-artist began to be deconstructed in the 1990s, and cinema was seen as a differently generated social text, not cohering around the director.

Three essays in the early 1980s re-launched the debate around national cinema in Britain and the US, broadly in the context of so-called "revisionist film history." The first was by Ed Buscombe, "Film History and the Idea of a National Cinema" (1981), the second was my "Film History: Weimar Cinema and Visual Pleasure" (1982), and the third was Philip Rosen's "History, Textuality, Narration" (1984).13 Ed Buscombe's short essay from 1981 is still a landmark in the debate. It addressed the problems of British cinema vis-à-vis Hollywood and documented the initiatives taken by the film industry and a succession of Britain's top producers (A. Korda, J.A. Rank and L. Grade) to break into the US market between the 1940s and 1960s. But Buscombe also made clear his own dissatisfaction with the anti-British, anti-national cinema stance taken by the theoretical journal Screen. Significantly, perhaps, his essay was first published in the Australian Journal of Screen Theory, more sympathetic to Lukacsian Marxism and Lucien Goldman's "genetic" structuralism than to Althusser and Lacan. Phil Rosen's essay from 1984 compared Kracauer's assumptions about national cinema with those of Noel Burch, who had just published a major study on another national cinema, that of Japan, using formal criteria and theoretical concepts quite different from those of Kracauer. Rosen is resolutely con-structivist, asking whether it was textual coherence that allowed the national audience to (mis-)perceive an image of itself in the cinema, or on the contrary, if it was the gaps and fissures of the text that were most telling about the nation and its fantasies of identity.

These essays (to which one should add a polemical piece by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith)14 are in a way indicative of the directions that the national cinema debate in Britain was to take in the following decade. But before sketching this trajectory, it should be noted that a key moment in consolidating the constructivist paradigm was the appearance of a book that seemed to speak to a central doubt, before this doubt was even fully conscious, namely, how decisive finally are the media in soliciting one's identification with the nation and in shaping a country's national identity? Are not other social structures (such as the family), geography (the place one comes from), a particular religious faith (Christianity, Islam) or loyalty to a certain shared past (national history) far more significant? Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities came to the rescue, offering at once empirical evidence, a historical precedent, and an elegantly formulated synthesis of traditional anthropological fieldwork and thorough familiarity with Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge. Anderson's slim book on colonial and postcolonial nation-building and identity formation in what became Indonesia answered the problem, barely posed, about the status of the media in the national identity debate, by making a convincing case for constructivism as a method, and by unequivocally giving the media - in Anderson's case, the print media -a crucial role in narrating the nation. Conveniently for scholars, Anderson also emphasized the power of pedagogy (teachers, bureaucrats, people of the word) in fashioning the nation as an imaginary, but nonetheless effective scaffolding of personal and group identity. According to Anderson: "nations" are constructed by intellectuals, journalists, pedagogues, philologists, historians, archivists who were "carefully sewing together dialects, beliefs, folk tales, local antagonisms into the nationalist quilt."15

The book's extraordinary success in cultural and media studies departments may best be explained in terms of the productive misreading and creative misapplications its central thesis lent itself to, insofar as media studies needed Anderson's arguments more than his arguments needed media studies. For even if one disregards the problem of the media in question being quite different (newspapers, books, instead of cinema and television), there was another problem in applying the concept of imagined communities as anything other than a metaphor: Anderson was dealing with the workings of colonial power, which included the bureaucratic, as well as the coercive infrastructure that went with it. So while at one level, not many parallels can be drawn between the introduction of compulsory education or daily newspapers in Dutch East India and, say, home-grown film production in West European countries, at another level, the transformations which European countries were undergoing after the end of the Cold War in the 1990s with respect to their cultures becoming multicultural, their populations transnational and their politics post-national, did make Anderson's historical study of Indonesia appear to be the key to a situation only just evolving in Europe.

Ed Buscombe's essay associated the return to the idea of national cinema neither with a discursively constructed national imaginary, nor with post-colonialism. His ostensible starting point was the decline in popularity and relevance of Britain's mainstream popular cinema. He criticized the rather faltering and - according to him - often misdirected efforts to create a British art- and counter-cinema, and instead, pleaded for a more accessible "middlebrow" British cinema that neither went for the lowest common denominator of Britishness (embodied in the Carry On comedies) nor for the structuralist-materialist, Brecht-inspired efforts of the British avant-garde movements, identified with the names of Peter Gidal, Steve Dwoskin, Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey. Looking at the British cinema that did become successful internationally from the mid-1980s onwards into the new century - the already mentioned "heritage" genre in the shape of Merchant-Ivory adaptations of Edwardian literature, films based on Shakespeare (his plays and his "life"), costume dramas, filmed Jane Austen novels and Hugh Grant comedies - Buscombe's wish for wellmade films seems to have come true, maybe with a vengeance. In between, the debate about the British-ness of British cinema flared up several times more. For instance, it became virulent a few years after Buscombe's piece, when it appeared as if, with Chariots of Fire winning at the Oscars, and its producer, David Puttnam, embarking on a (brief) career as a Hollywood studio boss, Britain had finally made it into the Hollywood mainstream. This proved an illusion or self-delusion. In 1984, The Monthly Film Bulletin commissioned three articles to assess the hangover that followed, with Ray Durgnat, Charles Barr, and myself as contributors. Durgnat, updating his socio-cultural analyses from A Mirror for England once more tried to read, in the manner of a more acerbic and canny Kracauer, the national mood from the films. He detected in 1980s cinema a Thatcherite politics of style and status over substance, and noted how middle-class upward mobility covered itself with a mixture of cynicism and self-irony. Barr pointed out how inextricably British cinema was now tied to television, financially and institutionally as well as in its mode of address, and what the contradictory consequences were of artificially wishing to keep them separate. My own contribution to the debate ("Images for Sale") is, as already mentioned, reprinted in the collection here. Focusing on a double perspective - the view from within, and the view from without - it tried to test around the British "renaissance" of the 1980s, the paradigm of self and the (significant) other, first elaborated by me around Weimar Cinema and the New German Cinema.

The idea of a national self-image specific to the cinema and yet with distinct contours in each national media culture is therefore - for better or worse - different from Anderson's imagined communities.16 If extended beyond the media of print, journalism and bureaucracy, and if aimed at "developed" rather than "emerging" nations, Anderson's scheme would be likely to apply to television more than to the cinema. Indirectly, I tested this hypothesis, too, with an article on British television in the 1980s, written under the impact of deregulation and after the founding of Channel Four ("Television through the Looking Glass"). Face to face with US television and a new domestic channel, both the BBC and its commercial counterpart, ITV began addressing the nation differently. No longer playing the pedagogue, British television found itself at the cusp of not quite knowing whether to address its viewers as part of the national audience (and thus in the mode of civic citizenship), or as members of ever more sharply segmented consumer groups who all happen to live in the same country, but otherwise have different tastes in food and fashion, different sexual preferences, different ethnic backgrounds, faiths and even languages.

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