Ideology And Suture

The major socio-political event of the late 1960s in France was that of May 1968, as discussed in Chapter 1. This had a major impact on the film industry; Godard, for example, withdrew from mainstream cinema to concentrate on radical political cinema as part of a collective; artists and intellectuals, including many film-makers, grouped together to force the reinstatement of Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinémathèque, who had been sacked. In film theory, there was also a Leftist turn which, arguably, had more impact on British film theorists than in the French arena. All forms of domination, whether capitalist at the economic level or hierarchically individualist in the case of auteurism, were questioned. Cahiers du cinéma, heavily influenced by the radical literary-critical group Tel Quel, radicalised itself, and for a few heady years, Marxism was the flavour of some film theory. Using the work of political and cultural theorists such as Brecht and Althusser, as well as the work of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, two interesting theoretical notions were developed.

The first of these was an exploration of the way in which film subjects spectators, forcing them to accept certain ideological positions, which the Left-leaning intellectuals and artists of May 1968 wished to demolish. Echoing Bazin, theorists argued that precisely because of its closeness to reality, dominant cinema persuades spectators that they are free subjects, omniscient and all-powerful. Whereas, for Bazin, this was part of a Utopian vision of the free subject, for the intellectuals of 1968 it represented a dystopian vision. For them the freedom created by the film apparatus was merely an illusion; spectators are alienated by the very structures that suggest their freedom to choose, caught up in a bourgeois (a term of abuse in this period) worldview. Film theorists, as indeed other writers and thinkers, were very much influenced by the work of the political theorist Louis Althusser, for whom we are all caught up in ideology, unable to see beyond or outside it. Film, like any other cultural production, therefore reproduces 'things not as they really are but as they appear when refracted through the ideology', as Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni, editors of the Cahiers du cinéma put it in a famous article in 1969 (Comolli and Narboni, 1990: 61). For them, 'film is ideology presenting itself to itself, talking to itself, learning about itself (Comolli and Narboni, 1990: 61).

One of the ways in which this worked was through the much-criticised notion of suture, or stitching, a Lacanian term taken up by Jean-Pierre Oudart, who used it to explain how procedures such as shot-reverse-shot in, say, a conversation, serve to hide the fragmentary nature of film. As spectators, we are encouraged to be, first, the subject of one interlocutor's look, then the object, as the shot reverses, thus giving us a sense of illusory wholeness and, moreover, binding us, stitching us in, to the fictional world of the film, preventing us from standing back. To put it another way, the Marxist theorists wished, like Brecht, to encourage spectators to be distanced from the film, to avoid (self-)absorption, not to suspend their disbelief, but to maintain a vigilant sceptical eye, suspicious of anything resembling uncritical pleasure.

To be fair, some of the Cahiers du cinéma theorists tried to avoid dismissing all 'dominant' cinema as inevitably and irremediably tainted by the bourgeois brush. Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni, the Cahiers editors, suggested that some mainstream films show what they called 'symptoms' or 'cracks'. Such films were 'splitting under an internal tension', they argued, and 'while being completely integrated in the system and the ideology, end up by partially dismantling the system from within' (Comolli and Narboni, 1990: 63). They went on the following year to explain how John Ford's Young Mister Lincoln (1939) managed, despite its liberal (and therefore 'bourgeois') attitudes, to show cracks in the liberal façade (Cahiers du cinéma, 1970). The analysis generated considerable debate in the academic film journals of the time (see Wollen, 1972; Brewster, 1973; Henderson, 1973; 1973/74; Nicholls, 1975). The Cahiers critics could therefore have their cake and eat it: they could maintain a pantheon of great directors and great films, much as Cahiers had done in the early 1960s, while showing that there was at least something wrong with those films, but not too much. They were vehicles for ideology, like so many other films, but because of the 'cracks' patiently uncovered by Cahiers du cinéma critics, those films could be said to criticise ideology from within. Clearly, though, any theory that tried to turn the ideal spectator into a Marxist-oriented ideological analyst took no more account of spectator pleasure than had Metz's Grande Syntagmatique.

Film Making

Film Making

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