Incitement to Desire
Introduction: Although I am sometimes mistaken for someone who is and has always been a university Professor, this is scarcely the case; most of my adult life has been devoted, day and night, to freelance writing, and my mainly casual stints in tertiary education were relatively brief (4 years in the early 1980s, 3 years at the start of the ‘90s) – until Monash University came along in 2002 with an invitation (personally conveyed by Deane Williams) to professionalise me a little (I needed, however, to get a PhD first!). The following text – for which I was asked to reflect on the then-current state of academic film and television studies globally and in Australia – is the speech I delivered at the Regent Hotel (Melbourne) upon my official welcome to Monash on 15 November 2006; I remained on staff until the end of 2014, and have since been an Adjunct. At the point I entered the team in late ‘06, Film and Television Studies had just become a more formalised program stream at the university; previously it had been taught, for many years, as an optional part of other disciplinary formations. Further appointments soon followed mine: Therese Davis, Julia Vassilieva, Claire Perkins, Olivia Khoo. Today, the area is integrated into the School of Media, Film and Journalism. I publish this piece here in 2022 partly because I still agree with most of its sentiments, and partly because of the tribute it pays to Danièle Huillet (1936-2006) and Jean-Marie Straub (1933-2022).
I am very honoured and glad to be joining the Film and Television Studies team at Monash University – joining those who have been there in recent years (Deane Williams, Con Verevis, Belinda Smaill); those whose association with this area goes back a long way, around a quarter of a century (like David Hanan); those whose presences and influences have shaped the place, like Freda Freiberg; and also, going right back to the 1960s and ‘70s, the very intense and active film society groups at Monash, which have bequeathed to us a marvellous and now quite rare library of film books and journals that has recently been unearthed and put back into good use. As you are about to hear, that lost-and-found gift from a gang of smart cinephiles, lurking within the institution, is an image or metaphor for what I want to speak about today.
The official launch of the Film and Television Studies Program at Monash is an occasion for celebration. However, all of us here know that no decent feel-good movie – no decent romantic comedy or musical, family entertainment or sports film – can earn its happy vibes without somehow touching on some darker and sadder aspects of life experience. And it is in that spirit that I want to find my way to my topic today – namely, the state and the possibilities of film and television studies in the university – by first talking about two recent deaths that have marked the cinema: the radical European filmmaker Danièle Huillet, aged 70, and the popular American actor Jack Palance, aged 87.
I am proud to be able to say that, in my formative years, I was equally marked by both these greats – in my formal and informal education as a student of cinema, and in my sentimental education as a lover of cinema.
A few words about Danièle Huillet. Her career as a fiercely independent and uncompromising director was, by any reckoning, remarkable: 43 steady years of continuous production, 19 features, over half-a-dozen shorts. And works that have shaped successive generations of film students and filmmakers, their very titles coming to resonate as veritable war cries: Not Reconciled (1965), History Lessons (1972), The Humiliated (2003). Huillet is not always immediately mentioned in surveys of women’s or feminist cinema alongside the likes of Agnès Varda, Chantal Akerman or Jane Campion – although she has every bit as much right to be.
Perhaps Huillet’s place and her achievement in cinema history is obscured by the fact that she worked as part of a team, with her partner in art and in life, Jean-Marie Straub [1933-2022]. They were indeed radical cinema’s premier couple, although they spent many of their working years living in something close to poverty. It has been said of Huillet: “She made an extraordinary couple with Jean-Marie, cantankerous, obsessed with work, opened every day more to the simplest beauties of the world because they never could stop being enraged at what fouled it”.
Huillet’s own beginnings in cinema have taken on the aura of myth. In the mid 1950s, she sat the exam for entry to the major French Film School, but stormed out in protest because the film chosen for prospective students to write on, a typical middlebrow Cinema of Quality item, was not worthy of attention in her eyes.
The filmmaker-writer-teacher Jean-Pierre Gorin (who I’ve already quoted above) offers this stirring account of the funeral of Danièle Huillet.
Her face was left visible, its stern, tender beauty framed by a small vista cut in the closed casket. A Byzantine icon. The wind and the sound of the traffic outside of the cemetery ate away at the words that were quoted before she got carried to the grave. I heard a text in German and the words “I will not name the name of the one whose name is stronger than love itself …” We file by the grave, dropped roses in this shaft so deep and so dark that we measured for the first time how irremediably gone she was. Jean-Marie, seated on the next tombstone, looked on. A funeral attendant handed him a bouquet of roses. He walked to the grave, threw it in. An amazing yell of rage at death and its works came out of him and he ran, ran away amidst the graves, howling in pain with friends in pursuit. They brought him back. He witnessed the closing of the grave, his body half bent as if he had been hit in the stomach by the force of a blow, and then he raised his left fist in the proud hopeful salute of the Popular Front strikers of France, the Republican fighters of Spain and the Communists of Germany, when the stone finally slid tight. [Gorin’s complete text can be consulted here.]
Now, although I don’t expect to read, hear or see anything in 2006 as heartrending as that account of a filmmaker’s death, it is not an account you are likely to see reprinted in any major Australian newspaper – maybe that bit about the strikers, fighters and Communists would have some bearing on keeping it out of our public sphere. In fact, I am not aware that any Australian newspaper even noted, in any way, the death of Daniele Huillet – and if they did and I missed it, it would still be fair to say that it garnered rather less comment than the death of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin in 2006.
Jack Palance did make it into the newspaper obits, and even onto the nightly TV news. I, in fact, first read about his death in the same place I read about Huillet’s – in an Internet discussion group dedicated to Jean-Luc Godard [1930-2022]. And the person who posted the news there rightly, prophetically remarked: “The obituaries will almost certainly neglect his most important role, but each of us know it wasn’t in City Slickers ”. This faithful Godardian was referring to the classic Contempt (Le mépris, 1963) in which Palance embodied, for all time, the Ugly American Movie Producer.
If you take a look at the Times obituary for Palance, you’ll see that they did mention this film, but in a not-exactly respectful way: “As the [‘60s] progressed, he seemed happy to appear in just about anything, from Jean-Luc Godard’s drama Le mépris … to a television production of Alice Through the Looking Glass and the British horror film Torture Garden”. Likewise, the fact that Palance made many films outside America from the ‘60s onwards is dismissed by the Times: “He made a lot of mediocre films in Europe in the ‘70s and ‘80s” – before, lo and behold, Young Guns (1988) “revived his career” and City Slickers (I and II) capped it.
What does all this have to do with the state of film and television studies in the university today? Quite simply this: students come to us today from the context of a very different cultural landscape than existed 30 or 20 or even 10 years ago. World cinema – the world that includes Huillet and everything Palance did outside the USA – does not exist for many of our students; it has been rendered invisible. And this invisibility is a slight-of-hand, a con trick guaranteed by the entirely contrary public claim that all audiovisual culture is now at our fingertips, over our computer, at the DVD store, or even on our mobile phones. Jean-Michel Frodon, the current editor of Cahiers du cinéma magazine [from 2003 to 2009], put it well in a recent forum.
Everything is more accessible than ever … [but] there is someone very close to our ear, and that someone is called “the market”. The market is whispering in everybody’s ear what [they] should see, and we know that the more things are accessible, the more everybody is tempted to see the same thing, which is showing in all multiplexes at the same time.
Frodon goes on to argue that action, cultural action, is necessary to counter this trend – in publications, at film festivals, cinémathèques, film groups … and in teaching. Because we must (as Frodon says) “build the access to desire other things than what the market is telling you to see at this very moment”.
I’ll give you another example, straight off the rack at my local suburban Melbourne newsagency. At the moment (late ‘06), there is a special issue of the glossy magazine, mainly made in the UK but slightly rejigged for the colonies like Australia, which is bluntly called FILM. This special issue “presents the One Hundred Greatest Movies of All Time – The Definitive Guide to the Finest Films Ever”. Definitive, no less! And how was the selection of the 100 Finest Films Ever arrived at? The editors of FILM are not telling – beyond the single, remarkable statement that “you really won’t believe the trouble we went to in putting together this list of the greatest films of all time” – and so there are no clear, acknowledged, transparent criteria to argue with.
OK, it’s easy to laugh at stuff like this, but such publications – just like the coffee-table film books of my ‘70s youth – are incredibly important in proposing and opening up the field of cinema to those who are eagerly discovering it for the first time. And not everything in this issue of FILM is all bad. But I may be able to spare you 25 bucks by letting you know that, out of the 100 films listed and discussed, only 8 of them are not in the English language, and the most recent of these non-English films is from 1988 (Krzysztof Kieślowski’s TV series Dekalog).
There is not the slightest trace of any of the art cinema revelations of recent decades, like the masterpieces from Iran or Taiwan. There’s not even a berth for wildly popular stuff like Hong Kong genre cinema, Japanese anime or Bollywood musicals. There’s not a single Godard film in the 100! (Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas , by the by, emerges from this mysterious poll as the definitive greatest film of all time.) And this is an absolutely typical list, of the kind we find every month or so in newspapers, in DVD magazines, and on well-patronised Internet sites.
Before I throw this magazine in the trash I do, however, have to tell you one more thing about it. Each film is given a diagram which charts its excitement factor, on a predicted interest curve that goes from thrilled at the top to sends you to sleep at the bottom – therefore, does it have an exciting start, an exciting mid-way point, an exciting climax, an exciting ending? These key-points are actually annotated, like in those dumb scriptwriting manuals: ‘Hero leaves home’ – ‘hero saves the day’ – ‘world ends’ – and so on. Unsurprisingly, it seems that just about every movie in the selected 100 gets a straight, bright red line at the top of the diagram, which means: it achieves maximum excitement all the way through, never dropping from the thrilling segment of the graph – no boring bits!
And so I was keen, as you might expect, to check out the graph for the film that (and let’s give a little hooray for this) comes in at number 9 in the poll: namely, Tokyo Story (1953) by Yasujirō Ozu. And yes, it too gets a straight red line for maximum excitement! So now you know what to say to anyone who is at all resistant to Ozu movies, who imagines they might be slow or undramatic. FILM magazine knows better.
Alas, all of us are in the same situation, the same boat, as the editors of FILM. We have to sell film and television to our students, as just another stall in the vast cultural marketplace of film and television. Except that we want to sell them a different kind of film and television, and a different way of looking at film and television. And we can only do that by creating desire, inciting desire. We have to make people want to see films and programs from all over the world, the films they can’t get at the DVD store or see on the World Movies cable channel – and we have to make them want to learn the language of analysis, of critique, that doesn’t much resemble the breathless behind-the-scenes hype they are already hearing on the E! Entertainment channel or on the DVD extras of most blockbuster movies.
We cannot necessarily promise our students that throbbing red line of maximum excitement at all times – unless we show them Tokyo Story in a double with Kill Bill (2003/2004) – but we can introduce them to a new kind of excitement: the excitement of working on and thinking with the materials of sound and vision, and then using those sensations and insights to grab some understanding of a changing, wider world.
I was lucky enough to grow up, as a film student and cinephilic lover, in a period when it was something exciting, something special, to watch Contempt or a film by Straub & Huillet. It was like being initiated into a tribe or cult to see this material, and to learn the strange, exotic, intellectual language that people were using to talk about such films at the time. A lot of the films were there, available and on loan, from the National Library, thanks to progressive activists like Bruce Hodsdon. In the early ‘80s, as I recall, Griffith University in Queensland even went so far as to buy the local distribution rights to a Straub-Huillet movie, From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979), so they would have it in a film print to show their students. That shows dedication to the cause of radical cinema!
But, not so long after that, things began to change. 1984 in fact marked the last time that any new Straub-Huillet got shown here in Australia, even at the major film festivals of Sydney and Melbourne. Godard didn’t fare terribly much better, nor Alexander Kluge when he moved into his remarkable television period, nor just about any major avant-garde filmmaker from any country you could mention. The road that leads to FILM magazine and its 92 favourite English-language films – the road through Miramax and Sundance, through the shotgun marriage of arthouse theatres with the big corporate distributors, through the bureaucratic streamlining of cultural organisations with an anxious eye on public accessibility and the economic bottom-line – that road was being eagerly paved from the mid ‘80s onwards, and has not yet ceased its bulldozing of our cultural landscape.
When Deane Williams invited me to give this talk tonight, he asked me to reflect on a dialogue between myself and the American scholar James Naremore on “The Future of Academic Film Study” from the 2003 publication Movie Mutations. That book is all about the changing cultural landscape of film and television, but it tries to find some reasons to be cheerful about these changes.
In the email conversation that I had with Jim for that project, questions of time and timing, of history and memory, seemed to preoccupy us both. I worried whether university film courses were always fated to be at least five years behind the pulse of what was happening right now in the most advanced and innovative cinema, instead simply consolidating and repeating what is already safely known. Jim, for his part, was anxious that intellectual endeavour was becoming a matter of fashion, one academic trend quickly superseding and burying its predecessor – “I’m convinced that neither art nor the theory of art goes out of date. If we toss away an older theory like an old dress or a used car, we lose an important part of a long conversation”. How to keep hold of the new and the old at the same time, and make them both vital, doorways into the future – that is one challenge facing film & television studies right now.
As it turns out, many theorists and practitioners have been increasingly consumed by this very same question. In her important 2006 book Death 24x a Second, Laura Mulvey proposes a strikingly optimistic revision of the history of audiovision. For her, it comes in three phases. Phase One was the magical and phantasmagorical beginning of motion pictures – with its seeming animation of the ghostly matter of the figures on the screen. Phase Two was the coming of disenchantment, of boredom, of routine and formula and familiarity: mundane modernity, the selling of ideology, of false or tawdry dreams. It is this daily disenchantment that created the need for the strong tonic of theory, to wake us up, to problematise our pleasure, to shake up our seeing and our hearing.
Phase Three is where we are now, with a technological cyber-revolution firing all around us. Mulvey seizes it as a period of re-enchantment: not a sorry, corporate revolution which buries the past in a lost or invisible archive, but awakens the past, opens the tomb, reclaims and rewrites the dead matter of old footage into uncanny dreams and fictions, forever on the march. This is where the sense of specialness, of excitement, the incitement to desire, can be part of film and television studies: in the constant re-invention of what we thought we already knew, and in the discovery – and creation – of new objects, new modes of thought, new relations between us and the multiple, world-wide fragments of film and television.
As we all know, film & television studies, as a discipline, has been something of an orphan in the university system – at Monash as almost everywhere else. Since the ‘60s, it has moved from a precarious berth in literature studies, through communications and media studies, through art history, visual studies and performing arts, with cameos in politics, philosophy, history and linguistics, and onto its most recent rendezvous with the jaws of Cultural Studies and the New Media Arts (whatever they may be).
In many places, film & TV are still not yet free; they are still bouncing from one adoptive parent to another. The philosopher Alain Badiou has suggested that cinema is not an art, and television even less so; he doesn’t mean that as an insult, since he calls cinema the subtractive art, the art which takes something away from each of the other arts in order to form itself: it snatches up music, bodies, storytelling, architecture, and so forth.
Badiou is right, up to a point: there is something mangy and promiscuous about the recorded, transmitted, audiovisual arts. But cinema has its century now and television has its half-century: both forms, both media, have put down their roots in our cultural memory, our cultural imaginary. As Thomas Elsaesser [1943-2019] comments, they are not only events that have occurred, they are experiences we have lived. And this experience is not monolithic, not inscribed in stone: it is always open to the infinite work of remembering, re-fashioning, re-telling.
What we want to give our students is the tools they need, theoretical and practical, to do this work that will resist the voice of the market a little, and help collectively create a cultural future. But every tool in the hand, or in the head, must come with a desire, an incitement, to use it.
I want to end with another story about Danièle Huillet’s partner, Jean-Marie Straub. It’s not a sad story this time; rather, it’s proud and defiant. Not long before Huillet’s death, the pair learned that they were to receive a special award for their lifetime achievement from the Venice Film Festival. The great French star Catherine Deneuve, bless her soul, was President of the Jury that gave this award. Neither Straub nor Huillet could attend, but Straub faxed through three messages, which were duly read out on stage to the public on awards night by Festival director Marco Müller.
These messages were incendiary bombs thrown into the heart of official culture. One of them says: “I wouldn’t be able to be festive in a festival where there are so many public and private police looking for a terrorist - I am the terrorist, and I tell you, paraphrasing Franco Fortini: so long as there’s American imperialistic capitalism, there’ll never be enough terrorists in the world”. This provocative fax caused some consternation, particularly for one jury member, Cameron Crowe, the American director of Jerry Maguire (1996) – he wondered whether the award to Straub & Huillet should be rescinded, or at the very least whether the Jury and the Festival should publicly distance themselves from these “irresponsible” comments. Müller stood firm in his support for the filmmaking duo – and it was a scandal.
Another of Straub’s faxes to Italy was a little walk down Memory Lane: “I have been at the Venice Festival (as journalist) in 1954, I chose to write on three films: Sansho the Bailiff [Kenji Mizoguchi] – The River and Death [Luis Buñuel] – Rear Window [by Hitchcock]. No prizes!” That guy has an elephantine, total recall for grudges … and a distinct taste (which I deeply admire) for what he calls “small revenge” or, as I’d put it as a life-motto: neither forgive nor forget!
And now here we are in Australia in 2006; Rear Window makes it in the top one-hundred list of FILM magazine, but Mizoguchi and Buñuel are still nowhere to be seen. But what we need, just as much as a full and open appreciation of the whole wide world’s cultural past, is a bet on the present, the kind of bet Straub made in 1954 when he backed those three, unawarded films – and no others. That’s what we want to see our students doing, and it’s what we have to strive to do ourselves.
I have called the driving force behind this work desire, but there’s an even simpler word for it: curiosity. And I am very curious to see what moves, what bets on the future we all make in the new Film and Television Studies Program at Monash.
© Adrian Martin 15 November 2006