Incitement to Desire
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
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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,
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