Is Cinema Renewing Itself?
Film-Philosophy. vol. 6 no. 15, July 2002.
Jean-Luc Nancy L'Évidence du film: Abbas Kiarostami Brussels: Yves Gevaert Editeur, 2001 ISBN: 2-930128-17-8, 181 pp.
For those who have discovered film theory late in the twentieth century (I was just over ten when the first volume of Deleuze's Cinema was published in France ), there has always been a feeling of arriving after the battle. We didn't take part in the major theoretical debates and were left studying retrospectively these theories at the university, hoping to find a way to look ahead and move on. Even the most recent events in film theory, Deleuze and postmodernism, seem to belong to a past that we just missed.
On the one hand, as film theorists absorb the shock of Deleuze's theories and get accustomed to its new concepts, this work no longer wears the absolute novelty it seemed to hold in the first place. On the other hand, the postmodernism debate is drying out, mainly because a consensus on its meaning for cinema and visual arts has not been found. Both these approaches seem to be turned towards the past, trying to analyse and make sense of the first hundred years of cinematographic pictures that is so closely linked to the history of the twentieth century.
When Deleuze released his cinematic taxonomy in the early 80s, it emerged as an original work, making little of recent theories such as semiotics or psychoanalysis. The novelty of the approach, coupled with the strong usability of the concepts (and the appeal of Deleuze's existing reputation as a philosopher), made the two volumes of Cinema an instant hit in film theory, and the book was included in the programs of media studies in French universities less than five years after its publication. Once the excitement passed, it appears that the central division of Deleuze's taxonomy between the movement-image and the time-image was merely a wonderful synthesis of what thinkers like Serge Daney or directors like Jean-Luc Godard had already expressed in a less systematic manner. After the Second World War, Deleuze notes that the movement-image enters a crisis as pure optical situations appear with Italian neorealism. These emerging time-images announce modern cinema and mark the end of the first period in the history of cinema that will be called classicism. Deleuze's central division brilliantly formalizes in the field of cinema the debate begun by Adorno's comments on the impossibility of representation after the Second World War, but leaves modern cinema as the only possible future, and therefore assigns to film studies the sole and infinite task to analyse the multiple variations of the time-image. In other words, the conditions of the development of the history of film have already been written. In Hegelian terms, this is nothing less than the end of history; in the 80s, the consciousness of the limits of such a modern cinema was named postmodernism.
The postmodernism debate appeared at the same time as the publication of Cinema but never seemed to have been satisfyingly relevant in the field of film theory. A consensus on its definition could not be found and its theorists never managed to produce clear reusable concepts for film studies. Postmodernism has slowly become a victim of his own success and has, in a way, started its own ironic decadence when any movie critic began to qualify very different pieces of art as 'PoMo'. But more fundamentally, postmodernism is confronted by the limit it has itself set. Since its main assumption is that the attempt by modern cinema to question the foundations of every form of representation is complete, postmodernism can only play with the recycling of these old forms. In that respect, it is determined by a particular interpretation of the history of aesthetics that regards modernity as the end of art. And it is at odds with the production by new artists of new forms of representation (from Bill Viola to Hou Hsiao-Hsien).
Obviously, both Deleuze's work and the postmodernism debate have more to offer than this summary, but both are fundamentally unable to overcome the limits of a certain conception of the history of film, for which the passage from classicism to modernity is the ultimate reference. For this reason Jean-Luc Nancy's L'Évidence du film seduces as an honest, forward-looking attempt to open the space ahead for film theory and more. This small essay has enough to get most readers rather enthusiastic as they discover the real intent of this book, nothing less than providing a new foundation for visual arts. Sadly the excitement quickly transforms into frustration. The huge theoretical endeavour of the book is hindered by its many limitations. Jean-Luc Nancy's text contains some critical elements for the development of new aesthetics, but because it is more an artistic draft than an academic sum, it requires many efforts to reap the full benefit of its propositions for film theory.
Before it is opened, L'Évidence du filmlooks like another art book gathering the thoughts of the French philosopher on the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's most known movies in the West (from Where's My Friend's House to The Wind Will Carry Us). The book is composed of three texts, each presented in French, English, and Persian: a main essay on Kiarostami's recent movies; an older commentary on one of the director's movies (Life And Nothing Else); and a conversation between Nancy and Kiarostami. But Nancy's underlying ambition for film theory appears rapidly. In Life and Nothing Else Nancy finds a perfect reflection of his own philosophy; and, as early as the Introduction, the philosopher positions this movie centrally in Kiarostami's work, with Kiarostami as a 'privileged witness' (12) of the emergence of a new form of cinema. This positioning of Kiarostami - and one of his movies in particular - at a cornerstone of the history and aesthetics of film is the starting point of Nancy's argument. But it is also a giant step as it conditions the interest of the book to the reader's willingness to accept that Nancy's comments on just seven movies can be extrapolated to cover film and visual arts in general. This demanding effort will constitute the main limit of this book. Nevertheless the correspondence between Nancy's thinking and Kiarostami's filming proves to be a perfect match between film and philosophy and seems to carry enough convincing power to make reading L'Évidence du film an invigorating experience.
What Nancy aims to achieve, therefore, is to define a new essence or form of film that has always been there but only appears now for itself in Kiarostami's work. The central idea of this new essence is that cinema is fundamentally an art of looking at the world. To develop this unsurprising statement into an innovative path for film theory, Nancy uses two concepts. One is the concept of gaze or way of looking ('regard' in French); the other is a conception of the world. These two concepts are inextricably linked since the definition of film, as an art of looking is only made possible through the understanding of how Nancy conceives the world. And the latter is at the heart of Nancy's innovative purpose.
As we saw earlier, modern and postmodern cinema are fundamentally reactionary as they are obsessed with the idea that the world *no longer* makes sense. In a small essay, unfortunately not translated into English, Fabrice Revault D'Allones details very clearly this reactionary attitude.  Classic cinema dealt with a pre-interpreted world and aimed at organising every element of a movie toward a particular meaning, whereas modern cinema confronts a world that can no longer be understood, and aims at representing the loss of this meaning with the techniques of documentary and realism. At the foundation of modern cinema are Deleuze's pure optical situations that occur when the link between the man and the world has been broken. Modern cinema is therefore obsessed with the loss of the world of classic cinema and constantly tries to express this loss, either by deconstructing the forms of classicism or by formally emphasising the loss of meaning. In the same way, postmodern filmmakers, when attempting to find a way out of modernity by recycling the old forms, only reveal their obsession to overcome this loss of meaning. Nancy's philosophical twist is that this loss of a meaningful world is actually a gain because a world without signification is the world itself. Not that the world is nonsense, but the *sense of the world*  is only conceivable once we have acknowledged that the world is not about meaning but is a more locus for the meanings. And while we are becoming aware of that simple reality, the world opens itself. Overcoming what we saw as a loss literally gives us the world, a world that Nancy describes through references to Heidegger's phenomenology as the neutral 'there-is' that comes ahead of beings and meanings and allows them to come to existence.  On the basis of this modern conception of the world, Nancy argues that cinema is freeing itself from its obsession with the loss of meaning and begins to tackle the beings themselves. The natural posture of cinema is therefore not to represent a preconeived world, nor to represent the loss of this meaningful world, but to *present* the world itself. Nancy concludes: 'the evidence of film is that of the existence of a look through which the world can give back its own real' (44). In front of a world that is self referential, and whose lack of meaning is no longer missing since it is rather a condition of existence, this new cinema is an art of looking and presenting the world and the beings for themselves, without organising them towards a meaning (the limit of classic cinema), without consciously representing the lack of meaning (the limit of modern cinema), and without obsessively playing with the forms of the past (the limit of postmodern cinema).
This short text proposes nothing less than a viable alternative in the attempt to go beyond the contradictions of modernity: a foundation and an opening for the cinematographic images of the twenty-first century. Nancy's philosophical twist is the starting point of his argument, its basic assumption. The majority of the content of the L'Évidence du film consists in applying this assumption onto a particular example of this new cinema. Ignoring the concepts and frameworks of previous film theories, Nancy proposes his own ideas to interpret Kiarostami's cinema.
The concept of the gaze ('regard' in French) is perhaps the most interesting. Where modern cinema often had a passive documentary way of looking (merely to record), Kiarostami's gaze is much more challenging for the spectators. Analysing how Kiarostami uses distanciation techniques, very selective framing, and the well-commented 'long cosmic shots',  Nancy shows how this cinema *mobilises* the look of the viewer and acts as an eye-opener. Achieving this gaze would be the aim of this realist cinema dealing with a modern conception of the world. Nancy further refines his definition of film by exploring the dimension of movement, and provides many other rich comments on Kiarostami's movies. The set of pictures from Kiarostami's movies included in the middle of the book brings a very clear illustration of Nancy's ability to capture the key features of the director's work. The conversation between the philosopher and the film-maker also reinforces the feeling of a perfect match between Kiarostami's filming and Nancy's thinking. In providing some philosophical thinking on the work of the Iranian director, the book is fascinating.
But if Nancy succeeds in convincing us that Kiarostami creates new and innovative pictures, how much of this novelty can be extended to the fields of film and visual arts at large? In other words, is this book simply an intelligent commentary of Kiarostami's movies, or does it contain the elements for a definition of an emerging new form of cinema and visual arts, as Nancy pretends? The obvious limit of the text is its unique reference to seven of Kiarostami's movies, which means that although the concepts developed here are perfectly applicable to these seven movies, it is up to the reader to determine their relevance in other movies. I could think of only a couple of film makers whose work may fall in this new way of filming: Hou Hsiao-Hsien and 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano. Hou Hsiao-Hsien's pictures do not attempt to create a world around a given meaning, but rather aim at presenting the world and the livings with no other reference than themselves. The case of Takeshi Kitano is more complex because the basis of his movies is fundamentally modern, but Kitano's characters, along with the director himself, seem to find their own way to look at the world when they temporarily escape the violence. These two examples hardly convinced me of the relevance of Nancy's proposition for film studies, although the fact that these two directors come from Asia would be seen with pleasure by Nancy, as he uses the Iranian director's double image culture (at the intersection of the East and the West) to justify positioning Kiarostami at the origin of this new cinema. Unfortunately, like many of his comments, this interesting idea does not go beyond the draft status and carries barely any weight for that reason.
Another limit lies in the lack of examples from other visual arts, which undermines Nancy's affirmation that the *form* of this new cinema is actually the new form of *all* the visual arts. The arguments Nancy makes about the presence of photography and television in Kiarostami's movies are also far from convincing. As would be the analysis of Kiarostami's digital cameras in his latest movie documentary, ABC Africa, for it is clear now that Nancy does not try to prove his theoretical statements with empirical evidences. Thus the reader is requested to believe the existence of Nancy's new form for visual arts on a pure theoretical twist derived from Nancy's philosophy and a single example. At this stage of the reading the frustration peaks, when, willing to play Nancy's game, i.e. to analyse his statements from a pure theoretical standpoint, the reader tries to get a clear understanding of this new modernism. Nancy's chosen format for the book - two relatively independent texts, the transcript of a conversation, and a set of pictures - literally prevents any clear understanding of the concepts and theories proposed. After going back and forth in the text, trying to identify concepts and find a solid definition for them, I gave up, and kept on reading Nancy's fluent style with pleasure but with much less expectation regarding the final outcome of this book in regard to film theory. And once the book closed, I was having real doubts about the use I would be able to make of Nancy's propositions. Adding to the confusion was the blurry feeling that Nancy's idea of cinema as a difficult art of looking at the world and it peoples was not entirely wrong, nor entirely new.
L'Évidence du film does seem to say something essential about how film is starting to tackle a whole new relation between man and world in the beginning of the 21st century. Unfortunately it does not say enough to grasp a clear understanding of this statement and to deduct applicable concepts to build some new path for film studies. That Kiarostami presents a unique look at the world few will disagree, but that his work brings along a new era of visual arts is what Nancy almost fails to convince us of. This is a shame though, because Nancy could well be right.
1. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: L'Image-mouvement (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1983).
2. Fabrice Revault D'Allones, Pour le cinema moderne (Brussels: Yellow Now, 1994).
3. Jean-Luc Nancy, Le Sens du monde (Paris: Editions Galilee, 1993); translated into English as The Sense of the World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
4. See Nancy, The Sense of the World, p. 237.
5. Jonathan Rosenbaum, 'Fill in the Blanks: Taste of Cherry', Chicago Reader, 29 May 1998, http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/1998/0598/05298.html; accessed 15 April 2002.