The wit of the cinematographer

Still from Peter Gidal’s The Condition of Illusion, 1975

I came across this witheringly funny exchange between Jean-Louis Comolli and Peter Gidal today, going through my piles of library books that I should have returned in July. (The pleasure of the overdue text!)

Comolli goes for the low-hanging fruit in his first (and more so, his last) statement. The first two issues he raises can easily be put to rest by a consideration of the phenomenological experience of experimental film–specifically, the kind of endurance it exacts from a viewer and the way in which experimental film makes us notice thinking as both time-based and spatial.

Gidal is having none of it; he responds with the first in a series of pithy glove-slaps, in the best tradition of a nobleman duelist.

Comolli rallies and tries to hit from yet a third and forth angle. (It’s always a sign that you’re losing the debate if you need to keep shifting the terms of engagement.) Nonetheless, these third and fourth points raised are far more thought-provoking. To me they are indicative of the French/Anglo-American divide in the approach to cinema as unquestionably one of the arts in its own right (the former) versus cinema as a medium that must justify its inclusion in those ranks, ignorant of the history of the arts all the while (the latter).

In his last point (a professor decrying the cinema by and for professors), Comolli seems to have fallen straight into the social realist allusion Gidal makes.

But read for yourself, much more entertaining than my play-by-play:

Jean-Louis Comolli: I should like to come in on the question of avant-garde film, remembering particularly some of the films we have just seen, such as Gerson’s Luminous Zone or Gidal’s Condition of Illusion[…]The first point I want to make is that all these films, differently but equally, play on optical effects; which leads to an effect of fascination on the spectator whose look is held by a dispositif that gives him or her spectacle to be seen. Even if that spectacle is not an analogical figuration of the real, it is no less of the order of the visible; the visible is not simply figured analogically, it is also abstract visible, non-figurative visible. For me then, there is in these films the risk not of reposing the questions of the traps of the ideology of the visible but, on the contrary, of valorising, multiplying, finally rendering triumphant that ideology of the visible in which we are caught. A second point is that these films or certain parts of these films–but this is not the case with Riddles of the Sphinx, for example–seem to me to work on a very simple principle, that of the small-scale theoretical model: there is a theory at the beginning of the film, a set of theoretical positions that the film applies, and when the film is over, the same theoretical themes are there, the same theoretical propositions serve to read the film. Thus what one has is a consumption in which the signifiers of the film are consumed in a prior knowledge and a posterior knowledge which are exactly the same–in other words, these are ‘texts’ in which few things are transformed, or even nothing at all.

Gidal: You must be blind.

Comolli: I am blind and we are all blind. A further point is that avant-garde movement of these films supposes an absolute domination of certain cinematic forms and I wonder if this is really the case, I wonder if we are still in a historical moment of the domination absolutely of a particular cinematic form. My own belief is that, on the contrary, we are in a moment in which different cinematic forms have appeared which compete with the dominant Hollywood form and that this kind of avant-garde cinema is in some way a little behind. What one might have been able to think of as necessary between the thirties and fifties, when the imperialism of Hollywood forms was precisely massive and powerful, is less so today; the avant-garde has a history in the history of cinema but that history is thought ahistorically, is not articulated to the different contradictions and transformations, tot he changes in the balance of power between historical forms of cinema[…]Peter Gidal’s Condition of Illusion does not think its relation to a certain form of abstract painting, or at least proceeds as though what has already been gained in the modifications of codes of representation by painting was not gained for cinema; just as in Barry Gerson’s Luminous Zone, the exercise in framing, everything seems to go on as though the work of Mondrian had been to no purpose.

Gidal: Eight words: it sounds like Radek’s speech against James Joyce.

Comolli: No, I think not, I am raising problems, questions that need to be worked through toward a different kind of discussion. One more remark, however. With regard to the films that we have seen, I have the feeling that what is involved is a particular kind of cinema that might be called a cinema by and for professors. The word “professor” brings with it the question of power, the power of the person who as the knowledge–a question that is apparently never posed by the subjects who make the these films. “Professor” can also be specified by the term “doctor”: these are films by and for doctors, “doctor” in the double sense of possessor of learning and person who gives medical treatment.

Gidal: Doctors also take out sutures.

From The Cinematic Apparatus, Edited by Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980), 170-171

Makes me proud to be a doctor.


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