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Excerpts from Cinema and Social Change

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We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself.

Bertolt Brecht

Excerpts from Cinema and Social Change
by Tony Kashani

In Search of a Transformative Cinema

Cinema, subjectively with powerful tools of fiction and nonfiction that please, transform, and deceive shapes the public mind. In cinema there exist dramatic visual effects, synthetic dreams, counterfeit emotions, and preconceived spontaneity. Cinema has a mystique unique and different from other art forms. Can cinema be transformative? One might intuitively respond with a resounding “yes.” However, I should like to argue that intuitive knowledge (Bergson, 1911/1998, 1965) will not be enough to gain a deep understanding of cinema, and in turn, using that understanding with a critical perspective to produce knowledge (i.e., theory) about cinema. Moreover, for the purpose of my inquiry, the theory about cinema should be of the kind that can be practiced to transform societies. And to generate such theory, I must recruit other theories, already established, for assistance.

Never before have human beings possessed such power to create a medium (i.e., cinema) that utilizes the human creator’s active imagination to reach into our consciousness. Is this power dangerous? Will it send us on the path of self-destruction? In the nineteenth century Friedrich Hegel foresaw the possibility of “form over content.” With the invention of the photograph, the image emerged as a new representative of “reality.” Neoliberalism is moving us into an age where the image is becoming more important than the object itself. The loss of meaning is quickly becoming a reality. If we no longer can find meaning to assign to our lives, the emptiness of such a condition could spell the doom for humanity altogether. Indeed, the stakes are very high.

Would appearance be preferred to reality? Does cinema play a role in this realm? Marshall McLuhan (1967) prophesized it (form over content) in his famous The Medium is the Massage (cleverly misspelling message to point to his thesis). Twenty-four years later, Denzin (1991) astutely demonstrated that in postmodern cinema the language of film is without a center that, although it may mock the past, it also lends “quasi-reverence” for the icons of the past. Cinema could easily be considered one of the pillars of the American culture and by extension other cultures of East and West. Cinema is a medium that speaks at once to individuals and to the masses. History has shown that cinema, a socially diffused art form, permeates households, workplaces, schools, and other institutions with its accessible language of signs and codes. In fact, it can be argued that in the postmodern era cinema has built a bridge between so-called low culture and high culture. Masses understand the semiotic language of cinema far easier than the language of the theater, and many plays can easily be adapted to film form. The audiovisual culture of the present time employs cinema for learning and relating to the world. If one’s worldview is limited to his or her language (Wittgenstein, 2001), therefore, a language (i.e., cinematic language) that has a scope beyond the verbal communication can indeed change worldviews for masses.

Theory of Art and Cinema

Is cinema art? Before I tackle this question I should like to establish a workable “definition” of art. While delineating “art,” in his expansive essay, “What is Art,” Tolstoy (1995) writes,

Art is not, as metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetic physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man’s emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress towards well-being of individuals and of humanity. (p. 88)

To accept Tolstoy’s proposition is to accept that art is an act of communication and social interconnection. Cinema is an all-encompassing art form that employs photography, music, acting, choreography, writing, and architecture. Cinema moves us, both emotionally and intellectually. Indeed, with cinema we have an art form that appeals to all seven categories of intelligence (Gardner, 1993). Recent cutting-edge scientific research indicates that our visual sense utilizes more than 50% of our brain sphere (Felberbaum & Kranz, 2005). Conversely, cinema primarily a visual medium is inherently engaging our bigger part of our brainpower, hence its great potential to be transformative.

Cinema communicates ideas and emotionally moves us. Within a cinematic experience once our emotions are evoked, if and when, we move to the next step and critically reflect on this communication, then and only then a transformative experience can take place. However, for this transformative experience to occur, the cinema that we are experiencing must itself possess depth and self-reflection. A self-reflective cinema draws attention to its form and content by utilizing various editing techniques (e.g., nonlinear plot arrangement, voice-overs, disruption of continuity, etc.), containing complex dialogue that makes references to history and politics, and so on. This prompts selection of a type of cinema that can be effectively used for transformation. In The Cinema or the Imaginary Man, Morin delineates the complexity of cinema’s potential,

Film represents and at the same time signifies. It remixes the real, the unreal, the present, real life, memory, and dream on the same shared mental level. Like the human mind, it is also as much lying as truthful, as mythomaniacal as lucid. (Morin, 1956/2005, p. 202)

Morin’s theoretical treatment of cinema points to the intentionality of the art form. And with this intentionality there is indeed a sort of a “play.” A play that is inherent in any art, perhaps. In The Play of Art, Hans-Georg Gadamer (1973), one of the leading figures in the hermeneutic tradition of philosophy, inquires into the “playful” character of art. To be sure, this does not suggest that art is frivolous or unimportant. On the contrary, Gadamer posited that, “Our capacity of play is an expression of the highest seriousness” (quoted in Neill & Ridley, 1995, p. 77). In fact, any serious activity seems to be complimented by play in all human cultures. Organized sporting games, for example, are part of any culture. Football (i.e., soccer) is the most popular sport on the planet. A sport is serious activity with rules and boundaries that requires play for it to happen.

What does play do to art? With art humanity has an amalgam of intentionality, natural process, play, and serious communication. Gadamer (1973) explaines the process and production of art this way:

Above all, where we are talking about art and artistic creation in the preeminent sense, the decisive thing is not the emergence of a product, but the fact that the product has a special nature of its own. It “intends” something, and yet it is not what it intends. (quoted in Niell & Ridley, 1995, p. 77)

In Gadamer’s theory of art one finds remarkable similarities to Freud’s theoretical investigations into art. Freud’s notion of “pathography” refers to the viewing of art as a privileged form of neurosis where the analyst-critic explores the artwork in order to understand and unearth the vicissitudes of the creator’s psychological motivations. Freud’s (1960) theory of the joke-mechanism and its relationship to his account of the primary and secondary processes further solidifies this view of art. This aspect of Freud’s theory seems better equipped than the pathographic approach to address the formal structure of art and the nature of aesthetic experience. Under this assumption, rather than just an object to be investigated in psychoanalysis, the artwork can be viewed as the outcome of a process, which involves much playfulness. These theories play an important role in understanding cinema.

Discourse of Cinema

Scholars have always been thinking about cinema in theoretical terms. The foundational writings about cinema started in Europe. In 1916 Hugo Munsterberg, a German psychologist, wrote what most historians consider the first major text in film theory. In his book, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, Munsterberg (1979) blended psychology and philosophy of aesthetics to develop a theory in understanding cinema as a distinct art form. Munsterberg was preoccupied with the art form’s psychological relationship with the audience.

It took 16 years before another major text would develop a discourse in cinema. In 1932, Rudolf Arnheim, another prominent German psychologist, wrote Film as Art (published in the U.S. in 1957). Similar to Munsterberg, Arnheim was concerned with cinematic experience as an artistic process. In other words, for Arnheim the theory of cinema is a theory of formalism. Arnheim believed that film is a medium that transcends reality and can offer a formal (artful) version of a meaningful phenomenon that is not reality. Film theory is a legitimate and necessary discipline within the sphere of humanities. However, within the scope of this dissertation, the author focuses upon examining the transformative potential of cinema.

Accordingly, for the purpose of this inquiry, Edgar Morin’s (1956/2005) The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man becomes the most comprehensive and useful text. The Cinema was written at a time when the academy did not consider cinema studies to be serious scholarly work. Morin’s anthropological study of cinema is now gaining recognition as an important text within the discourse. In the book, Morin posited cinema both a medium of entertainment and a surrealization of humanity. In the postmodern age of globalism where cinema is in the fabric of humanity’s culture, the relevancy of this book is quite apparent. This is especially timely as the old Althusserian [1] and Lacanian [2] Marxist approach to film theory is losing its validity in cinema studies. It is evident that 50 years ago Morin had his hand on the pulse of a discipline (cinema studies) that is finally coming into its own, and freeing itself from the tight grip of ideology (both right and left). I posit that, Morin, ahead of his time, had recognized the complex universalities of cinema.

Reality and Cinema

We experience “reality” in time and space by way of form and matter. Cinema is a reflection of such experience. What is reality? This question has been residing in humankind’s consciousness, presumably, since a human being began to reflect on his/her existence. Descartes famously declared, “I think therefore I am,” arguably inventing the modern human. The modern human has been obsessed with gaining access to “authentic reality” for quite some time. Before Descartes, there was Plato, the founder of the first university, “the Academy.” In the academy, Plato, who was Socrates” most important disciple, developed a philosophy that was concerned with the nature of reality, or metaphysics. Accordingly, for Plato there were two worlds: the unspeakably lofty world of “Forms,” and the world of mere “things,” which is but a poor imitation of the former. In other words, there is an independent reality out there, one that we may never be able to understand (Kessler, 1998).

Plato’s conception of the “Forms” is that they are the eternal truths, which are the source of all reality. Plato’s theory assumes that the whole of reality is founded upon the “Good,” which is reality’s source of being. And all knowledge is ultimately knowledge of the Good. Moreover, Plato optimistically holds that if one ever comes to know the Good, one becomes good. Ignorance is the only sin. No one would willingly do wrong. Plato’s influence in Western thinking and to a large extent in modernized East cannot be overstated. To paraphrase the eminent British-American philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, discourse of philosophy is merely a bunch of footnotes to Plato.

Plato’s influence is clearly seen in the thought of one of his best students, Aristotle. Aristotle spent 20 years at Plato’s academy. Soon after the death of the master, however, he founded his own academy, the Lyceum. In Aristotle’s school, Platonic philosophy was taught, but it was also criticized. In criticizing Plato, Aristotle asked: If Forms are essences of things, how can they exist separated from things? If they are the cause of things, how can they exist in a different world? And a most telling criticism has to do with the problem of “change and motion,” which the early Greeks had tried to solve. For example, Heraclitus believed that stability was an illusion, and Parmenides argued that motion was an illusion.

Aristotle decided that a distinction must be drawn between Form and Matter. These two features of reality, for Aristotle, can be distinguished only in thought, not in fact. That is to say, Forms are embedded in particular things. They are “in” the world. In Aristotelian thinking, an object with both form and matter is what is called a “substance.” Therefore, in an anti-Platonic metaphysics Aristotelians hold that reality is composed of a plurality of substances. This, of course, is famously known as Aristotle’s “Pluralism” as opposed to Plato’s “Dualism” (a dualism that verges on idealism).

One can posit that Aristotle’s pluralism solves the problem of motion and change. Instead of matter and form, we have “potentiality” and “actuality.” This is the essence of theory of change. Any object in the world can be analyzed in terms of these categories. Aristotle’s famous example is that of an acorn. The acorn’s matter contains the potentiality of becoming an oak tree, which is the acorn’s actuality. The acorn is the potentiality of there being an oak tree. The oak tree is the actuality of the acorn. Therefore, for Aristotle, “Form” is an operating cause. Each individual substance is a self-contained teleological (i.e., goal-oriented) system. Cinema is an intentional art form. Therefore, cinema with its form is, in Aristotelian sense, a teleological entity.

Quantum Physics and Reality

In Aristotelian thinking, nature is a teleological system in which each substance is striving for self-actualization and for whatever perfection is possible within the limitations allowed it by its particular essence. Under this assumption, for such a system to work, some concrete perfection must actually exist as the telos (i.e., goal) toward which all things are striving.

It is important to note that Aristotle, almost single-handedly, founded the science of logic, that is, the science of valid inference. In Aristotelian logic, however, there are certainties (e.g., true or false, either/or, etc.). Fast-forward to the modern era especially the twentieth century and the establishment of physics as what Nicolescu (2002) called “queen of sciences.” When Niels Bohr proposed that, aside from light, the energy of atoms is quantized, quantum theory took a quantum leap (Peat, 2002). What took place next is the work of several daring scientists who established quantum theory as a viable part of physics. According to Peat (2002),

Along with contributions from Werner Heisenberg, Max Born, Erwin Schrodinger and several other physicists the quantum theory was set in place. And with it uncertainty entered the heart of physics. (p. 7)

As quantum theory continued to develop, Bohr introduced “complementarity,” to explicate the new logic, which is the notion that “a thing can be both A and not-A” as opposed to what Peat (2002) asserts as the Aristotelian certainty of “A thing is either A or not-A.”

John Bell’s contribution to understanding “quantum wholeness” is indeed relevant to this inquiry, which looks for the link between quantum reality and its manifestation in cinema. Peat (2002) explained Bell’s contribution as follows,

John Bell pointed out that quantum wholeness means that the two parts of the system A and B will continue to be “correlated” even when they are far apart. In no sense does A interact with B; nevertheless (and loosely speaking) B “knows” when a measurement is being performed on A. Or rather, it would be better to say that A and B remain co-related. This co-relationship has since been confirmed by very accurate laboratory experiments. (p. 21)

Dimensions/cinema/complementarity.

From Bell’s assertion, one can deduce that quantum “reality” is a reality of multiple, possibly infinite, dimensions. Quantum theory offers a promise of extra dimensions of “reality,” and perhaps other parallel universes, and so on. To be sure, the word dimension can float across disciplines and be used in understanding forms of “reality.” Conventionally speaking, we experience the world in three dimensions with the addition of the nuanced fourth dimension introduced by Einstein known as timespace. How do we understand these dimensions and include them in our reality? What are the nuances of the concept of dimensions?

For instance in teaching about cinema, one can use the word dimension to explicate the various cinematic processes. It is a physical fact that when we are looking at a movie on a screen (a flat screen) we are looking at a two-dimensional, not three-dimensional representation. In other words, we are seeing an illusion of three dimensions on a flat (two-dimensional) screen.

The actual fabric of the screen is, of course, three dimensional, but the projection is two-dimensional. So cinema, which is a reflection of a three-dimensional “reality,” and also in itself an “artificial three-dimensional reality” with its own consciousness, is presented in a lower (two)-dimensional manner. So in “reality” three-dimensional objects (including the actors) are recorded with a camera, processed and printed, and then projected in a two dimensional form. However, because we are aware of and can sense three dimensions in space, it is not hard for us to imagine three dimensions on the flat screen, therefore we see the third dimension (i.e., depth).

Cinema is capable of manifesting these theories in audiovisual form. To aid with this endeavor (i.e., dimensionality), the filmmakers carefully practice what is known as mise-en-scene (placement of objects within the frame) to create the necessary depth to the scenes (Kashani, 2005). What is more, deep focus photography, lighting (use of shadows), and camera angles usher in the third dimension for our perception.

Are there other dimensions? Einstein used time as the fourth dimension to give us the formula for relativity. Also, in the quantum world complementarity helps us to use our imagination and look for the other dimensions besides the three in space. Or rather finding the other dimensions besides the ones within timespace. In reference to complementarity, Peat (2002) observed,

Bohr believed that complementarity was far more general than just a description of the nature of electrons. Complementarity, he felt, was basic to human consciousness and to the way the mind works. (p. 8)

Accordingly, one posits, with complementarity we can employ our imagination and with science we can experiment. With the interplay between our theories and experimentation with the added imagination perhaps we can go through some corridors and see the other dimensions.

Moving beyond form and looking at content, can one use the word dimension in describing the “reality” of cinema? That is, seeing the implicit dimension of cinema. Every film has variety of dimensions (e.g., plot, themes, visual look, subtext, latent message, and polyvalent presentation) and this is true even in the case of the most simple-minded Hollywood escapist film. How many of those implicit dimensions can an audience see in a film? To be sure, it depends on the history, education, psychological makeup, and level of intelligence of that person. How imaginative is one? To what extent does one participate with the unfolding reality of the film as it is projected? To what extent is one fluent in the visual language of cinema? These are all factors that can determine the discovery of the number of dimensions that are in any film. Henceforth, the more complex a film, the more implicit dimensions there are in it.

For example, Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) has a lot more complexity (i.e., differentiation and integration) than James Cameron’s Titanic (1997). Therefore, more implicit dimensions exist in the former than the latter. For example, Persona taps into Jungian notions of the self and collective unconscious, but Titanic resorts to the “love transcends everything” theme in a reductive manner. In other words, reducing the complex human condition to a love story between the hero and the heroine.

Symmetry

Another element one should consider in explicating quantum reality’s relationship to other forms of reality is the law of symmetry. Physicists, mystics, philosophers, and theologians pay close attention to symmetry. Many of humanity’s universal and particular symbols contain symmetry in their artistic design. Islamic art, for example, is almost entirely centered on symmetry. The mosques of Isfahan are marvelous achievements in using the law of symmetry. Something has symmetry if its elements are interchangeable.

In 1598, Isfahan, chosen capital under Shah Abbas I of Iran, is the city of stunning masterpieces of world architecture. At its Zenith, under the Safavid dynasty in the seventeenth century, Isfahan had a population of about 600,000, and with its magnificently symmetrical Islamic architecture, arguably making it one of the world’s great cities of the time. A general view of the famous Imam Square, one can get a macro view of spatial and internal symmetry. Inside the great dome of the prayer hall of Imam Mosque, [3] the micro-macro tile designs can mesmerize the viewer and transport him or her to new dimensions of a form of reality. One stands in awe of such beauty, and can appreciate quantum reality in that sense.

Symmetry plays a major role in cinema with varying nuances. For example, in continuity editing for cinema there is a technique known as “shot-reverse-shot,” which is based on symmetry. This technique is used to draw the audience into the scene where a conversation takes place. With this cutting technique where the camera switches between the two characters there are three shots employed; one over the shoulder shot to create a sense of eavesdropping on the part of audience, another of one character speaking, and vice versa.

In cinema “continuity editing” relies on manipulation of space to create the illusion of continuity. The shot-reverse-shot technique, not unlike Einstein’s theory of relativity, is deeply rooted in symmetry. When the over the shoulder perspectives are reversed the audience does not see a visible difference, as if looking at a mirror image of the previous shot.

This spatial symmetry can be seen in the “180 degree rule,” which is yet another important technique employed to achieve continuity. How does it work? To create the illusion of reality as the narrative progresses and avoid disruptions of continuity the movement of camera is restricted to 180 degrees along an imaginary axis. For example, in a scene where two characters are sitting at two sides of a table, engaged in dialogue, the camera can track or pan from one character to the next, and not behind them. To change the point of view, the shot-reverse-shot technique is used.

Assuming that the importance of symmetry in physics, including quantum physics, cannot be overstated, is it spatial symmetry that gives us many clues to the possibility of seeing the invisible “reality?” Or is there another type of symmetry that can be helpful in better understanding quantum reality? Could there be a latent internal symmetry among particles? Quantum physicists like Peat and Bohm would answer that question with a resounding “yes.”

Again, one can refer to a cinematic technique to contextualize the notion of internal symmetry. In lighting for cinema, internal symmetry becomes quite important. In what is known as three-point lighting, the “white” light plays a paramount role in providing a major key light on the actor. This is especially true in musicals. How is this white light produced? In a magnificently magical way there is only a need for a red, a green, and a blue light. Regardless of where these three lights are located, so long as their beams illuminate the same area, out of the convergence of the three lights we get a white light. This is achieved because of internal symmetry. We will always have a white light with this technique. The theory of relativity sees the macroworld with its symmetry. And although quantum theory deals with the microworld, it too sees the chaotic and crazy world of subatomic particles co-existing symmetrically. To what extent one can apply this knowledge to gain access to new realities is uncertain. But it is indeed an exciting way of thinking about life and its reality. The technical capabilities of cinema allow us to visualize these “realities.”

Cinematic treatise on reality: The Matrix.

The Matrix (A. Wachowski & L. Wchowski, 1999) is perhaps the most multidimensional and popular film that deals with metaphysical issues (i.e., reality). There is merit to engagement of this film in this inquiry to approach a deeper understanding of variations on reality. One might assume that we can, and often do, know various things about the world around us. At least this is how it is perceived from the inside. Conversely, from the outside there is ample evidence proving that we cannot really know things. In other words we are always in the not knowing from the outside. This is abstract and needs to be unpacked.

Neo, the quintessential hybrid hero, and a computer hacker, discovers that the world around him is nothing more than an elaborate facade created by an all-powerful cyber-intelligence, to pacify human beings while their life essence is excavated and used to fuel the Matrix’s campaign of domination in the “real” world. Neo joins the insurgency in their fight to overthrow the Matrix. Before being contacted by Morpheus, Neo believes he is living in 1999. Morpheus quickly debunks Neo’s belief, and vis-à-vis virtual reality, shows him the “real.” The world has been dominated by a superior artificial intelligence with powerful machinery (i.e., computers). The AI has developed an artificial (virtual) version of the late twentieth century (this is the “matrix”). In Marxist terms this artificial reality is, in fact, the proverbial “false consciousness.” This condition is created by the AI (capitalist system [i.e., base and superstructure]) to keep the humans subjects busy and “happy.” In the meantime, the AI system excavates power from individual citizens that are hooked to the matrix. Neo takes on the messianic role and is called by the insurgency as “The One.” This is where the film exits its Marxist “reality” and uses allusions to Christ to direct the audience’s attention to the hero myth. Neo is the hero/leader who will help humanity to overthrow the AI and reclaim the “real” world.

The film utilizes a philosophic problem called egocentric predicament (this is Ralph Barton Perry’s (1968) thesis in Present Philosophical Tendencies). According to the egocentric predicament, the mind is confined to the circle of its own ideas, so that it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to know the external world. That is, we cannot get outside our own minds to know whether our ideas correspond to anything external. No standpoint exists from which we can view the external world and see whether the notions in our mind correspond to it. We are trapped within the boundaries of our being and cannot get outside ourselves to verify the reality of anyone or anything else. Given this condition, we could be skeptical about whether there exists an external world, independent of our own thoughts and images.

Perry (1968) described it this way,

No one can report on the nature of things without being on hand himself. It follows that whatever thing he reports does as a matter of fact stand in relation to him, as an idea, [an] object of knowledge or experience. (p. 89)

 This is in alignment with George Berkeley’s (1952) “esse est percipi.” In other words, “to be is to be perceived.” Berkeley claimed that reality is nothing other than our mental ideas, and that no material world exists. The Matrix, however, questions this thesis. One memorable line of the film is fitting here; Neo says to Choi, “You ever have the feeling that you”re not sure if you”re awake or still dreaming?” One can instantly be reminded of another famous quote by the Chinese philosopher, Lao-tzu, “The other night I dreamt I was a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. Now I do not know if I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man” (quoted in Voices of Wisdom, Kessler, 1998, p. 275 ). The case of “Match Point.

Metaphysical issues always usher in complex issues of morality. Narrative cinema utilizes a form that is tailor made for treating complex moral dilemmas. That is, the quintessential American film form known as film noir (as named by the French critics of the immediate post WWII). Match Point (Allen, 2005), although not a “classical noir” (Kashani, 2005) is indeed a postmodern noir that is very much a treatise on the deep philosophical problem of morality in choosing to do the right thing. Moreover, chaos theory is well reflected in this film as it presents chance and uncertainty with a most sophisticated cinematic language.

This noir is a story of a poor Irish man who takes advantage of his chances and climbs up the social ladder via marriage. He also makes a hedonistic decision to have an affair with a beautiful American femme fatale (aspiring actress), who naturally becomes an obstacle between him and his wife. The protagonist, Chris Wilton, is a former tennis pro who has reached his limits as a pro. He gets a job teaching tennis to rich aristocratic clients at a posh London club. Chris meets an unpretentious client (Tom) who has an interest in opera and, upon recognizing Chris’s passion for the opera and Dostoyofsky invites Chris to join him in the family opera box. Once there, Chris meet’s Tom’s sister, Chloe, the classic reverse-femme fatale. Chleo falls for Chris. And, conversely, seeing the opportunity to advance in society, Chris, half-liking Chloe, dates and later marries Chloe.A pleasant, but passionless, relationship exists between Chris and Chloe. The real passion comes with Nola (the aspiring American actress who is engaged to Tom). Soon enough, Chris and Nola have a fling. Nola is in the same class as Chris, poor and desiring to move up.Tom eventually dumps Nola, as the two classes clash. Meanwhile, Chris has married Chloe and has an executive job in his father-in-law’s firm. The upper class (i.e., the family) has chosen a lucky winner in Chris and campaigns for a grandchild, to no avail. A year later, Chris runs into Nola and now having been established he can fascilitate a full scale affair with the femme fatale. To stay with the noir form, of course, Nola gets pregnant.This is where the moral examination offers its most paramount question. Nola demands a full relationship and refuses to have an abortion. We find out that she had an abortion with Tom before. Chris goes through a process to make a decision. What is the right thing to do? Leaving his wife would mean instantly losing his cushy job and an upper-class existence. He is a poor Irish boy. Tom on the other hand, had nothing to lose with the pregnancy situation. But Chris has everything to lose. Chris faces a moral dilemma. The cinematic language of the plot reveals what he decides. He seemingly is asking himself, “Do I destroy my life or commit murder and eliminate this obstacle from my life?”

He devises a plan to murder Nola and her neighbor (to make it look like a robbery) and thus return to his “normal”and comfortable life. He carries out his plan, and what is more, gets away with it, while finally Chloe gets pregnant. The philosophical inquiry of Match Point (Allen, 2005) here is one that delves into chaos theory and asks if chance (luck) or fate (destiny) plays a larger role in our lives than we think? Also, the notion of justice is questioned. For example, Hollywood cinema has a tendency to offer up justice in the end of its films (except for film noir). But injustice does exist as it is showcased in Match Point and more often than not outside the diegesis of cinema injustice is not brought to justice. This consequently proves that even though we may have a complexity at hand (i.e., Match Point) if directed in the immoral trajectory the end can result in justice coming out the loser. In this complex story one play on the “butterfly effect” is indicative of the role chance plays in people’s lives. When Chris is throwing away all the evidence into the London River, one ring hits the wall and bounces back, falling onto the sidewalk. He does not notice it. If the police find and trace the ring to Chris, surely he will be arrested and charged with murder, convicted, and have to spend the rest of his life behind bars. However, the police find the ring in the pocket of a homeless junkie who has previousely robbed another house in the same neighborhood that Nola lived in. A mere chance, as in a tennis ball hiting the top of the net and having an equal chance of landing on either opponent’s court resulting in loss for one of the players, hence the title of the film. Here, Chris is the beneficiary of the match point chance, and injustice wins. Whether it is the Chinese proverb or findings of Edward Lorenz, who discovered the butterfly effect with his weather experimentation (Peat, 1999), we cannot deny the role chaos plays in our lives. In cinema metaphors play a major role in communicating the filmmaker’s message. Moreover, the butterfly effect (the possibility of it) is a powerful vehicle to drive a point home to the audience. Match Point (Allen, 2005) offers a complex story that sends its audience home to ponder its inquiry. Is complexity enough? Do we need to direct our consciousness for a complexity that can free us from the material desires? To what extent are we moral? Is morality an innate trait of humanity? Do we construct morality with our reflective conciousness? To what extent has the evolution of consciousness helped to evolve our sense of morality? Can cinema assist us in finding a space where moral choices we make could transform us into just and responsible agents, and in turn, transform our society into a fair and just one?

 The Other Cinema

From its inception, cinema has been affecting humanity in one way or another, sometimes quite profoundly, to be sure. A study of film history reveals that although the narrative movie has become the most dominant form of cinema, it could have gone another way. Cinema as a manifestation of humanity’s active imagination has always had designs on exploring the meaning of life and what our role on the planet may be. The artists in the Soviet Union used motion pictures to advance their cause for a new world and a new economy based upon the positive virtues of technology; the French and German artists who returned to Paris during the 1920s, on the other hand, explored the potential of cinema as a new art form. Bergsonian ParadigmIn the early 1900s, painters such as Marcel Duchamp pursued the dynamism of kinetic actions and multiple view points in the style of Cubism. They were influenced by Bergson. With his book, Creative Evolution, Bergson (1911/1998) theorized upon time, motion and change. Bergson posited cinema as a paradigm to explicate “reality.”

For Bergson, reality was the changing perception of a form that could be caught in time and space by an instantaneous snapshot. Under this assumption, knowledge becomes a form of thinking related to the process of filming. In the Bergsonian paradigm, for humanity, the conscious act of thinking processes the memories of a past with a comprehension of the present for an expectation of future possibilities. Bergson (1911/1998) claimed, “The mechanism of our ordinary knowledge is of a cinematographical kind” (p. 306).In accordance with Bergson’s philosophy, the Italian Futurists attacked the powerful bourgeois culture and its abuse of cinema (from their perspective). With their manifesto (Apollonio, 1970) they asserted,

The cinema is an autonomous art. The cinema must therefore never copy the stage. The cinema, being essentially visual, must above all fulfil the evolution of painting, detach itself from reality, from photography, from graceful and solemn. It must become anti-graceful, deforming, impressionstic, synthetic, dynamic, free-wording. (Apollonio, quoted in Le Grice, 1977, p. 10)

The Italian Futurists, however, did not fare well with their works beyond their manifesto. In postwar Italy, Mussolini’s regime abused their ideas to assist with the rise of fascism (Le Grice, 1977).

Dada Movement

In protest against the atrocities of World War I, the Dada movement took hold in Europe. The Dadaists critiqued the totalizing theses of Renaissance art as they playfully experimented with new forms of perception related to cinema. In an attempt to fight for social justice, they used cinema in an ironic manner to deconstruct the Eurocentric ideological worldview brought upon the planet by European imperialism. Dada art was essentially a paradoxical art. Dada artists recognized that their creativity was trapped by the same bourgeois society they wanted to transform, therefore, they attempted to break the chain of causality with their art that reflected upon their paradoxical condition (Richter, 1970).

Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Fernand Leger, Rene Clair, and other Dadaists introduced the concept of film as a form of thinking. In alignment with Surrealist movement, they intended to critically reexamine the premises, rules, conventions, logic, and traditions, which dominated the rationality and aesthetic notions of art. Man Ray and Duchamp, for instance, experimented with cinema in search of new plastic possibilities that could transform audiences.

In Retour a la Raison (1923) Man Ray used various camera angles and close-ups of moving objects framed in a variety of lighting patterns to disengage the forms from their original setting to create an ambiguous identity. Rene Clair’s first feature film, Paris qui Dort (1923) was a self-reflective film par excellence. Clair utilized stop-motion photography to convert the “real” into “surreal” fantasy. The story takes place in Paris. The protagonist (Dr. Craze) uses a raygun to paralyze people caught in everyday social activities. By chance, a group of people atop the Eiffel Tower escape the raygun attack and descend to the ground. Down there they find people caught in compromising positions, frozen in acts of robbery and so on. The film is a parable that directly attacks the French class system, its artificial social conventions and the desire for wealth at any cost. In Anemic Cinema (Duchamp, 1927), Duchamp played in a Dadaist fashion with the sensation of optical perception using two revolving discs made of white circles on a black field that rotate in opposite directions. As the discs rotate, Duchamp adds written material to comment upon the nonsensical action, taking place as his phrases mirror the actions of the revolving circles. This is done to point to the absurdity of modern society.

Avant-garde Cinema

The term avant-garde has its origins in French military. It means, “advanced guard,” and in cinema the term implies a form of advanced filmmaking. Indeed, avant-garde films break with conventional techniques and go against commercial cinema. In other words, avant-garde cinema defies the norm. The avant-garde filmmaker experiments with cinematic techniques and thematically questions orthodoxy in sex, politics, spirituality, and so on. Avant-garde films are designed to disturb the audience and force the viewer to question his/her relationship with cinema (Kashani, 2005).

Avant-garde cinema is also known as experimental cinema. Most avant-garde films are short in duration, contain very little spoken language (if any), and do not tell stories. In fact, avant-garde cinema is the cinema of abstract. The most proverbial of all avant-garde films is Un Chien Andalou (1928), a co-production of Surrealist painter Salvador Dali and filmmaker Luis Bunuel. This is an avant-garde film of disturbing surreal images, such as slicing a human eye with a razor, implying an opening of one’s vision towards art.

The Russian-born American filmmaker Maya Deren’s Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), is an experiment in manipulation of time and space, and realization of haunting dreams in cinematic form. Maya Deren introduced cinematic poetry and experimental possibilities to American cinema. Her experimental films altered the inherent reality of the cinematic image by deliberately distorting spatial-temporal relationships in ways similar to French avant-garde filmmakers. Her methods included the use of slow motion, reverse motion and freeze frames that break the domination of the space-time continuum. In her essay, Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality, Deren (1999) explained how cinema can filter a spectator’s perception of reality through a combination of selection, expansion and manipulation of the moving image.

Influenced by Deren’s work, Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) is an eight-hour film that has only one shot, a view of the Empire State building. Empire takes the concept of “meditation of time and space” to new proportions. It tests the viewer’s patience and assaults the eyes with its mundane image.

It is clear that experimental cinema (e.g., Dadaist, Futurist, and avant-garde) was influenced by Bergson’s notion of duration or time. In the Bergsonian paradigm cinema becomes the mechanism to incorporate the state of time in space. Accordingly, the camera can capture dream-like environments through its ability to distort and manipulate real time and space. With this form of cinema the artist can use the authority of the photographic image as a creative art form in filmmaking, one that gains expressiveness through editing and special effects. Consequently, the filmmaker is able to create new associations and meanings that transfigure space, time, and causality. Indeed, this form of cinema has transformative potential. The question, however, is whether the language of this cinema is accessible to masses to influence societal transformation. Such cinema in its form remains obscure, though clearly it has influenced “narrative cinema,” an accessible form of cinema to audiences around the globe.

Italian Neorealism

Italians have been major players in sphere of cinema from the early days. The most important period in Italian cinema has been the epoch of neorealist films (1945-1954). Italian neorealist cinema introduced a new approach to filmmaking. The leaders of this cinematic movement were directors Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, and writer/theorician Cesare Zavattini. The neorealist movement was a political movement at its core. What these men wanted to do was to delineate reality of postwar Italy with cinematic techniques. The conventions of neorealism are the use of narrative techniques to present reality, hence the name neorealism (Bondanella, 1993; Kashani, 2005).

The neorealist cinema is concerned with economic and environmental conditions, the stories of real human beings facing poverty and oppression. The most celebrated neorealist film is De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948), a fictional story that plays like reality as it happens, because it is drawing from the realities of everyday life in postwar Italy. The film uses documentary techniques of shooting on actual locations without any setting or special lighting, most of the shots are medium shots so the audiences don”t get caught up with identifying with only the “hero.” In fact there are no heroes in this film. Most of the story revolves around the search for a stolen bicycle by a father and son. The livelihood of this family depends on finding the bicycle. The story moves in linear fashion, and while the man and his son go around the city in search of the bicycle, audiences are witnessing the harsh conditions of life for Italians in a postwar period. The background of this film is equally as important as the foreground. One can argue that the background and foreground of the film constantly overlap. Understanding The Bicycle Thief, in essence, is understanding the human condition, and this experience indeed could be transformative.

Prior to De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief, director Rossellini had made his landmark film Rome, Open City (1945). Open City is depiction of a national resistance to Nazi occupation of Rome. The use of non-professional actors, actual locations, minimalist editing, and documentary style of filming with wide angle direct shooting, creates an intense “reality” that moves the audiences of all ages (Bondanella, 1993). In order to be persuasive to all, Rossellini chose a Catholic priest as the main character. The priest decides to collaborate with the Communist resistance movement for the good of all Italians. At the end the heroic priest is executed by the Nazis as some children watch, and the last scene shows the children walking back towards the city. What Open City seems to say is that we are all members of a same society, the human society, and some sacrifice their lives (regardless of religious or political belief) for our children, for Italy’s future (i.e., future of the world).

In 1953 Cesare Zavattini articulated the theory of neorealism in a manifesto titled, Some Ideas on the Cinema.” In his manifesto Zavattini called for the use of reality in cinema to move people towards reform and a “just” socialism. He called on filmmakers to ” excavate reality, to give it power, a communication, a series of reflexes.” He also proclaimed that “life is not what is invented in “stories,” life is another matter” (p. 64). Foreseeing what commercial cinema might do to humanity, Zavattini (1953) polemically called for a planetary attention to the human condition,

Here I must bring in another point of view. I believe that the world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality. The most authentic position anyone can take up today is to engage himself in tracing the roots of this problem. The keenest necessity of our time is “social attention.” Attention, though, to what is there, directly: not through anapologue, however well conceived. A starving man, a humiliated man, must be shown by name and surname; no fable for a starving man, because that is something else, less effective and less moral. The true function of the cinema is not to tell fables, and to a true function we must recall it. (Manifesto, article 3)

Indeed, what these humanist filmmakers introduced to world cinema was a new possibility as an alternative to make-believe cinema of Hollywood and others. The crux of Zavatinni’s (1953) argument was that the moral, like the artistic, problem lies in being able to observe reality, not to extract fictions from it. Creation of cinema for social change has been a legitimate and powerful trajectory for many filmmakers, and Italian neorealist films (1945-1954), collectively, created one powerful template for such a cinema.

The French New Wave

The new wave (nouvelle vague) was a radical movement in cinema. This movement effectively changed the way one thinks about and understands film narratives as an art form and ultimately as cultural constructs that shape lives. The movement was initiated by a young, talented group of French intellectuals, namely, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claud Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette (Graham, 1968). As writers and directors they followed Andre Bazin’s concept of the long take and mise-en-scene. The unifying principle behind these films was French Existentialism, in which they expressed a personal vision of the world. They integrated this philosophy with the dramatic theories of the German socialist playwright and philosopher, Bertolt Brecht.

The new wave cinema was heavily influenced by philosophical writings of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Sartre and Camus proposed a concept of human freedom based upon the possibility of a deliberate and conscious choice in which the actions of human beings are not limited or determined by powerful cultural forces. On the contrary, they posited that it is the experiential choices one makes that fully bring whatever endowment they have into being. Sartre (1943) asserted, “Man is a self-creating being who is not initially endowed with a character and goals, but must choose them by acts of pure decision, and make existential leaps into being” (p. 32) In an anti-Platonic stance, Sartre placed one’s existence before the idea of essence.

The cinema of the French new wave acknowledges that people are temporal beings and conscious of their own morality. This cinema proposes that a person must strive to live authentically with understanding of this condition, which, in turn, can lead to one’s ultimate destiny (Graham, 1968). La Tete Contre les Murs (The Keepers) (Franju, 1958) appears to be the forerunner of the new wave cinema that attacked the traditional institutions, particularly the insane asylum. This surreal documentary deconstructs institutionalism of bourgeois culture. One can speculate that Michel Foucault (1965) was inspired by this film to research mental institutions of France and subsequently transform that research into his seminal book, Madness and Civilization.

Two Seminal Films

Given the influence Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) has had and will continue to have in all of cinema, it is no exaggeration to consider the film the center of new wave films. Like other new wave films the premise of this film rests on a framework of existentialism (Kashani, 2005). In the narrative, Antoine Doinel, the 13-year-old protagonist of 400 Blows, is in a perpetual quest to free himself from prison-like schools and school-like prisons which his parents have consciously placed him in. Antoine receives blow after blow from his family, his school, and later from the penal system that disregards his “personhood.” When love and compassion are removed from Antoine’s life he is forced into a space of existence where he has to make existential choices derived from his free will and self-made ego. This film confronts the audience to ask the very same questions that Antoine seems to be asking. Do you rebel against a system that is designed to oppress the individual and create what Foucault (1965) has called “docile citizen?” Is freedom possible? Or as Foucault (1980) concluded, Genuine freedom can be achieved only through detachment from what is expected of us as “normal.”

Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless (1959) is another landmark new wave film that also breaks ground with cinematic techniques. Much like the American film noir characters the principal characters of new wave films are anti-authoritarian anti-heroes. In Breathless (written by Truffaut) Godard uses the loner character who is chased by police for stealing a car and killing a policeman Godard uses self-reflexivity in this film where more than once, characters turn to the camera and speak to the audience. Also, the editing technique of jump-cut is introduced to break continuity and jolt the audience in recognizing that they are watching a movie, a commentary on reality, and not an actual specific story (Kashani, 2005). Godard used his cinema to, effectively, write essays in cinematic form, on humanity in an attempt to confront one with consciousness shifting prospects.

What does it mean to be a human being who is here by chance? To what extent does a human being have a responsibility to humanity at large? What does one do, when dehumanized and oppressed in an alienating society? These are some of the difficult questions that a new wave film will ask its audience. The absurdity of life is a strong element of the new wave cinema. The notion of the absurd was adopted from Camus” philosophical treatment of senselessness of our existence. In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus (1955) summed it up this way,

A world that can be explained by reasoning, however faulty, is a familiar world. But, in a universe that is suddenly deprived of illusions and of light, man feels a stranger. His is an irredeemable exile, because he is deprived of memories of a lost homeland as much as he lacks the hope of a promised land to come. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, truly constitutes the feeling of absurdity. (p. 18)

Camus had recognized humanity’s continuous quest to discover and explain purpose and order in the universe. However, as quantum theory and history indicates, the universe does not provide convincing evidence to show absolutes, therefore, ambiguity and paradox sends one on the path of irony. The absurd condition, ambiguity, and ironical themes in one’s life did not escape the new wave filmmakers attention. New wave films, and by extension the films that are heavily influenced by the new wave cinema, put absurdity in center stage. For example, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (2003) is a treatment of absurdity and its cinematic adaptations e.g., Frankenstein (Whale, 1931) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Branagh, 1994) have been successful in translating Shelley’s work into audiovisual form. When one conducts self-inquiry, one finds a noticeable discrepancy between aspiration or pretention and reality. In this manner, one discovers a defining feature (i.e., absurdity) of human existence.

Frankenstein’s story is a story of any human being. A human being is essentially a product of forces that he or she did not choose and hardly comprehends in the first place. One is born in a particular moment of history of parents one did not choose. One is bequeathed a certain genetic inheritance over which one has no control but which does to a significant extent have control over one. One philosophical problem that haunts us is the problem of significance. How do we explain our “significance” in a universe that does not seem to allow us to have any kind of significance? When Sartre (1943), in Being and Nothingness, wrote, “We are thrown into the world,” he referred to our existence and inability to understand the causes and purposes of being thrown into the universe. How we are and what we do, are results of genetics and environmental conditions that, together, exert an influence over us which we have only the most opaque comprehension. A comprehension of this incomprehension can indeed be a transformative experience. Accordingly, a cinema of absurdity can be a suitable vehicle to usher in such transformation.  

Postmodern Transformative Cinema

In opposition to make-believe cinema of Hollywood and its mimetic counterparts, the success of Italian neorealism and the French new wave created a new trajectory for an alternative cinema. Today, one can call this a postmodern cinema that utilizes techniques and themes of neorealism and new wave (e.g., low budget, improvisation, and socialist themes). In a conference held by leftist filmmakers, scholars, and philosophers as part of 1986 Edinburgh film festival, a debate on a new cinema gave impetus to new postmodern practices in filmmaking and cinema studies. The Edinburgh participants were inquiring about the possibilities of a cinema that intentionally would communicate ideas for social justice with its audiences. This would be a cinema void of sentimental leftist cultural theories, and cultural (i.e., pedagogical) practices of late capitalism in the postmodern age. Essentially, the conference consciously focused upon non Anglo-American cinematic practices. For example, the scholars of Edinburgh concluded that Hollywood’s approach to cinema was a form of cultural politics and a deliberate attempt to reify capitalism as a normative and effectively hindering social justice movements (Willemen, 1994).

The conference identified a cinema dubbed as “Third Cinema” that wants to be a vehicle for social justice in a transparent manner. In a comprehensive study of “Third Cinema,” Paul Willemen, a scholar of culture and film, examined the roots of such cinema,

The notion of a Third Cinema was first advanced as a rallying cry in the late 60s in Latin America (including South America). As an idea, its immediate inspiration was rooted in the Cuban Revolution (1959) and Brazil’s Cinema Novo, for which Glauber Rocha provided an impetus with the publication of a passionate polemic entitled “The Aesthetics of Hunger” or “The Aesthetics of Violence.” (Willemen, 1994, p. 178)

This is a cinema that is historically analytic (in a postcolonial fashion) and culturally specific. One of the leading figures of cinema of social justice was the Argentinean filmmaker and essayist Fernando Solanas. In Unthinking Eurocentrism, Ella Shohat and Robert Stam (1994) quote Solanas, explaining the intentions of his cinema. Solano considers his work “As a meeting ground of the political and avant-garde engaged in a common task which is enriching to both” (p. 260). His three-part film, La Hora de los Hornos (The Hour of the Furnaces) (1968) co-directed with Octavio Getino is, in fact, the quintessential example of this logic. The film, in postmodern fashion, presents a pastiche of documentary portraits of popular culture icons depicting Argentinean history and politics from a neo-colonialist position. In fact, in secret screenings of the film Solanas would be present to engage the audiences in debates about the future of Argentine, the role of cinema in struggle for social justice, and so on.

In a manifesto, aptly titled, Towards a Third Cinema, Solanos and Getino (1976) explicated Third cinema as follows,

First Cinema expresses imperialist, capitalist, bourgeois ideas. Big monopoly capital finances big spectacle cinema as well as authorial and informational cinema. Second cinema is all that expresses the aspirations of the middle stratum, the petite bourgeoisie. Second cinema is often nihilistic, mystificatory. It turns in circles. It is cut off from reality. So called author cinema often belongs in the second cinema, but both good and bad authors may be found in first and third cinema. For us, Third Cinema is the expression of a new culture and of social changes. Generally speaking, Third Cinema gives an account of reality and history. It is also linked with national culture. It is the way the world is conceptualized and not the genre nor the explicitly political character of a film, which makes it belong to Third Cinema.

Third Cinema is an open category, unfinished, incomplete. It is a research category. It is a democratic, national, popular cinema. Third cinema is also an experimental cinema, but it is not practiced in the solitude of one’s home or in a laboratory because it conducts research into communication. What is required is to make that Third Cinema gain space, everywhere, in all its forms. But it must be stressed that there are 36 different kinds of Third

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