The Ideology of Realism: Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism

In my previous article about Andre Bazin I explored his claims that the ontology of the photograph and film – ontology being the essential essence – is its ability to represent life as it appears. According to Bazin, film is inclined to, and again best when, realist in aesthetic. In a series of articles I will examine Bazin’s position on film however I came across an excerpt of Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Paul Narboni’s Cinema/Ideology/Criticism (an online copy of which can be found here) which I felt was interesting as it came from the opposite position. In this article I will explore their claims that the aesthetic of realism is a reliance on the status quo and an aesthetic implicitly reliant on ideological cultural dominants.

In the examination of Comolli and Narboni’s paper it is important to note that they are Structuralist in outlook, in contrast to Bazin who was a staunch Humanist, and they therefore perceive the realist aesthetic differently. This is immediately evidenced when Comolli and Narboni explain that film is partly a ‘product, manufactured within a given system of economic relations, and involving labour [Money] to produce… a commodity, possessing exchange value… governed by the laws if the market’ as well as ‘an ideological product of the system, which in [the Western world] means capitalism’.(1.) Film is made to be sold. Film is an art that is also primarily a source of income and export: film is explicitly a commercial product. However film, according to Comolli and Narboni, is also implicitly the product of the ideology that dominates the field, or place, it was constructed in. A film-maker, according to Comolli and Narboni, cannot change the economic circumstance, or system they find themselves in [if they could would it be the film business anymore anyway?]. One may ‘deflect it, but not negate it or seriously upset its structure’.(2.) An example of this “deflection” may be found in the music industry where the Arctic Monkeys, and several other bands, initially gave away free CDs and allowed their music to be downloaded for free. They originally refracted the “rules” or logic of the music industry however they didn’t change the system itself as after a period of time, and a rise in popularity, they returned to the normal procedure of selling music. For Comolli and Narboni film ‘is determined by the ideology which produced it’.(3.)

As I explained in my article ‘Influential Theorists: Andre Bazin – The Ontology Of The Photographic Image’ Bazin believed that film provides a reproduction of reality and although Comolli and Narboni may permit that film does reproduce reality when they say ‘this is what a camera and film stock are’ they hold a diametrically opposed view of what “reality” really is.(4.) Comolli and Narboni explain that ‘the tool and techniques of film-making are a part of [the] “reality” themselves… [Reality] is nothing but an expression of the prevailing ideology’.(5.) The realist aesthetic does not reproduce “the way things are”; it is in fact, at most an explicit and at least an implicit, a reproduction of the dominant way of seeing. Comolli and Narboni explain their position when they state ‘what the camera in fact registers is the vague, unformulated, untheorized, unthought-out world of the dominant world’.(6.) To use a similar image that Bazin utilized, film does not blow-away the “dust” of regular perceptions and conceptions but rather relies upon and reproduces that “dust” which has settled upon our way of seeing things. The realist aesthetic reproduces the way we experience the world, and the way we experience the world is defined by cultural dominants: and one major cultural dominant, of which Comolli and Narboni are particularly concerned with, is ego-centred capitalism.(7.) In Comolli and Narboni’s words:

When we set out to make a film, from the very first shot, we are encumbered by the necessity of reproducing things not as they really are but as they appear when refracted through the [dominant] ideology. (8.)

Realism is a reproduction, on the screen, of the ideological structures/world we encounter in “everyday” life. The realist aesthetic fails to comprehensively challenge or explore the structures of the dominant forces and world-view in society and art – which cannot challenge or explore sexist, racist or fascistic ideologies – is a blank critique and an utterly redundant social activity; art without the ability to challenge or explore social attitudes is not really art at all. According to Comolli and Narboni to stop film art from just becoming the “tool” of the dominant world-view ‘the film-maker’s first task is to show up the cinema’s so-called “depiction of reality”‘ and, if they are able to achieve that; the film-maker may be able to ‘sever’ or ‘disrupt’ the ‘connection between the cinema and its ideological function’.(9.)

To Comolli and Narboni just simply reproducing reality ensures one relies on the assumptions found in “everyday” life. They argue for the utilization of techniques which upset the viewers ability to accept the supposedly unadulterated reality of the world depicted. The use of jump-cuts in Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle (1960) could be argued to facilitate this sort of alienating technique. There are many films that are naturalistic or realist in aesthetic that, at least appear, to transverse and critique society and this is a definite critique of Comolli and Narboni’s position. A lack of examples and instances in film of the realist aesthetic is also another critique I would level against their article – however It should be understood that the article is intended as theory rather than “practice”. Rather than quickly explore the counter-arguments a critic who favours the realist aesthetic would raise I will leave that duty to Bazin, whose position I will continue to explore in the coming weeks and months.

 (1.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, in (Ed) J. Hollows, P. Hutchings, M. Jancovich, Film Studies Reader, London: Oxford Uni Press, (2000), pp. 197-200, p. 197.

(2.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(3.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(4.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(5.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(6.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 197.

(7.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(8.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

(9.) Jean-Luc Comolli & Jean Paul Narboni, ‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’, p. 198.

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Discourse Ideology Myth: Hollywood’s Geographical Location

The Hollywood myth is well-known. Hollywood is a place of dreams. Celebrities dine in expensive restaurants. Fashion boutiques reflect the money, effluence and aura in their outrageous designs. Red carpet is always just a barricade away. Your footprints stalk those famous names on the floor. This surgery enhanced smiling glamorous Hollywood myth is sold like sugar sweetening millions worldwide. Yet even this myth seems openly a myth. Quietly, whispering – though sometimes louder – in our ears we hear the resonating truth and we acknowledge that Hollywood & Vine is not Hollywood; it’s up those fair hills. Beverly Hills is the real geographical location; Beverly Hills is that Hollywood myth of fashion boutiques and celebrities. The Hollywood myth exists but is just a few miles away…

 

This honesty concerning the “truth” of the location of the real Hollywood is an extension of the myth. Hollywood, the proper Hollywood, is in Hollywood. Hollywood isn’t the light, bright, young and beautiful of Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is smoke and mirrors which distracts us from concentrating on Hollywood’s real element. Hollywood the place is the proper Hollywood as it’s filled with industrial-like complexes, studios, sound-proof booths, sound stages, offices and all aspects of the real capitalist process of film-making. On contemplation we understand that this is the real Hollywood: an industrial complex. The myth of Hollywood and the smoke and mirrors of Beverly Hills are used so that the real commercial industrial nature of Hollywood isn’t foregrounded. Hollywood is an industrial complex that produces cultural items – a factory of language but still a factory. We wouldn’t argue that an Ironworks is to be found in the dirt and sweat on the worker’s brow or the workers homes – signs of it true but if we asked for directions and were given this answer we would be angry and lost. The Ironworks would be explained as the physical location: the factory floor or site of production. The Hollywood myth like the continuity system attempts to hide or refract the signs of the mechanical production so as to communicate a more financially viable and sustainable magical atmosphere that doesn’t raise questions or at least subdues them.

 

Proto-Noir and Incomplete Character in the Maltese Falcon?

Maltese Falcon (1941)

Sam Spade isn’t the archetypal noir detective but he is close, he shows the cool command, the detective skills and the hard-boiled cynical nature found in the noir detective however his character lacks a certain trait. This trait is found in his partner but not himself. This trait is the doomed relationship with the femme fatal or the dark-ego female. Frank Krutnik explains ‘Spade is emphatically controlled in his relations with women: he is the master of his feeling and thereby can resist any danger of contamination and debasement through love’.1The ‘contamination and debasement’ though connection with the femme fatal is one of the central aspects of the true noir fiction detective’s personality. As I mentioned in my post about Coogan’s Bluff the interesting aspect of any character is the contradictions apparent in their character. The noir detective is interesting because he is both cool and in-command at the same time in-lust and hypnotised by the femme fatal. Again like the protagonist in Coogan’s Bluff he is both the rule-maker and rule-breaker. Sam Spade is too cool and too in control to be entirely interesting and entirely complete as a noir detective. This isn’t to say that his character doesn’t contain a dark side, he sleeps with his partner’s wife and doesn’t bat an eyelid when given the news concerning the same partner’s death. In combination Sam Spade and his partner create the archetypal noir detective. Stephen Cooper explains that ‘it can be no coincidence that the lascivious Mile Archer [Spade’s partner] is shot to death in the [scene] following’ the attraction and lust of Archer for Brigid O’ Shaughnessy.2Essentially and in concentration Archer suffers the fate that several other detectives will suffer when they become emotionally connected with the femme fatal or dark-ego female. Archer’s story is condensed compared to Walter Neff’s narrative of destruction in Double Indemnity (1944) however it is essentially the same. In many films the attempt to win a heterosexual prize comes along with the conclusion of a narrative, however: in film noir this always leads to death, either one’s own or hers.

Another interesting aspect concerning Archer’s death is that it is so brief, it hardly appears on the screen. We are not given time to build up an emotional state in either the killer or the victim. We are also not allowed to glimpse at the sad sight of Archer’s corpse as Spade refuses to witness it as he believes the police would’ve noticed everything he could have. The refusal to expose the emotional state of the crime in both the murderer and murdered is in fact a structural affect of the Hollywood system. Sam Spade is the focus point, the focalizer, and it is his emotions, his narrative that the camera follows and because he is indifferent to Archer’s death we aren’t given access to the emotional states connected to the murder. Structurally Archer is damned to suffer death and an obscure and unemotional one.

 

1Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity, London: Routledge, (1994), p. 123.

2Stephen Cooper ‘Sex/Knowledge/Power in the Detective Genre’ Film Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, (Spring, 1989), pp. 22-31 p. 24.