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Philosophies of Cinematic Presence

Lecturer: Daniel Fairfax

Originally Taught: Winter School 2013

What does it mean for a filmed object to be “present” on the screen? How much ontological weight should we give to photographic and cinematic images? How does the real manifest itself in film, as opposed to the other arts? Throughout its history, philosophical considerations of the cinema have been characterised by such questions. Whereas an early text by Hungarian philosopher Georg Lukács typified a commonly-held viewpoint by categorically denying the cinema the same form of presence granted to theatrical performances, this stance was rejected in the landmark 1945 text, “Ontology of the Photographic Image” by French film theorist André Bazin, who argued, in a line of thinking distinctly inspired by phenomenology, that the photographic image shares the ontological being of its model, and that this factor constitutes the specificity of the cinema as an artistic medium. This course will show that Bazin’s arguments were already presaged in the 1920s, by the Bergson-inflected concept of photogénie developed by filmmaker and theorist Jean Epstein, and will then proceed to explore the structuralist critiques of Bazinian ontology issued by Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean-Pierre Oudart in the late 1960s-early 1970s, who themselves were heavily influenced by Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Finally, the course will examine the effects this long line of debate has had on the more recent aesthetic theories of contemporary French philosophers Jean-Luc Nancy (with his notion of cinematic “evidence”) and Jacques Rancière (with his concept of the “distribution of the sensible”). All sessions will also link theoretical discussions to the work of filmmakers, with Epstein, Jean Renoir, Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, Robert Bresson and Abbas Kiarostami forming crucial reference points. While it offers a self-contained curriculum, this course relates to the 2012 winter MSCP course “Philosophising Cinematic Montage”, with the overarching argument asserting that the concepts of presence and montage constitute the twin building-blocks of a comprehensive philosophical understanding of the cinema.

Course Schedule

Lectures will be followed by a film screening (approximately 1 hour).

Lecture 1: Bergson and Epstein

Preambular reading:

  • Georg Lukács – “Thoughts on an Aesthetics of Cinema”

Readings:

  • Bergson – extracts from Matter and Memory
  • Bergson – extracts from Creative Evolution
  • Epstein – Bonjour Cinema
  • Epstein – The Cinematograph Viewed from Etna

Screening:

  • Epstein – La Chute de la maison Usher

Recommended viewing:

  • Epstein – Cœur fidèle

Lecture 2: Heidegger, Sartre and Bazin

Readings:

  • Heidegger – extracts from Being and Time
  • Sartre – extracts from The Imaginary
  • Bazin – “Ontology of the Photographic Image”
  • Bazin – “Editing Prohibited”

Screening:

  • Renoir – Une partie de campagne

Recommended viewing:

  • Renoir – The Rules of the Game

Lecture 3: Althusser and Comolli

Reading:

  • Althusser – “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”
  • Althusser – “A Letter on Art in Reply to André Daspre”
  • Comolli – “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” (with Jean Narboni)
  • Comolli – “Technique and Ideology”

Screening:

  • Straub/Huillet – Not Reconciled

Recommended viewing:

  • Straub/Huillet – Class Relations

Lecture 4: Lacan and Oudart

Reading:

  • Lacan – extracts from Écrits
  • Oudart – “Suture”
  • Oudart – “A Lacking Discourse”

Screening:

  • Bresson – The Trial of Jean d’Arc

Recommended viewing:

  • Bresson – Mouchette

Lecture 5: Nancy and Rancière

Reading:

  • Nancy – “On Evidence”
  • Nancy – “The Evidence of Film”
  • Rancière – extracts from Film Fables
  • Rancière – extracts from Aesthetics and Politics (translation of Le Partage du sensible)

Screening:

  • Kiarostami – Life and Nothing More

Recommended viewing:

  • Kiarostami – Where is My Friend’s House?

 Level of Difficulty: Intermediate.