Democracy and Cinema, an Essay by Richard Ledes

HIROSHI SUGIMOTO, Cinema Odeon,Firenze, 2013

HIROSHI SUGIMOTO, Cinema Odeon,Firenze, 2013

There’s this joke. Spielberg dies. He goes to heaven and is standing before the archangel Michael. The archangel says, “Steven, welcome, we love your work up here. Now that you’ve joined us, what can we do for you?” Spielberg replies, “Well. I’ve always wanted to meet Stanley Kubrick.” “Ah!,” says the archangel, looking perplexed. “I’m sorry, Steven, he doesn’t take meetings—you know that.” Just then a crazy-looking old guy rides by on a bicycle with bells on it, long grey hair, a beard. Spielberg says, “That’s Kubric?!” To which the archangel replies, “No, that’s God, he just likes to pretend he’s Kubrick.”

Obviously the joke plays on the authorial control that Stanley Kubrick exercised over his films but also on the desire of art to become life, whereby the power of the artist over his work is analogous to the power of God over the world. The bicycle in the joke seems to me significant. It denotes modern life and the time of modernity when the art form known as cinema is distributed to its audiences through exact copies—prints, as they are called, whether on film stock of celluloid or some other material, or—as is now the case– copied digitally.

Mass production is basic to modernity, and film that is based on the distribution of exact copies becomes the art that arguably most defines this new era. It is based on photography, of course, which also is a technical process that produces exact copies. The difference between still photography and film is the way in which film includes the dimensions of time and movement. Cinema, as Goddard, famously wrote, is truth 24 times per second. I have a pocket-watch given to me by my mother that belonged to her father. Just as a cellphone now links us to time measured and quantified in a 24/7 world, so too the pocket-watch that emerged as a mass-produced item in the mid-19th century represented a personal link to that time’s culture and the measurement of time necessitated by the capitalist economy at that particular stage of development. The importance of cinema to modernity is in no small part because cinema is addressed to the masses whose creation is also contemporaneous with the emergence of modernity and mass production.

A key question for the world today is what is, what can be, and what should be the relation of these masses to democracy. While there is a reflexive embrace of democracy in the discourse of our own society in the U.S., there are real doubts just below the surface. One risk that is pictured on the right is that largely ignorant masses will take power through populist movements and destroy the foundations of the survival of their own society. Another risk more often evoked by the left is that these same masses, besotted by consumerism, will remain too passive and apolitical, unwilling to exercise their rights even though it means their survival. These fears and projections are more vivid today because the democratic capitalism that flourished after World War II is unraveling. The alliance between classes that was forged through high growth in the economy for the first twenty years and the consensus that it was necessary to harness that wealth for the sake of the democracy has vanished through a successive set of crises and ideological transformations. It is this vanishing act that I connected to the loss of a stable world when I saw Alexander Cuaron’s movie Gravity. In this film, catastrophic events cause the space vehicle to lose contact with NASA and then moments later we are alone with Sandra Bullock’s character tumbling through space unconnected to anything at all.

The voice of NASA (provided by Ed Harris who previously starred as a NASA Flight Director in Apollo 13) recalls this earlier time in the U.S. when the government was accepted as an equal partner in harnessing substantial economic growth for an empowered middle class work force as well as for its capitalist and managerial classes. Sandra Bullock’s character in the beginning of the film uses a screw-gun to fix a panel and is therefore reminiscent of Rosie the Riveter, that iconic figure of the working woman that emerged from World War II. When the unexpected chain of events leaves her isolated from the connection to NASA I associated it with the predicament of the contemporary working woman in a world whose dominant ideology is—to quote Margaret Thatcher—that “society does not exist.”

Cinema too is going through a crisis. Video cameras in the form of cell phones are ubiquitous in many metropolitan areas around the world today. Standing in New York City it can seem that everyone can now make a video. And yet the ability to make a living from making cinema or making videos continues to touch new lows. In regards to making an independent film at present, the director Steven Soderbergh said this past year at a widely reported talk at the San Francisco Film Festival:

“When I was coming up, making an independent film and trying to reach an audience I thought was like, trying to hit a thrown baseball. This [now] is like trying to hit a thrown baseball – but with another thrown baseball.”

Once upon a time a new film would compete against other films playing at the same time in the theaters. Now it competes against most of the surviving films ever made—not to mention videogames and other new forms of entertainment. Soderbergh in the same talk draws a distinction between movies and cinema.

“The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.”

Cinema, as Soderbergh defines it here, is what Kubrick made and it is why Spielberg wants to meet him in heaven. But why single out cinema at this moment in history? Why—in the midst of the destruction in Europe and the United States of democratic capitalism by an increasing isolated oligarchy and the ideology of neo-liberalism that plays with fire in judging as acceptable and even advantageous the rise of Neo-Nazi parties and the kind of racist and tribal politics that our parents generation fought to eradicate, why single out cinema at this time as conjoined with democracy? To answer this, we should consider the pairing that Plato makes in his dialogue the Republic and elsewhere between his critiques of poetry and democracy.

For Plato, democracy and poetry share a lack of foundation. In the case of democracy, because there is no fixed hierarchy—neither one based on nobility as in the case of aristocracy, nor on money, as in the case of oligarchy—a poor man feels he can speak on equal terms to the rich man, a woman feels she can speak on equal terms with a man and a child on equal terms with an adult. Indeed, what Plato finds troubling about democracy are the very reasons democratic politics are inseparable from the course of political and human rights today. Poetry too, for Plato, has no foundation but is based on dangerous illusions. While completing a doctorate in comparative literature at NYU, I studied ancient Greek with the late renowned classicist Seth Benardette. In doing research related to my remarks today, I came across the following description by Benadette of Plato’s portrayal of democratic man in Platos’s Republic.

“He becomes a poet without talent or knowledge. He thus needs poetry more than anyone else to supply in speech the models that he can never become. Everyman now enters the cave willingly and watches the movies.” Benardette, who was a famous student of Leo Strauss—and I can tell you from my personal experience, a great scholar of ancient Greek–makes a bold move associating poetry in Plato’s time with movies in our own, but he makes my job a lot easier by making the connection I want to make today. Plato’s paired criticisms of democracy and poetry is consistent with what Guy Debord, founder of the Situationists in the 1960s, described in his 1968 book Society of the Spectacle. Debord describes a modern society where people are kept quiet and complicitous with their own exploitation by consuming a ubiquitous spectacle of moving pictures that represent, according to Debord, the final stage of the commodification of life. He wrote his book far before the phenomenon of the internet and before we became capable of watching videos of cats or feature films on our cellphones but Society of the Spectacle offers today a powerfully foresighted criticism of the dominant role of moving pictures today in societies throughout the world. Others have made similar points from the perspective of filmmaking—in particular, the English docudrama filmmaker Peter Watkins who argues that a standardized way of telling stories has imposed itself through the dominant media and this repression of the possibilities of cinema serves a political purpose of keeping people from challenging the reigning ideological beliefs. However, what I want to suggest is that we consider as an alternate translation of “poetry” from Plato’s time into our own, instead of “movies,” “cinema.”

Cinema as opposed to movies is something made, something unique, argues Soderbergh. Soderbergh isn’t saying a clear distinction has always existed between the two or that it should. On the contrary, that is it only now that the participation of cinema in movies is being eliminated. Cinema has always been a part of the movies, that is what the New Wave loved about the auteur filmmakers they championed, such as Fritz Lang, Alfred Hitchcock or Samuel Fuller. These filmmakers worked within the Hollywood system of making movies but also managed to make cinema. What Soderbergh is arguing is not for purity but its contrary, a vital mix, that is what has drawn him to making movies—because he could make movies that contained cinema.

The massive amounts of money now needed to market a movie domestically and worldwide makes the co-existence of cinema and a movie less and less possible. Soderbergh writes
“Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to, the more homogenized it’s got to be, the more simplified it’s got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, god forbid, ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film here and abroad.”

What I am proposing is that this loss of the cinematic possibilities of the moving image because of the necessities of an economic model has as a corollary the loss of democratic possibilities for the sake of maintaining the same economic model. This is because the distinction between cinema and the movies is not necessarily in relation to its object—there are movies that are cinema–but also in relation to spectatorship. This is where I would differ from Soderbergh in defining cinema. I think you need to take into consideration the role of the viewer and of reception. This allows you to go beyond the opposition of active and passive that is implicit in Plato’s and Guy Debord’s models .

Hollywood notoriously compares the experience of watching a movie to being on a rollercoaster. You are strapped in and everyone gets the same ride but cinema, on the other hand, elicits a more active role for the spectator. André Bazin, the influential film critic and co-founder of Cahiers du Cinema, championed the use of techniques such as deep focus and long takes of filmmakers like Orson Welles and Jean Renoir precisely because, he argued, these techniques gave each viewer an opportunity to play an active role in the production of meaning. This is comparable to the contrast Roland Barthes once made between writerly texts and readerly texts. Readerly texts imply a passive reading experience while writerly texts elicit from us our ability to make sense of the world, to make meaning, based on our own subjective experiences, including our experiences of reading prior texts. When I saw Cuaron’s Gravity I was attending the Toronto Film Festival. I saw Cuaron’s film in the context of films such as The Past by Asghar Farhadi, The Square by Jehane Noujaim, and Norte-The End of History by Lav Diaz as well as a new print of Alain Resnais’s now classic film Hisroshima Mon Amour. There is no doubt that the intertextuality offered by these examples of cinema drew me to find what was cinematic’s in Cuaron’s Hollywood movie. Because of these other films, I was turned into a more active spectator, more inclined to see the movie Gravity as cinema than if I had seen it in another context. Cinema is that element of film that allows for what the philosopher Jacque Rancière calls the emancipation of the spectator and it is this emancipation of the spectator that we need now to revitalize democracy in our own society of the spectacle. However, as Soderbergh points out, the current phase of capitalism discounts the value of finding the cinematic on the screens of cinemas.

Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity survives. She survives through her faith and true grit. A low-budget version of a contemporary story evoking Rosie the Riveter might focus on the late Sarah Jones who was 27-years-old when she died earlier this year while working on a low-budget film. Apparently safety had been compromised to save money. She was part of a film crew that found itself on a train track on a bridge trestle without time to escape when a train appeared and hit a metal bed that they had placed on the track for a dream scene. Sarah was killed and other members of the crew were seriously injured. I did not know her but from what I have read I am sure she had true grit and at least the faith that she would make it through that day.

The lack of adequate safety in the workplace is an international story for too many people–especially women–today. Despite the worsening conditions for most people making videos, movies, films… filmmaking now occupies an iconic place in our society, championed, for example, on the Disney channel, and in the many apps that my eleven year-old daughter uses to make short videos. For recent college graduates it is seen as a profession where they can feel good about working long hours and being underpaid. It is true that film is a working environment replete with true grit, where people gain the same faith in each other that people working in film have always found.

However, there is a harsh reality behind why highly successful independent filmmakers such as John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Jim Jaramusch speak in different ways about either the death of cinema or its extreme deterioration. They are talking about its economics. Today those making money are the agregators–Netflix, iTunes and Amazon are three of the biggest. Risk has been pushed onto the producer and they have had to cut their budgets and because of the coercive laws of competition working conditions frequently have deteriorated. But won’t the internet save cinema and save democracy? Unfortunately, it will do not do this without political will and political action outside of cyberspace. Social media has arguably played a pivotal role in a few recent efforts to establish or restore democracies but it should not be forgotten how important the occupation of physical space has been for these movements trying to restore or revitalize democracies: in Athens, in Istanbul, in Cairo, in New York… likewise, it is hard to see how cinema can really thrive and play a vital role in democracy without once again occupying physical space, showing in cinemas as well as on the internet. At the dawn of cinema in the 19th century, the Lumiere brothers developed a model of audiences sitting together in front of a screen whereas Edison imagined people watching films alone–peep shows. As Godard has pointed out, it is Edison’s model that is now in ascendance and the model that the Lumiere brothers started that is in eclipse. It is not only spectatorship that was anchored in collective experience by the Lumiere brothers but also how they filmed the world outside. Edison, on other hand, regularly brought the subjects that he filmed into the Black Maria, an early form of a film studio. In doing so, he isolated the subject that he was filming from its background, isolating it against a black background not unlike how, for example, Apple commercials isolate their speaking subjects against a white background.

The process of the Lumière brothers inscribed cinema in shared physical space both in the viewing and in the multitude of scenes that resulted from their sending camera operators with their cameras around the world. The method that Edison promoted often involved a double isolation, separating both the viewer and the object of the viewer’s gaze from their surroundings. If cinema has a vital role to play in the emancipation of the spectator in a world of spectatorship, of making us aware of the social relations intrinsic to the endless world the camera strives to capture, then it is vital to the transformation of societies towards being more just and more truly democratic. Poetry, as I learned very young, derives from the Greek verb, “to make.” So—if we return to Soderbergh’s definition of cinema as something which is made–it is really cinema that is paired with democracy. In summary, let me say that there are three kinds of space that I am advocating that cinema needs in order to play the role it should be playing at this moment in democracy: a physical space—cinema needs to be in cinemas—an economic space and a space of critical reception. Given these, cinema can serve to elicit from spectators their own emancipation and empower them as citizens of a democracy.