The Spectacle of Negativity
David Ehrenstein

"Another objection I take more to heart: that this film (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt) is purely negative, and so effective in its destructive aspects that it ends ultimately by destroying itself. This is not unreasonable."

-Jacques Rivette, "The Hand", Cahiers du Cinema, no. 76, November 1967.

"What we need is to determine in another way, according to a differential system, the effects of ideality, of signification, of meaning and of reference."

-Jacques Derrida, Positions

The defense of certain forms of artistic/financial failure -- the misunderstood or neglected film -- is a firmly established critical enterprise. The work is discussed as if it were some unjustly maligned or slandered individual whose reputation as a good citizen must be restored. As in a court of law, evidence is brought forth to prove that this seeming slacker has something of value to offer the community, while other critical parties are sternly admonished for their inability to recognize this fact.

In short, traditional notions of artistic practice (e.g., intent, coherence, "creativity") bring potential non-conformity (lying behind the works' initial rejection by the system) back into line. But can all films be accommodated to such methods? What about artistic practice predicated on the destruction of concepts of value? The two completed segments of Jacques Rivette's projected four part Scenes de la Vie Parallele -- Duelle and Noroit -- provide an example of this.

At first glance the narrative context of the two films -- a "non-existent myth" of power struggles between goddesses of the Sun and Moon utilizing film noir (Duelle) and pirate adventure (Noroit) settings respectively suggests a sort of "stylistic exercise" in the fantastique similar to that of Jean Cocteau (whose work is quoted extensively in Duelle). But if that were what was intended, the films would appear -- for some -- to have failed. Elliot Stein notes (of Duelle) "Myths, fairy tales are pointless even for children -- unless a minimum of resonance is struck." (1)

But even those who feel the film's fantasy premise "works" have found difficulty. Rivette's most eloquent supporter Jonathan Rosenbaum cites "...the increasing move away from any semblance of 'lived experience' in Noroit." (2)

Rosenbaum is quite right to put quotes around "lived experience" as this concept -- one to which all forms of representation must answer in the ideological demand of "realism" -- is the basis of the resonance Stein cannot find. The fantastique is a "realistic" mode, not in so far as it corresponds to "lived experience" directly, but rather in the manner in which it establishes itself in the narrative through placement, emphasis and repetition. The sense of a coherent line to be traced through the work, as for example the vampire myth and the way in which numerous films seek to arrange its component parts (stake, coffin, cross, bat metamorphosis, etc.), strikes a sense of "real" (if only in the space of the narrative) by means of the logic of its economy. This process can then be played off against "lived experience" on another level, as for example the way in which The Cat People is seen to be about repressed sexual desire.

But in Scenes the goddess myth doesn't function with such thoroughness. Goddesses are capable of performing certain acts (e.g., Sun goddesses can be in two places at once) and operate within some specified limitations (e.g., Moon goddesses' power dissipates in direct light), but these facts are never displayed with any particular emphasis or urgency. In fact in Noroit the two leading players' (Geraldine Chaplin and Bernadette Laffont) status as goddesses doesn't become an issue until the film's last half hour, and then almost as an afterthought.

Despite fairly coherent plots, with no major gaps or inconsistencies other than would be usual for the genres to which the films ostensibly belong, a sense of overall purport seems to elude Scenes. As one shapeless enervated scene follows another, traditional criticism would turn to questions of intent. But intent in this context has no meaning. Rivette's analysis of Beyond a Reasonable Doubt offers certain clues: "Destruction of the scene: since no scene is treated for its own sake, all that is retained is the mediatory aspect; anything that might determine or actualize them more concretely is not abstracted or suppressed -- Lang is not Bresson -- but devalued and reduced to the condition of pure spacio-temporal reference devoid of embodiment." (3) This could be applicable to Scenes but if so only partially, for though the films involve "pure spacio-temporal reference devoid of embodiment", it cannot be equally said of them that "no scene is treated for its own sake."

Rivette has gone on record elsewhere (4) as saying that "if one wishes to understand Duelle it is necessary to read Claude Gaignebet's Le Carnival and in particular Jean Markale's La Femme Celte ... each shot of the film is explained there." But such a project useful and illuminating though it may be is an additional operation in no way comparable to the primary one of seeing the film.

Rivette's statements pose problems rather than offer solutions. Traditional critical recourse to investigation of his other films equally is of little help. Examination of Rivette's past work in comparison to Scenes establishes little more than a mechanistic notation of superficial difference and similarity. At the same time, Rivette's involvement in the dissolution of the director's power through collaboration suggests the importance of the analysis of other forces at play in the work.

But how can the contribution of others be gauged in light of the film's methods of narrative generation by means of extant texts and references? Analysis begins to run into a series of dead ends. The texts utilized as central sources of quotation in Scenes -- Cocteau's Les Chevaliers du Table Ronde in Duelle, Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy in Noroit -- are merely pre-texts, having nothing to "say" about the films that enclose them, posed in the narrative as subjects for further research (like Le Carnival and La Femme Celte). Similarly the numerous references to other films do not serve to assist the work at hand in any direct manner -- they're simply flatly stated with none of the reflexive snap of filmic cross-reference to be found in Made in U.S.A. by Godard.

To note this flatness, this limpidity, this unfixed drift, this lack of urgency, is to come to grips with the negativity that is Scenes' chief by-product. The films are devoted to methods that while seeming to reach representational specificity, do so in a manner designed to cancel all possible affectivity.

The settings and costumes of Duelle suggest their display in a reserved "theatrical" style, but the camera, while tracking smoothly, does so far too energetically, and when coupled with the film's nervous angular montage rhythms, disrupts the space it has spent so much time constructing. Likewise each setting (casino, hotel, aquarium, ballet school, race track, park, subway, dance hall, and greenhouse in Duelle, castle by the sea in Noroit) suggests the possibility of an atmosphere the mise en scene never seems directly to create (as in Resnais, Franju, Fellini, etc.).

Similarly acting styles clash with one another. Flip off-hand cool (Bulle Ogier, Bernadette Laffont) wars with highly stylized affectation (Hermine Karaheuz, Geraldine Chaplin) rather than the work holding to the latter mentioned category for an overall tone as would be logically demanded by a project of this sort.

This dual operation, this creation/dissolution, keeps every element in Jacques Derrida's phrase sous rature -- under erasure. The film's essence is thus not reducible to a specific moment, but must be seen in the working through of its positive/negative gestures -- unfixed points neither within nor without the films.

It is perhaps through the observation of the curious position occupied by women in the films that some sort of understanding of this operation might be seen. Women dominate Scenes -- instigators, implementers, heroes of the fiction. Clearly what must be avoided at all costs is the superficial application of lacanian theory to this -- the entire project simply seen as the expression of horror in the face of sexual difference coupled with the fear of possible castration. There can be little doubt that this fear and horror is involved in some way, but it would be wrong to jump to any quick conclusions as to the meaning of its functioning in light of the women's narrative status.

The degree of fetish involved in the manner of dress in Duelle suggests a means of making up for some lack (ie., castration). But although Juliet Berto has more costume changes than Dietrich in her heyday, they never serve the spectator as anything other than part of the decor -- a surface made "busy". Dietrich's manner of dress and bearing was always elaborately displayed to the spectator as to invite voyeuristic enjoyment of the fetish directly (e.g., the silk scarf in The Scarlet Empress). Likewise the female-led pirate band while suggesting the refusal of femininity Claire Johnson finds in Toumeur's Anne of the Indies (5) can be seen as such in Noroit only if it is to be assumed that the film takes place in a period setting where Laffont's costume would denote transvestism. As no such assurances can be made (the film is set in no particular time) the sense of refusal becomes problematic.

Similarly the implied castration of the few males in view (Jean Babilee in Duelle, Herbert Balsan and Larrio Ekson in Noroit) is never mentioned by the characters or underscored as a point of significance by the narrative (e.g., 3 Women, Seven Women). Castration as an issue to confront the male in the face of the predatory female as it exists in virtually all the film noirs that Duelle cites (Kiss Me Deadly, Lady From Shanghai, etc.) seems to be displaced, forgotten by the film.

This aphasia in the face of sexual difference is a far cry from the knowing-yet-not-knowing of traditional films that transform the problem into the construction of narrative enigma the solution of which by the male characters will restore their power, banishing the female's supposed castrating threat (e.g., The Maltese Falcon). Scenes draws a huge question mark over all of this. The construction of three-dimensional entities is necessary for such a presentation and the resolute two-dimensionality that the characters of Scenes hold to cannot support it. What mystery is to be found in the spectacle of actresses moving through decor? Obviously the films cannot simply be read as feminist. But what are they?

Clearly it's a lot easier to describe what Scenes isn't than to suggest what it is or even might be. Where does a project of this kind lead -- to what purpose? It is in no doubt in this question's refusal to be answered -- its insistence on remaining a question -- that Scenes true power lies. Its unwillingness to make itself available for immediate "use" suggests the placement of its weight in direct opposition to the mechanical utilitarianism of most films. But should this opposition be pursued? It would seem unavoidable, as it cannot be denied that Scenes sits most oddly not only in relation to contemporary advanced filmmaking (Snow, etc.) but in contrast to dominant practice as well.

This dominant practice is in some sort of crisis at the moment in relation to certain aspects of spectacle brushed up against by Scenes. In a remarkably well thought out, elaborately detailed, though politically reactionary examination of the evolution of narrative film spectacle, "Pagents of Violence" (6), Mark LeFanu notes the tendency of classical hollywood filmmaking to condense and flatten historical specificity by means of the creation of genre conventions (as for example the gangster films of the thirties depiction of events that took place only a few years before the films were made) emphasizing the individual at the expense of broader political contexts -- what Pascal Kane calls "the obligation imposed on the hero to define himself differentially in relation to the entire community in order to exist qua hero." (7) LeFanu argues that this process creates a far richer texture than that to be found in the dialectical tensions of the historically placed work of, for example, Eisenstein. This loss of historical focus is seen as being resolved on another level: "... the American cinema has never pretended to examine political events that lead up to a given confrontation. What it does and has always done in unsurpassed fashion is to give us the feeling of actually experiencing the conditions in question."

In other words intellectual clarity is once again sacrificed on the altar of superficial emotional response. Things have changed of course, and in Hollywood filmmaking today LeFanu notes: "The loss of confidence in the way things are going at present politically has spawned an era of doubt and pessimism -- the Viet Nam era of Bonnie and Clyde, They Shoot Horses Don't They?, Taxi Driver, (none of course dealing directly with the war)."

The desire on the part of dominant film to reactivate spectacle, to turn from this pessimism and rescue the heroic gesture in some form, has taken the desperation of the "disaster" film -- where the context of immanent death keeps the question of heroism's presence at bay. More recently films like Jaws and Rocky have been able to strike a balance by presenting the heroic in a casual matter-of-fact manner played off against an atmosphere of pessimism inherited from the sixties.

But an entirely new and truly positive direction has been discovered in Star Wars by means of setting the traditional spectacle in a context of elaborate cinematic cross-reference. Human history may be forgotten (Viet Nam, Watergate), but film history is just in the process of being remembered (That's Entertainment). Star Wars rewards its audience's knowledge of each citation (2001, Flash Gordon, various westerns and war films) by bracketing it in a sub-text, the functioning of which takes precedent over considerations of narrative and character. These older forms take a back seat to the creation of visual effects as the focus of spectacle, pushed along by the sub-text in a manner designed to keep the viewer in Christian Metz's words "alienated and happy." (8) The audience believes that it knows something about the spectacle is wise to its tricks and traps. But the spectator is deluded as before -- the sub-text's pseudo-knowledge serving to mask historical specificity all the better.

This new found ability to mine dead forms contrast sharply with Scenes play with the corpses of discarded genres -- all play insisting on their status as dead, all generic political implications gaping open rather than smoothing over. Thus this interrogation of affectivity can be set in a purposeful context. The embarassingly simple minded oedipal scenario of Star Wars sits oddly alongside the goddesses spectral sexuality. But in seeking a use for the useless have we not risked contradiction -- finding a way to encapsulate or absorb that which would choose to escape classification?

Bernadette Laffont slitting a compatriot's throat after observing the enactment of a similar murder in the play-with in-the film, cancelling the power of dramatic violence through anti-climax. Hermine Karahuez's sudden scream at the ominous approach of the croupier summoned by Bulle Ogier in the casino in Duelle -- her mouth opened, her body tensed. Juliet Berto's double annihilation of Jean Babilee (also in Duelle) -- dragging him into the darkness of the corner of a hotel room in one scene, casually shooting him on a subway platform in another. These moments, and many others like them, present both visual and oral evidence of the "obtuse meaning" the "third sense" that Roland Barthes has found in certain film stills.

Of Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible Barthes writes "Imagine following not Euphrosinia's machinations, nor even the character (as a diegetic entity or as a symbolic figure), nor even, further, the countenance of the wicked mother, but only, in this countenance, that grimace, that black veil, the heavy, ugly, dullness of the skin. You will have another temporality, neither diegetic nor oneric, you will have another film." (9) It is this other film that Scenes constitutes -- the initial one, whatever it might have been, having melted away. Can the effect much less the value of such procedure be measured? All reply -- like the work itself -- must remain suspended.

  1. "Hit-and-Myth", Film Comment, Nov-Dec., 1976.

  2. "Noroit", Sight and Sound, Winter, 1976-77.

  3. Reprinted in translation by Tom Milne in Rivette: Texts and Interviews, BFI, 1977. [This article is available on Order of the Exile]

  4. Telerama No. 1392, Sept. 15, 1976.

  5. "Femininity and the Masquerade: Anne of the Indies", Jacques Toumeur, Edinburgh Festival Publication, 1975.

  6. Monogram No.6, Oct., 1975.

  7. "Sylvia Scarlett: Hollywood Cinema Re-read", Cahiers du Cinema. No., 239-40, May-June, 1972.

  8. "History/Discourse", Edinburgh '76 Magazine.

  9. "Le Troisieme Sens", Cahiers du Cinema. No., 222, July, 1970.

Originally appeared in Cine-tracts 3: Vol. 1, No. 3 (Fall 1977-Winter 1978): p. 53-8.