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All art is produced by the tension between changing social relations and outmoded consciousness.
"THE REVOLUTION isn't coming soon," says Dr. Arthur Bauer, Marxist-intellectual-in-exile of Susan Sontag's Duet for Cannibals. If this is so, the role of the alienated cultural vanguard-both necessary and sufficient-must lie in assaulting the ruling culture, in destroying the primacy of bourgeois humanism. Godard has undertaken this task politically by creating dialectical confrontations with the mystified, "larger than life" Hollywood image. He launches a direct, ideological attack, using the cinema as a two-dimensional "blackboard" to counter the "in-depth," "universal" presentation of classless "Man" in bourgeois films. The technological advent of sophisticated, depth-of-focus lenses in the '40's made possible a new reactionary genre that dominates Hollywood today (or vice versa, as Godard would note: "the invention of photography: for whom? against whom?"-an advance determined by class relations, a perfection of bourgeois cultural oppression, as he explains in Wind From the East ) based on a more "convincing" and "realistic" image with more spatial and dramatic ambiguity. Orson Welles first developed the new realism in Citizen Kane -its elements of symbolism, multi-level causality, mystery, and am biguity (tragedy, too)-and Andre Bazin glorified it in criticism, developing a metaphysical formalism that invests the most innocent pan or track with human Significance. Auteurist critics go even further in this direction in order to justify selected Hollywood directors with extrapolated Meaning and with metaphysical implications of each "unique, personal style." Godard seeks to strip the cinema of all these vague dimensions that obscure the realities of a class society, and to discover a linear, political dimension for the dialectical discussion of material conditions. His rejection of depth-of-focus is a political rejection of the pretensions to "universality" and "realism" in bourgeois art.
There may be alternative means for smashing this larger-than-life image as well, non-ideological means that undermine the metaphysical foundations of the established culture, laying bare more and more contradictions of the system. In seeking new possibilities for the novel, Robbe-Grillet has pointed out "the destitution of the old myths of depth," the notion that the artist's task should be to suggest the "hidden realities," the "hidden unities," etc, between ordinary men and objects. The humanist portrays Man's continual striving to extend himself everywhere, to accomplish everything, and to achieve impossible spiritual communions. Failing (naturally) in these Man suffers, and finally exalts in the tragic beauty of his suffering, the "sublime necessity" of his alienation. Robbe-Grillet attacks tragedy-the bourgeois artist's ultimate weapon-as a reinforcement, religious in nature, of intolerable existing conditions. His aesthetic solution is to remove the human contamination from perceptions, to admit demonstratively that objects are separate from men, that one man is distinct from others, and to "describe" visually, clinically. He creates a form with the single principle of reiterating artistically these separations, in order to restore the legitimacy of the here and now, to eliminate the "depth" consciousness of a metaphysical void and the need to transcend it, to find happiness by other means than spiritual self-aggrandizement, and to destroy the historicizing consciousness that piles up layers of immobilizing interpretations, ambiguities, expectations, and despairs that inhibit what Cioran calls "the temptation to exist."
O. K., so all this means we have two didactic artists under consideration-one Marxist and one non-Marxist with minimalist tendencies. Both are out to combat the oppressive bourgeois image of Man, which has pretensions to "universality" but in practice proves to be severely restrictive and paralyzing and mystifying-autocratic-in a class sense as well as in an existential sense. But how effective are these forms culturally (hence, politically) or politically (hence, culturally)? Do they eliminate "outmoded consciousness" and clarify "changing social relations" rooted in material conditions? Or do they merely reflect changing intellectual consciousness operating in isolation from social relations altogether? These are important questions for the Cultural Revolution to consider, which I won't try to answer now for Godard and Robbe-Grillet, Instead, I want to talk about Susan Sontag, who unites certain elements of the two, and examine her answers apparent in Duet for Cannibals.
In order to solve the problem of didactic clarity-the effectiveness of the work in being correctly interpreted-Sontag simply denounces the interpretation of art as well as works of art which necessitate it. Bazin's doctrine of metaphysical suggestion in portraying "content" is a dead end, then, for radical formalism. Form itself must become the subject, the "content," continually renewing itself in order to transform outmoded consciousness. Duet for Cannibals attempts this, by taking up outmoded conventions and destroying them, each in turn. In "Against Interpretation" (1964) Sontag makes a case for interpreting interpretation (at this time in history) as a social force of repression against new forms, as a purging of "dangerous emotions" (like Aristotelian tragedy) in dangerous works which refuse to purge themselves, by attempting to alter them intellectually:
Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting THAT, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable .... Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be ... just what it is.
She goes on to criticize those artists who invite interpretation, Bergman, for example, whose "lame messages about the modern spirit" and "callow pseudo-intellectuality" contradict "the beauty and sophistication of his images." Sontag's first experience as a film director, however, indicates a reappraisal of the concrete cultural situation. Duet for Cannibals openly invites the interpretations that are inevitable anyway and uses them as traps, frustrating slaps in the face with each contradiction designed to break us of our interpretive habit (and of our humanist consciousness).
She allows us to eagerly identify ourselves with the attractive (if nondescript) young couple of the opening sequence, Tomas and Ingrid, two earnest radicals in their middle twenties who live together in very familiar Bohemian circumstances, lyrical and vaguely troubled lovers. They reinforce our instinctive sympathy with brief interior monologues to explain what's happening to them and "inside" of them. Tomas starts a new job to further his political education, sorting out the papers of Dr. Arthur Bauer, an aging leftist intellectual ("the reconstructing-a-life myth," i. e. Citizen Kane ), and he moves in at the Doctor's place where very strange things start to happen, strange powers begin to exert themselves (i. e. Dracula ). Bauer engages the unsuspecting youth in a lot of bizarre psychosexual games with his wife Francesca. (Adriana Asti), who is voluptuous and ostensibly psychotic. Sontag gives almost everything in clear, stagey medium shots (except for a few subjective long tracks and closeups to get us involved with the younger couple). The Bauers perform along the horizontal axis of this frame most of their contradictory scenes, confrontations and seductions. Tomas (and the audience too: we're on his side) keeps trying to figure out what's happening, yet the sequences are so quick, so close (and so inconclusive), with so few "alienation effects," that there is no time for reflection, and we have to accept the suggestions dropped by the Bauers as to what's going on.
Tomas himself leaps hungrily for each morsel of interpretation: (1) Bauer is dying, (2) Francesca is hopelessly insane, (3) He himself is engaged in a Manichaeistic battle of will with the Doctor (i. e. Faust convention), etc., etc. All of these roles are consummated purely in Tomas' (and our) humanist consciousness, which sustains his faith in comprehending, sympathizing with, relating to, perceiving all the depths of Bauer as a human individual. Instead of succeeding, he confronts an elusive set of surfaces which remain opaque, as in the scene where Francesca hides an orgy with her husband by covering a window with white foam from an aerosol can. Sontag maintains the expectation of comprehension through our hopes for the sympathetic characters' efforts to find out just what the Bauers' "game" is. But epiphany never occurs; the film offers no knowledgeable scientist who has the secrets of vampires.
WHEN INGRID gets into the sex action too the Bauers destroy the basis of the young couple's relationship, which is the metaphysical conventions of humanist love: "trust," "belief," "basic human goodness," sentimental associations, and other banalities. In trying to understand and participate, the innocents are seduced in over their heads, as Robbe-Grillet explains:
Drowned in the depth of things, man ultimately no longer even perceives them: his role is soon limited to experiencing, in their name, totally "humanized" impressions and desires.
And somewhere during the breakup it strikes us that we may be in somewhere over our heads too, in assuming that those images and sounds on that two-dimensional screen are real people with hopes, fears, emotions, and substance. Tomas and Ingrid are in fact transparent-totally familiar and predictable-while the Bauers remain opaque-totally incomprehensible. And the director has tricked usinto assuming we came to a psychological character study of four "complex individuals." This is very subversive. There are so many familiar patterns, so many familiar images to assure us we're in Bergman Country-all of which remain totally on the surface. The most notable of these visual references, to The Magician (The Face) and to Persona, imply that masks are now about to be pierced to reveal . . . but nothing could be farther from the truth.
Never has pornography been this skillfully manipulative (or this frustrating), using pure surfaces to arouse "dangerous emotions," and then refusing to purge them. In perhaps overemphasizing Sontag's aesthetics I've neglected to mention how extremely disquieting the film is emotionally, with respect to familiar personal relationships. I'm speaking of monogamy-humanist love-which is crumbling these days anyway, whose foundations Duet for Cannibals digs up mercilessly to expose. Anti-humanism seems somehow progressive, but I'm politically distrustful of this kind of manipulation, which is almost an unconscious, emotional dialectic, primarily destructive (even if it may ultimately be liberating). Sontag goes far beyond women's politics to strike at the outmoded basis of bourgeois relationships-romance, worn-out conventions, out-dated metaphors (good vs. bad, power of the will vs. defenselessness), and the metaphysical "meanings" of sex that become destructive emotionally. This one's not recommended for those with a Relationship on the rocks.
Susan Sontag combines many of the principles of Godard and Robbe-Grillet, and circumvents their problems of alienating the audience with new forms by using old forms subversively in order to destroy our acceptance of them. The film is dialectical in the sense that it starts speaking to us where we are right now, in our present state of outmoded emotional and intellectual consciousness (and not in some futuristic state when we may actually be interested in Robbe-Grillet's descriptions of objects), in order to take us in, to wreck that corrupt humanist tranquillity in which we once thought we existed. If Duet for Cannibals were pushing a Marxist line, an ideological "content," by equally subversive means, we could call it insidious propaganda, pure Stalinist instrumentation of policy formulated in isolation from the masses. But it doesn't push any "meaning" whatsoever, and hardly allows the reflection time necessary for didactic assimilation. Mainly it's surfaces, it's "erotics," an experience that excludes the intellect as much as possible in order to exist as itself, but also a film that punishes you vindictively for threatening its existence by trying to interpret it away. The work of Godard and Robbe-Grillet can be safely categorized intellectually or dismissed emotionally as another Frustrating Film. Sontag has created, however, a tenacious, destructive, progressive experience that is true at least to the extent that it is ". . . just what it is."
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