Notes from the NYU Film Conference, Pt. 4 - Nicole Brenez (as told to Adrian Martin)

 "The Explosion of Cinema and the Responsibilities of Criticism" Adrian Martin presented on behalf of Nicole Brenez, who was unable to attend.

Brenez's article begins by citing several statements made by early 20th century French social theorist Georg Simmel, whose aim was to disrupt conventional notions concerning society's acts of charity and welfare towards the lumpenproletariat.  These statements include: 1. The act of charity concerns the giver, not the poor. It amounts to a narcissistic act of reassurance on the part of the giver.

2. Social aid concerns society, but not the poor. Same issue as #1, except broadened to the level of society at large.

3. The lawful eviction of the poor. The state has the right to assist the poor, but this means the poor only have the right to be assisted. There is a schizophrenia between false and true ends - between individual losses and gains and the preservation of the social order. Ultimately society reveals its merciless order.

4. The poor reveal the negativity of collective behavior.  Aid to the poor makes the poor person into a thing.  Social aid preserves the physical survival of the poor person but fixes them in their poverty.

5. Society needs poverty. It is the welfare that determines the status of the poor person. One is poor because one is aided.

6. Good conscience matched with bad visibility. Normal daily life cannot bear the sight of poverty. Society is more and more obliged to hide the poor from view.

7. Bad visibility and the weakening of the poor. This tendency to isolate the poor from each other keeps them in their own social strata. The class of the poor, particularly in modern society is a peculiar synthesis. Their essential position in society is easily labeled, yet their individual conditions are unique. They are a  people of diverse and extraordinary experiences but they are leveled into the same invisibility in the view of society. They are the sediment of society.

What does this have to do with cinema?

Avant garde cinema refuses this blindness to the lumpenproletariat. It tries to find a frontal, body-to-body view of the poor.

The avant garde, faced with the challenge of representing the "invisible poor" has adopted four approaches. The first is criticism; the second, to identify and to differentiate; the third, interrogation; the fourth, transformation - to change itself to no longer be positioned as a social intermediary for discourse on poverty.

Criticism: Screening of film example, Rien que les heurs by Alberto Cavalcanti.

Second example: Music video for Rage Against the Machine's "Sleep Now in the Fire" directed by Michael Moore.

Identification and differentiation : Excerpt from Sergei Eisenstein's Strike.  Cinema must go beyond the aesthetic equivalent of charity giving.

Second example: excerpt from Oskar Langenfeld. 12 mals, by Holger Meins. Depicts a rag-picker in fragments of varying social contexts. Unsatisfied by the limitations of cinema in enacting social change, Meins joined the West German Red Army Faction and became a terrorist.

Third example: excerpt from La Douceur dans l'abime, Jerome Schlomoff and Francois Bon.

Fourth example: Peter Weiss' Faces in the Shadow.  A film that sticks to the simplest level of representational forms.  Non-individuation of figures jams the compassionate reflex of the viewer, generating a broader social context.

Interrogation: Excerpt from Embargo, Mounir Fatmi.

Transformation: Final clip: www.webcam, Lionel Soukaz

Can we make any conclusions about this topic?  These clips constitute a "third world" of images.  Any representation of the lumpenproletariat is indispensible if only because they are so few in number. No one of them is correct, there is no correct way to represent the poor. These clips however "save the honor of cinema" even if they can't save the people they show.

What can the cinema do?

1) The cinema can make an "unbearable image."

2) The cinema can attack the lines between material domination and symbolic/cinematic domination.

3) The cinema can melt itself in a "social acid."

4) The cinema can interrogate its own limits and means.

There are two paths one can explore further. On the one hand there is an individual salvation of a filmmaker exploring this work, or there is a collective salvation.