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Abhijeet Paul reviews Jacques Rancière

Jacques Rancière. The Intervals of Cinema. Trans. John Howe. London and New York: Verso, 2014. 160 pp. Paperback $24.95.

Reviewed by Abhijeet Paul

The six essays in The Intervals, deftly translated into English, attempt to combine the cinephile’s undiluted passion for cinema with the Marxist philosopher’s desire to articulate the “unending movement of productive life” (33)—in cinema. But just as there are intervals or gaps between individual takes and numerous production processes in the making of a film, there are similar gaps or ‘intervals’ between the cinephile’s passion and the “theory of cinema” (6-7). For Rancière, this gap—produced by a “system of differences”—gives greater latitude to amateur passion and politics than cinema theory to treat cinema as “a world” (7).

Rancière applies his avowed “amateurism” to the cinematic world—vintage Hollywood, early cinéma vérité, Italian neorealism and French new wave, and contemporary European ‘docufictions’ in digital-celluloid media (7, 9, 13-15). In the first two sections (“After Literature” and “The Frontiers of Art”), Rancière shows how the language of cinema, tied to the worlds of literature, art, theater, entertainment, and an infinite array of objects and images in the world, produces the relations of difference. The relations between images, actions, and emotions in fiction-based films are both constrained and performed by the camera’s gaze, accomplished by intercutting, graphics, and editing. For example, in Saul Bass’s opening credits in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), as the letters spelling the word “Vertigo” and “Alfred Hitchcock” appear from James Stewart’s “fascinated eye,” the viewer is reminded of the machine “eye” that is precisely the “witness and the recorder” in the film’s twisted plot (29). But with cinéma vérité, such as Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1980-1998), plot is rendered redundant. The focus is on the richness of the “cinematic fable” instead (7, also see Film Fables 2006). Rancière asserts that all cinematic techniques and theory are part of an aesthetic fable. In cinéma vérité, the director’s refusal to intercut—a predominant technique in fiction filmmaking—produces a more ‘direct’ kind of communication between images and the sensorium. Rancière likens this relationship in The Intervals to a kind of “natural communism” (35). And yet, ‘natural communism’ will remain a cinematic utopia until politics gives it a body to create yet another fable.

The quest for a cinematic body (and fable) through a non-hierarchical rendering of individual and collective images comprises the last section—“Politics in Film.” Here, Rancière explores  Béla Tarr’s long tracking shots (reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky) in Sátántangó (1994), and particularly, the minimalist ‘docufictions’ of Pedro Costa’s Down to Earth (1995) and In Vanda’s Room (2000). Both filmmakers explore the politics of the poor and the abandoned, documentary-style narratives, and, particularly in the case of Costa, composite media (digital and celluloid). Notably, despite their overtly political subjects, Tarr’s and Costa’s films do not assume natural political communication because they do not represent the aporia between the just and the unjust in a simple “dialectical formula” (121). Instead, these films present “surface calm” (125) as a form of cinematic “narration of lives” (142). Sometimes all it takes is a composite media shot of a cheap plastic bottle on a table top with light skimming the surface as a migrant worker silently waits in an inadequately lit room (129).

Rancière’s amateurism—a euphemism for philosophical excursions into his experience of cinema—is refreshing. Though passionate about celluloid aesthetics, he does not adequately address the aesthetics and ethics of composite media. Costa and others, particularly in the global South, are attracted to composite media for ethical reasons, as low costs enable filmmakers to avoid corporate funding. It remains to be seen how Rancière’s amateurism interprets the ‘amateur’ aesthetic of these emergent ethical cinematic forms.