[easyazon-image align=”left” asin=”0745655688″ locale=”us” height=”333″ src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/41lDLU-1a7L.jpg” width=”222″ alt=”Alain Badiou” ]A Call to Arms for Filmmakers and Viewers Alike
A Feature Review of
Paperback: Polity Press 2013
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Reviewed by S. Benjamin Holsteen
François Truffaut, one of the preeminent film critics of the French New Wave, once said, “[There is a] famous French advertising slogan that says, ‘When you love life, you go to the movies,’ it’s false! It’s exactly the opposite: when you don’t love life, or when life doesn’t give you satisfaction, you go to the movies.” To my mind, this statement can be read in two ways. The first approach is to read it as condemnation, casting cinema as little more than simple escapism. As I sit down to write this, summer is on the wane, bringing to a close yet another season of would-be Blockbusters; some commercial hits, many more misses, and seemingly very few concerned with much more than filling seats at the local multiplex. While there are always exceptions, one could be forgiven for looking at the broad cinematic output of the last few months (years? longer?) and feeling that this sort of respite-from-reality, entertainment-for-entertainment’s-sake approach is the highest goal of a great many, if not most, of the filmmakers working in Hollywood today.
But there is another and, in my opinion, significantly more valuable way to read Truffaut’s assessment. The cinema, at its best, creates a space for us to dream up the new; not to escape from our lives, but to challenge our way of living and to envision a reality that could be. This is what great films are capable of, and it is this possibility that has captured the imagination of French philosopher and cinephile Alain Badiou, leading to the writings that make up this collection, edited by Antoine de Baecque, published here for the first time in English by Polity Press.
Badiou is not the first philosopher to enter into the world of cinematic reflection, but he brings a unique perspective to the enterprise. The book is a collection of over 50 years of his writings on the subject of cinema, ranging in format from interview to film review to critical discourse. While the topics covered are numerous and varied, reoccurring themes emerge over the course of these 31 essays exploring the space where cinema and philosophy interact.
Central to understanding Badiou’s particular concern with cinema, is an understanding of his philosophical system broadly, and the prominent role of art within it. Having been explored at length in his previous works, most notably Being and Event and its sequel Logic of Worlds, a working knowledge of his reasoning is somewhat taken for granted throughout this collection, making at times for quite opaque and slow reading, particularly for those uninitiated into the world of French philosophy and film criticism. While a summary of the totality of his very complex thinking is the work of a far longer piece than this, in order to discuss the main themes of this text, it is important to provide a bit of a framework, even if it is a necessarily skeletal one.
In the briefest terms possible, one of the primary things that distinguishes Alain Badiou from a great many of his late 20th/early 21st century philosophical contemporaries is his assertion that there do exist eternal truths. Those truths, in his reckoning, are created by what he terms events, occurrences that represent a rupture or fundamental change within one of four thought areas: politics, science, love, and art. The job of the philosopher then, is to “think the event”(204) in such a way as to create a new synthesis of thought at the point of the break from current thinking, a sort of covering-over of the rupture with the new. This is achieved by clarifying the universal value of the event, distilling the eternal truth produced in its wake, and examining what it would mean to live in fidelity to this emergent truth; in other words, to “think change in life”(204) .
Art, then, functions as one of the four areas capable of producing events, and as such, truths. And for Badiou, cinema stands above all the other arts in this regard as “the one that has the ability (…) to produce the most absolutely undeniable truth”(18). Over the course of the collection, his logic for the superiority of cinema in this regard becomes apparent in two particular ways. First, cinema is the “‘plus-one’ of the arts. It operates on the other arts, using them as its starting point”(89) while also, “present[ing] them with challenges that are very hard to meet; to achieve by themselves … what cinema is able to do with them.”(7) He speaks at length about the “impurity” of cinema, in its co-opting of the arts that have gone before it to serve its own purposes. And yet even in this it testifies to its own possibilities, indicating “what there could be, beyond what there is” (99) in its very makeup.
Additionally, cinema is “capable of being a mass art, unmatched by any other”(208) in that “its masterpieces … are seen and loved by millions of people, at the very time they were created.”(207) In the opening interview with de Baecque, he speaks of the way films, as a perennial topic of everyday conversation, can function as a sort of cultural education, “extending culture to everyone”(3) the way the novel did before it, but on a much broader scale. This is the crux of cinema’s power in the public sphere, and when combined with its ability to create truth, cinema stands as a potentially revolutionary force for global change.
Badiou’s arguments for the power and potential of cinema are solid, exhaustively reasoned, and they come from a man who clearly loves film and has been deeply affected by it over the course of his life. He states in the introduction that, “The cinema has given me far more than anything I’ve been able to give back to it by writing about it,” (20) and his gratitude shines in the depth of the thought that he has given to the medium over the span of his career. If his argument for cinema’s particular influence falls down at any point, it is not, in my view, from a misreading of its potential, so much as in the simple reality of an entertainment culture that cuts into the availability of deeply reflective and profoundly visionary cinema today. To this situation, Badiou’s vision is a call to arms for filmmakers and viewers alike, encouraging us to demand more from our “entertainment.” And if this is true of all, then how much more so for those of us who have been charged to pray that “Thy kingdom come” in this world? To those of us who own our identity as image bearers of a creator God, one who proclaims, “Behold, I am making all things new” and invites us to join him in that very enterprise? While a thorough reading of this book is an intellectual investment, I would highly recommend it, particularly to those interested in the pursuit of cultural renewal by artistic means. We owe it to ourselves, our churches, and the world to think through these issues, and to do so deeply.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com