Book Review by Brandon Konecny.
Since academia’s interest in cinema as an art form, philosophers have frequently proven to be some of the most insightful voices on the subject. Alain Badiou’s Cinema, accordingly, offers such an instance. For the first time in an English translation, the French philosopher’s over 50 years’ worth of writing on film is collected in this stimulating volume, including his essays, reviews, lectures, and interviews. Whether its qualifying cinema as a culture, philosophical situation, synthesis of artifice and reality, or means by which the spectator encounters the Other, every word of Badiou’s writing radiates with a pronounced sense of exuberance for cinema, and presents the convincing case that it is the liveliest of the seven arts.
In encountering this collection in its entirety, one gets the sense that Badiou, with an almost obsessive fixation, marvels at film’s contradictory nature, the beauty of its inherent artistic bastardry. This is a perplexing paradox, to say the least, and one that needs some clarification. If his writings on film can be distilled down to one central concern, it is cinema’s disposition as an impure art, the “plus-one” of the arts, whereby it takes the most accessible conventions of its predecessors—be they those of painting, literature, dance, music, or theater—and uses them for its own purposes, while giving nothing to them in return. It can thus only realize its own ontology, its very being, by way of its artistic thievery, as it were. But certainly there is something about cinema that gives it its singularity, right? Is there not something that is purely “cinematic?” Well, let us think about it in, if I dare use the designation, “Badiouian” terms.
To illustrate this point, he focuses on filmic adaptation of novels. He makes two quite general assumptions about their shared traits:
- They have the same story.
- They have, with the allowance of some variance, perhaps, the same characters.
While this notion is, on its surface, quite commonsensical, he points out that cinema’s bastardry becomes evident in the translation of these precise similarities to the screen. The literary medium has no need to give its characters “bodies,” that is, it does not have to give them visible literality. Cinema, in contrast, is bound to this very principle, and it thereby cannot fully realize this shared ground on the novel’s terms alone. It can only give presence to, in Badiou’s parlance, “the Idea” by turning its attention elsewhere, namely theater. In its usage of actors on stage, theater gives its characters literal phenomenality. It is here, via what Badiou calls “theatrical sampling,” that cinema realizes the Idea through its selection of these two arts respective conventions and unifies them into one coherent whole. This perpetual borrowing from the other arts, therefore, situates them in a context where they are indicative of their origins but nevertheless permanently severed from them; and it is this dimension of same-but-different, he claims, that gives meaning to what it is to be “cinematic.”
This actually leads to another one of Badiou’s theses, which is also one of his most fascinating. This unificatory ability of cinema can be extended to other matters, too, for it can take a number of disparate traits—art and non-art, total artifice and total reality, languid temporality of long takes and the rapidity of montage—and overcome their oppositions by bringing them into relation as a legible whole. This metaphorical operation is, as an example, what allows cinema to be a “mass art,” since it joins the political category (an activity of the masses, a social inclusivity) and an aristocratic one (art as an activity only enjoyed by the privileged classes, a certain delicacy). And that is what cinema ultimately is to Badiou, a means of masterful synthesis.
In light of these praises, though, there are also two cautionary caveats that must be stated. First, a good number of Badiou’s essays are not for the faint of heart. Like many (French) philosophers’ writing, Badiou’s passages, while presenting us with glimmering, inspiring prose, are not always clear or immediately understandable. Poetic, yes. Accessible, not always. (Note: If one has too much difficulty with the text, consider purchasing Alex Ling’s Badiou and Cinema—it can be, from what I gather, a great resource.) This should not dissuade someone from picking up this book, however. While reading it can prove to be an arduous, if not maddening undertaking, the reader’s efforts are well worth the struggle, as it allows one to gain new insights on film as well as Badiou’s philosophy.
Second, Badiou’s writings are not, in a very narrow sense, exemplarily original. As stated earlier, many pages in this collection are dedicated to his conceptions of cinema as an impure art and as a means of synthesis, but many scholars have already extensively covered this ground—at the constraint of the present moment, such figures as André Bazin, Giles Deleuze, and Marshall McLuhan come to mind. He does not say much that is particularly Earth shattering.
This being said, we should not simply discount Badiou’s thoughts as redundant or trite— to do so would be a most simplistic, if not Pickwickian action. Sometimes, trending over already explored territory can be a fruitful endeavor. It can remind us of the area’s original importance and act as a springboard into new ideas and possibilities. Think about it: we all know of gravity’s existence, naturally. But a revisitation of Newton and Einstein’s texts and related theories on the subject can allow us to (re)discover its magnanimity, giving us a new appreciation of it. This operation thus enables the “already known” to move into the realm of the revelatory, removing the original concept from its stale automatism and imbuing it with newly acquired novelty. Badiou’s writing on matters that have already been dissected by figures in the past, likewise, can bring us to a new comprehension of cinema’s ontological consistency and remind us of the allure of the medium at its most fundamental levels. Ultimately, his work on film makes it possible for us to read these theories as if we are coming into contact with them for the first time.
This collection, in the end, offers the reader both a challenge and an opportunity: a challenge to read the work of one of the 21st century’s most important philosophers, and an opportunity to overcome its difficulty in order to gain a new appreciation of cinema as combinatory medium. It is also highly recommended for those interested in or already familiar with film theory—theory junkies, especially. In a word, whether in concurrence with its ideas or not, Cinema is perhaps one of the most important publications on film this year, and as such is highly recommended.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.