A Book Review by Tony Williams.
Last week, a friend and fellow reviewer Chris Sharrett told me about his experiences at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference that drew immediate parallels, not with the more accomplished zombie films of George A. Romero, but countless others reworking familiar lyrics into – “Forgettable! That’s what you are.” Apparently, the new generation of graduates are not only cheerfully citing Deleuze and Guattari but also long forgotten names such as Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan who rise again in tedious scholastic graveyards very much like Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee in countless sequels, each much worse than their predecessors. Due to my long acquaintance with a certain genre, I should not really be surprised at that old reversal of “Life Imitating Art” that is a frequent characteristic of our post-postmodernist “End of History/End of Ideology” era, so these opening remarks should be a timely warning of what will follow in this review, to say nothing of an editor who may decide not to publish it for inappropriate remarks. In that sense I will fully understand and hold no grudges.
Based on a Yale doctoral dissertation by a current Sarah Lawrence College professor, I will begin by saying that Utopian Television (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) is a good contribution to its field and needs to be read and taken seriously by anyone approaching the area of Television Studies today which is usually an extremely exciting field both in criticism and production. It is scrupulously written and footnoted with citations to authorities such as Frederic Jameson (who contributes a blurb), Peter Wollen, Colin McCabe, Deleuze, Guattari and other eminent scholarly authorities in this post-Screen era. As they say, life is full of surprises and I never thought I’d ever see Peter Wollen’s since forgotten and unreadable Screen article “Ontology and Materialism in Film” ever cited again. Focusing on examples of the television work of Rossellini, Watkins, and Godard supposedly seeking an Ernst Bloch-related ultra-academic theoretical utopia for new conceptions of form and meaning, the book represents an earnest and weighty exploration that must have pleased its prestigious academic dissertation committee and justifiably earned its candidate the doctorate he sought within chosen boundaries. It is accomplished in the avenues it chooses to examine and much better than some of the less deserving examples I have read or occasionally listened to in oral defenses. As Robin Wood once said to me about a seminar presentation that did not contain the ideas he was looking for, “It is very scholarly”, and a credit to the profession. The author reveals qualities of theoretical advanced learning and should have a promising Ivy League career before him.
Yet, as Raymond Williams once said in his pioneering work Television, Technology, and Cultural Form, there is nothing wrong with television itself but rather with the way it is used. I would also apply this to certain forms of theoretical enquiry as well as the avenues that certain directors have chosen to follow during their careers in one form or another that turn out to be leading to blind alleys echoing that ballad in Wes Craven’s original version of The Last House on the Left (1972) – “The Road leads to Nowhere.” This, sadly, appears to have been the respective fates of these directors in different ways according to this study whether they have attempted to change the boundaries of avant-garde or documentary approaches. They all appear to have come to a “No Exit” approach in their searches for a Utopia influenced by Ernst Bloch but limited by the type of esoteric directions they have attempted to follow. This limitation is illustrated by that last despairing image of Jean-Luc Godard surrounded by technology at the end of Numero Deux (1975). Yet, hope does exist. At the end is not The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970) but Alexander Kluge’s televisual garden “where the atomized spectator’s status as no-one-in-particular becomes particularly valuable” for “those future subjects who will play in Kluge’s garden, who will receive Godard’s `time capsule’, can be imagined as still yet-to-come” (236).
This whole project appears to resurrect that era of Screen where obscure theorizing and anti-human attitudes characterized proponents who resembled familiar lines from the Hawks/Nyby The Thing from Another World (1951) – “An intellectual carrot! The mind boggles!” and Dr. Carrington’s, “No emotions. Our superior in every way.” I also do not want to fall into that trap of quoting Emma Goldman’s line of rejecting any Revolution unless dancing is involved (something never defined: Strictly Come Dancing, Tango, Fox-Trot, break-dancing, etc?) in a quote I often find at the end of communications from conservative female academics but to remark that the different searches for any form of Utopia in this study certainly do not involve anything relating to “The Pleasure of the Text”. Cramer’s ideal viewer appears to be a solipsistic individual in search of that mandarin upper-middle class utopian project evoking Screen in its heyday. Utopia can take many forms and is not necessarily isolated or limited. What is lacking from this book is a necessary reader-reception counter-argument and wider, collective understandings of media than the limited terrains offered here. However, if we do not respond to such searches for lost horizons not according to Douglas Sirk’s Zu Neuen Ufern (1937) but a post-Screen Shangrila dominated by Lacanian Grand Lamas, then it is all our fault as the author-approved quotation by Godard concerning the failure of one of his television projects blaming his audience by not recognizing that he was exhilarated? (“L’Etat c’est moi” or “I direct, therefore I am.”)
Here Godard seems to be saying that the reason the series are so difficult to appreciate is because they come from another time; these are works that imagine themselves as something like a future television, one that does not explicitly imagine some utopian condition but rather imagines what its television, its communication, would look like and transmits it to us from another world. (173)
On the other hand, why doesn’t he admit he made a cock-up at the worst or took the wrong approach at best?
The text also reminds us to the heyday of Screen in terms of one comment on Watkins’s The War Game (1965).
If one aims to teach about the damage inflicted on the body by war, or the destructive power of nuclear weapons, other tools will be necessary. Pedagogy here becomes aesthetic, and the pedagogue by necessity an artist, insofar as the subjects about which he wishes to teach can only be conveyed by means of an exceptional modality of experience. (112)
Another more valid conception of Utopia is a collective one involving as many people as possible seizing popular forms and turning them into “something else”, as Eddie Cochran once sang. (I leave out Ray Davies since he was recently knighted by Prince Charles, an honor the late Paul Scofield and Albert Finney conscientiously refused.) Despite its weighty scholarship I must confess that I am neither exhilarated nor convinced by the limited approach taken. Another review of this book may be necessary while I eagerly await the recently published Bear Manor Press biography on Ricardo Cortez.
Tony Williams is a Contributing Editor to Film International and a Passionate Pursuer of Pleasure (not a dedicated Lacanian Follower of Un-Pleasure) whether in the visual or written text.