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SAC 5 (2) pp.

155170 Intellect Limited 2011

Studies in Australasian Cinema Volume 5 Number 2

2011 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/sac.5.2.155_1

HAMISH FORD University of Newcastle

The return of 1960s modernist cinema

This article concerns the complex nature of post-war European film modernisms historicity. According to Andrs Blint Kovcs, this cinema rose in an arc starting from the mid-1950s, peaking in the 1960s, and slowly petering out by 1980. At its best such historicizing produces precise contextual detailing, rather than romantichermetic affirmation or subsequent backlash dismissal, in the process creating room for new accounts of films and filmmakers beyond their role in the heated politics of then-contemporary critical taste and the competitive linear regime of vanguard innovation. But we also need to look closely at the peculiarities of this particular modernist cinemas apparent past-ness as revealing crucial elements of modernisms perennial (if variously contested or disavowed) power, challenge and attraction. This article explores the uncanny, untimely return of such cinemas 1960s apogee, embedded in a very real past while also emerging from virtual futures, as it complicates anew our unstable present.

post-war modernism 1960s return past temporality aesthetic form

We ignore the constantly self-transforming nature of the modern, its inherent and ruthless dynamisms. Instead we fantasize its overthrow, see it as something already in the past. (Orr 1993: 1)


Hamish Ford

[F]rom the ambiguity of consciousness and situations spring forth actions, events, results, without warning. (Lefebvre [1947] 1991: 18) This article examines the multifaceted return over recent years of postwar European modernist cinema, in particular the feature films of its 1960s apogee. Powered by an already uncanny temporality built into the films textual make-up that only becomes amplified upon digital rebirth, this modernist cinemas troubling questions and strange, science fictionlike aesthetic surfaces are today devoured as freshly minted works by new generations of critics, viewers and scholars. This return both gives substance to and challenges different historical and theoretical accounts of post-war film modernism itself and more broadly the moving images fundamental yet contradictory and ambivalent, exemplary and subversive, contextually bound and trans-historical relationship with, and enunciation of, the modern.


Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow oldfashioned quite suddenly, wrote Oscar Wilde (quoted in Livingston 1982: 16). During the 1960s peak of European modernist cinemas post-war period, with a linear model of progress aesthetically still in play even if the films themselves very often apply a critical lens to the ideologies germane to industrial and economic modernization we see played out in the wider social and political world as portrayed on-screen it appeared easy for a film-maker to be left behind by the stylistic and conceptual innovations of other directors. If the rise of fascist and communist totalitarianism, the dominance of Hollywood and finally World War II killed off modernisms first, inter-war wave in the estimation of scholars like John Orr (1993), historians such as Andrs Blint Kovcs (2007) argue that in its less-agreed-upon postwar incarnation film modernism itself eventually became superseded and ran its course. Irrespective of the precise timelines and explanations, critical writing over the last three decades often paints modernism per se as now definitively of the past. Kovcs dates the gradual decline as finally complete by 1980, while both Orr and Paisley Livingston (1982) earlier declared the modern in film to be over by general agreement, before lamenting and then challenging this eschatological picture. The epigraph quote by Orr at the start of this article exemplifies the fervour of such a polemically contrarian, historically enmeshed position. Strongly reconfiguring claims for such a cinemas importance by telling its story as thoroughly as possible via an almost encyclopedic context-rich historical timeline and argument, Kovcs recent book Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 19501980 enables a fresh gaze upon European film modernisms post-war or late period. Yet at the same time, something remains not quite right with this modernisms past-ness. Kovcs himself touches on what Orr and most notably Deleuze (1989) emphasize in mounting arguments for such films uncanny temporality and the philosophically subversive effects thereof. Since the digitalization of film historys reproduction and consumption, and the roughly concurrent peak of critical and scholarly interest in the question of cinema and modernism, the issue has become both more central to film studies discourses and beyond while at the same time even more challenging to frame and account for.


The return of 1960s modernist cinema

If the contemporary digital and scholarly era has seen significant rethinking of historical accounts of cinema per se, modernist temporality has always been particularly difficult to reconcile thanks to its common disregard for narrative-based linear, teleological and non-reflexive forms. This problem only escalates when modernism is commonly deemed to have passed, its presumptive internal progress and cultural currency curtailed by diverse forces including the increasing politicization of film theory, Hollywoods 1970s resurgence, growing scholarly emphasis on genre and popular cinema, the advent of postclassical mainstream forms, and gradually increasing focus on the diverse glories of recent world cinema. Orr starts Cinema and Modernity, his defiantly pro-modernism book written at the height of much film scholarships postmodern embrace of Hollywood and popular forms, thus: In the cinema the modern is already history. But it has never been replaced. This is the paradox which confronts us in looking at film over the last fifty years. He then goes on in this articles epigraph to protest that while we fantasize modernisms superceding we suppress and wish away such films unpredictable power, their ruthless dynamisms. (1993: 1). In the time since Orrs self-consciously lonely work, we have seen a gradual and disparate re-emergence of post-war modernism into the film-historical spotlight, following or sometimes alongside (if arguably not matching in quantity and attention when it comes to prominent film studies debates) the influential scholarship devoted to modernisms earlier inter-war period.1 In addition to the definitional problem of situating post-war modernist cinemas relationship to its inter-war forebear, scholars of the former not only face the twin challenges of defining such a cinemas relation to the avant-garde on the one hand and more formally conventional mainstream art films on the other, but also what is increasingly seen as a complex and often intertwined rather than obviously or always agonistic relationship with the classical narrative tradition.

1. Important work by Miriam Hansen (1995, 1999, 2009), Heide Schlpmann (1987, 2010), Gertrud Koch (2000, 2005) and Thomas Elsaesser (1996, 2000) has been central to our evolving understanding of modernisms first era in both its advanced avantgarde and vernacular understandings.

In an instructive short piece called The Godard paradox, Serge Daney marks the connection and important divergence between cinemas periods of experimentation. It was only after the war, he states, with the New Wave kamikaze patch up job, that the idea of another cinema, one that would open into something else, was possible again. Possible, but no longer with the conquering optimism of the early years (Daney 2004: 70). The second era is both inspired by and yet very different from the earlier, more hopeful one. Daneys comments emerge in the context of positioning Jean-Luc Godard the filmmaker often seen as the quintessential post-war vanguard innovator in a perhaps surprising way. There is nothing revolutionary about Godard, rather he is more interested in radical reformism, Daney writes, in offering the possibility of doing things differently even while continuing as before (2004: 71). In addition to a striking evocation of Godards gloriously paradoxical modernism, Daney provides an apposite description of the substantively ambivalent and Janus-faced nature of post-war modernist cinema itself in all its diversity, reminding us that no matter how enrapturing the given films aesthetic and conceptual riches we should attend to its inherent, enabling contradictions. Daney contends that like many formal inventors, [Godard] advances back-to-front, apprehensively facing what he is leaving behind (2004: 70). The film-maker Daney calls cinemas reformer rather than its agonistic rebel is the very same figure whose 1960s work causes him to be


Hamish Ford

2. See Hamish Ford (2011) for a detailed explication of this process in the context of an argument for the mutually productive encounter between this post-war modernist cinema and Adornos philosophy. For a more introductory account of Adorno and the Frankfurt Schools usefulness for Film studies, see Ford (2008).

described recently by British critic and film historian Geoffrey Nowell-Smith as the most influential and revolutionary filmmaker of the last fifty years (2008: 189). The diverse work of key European directors whose peak modernism or important early films emerged in the 1960s such as Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette, Agnes Varda, Jancs Mikls, Vera Chytilov, Andrei Tarkovsky, Duan Makavejev and Rainer Werner Fassbinder all offers a deeply ambivalent gaze upon the immediate modernity. These films are palimpsest-like accounts of the contemporary world in which the past is never escaped yet offers no morally helpful guide to a present that is increasingly characterized by seemingly futuristic technologies and concepts, no matter our opinion of them. Such inherent conflict and contradiction is presented, via layered reflexivity, in the formal make-up of the films themselves. P. Adams Sitney highlights modernisms unstable operational space somewhere between classicism and the radical avant-garde. In his book Modernist Montage, examining the nexus between literary and cinematic modernist forms, Sitney argues that the central conflict within modernism has been the opposition of a visionary quest for revolutionary newness and a continuity with a classical tradition (1992: 13). But rather than blunted compromise, such apparent conflict both further subverts conventional modes of meaningdelivery and forges destabilizing temporal impact. Sitney evocatively describes modernisms trans-media tendency of reaching back into earlier modes of representation, forcing a quivering movement within which yet another obliteration of meaning becomes a link to the tradition (1992: 16, emphasis added). This is only one reason why, despite myriad forms of aesthetic density and pleasure, post-war modernist works at their most complex and substantive can never be called romantic or idealist, affirming neither the way things are nor outsider refusal and radical alterity. Rather, any such elements are offered only in shards, the after-effects of illusions and beliefs being shattered. Ideals, investments and ideologies of both past and present appear and survive in such films only as broken glass by the roadside, to borrow Theodor Adornos powerful phrase describing the way Gustav Mahlers deeply paradoxical modernism pulls fragments of western harmony and tonality together, holding them up to the sun so that all the colours are reflected ([1960] 1992: 36). We glimpse the ghosts of wholeness and belief, but only as meaning that arises in fragments (Adorno [1960] 1992: 101). This is why, contra more purist understandings of modernism as synonymous with the avant-garde, here narrative and a loose linearity often remain in play, plus the attendant traditions of character and fictional scenario but as broken, unpersuasive or ghosted. Traditional form is still present but made newly dysfunctional, with the result that, again to use Adornos words, its voice cracks ([1960] 1992: 20).2 Seeking to productively define its complexities, Kovcs stresses that postwar modernist cinema is essentially narrative, but its narrative forms are based on interactions unknown or rarely apparent in both classical Hollywood and art cinema because they are based not in physical contact but in different forms of mental responses. These unusual human interactions determine [such films] specific narrative patterns (2007: 57)


The return of 1960s modernist cinema

As opposed to so-called postmodern modes of narration that around 1980 became the new paradigm in the story told by Kovcs such as what David Bordwell (2002) calls the forking path narratives of films like Przypadek/Blind Chance (Kies lowski [1981] 1987) and Lola rennt/Run Lola Run (Tykwer 1999) [t]he universe of modernist narratives is the single possible world of classical narratives, but it is essentially uncertain, unpredictable, and incalculable (Kovcs 2007: 77). As I have argued elsewhere (Ford 2011), this means that while such modernism is critical and often radical, it seldom if ever unambiguously attacks the reality portrayed on-screen. Rather than a critically blunted compromise, however, these films soberly face the fundamental facts faced by modern art from within its economic and political real, as opposed to mounting a confident critique from an assumed alternative position.3 The most radical 1960s modernist feature films even Godards are usually quite oblique in their political address, or enclosed in quotations. Rather, what we find instead are those markers of uncertainty, unpredictability and incalculability emphasized by Kovcs. It is precisely these qualities that make an aesthetically and philosophically radical film and quintessential example of post-war modernist cinema like Persona (Bergman 1966) still so challenging. That Ingmar Bergman was commonly attacked in Sweden and elsewhere in the late 1960s for his purportedly apolitical and bourgeois cinema is now largely informative for the fact that his critics were asking the famous art house director to provide ethico-political certainty and belief completely at odds with his burgeoning modernism and philosophical position. In utilizing familiar forms, no matter how fragmentary and self-consciously presented, such exemplary 1960s modernist films as Persona, Leclisse/Eclipse (Antonioni 1962), Lanne dernire Marienbad/ Last Year in Marienbad (Resnais 1962), Szegnylegnyek/The Round-Up (Jancs 1966), 2 ou 3 choses que je sais delle/Two or Three Things I Know About Her (Godard 1966) or Sedmikrsky/Daisies (Chytilov 1966) are unable to navigate escape from the ideological and moral residue of the culture they render, come from and enter into. This reconstituted, vastly tampered-with use of familiar aesthetic forms results in properly immanent and reflexive accounts of the given modernity from and into which the films emerge. Twin questions are asked by this film modernism: What is the modernity we see on-screen, and is it indeed modern? In the first volume of Critique of Everyday Life, written at the dawn of the post-war era in 1947, Henri Lefebvre notes, Even in its apparent and pretentious modernity (and what in fact, does this modernity consist of?) our culture drags in its wake a great, disparate patchwork which has nothing modern about it ([1947] 1991: 192). Earlier, in his famous 1927 essay The mass ornament, Siegfried Kracauer analysed how both pre-modern and modern regimes coalesce within the new consumer culture, in often regressive ways, with reason present only in an emaciated form denuded of its Enlightenment promise so to become capitalisms ideologically prescribed ratio ([1927] 1995: 7486). This modernyet-not-yet in-between-ness that seems to characterize modernity itself is given a multi-layered critical rendering through the reflexive lens of the postwar modernist cinema. Compared to the more comparably utopian tone of silent-era modernism, however, following World War II and the death camps, then the creeping horrors and very real violence of the Cold War, faith in modernity per se and its purported progress is irrevocably undermined. This is one of the reasons Orr describes the post-war film-makers whose most radical work

3. Relevant here is Adornos caution from Aesthetic Theory when he writes, direct protest is reactionary. Even critical art has to surrender itself to that which it opposes. [] The modernity of art lies in its mimetic relation to a petrified and alienated reality. This, and not the denial of that mute reality, is what makes art speak ([1970] 1983: 31).


Hamish Ford

emerges in the 1960s as the neo-moderns. The neo affix indicates this cinemas often very self-conscious taking up of the modernist challenge and idealism first staged in cinemas earlier decades, but also the crucial bridging role of Italian neo-realism (Orr 1993: 5) immediately following and often centrally concerning the foundation-destroying horrors of fascism and war. Orrs descriptive moniker thereby highlights the postwar modernist image as a reflexive prompter to look again, presenting an almost debilitatingly self-conscious vision of the modern world as seen through, and by, newly weary and saddened eyes in the wake of such apocalyptic violence that seriously calls into question every tenet of western civilization. This is why he can argue that in rendering the modern world it inherits through such a founding critically paradoxical gaze, the postwar era is where we reach the true moment of the modern in the Western cinema (Orr 1993: 2).


There is no sense of spirituality here, no redeeming transcendence, according to Peter Brunettes (1998: 105) description of Il deserto rosso/Red Desert (Antonioni 1964). Antonionis film is exemplary of much post-war film modernism in this and other regards. Such work is a far cry from romantic or utopian modernism, neither celebrating present-day technologized life nor ethically decrying it in favour of a very different vision. This is a distinctly critical but non-purist, non-partisan modernism that casts doubt not only upon the building blocks of classical and traditional modes of both life and cinema alike, but equally in fact more so, because increasingly urgent and real contemporary, upon allegedly modern ones. Such films demonstrate their immediate modernitys inherent oppositions and unreconciled problems, irrespective of endless conjecture about authorial intentionality, the extent to which the given film-maker with Antonioni being exemplary is on the whole drawn to the modern world, exhibiting no desire to return to any past. Red Desert famously illustrates such a world as rather uninhabitable environmentally but also conceptually for the kind of humans who build and inhabit it. In charting this disconnect no direct blame is apportioned, no clearly political analysis offered. And the aesthetic incarnation of reality as viewed on the screen, no matter how ambivalent at best we might feel about its worldly fact, is the source of real fascination and creativity. That we (and the film-maker) can be so enthralled by the rendering of a world that is otherwise so troubling beyond the cinema (such as the polluted industrial zone of Ravenna that dominates Red Desert) is a large part of this modernisms apparently contradictory fascination. Consistently offering such ambivalent, often unnerving and multilayered meditations by means of frequently remarkable aesthetic form, the very technological tools so effectively and often brilliantly utilized by high-profile 1960s film-makers such as Antonioni, Godard, Bergman or Resnais are themselves both demonstrated at their artistic peak and yet equally distrusted epistemologically disempowered and ontologically demystified. In doing so, post-war modernist cinema at the same time exhibits creative mastery of and yet also undermines the central tenets that twentieth-century culture, cinema and modernism per se appear at first to inescapably privilege: vision and the image. Describing this generative contradiction, Sitney finds


The return of 1960s modernist cinema

that modernist literary and cinematic works stress vision as a privileged mode of perception, even of revelation, while at the same time cultivating opacity and questioning the primacy of the visible world (1992: 2). He sees this as modernisms central antinomy, which it repeats and turns into its own elaborate metaphors (Sitney 1992: 2). Later in his book, Sitney provides a quote from Maurice Blanchot that illustrates well the kind of aesthetic-conceptual world that results: present in its absence, graspable because ungraspable, appearing as disappeared (1992: 102). The perceptually and epistemologically slippery visual account of what at least on the surface often seems a grim portrayal of the modernity that produces the film itself, particularly in the work of such European directors as Antonioni or Bergman, then soon Fassbinder and Chantal Akerman, and more recently Michael Haneke, is exactly what often creates problems for viewers. Here perhaps lies a central reason as to why there has never been agreement for very long about the status of this modernism. During the first flush of the New Wave moment, such work went very quickly from initial scandal to canonization and new orthodoxy. The exemplary and most extreme case is again provided by Antonioni, whose Lavventura (1960) was voted second best film of all time in the 1962 Sight and Sound poll only two years after being notoriously jeered at its Cannes premiere. Kovcs notes the way that soon after this watershed moment in European cinema, for a few years at least, after 1962 important aesthetic achievements completely ignoring the modernist paradigm became extremely scarce (2007: 215). Yet outside the often-faddish cycle of outrage, canonization and normalization, and then later backlash and purported superseding, such films from this period still have the ability to disquiet and to annoy viewers when watched and discussed today (if usually without the jeers greeting Lavventura 51 years ago). If these are simply old films, what explains their uncanny and still unnerving power? In my experience, recent audience responses are far from Thats interesting, but weve moved on.4 Yet despite renewed interest over the last decade and a half or so when it comes to publishing and, importantly, the online world of new cinephilia, post-war film modernism is still often likely to be altogether skipped over in the new modernism histories seen in prominent research output and conference presentations.5 Yet such cinemas present-day potency as seen in audience and critical interest requires attention, as does its unresolved status. Exemplary films of post-war modernism continue to cause classificatory and historiographical problems, it seems, for scholar-historians in a way that both Hollywood films and more overtly non-narrative avant-garde work or experimental documentaries do not, despite indeed perhaps because of maintaining the basic gestures of the dramatic feature film. A central cause of this unease is perhaps the fact that although particular film-makers such as Antonioni or Godard in different ways pay immense attention to the spaces of the modern world, the central conceptual and affective plane on which their modernism carries out its violent impact is via the very immanent, in-the-world human subject on-screen. This recognizable body is never entirely convincing as a character in the classical sense, or perhaps even as a subject per se. Yet amorphously he or she suggests a kind of humanity in both an abstract and fleshy sense, not only because presented by the real body of an actor, but due to exhibiting diverse and perhaps rather recognizable symptoms of fragmentation and crisis. Yet while the viewer might relate to certain aspects of the different dramas, neuroses and traumas

4. Such observations are drawn from thirteen years of teaching such films across four different Australian universities, and many more viewing them with peers. 5. In a plenary address at the Cinema, modernity and modernism Film and History Association of Australia and New Zealand conference on 1 December 2010, Julian Murphet spoke for around 90 minutes on the topic of modernist cinema, presuming agreement that such a moniker denoted only the inter-war incarnation. When he briefly gestured to later outcomes and developments near the end of the address, we were told this was postmodern cinema, a category into which Godard was placed. Murphets account of modernism was also entirely defined by the pursuit of a long-take aesthetic a definition that seems limiting enough when addressing silent-era modernism but would be entirely untenable if analysing the aesthetically diverse aesthetic forms of 1960s modernism. The focus on the long take is, however, consistent with the utopian, romantic and sometimes mystical elements suggested by some important elements of early modernism but which again would need to be radically rethought when accounting for the later work I address here.


Hamish Ford

played out, the broadly sketched body-subject performing them remains a kind of impossibility. Kovcs describes the quintessential central figure of the post-war modernist cinema and its symbiotic relationship to the films aesthetic form as follows: Features of modern narratives are consequences of the fact that they tell stories about an estranged individual who has lost all her essential contacts to others, to the world, to the past, and to the future or lost even the foundations of her personality, suggesting axiomatically that the more this is felt, the more modernist the modernist form. (2007: 66, original emphasis) However, while I think Kovcs is often correct about this it is a useful pedagogical and classificatory description that rings true for many such films such a formulation also risks reinstating one of the great clichs about film-makers like Antonioni that other recent commentators such as Peter Brunette (1998) are keen to put into perspective so as to find room to develop other lines of analysis. Brunette argues that the familiar descriptions of Antonionis 1960s work in particular as offering vaguely existentialist fables about alienation and loss of identity downplay social and political context, and undersell the films conceptual radicalism. Stressing unknowability and incommensurability, he observes that nothing ever seems to add up in these films, nothing, that is, beyond a vague sense of uneasiness and alienation, and thus most critics have taken this to be what they are about (1998: 3). Considering Lavventura, Leclisse or Red Desert decades after being made, Brunette argues that their questioning goes beyond that of simple identity, as this assumes that there is or can be such a thing as a more or less fixed self, something that can be lost or recovered, a core being (1998: 103). Rather, subsequent post-structuralist theory suggests that each human subject can just as easily be regarded as an effect of language and cultural meaning, that various subject positions that we occupy are preconstituted for us, as it were, by the culture of which we are a part (Brunette 1998: 103). Though Brunette might be striving to justify Antonionis modernism through a particular theoretical lens, such critical work demonstrates a way to see the importance of this modernist cinemas critique of modernitys regressive regimes: not only capitalisms temporal dictates of production/consumption via Taylorism and Fordism (and the socialist equivalent in Eastern bloc films), and increasingly their post-industrial forms, but also regimes of the subject itself and our theoretical accounting thereof. In Lefebvres 1958 foreword to the second edition of Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1, written on the eve of post-war film modernisms famous simultaneous New Wave hits the troika of Hiroshima, mon Amour (Resnais 1959), A bout de souffl/Breathless (Godard 1959) and Lavventura we read (in the original gendered language) that: [M]odern mans products and his works function like beings of nature. He must objectify himself, and social objects become things, fetishes, which turn upon him. [ I]f man has humanized himself, he has done so only by tearing himself apart, dividing himself, fragmenting himself. ([1958] 1991: 71) In the main 1947 text, Lefebvre then makes an observation germane to the disconnect charted in Antonionis and much other post-war modernist


The return of 1960s modernist cinema

cinema: Man attains his own reality, creates himself through, within and by means of his opposite, his alienation: the inhuman ([1947] 1991: 170). Be it through the lens of Marxist sociological philosophy such as Lefebvres, Brunettes invocation of post-structuralist theory, or any other discursive framework we might choose to employ, the post-war modernist cinema can be elucidated in ways that disrespect the walls commonly maintained between different historical, methodological and ideological regimes. At the same time, it throws at least as much doubt on a particular epistemological schema as a given film offers up productive interpretative fruits through such an engagement. Here lies the ongoing trans-historical generativity and relevance of this modernism in being so amenable to connecting with and playing out many apparently oppositional theoretical and analytical discourses while concurrently destabilizing their claims.

6. Jonathan Culler describes Baudelaire as the prophet of modernity (1998: xxxi), while Marshall Berman called him the first modernist (1982: 133). Earlier, writing in 1923, Benjamin (1973) influentially argued that Baudelaire was less a nineteenthcentury romantic poet and more a figure grappling with the key problems of an emergent modernity.

While the kind of cinema I address here is known for its philosophical, intellectually challenging aspects, perhaps less commonly acknowledged is its consistent attention to not only a rigorously immanent vision of the world, but also a presentation of the challenges at the heart of everyday reality. Characteristically avoiding the kind of intangible, sometimes mystical affectations that 1920s film modernism so richly invokes, Lefebvre offers an account of Charles Baudelaire that makes the French poets revolutionary nineteenthcentury modern vision6 sound like a very real precursor to the cinema made a full 100 years after the emergence of his famous 1863 essay The painter of modern life. But rather than radical aesthetic performance and mercurial, demonic moral challenge, Baudelaire offers for Lefebvre a radically immanent and self-conscious vision of subjectivity and the quotidian real. He finds that the poet and original flneur abandons the metaphysical and moral plane to immerse himself in the everyday, which from that moment on he will deprecate, corrode and attack, but on its own level as if from within (Lefebvre [1947] 1991: 106). Though this kind of immanent gaze is certainly present in modernist cinemas silent heyday, most famously in films exhibiting expressionism, the moral and the metaphysical are seldom entirely absent (particularly in the form of a supernatural evil). By the time of film modernisms post-war resurgence, such romantic, tragic-heroic heritage is no longer viable. Addressing the rigorously reflexive social vision offered by modernist films after World War II in their depiction of an often newly affluent class that also makes up the primary audience of such cinema, Orr writes: [T]he central problem of the post-war bourgeoisie lies in its profound crisis of value. Technology, wealth and pleasure not only challenge all firm values, they fail to fill the vacuum they often create (1993: 7). Such a particular vision of contemporary life often means that while the viewer watches human bodies on the screen, and although in terms of class and overall cultural markers of identity being not entirely dissimilar, we may not recognize them as fully-fleshed-out characters in the classical or literary sense, or even as properly functioning human beings. These figures though not necessarily dominating or centering the image are less like classical (really literary) characters and more like tropes by which to portray or illustrate sometimes darkly humorous accounts of the banal, repetitive yet quietly nihilistic incarnation of frequently privileged bourgeois subjects in the process of becoming objects.


Hamish Ford

7. Perhaps just one, and certainly much more frequently cited. Just prior to his death, Roland Barthes generally no great fan of the cinema, as he makes clear at the start of Camera Lucida (1981: 3) in 1979 wrote a now famous letter to Antonioni, published by Cashiers du Cinma as Cher Antonioni, in which we read: [M]eaning, once fixed and imposed, once no longer subtle, becomes an instrument, a stake in the game of power. Antonionis films are special for Barthes precisely for their refusal and undermining of such power, exhibiting a precious attempt to deplete, disturb, and undo the fanaticism of meaning. (Barthes, 1989: 11)

At the extreme, almost absurdist edge of this slippery subject-object portrayal often reflexively suggested as being at the heart of cinematic representation per se is perhaps the cardboard cut-out, monotonal figures in Two or Three Things I Know About Her. The film presents in detail the listless movements of a vacant-looking lower-middle-class housewife as she fills her day minding children, shopping and engaging in part-time prostitution, all the while delivering political and philosophical lines clearly dictated to her on the spot by the hyper-reflexive unseen film-maker who also whispers confessionally to us on the soundtrack. The technique may be totally unconvincing as both realist drama and documentary, yet Godards concern is as sociological and political in its desire to analyse reality as is Lefebvres literary investigation of everyday life in French post-war consumer society. Lefebvre states in 1958 that we can tell a lot simply by looking at a womans life: her biography, her job, her family, her class, her budget, her eating habits, how she used money, opinions and her ideas, the state of the market, etc. (Lefebvre [1958] 1991: 57). But such an investigation does not in and of itself dictate an aesthetic form, and modernist cinema is famous for on the whole undermining realism in myriad ways. Yet for all the apparently baroque or abstract sound-image compositions of films such as Persona, Daisies, The Round-Up, Red Desert and Two or Three Things, and then Katzelmacher (Fassbinder 1969), W.R.: Misterije organizma/W.R: Mysteries of the Organism (Makavejev 1970), Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman 1975), Zerkalo/Mirror (Tarkovsky 1974) and Je, tu, il, elle/I, You, He, She (Akerman 1976), post-war modernist films primary interest is in a contemporary everyday real. Although showing a very historically defined, secular and material reality, this modernism explores its uncanny, even bizarre appearance as powered by rapid technological and environmental change including of course the heavily virtual reality of the moving image in sustained and very diverse renderings of such a modern worlds very strange physical and perceptual conditions. Realism in its classical or even politically revolutionary form simply will not do, because it is no longer realistic either in terms of what it shows or how. The confusion brought about by a genuine desire to portray realitys authentically modern appearance, both in form and content, demonstrates ambiguity as an absolutely central quality for post-war film modernism. To render the everyday in all its confusion and challenge the cosmic and the quotidian, the distinction between which is voided means accepting, indeed diving deeply into, fundamental ambiguity and at best a very tentative presence of meaning. Again, these are key properties of post-war modernity for Lefebvre : [A]mbiguity is a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category. It never exhausts its reality; from the ambiguity of consciousness and situations spring forth actions, events, results, without warning. These, at least, have clear-cut outlines. They maintain a hard, incisive objectivity which constantly disperses the luminous vapours of ambiguity only to let them rise once again. (Lefebvre [1958] 1991: 18, emphasis added) Inside or outside film commentary, there may be no better description of the kind of world, and the fundamentally paradoxical lens through which we see it, brought to us by post-war modernist cinema.7


The return of 1960s modernist cinema

Deleuze speaks of what he calls the time-image as exemplified in the films of Alain Resnais, for him the driving element of post-war cinema: The screen itself is the cerebral membrane where immediate and direct confrontations take place between the past and the future, the inside and the outside, at a distance impossible to determine, independent of any fixed point [] The image no longer has space and movement as its primary characteristics but topology and time. (1989: 125) Post-war modernist cinema at its 1960s peak returns to us because the films are already flooded with time be it elongated or cut up into non-chronological fragments, or as manoeuvres enacted in tandem (reaching a famous and notorious early peak with Resnais Last Year in Marienbad). Products of both real historical forces and contexts, these works also time-travel in a most uncanny way. Not only are they born again every month, appearing anew as freshly restored in digital form (like many other old movies), the films also bring with them a still very much alive and virulent temporal power analysed by Deleuze as the time-image, in which temporality is finally liberated from its subservient role buried beneath narrative cinemas protagonistic action.8 But the other factor that stops post-war modernist cinema from being kept safely in the film history museum is that while the work of present-day (often non-western) directors such as Bela Tarr, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Tsai Ming-Liang frequently goes further than the modernism under discussion here when it comes to sheer slowness (often with Tarkovsky the pivotal linking figure), post-war modernisms peak films remain uniquely extreme and complex events in highly diverse ways. Through aesthetic forms often emphasizing and utilizing the non-linear impact of fragments combined, post-war modernism enables a destructionenforcing openness through materially forged conceptual violence (both that of film itself via often radical formal devices and that of the very modern world as featured on screen), resulting in cinematic experiences relatively subdued one moment and lacerating the next. In addition to the long-take aesthetic that Julian Murphet (2010) and others argue is central to modernisms silent era, and today reaching a thus-far less studied apotheosis in the work of Tarr, Tsai, Hou, Jia Zhangke and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, with the historically in-between films under discussion in this article neither first-generation modernist nor cutting-edge postmodern or contemporary world cinema we have the added problem of often fragmentary or cubist montage techniques (reaching a kind of absurdist apogee with Daisies) but also enormous confusion and layering of tense, perception and ownership of the gaze. James Monaco observes that every shot in Marienbad, the most famous feature film driving this multi-temporal and multi-spatial expansion, can be read as either present tense, past tense, conditional or subjunctive, or pure fantasy, in which the truth, reality is beside the point (1979: 56, 59). And all this despite the fact that such a radical film still gives us a narrative of sorts (albeit made up of perhaps impossible-to-put-together fragments) and even a kind of love story (both romantic and very dark indeed, suggestive of rape), not to mention a European upper-class incarnation of Hollywood glamour (complete with dresses by Coco Chanel) and some absurdist humour.

8. For a general account of the impact of Deleuzes influential philosophy of cinema particularly the time-image on film theory, see the final section of Ford (2008). For a much more direct exploration of the timeimage in the context of Antonionis cinema, using Lavventura as the focus text to test the productivity but also possible limits of such an application, see Ford (2003).


Hamish Ford

The in-between qualities, wherein humour and dark intimations of violence coexist through the formal and thematic seams of a work, find expression in Sitneys use of a quote from the first paragraph of Blanchots 1951 work Au moment voulu/When the time comes: Time had passed, and yet it was not past; that was a truth that I should not have wanted to place in my presence (1992: 110). Despite this warning by the narrator in Blanchots story, Sitney argues that the continual resumption of the narrative seems to promise, for a while at least, that the events will clarify his mind (1992: 110). This offers a very appropriate description, I think properly humorous and challenging of the complex in-between-ness of modernism and its unnerving temporal power. Time in the films I have discussed is almost inherently unstable, and today more so than ever. These works come from a past, which as Kovcs and others tell us is the past (even as such historians subtly re/ arrange and debate it for our consumption). Yet any linear histoire of film worthy of classical Hollywood at its peak is surely overturned by the DVD revolution alone, as the whole meaning of a new movie in release is completely remade, and the restoration of old films for domestic consumption makes cinema history more egalitarian when it comes to both films and their reception in an unprecedented way. The individual works of post-war modernism such as those I have addressed here are on the one hand overloaded with exemplary museum-like past-ness in which we can decode sociological and other aspects of modern life decades ago. But they also escape their prescribed role in a pedagogically rewarding historical narrative, no matter how many deluxe digital supplements accompany the main feature in its new-century silver disc home. Post-war modernism returns on DVD, Blu-ray and online (from fragments on YouTube to high-quality broadband pay-per-view), and in criticism and scholarship, most notably the explosion of interest online as younger critics get to know such films on their prominent second premier. Seen and discussed anew in these contexts, the films provide and are uncanny, never comfortably at-home visions from and of their own time, as well as deeply ambivalent meditations on possible futures, including our own unstable present and its potential onward trajectories. But this modernism is at the same time equally flushed through with multiple pasts: that of individual works own moments but also the multiple histories that they themselves draw on and look to, exemplifying modernisms constant and complex Janus face in occupying an unstable and entirely shifting and reconstituted present enhanced further by digitization. Sitney describes how Walter Benjamin saw the disappearance of the art of storytelling as part of the decline of an aura in art which mechanical reproduction fostered (1992: 123). Although Benjamins idealistic, sometimes mystical modernism meant he was either premature or off target in his famous diagnosis, the initial celluloid emergence of post-war modernism both exemplified the progressive potential of this influential thesis and at the same time substantively reflected on the failure of its more hopeful, utopian impulse. Today, viewed in its digital incarnation, modernist cinema made in the wake of the death camps (which Benjamin and his trenchant idealism did not survive to reflect upon) exudes a hyper-extension of this contradictory status. The films deep challenge to pre-modern modes of narration continue to trouble and inspire us, just as they also demonstrate that entry into radical newness remains a romantic dream. The post-war European modernist cinema that reached its peak in the 1960s represents a crucial high point in the feature films challenge to narrative


The return of 1960s modernist cinema

and movement as the central elements of the moving-image medium, while at the same time refusing utopian gestures, maintaining in fragmented or stretched form aspects of such classical foundations, the voice of which becomes cracked in Adornos phrase. These films demonstrate that at its aesthetic and conceptual peak, audio-visual mechanical reproduction both overthrows the past and yet also enables its ghostly continuation and endless permutation as fragment and reflexivity, or as perennial rerun. In this sense, as with classicisms own fragmentary rendering within modernism, modernist cinema itself now returns to us as fragmentary (no matter how whole it looks on a maxed-out Criterion Collection edition) its aesthetic and conceptual promise and subversion just surviving but on the cusp of disappearance. Here is a cinema shot through with the palpable threat or promise that storytelling is/was/is disappearing, seriously attempting to render such a historical moment and movement via rigorously appropriate new forms of expression, all the while demonstrating the inbuilt failure or fantasy of any such overthrow. Decades after film modernisms reported demise, we now know that storytelling has far from disappeared. Even in the post-classical world of contemporary Hollywood and beyond, more tenets of conventional narrative substantively remain than 1960s modernism suggested. Here lies one of the perennial attractions but also difficulties of this modernism and its myriad effects, one that has only deepened over time. It offers us a science fiction-like vision of present and future possibility, but shorn of any utopian/dystopian binary choice. If the problems such films frame were entirely and safely in our presents past, and their aesthetic properties only a developmental step in the road of cinemas relentless progress, they would not return. Rather, this modernism thrusts upon us a different and difficult kind of non-linear past-ness that is both rooted in history and yet also appears as if from a future not taken, or a very strange vision of our own present. By casting itself adrift from any one-way account of cinema history or time itself, this uncanny temporality has the effect of casting doubt over everything including, ensured by the films diverse reflexivity and auto critique, the efficacy and worth of modernism in its various guises. As powered by a threatening and digitally reanimated temporality that increasingly comes to define the soundimage compositions and experiential power of such films, the return of 1960s modernist cinema generates endless potential for ambivalent pleasure and discomfort within an increasingly belief-beleaguered, ever-later modernity into which they perennially emerge as new.

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Hamish Ford

Ford, H. (2011), The return of 1960s modernist cinema, Studies in Australasian Cinema 5: 2, pp. 155170, doi: 10.1386/sac.5.2.155_1

Hamish Ford lectures in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle. Contact: School of Humanities and Social Science, Room MC127 McMullin Building, The University of Newcastle, Callaghan Campus, 2308 NSW, Australia. E-mail: