National Cinema: Pittsburgh Film Colloquium
"Frames or Frame Ups of National Cinema?"
By Marcia Landy (University of Pittsburgh, Distinguished Service Professor, Department of English, Department of French and Italian Language and Literature, Film Studies Program)
This clip from Gianni Amelio’s 1994 film Lamerica subtends the basis of my comments to follow. The ship with the ironic name "Partizani," carries a cargo of illegal Albanians and two expatriated Italians to Italy. The film does not end with their arrival in Italy but their internment in a stadium Bari where they were misinformed that they were being sent to America, when in actuality they were being sent back to Albania: The final shots in the film leaves passengers and the audiences literally at sea about the national identity of the characters and, more importantly, about the historical connections between Albanian and Italian nations, and, of course "Lamerica." In scanning their faces, the camera speaks eloquently to the dilemma of how to characterize prevailing and conflicting conceptions of the nation and their connections to cinema.
To address the complexity of the union between cinema and nation, I propose to use and abuse provocative comments made by Jean Luc Godard during an interview with Colin MacCabe. Godard observed that "Movie-making at the beginning was related to the identity of the nation and there have been very few ‘national’ cinemas. In my opinion, there is no Swedish cinema but there are Swedish filmmakers – some very good ones such as Stiller and Bergman. There have only been a handful of [national] cinemas: Italian, German, American, and Russian. This is because when countries were inventing and using motion pictures they needed an image of themselves" (98). Moreover, these cinemas were a response to the need for showing "reality in a new way through a new form" (101). Thus, Godard offers propositions about connections between cinema and nation, the first being that he regards cinema at its inception as being tied to the "identity of a nation." Secondly, he presumes that films can be produced within the geographic boundaries of a nation and yet not be identified as serving to distinguish a national cinema. And thirdly, his comments seem to suggest a connection between political (national and international?) crisis and cultural representation.
The first problem raised by his contentious comments is the notion of cinema as tied to the "identity of the nation," an observation that might be construed as suggesting a defining, unifying and consensual sense of nationhood – but can be understood quite differently as I subsequently hope to show. Furthermore, Godard qualifies his judgments by restricting his selection of national cinemas to a "handful" that "needed an image of themselves?" Once again, we are beset by the difficulty of comprehending the basis for his selection as well as what he night mean by the "need" for a self-image. In other words, on what conceptual grounds is he invoking issues of identity and self-image? Are we to assume that Godard’s observations are perverse or, rather, that they have they a basis in the history of the cinematic image and to changing conceptions of culture and politics? Great effort has been expended in the critical literature on national cinemas to undo the "cultural essentialism that informs many definition of national cinemas" (Bergfelder, 139-140) and to offer different methods of definition and interpretation.
Godard’s cryptic assertions about national identity become only a bit clearer when he introduces another "need" - for new realities and new forms and specifically identifies Italian neorealism as an instance of the emergence of a new reality and form. His invocation of neorealism conjoins with that of Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1, where Deleuze writes: "The Italians were able to have an intuitive consciousness of the new image in the course of being born" (I, 212). But how does this "new reality" relate to the identity of the nation and to the necessity for a national self-image? In contrast to prevailing and limiting conceptions of "naturalist and organic mystifications of the idea of constituent power as an attribute of the nation" (Insurgencies, 25) described and scornfully criticized by Antonio Negri, Godard and Deleuze offer a conception of all forms of identity, including national identity, that are disjunctive, linked to indetermination and moments of uncertainty and conflict, in the case of Italian cinema, endemic to the post World War Two era. A critical reflection on Italian neorealism is instructive for how it complicates, not reinforces, conceptions of national cinema - despite asseverations to the contrary by those bewitched by its mythology of a parthenogenic rebirth from fascism.
In 1986, I published, Fascism and Film: The Italian Commercial Cinema 1930-1943, not with unfettered hubris, but certainly with a degree of innocence about the complexities of writing on what we identify as "national cinema." My objective in that book (as in my later Folklore of Consensus) was to redress silences about filmmaking under the Italian fascist regime and to undo generalizations that have prevailed and circulated in histories of cinema about the Italian cinema in those years as monolithically propagandistic or as escapist. An examination of the films did not lead me to the conclusion that they were a simple reflection of the politics of nation under the Fascist regime, especially concerning the issue of nation and its expression via the cinema. Instead my investigation yielded tangled and slippery insights about conceptions of cinema in relation to national identity. The films exposed the inadequacy of imposing homogeneous interpretations on this cinema. I became aware that not only did they invite a rethinking of the nature and limits of consensus, but that they also held surprises in their opportunism and eclectic plundering of indigenous and "foreign" models, in some instances suggesting cynicism and in others subversion toward national policy and ideology.
Drawn to American literature, Faulkner, Dos Passos, and Hemingway as well as to popular novelist James M. Cain, the Italian cinema in the last years of the war anastomosed images of earlier Italian culture (e. g. the work of Verga and verismo) to styles that were derived from outside the nation. This was not the first time that the Italian cinema had recourse to modes of production and cinematic forms that were derived from outside Italy. From its earliest years, the Italian cinema was tied to the European by way of production, distribution, and even star images. In the 1910s, Italian film production drew on the history and mythology of Italy but also on European narratives and styles. And during the Fascist era, co-productions with France, Hungary, and Germany were regularly undertaken, as a practice for producing profitable films and extending film distribution beyond national boundaries. Furthermore, the influence and presence of Hollywood as another indication of the transnational character of "Italian national cinema" has been well documented (despite futile measures that were erected by to limit the incursion of Hollywood films). Similarly in the post World War Two era, Italian cinema had its greatest financial successes with transnational genre films, e.g. peplum epics, spaghetti westerns, and horror films, as well as critical successes first with neorealism and then with an art cinema.
If these works were symptomatic of the globalization of film financing and production, they were also instrumental in rendering or, in Susan Hayward’s term, "reframing" problematic, monolithic and nostalgic conceptions of the nature and role of national cinema. However, the documenting of transnational production, while an important consideration for rethinking bounded and ethnocentric formulations of nation and cinema does not adequately address the project of reframing or destabilizing national identity. Nor does this mode of analysis help to clarify Godard’s assertion that a national cinema can be defined by the new reality and new forms that it brings into existence. Perhaps a critical or philosophical perspective is also required that introduces the issue of a different relation to politics, perception, and thought. Thus, I return once again to the notion, held by Godard and Deleuze that neorealism "represented a crisis in the cinema of action."
According to Deleuze, this crisis coincided with the end of the war and was expressed through the "appearance of direct images of time in the cinema" (Rodowick, 79) in contrast to what he has termed the movement-image. The movement-image belongs to an organic regime where images are linked "through rational divisions, projecting a model of Truth in relation to totality," deriving "from a belief in the possibility of action and the stability of Truth" (Ibid, 12-13). The time-image is different. It is dispersive and lacunary. Through it, visual description replaces motor action; space becomes disconnected, and the real and the imaginary run into "a principle of indeterminability" (2, 7). The effect of the time-image is to throw into doubt the nature of belief, producing, but not guaranteeing, the possibility of thinking otherwise and conceptually from the outside.
What are the implications of these ideas for a rethinking of national cinema? Susan Hayward has written that current reframing of national cinema ideally "carves out spaces that allow us to reevaluate the concept of national cinema. It makes it possible to reterritorialise the nation (to rewrite Paul Virilio, echoing Deleuze perhaps) not as bounded, demarcated, and distinctive, but as one in which boundaries constantly crisscross both haphazardly and unhaphazardly" (93). However, what are the implications and effects of the call in her terms for reterritorialization? Is it sufficient to call attention to instances of hybridity that expose the "masquerade of unity" (101)? Or does the invocation of pluri-culturalism involving questions of region, race, gender, and sexuality present other conceptual problems such as reproducing identity politics albeit now on a transnational register, becoming "an alternate form of essentialism" (Hayward, 95?
Where in this configuration do such global figures as the refugee, immigrant, and nomadic impoverished populations belong in the catalogue of "pluriculturalism?" Or are they easily assimilated into the mix? If Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri are correct in asserting in Empire, that "social identities were never really coherent imagined communities . . . [and that] cultures are always already partial and hybrid formations (144)," then has it now become necessary to investigate new formations of power that render prevailing interpretations of the "identity of a nation" problematic, if not obsolete?
Finally, do the altering character of global politics and its accompanying cultural transformations via cinema, television, and new media solicit different critical questions and methods concerning explorations of subjectivity, subjection, and power not predicated on conceptions of a binary conflict between national identity and multi-culturalism (or hybridity)? And must we finally abandon the study of national cinema, or are there as yet uncharted and intellectually productive ways to address its existence and importance, and, if so, what might these methods be conceptually?