Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Politics, Aesthetics, Ontology: The Theoretical Legacy of "Cahiers du cinéma" (1968-1973)
by Fairfax, Daniel, Ph.D., Yale University, 2017, 1082; 10633244
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation focuses on a generation of film critics: those who wrote for the French journal Cahiers du cinéma in the years 1968-1973. Founded by André Bazin in 1951, and known for incubating nouvelle vague filmmakers such as François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard in the 1950s, by the late 1960s Cahiers had brought together a fresh group of writers, who were operating in a very different political and theoretical landscape. After the uprising of May 1968 shook France, Cahiers editors Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni openly declared the journal's new, Marxist orientation in their decisive editorial "Cinéma/idéologie/critique." Under the influence of the critical theory of Althusser, Barthes and Lacan, they endeavored to develop a revolutionary aesthetics of the cinema, and defended the work of "political modernist" filmmakers such as Godard, Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, Jacques Rivette, Robert Kramer, Mikos Jancsó, Nagisa Oshima and Glauber Rocha, as well as critically analyzing the films of earlier eras, such as those by Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Jean Renoir and John Ford. During this time, Comolli and Narboni were joined in this project by Jacques Aumont, Serge Daney, Pascal Bonitzer, Bernard Eisenschitz, Jean-Pierre Oudart, Sylvie Pierre, Pascal Kané and Pierre Baudry.

This historical materialist outlook, hardening into a dogmatic form of Maoism, governed the journal's work until 1973, when it nearly collapsed after the failure of its project to form a "Revolutionary Cultural Front" When film studies was established as an academic discipline in the 1970s, its theoretical foundation owed much to the work carried out by Cahiers in the half-decade after 1968, including landmark articles such as "Technique et idéologie," "Young Mr. Lincoln de John Ford" and "La suture." In this dissertation, I seek to broaden the corpus of writings under the microscope beyond these canonical texts, taking in the vast breadth of texts and films produced by these ten writers in the years during and after their involvement with Cahiers, a body of work that includes not only film theory and criticism, but also academic scholarship, historical research, journalistic writing and filmmaking. And yet this protean activity has always been decisively informed by the cauldron of critical reflection and political militancy that was Cahiers during its Marxist period.

My study revolves around a core claim: contrary to the widespread view, the Cahiers du cinéma of the post-1968 period did not repudiate the theories of Bazin. Rather, his ideas were given a materialist re-reading, and brought into a convulsive dialectic with structuralist Marxism, psychoanalytic theory and Brechtian aesthetics. The tension between these heiuieneutic frameworks was the major impetus for Cahiers' theoretical restlessness during this era. It also generated the journal's key point of distinction from the other variants of "apparatus theory" that arose in the 1970s.

Far from viewing the cinema as an ideological distortion of reality, Cahiers consistently argued that film was a privileged instrument for analyzing the ideologically-constructed nature of reality itself. This perspective both draws on Bazin's understanding of filmic ontology, and hews closely to the notion of the real in Althusser and Lacan. I begin my study, therefore, with a re-examination of the debates on cinema and ideology during this period, when Cahiers polemicized with rivals journals such as Positif, Cinéthique, La Nouvelle Critique and Tel Quel. Subsequent chapters look at the political engagement of the journal in the years after 1968, issues of aesthetics and the relationship of cinema to other art foiins, and the question of the ontological status of the film image as understood by Cahiers. Finally, an epilogue explores the response of the erstwhile Cahiers critics to the sweeping transformations in visual culture that have taken place since the 1980s.

Throughout this dissertation, I maintain that the output of the Cahiers writers is not merely of interest for historical purposes, as documents of a past era of radical militancy in French film culture, but has vital relevance for the present day. The questions they asked about the political, aesthetic and ontological nature of the cinematic image are still active ones, and the answers they gave offer valuable lessons for attempts to critically grapple with contemporary cinema and other foul's of audiovisual media.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Andrew, Dudley
School: Yale University
School Location: United States -- Connecticut
Source: DAI-A 78/12(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Comparative literature, Romance literature, Film studies
Keywords: Apparatus Theory, Cahiers du Cinema, Film Theory, French Cinema, Ideology, Political Modernism
Publication Number: 10633244
ISBN: 978-0-355-10536-0
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