Towards a revolutionary space.
Which is why Solimas and Getino's rewording of the cogito is so significant. Their version sets up a contingent ideology (no longer foundational, since it takes its stance in relation to the original formulation), that functions as a staging-point from which radical filmmakers begin to mobilize against First Cinema--that is, any film-industry based on the Hollywood model of reiterating bourgeois values as a vision of reality. (4) Working from this revolutionary footing, Solanas and Getino's counter-ideology situates Third Cinema in direct opposition to the hermetic narratives and passive spectatorship engendered by Hollywood's treatment of cinematic space. In order to actuate the revolution as such, Third Cinema must employ the camera so as to unveil the spatio-ideological apparatus of First Cinema, and in so doing, continually reinvent cinematic space.
The "makeover" sequence from The Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo, 1966), in which three Algerian women disguise themselves as pied-noirs to the beat of martial drums, in preparation for acts of sabotage against French cultural targets, typifies Third Cinema's two-fold impulse to reveal and re-imagine cinematic space. By applying Mulvey and Baudry's readings of the Lacanian mirror-stage to the sequence, in addition to Benjamin's discussion of fragmentation in the film-actor's performance, the following shot-by-shot analysis will expose how Pontecorvo's camera constructs these new spaces to look at, and look from.
The sequence begins with a disorienting cut away from a crowded exterior space (in medium shot) to an intimate interior space (in canted close-up), modeling Eisenstein's principle of dialectical montage: the placement of conflicting images side by side to involve the spectator in an act of synthesis. By citing Eisenstein, Morra and Serandrei's editing allies itself with a revolutionary precedent in film-technique, prompting spectators to critically engage with the sequence as it unfolds. Meanwhile, the close-up isolates the face of an Algerian woman, her nose and mouth concealed beneath a white veil. We might naturally associate the image with certain interpretations of bijab (arguably patriarchal), but the veil also comes to represent, as a product of the restricted perspective offered us by the close-up, First Cinema's mystification of the cinematic apparatus.
The canted close-up initiates an ongoing disruption of what Baudry (and Berger) term "Renaissance perspective," which tends to elaborate a space that centers the eye of the viewer to produce an "ideal vision." Baudry considers this kind of representation "ideal" because it presents an imaginary wholeness and similitude corresponding to the mirror-image. (5) In other words, in the case of a painting like Hans Memling's Vanity, or films like Casablanca (Curtiz, 1942), the artwork disdains to reveal itself as a form of representation, but pretends an unmediated material reality, complete in itself and thus readily consumable. Not only does cinema take up this narcissistic way of looking, it habitually takes it for granted.
Baudry refers here to Lacan's theory of the mirror stage, a phase of psychological development occurring between six and eighteen months of age, during which period infants begin to recognize themselves in the mirror. This recognition creates the idea(1) of an "I" in the infant's imagination (6)--an "I" which later inserts itself into the cogitu; an "I" reified again and again before the silver screen. Mulvey elaborates, describing this illusive ego in terms of an ecstatic realization; whereas the infant first experiences its body as a confusion of disconnected parts, its reflection in the mirror appears unified and complete in itself. Recognition and mis-recognition overlap like superimposed shots: the infant sees how the mirror-image corresponds with its body. But, pictured as a cohesive unit, that image is projected as an ideal ego. (7) The idea of a body replaces the body itself. The "I" becomes indivisible. First Cinema reproduces (while masking) this same contradiction, the better to capitalize on it.
By framing a perspective quite impossible without optical technology, the camera's tilt in this first interior shot undermines the correspondence between "ideal vision" (or "ideal ego") and the look of the camera. As opposed to simply reproducing human perception, Pontecorvo's camera makes the machine's perception (what Vertov calls the kino-eye) available to it.
Meanwhile, shot-scale fragments the Algerian woman's body. Mulvey proposes that the close-up, in exhibiting body parts instead of wholes, throws a gap in the mirror-image demanded by Renaissance space, thereby shattering deep focus. The resulting image takes on the aspect of an icon, a symbol that can be made to stand for something outside the narrative framework. (8)
Flatness displaces realism. While the cut in question sets up any number of shot-conflicts, as we have seen, undercutting Renaissance space in the process, there is little by this point to distinguish the close-up we're analyzing from the narrative-stalling and spectacular variety Mulvey associates with Hollywood's treatment of the woman-as-object. So far, the sequence adheres (for the most part) to Hollywood stylistic conventions--the better to explode them as the sequence develops.
As the shot continues, the woman removes her veil, her face a flat image of detached resolve. This moment of unveiling also prefigures an unveiling of the cinematic apparatus, which begins with a rapid zoom from close-up to medium shot. The change in focal lengths by means of a zoom, as opposed to a simple cut, allows the spectator to visually participate in the shift to a wider perspective. The stationary re-framing (not a camera "movement," per se) replicates the psychological experience of realization, a moment of sudden conscious understanding.
Previously isolated in close-up, the woman is revealed in the zoom-out to be flanked by first one, then two others. Now the framing centers her companion; it seems Pontecorvo is less concerned here with following an identifiable character than he is with the group's dynamic. Representing three generations of Algerian women united by a common cause, they primp themselves before a mirror with an ornate gilded frame--a mirror so baroque, in fact, that we cannot help but associate it with the bourgeois opulence of First Cinema. But this sequence distinguishes itself from mirror scenes in Hollywood films--plot driven moments, generally speaking, used to emphasize a character's vanity--by depicting a subversive appropriation of the mirror as a means by which to fashion an "ideal vision" as disguise, turning the ego-libido into a weapon against itself.
As spectators, we watch these women (all non-professional actors, importantly) transform themselves into star simulacra, modeled on First Cinema's ideal woman-as-object. Cutting, dyeing, and rearranging their hair, applying make-up, trading shawls for skirts, they transition before our eyes (recalling our participation in the zoom) between not-to-be-looked-at-ness, as dictated by hijab, and what Mulvey calls to-be-looked-at-ness, as dictated by the bourgeois patriarchy. By Mulvey's estimation, First Cinema devised the star-system in order to produce ideal egos in the mold of a more perfect mirror-image; centered in narrative space and time, glamorized actors and actresses play at the roles of "ordinary" people--at once recognized and rnis-recognized by the public they allege to portray. (10)
But, as spectators, our perspective can hardly be described as centered here; instead, our focus is divided between mirror-images and the star-as-process. Our perspective can only be confused--which is to say "detached," "critical," "active." The sequence presents us with a puzzle to solve, a mess to sort out: the mess of identity itself.
By the close of the sequence the newly transfigured "stars" will pose completely still within the frame, like department-store mannequins, satirizing the woman-as-object and the male-gaze that constructs her, all in the same instant. As such, the mirror in the mise-en-scene parodies the "mirror"--the narcissistic and homogenizing Renaissance space--of First Cinema. Supplied by the camera's zoom-out and the mirror-image with a meta-perspective, we look at characters as they look at themselves and reconstitute their identities within the story (for the subversive purpose of planting bombs in European cultural spaces--a cafe, a discotheque, an airport). At the level of plot, the sequence suggests a new position for women, that of the revolutionary, a suggestion emphasized by the militaristic/nationalistic Algerian drumming on the soundtrack. At the level of shot-composition, Pontecorvo shows us how "stars" are produced, a demystification that collapses the distance between the "glamorous" and the "ordinary."
It would be a mistake to consider this sequence completely out of context, however. Doing so puts us in danger of reading the film in its entirety as a propaganda that paints revolutionaries as unambiguous heroes of the people, and their counterparts as mere automatons. Early in the film, we see how the revolution performs a "moral purification" of its own people.
In one scene, a mass of children set upon a homeless man, cleansing the movement of "bums, junkies, and whores," as prompted by its leaders. The Battle of Algiers is just as much a revolutionary how-not-to as a revolutionary how-to, incorporating dialectics into its whole narrative framework, not merely shot-by-shot. The makeover sequence itself follows on a series of plot-points in which the FLN assassinate several gendarmes, without specific provocation, and the French police retaliate by planting a bomb heart of the Casbah. These events escalate into the mass agitation depicted by the first shot in the sequence, and the "reprisal" bombing orchestrated by our "stars." Several shots leading up to the bombings in the European district include humanizing close-ups of the intended victims--whereas the Algerian victims of the initial bombing are only shown after the fact, as so many mutilated corpses. Pontecorvo only allows us to identify with innocent victims in so far as they counterbalance the narrative.
To better come to terms with Pontecorvo's critique of the star-system, let us turn for a moment to the work of another theorist. According to Benjamin, First Cinema conceived of the star-system in an attempt to reinstate the aura--the cult-value of an artwork derived from its authenticity, and rendered obsolete by its reproducibility. When the mirror-image becomes not only detachable from the mirror by means of photography, but also easily disseminated, the actor who embodies that image differs from her stage counterpart in an essential way: the film-actor's performance is mecha-nized--in actuality, a series of "test performances" before the camera, disassembled and reassembled by montage editing. Photography and film entail a technical reorganization of how we see space, and by extension, ourselves.
With the unique and unified presence of the aura destroyed by fragmentation, Hollywood reinvented celebrity and restored cult-value by erecting a cult of personality. Benjamin notes that the film industry need not depend on the star-system, that the star-system impedes us from seeing ourselves in a new light. To illustrate his point, he cites the documentation of work- processes in Soviet newsreels, (11) in which the workers portray themselves. (12) Taken a step or two further, Benjamin's theories imply that film can also document the process of starifi-cation itself.
Moreover, Benjamin's initial claim, that anyone has the right to be reproduced on film, sees an ominous reversal in a later sequence. The first Algerian woman reappears as the star in French surveillance footage recorded at a checkpoint and screened before an audience of French paratroopers (presaging the 2003 Pentagon screening in preparation for dealing with Iraqi insurgency). Her exaggerated visibility renders her quite invisible. But the question remains: does anyone retain the right not to be filmed? That this surveillance film contains a portion of the same material as the film which frames it, emphasizes the ideological adaptability of the medium. Pontecorvo essentially performs K-uleshov's experiment with a different set of variables. The meaning of any shot depends on its entire context--not only its placement in relation to other shots, but its placement before an audience. "Film makes test performances capable of being exhibited, by turninct that ability itself into a test." (13)
Watching this sequence, in other words, we take part in an experiment with the ongoing experiment in seeing-as-experiencing that constitutes Film itself. Pontecorvo draws our attention not only to how stars are produced from the raw material of ordinary people, but to how stars are framed as well, recalling Baudry, who equates the mirror's frame to the frames of the cinema. Both are narrowly circumscribed, fused with a look--whereas reality excludes nothing. Only an infinite mirror could represent reality. But then, of course it would no longer be a mirror (14) In order for a spectator to comfortably identify with a star, the star should be centered in a frame, should thereby resemble the spectator's mirror-image as per the Hollywood conventions. To frame the star (as process, as construction) within a frame creates a distance that pushes identification as recognition/ rnisrecognition to its very breaking point; the spectator may identify with the ordinariness laid bare, but also sees that ordinariness fragmented into two images, two perspectives, two spaces. If Pontecorvo achieves this effect with a single mirror, how then, might we interpret multiple mirrors?
The mise-en-scene contains no less than three mirrors, three frames--three Cinemas, if we run with the metaphor. The screen itself represents an additional surface of reflection and projection. These points of view combine to form a many-sided space. We may be tempted to relate this many-sidedness with Baudry's only stated alternative to Renaissance space: that of the ancient Greeks, for whom, according to Baudry, "space is discontinuous and heterogeneous ... corresponcl[ing] to the organization of their stage, based on a multiplicity of points of view" (15) But while this sequence certainly fabricates a G1reek space--in the many points of view that make up a collective spectatorship--just as it encapsulates a Renaissance space--reflected yet scattered across four surfaces--it represents more than a synthesis between the two. The editing, camerawork, and mise-en-scene compose a space that dialectically opposes close-up and deep focus. Pontecorvo contrives a new deep focus, a deeper deep focus--that of mice en alyme. If First Cinema presents itself as a kind of mirror, then The Battle of Algiers holds a mirror to that mirror--showing a reflection of the audience.
But the film shows the audience to itself as more than the sum of its parts: not merely individuals feeling and seeing in isolation, but a being made up of their individual bodies and eyes. What we call the audience surpasses the spectator. Which is not to imply that the audience need be comprised of more than one or two spectators, as is frequently the case these days, now that technology shrinks a movie-theater to fit in the palm of the hand. The Battle of Algierc produces an audience even from a lone spectator. It opens up a revolutionary space containing multiple perspectives, both human and mechanical, and shows how to actively, self-consciously recognize the incongruities and disunites paradoxically united within a single frame--likewise within the "self." One spectator's way of seeing actually represents a conglomeration of however many ways, some conscious, some not; the "I" sees with a thousand eyes. Multiplicities within the shot correspond to multiplicities within the audience in place before it, as members of the collective spectator-ship advocated by Solanas and Getino.
For Benjamin, as for Solanas and Getino, the reactions of an audience--laughing together, or crying together, seeing together as elements of a shared response to the action on screen--regulate each other in the collective unconscious. (16) What happens then, when a fihri like The Battle of Algiers brings the audience to collective consciousness? When "class-consciousness" can also mean the creation of a conscious class? The massive body of the audience, itself composed of numerous bodies, is imbued with a co-operative many-mindedness, which is to say, the means for political impetus. Action on screen elicits action and reaction. No longer satisfied to consume a set of meanings produced from on high, the audience can begin to produce meanings for itself. To tinker with Benjamin's phrase: at any moment, the audience is ready to become a film crew.
(1.) Solanas, Ferdinando and Getino, Octavio. "Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiences for the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World." Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. ed. Corrigan, Timothy, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011), 930.
(2.) Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility." Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. ed. Corrigan, Timothy, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011), 241.
(3.) Berger, John. Ways of Seeing (London: British Broadcasting Association and Penguin Books, 1972),16.
(4.) Solanas, Ferdinando and Getino, Octavio. "Towards a Third Cinema, 930.
(5.) Baudry, Jean-Louis. "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus." Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. ed. Corrigan, Timothy, Patricia White, and Meta Mazaj (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011), 36-7.
(6.) Ibid., 41.
(7.) Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings. ed. Corrigan, Timothy, and Meta Mazaj (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2011), 718.
(8.) Ibid., 720.
(9.) This may begin to explain why montage theory developed in Soviet Russia, where radical politics re- appropriated the religious icon in service to the avant-garde. A series of "icons" provides the basis for dialectical montage, which encourages an active spectatorship by inviting us to bridge the gaps between shots, as opposed to passively consuming a film's narrative flow. See for example the famous sequence from October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1928), in which Eisenstein undermines the Russian Orthodox faith and its traditional icons by juxtaposing a figure of Jesus with several deities taken from other pantheons; also cf. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, 1969).
(10.) Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," 718.
(11.) Including such films as Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1923). In addition to documenting the work processes of miners, manufacturers, firemen, and doctors, Vertov shows the work of the cinematographer, the editor, even the camera and the filmstrip; his aim is to make the cinematic apparatus conscious of itself.
(12.) Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," 239-41.
(13.) Ibid., 239.
(14.) Baudry, Jean-Louis. "Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus," 41.
(15.) Ibid., 37. 16 Benjamin, Walter. "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," 243.
William Repass is a recent graduate of Hendrix College, originally from Los Alamos, New Mexico. In addition to film criticism, he writes poetry and prose.
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|Title Annotation:||The Battle of Algiers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2013|
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