At a certain point in Philippine academic experience, terms like structuralism and poststructuralism and their related methodologies of semiotics and deconstruction tended to be lumped together with everything that was not “traditional,” with such contemporary Western ideas arriving in one overwhelming wave. One way of looking at this specific cultural phenomenon is in terms of how the country was caught up in the collaboration between the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and his supporters in the US political and business establishment, which in effect forced a dichotomization between the so-called forces of democracy (the pro-US and pro-Marcos sectors) and those of Communism (all anti-Marcos sectors, including pro-US oppositionists like the assassinated ex-Senator Benigno S. Aquino Jr.). Hence in terms of practicable applications, no space was allowed for anything between an orthodox Marxist position and a right-wing ideology that each defined the other – i.e., the Marxists characterizing the enemy with Mao Zhedung-inspired accusations of imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat capitalism (see Guerrero) and the Marcos regime countering that their opponents represented godlessness, political tyranny, and economic stagnation.
The February 1986 “people-power” revolt that ousted Marcos and installed Aquino’s widow Corazon in his stead provided sufficient leeway for most sociocultural critics and academicians (who were mostly the same individuals) to update themselves on trends and developments in Western cultural and critical theory. Hence the initial split between the “old” circles of classicalists and formalists and the “new” ones of neomarxists and cultural-studies advocates, including structuralists and poststructuralists, with a number of social-realist practitioners finding themselves within either the “new” group or neither of the two. The distinctions between the structuralist and poststructuralist schools in the Philippine experience, however, emerged only during the early 1990s, with film critics divided between those who utilized recognizably structuralist principles in their use of semiotics and genre criticism, and those who deliberately formed an organization to announce their engagement in what they termed was a “deconstructionist project,” which resulted in a full-blown media controversy with the (presumably) structuralists and social realists aligned with artists against the deconstructionists.
The value of looking into the shifts in methods from structuralism to poststructuralism within this specific cultural moment lies in how one may relate the salient elements of these ideas within a new situation, inspecting these in terms of both the demands of the situation as well as the effectiveness of the methods in their original contexts of emergence. In terms of the larger “cultural studies” grouping, Ferdinand de Saussure is acknowledged as having laid the groundwork with his theory of language, primarily with the compilation of his lectures in Course in General Linguistics (Turner 13); Hodge and Kress include C.S. Peirce and Sigmund Freud (Social Semiotics 14-15), but nevertheless still begin with Saussure, whose contributions include the concept of the arbitrariness of signs, the construction of “value” by semantic oppositions (or binary principles), the recognition of syntagmatic and paradigmatic structures in a code, and the assertion that transformations in structures and relations are derived from material and social life (Saussure 21-35). Saussure maintains that writing “exists for the sole purpose of representing speech” and that “spoken forms alone constitute the object” of linguistics as science (23-24), in effect giving priority to spoken forms over written forms, as well as to language over speech, since language can supposedly become the object of scientific inquiry due to its being a closed system. He concludes that “the statement that everything in language is negative is true only if the signified and the signifier are considered separately; when we consider the sign in its totality, we have something that is positive in its own class” (120). This view provided a vital backbone of semiotic structuralist theory, which balanced the potentially upsetting acceptance of the instability of meaning with the retroversion toward an essential center in the nature of the sign itself, after signifier and signified had been matched.
Using these ideas introduced by the so-called founding fathers of semiotics, Hodge and Kress managed to come up with what they considered a more enabling deployment of semiotic principles, first in “Functional Semiotics” and then in Social Semiotics. These applications, however, have as few things in common with poststructuralism as much as they do with structuralism, so it might be more appropriate to look into Hodge and Kress’s ideas after a consideration of deconstruction. Norris traces the roots of the latter practice also to structuralism, as well as New Criticism (v-vi), mentioning such philosophers as Saussure, Immanuel Kant, and Roland Barthes during the latter’s poststructuralist phase. The main proponent of deconstruction is Jacques Derrida, who first gained prominence as a critic of structuralism, and specifically of Saussure’s book. Derrida centered his critique on Saussure’s hierarchization of speech/writing as reflecting a “metaphysics of presence” (Writing and Difference 279), bearing no difference with the relegation of writing to a secondary position relative to spoken forms as observed by philosophers from Plato onward. The word phonocentrism was what Derrida used to refer to the supposition permeating Western philosophy premised on an illusion of the hierarchy “hearing/understanding-oneself-speak,” although he also conceded the usefulness of Saussure’s formulation of the language/speech hierarchy (279). Derrida, however, argued that the very practice of writing itself abides by Saussure’s assertion – i.e., that the written mark differs only in being inscribed in more durable substance:
If writing signifies inscription and especially the durable institution of a sign … [then] writing in general covers the entire field of linguistic signs. In that field a certain sort of instituted signifier may then appear, “graphic” in the narrow and derivative sense of the word, ordered by a certain relationship with other instituted – hence “written,” even if they are “phonic” – signifiers. (Of Grammatology 44)
After reversing Saussure’s original hierarchy, Derrida advances to the next, wherein he expounds on the nature of the semiotic sign:
whether in the order of spoken or written discourse, no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present. This interweaving results in each element, whether phoneme [spoken] or grapheme [written] – being constituted on the basis of the trace within it of the other elements of the chain or system. (Positions 26)
This, per Derrida, is différance, “a structure and a movement no longer conceivable on the basis of the opposition presence/absence” (27), which is ignored by phonocentric thought in its insistence upon the self-presence of the spoken word. Différance in effect exposes the continual drive to privilege presence and therefore conceive of meaning as positively present within language – a tendency which Derrida labeled logocentrism, which may be simplified as the desire, perpetrated by Western philosophy, for a structuralist center (Anderson 141).
Although he also critiqued the structuralist position of another theorist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Derrida acknowledges that the latter was “working toward deconstruction” (Writing and Difference 286) because of his reliance on inherited conceptual oppositions and his prescription of a so-called hermeneutic aimed at decentering such oppositions. In this respect he cites Lévi-Strauss’s discontent (which he shared, of course) with the concept of the structuralist center, premised on its delimitation and arrest of “play,” which operates prior to the presence/absence opposition as well as the possibility of center or structure (Barthes 144). Derrida’s dissatisfaction with logocentrism takes shape in his formulation of a violent hierarchy, differentiated from the binary opposition utilized by the structuralists in that it involves the coupling of two concepts, one (“a”) supposedly the origin of or superior to the related other (“b”), expressed in the relation “a/b.” In a strictly schematical manner, the process of deconstruction proceeds by first reversing violent-hierarchical terms; the new relation in turn should be seen as begetting its own instability, thereby rendering futile the hierarchization project and leading to an inspection of further hierarchies as provoked or implied by the negation. Derrida himself cautions that “to remain in this phase [of the reversal of the violent hierarchy as expressed in its original formulation] is still to operate on the terrain of and from within the deconstructed system,” necessitating an interminable process of deconstructing whatever new relations may develop, since “the hierarchy of dual oppositions always establishes itself” (Positions 42).
In relating deconstruction to the structuralist project, however, Eagleton points out that the former
has grasped the point that the binary oppositions with which classical structuralism tends to work represent a way of seeing typical of ideologies…. The tactic of deconstructive criticism … is to show how texts come to embarrass their own ruling systems of logic; and deconstruction shows this by fastening on the “symptomatic” points, the aporia or impasses of meaning, where texts get into trouble, come unstuck, offer to contradict themselves. (133-34)
Eagleton provides a striking historical background for poststructuralism in general in his tracing of its emergence to the short-lived euphoria and long-term disillusionment that attended the momentary triumph and eventual collapse in 1968 of the student movement in Europe. Using France as his locus of inspection, he reports that,
Unable to provide a coherent political leadership, plunged into a confused mêlée of socialism, anarchism and infantile behind-baring, the student movement was rolled back and dissipated; betrayed by their supine Stalinist leaders, the working-class movement was unable to assume power…. Unable to break the structures of state power, poststructuralism found it possible instead to subvert the structures of language. (141-42)
As in the case of semiotics, several other authors discovered, partly from examples provided by Derrida himself, that the principles of deconstruction (actually poststructuralism in a larger sense) had been propounded by a number of estimable forerunners. These include Nietzsche, who in his theory of rhetoric had stated that language, in a categorical rupture, is first consciously conceived of as always, at once, and originally figural or rhetorical, rather than referential or representational – in short, no primordial or unrhetorical language exists. Rhetoricity, which is language’s most distinctive feature, necessarily undermines truth and “opens up vertiginous possibilities of referential aberration,” thus turning the linguistic sign into the site of ambivalent and problematic relations between referential and figural meaning (de Man 10). This antedates the Saussurean principle of the instability of the relations between the elements of the sign, and in fact prefigures Derrida’s idea of a floating signifier (as against structuralism’s sliding signifieds), wherein meaning can never ever really be established. Another philosopher, Heidegger, was supposedly more inclined toward a related activity, destructive hermeneutics, wherein a critic opens the text, inquires into it through time, disarticulates its spatial point of view, and brings into the open the indefinite or vague insights into being that lie hidden in tradition – or the reenactment of the truth of being in an activity of retrieval or repetition, called Wiederholen (Leitch 69-83 passim); a distinction in this regard can and needs to be made between the destructive Heidegger and the deconstructive one upheld by Derrida. American practitioners, especially de Man, have avoided issues of ontology and metaphysics, restricting themselves to close textual analysis; by this means they also manage to avoid claims of situating grammar and rhetoric at the site of the beginning of being and presence. As far as they can make out, only implication persists, resulting in the articulation of ideas while (not before or after) texts are being read (Eagleton 145). Although the Yale-based deconstructionists started out by reacting to their own practice of New Criticism, Derrida has complained that their usage promotes an institutional closure which serves the dominant political and economic interests of the US (Eagleton 148). As Eagleton further qualifies,
Derrida is clearly out to do more than develop new techniques of reading: deconstruction is for him an ultimately political practice, an attempt to dismantle the logic by which a particular system of thought, and behind that a whole system of political structures and social institutions, maintains its force…. The widespread opinion that deconstruction denies the existence of anything but discourse, or affirms a realm of pure difference in which all meaning and identity dissolves, is a travesty of Derrida’s own work and of the most productive work which has followed from it. (148)
In problematizing the activity of deconstruction, various writers have admitted to further problematics. Norris banks on the view of Ludwig Wittgenstein that “such skeptical philosophies of language rest at bottom on a false epistemology, one that seeks (and inevitably fails) to discover some logical correspondence between language and the world” (Norris 126). He also points to objections “from within,” in Harold Bloom’s response to skepticism by insisting on a persuasive will, and in Murray Krieger and Gerald Graff’s allegation of the similarity between the methods of deconstruction and New Criticism – objections that Norris himself admits were “ephemeral and fruitless,” echoing as they did the initial resistance to structuralism in America (127-31). Yet whether one opts to search for a further alternative to deconstruction, or to remain within the framework of the theory, accepting the (entirely unsatisfactory) alternatives it generates from within the text, one must agree with Norris that
deconstructionist theory can only be as useful and enlightening as the mind that puts it to work…. Deconstruction has marked out a new domain of argument for the age-old quarrel between “literature” and “philosophy.” The claims of analysis have never been pressed so far…. Nor has criticism ever taken on such courage, intellectual and stylistic, in asserting its claim as a self-respecting discipline of thought. To ignore that claim is to close one’s mind to something other, and more, than a short-lived swing of critical fashion. (132)
In terms of application to popular culture, it may be useful to consider Eagleton’s qualifications about the appropriateness of poststructuralism within primarily its originative context. The total negation of a structuralist center may prove appropriate to a national situation wherein political structures, including progressive ones, may have attained a degree of stability strong enough to withstand thoroughgoing critical revaluation. No matter how shot through with cynicism the deconstructionist approach regards such fixed loci of ideologies and organizations, the fact remains that such institutions may still be in place, imbued with historical experience, and (at least hypothetically) can be seized, reoriented, and mobilized for certain, if possibly always limited, ends of social change. In the Philippines, with its undeniably Third-World economy, the differences between, say, Heideggerian destruction and Derridean deconstruction may still be applicable for superstructural purposes, but may perhaps prove too subtle or sophisticated for materialist realities. In short, a truly deconstructive political methodology may prove useful to a certain extent, but one would wonder what kind of progressive build-up would be possible if new structures – whether of thinking or of action – would be subjected to deconstructive demolition in order to arrive at the next, essentially still deconstructible stage of development.
Perhaps a combination of poststructuralist creativity and structuralist caution might be one logical way out of this quandary. One could apply the basic analytical tools of pinpointing existing binary oppositions as representing violent hierarchies, reversing these relations, negating the hierarchies and seeking or establishing new ones in their stead – then call for a truce, a necessarily temporary one, for the purpose of allowing the new contradictions to work on whatever historical errors can be rectified as well as permitting as large as possible a sector of the populace to catch up with the “developments,” with as wide a reader-response base as possible serving as the ideal for discursive participation. This ought to tie in with the other problematics of Philippine popular culture, especially the tendency toward a Metro Manila-based centralism and the limited effectiveness of critical activity. The first problem requires solutions which lately have started to be explored – i.e., regional and international expansions, both of which are generating new problematics of their own. At this point, however, too strong a critical condemnation of as-yet developing outreaches may simply result in a collapse of such efforts and lead back to a possibly even stronger metropolitan hold on cultural consciousness; this is not the same as stating that all expansive efforts should be encouraged regardless of their perceived worthiness, but that the ideal of decentralization should take precedence as a controlling vision, at least for the moment.
The problem of critical effectiveness may be seen in terms of the Filipino public’s selective preference for some media over others, and in their responsiveness toward some forms of evaluation over the rest. To use certain concrete examples, Filipinos it seems would rather pay attention to developments in mainstream cinema and popular music than to occurrences in, say, literature, theater, the visual arts, even alternative music and independent filmmaking; within their preferred media of expression, they would also rather observe press wars and awards nights (which sometimes amount to the same thing) than, say, read books or critical articles, even if these deal with exactly the same products. Hence critical practice has to be organized if it intends to respond to these challenges; it must assume an ethical purpose – provisional at best, subject to continual assessment – that draws on historical precedents and relies on institutional alliances whenever possible, for the purposes of maximizing visibility and assisting marginalized critical and artistic practitioners; it may have to indulge in award-giving as a strategic option, seeking ways and means to nudge the concept toward authentic and recognizable critical expression. All these activities may be regarded as having benefited from deconstructionist principles, but only to the extent of plowing the lessons back into grounds for more fertile political practice. Once all this becomes standardized critical procedure – a pipe dream for any Filipino critic, at this point – then it may be time once more to unsheathe, as it were, the scalpel of deconstruction for further (and, one would hope, radical) critical surgery.
Anderson, Danny J. “Deconstruction: Critical Strategy/Strategic Criticism.” Ed. G. Douglas Atkins and Laura Morrow. Contemporary Literary Theory. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. 137-57.
Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Noonday, 1972.
De Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri C. Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.
———. Positions. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
———. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.
Guerrero, Amado [pseud.]. Philippine Society and Revolution. 1970. Hong Kong: Ta Kung Pao, 1971.
Hodge, Robert, and Gunther Kress. “Functional Semiotics: Key Concepts for the Analysis of Media, Culture and Society.” Australian Journal of Cultural Studies 1.1 (1983): 1-15.
———. Social Semiotics. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.
Leitch, Vincent B. Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.
Norris, Christopher. The Deconstructive Turn: Essays in the Rhetoric of Philosophy. London: Methuen, 1983.
Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.
Turner, Graeme. British Cultural Studies: An Introduction. New York: Routledge, 1992.
The study of movement in cinema is fraught with the formalist associations that were originally laid out by critical projects in classical film theory. Signification itself carried over as a primary concern in semiotic structuralism (Williams 37), but the relative recency of poststructuralist thinking tends to induce a defensiveness in this type of undertaking. This essay presumes the possibility of a contemporary conceptual insertion in structuralism, and admits to an intention of valorizing its findings as an exception to the current dehierarchization of film structure as a vital component of understanding the sociopolitical importance of the medium. Michéle Barrett, in “The Place of Aesthetics in Marxist Criticism,” critiqued the stunting of aesthetic discourse brought about by the combination of the concepts of ideology and rejection of the subject (698-702), and argued that distantiation from the mystique of art can actually be facilitated by aesthetic theorizing, as suggested by Max Raphael, through the democratizing effect of emphasizing skills and the process of conceptual reconstitution (702-04).
The aforementioned dismissal of formal, and specifically structural, explorations into cinema can be traced to the failure of efforts to harness film form for purposes of social action. Of special interest, for linguistic reasons that will be explained later, is the account of social realism, which had purported to induce a “movement,” as it were, from film form to social thematics to progressive political action, especially in its institutionalized manifestations (Sklar 169). Perhaps the predicament in the social realist project can be literalized by imagining a trajectory from the material vehicle (film in this case) to materialist results (politics), mediated by an ideological shift from passive acceptance (of both the entertainment and the prevailing political condition) to active resistance. It is this last element that may be seen as the site of deconstructive aporia: it isn’t so much the entertainment that was expected to be rejected, but rather the spectator’s oppressive situation; in this regard, the film in question was expected to function as an abstract equivalent of the catapult – indeed, this was consonant with the machinistic implications of the Soviets’ constructivist manifestos (Christie 4). The emphasis placed on easily apprehensible film texts by the policies of socialist realism made all the more obvious the requisite upward linearity that would facilitate a hurling of the viewer’s sentiments toward a drive for social change.
What matters for purposes of this study is not so much the direction of the social-realist narrative trajectory as the fact that it had to be linear. The complexity of social formations, within the social-realist framework, lay outside the film text itself; the latter was to serve as merely the catalyst toward behavioral change, or perhaps at most the explicator of what would be a supposedly more (complexly) real social situation following the viewing experience. Concomitant with this requisite would be the imperative of viewer identification, which would observe a similar principle of lesser is better: one character could stand by (usually) himself, or could allow the presence of an antagonist or a non-/romantic interest (as in buddy/girlfriend) or both (in the same personage or in different ones), but with the narrative eventually collapsing onto still a primary individual subject.
Such a policy predominated mainstream film practice through the classical Hollywood narrative tradition, even during the modernist phase in theater and literature where such conventions were being challenged. The issue in analyzing how Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel, for example, pares down its initial proliferation of dramatis personae to the question of what effect Baron von Geigern (John Barrymore) would have on Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) and Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) is not so much whether such an eventual conventionalization was integral to the original theatrical source but whether the play would have been adapted, and in such a manner, if such a conventionalization were either absent or impossible to expedite. The deemphasis on number of characters actually served to maximize a device drawn from theater and literature – i.e., characterization; in fact, with the rejection of linearity in European avant-garde and New Wave film movements later, one means used by filmmakers to sustain identificatory viewership impulses was the conscious deployment of characterization, whether in the outward objectification exemplified on one extreme by documentary practice, or in the inward subjectivities made possible through the appropriation of literary principles of stream-of-consciousness.
From the foregoing historicizing the problematic can be suggested of whether a social formation, or its equivalent, can be engendered within the film text itself. The distinguishable expository portion of Grand Hotel advances a possible model, with its reliance on the synchronic potential (in the Saussurean sense) of the narrative rather than on its diachronic properties. However, with such an appropriation since then of the formula in community-set films (usually serving as teen-idol vehicles), the protagonist-with-romantic interest model or the Grand Hotel-type love-triangle model tended to prevail; the 1970s saw an even more patriarchally governable model in the disaster movie, which proffered a cast of characters whose ages averaged beyond teenhood and who usually relied on a similarly middle-aged white male hero for salvation (Ryan and Kellner 52-57).
It was also during the 1970s that Robert Altman initiated a series of investigations into the nature of film sound via his Lion’s Gate system, that resulted in an aural equivalent of deep focus – i.e., with several types of sounds recognizable one from the other yet simultaneously presentable to the spectator. With the subvention of the multiple-character exposition throughout the whole film, complemented by the placement of a community, so to speak, of characters (rather than characters with objects or just objects alone) in deep focus and their simultaneous delivery of dialog on the soundtrack, what became a critically heralded culmination was his mid-’70s release, Nashville. In this particular instance, movement from film form to theme was facilitated ironically by the inevitable weakening of classical character development: in order to present what the film claimed was twenty-four (possibly even twenty-five, if one were to include the orally ubiquitous Hal Philip Walker) characters within the standard mainstream maximum of two hours, none of the characters was as fully developed as “character” in the classical sense, although most of them were successful as types. Such an absence of “full” dramatic involvement, intensified by the constant shifting of identification from one character to another, makes possible the configuration of a social formation – in fact, a social character – within the diegesis itself. Movement in this respect could be plotted out as proceeding from a number of dramatic lines of action predicated on individual characters, with the said lines converging in the end not in any of the diegetic characters, but in the abstract character suggested by the geographic designation of the title “Nashville.”
In “Can People Be (Re)Presented in Fiction?,” Darko Suvin enumerates characters, types, and actants as the three kinds of agential levels in narrative craft (679, 686). Characters interrelate dialectically with the historical concepts of types and developed along with capitalist notions of property, money economy, etc.; they once broke through hierarchies and dogmas but do not suffice anymore in depicting contemporary corporative individualities, and in effect they tend to engender new monopolistic and stereotypical production (688). Stanley Cavell in “Types” goes further by upholding the use of types in cinema on the premise that the medium creates not (real) individuals, but individualities (297-99). Within the concerns of such a film sample as Nashville, however, what might be said is not that no room exists for characterization whatsoever, but that such a preoccupation, although possible given lesser major types and/or longer running time, would still be secondary to the conveyance of the social milieu-as-character. As with any structuralist device, there also would be the danger of recuperation, particularly in the manner by which the abstract character “Nashville” can be forced to observe the impositions of not just Aristotelian formalism but ideological containment as well within terms similar to that of capitulation in innovation described by Barbara Klinger in “‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited” (87-89).
At this point it may be pertinent to the definition of the multiple-character format to ask just how many subjects would define a presentation as multiple. Granting the twin assumptions of each character having separate but equal importance and engendering competing imperatives of spectatorial identification, it would be possible to center on a minimum of three (one being traditional, two possibly dialectical but not literally “social”). In the instance of Nashville, however, the mere arrival at the minimum of three major characters reveals a more complex social operation at play. One might triangulate, for example, among Triplett (Michael Murphy), Linnea (Lily Tomlin), and Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) by observing how Linnea’s life gets affected by Triplett’s attempt to mount a concert which in turn results in Barbara Jean’s death, but the movie neither presents their interaction according to this formulation nor isolates them in such a way as to make possible this schematization. In fact, a more accurate rendition would be to see how the other characters, even if we grant them a stature minor compared to these three, still manage to mediate among the relations of these major ones: between Linnea and Triplett come Linnea’s husband Delbert (Ned Beatty), who helps Triplett while neglecting his own family; between Triplett and Barbara Jean come her manager Barnett (Allen Garfield), who resists the former’s attempts to include her in his concert but who gets manipulated into acceding by force of circumstance. Between Barbara Jean and Linnea there exists a more complicated link provided by Connie White (Karen Black), Barbara Jean’s rival, and Tom (Keith Carradine), Linnea’s extramarital fling; although both are recording stars, it is possible to link Connie White with Barnett (who has to both thank her and appease Barbara Jean in the process) and Tom with Delbert, who provides Triplett with the opening by which to convince him (Tom) to attend Hal Philip Walker’s rally by denigrating country-music performers. What this results in is a second order of character interaction that may turn out to be just as self-sufficient as the original threesome – and one can further extend this exercise into a multi-faceted foregrounding and reforegrounding of groups of characters, three at the least in each instance.
Although considerations of compositions and sound-mixings in perspectival depth were crucial to the execution of such a structure, film editing may play a more consequential role beyond the limits of Eisensteinian montage, described by V.F. Perkins as defining rhythm according to shot length rather than visual content (410). For such internal discursive purposes, editing can be linked with the concept of figuration – the moments in a text when the audience itself actively generates meaning (Andrew 158-59). Fredric Jameson in “Cognitive Mapping” identifies figuration with representation, attributing its spatial properties with the stages in the development of capital and proposing that spatial analysis be extrapolated as both imaginary representation and aesthetic necessity (348-51, 353). The multiple-character format as exemplified in Nashville enhances this potential with its devaluation of inanimate objects (or plastic subjects) and their replacement with active human figures, thus defining the social environment according to social subjects rather than, say, industrial conditions as in the case of film noir or gothic atmospherics in the case of horror.
It therefore becomes possible to further analyze signification by distinguishing between formation of meaning and the generation of discourse, with meaning residing in the individual subject’s presentation and discursive potential arising from the simultaneous appearance (and delivery of dialog) of discrete subjects, as well as in shifts in identification from one subject to another. Since these latter shifts tend to occur much more often as a matter of principle (what with the need to “cover” more characters), the impetus toward abstractification, or moments of figuration, becomes a controlling practice for active viewership. Perhaps one way of illustrating this principle is the means by which still-shot B&W films from the 1960s like Chris Marker’s La jetée, Nagisa Ôshima’s Yunbogi no nikki, or Michael Snow’s One Second in Montreal enable the provocation of responses by precisely refusing to encode their meanings in onscreen motion but “move” anyway from one shot to the next: the absence of literalized signification is irrupted by the sudden transitions – sheer jump-cutting, so to speak – that suggest meanings but leave the spectator to fill in the discursive spaces.
David Mickelsen in “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative” echoes the Saussurean axiom in observing that emphasis on “spatial form minimizes the temporal dimension” (67). He further postulates degrees of spatiality according to the usual deployment of “leitmotifs or extended webs of interrelated images,” the use of the “multiple story…. [to] force the reader to cope with simultaneous actions,” and, in its “true” form, the elimination or at least severe attenuation of chronology (69). The limits of Mickelsen’s formulation can be seen in his hierarchization of narrative focus upward from individual to society to style (70-72). His donnée, however, can also be separated from the present study by virtue of its formal particularization in the novel rather than in film, evident in his critique of the “multiple story” as “eroding temporal progress and replacing it with a more static entity” (68) – a property overridden by the constant time-based unfolding of the film text. In “Spatial Form” Joseph Frank notes that “Temporality becomes … a purely physical limit of apprehension, which conditions but does not determine the work and whose expectations are thwarted and superseded by the space-logic of synchronicity” (207), referring to, apart from Eisensteinian montage, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s assertion of “the present of the indicative” as the only single grammatical modality available to cinema (210).
As critical tool, the multiple-character format may mirror the precepts of semiotic structuralism, as already explained, but it also facilitates an advancement toward poststructural areas via genre discourse. Whether the format in itself is a genre yields ambivalent responses, outside of Andrew Tudor’s empiricist dilemma in “Genre and Critical Methodology” of the need of requiring proof of the existence of certain criteria but with such criteria requiring derivation from already existing entries (121). With Nashville as an archetypal sample, one can say both that its structural describability lends itself to generic codification, but that such a formally derived criterion as film structure also tends to diffuse the format’s generic stability: as an actual example, Nashville itself has been classified in separate volumes by the National Society of Film Critics as either a comedy (see Byron) or a musical (“Genre Classics” 350). Opposing, say, style to structure, one can also witness differences between films noirs and musicals in the first instance and, more important, how such structure-dependent genres as melodramas and documentaries could be more closely related to Nashville.
The most obvious conclusion here, one that may be granted for purposes of advancing this essay’s argument further, is that Nashville’s exemplification, exceptional though it may be, renders the multiple-character format more of a super- or meta-genre, or perhaps a specific and specialized instance of what Adam Knee in his essay has labeled “The Compound Genre Film.” Knee characterizes the compound genre as one that “concurrently engages multiple distinct and relatively autonomous horizons of generic expectation” (141), but his categorization allows for more postmodern slippages among various generic approaches rather than the underlying structural preconditions typifying the multiple-character film format. One way of conflating the super-generic nature of Nashville with Knee’s compound-genre specificities is suggested in the fissures that occur when individual characters appear to depart from the uneasy norm of dominant libertarian values espoused, if one may resort to anthropomorphism, by the social character: Barbara Jean, for example, could be seen as embodying tragedy, Sueleen Gay (the untalented singer) tragicomedy, Opal (the BBC twit) comedy, Kenny Fraiser (the assassin) suspense, and so on. No doubt these internal generic distinctions could be made to surface by stronger stylistic differentiations (thus enabling the association of each character with a generic motif), but this also serves to demonstrate the means by which the format itself could advance in the permutational sense.
In closing it might be interesting to consider just how political this type of film format could get. Pier Paolo Pasolini in “The Cinema of Poetry” stressed that the discursive potential of film would be directly metaphorical (549-50), while Christian Metz in “Current Problems of Film Theory” modifies this insight by saying that filmic metaphors are actually metonymic, each diegetic element symbolizing the whole of its context and playing on forms of contiguity within the same figure (578). Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner push this difference to an extreme by claiming that metaphor and metonymy are related filmic rhetorical strategies, with the former referring to the vertical/idealizing axis of presentation and the latter, the horizontal/materializing (and therefore more politically useful) axis (312-13). Not surprisingly, it is Ryan and Kellner who give critical prominence to Nashville for its tendency to materialize (rather than idealize) in its refusal to collapse into the singular hero or binary hero-antihero modes of presentation. In the end, however, their argument falls into the trap of structural fetishism by adding to the multiple-character property such other traits as open-endedness, distantiation, generic playfulness, and demythologization within mainstream film undertakings (269-82) – all this right after clarifying that
the criterion for judging such matters should be pragmatic, one that measures the progressive character of a text according to how well it accomplishes its task in specific contexts of reception. What counts as progressive varies with time and situation, and what works in one era or context might fail in another. Moreover, the notion of progressive is always differentially or relationally determined. (268)
This results in their enforcement of a contrast between two other multiple-character samples (which they label “group” films) that came out during the early 1980s, John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill, as possessing differing progressive values despite their being consciously on the same subject of yuppie-era post-radicalism. Ryan and Kellner’s utilization of formalist criteria to make politicized pronouncements – Sayles’s film is decentralized and open-ended and therefore progressive while Kasdan’s is focused on a single character and resolves in an “extreme narrative closure” and is therefore reactionary (277-79) – not only elicits differences that elide the more striking structural similarities between the two projects, but also demonstrates the limits of investing formal devices with political capabilities – a return to social realism with the violent hierarchy of classicism over modernism reversed rather than eliminated this time around.
The multiple-character format cannot be granted, by itself or in combination with other devices, political valuations; with sufficiently creative usage, it enables the showcasing within the filmic diegesis of a distinctive social milieu, which in itself may or may not be “progressive” in political terms. Altman himself returned to it every so often, most recently with Short Cuts, but the reason why Nashville remains a cut above the rest (of his oeuvre, at least) has to do with vision, empathy, conviction, and a number of other factors that happened to have had the unique historical advantage of converging within a structural approach that allowed the movement of socially unaware fictive subjects within and in relation to their specific social context with their clarity and strength and passion intact and manifest enough for the spectator to constructively and constructionally draw from.
Altman, Robert, dir. Nashville. Scr. Joan Tewkesbury. American Broadcasting Co. & Paramount Pictures, 1975.
———, dir. Short Cuts. Scr. Frank Barhydt and Robert Altman. Gary Brokaw/Avenue Pictures & Spelling Films International, 1994.
Andrew, Dudley. Concepts in Film Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Barrett, Michèle. “The Place of Aesthetics in Marxist Criticism.” Nelson and Grossberg 697-713.
Byron, Stuart, ed. The National Society of Film Critics on Movie Comedy. New York: Grossman, 1977.
Cavell, Stanley. “Types; Cycles as Genres.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Braudy. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 294-99.
Christie, Ian. “Soviet Cinema: A Heritage and Its History.” Introduction. The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents. Trans. Richard Taylor. Ed. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie. Cambridge: Harvard University P, 1988. 1-17.
Frank, Joseph. “Spatial Form: Thirty Years After.” Smitten and Daghistany 202-43.
“Genre Classics.” They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres (A National Society of Film Critics Video Guide). Ed. Richard T. Jameson. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1994. 347-54.
Goulding, Edmund, dir. Grand Hotel. Scr. William A. Drake (based on the novel by Vicki Baum and adapted for the stage by Max Reinhardt). MGM, 1933.
Jameson, Fredric. “Cognitive Mapping.” Nelson and Grossberg 347-57, Discussion 358-60.
Kasdan, Lawrence, dir. The Big Chill. Scr. Barbara Benedek and Lawrence Kasdan. Columbia Pictures, Carson Productions Group, & Columbia – Delphi Films, 1983.
Klinger, Barbara. “‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited: The Progressive Genre.” Film Genre Reader. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. 74-90.
Knee, Adam. “The Compound Genre Film: Billy the Kid Versus Dracula Meets The Harvey Girls.” Intertextuality in Literature and Film: Selected Papers From the Thirteenth Annual Florida State University Conference on Literature and Film. Ed. Elaine D. Cancalon and Antoine Spacagna. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. 141-56.
Marker, Chris, dir. and scr. La jetée. Argos Films & RTF, 1962.
Metz, Christian. “Current Problems of Film Theory: Mitry’s L’esthétique et psychologie du cinéma, vol. II.” Trans. Diana Matias. Nichols 568-78.
Mickelsen, David. “Types of Spatial Structure in Narrative.” Smitten and Daghistany 63-78.
Nelson, Cary, and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988.
Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976.
Ôshima, Nagisa, dir. and scr. Yunbogi no nikki. Sozosha, 1965.
Pasolini, Pier Paolo. “The Cinema of Poetry.” Trans. Marianne de Vettimo and Jacques Bontemps. Nichols 542-58.
Perkins, V.F. “A Critical History of Early Film Theory.” Nichols 401-22.
Ryan, Michael, and Douglas Kellner. Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.
Sayles, John, dir. and scr. Return of the Secaucus Seven. Salsipuedes Productions, 1980.
Sklar, Robert. Film: An International History of the Medium. New York: Abrams, 1993.
Smitten, Jeffrey R., and Ann Daghistany, eds. Spatial Form in Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
Snow, Michael, dir. and scr. One Second in Montreal. Michael Snow, 1968-69.
Suvin, Darko. “Can People Be (Re)Presented in Fiction?: Toward a Theory of Narrative Agents and a Materialist Critique Beyond Technocracy or Reductionism.” Nelson and Grossberg 663-96.
Tudor, Andrew. “Genre and Critical Methodology.” Nichols 118-26.
Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Postmodernism, during its early introductory phase, was seen as a means by which marginal groups could enable themselves in deconstructing, at least theoretically, structures oppressive to their existence – inclusive of literary and cultural canons, if not the act of canon-formation itself (Harper 4-5). Only later would the theoretical dilemma emerge of there being no center, where loci of power tend to be invested with the same significance as those of the margins (in a relation of interdependence – Harper 16), and would thereby negate the need not just for scholarly destruction (a notion contrasted with deconstruction) but also for institutional dismantling. Within a life-or-death issue such as the HIV epidemic, for example, activist movements, in giving voice and support through government funding to gay men, have largely neglected (predominantly lower-class) non-gay drug users and non-white gay men, thus pointing up the nature of American institutional biases (Dada 86).
Critical perspectives on postmodernism proceed from the issue of the artificiality of constructed boundaries. Hence the principle of synchronicity, manifested in literary applications through the reiterability of certain forms and practices that just-as-insistently undergo shifts and transformations in their transitions from one sociocultural context to another, has become one of the central concerns in postmodernist controversies. Just as emblem theorizing has recognized that what is depicted means more than it portrays, yet that the originary classical texts function differently for latter-day readers (Daly 38-39), the condition of literariness has maintained the anchoring of generic forms in socio-historical processes; equally important, for purposes of this essay’s discussion, is the fact that “a dominant ideology and hegemony … is the project of the literary performance to unveil and perhaps overflow” (Bolongaro 305).
The coexistence of irresolveable differences has applied to what would once have been opposed to the ideal of literariness itself – i.e., the literary genre. In The Political Unconscious, Fredric Jameson characterized genre as consisting further of the irreconcilable properties of modality on the one hand and fixed form on the other, or a tension between the semantic and the structural respectively (108-09). His proposed manner of resolving this binary was to allow structural analysis to open out onto
the semantic raw materials of social life and language, the constraints of determinate social contradictions, the conjunctures of social class, the historicity of structures of feeling and perception and ultimately of bodily experience, the constitution of the psyche or subject, and the dynamics and specific temporal rhythms of historicity. (147)
Elsewhere, in Signatures of the Visible, Jameson invokes Pierre Bourdieu in ascribing to a “‘legitimation crisis’ in the Hollywood aesthetic” the cause of what he termed “the end of genre” in film (182), as a result of the twin consequences of rationalizing aesthetic activity and consumption as well as the privileging by classes in power of the prerogative of defining and imposing aesthetic concepts in cinema. This essay, however, is of the view that, while Jameson’s pessimistic viewpoint would be crucial to an understanding of the limits faced by the politicization of genre discourse, it would be even less productive to abandon the politicizing project altogether. A measure of encouragement can in fact be drawn from Simon During’s critique of the application of dialectical principles to postmodernity, in that
as soon as one allows the notion of the “positive” or “progressive” to reappear in analysis, the object one has in view is not postmodernity but a stage on the historical journey to the light…. In order to name postmodernity as a cultural dominant expressing itself in postmodern artifacts Jameson has to assume the coming to power of neo-imperialism, and to inflect postmodernity positively he has, for a moment, to become complicit with it. (451)
A different way of expressing this predicament, from the position of the marginalized sectors referred to earlier, would be in the arrival of postmodernism and its message of the inevitable futility of radical action just when the marginalized themselves had managed to acquire the realization and means through and within modernism to effect institutional change (Lovibond 394).
As a US film produced during the 1980s, Near Dark can be appreciated in terms of these particular junctures in postmodern discourse. In the volume From My Guy to Sci-Fi, Carolyn Brown’s essay “Feminist Literary Strategies in the Postmodern Condition” notes that as a result of feminist literary and cultural efforts, a multiplication of histories and narratives has formed part of the postmodern dissolution of history (114). In further particularizing what may be termed postmodern literariness, Leslie Dick in her essay “Feminism, Writing, Postmodernism” in the same volume suggests three indicators of postmodern texts: they challenge the modernist high-low polarity, they use strategies of plunder and purloinment, and they exhibit an anti-purist, mixed media, or hybrid approach (206). In these terms, Dick positions genre products on the lower end of the high-low spectrum (where the higher end would be equivalent to the ideal of literariness) because they discard originality as final measure of value. Moreover, she associates genre appreciation with subcultures and notes that, since genres tie in with institutions, they tend to rigidify, sediment, or collapse onto themselves. The two ways out she proposes are either to revive the generic institution (as Francis Ford Coppola did with the vampire film in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) or to extract its forms without getting involved in it (207-09).
It is this second option that provides the focus of this essay. The notion I would like to develop is that of Near Dark as a sample of not just the extraction of generic forms, but their admixture in two opposite directions: one would be complementary, in that the result (on the bases of both critical and commercial responses) has turned out to be pleasurably cohesive; the other would be collisional, in that detectable in the finished product is a disturbing and urgent ideologically discursive undercurrent. Ostensibly a vampire film, Near Dark also exhibits elements that are associated with action films, specifically gangster and Western films, as well as with family and young-adult melodrama and with the horror film’s slasher/stalker sub-genre. We can also find coming-of-age and road-film and soft-core situations in it, but most important in terms of this essay is the manner in which the science-fiction premise gets marshalled and subsumed in the interest of a project that can be labeled feminine rather than feminist.
The positivist rationalization of the traditional supernatural premise of vampirism helps to complement the movie’s action-genre properties, and in fact with Near Dark Kathryn Bigelow was regarded as worthy of the skills of “the best contemporary action directors – Walter Hill, John Carpenter, you name him,” in the esteem of the L.A. Reader critic and National Society of Film Critics member Henry Sheehan (276). The same writer also attributes its success as popular entertainment to its comparability with the lost-generation rebel-without-a-cause tradition in Hollywood social problem films (275). Yvonne Tasker, writing on action films in Spectacular Bodies, regards Near Dark as a departure in genre but not in approach from the rest of Bigelow’s oeuvre. Tasker in fact regards the film as more of an action sample that uses horror primarily to achieve what she calls a doubling, or a displacement of identification (156-57). To illustrate her point, she notes how Caleb’s real family is splintered, and how his adoptive monstrous family is actually more whole, with two mothers in the person of the motherly Diamondback and in Mae, who suckles Caleb with her blood (signalling anxiety in Gothic texts – see Copjec 27) while weaning him away from her and toward performing his own killing.
It can be argued that in fact, with the film’s resolution, what gets added onto Caleb’s family is not so much a mother as a traditionalized woman, Caleb’s prospective wife and Sarah’s prospective elder sister. With the draining away of Mae’s vampirical fluid, what remains is the wholeness of her femininity; this is something that Caleb and his father would be able to use to counterbalance the tomboyish confidence of Sarah and her potentially unhealthy identification (by admittedly dated norms) with her father and brother to the point of decorating her room with men’s hats and guns. The reversal of sympathy for characters (in this case, in fact, a family) originally intended to function as villains derives from Susan Rubin Suleiman’s description of the “overflow” effect, where the narrative “tells so much and so well that it ends up producing contradictory meanings that blur the limpidity of its own demonstration” (206). Suleiman’s qualification that such an effect, especially in authoritarian fiction, may only be momentary, can be situated in Murray Smith’s critique of Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” through his assertion that identification in cinema need not necessarily result in or be synonymous with sympathizing, nor do identification and/or sympathizing have to be triggered by point-of-view shots (48-49).
 Caleb finds himself in more of a reverse situation, in his being more of an increasingly barbaric hero who resorts to the ultra-civilized principles of modern medicine in order to save the situation for himself and Mae. It would appear from these few genre-oriented readings so far that Near Dark’s ideological problematic lies in its happy-ending resolution, one that upholds the traditional family over the rebellious grouping. Anna Powell describes the “good” family in Near Dark as romantically represented by Caleb, the male as threatened by evil, in this instance Mae’s “bad” family (138-39). The parallel that Powell draws between Caleb and Jonathan Harker in Dracula, however, breaks down when we bring in history when and where available – with reference in particular to two verifiable certainties: one, that Vlad Tepes, the historical Dracula, was no different in his resort to cruel practices from the examples of other monarchs during his time (viz., the 15th and 16th centuries); and the other, that the purpose of the visibility of his shocking acts – that of preventing the retaliation of other equally cruel and arguably more traitorous members of the same nobility, who had subjected him to a few severe and possibly traumatizing experiences during his youth – was to consolidate his political gains and enable the stabilization of the Romanian empire (Giurescu 22-23).Opposed in this wise to the character of Mae would be the figure of Caleb, the hero of the plot, who may be seen as a character in a Western adventure. Jack Nachbar in “Riding Shotgun” quotes John G. Cawelti on the literary Western in maintaining that the central characteristic of the film formula is the epic moment of confrontation between the pioneer and the wilderness, with the civilized hero caught between the two and forced to employ barbaric codes in order to win (102-03).
In terms then of its status vis-à-vis authoritarian fictions, to use Suleiman’s literary categorization of the ideological novel and the title of her study, one can draw from Suleiman’s insight that genres may function as ideological configurations coded by narrative (203). Suleiman mentions three means by which authoritarian fictions may be subverted, all of them arguably figurable in Near Dark – the use of irrelevant details (as in the intrusion of “outside” or non-horror genres), the overstatement of certain concerns (as in the violent excesses), and the avoidance of pursuing certain other questions (as in the ambiguities of the ending for feminist political approaches) (206-07).
The question, however, of whether Near Dark becomes a progressive sample just because it exhibits some attempts at subverting an authoritarian framework can be answered using Barbara Klinger’s definition of the progressive genre in her take on the influential Cahiers du Cinéma editorial “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.” Klinger defines progressive genres as possessing three qualities: a pessimistic world view; stylistic self-consciousness and formal excess; and the valuation of “anticlassical” difference (80-86). Of these three criteria, I would say that Near Dark conforms unambivalently with an aspect of the second – that of formal excess – especially in its stereotypical depiction of the threat and enigma of female sexuality. There would of course be the danger of reductiveness in Klinger’s essay, in that her stipulation of rules for the existence of a genre, even if defined as progressive, could result in subjecting activities, whose political significance is always-already contextual, to formulaic prescriptions. The safest conclusion one may make on Near Dark, given the foregoing considerations, is that the film may definitely not be considered an authoritarian fiction because of a number of its subversive gestures, but that it may not necessarily be a progressive genre sample either.
Perhaps a more workable framework can be seen in Adam Knee’s essay, “The Compound Genre Film.” Knee differentiates this type of work from the genre hybrid, an organically derived entity in which two or more sets of generic conventions have somehow become one; and from the sub-genre, the seemingly natural development within one genre of certain characteristics which happen to be shared by another genre. Knee defines the compound genre film as one that “concurrently engages multiple distinct and relatively autonomous horizons of generic expectation; the extent to which these horizons remain distinct is the extent to which we perceive the text as being compound in its generic nature” (141-42). He mentions an “inescapable level of self-consciousness” as the most important corollary of multiple generic affinities, stating that “when two or more sets of generic expectations are thrust together, each one immediately becomes a marked element, and a new level of discourse is of necessity opened up” (142). Knee’s final question, however, appears to be the most significant in our consideration of Near Dark – that is, whether a multiplicity of generic voices remains intact or whether discursive tensions are nullified through a final large-scale condensation. Knee equates the latter with a “traditional unified resolution,” and my take on Near Dark is that it winds up closer to the condition of exhibiting a multiplicity of generic voices rather than conflating these in the end the way that films like Robocop and Gremlins, to use Knee’s examples, manage to do.
In fact I would venture to argue that, although the film moves into a number of genres which are authorially and spectatorially associated with men such as the horror-slasher, gangster, Western, and even soft-core art film (during its depiction of the flow of bodily fluids as a function of the sex drive), it is finally the feminine romantic love-story boy-gets-girl genre that facilitates the movie’s narrative closure. The irony of this ascendency of the generic feminine is that it permits the male character to apparently triumph over the forces associated with his female object. But then his traditional family, as mentioned earlier, never really manages to fulfill its maternal lack, just as the “masculine” genres in Near Dark had to lend themselves over and in most cases even overturn some of their premises in order to ultimately give way to a non-masculine genre in the end.
To return then to the issue of postmodernism raised at the beginning, it can be seen that Near Dark exhibits both subjective fragmentation, as embodied in its pastiche of genres, as well as subjective alienation, which is manifested in its content. Phillip Brian Harper, however, describes postmodernism in “The Postmodern, the Marginal, and the Minor” as valorizing fragmentation over alienation, both in the historical subsequence of postmodernity after modernity and as descriptive of the manner in which postmodernism has both broken away from yet continued the aesthetic traditions of modernism (21). In its exhibition of modernist traces within its postmodernizing imperative, the film manages to observe the parody of criticality (problematized as a bourgeois and thereby castrated version of modernist criticality – see Kuspit 56-57) on the formal level and vestiges of the alternative of critical modernism (described as a combination of Marxism and critical theory that can meet the postmodernist critique of modernism – see Marsh 95) on the discursive level. One might wonder whether a perfect balance between the two options might be possible, or even desirable, or whether even the nature of this combination is anything new just as the opposite – discursive critical modernism with traces of formal postmodernism – had been around for some time in the film practice of the French New Wave and its aftermath. One might also take note of a phenomenon that may be tantamount to a return of the repressed, given that the issues that modernism raised were not so much answered as exploded, its fragments made to fit the patterns of the postmodernist mosaic: the comeback of the concerns of modernism, minus the stultifying overpresence of its formal dimensions, perhaps this time enabling its questions to stand out in stark relief.
 The issue between AIDS-media discourse and the transfusion of blood as either a means of or a measure against vampiric infection in Near Dark would be the obvious means of developing this crucial and urgent point. I could not, however, bring in some of the issues and materials I had on the subject of AIDS without taking a detour from the discussion of postmodern aesthetics toward that of queer politics and representation. Another take on the queer content of Near Dark appears in the next end note.
 One could raise a few idle questions, in the movie’s barroom massacre sequence, of whether the fact that the first victim, the waitress, was the only woman on the scene prior to the arrival of the vampires, takes the direction of misogyny or of a different kind of perversion; in fact, if the intertextual insight that the victims had been guilty of illicit sex were to be pursued, then who were the male victims carousing with? – since all they had with them at the time was the waitress performing as a servant, not as an equal. The potential queerness of the situation is further inflected by the uninhibited homoeroticism of Severen, who licks off with his finger the blood on Caleb’s mouth and is depicted as the only other adult vampire, apart from Mae, who graphically bites a victim – who, like Mae’s, is male; in contrast, Caleb refuses to take the male victim (arguably his double) assigned to him, attractive though the latter was, but (we may speculate) because the act, apart from its repulsiveness, required a same-sex physical intimacy.
 Nachbar eventually concludes that, in mirroring “a similar splitting in the American consciousness,” the Western story has “[blasted] out … into new directions and into new forms…” (112). At the same time, however, he acknowledges that what he enumerates as anti-Westerns, (realist) new-Westerns, and personal-Westerns have always constituted recurrent trends in the genre’s continuing attempts at revitalization. Toward the end he presages both the breakaway impulses and the problematics embodied in films like Near Dark by asking “Without a vision where is purpose? Where is meaning?” (112).
Bigelow, Kathryn, dir. Near Dark. Scr. Kathryn Bigelow and Eric Red. F/M & Near Dark Joint Venture, 1984.
Bolongaro, Eugenio. “From Literariness to Genre: Establishing the Foundations for a Theory of Literary Genres.” Genre 25 (Summer/Fall 1992): 277-313.
Brown, Carolyn. “Feminist Literary Strategies in the Postmodern Condition.” Carr 112-34.
Carr, Helen, ed. From My Guy to Sci-Fi: Genre and Women’s Writing in the Postmodern World. London: Pandora, 1989.
Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Horror or Paradoxes of the Heart. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Copjec, Joan. “Vampires, Breast-Feeding, and Anxiety.” October 58 (1991): 25-43.
Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993.
Dada, Mehboob. “Race and the AIDS Agenda.” Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology. Ed. Tessa Boffin and Sunil Gupta. London: Rivers Oram, 1990. 85-95.
Daly, Peter M. Literature in the Light of the Emblem: Structural Parallels Between the Emblem and Literature in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.
Dick, Leslie. “Feminism, Writing, Postmodernism.” Carr 204-14.
Docherty, Thomas, ed. Postmodernism: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
During, Simon. “Postmodernism or Postcolonialism Today.” Docherty 448-62.
Giurescu, Constantin C. “The Historical Dracula.” Dracula: Essays on the Life and Times of Vlad Tepes. Ed. Kurt W. Treptow. New York: East European Monographs, 1991. 13-27.
Harper, Phillip Brian. Framing the Margins: The Social Logic of Postmodern Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.
———. Signatures of the Visible. London: Routledge, 1990.
Klinger, Barbara. “‘Cinema/Ideology/Criticism’ Revisited.” Film Genre Reader. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986. 74-90.
Knee, Adam. “The Compound Genre Film: Billy the Kid Versus Dracula Meets The Harvey Girls.” Intertextuality in Literature and Film: Selected Papers from the Thirteenth Annual Florida State University Conference on Literature and Film. Ed. Elaine D. Cancalon and Antoine Spacagna. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994. 141-56.
Kuspit, Donald. “The Contradictory Character of Postmodernism.” Postmodernism: Philosophy and the Arts. Ed. Hugh J. Silverman. London: Routledge, 1990. 53-68.
Lovibond, Sabina. “Feminism and Postmodernism.” Docherty 390-414.
Marsh, James L. “Ambiguity, Language, and Communicative Praxis: A Critical Modernist Articulation.” Modernity and its Discontents. Ed. James L. Marsh, John D. Caputo, and Merold Westphal. New York: Fordham University, 1992. 87-109.
Nachbar, Jack. “Riding Shotgun: The Scattered Formula in Contemporary Western Movies.” Focus on the Western. Ed. Jack Nachbar. Englewood Cliffs: Spectrum, 1974. 101-12.
Powell, Anna. “Blood on the Borders – Near Dark and Blue Steel.” Screen 35.2 (Summer 1994): 136-56.
Sheehan, Henry. “Near Dark.” Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films You’ve Never Seen: Reviews by Members of the National Society of Film Critics. Ed. Michael Sragow. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1990. 273-77.
Silver, Alain, and James Ursini. The Vampire Film: From Nosferatu to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. 1975. New York: Limelight, 1993.
Smith, Murray. “Altered States: Character and Emotional Response in the Cinema.” Cinema Journal 33.4 (Summer 1994): 34-56.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin. Authoritarian Fictions: The Ideological Novel as a Literary Genre. New York: Columbia, 1983.
Tasker, Yvonne. Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema. London: Routledge, 1993.
Auteur criticism arguably straddles the historical distinctions between classical and contemporary theorizing in film, in the sense that it had a totalizing vision behind it (typical of classical theory projects), but that it also lent itself to an immediate and comparatively simple deconstruction of its basic assertions, as befits any self-aware postmodern position. Its premise – that any film is ascribable to an individual creative intelligence – was merely a confirmation of what informed critics and practitioners were already long aware of; its larger implications, however, could be and were marshalled for political agendas by its original French proponents in their bid for industrial supremacy, and it is the view of this essay that such a transgression of the aesthetic boundaries traditionally ascribed to film theory may have contributed to the quick and vocal opposition that followed the formulation and propagation of auteurism. For this same reason it would be most interesting to trace the history of auteurism to its arrival and spread in the US, since one sure way for any issue in cinema to assume global significance is to have it course through Hollywood.
Film authorship underwent a transformation, from the politique des auteurs to the auteur theory, in its initial transition from France to the US. “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema,” François Truffaut’s Cahiers du Cinéma essay, did not so much define directly a new policy as oppose one already in existence, the French cinema’s tradition of quality, for its supposed failure to provide film directors with genuinely creative options in the practice of their profession (233-35). A measure of the success of Truffaut’s implicit proposition can be seen in the reaction of Cahiers founder André Bazin, who cautioned that “there can be no definitive criticism of genius or talent which does not first take into consideration the social determinism, the historical combination of circumstances, and the technical background which to a large extent determine it” (251). The politique des auteurs, however, proved capable of international dissemination, not the least because it supplied a means of confluence for like-minded critical writers to bond together and make their own films, with the ostensible purpose of demonstrating the possibility of imbuing each body of work with the individual filmmaker’s personality. Yet the Cahiers critics were more fortunate (or shrewd) in their appropriation of certain technical innovations, including “fast filmstocks, lightweight cameras, new lighting equipment, and the liberation from the Hollywood set that all this implied” (Monaco 10), that made it possible for their films to be more financially feasible, and therefore potentially more profitable, than the studio-bound projects of which they were critical in the first place.
In heralding the arrival of the “auteur theory” in the US, Andrew Sarris more than mistranslated the politique des auteurs; he also, in The American Cinema, made no acknowledgment of Bazin’s caution against the excesses of formalism, although at one point he did launch into a diatribe against the French for their auteurist appreciation of Jerry Lewis (240-44). Sarris’s project can be seen as even more retrograde than that of the Cahiers du Cinéma, particularly in his hierarchization of mainly American (or US-exhibited) filmmakers topped by a “Pantheon.” Although John Caughie remarks that Sarris’s reconfiguration of industrial interference as constituting the source of creative tension between an auteur and his material had facilitated “the ‘auteur-structuralist’ shift” (“Andrew Sarris” 61), it would be more accurate to state that Sarris had actually been resistant to objections to his propositions; in a footnote, Caughie enumerates the celebrated exchanges among Sarris, Pauline Kael, and the British publication Movie. Kael’s “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris,” although rarely paired nowadays with Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962” or “Toward a Theory of Film History” (his introduction to The American Cinema), manages to provide both a rejection of Sarris’s premises as well as a call to be “pluralistic, flexible, relative in our judgments” – in short, eclectic, defined (though unproblematized) as “the selection of the best standards and principles from various systems of ideas” (Kael 308). A more socially inflected critique was that of John Hess, who responded not to the practice of Sarris but to that of Cahiers by historicizing the politicization of French cinema after the Resistance and describing the Cahiers group’s attempt to remove film from this area of concern as “culturally conservative, politically reactionary” (109).
That the equivalent of a French New Wave, dubbed the New American Cinema in retrospect, was emerging during the late 1960s, the same period of the publication of Sarris’s book, may have reinforced this impression of the practical – though not the critical – viability of auteurism. Auteur-structuralism, as already mentioned, represented a rectification of the politique des auteurs in terms more useful for politically responsive critical applications. Drawing from the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss, which in turn was based on the studies of linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and of phonology by Roman Jakobson, auteur-structuralism (alternately called cine-structuralism) was attributed by Charles Eckert to English practitioners (152). Brian Henderson, in “Critique of Cine-Structuralism,” echoes Geoffrey Nowell-Smith in defining the approach as the uncovering “behind the superficial contrasts of subject and treatment in a director’s work [of] a structural hard core of basic and often recondite motifs” (167), disputes Peter Wollen’s conceptualization of the auteur as “not a conscious creator but an unconscious catalyst and even … that the auteur-structure is only one code among many” (176), and recommends “the principle of intertextuality” to overthrow the empirical and metaphysical tendencies of structuralism itself (179-80).
From this stage, auteurism encountered historical materialism, which in effect resulted in “a decentering of the authorial role” (Lapsley and Westlake 112). A number of European theorists may be credited for laying the groundwork for poststructural analyses in film in particular and culture in general, but the target area of application remained Hollywood. The infusion of Marxist concerns about the workings of social contexts in both the production and reception of films ensured that the earlier formalist slant could now be more easily discarded. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson’s monumental project, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, can be seen as an ironic culmination of Sarris’s attempt to valorize Hollywood cinema, in the sense of upholding the historical prominence of Hollywood practice yet rejecting the reducibility advocated by both formalism (including auteurism, in its predilection for artistic genius) and orthodox Marxism (in its prescription of economic determinism). Staiger’s contribution, “The Hollywood Mode of Production to 1930,” started with the structuralist principles of Cahiers contributor Jean-Luc Comolli and the poststructuralist critique of John Ellis, maintaining that,
rather than considering Hollywood’s mode only as the historical conditions allowing a group style to exist, we must also see production practices as an effect of the group style, as a function permitting those films to look and sound as they did while simultaneously adhering to a particular economic practice. (88)
This historical materialist approach duly observed the shifting emphases in individual contributions to film production through a period of time as the study’s organizing principle, from (as examples) the director system through the director-unit system to the central producer system all before 1930, and from the producer-unit system through the package-unit system to alternative modes afterward. Although agreeing that this approach vastly improved on original auteurist concerns, Robert Lapsley and Michael Westlake also argue that
it falls short of integrating Hollywood into the larger social formation, and in this fails to validate the potential of the notions of structural causality, relative autonomy and overdetermination…. While acknowledging the possible determination in the last instance of the economic, there is no final synthesis relating the various practices within Hollywood either to one another or to those external to Hollywood. (117-18)
Other permutations of auteurism, however, did not distend the original proponents’ premises in vouching for the recognition of contexts of production, as auteur-structuralism did. Instead, these sought to simply extend auteurism’s applicability to areas outside the romanticist notion of the filmmaker as artist:
1. Comolli, with Jean Narboni, argued in “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” (originally published in Cahiers) for a recategorization of films according to their handling of ideological content and artistic form, expressing a preference for those that combine progressive accomplishments in both areas, but also giving more value to those that deal with regressive ideology in an ambiguous manner rather than those whose explicit political thrusts “do not effectively criticize the ideological system … because they unquestioningly adopt its language and its imagery” (26-28). This view would have the effect of replacing the as-it-were “merely” artistic filmmaker with that of the creatively political practitioner, and can also be regarded as a legitimizing factor in the recuperation of artists such as Alfred Hitchcock, whose ambiguities were once regarded as reinforcing the moralist trajectory of his narratives (see Sarris’s appreciation of his technical skill and consequent ability to convey pleasure in The American Cinema 57-58) rather than as fissures that indicated potentially subversive attitudes.
2. A number of mostly formalistically inclined critics extracted from the auteur-structuralist position of acknowledging the contribution of other participants in the filmmaking process by substituting the director as primary creative force with other members of the team – e.g., the scriptwriter (see Corliss), the star (see Dyer), the producer (see Pye), even “the system” (see Schatz). Such studies tend toward either a specialized or a speculative proposition of analyzing a body of work according to an alternative formal origin, rather than proposing a once-and-for-all replacement of the film director with one or the other possible candidates in film production.
3. A return to the consideration of the director’s role has been facilitated by reader-response studies, this time converting the empirically definable filmmaker into the spectator’s formation of the “filmmaker,” a necessarily tentative and changeable entity. One step beyond this has of course led to the rejection of any filmmaker, even the spectator’s own, in place of the spectator herself as the source of meaning. Such studies would understandably refuse to grant auteurism any place in their psychoanalytic schematizations, except in the strictly diachronic account as outlined here.
Admittedly these developments, especially the last, can be seen as proceeding from auteurism in mostly chronological fashion; the causal relations presented in this essay (a number of which were drawn from other studies) cannot be taken as definitive, if the present postmodern situation is to be upheld as the culmination so far of film studies in the West. Yet, to return to the concern mentioned at the start of this essay, auteur criticism in the US, even in the now seemingly primitive formalist extreme propounded by Sarris, can be seen as having had an enabling function in other contexts, if only by sheer reactive imperatives. Its effects outside of the US – and the First World that the US represents – can be traced in the emergence of Third-World consciousness and the subsequent development of forms of national resistances to political and cultural colonizations. Even such a study of Third-World filmmaking from a First-World perspective as Roy Armes has conducted includes a discourse on “individual authorship” (73-86) that does not seek to deconstruct auteurist concepts in the manner that, say, Truffaut’s or Sarris’s texts invariably provoked.
An explanation could be constructed from the Foucauldian concept of the “discursive formation – not simply an allegory or imaginative vision, but a gestative political structure which the Third World artist is consciously building or suffering the lack of” (Brennan 46-47). This formation can be and has been traditionally conceived in terms of power relations between the (neo)colonized and the (neo)colonizer, with resistance movements impelled to set up counter-structures of their own in order to challenge the dominant order. Auteurism can therewith be seen as the means by which the formerly politically disenfranchised Third-World cultural artist was invested with an authority that could lend itself to the more immediate purposes of social change.
Within this context, the initial dilemma encountered by First-World critics of not finding a progressive political agenda from auteurism’s original aesthetic program was not applicable; the very fact that Third-World film practitioners could now be regarded as authority figures (using the liberal-humanist framework that was even then being derided in the West) was cause enough for the institution of repressive measures in Third-World national experiences by governments that were often in (neo)colonial collusion with First-World powers. The Brazilian Cinema Novo movement, as a case in point, adhered to the model of critically articulate filmmakers that the Cahiers critics-turned-filmmakers represented, even as they criticized their New-Wave counterparts for the latter group’s alleged political insensitivities (Solanas et al. 11).
To some extent the problematics of Third-World auteurism can be formulated alongside the American, or actually Hollywoodian, account, in so far as most national film industries hold up Hollywood as both commercial ideal and primary competitor. Thus issues of representation, for example, can be enriched by intertextual analyses of both local and Hollywood samples. The larger challenge for what may be termed Hollywood’s outside Other, however, lies in the globalization of Hollywood itself, concomitant with the call by scholars in Western countries for the erasure of national boundaries. In cinema this had long ago been realized in the incursion of American film products in most parts of the world, a tendency exacerbated by the so-called video revolution; but a reversal of direction is also emerging, with still exploitative relations in place. This can be seen in how certain US perceptions of Chinese cinema, for example, has not only collapsed the still-existing national differences among Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China, but has also expected “China” to supply the ideologically and stylistically regressive epics that would prove too costly for US and even European joint ventures to produce.
Certain possible solutions are being explored in the post-developmental scenarios that would modify the priorities of market development that have served to expropriate the gains of social movements in the past. Cinema would still be capable of inserting itself in the prospect of “new spaces opening up in the vacuum left by the colonizing mechanisms of development, either through innovation or the survival and resistance of popular practices” (Escobar 27). Discourses that concentrate on “the fulfillment of the democratic imaginary,” on “cultural difference, alterity, autonomy and the right of each society to self-determination,” and on “radical transformations of the modern capitalist order and the search for alternative ways of organizing societies and economies” (Escobar 47-48) can be posited against the teleology of modernity, of which cinema had been an important tool in the West. How Third-World entities in the post-developmental era will utilize concepts of film authorship, if not cinema itself, will perhaps be the next stage in the narrative of the US’s heritage of auteurism.
Armes, Roy. Third World Film Making and the West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
Bazin, André. “On the politique des auteurs.” Trans. Peter Graham. Cahiers du Cinéma, the 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave. Ed. Jim Hillier. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. 248-59.
Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
Brennan, Timothy. “The National Longing for Form.” Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990. 44-70.
Caughie, John. “Andrew Sarris.” Introduction to “Extract from Andrew Sarris, ‘Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.’” Caughie, Theories of Authorship 61-62.
———, ed. Theories of Authorship: A Reader. 1981. London: Routledge, 1990.
Comolli, Jean-Luc, and Jean Narboni. “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism.” Trans. Susan Bennett. Nichols 22-30.
Corliss, Richard. Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema. New York: Overlook, 1974.
Dyer, Richard. Stars. London: British Film Institute, 1979.
Eckert, Charles. “The English Cine-Structuralists.” Caughie, Theories of Authorship 152-65.
Escobar, Arturo. “Imagining a Post-Development Era?: Critical Thought, Development and Social Movements.” Social Text 31-32 (1992): 20-56.
Henderson, Brian. “Critique of Cine-Structuralism.” Caughie, Theories of Authorship 166-82.
Hess, John. “La politique des auteurs, Part One: World View as Aesthetic.” Jump Cut 1 (May-June 1974): 103-23.
Kael, Pauline. “Circles and Squares: Joys and Sarris.” I Lost It at the Movies: Film Writings 1954-1965. 1965. New York: Marion Boyars, 1994. 295-319.
Lapsley, Robert, and Michael Westlake. Film Theory: An Introduction. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988.
Monaco, James. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Nichols, Bill, ed. Movies and Methods: An Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
Pye, Michael. Moguls: Inside the Business of Show Business. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1980.
Sarris, Andrew. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968. 1968. New York: Octagon, 1982.
———. “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Ed. Gerald Mast, Marshall Cohen, and Leo Braudy. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 585-88.
Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. New York: Pantheon, 1988.
Solanas, Fernando, Bertrand Tavernier, Rene Vautier and Guy Hennebelle. “Round Table: The Cinema: Art Form or Political Weapon?” Framework: A Film Journal 11: 10-15.
Staiger, Janet. “The Hollywood Mode of Production to 1930.” Bordwell et al. 85-153.
Truffaut, François. “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema.” Trans. Cahiers du Cinéma in English. Nichols 224-37.
The autobiographical voice can be used to upset stable notions of the subject. That voice can tell not only of the past but of the difficulties that fragment and unsettle the narrative flow. And against [a] rather generalized account of the problems inherent in speaking, the autobiographical voice may yield specific instances of struggle against the ideological centering of the subject. (Probyn 115)
The final account of an object says as much about the observer as it does about the object itself. Accounts can be read “backwards” to uncover and explicate the consciousness, culture and theoretical organization of the observer. (Willis 90)
Overquotation can bore your readers and might lead them to conclude that you are neither an original thinker nor a skillful writer. (Gibaldi and Achtert 56)
In 1982, at the age of 23, I was designated Head of the Writers Section of the Public Relations Division of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. Barely three years earlier I was in semi-hiding while finishing my bachelor’s degree in journalism at the University of the Philippines, on account of my aboveground involvement as managing editor of the student paper, which had run exposés on, among other things, the identity of the thrill-killer (a nephew of Ferdinand Marcos) of a UP student, as well as Imelda Marcos’s plan to raze down slum shanties (blamed in the Marcos-controlled press on arsonists) in order to construct recreation and commercial centers in their stead. I was also in charge of a propaganda unit of the student underground, and it was always ironically safer to assume that the military intelligence was aware of the fact, given the ease with which activist circles could be infiltrated. Upon getting my degree I was invited, along with a select few, to observe a newly opened guerrilla zone in the Cordillera mountains north of Manila; we had to carry arms, move along steep trails and cross the Chico River (whose proposed dam the Igorot and Kalinga tribes were opposing) by night, partake of the tribes’ viands consisting of insects, dog meat, and carabeef, and hide in rice granaries when the local militia raided the villages.
I backed out of my underground commitments after that experience, partly because I decided (as might be expected of a petit-bourgeois intellectual, as per classical Marxist prescriptions) that I much preferred to write, but also because the whole cause of our difficulties in the student movement – sudden shifts in assignments, reversals in criteria for evaluation, special projects without follow-up instructions – was laid bare for us by the New People’s Army officials who were our guides: the Communist Party of the Philippines was undergoing one of its most serious political upheavals ever, one which would result in a split between those who advocated the implementation of Mao Zhedong’s policy of encirclement of urban centers from the countryside and those who believed in carrying guerrilla warfare into the cities via assassinations of selected enemy targets (Abinales 40-43). I was too young to be overwhelmed by the implications of such challenges, but I also was not old enough to overcome my feeling of betrayal over the fact that such vital (and, I felt, life-threatening) information was withheld from me and my comrades, ostensibly to ensure our complicity with whoever happened to be in charge of our cell systems.
I therefore proceeded to undertake legit media freelance assignments, though I also had to avoid my earlier specialization in political and economic issues. Culture it had to be, then, which in Philippine terms is virtually synonymous with movies. True to my orthodox Marxist orientation, I preferred film reviewing to society-page reporting, and by 1980 I was invited to join the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, which was then the only other award-giving body for local cinema, as opposed to the corruption-ridden Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences or FAMAS. About this time the eldest Marcos offspring, Imee, was negotiating with the MPP and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines, headed by such Marcos oppositionists in culture as Cannes Film Festival mainstay Lino Brocka, in order to get their cooperation in setting up the institutional support system that would become the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines. I got in through the recommendations of contacts in both the MPP and the CAP.
The fact that this was an activity that could fall under the rumpled rubric of cultural policy could not have occurred to me then. By the standards of the still-in-place Marxist-Leninist-Mao Zhedong Thought that I was coming from, I had compromised my ideals the moment I severed my links with the underground; anything I did aboveground, even in conjunction with people who might still have been in touch with subterranean personalities, was my own Cross to bear or nut to crack, mixed idioms notwithstanding. About a decade later, halfway around the world, I might have taken heart from Tony Bennett’s suggestion that
Cultural studies might envisage its role as consisting of the training of cultural technicians: that is, of intellectual workers less committed to cultural critique as an instrument for changing consciousness than to modifying the functioning of culture by means of technical adjustments to its governmental deployment. (Bennett, “Useful Culture” 83)
Bennett of course was drawing from a number of assumptions that had transformed certain principles that may have been originally attributable to Marx. In terms of my field of involvement, for example, Stuart Hall was already then writing that popular culture may be formulated in terms of “the people versus the power-bloc: this, rather than ‘class-against-class,’ is the central line of contradiction around which the terrain of culture is polarized” (238). Bennett’s take on this formulation of the field of contestation for the cultural activist would have sounded strange to any Marxist engaged in political tasks then: cultural policy, he declared, would entail cooperating with ideological state apparatuses (ISAs) “rather than writing them off from the outset and then … criticizing them again when they seem to affirm one’s direst functionalist predictions” (“Putting Policy into Cultural Studies” 32).
Philippine politics under martial law would have been reconcilable with this perspective, but only through a roundabout process. Genuine opposition then (as contrasted with the state’s series of official opposition parties) was divided between the so-called national democrats or natdems (an alliance comprising the CPP, NPA, and the National Democratic Front, a coalition of aboveground left-leaning organizations) and the considerably smaller circle of social democrats or socdems, identified with the also-then-outlawed Social Democratic Party. It would be possible to relate the agitation within the natdems to defy Maoist dogma by taking the revolution into the cities with the socdems’ better-funded and more visible Light-a-Fire Movement – i.e., first attempts at what the Marcos regime declared was urban terrorist bombings. Natdem support was Third-World-based, if China were to be taken on its claim to being part of the Third World, while the socdems, whom the establishment press branded as steak commandos, were living (it up?) in exile in the US. The natdem line on Marcos was that he was a US-supported fascist, while that of the socdem – in order to whip up US support – was that he was a Communist. In retrospect, and with a little stretching, both were technically correct: Marcos was as much a reactionary authoritarian who sanctioned the brutal oppression of disenfranchised groups (though this was minor compared with his other abuses), while his apparently pathological quest for affluence and system of crony capitalism led him to using fail-safe legal justifications for the takeover by government of the most profitable economic institutions in the country, converting these into monopolies.
Hence, if the Marcos regime were not Communist, as the socdems charged, but pseudo-socialist in terms of state control of capital, then would it not be possible to work out ways and means of furthering leftist ideals within, say, a receptive government institution such as the ECP? As I had already related, this way of thinking could never have occurred to me, and my guess is that it might have sounded, to use Fredric Jameson’s term in his reaction to Bennett, obscene to Bennett himself, had he found himself in such a context. This is not to dismiss however Bennett’s inquisition into the thorny/muddy (the Philippines is tropical) realm of cultural policy. Closer to what most of us then were sensing, and managed to confirm by our participation, was Bennett’s oral response to a conference question thus:
Even where the government – in the sense of the party in power – is conservative, it does not follow that the bureaucracies that they [sic] superintend function like seamless webs and that there are no contradictions within them…. One of the most instructive aspects of the experience of working with government cultural agencies is to realize that – whilst Althusser says they function via the category of the subject – some of them just don’t seem to function at all! There’s a real lack of coordination between different branches of government and this makes many openings that can be utilized. (“Putting Policy” 36)
Again, though, it would not be entirely accurate to say that Marcos’s martial-law machinery was as inefficient as all that – after all, the man had held onto the presidency for over two decades during which he (in a manner of speaking) singlehandedly made himself one of the richest men – and his wife the richest woman, per a 1980s Fortune edition – in the world at one point, while reversing an entire country’s status from the fastest-developing to the least developed in Southeast Asia. More to the point is the personalistic nature of Philippine social relations, traceable to the communal values of the country’s rural and tribal communities; among the first things about Filipinos that foreigners notice, for example, are (traditionalist) Filipinos’ unabashed tactility as well as embarrassment over the handling of wealth and private property – hence, to indulge the issue further, Marcos’s renown for having or forcing his way with women and his infamous concealment of his financial and real holdings.
As far as the ECP went, people were participating with ears attuned to the goings-on in Malacañang Palace, the presidential residence. It was consistently observable that Imee Marcos was as contemptuous of her mother as she was attached to her father. Imelda in turn was vocal about her desire to get some genuine European royalty interested in Imee; when the latter had an affair with a sportsman from an oppositionist family, who (to make matters worse) was married to a beauty queen who was widely speculated to have been one of Marcos’s conquests, things started falling into place. In a way, this foreshadowed the succession of hubris and stop-gap measures that characterized the assassination of socdem figure Benigno Aquino Jr. (hubris) and the call, under international pressure, for snap presidential elections (stop-gap) which resulted in the so-called people-power revolution of February 1986.
What happened in 1982 was the kidnapping of Imee’s lover, Tommy Manotoc, by the NPA, according to the military, though of course this was already getting recognized as a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the government (Aquino’s assassin, also assassinated, was to be similarly identified as a Communist gunman). Mysteriously, Imee got back both her man, in a crudely staged rescue mission, and the position of Director-General of the ECP – which everyone expected to be headed by Imelda or John J. Litton, her (and Jack Valenti’s) subordinate. Imee’s fulfillment in her role as wife and mother-to-be was something which both cultural activists (aligned in Imee’s camp) and Imelda’s loyalists sought to take advantage of; so long as Imee held the top position, however, it was “our” camp that mostly won out in the end.
On two levels, then, we at the ECP had to contend with Hall’s observation that
If the forms of provided commercial popular culture are not purely manipulative, then it is because, alongside the false appeals, the foreshortenings, the trivialization and short-circuits, there are also elements of recognition and identification, something approaching a recreation of recognizable experiences and attitudes, to which people are responding. (233)
Our admittedly not-conscious application of this principle had to do with both working within, through, or out of the range and breadth afforded by palace intrigues, and at the same time providing at least a semblance of actual support for the ECP’s constituencies whenever possible. The degrees of successful possibilities also varied between mother and daughter: in Imelda’s case I could only hope to put in a few words of universal encouragement to artists’ struggles against authoritarian systems in her Manila International Film Festival speech welcoming Xie Jin, then recently “rehabilitated” by the People’s Republic of China; in the case of Imee (who asked for material on extremely short notice), I could sneak in, for example, a promise that she would provide subsidies for independent film projects, then derived secret satisfaction in learning that some filmmakers called on her next day to seek fulfillment of her pledge. This was not to denigrate the symbolic achievement in marshaling Imelda’s MIFF, however. Despite Bennett’s claim that “the programmatic, institutional, and governmental conditions in which cultural practices are inscribed … have a substantive priority over the semiotic properties of such practices” (“Putting Policy” 28), it might be possible to re-assess the expulsion by Imee of the MIFF from the ECP as resulting in comparable status for both institutions, and providing the ECP with less of the goodwill (along with the notoriety of the Manila Film Center’s scaffolding collapsing on about 200 workers, many of whom had to be buried or killed in order for the construction to be completed on time) that the first MIFF had engendered.
In terms of the ECP’s camp (pun incidental) positions, then, the MIFF, as already mentioned, was Imelda territory, as were the Film Archives of the Philippines and the Film Fund, which provided subsidies for mainstream film projects. The service groups – public relations, where I functioned, and theater management – were in good hands, as far as we were concerned – meaning these were controlled and staffed by people from Imee’s circles in theater or the UP (where she and I were non-acquainted classmates before my activist years); more significant in terms of industry impact were the Film Ratings Board, which rebated the taxes of quality (measured according to plastic aesthetic worth) productions, and the Alternative Cinema Department, which produced full-length works by new directors and screened heretofore unavailable, censored, or banned foreign and local productions. One consideration in evaluating the efforts expended in attempting to implement progressivity in these areas is Hall’s admonition to avoid thinking “of cultural forms as whole and coherent: either wholly corrupt or wholly authentic. Whereas,… [in actual practice,] they play on contradictions” (233). Accordingly, it would be possible to say that, for example, the trend in sex films initiated by the MIFF, while denounced by both the censors and the left (including the MPP and the CAP), also made it possible for a number of filmmakers to come up with critiques of contemporary Philippine society using frameworks of social decadence (Scorpio Nights, dir. Peque Gallaga, 1985), protofeminist consciousness (Company of Women, dir. Mel Chionglo, 1985), or neocolonialist intrusions (Boatman, dir. Tikoy Aguiluz, 1984); moreover, in order to prove that the libertarian spirit applied to more than just sexual themes, previously suppressed films (notably Manila by Night, dir. Ishmael Bernal, 1980 and Sakada, dir. Behn Cervantes, 1976) were granted permission to be exhibited at the Manila Film Center. On the other hand, the breaks provided new talents by the Alternative Cinema Department also proved to be a mixed blessing, but in the opposite direction; the newcomers turned out to be either politically uncommitted or incapable of surviving in the industry at large. A more rewarding activity was the same department’s unofficial mobilization, along with the CAP, of film artists in a series of mass actions against censorship. The irony of one government institution agitating against another was not lost on the chief censor, the late Maria Kalaw-Katigbak, who promptly invoked the fact of her being a presidential appointee and therefore on the same bureaucratic level as Imee Marcos.
The Aquino assassination led to a number of responses: the abandonment by Imee of her ECP responsibilities (supposedly to concentrate on her legislative assignments, although it became clear eventually that she was preparing to emigrate with her new family); the defection of a number of key personnel – some to opposition media, others (including myself) to the government’s less high-profile media center; and, finally, the dissolution of ECP, to be reconstituted as the Film Development Foundation of the Philippines under Litton – an entity which set about screening quickie sex films without regard to their sources, and sending its officials to trips abroad to solicit support for an MIFF that was already announced as not forthcoming in the foreseeable future. One way – perhaps the easiest – of accounting for this ultimate instability in what has turned out to be the only largely positive contribution of the Filipino government to its film industry is to maintain that bigger political considerations overrode such smaller cultural concerns. This leads us to Jameson’s dissent with Bennett’s call for participation in ISAs, stemming from the former’s view that culture
is not a “substance” or a phenomenon in its own right, it is an objective mirage that arises out of the relationship between at least two groups. This is to say that no group “has” a culture all by itself: culture is the nimbus perceived by one group when it comes into contact with and observes another one. It is the objectification of everything alien and strange about the contact group. (Jameson 33)
From the preceding account we can discern that the “two groups” in Jameson’s stipulation did not, perhaps even could not, remain consistent over time: first were the us-and-them formation of the Imee-vs.-Imelda camps, which almost instinctively coalesced into the ECP vis-à-vis the higher government organ (constructible in this sense as the Office of the President of the republic) as a response to the Aquino assassination, leading in the end – of the Marcos dictatorship, that is – to a still-to-be-problematized government-vs.-the people/the opposition binary. This fluidity, in the delimited sense used here, somehow serves to confirm Ian Hunter’s critique of the implications of Hall’s concept of articulation:
The notion of a general struggle between contending classes or “rival hegemonic principles” over ideologies or cultural meanings becomes unintelligible. Instead of appealing to the ideological articulation (in either sense) of class interests, we must look to the differentiated array of organizational forms in which cultural interests and capacities are formulated, if we are to engage with the forms in which they are assessed and argued over. (Hunter 118)
Hunter poses an even more difficult challenge in cultural practice, especially when such practice is ongoing, when he opines that “It is necessary to abandon the ethical posture and forms of cultural judgment invested in the concept of culture as complete development and true reflection” (115); in the ECP experience, this became manifest in the concurrence between the MPP and CAP on the one hand and the Board of Censors for Motion Pictures, which in turn called on a then-oppositionist Catholic Church to denounce the proliferation of sex-genre films at the Manila Film Center. The puritanism of the left has continued to play into the hands of media-control advocates consisting of both commercialist producers and always-interested conservative politicians, including members of the clergy. The absence of any form of support (apart from box-office responses) for sex films resulted in the marginalization of both their production and distribution after the February 1986 “revolution” – i.e., they continued to be produced, but only as B-items for exhibition in provincial circuits that could not be restrained by the censors (who wield police powers) because, as Corazon Aquino’s censors chief alleged, these circuits were military-operated. What may be necessary here is therefore an appreciation, on the part of responders, especially those in academe, of the “play on contradictions” mentioned by Hall (233) in the continuing popularity of the sex-film genre, beyond its strictly pornographic dimensions.
A further direction – that of the spectator – is implied by Meaghan Morris in her consideration of colonialist interventions:
When the voice of that which academic discourses – including cultural studies – constitute as popular begins in turn to theorize its speech, then … that theorization may well go round by way of the procedures that Homi Bhabha has theorized as “colonial mimicry,” for example, but may also come around eventually in a different, and as yet utopian, mode of enunciative practice. However, I think that this can happen only if the complexity of social experience investing our “place” as intellectuals today – including the proliferation of different places in and between which we may learn and teach and write – becomes a presupposition of, and not an anecdotal adjunct to, our practice. (Morris 41)
What this in effect suggests is the creation of a divide, if necessary, between what Philippine academicians and the media (which is heavily influenced by representatives from academia) hold onto as moral even in their most radical political agenda, and what “the people,” properly problematized, believe anyway, as manifest in their insistence on such supposedly disreputable film fare as escapist fantasies, blood-and-guts violence, stops-out melodrama, and graphic sex outings. Simon Frith’s recuperatory reformulation of the high-low dichotomy might prove to be a more workable starting point, rather than the poststructural extreme of discarding all measures for excellence as implicated by their formulators:
If one strand of the mass cultural critique was an indictment of low culture from the perspective of high art (as was obviously the case for Adorno, for example), then to assert the value of the popular is also, certainly, to query the superiority of high culture. Most populist writers, though, draw the wrong conclusion; what needs challenging is not the notion of the superior, but the claim that it is the exclusive property of the “high.” (105)
Of relevance here might be the concept of subcultures, so as not to fall into the trap of homogenizing the movie-going masses:
The study of subcultural style which seemed at the outset to draw us back towards the real world, to reunite us with “the people,” ends by merely confirming the distance between the reader and the “text,” between everyday life and the “mythologist” whom it surrounds, fascinates and finally excludes. It would seem that we are still, like Barthes, “condemned for some time yet to speak excessively about reality.” (Hebdige 140)
While therefore it may be necessary to accept Jameson’s description of the intellectual’s necessary and constitutive distance from classes of origin and chosen affiliation, and from social groups as well (40), it would also be useful to consider the principles, rather than the prescriptions, that underlie Bennett’s pronouncements on cultural policy:
If we are to write an adequate history of culture in the modern period, it is to the changing contours of its instrumental refashioning in the context of new and developing cultural and governmental technologies that we must look. This is not to say that the changing coordinates of “culture’s” semantic destinies are unimportant. However, it is to suggest that these derive their significance from their relations to culture’s governmental and technological refashioning. (“Useful Culture” 77)
How these tensions apply to a Third-World context characterized by a triple form of neocolonial (US) political, (Japanese) economic, and (Vatican-State) religious dependence is the question that Filipino cultural activists will have to seek answers to. I could, to be flippant about it, complete my tour of these colonizing influences by visiting the Vatican; or, more seriously, I could return to the Philippines and assume once more a role in cultural policy, or remain in academe and provide critical responses to developments in local culture. Where I come from, I can only productively engage in one activity at a time. Like those of the Philippines, my (mis)adventures still have to be played out.
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