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The Political Film

Ulus Baker

A rough draft for doctoral thesis.

What is politics? This is evidently a more difficult question than "what is cinema", since the latter is clearly a technological-artistic event, having a recent history, whose authors and actors are known, and which is used generally for representational purposes. Or one kind of politics has always been a representation in itself, whether it belongs to the democratic clusters of Ancient Greece (the polis) or to the historical domain of struggles for power, or rather, through power. Hence politics is a generality, and according to Foucault's formula, one is no longer capable to oppose political life to the private one, since the political element is already contained in the second, and "state"-modeled politics remains purely representational, even in Ancient Greece.

Or cinema too has many dimensions --political, ideological, cultural and economic... It can tell us "political" stories, and its birth was nevertheless determined by the political interests of state powers and social classes: an art of mass entertainment for the bourgeoisie, but at the same time, as Dziga Vertov was formulating, an "opium of the people" in its dramatic-representational manners. Lenin was the first political leader of twentieth century to recall the cinema as the primary art, and Dr. Goebbels, the chief-propaganda leader of Nazism called to "emulate" it, although he was not so much willing to make political motives a subject matter for films to be produced by German filmmakers. Really, what Dr. Goebbels asks from German cinema producers was to propound the empty, dramatic, melodramatic films --to tell people stories... He intended a film of embellishment, that of the "opium". This is why if Siegfried Kracauer sought the roots of Nazi's aesthetics in German Expressionist films, the reasons are evident --simply, since with the exception of some propaganda films by Leni Riefenstahl, all great filmmakers were in exile in the Third Reich period, and no seroius films were yet available.

Political cinema, properly speaking appears, however, at the very roots of cinema: a piece like Griffith's The Birth of a Nation has been shot in many countries in this or that manner --and it served as a model to tell the history of the emergence of a nation (Gance's Napoléon, as a saga of the Revolution, and in Turkey, many films on the "birth-of-a -nation" model were shot, relentlessly). And already in his Intolerance, Griffith was able to tell at least four stories in a trans-historical political motive --the injustice and the intolerance throughout history, from Babylon to nineteenth century United States, painted with the colours of liberal politics. Up to the films of Frank Capra, idealizing the tensions between the individual and community, the classical Hollywood cinema constituted a classical model to see from the cinematographic point of view the public and communitarian domains of activity. Hence, if not a pure genre (since political issues can also serve as a background), classical political film remained thematic, i.e. political only insofar as it told stories about political and public issues. And the continuation of politics was already possible and already there: the war film (in the sense of the continuation of politics with different means, according to the classical formulation of Clausewitz) soon became a film genre apart, to live its peak during the Second World War American propaganda cinema especially for the recruitment of voluntary troops...

Yet the political was immanent in Soviet film. Not to be seen merely as a political propaganda, and in spite of Lenin's alleged formula to give priority to cinema among other arts, revolutionary Soviet film tended to become the eminent form of artistic avant-garde, with many filmographic inventions and experiments. The works of Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Vertov have been the most thorough and decisive explorations of the filmic means and expressions, a real conquest of the images and they were capable to develop their theoretical accounts of cinematography. Even in the context of the agitprop, Vertov's newsreels remained "poetical" and as quite complex masterpieces of filmic expression and of montage. And the films of Eisenstein proved to be almost the birthplace of the conquest of the cinematography, with extraordinary attempts of the author to give theoretical accounts into film-analysis. This grandiose filmic experience belonged at the same time to a developed artistic milieu: Russian formalism, constructivism and futurism, as well as the general communist movement inflected in the domain of arts. Yet, many of these movement pretended to be warriors of the communist case, as soon as they have been gathered together as circles like LEF and Bakhtin's Leningrad School of Aesthetics. Constructivism, to where belonged at first Dziga Vertov and his Kinoki movement did never pretended to be an artistic current, but rather to become a transformation of the art, a destructive force to bring art at the level of socialized work and to the appreciation levels of the proletarian masses. LEF on the other hand seemed to pretend to become a pure avant-garde, with the New Language of the New Man which has been declared to be born by the Bolsheviks. This was not simply a new model of modernism, since every Revolution till now had to be started by some kind of declaration --and this declarations, taking the official forms of "universal human rights", or "the new cult of reason" etc. Were in fact parts of a wider "declaration", that about the "new man", liberal in United States, revolutionary in the old continent. The Soviet avant-garde belonged to the second axis, continental, Jacobinist, but aesthetically aware in their fullest.

An artist, a poet, a filmmaker has the chances to be aware of the fact that his task is nothing but creating new sensations and perceptions of the world --that is, according to a Hegelian aesthetics, a matter of the "particularity". He or she has to do with "images" and he or she addressses to sensations, attempting to provide new points of view, new domains of reality. This belongs to a formula of Paul Klee, who urged that any new artistic development asks such a burning question: "what is this art still waiting for a people to come?" This is not purely a matter of appreciation. It is rather the problem already formulated by Nietzsche who poses one of the most fundamental questions of art: how the author of a work could reach the level of his work? Are the authors capable to reach the level and power of their works? And clearly, there are two means to achieve this --to let the work into the domain of collective intra-cerebral domain of variations and innovations, or to produce works under the futile name of "art work", based on imitation, tradition and repetition. One should then pose the question whether Constructivism for instance was an attempt to remove such a basis of repetition, which is something quite different from Benjamin's concept of "mechanical reproduction". Its intended task was to destroy the bourgeois ways of perceiving the world and society in particular, which could transform the entirety of human experience to liberate the forces inherent in such an experience. This was not a matter of rights or of restrained politics: aesthetics belongs to the everyday life, as particular objects brought by art into visibility are taken from the stream of such an ordinary life. At this level the famous Nietzschean question arises in a new vein: there is a parallelism between asking the question "what is the value of values" and the question "what is the reality of the real". Such a parallelism manipulates the established values by bringing forth ***

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