Thinking in this way, we might recast Fried’s wonder about why modernist artists went to the cinema. Perhaps they were not (just) seeking refuge from the burdens of the seriousness of their work; perhaps they saw in the cinema a range of different ways of negotiating the same questions about the relation of artwork to beholder that they were themselves preoccupied with. On this view, cinema does not stand apart from Fried’s modernist history; it continues that history by other means.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the history of Hollywood production mirrors the history of venture capital in the United States, as each new film presents an idiosyncratic set of risk factors, and each new production or distribution technology distorts return forecasts for a new generation of film speculators.
Free State of Jones reminds us of this core truth of class with respect to labor, whether paid or unpaid—the shared material conditions and shared interests of those who are compelled by force or necessity to work.
I do not mean here to refer to the issue familiar in philosophy since Plato, the way the psyche can be shaped in very different ways by the education it receives and by the context of some particular regime. Democratic souls for democracies; oligarchic souls for oligarchies. Plato and many others keep the soul’s structure constant in such accounts, concentrating on the effects of the formation process on that structure. I think something much more radical is implicitly suggested by these films—that what counts as such a structure is at issue and open to real variation. This is particularly true of the psychological structure assumed in “explaining actions” or “assigning or accepting responsibility.” How we have come to think of that issue, the range of possible answers, may, if the brothers are right, have more to do with the imperatives of a particular social organization of power than it would be comfortable to admit.
The victory condensed in the forms of participation enabled by the VRA is necessary—a politics that does not seek institutional consolidation is ultimately no politics at all—but not sufficient for facing the challenges that confront us in this moment of rampant capitalist offensive against social justice, but neither are the essentially nostalgic modalities of protest politics often proposed as more authentic than the mundane electoral domain. It is past time to consider Prof. Legette’s aphorism and engage its many implications. And that includes a warrant to resist the class-skewed penchant for celebrating victories won in the heroic moment of the southern civil rights movement as museum pieces disconnected from subsequent black American political history and the broad struggle for social justice and equality.
Bonnard produced over one hundred paintings and prints in the 1890s that capture the bustling pace and brisk energy of Paris. He later referred to this subject as “the theater of the everyday,” and it is his particular vision of this sidewalk theater, and the viewer’s involvement in it, that I will investigate here, with particular attention to how his engagement with new media mattered to developing this vision. Playing off the chromatic constraints of lithography and echoing concurrent developments in early cinema, Bonnard shuttles the viewer between foreground and background, intimate proximity and distance. In so doing he explores the duality of the street as a disorienting amalgam of schematic backdrops and looming intrusions into our personal space, both seemingly captured at the limits of our visual field.
There is certainly an important place for what we might call experiential heuristics—the empiricist teasing out of emotional ontologies on the basis of experience to define what it means to be a sentient living being. There is an equally important place for the definition of a politics of feeling, as distinct from a politics of reasoning. What I suggest in the present intervention is that to engage with affect on either of these planes without considering the epistemological basis for our current cultural interest in and privileging of affective logic and inquiry is tantamount to missing the forest of knowledge construction for the trees of knowledge subsets.
A dominant “knowing irony” can suggest the kind of uncertainty, or reluctance to take any side in some important dispute, which is inconsistent with the high seriousness and mythic ambition of great Westerns. In the crisis situations portrayed in Westerns, indulge such an irony and you begin to sound like a Lee Marvin character, a cynic. The great problem in great Westerns is the possibility of and the nature of and especially the cost of civilized life itself.
So why is a tale about a manumitted slave/homicidal black gunslinger more palatable to a contemporary leftoid sensibility than either a similarly cartoonish one about black maids and their white employers or one that thematizes Lincoln’s effort to push the Thirteenth Amendment through the House of Representatives? The answer is, to quote the saccharine 1970s ballad, “Feelings, nothing more than feelings.”
In the case of Ballet mécanique, however, it is no longer a question of competing with or dominating spectacular vision from within painting. Opting for a different strategy, Léger works against cinematic absorption and the pseudo-intensity of cinema from within cinema itself.