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(Response Paper) Cinema and Ideology with Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni

In response to: The Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni essay “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” from the journal “Screen”

A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class

This essay entitled “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” by French writers Jean-Luc Comolli and Jean Narboni started with an introduction of the pioneering French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema, offering a general overview of its objectives, goals, and ideology. It also presented the perennial question “What is film?” and “What is cinema?” – questions that continue to linger around many film discussions around the world. The most recent news relating to this involved Hollywood’s Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola who recently expressed their convictions on Marvel superhero films being theme park attractions – and they are not cinema. I agree with this reading’s collective belief that dissecting these terms invites much confusion due to the complexities entangled in their use in both the film industry and art discussions.

As I read further, the articulations about the political economy of film and the capitalist structure affecting the dominant ideology prevailing in the filmmaking system piqued my interest. The discussion examined the capitalist side of cinema where film is considered a commodity and tickets and contracts are governed by the laws of the market. It explained how film is both “a material product of the system” and “an ideological product of the system.” Considering how film is produced, manufactured, distributed, and understood, its existence, sustainability, and survival as an industry require it to work with the capitalist system in place. Indeed, being “objects of trade” where “audience demand and economic response are one and the same thing,” “what the public wants” means “what the dominant ideology wants.”

After examining the terms “cinema” and “art” both as branches of ideology, this reading categorized films based on their ideological functions. First, many films are “imbued through and through with the dominant ideology in pure and adulterated form,” yet the filmmakers behind these works (although their practice utilize thought-patterns of the ideology – with the whole thing working like a cycle in a closed circuit) are not aware of such ideological tendency. Second, there are “films which attack their ideological assimilation on two fronts” – attacking the ideology and becoming effective “when linked with a breaking down of the traditional way of depicting reality.” Third, certain films go against the grain where the content is not explicitly political, “but in some way becomes so through the criticism practiced on it through its form.” Fourth, there are films with “explicitly political content, but do not effectively criticize the ideological system in which they are embedded because they unquestioningly adopt its language and its imagery.” Fifth, certain films “seem at first to belong firmly within the ideology and to be completely under its sway, but which turn out to be so only in an ambiguous manner.” Sixth, films of the “live cinema” (cinema direct) variety are “films arising out of political (or, it would probably be more exact to say: social) events or reflections, but which make no clear differentiation between themselves and the nonpolitical cinema because they do not challenge the cinema’s traditional, ideologically conditioned method of depiction.” Lastly, there is the other kind of “live cinema” where “the director is not satisfied with the idea of the camera ‘seeing through appearances,’ but attacks the basic problem of depiction by giving an active role to the concrete stuff of his film.”

French philosopher Louis Althusser’s said, “Ideologies are perceived-accepted-suffered cultural objects, which work fundamentally on men by a process they do not understand. What men express in their ideologies is not their true relation to their conditions of existence, but how they react to their conditions of existence; which presupposes a real relationship and an imaginary relationship.” How filmmakers use an ideology when making films (whether they are aware of it or not) through the process and stages of production, techniques used, forms, meanings, subjects, styles, and narrative conditions made me agree that cinema is indeed an instrument of ideology. Interestingly, both filmmakers and film audiences find themselves processing (and at times, learning) these ideologies consciously or otherwise. As the reading noted, filmmakers, no matter how successful, are unable to make radical changes to the economic relations governing the manufacture and distribution of their films by simply offering revolutionary messages or expressing passionate sentiments. Those controlling the economic system governing the production and distribution of films try their best to maintain power and dominance using machineries and resources that are only available through them. For instance, considering the current revolutionary shift of the film audience’s viewing habits from spending time in movie theaters to the more accessible means of watching films via online streaming, those in power are the first ones to lay the strategic groundwork to ensure they capitalize on the new system, avoiding loss of power and control over their media products in the long term.

I agree that “Cinema is one of the languages through which the world communicates itself to itself. They constitute its ideology for they reproduce the world as it is experienced when filtered through the ideology.” As various filmmakers play different roles in providing the society with films to watch, consume, and even discuss, the critics come in because it is “the job of criticism to see where they differ.” In saying that “film analysis today is still massively predetermined by idealistic presuppositions,” then film criticism should be responsible in looking into the ideological system and its products, allowing the careful examination of various cases and phenomena to enrich the dialogue concerning various stories, themes, and issues. Considering how this essay expressed that “every film is political,” critics look into various cases and promote discourse significant in the society. Given this line of thought, it made me ponder much on the reading’s conviction that, “There can be no room in our critical practice either for speculation (commentary, interpretation, de-coding even) or for specious raving (of the film-columnist variety). It must be a rigidly factual analysis of what governs the production of a film (economic circumstances, ideology, demand, and response) and the meanings and forms appearing in it, which are equally tangible.”  As I processed these statements, I agreed on just a part of it, as there was a side of me that suddenly turned out very confused on the thought of becoming completely objective with no room for speculation in film criticism – it seemed too idealistic when writing about film because the film-viewing experience, as far as I’m concerned, always involves the spectator’s emotions as one builds a relationship with the screen and consumes and perceives the story presented in audio-visual form based on one’s understanding of signs and signifiers. 

Work Cited:

Comolli, Jean-Luc and Narboni, Jean.“Cinema/Ideology/Criticism,” Screen, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1971.

Related Readings (Film Theory and Criticism):
Rianne Hill I. Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano is a freelance production artist working as a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions.

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