martes, 2 de octubre de 2007

entrevista Richard Porton

An Interview With Richard Porton
By Andrew
Reading Richard Porton’s Film and the Anarchist Imagination [Verso 1999], brought me back to my love for film years after I more or less abandoned it for political activism. Politics really come first in my life – as a lot of the content on Lucid Screening probably shows – but I’m always holding out for those places, so few and far between, where film and politics can coincide to the benefit of both. I found such a place in Porton's book: in its exploration of an anarchist aesthetic, and for all its academic lingo, I hold it to be - along with Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed - one of the most intriguing pieces of anarchist theory written in the past fifty years.
The book left me wanting more. It’s in this spirit that I contacted Porton for an interview on the occasion of Andy Horbal’s Film-Criticism-Blog-a-thon.
Many thanks are due Porton, and not just for granting this interview: he is woefully rare in the world of both film and political criticism for his strong willingness to wrestle with, in his words, the “probably… irresolvable tension between great art and good politics.” In this interview, Porton discusses a broad range of subjects, among them the reception of his 1999 book; the aims of film criticism; his work as co-editor of Cineaste magazine; whatever anarchism might offer cinema; and that ever-pesky push and pull between aesthetics and politics.
Q: It has now been nearly eight years since the publication of Film and the Anarchist Imagination. It appeared at a time when interest in anarchism – represented, but by no means limited to the 1999 Seattle WTO protests – was increasing. What has been the book’s reception, among film critics, political activists, and others? In hindsight, what do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of the book?
Porton: While the book appeared at a propitious time when anarchism was emerging from the fog of obscurity (in the wake of the fall of Communism, anarchism was no longer a supposedly antiquated creed that supposedly fell by the wayside after 1917), it was conceived years before during an era when anti-authoritarian radicalism (anti-Leninist Marxism as well as anarchism) was condemned as “infantile leftism” by mainstream radicals and considered risible, if harmless, by mainstream politicos. I still cringe a bit when I recall meeting some graduate students in the 1980s during a research sojourn at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. One of them mentioned he was researching the history of Dutch social democracy and politely asked me about my field of interest. When I told him that I was exploring the relationship between film and anarchism, he burst out laughing. Even well-meaning film scholars assumed that “anarchist cinema” merely referred to either the inadvertently Dadaist comedy of the Marx Bros. or the rarefied realm of the avant-garde.
While I have considerable respect for both Groucho’s sardonic wit and experimental cinema, I was more interested in emphasizing affinities between specific “emancipatory moments” within the political history of anarchism (e.g. the Paris Commune, the Spanish Revolution) and cinema. Perhaps the burgeoning popularity of authors such as Murray Bookchin and, to a certain extent, Noam Chomsky, has familiarized intellectuals and leftists with this terrain. But when I started out, I had to contend with a lot of well-intentioned ignorance.
In general, the book was probably more warmly received by anarchists than film scholars. Although I received favorable reviews in film journals such as Film Quarterly, Sight and Sound, and Cineaste (while I’m one of the editors, I had nothing to do with assigning the book for review and recused myself from the review process), my work has been strenuously ignored by most film academics. For better or worse, Film and the Anarchist Imagination gave short shrift to most of the trends that captivate academic film scholars—whether formal analysis, convoluted Lacanian approaches or the fetishization of ephemeral pop culture obsessions. Yet anarchist film buffs didn’t seem to care about these matters and I’ve certainly benefited from their enthusiasm and knowledge. In the final analysis, it was a lmuch better decision to go with a political publisher like Verso than to pursue the route of a university press. It might have not given me much street cred with the academics. But I believe I probably reached a broader, and more activist, public.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised when Anarchy magazine published a highly critical review. After all, the book includes some fairly jaundiced remarks on John Zerzan, their favorite neo-primitivist guru. What did surprise me was the reviewer’s complaint that I had the audacity to write on films he couldn’t locate at his local video store or the fact that I wrote on “some musical” (which is how he characterized Rene Clair’s classic A Nous la liberté). I enjoy debating matters of substance and in fact sent in a letter to the editor detailing my objections. That’s useful—and I always enjoy the intellectual sparring in publications like The New York Review of Books and The Nation, as well as Anarchy. But I couldn’t understand this sort of willful ignorance. Perhaps it revealed a blind spot about film. You wouldn’t find many historians or literary critics complaining about recommendations of out-of-print books which can’t be found in the local Barnes and Noble. As far as I was concerned, this exemplified, consciously or not, corporate, conformist thinking. The reviewer sidestepped my complaint and —rather spuriously— went on to condemn my publisher, Verso, for distributing the writings of the Stalinist philosopher, Louis Althusser. He neglected to mention Verso’s other anarchist titles, as well as their list’s inclusion of seminal books by the Situationist Guy Debord.
While I strived to make the book accessible, if I was writing FATAI now I’d tone down its academic origins —and probably cut many of the extraneous footnotes. I’m very attuned to stylistic nuances and I feel queasy when re-reading certain passages. It would be nice to combine the literary flair of Nabokov with the scholarly incisiveness of Walter Benjamin. That might be an unattainable ideal, however. Most of us, given our more limited talents, have to embrace our own flawed, frequently compromised— not to mention mediocre— efforts.
Q: Talk a little about Cineaste. What is its history, and what has been your role at the magazine?
Porton: Cineaste was founded in 1967 by Gary Crowdus , who still serves as the editor-in-chief. From its inception, the magazine explored the frequently complex relationship between film and politics from a broadly “left,” but strictly non-sectarian, perspective. It’s certainly not an anarchist publication, but the editors have published pieces by anarchists, as well as Marxists and liberals (and even a few principled conservatives), over the years. I think it’s safe to say that, while the early years (from 1967 to approx. the mid-Seventies) were imbued with a “New Left” flavor , our focus in the last fifteen or twenty years has subtly shifted to a somewhat less didactic ideological coloration. The early issues are devoted to topics such as “Radical Documentary” and symposia on Marxist film criticism. In recent years, explicitly political articles are likely to share space with reviews, or occasionally entire supplements, devoted to aesthetic concerns such as film music, acting in the cinema, or film and Shakespeare. This seems like a good balance for us. Our research indicates that half the subscribers are film buffs who might also subscribe to other film magazines (e.g. Sight and Sound, Film Quarterly) while the remainder reads political journals like The Nation or The Progressive in tandem with Cineaste.
It’s a little difficult to define my “role” since small magazines don’t have elaborate hierarchies and nothing is set in stone. As the book review editor, I’ve done my best to attract a broad spectrum of writers to the magazine—everyone from working film journalists to scholars with rather narrow specialties. “Readability” (admittedly a tough notion to define) is our primary concern. Yet we’re usually willing to spend a fair amount of time massaging a writer’s prose if we think the piece in question makes important points. And certain writers are blessed with a gift for flashy prose but don’t succeed in saying much of substance.
I’ve also enjoyed publishing interviews with a wide range of directors, actors, and writers. Given the generous amount of space for in-depth Q and As, interviews have always loomed large in Cineaste. We try to avoid the superficial, gossipy tone that’s all too prevalent in more mainstream publications and aim for informed exchanges with serious artists. Even though good interviews foreground their subjects instead of the interviewer’s persona or quirks, they’re not artless. If done well, interviews also function as criticism as well as primary research.
Q: In the reviews published in Cineaste, as well as your own reviews, films are generally considered from many angles. In reviewing V for Vendetta, for instance, you weigh its political significance against its being a product of Hollywood, finding things to both love and hate about the film but never approving or disapproving of the film entirely. What makes this approach different from other forms of film criticism?
Porton: I suppose that Cineaste endeavors to differentiate its critical approach from the usual mainstream “thumbs up, thumbs down” orientation . Since a quarterly has the luxury of having the last word, we usually don’t hew to a strict pro/con dichotomy in our assessments. Even as a teenaged devotee of Dwight Macdonald and Pauline Kael’s work, I was always more intrigued by how they arrived at critical judgments than the judgments themselves. Despite often finding Kael and Macdonald (and, in subsequent years, Manny Farber or Serge Daney) wrongheaded, I admired their willingness to ignore fashion and put themselves out on a limb. Too many current critics seem overly cautious and appear to be looking over their shoulders to assure themselves that they aren’t expressing ‘uncool” opinions. This makes for dull, conformist criticism.
V for Vendetta was a peculiar example of a film which I found surprisingly fascinating despite being ridiculously compromised. On one level, it’s pure Hollywood hack work and I was initially quite sympathetic to commentators who condemned it as nothing more than a cynical evisceration of Alan Moore’s original graphic novel. Yet something quite intriguing, if not authentically radical, survives in this admittedly diluted version of anti-authoritarian fervor.
Q: What purpose(s) do you think film criticism can serve? What criteria do you bring to reviewing a film? How much of your film criticism owes to the analysis you developed in Film and the Anarchist Imagination?
Porton: In an ideal world, criticism would merge the purely journalistic aspects of the enterprise with the more philosophical implications of the word “critique”: an inquiry into the political and aesthetic contradictions of a film while suggesting avenues for further research. Pure and simple evaluation is not unimportant or without interest. Scripts, acting, direction, cinematography etc. are either good or bad and an incisive review should pay attention to the entire aesthetic arsenal which helps to make films execrable or worthwhile. When one considers everything that can go wrong with a film, it’s incredible that even a small number of them are good at all.
Nevertheless, I don’t think reviews should do nothing but delineate a film’s strengths and weaknesses. And political analyses like Film and the Anarchist Imagination pose other problems. The danger with books like mine, which employ political as well as aesthetic criteria, is that films will be reduced to little more than their ideological agendas. I was acutely aware while writing the book that some films with a “right on” message might be aesthetically impoverished while more reactionary films could be seductive— and often possess great aesthetic merit.
Towards the end of one of his lesser- known books, The Aesthetic Dimension, Herbert Marcuse quotes Walter Benjamin: “The tendency of a literary work can be politically correct only if it is also correct by literary standards.” (It would be easy to substitute the words “cinematic “and “film” for “literary” here.) Marcuse, however, worries that Benjamin’s “identification of literary and political quality in the domain of art…harmonizes the tension between literary form and political content.” So while we all would probably condemn Stalinist demands that literature and film conform to some pre-digested formula (e.g. “ Socialist Realism”), there is probably always some irresolvable tension between great art and good politics. While Benjamin’s aphorism may be, as Marcuse asserts, a bit too glib, it’s infinitely better than the prescriptive aesthetics endorsed by some rigid ideololgues. As long as a political critic is not a party hack, he or she is probably fascinated , and perhaps frequently disturbed, by the inevitable tension between the domains of art and politics.
On one level, FATAI is plagued by my debt to a variant of militant criticism that ordains (in my own idiosyncratic fashion) that everything be filtered through an anarchist lens. But I hoped— perhaps naively— that an anarchist lens might be less dogmatic or hidebound than a Marxist one; anarchists, after all, don’t worry about silly correlations between the “material base” and the ideological “superstructure.”
Still, like Nabokov, I believe there is something one can term “aesthetic bliss” (an ideological shibboleth and an idealist fallacy for many radical critics) and this elusive phenomenon is not easily reconcilable with simple ideological goals.
Q: Growing up in the American public school system, I am sure I am not alone in the experience of films being used as substitutes for actual education; if a video was being shown in class it was a reprieve from giving lessons for the teacher, and an opportunity to tune out for the students. You’ve argued in the past – including a presentation at the 2000 Renewing the Anarchist Tradition conference – that cinema has potential as a form of anarchist pedagogy. What is this potential, and is it in conflict with how we are generally taught to receive media images in this society, film in particular? When has this pedagogical potential been fulfilled in the past? Is it being fulfilled today?
Porton: The problem, as you imply, is that most of us—and probably not just Americans—associate words like “pedagogy” and “education” with drudgery and boredom, with classroom monotony instead of “recess.” Given what I’ve written about aesthetic bliss above, I believe certain exemplary films offer a vision of “recess” instead of school. This belief engendered a desire to define a tangibly playful pedagogy— manifestly pleasurable as well as instructive. (After all, even that old Stalinist Brecht hoped for a felicitous synthesis of “pleasure and instruction.”).
Unfortunately, I had to confront the fact that some postmodern critics posited a superficially similar notion of pedagogy. I eventually dismissed the postmodern infatuation with pedagogy as arid, narcissistic and, in the final analysis, a dead end. A lot of these postmodernists, besotted with Derrida and his disciples, also invoke playfulness and opposition to rigid hierarchies. But I found their methodologies pseudo-radical since, whether consciously or not, they’re more interested in the cleverness of their own deconstructive sleight of hand than in genuine social change or anti-authoritarian pedagogy.
I ‘d have to say that my notion of anarchist pedagogy was closely tied to a belief in the efficacy of self-emancipation, a vital, actually essential, component of anti-authoritarian politics. Political and personal autonomy are of course closely intertwined. If you read accounts of great periods of revolutionary upheaval—e.g. the Paris Commune, the Spanish Revolution— masses of people who once felt powerless became responsible for their own liberation. Similarly, anarchist filmmakers—Vigo comes to mind—are involved, perhaps unwittingly, in both self-emancipation and the creation of movies that allow viewers to emancipate themselves in a fashion that might be termed, if the terminology is made flexible, “pedagogical.” In a parallel vein, activist filmmakers who chronicle social ferment also help to dissolve the boundaries between teaching others and teaching themselves. It would obviously be silly to assert that children don’t need help from adults in learning to read and performing basic skills. But the fundamental goal is to eventually efface artificial divisions between teacher and student. A film like Zero for Conduct, which is such a perfect synthesis of lyrical beauty and anti-authoritarian critique, might enable us to pursue such a goal. And, in a more utilitarian fashion, non-fiction films are often a spur to action; the recipient of knowledge becomes more than a passive consumer.
Q: If cinema, as pedagogy, has something to offer anarchists, does anarchism have something to offer cinema?
Porton: As you know, “anarchism” isn’t a coherent body of work. You can’t, as in Marxism, point to a canonical text like Capital. The anarchists of the so-called classical period— Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin—didn’t write much about aesthetics and much of what they did write on the subject seems a bit antiquated to us today. But, in an era when the word “utopia” is either abused (postmodern academics believe every crappy TV show or music video can be considered “utopian”) or derided (conservatives believe that the debacle of Communism invalidated utopian thought altogether), anarchism can offer filmmakers a vision of the future that is neither governed by the cash nexus as in capitalism or the fetishization of technology and the Party line that eventually sank Leninism and state socialism. The celebration of the “free commune” in Bakunin, as well as in later anarchist thinkers such as Gustav Landauer (for more on Landauer and his legacy, see Russell Jacoby’s recent Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age), is probably more pertinent to anarchist filmmakers than any facile aesthetic prescription. Unlike Vigo, many of the most interesting filmmakers I discuss in my book are unwittingly anarchistic and FATAI attempted to demonstrate that the Renoir of Boudu Saved from Drowning or the Makavejev who made WR: Mysteries of the Organism, whatever their extrinsic political affiliations, might be considered more genuinely “anarchist” than more plodding filmmakers responsible for Sacco and Vanzetti biopics and the like. In other words, anarchist practice can perhaps offer filmmakers a radically utopian vision that translates into an aesthetic modus operandi. Anarchists aren’t merely interested in overturning the state; they also want to overturn reified human relationships and introduce new visions of community. I think you can discern that sort of vision in films by directors such as Vigo, Renoir, and Makavejev.
Q: You’ve written – both in Cineaste and in several newspaper editorials – that non-linear narrative and experimental cinema is almost non-existent in popular American filmmaking, which almost exclusively favors clear character motivations, well-defined conflicts and resolved plots. Authors like bell hooks have noted how avant-garde filmmaking is exceedingly strait-jacketed by industry standards (see her essay “Back to the Avant-Garde: The Progressive Vision” ), and film-makers like Aishah Shahidah Simmons have spoken of the difficulty in receiving funding for film’s addressing marginalized topics (Simmons is director of NO!, a recent documentary on sexual assault in African American communities. See The Power of NO!, an interview in the Fall 2006 issue of Clamor magazine)
Porton: Hmm…maybe part of the problem is that there isn’t a monolithic conception of what constitutes “the avant-garde.” One person’s avant-garde is another’s kitsch or hopeless pretension. There’s also no disputing the reality of avant-garde cinema’s frequent co-optation by what we used to call the Establishment. Kenneth Anger notes correctly that editing strategies used in his own experimental films were eagerly appropriated by advertising agencies, none of whom (logically enough) were interested in anything resembling aesthetic “subversion.” Assuming that anarchism fosters skepticism towards the aims of the State, should we be surprised that it’s difficult to receive funding for “marginalized” topics from state agencies (or, for that matter, from private foundations with at least tenuous ties to the government)? As far as stylistic conservatism is concerned, the “well-defined conflicts” and simplistic plots you refer to are probably attributable to the American film industry’s rampant condescension towards the viewing public. American movies are actually much more stylistically conservative now than they were in the late Sixties and early Seventies. It would now be unthinkable for a major studio to even consider producing a film on the order of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (Paramount, 1969) or Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (Universal, 1971).
Peter Burger’s The Theory of the Avant-Garde still provides the best account of aesthetic radicalism and its disparate aspirations. “Modernism” is often confused with “the avant-garde.” Burger, on the other hand, emphasizes important differences between these two currents: Twentieth-century modernists like Proust and Eliot were primarily concerned with formal innovation. Political avant-gardists—Dadaists, Surrealists, Situationists etc.—yearned to merge experimental art with a transformation in everyday life. The latter project may have failed. But there’s little doubt that these yearnings still have enormous appeal for the young descendants of those European avant-gardists.
Q: In what ways are social inequities reflected in the American film industry as well as the global film industry at large? How do they shape what films get made and what films are seen? How is this changing – if at all – with the advent of cheaper technologies, such as DVDs and digital cameras?
Porton: The inequities of corporate globalization have, and always have had (since the beginning of cinema in 1895), an enormous impact on distribution patterns within the international film industry. For anyone who wants a more detailed explanation, extended discussions of this inescapable fact are included in various books, the best of which are probably the British Film Institute’s Global Hollywood 2 (edited by Toby Miller et. al.) and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Films We Can See. With the exception of a few countries—namely India and South Korea—where indigenous genre films outmaneuver Hollywood product at the box office, most national cinemas find it hard to compete with U.S. studio films. Even , say, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang, acclaimed as masters by American and European critics, complain that their films rarely enjoy long commercial runs at home in Taiwan.
It’s true that the advent of digital video and the Internet enable some adventurous filmmakers to circumvent this sort of corporate stranglehold. Anyone with access to a relatively inexpensive video camera and a computer with Final Cut Pro can now, at least in theory, make a more than respectable film. Yet even young maverick filmmakers are eaten up by an “indie” star system that is often no less elitist than the Hollywood behemoth. Personal, often insular, films are usually preferred to explicitly political work (note, for example, the festival success of Jonathan Caouette’s homemade confessional film, Tarnation). Quite recently, we’ve also seen how YouTube is functioning as a stepladder to commercial success for aspiring filmmakers. None of this should dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, however. From another vantage point, we can also note the existence of radical film collectives (e.g. the British group “Undercurrents”) on the Internet. I was recently amazed to learn that many rare anarchist films, including some CNT movies which I screened at Madrid’s Filmoteca Espanola during a visit in the late 1980s, are now widely available at the following address:
Q: You have written, “Like it or not, there is an inherent tension between the private, necessarily introspective, reverie of movie love and the public realm of political activism, which is often as all-consuming as being a film buff and allows little time for attending film festivals or screenings of obscure films.” In your work, you’ve discussed groups in the past who have tried to wed the love of film with their politics; the Wisconsin Film Society, for example, was one group made up of film buffs and antiwar organizers in the 1960s. How do you manage this tension in your own work? What groups today – if any – are attempting to walk the line?
Porton: I recently noticed an intrepid blogger’s objection to the very sentence you’ve cited. I stood accused of unwarranted pessimism. If I remember correctly, the blogger contended that he and his friends were quite willing and able to balance political activism and cinephilia. All I can say is good for him and his friends. I guess my gloomier analysis was based on personal experience (and it may have even functioned as a covert auto-critique). Anyone who has observed so-called “film nerds” in a metropolitan setting is well aware that these people, however amiable, are solitary, often lonely, individuals devoted to a largely private, solipsistic pursuit. Most of the cinephiles who traipse from one repertory cinema to another in a city like New York are probably quite “progressive” in their political outlook. Nevertheless, aside from exchanging film schedules and tips on rare DVDs, it would be difficult to argue that these buffs belong to anything resembling a genuine “community.”
I wouldn’t want to present an overly idealized portrait of the Sixties. It’s just that it was an undeniably rare decade in which radical film culture and radical activism coincided. It was perfectly possible for students at the Univ. of Wisconsin and other institutions to attend a demonstration in the morning, drop by a Fritz Lang retrospective in the afternoon, and then become immersed in political meetings during the evening. A unified campus setting obviously provided a convenient locus for both cultural and political activities. It’s difficult, in our more fragmented, politically quiescent era, to think of real equivalents.
I can’t really say I’m aware of any recent groups that, as you put it, “walk the line.” I would be pleased to learn that I’m wrong, though. Perhaps someone out in the cyberspace ether can correct me. There are of course on-line discussion groups such as “ film and politics”— —that discuss many of these matters at length. Discussion groups like these are certainly quite useful. But they’re intellectual salons, not activist groups per se.
I’m not entirely sure if I succeed in “managing this tension” in my own work. At times, you just have to acknowledge certain tensions and agree to live a contradictory existence. A sense of humor and a certain self-irony helps. I might admire the absolute commitment of certain activists. Most of us aren’t that selfless and, at best, attend occasional demonstrations and sign petitions.
Personally, I think it’s a bit hubristic for intellectuals and academics to claim that critical or theoretical endeavors qualify as activism or radical forms of intervention. If truth be told, it’s really quite arrogant.
Q: You conclude Film and the Anarchist Imagination by admitting “critics are rarely soothsayers.” Disregarding this warning for a moment, what do you think the future holds for cinema and for political cinema in particular?
Porton: Since I’m still not a soothsayer, all I can do is summarize certain notable tendencies within recent political cinema. Since the end of the Cold War, what we used to refer to as the “Third World” has unquestionably produced the best political films. Jia Zhang Ke’s The World, Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold, and Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé deal with various political abstractions—globalization, the encroachment of the State upon personal life, feminist resistance—in an engagingly concrete and vivid manner. As much as I admire the perseverance of a Western leftist filmmaker like Ken Loach, I have to admit that his films come off as quite stale and hackneyed in comparison. In this country, Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One (2002) is one of the rare films from the current decade that synthesizes formal ingenuity and political commitment.
Even though the U.S. and Western Europe can’t really match the political audacity of Iranian, Chinese, or African filmmakers, documentaries continue to be the saving grace of North American and European cinema. Although there are numerous exemplary non-fiction films I could mention, some recent highlights include Adam Curtis’s The Power of Nightmares, Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s Our Daily Bread, and Chris Marker’s The Case of the Grinning Cat.
The cinematic terrain may eventually shift. But, for the foreseeable future, we’ll probably continue to look to Africa and Asia for insightful political narratives and draw political sustenance from the many cogent documentaries available on our own turf.

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