William VanWert, John Hess, and
Cut, no. 5, 1975, pp. 15-18
William Van Wert’s comments below were originally part of a letter to Barbara Martineau when the first manuscript of her article on WOMAN OF THE GANGES was being considered by the JUMP CUT editorial board. Martineau suggested printing his remarks with her reply. John Hess’s reply to the present article follows, and is followed in turn by Martineau’s reply to Van Wert and Hess. For the context of this discussion see the editorial in this issue.
Invisible film, invisible audiences
Needless to say, I was very happy to see something on Duras.
I've been dragging people to DESTROY, SHE SAID for a couple of years now. I even used it for a beginning film course. All but ten of my students hated me for it. Most found it unbearable. With much discussion, I finally convinced them that their hatred was a positive reaction and that, because of it, they would never forget it. I remember seeing JULIET OF THE SPIRITS when it first came out and hating it because it affected me and I didn't know why. Two years later, I saw it again, knew why and loved it. Sartre said, “To see is to immediately recognize.” If true, then Duras’ films are doubly difficult in the sense that recognition demands a new kind of film-viewing mind-set: deliberately long takes, freeze frames, little or no movement within the frame, dialogues in monotone, mixed objective/ subjective camera, and symbolism, which, like the Surrealists’ involves a poetic lack of concrete referents (the forest, the fire, etc.).
Anyway—the article itself. I really liked it and I didn't like it at all at the same time. More specifically, I liked everything you had to say. I was bothered (which means bogged down) by how you said it. Let me clarify. I think that perhaps you try to do too much: you summarize three novels, you allude to others, and you deal with the film(s). It’s not clear exactly what your point of view is: aesthetic, feminist, political, all three.... Perhaps that feeling of too much is a problem of assimilation. For example, I wish you could integrate the quotes, especially those from Les Parleuses better into your text. The summary of The Ravishing of Lol. V. Stein, The Vice-Consul, and Love ultimately means a great deal in terms of WOMAN OF THE GANGES, but how many readers do you think will bear with you until that understanding comes? My suggestion would be that you constantly make WOMAN OF THE GANGES your focal point. Keep coming back to it. In other words, at the appropriate moment, while discussing WOMAN OF THE GANGES, cut away momentarily to talk about The Ravishing of Lol. V. Stein. That way, you're not forced to do all three novels sequentially. The problem with doing them sequentially is that it’s too dry and in a vacuum. The reader loses track of the point and even starts wondering which are novels and which are films.
I think it’s crucial to note Duras’ radical conception of multiple forms for the same art work. That is, DESTROY, SHE SAID is simultaneously a novel, a play, a poem, a film, a musical piece. Some discussion of that point would further justify your using the novels to explain the film.
Early in the discussion you mention the film of the voices and the film of the images. Not until the end, however, do you really come back to that contrapuntal relationship. Your text deals with the film of the images. Your quotes deal with the film of the voices. Do you think you could integrate the two more? Perhaps by concentrating our focus on a few particular scenes in which the counterpoint appears to be most effective. to you?
Barbara, I find your language very poetic, in fact, in places very much like Duras’ language. There is a problem though. Your ideas are very perceptive, but your language isn't very perceptual. Assume that most of your readers will never have seen a Duras film, never have read a Duras novel. You've got to make them SEE that film through your writing. Does that make sense?
Finally, the point of view. I'm turned on when you speak of the film in terms of feminism. Conversely, I'm put off when you speak of the film in terms of radical politics. Feminism, of itself, involves radical politics so effectively that it seems to me unnecessarily dealing with too much to speak in terms of the bourgeoisie and social class structure. Specifically, you state that only members of the bourgeoisie are uncomfortable with the image of the forest in DESTROY. More to the point, isn't there a concrete feminist statement involved? Max Thor and Stein go in the forest but do not suggest its power or meaning. Elizabeth Alione and Alissa by their fears and fascinations, prepare the viewer for the intrusion of the forest at the end. (In terms of audience response, the reverse seems true. My men students were very uncomfortable with the “forest” ; whereas my women students accepted it or felt they had understood it. What do you think?)
As you can see, I have reservations, but they're such that you wouldn't need to rewrite much for a revision. Basically, you would need to reshuffle some sections, restate your focus on WOMAN OF THE GANGES more often throughout and revisualize your discussion of that film so that you become the camera eye for the reader (so that the reader can envision the look of the film better).
I hope my comments haven't discouraged you. It’s a good piece and a very important one, I think. In addition, your perspective as a feminist makes the piece even more crucial. It’s a tough film, and your point is that it’s a feminist film. If a reader doesn't understand the film through your article, does that mean that she/he doesn't understand feminism? That question may very well arise, do you see? And there you are somewhere in the middle, trying to do justice to an invisible (for most readers) film and, at the same time, to do justice to invisible readers.
My strong disagreement with Barbara Martineau’s review of Marguerite Duras’ LA FEMME DU GANGE rests partially on a consideration of the above policy statements, but also on her failure to prove her basic assertions about the film’s political significance to the women’s movement and on the mystification involved in this failure. As these basic points are totally interrelated, this analysis will not divide neatly into 1.2.3 ..., but will follow the general progression outlined here. At the beginning of her review, Martineau admits that any understanding and appreciation of LA FEMME DU GANGE depends upon one’s knowledge of Duras’ writing and/or upon a familiarity with the French cinematic avant-garde. This is fair enough, but Martineau, rather than dealing sympathetically and helpfully with our possible lack of experience with her two areas of interest, uses this admission against the reader.
She immediately quotes Duras on the milieu of her birth: Nepal, Calcutta, Vietnam. Then she points out the gap between the “milieu of the audience and filmmaker.” Therewith she gives a typical example of the kind of false and misleading analogies which appear whenever she doesn't want to deal with a problem she can't overlook. What are the two “milieux” she compares here? One is our state of ignorance about Duras’ work and the French cinematic avant-garde; the other is the Far East, the milieu of Duras’ birth and childhood. The first term in Martineau’s analogy is the level and breadth of our education. The second is the geographic location (perhaps the emotional effects, too) of Duras’ childhood. In the first place they are not equal terms and in the second place they represent a distortion of Julia Lesage’s presentation of what film critics should consider when reviewing a film (in Women and Film, no. 5-6). The Far East is the setting of Duras’ film, not necessarily the “milieu” of the filmmaker. Her milieu is more accurately Paris/ French intellectual life, culture, and politics. Martineau just doesn't want to go to the considerable trouble to bridge the gap between Duras’ milieu and ours—as Julia Lesage does in her article on Godard-Gorin’s WIND FROM THE EAST (JUMP CUT, no. 4). The snobbery apparent in Martineau’s final comment about “Saturday matinee popcorn orgies” permeates the review and is what makes it elitist, not the fact that it is about a very complex film.
Martineau claims that this film is relevant to “the current needs of the women’s movement to effect a massive change in consciousness,” but that it, as part of the avant-garde “may expand and revolutionize the consciousness of the few” (my emphasis).(1) The enormity of the need expressed here compared to the tenuousness and vagueness of the possibility this film seems to offer raises the question whether Martineau wants to bridge this gap, to show how Duras’ film tries to meet this “need of the women’s movement” or whether she simply wants to demonstrate that she is one “of the few.” For while the explicit intent of the review is to show the relevance of Duras’ film, to show why “considerable effort on the part of the audience” is justified by the film’s political relevance and significance, Martineau, at all the key junctures in her discussion, whenever she seems about to explain the film’s political relevance, interrupts her line of reasoning with rhetorical, grammatical, and logical confusions which destroy this explicit intent of the review. This rhetorical strategy of the review maintains Martineau’s privileged position among the few. It’s a position she feels she should lose if she tried to make Duras’ work accessible to a wider audience. Writing about this film in this way says to me that it is more fun and interesting for Martineau to try to imitate Duras’ style and tone than to explain why it is important for people to understand this work. I find her underlying assumptions all the more elitist because they are hidden behind the appearance of an effort to contribute to the women’s movement and the political movement toward socialism.
Having, in an elitist fashion, defended her effort against the charge of elitism, Martineau goes on to mystify her project further. She feels confronted by a dilemma. To “show how LA FEMME DU GANGES can revolutionize consciousness,” she must first “explain the background of the film.” There are two reasons why this obvious necessity becomes a dilemma for her. First she considers her audience so ignorant that explaining the background would not help this imagined audience understand the film. Second, there is the ahistorical view that understanding the past does not help one understand the present. Martineau knows perfectly well that she must explain some of the film’s background, but she does not want to do it. Instead of admitting this and giving her reasons, she obfuscates by disrupting communication:
How pompous can one get? Writing and publishing the article already “presupposes the film’s significance.” Who clogged the prose? Martineau is setting up screens to reduce the accessibility of her work, to reject the wider audience, to prove her individuality, superiority, and specialness—she is making herself one “of the few” again, at our expense.
Martineau defends Duras’ work here primarily because she says it has relevance for the women’s movement, will raise women’s consciousness. To prove this she quotes a passage from Molly Haskell’s book, From Reverence to Rape. Haskell has women arriving at an anaesthetized stasis after which there is some sort of sacrifice out of the ashes of which, Phoenix-like, “a new woman will be born.” The only problem is that women and men alike raise their consciousness, not Phoenix-like, but in response to the oppression—sexual, racial, economic—of capitalist society and then learn to struggle against this oppression. In the process, in the course of this struggle, no new women or men are born. That will have to await the outcome. A new perspective and solidarity are achieved. Although they represent no triumph over alienation and oppression, they do represent an awareness of the ongoing responsibility to fight against the socio-economic system which causes the alienation and oppression.
According to Martineau, Duras’ film fosters “revolutionary change by posing a dialectic between rage and hope.” This makes no sense at all. Hope doesn't grow up in opposition to rage or vice versa. Neither feeling can be the antithesis of the other (the meaning of dialectic). Rage grows up in opposition to oppression. In Eisenstein’s POTEMKIN, for example, poor living conditions on the ship produce anger which causes repression by the officers. This repression brings rebellion into being. Each progressive development ups the ante, so to speak, as human society moves up the dialectical spiral toward social revolution. Martineau/ Haskell’s dialectic between rage and hope” mystifies by its very lack of clarity and precision.
Martineau’s inability or unwillingness to deal with how consciousness is raised, how society is changed, and with the forces involved, reflects a confusion evident in Duras’ own self-proclaimed revolutionary work. In her introduction to Duras’ ‘Destroy...,’ Barbara Bray sees one of the character’s desire for “capital destruction” as the longing for the “fundamental annihilation of ‘civilized’ egoism.” Bray further claims that an “immediate impulse for it might be traced in the ‘events’ of May in Paris two years ago .” The tenuousness and evasiveness of the word “might” and the vague goal of annihilating “'civilized’ egoism” characterizes Duras’ work and Martineau’s presentation of it. U.S. advertisers and public relations people call every new artwork, fashion, or commodity “revolutionary.” They only mean that this commodity is a novelty and replaces previous ones, making them absolute. But in a political sense, “revolution” has a very specific meaning—the overthrow of one class and social order by another one. There is a big difference between these two uses of the word. Any radical, feminist or otherwise, must have a very clear idea of what they mean by “revolution” and use the term carefully.
Martineau tells us that Duras uses music as a symbol for revolution. This may be so, but music is a singularly inappropriate symbol for revolution. This is because as the most abstract of the arts, music can only be a vague, undifferentiated, and thereby obfuscating symbol unless it is given a more precise meaning in the context of the film. For example, the cries of the Arab women in BATTLE OF ALGIERS (a sort of song) express the revolutionary rage of the Arab masses against their French colonial masters. In WIND FROM THE EAST the flutist gropes for, and finally finds the right notes to make a political song. But Duras’ stated use of music to mean revolution does not become further elaborated in the film (according to Martineau, at least). Martineau further denudes the word “revolution” of meaning by stating as her major defense of the film that it “revolutionizes consciousness, especially ... insofar as it transforms material previously presented by Duras.” Does this mean that Victor Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND is a revolutionary film because it transforms material previously presented in Margaret Mitchell’s novel? I don't think this is what Barbara Martineau means to say, but what does she mean to say?
Then there is the brief comparison between LA FEMME DU GANGES and Barbara Loden’s WANDA. Martineau makes this comparison in order to defend Duras’ films against the charge that “they are too depressing and too empty.” She offers a number of ways in which Duras’ film does not just “limit itself to the depiction of a depressing reality” as WANDA does. Here, as usual when she feels called upon to explain something, Martineau disrupts communication. She says that Duras’ film does not “limit itself to the depiction of a depressing reality” because in the film “there is no pretense of ‘reality’ .” Duras is off the hook; we can't accuse her of limiting herself to something she doesn't show, can we? But we can accuse Martineau of obfuscating and mystifying what she wants to hide. She again throws a false and misleading analogy at us. The word “reality” is being used in two different senses in these two phrases. The “depressing reality” of the first means depressing actuality, the actual depressing conditions of a woman’s life, in WANDA for example. “Pretense of ‘reality” is an aesthetic category referring to realism as a style of presentation. Martineau is trying to say that a non-realistic work—in content and style—automatically does not limit itself to the presentation of a depressing reality. But neither does a realistic work. The novels of Flaubert, Baizac, Zola, Mann, films such as STATE OF SIEGE, BATTLE OF ALGIERS, and MEMORIES OF UNDERDEVELOPMENT—are realistic works of art which do not limit themselves to the presentation of a depressing reality. These three films do that, perhaps, but they go on to suggest far more than that—they all point the way to change—to revolution if you like.
The question here is not realism versus non-realism but political relevance versus irrelevance. Anyone even vaguely familiar with the work of Eisenstein, Vertov, Brecht, and, Godard cannot—should not—write off non-realistic modes of expression. Martineau need not defend Duras’ work because it is part of the French avant-garde. Why Martineau substitutes this non-issue for the correct one she begins her review with—political relevance—is unclear to me. Maybe it’s a battle she would rather fight. Defending the avant-garde is less risky and perhaps more fun than defending a socialist perspective.
According to Martineau, Duras goes beyond this “depressing reality” by suggesting that the characters are reacting against “a bourgeois suffocation.” How LA FEMME DU GANGES suggests this any more strongly than WANDA does is not explained—perhaps it’s because the characters are more solidly bourgeois. Fictional characters have been reacting against bourgeois suffocation ever since there was a bourgeoisie—that’s what romanticism is all about. In fact, reaction against or the presentation of “bourgeois suffocation” has become one of the more tiresome aspects of modern bourgeois art. Antonioni and Bergman have made a good living from doing it well. Fictional characters have been reacting against bourgeois suffocation ever since there was a bourgeoisie. And this reaction has had a very progressive side to it. But ultimately it becomes deadening and tiresome when no concrete effort is made on the part of the artist to go beyond the suffocation in some constructive way. In 1975 we know too many alternatives to bourgeois suffocation to see anything very positive in one more attack on its existence.
Finally, Martineau wants us to accept the idea that Duras goes so far as to suggest revolution as what is needed “to change their condition of suffocation.” (A little fresh air might help.) But the closer we get to a little revolution, the more static jams the lines of communication. What we get in the way of explanation is a gnarled non-sentence with two illogical parentheses. Sifting through the debris, we find that as proof of the revolutionary nature of the film (actually only a “suggestion” of revolution), Martineau offers a series of destructions carried out in the film: of music, of property, of sentimentality, of filmic illusions, of comfortable assumptions about identity. But all of these destructions have been standard fare in modern art since symbolism or before. In the work of artists such as Toller, Brecht, Vertov, Aragon, and Godard, this characteristic has been revolutionary because these artists sought to replace the bourgeois present with a socialist future. But as Martineau says, in Duras’ film we are left with “warped music” and a “polluted sea,” sounds and images which shut off development, drain energy and deny revolution.
I can't discern from Martineau’s badly flawed presentation of Duras’ film whether it (like Godard’s or Straub’s work) has enough political significance to warrant the great effort it would take to come to terms with it. Martineau’s discussion hasn't even made me curious. Clearly, as Godard, Straub, and the Cubans have shown, there exist infinite possibilities for formal invention and novelty in the field of political filmmaking. Films and filmmakers will not overthrow capitalism, but they can put many important issues on the agenda not only in the realm of aesthetics but also in the realm of politics. It is, for me, to the full discovery and discussion of these possibilities and of the critical tools for cultural criticism and analysis that JUMP CUT is dedicated. In this context, I fully support a discussion of the extent to which Duras or any other avant-garde filmmaker has developed these possibilities. But, I resist the use of our pages as a forum for intellectuals to prove that they are “of the few.” That is not the purpose for which JUMP CUT was started and I hope that is not what it will become.
1. That the avant-garde might affect a few and that this effect will then spread is one of the most cherished and least realized beliefs of the avant-garde. The burden of proof lies on the avant-garde to support this claim. In-this respect it is interesting to note some recent articles on avant-garde filmmaking in The Velvet Light Trap, No. 13 (fall, 1974): Russell Campbell, “Eight Notes on the Underground” and Ellen Freyer, “Formalist Cinema: Artistic Suicide in the Avant-Garde.”
Women and the means of communication
John Hess’ comments on my article on LA FEMME DU GAUGE represent a kind of destructive criticism which too often sacrifices verity for clarity. I recognize that Hess is in the awkward position of writing against an article he is publishing. And seen by itself it has a convincing air. When first read it I was far from my own writing and wondered if I had in fact failed as dismally as he suggests. But rereading my piece and comparing it with what Hess says, I am convinced that he has distorted what I've written and added things which aren't there and aren't implied.
The basis of Hess’ attack is that I am elitist and therefore obscurantist—this arises from my initial reference to Duras’ background and my final reference to Saturday afternoon popcorn orgies—but the assumption in neither case is grounded in my text. I make no reference to the reader’s “ignorance.” I do attempt to provide some information which I remark that “intelligent, responsive friends” have not had; why is that elitist? Hess says that my reference to “milieu” is a distortion of Julia Lesage’s theory, but he doesn't explain why. Why is Duras’ early background less important than her present background (which I also mention), when she herself remarks on its importance? We then leap to the “snobbery” of my “popcorn orgies” remark. Let me say for now and forever that I'm a popcorn addict (provided it comes with melted butter—is that snobbish?), and that I was simply indicating that there are times when one (including me) wouldn't want to do the work of watching Duras’ film with the care it demands. I assumed that JUMP CUT readers might share my addiction (the picture of popcorn in issue #3 is a special favorite of mine) and take my distinction as a functional one. More seriously, Hess refers several times to my placing myself as one of “the few” whose consciousness may be revolutionized by Duras’ film. But this is a wrong quotation. I speak of “a few” with no value judgment attached, and read in context, it is clear that I consider Duras’ film has revolutionized consciousness, as the avant-garde may do.
Having decided that what he finds obscure in my writing stems from snobbery, Hess sees no reason to seek positive reasons for my choice to write the piece as I did, assuming instead that my “rhetorical, grammatical, and logical confusions” are my way of evading an explanation of “the film’s political relevance.” I would like to go into this further in my response to Bill Van Wert’s more constructive criticisms. Here I'll just note that Hess goes on to attack Molly Haskell, Barbara Bray, and Marguerite Duras as writers who, like me, are guilty of a failure to understand political theory and convey it clearly. I'm honored by the company, and wonder if Hess is not responding with hostility to the efforts of women writers attempting to work outside conventional critical modes. This bias appears in his refusal of the terms “may” and “might”—obviously not cocksure enough for so conclusive a critic as John Hess. But Hess’ own sureties rest on very thin air. He repeats that I consider my audience ignorant and says that I take an ahistorical view. Both assumptions come from nothing I wrote. On the contrary, my attempt to provide background honors the importance of the past for the present. My apology for my difficulty in presenting this background clearly is an apology to an intelligent audience which I assume shares some of my concern not to distort in the interest of presenting an easy interpretation.
Hess’ attack on my obscurantism becomes obscure itself, as when he shuttles between an unjust attack on Molly Haskell and a refusal of my modification of Haskell’s terms. Haskell’s book has its problems, and also its insights. Hess doesn't bring us nearer to understanding the insights by rejecting out of hand a concept which has been central to the women’s movement, what I refer to as “a dialectic between rage and hope.” True, it’s not exactly what Eisenstein presented in POTENKIN—why should it be? Women have discovered that the formulation and release of their so-long-suppressed rage is a positive act which both leads to and makes room for hope for a future which can be achieved only by revolutionary action, which in turn leads to further rage and further action against the present contradictions standing in the way of those hopes. And that leads to action which is at once destructive and constructive. In Duras’ work this action is symbolized by music, distorted, but nevertheless hopeful. Hess’ complete failure to understand this possibility suggests he may not have taken into account yet another good woman writer, Suzanne Langer. Her discussion of music’s precise significance in Philosophy in a New Key should have forever prevented remarks about music as a symbol being “vague, undifferentiated, and therefore obfuscating.”
Obfuscation seems more appropriate to describe Hess’ account of my final paragraph, which on the one hand uses my description of Duras’ destructions to lump her with Bergman and Antonioni and so dismiss her. On the other hand, Hess uses that same description to point out that Duras doesn't come up to Toller, Brecht, Vertov, Aragon, or Godard (funny they're all men, isn't it?) because all we're left with in her work is “warped music” and a “polluted sea.” The pollution is my reference, the sea remains eternal, the music remains music and revolution. This is accomplished by work which can be understood as revolutionary only if it is seen as fusing what it says with how it says it. Here the issue of realism vs. non-realism, which Hess dismisses as irrelevant, is crucial, especially in the feminist political context which suggests that women’s visions and language have consistently been denied as non-real, often opposed to a “realism” which is entirely artificial.
Hess’ final suggestion that “films and filmmakers ... can put many important issues on the agenda” evokes a background of endless Left meetings where positions different from the speaker’s own are attacked with hostility and no attempt to discover anything positive and useful, and where women are unheard when they speak with high voices and the wrong style.
Unfortunately, one can only respond to such an attack with silence or by taking up the aggressor’s weapons. I am not at my best under these conditions, and turn with relief to Bill Van Wert’s response to my article, which is basically constructive and raises issues I would like to discuss.
Van Wert begins by suggesting a dichotomy between what I say and how I say it, whereby my use of quotations and fragmentation of my own text are seen as getting in the way of my discussion of the film. In fact I originally wrote the article as a continuous text. I fragmented it afterwards because that seemed to add a dimension which I couldn't get to otherwise. I was not trying to provide a continuous interpretation of Duras’ film. Rather I wrote a working commentary to incorporate the sense of dislocation, refusal, if you like, of simple causality, which was effected in me by the film. So, for instance, I suggest, it is helpful to come to the film with a knowledge of Duras’ previous work. But at the same time the film specifically destroys the previous work. That creates a disjunction which I expressed by means of parallel columns and inset quotations showing Duras’ own commentary on what she was doing. Duras’ destruction of her earlier work is precisely the kind of destruction being carried out by the characters in her film—these things are all intertwined. Rather than imitating her style, I was attempting to work in a way that seemed appropriate to what I felt she was doing, accepting what she had given.
However, I am still unhappy with the summary of the earlier novels. I would have reworked this had I had more time before publication, by incorporating it into my discussion of the film, but more along the lines Van Wert goes on to suggest, of making my writing more “perceptual.” The difficulty is that I find myself reacting against a kind of criticism which contents itself with evocation and formal appreciation, and neglects analysis of what the work is doing and what effect it has—obviously a balance must be found. The most recent issue of Take One (vol. 4, no. 6) carries a brief review of WOMAN OF THE GANGES by Michael Tarantino, which does evoke the style of the film and completely ignores its function and effect.
The point about multiple forms is a good one—I do refer to this. An adequate discussion would have further stretched the already crowded scope of the article. I couldn't find a middle ground between passing “reference and full discussion.
Van Wert’s separation of feminism and radical politics is the crunch issue, the one on which I feel most compelled to speak. This seems to me to be a false and harmful distinction, as if he were saying, well, you women have your feminism, leave the heavy stuff to us. Of course I don't think this was intended, but it does have that sound. As 51% of the population women cannot solve our problems without reference to the political scene. We are in fact a part of that scene, suppressed though our role in it has been. So, for instance, it is entirely to the point to understand the forest in DESTROY and the fire in LA FEMME DU GANGE as threatening only to those who have something to lose, namely the bourgeoisie, especially as Duras shows both men and women (Bernard Alione in DESTROY, the Voyager’s wife in LA FEMME DU GANGE) as threatened by these symbols of the unrepressed. The fact that it is the women who best understand and interpret these symbols (Alissa in DESTROY, the woman in black in LA FEMME DU GANGE) is an extension of the original perception.
Women, according to Duras, are best equipped, by virtue of their coming to consciousness from oppression, to recognize the violent side of existence for what it is. This leads to the whole question of how women are changing the means of communication in order to make it more appropriate to the new vision of reality we are trying to communicate. Gnarled and ungrammatical our language may be, but it’s vital, not a clear plastic tube of political platitudes.