Postwar Cinema, Post-cinema

Chris Fujiwara

This year, when Europeans and Americans are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, it is a good time to reflect on some of the ways in which cinema, throughout its history, and by its nature as a technology of encountering reality, is, or has been, post-war.

As is well known, major developments in cinema were caused by the effects of wars. Fritz Langtraced the turning point in his personal destiny and the path that led him to cinema to the time he spent as a soldier in the Austrian Army during World War One. The experience of war was so central to the life of Samuel Fuller that all his films are in some sense war films, and he saw all human conflicts in terms of war.During the 1940s, the cinema not only made the war and its aftermath visible to large audiences but found its own urgency, mission, and motor in this function, as is clear in the work of numerous filmmakers, among them Roberto Rossellini, John Ford, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, and Jean Grémillon.

The key to French theorist Paul Virilio’s influential thinking about the relation between war and cinema is that both are subject to the same “logicistics of perception,” not merely in the sense that films have been made to support the war efforts of states and capitalists, and not merely in the sense that war has made use of motion-picture technology – but that in fact war and cinema both share the same logic of seeing and representing the world. For Virilio, a “deadly harmony always establishes itself between the functions of eye and weapon,” so that finally, even as “the landscape of war became cinematic,” cinema became the only way war could be seen.

For Gilles Deleuze, the effects of war produced nothing less than a new kind of film image. In this image can be seen the characteristic postwar spaces “which we no longer know how to describe” and the characteristic postwar situations “which we no longer know how to react to.” In the ruins of classical cinema, with its blissful continuity between perception and action, a modern cinema was born, in which that continuity has become “shattered from the inside” and the people of cinema – both the on-screen characters and, presumably, the audiences – are “given over to something intolerable which is simply their everydayness itself.”

It is likely that all cinema bears within it the split between classicism and modernity that Deleuze sees as defining the post-WW2 period.All cinema is postwar in the sense that all cinema carries within it a split between a powerful, alien, potentially overwhelming world and a viewer who submits to floating, or being propelled passively,among the images of that world. This division is not a historical effect, but part of the logic of the internal structure of cinema. The world that is revealed in any film is exploded, fragmented and incoherent. The French theoretician Jean-Louis Schéfer finds in the images of cinema “nothing but the ruptures of shots; this universe is without continuity – something in it, within what is simulated, is always broken: the catastrophe or the greatest mutilation have already taken place; this anteriority of a drama that it does not express is like the opening of an interior world.”

The terms classical and modern should be used with caution. The classical is usually defined as a certain restraint, a certain commensurateness of expression to what is to be expressed. But at the heart of classicism lies a necessary enormity and the meeting with something with which it is impossible to establish a relation. It is worth recalling Edmund Wilson’s description of Sophocles (in The Wound and the Bow): “He has balance and logic, of course: those qualities that the classicists admire; but these qualities only count because they master so much savagery and madness.”

It appears that the first people to use the term “classical” or “classicism” with respect to American cinema were French. Eric Rohmer, in 1954 (that is, a time when the ruptures in cinematic classicism had already become visible), ascribed to American cinema “efficacity, purity of line, economy of means,” which as he says are the terms that define French classicism. Rohmer also mentioned the “universality” of the themes of American cinema.

The perceived uniformity of American cinema allowed André Bazin to write:”The American cinema has succeeded in conveying, in a prodigiously satisfactorymanner, the image that American society wished to have of itself… Born of free enterprise and capitalism, whose poisons, both actual and potential, it harbors within itself, [American cinema] is, nonetheless, in a certain way the truest and the most realistic of all cinemas, because it conveys even the contradictions of that society.”

The social contradictions of which Bazin writes became more sharply apparent in the films of the 1950s, despite the supposed conservatism of American culture in that period and the direct political pressures on filmmakers. The embodiment of these contradictions in cinematic form is the crucial aspect of the renewal of American cinema in the 1950s. So it is that the 1950s marked both the apotheosis of genres such as the Western and the musical and the self-undoing of these genres through a formal upheaval manifested in behavioral hysteria and stylistic excess. Melodrama, the form par excellence of 1950s cinema (not just in the United States, but also in Italy, in India, in Japan, in South Korea…), becomes the privileged site of expression of the impossibility of happiness and transcendence. Through their very mutilation and truncation, the films of the period testify to a monumental dissatisfaction and the breakdown of an ostensibly popular art.

And so it is that a seemingly innocuous melodrama such as Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1953) can confront us with numerous confusing signs of modernity. Preminger’s film takes place in a world of unmediated facts and violent technology, where human beings are reduced to opaque and inscrutable surfaces, where all signs are ambiguous and manipulable. Preminger insists perversely on what is rejected, thrown away, excluded, destroyed, smashed. There is an increasingdisconnection between the characters and the situations they confront, as the film liberates itself from the determinisms of plot and psychological motivation.

In도쿄전쟁전후비사(東京戦争戦後秘話/Tokyo senso sengo hiwa/The Man Who Left His Will on Film, 1970), Oshima Nagisa documents a historical turning-point, the moment (often designated, in Japan as in many Western countries, as “the end of the Sixties”) when political struggle no longer takes the form of bodies massed against bodies, and when the possibilities of a certain kind of oppositional cinema – that premised on the documenting of the actual confrontation between revolutionaries and the State – have been exhausted. The Tokyo War (the mass protests in November 1969 against Japanese prime minister Eisaku Sato’s visit to the United States), after which Oshima’s film takes place, is emphatically not the Pacific War, which functions as a historical landmark, ideological framework, and psychological alibi for characters in other Oshima films. Tokyo senso sengo hiwaplaces itself within a new post-history, a history perhaps not yet readable at the time the film was made, and which now lends itself to a new interpretation. It may be said that the film opened a pathway for cinema that has still to be explored.

In a short written text written to introduce Tokyo senso sengo hiwa, Oshima emphasized the fact that in the so-called Tokyo War, “the curtain was drawn on the struggles of the 1960s without a single fatality in the midst of what looked like a defeat for the demonstrators.” Oshima wrote of his participation in another protest action: “I, too, wandered through the demonstrations at Haneda Airport, carrying a camera and filming what I could, but, of course, I did not die either.” This is the problem of Tokyo senso sengo hiwa, that politicalcinema does not lead to death. It is a version of the classic Hegelian master-slave situation. In what was supposed to be a battle to the death, one party decides that the stake of the battle is not worth dying for and chooses to save his life at the cost of becoming a slave.

Tokyo senso sengo hiwais a political allegory about expropriation. The world the film shows is wasteland where the circuit of perception and action has been broken. People no longer recognize or take responsibility for the images they produce and consume. The political subject is doomed in advance to impotence. Through these paradoxes of filmmaking, subjectivity, and landscape can be discerned an attempt to declare and define a new historical stage.

Tokyo senso sengo hiwa presents placid and sinister images of daily life, stubbornly and insidiously present, too familiar, not alienating enough to be perceived as an action and to provoke a counteraction. The nearly deserted streets down which the hero walks in search of his double form a bland, neutral environment that summons forth the feeling of shame that is the lot of the slave who has abandoned the battlefield in order to remain alive. The struggle for both Oshima and his protagonist is that of trying to believe in an image and in a world in which one has lost faith. It is in relation to this loss of faith and as a tracing of the aftermath of a mythical process, the tracing of a “post-“ time, that we can try to understand Tokyo senso sengo hiwa and the new “postwar” cinema it announces.

* The Korean translation of this essay is included in Magazine F (No.15) published in November 2014.