The history of cinema is still rather short, yet it is already characterized by discontinuities and reversals. The majority of contemporary films that now pass for masterpieces would have been rejected by Eisenstein and rightly so as altogether worthless, as the very negation of all art.
We should reread today the famous manifesto Eisenstein and Pudovkin wrote in the 1920s on the sound film. At a time when, in Moscow, a brand new American invention was being announced that would permit the actors on the screen to speak, this prophetic text warned vigorously and with extraordinary clarity of vision against the fatal abyss into which cinema was in danger of sliding: Since the illusion of realism would be considerably strengthened by giving the characters a voice, cinema could let itself be led down the cowardly path of glib superficiality (a temptation that never stops menacing us) and from then on, the better to please the multitudes, could remain content with an allegedly faithful reproduction of reality. It would thus surrender all claims to the creation of genuine artworks works in which that reality would be challenged by the very structures of the cinematic narrative.
Now, what Eisenstein demanded, with his customary vehemence, was that sound be used to create, on the contrary, new shocks: To the shocks between sequences created by montage (which links, according to relations of harmonic resonance or of opposition, the sequences to one another) should be added the shocks between the various elements of the sound track and still others between sounds and simultaneously projected images. As one may have expected, good Marxist-Leninist that he was, he called upon the sacrosanct "dialectic" in order to support this thesis.
But Communist ideology alas! could not save the Soviet cinema (which today is one of the worst in the world) from falling into the snares of glibness. In fact, good old "bourgeois realism" triumphed everywhere in the West as well as the East, where they simply rebaptized it "socialist." Eisenstein and his friends were rapidly subjected to the new universal norm: The montage of the visual sequences of their films (¡Que viva México! for example) was redone by the right-thinking bureaucracy, and all the sounds were made to follow obediently the recorded images.
Even in France, it was a theoretician of the extreme Left, André Bazin, who, merrily letting the dialectic go by the board, became the spokesman of illusionist realism, going so far as to write that the ideal film would entail no montage whatsoever, "since in the natural reality of the world there is no montage"! Thus, the numerous and fascinating forms of expression created in Russia and elsewhere during the silent era were summarily repudiated as if they were nothing but childish stammerings born of a merely rudimentary technique. Sound, wide screens, deep focus, color, long-duration reels all of these have allowed us to transform cinema today into a simple reproduction of the world, which, in the final analysis, is tantamount to forcing cinema as an art to disappear.
If today we want to restore its life, its former power, and its ability to give us veritable artworks, worthy of vying with fiction or painting of the modern era, then we must bring back to film work the ambitiousness and prominence that characterized it in the days of silent film. And so, as Eisenstein urges, we need to take advantage of every new technical invention, not in order to subject ourselves even further to the ideology of realism but, quite the opposite, to increase the possibilities of dialectical confrontation within film, thereby intensifying the "release of energy" that is just what such internal shocks and tensions allow for.
From this point of view, the alleged realism of contemporary commercial films, whether they be signed by Truffaut or by Altman, appears as a flawless totalitarian system, founded on hackneyed, stereotyped redundancy. The least detail in every shot, the connections between sequences, all the elements of the sound track, everything, absolutely everything must concur with the same sense and meaning, with a single sense and meaning, and with good old common sense. The immense potential richness that is concealed in this stuff of dreams these discontinuous, sonorous images must be utterly reduced, subjected to the laws of normative consciousness, to the status quo, so that, at any cost, meaning may be prevented from deviating, swarming, bifurcating, going off in several directions at once, or else getting completely lost. The technicians on the set or in the various recording studios are there precisely to see to it that no imperfections and divergences ever occur.
But what is the significance of this will-to-reduction? What it all means, in the final analysis, is that reality and a living reality at that is reduced to a reassuring, homogeneous, unilinear story line, a reconciled and compromised, entirely rational story line from which any disturbing roughness has been purged. Plainly put, realism is by no means the expression of the real, of what is real. But rather, the opposite. Reality is always ambiguous, uncertain, moving, enigmatic, and endlessly intersected by contradictory currents and ruptures. In a word, it is ”incomprehensible." Without a doubt, it is also unacceptable whereas the first and foremost function of realism is to make us accept reality. Realism, therefore, has a pressing obligation not only to make sense but to make one and only one sense, always the same, which it must buttress tirelessly with all the technical means, all the artifices and conventions, that can possibly serve its ends.
Thus, for example, prevailing film criticism may blame a certain detective film for lack of realism, ostensibly because the murderer’s motives are not clear enough, or because there are contradictions in the scenario, or because there remain lacunae in the causal chain of events. And yet, what do we actually know about nonfictional attempts to solve real crimes? Precisely that uncertainties at times essential ones always persist until the end, as do unsettling absences, "mistakes" in the protagonist’s behavior, useless and supernumerary characters, diverging proofs, a piece or two too many in the puzzle that the preliminary investigation in vain tries to complete.
Reality, then, is problematic. We run up against it as against a wall of fog. Meanwhile, our relation to the world becomes still more complicated because, at every moment, the world of realism presents itself to us as if it were familiar. We become so used to it that we hardly see it: It is our habitat, our cocoon. Yet, actually, we stumble against what’s real with a violence we never get used to a violence that no amount of previous experience can ever assuage so that reality remains for us irremediably foreign and strange. The German words heimlich and unheimlich, which both Freud and Heidegger have used, though in different but here overlapping contexts, give indeed an idea of this lived opposition fundamental because it is inescapable between the strange and the familiar. Both the psychoanalyst and the philosopher insist that the familiarity we think we have with the world is misleading (i.e., ideological, socialized). To acknowledge and explore (even to the point of anguish) the world’s strangeness constitutes the necessary starting point for creating a consciousness that is free. And one of the essential functions of art is precisely that it assumes this role of revealing the world to us. This explains why art does not attempt to make the world more bearable (which undoubtedly is what realism does), but less so: because its ultimate ambition is not to make us accept reality but to change it.
the iconic imagery of Last Year at Marienbad