Volume 3 - Issue 6 - Editorial

By Gareth Evans


What Matters: Meaning in the Moving Image

The important thing is to be aware that one exists. For three-quarters of the time during the day one forgets this truth, which surges up again as you look at houses or a red light, and you have the sensation of existing in that moment. – Jean-Luc Godard*

Are you heavy laden? Throw off your load. Do you understand this? Your backs are bent under the junk of property, which you came by because of your fear. You were afraid to possess your soul, so you went by the wayside and acquired property. – Kenneth Patchen, from The Journal of Albion Moonlight

In the last few months, there has been a strange excavation at work in various stations of the London underground. Old film posters, promoting the likes of popular British films such as Peter's Friends and The Crying Game have re-emerged in the tunnels and passageways of the Piccadilly and Victoria lines. Clearly aged, covered for years by subsequent advertisements, they appear at a time of particular (albeit ongoing) crisis in the infrastructure of British film, especially, but far from exclusively, around concerns for the future of the British Film Institute. It is almost as if the city itself, aware of the unsettlement within its body, wants to return to a time, however short-lived, when home-grown productions regularly performed well both locally and abroad.

But it also comes at a time when definitions of what might constitute the kind of cinema that should matter to the said infrastructure appear more malleable, more prone to ‘adjustment’, than ever. In an April press release**, the UK Film Council revealed the recent releases which have benefited from its P&A fund to help with distribution and exhibition of ‘specialised films’. Of the ten supported, seven (Bamako, Scott Walker, Prick Up Your Ears, The Night of the Sunflowers etc) were awarded grants of £5000 or less. This Is England took home £90,000, while French comic genre piece My Best Friend received £150,000 and "Universal Pictures International received £300,000 for… The Curse of the Golden Flower… with the award covering the cost of premieres, increasing a combination of 35mm and digital prints to 223, and enhancing the national media advertising on television and in print.”

Should one any longer be surprised by a result like this, one in which a vastly successful commercial operation benefits from such unbalanced largesse? Probably not, such a decision rings so much of what became all too familiar across the board during what are now called ‘the Blair years’. Still, it is hard not to pass a brief moment wondering where, in the minds of those making such choices, the borderline between commercial and specialised cinema might lie.

Definitions have always been contested, but in this new century the stakes around language and naming have been somewhat raised. In his new collection of essays on political resistance, Hold Everything Dear, John Berger reflects on the appropriation, by power, of a number of terms that have effectively been drained of all meaning. “There are a number of words and clichés, filched from the past, whose currency has now to be categorically refused,” he declares, “…liberty, terrorism, security, democratic, fanatic, anti-Semitic... are terms that have been reduced to rags in order to camouflage the new ruling Pitilessness.”

This evacuation and redirection of meaning is built by an imposed forgetting. Capitalism can only continue because of this forgetting, perhaps its primary tool. Whether it is a deliberate obscuring of the origin of resources and the conditions of production or the daily displacements of history, personal and public, engendered by consumerism (fuelling a permanently unsatisfied desire that looks nervously only forward), the market and its outriders constantly seek to deny a sense of continuum in individual or collective terms.

Meaning comes about through remembering. It cannot exist without memory, without a reference, a frame by which and within which it can understand what matters. If, for example, we actively recall a genuine moment of political liberation, then we would find it considerably harder to accept the ‘liberty’ promised by the various wars of empire undertaken in recent years. In this way meaning, in and of itself, becomes oppositional. If something has meaning, in the richly seamed sense of the word, it provides its own path, a way of thinking, an alternative, a possibility. It holds the freedom of real choice.

Man is born free, and is everywhere in chainstores… in an interview accompanying the dvd release of his Hidden, Michael Haneke speaks of the intentions of mainstream cinema and its resolved conclusions, designed to allow the viewer to forget what they have seen, because the narrative holds no implications that last beyond the duration of watching. The film as a closed circuit. A cultural cinema, he argues, does not deal in false resolution. Through an openness of response, it seeds a dynamic and vital relationship between art and society by allowing memory, the present tense of experience and the processes of the artwork to move forward together into history.

The search for – and expression of – meaning, in a society threatened by genuine exploration, a society reciting brand names to help it sleep and as a mantra against fear; and one defining all it holds dear through the language of finance, becomes the foundation of all that might be; not the end of a journey, but the beginning. As Antonio Gramsci writes, “one must speak of a struggle for a new culture; that is, for a new moral life that cannot but be intimately connected to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of seeing and feeling reality.”


* as quoted by Chris Petit in his preface to 100 Road Movies  by Jason Wood (BFI, 2007); see page 57 of this issue.
** www.ukfilmcouncil.org.uk/information/news/

This edition of Vertigo will be given a late summer launch in early September at London’s Curzon Soho cinema, in a film programme drawn from the issue’s contents. For exact date and titles, please visit the Vertigo website and www.curzoncinemas.com for more information.