The Filmmaker as Metallurgist

The Filmmaker as Metallurgist
The following essay aims to explore the some of the work of Patricia Pisters who
engages philosophy with film and cognitive science. The primary subject of this paper is
cinema, and we shall consider it with respect to two other notions: the political and the
affective. First we shall consider cinema and the political- making some general
observations and engaging in insightful discussion. Here we will make use of “The
Filmmaker as Metallurgist: Political Cinema and World Memory” by Pisters. As well as a
review article by Degim on Pister’s Deleuzian philosophy. Then we shall tackle the idea
of affect and cinema, asking more specifically: what is the connection between affect and
rationality in film? When can we say the affective is rational and when is it not? However
throughout the two sections we shall also touch on the metallurgic principles and
strategies that pervade Pister’s discourse. Examples we shall draw from include:
Zeitgeist: Addendum, Red Road, Lumumba and the Butterfly Effect.
The first salient political remark Pisters makes in her article on political cinema
and world memory is that: “It seems that the most political gesture that today’s cinema
can make is this acknowledgement of a presence, which is in fact a presence on the stage
of world history, a presence in our collective memory.” (Pisters, 150). Which
interestingly and immediately implies the possibility, indeed the likelihood of the
alternative- being forgotten. This is contrasted to older forms of political cinema, which
called on a people to take power. Now political cinema addresses history. In a way it is a
testament to the modern human condition. Before the information age, people espoused
new values and fought for them or at least expressed that. Now it is as if the saturation of
possibilities, of value systems, of previous lessons, means we need only remember them.
This might help to explain the idiosyncratic use of “the audio-visual archive as world
memory” in modern political cinema. If indeed talk of the political is concrete and
contains some propositions, which have extended validity over time for human affairs, it
stands to reason that the accumulation of a huge repository of content would find itself
increasingly used. And yet this aim of presence is almost weak; an omen of despair. For
if “the most” political gesture that can be made is of merely asserting existence, that is
not much at all; when compared to political aspirations, possible alternatives to status
quo, open, rational and revolutionary discussion. It points to the normality of forgetting.
Pister’s uses Deleuze and Gauttari as a framework to ground her ideas. For them
“Cinema is not just a second-order representational practice, but it is a world-making
practice that, like the book and other art practices, makes a rhizomatic connection with
the world (Deleuze and Guattari 1988, 11).” (Pisters, 156) The phrase rhizomatic is key
here as it denotes the mechanism my which cinema links to our memory and therefore the
world. At the end of her piece “The Filmmaker as Metallurgist”, Pisters discusses the
metallurgic principle of the butterfly effect, which means that very small actions can have
huge reverberations through time; there is a movie of the same name. Degim, in a review
article on Pisters’ philosophy invokes the same term and corresponding movie, in
discussing the nature of the human mind for Deleuze an Guattari: “Aside from Chaos
Theory, which the film addresses, and which suggests that even a minute alteration can
change the whole universe, the schizophrenic character and nature of the film recalls the
way in which our brains function. Free association and the constant flow from one
thought to the next forms the narrative structure of this film and are relevant to Deleuze
and Guattari's term "rhizome." This concept connotes the un- rooted and fluid nature of
the brain as well as society (Charles Lemert, Social theory, Vol. 2, Boulder, co:
Westview Press, 1993, p. 584) and fits perfectly with Pisters's theory.” (Degim, 72) So in
fact it is right that cinema is politically relevant as a rhizomatic practice, according to this
framework it would have to be, in order to resonate and make a difference in society
composed of humans, who have such rhizomatic minds.
So far then we have established that filmmaking is rhizomatic and acts on worldmemory. By using the archive and addressing history, modern political cinema “bends
time” and invents the past quite concretely. Pisters establishes the idea of metallurgic
practices in political cinema. She notes the absence of a pre-assumed people as before,
recognizing that now political cinema must play a part in the invention of a people.
“Modern Political filmmakers have in common that they show how ‘the people are
missing’ (Deleuze 1989, 215)” (Pisters, 157) and the aforementioned archive in
conjunction with metallurgic principles, become characteristic of political cinema: “What
I would like to argue is that political cinema has arrived at yet another stage, which not
only involves the myths, stories and customs of the past that are recreated in performative
ways, but which also involves in increasingly intensive ways both the traditional archive
and the audio-visual archive in itself as its material-flow. So filmmakers today are not
only using their camera to create new images, but also, increasingly, the archive.”
(Pisters, 158)
Pisters approach is comparative and makes remarks from the point of view of the
differences between modern and classical political cinema. There are four metallurgic
principles of relooping the past that are distinct to our modern, digital, information-age
period of political cinema. The first principle is “multiple versioning of the past.’”
(Pisters, 160) and is in contrast to the state-official versioning of early political cinema.
There is simply more tools now for more people to create more versions of the same
event. Pisters recalls the movie Lumumba, which was remade for a larger audience by its
original creator. Peck turned his essay-movie to something more accessible, and in turn it
was transformed on the Internet to many more versions.
The second principle is ‘intensive, affective remixing’. This includes the bringing
together of loosely related political pieces, adding music or changing the pace of film etc.
in light of the metallurgic framework we could even call this a kind of alloy making. An
example of which would be the political documentary Zeitgeist: Addendum. This movie
utilizes narration over music, superimposed on animation and cut with news clips, just to
describe a single scene. It is arguable and worth arguing at this point that one could
legitimately take issue with use of affect if political cinema seeks to be anything beyond
propaganda, but this point we will return to later on. Peter Joseph’s Addendum is also a
good example of the third metallurgic principle namely ‘mining the mnemonic depths of
the archive’. The film is composed of some original footage, coupled with newsreels,
newspaper clippings, footage of book pages as citations and video of war over heavy
narration. Like some of the artists Pisters discusses, Joseph is in the task of awakening
our world memory to hidden facts, forgotten on a world-memory level even though some
are very obvious. The fourth principle is the butterfly effect; we can again establish firm
links to Joseph’s movie, spawning as it did The Zeitgeist Movement, hundreds of
millions of views, ample discussion and numerous publications from the rhizomatic entry
of this film into world consciousness through its appearance (and at first the appearance
of it’s predecessor, Zeitgeist: The Movie) online.
In another piece titled ‘The Neurothriller’, Pisters performs her comparative
analysis on a thriller of classical cinema and one of modern day by comparing
Hitchcock’s Rear Window with Red Road from 2006. The Deleuzian perspective of the
‘brain screen’ she finds, gels well with neuroscientific findings and she makes some
interesting distinctions here. “Affective neuroscientists usually make a distinction
between emotion (which takes place within the immediate materiality of body and brain)
and feeling (which is related to memories and other resonating feedback systems in the
brain).” The comparison highlights the difference, in pursuit of suspense, between the
classical technique of having the audience know more than the characters on screen and
the more modern technique of inducing emotion more directly in a way, less through
content and knowledge but through affect, lack of certainty and concomitantly ambiguity.
The mix of contradictory and ambiguous affects the audience experiences defines Red
Road, being as they are more in the dark about the story than the characters themselves.
“It is important to note that the difference between the classic thriller and the neurothriller
is not simply the difference between a narrative- driven plot and a character-driven plot.
As indicated before, it is absolutely not necessary, and even not possible, to identify or
engage with the character because it is in that first instance the asubjective emotional
layer is expressed and addressed in the neurothriller. Narrative and character
development follows gradually and will dampen or amplify the affective intensity.”
(pisters, Pg 91)
This notion of emotion as pre-feeling, speaks to the way we process information and
argument and so I would endeavor to make a link between the “intensive, affective
remixing” metallurgical technique, this idea of emotion and finally rationality in an
attempt to link it back to the political. The contention naturally arises when one considers
affect and rationality that it could be a pitfall and an obstacle; affect as pathos and
therefore intrusive to logical argumentation. However by looking at Addendum and Red
Road I would like to argue that the affective can be objective and on different levels. Red
Road’s story is complex, what is relevant to know about it here is that the movie
problematizes surveillance culture, contra- Foucault’s panopticsim and shows how we
have an affective relation with the surveillance apparatus around us: “Admitting our
affective relationship to the surveillance system is what Jackie, as a new aesthetic figure,
pursues. She is no longer a purely voyeuristic Peeping Tom, exploiting (or being
exploited by) the panoptic power of the gaze. Inhabiting both sides of the camera,
embodying and expressing the ambiguous neurothrills and affective powers of the
surveillance apparatus, we might instead call her a ‘Sensing Alice’, who can guide us
through the surveillance adventures of contemporary multiple screen culture. She will not
overturn the whole system, but may give you the (micropolitical) urge to confront a
surveillance camera with a smile, or to (literally) re-view simplistic interpretations of
flecks of identity, simply because she has offered us alternative experiences, touching our
brain- screens imperceptibly, directly.” (Pisters, 91-92) here affect is rational as affect is
the issue at hand. A tertiary glance (my own at least) would fail to see the rational
element in the movie at first, but upon closer inspection sees that it is an affective
argument about the affective nature of our lives and their entanglement with surveillance.
Similarly and yet in a completely different way, Joseph’s use of affect employs
heavily the “intensive, affective remixing” strategy of metallurgy and cinema. Here the
problem seems clear, that he is making quite a concrete set of arguments with historical
examples, risking affect as pathos. Yet to truly grasp the gravitas of the matters at hand
for Peter Joseph in his film is difficult were we to casually mention that “1 billion people
live on less than one dollar a day”. By stating this fact over ominous music and to the
backdrop of a sad African child with television static for eyeballs, the mind is prevented
from straying. Likewise the operatic arrangement of cannon fire over percussion music,
progressing in rapid succession is affective and yet highly rationally; reminding our
individual memory, and on the aggregate our world memory, of the horror that is war,
prompting us to question its economic motive. A rich description of the pains suffered by
war victims, is unnecessary, in fact too clinical, to recall to the mind that which we all
know of: war, and yet so often forget or put to one side. The affective imagery, dug from
archive, remixed for maximum efficiency of understanding of gravitas is once again
found to be rational when the affect is an element of the equation to be understood.
Following these ruminations, the affective, to my mind, understood in its action
over emotions as distinct from feeling and therefore in it’s centrality to the processing of
information and argument itself on deep levels, gains a rational credibility, a claim to
some measure of objectivity. And when we combine this with an understanding of the
rhizome-like quality of mind and memory and likewise cinema as an extension of mind
and collective memory, we can see the significance of the archive and metallurgic
metaphors of understanding. We begin, in small part, to unravel how this multitude of
intricate and complex notions clarifies the hugely difficult tapestry of political cinema,
lying as it does (and as we have seen) at the intersection of so many disciplines of mind
and humanity.
Mohamed Seleem (900101569)
Works Cited
Degim, Alev. "The Neuro-Image: A Deleuzian Film-Philosophy of Digital Screen
Culture by Patricia Pisters (Review)." Film & History: An Interdisciplinary
Journal of Film and Television Studies 44.1 (2014): 71-4. Web.
Pisters, Patricia. "The Neurothriller." New Review of Film and Television
Studies 12.2 (2014): 83-93. Web.
Pisters, Patricia. "The Filmmaker as Metallurgist: Political Cinema and World
Memory." Film-Philosophy 20.1 (2016): 149-67. Web.
(Note: Pisters in text citations for the two texts can be distinguished by page numbers as
there is no overlap)
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