Thoughts On: The Seashell And The Clergyman - Cinema As An Ideology


The Seashell And The Clergyman - Cinema As An Ideology

Thoughts On: The Seashell And The Clergyman (1928)

Today we won't be talking too much about Dulac's masterpiece, rather how ideology does/does not affect how we could interact with it.

Cinema has always been a very personal concept and practice for me. Whilst there is much to be said out loud about cinema, just as there is much to be said aloud about ourselves as individuals, films have an ability to work inside of the frameworks of our personality to produce a wonder of sensations that cannot necessarily be articulated - and nor would we necessarily want to broadcast them. This, as we will explore, speaks of a wider paradigm of existential and cultural being; of ideology. (Let it be noted that, throughout, we will be referring to "ideology" as meaning a set of ideas that can be, but aren't always, linked to politics).

We all live our lives from moment-to-moment and from day-to-day in transitory consciousness, between being as aware as can be of our actions and our projected persona and being entirely ignorant to all that we are and appear to be. This means that we may spend a significant portion of our day acting out some kind of ideology; we may try to live our lives as a good conservative, liberal, male, female, heterosexual, homosexual, Christian, Muslim, Westerner, Easterner, German, Egyptian, etc. However, all of these labels merely signify the fracturing of the individual. After all, whilst the portion of our day that we try to spend as a good *insert label* may be seen as significant, it is often overshadowed by a lack of consciousness in the remainder of the day, leaving ideological structures to fall to the wayside whist an abstract idea of individual identity holds strong. We may, however, counter-argue that we almost always act as a good, for example, Muslim and/or wife, subconsciously through routine. But, to what degree can we consider this subconscious being to be just apart of our self? And, by extension of this, to what degree is a self ideological?

Ideology is, in essence, structure. Structure is important and, moreover, humanity's only tool to confront life - which is often unpredictable and chaotic without some systematic regime or structure mapped over it. However, there is a sense of inherency about ideologies; they not only voice intrinsic human traits, but they are often acted out unconsciously. Thus, the structure that ideologies seemingly represent stems from either a collective unconscious or an individual unconscious. This suggests that ideologies naturally form and are consequentially not as important as the individual. I suggests this on the grounds that being a good male, female, son, daughter, Hindu, Buddhist, Marxist, Darwinist, teacher or construction worker has less to do with a structure of thinking and more to do with the motivation for thinking. Whilst we may think ourselves into existence as Descarte may suggest with the idea of "I think, therefore I am", we are before we exist; we, as humans, merely define ourselves by being able to recognise ourselves in the mirror; by being able to think and see ourselves as existing. We can then think of The Planet Of The Apes and recognise that, before Caesar was born, such a thing as apes existed, but didn't necessarily exist as a structure and concept born of apes; this had to wait until the apes rose into consciousness for that to be true.

To map this back on to our discussion of ideology and living one's life, we can see that there is an undeniable relationship between being human and being a specific kind of human as informed by ideological structures; we cannot call ourselves a human, just like we cannot call ourselves a, for example, feminist, without some kind of ideological structure after all. Ideological structures only seem to function, however, if they are bound to individuals. To reference, again, The Planet Of The Apes, the ideas and rules of being an ape - and a good ape - can and should be defined in writing, but a society can only progresses (and so continue to exist without destroying itself or being destroyed) when those rules are questioned, tested and challenged. If there is no questioning of an ideological structure, it will become a form of tyranny or poison. After all, those who function under an ideology are as simple as the ideology wants them to be; whilst all apes can be called apes, not all apes will be good apes or will deserve the title of 'ape'. Thus, ideologies need to monitor themselves and be perceived as below the individual.

The idea of self-monitoring manifests itself in politics through the conceptual left and right. The left and right, in my eyes, are characterised mainly by distrust and trust. I partially subscribe to the idea that political affiliation is a result of ones own complex personality and temperament, but, there is a superstructure that can be perceived to be looming over such an idea. All actions can be characterised as distrusting or trusting; a red light and a green light; stop, go; yes, no. These connotations describe the way in which governmental structures function; right-wingers don't seem to trust people as much as left-wingers. It is then important that no system fall into the hands of a far and complete left or right; we cannot be too naively trusting and nor can we be too scrupulously distrustful otherwise fascist or anarchist dictatorial states will rise and, presumably, destroy themselves.

I bring up this idea of self-monitoring between the left and the right - which will always be in conflict so there is, hopefully, some sense of democracy and balance - as we can understand this concept to map onto an idea that an ideology has to be flexible. And the greater reason for this is because people aren't simple. Just as the universe is unpredictable, so is humanity. In my understanding, it is then best to accept, to as great a degree as possible, that groups of humans are made up of individuals and then treat them with a respective balance between trust and distrust; we have to assume they are good, whilst keeping in mind that everyone has a capacity for evil. This is why any kind of revolution is questionable to me; when things work, we should be very careful about changing them. After all, changing things for the better is so many more times harder than changing things for the good. And so, to enforce change through ideology, especially one that has not been tested, is a dangerous game in my view. Ideology should not be put upon pre-existing structures, but should be allowed to flourish through existing ones.

The quanta of all of these assertions is the individual. Ideology - structure - should be the voice of a group of individuals; individuals should not be the voice of structure. And, to a great degree, the individual does not need to speak of the ideology for this reason. To expand, understanding what a structure is is incredibly important, but no one should rationally consider themselves a blank-ist - at least, not without the understanding, and not outside of a context which understands, that people are not only a vast selection of blank-ists, but are more so an individual who exists with elements that they won't, and needn't, think of in terms of any ideological structure.

This is where we come closer an closet to the concept of an individual. When we talk to our loved ones, are we capitalists? When we go to work, are we materialists? When we play an instrument, are we Christians? When we watch movies, are we feminists?

It is certainly true that we can do all of these things as the described blank-ist, but, to speak in broad, universal terms, there is no totality of blank-ism. In other words, no, everything is not political; everything is not a feminist issue; everything is not a problem for Hindus to confront, etc. The mere suggestion that all of these various isms can be seen to be 'everything' at once nullifies the claim by itself. Structure is mapped onto life, life is not structure. Equally so, we exists before we are, but we simultaneously think ourselves into being.

All we have discussed so far is not to say that we should welcome, or are even in, a post-ideological age; an age without structure and labels. To suggests such nonsense is to misunderstand that ideology is merely structure and that we can always try and map structure onto life - at least, until we stop existing that is. There nonetheless exists this issue of ideology being lesser than the individual - both as a consequence of it proceeding the individual and not being as complex as the individual can be. After all, the individual is post-ideological in a sense because we often all accept that there is more to ourselves and more to the universe that we know - and probably ever can know. In such a case, no ideology will ever truly serve its purpose; it will never be complex or competent enough as there are always more problems that it will have to conceive of. The only way ideologies then survive is by virtue of the complex individuals controlling them; those who act as windows into a deeper, abstract sense of humanity that pre-exists, overshadows, supersedes, yet also necessitates, ideology. Ideology is just the unfortunate and lacking materialisation of this greater truth that we can tap into through conscious being and taking in information.

To make a slight side-note, this is where postmodernist thinking becomes somewhat valid for a brief moment. Postmodernism largely stems from the attempted creation of A.I. In trying to create artificial intelligence, theorists and scientists quickly realised that the world is too complex and full of too many stimuli to create a computer programme (which is analogous to an ideology or structure) that could make an A.I operational. This implied to certain theorists that all truth and facts are relative; there is no absolute truth because there are too many things to be interpreted in life; there are too many possibilities and frameworks.

However, A.I isn't - seemingly - an impossibility. And this is what disproves postmodern ideology. If/when we find a way to recreate autonomous intelligence, it would be able to improve upon itself and thus grow to have, at least, as much potential as the world around it does - just like humans. After all we are, potentially, just as complicated and unfathomable as the universe itself, and A.I could increase the intensity of that potential. This suggests that, by creating frameworks that imply truths that fit in a hierarchy - some truths that are better than other truths, not just relative and equal to them - intelligent bodies can, potentially, find transcendence and ultimate truth. And this is all because they are an individual who is beyond ideology, who uses ideology like an ape does a rock; whilst the rock will allow an ape to eat certain nuts, the rock doesn't give them life - rocks needn't become their gods.

As a result, it seems that the individual life force - that which provides potential - is everything. However, the individual will inevitably form some framework; consider this essay for example: I am, in a way, arguing against structure and ideology by creating one. It must be said, however, that a framework will never fully define an individual, and thus we have to return to the individual life force - the abstract and latent crux of humanity and the individual - to think of ourselves and others in true terms.

Understanding this relationship between ideology and individuality, the key question of this essay can then be brought to the fore: how should we watch films? Whilst there are many that see all film as, for example, political, anyone who fully subscribes to such an idea is, in my honest opinion, a degenerate. Whilst these degenerates will provide much to cinema by introducing frameworks of thinking, they are only worth so much. Jean-Luc Godard is one of the best examples of this. He broke rules of cinema and constantly, to this day, proposes questions of how cinema should function and how we should consume it. However, everything that Godard does bears so few fruits in my view; he provides techniques, ideas, styles and modes of thinking, but never great art. We could also look to the likes of Vertov and Eisenstein here. In the present day, most will strip their films of their politics and consider them art before all else - which says a lot about the relationship between individuality and ideology in their films.

The main example that we will use to discuss this tension between ideology and individuality in the cinema - and you may have seen this coming if you have read my post on Cinema As A Religion - is Germaine Dulac's The Seashell and the Clergyman.

The Seashell and the Clergyman is one of the most hypnotic and true depictions of the imagination and subconscious through film that I have ever come into contact with. Generally considered the first surrealist film, pre-dating Un Chien Andalou by around a year, Dulac would have denied the idea that this was a film about dreams (which it was advertised as). This mutes the surrealist elements of this film slightly, but there is nonetheless an undeniable abstract and impressionistic quality to this narrative that leaves it cerebral and psychologically centred. So, though a dream isn't presented by The Seashell and the Clergyman, there is a clear presence of the subconscious - which is a defining aspect of surrealism.

The film itself never establishes a reality or realistic setting, and so we can imagine we are immediately immersed into a psychological space of the clergyman, who we see idling away at some kind of potion that he drops into a pile of broken glass. An army general enters his room and is effected by the pointless waste. However, following the general out of this space, the clergyman happens upon his wife, who he lusts after. And the rest of the film sees him pursue her and conjure imaginings within imaginings of his own island and home.

Dulac herself was a feminist and would have written for a radical feminist magazine before writing about and making films. This background bled into her work and approach to cinema, and thus it is easy to see The Seashell and the Clergyman as a critique of domineering patriarchal forces, the male gaze and the puerile, fetishistic imagination of a man whose projected persona is supposedly pious.

When I first saw The Seashell and the Clergyman, none of this occurred to me as I wasn't aware of Dulac's background or the film's reception. I nonetheless found this film to be a wondrous experiment of surrealism and a highly affecting, even profound, experience. So, having read about the film and Dulac, and the having re-watched the film, I can see its intent, but this doesn't impact the film I thought I saw very much. In my view, The Seashell and the Clergyman depicts irrationality and a dire frustration within oneself. This is of course predicated on male-female relationships, and so a feminist perspective is inevitably going to be on the periphery, but, there is little of worth I can see coming from this ideological framework being imposed upon the film. In such, we should ask: what worth is drawn from criticising a constructed male's imagination; he's supposedly thinking about the wrong things and this is supposed to be a source of feminist critique? It is one thing to suggest that the clergyman's perception of females is faulted, but, stepping into an abstract, surreal space to imply the functioning of a man's subconscious is faulted is weak; the subconscious is far more complex than basic morality will allow you to grasp.

It was assuming this and mapping the structures of surrealism onto The Seashell and the Clergyman that I would make sense of this narrative as a fantasy, one that emphasises how desperate and restricted the clergyman is. As a surreal short, this would then have strong links to the fantasy scenes of 8 1/2 in which Guido has countless concubines and female slaves crawling at his feet. Whilst it is easy to see misogyny in these scenes, they serve a greater purpose of commenting on Guido's upbringing, his mother and his hedonism as a coping mechanism. And in seeing the clergyman as we may see Guido, he actually becomes a rounded character, not simple caricature. And it's for this very reason that The Seashell and the Clergyman remains such a poignant film to me; it speaks more of character and less about ideology; it is about an individual and so appeals to an individual.

What we begin to see emerge here is a core idea of how we watch films. As you will see at the top of this blog, to me, if a film affects you, it must mean something; from some kind of sensory or emotional evocation comes greater meaning. As a result, all great films are enjoyable in some respect: they affect you. This doesn't mean that all films should be easily consumed. On the contrary, challenging films that manage to communicate something of depth by virtue of their formal and narrative complications are often genuine masterpieces. And so what defines our favourite films, and the films we see to be the greatest of all time, is ourselves and our own individual relationship with movies.

So, to come back to the top of this essay: cinema is an incredibly personal practice and concept. Films that hold an ability to enter your being and rattle our senses work on incredibly fundamental levels that are transcendent of ideology. Ideologies can then be present in films and used to understand the voice of the filmmaker - they can even be used to re-frame a film for the sake of critique. However, genuine cinema, in my view, has its own ideology. With cinema as your ideology, you accept the structures of the art - one of moving images that allow the production of semiosis and emotional meaning. By extension of this, you have to confront it as an individual before mapping onto it separate ideologies, conventions or structure. Cinema must be experienced as a latent form before we give it structure. And even when we do this, ideological structures must stem from films themselves, as we recognise them as products of an individual artist(s) who is embedded in a specific culture and time that is further contextualise by the greater scope of humanity. However, the nuances and influences of a film can never be all that a film is; for a film to truly be, it must resonate with the individual beyond tangible structure. Great cinema is, after all, transcendent of all that isn't cinema; its individuality makes it pure and stepping into this realm, we will possibly find the greatest concepts that cinema can offer.

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