In anticipation for the York University inaugural film-philosophy conference 'Coming to Terms with Film-Philosophy' on May 23-24, here is an essay I wrote for a Marxism and Form graduate course on Alain Badiou's cinema as a philosophical situation as applied to Jean-Pierre Gorin's Routine Pleasures. - D.D.
This essay will analyze Jean-Pierre Gorin’s film, Routine Pleasures (1986), through Alain Badiou’s conception of cinema as a philosophical situation. A close reading of the film, paying close attention to Gorin’s voice-over commentary will be performed. The analysis will focus on the specific narrative and formal strategies of the film, while also situating it within Gorin’s larger body of work, and elaborate on his interest in a popular American culture, such as the anachronistic model train club, and his relation to his mentor Manny Farber. Badiou’s general philosophy will be discussed in particular his conception of the philosophical situation in cinema, choosing sides and politics. Badiou’s writing on cinema, most notably the 2003 Cinema as Philosophical Experimentation and his essay on Gorin and Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout va bien, will provide a framework to better understand Gorin’s historical development and the formal operations of the film. The conclusion will offer fresh insight into contemporary concerns of the political and the aesthetics.
Alain Badiou on Cinema as a Philosophical Situation
For Badiou cinema is a philosophical experiment, which has its role of clarifying the distance between truth and power. To verify this thesis it needs to bear scrutiny and will be tested through applying it to an analysis of Routine Pleasures. One major component of Badiou’s philosophy is of the event. Badiou writes, “We must think the exception. We must know what we have to say about what is out of the ordinary. We must think change in life.” This leads to two particular interests for Badiou in terms of cinema, which is its relationship to knowledge and as a living relationship of transformation. Slavoj Žižek would describe the importance of the event for Badiou in terms of its resistance to the utility function of ideological state apparatuses and through its engagement with a universal cause that disrespects opportunistic considerations.
Badiou’s notion of cinema as a philosophical situation is non-evaluative and prescriptive. For Badiou, philosophy is first to clarify the fundamental choices of thought, secondly to clarify the distance between thought and power, and finally to clarify the value of the exception. So how would this apply to the analysis of a film? How could a film fulfill the role of clarifying the distance between truth and power?
One of Badiou’s examples of a philosophical situation comes from Plato’s dialogues, that of Gorgias, where Callicles gets into a confrontation with Socrates. Their debate is a philosophical situation because,
Socrates’ thought and Callicles’ thought have no common measure. They are foreign to each other. And the discussion between Callicles and Socrates consists solely in showing that we have two kinds of thought here with no common measure, a relationship between two terms that are foreign to each other.
The philosophical situation is the moment when choice is clarified, when a form of existence is confirmed. This response from the audience to think about the narrative unfolding in terms of having to choose, to choose between two types of thought, and forming a decision is one of Badiou’s example of how film can perform philosophy.
These are just some of his general ideas from his philosophy, which, as he sees, can be shown through cinema. For Badiou cinema is the best art form to show the world today, to create something new and produce revolt. Badiou writes,
I would say that cinema is a metaphor for contemporary thought… A thinking that’s grasped in the mobility of its reflections, a thinking that absorbs human presence in something that exceeds it, that takes it over and projects it all at once A representation of the world in which human presence is affirmed over against an extremely powerful exteriority.
This film-philosophy must be universal, and implicitly address the masses, which he traces its history as building upon an older tradition such as Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry.
So then what is the event for Gorin and in Routine Pleasures? What knowledge does Routine Pleasures produce and what relationships does it transform? And if for Badiou, cinema transforms philosophy and the very notion of an idea by creating new ideas about what an idea is, then what exactly does this mean in regards to Routine Pleasures? As well if cinema is a philosophical situation for Badiou, which he defines as the conflict between two non-related and opposing terms, through its argumentation and emerging ideas, then how exactly is this illustrated in Routine Pleasures? These are some of the questions that this essay will attempt to answer.
Routine Pleasures and Badiou’s Event
Routine Pleasures is the second film in Gorin’s California trilogy, which includes Poto and Cabengo (1980) about two young girls who speak in an anomaly dialect and My Crasy Life (1992) about a Samoan street gang in Long Beach, California. Routine Pleasures is perhaps the most autobiographical of the three films since in it Gorin analyzes his own interest in the American mythologies that motivated him to move from France to San Diego, California to work at the interdisciplinary film program at the city’s university, which Manny Farber helped form. It is an unclassifiable film as it goes from documenting a miniature railway club to analyzing Manny Farber’s paintings to becoming a free form filmic diary.
What choices or sides are spectators forced to make in front of Routine Pleasures? And are there opposing thoughts being presented? The film is divided into three autonomous perspectives. There is the model train club, and the diversity of its group (all who gather at the Del Mar Fairgrounds every Tuesday evenings), there is Farber, who is there through Gorin’s accounts of their conversation and through his paintings and criticism, and finally Gorin, with a heavy French accent describing his journey into both of these worlds.
If there are differences between the groups, such as backgrounds, age, classes, political affinities, it is not an antagonistic relationship between the two (such as was the case in Badiou’s example between Callicles and Socrates), but of compatible world-views that for brief periods come together. But since Gorin is coming to the project from the perspective of the filmmaker, one might assume that he holds a position of power. But this is not the case as Gorin elaborates in an interview with Jean-Paul Fargier, Ici et là-bas (Cahiers, October, 1986, N°388),
There was an enormous amount of work to make these guys actors, as they have never been in front of a camera… I had many problems directing them. It took me a long time to make these guys subtle, capable to appear relaxed and even to have a certain dominance over me. What interests me is when the subjects dominate over the filmmaker, when they impose their own logic and force a change in the original idea and it then becomes a voyage full of surprises.
These conflicts and accommodations come out in multiple scenes throughout the film. The club members who includes conductors, dispatchers and mechanics get the opportunity to discuss their own backgrounds, life and loves, which reveals them to be more complex humans. For example, Corky Thomson discusses participating in the founding of the club in 1958, his work as a refrigerator repairman, and his loving wife Barbara whom he makes with his own Super 8 films of real trains. The specialized knowledge of the model train hobbyist and their discussion of it allow them to assert an authority and intellectual rigor to their field. The reason that they allowed Gorin to make his documentary was that they could eventually get the unused footage to then make their own film. And finally the members even made a replica of Gorin’s Citroën car for their landscape to initiate him in the club, which they also used to express their annoyance with him when he overstayed his welcome.
But Farber is perhaps more important to the shaping of the structure of Routine Pleasures. Gorin described his meeting Farber as one of the most decisive encounters of his life while Farber has described Gorin as his ‘twin brain’. Even though in the film Farber is only presented through a series of photographs he is still very much present through Gorin’s recounting of some of their encounters and his penetrating analysis of his paintings (Have a Chew on Me, Birthplace: Douglas, Arizona). Gorin describes Farber’s role in Routine Pleasures in the Fargier interview as being, “constituted as a mythological personality, as if he was a Virgilian guide through this American landscape, more of a psychic American landscape than a real one.”
What Farber contributes is an influence on the structural patterns of Routine Pleasures. Through Gorin’s recounted conversations with Farber, two forms of thought are confronted, and stimulate Gorin to re-focus his film, which he does. The film is divided into many sections, all with descriptive intertitles, and accompanied with jazz to transition the scenes. Gorin utilizes Thelonious Monk strategy of the wrong note at the right moment, which inevitably produces the right note. This imperfection and form of improvisation parallels many of Farber’s own ideas as elaborated in one of his seminal essays White Elephant Art and Termite Art (1962) – that of not aiming to create an entire world, but to dig deep into a very specific one and through it to express something meaningful. Gorin describes this approach in the film,
[Farber] went for, he said, ‘Films where the spotlight of culture was nowhere in evidence where the filmmakers could be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.’ And he wrote the same way, ‘He attacked it as the termite’s way, a relentless gnawing at the borders of the subject, a way to chew on it so thoroughly, that there was nothing left to spit out.
Farber would also influence the progression of the film. As when Gorin recounts that this would be his equivalent of a Howard Hawks, William A. Wellman, John Ford or thirties worker out-fit films (Gorin’s references), Farber would retort to, “Drop the nostalgia bit, and dig in.” Gorin would also re-orient the film when Corky hints that Gorin should film more of their footage (that of the toy trains circulating, which extra stock footage Gorin would give to the club), and when Gorin asks Farber if he could include his paintings in Routine Pleasures, it would now also force Gorin to split the focus of the film between the train club and with Farber.
These acts of reflection and action could be seen as Badiouan events, that of psychological and temporal ruptures for Gorin which creates an experience where there is a before and an after. Badiou writes, “philosophy is the moment of the rupture reflected in thought.” These paradoxical relationships, that of being steadfast in one’s views and then letting things change, would be the synthesis goal of Badiou’s philosophical situations.
The film enacts these confronting perspectives, but unlike Badiou’s example, there is a common measure between Gorin and his subjects and there appears to be a harmonious progression. If the philosophical situation in cinema is the moment when a choice is clarified, this can be illustrated by how Gorin realizes how to more honestly proceed and acting upon this. But this is not the antagonistic relation between reason and power, knowledge and the state that Badiou had in mind.
Perhaps a better example of this relation can be seen through the focus on these club members and their relation to their period. The activity of the club members necessitates a desire and commitment to return the Del Mar Fairgrounds at least twice a week. This choice, decision and commitment can be seen as political. Gorin sees Routine Pleasures as a film about the eighties, as described in the Fargier interview,
It’s a film about the privatization of obsessions, which I think is a fact of the times. It’s a film about an increasing conservative country, but made from the inside and without any irony. It declares that this phenomena is really American, that of a group that is held together by reactivating a lost America through imagination.
This would be the outside-of-the-frame Reaganism of the period. In face of the restrictive political government of the times, these club members provide a breath of fresh air, that of leisure, mastering their universe, and proceeding at their own pace and time. To choose to be on the one side with these club members is that of identifying with these routine pleasures, modest tasks and joy in the small. This parallels some of Badiou’s own social commentary, such as his response to rapid capitalism by emphasizing slowness.
This relates to the importance Badiou places on the idea of potential victories. The notion of victories, and the recognition of the victories, are events for Badiou. According to Badiou,
For a long time, with the idea of revolution there was the hope of a great potential victory, a definitive irreversible victory. And then the idea of revolutions disappeared. We are the orphans of the idea of revolution. As a result, we think that no victory is possible anymore, that the world has lost its illusions, and we eventually become resigned. Cinema, however, says in its own way: ‘There are victories even in the worst of worlds.’ Naturally the victory probably doesn’t exist any longer, but there are individual victories.
To be faithful to these victories has the emancipatory quality of offering hope for a better future. Through the organization of filmmaking to render a sensible worldview out of the infinite possibilities of existence, these scenes and images of victory provide a counterpoint of hope in contrast to a despairing reality. Perhaps modest, the viewing of the activity of working on these miniature train sets instills a vicarious excitement. As Gorin describes it, “Theirs was an imagination that went for the humdrum and the routine, and within that routine little flurries of activity that gave the game its salt.”
The idea of these small victories transitions to Badiou’s ideas on love, which he describes as, “Quite simply, love is also what resists death, as Deleuze and Malraux said about the work of art. No doubt this is what true love and the work of art have in common.” Similarly to philosophy’s role to discern the distance between truth and power, the event of love expresses the gap between this privileged relationship and the ordinary rules of life. This can be illuminated by Routine Pleasures in a few ways: for the club members there is the expression of their effort and energy, which they put into their trains and carts, in the phrase, ‘Good-looking train.’ For Farber how his paintings reflect one of his life philosophies, ‘That it – life – wasn’t too big a deal, and shouldn’t be painted as one.’ Or how Gorin steadfastly gets absorbed into his filming to the point of corresponding with his German producer Stein idiosyncratic and undecipherable letters.
Routine Pleasures is also biographical for Gorin and reflects his own history and relationship to politics. One of Gorin’s regular comments in interviews, after having long been known as one of founders of the politically motivated Dziga Vertov Group, is, from an interview with Camille Nevers and Vicent Vatrican, French Connection: Entretien avec Jean-Pierre Gorin (Cahiers, January 1994, N°476),
It’s kind-of funny that one can’t start talking about me without saying: ‘Twenty years ago he was one of Jean-Luc Godard’s collaborators. Since then we haven’t heard from him, but we now have found him again, and he’s not dead…’ So, yes, I would rather talk about something else.
Badiou has appeared at least twice in Godard’s films: he is cited in La Chinoise (1967) and appears briefly giving a lecture on Husserl to an empty hall on a cruise in Film socialisme (2010). Godard is also filmmaker who Badiou has written the most about and who he describes as the great director of contemporaneity. Badiou has even written an essay on a Godard and Gorin film, The End of A Beginning: Notes on Tout Va Bien, which film he describes as an allegory of gauchismes on the wane.
This is the rupture in his past that would lead Gorin to move to the United States where he experienced his important encounter with Manny Farber. Gorin describes it in the Nevers and Vatrican interview, “this occasion has led me to move onward after my Calvinist relation to Jean-Luc Godard. With Farber I encountered a personality with a bizarre language, who at first really seduced me.” Routine Pleasures is the story of this change in Gorin’s life.
In Routine Pleasures Gorin discusses his new life. The voice over states, “It had been my fifth Fourth of July here. I wasn’t French anymore but I wasn’t quite American either. It made me prone to bouts of unspecified nostalgia… And one led me to the Pacific Beach and Western and to the train people.” On the year 1958, the opening of the train club Gorin remarks “The time of De Gaulle’s return to power and of my first stumble into politics.” He goes on, “Their strange connection to childhood threw me back to the heroes of mine. I had been brought up by a Trotsky-ite and fed a steady diet of American proletarian potboilers because the Stalinist kind wasn’t tolerated at home.“
Gorin’s previous Marxism, commitment in mastering the English language and understanding the reality of American culture emerges throughout Routine Pleasures. Gorin notes,
Wasn’t it my fascination with the noble hand that had landed me from Paris, France in the makeshift station of the Pacific Beach and Western for a chat with Chester… an old navy who was always the first one to file in every Tuesday night?
While Farber describes Gorin more like, “You are all Remembrance of Things Past. But they aren’t your things and this isn’t your past.”
These biographical events for Gorin can be related to Badiou’s ontology, which Hallward describes as, “Badiou defines ontology as what is ‘sayable of being as be-ing’, that is, what can be articulated of being exclusively insofar as it is, in the absence of all other qualities including the contingent quality of existence itself.” This relates to mathematics because its possibilities represent what can even be thought of as being in its totality. Mathematics isolates the gesture of presentation in the present and through this equation Badiou is able to find a language to describe the general situations of all potential situations. For Hallward, “L'être et l'événemen begins, then, with the decision that one is not and once we have this decision it follows that multiplicity is ‘the general form of presentation’.”
This multiplicity of presentations relates to Gorin’s biography as recounted through their singularities in Routine Pleasures and confirms Badiou’s ontology as a situation of being and events. The event and truth being that which stimulates a change in being, that of not being as being and the declaration of it as such. Hallward elaborates,
The operation of a truth can be divided into a number of closely related moments: the naming of the event; the intervention that imposes this name and makes it stick; the division of those elements of the situation that affirm or fit the name from those that do not; the establishment of an enduring fidelity to this name.
The intervention is the courage to name the event and affirm its truth. Gorin through the recounting of his biography suggest a fidelity to the experiences that he has passed through and is actively faithful in embracing and acting upon these events.
That of returning to Routine Pleasures in 2016 offers a fresh perspective on the film. More so than as a documentary on an anachronistic miniature train club, meditation on Farber and his paintings and film criticism, or even Gorin’s evolving Marxism and his interest in American culture. Instead its charms of the club routinely come together for the pleasure of a common good with the modest aims, not of fame or riches, but to take their long and slow time to set up this miniature world, which ends up offering one of the best pictures of what is positive in American society. Routine Pleasures is a miniature epic, an “America under budget and in a shoe box,” according to Gorin. It should be appreciated along other comparable films such as James Benning’s American Dreams (1984) and Lewis Klahr’s The Pettifogger (2011). There are even more of its pictorial and formal qualities that are worth mentioning before concluding such as all of the details on the many trains and carts or the film’s shift away from black-and-white to color film stock when the trains start to get active. Or even its unique and musical use of sounds and noises such as that of the machines or of the club’s nature recordings. So much in Routine Pleasures allows for the visual and sonic reorienting in its viewer, which Badiou’s philosophy allows to better comprehend in its singularity. An important film then and still today.