Essays (book reviews)

The Cinema Hypothesis:
Teaching Cinema in the Classroom and Beyond

by Alain Bergala
(Austrian Film Museum/SYNEMA, 2016)


Any reader of The Cinema Hypothesis needs to have one fact straight in their heads from the first page: it is a book proposing the type of film education that should be directed to very young children. It is not a book centrally about academic film studies in the broadest sense, or the state of film criticism in 2002 (when it first appeared in French), or the condition of cinephilia. And yet, in its digressive and exploratory manner, it manages to touch, often probingly, on many such subjects connected to film culture.


Bergala’s book wanders all over the map, but the adventure it records has, at least, a precise starting point. In 2000, the author was invited by Jack Lang (from 2000 to 2002, France’s Minister of Education in the Socialist government) to formulate principles and procedures for film education in schools – right down (and this is a crucial aspect of the program) to the youngest grade of the smallest children. There’s no arguing with Bergala on that point: I, too, firmly believe that the motto of cinema pedagogy should be get ‘em while they’re young!


What exactly is the “hypothesis” advanced here? For Bergala – who has spent his entire career pondering the issue from diverse angles – students must be made to experience the “creative drive”, the essential decision-making behind strong, memorable moments of cinema. This can be done through watching, listening and talking – Bergala proposes an attractive theory of how to approach cinema through well-selected, pointedly juxtaposed clips or fragments – and it can also, or in tandem, be done through simple filmmaking exercises: choosing a location, directing an actor, framing a shot.


That may at first sound a straightforward, even elementary approach to teaching cinema. But Bergala launches his hypothesis as a battering ram against, on the one hand, analytical studies fixed on the interpretation of films and, on the other hand, political approaches fixed on the reflection of issues of history or contemporary society (the dreaded “film as discussion starter” method so prevalent in classrooms everywhere). He is particularly disapproving (and rightly so) of an educational approach that, I confess with relief, I have never experienced: “an encounter with cinema through bad films”, based in part on the notion that teachers should begin with “what the kids already know” in order to hopefully wean them off it! What a perfectly dreadful pedagogical principle.


In many ways, The Cinema Hypothesis is a book devoted to what was once called, for a brief and lovely window of time that effectively closed at the end of the 1960s, film appreciation. For Bergala, everything that comes under the rubrics of media studies or cultural studies is firmly a matter of sociology (or related areas of social science). The arc of Bergala’s own professional career traces a transition from a semiotic era of ideological decoding in the 1970s (some of his early work on still photography dutifully follows this mode) to a return of aesthetics in the 1980s – a charge which he led in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma and elsewhere, and with which he has tenaciously kept the faith ever since.


This means that, for Bergala, cinema is, above all, art – and that true art, in his view the source of all real resistance to power and oppression, needs to be defended and reinforced. Even institutionalised in the primary, secondary and tertiary curricula, to the extent that anything can be institutionalised. (Bergala is hip to the ways in which young students will always circumvent the tastes of their elder teachers, and begin constructing their own culture.) Cinema as art, for Bergala, has many enemies, and several Big Others. The entire system of capitalistic/consumerist movie entertainment (globalised Hollywood, in short) is one such mighty foe; another is broadcast television. (The Internet had not yet particularly registered on the book’s consciousness in 2002.)


This aspect of The Cinema Hypothesis is very much of its moment, dated to the turn of the century, and has not aged terribly well. Bergala takes every opportunity to rail against the horrors of then-burgeoning Reality TV, mindless quiz or variety programs, and the like. TV is only good when it manages to become cinematic – a position he essentially upholds in the interesting “fourteen years later” interview at the back of the book. Contemporary TV scholars – and fans – will likely turn a whiter shade of pale when reading these strident, scarcely convincing sections of The Cinema Hypothesis.


No child can be forced to swallow the values of their teacher – but perhaps they can be, in the nicest and most polite way, seduced into the cinephiliac passion. Initiation is a word that resonates like a mantra in the book because, for Bergala (as for many visionary educators), “only desire truly initiates learning”. And it is on this topic that The Cinema Hypothesis starts to branch out and digress, often very engagingly so – since experiences of cultural initiation can be found in many places, by participating in ciné-clubs, or through loyally following a certain critic in a particular magazine, or attending film festivals.


So far, pretty good. But there is also something, inescapably, very French about this book, and that doesn’t always help its case. I do not intend this as a glib or flippant remark. I mean that, for Bergala, given the particular cultural history of cinephilia that he (like many others) has lived through, some things are crystal clear – beyond the possibility of any pedagogical tinkering, beyond even a political debate. Bergala does not mince words when it comes to asserting the importance of teaching masterpieces by the greatest auteurs – a canon that is, alas, almost 100% male in this telling. But gender-bias is not the only national problem here.


Very French, too, is the supposedly eternal canon naturally assumed by Bergala, which takes in a quite specific list of fixations – from Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang and Roberto Rossellini through to Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni and Abbas Kiarostami. No bad apples in that bunch, to be sure – but there is an awful lot more that, for Bergala, seems to count only as unspeakable trash or merely generic cinema, and this morass will never come within a million miles of his ideal curriculum. As a longtime fan myself of disreputable things like teen movies – and as someone who proudly uses Drew Barrymore’s Poison Ivy (1992) and Halle Berry’s Catwoman (2004) in the classroom – I quibble with the closed-mindedness of Bergala’s sensibility here, whilst remaining highly sympathetic to his pedagogical project as a whole.


Some readers of The Cinema Hypothesis may be curious for more information on the fate of this pedagogic policy that Bergala helped formulate, and what its concrete results were within the French educational system. On this level, the contextual presentation by Alejandro Bachmann from the Austrian Film Museum is lacking. There is little backstory, and no documentation whatsoever, regarding the life span of the project. In fact, the direct effects of the reform spearheaded by Bergala – and here I am going on what was conveyed to me by French friends at the time – started to abruptly peter out once a new government was elected. By the mid-point of the new century’s first decade, French schoolteachers were already being advised, on some websites, to “remember” and revisit the remnants of Bergala’s program – the central remnant being the text of The Cinema Hypothesis itself.


Throughout the book, Bergala gestures, as part of his vision, to various plans and dreams – such as the need for a canon of 100 Great Films made available to schools on DVD, with various, especially prepared, supplementary bonus materials. Well, did that actually happen? It’s hard to ferret out a complete picture of the facts, even after assiduous online searching. But it seems, as far as I can tell, that around 25 films received the Bergala-imprimatur treatment, and they include Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), Jacques Doillon’s Ponette (1996) and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964).


What Bergala did after completing this book was to return to his already generous schedule of written analysis and lecturing – spreading his gospel in a more diffuse fashion to education-focused groups around the world. A sample from the fruit of this dedicated work has been his outstanding essay collection, La création cinéma (Éditions Yellow Now, 2015).


No two translators will ever produce an identical rendering of the same text. Madeline Whittle’s fine work here has produced a flowing, eminently readable result, but at the price of a few emphases and inflections with which I take issue. My queasy feeling began at the book’s subtitle: what Bergala described as (to render it very literally) a “small treatise on the transmission of cinema in school and elsewhere” has become simply “teaching cinema in the classroom and beyond”. But transmission – a key theme for Bergala – is a larger concept than merely teaching; at moments, it is closer to psychoanalytic transference. Yet teaching it remains throughout the entire translation.


There are also a few missed allusions, and at least one howler. Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955), as a veritable allegory of transmission, is a beloved film reference for Bergala (he helped prepare its educational DVD edition) – and its most famous line, the subtitle rendering of which seems burned into every French cinephile’s brain, even provided the title for a book by the person who is in many respects Bergala’s mentor, Serge Daney: “The exercise was beneficial”. But that reference is sadly lost in Whittle’s rendering of one of Bergala’s chapter titles as “The Experience Has Been Rewarding”.


The howler arrives on page 70, when Bergala retells the tale of the teenage Pier Paolo Pasolini attending art history lectures, and seeing in the projected slides “a sample of the Pasolinian world” … already, at age 17? A precocious artist, indeed! But the French word is actually “masolinien”, which is a reference to the 15th century artist, Masolino da Panicale – not Pasolini himself.



© Adrian Martin March 2017

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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