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  • Cinema, Capital of the Twentieth Century
  • Jonathan L. Beller

The exact development of the concept of capital [is] necessary, because it is the basic concept of modern political economy, just as capital itself, of which it is the abstract reflected image, is the basis of bourgeois society.

—Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Cinema 3: Towards a Dialectical Film of the Cinema (Books)

What is cinema? By posing the infamous question yet again I mean to set forth the task of thinking the development of the concept of cinema and of cinema itself in terms of political economy and social organization.

Let me begin this kind of thinking about cinema with a quick discussion of the “Capital Cinema” shown and shown up by the Coen brothers in their 1992 film, Barton Fink. In the film, Capital Cinema is the name of the late 1930s pre-war Hollywood production studio which, according to the story, makes cinematic expression possible. This company, as a representative of the studio system, is used by the Coen brothers to demonstrate that cinema is at once a factory for the production of representation and an economic form, that is, a site of economic production. As factory and as economic system cinema is inscribed in and by the dominant mode of production: specifically, industrial capitalism and its war economy. As a factory of representation Capital Cinema dictates limits to the forms of consciousness that can be represented, but as an economic form inscribed by the larger cultural logic, Capital Cinema dictates limits to forms of consciousness per se.

The film Barton Fink, in which the Jewish writer Barton (John Turturro) falls from celebrated playwright to abject existentialist hack as he tries to make the shift from New York playwrighting to Los Angeles screen writing, is about the spaces and sensibilities which fall out of (are absent from) a cinema which is a fully functioning component of the capitalist economy. The movement from New York to Los Angeles marks the movement for Barton, but also for representation in general, into a new era. The climax of the film occurs when the film confronts the limits of its own conditions of representation.

Indeed, the thesis of Barton Fink is that there remains an unrepresentable for cinema: experience that refuses commodification. Although such unrepresentability of experience occurs in the film via specific instantiations of race (Jewishness), gender (the wife who has written all of her alcoholic husband’s books), sex (the homoerotic tensions in the hotel room scenes) and class (the inner life of the encyclopedia salesman), it is perhaps even more interesting to think about invisibility as a general case in capital cinema—a predicament of disenfranchised elements in others and in ourselves. The writer Barton is trying to create a script about the real man, about “everyman,” but when the film finally encounters everyman’s never told biography, the biography of the failed encyclopedia salesman (John Goodman) and the biography that Barton, being preoccupied with his script, has not had the time to listen to, the encounter is and can only be indirect, off-screen as it were, and that, as a crisis. At the moment of the encounter between cinema and the experience of “everyman,” a conflagration erupts. Inside the frame the film set is burnt, while outside the frame in the space beyond the film the very edges of the frame burst and flame—the medium literally self-destructs as the reality principle of the film is destroyed in the confrontation of its limits.1 As a film steeped in the protocols of profit, the particular experiences of Goodman’s mad encyclopedia salesman, that is, the myriad experiences of failure in capitalism, fall below the threshold of knowing possible in capital cinema and are precipitated only as effects. These effects, much like a labor strike, confront the mode of production as a crisis and halt its smooth functioning. The experience of Everyman, nearly uncommodifiable by definition, cannot be represented in Capital Cinema.2 Its emergence threatens to destroy the medium itself.

If consciousness in late capitalism, generally speaking, functions like (as) cinema—relatively unable to think beyond the exigencies of capital, then it is important to note at the...

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