Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Dynamics of Dependence
Edward Said and the Counterpoint of Film

Michael Wood is a Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University and a member of the American Philosophical Society and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the editor of the late Edward Said’s last book On Late Style (Pantheon, 2006).

Michael Wood

Apart from the remarkable essay on Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, in On Late Style (2006), Edward Said did not write a great deal about film. However, there is much in his critical and theoretical work that invites consideration of the medium. In Culture and Imperialism (1993) he focuses largely, as he says, on the novel, and one of his governing metaphors is the musical one of counterpoint. Counterpoints for him are within always-competing stories; as if it was not possible to tell a single story, or that such a possibility existed only in a blinded historical sense. Film, I would suggest accordingly, is a medium that finds it hard to tell only one story at a time, and almost invariably evokes oppositions and exclusions, even as it seems to focus on a particular vision. Therefore the medium of film is peculiarly suited to a representation of the ambiguities, especially of domination and dependence. Virtually all films, I am suggesting, multiply stories, but only the most skilful and reflective multiply stories contrapuntally. This essay examines two films, Gillo Pontecorvo’s, The Battle of Algiers/La battaglia di Algeri (1966) and Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment/Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), both of which address these questions as they have arisen in different parts of the world. The tones, styles, and virtues of these two films are different; but both are exceptionally committed to counterpoint, that is, to a sort of exacerbation of the elements of film.

In musical counterpoint, Said reminds us,

[V]arious themes play off one another, with only a provisional privilege being given to any particular one; yet in the resulting polyphony there is concert and order, an organized interplay that derives from the themes, not from a rigorous melodic or formal principle outside the work. (1993, p .51)

Three concepts here are of especial importance for the discussion of the two films in question: provisional privilege of a theme; the double unit of concert and order; and the derivation of the latter from the themes themselves.

Orson Welles made a film, or made a large part of an uncompleted film called It’s All True (1941/2). Pontecorvo, speaking of his film The Battle of Algiers, which chronicles the struggle of the Algerians to overthrow the French Colonial rule in the mid-1950s, invoked what he called the “dictatorship of truth.” These phrases dramatically awaken the very question they seem designed to put to rest, and we have only to pause over them briefly to see why. “It’s all true”; “The dictatorship of the truth.”

Can we believe this proposition? Is this the form of order we are seeking?

The Battle of Algiers does propose a regime of truth, although not really of the sort typical of dictatorship. Pontecorvo himself spoke of wanting to achieve a documentary effect, but said he was not making a documentary film. What is the difference between a documentary and a documentary effect? If The Battle of Algiers is not a documentary, then what is it? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. But for the moment I should like to suggest that a film might be more rather than less historical if it seeks an effect of truth rather than a representation or declaration of truth, and that there are truths of effect that are more lasting and complex than truths of proposition or statement.

In both of the films I am discussing, the ground of the dominant discourse is shifting: from the metropolitan view to that of the local rebellion; from the developed world to its supposed opposite. This means that we have to remember the old dominance even as it begins to disappear. Nevertheless, many viewers have been puzzled by the non-demonized portraits of the French paratroopers in The Battle of Algiers, for instance. There are some vulgar, cruel racists among them, but most of them are men “just doing their job.” An interviewer put this question to Franco Solinas, the author of the film’s screenplay (in the supplementary material to The Battle of Algiers, DVD, 2004): “Why make Colonel Mathieu an enemy who is not hateful” who is, indeed “excessively noble […] elegant, cultured”? Solinas has a three-part answer: “I don’t believe in depicting the enemy as hateful,” then: “There was no intention to create nobility. Mathieu is elegant and cultured because Western civilization is neither inelegant nor stupid.” And more theoretically: “Mathieu is not a realistic character in the traditional sense but rather embodies a realistic idea.” This idea, in fact, is a complex one. Mathieu’s rationality and calm represent the cool logic of power and confrontation: If they win, we lose. It was this rationality, Solinas claims, that needed to be unmasked, since it was what metropolitan France and the French Algerians were so eagerly denying, and further, so busily wrapping up in sentimentality, myth, and righteousness. “Mathieu’s straightforwardness,” Solinas explains, “exposes the unstated ‘rational’ aspects of civilization that France […] never officially recognized” (The Battle of Algiers, DVD, 2004).

Back to counterpoint, one example of it in The Battle of Algiers involves literal music in the soundtrack of the film, although the counterpoint is produced, paradoxically, by the same music appearing in different, if parallel scenes. The film shows the infamous bombing of a house on rue de Thèbes in the Kasbah, Algiers, in 1956, at length, with a sort of sorrow in the very camera movements, as it traces the picking up of bodies and victims among the rubble, accompanied by rather dramatic music composed by Ennio Morricone and Pontecorvo himself.


The Battle of Algiers / La Battaglia di Algeri (1966), excerpt.

The angry crowd visible in this scene is halted by an announcement from the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) leadership, saying “The FLN will avenge you.” It does. Three Algerian women, disguised to look more Western than they usually do, enter three separate places—a cafe, a milk bar, and an airport lounge—in the French quarter of Algiers, and leave bombs there. The bombs explode killing or wounding old and young, including a few children. Peter Matthews, in an interesting commentary on the work, says the women “would be sinister femmes fatales in another context” (in the supplementary material to The Battle of Algiers, DVD, 2004). They are sinister femmes fatales in this context, but it is what they have chosen to be. They know what they are doing and are aware of the cost to life and the suffering they will cause. They may even, their faces suggest, regret these effects and feel sorry for the innocent victims. But their regret and their sorrow, if this is what they feel, are less powerful than their anger and their commitment to being part of the FLN. Nothing is going to stop them from carrying out the mission they have accepted. We are inclined to impute the regret and the sorrow to them in part because of the slowness and thoughtfulness with which they act; but in larger part because of what Pontecorvo shows us of the scenes where the havoc is about to occur. There is no anonymity in the faces he puts on the screen, they are all individual people about to suffer for reasons quite unconnected to their lives as anything other than being French settlers. The camera lingers especially on the face of a small boy. We understand, perhaps even vicariously share the anger that attacks these people. We also see that particular, living people, not symbols or tokens, are about to die or get hurt. And then in case we want to flinch, or take refuge in some sort of moralizing allegory, Pontecorvo adds, although for a briefer moment, the same music we have already heard while retrieving bodies after the bombing in the Kasbah, as these new bodies are brought out of the rubble. The suggestion is not, though, that both sides are equal, or that everyone is justified or everyone is wrong. The suggestion is that the dead and injured deserve our respect, whoever they are; and that we listen to the counterpoint of anger and death, of action and cost; to the intricate, painful music they make.

The painful music strains against most ideas of concert and order. The violence of the colonist and that of the colonized do not match, we cannot get a balanced harmony out of them. But in the sequence of privileges of attention—first the one and then the other—and in the return of the same music in the soundtrack, we find a narrative of an intertwining of histories, to use another of Said’s metaphors (his phrase is “overlapping territories, intertwined histories,” 1993, p. 48, p. 61). The angry panic of the settlers and the orderly vengeance of the indigenous people do precisely form, not a harmony, but a polyphony, where both voices are distinctly heard, and the order comes not from an equivalence between the voices but from the fact they are inextricably part of the same history.

In the 1970s, working on a study of the novelist Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908), the critic Roberto Schwartz (2001) developed the concept of “misplaced ideas”—more precisely of ideas that were “out of place,” fuera do lugar. Thus the ideas of the French Revolution, for example, came to the fore in all kinds of strange adventures in Brazil and elsewhere in the New World. This is not to say (Schwartz has often been misread in this respect) that ideas in their place are perfectly at home or fully understood. They may be—as liberty so often is—the instruments of falsehood; a pretence of emancipation where nothing of the sort occurred. Schwartz suggests that ideas out of place may be less false than ideas in place, precisely because they have traveled and perhaps emerged as a travesty of themselves. Travesty can be a virtue, even a revelation. Connecting the title of Edward Said’s Memoir (1999) to these reflections, propose that he too is suggesting that to be out of place is not only to be an exile, but to wonder who is not an exile. The difference may not be between two conditions but between those who know their condition and those who do not.

The counterpoint in Tomás Gutierrez Alea’s film Memories of Underdevelopment does not involve competing forms of anger, but a complex irony in which a dominant culture is both asserted and denied. However, there is still the same interplay between an old order that has not yet vanished and a new order that has not yet appeared, since both have their music and their voices.

When Sergio Malabre, the protagonist of the film, wants to tell us how uncultured he is, he quotes from Arthur Rimbaud’s Une saison en enfer (A Season in Hell) (1873)—in French “Il m’est bien évident que je suis de race inférieure. Je ne puis comprendre la révolte …” (2000, p. 209) (It is obvious to me that I was always the inferior race. I cannot understand the revolt …). When he wants to speak of Cuban underdevelopment, he borrows a phrase from Alain Resnais’s film Hiroshima mon amour (1959). There, the heroine says that she wants to have an inconsolable memory, une inconsolable mémoire. That’s what Sergio thinks Cuba needs, and he is not so sure that the revolution of 1959 has provided it. Maybe nothing can provide it, because that’s what underdevelopment is in the film—an enduring mood of distraction, an inability to hang on to memories, consolable or inconsolable, an inability to make connections, to create continuities. Yet he is diagnosing himself as well as his country, when he is—this is where another instance of counterpoint begins—both right and wrong in his diagnosis.

Sergio is a bourgeois, former furniture-store owner, who has been living off a pension since his business (and his car) was nationalized. His wife, mother, and father have left for Miami in the wake of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961, but he is not going anywhere. He is, in his disorganized way, a supporter of the revolution, although you would hardly tell that from his behavior. Mainly he broods and chases young women. He is right in his diagnosis because he and his compatriots (many of them) are in love with their own inability to be European enough, metropolitan enough, or developed enough, by their own standards. With such a love of failure, how could you succeed? Yet he is wrong in his diagnosis because the very notion of development belongs to the self-styled developed world, and economic underdevelopment has nothing to do with any other supposed forms. Sergio doesn’t fully register the irony of his situation—of his own and Cuba’s development—because he is so thoroughly immersed in the world of the film. The director expects the viewers to understand him but also go beyond his vision, as evident in the following film sequence.


Memories of Underdevelopment / Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968), excerpt.

The novel by Edmundo Desnoes, on which the film is based, was originally entitled Memorias del subdesarrollo (Inconsolable Memories) (1967), alluding to the phrase in Hiroshima mon amour. After the film appeared, all new editions of the book took on the film’s title. This move helpfully makes the cultural joke more explicit, and reminds us that it is also a political joke. It is littered all over the novel and the movie. The island is described there as “underdeveloped,” “sunk in underdevelopment.” A writer, who returns from New York, is said to want to “show off in underdevelopment.” Sergio himself is “underdeveloped at heart,” and “an underdeveloped writer.” Cuban girls are “underdeveloped”—this is not a comment on their physical form. One girl is even said to re-create “underdevelopment at every step.” Among the last words of the novel are “Underdevelopment and civilization. Never learn” (see, e.g., pp. 14, 27, 80, 19, 86, 57, 83, 153).

Sometimes the (equally ironic) term for underdevelopment is “el trópico,” the tropics. Here, both Desnoes and Gutierrez Alea are picking up on a famous scene from Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s novel Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers) (1965). In the period before the revolution, two men are driving along the Malecón in Havana, listening to classical music on the car radio, a fine baroque piece for orchestra. One of the men dilates at great and extravagant length on the virtues of Johann Sebastian Bach as an artist, what he achieved, what this achievement means for the world, how there is no one remotely like him. The music ends, and the radio announcer says: “Ladies and gentlemen, you have just been listening to the Concerto Grosso in D major, opus 2, number 3, by Antonio Vivaldi ….” Both men laugh, and the one who was not doing the talking says, “Chico, la cultura en el trópico,” Chico, culture in the tropics (p. 322).

The laughter is important. The joke is on the speaker, of course, but he gets the joke. We, too, recognize that the error—mistaking Vivaldi for Bach—would not have been particularly funny in a so-called developed country. It would just have been an error. But here, the situation is both over- and under-developed, and the tropic is in this sense richer than the moderate metropolis: it has Vivaldi and Bach and the joke.

When Sergio says in Memories of Underdevelopment that the revolution is “the only complicated thing” to have happened to the Cuban people, he is commenting on what he takes to be Cuban innocence, even stupidity. But of course this comment is not innocent or stupid—nor are the Cubans—except when they fall in love with other people’s myths.

In this complicated assertion we have an answer to the question that hangs over the whole film. Why has Sergio stayed in Cuba when most members of his class have left? He himself would no doubt say, in his educated but depressed way: No reason. But he has a reason, whether he knows it or not, and it is related to the perspectives that the film The Battle of Algiers also invites viewers to scan and consider closely. Sergio believes in lucidity and consciousness, and when he says, “the revolution […] is my revenge against the stupidity of the Cuban bourgeoisie, against my own moronic life,” one sees and hears the beginning of an inconsolable memory, and the beginning of an understanding of the finer promises of underdevelopment.

Briefly put, neither of the two films offers any consolation. The Battle of Algiers reveals unremitting death and destruction, and Memories of Underdevelopment, elegant and ironic as it is, suggests no immediate exit from aimlessness and misunderstanding. And yet, they do allow us to follow, in intimate, patient detail, what Said calls the “processes” of liberation and suppression at work (1993, p. 66). The work may fail, but we cannot fail to have watched it, and if this result does not console us, we may finally grasp that we are better off unconsoled. History will solve the problems of empire, but only if we acknowledge our collusion in them, and recognize that liberation can turn into another form of imprisonment. The importance of counterpoint is that it neither silences voices, nor hides images.


Books and articles

Cabrera Infante, G. (1965/2008) Tres Tristes Tigres (Three Trapped Tigers). New York: Rayo/HarperCollins.

Desnoes, E. (1967) Inconsolable Memories, translated by the author. New York: New American Library.

Matthews, P. (2004) The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs. In: The Battle of Algiers booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release.

Rimbaud, A. (2000) Oeuvres, Paris: Garnier.

Said, E. W. (1993) Culture and Imperialism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Said, E. W. (1999) Out of Place: A Memoir. London: Granta Books.

Said, E. W. (2006) On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain. London: Bloomsbury.

Schwartz, R. (2001) A Master on the Periphery of Capitalism: Machado de Assis (Post-Contemporary Interventions). Durham, NC: Duke University Press Books.

Films and videos

The Battle of Algiers / La battaglia di Algeri (1966) Dir.: G. Pontecorvo, Algeria / Italy, 121 min.

Hiroshima mon amour (1959) Dir.: A. Resnais, France / Japan, 90 min.

It’s All True (1941/2) Dir.: O. Welles, USA, 87 min.

Memories of Underdevelopment / Memorias del subdesarrollo (1968) Dir.: T. Gutiérrez Alea, Cuba, 97 min.