Comparative Literature and Film Studies
Alain Cohen says that he was “born in a country that does not exist anymore.” Although he is referring to the former French Tunisia, he might well be discussing the real yet intangible landscape of much of his research and writing: the unconscious.
The professor of comparative literature and film studies at UC San Diego has written several books, authored more than 100 research papers, and appeared in a raft of television documentaries about cinema. His work offers searching, and sometimes startling, insights into a wide range of classic and contemporary movies ranging from Godard’s "Breathless" to "The Matrix." He also has examined the challenges of war films as a genre. (View his talk on war cinema.)
A lifelong student of languages, philosophy, aesthetics and, most recently, a psychoanalyst-in-training at the San Diego Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, Cohen is the sort of polymath who makes a lifelong impression on students.
How has your background, growing up in Tunisia and Paris and later in Canada and the U.S., affected your work?
My parents were fortunate that they spent the war where they did, in Tunisia rather than France, where a third of the Jews disappeared in the Holocaust.
Right now, I’m doing mini-courses, not so much about Holocaust films per se, but films that make you think about World War II. Maybe there is a sense of giving back; of being a survivor.
Both novelists and filmmakers seem to be rediscovering the Holocaust as a subject, and looking at it in new ways. Which films do you include?
"Schindler’s List," "Inglourious Basterds." The latter is a film that thinks along the lines of “what if?” It’s about a Jewish woman who escaped assassination by the SS in France and participated in a plot to blow up Hitler and Goebbels in her cinema in Paris. It’s a film of pure imagination.
Why do you believe that film in particular can be a way of understanding the world?
Film is a powerful form of fiction. If you think of Greek tragedy, you are basically telling a story to get to some kind of emotional structure. At the end, the hero acquires some kind of self-consciousness, and you provoke some kind of catharsis for the spectator. A film or a novel leads you to a psychological reality and a rawness of emotions that isn’t often found in life.
I think we disparage fiction unfairly. There is a famous story about Englishmen during the Blitz in World War II. In the shelters they recite to each other lines from Shakespeare. They don’t say “I shake with fear.” They recite Henry V. They are able to sustain each other with the lines they recall, that have everything and nothing to do with the situation they are in. This is one of the beautiful functions of art. It sustains us. Art and life are totally interwoven. Without art the world does not exist.
Many people feel that European films are superior to American films. Yet you are a booster of American filmmakers.
In the same way that French theory defined a lot of Western concepts, America has molded the world by means of Hollywood. You have a few filmmakers who have shaped the world. When you say “Kubrick” you are talking about a vision of the world. The bone that the ape in “2001” throws into the air becomes a spaceship. That’s 2 million years of evolution. Hal, the computer, is evolution gone awry. These concerns are utterly contemporary.
Today, with special effects and the way DVDs function, distinctions based on national cinemas are losing their importance. The co-production of films is as multinational as your Honda.
There are a tremendous number of formulaic romantic comedies, and terrible vampire movies. Can’t we blame Hollywood for these?
It’s like the Renaissance. We only think of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, but there were a lot of hack painters. It’s the 10 percent that matters.
At a time when science and technology seem to rule, what’s the best argument for a rich education in the humanities?
My students were born in front of the image, but they didn’t have the rhetoric, the vocabulary, to address films. If you give them methods, if you go shot by shot, just as you diagram a sentence, and help them see the cause and effect that link one shot to another, you give them the tools to think their way into the filmic medium.
Engineering and anthropology students feel they can apply this method to their work.
The head of the supercomputer lab here in San Diego told me that often scientists enter their fields because they are attracted to visual beauty. She also believes that aesthetics runs the world, along with symbols. The person who can frame an issue better will prevail.
So it’s not a question of deciding whether we should subsidize engineering or biotechnology or the humanities. You won’t have the ability to frame events without having a facility with rhetoric.
Was there something specific about French Tunisia that shaped your ideas?
It was gorgeous. Tunis was an extraordinarily beautiful city. All the houses were white with blue shutters. My memory is of sunshine, and smells. I played in the ruins of Carthage as a kid, in a Roman theater next to the palace of a king.
As a colonial city, it seemed to be a very rational world, a very organized world. In retrospect, I wonder if as a child, I perceived the suffering and the need for freedom in the people around us.
You know, political freedom has a lot in common with psychological freedom. The suffering I witness today as a budding psychoanalyst, in my patients, may have something to do with the suffering that I was not in a position to address as a child. I think my approach to analyzing film is also a shorthand that leads to these questions, of beauty, and freedom, and pain.