To disarm the Gorgon: Weil’s Platonic Cinema (Part One)

After yesterday’s post on Simone Weil’s Electra, I realized that I had not explained how my essay in progress related to the dynamic between Classics and Contemporary Art. All will be revealed in due course and, in the meantime, each of my posts this week will attempt to lead us there, and today is the first of two that engage with Weil and cinema.

In the last minutes of its ninth episode of The Owl’s Legacy (which you can watch in full here), French filmmaker Chris Marker offers perhaps the most iconic scene of his documentary about the persistence of ancient Greece. As a voice over relates the analogy of the cave from Plato’s Republic, the camera pans across the illuminated faces of a group of darkened figures watching a film.

What I realized only recently when re-watching this scene, was that Marker acknowledges the source of this idea – of the cave as a movie theater – as that of Simone Weil. Furthermore, unlike Marker’s own (seemingly) positive account of the cinematic analogy, he describes that Weil saw it as a negative statement about this art and its ability to trap us within the cave of false images. Here are the pertinent stills from the closing seconds of the episode:

But what is this reference to ‘the Gorgon’? The appearance of Weil’s statement and Marker’s response over both images of the cinema’s audience and the scenes from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour concludes a discussion of idols initiated several minutes before. The Classicist Jean-Pierre Vernant is shown amid a symposium explaining the idea of the idol as stemming from the Greek term eidolon, its association with the image and also ideas of deception. Marker cuts between his explanation and scenes from Resnais’ film, as if to pre-empt the deceptive images within Plato’s cave that will come soon. Here are a selection of stills to give you some idea of how Marker cuts between Vernant and Resnais.

Vernant is then shown alone, discussing the image of the Gorgon (as it appears on Greek vases). He reflects on how the Gorgon, while at the same time as being a symbol of terror and death, can also act as a way of disarming terror and death in its very use as a grotesque, and even comic, image.

It is this idea of the power of the image – neither the false images within the cave nor the Platonic Ideas outside the cave – that leads into Marker’s analogy of the cinema as cave as a direct response to Weil’s critical image. Cinematic myths, like the vases, can also ‘disarm the Gorgon’.

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