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Aesthetic Risk and Deficit Thinking:
Some Profit and Loss Statements about Cinema and Thought

Helen Grace



Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.
– Old Hollywood saying


1. Risk Aversion, or: One or Two Things I Know About Him

You can decide for yourself whether I’m making this story up but, some years ago, a film producer friend of mine happened to be working in London in a small distribution company specialising in independent and marginally commercial cinema. Jean-Luc Godard was among those represented by the company – certainly not all of his films, but perhaps one or two, the names of which are not recalled in this story. The company had grown out of earlier co-operative groupings of filmmakers themselves, and they distributed the works of filmmakers considered important, groundbreaking, political, and so on. Godard, the descendent of bankers (on his mother’s side) (1) was perhaps mistrustful of the global networks of finance that ate into the meagre returns filmmakers received when funds were transferred through currency exchange between banks in the switch from sterling to Swiss francs (the Euro did not then exist and even if it had, there would still have been the problem of the pound).


Godard was in a stage of creative ‘restoration’ (2) in this period, immediately following the militant years of the Dziga Vertov Group; he was experimenting with video, living for a time in Grenoble before moving to Switzerland. But there still remained the everyday question of how to live and how to maintain cash flow – and how to manage even this in a creative way. So, according to my friend, Godard preferred to deal in cash only, and this meant that, for security reasons, personal delivery was the best option.


The film distribution company therefore had to send someone to Geneva to deliver the parcel of cash – it would not have been a large amount but, as this is a story, I don’t have the exact figures and I certainly have not done a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether such a demand – even by a famous filmmaker – could be justified. But let’s just call it an opportunity too good to be missed, rather than a risk to be avoided. Or perhaps it was a risk to be taken, if the amount of cash exceeded the amount one is allowed to freely carry, requiring my friend to lie on the customs declaration, entering thereby the zone of the illicit. This may not be an entirely realistic story, but we can see immediately how stories would collapse if the risk analysis of conventional economics – or the general mood of the risk society – was always brought to bear; and we can also see why the narrative impulse is of such a different categorical order than that of accounting.



1. Godard’s maternal grandfather had interests in La Banque de Paris et les Pays-Bas (a descendent of BNP Paribas, now the largest bank in the Eurozone). For details of Godard’s background, see Colin MacCabe, Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy (Faber and Faber, 2003), pp. 1-41. On the history of French banking, see Pohl Manfred and Freitag Sabine (eds.), Handbook on the History of European Banks (London: Edward Elgar for the European Association for Banking History, 1994).

2. See Richard Brody, Everything is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and company, 2008).

My friend is given the task of taking the money to Godard – of ‘making the drop’ as it were, in this cross between an imaginary gangster movie (or spy movie) and the normal everyday business dealings in which independent filmmakers engage in order to sustain themselves. This is an elaborate business and a serious undertaking because, firstly, she has to fly to Geneva and find her way to the station. Or perhaps she might have crossed the Channel by ferry and gone by train – I’m trying to plot the feasibility of this, speculating on the time it might have taken, as if it were some kind of quest narrative or basic fairytale plot that might be staged, and I am trying to build on the skeleton of the story she told me a long time ago.


The arrangement is that Godard and my friend will meet on a platform at Gare de Cornavin, and so she arrives in advance of the appointed time, with the bag of cash. She is standing on the platform so that she can be ready when Godard arrives; as she waits, she observes the flow of traffic, listening to announcements of arrivals and departures, as if expecting the director to say ‘action’ – because, of course, this is exactly what she is waiting for and she has willingly taken on this role, aware that she has been drawn into the world of someone for whom ‘everything is cinema’.


Some time after the appointed hour (she is prepared to wait as long as it takes) she sees a man with dark glasses walking towards her. Recognising him as (or assuming him to be) Godard, she tentatively approaches him, expecting perhaps an exchange of pleasantries or at least some form of social lubrication to acknowledge her existence and to mask the baldness of the crude economic exchange that is about to occur – itself not unlike a scene from Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle (1967), let’s say, or any of a number of other Godard films in which the economic reality of love and work are represented.


My friend can immediately see from his dispassionate face that he means business, so she holds out the parcel she is carrying, mustering only a few redundant words, delivered rather flatly (so flatly that, if this were a film, a retake would be instantly called for – but life is generally such a low-budget affair that there is no time for rehearsals or retakes): ‘Here’s your money, Mr Godard’ she says, in the brief moment – just a flash really, perhaps no more than a few frames – of face to face contact she has with the famous director.


Without ceremony or comment, the man she believes to be Godard firmly seizes the parcel, not wanting to prolong the encounter beyond its purely necessary duration, brushing past her and quickly disappearing into the crowd along the platform. There is no-one to shout ‘Cut!’, but the action is complete and she knows that her cameo role in a Godard scenario is over, although no camera – to her knowledge – has recorded the scene. In retrospect, this also means there is no one other than the storyteller to confirm the truth of the story.


In the terms of monetary theory – or of monetarism in general, a body of theory that is being built at precisely this moment of Godard’s militant refusal of the values and exchange terms of global finance – the behaviour described here might be characterised as a case of ‘risk aversion’, something which we can mathematically quantify in something like the Arrow-Pratt measures of absolute and relative risk aversion (3) – but to apply the methods of the ‘dismal science’ to this scenario would somewhat miss the point of this deceptively simple and effective means of avoiding bank and exchange rate commissions, of evading the constant loss involved in currency exchanges – not unlike the kind of loss involved in translation.


Now it may be true that the risk of loss in this situation has been deferred to the courier, from whom the money might be stolen. There are many other plausible scenarios that might be used to retell this story, but I am only interested in the small but elaborate attempt to beat the bank and the adventure it afforded my friend. It might even be that I am simply projecting my own desire to avoid bank charges in the petty ways in which I constantly try to do this, and that I have somehow entangled it with the fragment of a friend’s reported brush with fame. As a result, I cannot give you a footnote for this story – which is to say, I cannot acknowledge my debt; and so the episode belongs within that gift economy that is the source of all stories.

  3. Kenneth J. Arrow, Aspects of the Theory of Risk Bearing (Helsinki: Yrjo Jahnssonin Saato, 1965); John W. Pratt, ‘Risk aversion in the small and in the large,’ Econometrica 32 (1964), pp. 122-136. (Arrow won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1972 and is the uncle of Lawrence Summers, former Director of National Economic Council in the Obama Administration).

2. Speculation’s Profit and Loss

If this fanciful story of Godard’s attempt at risk aversion points to the complexities of our everyday encounters with risk, I want to turn to the ways in which the language of risk management has now so deeply entered our thoughts that there seems in fact little room anymore for speculation – except in a purely economic sense. If sociology has risen to the challenge of a general default on modernity’s promises of a social contract by coming up with the concept of the risk society (resulting in generally profitable speculations for a few sociologists at least) (4), over the same period literary theory and history seem rather to have chosen the path of loss, with melancholy speculations on trauma and history. (5) Acknowledgment of debt structures is made by some theorists (6), while cultural theory, science studies and anthropology provide us with speculations that have the dimensions of science fiction in post-human scenarios effectively (and affectively) visualised in the high-end CGI of post-cinematic animation. (7)


Here, I want to consider the idea of ‘aesthetic risk’ – by which I mean the operation of a sphere of imaginative thought existing even before a film can be made, and possessing a certain logic of its own. I do not preclude the ‘aesthetic’ risk – more like improvisation – that may occur during the making of a film, but I am interested here in the pure speculation that is the condition of possibility of the film in the first place. ‘Aesthetic’ risk during the making of the film – or its editing – is not of the same order, since the decisions to be made at this point are partially instrumental: i.e., after production finance has been arranged, a completion guarantee will be in place. This means that there is little choice but to proceed, rather than abandon the project, so a certain free choice has been lost by this point; although aesthetic decisions are certainly made, they have clearly moved from the realm of pure speculation.

Before we get to this stage, however, we are in
a sphere of the immeasurable or the incalculable – encompassed in film development agencies’ uses of words like ‘innovation’ (which are never clearly defined). It is important to acknowledge that the very impossibility of exact definition is precisely what brings the concept into existence as ineffable location or source of creative power, enhancing its magical properties and hence its value as something eternal, beyond the sphere of mundane calculability – a kind of gold standard of thought or cognition itself.


It is noticeable that the word ‘innovation’ has come to replace the word ‘creativity’ in these areas, since it represents the shift from romantic models of artisanal production to industrial models – encompassed in the idea of ‘creative industries’, where ‘creativity’ is reduced to adjectival support of industry, as intellectual property potential begins to be monetised and gift economies are subordinated to market economies on both sides of the idea of the ‘Creative Commons’. However, it is also necessary to maintain some connection with the concept of ‘creativity’, since this maintains a link with magic or divine power, the alchemical or magical possibility of bringing into existence something that previously had no existence, a kind of conjuring trick.


4. Ulrich Beck, World at Risk (Polity, 2009); Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity (Sage, 1992); Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash (eds.), Reflexive Modernization: Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in the Modern Social Order (Stanford, 1994); John Tulloch and Deborah Lupton, Risk and Everyday Life (Sage, 2003).

5. See for example, Elaine Scarry, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative and History (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996); Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000); Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago University Press, 2000); Judith P. Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (Verso Books, 2004).

6. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994); Jacques Derrida, Given Time, I. Counterfeit Money (University of Chicago Press, 1992).

7. Nikolas Rose, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2006); Kaushik Sunder Rajan, Biocapital: The Constitution of Post-genomic Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

If we were to apply theories of economic behaviour to the concept of aesthetic risk, we might understand it as a species of ‘irrational behavior’, a field that has become of increasing interest in psychology, cognitive science, economics, game theory and advertising, as a means of understanding consumer demand and how to stimulate it. For our purposes, however, we might see forms of supposedly irrational behavior, including what we might call aesthetic risk, as having more productive links with ideas of prelogical thought, the study of such systems having the capacity to illuminate the general field of human consciousness and cognition. (8)


Thought itself is a risky business – or, rather, the concept of speculation, in a philosophical rather than financial sense, precedes thought of risk and consequences. The point at which risk concerns us, more than pure speculation, is the point at which we must acknowledge a limit, a constraint on freedom of thought – a loss, if you like, a point reached when the financial sense overwhelms the philosophical sense of speculation, when we must begin to count the cost. So, naturally, we want to defer this point as long as possible (or find elaborate ways of transferring the debt arising).




8. Although these questions have long been considered within anthropology. See Masha Salazkina, In Excess: Sergei Eisenstein’s Mexico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

As I have noted above, film development agencies within national film industries and their policy production arms always claim to be promoting innovative and ‘cutting edge’ work – but the task of producing such work is, in the general pattern of liberal capitalism (even within social democracies), ‘outsourced’ to individuals who understand risk in terms that are very different from those of the cost-benefit analysis of risk management agencies.


Risk is not, however, avoided by the refusal to engage with it in these conventional terms (which is to say, in essentially financial terms, since to lose money is the greatest risk in cultures that have largely eliminated the fear of death as a daily risk). Instead, different forms of risk are involved: a form of risk closely associated with ideas of freedom and its loss on the one hand, and the risk of failure and oblivion on the other. So – if we want to call it ‘risk’ at all – we can characterise the general form of risk undertaken by filmmakers, as ‘aesthetic risk’, a form of risk producing terror in financiers fearful of loss of (their) control – and fearful also that they will be judged uncivilised for lacking critical judgment.


The fear of being seen to lack critical judgment is an anxiety always to be found in the realm of business and economics (but not only here) – because of an underlying sense of the impurity of the economic that has almost a theological force in Christianity at least (though probably not to the same extent in other religions), beginning in the Biblical story of the money-lenders being ejected from the temple of God. It is perhaps for this reason that involvement in arts and culture becomes a principle sphere of purification (money-laundering?) in the desire for increased social legitimacy on the part of nouveau riche classes. Cultural engagement also remains a privileged sphere where old money can manifest its superior taste and breeding in a democratic era, and where philanthropy can be done with more personal – and ‘classy’ – satisfaction than is afforded by the support of generally more worthy causes.


The market is increasingly the mechanism used to measure the success or failure of aesthetic risk-taking, although in fact it does not measure aesthetic risk at all, but merely the success or failure of marketing. Critical judgment has traditionally been used to determine the relative value of aesthetic risk, but new media forms, viral marketing techniques, broader distribution options and the Internet mean that the individualised process of criticism has been displaced by more general opinion and forms of appreciation accompanying active audience response, while the remnants of more elite judgment have been taken up by a greater emphasis on prizes and awards, tying the need for higher-level judgment to the demands of marketing itself.


Because of its inherent unpredictability, aesthetic risk is placed on the side of fiscal recklessness, linking it to general questions of freedom and moderation in modernity (9), and the responsibilities of citizens of the modern state. As Variety characterises it, in one of the relatively few places where the idea of aesthetic risk is specifically identified (although not explained ): ‘… it's all a matter of balancing aesthetic risk with fiscal responsibility’. (10)


Filmmakers develop more or less pragmatic positions on the management of aesthetic risk on the one hand, and fiscal responsibility on the other. As Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood (2007 – based on the 1927 Upton Sinclair novel Oil!) recently put it: ‘It's up to you to get it done as economically and responsibly as possible … If you break those rules, then you are open to any kind of input that you may or may not want. But too bad. Their rules are: “You said you could make it for this much money”. And that's a completely fair deal. And if you don't, the deal changes.’ (11)


Filmmakers so often find themselves in this contradictory situation: an insistence that rules be followed … and a demand that rules be broken. Perhaps we are forced to acknowledge the impossibility of the emergence of figures like Eisenstein and Godard in cinema today – because the risk management strategies now in place quite simply thwart the emergence of such thinkers, the result being that the intricacies of financing creativity have increasingly passed to the sphere of financial engineering, computer engineering and software.


9. Freedom here is understood to be the freedom to use one’s own intelligence – as Kant defines ‘Enlightenment’. See: Immanuel Kant, ‘An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ (1784, first published 1798) in Immanuel Kant. Practical Philosophy, ed. & trans. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

10. Anthony Kaufman, ‘Are directors given too much rope? Filmmakers with final cut were plentiful this year’, Variety 4 December (2007), (Accessed, June 30, 2009).

11. Ibid.


This does not mean that brilliant and original work does not emerge from inspired individuals; but the phenomenon of a Godard or an Eisenstein in its precise singularity does not exist – in part because of much more diffuse means of distribution (DVDs, user-created content and on-line distribution, cable TV, arthouse and expanded festival circuits), in part because of differences in the nature of celebrity as a result of new media, and in part because of mechanisms of control and risk management.


Besides, Eisenstein, who taught at VGIK (All-Union State Institute of Cinematography), the main Soviet film school, for many years would not be able to get a job in many universities today because of the micro-management of learning; witness his 1936 course outline, ‘Teaching Programme for the Theory and Practice of Direction: How to Teach Direction’ – this would have to be extensively re-written to concisely specify the aims, objectives and learning outcomes! (12)


The ‘filmmaker’ and the dealmaker are now one and the same (as the Anderson quote above indicates), and the separation between aesthetic risk and fiscal activity no longer really exists, except as the remnant of a romantic moment of artistic freedom belonging to the early days of modernity and surviving now as myth rather than reality. But, nonetheless, we cannot underestimate the force of this myth (and of myth today) – as the space that allows for creativity’s power precisely within a world in which the language and tactics of risk management minimise the possibility of individual ‘genius’ in the traditional sense. In any case, creativity is increasingly collectivised within teams of ‘creatives’, while ideas and dreams are realised in ‘render’ factories, where vast numbers of designers, programmers and animators are subject to precise divisions of labour in post-production space, where much more calculable decisions can be made than occur in pre-production or even production itself. This, of course, refers to the more industrial end of cinema production – but even independent production is now governed by the calculable and controlled (in the use and limits of technologies and proprietorial software).

  12. See Richard Taylor (ed.), Sergei Eisenstein: Writings 1934-1947 (London: I.B. Taurus, 2010), pp. 74-97.

3. Life: The Disaster Movie

The scientific rationalism of modern technological society promised individuals a degree of security and risk minimisation, extending life expectancy and raising expectations of economic stability and the regularisation of the unstable seasonality of agricultural societies – although, ironically, this very instability and irregularity remain the norm for filmmakers – and creative workers more generally. Increasingly, it is becoming the condition of labour beyond creative industries as well – and the model of freedom and the glamour of creative labour justifies the extension of its values of economic instability to wider and wider sections of the population. (13) This proliferation of risk and the increased necessity for individuals to take active responsibility for their lives, careers, financial security and personal development means that life is now less directed towards the pursuit of happiness, and more towards the prevention or mitigation of disaster.


The idea of a risk society, theorised by sociologists, also emerges at the same time that monetarism and modern portfolio theory begin to assess risk in ever more mathematical forms, laying the groundwork for the elaborate financial engineering (collaterised debt obligations, credit-default swaps, so-called ‘asset-backed securities’) that has since emerged. (14) So we might say that the results of such engineering have produced new works of fiction that rival the magic that cinema has traditionally produced, certainly in the wild enthusiasm and stratospheric projections of future wealth – and actual prosperity for some – that previously only utopian political projects envisaged. And, of course, there is also the level of unprecedented disaster and catastrophe that can now befall entire nations, making the disaster scenarios of the movies seem entirely melodramatic by comparison.





13. See Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘Immaterial Labour,’ in Michael Hardt & Paolo Virno (eds.), Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1996), pp. 133-147. For a more detailed elaboration see Lazzarato, Lavoro Immateriale: Forme di Vita e Produzione di Soggettività (Verona: Ombre Corte, 1997).

14. On the risks involved, see Gillian Tett, Fool's Gold: How the Bold Dream of a Small Tribe at J.P. Morgan Was Corrupted by Wall Street Greed and Unleashed a Catastrophe (Free Press, 2009).

Cinema itself has been subject to the same kinds of risk assessment as the financial industries, with film financing now increasingly underwritten by insurance companies and completion bonds, by private equity and hedge fund firms, and product-placement agencies. The vagaries and uncertainties of creativity are thus increasingly drawn into the same risk management strategies as agricultural futures trading always has been. We can say that there is nothing outside of the possibilities of quantification, however approximate many of the estimates may well remain – and however disastrous these calculations generally turn out to be for those at the primary production level of the transactions. We can thus speculate that the possibility of aesthetic risk-taking has been systematically reduced in the creative sphere, indicating that a certain vital aspect of production is being eliminated (or increasingly subjected to calculability in either a human or machinic sense), and that this constitutes a loss – in at least qualitative terms. More precisely, we can say that there is a greater tendency for loss to be experienced in qualitative terms. We might also note that aesthetic risk is linked to a cluster of terms that we still think of as ‘goods’ – in a social sense – and these goods are also being squeezed, as a result of increased calculability in production itself.


If life itself has begun to emulate a disaster movie, it is no surprise that Hollywood has its own catastrophe scenarios at the level of high-risk financing. As if to mimic the very terror of its imaginings of the end of the world, the desire to reduce risk has given rise to complicated strategies of debt transfer, within practices of increasing deficit financing. This has resulted in a general reorganisation of risk in Hollywood financing, necessitated by ever-expanding budgets, arising from the star-studded blockbuster model and the pressures to expand and widen market penetration in order to maximise returns. (15)


Until the 1990s, Richard Phillips has argued, total ‘carrying capacity’ of US domestic box office receipts exceeded total release costs of all major Hollywood studio productions, so that profits came from revenue in overseas markets, and from video and ancillary exhibition (cable, pay and free-to-air television). The substantial increase in budgets resulting from the blockbuster model massively reduced the capacity for projects to cover their production costs from domestic markets, and as a result extended fundraising had to go off-shore, with complex global financial deals eventually leading to the collapse of major financial institutions. (16) External and off-shore financing is not of course new to Hollywood (17), but the particular shift of the last two decades might be seen as part of a general climate of risk transfer and export within global finance and risk management in the post-industrial world, involving a generalised trend towards the privatisation of profit and the socialisation of debt and loss. But the beginnings of these possibilities had already occurred by the time of the Great Depression.









15. E. Ray Canterbery and A. Marvasti, ‘The U.S. Motion Pictures Industry: An Empirical Approach,’ Review of Industrial Organization 19 (2001): 81-98.

16. Richard Phillips, ‘The Global Export of Risk: Finance and the Film Business,’ Competition and Change Vol 8 No 2 (2004), p. 106. See also Michael Pokorny, Hollywood and the Risk Environment of Movie Production in the 1990s, in John Sedgwick and Michael Pokorny (eds.), An Economic History of Film (London: Routledge, 2005).

17. For a general overview, see Janet Staiger, The Labor Force, Financing and the Mode of Production, in David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987).

4. ‘Millions of Happy-Minded Young Americans…’

If Paul Thomas Anderson’s dealings with an Upton Sinclair project ended happily for everyone (18), Sergei Eisenstein’s earlier efforts in working with Sinclair were a failure and a personal disaster. (19) As is well known, his Mexican tragedy followed his failed attempts to make a film based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel, An American Tragedy (1925). If the history of cinema tends to regard Eisenstein’s failure in Hollywood as a loss for Hollywood and an indication of its inadequacies, there would be no such sympathy for this romantic view in a general history of risk; Eisenstein would simply be dismissed as a bad risk. As it happens, this is more or less his own view of the experience, as he notes in his memoirs, which present a remarkably straightforward assessment of his own ‘risk position’:



I was the protégé of the ‘risk-takers’, the seekers after novelty and excitement, which I represented in Jesse Lasky’s company. (20) They faced the bankers who represented financial interests and especially B.P.; (21) they gambled only on certainties, in a cautious and calculating way and, more often than not, were all for repeating winning formulae. (22)



18. Or, at least, profitably. There Will Be Blood (2007) – based (very loosely) on the Upton Sinclair novel, Oil! (1927) – reportedly made three times its production budget of USD25m – and of the USD76m revenue, almost 50% was derived from overseas markets (for details see here, accessed June 30, 2009). The original story is much more political: one of the main characters is a workers’ advocate who spends time in Siberia and becomes a communist – narrative elements as unlikely to appear in Hollywood movies today as they were in the 1930s.

Eisenstein’s memoirs detail numerous meetings with artists, writers and also with financiers who, it was hoped, could be of help in arranging his trip to Hollywood in 1930, or in funding projects in Europe. (23) These included Otto H Kahn, philanthropist, patron, collector and senior partner in Kuhn, Loeb and Co (24), one of the most influential merchant banks in the US and instrumental in the financing of railways and other key growth industries and companies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Kahn played an active role in bringing Wall Street finance to Hollywood from 1919 onwards (25) and, as a result, he was a board member of Paramount when Eisenstein was contracted by the company. Eisenstein writes a richly impressionistic piece about meeting Kahn in his Italianate palazzo on Fifth Avenue, where there was a Rembrandt above the fireplace, and about Kahn’s four Gainsboroughs, all on display in his Long Island chateau. (26) As it happens, Kahn’s Long Island chateau was included in the opening sequence stock footage of Citizen Kane. (27)


Eisenstein arrived in the US six months after the Great Depression and, although its effects were being felt economically, with 100,000 workers a week losing jobs between 1930 and 1932, movie attendances initially increased, reaching an all-time peak of 80 million per week in 1930 (28) – and this in spite of the fact that production companies reported substantial losses between 1929 and 1930. (29) So Eisenstein’s arrival in July 1930 is accompanied by an expression of excessive hope. As Film Spectator noted at the time, ‘Eisenstein comes to us at a time when production in Hollywood is in need of a Moses to lead it out of the wilderness of dwindling box office receipts’. (30)


Before he could become Moses leading Hollywood out of the wilderness, Eisenstein’s first task was to market himself to international distributors and exhibitors at a Paramount-Publix convention in Atlantic City (31), the day after disembarking from Europe. Although the city was still a resort rather than a casino town, Eisenstein saw the potential in the predilections of movie business participants:


19. For the most detailed descriptive account, see Harry M. Geduld and Ronald Gottesman (eds.), Sergei Eisenstein and Upton Sinclair: The Making & Unmaking of Que Viva Mexico! (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970). For a richer, more interpretive reading, see Salazkina, In Excess.

20. Lasky was not so much a risk-taker in the aesthetic sense, but it had been his decision to appoint the Eisenstein team, these ‘risky highbrow protégés’, as Ivor Montagu characterised them. See Montagu, With Eisenstein in Hollywood (Berlin: Seven Seas Books, 1969), p. 112.

21. B.P. Schulberg (1892–1957), head of Paramount Pictures when Eisenstein was in Hollywood.

22. Eisenstein, ‘The Road to Buenos Aires’, in Richard Taylor (ed.), Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1995), p. 288.


They all gambled. They gambled on anything. Pictures. Stars. Contracts. Screenplays. Races. How many points a train would cross in one day. Even greater sums on elections – state, federal, presidential … They lost fortunes. Then won them back again. And staked them again. (32)


23. See Ivor Montagu, Ibid. and also, Helen Grace, Hegel’s Grave’, Screening the Past, no. 9 (2000).

Eisenstein’s observations present a somewhat contradictory view of Hollywood at the time of the Great Depression, when studios were all losing money while financing was increasingly being structured by the models of completion bonds and debt transfer that now dominate global film financing, models that were then in their infancy. Alhough the propensity to gamble was widespread, there were some gambles that were not taken – and Eisenstein himself was clearly one of these.


The potentiality of Eisenstein’s projects in this period has long sustained the director’s reputation – the project to film Capital (33), the Glass House and the idea of the spherical book (34), Sutter’s Gold and, of course, An American Tragedy. In his prolific writings, Eisenstein ‘remakes’ his films – whether made or unmade, as ideas, unrealised perhaps, in spite of their completion (or abandonment). If the number of completed films is limited, the endlessly remade texts allow for a constant remaking of the work, so that both films and writing present a kind of ‘open source’ archive for endless remixing. This is the real legacy of Eisenstein. (35)


But, in Hollywood, the model of speculative thought he encounters clashes with the possibilities he envisages in his own developing practice of chuvstvennoe myshlenie (sensuous thought). The alternative to this potential model of thought that subsequently develops in Hollywood is rather a sexualised body culture, operating within the confines of the moralistic Hayes Code on the one hand (36), and the particular shaping – or thinning – of the female body on the other. (37) Normative sexuality and sexual obsession, rather than the polymorphous perversity and pleasures of chuvstvennoe myshlenie.


An incommensurability in modes of thought presents itself from the very beginning – and this can be seen in contrasting the language of two well-known memos about Eisenstein written by David O. Selznick, in 1926 and 1930. In the first, a memo sent to Harry Rapf at MGM in October 1926, there is a manifest consciousness of the different worlds of art and commerce, expressed in a decision initially to set aside commercial and political considerations. Selznick recommends – for purely artistic reasons – that ‘the organisation’ view The Armoured Cruiser Potemkin (1925), which he had seen at two earlier private screenings:



I shall not here discuss the commercial or political aspects of the picture but simply say that regardless of what they may be, the film is a superb piece of craftsmanship. It possesses a technique entirely new to the screen, and I therefore suggest that it might be very advantageous to have the organisation view it in the same way that a group of artists might view and study a Rubens or a Raphael. (38)


24. The bank, formed in 1867, merged with Lehman Bros in 1977, and finally disappeared in September 2008, with the collapse of that bank.

25. Therese M. Collins, Otto Kahn: Art, Money, and Modern Time (University of Northern Carolina Press, 2002), p. 4. More recently, the excesses of Wall Street have been blamed on Hollywood, in a narrative that rather forgets the history of Wall Street’s own encounters with Hollywood. See, for example, Neal Gabler, The Hollywoodization of Wall Street’, Boston Globe, 23 April 23 2009 (Accessed, June 30, 2009).

26. See Otto H and the Artichokes’, in Richard Taylor (ed.), Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1995), pp. 45-53.

27. See Collins, Otto Kahn, p. 3.

28. See Tino Balio (ed.), Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 (University of California Press, 1996), p. 13. Balio does not note the date of these figures, but presumably they refer to early 1930, since the trade press is already observing a decline by July 1930.

29. Warners reported a USD14.5m profit in 1929, which had fallen to USD7m in 1930; Fox earned USD10m in 1930, but reported a USD4m loss in 1931; RKO earned USD3.4m in 1930, and lost USD5.7m in 1931. Paramount earned USD18.4m in 1930, USD6.3m in 1931, but lost USD21m in 1932, filing for bankruptcy in 1933, in the second largest corporate collapse in US history (to that point). See Balio, pp. 15-16.

Of course, the economic dimension is not entirely removed, as the organisation’s viewing of the work is considered to be ‘very advantageous.’ Moreover, to intensify the advantage, Selznick further recommends that ‘the firm might well consider securing the man responsible for it’. (39) So, quickly, pure art moves to securitisation, almost within the same breath.


Within four years, the asset becomes a liability and it is the same Selznick – now at Paramount – who, in arguing against production funding for the Eisenstein script of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, declares that it is not the organisation’s business to be concerned with ‘glorious experiments’ for ‘the advancement of art’. (40) If gambling is to be undertaken, he suggests, ‘then let’s keep these gambles within the bounds of those that would be indulged in by rational businessmen.’ (41) The authority of art still impresses Selznick, however, and he notes that the Eisenstein script is ‘the most moving script I’ve ever read’. But the climate has changed. The Great Depression is in full swing and the studio must sacrifice great art (as well as saving ‘a million or more of stockholders’ cash’) to consider the feelings of ‘millions of happy-minded young Americans’ who would experience nothing but ‘a most miserable two hours’ if the Eisenstein production went ahead. Having acted on Selznick’s advice, B.P. Schulberg farewells Eisenstein and, removing the cigar from his mouth, declares their liaison to have been a ‘noble experiment’. (42) On 4 December 1930, Eisenstein and his party leave by train for Mexico (43) – for ultimately much more interesting and bolder experiments in chuvstvennoe myshlenie (and practice).


5. Tranche

The extent to which the language of risk and debt has penetrated and influenced the language of film development and production is evident in the use of the word ‘tranche’ – to refer to a pool of funds available to filmmakers – in a recent Screen Australia funding application call. (44) According to Merriam-Webster, a tranche is ‘a division or portion of a pool or whole’ – so Screen Australia’s usage of the term is consistent with the word’s broad meaning. The word does, however, have a more specific and much more common usage today, in referring to ‘an issue of bonds derived from a pooling of like obligations (as securitised mortgage debt) that is differentiated from other issues especially by maturity or rate of return’. The choice of the word to describe a pool of funds available for creative projects is thus highly significant.


What makes this use of the term so striking is that the funding call is not for conventionally commercial movies but for ‘innovative projects which do not necessarily have a market attachment’. So, at the level of the call, the emphasis is on the immeasurable – on what is ‘innovative’, on ‘the strength and distinctiveness of the idea’, and on ‘the quality of the writing’. (45) But the creative process cannot be permitted to proceed unless a sense of obligation and debt casts its shadow on the risk to be taken – not by the funding body, and indirectly the taxpayer, but by the filmmakers themselves, even when they are led to believe that ‘innovation’ rather than market considerations is key. The word tranche in this context constitutes a discursive constraint on the very notion of innovation that the fund seeks to enable, a discursively paralysing gesture.


It has become the general procedure, even for small projects requiring relatively small amounts of ‘venture capital’, to require the completion of extensive application forms, with detailed guidelines about budgeting, policy, decision-making processes and accountability, as the unregulated sphere of creative thought is regulated according to market logic. No one in their right mind wants to argue for the elimination of accountability in these matters. But it is important to see the ways in which the reduction of regulation – or rather, the spread of self-regulation – in the financial sector has impacted on the very discourse of innovation in the public sector, in the form of a logic of debt transfer at the discursive level of development itself. There is a very good reason for this increased emphasis on accountability in the public sector accompanying reduced regulation in the private sector – since it generally falls on taxpayers to pay the debts and bail-out costs of the financial disasters arising from the inefficiencies and failure of self-regulation.


I have argued here that the concept of aesthetic risk, with which we began these speculations, has been substantially reduced in contemporary cinema because the entire problematic of risk, as conceptualised within the increasing normalisation of risk discourse in everyday life, is itself a discourse of containment, a discourse of weighing up costs and determining the relative benefit – measured against cost – of a decision, within which greater quantification is demanded. This involves a different logic than that of aesthetic decision-making. In the latter, there is no relativism: either something works or it doesn’t, there can be no consideration of whether it will work marginally, or of the marginal utility of the decision. Patterns in a director’s working practice might be observed in retrospect, so that a particular tendency can be identified later, or patterns in cinematic language itself can be described – but at the point of decision-making, each decision is made without reference to these parameters and is therefore absolute.


At the point that numerical calculability begins to determine this process, then filmmaking becomes less an aesthetic process and more a moral discourse, in which questions of filmmaker’s motivations, ethics or working practices, or the worthiness of a project in social terms, become more important than the work itself (which, in any case, increasingly becomes mere ‘content’, filling various programming slots – on television, in cinemas, on the Internet). I have noted earlier that moral and economic discourses are not separate and – more to the point – aesthetic and economic discourses are also inseparable. What remains for us to determine is the extent of the losses we are prepared to accept in the shift of risk from the aesthetic sphere to those of post-production calculability and financial engineering – and how our stop-loss positions will be registered in the future.



30. Film Spectator, 19 July 1930, unpaginated press clipping, Eisenstein files, Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI), Moscow.

31. Jesse Lasky tells him, ‘You’ll need to make a presentation for the people who’ll be selling your films in the future …’; Eisenstein, ‘The Road to Buenos Aires’, in Taylor, p. 285. We have no record of whether Eisenstein viewed the prospect of a presentation to film distributors with less or more fear than the meeting with Stalin before he left the Soviet Union.

32. Eisenstein, ‘The Road to Buenos Aires’, p. 287.

33. Sergei Eisenstein, Notes for a Film of Capital’, October Vol. 2 (1976), pp. 3-26; Annette Michelson, Reading Eisenstein Reading Capital’, October Vol. 2 (1976), pp. 26-38.

34. See Oksana Bulgakowa, Sergej Eisenstein: Drei Utopie. Architekturentwürfe zur Filmtheorie (Three Utopias. Architectural Drafts for a Film Theory) (Berlin: Potemkin Press, 1996), 109-125, reprinted in Rouge, no. 7 (2005), (Accessed, October 7, 2009). See also Jay Leyda and Zina Voynov, Eisenstein at Work (London: Pantheon, 1982).

35. See, for example: The Film Sense (London: Faber & Faber, 1968); Film Form: Essays in Film Theory (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977); Notes of a Film Director (New York: Dover, 1970); Film Essays and A Lecture (Princeton University Press, 1982); Non-indifferent Nature (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987); The Psychology of Composition (London: Methuen, 1988); The Short Fiction Scenario (London: Methuen, 1988); Eisenstein: Writings, Vol 1, 1922-1934 (BFI/Indiana University Press, 1988); Selected Works Vol. 2: Towards a Theory of Montage, 1937-40 (London: British Film Institute, 1992); Beyond the Stars: The Memoirs of Sergei Eisenstein (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 1995); Writings, 1934-1947: Vol 3 (London: British Film Institute, 1996); Metod, Tom 1: Grundproblem (Moskva: Musei Kino, Eizenshtein Tsentr, 2002); Metod, Tom 2: Tainy Masterov (Moskva: Musei Kino, Eizenshtein Tsentr, 2002); Neravnodushnaya Priroda (Moskva: Musei Kino, Eizenshtein Tsentr, 2004).

36. See Matthew Bernstein, Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Studio Era (New York: Rutgers University Press 1999); Thomas Doherty, Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); Laura Wittern-Keller, Freedom of the Screen: Legal Challenges to State Film Censorship, 1915-1981 (University Press of Kentucky 2008); Lea Jacobs, The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, 1928-1942 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 1997).

37. See, for example, Heather Addison, Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003).



38. Rudy Behlmer (ed.), Memo from David O. Selznick (Modern Library, 2000), p. 9. Interesting, too, that it is Rubens and Raphael who are presented as the exemplary artists. In the year that Eisenstein was in the US, works by both Rubens and Raphael also entered American collections, most notably in the purchase by Andrew W. Mellon of works surreptitiously sold by the Soviet Government in exchange for heavy industrial equipment. See, in particular, Robert C. Williams, Russian Art and American Money, 1900-40 (New York: Harvard University Press, 1980).

39. Behlmer (ed.), Memo from David O. Selznick, p. 9.

40. Selznick, ‘Memo to B.P. Schulberg, October 8, 1930’, in Behlmer, p. 26.

41. Ibid.

42. Eisenstein notes: ‘A “noble experiment” was how Americans in those years referred to the Soviet system of state control’. Beyond the Stars, p. 288.

43. Marie Seton, Sergei M. Eisenstein: A Biography (London: Bodley Head, 1952), pp. 191-2. Coincidentally, Jean-Luc Godard was born on December 3rd, Eisenstein’s last day in Hollywood.

44. Screen Australia, ‘Special Documentary Program’, Australian Government, (Accessed June 30, 2009). 45. Ibid.

from Issue 2: Devils


© Helen Grace 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.