UbuWeb UbuWeb Papers
Art Today and the Film
Film Culture, No. 42, 1966, pp. 88-95.
DELIVERED AT THE N.Y. FILM FESTIVAL, 1965. REPRINTED FROM ART JOURNAL, XXV 3 '66
Film Culture in UbuWeb Papers
Presented in partnership with Anthology Film Archives
If the various arts of our time share certain traits and tendencies they probably do so in different ways, depending on the character of each medium. At first glance, the photographic image, technically committed to mechanical reproduction, might be expected to fit modern art badly—a theoretical prediction not borne out, however, by some of the recent work of photographers and film directors. In the following I shall choose a key notion to describe central aspects of today's art and then apply this notion to the film, thereby suggesting particular ways in which the photochemical picture responds to some aesthetic demands of our time.
In search of the most characteristic feature of our visual art, one can conclude that it is the attempt of getting away from the detached images by which artists have been portraying physical reality. In the course of our civilization we have come to use images as tools of contemplation. We have set them up as a world of their own, separate from the world they depict, so that they may have their own completeness and develop more freely their particular style. These virtues, however, are outweighed by the anxiety such a detachment arouses when the mind cannot afford it because its own hold on reality has loosened too much. Under such conditions, the footlights separating a world of make-believe from its counterpart and the frame which protects the picture from merging with its surroundings become a handicap.
In a broader sense, the very nature of a recognizable likeness suffices to produce the frightening dichotomy, even without any explicit detachment of the image. A marble statue points to a world of flesh and blood, to which, however, it confesses not to belong—which leaves it without a dwelling-place in that world. It can acquire such a dwelling-place only by insisting that it is more than an image, and the most radical way of accomplishing it is to abandon the portrayal of the things of nature altogether. This is, of course, what modern art has done. By renouncing portrayal, the work of art establishes itself dearly as an object possessing an independent existence of its own.
But once this radical step has been taken, another, even more decisive one suggests itself forcefully. It consists in giving up image-making entirely. This can be illustrated by recent developments in painting. When the abstractionists had abandoned the portrayal of natural objects, their paintings were still representing colored shapes dwelling in pictorial space, that is, they were still pretending the presence of something that was not there. Painters tried various remedies. They resorted to collage, which introduced the "real object" into the world of visual illusion. They reverted to trompe l'oeil effects of the most humiliating dullness. They discredited picturemaking by mimicking its most commercialized products. They fastened plumbing fixtures to their canvases. None of these attempts carries conviction, except one, which seems most promising, namely, the attachment of abstract painting to architecture. Abstract painting fits the wall as no representational painting ever has, and in doing so it relinquishes the illusion of pictorial space and becomes, instead, the surface-texture of the three-dimensional block of stone.
In this three-dimensional space of physical existence, to which painting thus escapes, sculpture has always been settled. Even so, sculpture, as much as painting, has felt the need to get away from image-making. It replaces imitative shape with the left-overs of industrial machinery, it uses plaster casts, and it presents real objects as artifacts. All these characteristic tendencies in the realm of objectmaking are overshadowed, however, by the spectacular aesthetic success of industrial design. The machines, the bridges, the tools and surgical instruments enjoy all the closeness to the practical needs of society which the fine arts have lost. These useful objects are bona fide inhabitants of the physical world, with no pretense of imagemaking, and yet they mirror the condition of modern man with a purity and intensity that is hard to match.
To complete our rapid survey, we glance at the performing arts and note that the mimetic theatre, in spite of an occasional excellent production in the traditional style, has sprouted few shoots that would qualify it as a living medium. Significantly, its most vital branch has been Brecht's epic theatre, which spurns illusionism in its language, its style of acting, and its stage setting, and uses its actors as story-tellers and demonstrators of ideas. Musical comedy, although so different from the epic theatre otherwise, owes its success also to the playing down of narrative illusion. The spectacle of graceful and rhythmical motion addresses the audience as directly as do Brecht's pedagogical expositions. And the modern dance can be said to have made its victorious entrance where the costumed pantomime left off. The most drastic move toward undisguised action seems to have been made by the so-called happenings. They dispense the raw material of thrill, fear, curiosity, and prurience in a setting that unites actors and spectators in a common adventure.
If we have read the signs of the times at all correctly, the prospect of the cinema would seem to look dim—not because it lacks potential but because what it has to offer might appear to be the opposite of what is wanted. The film is mimetic by its very nature. As a branch of photography, it owes its existence to the imprint of things upon a sensitive surface. It is the image-maker par excellence, and much of its success derives from the mechanical faithfulness of its portrayals. What is such a medium to do when the artificiality of the detached image makes the minds uneasy?
Ironically, the motion picture must be viewed by the historian as a late product of a long development that began as a reaction to a detachment from reality. The motion picture is a grandchild of the Renaissance. It goes back to the birth of natural science, the search for techniques by which to reproduce and measure nature more reliably, back to the camera obscura, which for centuries was used by painters as a welcome crutch, back to the tracings of shadow profiles, which created a vogue of objective portraiture shortly before photography was invented. The moving photograph was a late victory in the struggle for the grasp of concrete reality. But there are two ways of losing contact with the World of perceivable objects, to which our senses and feelings are attuned. One can move away from this world to find reality in abstract speculation, as did the pre-Renaissance era of the Middle Ages, or one can lose this World by piercing the visible surface of things and finding reality in their inside, as did post-Renaissance science—physics, chemistry, psychology. Thus our very concern with factual concreteness has led us beyond the surfaces to which our eyes respond. At the same time, a surfeit of pictures in magazines and newspapers, in the movies and on television has blunted our reactions to the indiscretions and even the horrors of the journalistic snapshot and the Grand Guignol. Today's children look at the tears of tragedy and at maimed corpses every day.
The cinema responded to the demand for concreteness by making the photographic image look more and more like reality. It added sound, it added color, and the latest developments of photography promise us a new technique that will not only produce genuine three-dimensionality but also abolish the fixed perspective, thus replacing the image with total illusion. The live television show got rid of the time gap between the pieture and the pictured event. And as the painters took to large-size canvases in order to immerse the eye in an endless spectacle of color, blurring the border between the figment and the outer world, the cinema expanded the screen for similar purposes. This openness of form was supplemented by an openness of content: the short-story type of episode no longer presented a closed and detached entity but seemed to emerge briefly from real life only to vanish again in the continuum of everyday existence.
The extreme attempt of capturing the scenes of life unposed and unrehearsed, by means of hidden cameras was received with no more than a mild, temporary stir—somewhere between the keyhole pleasures of the peeping Tom and those of the sidewalk superintendent. For the curious paradox in the nature of any image is, of course, that the more faithful it becomes, the more it loses the highest function of imagery, namely, that of synthesizing and interpreting what it represents. And thereby it loses the interest. In this sense, even the original addition of motion to the still photograph was a risky step to take because the enormous enrichment gained by action in the time dimension had to be paid with the loss of the capacity to preserve the lasting character of things, safely reomoved from their constant changes in time.
Following the example of painting, the cinema has tried the remedy of abstraction. But the experiments, from Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling to Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren and Len Lye, have amounted mainly to a museum's collection of venerable curiosities. This may seem surprising, considering the great aesthetic potential of colored shapes in motion. But since abstract painting is also on the decline, my guess is that once the artist abandons image-making he has no longer a good reason to cling to the two-dimensional surface, that is, to the twilight area between image-making and object-making. Hence the temporary or permanent desertion of so many artists from painting to sculpture and, as I said, the attempts to make painting three-dimensional or attach it to architecture.
The film cannot do this. There seems to be general agreement that the cinema has scored its most lasting and most specifically cinematic successes when it drew its interpretations of life from authentic realism. This has been true all the way from Lumière to Pudovkin, Eisenstein, and Robert Flaherty and more recently de Sica and Zavattini. And I would find it hard to argue with somebody who maintained that he would be willing to give the entire film production of the last few years for Jacques-Yves Cousteau's recent under-water documentary, World Without Sun.
However—and this brings me to the main point of my argument—Cousteau's film creates fascination not simply as an extension of our visual knowledge obtained by the documentary presentation of an unexplored area of our earth. These most authentically realistic pictures reveal a world of profound mystery, a darkness momentarily lifted by flashes of unnatural light, a complete suspension of the familiar vertical and horizontal coordinates of space. Spatial orientation is upset also by the weightlessness of these animals and dehumanized humans, floating up and down without effort, emerging nowhere and disappearing into nothingness, constantly in motion without any recognizable purpose, and totally indifferent to each other. There is an overwhelming display of dazzling color and intricate motion, tied to no experience we ever had and performed for the discernible benefit of nobody. There are innumerable monstrous variations of faces and bodies as we know them, passing by with the matter-of-factness of herring or perch, in a profound silence, most unnatural for such visual commotion and rioting color, and interrupted only by noises nobody ever heard. What we have here, if a nasty pun is permissible, is the New Wave under water.
For it seems evident that what captures us in this documentary film is a most successful although surely unintentional display of what the most impressive films of the last few years have been trying to do, namely, to interpret the ghostliness of the visible world by means of authentic appearances drawn directly from that world. The cinema has been making its best contribution to the general trend I have tried to describe, not by withdrawing from imagery, as the other arts have, but by using imagery to describe reality as a ghostly figment. It thereby seizes and interprets the experience from which the other visual arts tend to escape and to which they are reacting.
In exploiting this opportunity, the cinema remains faithful to its nature. It derives its new nightmares from old authenticity. Take the spell-binding opening of Fellini's 8½, the scene of the heart attack in the closed car, stared at without reaction by the other drivers, so near by and yet so distant in their glass and steel containers, take the complete paralysis of motion, realistically justified by the traffic jam in the tunnel, and compare this frightening mystery with the immediately following escape of the soul, which has all the ludicrous clumsiness of the special-effects department. How much more truly unreal are the mosquito swarms of the reporters persecuting the widowed woman in La Dolce Vita than is the supposedly fantastic harem bath of the hero in 8½ And how unforgettable, on the other hand, is the grey nothingness of the steam bath in which the pathetic movie makers do penitence and which transfigures the ancient cardinal.
The actors of Alain Robbe-Griilet move without reason like Cousteau's fishes and contemplate each other with a similar indifference. They practice absent-mindedness as a way of life and they cohabit across long distances of empty floor. In their editing technique, the directors of the Nouvelle Vague destroy the relations of time, which is the dimension of action, and of space,. which is the dimension of human contact, by violating all the rules in the book—and some readers will guess what book I am referring to. Those rules, of course, presupposed that the film maker wished to portray the physical continuity of time and space by the discontinuity of the pictures.
The destruction of the continuity of time and space is a nightmare when applied to the physical world but it is a sensible order in the realm of the mind. The human mind, in fact, stores the experiences of the past as memory traces, and in a storage vault there are no time sequences or spatial connections, only affinities and associations based on similarity or contrast. It is this different but positive order of the mind that novelists and film directors of the last few years have presented as a new reality while demolishing the old. By eliminating the difference between what is presently perceived and what is only remembered from the past, they have created a new homogeneity and unity of all experience, independent of the order of physical things. When in Michel Butor's novel, La Modification, the sequence of the train voyage from Paris to Rome constantly interacts with a spray of atomized episodes of the past, the dismemberment of physical time and space creates a new time sequence and a new spatial continuum, namely, those of the mind.
It is the creation and exploitation of this new order of the mind in its independence of the order of physical things which, I believe, will keep the cinema busy while the other visual arts explore the other side of the dichotomy—the world of physical things from which the mind seems so pleasantly absent.
UbuWeb | UbuWeb Papers