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Cellular Features:
Microcinematography and
Film Theory
Article in Critical Inquiry June 2005
DOI: 10.1086/444519





1 author:
Hannah Landecker
University of California, Los Angeles

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Cellular Features: Microcinematography and

Film Theory
Hannah Landecker
Word is getting out that microbes are the greatest actors in the world. Next year we
will ask them for autographs.
Andre Bazin, Science Film: Accidental Beauty, 19471

Something pullulates below the surface of early theories of lm. Cellular

tissue, says Walter Benjamin, is more native to the camera than the atmospheric landscape or the soulful portrait.2 Sergey Eisensteins writings
theorize the shot as a montage cell, which is no mere static element; just
as cells divide to form a phenomenon of another order, the organism or
embryo, so shots form montage.3 In other work, the living cell and the lm
cell seem to merge: Hundreds of little fragments of exposed lm are there
in front of the author . . . . The [artist] will work patiently at juxtaposing,
overlapping, paralleling, and opposing all these living cells.4 From Jean Epsteins book Magnication to Bela Balazss notion of the close-up, one can
read what seems a fanciful metaphorical connection between seeing life at
a microscopic level and seeing through a camera: We skim over the teeming
substance of life. The camera has uncovered that cell-life of the vital issues
in which all great events are ultimately conceived; for the greatest landslide

I would like to thank the staff at the Archives of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and Hans-Jorg
Rheinberger and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science for their assistance during the
research for this paper, as well as Peter Geimer and Christopher Kelty for their comments. All
translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own.
1. Andre Bazin, Science Film: Accidental Beauty, in Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean
Painleve, trans. Jeanine Herman, ed. Andy Masaki Bellows, Marina McDougall, and Brigitte Berg
(Cambridge, Mass., 2000), p. 145; hereafter abbreviated SF.
2. Walter Benjamin, Little History of Photography, Selected Writings, trans. Rodney
Livingstone et al., ed. Michael W. Jennings et al., 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), 2:512.
3. Sergey Eisenstein, The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram, Film Form: Essays in
Film Theory, trans. and ed. Jay Leyda (1949; New York, 1977), p. 37.
4. Emile Vuillermoz, Before the Screen: Aesthetic, trans. Richard Abel, in French Film Theory
and Criticism, trans. Abel et al., ed. Abel, 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J., 1988), 1:226.
Critical Inquiry 31 (Summer 2005)
2005 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/05/3104-0004$10.00. All rights reserved.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

is only the aggregate of the movements of single particles.5 The shot, then,
is a cell; the montage, an organism formed by cell division; and lmmaking,
embryogenesis. Film is a sort of microscope that enlarges and frames the
eld of view dierently than the eye alone.6 Such metaphors convey the
cameras abilities to focus in on places and things that the unaided eye would
not or could not naturally see and thus its ability to get at, again metaphorically, the elemental things that subtend larger phenomena. Microscopes and cells are common enough; their abstract invocation seems
unremarkable. But what then accounts for the frequency of these references
in early twentieth-century writing on the medium of lm? These references
may also be read much more literally. In the early twentieth century, life scientists were using microcinematography and time-lapse techniques to make
lms of embryogenesis and the cell life of the vital tissues. Sometimes the
cinematographer actually was a surgeon, lm was functioning through a microscope, tissue was an event, the screen was teeming, the celluloid cell did
divide to become a whole organism, the close-up was magnication of many
thousand times. What relation might these lms have to the metaphorical
presence of microscope and cell in early critical writings on cinema?
In Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Siegfried Kracauer
suggests that the specicity of the cinematic subject may be related to the
origins of lm in scientic practice.
In its preoccupation with the small the cinema is comparable to science.
Like science, it breaks down material phenomena in tiny particles,
thereby sensitizing us to the tremendous energies accumulated in the
microscopic congurations of matter. These analogies may well be related to the nature of lm. It is quite possible indeed that the construction of the lm image from shots of minute phases of movement favors
the reverse tendency toward decomposing given wholes. Is it really surprising that a medium so greatly indebted to nineteenth-century concern for science should show characteristics inherent in the scientic
5. Bela Balazs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, trans. Edith Bone (New
York, 1953), p. 55.
6. Germaine Dulac, The Essence of the Cinema: The Visual Idea, trans. Robert Lamberton, in
The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York, 1978), p.
7. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960; Princeton, N.J.,
1997), p. 50; hereafter abbreviated TF.

H a n n a h L a n d e c k e r is assistant professor of anthropology at Rice

University. She is currently completing a manuscript about the manipulation of
life in vitro entitled Technologies of Living Substance: Cells and Biotechnology in the
Twentieth Century. Her email is

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

This comparison of cinematic and scientic procedures might look like

an attempt to claim and privilege some sense of scientic objectivity for the
cameras ability to access physical reality, part of the nave realism Kracauer has previously been accused of displaying in Theory of Film.8 However,
this positing of a kinship of science and cinema, out of which grows the very
ability to draw an analogy between the two, is not framed in terms of the
cameras privileged ability to access the truth, some unmediated or minimally mediated access to physical reality. For Kracauer, the camera aords
access not to any physical reality whatsoever but to a reality of another
dimension (TF, p. 53), a phrase Kracauer takes from Epstein. There was
no requirement that one be a scientist, or even a realist, to appreciate these
new sights or think about their cinematic character.
What Kracauers analogy between scientic and cinematic procedures
points to is that his and others analogies and metaphors are not based on
comparisons of lm and scientic objects, that is, artistic lm and molecule,
but are comparisons within the same mediumof artistic lm and scientic lm. The original energy of this comparison comes not from putting
lm on one side of the metaphor and the abstract concept of cells or particles on the other but from looking at actual moving images of cells, at the
living cell made visible by lm. Kracauer, Epstein, and other theorists were
looking at the physiological reality of another dimension made accessible
by biological lms.
Cinema in early twentieth-century biology consisted of experiments on
lm in a doubled sense of the phrase. As Jean Painleve recognized, it would
never have occurred to the pioneers of cinema to dissociate research on lm
from research by means of lm.9 For both scientists and lm theorists, experiments in perceiving life with technical manipulations of space, time,
light, and framing generated new ideas of what lm was or could bethus
the possibility of such easy slippage from lm cell to living cell. Early microcinematographic lms simultaneously used the lm camera to investigate the properties of living things and used these life science experiments
to investigate the properties of the new medium of cinema, particularly its
temporal characteristics.
Kracauer reects on how lm provides access to the concept of life as
such or life as a powerful entity, an idea concretely related to the success
of early biological lm (TF, p. 169).10 Time-lapse microcinematography,
8. Quoted in Miriam Bratu Hansen, introduction to Theory of Film, p. ix. Hansen also takes
issue with this criticism.
9. Jean Painleve, Scientic Film, in Science Is Fiction, p. 162.
10. One may assume here that Kracauer had in mind a notion of life not very far from that
elaborated by Foucault because although Theory of Film was published in 1960, some years before
Les Mots et les choses, Kracauer accompanies his discussion of life as such with the slightly wistful
statement that it would be tempting to try to follow the evolution of this concept, say, from the



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

through magnication and acceleration, was generative simultaneously of

theories of life and theories of lm. These technical forms of lmic power
could not come from the moving image of the cell in and by itself, no matter
its novelty or beauty, but were inextricably bound to a perception of the
living, moving cell on screen as a more profound manifestation of life than
those phenomena visible without cinematography. For both biologists and
cultural observers, these lms were experiments in seeing and perceiving
life, not just living things, but that which was understood and narrated as
the fundament of life. These lms seemed to get at not just the things constituting all life but at the previously imperceptible processes of their autonomous lives.
One reason that this lm-to-lm comparison between biological and
artistic examples of early cinema remains unrecognized by contemporary
readers of lm theory is simply that we dont know very much about biological lm of the early twentieth century. Paradoxically, this may have
arisen in part from the attention paid to origin stories of cinema in the
physiological work of Etienne-Jules Marey. We have done much thinking
about the analytics of movement produced by Marey within a scientic
framework of chronophotography, but little about the later syntheses of
movement within a scientic framework of cinematography. The assumption of a radical bifurcation of scientic imaging of movement and entertainment cinema appears explicable via Mareys avowed disinterest in
reproducing movement as the eye would normally perceive it.11 With some
important exceptions, such as the work of Lisa Cartwright, we know little
about scientic cinematography after Mareys death in 1904 and thus have
few resources to work with, especially in comparison to the depth of scholarship on other early lm.12
time of the Romantics via Nietzsche and Bergson up to our days, but such a study goes beyond the
scope of the present book, being a large-scale proposition in its own right (TF, p. 169).
11. See Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (18301904) (Chicago,
1992), pp. 15051.
12. Cartwright has done much to unsettle the usual origin story; as she has demonstrated with
her detailed analysis of physiological, microscopic, and X-ray cinema, scientists did not stop
making lms, and lm pioneers such as Auguste Lumie`re did not stop being biologists. See Lisa
Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicines Visual Culture (Minneapolis, 1995). Thierry
Lefebvre has shown the ourishing of the popular science lm in the factories and catalogs of the
early lm production companies such as Gaumont and Eclair between 1911 and 1914. See Thierry
Lefebvre, The Scientia Production (19111914), Scientic Popularization through Pictures,
Grithiana 16 (May 1993): 13755. Oliver Gaycken has expanded this historical focus on popular
science lm in A Drama Unites Them in a Fight to the Death: Some Remarks on the Flourishing
of a Cinema of Scientic Vernacularization in France, 19091914, Historical Journal of Film, Radio,
and Television 22 (Aug. 2002): 35374. The work of hybrid scientist/lmmaker Jean Painleve has
recently been documented in Science Is Fiction. On the general subject of early nonction lm, see
the special issue of 1895, Images du reel: La Non-Fiction en France (18901930), ed. Lefebvre
(Summer 1995). For a discussion of early nature lm, see Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: Americas

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

I contend that scientic lms are important to the genealogy of critical

attempts to dene the lm medium. This is not a story of impact, of things
moving out of the laboratory and landing in society, but of a dense set of
interconnected works dealing with life, time, and lm, connections that
have become obscured only by our own contemporary demarcations between science and the humanities and between lm studies and the history
of science. There are some hopeful signs that these boundaries are becoming
less distinct. By interpreting these lms as one more type of novel attraction
among others available in the early years of cinematography, Tom Gunning
has facilitated the conceptualization of scientic experimental lms and
works of science popularization as part and parcel of early lm.13 Yuri Tsivian accordingly sees science as part of the cinematic text, of early lm.
Furthermore, Tsivian argues, these early microscopic and X-ray lms were
incorporated into criticism and lm making. Their representation of the
normally unseenthe very small and the interior of the bodygenerated
a concept of penetrating vision that was reappropriated metaphorically
into techniques such as the dissolve by writers and directors biased toward
artistic experiment.14 Thus, as Mary Ann Doane has shown, the relationship of science and cinema lies not just in the surviving physical objects we
retrospectively categorize as science lm but in overlapping concepts and
technical practices of seeing the physical world, including the important
problem of the representability of time.15
What follows is a consideration of the teeming presence of the cell in
early lm and lm theory as a key part of a simultaneously scientic and
cinematic problem of seeing lifethe representation by lm of life as such.
It is dicult to operate the word and concept life with any precision, so I
would like to ground it in the specics of the time-lapse microcinematography of two scientists, Jean Comandon and Alexis Carrel. They were practitioners of both biology and lmmaking, and their laboratories were
intensely generative of ideas and practices for examining and exhibiting life
and movement, including texts, procedures, images, theories, and lms.
Romance with Wildlife on Film (Cambridge, Mass., 1999). The work of Scott Curtis, Managing
Modernity: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany (forthcoming), promises to be an
important contribution to the history of German scientic and medical lm.
13. See Tom Gunning, An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous
Spectator, in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall
Cohen (1974; Oxford, 1999), pp. 81832.
14. Yuri Tsivian, Media Fantasies and Penetrating Vision: Some Links between X-Rays, the
Microscope, and Film, in Laboratory of Dreams: The Russian Avant-Garde and Cultural
Experiment, ed. John E. Bowlt and Olga Matich (Stanford, Calif., 1996), p. 82.
15. See Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the
Archive (Cambridge, Mass., 2002).



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

Comandon was located at the interface of the Parisian medical research

community and the young entertainment lm industry; he trained as a doctor, did biological research, and, at the same time, worked within the Pathe
Fre`res lm production establishment and contributed to their catalogue.
One of his early time-lapse lms, Survival of a Fragment of the Heart and
Spleen of the Chicken Embryo: Cell Division (c. 1913), was made by lming
embryonic somatic cells living in culture. Tissue culture, a technique for
fragmenting and externalizing the cellular life of complex opaque bodies,
was adopted from Alexis Carrel, a Nobel-prize winning surgeon at the
Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Carrel in turn adopted microcinematography from Comandon and used it to further develop his techniques for growing somatic tissues outside the body. Carrel experimented
with lm both as a mechanism for observing the physiological detail of cellular life and as a vehicle for a new theoretical basis for cytologywhich
also drew heavily on the philosophy of Henri Bergson.
Both scientists were public gures. Comandon worked within an entertainment lm enterprise and traveled, lectured, and taught with his lms
constantly; Carrel though less visible was more famousa man whose
press-clipping collection occupies many feet of archival space. Their experiments did not take place in isolated laboratories far from the public
sphere occupied by cultural critics and other lmmakers; not only were
those commentators and lmmakers themselves in some cases educated in
medicine or biology before their turn to cinema but these lms and accounts of these lms circulated widely for many years. In fact, both are part
of the discourse of early lm. This paper is an exploration of biological experiments on lm and the traces they have left in early lm theory.

Was Benjamin overly optimistic when he predicted that one of the revolutionary functions of lm would be demonstrating that the artistic uses
of photography are identical to its scientic uses? Or, perhaps, was this in
fact demonstrated, but we have forgotten about it? Benjamin saw a kind of
twentieth-century implosion of artistic and scientic enquiry in lm,
caused by that mediums specic analytic habits of isolation and focus,
which made it dicult for viewers to say which is more fascinating, its
artistic value or its value for science.16 Jean Comandon specically chose
lm as his experimental medium to take advantage of the technical possibility of isolating a very particular segment of time and space, and the re16. Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Third
Version, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn, Selected Writings, 4:265; hereafter abbreviated

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

ception of Comandons cinematic work shows that it was indeed seen as

possessing both an artistic and a scientic value and that it was actually
dicult to distinguish between the two. These lms were originally made
as scientic investigations, not as popularizations, though that line too was
indenite. I focus below on experimental lms in order to follow out Benjamins suggestion that the analytic opportunities specic to the lm mediumdue to the isolation of action and the precise delineation of
situationfoster the interpenetration of art and science (WA, 4:265).
This interpenetration introduces the cell into early lm theory.
Comandon became a lmmaker by way of medical research, writing a
thesis on methods for the visualization of syphilis bacteria in patients
blood samples.17 As a young student inheriting the bacteriological principles of Pasteur and Koch, success meant isolating and identifying the syphilis bacterium, providing means to distinguish this unique organism from
a million other possibilities, and thus arriving at the certitude of cause, effect, and diagnosis.18 For this purpose, he worked with the newly developed
technique of dark-eld microscopy, or ultramicroscopy, which lit specimens from the side so that they stood out as bright objects against the black
background of the eld of view. This enabled the microscopic observation
of weakly refringent organisms not visible with conventional light microscopy. Comandon explored the idea of diagnosing syphilis by distinguishing
syphilis spirochetes from other bacteria by their characteristic movement.
To capture movement, he turned to lm.
Comandon reports that he was inspired by lms of Brownian movement,
the unceasing, random movement of particles in liquids or gases. In 1908,
Victor Henri and Louise Chevreton lmed a microscopic preparation of
latex of rubber diluted with water, an emulsion containing enough rubber
particles to see their movement, but few enough that each particle could be
followed from frame to frame of the lm.19 This frame comparison allowed
Henri to diagram the trajectories of single particles over time: The trajectory described by one grain is very complex; it varies from one grain to
17. Comandons thesis, De lusage en clinique de lultra-microscope en particulier pour la
recherche et letude des spirochetes, was published in Paris in 1909 and can be found in the
Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University.
18. Compare Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientic Fact, trans. Frederick
Bradley and Thaddeus J. Trenn, ed. Trenn and Robert Merton (Chicago, 1979). Fleck, detailing the
development of the Wasserman Test for the diagnosis of syphilis, provides an interesting context
for this hope on the part of Comandon that certain identication would come from lm, not
19. Chevreton and Henri were making these lms in the laboratory of Charles Emile FrancoisFranck, assistant to Etienne-Jules Marey and his successor in the chair of physiology at the Colle`ge
de France.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

another and is absolutely independent for each grain . . . . That trajectory

often presents very abrupt changes of direction.20 Seeing Brownian movement was in itself controversial; although identied in 1828, it was part of
an intense debate about the atomic or molecular structure of matter. Proving the existence of molecules and measuring their motion was part of the
more fundamental question of the discontinuity of matter which underlies
visible reality.21 Just looking at Brownian movement through the microscope allowed the perception of the phenomenon, but not its quantication,
because of the rapidity and the faint trajectory of these movements.22
Henris photographically traced trajectories allowed precise quantication
of the distance traveled by each particle over time, allowing him to experimentally conrm the proportionality of movement squared to duration
predicted by Albert Einsteins earlier theoretical calculations.23
More than the analogy of cells and particles drew Comandon to Henris
work as a model for lming cells through the microscope, though he too
made his own lms of Brownian movement of molecules in colloidal suspensions, which were noted by physical chemist Jean Perrin as furnishing
proof of the molecular structure of matter and the existence of Brownian
movement.24 Comandon was drawn to the promise of quantitative study of
microscopic movementthe exact specication of this bacteriums movementwhich required not just making a trace of the movement but keeping very precise track of time passed and space traveled in the microscopic
eld. Comandon presented his rst successful lms to the French Academy
of Science in 1909. These were of syphilis spirochetes, trypanosomes, constituents of blood, and Brownian movement. The emphasis of the published
report was on the apparatus itself and the mechanism by which one could
materialize time and space in a fashion analogous to that employed by
Victor Henri and Mlle Chevreton to study Brownian motion: one lms, at
the same time as the preparation, a scale of 1/100 of a millimeter and the
shadow of a pendulum beating the seconds which passes through the ray
of light.25
This materialization through cinematography allowed the study of
movements of microscopic living beings in their normal statein contrast
20. Victor Henri, Etude cinematographique des mouvements browniens: Presentee par M.
Dastre, Comptes Rendus des Academies Sciences, 18 May 1908, pp. 102426.
21. Mary Jo Nye, Molecular Reality: A Perspective on the Scientic Work of Jean Perrin (London,
1972), p. ix.
22. Henri, Etude cinematographique des mouvements browniens, p. 1024.
23. See Albert Einstein, Investigations on the Theory of the Brownian Movement, trans. A. D.
Cowper, ed. R. Furth (London, 1926), p. 102.
24. See Jean Perrin, Les Atomes (Paris, 1914), p. 157.
25. Jean Comandon, Cinematographie, a` lultra-microscope, de microbes vivants et des
particules mobiles, Comptes rendus des Academie des Sciences, 22 Nov. 1909, p. 940.

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

with then-dominant histological methods, which meant killing the cell with
stains and xatives in order to view it.26 The example he gave was the ability
to count fat particles (hemokinies) in the blood by doing a frame-by-frame
analysis, allowing one to quantitatively compare dierent blood samples.
Thus, at the outset, Comandon was using the separate frames of the lm in
an analytic manner very similar to physiological chronophotography as established by Marey; the comparison of sequential images allowed quantitative comparisons and the construction of graphic traces of movement (of
fat particles, spirochetes, and blood cells). Like the studies of Brownian motion, the aim was to reconstruct continuity between frames in the form of
a linear trace of movement from which quantitative data could be drawn.
Comandon was able to make these lms because he approached Charles
Pathe in 1908 with a request for aid in pursuing microscopy with a cinematograph.27 Pathe, of the company Pathe Fre`res, allowed Comandon to work
in his production laboratories at Vincennes with the proviso that Comandon
himself contribute to Pathes catalogue of lms. This was not a simple act of
patronage but a commercial decision on Pathes part, a response to the need
to continuously attract audiences to salons by promising them a highlyvaried
program of lms.28 Indeed, it was not the quantitative static aspect of Comandons lms that impressed viewers, scientic or not, but the lms in projection, the microbes and blood stream in movement. Not just the sight but
the very possibility of the sight of such incredible activity and energy of motion of bacteria and trypanosomes was, even for the scientic observer used
to the microscope and its sights, something of a shock:
It is only by articially increasing the contrast by means of stains and so
forth that we can obtain a clear dierentiation of even a motionless object. To take in one minute some thousands of successive photographs of
a living, unstained object, magnied six hundred or a thousand times, an
object, moreover, which is moving rapidly, and therefore continually altering its focal plane, is a task which might easily seem impossible.29
Seeing the living, unstained object over time gave embodied form to the
underlying causes of the disease sequence in the larger body, a certain sense
of watching disease happen, directly.
26. Ibid., p. 941.
27. See Comandons own account in La Micro-Cinematographie, Protoplasma 6 (1929): 627.
See also Isabelle Do OGomes, LOeuvre de Jean Comandon, in Le Cinema et la science, ed.
Alexis Martinet (Paris, 1994), pp. 7885.
28. See Jean-Jacques Meusy, La Diusion des lms de non-ction dans les etablissements
Parisiens, 1895 18 (Summer 1995): 186.
29. Anonymous, Microkinematography, Nature, 14 Dec. 1911, p. 213; hereafter abbreviated



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

We see the blood as it may appear at the height of an attack of the disease. It is now full of foreign organisms, long, slender spiral threads,
which dart hither and thither upon the screen, now hooking themselves
together and again disentangling themselves, impinging on the red cells
and recoiling in amazing numbers and activity. The whole blood history
of an attack is shown on these lms, from the interval between the crises
when no organisms are present, through the period of multiplication to
the termination of the attack. [M, p. 214]
It is here that a crucial transition from chronophotography to cinematography within scientic activity is manifest. Even though Comandon began by analyzing his lms chronographically, he almost immediately
superseded this technique by using projection. In particular, the time-lapse
lms that Comandon began to make after 1909 relied on the dierence between the time of the experiment (hours) and the time of projection (minutes) and the resulting acceleration of very slow, otherwise utterly
imperceptible movements. While scientic observers were welcoming the
scientic value of Comandons demonstrations of living cells over time,
these lms were being shown in a wide variety of public venues, and consideration of their artistic value was not distinct from this scienticnarrative
of putting dead or still entities into motion. Emile Vuillermoz commented:
At the base of every art there is a stereotypical element, inert material to
bring to life, dead cells to resurrect.30 In an imagined debate between an
avant-garde enthusiast and two skeptics who speak here, Comandons lm
is the vehicle for argument; the speakers are insisting that cinema need not
utterly sacrice narrative and meaning:
You want to feel emotion, and seek out a rhythm; we want to think, and
seek out meaning. You know the lm of Dr. Comandon, The Movement
of Leucocytes, recorded with the aid of the microscopic camera? What
does the eye of the layman see on the screen? Forms which for him have
no objective value, but which are nevertheless harmonious, decorative,
and whose elements change position like the crystals of a kaleidoscope.
That has to be sucient for your happiness. However, does this lm
mean anything? Dont the learned see a drama there? Dont the images
of the lm, in succession, develop a logical action?31
The cellular lm, an innitely reproducible inscription of a continuous
living movement rather than a set of histological stills, was a new form of
30. Vuillermoz, Before the Screen, 1:227.
31. Henri Fescourt and Jean-Louis Bouquet, Idea and Screen: Opinions on the Cinema, trans.
Abel, in French Film Theory and Criticism, 1:380.

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

narrative as well as a new set of aesthetic forms for both scientist and layman. From the beginning, Comandons lms, in particular their combinations of magnication and acceleration, raised questions about narrative
and meaning not just for lm critics but for the scientic investigation of
the relationship of structural elements and functional events in the microscopic world.
The technical achievement of these lms should not be underrated; it was
not simply a matter of annexing the microscope to the lm camera.32
Both the content and the demonstration of the technical ability to go digging through the visual planes made Comandons work provocative for
thinking about the possibilities of lm more broadly.33 At the heart of this
work was the actual building of a single machineintegrating microscope,
chronometers, motors, and lm camerathat would simultaneously act
on the dimensions of both space and time. With the help of Pathe, Comandon built a specialized instrument for the simultaneous magnication
and acceleration of small living subjects. The microscope itself was buried
in the center of the machine and surrounded by an incubator so that the
living sample could be kept at the correct temperaturein the case of cultured cells, at body temperature. There were two chronometers: the rst
controlled the electric motor that ran the shutter and the camera and could
be set automatically so that the machine ran without an operator; the second was itself being photographed, recorded in the upper corner of each
frame of the lm. Thus the specimen and a clock were photographed at the
same instant so that even if the specimen were photographed once every
thirty seconds and then the lm were shown at sixteen frames per second,
resulting in an acceleration of 480 times, at every moment one could maintain a grasp on the relation of the viewing time being experienced to the
real time that had passed in the making of the lm.34
Although many of his earliest lms were real time depictions of bacteria or pathogens in the blood, Comandon became more interested in phenomena too slow to perceive. In his published explantions of scientic
cinematography, he used as his example the movement of the hands of a
We can accelerate or retard a movement by acting on the factor of
space, or the factor of time.
Look at the big hand of a clock: you do not see it move. But examine
the extremity of that hand under the microscope; you thus easily estab32. Abel, Before the Canon, French Film Theory and Criticism, 1:9.
33. Dulac, Visual and Anti-Visual Films, trans. Lamberton, in The Avant-Garde Film, p. 31.
34. See W. N. Kazeef, Moving Photomicrography, in Annual Report [1937] of the Board of
Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C., 1938), pp. 32338.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

lish that it travels, with a jerky motion, the eld of the ocular. Through
the microscope, you have multiplied the space traveled and, by consequence, multiplied the speed by enlarging the optical system: you have
obtained thus a speed perceptible to the eye.35
By gradually diminishing the magnication, Comandon determined
what he called the visual acuity for a slow movement, the lower limit of
vitesse perceptible. Beyond this limit, movement had to be accelerated to be
perceptible to the lms viewer. The choice of the hand of a clock as example,
as well as its constant presence in the lm frame, implied a close-up of time
itself. Enlargement and time lapse could make any kind of time visible; the
cinematograph was an instrument of research in this very access to time:
Microcinematography alone is capable of conserving the traces of phenomena occurring in the preparation. Like the retina of an eye which
never tires, the lm follows, over a prolonged period, all the changes
which occur; even better, the cinematograph is, like the microscope itself, an instrument of research, while the one concerns visual space, the
other concerns time, in condensing or spreading out movements by accelerating or slowing them; it reduces their speed to a scale that is more
easily perceptible, which, indeed, reveals to us that which we had never
In the lms themselves, this idea of magnication and acceleration are
included in the lms script, particularly in slightly later versions with intertitles. Magnication is not simply making something larger, and acceleration is not simply speeding something up. In Comandons Movement of
Leukocytes, the viewer gets the distinct impression of what it is like to ip
between objective lenses on the microscope, from lesser to greater magnication. Depending on the choice of lens, one could focus on the undulating
membranethe physiognomy of a single cells surfaceor one could pull
back and focus on a teeming mass of white blood cells attacking a clump
of bacteria (g. 1).
Even in the earliest lms, dierent scenes were tried out at dierent accelerations because the lmmaker had to decide in each instance at what
time interval to set the camera to photograph the specimen. Certainly most
magnication yielded a view into the microscopically small, but the point
here is that this was not just one view; the number of possible views was as
numerous as the little beings swarming over the screen. Even the surface of
35. Comandon, La Cinematographie, son role dans les etudes biologiques, La Presse Medicale,
23 Apr. 1913, p. 472.
36. Comandon, Le Cinematographie et les sciences de la nature, Le Cinema des origines a` nos
jours, ed. Fescourt (Paris, 1932), p. 320.

f i g u r e 1. Stills from Jean Comandon, Globules du sang humain et phagocytose in vitro, c. 1920. The rst three frames show a single white blood cell moving through a cluster of red
blood cells, and then the scene switches to a lower magnication, in eect pulling back to show a swarm of white blood cells. The intertitle indicates the change in magnication
and acceleration. Note the chronometer in the top right-hand corner of each frame. Reprinted with permission of the Pasteur Institute. 1920 by Jean Comandon.


Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

the very small could itself be shown to contain within it or beneath it another view of life, which could be accessed just by operating on the dimensions of space or time or, as was most often the case, both at once. For
Comandon, microcinematography was simultaneously an instrument of
research and an instrument of demonstration; the manipulation of time was
made explicit to the audience along with the dierent spatial manipulations
of lifethe extraction of cells from the inner space of the body to the transparent space of the microscope slide, the magnication of dierent aspects
of the eld of view.

In 1913, the development of microcinematography intersected with another new technology for observing the apparently autonomous lives of cells:
tissue culture, the culture of live somatic cells from complex organisms outside of the body in glass vessels. First developed by embryologist Ross Harrison and taken up, modied, and highly publicized by Franco-American
surgeon Alexis Carrel from 1910 onward,37 the technique in these early stages
consisted of growing a fragment of excised tissue in a drop of serum suspended from a cover slip over a hollowed-out glass slide. In contrast to the
usual xed, stained, dead entities of histological slides, cells grown in culture
were quite evidently bodies in motion; hours after explanation into a drop
of serum, cells would begin to move out from the fragment, forming a characteristic halo of wandering cells around the central clump of tissue.
That the cells were moving, changing shape, and interacting with each
other was indisputable. However, the actual ability to represent, capture, or
even discern exactly what live cells were doing in culture was more challenging. A culture observed periodically would be dierent at every juncture, but the change itself occurred too slowly to be perceptible. The
ephemerally slow movements of hyaline substance through colorless medium made the movements of live cells in culture extremely hard to see and
even more dicult to capture in a form communicable to others. In 1913,
Comandon, in collaboration with two other biologists, used the Carrel protocol to grow embryonic chicken spleen and heart cells in culture, which
they then lmed. Their aim was to access these very slow movements and
bring them to the scale of human perception:
What is the nature of the leucocytic exodus that one observes with the
spleen, what are the diverse phases of the appearance of fusiform cells
37. See Hannah Landecker, New Times for Biology: Nerve Cultures and the Advent of Cellular
Life in Vitro, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 33 (Dec.
2002): 66794.

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

around the fragments of heart? These questions are dicult to resolve

by the simple examination of the preparations in the microscope, because of the slowness of the processes mentioned. On the contrary, cinematic recording permits the reproduction in condensed form of these
diverse phases, exaggerates the speed of slow processes, and thus can
easily inform us on this subject.38
While much of chronophotography was aimed at the dissection of very
quick movements, taking apart moments into even smaller slivers of time,
cinematic recording was here a tool for the condensation of time. Acceleration and magnication opened the account of the experiments results:
Enlargement 62 x 1. The phenomenon is reproduced at three hundred times
greater than the real speed (one image every nineteen seconds for the recording; 16 images a second for the reproduction) (E, p. 465). Almost
immediately, the description of technique was overwhelmed by the viewers
perception of what was seen via acceleration. The fragment is composed
and surrounded by round or oval cells, endowed with very quick movements. Although it was carefully noted that the movements were reproduced at three hundred times greater than the real speed, the vocabulary
of their description was thick with the terms quick, lively, gliding,
abrupt, and rapid. The authors calculated that the actual speed of cells
moving through the culture preparation was ten micrometers in three minutes. A micrometer being one thousandth of a millimeter, and ten micrometers being the average diameter of one cell, this was a very small scale in
terms of unaugmented human perception. However, projected on a screen
three meters high, the diameter of the cell was magnied greatly, under
typical microscope magnications, to fty to eighty thousand diameters.
Epstein notes, the close-up is an intensifying agent because of its size
alone,39 and indeed the cells screen presence was imposing; even in this
technical report to the Academy of Biological Sciences, the description of
the lm is a narrative of movement and behavior, of exodus and return: Cells
. . . move in all directions; they leave the spleen fragment, creeping with the
help of their pseudopodia, going away some distance into the plasma, and
sometimes they return by another route, to rejoin the spleen fragment . . . .
The amebic cells seem to go out to search for their nourishment and return
later to their point of departure. Even with the careful calculation of real
38. Comandon, C. Levatidi, and S. Mutermilch, Etude de la vie et de la croissance des cellules
in vitro a laide de lenregistrement cinematographique, Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des
seances et memoires de la societe de biologie 74 (1913): 465; hereafter abbreviated E.
39. Jean Epstein, Magnication, trans. Stuart Liebman, French Film Theory and Criticism,



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

speeds, sizes, and times, Comandon and his coauthors quickly slipped into
a depiction of the intensity and rapidity of what they saw on the screen. Elsewhere, all around the periphery of the organ fragment, one notices a veritable
swarming of cells that constitute the fragment, and one has the impression
of a beehive where all is in movement (E, p. 465).
While the viewer may know that the phenomenon observed on lm is a
record of an experiment done in the pastover the course of two hours
and is only moving at two hundred micrometers an hour, the impression
is of very intense activity of the living thing right there on the screen, like
watching a beehive where all is in movement. It is hard to think of these
as very slow bees. Thus, the exact knowledge of real speeds and times did
nothing to counteract the experience of cellular life as frenetic. What made
lms of cells in culture so interesting was not their quantiable or graphical
representation but their ability to show phenomena that were simply not
visible in any other way. A variety of segments of lm were made at dierent
rates (300x and 92x) and dierent enlargements (125x1, 62x1), and dierent
preparations were lmed over dierent periods of time (two, four and onefourth, and eight hours). There was not just one kind of magnication or
acceleration; these were in themselves elastic qualities to be manipulated,
sometimes in relation to one another, in experimental and editorial decisions about visualizing the living subject. These early lms of cells mark the
emergence of the notion of acceleration through projection as being in itself
a mode of analysis, a research tool particular to biological movement that
was too slow to see.
This lm and others showed the existence of a microscopic world whose
occupants small size prevented normal perception of their life; for his presentations, Comandon frequently used the title La Vie des inniments petits
The Life of the Innitely Small. However, the lms also showed that there was
another temporal world subtending that of normal human perception, even
perception aided by magnication. They demonstrated that what was apparently still to normal observation with the eye was saturated with movement once viewed at a dierent temporal scale. Even well-known biological
events turned out to be not as they had appeared. For example, the static
diagrams of stages of cell division were shown up in all their arbitrary stillness
by Comandons lms, as the chromosomes in the living cells moved incessantly throughout the process: in each phase the chromosomes are mobile
and animated with a vermiform movement. At the stages of spirem and etoile
de me`re, it is a veritable swarming of the nuclear gure.40
40. Comandon and Justin Jolly, Demonstration Cinematographique des Phenome`nes
Nucleaires de la Division Cellulaire, Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des seances et memoires de la
societe de biologie 75 (1913): 457.

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

After so many years of seeing static drawings, photographs, and xed and
stained slides of cells, scientists voiced surprise and wonder at these scenes
of continual movement. The realism and vitality of these kinematograph
pictures can scarcely be imagined by anyone who has not seen them thrown
on the screen (M, p. 213). This is not obvious: why should biologists,
who presumably looked at living things all the time, exhibit such surprise
at the realism and vitality of these images? Living cells had of course been
seen through the microscope before, and a range of their activities (such as
phagocytosis) had been described and argued over. Not all cellular movements were too slow to perceive. The description of a microscopic world
was not by any means a new phenomenon, and microphotography and microchronophotography had preceded microcinematography.41
These and other microcinematographic lms showed how all living
cellsnot just blood cells, or unicellular animalsbut all cells constituting
all multicellular beings moved, all the time. They did not just move around
from one place to another, but they changed shape and their insides moved
tooincessantly. The impression of frenetic activity was only accentuated
by the apparently crazed timepiece guring in all time-lapse lms; the chronometer, lmed at the same time as the specimen in order to mark the real
time of the passage of the experiment, appeared in the upper right-hand
corner of the screen with its hands rapidly twirling through the hours. When
Epstein writes of gestures of Lillian Gish who runs like the hands of a chronometer! he evokes exactly this sensation of frenetic life.42
Because Comandon worked at Pathe, these lms were also seen by the
general public, scholarly societies, and students. We can get some idea of
the context of their demonstration from texts of lectures written to accompany the lms, as well as from the reactions of journalists in both the medical and general press. Jonathan Crary has remarked that it is not simply the
development of new technologies of lm or photography that constitutes
the history of the modernization of the perceptual world; the accompanying
set of imperatives for consumption, attention, and perceptual competence exercised on the spectator must also be taken into account.43 In the
case of microcinematography, the audience received very explicit directions
either just before or during the lm on how to view the lms depiction of
the life of the innitely small, particularly in relation to the self. Specta41. This history belongs properly to that of microscopy more generally. See Catherine Wilson,
The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope (Princeton, N.J.,
42. Epstein, Magnication, 1:238.
43. Jonathan Crary, Gericault, the Panorama, and Sites of Reality in the Early Nineteenth
Century, Grey Room 9 (Fall 2002): 7.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

tors, both scientic and nonscientic, were directed to see this the lm not
just as another novel world of phenomena but specically as a world
withinunder the surface, in the interior of living things.
In a lecture to Friends of the University of Lyon, in March 1914, the
pathologist Jules Guiart presented several of Comandons lms to a lay audience which seems to have been composed mainly of women. Titled La
Vie revelee par le cinematographe, the event began with his promise that
the lecture would present Life via its principal manifestations. One of
these was protoplasm, that marvelous substance that constitutes the
hardly visible microbes or the glittering insects, as well as the gracious forms
which make you, Mesdames, the queens of creation.44 After telling them
of their constitution by cells, which were small masses of protoplasm,Guiart
proceeded to show them Comandons lms of protoplasmic streaming in
plant cells, cell division, the movement of leukocytes, and protozoa. The
audience was thus explicitly directed to see their constitutive elements on
screen and to understand themselves as continuous with other beings made
of cells and protoplasm. With particular cruelty, Guiart asked his audience
members to henceforth see the world with appropriate sympathy, now that
they had seen the life inside these other beings: You certainly comprehend
now the life in these plants that you trample underfoot, that you believe to
be insensible. You believe that, Mesdames, because they have no way of crying out, but in reality, what do you know?45
Even newspaper articles carefully recounted the scientic form of the
experiment on lm, comparing the scene of action of the battle of white
blood cells and Nagana trypanosomes (the pathogenic agent of sleeping
sickness) in three settings: without blood serum, with normal serum, and
with specic serum, that is, blood serum of an animal previously exposed
to the pathogen.
Successively, one saw the trypanosomes snaking in liberty and with incredible liveliness in the region of the leukocytes, touching them with
impunity, crossing over them without trouble. Then, when the appropriate serum acts, the scene changes. When these ever agile trypanosomes touch a white blood cell, straight away they nd themselves
attached, and despite all the eorts made to separate themselves, they
adhere more and more, like an underwater animal trapped by an octopus. Soon, the movements of the trypanosome ceases and it dies, encompassed by the leukocyte, in which it is from then on incorporated.46
44. Jules Guiart, La Vie revelee par le cinematographie, Revue Scientique 52, no. 1 (1914): 743.
45. Ibid, p. 744.
46. Salagnac, Le Cinematographie de linniment petit, Le Journal, 31 July 1910, p. 1. This
headline appears on the front page of the newspaper directly next to the headline Encore un

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

This front-page newspaper piece, subtitled How Our White Blood Cells
Devour Microbes, sensationalized this great combat carried out in the organism, this intestinal battle with one of the most dreadful microbes
whose drama is for physicians far more interesting than the most poignant
events of everyday cinematography. However, it also carefully incorporated
the experimental narrative of medical research; it compared dierent blood
sera and explained that the viewer should not forget that the scenes shown
to us happened in laboratory preparations. The concluding line of the article
emphasized that what happened on the screen was an experimental re-creation of the process: We hope that the attack, engulfment and death of trypanosomes is as well realized when it happens in the human body.
Others reported that the lms gave the spectator a perfect illusion of
reality in showing the agitation and rapid changes that constituted the
intimate existence of these innitely small things. Again, the directions
to the reader were explicit. These sights became available not only to the
privileged few who work in the laboratory but to the whole world.47 This
implies that the spectators are to see as scientists do, making the cinema a
window not just onto the life of the small but onto the previously privileged
sights of science. Thanks to Comandons lms, the author writes, the whole
world will be able know the microbes that cause contagious and epidemic
illnesses and will be able to know them en pleine vie. In full life.

In a much-quoted passage from The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Benjamin builds a comparative analogy consisting of four gures: magician and painter, surgeon and camera operator.
The painter is like the magician in that he maintains in his work a natural
distance from reality, while, like the surgeon, the cinematographer penetrates deeply into its tissue. As a result, the images obtained by each dier
enormously. The painters is a total image, whereas that of the cinematographer is piecemeal, its manifold parts being assembled according to a new
law (WA, 4:26364).
Sometimes, as it happened, the camera operator was a surgeon. This is
an excellent description of Alexis Carrel, who moved from doing transplant
surgery on whole bodies and organs to tissue culture, seeking the basic
mechanisms behind wound healing, regeneration, and aging in living populations of cells. The picture of reality obtained by this cinematographer/
aviateur qui tombe et se tue. See Jean Comandon papers, box com.8 presse, Pasteur Institute
47. Auguste Barille, Ultramicroscopie et cinematographie, Le Petit Marseillais, 1 Sept. 1910, p.
1. See Jean Comandon papers, box com.8 presse, Pasteur Institute Archives.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

surgeon was of the physiology of the body as lived out by its constituent
elements, the cells. These cells were not viewed in the body, but were extracted and, as fragmentary populations, kept alive in glass vessels. The
meaning of their multitudinous, individual, in vitro existences was reassembled by Carrel into a theory of life.
Carrels emphasis was on making cells live, not just outside the body, but
in full visibility, such that, all the details of the living cells can be observed
at every instant of their evolution.48 Carrel (like Epstein some years later)
went to medical school in Lyons and (again like Epstein) was acquainted
with cinema from its earliest days, having worked in the biological laboratories of Auguste Lumie`re. After immigrating to the United States Carrel
turned to Comandon to help him build his own microcinematographic setup, and in the 1920s he began to produce lms of cells living in culture.49
Carrel had begun experimenting with tissue culture in 1910; by 1912 he had
claimed permanent life for tissues grown outside the body in this way.
Carrel, an admirer of Henri Bergson, interpreted his own time-lapse lms
of cells to be a demonstration of duration of cells. He said that cytology
must be based on close observation of the concrete event which a tissue
is. The cornerstone of the new cytology was cinematography; what other
method could capture an event unfolding over time? A tissue is evidently
an enduring thing. Its functional and structural conditions become modied from moment to moment. Time is really the fourth dimension of living
organisms. It enters as a part into the constitution of a tissue. Cell colonies,
or organs, are events which progressively unfold themselves.50 Because a
tissue was an event, with microcinematography one could see physiological
duration, and Carrel used Bergson to dene duration: the present of a
living organism does not pass into nothingness. It never ceases to be, because it remains in the memory and is entered in the tissues. Bergson has
clearly shown how the past persists in the present. The body is obviously
made up of the past.51
Carrel saw cells in vitro as a simplied animal, pared down to a closed
48. Alexis Carrel and Montrose Burrows, Human Sarcoma Cultivated Outside of the Body,
Journal of the American Medical Association, 12 Nov. 1910, p. 1732.
49. Carrel invited Comandon to New York, but it does not seem that Comandon ever went;
instead, Carrel visited Comandons laboratories on his yearly returns to France. See Do OGomes,
LOeuvre de Jean Comandon. The correspondence between Comandon and Carrel, such as a
letter dated 19 August 1912, deals only with scheduling a visit by Carrel to Comandon in Paris, after
Carrel had secured permission in 1912 from the head of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical
Research, Simon Flexner, to acquire equipment for microcinematography. See Louis Schmidt,
letter to Carrel, 27 July 1912, Correspondence 1912, Alexis Carrel Papers, Lauinger Library Special
Collections, Georgetown University.
50. Carrel, The New Cytology, Science, 20 Mar. 1931, p. 298; hereafter abbreviated NC.
51. Carrel, Physiological Time, Science, 18 Dec. 1931, p. 620; hereafter abbreviated PT.

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

system of tissues bathed in blood and interstitial uid. Physiological duration . . . appears as soon as a portion of space containing metabolizing
things becomes relatively isolated from the surrounding world (PT, p.
621). For these cells, physiological duration was composed of metabolic processes that created products that changed the cellular medium. The buildup
of metabolic by-products equaled the buildup of duration. Time is recorded by a cell community only when the metabolic products are allowed
to remain around the tissue. From this assertion it was a very short step
to the alleviation of time. If these metabolites are removed at short intervals
and the composition of the medium is kept constant, the cell colonies remain indenitely in the same state of activity. They do not record time qualitatively. In fact, they are immortal (PT, p. 621). Thus immortality was
introduced into biology as a technical term within the new cytology, with
an attendant methodology. For Carrel, immortality was embodied in what
he called the old strain, a culture of embryonic chicken heart cells that
went on dividing and growing, apparently endlessly. It became known as
the immortal chicken heart, and the press used to celebrate its birthdays
Immortality and duration were for Carrel scientic concepts, and scientic concepts are, he wrote, operational concepts; in other words, concepts equivalent to the set of operations by which they are acquired. And
those operations depend necessarily upon techniques.52 The scientic concept was that which must involve as much as, and nothing more than, the
set of operations by which it is determined.53 Following this denition, he
saw the scientic concept of immortality as equivalent to the set of techniques that made up tissue culture. Carrel, in approaching immortality as
an operational concept, not only sought to interpret his results in terms
of Bergsons concepts of time and duration but developed a set of instruments and practices as an explicit materialized equivalent of these concepts
in the form of a set of operations.
This operationalized philosophy demanded the reconguration of
the body, and the development of means for its technical maintenance,
what one of Carrels coworkers called the building of a new type of body
in which to grow a cell.54 Carrel introduced a new form of culture vessel
of his own design (g. 2). These were small, at, round asks ve or eight
52. Carrel, foreword to Raymond Parker, Methods of Tissue Culture (New York, 1938), p. xi.
53. Carrel, The Relation of Cells to One Another, in Human Biology and Racial Welfare, ed. E.
V. Cowdry (New York, 1930), pp. 20518. This concept was borrowed from the physicist P. W.
Bridgmans The Logic of Modern Physics (1927).
54. Eduard Uhlenhuth, Changes in Pigment Epithelium Cells and Iris Pigment Cells of Rana
Pipiens Induced by Changes in Environmental Conditions, Journal of Experimental Medicine 24
(1916): 690.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

f i g u r e 2. Handling tissues in Carrel asks, c. 1923. Carrel designed both the glass atbottomed asks and the long instruments for manipulating the tissues inside.

centimeters in diameter with narrow oblique necks. The shape of the neck
prevented contaminants from the air falling directly into the ask when it
was open, and the neck could be amed before and after placing tissue and
medium inside the ask, thus mimicking the protective skin of the body.
The tissues were grown in a thin coagulated layer of plasma or brinogen
on the bottom of the ask and bathed in a liquid medium. Life could thus
be maintained and regulatedthe medium added or removed at willand
constantly observed, as tissue and blood cells are always in the process of
becoming (NC, p. 300). The shape and materials constituting the ask
were directed toward optical transparency. The asks had several minor variations; one had a bottom composed of a thin mica plate, and the whole
thing could be inverted and directly slotted into the microscope for high
magnication studies or cinematography of the living cells as they grew.
Later the asks were rened such that their at glass surfaces were thin
enough to be used with oil immersion lenses, replacing the mica windows.
This is perhaps the most hands-on interpretation Bergsons work has
ever received; it was a science of duration complete with its own glassware,
instrumentation, choreography, outts, and lighting (g. 3). With cinematography, Carrel thought he could see duration. What did it look like?
Like Comandon, Carrel was using time-lapse imaging, but the actual slowness of the concrete event that a tissue is fell away immediately from the
experience of watching the lms (NC, p. 297). Cells do not show their
true physiognomy when they are examined under the microscope . . . . Fixed
cells appear on the lm as mobile as a ame. Their surface is never smooth.
In some places, it bubbles like boiling water (NC, p. 300). Again, Carrel

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

f i g u r e 3. Carrels tissue culture laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research,
undated photograph. The space was lit by skylights, the walls were dark grey, and all workers wore
long black robes and hoods. All these measures were directed toward reducing reection or glare,
in order to improve the lighting conditions either for intricate surgical procedures or
manipulating tiny translucent pieces of tissue.

was struck not just by the unceasingly mobile physiognomy of undulating

membranes but by the seemingly social and behavioral aspect of the cells
in relation to one another: A colony of broblasts looks like a dense crowd
which moves without order. Very rarely do individuals wander far from the
main group, which is composed of cells sliding upon one another in every
direction (NC, p. 300).
As far as can be ascertained, none of these lms survive, and they were
never publicly distributed, as Comandons lms were. However, a similar
set of accounts of their screenings appear in the newspapers, and they turn
up in unexpected places, such as John Harvey Kelloggs Battle Creek Sanatorium, where the lms were apparently shown to thousands of incoming
patients to demonstrate the intimately damaging eects of alcohol and
other ingested toxins on the bodys cells.55 A newspaper report of a lm
55. Doctor Kellogg is preparing an educational lm, one purpose of which is to show the
eects of poison upon the blood, especially on the white blood cells. He would like to show the
leucocytes moving about, and requests a few feet of lm for this purpose (Carrel, letter to Simon
Flexner, 26 Oct. 1928, administrative correspondence, 19231929, 450c232 Faculty Box 2,
Rockefeller Archive Center).



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

screening at the 1929 International Physiologists Congress indicates that

contemporaries were impressed by not only the lms themselves but what
their form implied about the scientists work of observing:
By substituting an automatic motion picture camera for a scientists eye
at the microscope, and gearing it to take an exposure a minute, Dr.
Alexis Carrell . . . obtained a lm which reproduced the unremitting observation of the camera while the scientist was attending to other researches. Half an hour of his time, spent in watching the lm when it
was projected on the screen, showed what used to require days of patient observation alone at the end of a microscope.
The automobile observations of cell behavior made by Dr. Carrel
through his motion picture camera, were shared directly yesterday with
about 500 scientists.56
The observation machine works while the scientist is doing other things
and contracts the patient labor of days to half an hour. It then can be shared
directly and simultaneously with ve hundred other scientists. Another
journalist commented that during this display it was not even necessary
for Dr. Carrel to be present. The scientist and his work were separated, his
observations reproduciblein fact, instantly repeatable:
Cells of microscopic size appeared on the screen in dimensions of feet
instead of microns. Their interior changes could be followed in detail
from the rear of a fty foot room as they grew and reproduced.
The continuous record of their movements revealed dynamic
changes in the tempo of their dance, as it was called, which became
convulsive as they split . . . .
The visiting scientists applauded and examined the phenomena
again by having the lms run through the projector once more.57
It is a kind of automatic seeing; the scientist knows there is something
happening in the cultures but cant see it with the naked eye; turning sight
over to the mechanical retina reveals what is there. That sight can then
be shared, repeatedly.
In Carrels studies, the camera was not brought to the inside of the animal
to visualize the life within it, but cells were extracted from the body and t
into the apparatus.58 In transparent glass vessels, they embodied the events
56. Movie Reveals Living Cells of Tissue, New York Evening Journal, 29 Aug. 1929.
Automobile as an adjective does not necessarily refer to a vehicle, but describes something that
moves by means of mechanism and power within itself.
57. Living Tissue Cells Shown in Movie, New York Times, 29 Aug. 1929, p. 20.
58. As Cartwright observes, What is extended, perhaps, is not the observers senses but the
living process of the body studied, and the epistemological domain of the apparatus in the
generation of life (Cartwright, Screening the Body, p. 27).

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

that constitute all the essential aspects of life: ingestion, metabolism, movement, growth, interaction, reproduction, senescence, and death, and all of
these could be interfered with at will by the watching observer. Life was not
a property dependent upon a whole body, but a quantity that could be extracted and abstracted from any single body, while remaining fundamental
to all bodies. Cells were not structural building blocks, as the static pictures
of histology might suggest, but dynamic agents of physiological process. As
Epstein put it, Life, on lm, fragments itself into new individualities.59
To look at them in time, using Comandons cinematic techniques, was to
see life.
Carrels theorization of these cells as exhibiting the endless, incessant
movement and growth of life-as-duration was then incorporated into what
the spectator was urged to see when viewing such a lm. To reiterate, the
experience was supposed to be not just one of seeing living cells but a feeling
of unprecedented proximity to life as such, the powerful foundation of all
macroscopic phenomena. A Dr. Green, professor of chemistry at Leeds University, interviewed in 1925 as he was about to sail out of New York, had this
to say about his experience of viewing Carrels lms:
It was one of the most amazing things I ever saw . . . . The lm of the
growth of the tissue was taken during twenty-four hours and must have
involved a vast amount of reel. What takes place in the twenty-four
hours is reduced in it to a comparatively few minutes . . . .
Dr. Carrel introduces immortality in a physicall sense. It is there before your eyes, and so long as this tissue is nurtured and irrigated it will
live. It cannot die. Its growth is so enormous that it doubles itself every
twenty-four hours, and if it had not been pared down each day since the
experiment began it would now be a colossal monster overspreading all
New York.60
There are two things that are vast and colossal here: the amount of reel
and the potential size of the culture. Discussion of the cinematic mediums
condensing action on time is linked to discussion of the actual object of
observation by the statement: Dr. Carrel introduces immortality in a physicall sense. Films of living cells in culture induced a visceral feeling of life
as endless and boundless growth and proliferation; in this case, the lm had
no necessary beginning or end; any twenty-four hour slice out of immortality is interchangeable with any other. Thus a very specic form of cine59. Epstein, The Senses I (b), trans. Tom Milne, in French Film Theory and Criticism, 1:243.
60. Immortality Is Achieved in Chicken Heart, New York Herald Tribune, 22 Nov. 1925, p. 26.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

matic life was produced out of the materialized philosophy of Bergsons

Benjamin considered Bergsons conception of duration as estranged
from history. Quoting Max Horkheimer, he says: Bergson the metaphysician suppresses death. The fact that death has been eliminated from Bergsons duree isolates it eectively from a historical . . . order.61 Yet this must
be the most appropriate philosophy to work with in creating a biology without death, an articial immortal experimental animal that one could experiment on indenitely, eliminating innumerable causes of error due to
the individual characteristics of animals of dierent origins.62 Evolution
and experience were conspicuously absent from Carrels work, as both the
life of the species and the life of the individual were left behind.
Benjamin also observed of Bergsons duree that with the suppression of
death comes, in his words, the miserable endlessness of a scroll. It thus
seems appropriate to note that Carrels immortal chicken heart never actually died, nor was it killed. Two years after Carrels own death in occupied
France in 1944, the culture was merely thrown away, as no one was willing
to take on the continued labor of its maintenance.

Carrels claims about the permanent life of tissues removed from the
body were in prominent circulation in European and American scientic
and public arenas from 1910 on, as were Comandons microcinematographic lms of everything from trypanosomes to cells grown in culture
according to Carrels protocol. In addition, physical chemist Jean Perrin
used Comandons lms of Brownian motion as visual conrmation of the
phenomenon in arguments over the validity of molecular reality, as part
of the establishment of the assumption we live with todaythe fundamental atomistic or molecular nature of all matter, known at the time as the
molecular-kinetic theory.63 Both Carrel and Comandon attracted constant
pronouncements of astonishment and dismay from commentators in the
popular press at the spectacle of life the two were respectively producing.
This complex response included not just wonderment at the sight itself but
shock at the amount of movement hidden in apparently still things, the
amount of heterogenous structure hidden in apparently solid things, appreciation of the ability of audiences to see things as scientists do, com61. Benjamin, On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, Selected Writings, 4:336.
62. P. LeComte du Nouy, Biological Time (New York, 1937), p. 1034.
63. Nye, Molecular Reality, p. 153.

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

mentary on the automation of scientic seeing, and a sense of visceral

proximity to life, disease, and immortality.
When Bela Balazs writes, in Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des
Films, that the magnifying glass of the cinematograph brings near to us the
individual cells of living tissue, lets us feel the matter and substance of concrete lives,64 the cell he is referring to is the living cell of lm, not some
abstract idea of a cell. The lm cell is understood as the fundamental stu
of life, in all its glorious materiality. By this I do not mean to imply that he
must have been conceptualizing the cinematic close-up specically in relation to the work of Comandon and Carrel; there were many biological
lms and many narratives of cellular life in circulation at this point. However, the close examination of Comandon and Carrels work is a window
onto the original energy that theorized lm by thinking through scientic
As indicated above, cellular and microscopic metaphors and references
appear in texts by Balazs, Eisenstein, Epstein, and Benjamin, as well as various lesser-known critics and writers on lm. The recontextualization of
these seemingly abstract scientic metaphors in the contemporary scene of
their production leads to a better understanding of both early scientic lm,
of which critics were acute observers, and early lm theory. Benjamins concept of the optical unconscious will be familiar to many readers, but even
the highly scrutinized Little History of Photography may be seen anew,
if read with one eye on the historical materiality of scientic lm.
Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what
is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no
idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person
actually takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and
enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we rst
discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover
the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis. Details of structure, cellular tissue, with which technology and medicine are normally
concernedall this is, in its origins, more native to the camera than the
atmospheric landscape or the soulful portrait.65
What is cellular tissue doing in this passage? Is it an incidental illustration
of an analogy? Psychoanalysis and the unconscious on the one hand, photography and microstructure of physical things on the other? Along with
64. Bela Balazs, Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des Films (1924; Frankfurt am Main, 2001),
p. 49.
65. Benjamin, Little History of Photography, pp. 510, 512.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

other mentions of cells and tissues in early lm theory, this reference has
been read abstractly, as if it did not refer to anything in particular. For example, Rosalind Krauss asks, can an optical eldthe world of visual phenomena . . . have an unconscious? For Freud, she says, Benjamins apparent
analogy would simply be incomprehensible because the microstructure
of the world is neither conscious nor unconscious nor can it be in conict
with consciousness. What, she asks, can we speak of in the visual eld
that will be an analogue of the unconscious itself ?66
This apparent quandary seems to arise from a poor analogy, a loose interpretation of Freud. However, this quandary dissolves if we simply speak
of what Benjamin himself spoke of in the visual eld: cellular tissue. A short
excursion through late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century psychology is necessary to understand the specic presence of cells in this passage. The question is not whether cellular tissue has an unconscious or is
conscious but rather how cells were understood to be elemental particles of
psychic phenomena whose investigation would elucidate the fundamental
characteristics of human psychology. And how, then, seeing cells via photography or cinematography would be experienced as seeing the fundamental
elements of psychological phenomena.
From the late nineteenth century on, the psychic life of micro-organisms was part of a wide range of experimental research with unicellular
organisms, particularly protozoa.67 Scientists did not think that each individual protozoan was a little conscious (or unconscious) being; they assumed instead that the protozoas actions were elemental manifestations of
the psychological phenomena inherent to all living matter. As part of an
eort to establish properties common to all living beings, researchers focused on the cell, or elementary organism, as it was deemed to be both
the only functional organic entity common to both plants and animals and
the natural starting point of physiological as well as psychological life.68 It
was not at all extraordinary to see the cell as simultaneously fundamental
to physiological processes such as movement and to psychologicalprocesses
such as individuality, consciousness, and agency. And it was treated this way
not just within the life sciences but also in the writings of Nietzsche, Bergson, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Freud.
Certainly psychoanalysis proper had already considered the cellularity
of the non-optical unconscious in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).69
66. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), pp. 17879.
67. Judy Johns Schloegel and Henning Schmidgen, General Physiology, Experimental
Psychology, and Evolutionism: Unicellular Organisms as Objects of Psychophysiological Research,
18771918, Isis 93, no. 4 (2002): 617.
68. Ibid., p. 616.
69. See Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. and ed. James Strachey (1920; New
York, 1961).

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

Freud, looking for evidence of phenomena more fundamental and primitive than the pleasure principle, pursued an understanding of instincts as
forces originating in the interior of the bodyin the cellsthat are constantly transmitted to the mental apparatus. Note that Benjamin too referred to the instinctual unconscious. Freud drew his own analogy between
his dynamic theories of life instincts and death instincts and August Weismanns morphological opposition of germ cells, which continue through
the generations, and somatic cells, which die with each individual body:
Accordingly, we might attempt to apply the libido theory which has
been arrived at in psycho-analysis to the mutual relationship of cells.
We might suppose that the life instincts or sexual instincts which are active in each cell take the other cells as their object, that they partly neutralize the death instincts (that is, the processes set up by them) in those
cells and thus preserve their life; while still others sacrice themselves in
the performance of this libidinal function. The germ-cells themselves
would behave in a completely narcissistic fashion.70
In this work, life is seen as torn apart into particles and straining ever
to reunite, and thus all the fundamental forces leading to the conict and
struggle in the mental apparatus begin in elemental form, innate to living
matter. Freud drew extensively on such contemporary debates about the
biological basis of life and death in his discussion of the possible underlying
cellular basis of life and death instincts; following the citations from the
relevant passages of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, one nds Freud referring
to various works by contemporary authors such as Franz Doein on the
biological nature of death.71 Doein considers at length the implications of
the work of Alexis Carrel and his deathless cells, and the book includes diagrams of tissue cultures redrawn from Carrels papers.
The point here is not to interrogate Freuds theories of cell division as
evidence of the universal compulsion to repeat or to revisit the question of
Freuds biologism. It is to gain access to a mode of thought in which looking
at cells on screen was experienced not exclusively as a view of morphology
or physiology but simultaneously and indistinguishably as a view of the fundament of psychological life. For Freud, particularly in Beyond the Pleasure
Principle, correlation between the physical form of living matter and the
theoretical form of psychoanalysis was an important mode of speculative
argument. In this framework, seeing cells move and behave correlated with
70. Ibid., p. 60.
71. See Franz Doein, Das Problem des Todes und der Unsterblichkeit bei den Panzen und Tieren
(Jena, 1919).



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

seeing instincts. A leap between psychoanalytic methods and cinematic

ones was not so dramatic when lms of the behavior of protozoa or somatic
cells were seen as scientic analyses of the foundations of life, broadly understood. The line between psychic phenomena and physiologicalphenomena was indistinct, particularly when scientists like Carrel were claiming
that the lms showed cells as made up of the past, as duration, in its
fully Bergsonian sense. In short, cells in the visual eld were the visual morphological counterparts to the theoretical dynamic structures revealed
by techniques of psychoanalysis. They might even be literally the same
thing, just accessed by dierent means, which is why psychoanalytic techniques and visually analytic techniques were compellingly analogous. Thus
Benjamins text and those texts that formed the context of his writing imputed power to the camera to see life as it has not been seen before.
Theaters, lectures, and newspapers were themselves teeming with startlement at what lm was revealing of life, that all surfaces, even nonliving
ones, had within them another whole realm of lifeincessantly moving,
pullulating cells and particles. The lms were greeted as a view into the life
going on all the time beyond the range of normal (conscious) perception.
Manipulation of space and time through devices of magnication and timelapse was greeted as a means of revealing life beneath life, life inside life;
even the surface of the cell could be further magnied to see the streaming
cytoplasm or the paroxysms of internal division. Microcinematography
gave access to what was interpreted as the microstructure not simply of
cellular tissue but of life and death, of duration and immortality. The experience of watching the lmsvariously accompanied by narratives of the
essential protoplasm or the internal reality of the bodywas to gain a visceral sense of that life as something inside the individual but also continuous
over all forms of nonhuman beings.
These connections only ramify when considering Benjamins return to
the notion of the optical unconscious in the later essay, The Work of Art
in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility. Miriam Hansen writes,
while the photography essay illustrated the optical unconscious with examples from biophysics and botany, the Artwork Essay draws on the imagery of a social and mechanized world, the discourse of an alienated
experience.72 Hansens nuanced analyses of the notion of the optical unconscious in these essays is only enriched by seeing this apparent dierence
not as the replacement of one kind of example with something quite other
but as two interlinked kinds of examples of the same thingscientic im72. Hansen, Benjamin, Cinema, and Experience: The Blue Flower in the Land of
Technology, New German Critique, no. 40 (Winter 1987): 209.

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

agery as imagery of a social and mechanized world. As we have seen, viewers

of these lms were highly aware of the technology allowing them to see such
sightsnot just with the lm camera and the microscope but with the
placement of living pieces of the body in the technology of the laboratory
where they continued to live indenitely. Even the scientic sight of these
pieces was itself mechanized by lm. The perception of the body or nature
via the technological apparatus is as much a part of the modern condition
of human life as the factories and automobiles of work and motion, a point
that becomes explicit in one of Benjamins sources, an article by Luc Durtain
called La Technique et lhomme.73
Apparently very taken by Durtains discussion of corneal surgery, the
extremely delicate operations of manipulating an object that is itself virtually uid within a uid medium, Benjamin quotes Durtain in a footnote
to his comparison of the cinematographer and the surgeon.74 Just above the
section that Benjamin quotes, Durtain discusses microcinematography. He
links the transformation of the perception of speed introduced by the motorcycle, car, and airplane to the universe demonstrated by new optical
instruments; part of the contemporary conguration of technology and
man is that we are moved not just by the sight of machines but by the spectacles machines themselves provide. His rst example is microcinematography. He speaks of the grandiose architectures and physiological
landscapes lled with unforgettable sights: blood cells circulating in the
capillaries and the swarming life of the microscopic world. He writes of
Flagellates, moving at top speed across the eld of the microscope, and
cilia that quiver, and rues and pseudopods that undulate, or diatoms
that move their boxy skeletons, in a ceremonious and brusque movement . . .the phenomena of cellular reproduction, sometimes by slow
simple division, sometimes by that extraordinary ballet in which the living strands of chromosomes divide and go to the radiating poles . . .
parting two new lives.75
Durtains description could be quite accurately described as notes on the
image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things76 that Benjamin had
some years earlier said were revealed by the devices of photography,
whether scientic or not.
To analyze the bibliographic unconscious at work in Benjamins texts is
73. See Luc Durtain, La Technique et lhomme, Vendredi, 13 Mar. 1936, p. 9.
74. Not that Durtain was necessarily aware of this, and Benjamin most likely was not, but Carrel
and his wife, Anne Carrel, experimented with corneal surgery in the 1920s.
75. Durtain, La Technique et lhomme, p. 9.
76. Benjamin, Little History of Photography, p. 512.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

not to suggest that he himself made these connections explicitly. It is more

likely that the references in these essays, and their various levels of connection, come not from any single source but were ltered through many
sourcesnewspapers, lm programs, other critical writings on lm and
photography. For example, the proponents of avant-garde cinema in France
formulated various denitions of pure cinema in direct relation to scientic lms such as Comandons. Inspired in particular by a program of
science lms screened in 1924 at the Vieux Columbier, writers such as Germaine Dulac used these lms to elaborate theoretical concepts of integral
cinegraphie or the essence of cinema.
Writing of the lm about the birth of sea urchins,77 Dulac says that
the rhythm and the magnitude of movement in the screen space become
the only aective factors. The lm allows one to glimpse, unencumbered
by philosophical ideal or aesthetic concern, the elements of a more pure
lmmaking. In its embryonic state, a purely visual emotion, physical and
not cerebral, is the equal of the emotion stimulated by an isolated sound.
The composition of such visual notes can thus be imagined as an integral
cinegraphie, a pure cinema, one liberated from every property alien to
it.78 Dulac, in a 1932 essay in Le Cinema des origines a` nos jours, a volume
that also featured an essay by Comandon, dates the rise of avant-garde production to the science-lm screening of 1924, when pure cinema . . . went
in search of emotion beyond the limits of the human and found it in certain scientic writings: Was not cinema potentially capable of grasping
with its lenses the innitely large and the innitely small? This school of the
ungraspable turned its attention to other dramas than those played by actors.79 In a passage from 1928, she writes that cinema, by decomposing
movement, makes us see, analytically . . . and, if we look at the sprouting
grain, thanks to lm we will no longer have only the synthesis of the movement of growth, but the psychology of this movement. . . . The cinema
makes us spectators of its bursts toward light and air, by capturing its unconscious, instinctive and mechanical movements.80 Here, too, life beyond
the human was dissectable by lm as a sort of microscope81 whose analytic
powers were akin to those of psychoanalysis. As described above, such lms
often came accompanied by their narration providing a window not just
77. It is not possible to specify which lm of sea urchin fertilization and development this might
have been, since there were many, including one by Comandon, made between 1909 and 1924.
They were all, however, made using time-lapse microcinematography.
78. Dulac, Aesthetics, Obstacles, Integral Cinegraphie, trans. Liebman, French Film Theory
and Criticism, 1:396.
79. Dulac, The Avant-Garde Cinema, trans. Lamberton, in The Avant-Garde Film, p. 47.
80. Dulac, Visual and Anti-Visual Films, p. 32.
81. Dulac, The Essence of Cinema, p. 39.

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

onto the sights of science (the world of the innitely small) but onto scientic seeing itself, its processes of isolation and comparison, and so the
invocation here of analytic seeing should be read, as with Benjamin,
with some specicity.

For this is the miracle of the science lm, its inexhaustible paradox. At the far extreme of inquisitive, utilitarian research, in the most absolute proscription of aesthetic intentions, cinematic beauty develops as an additional, supernatural gift.
[SF, p. 146]

Andre Bazin, like Dulac decades earlier, was delighted by the inexhaustible paradox that those who were apparently trying the least to create
cinematic beauty, that is, scientists, were also those who were best able to
produce such beauty, at the far extreme of inquisitive, utilitarianresearch,
thus generating cinemas purest aesthetic (SF, p. 146). This in turn bears
some resemblance to the troubled conclusion of Kracauers Theory of Film,
a chapter called Film in Our Time, in which cinema, with its visceral,
intimate access to the concreteness of material reality, will redeem us from
a world fractured and fragmented by aesthetically anemic scientic and
technological ways of thinking and being. In short, lm, although a product
of science and technology, will redeem the world from science and technology because of the accident of cinematic beauty.
Kracauers work is a somewhat belated ospring of early lm theory.82
He occupied an uncomfortable position in relation to classic lm theory,
trying to look forward and back at the same time, writing that the principles and ideas instrumental in the rise of a new historical entity do not
just fade away once the period of inception is over; on the contrary, it is as
if, in the process of growing and spreading, that entity were destined to bring
out all their implications (TF, p. 3). Kracauers engagement with science
in Benjamin, Epstein, Dulac, and his own earlier writing on lm, from the
other side of the critiques of science such as Dialectic of Enlightenment, has
its own specic dynamics. His attempt to characterize scientic principles
and ideas as instrumental to lm, and the resulting implications he saw from
the specic viewpoint lm in our time, that is, America in the late 1950s,
deserves its own analysis. For now, however, I have used Kracauers particular attention to science as an entry point into the liveliness of early lm
theorys engagement with its contemporaneous biological experiments on

82. Hansen, introduction, p. viii.



Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

What Kracauer thought through, but later readers have passed over, is
the critical mobilization of scientic lm in the early twentieth century as
a mode of understanding the characteristics and possibilities of lm in general. Writers thinking through the relations of parts and wholes in terms of
shots and frames, montages and narratives, looked to scientic techniques
of decomposition and synthesis as demonstrated in scientic lms as a
mode of articulating and theorizing the specicity of the lm medium. In
particular, they looked at these techniques in relation to the visualization
of life over time, and this was a way of articulating the specicity of the power
of the lm medium to depict life as such. Recognizing, as Kracauer put it,
that the medium showed characteristics inherent in the scientic approach, particularly characteristics of analytic decomposition of wholes,
did not by any means then restrict the sense of what nonscientists could do
with the medium. Epstein, himself originally trained in medicine, announced quite rmly that cinema was a hermaphrodite whose sex had
turned out to be art, not science. But this did not stop him from using bacteriological and molecular metaphors to theorize photogenie and the character of the close-up or from using these techniques in his own lmmaking.
Having reestablished the sense that these diverse metaphors in the writings
of diverse authors are generated not by comparisons between avant-garde
or artistic lm and abstract scientic concepts of the cell or molecule but
by comparisons between lms of the macroscopic world and lms of the
microscopic one, what then should we do with this knowledge?
Dulac, Kracauer, and Bazin thought that scientists, who were simply engaged in nding things out or making things, by fortuitous accident left in
the wake of their rational and real an inexhaustible remainder of the irrational and surreal. Such a conclusion now seems untenable. The most absolute proscription of aesthetic intentions noted by Bazin and others is
itself a historically specic aesthetic of objectivity.83 As this essay has argued
in reconnecting scientic lmmaking in early twentieth-century France and
America to a larger discourse of life, death, and immortality, Comandon
and Carrels lms were built with strong aesthetic and philosophical intent,
were carefully edited, and had quite distinct narrative shape, either implicit
in the lms form, or explicit in accompanying lectures and texts. These
lms were stories of scientic investigation and dramas of infection, survival, and life. Both the experiments on lm and the critical responses to
them should be understood within this wider context.
Ultimately, the aim of this argument is not a rediscovery of early scientic
83. See Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, The Image of Objectivity, Representations, no. 40
(Fall 1992): 81128.

Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005

lm but a critical expansion on the insights it generated. It is my hope that

this demonstration of lms role in the interpenetration of art and science
in early twentieth-century visualizations and conceptualizations of life
will both help renew interest in the history of scientic lm and provide
some critical tools with which to think about lifes imaging in other historical periods, including our own. Looking back to the cell in early lm
theoryand forward to next years biological imaging with the same critical glancerequires rst a recognition of early lm theorys insights about
the incorporation of scientic ways of seeing into the lm medium and
then the consideration of the question of whether contemporary life science is producing a cinema of life analogous to that made by Comandon
and Carrel. Such a question may equip us better to think about the ubiquitous images of free-oating zygotes and micro-injection needles, icons
of our own version of the suppression of death; about the technically innovative methods for lming the movements of organelles and molecules
in living cells;84 or about the scenes of cellular interiority in recent Hollywood cinema (The Hulk, Magnolia, Fight Club). Indeed, an autonomous
and authoritative cellular actor is very much alive in todays cinema.

84. See Conly L. Rieder and Alexey Khodjakov, Mitosis through the Microscope: Advances in
Seeing Inside Live Dividing Cells, Science, 4 Apr. 2003, pp. 9196.

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