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The Cinema

of Sensations
The Cinema
of Sensations
Edited by

gnes Peth
The Cinema of Sensations

Edited by gnes Peth

This book first published 2015

Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Lady Stephenson Library, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 2PA, UK

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Copyright 2015 by gnes Peth and contributors

All rights for this book reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means,
electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without
the prior permission of the copyright owner.

ISBN (10): 1-4438-6883-3

ISBN (13): 978-1-4438-6883-9

Introduction: Possible Questions in Sensuous Film Studies..................... 1

gnes Peth

Part I. Perception, Body and Mind

Thinking like a Carpet: Embodied Perception and Individuation

in Algorithmic Media ................................................................................ 15
Laura U. Marks

Seeing to Believe Sensing to Know: From Film Form to Perceptual

Environment .............................................................................................. 29
Yvonne Spielmann

Learning and Re-learning Haptic Visuality ............................................... 43

Lszl Tarnay

Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation:
Agns Vardas La Pointe Courte (1954) ................................................... 55
Francesca Minnie Hardy

Haptic Vision and the Experience of Difference in Agns Vardas

Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000) ........................................................... 73
Romain Chareyron

Geography of the Body: Jean Epsteins Poetics and Conceptualization

of the Body in his Unpublished Writings .................................................. 87
Daniel Fernndez Pitarch

Unsettling Melodies: A Cognitive Approach to Incongruent

Film Music .............................................................................................. 103
Steven Willemsen and Mikls Kiss

Part II. Embodiment, Art and Media

Of Artists and Models: Italian Silent Cinema between Narrative

Convention and Artistic Practice ............................................................. 121
Ivo Blom
vi Table of Contents

The Body as Interstitial Space between Media in Leons de Tnbres

by Vincent Dieutre and Histoire dun Secret by Mariana Otero ............. 137
Marlne Monteiro

Housing a Deleuzian Sensation: Notes on the Post-Cinematic Tableaux

Vivants of Lech Majewski, Sharunas Bartas and Ihor Podolchak ........... 155
gnes Peth

The Alienated Body. Smell, Touch and Oculocentrism in Contemporary

Hungarian Cinema ................................................................................... 185
Hajnal Kirly

Sensations of Dysphoria in the Encounter of Failing Bodies: The Cases

of Karaoke by Donigan Cumming, Last Days by Gus Van Sant,
and Drunk by Gillian Wearing ................................................................ 209
lne Tremblay

Visuality and Narration in Monsters, Inc................................................. 223

Jens Schrter

Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion ..................... 237

Jos Manuel B. Martins

Part III. Sensation of Time, Reality and Fantasy

Affective Realism and the Brand New Brazilian Cinema ....................... 257
Ramayana Lira

The New Realistic Trend in Contemporary World Cinema:

Ramin Bahranis Chop Shop as a Case Study ......................................... 269
Fernando Canet

The Sensation of Time in Ingmar Bergmans Poetics of Bodies

and Minds ................................................................................................ 285
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion

Own Deaths: Figures of the Sensable in Pter Ndass Book

and Pter Forgcss Film ......................................................................... 303
Katalin Sndor
The Cinema of Sensations vii

Remediating Past Images: The Temporality of Found Footage

in Gbor Bdys American Torso ............................................................ 323
Judit Pieldner

Embodied Genetics in Science-Fiction: From Jeunets Alien:

Resurrection (1997) to Piccininis Workshop (2011) .............................. 343
Andrea Virgins

Contributors ............................................................................................. 361



Cinema has always had a profound experiential quality: images not only
move, but they move us and engage all our senses. Whenever we go to the
movies we not only see the film, and the world of the screen not only
communicates a message to us, but we also get to be immersed in a unique
environment that stimulates our senses and our minds on different levels
of consciousness and perception. In the past decades the incredible
multiplication of the technologies through which moving images can be
produced, distributed or received has produced new formats, new genres
and new contexts for coming into contact with images that move, as well
as an expansion of the cinematic experience itself that can no longer be
connected exclusively to films seen at the cinema, but can also be found in
video installations, new media art, or in a variety of vernacular forms
enabled by these new, accessible digital technologies. Reflecting on this
process a series of new theories emerged to describe both the
interconnectivity between different kinds of audio-visual media and our
interaction with them, yet, paradoxically, despite having to deal with the
diversification of moving images and their new environments, in most of
these approaches there has been a marked emphasis on the unifying effect
of digital media, and on a general blurring of traditional media boundaries
and medium specificities in what has been termed as the post-media
condition. Nevertheless, we might argue that, in the most general sense,
new forms always entail new experiences, and the sensuous encounter
with the medium (in its most basic meaning, as the concrete palpable
form) still matters, perhaps more than ever now that moving images have
moved out of the movie theatre to compete with traditional arts in the
museums and exhibition halls, or have become ubiquitous in our daily
lives, being permanently within our reach, providing us with diverse forms
of entertainment and self-expression.
Some of the latest trends in art cinema have not only registered, but
also made use of and reflected upon these changes by specifically moving
2 Introduction: Possible Questions in Sensual Film Studies

towards a cinema of the senses and a cinema of the body,

acknowledging the relevance of the embodied act of viewing and the
sensory experience of moving images by exploiting the possibilities of the
haptic gaze collapsing the distance between spectator and image. In the
field of commercial cinema a great number of popular new technologies
have been devised for the explicit purpose of heightening our sensations
while viewing a film, moreover, cinema has not only found new outlets
and dazzling new ways to capture our attention, but it has also been placed
literally into our hands: the domestication of visual media has brought us
in touch with images as never before, and produced new hands-on
practices and new sensations, new sensibilities regarding moving images.
Following a previous international conference organized by a small group
of teachers and researchers at the Department of Photography, Film and
Media at the Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania in Cluj-
Napoca, Romania, and the subsequent publication of a volume of studies
with the title Film in the Post-Media Age (Cambridge Scholars Publishing,
2012) in the introduction of which we insisted that the ecosystem of
contemporary moving images should be understood not as a unified
digital environment that nullifies differences, but as a thriving and highly
diversified, multisensory milieu that poses ever new challenges both for
the consumer/producer and the theorist, we decided to take a step further
in this direction and organized a follow-up conference focusing this time
directly on the multisensory nature of moving images, by pairing the
keywords cinema and sensation. We launched the call for
presentations that offer a closer examination of the sensuous aspects of
moving images from a variety of viewpoints, challenging the ideas that
might downplay their relevance in the age of media convergence. And
although the topic of the conference was suggested by contemporary
phenomena, we defined it in the broadest possible terms by proposing to
concentrate on the experience, on the sensations generated by the diverse
forms of moving images and in various styles, genres and cultural
environments throughout the history of cinema and screen media. In doing
so our not so hidden goal was also to identify and map out through the
distinct themes, approaches and methodologies at least some of the
possible new directions in what we perceived as taking shape as
sensuous film studies. The conference took place between the 25th and
27th of May 2012 with the title The Cinema of Sensations and attracted
researchers from all over the world for what turned out to be three days of
presentations on extremely varied subjects and lively discussions
conducted in a memorably cheerful atmosphere. The present volume
having the same title as the conference is the palpable outcome of these
The Cinema of Sensations 3

debates, and publishes a selection of articles that have been written for this
conference,1 alongside essays written afterwards within the framework of
a subsequent research project2 focusing on questions of intermediality in
the cinema of Eastern Europe, and which has also been premised on the
sensuous nature of the complex medial experience of film.
In proposing the topic we knew we could already rely on a large array
of theoretical sources that potential participants might draw inspiration
from. Among others Thomas Elsaessers and Malte Hageners handbook
Film Theory: An Introduction through the Senses (2009) had already made
its way into the curriculum of many universities, and as such had already
proved to be a good starting point for junior researchers interested in
theorizing the sensory experience of cinema. There was also the vast
literature on the phenomenology of moving pictures from Vivian Sobchack
(e.g. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture, 2004) to
Martine Beugnet (Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of
Transgression, 2007). We explicitly referenced in our conference call
Laura U. Markss landmark books discussing haptic images and their
connections to representations of cultural difference (The Skin of the Film:
Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, 2000; Touch: Sensuous
Theory and Multisensory Media, 2002) and also invited her as a keynote
speaker to give us a glimpse into her latest work. In the field of philosophy
the spectrum of theoretical approaches to the role of bodily sensations and
the interpretation of sensuous forms in art and cinema included, among
others, Gilles Deleuzes ideas on the logic of sensation, or Jacques
Rancires philosophical investigations into the politics of aesthetics and
the distribution of the sensible (i.e. The Politics of Aesthetics, 2006, The
Future of the Image, 2007). Approaches in visual anthropology in the
wake of Hans Beltings ideas on the connection between image, body and
medium, or Paul Stollers sensuous scholarship (e.g. David
MacDougalls The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses,
2005) could also yield theoretical foundation for researches into the
manifestations of the cinema of sensations.
We encouraged our authors to address a set of questions either from a
theoretical point of view or through concrete analyses of films. The

Most of these essays have been published in the journal, Acta Universitatis
Sapientiae: Film and Media Studies (Vol. 7 and 8, 2013), and have been revised
for this volume.
The title of this research project is Re-mediated Images as Figurations of
Intermediality and Post-mediality in Central and East European Cinema. (For
more information see: http://film.sapientia.ro/en/research-programs/cncs-uefiscdi-
pce-idei-research-program, last accessed 27. 11. 2014.)
4 Introduction: Possible Questions in Sensual Film Studies

questions raised in the discussions at the conference included: How can we

re-interpret film history through the senses? What kind of paradigms,
authors, and styles can be identified in the practice of a cinema of
sensations, of a cinema exploring the palpable presence of bodies in film
history? What does the experience of so called haptic images entail in the
cinema, and how is this different from what we see in other arts? How can
sensory, audiovisual perception and cognitive knowledge be connected
when watching moving images? How does an emphasis on sensations and
the body relate to representations of social issues, cultural difference,
gender, time, death, or the materialization of fantastic beings in cinema?
How does this relate to representations of other arts (like sculpture or
painting) in films, to the filmic image being perceived as a painterly
tableau? How do images affect us in classical or avant-garde moving
images, and new media practices? How does the experience of new images
relate to the experience of old images, to what we have already become
accustomed to see in previous forms? Should we re-examine questions of
intermediality in the age of media convergence (and so called post-media
cinema) from the perspective of the sensuous encounter with the medium?
What is the difference between haptic images and hyper cinema, what is
the sensual, intellectual, emotional import of images displayed as large
format video installations or of images in 3D movies? How do we interpret
the new naturalistic trends in contemporary cinema? The list, of course, is
not complete, and we cannot even claim to have received definite answers
to all of these questions, still the range of analyses in the articles covers
quite a wide area, opening up the field of investigations in several
directions proposed by our initial call.
The volume is structured in three parts, each of which groups the
articles around three keywords diversifying the palette of subjects and
theoretical issues tackled in the book. The first part is headed by the
keywords Perception, Body and Mind, and includes essays that deal with
the sensual experience of the moving images, with the way we
conceptualize such experiences in approaches ranging from philosophical
enquiries to the application of cognitive theoretical frameworks, and from
meta-theoretical surveys to concrete case analyses.
The first part is introduced by Laura U. Markss written version of her
keynote speech. The article is titled Thinking like a Carpet: Embodied
Perception and Individuation in Algorithmic Media, and constitutes her
return, as she confesses, to writing about cinema after a long visit to
Islamic art and philosophy in her previous book, Enfoldment and Infinity
(MIT Press, 2010). In this she proposes to examine the ways non-
figurative, or aniconic images may appeal to an embodied way of looking
The Cinema of Sensations 5

that gets out of a human perspective and into the perspective of a point.
Yvonne Spielmann was also a keynote speaker at the conference that
occasioned the writing of these articles, and brought a valuable
contribution to the theoretical investigations of experimental cinema and
video art. In her text, Seeing to Believe Sensing to Know. From Film
Form to Perceptual Environment, she surveys in a wider, historical and
theoretical view over the cinematic medium in its expanded sense, how
sensory perception and the cognitive knowledge of the underlying
constructedness of moving images have been subject to various
experiments with moving images. The study encompasses examples
ranging from early cinema to structural films of the seventies, to the most
recent experiments in video art making use of an intricate interplay of
conventional film forms with human-machine interaction, or to even more
complex perceptual environments that use computers.
The two introductory articles, both with a wide arch in theory and in
their perspective over visual culture are followed by three articles dealing
with different approaches to haptic visuality in cinema. The first is Lszl
Tarnays essay titled Learning and Re-learning Haptic Visuality which
proposes a re-assessment of haptic visuality, distinguishing indeterminate
vision as a lack of things to see from what may be regarded as multimodal
sensibility. Arguably, the first is evoked by highly textural images with
scarce or no figuration like many of Stan Brakhages films which call for
the other senses, synaesthesia, to induce even if in the imagination the
identification of the perceived object. In contrast multimodal sensibility is
enhanced by real life and simulated situations when associations come
naturally to the embodied subject. Vision is haptic but not indeterminate
because it operates in tandem with other senses. The distinction can be
projected onto the contrast between analogue (representation) and digital
images (simulation). The author also argues that the possibility of re-
learning the sensorium including haptic vision is offered as a conscious
reversal of, or indexical regression from, figurative vision. Francesca
Minnie Hardys article, Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause
Irritation: Agns Vardas La Pointe courte (1954), as the title indicates,
takes a closer look at Agns Vardas first feature film criticized by some
of contemporary commentators as hampered by defects, blunders, and
follies. The author proposes a more material, rather than, intellectual
engagement with the film and its sensual imagery, and in doing so, draws
on the thoughts of contemporary French thinker Jean-Luc Nancy, and
examines a look mobilized thanks to the contact it makes with woods
textured, internal ornament, and which, she contends, may undo the
material myopia by which the films existing critical landscape has itself
6 Introduction: Possible Questions in Sensual Film Studies

been hampered. The next article, Haptic Vision and the Experience of
Difference in Agns Vardas Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), also deals
with the art of the French director. Romain Chareyron investigates how, in
her famous documentary on gleaners and gleaning, Agns Varda relies on
the establishment of haptic vision in order to merge the experience of her
own body with the representation of people living at the margins of
society. In so doing, the article posits that Varda turns to a sensuous
depiction based on the textural properties of the image to deter any form of
instrumental vision regarding the representation of the body and its
connections to pre-determined norms of conduct. The author shows that, in
its portrayal of a socially and economically alienated group of people, as
well as in the rendering of her aging body, Vardas mise-en-scne brings
forth a tactile form of knowledge that calls for a humanistic approach, thus
defusing any form of mastery of the gaze over the image.
The last two articles in this first part offer meta-theoretical incursions
into two other important areas of sensuous film studies: the perception
of the body in film and the cognitive-sensory aspect of film music. Daniel
Fernndez Pitarch publishes his findings regarding the geography of the
body: Jean Epsteins poetics and conceptualization of the body in his
unpublished writings. The author selects from the unpublished corpus of
Epsteins oeuvre three books: Ganymde (a book on male homosexual
ethics), Contre-penses (a compilation of short essays on a wide variety of
topics) and Lautre ciel (a literary work) in an attempt to better understand
a major motif in Epsteins thought: the human body. He finds that these
writings show Epsteins emphasis on the material side of any psychology,
identity or thought, and that they address the topic of artificiality and
humanity in a unique way by claiming that what is specifically human is to
evolve through specialization and reification, even if it were contre-
nature. And thirdly, the analysis also discloses the inherent sensuality of
some Epstein texts (as demonstrated, for instance, by his descriptions of
clos- ups).
Concluding this first part of the book, Steven Willemsen and Mikls
Kiss engage in the research of film music in their essay titled Unsettling
Melodies: a Cognitive Approach to Incongruent Film Music. As they
explain, the notion of incongruent film music may refer to a soundtrack,
either diegetic or non-diegetic, which expresses qualities that stand in
contrast to the emotions evoked by the events seen. The article aims at
covering two interconnected areas; the first is comprised of a critical
recapitulation of available theoretical accounts of incongruent film music,
whilst the second part of the paper offers an alternative, embodied-
cognitive explanation of the audio-visual conflict which arises from this
The Cinema of Sensations 7

particular type of incongruence. Rather than regarding it as a phenomenon

that works through disrupting conventions, we stress a sensual, perceptual-
cognitive reason behind incongruences emotional strangeness.
The second part of the book is titled Embodiment, Art and Media, and
consists of articles that not only deal with the embodied experience in
moving images, but also present instances in which this is directly related
either to the experience of the more traditional forms of art (painting,
sculpture, photography, poetry), or the newest technologies of 3D that the
different forms and genres of the moving image (fiction films, animations,
video installations) establish an inter-art ad inter-medial relationship with,
and through which we may feel that cinema has expanded its borders. In
many of these examples we see also how a haptic sensation correlates with
establishing an optical distance, or even self-reflexivity in the image, with
an explicit thematization of technology, and the mechanical gaze.
The first article, Ivo Bloms Of Artists and Models: Italian Silent
Cinema between Narrative Convention and Artistic Practice, takes us back
to the beginnings of film history, and presents the authors research on the
representation of painters and sculptors, their models and their art works in
Italian silent cinema of the 1910s and early 1920s. This research deals
with the combination of optical (painterly) vs. haptical (sculptural)
cinema. It also problematizes art versus the real, as well as art conceived
from cinemas own perspective, that is within the conventions of European
and American cinema, relating this pioneering study to existing studies on
the representation of art and artists in Hollywood cinema.
Marlne Monteiros article, The Body as Interstitial Space between
Media in Leons de Tnbres by Vincent Dieutre and Histoire dun Secret
by Mariana Otero, examines the ways in which the representation of the
body in painting is the starting point of a broader reflection on the
plasticity of the cinematic medium in two French autobiographical films.
Both in Histoire dun secret (Story of a Secret, 2003) by Mariana Otero
and in Leons de tnbres (Tenebrae Lessons, 2000) by Vincent Dieutre
the body is at the centre, albeit in very different ways. The first is a
documentary about the directors mother who died of the consequences of
an illegal abortion in the late sixties. She was an artist and her paintings,
many of which depict lascivious female nudes, pervade the film. The
second is a self-fictional essay that weaves together narrated episodes of
the filmmakers story as a homosexual and drug addict with close-ups of
Caravaggist paintings. The way in which both filmmakers resort to light,
the close-up, and, as far as Dieutre is concerned, the diversity of film
formats, embodies what Deleuze defines as the haptic gaze to explore
cinemas own materiality. In addition, the presence of the paintings
8 Introduction: Possible Questions in Sensual Film Studies

introduces the issue of intermediality which modestly points to a mise en

abyme of the broader question of cinemas shifting ontology.
gnes Peth defines the tableau vivant not just as an essentially
intermedial image but as a typical post-photographic and post-cinematic
image of our times, and singles out some remarkable extensions of the
tableau vivant style into feature film length moving image projects in East
European Cinema in the essay Housing a Deleuzian Sensation: Notes
on the Post-Cinematic Tableaux Vivants of Lech Majewski, Sharunas
Bartas and Ihor Podolchak. In examining some of the recent works of
these authors from Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine as a unique corpus of
post-cinematic films that can also be viewed as installation art, the essay
presents how the inherent tensions and intricate relations between both
elements of the syntagm, tableau vivant, i.e. living picture, are emphasized
in these films: connecting the artificiality and stillness of the mediated
image with the volatile phenomena of life, and the sensuous
experience of the flesh. The analysis deals with two, interrelated aspects:
a) the interpretation of the tableau as a container for chiastic
interchanges between body and image, life and art; b) the description
of the tableau style pictorialism manifest in such post-cinematic images
through the Deleuzian concept of sensation and its relationship with
figurativity, gesture and composition.
Hajnal Kirly continues the incursion into contemporary East
European cinema in the article The Alienated Body. Smell, Touch and
Oculocentrism in Contemporary Hungarian Cinema. Based on a
theoretical background defined, among others, by Jacque Rancire,
Thierry Kuntzel, Yvette Br, and D. N. Rodowick, she examines the films
of contemporary Hungarian filmmakers Kornl Mundrucz, gnes Kocsis
and Benedek Fliegauf that show a striking homogeneity not only
stylistically, but also in terms of distanciating the individual and social
body through aesthetic practices such as allegorization, intermedial
figuration and thematization of the gaze. She argues that while omitting
the sense of touch and representing smell in a negative context, these films
keep the individual, social, intercultural and transnational body under
visual control and observation, thus managing to become political
without depicting directly acute social or political topics.
The next article in this group, lne Tremblays Sensations of
Dysphoria in the Encounter of Failing Bodies: The Cases of Karaoke by
Donigan Cumming, Last Days by Gus Van Sant, and Drunk by Gillian
Wearing, deals in a way with the opposite phenomenon of what we see in
Kirlys article, where different ways of distanciating the body were
presented. Tremblay discusses films and video installations that present
The Cinema of Sensations 9

figures of the sick, dying, or intoxicated body, and that trigger sensations
associated with fear of death and physical decline. In the presence of these
suffering figures, the viewer feels discomfort in his or her own body
through an empathetic response. The viewers strongly dysphoric bodily
sensations come to signal his or her empathetic bond with others a bond
that he or she may accept or reject when it provokes dysphoric sensations.
She argues here, as she did in her recent book Linsistance du regard sur
le corps prouv. Pathos et contre-pathos (2013), that these film and video
works act as spaces for the viewer to negotiate and exercise empathy and
the accompanying dysphoric sensations.
In the penultimate article in this part, Visuality and Narration in
Monsters, Inc., Jens Schrter raises the issue how the overblown rhetoric
concerning the digital revolution conceals deep continuities between
traditional and new forms. He uses the example of the animated film,
Monsters, Inc. (2001) to demonstrate how established forms of narration
can be used together with new forms of computer generated image, and
describes the complexities of this constellation by a detailed analysis of
sequences from the film. The article is followed by Jos Manuel B.
Martinss essay, Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion
in which he joins the debate on 3D versus classical cinema. He contends
that 2D, traditional cinema already provides the accomplished fourth wall
effect, enclosing the beholder behind his back within a space that no
longer belongs to the screen (nor to reality) as such, and therefore is no
longer illusorily two-dimensional. This kind of totally absorbing,
dream-like space, metaphorical for both painting and cinema, is
illustrated by the episode, Crows in Kurosawas Dreams (1990). Through
an analysis of crucial aspects in Avatar (2009) the author shows how the
formal and technically advanced component of those 3D-depth films
impairs, on the contrary, their apparent conceptual purpose on the level of
contents, and we will assume, drawing on Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze,
that this technological mistake is due to a lack of recognition of the nature
of perception and sensation in relation to space and human experience.
The third part of the book deals with Sensation of Time, Reality and
Fantasy and contains two articles that dissect the phenomenon of realism
occurring in some of the new trends in world cinema both as
unconventional sensual imprints of contemporaneous times and as
something performed through the images. Three articles revolve around
the sensation of time and mortality experienced both through the
mediation of the transient body and of the material vulnerability of the
analogue film made visible in the film; and one article completes the
survey of temporality, reality and imagination with theorizing the palpable
10 Introduction: Possible Questions in Sensual Film Studies

presentation of futuristic creatures in recent sci-fi films and visual

Ramayana Lira discusses Affective Realism and the Brand New
Brazilian Cinema through the works of young Brazilian filmmakers such
as Irmos Pretti, Eduardo Valente, Rodrigo Siqueira and Srgio Borges,
which are a real challenge for the critic inasmuch as they escape the
conventional vocabulary (aesthetics of hunger, marginality, national
allegory, identity, bad consciousness) and propose other questions. She
suggests that the films made by this young generation bypass traditional
themes like urban violence and historical revisionism, thus demanding that
we rethink the political potency of Brazilian Cinema. Moreover, these
films are not concerned with images of Brazil, pointing out to a post-
identity politics that go beyond narratives of nation, class or gender.
Realism is considered no longer a referent for a sociological truth about
Brazilian society, but as something that the image does, i.e., as an affect
that challenges the viewers response-ability. Fernando Canets article,
The New Realistic Trend in Contemporary World Cinema uses Ramin
Bahranis Chop Shop (2007) as a case study for a new movement for a
rehabilitation of cinematic realism that throughout the history of film has
touted cinema as an open window to the real world, a view particularly
exemplified by Italian Neo-Realism. On the other hand, the author also
contends that this new trend has given new life to realist film theories
championed mainly by Andr Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer.
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion turns to one of the best known authors of
modern cinema, Ingmar Bergman, analyzing The Sensation of Time in
Ingmar Bergmans Poetics of Bodies and Minds. He proposes that through
the transitory fragility of the human body as represented by his actors,
Bergmans cinema defines the possibilities of a perceptive horizon in
which the experience of passing time becomes tangible. Even though the
Swedish directors entire opus is traversed by this reflection, it is
particularly evident in the films he made during the 1960s, in which the
room-sized dimension of the sets permits a higher concentration of
space and time. In this claustrophobic dimension there is an often
inflammable accumulation of affections and emotions searching for
release through human contact which is often frustrated, denied, and/or
impossible. This situation creates characters who act according to
solipsistic directives, in whom physiological and mental traits are fused
together, and the notion of phenomenological reality is cancelled out and
supplanted by aspects of dreamlike hallucinations, phantasmagorical
creations, and psychic drifting. Starting from the Hour of the Wolf, the
essay highlights the process through which, by fixing in images the
The Cinema of Sensations 11

physicality of his characters sensations, Bergman defines a complex

temporal horizon, in which the phenomenological dimension of the linear
passage of time merges with, and often turns into, a subjective perception
of passing time, creating a synchretic relationship between the quantitative
time of the action and the qualitative time of the sensation.
In the article titled Own Deaths Figures of the Sensable in Pter
Ndass Book and Pter Forgcss Film Katalin Sndor examines the
intermedial aspects of Pter Ndass book, Own Death (2006), an
autobiographical account of the authors heart failure and clinical death
and of its screen adaptation by the experimental Hungarian filmmaker,
Pter Forgcs, with the same title (Own Death, 2007). Both the book and
the film problematize the cultural, discursive, and medial
(un)representability of a liminal corporeal experience (illness, death). In
the film corporeal liminality and its medial translatability are not only
thematized, but shape the embodied experience of viewing through the use
of photo-filmic imagery, still frames, fragmented close-ups, slow motion,
or medially textured images. These do not only foreground the experience
of the body and own death as other, but also expose the medium, the
membrane of the film. The haptic imagery directs the viewers attention to
the sensuality of the medium, to the filmic body, enabling a sensable
spectatorship, an embodied reflection on the image, on the sensual mode
of becoming intermedial. Judit Pieldner deals with similar issues in the
article, Remediating Past Images: the Temporality of Found Footage in
Gbor Bdys American Torso. Along Laura U. Markss thoughts on the
disappearing image as embodied experience, the article proposes to
bring into discussion particular modes of occurrence of past images,
whether in form of the use of archival/found footage or of creating visual
archaisms in the spirit of archival recordings, within the practice of the
Hungarian experimental filmmaking of the 1970s and 1980s, more
specifically, in Gbor Bdys films. This practice reveals an attempt of
remediation (Bolter and Grusin) that goes beyond the cultural
responsibility of preservation: it confronts the film medium with its
materiality, historicity, and temporality, and creates productive tensions
between the private and the historical, between the pre-cinematic and the
texture of motion pictures, between the documentary value of the image
and its rhetorical dimension. The paper argues that the authenticity of the
moving image in Gbor Bdys American Torso (1975) is achieved
through a special combination of the immediacy and the hypermediacy of
experience, and a distinct sensing of the cinema. In contrast to these texts
dealing with an acute and often painful sensation of the past, but also
joining the discussion on the representation of the unrepresentable, the last
12 Introduction: Possible Questions in Sensual Film Studies

article in the book written by Andrea Virgins, Embodied Genetics in

Science-Fiction: from Jeunets Alien: Resurrection (1997) to Piccininis
Foundling (2008), focuses on tangible creations of pure fantasy, on
futuristic visions of the genetically engineered clones or mutants burdened
by hereditary diseases that populate the panopticon of contemporary
science fiction genre. The author examines these works that tend to be
either on the low-budget or arthouse end of the media spectrum, and
leaving aside the spectacular digital design and special effects well known
from big-budget blockbusters, exemplifies how the representation of
processes not perceivable to human senses like genetic cloning, genes
mutating or genes being spliced may also be achieved through a series of
other techniques transposing abstract genetics to the sensual screen.
The image of the dots of light emerging from a dark, velvety
background like bubbles in the air, which was placed on the dust jacket of
this book, was inspired by a similar cluster of spots of light used on the
banner advertising the conference, deliberately chosen for its haptic
qualities, rendering light in an almost tangible, synesthetic way. In
retrospect, however, these evanescent forms seem more like simple but
effective metaphors for the flexible modulations of the topic, of the
various approaches and examples that the essays selected for this volume
have been able to unfold from the key notion of sensation within the
broad field of moving image studies, as a modest contribution to the study
of the cinema of sensations defined not as a particular type of film, not
even as a particular methodology, but as a set of intriguing questions that
may arise through our contacts with images that engage our senses.

I would like to thank all the participants in our conference for making
it such an inspiring and unforgettable event, and all the authors of this
volume who revised their previously published articles for the purposes of
this volume. I would especially like to thank Hajnal Kirly, Judit Pieldner,
and Katalin Sndor, members of my research team, for their invaluable
help with the last round of editing and proofreading as the chapters
acquired their final shape in the layout.
The editing of the volume was finalized with the support of a grant of
the Romanian Ministry of National Education, CNCS UEFISCDI,
project number PN-II-ID-PCE-2012-4-0573.




I have been slowly returning to cinema from a long visit to Islamic art
and philosophy: Enfoldment and Infinity (2010). There I learned: once you
suspend figurative image making, a world of creativity opens up. Large-
scale forms, such as figures and narrative, cramp the creative energy of the
lines and colors that compose them. But as you know, Islamic art is often
aniconic. Freed from representing figures, its lines and forms take on a life
of their own. Figures are molar, but life is molecular. So I propose
thinking like a carpet as a way to release the life contained by figures.
Is it possible to release the energy contained in small units, instead of
making them conform to human-scale forms? What would it be to inhabit
the point of view of a point?
Thinking like a carpet can be a way to start at any point and connect to
the universe. A way to unleash creative energy thats not available when
we start at a larger scale. What Im after is not only the thoughts and hands
of weavers as they produce these astonishing patterns. Its not only the
material of wool and silk, or for that matter of pixels and silicon in new
carpet-like media. Its the way the carpet itself thinks, pulling forces from
the weavers, the yarns, the matrix, the algorithm and producing something
new: the carpet as a force of individuation.
In my book, Enfoldment and Infinity, I compared the media art of our
time to the religious art of Islam. I was inspired by Islamic art and Islamic
thought because, in avoiding a direct representation of God, they create
powerful abstractions that indicate the divine presence/absence, are pulled
toward it, demonstrate and perform it, but do not show it. This power of
non-representation created the conditions of a kind of nonorganic life in
Islamic art.

A similar but divergent essay appears in Entautomatisierung [Deautomatization],
eds. Annette Brauerhoch, Norbert Otto Eke, Renate Wieser, and Anke Zechner
(Paderborn: University of Paderborn Press, 2013).
16 Thinking Like a Carpet

Enfoldment and Infinity ended by going beyond religion. In the last

chapter I looked at some carpets that seem to have an internal life force
that does not obey the injunctions of a benevolent (or any other kind of)
God; carpets that suggest we do not need to ascribe creation to God
because Life creates itself. This talk develops on that perception:
1. life of points
2. points connect to the universe
3. algorithmic media (carpets)
4. ways different kinds of carpets imagine the universe
5. carpet as machinic phylum
6. embodied response
I propose to examine the ways non-figurative, or aniconic images may
appeal to an embodied way of looking that gets out of a human perspective
and into the perspective of a point.

There are many reasons why Islamic religious art tends to be aniconic.
Islam came about at a time when the other religions of the book, Judaism
and Christianity, were iconoclastic. Aniconism helped distinguish Islam
from other religions visually. The Quran cautions humans not to compete
with God by trying to make living forms, and that it is impossible to
conceive of God. God, being beyond comprehension, is also beyond
representation. A branch of rationalist philosophers of ninth-century Iraq,
called the Mutazili, argued that since God is indivisible, He has no
attributes (such as sitting on a throne). Thus any attempt to identify the
properties of God in art risks blasphemy (see Khalidi 1985, 84). Theirs
was not the only view, and I must note that in the eastern Muslim world,
dominated by Shiite Islam, there exist many figurative images of
Muhammad and other saintly people images that would be cause for
persecution in the western, largely Sunni, Muslim world. Still, Islamic art
for religious reasons almost always avoids depicting anything with a face,
anything with a body, and even sometimes anything with an outline. It is
an abstract religious art that shifts your attention away from the human
scale and both out toward the infinitely large and in toward the very small.

The Interval: Perception of a Point

Looking at a carpet, entering its patterns from any point, our perception
creates something new. The idea that perception must discover the world
anew every time arose in the thought of the scientist of optics Abu Ali al-
Laura U. Marks 17

Hassan Ibn al-Haytham (b. Basra 965, d. Cairo 1039), known in the West
as Alhazen. Ibn al-Haytham introduced the intromission theory of vision
in his Kitab al-Manazir or Treatise on Optics around 1000. Consulted in
Arabic, and translated into Latin in 1200 by Gerard of Cremona (see
Ahmad 1969, 37), the Optics remained the major work on optics until
Kepler in the seventeenth century (see Lindberg 1976, 5860). In it Ibn al-
Haytham described a contemplative mode of perception. He argued that
we do not automatically perceive form; form is a psychological concept,
not a given in nature. This means that contemplation is necessary for the
recognition of form, for it requires us to use our internal faculties, such as
memory, comparison, imagination, and judgment. Ascertainment can only
be relative, to the limits of sense perception (see Sabra 1994, 170171). So
form is produced in an oscillation between what we see and mental
operations: it is created in time, in the embodied mind.
In Enfoldment and Infinity I noted the remarkable similarity between
al-Haythams theory of perception and that of Henri Bergson, 900 years
later. Bergsons concept of the subject as a center of indetermination
influenced Gilles Deleuzes Leibnizian idea that perception does not
reproduce the world but unfolds it from its particular point of view. We
humans, like other creatures, tend to act on our perceptions (we see food,
smell danger, etc.). But, as Bergson argued, the wider the interval between
perception and action the more time you absorb the perceived world
from your given perspective the more of the universe you can perceive.
The longer you look, the more you see (hear, smell, taste, etc.). Widening
the interval requires undermining our creatural habits of perception-action.
The wild boar seems to be attacking you, and instead of throwing your
spear you take time to contemplate its fur, its tusks. We might observe
that widening the interval is in a certain way anti-human, for our basic
human needs demand us to act decisively in order to preserve and sustain
ourselves. Yet Ibn al-Haythams conception of perception, like Bergsons,
proposed that human beings have a necessary leisure to contemplate what
we perceive before we can act on it.
By shifting activity to a smaller scale, aniconic art (and aniconic ways
of perceiving) widens the interval. Aniconism liberates the molecular from
the molar, another paired term from Deleuze and Guattari that reflects the
scientific proportion 1 mole = 1023 units. While the molar scale deals with
large-scale happenings and general states, the molecular scale deals with
tiny events, bursts of energy that we dont experience when we are acting
at the molecular level.
18 Thinking Like a Carpet

So in privileging a non-human perspective we move not to a larger,

God-like perspective, but to a tiny perspective: the point of view of a
molecule. Or, say, an atom.
In Iraq in the 8th and 9th centuries, the Islamic atomist occasionalists, a
group of the Mutazili rationalist theologians, argued that God was so
powerful that nothing could endure except by His grace. The Mutazili
argued that the world is composed of disconnected atoms and the
accidents that befall them; and that rational inquiry can demonstrate how
divine will causes atoms and accidents to come into existence and cease to
exist. Later a conservative, mystical atomism (associated with al-Ashari
and al-Ghazzali) asserted that humans cannot inquire into divine will and
must instead submit to the random actions of the atomistic universe. God
alone knows.Therefore, a bodys tendency to hang together, to cohere, was
simply an accident that befell its atoms. Those atoms could just as easily
go their separate ways.
Lenn Evan Goodman describes their argument thus: No substance
extends beyond a point, for the givenness of one point of being does not
imply that of another, lest we limit Gods omnipotence and the
fundamental datum of contingency. Furthermore, To the radicals of the
kalm [rationalist theologicans] this meant that God might create
intelligence in an atom, or in no substrate at all, without the prerequisite
of, say, Life (Goodman 1992, 53). Here already is a sort of declaration of
independence of points, of atoms: independent of each other, but not of
course of Gods will. The kalm atomists prefigured a molecular life
disdainful of molar habits though of course all this was only to defer to
Gods freedom to reorganize the world, atom by atom, as He might see fit.
Writing on Greek atomism, Deleuze and Guattari observe, The
ancient atom is entirely misunderstood if it is overlooked that its essence is
to course and flow. An aggregate of atoms, they write, is a war machine,
a physics of packs, turbulences, catastrophes, and epidemics (Deleuze
and Guattari 1987, 489, 490). Atoms are not obedient to form but flow in
smooth space, coalescing in all kinds of intensive ways.2
We hear from such free particles a couple of times in The Movement-
Image when Deleuze describes how the smallest elements of flowing-
matter are perceiving, acting; alive. We do not need to see things, for
things themselves already see: The eye is in things, he writes, referring
to Bergson, who imagined that every point has a point of view that can be,
as it were, photographed: taken in the interior of things and for all the

Smooth space refers to space that is heterogeneous and intensively organized;
striated space refers to territory that is homogeneous and subject to general laws
(Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 474500).
Laura U. Marks 19

points of space (Deleuze 1986, 60). These kinds of photographs taken

from inside particles are now cropping up in scientific imaging. Similarly,
Deleuze identified a gaseous perception in the films of Dziga Vertov,
American experimental cinema, and video (we might think of the analog
video synthesis of Eric Siegel): works that do not connect movements
together but privilege the energy of each freely moving particle. They
attain a pure perception, as it is in things or in matter, to the point to
which molecular interactions extend. Gaseous perception, then, achieves
the radical openness to the universe implicit in Bergsons philosophy of
perception: the interval between perception and action becomes so minute
that the particles entire existence consists of perceiving and acting in a
single instant.
Deleuze thus attributes life to the tiniest particles of matter. This theme
occurs also in The Fold, where Deleuze extends Leibnizs already
generous definition of the soul, or the monad, from organic entities to
anything that perceives, i.e. discriminates among and reacts to its
environment. Thus cells, proteins, molecules, photons, and atoms can all
be considered to perceive. The universe swarms with infinitesimal souls!
This attribution of life to all entities calls to mind Charles Peirces
statement, Viewing a thing from the outside, considering its relations of
action and reaction with other things, it appears as matter. Viewing it from
the inside, looking at its immediate character as feeling, it appears as
consciousness (Peirce 1935, 268).
The Deleuzian film theorist Elena Del Rio argues that a film (or, we
can extrapolate, any artwork) often takes place on the dueling levels of
molar/molecular: large scale/small scale, representation/hundreds of small
events. The molar level of meaning, values, narrative may say one thing;
the molecular level (affects, attractions) another (see Del Rio 2008,
2655). Del Rio, analyzing the melodramas of Douglas Sirk, points out
that while the narrative takes place on a molar level, trying to convince the
audience into ideological beliefs such as the productive Oedipal family, on
the molecular level a completely different kind of energy acts. Del Rio
describes the bad girl character Marylee in Sirks Written on the Wind:
shes sexually voracious and frustrated a tramp wears hot colors,
bubbles with swishy, provocative gestures, loves music, loves to dance.
Marylee is a mass of molecular energy who cannot be contained by the
molar morality of the films plot. [Figs. 13.] Del Rio argues that
representation is molar, performance is molecular. Representation re-
presents, its stuck with the precedent. Performance creates something
new: becoming. Marylee is alive with an energy that bursts the bounds of
representation like a carpet.
20 Thinking Like a Carpet

Figures 1-3. Screenshots from Douglas Sirks Written on the Wind

Points Connected to the Universe

So we have a conception of the universe as a swirl of lifelike particles,
a dance of points. From an atomist perspective, the points are
disconnected. But if we consider the universe to be a plenum, a space
entirely filled with matter, points are the seemingly disconnected surface
of an internally connected substance. Deleuze in The Fold argues the
latter: all matter and spirit are inseparable, one fabric, deeply folded. What
look like points are really the inflection points of folds (Deleuze 1993, 16).
The fabric of the universe is matter; the powers that fold it from the inside
are spirit. As Mario Perniola writes (1995, 321), the world is not empty,
its full: so full that everything has to be folded up to fit.
The Baroque paintings of El Greco interested Deleuze for the way they
depict the universe as a field of folds. El Grecos harsh white highlights
and slashing dark crevices emphasize the folded texture of matter. The tips
of these folds look to us like points, but if you take one and drag it out you
unfold a section of the universe. Certain parts of the image bulge out
toward us, others remain hidden. In El Grecos Annunciation at the Prado,
some of the universe remains enfolded, like the vague area behind the
dove or holy spirit that flies down between clouds, the squashed-together
mass of angel musicians, and the deep folds of Marys robe. This is
because heaven and earth are on the same plane, a deep fold between
The accordion-like space in El Greco also suggests we could unfold it
in the opposite direction, the peaks becoming valleys and the valleys,
peaks. It gives a sense that not everything is available to vision, but rather
it is a struggle to make things perceptible, to unfold the world to
perception. The composition tips and tilts: it does not offer the scene to
one privileged viewing position, as in Renaissance perspective, but inflects
at certain points (as Deleuze writes, calling upon Leibnizs calculus-based
conception of the universe), emphasizing that the universe appears
differently to every point of view. This point of view is, of course, the
perspective of the monad, Leibnizs soul that perceives the entire universe
Laura U. Marks 21

from its limited perspective. The monad is a kind of dependent universe

(Deleuze 1993, 53).
Reading the Monadology you perceive that the religious premise
underlying Leibnizs folded universe causes it (as in much Islamic
thought) to be closed in on itself. Nothing is free in this universe except
for God: this is because Leibniz needs to guarantee the liberty of the deity
at the expense of His creatures. God even foreordains the amplitude of the
soul, i.e. whether the soul will be saved or damned (Deleuze 1993, 71).
Thus we encounter in religious thought a universe that is not really free
because it is subject to the freedom of God. Deleuze overturns this almost
casually in The Fold, asserting that in modern thought an open universe
replaced the closed one and Process has replaced God. Yet he retains the
powerful model of a universe connected by folds, in which a single source
can individuate infinitely.
The Fold, in short, attributes a capacity for life to non-organic things:
molecules, atoms, points of matter. Furthermore, it suggests that these
points have an intensive perception, freed from anthromorphic perspective,
that connect them to the very source of life. So we get a sense that the
universe appears as a series of disconnected points that are, in fact, all
connected by folds. If we can relinquish a human point of view for a
while, we can enter into the perception of these points, perceive the
universe the way a point, a molecule, an atom might perceive it. An
infinity of dispersed, tiny points of view that connect us to the universe.

Carpets as Algorithmic Media

All carpets have some degree of automatization: the square matrix of
the loom, determination of number of threads per inch, knot style, and
design. Given their basis in calculation, carpets are a fundamentally
algorithmic medium, where an algorithm is an instruction to be executed.
Its important to note that carpet designs are not necessarily determined by
the materiality of their medium. Many carpets borrow their designs from
other media, such as painting. So the algorithms that carpets carry out are
somewhat independent of the medium. Carpets dont only express the
material, they express a relationship between material and idea: an
We can say carpets index their algorithms, for examining a carpet we
can figure out the algorithms followed by the weaver (Soderman 2007).
For example, the pattern of the Lotto carpet (so called because it occurs in
the paintings of Lorenzo Lotto) applies algorithms of recursion and
mirroring to basic motifs in order to fill a field with them. And, thinking in
22 Thinking Like a Carpet

an unfolding way, we can say those algorithms in turn index their weavers,
designers, and programmers. Looking at them we see the expression of the
instructions for their making, a communication between the designer and
the weaver.
Algorithms are created by humans, of course, so far from being a cold
impersonal medium, algorithmic works like carpets indicate all kinds of
decision-making, reflection, even emotion and of course error. For
example, a carpet in the collection that Joseph McMullan amassed in the
early decades of the twentieth century and donated to the Metropolitan
Museum of Art in New York, allows us both to image the model (the
algorithm) that the weaver followed and to intuit the decisions she made
that deviate from themodel in executing it. It is a funny-looking carpet
with asymmetrical touches of color. The collector described it this way:
This is a very close but hilarious descendant of no. 97 [another carpet in
the collection].... The design is basically faithful.... But there is no
comparison between the sloppy drawing in this rug and the sophistication
of its model, while the use, or misuse, of colour, particularly blue in the
central medallion, is strange indeed, without system or sense. Again green
is used in the corner pieces at one end only. It is all a refreshing reminder
that the human spirit can, and does, produce wonderful effects impossible
to the trained and sophisticated mind. (Joseph McMullan 1972, 52.)
Algorithmic media, when executed by hand, permits all kinds of
decisions, felicities, and mistakes to occur. But what about algorithmic
media executed by machines, such as computers? I shall return to this

Carpets Imagine the Universe

Art historians sometimes interpret carpet designs as models of the
universe, and I have adopted this slightly old-fashioned practice. For
example, a number of Persian carpets look a bit like a universe in which
everything emanates from God, as in Islamic Neoplatonism. From a
central medallion radiate patterns that become ever more complex:
sometimes their motifs are entirely abstract, sometimes they are floral, and
sometimes their vinelike forms intertwine tiny creatures. The most
complex such carpets were woven during the Safavid period, 15011732.
They imply a relationship between infinitesimal and infinite, for from any
point of view you can reconstitute the generating center, as the monad
reconstitutes the universe from its point of view. Ultimately they confirm a
whole, though, because the individual motifs do not make sense
independently of the center that gives rise to them.
Laura U. Marks 23

A set of Turkish carpet designs from Ottoman times, such as the Ushak
carpets, consist of medallions (symmetrical radiating shapes) inside
medallions in contrasting colors, each with a complex, intertwining
pattern, set against a ground whose pattern is similarly complex. These
carpets depict a mise-en-abme of worlds within worlds. Carpet scholars
sometimes suggest that the center or the deepest layer represents heaven;
often the motifs become increasingly refined as they approach the divine
center. A mystical view could see these carpets as lessons that all of reality
is illusory, but that the universe has an underlying Structure.
Another group of carpets begin to set their patterns free from central
organization and permit independence to their individual motifs. These are
Caucasian carpets, woven in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in
the Caucasus (a region at the time loosely politically organized but with
basic allegiance to Iran). In Caucasian carpets life seems to begin not from
a Center but from the smallest point, from any point whatever: it self-
organizes, mutates. The oddness and particularity of the forms in
Caucasian carpets suggests they each evolved in their own way. In the
final chapter of Enfoldment and Infinity I compare Caucasian carpets to
generative algorithms, algorithms that respond to new information and
come up with results that could not be prefigured in the algorithms initial

Material Algorithms: Carpet as Machinic Phyla

So carpets figure the universe. But even the most strictly ordered,
hierarchical carpets produce singularities where idea meets matter. No two
motifs can be exactly the same when they are executed on a loom with a
certain thread count, with wool or silk of a certain diameter, by hands of
weavers with varying skills and interests. My favorite example is the
medallion and star carpet, Eastern Anatolia, 16th17th century, from the
Ulu Mosque of Divrigi-Sivas, now in the Vakiflar Carpet Museum,
Istanbul. Each floral motif, boxy arabesque, and (Chinese-derived) cloud
band is different from the others. Unlike the carpets I described above,
these motifs do not seem to emanate from the center, a stiff little blue
medallion. They refuse to be subordinated to the transcendental center,
as though theyve heard of heaven and they want none of it! This carpet
insists that there is something in material that resists idealism, that has its
own ideas of how to develop. It reminds us that matter to be formed has
an entire energetic materiality in movement, carrying singularities or
haeccities that are already like implicit forms that are topological, rather
than geometrical, and that combine with the forces of deformation: for
24 Thinking Like a Carpet

example, the variable undulations and torsions of the fibers guiding the
operation of splitting wood, together with variable intensive effects, such
as porosity and resistance (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 408409). A
carpet, arising from the meeting of ideas (designs, algorithms) and matter
in the hands of the weaver, is a machinic phylum: materiality, natural or
artificial, and both simultaneously; it is matter in movement, in flux, in
variation, matter as a conveyor of singularities (Deleuze and Guattari
1987, 409).3 The weavers have to follow the material and let its
singularities guide their hands; yet they are also introducing (not
imposing) ideas to material, and rolling matter and idea together in forms
that will be slightly different each time.

Embodied Response
What does contemplating these patterns do to our bodies? On the one
hand, it enlarges us. We are wired to perceive pattern, for pattern makes
order out of a chaotic universe. Our brains look for patterns in images with
low information content.4 Our brains are constituted to seek order; they
create order out of chaos. Our brains protect us from meaninglessness.
So it seems that the patterns of carpets confirm the certainty of
embodied subjectivity, by giving us pattern where we look for it. A
phenomenological view suggests that engaging with a carpet enlarges our
capacity for perception.
I suggest all carpets appeal to an embodied response at levels from the
molar to the molecular. Some carpets invite an identification with figure
and narrative, just as movies do. Some Safavid Persian carpets take
advantage of extremely high thread counts (or pixels) to depict delightful
scenes borrowed from paintings of people hunting, playing music, and
relaxing in gardens, as well as all kinds of animals. As much as a Douglas
Sirk film, these carpets invite a narrative identification with figures, which
operates on a molar level.
Some carpets even command an acknowledgment of social hierarchy:
we see this in carpets with heraldic symbols woven by Muslims in Spain

In The Fold Deleuze characterizes Leibnizs third order of infinity as an intensive
series of qualities that are possible but not necessary, which constitute the real in
matter: texture of a substance, timbre of a sound, malleability of gold, etc. (1993,
47). If the world is included in the soul, the monad, it is creased in matter (1993,
Patricia Pisters 2009, 224240. Pisters refers to C. Bach and M. Poloschek,
Optical Illusions, Advances in Clinical Neuroscience and Rehabilitation 6: 2
(2006): 2021.
Laura U. Marks 25

in the fifteenth century for Castilian nobility. Yet these carpets undermine
hierarchy by imbuing the fields of floral and geometric motifs under the
heraldic shields with subtle liveliness and framing the whole with quasi-
Arabic writing.
Carpets can also invite us to identify with the riotous, fecund life of
plants, as in the so-called vase carpets of Safavid Persia.5
Moving from a molar to a more molecular level, below figurative
and symbolic images, we encouter carpets that appear entirely abstract,
populated by lines that curve languidly and twist together smartly, by
jagged, energetic lines, and by oscillating relationships of figure and
ground. Feeling along with these forms we (I, anyway) find that the
abstract pattern of a carpet itself appeals to shared embodiment. We could
call this relationship empathy, in the term of turn-of-20th-century theorists
Theodor Lipps and Wilhelm Worringer for an enjoyment of the self
projected into a body or form: suggesting that people empathize with
abstract forms insofar as those forms undergo experiences that we too
might undergo (cf. Morgan 1996, 317341). We can relate to a line, feel
the way a line feels. Thus thinking like a carpet invites experiments in
corporeal perception. Where figuration invites identification through the
comparison of the body beheld with ones own body, ornament appeals to
a different kind of embodied relationship. We can even feel along with the
expressive rhythms of line in space, as in the wonderfully independent
carpet from the Ulu Mosque discussed above.
The above is a phenomenological view, which I like a lot. It argues that
abstract pattern appeals to our bodies: perhaps to confirm the embodiment
that we already have, but also, I think, to gently expand it and invite us to
take on new kinds of embodiment. However, as we shift from a molar to a
molecular level, we may also find that pattern does not confirm what we
already are; rather it undoes our bodies usual ways of being. This is
especially so because pattern appeals to rhythm. Rhythm unmakes and
remakes the body as in Written on the Wind (1956), when the bad
daughter Marylee dances with such energy that she causes her father to
fall to his death on the stairs.
Here I look to Deleuze again, on rhythm. Deleuze argues in Francis
Bacon: The Logic of Sensation that representation speaks to cognition,
confirming what we already know. But the kind of image he calls the
Figural bypasses the mind to appeal directly to the nervous system.
Deleuze holds out for the nervous system as the one site in our body that is
not colonized by clichs. Perception itself is already informed by habit and

I describe these at length in Chapter Ten of Enfoldment and Infinity (2010).
26 Thinking Like a Carpet

social custom: this is where Deleuze parts company with phenomenology.

Sensation, attacking the nervous system directly, is the only way we can
feel something that does not address us as already formed. Thus the
figural does not address the body we already have, but makes us a new
Are the non-figurative patterns of carpets and other designs in Islamic
art capable of seizing our nervous system? At first it seems the answer is
no, because Deleuze doesnt find the Figural in forms that are non-
figurative to begin with, such as the arabesque, geometric, and other
symmetrical patterns of carpets. It would seem such patterns only achieve
the mathematical sublime. (See the discussion in Chapter Seven of
Enfoldment and Infinity [2010].)
The violence of the Figural lies in the way it approaches conventional
embodiment and then radically departs from it, taking the viewers normal
conception of embodied being with it. You can see the violence of the
figural in the bizarre not-quite-creatures of Caucasian dragon carpets,
which rear their stringy heads in Chapter Ten of Enfoldment and Infinity.
But does the Figural have to come as an assault? J. M. Bernstein finds
the Figural in the colourful and schematic figure paintings of Matisse
(2008, 3755). But Bernstein finds a violence in Matisses paintings in
that they disembody the image, decreasing the corporealization of figures
while increasing the corporealization of the painting as a whole (Bernstein
2008, 49). Matisse liberates the line, giving it an uncanny expressive
vitality of its own, independent of figuration which is the power
Deleuze and Guattari attributed to the abstract line. And as we know,
Islamic carpets profoundly inspired Matisses search for patterns that
would envelop the figure and absorb it.
I think we should attribute the power of the Figural to the non-
figurative, or not-quite-figurative, patterns that invaded Western painting
from the East. Islamic aesthetics were the undoing of European figurative
art. The uneasiness of the Figural often results directly from a
confrontation of a molar-scale, figurative image with the rhythmic energy
of the abstract line.6 Whether the carpets themselves are Figural probably
lines in whether a person comes to them with a figurative mindset in the
first place. Someone accustomed to figurative images may encounter a
Figural shock; someone who has spent more time surrounded by non-
figurative images is less likely to.

Chapters Three and Four of Enfoldment and Infinity (2010) examine in detail this
invasion of Islamic aesthetics into Western art from the thirteenth to the
nineteenth centuries.
Laura U. Marks 27

Thus our bodies can indeed respond to non-figurative works, like

carpets, with shock and a feeling of coming undone. We may feel
ourselves being rearranged, becoming less molar and more molecular; we
may feel ourselves as masses of living points that connect to the entire
universe. We may find ourselves thinking like a carpet.

Might thinking like a carpet offer a model of ethical being? If so, it
would be a mode of being that keeps on changing, powered by a force that,
while coming from within, exceeds the bounds of the individual. This is
what Deleuze was after in his final writing, A Life. Is it too much of a leap
to hold up this process of perpetual individuation as a model of political
organization? John Rajchman writes, We should judge political regimes
(including democratic ones) in terms of the space they allow for
multiplicities and their individuations for the time of a life (2000,
82). Modestly I would like to suggest that thinking like a carpet may help
us model, with our thoughts and our bodies, the relationships between
points and the universe; and it may give us some courage for the
tranformations that being open to the universe will bring.

Ahmad, Nazir. 1969. Ibn Al-Haytham: His Life and Work. In Ibn Al-
Haytham, ed. Hakim Mohammad Said. Karachi: Hamdard National
Bernstein, J. M. 2008. In Praise of Pure Violence (Matisses War). In The
Life and Death of Images: Ethics and Aesthetics, ed. Diarmuid
Costello and Dominic Willsdon, 3755. Ithaca: Cornell University
Deleuze, Gilles. 1986, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Minneapolis:
Minnesota UP.
. 1993. The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque. Minneapolis: Minnesota
Deleuze, Gilles and Flix Guattari. 1987. A Thousand Plateaus:
Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: Minnesota University
Del Rio, Elena. 2008. Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers
of Affection. Edinburgh University Press.
Goodman, Lenn Evan. 1992. Avicenna. New York: Routledge.
28 Thinking Like a Carpet

Khalidi, Tarif. 1985. Classical Arab Islam: The Culture and Heritage of
the Golden Age. Princeton: Darwin.
Lindberg, David C. 1976. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler.
University of Chicago.
Marks, Laura U. 2010. Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of
New Media Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McMullan Joseph. 1972. Catalogue, plate XXXVIII, Islamic Carpets from
the Joseph V. McMullan Collection. London: Arts Council of Great
Morgan, David. 1996. The Idea of Abstraction in German Theories of the
Ornament from Kant to Kandinsky. Journal of the History of Ideas vol.
57 no. 2: 317341.
Peirce, Charles Sanders. 1935. Mans Glassy Essence. In Collected Papers
6, eds. Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss, 155175. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Perniola, Mario. 1995. Secrets, Folds, and Enigmas. In Enigmas: The
Egyptian Moment in Society and Art. London: Verso.
Pisters, Patricia. 2009. Illusionary Perception and Cinema: Experimental
Thoughts on Film Theory and Neuroscience. In Deleuze and New
Technology, eds. Mark Poster and David Savat, 224240. Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press.
Rajchman, John. 2000. Deleuze Connections. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sabra, A. I. 1994. Optics, Astronomy, and Logic: Studies in Arabic
Science and Philosophy. Aldershot, UK: Variorum.
Soderman, Braxton. 2007. The Index and the Algorithm. Differences vol.
18 no. 1: 153186.


Theories and histories of film perception generally review film

experience in relation to the projection of light images onto a large scale
screen. With the institutionalized form of film viewing in a cinema theatre
we view the world as it exists on the remote screen from safe distance.
Based on this viewing situation, the discussion of image perception refers
to paradoxical phenomena produced by the cinematic apparatus itself: that
we are seeing a series of still images on the filmstrip as a representation of
continuous movement, on the one hand; and that we are at the same time
recognising the persistence of our vision which is a necessary prerequisite
of the film experience, on the other hand.
This refers back to Gestalt theory and the discovery of the
persistence of vision made as early as around 1912 by Max Wertheimer.
He, in scientific experiments verified the illusion of movement which
occurs in the perception of two separate, fixed points or lines seen
consecutively. Both parameters, the perception of movement and the
persistence of vision, are combined in the film apparatus to constitute the
effect of an uninterrupted, ordinary film viewing experience. The fusion of
the two mechanisms sustains our enjoyment of what is represented and
gets reinforced in the use of the representational function of time based
moving images. However, the apparatuss moving function and the
perceptional consistency have also been dealt with separately. In a wider
view of visual culture, the angle of sensory perception that gives rise to the
illusion of consistency in the filmic image does in principle refer to a
system of believing what you see. If you see things in motion you believe
they are moving despite the fact that moving is an effect of the
combination of individual frames that are presented at a certain frame rate.
Here, perception equals visual evidence, whereas the cognitive
knowledge of the underlying constructedness of moving images triggers
our intellectual capacity to understand coherence in vision as we perceive
30 Seeing to Believe Sensing to Know

it. Throughout the history of vision in modernity both aspects, the sensing
and the knowing have been subject to various experiments within and out
of cinematic performance of moving images.

In modernity, we can roughly identify two major conceptual frameworks
that have been guiding the discourses about visual recognition. They are
grounded in emotional and sensational response, on one end and in
thought processes on the other. The first operates as a belief and witness
system where you believe what you see, because you are culturally and
socially trained to accept visual representation as representation of visual
facts. Herby, we adapt to the presumption that any representational form
of an image, be it in film, television or new media, bears a referential
connection to the unfolding of the represented events in real time and
space. The second discourse is based upon intellectual engagement and
expert knowledge. We reflect mixed, multisensory experiences, and our
own physical presence in relation to both the cognitive viewing condition
and the functions of the media. On these grounds we make sense of what
we perceive at a specific moment in time and space.
For a long time, the two ways of visual recognition had been attributed
to diverse aesthetic concepts and schools. While subjective, sensual, and
emotional feelings guide the primary accent of seeing and believing, the
other, the objectifying, scientific, and measurable accentuations of sense
data foster the knowledge based appropriation of visual and furthermore
multimodal stimuli. The divergent tendencies get highlighted in different
approaches of modern painting, most prominently executed in the
paradigms to paint what you know and to paint what you feel, notably
referring to the conceptual understanding of painting as science or
In a historical view, it is English landscape painter John Constable
(17761837) who in the first decades of the 19th century in a series of
lectures on landscape painting had proposed to paint after nature in an
almost scientific way. He understood painting as a scientific production of
art and not as a composition out of imagination. Constable, concerned
about The decline and revival of landscape, wrote: Painting is science,
and should be pursued as in inquiry into the laws of nature. [...] In such an
age as this, painting should be understood, not looked on with blind
wonder, not considered only as a poetic aspiration, but as a pursuit,
legitimate, scientific, and mechanical. (Beckett 1970, 69.)
Yvonne Spielmann 31

Soon thereafter photography and its technique of the variable eye that
can take many shots of the same event in succession (serial
photography) had succeeded as a new art form. The expression of a
variety of shots which have equal value and correspond to a variety of
visual impressions meant a formidable challenge to the ruling idea of
exactness in the depiction of nature in the painterly image. As a result, we
recognise a shift in painting that departs from objectifying science and
moves towards subjective impression. This conceptual transformation
strikes especially the genre of landscape painting. By the end of the 19th
century, what counts is the elusiveness and liveliness of the moment or
many moments. The image concept that represents variability in sight is
driven by the artists expression of an immediate impression.
The most prominent examples are Claude Monets impressionist
paintings. The philosophy of his time to express ones own perception is
best highlighted in the series paintings of Haystacks (189091) and
Rouen Cathedral (18921894). Monet painted the same subject from
variable points of view and under varying light and weather conditions,
depending on the time of the day. These paintings in series not only refer
to the cut in time as introduced with the interval in photography and film.
More important, they ascertain sensual experience and subjective views of
an eye-witness who describes respectively paints natural phenomena the
way he/she experiences them sensorially at a certain moment in time and
space. Clearly, there is a plenitude of such moments. This 19th century
approach toward seeing and vision is led by the convincement that visual
representation of development in time has to follow the concept of
compound image. This concept, then, is essentially exposed with the
techniques of photography and film in the 20th century. The compound
image has not only manifested a new and futuristic vision in the
paintings of Russian Constructivism, German Expressionism, and Italian
Futurism, it later becomes the standard of contemporary digital image
compositing in the 21st century.
Because of the composite and variable nature of modern imagery, it
comes as no surprise, when the togetherness of the two above discussed
concepts, scientific, and sensual, was prominently conceptualised in film
theory based on montage. Sergei M. Eisenstein in his reflections on the
organisational principle of montage in formalist film praxis and theory
understands the formal composition of diverse facts as a way to visibly
construct difference and antagonism in film. In this, difference within the
shot which is the smallest unit of montage, between the shots, and in-
between the sequences has a dual meaning: it mediates and separates
between contrasting, conflictuous, and heterogeneous views of reality. The
32 Seeing to Believe Sensing to Know

contrasting composition results in film aesthetics of collision. Its form

shall provoke the audience emotionally and intellectually at the same time.
Eisensteins famous montage principle of abstract concepts gets realised in
the idea of an intellectual montage that is essentially grounded in a view
of the world as compound and changeable. This notion departs from
Eisensteins earlier montage of film attractions which he then replaced
by pathos (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) inasmuch as pathos is further
replaced by ecstasy (Ivan, 1944) which is meant to activate the viewers
emotional and intellectual responsiveness. By pairing pure feeling and
sensation with awakening, the formalist filmmaker and theoretician
Eisenstein aims in two directions. He wishes to emotionalise thinking and
to initiate creative ecstasy. That is because he believes in dialectics
between the language of logic and the language of emotion: Abstract
cognition divorced from directly active effectiveness is unacceptable to
us (Eisenstein 1988, 155). Following, intellectual cinema becomes a
matter of synthesis, convergence and togetherness. Eisenstein concludes:
The new art must set a limit to the dualism of the spheres of emotion
and reason (1988, 158).

Since the early days of filmic attractions, it was felt that film
experience should attract senses and emotions via closeness and directness
of the presented events. At the same time the cinematic experience was
such that mental engagement relied on the physical distance to the screen
so that audiences felt close to the presented scenery on the one hand and
would reflect the viewing process of the cinematic presentation on the
other. The former describes an expansive and intentionally immersive
media strategy. It was step by step improved by filmmakers and producers
with the aim to establish film as a dynamic medium bigger than life that
supersedes neighbouring art forms and media. The latter aspect of
distancing the viewer from the identification with the presented spectacle
to some degree goes hand in hand with the before described strategy of
emotional overpowering. When both are not balanced, audiences may
become too scared about plunging into presented events. For example,
when physical distance and reality border between us, the viewers, and
them, characters and action on screen gets too much conflated in todays
applications of Augmented Reality, this will have destabilizing and
resultantly dangerous effects on our reality awareness. Differently, the
duality of seeing and knowing is rather enforced in the regular film
viewing situation. By experience we have learnt to know that things from
Yvonne Spielmann 33

the screen that approach us much too big, too near and too fast cannot
reach out across the media border, not even in immersive cinematic 3D.
In cinema, the fixed spatial distance to over-life-size screens; the
temporal fixity of events that unfold in the course of the film or nowadays
digital projection of film form; plus the reassuring certainty that we can
leave the movie theatre any time, in short our knowledge about the
constructedness of the presented illusion constitutes an uncircumventable
condition. It is safeguarding our joyful embeddedness into foreign, strange
worlds of viewing. This construction has proved to guarantee the stability
of the cinematic institution. The interplay distance and nearness combines
two components: knowing that what we are seeing and hearing are media
effects while we sensorially enjoy the constructed perceptual environment
as if in real life. With the latter diversification of film beyond cinema, such
as in multiple projections, expanded screen installations, and the
incorporation of filmic projecting into interactive and participatory
environments, we have entered the realm of digital computers. Here, the
previously distinguishable parameters are heavily conflated and
remediated. They not only appear in novel constellations, they also to
serve different needs.
Nowadays we need to discuss how technological novelties are
dynamically embedded into cultural imaginations about perceptual
experiences, be it in film, in virtual reality, augmented reality, and all
kinds of human-machine interactions that stress embodiment and active
participation more than before. In view of media evolution from film to
expanded media, we learn from research into convergence and
remediation, that media development does not mean inventing the new,
but rather refashioning an existing network inclusive of physical, social,
aesthetic, and economic components. As Bolter and Grusin put it: For
this reason, we can say that media technologies are agents in our culture
without falling into the trap of technological determinism. New digital
media are not external agents that come to disrupt an unsuspecting culture.
They emerge from within cultural contexts, and they refashion other media
which are embedded in the same or similar contexts. (Bolter and Grusin
1999, 19.)
In many fields of film practice, we find artistic examples that refashion
respectively readdress filmic principles in other media forms. They
purposefully expand the viewing experience beyond the formal constraints
of cinema. From an intramedial perspective, experimental film practices of
the sixties and seventies appear to be particularly fruitful in further
contextualising matters of seeing and sensing. They shed new light on the
issues as they were articulated in painting and cinema before. In
34 Seeing to Believe Sensing to Know

experimental tendencies of structural film, in particular, viewing

experiences are closely linked to scrutiny of the embodiment of the
spectator. The viewer is also regarded as an acting participant insomuch as
film performances merge with electronic media followed by digital
technologies. Among the variety of endeavours in the contemporary
creative arts that are responsive to emerging electronic media, notably film
installations with multiple screens and variable interferences in structural
film of the seventies already play a leading role when it comes to
connecting seeing and knowing in todays art. These expanded cinematic
forms foreshadow an interplay of conventional film forms with human-
machine interaction that will get further enlarged in more complex
perceptual environments that use computers.
To exemplify the intermediary position of experimental film of the
structural direction, I wish to point out the radical analysis of persistence
of vision as it has been demonstrated in the experimental film installations
by Paul Sharits. In the history of film, it is Sharits who is pioneering
expansive visual forms with film that resemble the open structure of video
processing, when he violently analyses the materials of film and the
cinematic apparatus by questioning perception and projection. Sharitss
work drives film in the form of frames to the limits of cinematic
performance. He expands the concept of projecting film with multiple
screen installations and aims to immerse the viewer in temporally and
spatially disturbing perceptual film environments. His interest in the
persistence of vision leads him to create distortions of the standard
systems of film projection. The approach is twofold: Sharits uses
projection with variable frame rates in order to interfere with the viewing
impression of apparent motion, and he inserts frame cuts to interrupt the
image and disturb temporal development using flicker effects.
Sharits was interested to radicalise filmic development in time. The
point was that the tension between our understanding of the filmic
development in time and the antagonistic, non-developmental concept of
film as information on light, is rendered sharp. Sharitss goal was to
make the border between film and non-film perceptible by violently
drawing the viewers attention to recognizing at the same time the frames
and their apparent motion. In this, Sharits focuses on the visibility of the
transition from one frame to the next.
This is particularly evident in Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976)
[Fig. 1] in which the two screen loop projection is combined with the
reflective walls of his specially designed film installation. Sharits explains
how he wants to invert projection within the immersive space and confuse
the viewers emotional and analytic modes of perception. Side walls must
Yvonne Spielmann 35

be smooth and be painted with reflective aluminium paint to exaggerate

the frenetic pulsing of the screen images. (Sharits 2008, 353) Sharits
explicitly employs interval montage to merge performance and projection
with the goal of destroying development. He superimposes two film strips
(frames of a medical study on epilepsy and frames of pure colour) not to
emphasize but to reduce action toward abstraction. Sharits uses the
representational images of an epileptic seizure in a flickering structure of
double projection of film that by itself resembles the rhythm of an
epileptic seizure, and immerses viewers into a performance of the
projection of images of light and colour that withholds the flow of action.

Figure 1. Paul Sharits, Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976).

The reduction of visual information through its pulsating rhythm blurs

the boundaries of external sight and inner vision. With the reduction of
development through variable speeds, reflection on the viewing process
shifts from knowing to seeing inasmuch as Sharits visualizes the paradox
of an individual frame in motion. Once we can see through the structure of
projected film images and perceive the individual frame, but also know at
the same time that the image in motion that we see is a necessary illusion,
it will be harder for the viewer to interpret film movement in the sense of
directional development. Sharitss intervention is twofold: it generates
awareness of the still frame and, at the same time, blurs the sense of

Following, I wish to point out positions in contemporary creative arts
that rework the convergence of the two spheres of recognition, seeing, and
sensing from the perspective of computer media and digital simulation.
The questioning of visual recognition is an important factor in creative
practices that investigate participation and action in multisensory and
digitally modulated environments. In view of densely networked media
environments as they determine our contemporaneity and conflate the
36 Seeing to Believe Sensing to Know

experience of present, past, and future, visual cognition as such has come
under critique, particularly in multisensory experiments. A shift takes
place in the key parameters of seeing and knowing when digital media
render the familiar strange and question the objectification of subjective
experience in essence. The necessity of cognitive understanding when
faced with a virtualreal simulated reality is demonstrated symptomatically
in the well-known science fiction film The Matrix (directed by Andy and
Lana Wachowski, 1999). To remind: the central character, Neo, can only
intervene as a force for renewal in the elastic transitions from virtuality to
reality filmically shown via computer graphics, green screen, and motion
control techniques because he understands the binary code behind the
digital reality as columns of numbers, because he doesnt believe what he
sees and perceives, but acts on what he knows from critical analysis.
Visual, sensual understanding gives way to cognitive knowledge.
The task of critique of visuality is further sharpened in multimedia arts.
Post-cinematic, multimedial, and large screen presentations examine the
motivation of medical and military-industrial faculties to envelope
simulated environments more and more seamlessly. They can show
aesthetically, how feeling and seeing intentionally converge with the
employment of augmented tools respectively composite viewing
technologies, and also demonstrate inasmuch one-sided upgrade of sense
perception rather cuts off our curiosity to get to know what is going behind
the scenes, in the real reality devoid of the screens. My examples are: Gina
Czarneckis shifts of scale, Seiko Mikamis bodily encounter with
machine behaviour, and Masaki Fujihatas advocacy to maintain
difference and distance in sensing as well as in knowing as the basic
condition for a living interaction.
While technical qualities of computer simulation and control have
introduced the possibility of simultaneously virtualizing various processes
at various places, in actual fact and without bothering about physical
boundaries, British based media artist Gina Czarnecki researches the
sectors of medicine and biology, where the intention is to undertake
scientific interventions in the human body and the living environment. She
focuses on the question of the normative scale applied to body shapes,
mutations, infections, and viruses, and to this end she presents filmic
installations with projected images of digitally simulated deviations and
variations of physicality. Universal scaling for categorizing information
concerning the human body, identity, and person dominate in biology,
medicine, and genetics but also in aesthetics, and Czarnecki retranslates
them from the general (global) scale back into the individual (local) scale.
Yvonne Spielmann 37

Against this background, Czarnecki investigates the aesthetic beauty of

digitally modified body images of dance movements, which she shrinks
visually and knits together into something akin to meshes, until they lose
any sort of subjectivity and appear like living cell structures. Her works
Spine (outside projection, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK, 2006), which uses
material of the earlier Nascent (film version in collaboration with the
Australian Dance Theater, UK, 2005), use variable projection in filmic
installations on large-scale surfaces in urban spaces to illuminate
correspondences between the biological and technological multiplications
of manipulated life forms. Cosmetic and surgical modifications, prostheses,
sex changes, cloning, and genetic corrections form common points of
reference. When we, as audience, are confronted with the artistic selection
of the naked bodies presented in the installation, this range of questions
gains further significance as it engages with biomedical research in a
direction belonging to ethnological and cultural politics.
In the moving images of Nascent [Fig. 2] as a filmic installation,
digital composition of dance forms overlays and shrinks the bodies to
abstract units of information. That is because changing the scale, together
with reduplicating the image segments, makes the dancers into chains of
bodies linked to each other, into blurred ribbons and pulsating light
formations. The entanglement of people so presented tends much more to
promote distancing, an effect underlined by an accompaniment sounding
metallic and synthetic. The expression of some humanity does clearly
persist so that border zones of virtualization and abstraction tip over into

Figure 2. Gina Czarnecki, Nascent (2005).

That effect points explicitly to the procedure customary in scientific,

biological-medical, and military operations of abstracting away from
subjects, people, and their lives. In an interview, Czarnecki names the
point of reference in which cognitive decisions made in virtuality based on
sense-making of dehumanizing visual pattern have real effects on the life
and death of individuals. Science, law, medicine, and the military present
38 Seeing to Believe Sensing to Know

images and we take them as authentic, but so many of them are artificially
constructed. And art can present fact but its always perceived as fiction.
Medicine has been developing imaging technologies to prove the existence
of something scanning, the ultrasound, the infrared. I was on a train
journey in the UK and I sat opposite a gulf war engineer and he said that
of course we kill people but we see them as little green dots on the screen
and we just zap them. (Czarnecki in Brannigan, 2006.)
In this context, an aesthetic-poetic work, like Czarneckis visualization
of disembodiment, can count as a sharp critique of such linking of seeing
and knowing in operations that use augmented reality to produce scientific
knowledge devoid of any sensitivity. The technological feasibility
dominates in employing augmented reality for military and medical goals,
and the dimension of the personal-subjective is suppressed in telerobotic
perceptual contact.
The outside projection Spine, first installed in public space in Newcastle
upon Tyne in 2006 and measuring 25 by 17 meters, works in the opposite
direction. In it, the personalsubjective aspect specifically corresponds to
the location, resembles a model, and shifts into a dimension appropriate to
exhibiting and viewing in the public sphere. With the use of the filmic
material from Nascent, the digitally manipulated dancers here also occupy
the foreground like masses of cells and are moving around naked. As a
result, the medial presentation of Spine shows the personal aspect as an
example of the shifting of boundaries from the intersubjective into the
supposedly objective public sphere of activity, where the representation is
cut off from familiarity and emotional responses. This discrepancy
between representation and what is represented refers to the way computer
technologies have invaded all areas of the media like a virus and are
dominating our sense perception.
Another example is given by Seiko Mikami with her large-scale spatial
installation Desire of Codes (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media, 2010,
also exhibited at InterCommunicationCenter, Tokyo, 2011), which
addresses our sense and sensibility in computer environments. It equally
poses the question of what sort of inherent behavior the computer codes
might have, particularly when their capacity to measure and move takes on
an organic character.
On the wall of the installation space, Mikami mounted ninety devices
that are equipped with search arms that have small LED pointers and with
cameras and sensors to detect movement and sound of the visitors when
they approach the wall. The whole structure is targeting us as if the
technical apparatuses and the humans were different species entering into
dialogue with each other. As the lights and the cameras follow the visitors
Yvonne Spielmann 39

movements in space, the resulting effect is that the devices, which are
driven by audible motors, move their arms searching for individual
visitors like a buzzing swarm of mosquitoes. Various measuring sensor
data (light, ultrasonic, and infrared sensors) are combined to create the
responsive effect.
Each of the combined sensors and the cameras do capture and measure
independently, but they are networked together in a computer system and
attuned to each other in a sort of group behavior. The audience for this
industrial invention not only acts as an interface and has the difference
but also the similarity between themselves and the machine to be
presented to its eyes and ears via extremely miniaturized interfaces.
Because the devices resemble the size of toys, they become almost
flattering interfaces, which appear harmless and handsome, and not like
control and surveillance apparatuses. Notable is the cultural aspect of
reference to miniaturized computers, electronic toys, and gadgets, which
have spread like insects through the private and public sectors in Japan and
South-East Asia. In her work, Mikami makes us aware of a close and
personal relationship between the human perception in general and the
individual senses and how they are affected, on the other hand. She also
draws our awareness to the humanoid behavior of increasingly small and
smart robots and further machine devices that are equipped with sensory
instruments to detect us, target our behavior, and go after us. It is precisely
the kind of interface that is built by Mikami herself and not using
standardized mechanism, which evokes the experience of in-betweenness
and makes us aware of our modes of perception in relation to the
surrounding that is machine driven and operates by a chain of codes.
Mikami in the other two parts of the installation further explores her
view of the desire of codes seen as a chain of behavior and response in
correspondence to social behavior. Once we move away from the
Wriggling Wall [Fig. 3] with its 90 units targeting at us, we find ourselves
surrounded and equally targeted by huge, over-live-size six robot search
arms that hang from the ceiling and reach into the space. The robot arms
follow the task to express desire of codes by way of following and
recording movements of the visitors. The arms are equipped with cameras
and projectors, and simultaneously project the recorded footage onto the
floor where we move. In the third part of the installation, the Compound
Eye [Fig. 4], Mikami further focuses the anthropocentric effect of the
miniature mechanical arms of the Wriggling Wall with their LEDs trained
on us like searchlights.
40 Seeing to Believe Sensing to Know

Figures 34. Seiko Mikamis Desire of Codes: Wriggling Wall, Compound Eye
(2010, 2011), Figure 5. Masaki Fujihata: Orchisoid (20012007).

In the image structure of the Compund Eye imitating an insects eye,

current and past recordings of viewers can interfere via computer
programs with data information from search engines on the Internet, which
have access, in real time and permanently, to surveillance cameras in
places all over the world. The model of the hexagon here becomes a
permeable interface of global surveillance: it makes us aware of how
personal experience is caught up in worldwide data transfer. The
philosophy of the installation is testing our experience of the behavior of
machines as it is driven by codes. We are also invited to think about the
appetite respectively the desire of the code to randomly grasp and process
data from anywhere at any time and produce endless chains of
information input and output. The installation demonstrates its own
structural components such as repetition in the stream of data and thereby
makes us aware of our own desire to create and produce something, and at
the same time shows our limits to influence and actually control the
machine process with which we interact.
Another media artist from Japan, Masaki Fujihata, also reflects the
interplay of seeing and sensing by employing scientific measuring
instruments for art purposes. He uses perceptual instruments in radicalized
ways as personally modified technologies and creates model-like science-
scapes as a new form of interaction. Masaki Fujihata tests this out in the
area of the contact almost made between orchids and us. The difficulty of
synchronizing computers in networks, as is necessary for performing exact
interactions between us and machines, forms the point of departure for this
experimental arrangement with orchids.
With Orchisoid (Japan, 20012007) [Fig. 5] the attempt is made to
communicate between humans and machines without any sort of coding.
The setup is equipped with measuring instruments, as in a scientific
laboratory. The interactive distance between individual plants is measured,
together with their behaviour toward each other and their sensitivity to
moisture, as when one of two plants standing close together is watered but
Yvonne Spielmann 41

the other is not. The plants are, in addition, tested for their sensitivity like
bio-robots, lifted onto a hydraulic platform and driven in all directions at
high speed, while projected images of a botanical garden run past them
and imitate a real environment for the plants. The project was developed
in collaboration with the botanist Yuji Dogane, and Fujihata sees it as
standing at the juncture of robotics and nature: In Botanical Ambulation
Training footage filmed while walking through a botanical garden is being
projected onto a wall. Orchids (mainly Cattleya) can see these projections
from the baskets they are planted in. The aspects of tremor (acceleration,
geomagnetism, inclination) in the images are being translated into
impulses that shake the platform the flower baskets are sitting on, so that
the flower baskets move perfectly in sync with the trembling of the images
on the wall. Therefore, from the perspective of the orchids it must feel as if
they were being carried in the hand (that actually holds the camera) around
the garden. [...] What in the world could it be that the orchids are thinking
while swaying gently on their metal pistons, watching pictures of a
shaking greenhouse, and devoting themselves to reproduction
activities? (Fujihata and Dogane 2007.)
This new sort of experimental arrangement would be misread as a
simple critique of technology; it rather advocates dialogue that is based on
difference and distance as the condition for real interaction. That is
because, when the sensory contact becomes too close and too strong, the
vitality in dialog is put at risk. To that extent, this demonstration with
plants sensitive to contact has a component criticizing the media by
focusing on the ostensibly desirable removal of any distance and
difference in all versions of touch media, something that here does not,
however, appear as a goal or a way to more communication. On the
contrary, Fujihata is in accord with Mikami and Czarnecki to provoke
dialog across difference in aesthetically constructed perceptual
environments so that in the interplay between sensation and knowledge
something new and something different can arise.

Beckett, Ronald Brymer, ed. 1970. John Constables Discourses. Ipswich:
Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. 1999. Remediation. Understanding
New Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Brannigan, Erin. Gina Czarnecki Interview. September 2006.
2006.pdf. Last accessed 28. 10. 2014.
42 Seeing to Believe Sensing to Know

Eisenstein, Sergei M. 1988. Perspectives. In M. Eisenstein. Writings,

192234 Selected Works, vol. 1, ed. Richard Tayler, 151160. London:
BFI and Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fujihata, Masaki and Yuji Dogane. 2007. Botanical Ambulation Training.
In Silent Dialogue, exhibition catalogue Tokyo.
Sharits, Paul. 1976 [2008]. Epileptic Seizure Comparison. In: Buffalo
Heads. Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 19731990,
eds. Woody Vasulka and Peter Weibel, 350352. Cambridge, Mass:
MIT Press.


Both Laura U. Marks (2000) and Vivian Sobchack (1992) discuss at

some length the poetics of the American experimentalist filmmaker, Stan
Brakhage. In a book on the phenomenology of the viewers body and the
relative openness of the sensorium it seems almost inevitable to refer to
his idea of prenatal vision when the embryo sees (and hears and maybe
even tastes) already, yet only silhouettes in light. Vision at this
developmental stage lacks the sense of wholeness of the world. Haptic
vision, the lack of things to see applies to prenatal vision more than to
anything else. Recently Paul Taberham has come up with a very
reasonable interpretation of Brakhages idea of physiological vision
taking senses as muse. Taberham contextualized Brakhages poetics
within the constructivist/ecologist debate. I would like to expand on that a
bit. Elsewhere1 I have proposed that haptic visuality should be interpreted
in two ways: either as a factual condition that the level of information is
below the minimal for perceiving objects, or as the consequence that the
viewer has regressed from a realist 3D interpretation of the image scene
to seeing the intricate web of surface texture.
In the perception of art the second option may be more relevant than
the first since the major bulk of the history of art is realist but at least
figurative and the contemporary technique of CGI adds further gist to the
realist effect already perceivable in the cave art of prehistoric man. That
such a regression is possible was elaborated by Dario Gamboni in his book
Potential Images. He quotes the painter, Odilon Redon, who writes in his
journal: The sense of mystery consists in continuous ambiguity, in the
double and triple aspects, hints of aspects (images within images), forms
that are about to come into being or will take their being from the
onlookers state of mind. (Gamboni 2002, 9.) Then Gamboni moves on to

The present paper is a report of an ongoing longer work on the interrelations of
the phenomenology of film vision, texture and haptic visuality, and contemporary
digital aesthetics.
44 Learning and Re-learning Haptic Visuality

Duchamps formula: It is the ONLOOKER who makes the picture

(2002, 9). But Gambonis field of reference consists of paintings and
Truly, painting and photography are not that immersive as classical
film and contemporary video games are. But can it be an option for the
film viewer to regress to seeing the surface of film images? Cognitive
film theory says that our visual system prefers seeing through the
(moving) images if there is enough information to do so; that is if the
visual layout provides sufficient information to identify the elements of a
scene (objects, figures, movements, etc.). What counts as sufficient
depends on the less is more ecological principle which entails that we as
perceivers discriminate between visual information and visual noise. The
effect is based on our capacity to complete the visual information which is
available in the visual layout but is insufficient in itself for seeing figures
or scenes. We can either supplement the missing but necessary elements
on the basis of existing Gestalts or we can make use of shortcuts in our
brain to directly specify and/or identify them. Thus elements of visual
noise like blobs cannot distract the perceivers attention from seeing the
figurative forms. Blobs and other sources of visual noise like entopic
phenomena visual experiences whose source is within the eye itself
like the reflection of blood vessels in the eyes are what the conscious
mind learns to ignore since it is of no adaptive benefit. (Taberham 2013.)
Certain anthropologists believe that shamanistic and tribal cultures and
maybe prehistoric man had experienced entopic phenomena during altered
states of consciousness caused either by hallucinogens or by trance,
hyperventilation, music or intense concentration. Lewis-Williams (1988,
3) explains: All these shapes are experienced as incandescent, shimmering,
moving, rotating, and sometimes enlarging patterns, and they are
independent of light from an external source. Such visual percepts are the
result of focusing on what seemed to be visual noise.
Lewis-Williams distinguishes three consecutive stages of rock art
according to the presence of recognizable geometric forms in the carvings.
The first stage is characterized by the use of dotted surfaces, hyperbolic
lines, grids, concentric star-like, and U-shaped forms. In the second stage
recognizable figure-like forms like giraffe, honeycombs and bees appear
overlaid with the geometric pattern. Lewis-Williams seems to draw a
parallel between hallucinatory and normal state of consciousness in which
perceived forms are recognized on the basis of stored representations. It is
how the brain proceeds in the case of peekaboo or the recognition of
Gestalts. The third stage of rock art comes with the arrival of iconic
well-traced forms and with fewer superimposed geometric patterns.
Lszl Tarnay 45

Geometric elements are still there but they are integrated into the figural
representations as accompanying objects like reins, bridles of the horse,
feathers, postures of the body in trance, etc.
Now let us try to reverse the process of the three stages. If we do that,
we end up with indexical regressing so dear to the modern art theorist. I
take Gambonis idea of regressing from the scene to the visual surface as a
case when noise is rendered informative by the viewer. Although from
the evolutionary perspective regressing from the scene to the textural
structure had it been an option would have turned out to be very costly
and even fatal, the history of art and now it seems, even anthropology,
make room for textural analysis. Seeing dots and lines in a painted scene
can be the reversed alternative to seeing the scene in the surface, the kind
of seeing that Richard Wollheim considered appropriate to pictorial
There are occasions when seeing the surface is pertinent. For
instance, the expertise of indexical analysis of brush-strokes or the use of
other painting tools like knife, nail or finger can be necessary for telling
originals from forgeries; Paleolithic and Neolithic rock engravings show
that cracks and fissures within rock surfaces were utilized by the ancient
artists in depicting forms;2 last but not least, the viewer of abstract and
experimental films may find it more than challenging to be confronted
with textured vision, the mottled skin of the film rather than clear-cut
images of objects. Regressing is not subject in the same way to cultural
constraints as Laura U. Marks says of, and against, Brakhage. It is true that
sense organs are the site where culture crosses the body (Marks 2000,
201), but to see the material indices (of the body) as informative and not
as noise requires a kind of recoiling from culture that one has learnt.
Taberham speaks about the un- and retutoring of the brain as a conscious
effort on the part of the viewer. It requires more schemata and eye
training for engaging with the world, and is in this sense radically top-
down. Although in deep disagreement otherwise about the structure of
vision both Gombrich and Gibson agree that attending to the visual field
requires a special effort. Engaging with the visual field, like draftsmen do,
is a radically top-down activity, while the new-born baby and the 13 year-
old boy who had his cataracts removed engaged with their visual fields
radically from the bottom-up. While the new born baby and the painter

The properties of the rock including its concave or convex surface, bumps, cracks
and fissures in its structure are thought to be integrated within the engraved
representations. Note how closely the ancient engraver seems to follow Leonardos
advice to his disciples that they should first study the forms and patterns (vein-
stones and marbles) in Nature in order to become great artists.
46 Learning and Re-learning Haptic Visuality

ultimately reach a similar place, so to speak, they approach it from

different directions. (Taberham 2013.) It is a top-down process for the
draftsman because it is consciously evoked, whereas for the newborn it is
More interestingly, Marks (2000, 212) contends that [w]hen I smell
magnolia, I do not distinguish as separate perceptions the act of bending to
meet it, its waxy pink-and-whiteness, its unmistakable but indefinable
fragrance, the cool touch of the petals on my face, and the wave of
associations from my memory. Our experience of the world is
fundamentally mimetic, a completing of the self in a sensory meeting with
the world. Markss conception of synaesthesia as a relationship between
the bodily perception and embodiment in the world appears actually as an
argument in favour of experimentalists and against the narrativization of
experience that classical and modern filmmakers generally build upon.
While the latter is inherently cultural, the former, embodied and
synesthetic perception is at most individual through memory. Indexical
regression can be defined as a conscious de-narrativization of perception
(untutoring) and unfolding the synesthetic potential of the image
(retutoring). For Marks, it installs a mimetic relationship with the world
like using hand-crank camera to convey a nomadic presence. We could
add lots of other such mimetic tricks like blurred images referring to a
state of dreaming or wobbling hand-held camera expressing drunkenness.
For Brakhage, embryonic vision could be mimetic but I think it is more
proper to say that his films simulate prenatal vision. The difference is that
mimetic relationship looks more semantic than simply visual. Many of the
examples Marks gives have a strong semantic content that can easily be
narrativized. Yellow, for instance, is associated with male procreative
power within the Desana people in the Colombian Amazon; the above
mentioned hand-crank camera is said to express the unstable sonic
frequencies of black music; the use of digital morphing demonstrates the
commonalities of diasporic African cultures. And the list is almost infinite.
Synaesthesia as embodied perception is mimetic because cultural memory
constrains the possible associations. As in the case of rock engravings
where the entopic pattern is elaborated into a giraffe and not something
else because giraffe was a big game animal, almost like a God for the
San people, in the mimetic examples discussed by Marks the meaning of
the corresponding synesthetic experience is culturally determined. But
when it is said that Brakhage simulates prenatal vision, there are scarce or
no culturally determined meanings that we should associate with the
images. We might want to associate meanings but there is no such
constraint. By analogy there is no cultural constraint that Rembrandt
Lszl Tarnay 47

should use a knife to paint lace collars or that impressionists create an

optical effect by using dots. The purpose of simulation is to create a
realistic effect, not a semantic coding. The difference lies in the layer of
reality where the effect is intended. For Brakhage, it is the perception of
the embryo within the womb; for Rembrandt, it is focal vision versus
peripheral sight; for the impressionists, it is the way how the optics of the
eye, that is low-level vision, works; and for classical Hollywood
filmmakers and contemporary digital designers, it is the cognition, that is
higher level visual processing, of moving images that matters.
Laura U. Marks argues that the multisensory and synesthetic
relationship we entertain with the world does not disappear with new
digital technology but is translated into the image (Marks 2000, 214). It
follows that the visuality of digital culture the most recent fully
immersive technology (continuous editing, 3D graphics, surround sound
system, etc.) is still haptic in its essence even though the major bulk of it
is narrative and hyper-real, which means that there are things to see.3 But
if it is so, how can we accommodate haptic visuality as lack of things to
see with digital hyperrealism as embodied synesthetic perception?
I think the incriminating premise is that vision as touch, that is haptic
visuality, implies that there is a lack of things to see. Naturally, the most
typical cases of haptic visuality are such that the textural and material
properties of the image suppress the ecologically valid, i.e. realist
interpretation. Extreme close-ups, granular image structure, extreme
slowdowns like Bill Violas video installation at the Modern Art Museum
of Fort Worth, The Greeting (1995) and similar techniques can infinitely
enhance the haptic, therefore synesthetic effect of vision.
However, I am inclined to accept that haptic visuality is not confined
to such extreme cases but it can be extended to classical film and digital
culture where there are things to see. Vivian Sobchacks work on the
phenomenology of classical film had demonstrated that classical films are
synesthetic. Her description of Jane Campions The Piano (1993)
capitalized on Merleau-Pontys idea of embodied perception; Laura U.

To be true to Marks, she is arguing from the perspective of haptic images which
may or may not but definitely can resolve into discernible figures and are in a
dialectical relationship with the optical. (Marks 2002, 20.) I am arguing here from
the perspective of hyperrealistic images which definitely can become indiscernible
but then they ruin the immersive effect on the viewer/player who is interacting
with the visible world not in her sensual body but with her optical vision. In
Sobchacks terms, the viewer/player leaves her existential body here (i.e. before
the screen) for the optical world there on the screen. Embodied vision is given up
for the simulation of being.
48 Learning and Re-learning Haptic Visuality

Marks expanded on that idea. What they may not have made sufficiently
clear is that synaesthesia does not exclude per se narrativization although
many avant-garde authors from the first wave in the 1920s opposed to it.
They thought that formal and textural qualities of a film can win the
audiences attention only if it does not aim at telling a story. With the
arrival of digital visuality, however, it is impossible to deny that the
simulation of normal perception is based upon, and also implies,
synaesthesia. To quote again Markss example of the magnolia, it is
impossible not to touch and smell the magnolia even though, or
precisely because, the image of it has been digitally generated.
Here I think the connection between haptic vision and synaesthesia
needs to be reconsidered. It seems that one sensory experience activates or
recalls another sensory modality only if it is felt to be insufficient in
providing a full picture of the perceived object. A pleasant scent urges us
to know more about its source. Smelling activates touch because we want
to live the thing, the magnolia or other odorous object, in its entirety or
integrity. And we know unconsciously that the odour is not all of the
sensible object. And conversely, caressing a sable dress or a sensual skin
can ignite one to deeper desires. Identifying someone by only touching
him or her is like a case of synaesthesia: we need to recall other visual or
aural properties of the person. This is why Marks needs the idea of the
lack of things to see. It is the visual lack that prompts us to look closer,
touch and smell, or maybe even taste. She refers to the unity of perception
because one percept, sight, is united with other possible percepts, smell
and touch, of the same object, magnolia. They come together precisely to
identify that object, to cover up the lack of things in vision. It is the failure
of one sense modality to identify the object of the image that calls forth
other modalities to complete its identification. However, in film viewing it
is not so much the object that is rendered synesthetically but the image
itself. This is why we call the latter textural.
Let us formulate the following principle:

(A) The more textural or vague an object is rendered visually in and

by the image, the stronger our multi-sensory or synesthetic
relation toward the image becomes.

Consider the still image taken from Bahman Ghobadis film Rhino
Season (Fasle kargadan, 2012): Fig. 1. Two things stand out: the texture
of the scorched land, the searing, and the almost dot-like small figure far
on the horizon. As I see it the indented land evokes a very strong sense of
touch (an urge to step on it and feel the hardened, bumpy surface).
Lszl Tarnay 49

Synaesthesia and embodiedness indeed go together here. The vision of

scorched earth is lived in the body. I do not think the connection is in any
sense cultural but I accept that the effect is much stronger for someone
who has already trodden on a ground like that. It is individual rather than
cultural like Prousts madeleine the synesthetic power of which derives
from Swans personal history of tasting the cake. We want to relive
walking on a ground like that and maybe the remembrance lived or
embodied will also summon up the halo of personal associations
connected with that feeling.

Figures 12. The last shots of Bahman Ghobadis Rhino Season (2012).

The other thing to notice is the small dot-like figure whom we identify
as a man but he seems too insignificant to render any meaning to it. But
look now at the image that follows it. [Fig. 2.] Here we see the towering
silhouette of another man easily identifiable in the foreground. I think we
immediately connect the two figures as one following the other and
50 Learning and Re-learning Haptic Visuality

construct a mini narrative which suppresses the textural understanding of

the first image. The main reason is that the now two men are not
camouflaged by the texture of the earth and of the image itself. Texture
and figure are distinctly separate in the image, they constitute an
opposition rather than a peekaboo situation.
An opposite case is the figuration of human forms in Stan Brakhages
Dog Star Man (1961). The film begins in the general Brakhage-style with
richly textured and scintillating surfaces painted and handmade
interspersed with what seems to be a night drive in city lights. The first
appearances of human form are overridden with foliage-like texture and
are thus identifiable with great difficulty. In one of the images the lines of
a human face are imbued in red light while in another, see Fig. 3, below, a
moon-like form modulates into a female breast. In Fig. 4 we see the shape
of a face in pink light contrast. Neither of these images allow for a
narrative understanding at this point, so I contend the textural feeling is
much stronger: texture and figure do not constitute a clear contrast like
they do in Fig. 2. Synaesthesia is bolstered by the indeterminacy of the
image, by the lack of things to see.

Figure 3. A moonlike breast in Stan Brakhages Dog Star Man (1961).

Figure 4. A face in pink light in Stan Brakhages Dog Star Man (1961).

However, the images in question do not entirely lack things to see.

We have a vague idea of what we see but we cannot narrativize it. So
either our interest to watch falls below threshold or we feel the urge to
search for a multimodal experience of what we are seeing. When we feel
the tactile surface of the earth in Figure 1 we recognize what it is, i.e. there
is a thing to see but it is not enough to base a story on. I think the contrast
between textural and narrative understanding of moving images is by no
means absolute. We can still feel the furrowed road in Figure 2
synaesthetically but our focus is on the narrative relationship between the
Lszl Tarnay 51

two human figures. We switch to seeing the surface in the scenic image if
we cannot grasp the scene. Principle A in a way reduces or returns the
filmic experience to the experience of painting.
The crucial question however is whether the digitalization of the image
could still induce synaesthesia or haptic visuality in the viewers. I think
digital simulation brings synaesthesia to perfection in the direction where
Principle A left it. In real life we feel invited to use as many senses as
possible every time we are in a situation without a precise object of
perception. By this I mean a kind of reverse situation of oriental
meditation when our contemplation turns outward, rather than inward, but
without a proper object, a lack of things to focus on perceptually. In
modern French philosophy it corresponds to a kind of intransitive
relationship toward the world and other people. It is mainly the so-called
primal elements, earth, air, fire and water, which can induce an intransitive
relation in man in the first place. They are uncountable and unconfinable
masses which we can plunge into or feed upon. They are the prototypically
textural materials like the rippling water surface, the sandy dunes, the
cloudy sky or the flickering flames. Foliage or camouflaging texture also
belongs here as long as it lacks any definable form. Looking at the rippling
water surface is like watching a typical Brakhage film like Mothlight
(1963) or Eye Myth (1972). The titles are especially telling. The
experience is indeed haptic, or more precisely, it is like caressing for
caressing normally lacks a definable and confinable object; it is
Intransitive perception, in my mind, is where synaesthesia begins in its
pure form. The other senses are activated for a lack of things to perceive.
Simulation is where synaesthesia ends in perfection. They are the two
extremes of synaesthesia. When Ramachandran and Hubbard (2002) start
to explain to an audience that everybody is born with synaesthesia they
show a design of round shape and a design of ragged shape and ask the
audience to associate the language terms bubu and kiki with them. It
is obvious somehow that round shape is bubu and raggedness is kiki.
Neither carries any explicit or known meaning. But would or should we
call a round apple as something like boom, let alone bubu? I do not
think so. We need non-definability as a condition for pure synaesthesia.

No wonder that the caress became one of the key terms for Emmanuel Lvinas
in describing the asymmetric ethical relation of the ego toward the Other: by
caressing one cannot objectify and appropriate the caressed. Marks (2002)
mentions Lvinass idea of the caress in that I can lose myself as a subject for
the other who cannot be known and is thus absent from the perception itself.
52 Learning and Re-learning Haptic Visuality

But if we perceptually hit on an object, magnolia or human figure in

ordinary perception, multimodal associations are rather the rule than the
exception. We indeed complete our self with the perception of the world.
If we see a bouncing ball normally we also hear it thumping as well. The
pairing of the sight and the sound of the same object is genetically driven.
We immediately connect what we see projected on the screen with what
we hear coming from the loudspeakers irrespective of their location in the
theatre hall.
The phenomenon was evident for the early generation of filmmakers,
and especially the masters of Soviet montage. Although film was silent at
that time Eisenstein defined cinematic experience as a case of multimodal
perception when different sensory fields can be paired and edited. Thus he
cut, for instance, in Old and New (1929) the Menshevikss speech with the
images of the balalaika to express its emptiness. Later on, Eisenstein
called the editing of sound and image vertical montage. The psychologist,
Rudolf Arnheim explained the synaesthesia of a glass of red wine and
the sound of the cello as a higher order association unique of film in
contrast to the lower-order association operant in real life (like the case of
the bouncing ball). Obviously, it is specific objects, not intransitive
things, whose images and sounds are paired or associated diegetically in
Now the most complex and multimodal sensation of an object, event or
scene is rendered possible by digital technology. The future of moving
images provided by home movies is to combine the visual, the aural and
the odorous fields by means of 3 or even 4D images, digital sound and
scent emission. With the use of Oculus Rift or a similar helmet the subject
will be completely segregated from real world experience. Thus we end up
with another principle diagonally opposite to the first one:

(B) The more real or hyper-real an object is rendered visually in and

by the image, the stronger our multi-sensory or synesthetic
relation toward the very same object becomes.

While synaesthesia induced by Principle A keeps us outside the

diegetic world with Principle B we feel dissolved in the diegetic or virtual
world because it simulates the normal condition of perception in which
multisensory experience of an object or event is the rule. Digital
technology as simulation cannot but heighten the sense of synaesthesia
precisely because it builds upon the ordinary way of perception. The more
perfectly rendered an image of an object becomes, the more strongly it
evokes its possible sound, its touch, or even its taste.
Lszl Tarnay 53

In contrast, in the case of Principle A we are prevented from feeling so

united in lack of things, or things specific enough, to see. However, our
senses become intensified. From the partial fulfilment of our senses on
and by the screen we turn our attention inward and focus on our own
sensation. The haptic visuality of the image makes our skin, and I would
say all other senses, extremely sensitized.
Writing about her special experience of Adas skin being touched
through a hole in her dress in The Piano, Sobchack (2004: 789) explains
that my sense of touch rebounding from its only partial fulfilment on
and by the screen to its only partial fulfilment in and by my body is
intensified. My skin becomes extremely, if generally, sensitized. Indeed,
this reflexive and reflective exchange between and diffusion of my sense
of touch in both the literal and figural has opened me to all these fabrics
and textures indeed, has made the literal touch of even a specific fabric
on my skin an overwhelmingly general and intensely extensive mode of
being. Sobchack, however, consistently describes cinematic experience as
an unconscious rebounding between being there, in the diegetic world
where the narrative action takes place and here, in the real world where
the viewing subject is embodied. Synaesthesia results from spontaneously
oscillating between what is seen (the optical) and what is lived in the body
(existential). Visuality is haptic because it induces a kind of self-reflexive
sensation like self-touching when we perceive ourselves perceiving.
Without this unconscious or unthought vibration synaesthesia would
remain irrelevant to the viewing experience. Sobchack does not seem to
believe in a kind of (re-)tutoring of the sensorium and the mind. The
intensification of the senses as well as the rebounding between the screen
and ones own body cannot be willed.
Although she talks about the fabrics and textures of Adas cloth she
is obviously not thinking of textural images like Mothlight or Eye Myth.
For Sobchack synaesthesia does not reside in the lack of things to see as
Principle A defines it but on the contrary, it resides in the too vivid
sensation of objects and scenes like the cutting of Adas finger. There is
nothing vague or indefinite in such images. The carnal pleasures of
watching The Piano (and other films) reside more in the mirroring or
mimicking of the sensations of the characters by and in the viewers
body (and unconscious mind). It resides in the unresolvable but pertinent
difference between the viewing subject and the film object. Consequently,
it must be differentiated also from Principle B which dissolves the gap
between subject and object through simulation. Digital simulation is but a
heightened sense of ecological realism, a kind of seeing through the
54 Learning and Re-learning Haptic Visuality

While Sobchacks unwilled synaesthesia can be used to found the

ethics of the film, the digital simulation seems to eliminate it. Haptic
sensibility in the sense of Principle A seems to be insufficient to evoke
that ethical effect because the subject dissolves in the other who is
absent from the subjects perception. In the phenomenology of film
viewing described by Sobchack there are things to see. But Sobchack
approaches film as the introceptive image of an invisible other who is also
another subject of perception whereas in Markss appropriation of
Lvinass idea of the caress the haptic images belong to the perceiving
subject, the viewer, they are her and not the others intransitive
experience. Sobchack treats film as kind of representation of the embodied
experience of another (subject), while Marks takes film to be like real life
experience minus a definable or recognizable object.

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Ramachandran V. S. and E. M. Hubbard 2003. The Phenomenology of
Synaesthesia. Journal of Consciousness Studies Vol. 10 No. 8: 4957.
Sobchack, Vivian. 1992. The Address of the Eye: a Phenomenology of
Film Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Taberham, Paul. 2013. Bottom-up Processing, Entoptic Vision and the
Innocent Eye in the Work of Stan Brakhage. Manuscript.


It must be said here that wood

is one of Agns Vardas key
materials, one of the leitmotif
images of her films.1
Jean-Luc Godard,
Cahiers du cinma, 1959.

Contemporary and occasional collaborator, Jean-Luc Godard here

asserts how wood constitutes Agns Vardas filmic material par
excellence; the very first image of Vardas very first feature film The
Pointe Courte (La Pointe Courte, 1954) affording us such a ligneous
inference through the exposed wood grain that greets a spectators eyes.
[Figs. 12.] Varda too has implicated her own oeuvre in this pastoral
register, this time on the other side of the camera, playfully conceiving her
cinematic audience as fields of spectators. Hemmed in by the space of the
auditorium, Varda considers these fields as vital and fleshy ears of corn,
blowing in the winds of her projected images; their autonomy supposedly
harvested by the combines of light, sound and movement, as well, of
course, as by more material offerings (Varda 1994, 7). Ethically speaking,
such talk raises concerns, for any consideration of wood as Vardas key
cinematic material potentially implies the imposition of a hierarchy of
engagement with her filmic images. Yet, as I will argue here, far from
grounding her first feature film into a system which privileges certain
perceptions over others, Vardas relationship with wood in fact makes the
image available to a whole spectrum of perceptual engagements.

Please note that throughout the article all translations are my own. Original
French reads: Il faut dire ici que le bois est un des matriaux-cl dAgns Varda,
lune des images leitmotive de ses films.
56 Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation

Figures 12. The anonymous and exposed wood grain of The Pointe Courtes
opening moments that initially greets the spectators eyes.

The Intertextual Travels of the Flower

Spectatorship for Varda, then, is a case of plant life, whereby viewers
are capable of being sensuously modified by the spoils of the image, and a
select film history demonstrates a similarly perennial relationship between
cinema and botany. The Lumire Brothers The Sprinkler Sprinkled
(LArroseur arros, 1895), arguably the very first narrative film, is set
within a garden, whilst the very first colour film, recently rediscovered,
includes images of three children waving sunflowers. More playfully, it
could be said that Orson Welless Citizen Kane (1941) is driven by such a
flowery inclination in its hunt for the mysterious Rosebud, while footage
of Loie Fullers mesmerizing skirt dances is equally evocative of this
contingency; the shapes conjured by the ethereal mix of movement, light,
and fabric fleetingly adopting floral-like forms. [Figs. 34.] Her luminous

Figures 34. Loie Fullers mesmerising skirt dances. Her luminous textile swirls
filling our eyes with tiny arabesques.
Francesca Minnie Hardy 57

textile swirls filling our eyes with tiny arabesques and often begging the
question: What are we looking at? Just as the exposed grain of wood of
The Pointe Courte does when a spectator first lays her eyes upon it. A
brief survey of Vardas body of work also reveals such enigmatic florid
bursts. Sunflowers feature prominently in the opening sequence of
Happiness (Le Bonheur, 1965) [Fig. 5], uncannily and unblinkingly
looking out at an audience, as the corny spectators look on to them. In
her two-hour voyage through Paris in Cleo from 5 to 7 (Clo de 5 7,
1962), the sight of a tree hints at its arboreal permanence, as if today, 50
years since its conception a spectator could visit that very spot and take in
its now greater majesty. Most intriguing of all, however, at least for
myself, are the closing moments of Opera Mouffe (Lopra-mouffe, 1958)
during which a young, pregnant woman a potential doppelganger for
Varda who was pregnant with her first child at the time of its production
heartily consumes a bunch of flowers. [Fig. 6.]

Figures 56. A brief survey of the enigmatic florid bursts across Vardas oeuvre.

In his essay on the uncanny, Freud noted how the represented double
can operate as the uncanny harbinger of death (Freud 1989 [1919], 142),
yet here the double is invested with fecundity, not simply in its depiction
of pregnancy, but also in light of its correspondences with this wider
bucolic web. For like the spatiotemporal interconnection that the exchanged
look between sunflower and spectator, and the sight of Cleos tree, trigger,
her consumption of the flower gestures towards an interrelation between
the body and the flower. As I watch these petals become pulp I am always
reminded of Gilles Deleuzes adage-like sentiment that: It is through the
body (and no longer through the intermediary of the body) that cinema
forms its alliance with the spirit, with thought (Deleuze 1989, 189); a
position that resonates with a major shift in film theory, and what I have
identified as Film Studies fleshy turn.
58 Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation

This fleshy turn has seen modes of spectatorship that strive for more
bodily readings of film emerge, for instance, through appeals to tactility,
the olfactory, or sapidity. In a recent article on the state of film theory in
France, Sarah Cooper too highlights the measure of importance
Deleuzes two volumes on cinema enjoy beyond the French context and
among the proponents of this fleshy turn (Cooper 2012, 381); noting his
particular influence on cultural theorist Laura U. Markss own highly
influential work on touch and the haptic. Very broadly, Markss thesis
centres on haptic looking and its tendency to move over the surface of
its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish
form so much as to discern texture. It is more inclined to move than to
focus, more inclined to graze than to gaze (Marks 2000, 162). In other
words, it is a modality of seeing which declines being pulled into
narrative (Marks 2000, 163) in favour of a more contemplative
relationship with the image as a whole. For our purposes here though we
are interested in the interstices between the French context and this ever-
growing cinema of the senses. Rather fittingly, Cooper refers to what we
could call, following my own taxonomy, the French fleshy turn, casting
Jean-Luc Nancy as a leading figure in the abiding interest in film
(Cooper 2012, 379) Frances philosophical intelligentsia continues to
show. The author of one volume on the cinema of Iranian filmmaker
Abbas Kiarostami, of numerous articles on individual films, and an
occasional embodied filmic agent, putting his own self at stake by entering
the body of film and appearing on-screen, Nancy is likewise part of one of
Frances modern-day cinematic power couples thanks to his intermittent
dialogue with the work of Claire Denis (Cooper 2012, 379). A dialogue
in no way restricted to his critical, textual interventions on her work for
Denis has responded cinematically to Nancys writings through the 2004
feature film The Intruder (LIntrus). Very loosely narrating a heart
transplant transacted on the black market, the film consists of blocks of
sensations (Beugnet 2007, 168), instead of observing a more
conventional narrative logic, a structure which works to prise the seat of
cinematic perception from vision alone as per the objectives of Film
Studies fleshy turn. This coincidence of concerns, however, is not the
whole story of Nancys suitability for adoption by the fleshy turn, for
careful analysis of his most dedicated study of the medium, The Evidence
of Film (2001) characterises his cinema as an undoubted cinema of the
look; the number of mentions of the word regard attesting to this very
proposition.2 Yet it is also undoubtedly a very particular kind of look

Regard is most frequently rendered as look or gaze in English.
Francesca Minnie Hardy 59

given that the impetus of Nancys most extensive engagement with film is
to witness a mobilized way of looking (Nancy 2001, 26) emerge, the
nature of which cannot be understood by considering his work on film in
isolation, for any specificity of his discourses on cinema are caught up
with his wider contribution to the canon of aesthetic thinking. Therefore to
speak of a Nancean ontology of film we must bear in mind his ontology of
the image because one reciprocally informs the other, a contact which
itself, as I will show here, not only places his thought into contact with
Film Studies fleshy turn, but likewise into contact with that intertexual
(and intermedial) traveller, the flower.

A Little Living Piece of Material Cinema

in the Palm of Your Hand
My reading of Nancys image ontology situates its foundation in the
critical contact he makes with the flower and his claim that every image
superficially flowers, or is a flower (Nancy 2003, 16).3 There is of course
nothing new in electing a particular trope to determine specific phenomena
in Film Studies, with the mirror, picture frame, and window, the dominant
three (Sobchack 1991, 14), and at first sight Nancys flowering image may
itself appear metaphorical in its intention. However, it is far more than a
mere figure of speech within the Nancean vernacular, for its evocation
constructs an organic, material, sensuous image: its blooming silky petals
calling to be caressed; its blossoming ostentation risking a greedy picking;
its efflorescing scent inviting closeness or chasing away; much like the
rich surfaces of the cinematic image flowering into view and so appealing
to the fleshy turns models of spectatorship. However, a survey of the state
of this turn reveals that all is not so rosy, and in the wake of the reception
of her ideas on touch and the haptic, Laura U. Marks used a guest editorial
piece to issue a call to action to all newcomers to her thought.My purpose
in theorizing haptic visuality was not to condemn all vision as bent on
mastery, nor indeed to condemn all mastery, but to open up visuality along
the continua of the distant and the embodied, and the optical and the
haptic. As I have already witnessed the appropriation of my haptic ideas
for what seem to me proto-fascist, new-age celebrations of feeling,
irrationality, and primordial ooze, I take advantage of this moment to
beseech those who are newly encountering haptic thinking to keep alive
the dialectic with the optical! (Marks 2004, 82.)

Original French reads: toute image est fleur, ou est une fleur.
60 Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation

Indeed visualitys sliding scale has been central to Markss project

since her debut monograph The Skin of the Film (2000) where she issued a
somewhat softer warning: The difference between haptic and optical
vision is a matter of degree. In most processes of seeing, both are
involved, in a dialectical movement from far to near. And obviously we
need both kinds of visuality: it is hard to look closely at a lovers skin with
optical vision; it is hard to drive a car with haptic vision (Marks 2000,
In resisting illusionistic depth and narrative, then, we should not
decline an optical gaze entirely, but instead make room for it alongside a
surficial graze. Like the resonance shared with Deniss work, Nancy
directly, though accidently, responds to Markss call to action in his
handling of the flower and the sensory appendage this treatment realises.
Prefacing his claim that all images are flowers, or at the very least flower,
with a more general observation, Nancy comments how: The flower, it is
the very finest part, the surface, that which remains before us and which
we only very lightly touch (Nancy 2003, 16).4 It is the availability of the
images surface first to vision and then, at the very least, to a partial touch,
that primes Nancys flowering image for such sensory appendage, the
tripartite haptic figure at this light touchs linguistic core further
accommodating this embellishment. For it does not simply denote two
separate bodies coming into a mutual contact, but rather it connotes
multiple modes of touch, for example, to raze, to brush, to caress,
whilst also articulating the more definite haptic gesture, to pluck. In the
first of these tactile instances, then, there resides a preoccupation with a
superficial or shallow contact, in the spatial sense of the term, as opposed
to implying a sense of the insincere, the cursory, that brushes up against,
caresses, indeed grazes the exposed surface of its co-present other, like we
may the petal of a flower, while it simultaneously occasions a hungry gaze
which seeks to master this tiny piece of nature by plucking or plundering
its micro bouquet. Phenomenologically, however, it plumbs further depths
than this surficial frisson and prehensile picking, for it likewise describes a
coming forth from latency, which may bloom into a brilliant display, or
which may work more generally to make manifest formerly hidden
agencies; an efflorescence that completes this haptic triptych.5 Nancys

Original French reads: La fleur, cest la partie la plus fine, la surface, ce qui
reste devant et quon effleure seulement.
Definitions of efflorescence derive from effloresce, v. cf. OED Online.
September 2012. Oxford University Press.
http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/59763?redirectedFrom=effloresce (accessed at
October 10, 2012).
Francesca Minnie Hardy 61

flowering image thus oscillates the sensory reception of the image between
both vision and touch, between a gaze and a graze, bridging the entire
visuality spectrum that Marks wishes to see acknowledged by ontologies
of the image, and in turn placing a spectator onto the edges of these
sensations too, meaning that our look effectively, and quite literally,
mobilizes thanks to this oscillation. If wood, then, is Vardas filmic
material par excellence, the flower could almost be thought of as the
sensuous image par excellence; a little living piece of material cinema in
the palm of your hand.

Two Worlds, One Vision

This mobilized way of looking, however, demands some form of
leverage which Nancy locates exclusively in the figure of the director, but
which I believe can originate in the material surrounds of the image: in the
textile surfaces which line interiors and clothe protagonists, in the edifices
which deck out landscapes, in the items which litter the spaces and places
the film takes in, as well as, in fleshy touches, that is, the hands and faces
of the onscreen bodies. These surrounds therefore mobilize our look by the
cleaving in two of cinematic perception that Nancys flowering image
admits and are in turn mobilized by this very same look.
This sense of cleavage brings us nicely to our interest in wood and to
The Pointe Courte for the film is effectively two films in one; recounting
the daily lives of the residents of the eponymous fishing village and their
struggle against sanctions imposed by health inspectors, and the visit of
two Parisian outsiders, contemplating a potential end to their four year
marriage. Wood and the structure of the film can, then, be split along the
length of their faithful grains, yet by design each faithfully clings to itself
along the length of this very grain. In her most recent work, on enfolding
and unfolding aesthetics, Marks too has worked with wood, like Nancy,
and I hope myself, shaping it into a figurative and a theoretical material to
think through, or indeed not to think through as the case may be,
categorizing it amongst the order of the machinic phylum. The virtual is
the truly infinite ground against which the fewest actual entities emerge. It
consists of all that cannot presently be thought; it is an asymptote for
thought: the powerlessness at the heart of thought. Most materiality is
virtual too. My notion of the materiality is closer to Deleuze and Guattaris
characterization of the machinic phylum as that material that, like the grain
of wood, guides the artisan to invent and to come up with thoughts that she
would not have had in the absence of this obdurate, densely enfolded
62 Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation

material. Materialistically, we could call the virtual thoughts powerlessness

at the heart of wood (Marks 2010, 7).
Markss words here recall the anonymous plank of wood that
welcomes a spectator to the diegetic world of the film, its looped node and
striated contours constituting formal rhymes to the enfolding and guiding
properties of wood privileged by Marks here. Much more than a visual
representation, however, of a singular wooden plane, this first image is
made up of a series of simultaneous visual, aural and kinetic moments that
beautifully illustrate the mobilized and bifurcated look Nancys flowering
image affords.
Quickly establishing the privileged material relationship with wood in
which it implicates the filmic body at large, these very moments grant us
this ligneous inference not only through the wooden surface which heralds
the image track, but equally through the soundtrack that floods a
spectators ears, composed of a medley of woodwind instruments which
by their very physicality betray this privilege; and the camera which
tightly and statically frames the exposed wood grain of the visual track,
suggestive of the immovability of a rooted tree. The block of wood thus
forms a block of sensations, its internal, textured ornament mobilizing the
look to bring vision as close as possible to the image; by converting
vision to touch (Marks 2000, 159). Yet Vardas filmmaking approach
here does not realise this sensory slippage by declining vision as such,
rather this wooden image-box overspills the visual regime in a gesture that
does not seek to elevate more marginal sensory data above others, but
instead to make space for them. This sense of the wood grain spilling over
beyond the ocular and of the subsequent splitting of the pictorial is
accomplished by the simple sequence which begins with this intimate
establishing shot.
Unfolding further with a steady camera pan to the left, which traces the
grain until it expires, the sequence then transitions onto an additional
series of wooden surfaces, which slowly resolve into the walls of
settlement buildings, before we, the camera and the spectator, slowly
advance along a path together until we chance upon a suited man beneath
what the films second protagonist reveals to the uncultivated spectator is
a fig tree. Upon encountering this suited man the cameras mechanical
neck cranes a little and then relinquishes its view of him in favour of a
more rustically attired figure who quickly reports the suited mans
presence in The Pointe-Courte. In electing to follow this second man the
camera retraces its original steps, coiling around and taking a spectator
back with it. A coiling movement that enjoys both an intelligible and a
sensible function, ostensibly opening up lines of sight, and thereby
Francesca Minnie Hardy 63

permitting us entry into the profilmic world, whilst sensuously modifying

vision. In essence, it plumbs down into the materiality of the image for it
splits along the grain of both an optical and tactile mode of seeing, without
annihilating either, just as Nancys flowering image prompts the filmic
image to border on the edges of touch and vision, in turn placing a
spectator onto the edges of these sensations, too.
This phenomenon is better understood if we append two further
Nancean reflections on the ontologies of cinema and images to his
flowering images. The first relates to his thinking over the impact of
editing on the life force of a film, which he perceives not as an exercise in
binding meaning and holding it fast, but rather as an exercise in a creative
yielding. The finished film, according to Nancy, is never the only
imaginable, with each film host to an abundance of others (Nancy
2011, 82).6 This abundance emerging from the fact that in proposing one
particular point of view via its final edit, the film distances its material
from a multiplicity of other possible or latent films each just as much
imaginable (as the actual) (Nancy 2011, 82).7 As such the finished film
is merely a placeholder for a multiplicity of others which ectoplasmically
halo it as a floating aura. Thus brimming with alternatives Nancys
wider image ontology further attests to such bounty when considering the
cascade of inference with which even black and white text is rich.
Rendered as a threadless weaving in his vernacular, Nancy again returns to
the flower to illuminate his thinking in relation to the overspill such
textual enunciation enacts. For example, in the statement Je dis une fleur
the movement of the needle in the stitch automatically ties dire to fleur
(Nancy 2003, 128), but thanks to the cascade of inference enfolded within
this simple statement our engagement with it does not cease with this most
obvious needlework and this first silken fibre seeps new meanings
auratically floating within its ectoplasmic halo.8 Dire and fleur thus
threadlessly weave themselves as to say and to speak, to sing, to
evoke, and as flower, scent, petal, finial, wilting, flora, and

Original French reads: [1] le film termin nest jamais le seul film imaginable,
[2] Chaque film est riche dautres films.
Original French reads: [1] il reste certainement chaque fois des possibilits que
le montage final carte. [2] si du moins on ne parle que de ltat fini du film,
autour duquel et aprs lequel continue flotter une aura de possibles qui sont
autant dinterprtations imaginables.
[1] Literally I say a flower. Original French reads: [2] ce mouvement du
crochet dans la maille qui enchane dj dire fleur.
64 Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation

flame to produce an immaterial, yet palpable, tapestry.9 In both cases,

then, any yielding occurs thanks to the floating aura that ectoplasmically
haloes each phenomena and wherein resides the abundance of possible
films, constituted from anything from the axed acetate strips lying on the
floor of the editing room to the actual splitting of reality according to the
infamous many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics, and from whence
the formerly impalpable textual filaments may emanate and consequently
be threadlessly woven together to form an immaterial tapestry. In a
cinematic context, then, this threadless weaving could be annexed to
Nancys forked films for it permits a remapping of the off-screen space by
means of an embroidering of the onscreen space with presences both
imagined and sensed; perhaps once seen and now felt.10 Accordingly then,
they should prompt us to conceive of the filmic image as neither absolute
nor latently exhausted, as neither final nor finial, for although technically
the outermost plane of the film, the actual, visible image is in actuality a
densely enfolded plane; its seemingly sheer surface in fact covered in tiny
grooves, these micro folds flowering outwards towards our eyes to
mobilize vision. The sight of wood during The Pointe Courtes opening
moments offering a very literal site to think through this supposition.11
The Pointe Courtes opening sequence behaves and is embroidered in
this way through the cameras coil. For not only do its movements
introduce us to the diegetic world, but they likewise materially mimic knot
formation in the trunks and branches of trees as the smooth formation of

Original French reads: dire parler, chanter, voquer et fleur
parfum, ptale, fleuron, fltrir, flore ou flamme. The mechanics of the
phenomenon could be said to have a direct analogue in a visual context through
Roland Barthess elucidation of the photographic studium and punctum. Cf.
Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. 1981. New York: Hill and Wang.
Varda herself embarks on such an exercise in Ulysse (1982) wherein she revisits
the three chief constitutive elements of a photograph she had taken decades earlier:
a boy, now a man; a man, now an old man; and a dead goat; still dead. Creatively
and discursively engaging with these three pillars of the original composition
each component of the imagecome[s] alive and gain[s] a corporeal dimension
in not merely one, but several possible alternative realities (Peth 2010, 84);
arguably by means of the floating aura of meanings that ectoplasmically haloes the
then of the photograph being threadlessly woven into the now of the film.
Nancys flowering image, and its corresponding phenomena, could almost be
thought of as the obverse of Vardas cincriture, a term conceived by Varda which
addresses the choices she makes when shooting a film. In essence, what she
decides to write into the cinema she authors. Nancys flowering images et al. could
be thought the opposing, yet complementary, processes for they treat, or indeed
attempt to coax out, what emanates from this cincriture.
Francesca Minnie Hardy 65

straight growth lines, cinematically speaking the forward moving lines of

the cameras movement, is interrupted by its backtracking. We thus
acquire a sort of forked vision, as per Nancys flowering image, because
looking down the alleyway we intellectually understand our impending
entry into the diegetic world, but our eyes, having brushed up against the
wood grain in function[ing] like organs of touch (Marks 2000, 162), as
well as through the interplay of visual, aural, and kinetic material, are now
sensible to the forms of the woods internal, textured ornament.
Thus infused with its lignin patterns, our eyes threadlessly, yet
palpably, weave its patterns back into the image despite the fact that its
lignin fibres have been abandoned by the visual (and aural) track and are
therefore no longer intellectually visible, but only sensibly in the cameras
arabesque coil. Indeed it could be said that the visual image becomes
grainier, not by means of a drop in visual quality or sharpness, which may
elicit a more material mode of perception through an augmented sense of
tactility, but by means of a thickening up of the image through the cascade
of inference which carpets it. In essence, the exposed grain of wood of
these opening moments supplies us with the material leverage we need in
order to mobilise our way of looking so as to prise out the richness with
which the image, and the film, is flush. By doing so this material leverage
enables the grain of the wood to effloresce upon the body of the film and
as such comes to materially and sensuously structure The Pointe Courte,
permeating its visual, audio, and kinetic material like a refrain which
prompts spectatorial oscillations between and upon the distinct moments
of its return ensuring that our vision is always in flux, able to tap into the
many potential alternate realities that inhere within a film and in no way
inhibited by woods obdurate and densely enfolded material, but rather
mobilized by it.12

Interestingly, Alison Smith, in what remains the only book-length English
language study exclusively dedicated to Vardas oeuvre, suggests that the film
commences with a tracking shot down the main street of the village (Smith 1998,
64), rather than with the exposed and anonymous block of wood explored above;
essentially deferring the start of the film until after all of the credits have rolled. In
doing so Smith also risks overlooking the sense of this exposed wood grain, and
the bounty of the image, which continues throughout The Pointe Courte. Similarly,
Ginette Vincendeau highlights the role of this tracking shot within the films
opening minutes although she does recognise its timber preface. However, her
suggestion that as the camera moves on from this first wooden pane that a section
of a tree trunk is revealed wraps things up a little too readily. For I would suggest
that Vincendeaus trunk is in fact a bench which we later catch a glimpse of
through the grain-like coils the film realises in its exposition of the diegetic space;
circularly swooping from one corner of The Pointe Courte to another.
66 Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation

Further Wooden Whittlings

A sense of this exposed wood grain, and the bounty of the image,
remains throughout The Pointe Courte thanks to the many circles and
straight lines that fill its material surrounds. Sensible to the visual rhyme
they share with its internal patterns through her inaugural encounter with
its interior ornament during the opening visual, aural, and kinetic moments
of the film, a spectators eyes once again immaterially, yet palpably,
weave these patterns back into the image. These geometrical echoes
appear in both stories the film tells, hinting at the potential for proximity
between the two narrative strands, and whilst some are quite simply
articulated through an overt display of these grainy forms, for instance, a
cat curled up asleep in a fishing net; an eel similarly wound up in a bucket;
or planks of untreated wood running parallel to a rope washing line, others
are yet more discreet. [Figs. 78.] For example, planted amongst the
costumes and accessories of the characters small-scale allusions to woods
ligneous design can be found, such as a smoking pipe, or the striped jersey
and beret worn by a number of the small fishing towns inhabitants. More
sophisticated than these, however, are the moments which demand a
greater amount of threadless weaving.

Figures 78. A sense of the exposed wood grain remains throughout The Pointe
Courte thanks to the many circles and straight lines that fill its material surrounds.

Ever present are the simple circles and straight lines that plainly deck
out the films material surrounds, but, like the opening moments of the
film, in these moments these shapes transcend these material surrounds
and enter the body of the film itself. Deftly demonstrating the intelligent
interplay between form and content that film can accomplish, these
instances once again consider the image a polymorphous entity ripe with
far more than a predominant visual track. One of the most striking uses of
Francesca Minnie Hardy 67

this occurs shortly after Elle, the unnamed lead female protagonist of the
purely fictional tale the film recounts, has arrived in The Pointe Courte to
visit the birthplace of her husband for the first time. As they journey to the
shack that will be their residence during their stay, their walk is interrupted
by the approach of a slow moving train and standing perpendicular to its
passage they, and the spectator, are obliged to endure its cumbersome and
metallic presence which comes to dominate the films visual and aural
tracks as it edges past them; a static camera recording the trains steady
screech towards the edge of the screen until its cab fills its entire surface
area. Transporting a spectators view to the other side of the tracks, the
body of the film refocuses on the trials of the couple quickly cutting to a
slightly obliquely angled mid-shot. Whilst holding them here the camera
then winds around them before stopping once again to permit them the
space to walk off into the unknown distance. Contemplated alongside each
other, and with eyes sensible to the swirled knots and smooth contours of
woods internal ornament, the kinetic content of the image, here expressed
by the trains slow forward motion, and the kinetic quality of the filmic
body itself, here realised by the cameras semi-circular movement around
the protagonists, work in mutual operation and threadlessly weave the
woody texture back into the film, causing an efflorescence of woods
lignin fibres on the surface of the filmic body in defiance of the visual
tracks relinquishing them. [Figs. 910.]

Figures 910.

The reciprocal play of the straight lines of the trains heavy movements
and of the curvilinear motion of the camera can be witnessed at work
again, but in a very different form, at a number of points during the film.
Likewise concerned with shot choice, and consequently operating at the
level of the filmic body, the fleshy touches that inflect the films imagery,
here the faces of the protagonists captured in close-up, act as the circles
68 Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation

central to the immaterial tapestry threadlessly woven, whilst the series of

vista shots seen throughout the film, essentially functioning as pseudo-
establishing shots in their very literal capability of opening up The Pointe-
Courtes locale, constitute the linear complement to the protagonists
round, fleshy faces. Two remarkable instances coincide with the early part
of Elles visit too, the vista shots effectively acquainting both spectator
and protagonist with The Pointe Courte. The first follows a brief enquiry
into whether or not her face has changed in the five days since the couple
parted and after some reassurance from Il and a lingering close-up of
Elles round face, he presents The Pointe Courte to her, and the audience,
by way of a steady pan to the left which opens up the narrow vista. A
second example first opens on to one of these vistas, the sight of which is
quickly interrupted by a cut away to another close-up of Elles face; the
pace of this change shunting the wood grain back onto the surface of the
filmic body [Figs. 1112].

Figures 1112. The juxtaposition of narrow vistas and close-ups of faces shunts
the wood grain back onto the surface of the filmic body.

A more lyrical example takes place later in the trip as the couple
wander along the shoreline. Initially filmed in long shot, as the couple near
the waters edge, a cut quickly installs the camera behind an abandoned,
broken basket lying on the sand; its woven, circular form providing a
diegetic although highly stylised frame to the couples movements. As
they pass in front of this wicker frame, its shape obviously reminiscent of
the knot in the anonymous grain of wood, the camera dives through its
cylindrical body so that we do not lose sight of the couple although we are
denied a view of their bodies and must simply make do with their feet.
Charting their walk at this ground level, a linear travelling shot remains
focussed on their feet until a star-like shape, which we infer to be the base
of the broken basket appears in the foreground of the image; its spiked
Francesca Minnie Hardy 69

circular form stalling the cameras sideways movement and again recalling
the knot of the films timber preface. [Figs. 1314.] In completing this
motion, this beach debris also completes the final stitch in the threadless
weaving which sews the now absent lignin fibres of the opening wooden
plane back into the onscreen space of the beach. The warp and weft of its
immaterial tapestry gathering filaments as soon as the image acquires its
wicker frame; these filaments bolstered by the travelling shots mimicry of
woods striations; the sight of the baskets formerly missing base likewise
forming the base of the purely sensible tree trunk that our mobilised look
could be said to carve out through the sequences visual and kinetic material.

Figures 1314. Our mobilised look could be said to carve out a purely sensible
tree trunk through the sequences visual and kinetic material.

I should perhaps pause here for a moment because it could be said that
this discussion privileges the couples narrative too much at too great an
expense of the villagers tale. But this is somewhat of a wilful neglect,
motivated not by disrespect, but by a desire to dispel, or at the very least to
challenge the material dichotomy promoted by the prevailing canon of
criticism surrounding the film. Whereas these two halves are supposedly
narratively, thematically, and stylistically distinct, the film as a whole has
been well and widely documented as delight[ing] in contrasts [] and
parallels (Vincendeau 2008). Yet this pleasure it delights in draws up
materially opposing territories, such as light and shadow (Varda), iron and
wood (Truffaut, Flitterman-Lewis), black and white (Deleuze) which co-
exist, but do not necessarily confer. These material schisms are largely
gendered and the most significant for our purposes here is undeniably the
opposition of wood and steel (Flitterman-Lewis 1996, 221). Visually
articulated by the artefacts fashioned from these materials and scattered
about the diegetic landscape, and aurally by means of these materials
being worked by or as tools, Il is aligned with wood and Elle is associated
70 Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation

with steel. However, through the continued efflorescence of the exposed

wood grain throughout the film, I would like to suggest that this material
divide is purely ostentatious, or at the very least, operates on a purely
superficial level, in the insincere sense of the word, because in acquiring a
look that plumbs down into the materiality and multiplicity of the image,
mobilized by incorporating the ornamented insides of the wood grain it
has brushed up against into our regard, our vision successfully splits along
the grain of both an optical and tactile mode of seeing. A spectator
therefore enjoys the practical advantages of each modality of seeing, as
sketched out by Markss call to action, whilst simultaneously benefitting
from the creative freedom such relay grants in its enabling expired
exposures to re-enter the onscreen image and thereby acknowledging the
abundance with which every film is rich, as per Nancys forked films
theory and threadless weaving. As such, the exposed wood grain
encountered in the first few moments of the film grants the spectatorial
look the material leverage required to mobilize and it does so to such a
degree that this look transcends any long-thought material myopia,
essentially opening up the entire filmic body to the ligneous inference with
which it pulsates. Like the block of wood, then, The Pointe Courtes
blocks of sensations are porous.13
As the couples narrative unfolds the film illustrates such porosity via the
ligneous crossover witnessed as the seemingly rekindled pair chat inside
the wooden hull of a ship, with the formerly iron Elle wandering gaily
within it. Admittedly, however, this wooden shell possesses an iron lining
for it is dotted with nuts, bolts, and support rods; the films material
surrounds again delighting in contrasts, but pleasantly implying an
osmotic parity. [Figs. 1516.] Bearing these words in mind, it could
almost be argued that wood, Vardas key cinematic material, functions as
far more than a leitmotif, and a material one at that, but as a lining to the
whole film, a lining which thickens, strengthens, and acquires new
dimensions as the film plays on through the reciprocity between a hungry
gaze that plunges into illusionistic depth and a surficial graze that is more
concerned with texture than narrative teleology. The final moments of the
film attest to this proposition.

Following the terms set out by gnes Peth in her intervention on intermediality
as metalepsis in Vardas cincriture, this transcendence could perhaps be annexed
to the threefold taxonomy she identifies as operative across Vardas oeuvre as a
sensory metalepsis that effects a jump between diegetic and non-diegetic worlds
(Peth 2010).
Francesca Minnie Hardy 71

Figures 1516. The Pointe Courte: iron lines and wooden shell.

The couple prepare to leave The Pointe Courte for Paris, together. The
village celebrates, together. As the celebration gets into full swing
woodwind music fills the air and our ears evoking a sense of the wood
grain which here occasions a diegetic and an extra-diegetic oscillation: the
villagers jostle on the dance floor, whilst a spectator jostles with the very
opening moments of the film when this music was heard for the first time.
Through this aural material the film itself becomes a knot in the grain of
cinema encased within itself, effectively enacting a final coil which
materially returns us to the opening moments of the film. Yet The Pointe
Courte does not leave us with any sense of being wrapped up for we do
not know if the couple will remain together upon their return to Paris, nor
whether any of the kittens will be saved from drowning following a childs
request in its closing moments. Our final impression of the film thus splits
according to Nancys forked films theory, like the playground game of
plucking petals from a flower: a kitten drowns, a kitten lives, she loves
him, she loves him not.

Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New
York: Hill and Wang.
Beugnet, Martine. 2007. Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art
of Transgression. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Cooper, Sarah. 2012. Film Theory in France. French Studies vol. 66 no. 3
(July): 376382.
Curot, Frank. 1991. Lcriture de La Pointe Courte [The Writing of The
Pointe Courte]. In Agns Varda, ed. Michel Estve, 8599. Paris:
Lettres Modernes-Minard.
72 Avoid Contact with the Eyes and Skin, May Cause Irritation

Deleuze, Gilles. 1989. Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Minneapolis:

University of Minnesota Press.
Flitterman-Lewis, Sandy. 1996. To Desire Differently: Feminism and
French culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
Freud, Sigmund. 2003 [1919]. The Uncanny. London: Penguin.
Marks, Laura U. 2010. Enfoldment and Infinity: An Islamic Genealogy of
New Media Art. Cambridge and London: The MIT Press.
. 2004. Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes. Framework: The
Finnish art review Issue 2 (November): 8082.
. 2000. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and
the Senses. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2011. En tournage avec R.A.-Z. Trafic Issue 78 (June):
. 2003. Au fond des images [The Ground of the Image]. Paris: Galile.
. 2001. The Evidence of Film. Brussels: Yves Gevaert.
Peth, gnes. 2010. Intermediality as Metalepsis in the Cincriture of
Agns Varda. Acta Universitatis Sapientiae. Film and Media Studies
Vol. 3: 6994.
Prdal, Ren. 2009. Gense dune uvre: Agns Varda et La Pointe
Courte [Genesis of an uvre: Agns Varda and The Pointe Courte]. In
Agns Varda: le cinma et au-del [Agns Varda: the Cinema and
Beyond], eds. Antony Fiant, Roxane Hamery, and Eric Thouvenel,
101112. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes.
Smith, Alison. 1998. Agns Varda. Manchester and New York:
Manchester University Press.
Sobchack, Vivian. 1992. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of
Film Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Truffaut, Franois. 1975. Les films de ma vie [The Films of my Life]. Paris:
Varda, Agns. Varda Par Agns. 1994. Paris: Cahiers du Cinma/Cin-
Vincendeau, Ginette. 2008. La Pointe Courte: How Agns Varda
invented the New Wave.
agnes-varda-invented-the-new-wave. Last accessed 24. 09. 2012.
Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2012. Oxford University Press.
Last accessed 08. 10. 2012.


It is with the advent of the DV camera that Agns Varda had the idea
for her acclaimed documentary The Gleaners and I.1 When it appeared in
the mid-nineties, this type of handheld camera represented a new approach
to filmmaking altogether, since its size and its technology allowed for a
greater freedom on the directors part. Freed from the constraints of the
traditional cinematic apparatus, the filmmaker could experience an
unprecedented closeness to his or her subject as well as immediacy
between themselves and the world they were recording on camera. These
elements proved to be of the utmost interest for Varda, whose background
in the still image and the theater has always driven her to explore the
narrative and visual possibilities offered by the filmic medium.2 She then
decided to embark on a journey across France in order to illustrate the

Varda herself explains that the discovery of the digital camera was of paramount
importance in her creative process and her desire to tackle the topic of gleaning:
There were three things [that interested her in filming the gleaners]. The first one
was noticing the motion of these people bending in the open market. The second
one was a program on TV. The third reason which pushed me to begin and
continue this film was the discovery of the digital camera []. With the new
digital camera, I felt I could find myself, get involved as a filmmaker. (Anderson
2001, 24.)
Varda first studied art history before shifting to photography, and she landed her
first job as an official photographer for the Thtre National Populaire (TNP) in
Paris. She had little knowledge of film techniques and was quite inexperienced
when she directed her first feature film, La Pointe Courte, in 1955. Richard
Neupert points to this fact when he writes: Her background in art, literature, and
theater was much stronger than her knowledge of film history or techniques [].
Varda initially began filmmaking from a rather nave perspective. (Neupert 2002,
74 Haptic Vision in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse

different meanings the concept of gleaning covered in modern, consumerist

French society (Vasse 2008, 190).
If, by recording the lives of people who glean as a means of survival or
as a recreational hobby, Vardas primary intent is to offer a comment on
French society at the dawn of the 21st century, the significance of her
documentary cannot be limited to its social and economic discourse, for it
offers a more complex structure, both narratively and visually. Thanks to
the handiness of the DV camera, Varda also gleans moments from her
life, since she incorporates a series of shots of her own aging body
throughout the documentary, when we see her filming her wrinkled hands
in a close-up or brushing her greying hair, or reenacting the act of
gleaning. These images carve out a space within the documentary that
allows the filmmakers subjectivity to infuse the social discourse of the
film, resulting in an aesthetic of collage which, gnes Peth says, amounts
to a genuine collection of media representations and also offers an
authentic record of the passion driving the filmmaker herself to collect and
assemble and display the booty found in the world (Peth 2009, 53).
The presence of such images blurs any pre-established boundary that
might have defined the scope of the documentary, as the latter combines
the objective task of filming poverty and social dismay and the more
personal one of documenting Vardas own feelings regarding her body and
the act of gleaning itself, in a fashion closely akin to the art of self-portrait.
Varda herself points out the kaleidoscopic nature of her documentary
when she says: I felt that although Im not a gleaner Im not poor, I
have enough to eat theres another kind of gleaning, which is artistic
gleaning. You pick ideas, you pick images, you pick emotions from other
people, and then you make it into a film. Because I was also at a turn of
age [] I thought it should be mentioned somehow. (Anderson 2001,
24.) As a result, her documentary presents itself as an intricate piece of
visual work whose initial endeavor is complicated by Vardas mise-en
scne and the degree to which she blends seemingly heterogeneous
elements within the film.3
However, what might first appear as a random assemblage of voices,
places and people actually proceeds from a thought-out humanistic and
artistic undertaking on Vardas behalf. From a discursive perspective, the
images that depict her filming her own body or reenacting the act of
gleaning shall be considered as participating in the directors endeavor to

In his article Digression and return: Aesthetics and politics in Agnes Vardas Les
Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000), Ben Tyrer explores the complex narrative structure
of the documentary and the blending of personal matters with political and
economic considerations (Tyrer 2009, 161176).
Romain Chareyron 75

deter any kind of hierarchy between the different social groups she records
on camera. By choosing to shine a light on what is usually deemed as
improper or debasing the aging body or the act of gleaning Varda
favors fluidity, as her narrative is built around scenes that echo each other
and call for an all-encompassing approach that bypasses socio-economic
considerations. As Claude Murcia notes: the mosaic structure and the
absence of hierarchy it creates work to include marginalized and deprecated
people within an egalitarian and democratic patchwork: various types of
outcasts stand alongside each other and are united by the film as being part
of one large community defined by the act of gleaning (Murcia 2009, 44
my translation). From a visual perspective our main point of focus
the intimacy and proximity felt by the spectator, when confronted to the
different bodily scenarios instated by Varda, redefine the scope of the
traditional documentary film,4 as these images give rise to a form of
knowledge that cannot be put into words, but only conveyed through a
heightening of our senses by way of the textural properties of the image.5
Vardas filmic approach thus understands the act of gleaning as a social,
political and aesthetic gesture. In so doing, she privileges a visual regimen
where the relationship between the spectator and the images is based on a
tactile mode of apprehension rather than on the mastery of the gaze. By
resorting to the mute significance of images to convey a sense of contact
between the spectator and the representation, Vardas mise-en-scne
unearths the multi-layered meanings connected to the objects and bodies
recorded on film in order to express their non-reducible qualities.
By showing what gleaning stands for in different social and
historical contexts, Vardas initial will was to unveil the various meanings
attached to this ancestral practice. What lies at the root of this undertaking
is the acknowledgment that if in the past gleaning was a collaborative
work that gathered people together, nowadays it is mostly endowed with
negative connotations and stands for the dark side of capitalism and
consumerist society. This contrast is made clear at the beginning of the
documentary, through the iconography associated with the representation

The questions of truthfulness and objectivity are the defining aspects of the
documentary films. As William Guynn notes: Documentary asserts the realism
of its discourse as against the imaginary world of fiction. The documentary film
manifests the inherent relationship between cinematographic technology and the
real; it assumes its natural function in relation to its natural object. (Guynn
1990, 19.)
To borrow from Claude Murcia, we could say that the documentarys reliance on
non-verbal cues to generate meaning opens up a form of knowledge that exists
outside of language (en-de du langage et du sens). (Murcia 2009, 46.)
76 Haptic Vision in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse

of these two periods of time. The first person interviewed, a middle-aged

woman, recollects the time when, as a child, she went gleaning with the
other women from her village. There is a strong sense of community and
bonding that is expressed in her different memories of that time.
Moreover, Varda connects these memories to images of paintings inspired
by gleaning the most famous of which being Francois Millets The
Gleaners (Les Glaneuses, 1857) showing that, in the past, gleaning was
considered a traditional aspect of rural life. The representation of gleaning
in contemporary France that ensues acts as a stark counterpart to this
somewhat idyllic depiction, as we see a series of shots representing people
of all ages rummaging for food after a market day. The rap song that
accompanies these shots reinforces the impressions of roughness and of
social alienation that have come to qualify modern-day gleaning.
However, it would be wrong to see in the opposition of these two
concepts a wish to conduct a didactic work of investigation. Instead, by
confronting these two perceptions, Varda wants to bring out the shift in
meaning that has been taking place over time regarding peoples
understanding of gleaning, and how we have come to perceive it in a
unequivocal and negative light. In a similar way to what Jules Breton (The
Gleaner [La Glaneuse], 1877) or Francois Millet achieved with their
paintings, Varda uses art here, cinema to offer a reevaluation of this
cultural and social practice by revealing what gleaning means to different
groups of people. The director herself expresses her wish for a polyphonic
approach when she says: I think that documentary means real, that you
have to meet these real people, and let them express what they feel about
the subject []. They make the statement; they explain the subject better
than anybody. So its not like having an idea about a subject and lets
illustrate it. Its meeting real people and discovering with them what they
express about the subject, building the subject through real people.
(Anderson 2001, 25.)
With this documentary, Vardas goal is to avoid adopting a one-sided
attitude when documenting the act of gleaning. To do so, she
acknowledges the subjective part that lies at the heart of this practice:
some people glean for survival, others for pleasure, and, for some,
gleaning becomes part of a wider, artistic process. These varied attitudes
towards gleaning create a mosaic of faces and voices that makes it
impossible to restrict the meaning of the objects being gleaned, as they
move from pure commodity to being the bearers of peoples (hi)stories.
The scene that best illustrates this aspect of the documentary takes place
when Varda films people gleaning potatoes after harvest time. This most
common tuber comes to symbolize very different histories and memories
Romain Chareyron 77

for the people interviewed: for some, it represents an essential part of their
diet, as gleaning provides them with their main source of food [Fig. 1]. For
the people who work in a factory in charge of packaging potatoes, these
vegetables constitute an item that has to be evaluated according to very
specific criteria: if the potatoes do not correspond to the right caliber, or if
they are green or damaged during the harvest, they are considered
improper for retail and are then brought back to the fields to rot or be
picked up by gleaners [Fig. 2]. Then, for Varda, the discovery of heart-
shaped potatoes offers the possibility to explore their textural qualities, as
we see her gleaning potatoes and then filming them in a close-up that
reveals the minute details of their cracked and dirty surface [Fig. 3, Fig. 4].

Figures 12. Gleaning for survival and a consumerist approach.

Figures 34. An artistic approach and gleaning as an aesthetic gesture.

If the recourse to tactility is an aspect of the documentary we will deal

with later on, it is possible to say that, in the scene we are analyzing now,
this specific type of image works to extract the object from its traditional
cultural environment to reveal aesthetic qualities that are commonly
overlooked or ignored. These three different points of view serve to
illustrate the directors intentions, that is, to reinstate the complexity of
78 Haptic Vision in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse

these objects and make it the heart of the narrative. From this perspective,
the social undertaking of Les Glaneurs echoes Laura U. Markss
concept of intercultural cinema, when she writes that intercultural
cinema moves through space, gathering up histories and memories that are
lost or covered in the movement of displacement, and producing new
knowledges out of the condition of being between cultures (Marks 2000,
78). For Marks, intercultural films strive to expose the qualities that have
been repressed or hidden in specific objects by the dominant culture. The
aim of intercultural cinema is thus to unleash these qualities or
radioactivity and make them the official discourse of the narrative:
they [intercultural films] may show how the meaning of an object changes
as it circulates in new contexts. They may restore the radioactivity of an
object that has been sanitized or rendered inert through international trade.
They may depict the object in such a way that it is protected from the
fetishizing or commodifying gaze (Marks 2000, 79).
This brings us back to the example of the potatoes; this humble food
appears re-endowed with history (Marks 2000, 99) as the documentary
focuses on the different values it acquires, moving from one cultural group
to another. When Varda decides to film the heart-shaped potatoes in a
close-up, not only does she attempt to bring forth a sense of touch within
the narrative, she also wishes to focus on the different layers of
significance and memories attached to this vegetable. The purpose of the
DV camera is paramount in this sequence, as it allows Varda to create a
specific kind of relationship between her and the objects which, in turn,
enables the viewer to see and almost touch these objects in a way that a
more traditional cinematic apparatus would not have made possible. It is
by considering the body of the spectator as a complex surface with which
the filmic image can interact, that Varda has created a documentary whose
meaning does not so much arise from what is being shown as from how it
is being shown, focusing on the complex and multi-layered realities
encapsulated by the objects on screen. It does so by acknowledging the
various identities that trivial objects can conceal but also, as we are going
to observe now, by resorting to a particular form of contact between the
spectator and the images.
Vardas wish to question perception and pre-established conceptions
does not only apply to the objects being gleaned. Indeed, the director is
seen shooting her wrinkled hands in a series of close-ups, and even
extreme close-ups [Fig. 5], and we also see her combing her greying hair
[Fig. 6], or lying on a couch. The questions that emerge from these scenes
concern the meaning that we ought to give these images as well as their
larger significance within the documentary. At first sight, it seems quite
Romain Chareyron 79

problematic to assign them a clear narrative purpose; even though we

come to understand that they are part of the filmmakers project to glean
memories and events through the use of the DV camera the latter acting
as a form of video diary this explanation does not suffice to give
coherence to the two discourses that structure the documentary. We have,
on the one hand, a multi-faceted depiction of modern-day gleaning in
France and, on the other hand, what could be considered as some sort of
filmed autobiography. We need to focus on the quality of vision that
Varda is establishing in these images as it is through a sensual appraisal of
the filmic images that Varda intends to re-organize vision.

Figures 56. The DV camera and the emergence of haptic vision. Blurring the
social and the personal: documenting the aging body.

In these scenes the DV camera gives rise to a specific kind of image, in

which our attention is drawn to the materiality of the shot, more
particularly, through a heightening of our sense of touch. The involvement
of tactility as the main vehicle for perception is precisely what qualifies
haptic vision since whereas optic images set discrete, self-standing
elements of figuration in illusionistic spaces, haptic images dehierarchize
perception, drawing attention back to the tactile details and the material
surface where figure and ground start to fuse (Beugnet 2007, 6566).
Haptic vision thus works as the other side of perception, giving way to a
knowledge that is felt rather than thought. What is sought is a different
kind of being in front of film images, where the spectator is physically
aware of his or her body while sensually involved with(in) the fiction.
That kind of involvement calls for a radically new approach to images, as
they no longer appear to convey a single, pre-determined meaning or truth,
but rather invite the viewer to experience the images through what I call
sensuous memory. What I mean here is that, whenever films resort to
haptic vision, the viewer does not come into contact with the images using
a set of external and pre-established concepts, but through personal affects
80 Haptic Vision in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse

and memories stored in his or her senses, which the images activate by
enhancing the textural qualities of the objects present on screen.6 In so
doing, the film disrupts any attempt of a fetishizing look, as the viewer can
only rely on his or her physical involvement to literally make sense of the
It is this unpredictability between the film and the viewer that rules
Vardas mise-en-scne when we see her filming her own body, or as she
reenacts the act of gleaning. Whenever the camera is letting our gaze
linger on the spotted surface of her wrinkled hands or on the rough texture
of potatoes being gleaned, the ideological barrier between the viewer and
the cinematic space starts to waver. We are never put at a distance from
the potatoes or from Vardas body, but are instead pulled towards them, as
the evocative power of haptic vision asks us to emotionally invest the
representation with the memories stored in our own sensations. Vardas
mise-en-scne engages with the viewer on a deeply intimate level, as its
emphasis on surfaces echoes personal and subjective experiences on the
spectators part. This closeness between the spectator and the images,
combined with his or her physical and emotional involvement, make for an
apprehension of the onscreen world that is removed from any external
considerations. Haptic vision reaches for autonomic reactions manifested
in the skin, thus opening new means of understanding and renewing
cinemas pledge to go beyond culturally prescribed limits and glimpse the
possibility of being more than we are (MacDougall 2005, 16).
In Vardas documentary, the physical involvement that is required by
haptic vision also serves as a unifying device between the different
discourses that constitute the narrative. Vardas documenting of her own
body as well as of modern-day gleaning come together when analyzed
through the concept of haptic vision, as they offer a counter-discourse
regarding utilitarian doctrines surrounding aging, poverty and mass
consumption. We must now observe this more political statement through
the films tactile reenactment in order to understand how [] characters
or the camera or the viewer perform particular kinds of touch, and what

As Laura U. Marks aptly points out, the focus on tactility, that emerges whenever
haptic vision becomes the modus operandi of the mise-en-scne, does not
necessarily aim at one specific organ on the viewers body. Tactility can then
generate bodily responses that are connected to other senses, thus triggering
powerful memories stored in our sense of smell, our hearing or our vision: Touch
need not be linked explicitly to a single organ such as the skin but is enacted and
felt throughout the body []. As a material mode of perception and expression,
then, cinematic tactility occurs not only at the skin or the screen, but traverses all
the organs of the spectators body and the films body (Marks 2009, 2).
Romain Chareyron 81

kinds of relationships among them do particular styles of touch imply?

(Barker 2009, 25). By resorting to haptic vision, Varda calls for a
humanistic approach, asking us to feel things and understand them through
a proprioceptive, non-judgmental approach. As our previous analyses
tended to put forth, we do not stand as passive onlookers when we witness
Varda filming her own body or gleaning food. We are instead drawn into
the materiality of the filmic image so that we become the directors aging
body, or the gleaners bending to the ground to reach food.
This idea of becoming the Other finds a visual translation within the
documentary in the scenes where Varda, holding the DV camera with one
hand, films her other hand. Two scenes are especially relevant; in the first
one, we see her gleaning potatoes [Fig. 7], and in the second one of the
most striking scenes of the documentary we see the camera tracking
along her hand in an extreme close-up, so that at some point, we do not
perceive a hand anymore, but a surface of veins and wrinkles, whose
imperfections are heightened by the use of the chiaroscuro [Fig. 8]. This
original use of the subjective camera where the spectator is given the
illusion of personal experience is based on the conception of skin as a
meeting place for exchange and traversal because it connects the inside
with the outside, the self with the other (Barker 2009, 27). It is on the
implications of such a carnal relationship between the viewer and the
image that we need to focus on in order to understand how haptic vision is
used to complicate the sense of touch and make the viewing experience
one of mutual exchange and constant reevaluation.

Figures 78. Reproducing the act of gleaning, and the filmic image as a means of

For this contact to happen between the viewer and the film, an
ideological shift needs to take place, where the projection screen is no
longer perceived as a barrier between the spectator and the images, but
rather as a membrane that allows interaction and reciprocity. If viewer and
82 Haptic Vision in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse

film are on an equal stage of footing, pre-conceived meanings do not take

precedence over perception, allowing the surface of the cinema screen
[to] function[s] as an artificial organ of cognition. The prosthetic organ of
the cinema screen does not merely duplicate cognitive perception, but
changes its nature (Buck-Morss 1994, 48). The use of haptic vision thus
gives access to another dimension of perception, as it strives to create a
continuum between the spectator and the images through a feeling of
mutual recognition.
To express the kind of bond that seals this relationship, we wish to
refer to Jennifer M. Barkers take on Merleau-Pontys concept of flesh
and its possible application in regard to the physical involvement that
accompanies the film-viewing experience. For Merleau-Ponty, flesh is
not restricted to the dermis that covers the body but also implies a mode of
being based on the interdependency between human beings and the
material world embraced by their field of vision. When applied to cinema,
Barker argues, this concept allows for a dialogue between the spectator
and the film, for neither of those instances stands above the other, but
instead exist in a state of inclusion: To apply Merleau-Pontys concept of
flesh to film theory is to contest the notion of either an ideal spectator,
who accepts a meaning that is already intended by the film, or an empirical
spectator, for whom the meaning of the film is determined solely by
personal, cultural, and historical circumstances. Flesh insists on a spectator
who is both at once, who joins the film in the act of making meaning.
(Barker 2009, 2627 my emphasis.)
According to Barker, an exchange takes place between the spectator
and the film whenever the mise-en-scne allows the symbolic barrier
between the projection screen and the audience to become porous, so that
the knowledge to be gained from the images is generated by a mutual
impregnation between viewer and film. This sense of discovery through
the image is the structuring device in the scene where Varda films her own
hand. As she is scrutinizing her hand with the camera, she says I mean
this is my project: to film with one hand my other hand. As she comes
closer to record the minutest details of her skin, she adds: I feel as if I am
an animal I dont know. What we are witnessing here is a (re)discovery
of her own body by Varda through the technology of the DV camera, and
her mixed feelings of amazement and horror at the sight of her own
decaying flesh are powerful indicators of the renewal of meaning allowed
by haptic vision.
The same process is at work in the scene where Varda films with one
hand her other hand gleaning potatoes as she is bending to the ground,
repeating the ancestral gesture that has been illustrated in many paintings
Romain Chareyron 83

and photographs. The shooting scale she uses whenever she films other
people gleaning mostly medium or long shots no longer prevails when
she is the one reenacting it. In a camera movement that mimics the gesture
of the gleaner bending to pick up food, we see her hand reaching for
potatoes and putting them into her satchel. Once again, the use of the
subjective camera creates a higher degree of adherence between the
spectator and the image so that we are no longer in a position to simply
observe the onscreen world. We are physically engaged in the act of
gleaning and the use of haptic vision, which allows us to feel the
roughness of the potatoes skin, conveys a sense of touch that takes
precedence over any form of understanding. This tactile form of
knowledge brings us back to what we discussed in the first part of our
analysis; by filming herself gleaning potatoes and by emphasizing their
textural qualities, Varda offers a social discourse that is not conveyed
through words, but through the expression of the memories encoded in this
vegetable. It is through haptic vision, and its ability to translate
experiences that cannot be put into words, that the documentary becomes a
repository of individual knowledge and defuses any form of instrumental
vision. Gleaning is thus not perceived as a socially alienating act, since we
are invited to experience it. Consequently, the images of gleaning are not
just standing before our eyes, but are also moving us through a process by
which the viewers skin extends beyond his or her own body; it reaches
towards the film as the film reaches towards it (Barker 2009, 33).
As this article tried to put forward, by choosing to make haptic vision
the privileged mode of perception in specific sequences of the narrative,
Varda makes her documentary a living and breathing entity, whose
meaning is never set and well-defined, but evolves according to the
symbiosis that takes place between the audience and the images. This
relationship between viewer and film is conveyed by the nature of the
images that unfold on the screen, and the bodily investment they require
on the spectators part. Vardas desire to reveal the multi-layered
significance of the world she records on camera aims at offering a vision
unencumbered with social and economic considerations. Her mise-en-
scne asks us to engage in the fabric of the film and to experience the
world it presents before our eyes. We enter the documentary the same way
we would enter a dimly lit place: unsure of what lies ahead and relying on
our senses to guide us through the unknown.
Vardas experimentations with the visual and narrative possibilities
offered by the DV camera in Les Glaneurs are in keeping with the
unceasing desire to venture into uncharted filmic territories that influenced
her entire career as a filmmaker. As Richard Neupert recalls: Varda even
84 Haptic Vision in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse

coined the term cincriture for her brand of filmmaking, which features
carefully constructed image-to-sound textual relations (Neupert 2002,
56). A pioneer of the French New Wave, Varda has always challenged
traditional film techniques, and the documentaries she directed are no
exception to the rule7. Whether it be with LOpra-Mouffe (Diary of a
Pregnant Woman, 1958), Documenteur (Mockumentary, 1982), Jane B.
par Agns V. (Jane B. by Agns V., 1988) or, today, Les Glaneurs, she
has always considered the filmic image as a discursive tool whose
meaning arises from the interaction between the filmmaker, the viewer,
and the onscreen world. This led her to come up with the term subjective
documentary (Bluher 2009, 177) to define the particular relationship her
works have with the concepts of truth and reality that traditionally
shape our understanding of the genre.
When discussing nonfiction cinema, Marie-Jo Pierron-Moinel uses the
concept of cinma du regard (cinema of the gaze) to define a type of
documentary whose significance mainly arises from a sensitive and highly
subjective appropriation of the onscreen world by the viewer. A similar
kind of relationship between the audience and the representation is at work
in Les Glaneurs, as Vardas mise-en-scne creates an intimate bond
between the director, the viewer and the filmic image, making the
documentary a journey of self-discovery rather than the neutral appraisal
of social and economic realities. According to Pierron-Moinel, modern
documentary is best understood as a way of experiencing the world [that]
sets itself up as a means of producing knowledge by combining sensations
with understanding through ones gaze (Pierron-Moinel 2010, 223 my
translation). By questioning our ritualized ways of experiencing the world,
Varda asks us to reconsider our position as citizens but, more importantly,
as living, breathing and feeling human beings. By creating a space where
subjectivity and difference can be expressed freely, she points out to a
form of knowledge that is not rooted in our intellect, but deep within our-

By some aspects, the works of Agns Varda are reminiscent of the aesthetic and
narrative concerns of cinma vrit in the way they both tackle the question of
reality in film. An offspring of the New Wave when it appeared in France in
the early 60s, cinma vrits main concern was to use film techniques to offer a
representation that was a close as possible to life itself: Cinma vrit to its
practitioners is a process of discovery discovery of the truth []. In true cinema
vrit filming, there is no formal plot, no preconceived dialogue, and, with few
exceptions, no questions are either posed or answered by the filmmaker (Issari
and Paul 1979, 15).
Romain Chareyron 85

Anderson, Melissa. 2001. The Modest Gesture of the Filmmaker. An
Interview with Agns Varda. Cinaste vol. 26 no. 4 (September):
Barker, Jennifer M. 2009. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic
Experience. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Beugnet, Martine. 2007. Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art
of Transgression. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Bluher, Dominique. 2009. La Miroitire. propos de quelques films et
installations dAgns Varda [About a Few Films and Installations of
Agns Varda]. In Agns Varda: le cinema et au-del [Agns Varda: the
Cinema and Beyond], eds. Antony Fiant et ric Thouvenel, 177185.
Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes.
Bonner, Virginia. 2007. Beautiful Trash: Agns Vardas Les Glaneurs et la
glaneuse. Senses of Cinema. Issue 45 (November).
glaneuse/. Last accessed 12.11.2014.
Buck-Morss, Susan. 1998. The Cinema Screen as Prosthesis of Perception:
A Historical Account. In The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as
Material Culture in Modernity, ed. C. Nadia Seremetakis, 4562.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Guynn, William. 1990. A Cinema of Nonfiction. London and Toronto:
Associated University Presses.
Issari, M. Ali and Doris, A. Paul. 1979. What is Cinma Vrit?
Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press.
MacDougall, David. 2006. The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and
the Senses. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Marks, Laura U. 2000. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema,
Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham and London: Duke University
Murcia, Claude. 2009. Soi et lautre (Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse) [Self
and Others (The Gleaners and I)]. In Agns Varda: le cinema et au-
del [Agns Varda: the Cinema and Beyond], eds. Antony Fiant et ric
Thouvenel, 4348. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes.
Neupert, Richard. 2002. A History of the French New Wave Cinema.
Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
Peth, gnes. 2009. (Re)Mediating the Real. Paradoxes of an Intermedial
Cinema of Intimacy. Acta Universitatis Sapientiae, Film and Media
Studies no. 1: 4768.
86 Haptic Vision in Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse

Pierron-Moinel, Marie-Jo. 2010. Modernits et documentaires: Une mise

en cause de la reprsentation [Modernities and Documentaries: A
Challenge to Representation]. Paris: LHarmattan.
Smith, Alison. 1998. Agns Varda. Manchester and New York:
Manchester University Press.
Tyrer, Ben. 2009. Digression and return: Aesthetics and politics in Agns
Vardas Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000). Studies in French Cinema
vol. 9 no. 2 (May): 161176.
Vasse, David. 2008. Le Nouvel ge du cinma dauteur franais [The New
Age of French Auteur Cinema]. Paris: Klincksieck.


Jean Epsteins work is varied, complex and hard to catch in too literal a
sense (it is a matter of libraries and archives more than of bookshops and
DVDs, even if in 2013 things are stirring up). Descending that mirrored
staircase in a hotel near Mount Etna, Epstein saw himself multiplied many
more times than in a three-sided mirror. Each reflection revealed something
different and unknown about himself, and the sum of reflections revealed
the multiplicity, elusiveness, and illusory nature of identity itself (Epstein,
1926). If those mirrors represented his work, and not his person as they
did, we could say that there are still many more reflections awaiting. Some
of these beautiful and carefully polished surfaces are not out of print but
unpublished, luckily not lost for us but preserved in the Fonds Jean et
Marie Epstein at Cinmathque Franaise.1 Far from being reprises of
published writings they constitute truly a dark side of his oeuvre; not
dealing with cinema directly but constructing a corpus of thought and
literature on multiple themes.
In this paper I will approach some of his unpublished writings focusing
on one major motif of his work and thought: the human body. As these
texts are unpublished and therefore not quite known, Im obliged to try
and develop an exegesis of them, even if in a restrained scope which no
doubt will reduce their richness. The reason for studying these books is
first of all because they are of interest in themselves, but secondly because
they help to disclose or at least to make more complex meanings and
motifs in Epsteins film writing and film practice.

I thank all the staff at Bibliothque du Film (Cinmathque Franaise) for their
knowledge, good work, and kindness. And the institution itself for preserving and
making available to researchers those documents.
88 Geography of the Body

1. Jean Epsteins Film Writings and the Body

Before we plunge into those unpublished writings, and in order to
better understand their importance for Epsteins studies, I will briefly
touch on some aspects of his published work. The body and the organism
are key concepts in Epsteins writings, even if their importance decreases
as we advance in his published bibliography.2
His early writing focuses not on cinema but on literature, philosophy,
and the modern experience and subjectivity.3 In these writings he develops
a thesis in which humanity is approaching a new form of knowledge called
lyrosophie. This new knowledge is a rebalancing of subconscious thinking
and rationality, vindicating the former as a valid form of thinking and
fighting against the idea of the latter as universal truth. For Epstein any
mentality is related to the organism, he writes: We should treat history as
a biology of regimes of consciousness, and states of mind as organic
states. (Epstein 1998b, 121.)4 The organic change taking place in us and
which announces the future advent of lyrosophie is due to the
incrementation of fatigue in modern experience, caused by labor and
social changes. Fatigue was a key concept for 19th-century physiology; one
of its researchers was, for instance, Angelo Mosso, who was quoted by
Epstein in his writings.5
In one of his very first writings on cinema, Bonjour Cinma (Good
Morning, Cinema, 1921), film and particularly spectatorship are described
in terms of nervous energy. Characters like Chaplin or Gish have a
photogenic neurasthenia (Epstein 1921b, 102) and are one of the foci of
the nervous energy that is irradiated in the movie theater. Moviegoing
affects the nervous system and even creates a kind of dependence in its
public, unlike other aesthetic experiences (Epstein 1921b, 107). Characterized
in these terms, the movies become a privileged place for modern people,

For a recent overview of Epstein work see the essays and the short reader
included in Sarah Keller and Jason N. Paul (2012).
His early writings are mainly composed by two books (La Posie daujourdhui,
un nouvel tat dintelligence [Poetry Today, a New State of Intelligence, 1921] and
La Lyrosophie (1922), both published by Editions de la Sirne) and some essays
published in LEsprit Nouveau [The New Spirit], like the series of articles entitled
Le phnomne littraire (numbers 8, 9, 10, and 13 of the journal in 1921 and
reprinted in Epstein [1998a]).
All translations are my own.
For an analysis of Epsteins early writings see Stuart Liebman Jean Epsteins
Early Film Theory: 192022 (PhD Dissertation, 1980). For an attempt to read
Epsteins fatigue in its cultural context see also my essay Estetas neurastnicos y
mquinas fatigadas en la teora de Jean Epstein (2009).
Daniel Pitarch Fernndez 89

since that demanding nervous experience is something they all know very
well from their everyday life. But the importance of the body in Bonjour
Cinma is not only related to a nervous experience but also to a carnal
experience in a manner akin to the metaphors of tactile reception. The
experience of seeing a face in close-up is described as surpassing even
tactile limits: It is not even true that there is air between us; I eat it. It is
inside me like a sacrament (Epstein 1921b, 104). Spectatorship is
conceived then but not only in his first approach to cinema as bodily
In his major theoretical film writings books like LIntelligence dune
machine (The Intelligence of a Machine, 1946) or Esprit de cinma (The
Spirit of Cinema, 1955) this importance of the body is reduced. The
main feature is to understand cinema as an alien thinking that smashes up
anthropocentrism. Cinema sees the world differently and this alterity is its
secret propaganda to which the masses are exposed. Spectatorship is
conceived more in psychological than in physiological terms. However,
the body is still important: it is one of the privileged subjects of cinemas
experimentations. Slow motion reveals that the human body can have
reptile qualities or even be like a stone. The close-up penetrates inside the
face, revealing its thoughts. The montage of different bodies reveals
superhuman identities like familiar resemblances or illness. So the body is
in front of the movie camera and is again and again scrutinized, by a
camera that reveals unknown truths about it.

2. Jean Epsteins Unpublished Writings

The Fonds Jean et Marie Epstein preserved at Cinmathque Franaise
is full of documents and drafts that help to understand Epsteins work and
also contains several unpublished books. Focusing on these documents
would be helpful to comprehend the importance of the body and the
organism for Epsteins thought, quite particularly in relation to his early
writings. There is, for instance, a bibliography (Epstein 1921c) related to
La posie daujourdhui (Poetry Today) which quotes physiology books
like Physiologie du plaisir (Physiology of Pleasure, 1886) by
Mantegazza.6 There is also a brief trace of an unfinished project called
Esculape, which was intended to be a reader on medicine and physiology,

For an approach to a physiological aesthetics in fin-de-sicle France and its
relation to some popular culture see, for instance, Rae Beth Gordon Dances with
Darwin, 18751910. Vernacular Modernity in France (2009), particularly chapter
three: What is Ugly?
90 Geography of the Body

and which was announced as en prparation both in Bonjour Cinma

and La Lyrosophie. Of this project there is only left, to my knowledge, a
draft of the prologue, of which long passages will be reused in Nous
Kabbalistes (We Kabbalists). Another field of study could be some
literary manuscripts of his youth which could help relate Epstein to
symbolist aesthetics, and its particular dialectics between spleen and
strong sensation (see, for instance, the text entitled Caritas Vitae).
But much more important than this is, in my opinion, to highlight the
fact that there are finished books there, and that they are not juvenilia but
works written in his later years.7 Here I will focus on the topic of the body
and the organism in three of these unpublished books: Ganymde, Contre-
penses and Lautre ciel. Ganymde is dated by Marie Epstein as being
written in the 1930s40s (as she wrote on the cover of the document
preserved). And she is quoted by Pierre Leprohon (1964, 66) saying that
during his last years Epstein worked on Contre-penses and Lautre ciel
among other books. Of course we could argue if these are finished or
unfinished projects, but their extension and their quality helps to defend
their validity as works in their own right.

2.1 Ganymde: essai sur lthique homosexuel masculin

par Alfred Klber
Ganymde: essai sur lthique homosexuel masculin par Alfred Klber
(Ganymede: An Essay on the Male Homosexual Ethics by Alfred Klber) is
a book on male homosexuality, written by Jean Epstein under the
pseudonym of Alfred Klber. It is a long essay of almost 300 typed pages,
a fact that in itself shows the importance of that subject for Epstein.
The essay is mainly a vindication of male homosexuality, and an attempt
to delegitimize the public discourse against it. First of all, Ganymde is a
book on social rights, as it argues for allowing homosexuality to be a
public and normal life, appropriating a right to love (193040, 274) that
penal codes and society deny. Epsteins argument understands homosexual
love in a Greek way, as an education of the young by the adults and
dividing the couple into the lover and the loved. This classic and mythical

To my knowledge the only approach to one of those unpublished books has been
by Christophe Wall-Romana (2012) in his very rich essay Epsteins Photognie as
Corporeal Vision: Inner Sensation, Queer Embodiment, and Ethics. In this essay
certain aspects of Ganymde are discussed and used in order to re-read some of
Epsteins film concepts, which are also read in the light of other theorists (like
Walter Benjamin) or contemporary audiovisual practices (like the ones by Bill
Daniel Pitarch Fernndez 91

understanding of male homosexuality is surrounded by other arguments

maybe not that common. Artificiality is an important keyword in
Ganymde. Epstein advocates that what is specifically human is to
transform nature, to evolve through specialization. Homosexual love is an
example of this as it completely separates procreation and love and also, in
another sense, reifies procreation in an intellectual way. Homosexual love
is then, for Epstein, a very human creation, a specialization of instinctual
characteristics that lead to their transformation.
In the development of the essay we find some topics related to
physiology and medicine.8 In his early writings, Epstein had already
criticized the concepts of health and illness as being too stable and
Manichean, as both are intertwined with each other. Here the criticism has
clear social and personal consequences. Of course Ganymde is against the
medicalization of homosexuality and the discourses that treat it as an
illness. First, even if it were an illness, Epstein criticizes the moral dictum
against homosexuality, since illnesses have no moral character. Secondly,
he writes against the pathological prejudice that medicine adopts, seeing
illness and pathologies everywhere and extrapolating its patients to
represent homosexuals (as heteronormativity and Epstein almost adopts
this term is incapable of understanding homosexuality outside the
masculinefeminine pair). Speaking of degeneration in relation to
homosexuality is also contested by Epstein. He conceives it as being closer
to some atavism using arguments by psychoanalysis related to bisexuality
in young desire and embryology related to the differentiation of the
sexes. This atavism of homosexual desire found in our personal history
(both physiological and psychological) is used by Epstein in order to argue
for a naturalization of homosexual love. But, as I said before, he is much
more interested in artificiality than in nature, considering the former as
what is truly human. Consequently, he mostly conceives homosexuality
against any degeneration as a future sexuality, because of its novelty,
specialization and complication of human functions. Epstein readers will
recognize how his broad scope full of civilization and Utopian arguments
is also adopted when thinking on sexuality, love and desire. We find again,
as in his philosophical and film writings, this particular juncture of past
and future (atavism and Utopia) against the present. This formula can be

The arguments on physiology and medicine are found mainly in chapters two
(Determination anatomique et physiologique de lhomosexuel [Anatomic and
Physiological Determinants of the Homosexual]), three (Determination
psychologique de lhomosexuel [Psychological Determinants of the Homosexual]),
and eight (Lhomosexualit nest pas de lhtrosexualit travestie [Homosexuality
is not Transvestite Heterosexuality]).
92 Geography of the Body

rationality defeated by fatigue, actual cinema by its future form or

heterosexuality eroded by homosexuality. Lyrosophy, cinema and
homosexuality approach us from the future.
Homosexuality is in Ganymde a biological condition, an identity of
the self. This is another argument against medicalization: being congenital,
it has no cure. And this is something maybe unfamiliar to Epstein readers,
as cinema is mostly the realm of unstable identities (as one of his essays
claims it is a liquid world: Le monde fluide de lcran [The Fluid World of
the Screen, 1950]), but of course fighting for social rights demands stable
identities from where to fight. Epstein claims that every human fact is an
indivisible triad: anatomical, physiological and psychological (193040,
42), refusing a psychological understanding by thinkers that push the
contempt for the human organism, and want nothing to do with it.
Wherever this mistake of separating matter and spirit prevails, any
knowledge of man is impossible (193040, 42). So we find again, as in
his early writings, the importance of the organic bases and physiology
for understanding the human self. This leads Epstein, for instance, to talk
about endocrinology in relation to homosexual desire. And also about
heredity, claiming that there is a common consanguinity among
homosexuals that reveals its hereditary character and its deep rooting in
the soma. This physiological thought is sometimes used for misogynous
arguments, claiming that differences between the sexes make it impossible
to adopt the particularities of homosexual love in heterosexual couples
(even if in some paragraphs we can understand that this will be possible in
the future, but still there are long misogynous passages not to be
overlooked).9 Because homosexual love, as Epstein theorizes it, is not only
a love radically separated from human procreation but a reification of
desire in which physical pleasure needs intellectual satisfaction. It is a
neurosis, a kind of illness in Epsteins sense i.e. a natural condition,
shared by a particular elite of sensibility: One can compare this more
complete love, love not only by the senses, but also by the mind, to some
neuroses, like brain-cardiac ones, characterized by the growing and
sensible interdependence of an organ of the vegetative life, like the heart,
with the brain. The love we are talking about is a brain-genital neurosis, an

Epsteins misogyny is also related to symbolist and fin-de-sicle literature (the
fracture between women and the ideal expressed by Lord Edwald and Edison in
Lve future (Future Eve, 1886) by Villiers de lIsle-Adam that leads them to love
an android where they only talk to themselves or the disdain for the real Sibyl Vane
by Dorian Gray in Oscar Wildes novel). Epsteins discourse on artificiality could
be related to symbolism, as well, particularly his comparison with flowers and
gardeners as perfecting nature present in Ganymde.
Daniel Pitarch Fernndez 93

influence of the brain over the automatism of sexual function, in brief, an

illness as a well known aphorism says. (193040, 61.)
The argument on homosexuality as a specialization and a kind of
Utopian sexuality10 leads Epstein to think of procreation in two senses.
The first one is understanding the existence and the importance of an
intellectual procreation (as being conscious and more human i.e.
artificial than the procreation of the species). Secondly, ruminating about
artificial reproduction as a kind of pathogenesis in humans that will lead to
a future epoch that will look back at us as primitives: Our time, in which
mating is necessary for procreation, will seem then farther away than for
us the age when presence was needed to see or hear someone. (193040,
119.) The imbrication of technology and humanity allows us to overcome
some conditions of human experience. Eroding what can be thought of as
fundamental conditions, now superseded by their technological reifications
(be it the conditions for sharing and space or for biological procreation).
Ganymde shows us how physiology, the body, and the material side of
the self were important for Epsteins thought throughout his life. If we
include Ganymde in his complete works, the lack of physiological
arguments in his film writings is balanced by its presence in this and other
unpublished works. It helps as well to better understand his early thought
on fatigue and his ruminations on medicine and pathology, making clear
that medical discourses can be against fundamental personal
characteristics like desire and sexuality. Finally, this book points to
artificiality and humanity in a paradoxical way at first glance. For Epstein
what is more human is artificial and somehow against nature. Cinema as a
prosthetic perceptual organ falls inside the realm of artificial, and therefore
of the human and of the future.

2.2 Contre-penses
Contre-penses is a work composed of 239 short texts on a wide
variety of topics and in a style close to the essay. Full of acute
observations and wit, the text does not follow a straight argument like
Ganymde, but develops a kind of personal dictionary of thoughts,
arranged alphabetically in the book. It is a text open to interpretation
with ironic fragments and ambiguous propositions with some recurrent
motifs. One of the various motifs in Contre-penses is, once again, the
organism and the body.

See for instance Ganymdes last chapter entitled Le present et lavenir de
lhomosexualit (The Present and Future of Homosexuality).
94 Geography of the Body

The materiality of spirit or thought is emphasized again and again.

Some texts deal with physiological motifs. He writes on the pituitary gland
as commanding the whole organism (influencing his psychological and
rational side) and being affected by visual and olfactory sensations
(Hypohyse [Pituitary Gland]).11 Maternal love is said to depend on this
gland and on the presence of magnesium in the organism (Amour-maternel
[Motherly Love]). In a text entitled Pisser (To Pee) thought itself is
understood as a secretion of the nervous system: psychic life is a residual
product of any physiological activity. Any medium of expression is
understood consequently, in this short text, as a hygienic measure in order
not to be intoxicated by our own waste.12 As in Ganymde, Epstein
emphasizes the influence of physiology on every human act and takes for
granted that mental superstructures are consequences of physiological
equilibrium. In a text entitled Feu (Fire) he says that the discovery of fire
and its consequences on our diet evolved our thought. The history of
mentalities is, again as in the former quote of his early writings, a matter
of biology and mutation (see as well the text entitled Mutations). Even our
personal history is marked by these mobile ties between the psychological
and the physiological. Epstein concludes that the identity of the self is only
an illusion, as biology explains that our organism is renewed completely
every seven years (Prescription).
Sensation is also present in Contre-penses. In Anesthesie (Anesthesia)
sensation is separated from consciousness and memory, as anesthesia
somehow is capable of blocking the memory of pain but the body in a
chirurgical operation still reacts even if in a numbed and slowed way. In
Musique (Music), Epstein conceives music as capable of a sensual relation
with the organism. Music can exalt our instincts and feelings, seduce the
organism or break its nervous system; in a similar way as cinema was
conceived in his early writings as a distributor of nervous energy, and
spectatorship in terms of bodily reactions. When talking about the senses
(Sens [Senses]) Epstein includes introspection or coenaesthesis, the inner
sensations of our own body. This could be as diverse as the classification
by Alexander Bain that is quoted in his text: muscular sense, muscular
pain, nervous pain, respiration, circulation, digestion, hot and cold, and
electrical sensation. Epstein includes also la cnesthsie crbrale which
is not the content of thinking but the sensation of being in the process of
thinking. Consciousness is also one of our senses; it has its material side.

Since this is an unpublished book, it is not paginated and arranged
alphabetically. I will give as a reference the title of each text.
For similar arguments also see the texts: Entropie, Mots-croiss and Saint-
Daniel Pitarch Fernndez 95

Our body constructs our psychology and thought not only in a

physiological way, but also in giving us our basic scale for understanding.
Abstract constructions like the decimal system arise from the scale of our
body and our ten fingers (Nombres [Numbers]). All abstractions of the
human spirit [] are functions of the corporeal size of the species,
Epstein writes in Dimensions, and they are only valid at human scale.
This is a key concept for Epstein and his fascination for what is infiniment
petit or infiniment grand, what exceeds the human world. The interior of
our body is also an example of this infiniment petit. Physiology is then
doomed to face the unknowable, as it faces an ultramicroscopic world
(Libre arbitre [Free Will]). This conjunction of understanding and the body
stresses the importance of cinema (or other technologies), as they can
show us a non-anthropocentric reality.
Artificiality is also a concept we can find in Contre-penses, as was
found in Ganymde. Spirit, psychology, etc. are not only related and arise
from human physiological features, but they are also derived and present
in any complex system, be it organic or technological. Epstein claims that
quantity leads to quality (the combination of material parts creates
immaterial characteristics). A car or a plant has its own psychology
derived from the relation between its composition, an immaterial function
due to its material parts (Automobile and Esprit [Spirit]).13 Speaking about
a non human psychology or understanding is not a metaphor for Epstein
but a reality.
Contre-penses gives us a compilation of Epsteins broad knowledge
and interests in his later years. Again we can see that physiology was
important for him during his whole life. Here too the material side of the
organism is vindicated as being very important for his psychological or
rational side. Of course the interest of a text like Pisser [Piss] is to
incarnate thought even in a scatological way, echoing a transmutation of
values and a fight against rationality as universal knowledge, present in his
early writings and in his film writings (Le cinma du Diable [Devils
Cinema, 1947], for instance). We could have this in mind in order to think
about cinema. How cinema affects us, also means how cinema affects our
body. Of course Epstein wrote on cinema during the same years and did
not use, at least explicitly or in a central way, these kinds of arguments.
Whether these arguments are implicit in his film writings or not, is a task

Even in my restrained thematic approach, Contre-penses overflows the extent
of this essay. We can find there thoughts on medicine, pain, progress, or imitation
which are of interest for us. For instance, imitation (conscious and unconscious) is
conceived by Epstein as one of the motors of artificiality and imitation was as well
a key feature of 19th-century psycho-physiology.
96 Geography of the Body

that must be undertaken, but falls unfortunately outside the extent of this
essay. What is explicitly present in Epsteins film writings is the
conception of cinema as an intelligence (as expressed in the title itself of
his book Lintelligence dune machine [The Intelligence of a Machine,
1946]). Contre-penses makes even more clear, as I have already said, that
this is not a metaphor for Epstein but something literal: any complex
materiality creates an intelligence and a psychology.

2.3 Lautre ciel: Adored, Ecstatic, and Sacred Bodies

Unlike the other unpublished works I deal with here, Lautre ciel is a
literary piece. It is composed of short non-narrative independent texts. The
main focus of the book is the human self, conceived as bearing an interior
secret that constitutes his most intimate truth and structures his whole self.
This secret must be found inside, and in the flesh, because the soul is
incarnated (EPSTEIN229-B89, 39). The human (male) body is celebrated
in the whole book through desire. Overtly homoerotic, the vocabulary
regarding otherness (the title itself) is a common feature as it is also a kind
of personal subtext (evident, for instance, in a text entitled Evangile de
Jean [Gospel of John]). The poetic powers of Epstein are here at their
height and his celebration of an ecstatic and sacred body sheds new light
on his insistence on the body in his film writings.14
One of the key features of Lautre ciel is ignorance. The conscious
knowing of not knowing anything is one of the revelations human beings
must face. The text Le cirque des vains martyrs (The Circus of Vain
Martyrs) describes a kind of ritual or show with characters like the
goddess of Reason, God, the Devil, or Nero. One of the last performances
is by a Dionysian troupe commanded by Orpheus and composed by all
kinds of ecstatic bodies: There were mujiks, American shakers, epileptic
deacons, turning dervishes, ecstatic nuns, venerable killers, masturbated
lamas, all the fanatics of all drunkenness, screwing each other, mutilating
each other, eating their sexes, celebrating loves mysteries.
(EPSTEIN229-B89, 27.)
After that a Sphinx discloses the secret dictum: The only mystery is
that there is no mystery. The only answer to all riddles is that there is no

As with his other unpublished writings, there are many aspects that could be
related to his film books. One of the texts composing Lautre ciel is entitled Le
mystre de Narcisse (The Mystery of Narcissus). In this text Narcissus experiences
a multiple mirror gaze, where he sees himself as he has never seen before
(EPSTEIN229-B89, 5). Personal revelation echoes the filmic revelation present in
his film writings.
Daniel Pitarch Fernndez 97

answer. The secret of everything is nothing. That is why one is obliged to

keep it. There is nothing to say, because nothing can be known. All truths
are nothing but symbols. In pain, pleasure is canceled, and conviction, and
even sincerity are faded. There only remains one desire: the desire of
nothingness. And no one has ever been able to satisfy it. (EPSTEIN229-
B89, 28.)
The male body is closely and exhaustively celebrated in, by far, the
longest of the texts composing Lautre ciel: Le tribunal de ladoration
(The Tribunal of Adoration). This text travels around the body describing
its limbs one by one, in a description full of eroticism echoing the lovers
gaze. In a style close to Epsteins description of filmic close-ups, every
part of the body is seen isolated and revealing equivalences with
landscapes, architecture, vegetal, or animal life, or machinery.15 This slow
and close description stops at and underlines every entrance of the body,
be they closed (like the eyes or the navel) or open (like the mouth).
Usually disgusting aspects of the body (for instance strong odors of the
feet, the mouth or the armpit) are not refused but celebrated as inebriating.
Of course the end of the trip around the body is the phallus and the anus.
The phallus is an atavistic and monstrous organ, which makes any
civilization of love only a surface effect (Ganymde is an Apollonian
celebration of homosexuality, Lautre ciel its Dionysian side): The true
merit of love, if there is one, is to love knowing completely this ugliness
of love, accepting that the sublimity of the beloved includes or erases all
that is disgusting in the flesh, such a piety supposes a state of grace, a
trance, an archaic state; going back in human history to a more pure
animal level, which persists better in sexuality than anywhere else and
refuses any idealization of voluptuousness. (EPSTEIN229-B89, 19.) The
semen is its fruit, described in its color, flavor, and smell. The anus is the
logical conclusion of the text, the place where any learned shame must be
broken: This crater signals the extreme border, that which the piety for
the integrity of a god incarnated can not surpass in physical explorations
[]. Here, total devotion breaks any learned shame, in order to reach true
human respect, against which the only mortal sin will be to despise
whatever it was of man. (EPSTEIN229-B89, 20.) And where one can face

Some of this equivalences are for instance: breasts that move like waves
(EPSTEIN229-B89, 6), the teeth form a sainte-chapelle of a crystal-animal
flamboyant style unrivaled by any building (EPSTEIN229-B89, 12), the tongue
is the only leaf, fleshy and carnivorous, sensitive and prehensive, of the most
voracious plant (EPSTEIN229-B89, 1112) or the inside of the body that makes
its synthesis in stills and pipes, which have the colors of dawn and the shapes of
abyssal monsters (EPSTEIN229-B89, 17).
98 Geography of the Body

the sacred: There is no more severe prohibition than that on excremental

lava [lave excrmentielle]. The most powerful horror is related to it. In a
censorship so profoundly rooted, universal and absolute, one must
recognize the character of the sacred [le caractre du sacr].
(EPSTEIN229-B89, 20.)
Le tribunal de ladoration (The Tribunal of Adoration) celebrates the
whole human (male) body and ends with: One must learn to revere both
left and right sides of divinity, the evil as much as the good, and to obtain
rapture [ravissement] where ordinary people does not derive anything but
fear and shame. (EPSTEIN229-B89, 21.)
Both motifs highlighted here (the knowing of ignorance and the
celebration of the whole body) form a third text entitled Evangile de Jean
(a title which evokes, as was said, personal resonances). This text explains
a cult that teaches that we know nothing of what we think we know,
neither about things, others, or about ourselves. In the human soul and
body, they venerate the highest expression of the mystery of this ignorance
which becomes conscious of itself. (EPSTEIN229-B89, 23.) Guarded by
cyclops, they search in the body the roots and reflections of this secret.
The movements of life are all studied, all, even the most modest, by the
set of normal, accelerated and slow-motion cadences, by variable
enlargements, by discovering unusual angles (EPSTEIN229-B89, 23).
The cinema cyclopean eye capable of all these powers seems explicitly
called up here.
The last paragraph of Evangile de Jean is again a close description of
the body where everything is transmuted to the entire realm of nature; and
this transmutation experienced through framing and studying the body
achieves the realm of values and the moral: everything is changed,
avoiding conventions, enriched by new values, by uncountable truths.
Concluding that God is everywhere in man, and mostly in this center of
consciousness which notices him but does not understand him; which is in
itself the Holy and gets scared of himself as if it was a stranger.
(EPSTEIN229-B89, 25.)
In Lautre ciel we can see many of the main strands of Epsteins
thought in a new light. The absence of universal truths and the relativity of
any knowledge is something that cinema teaches us, as Epstein theorizes
it. But it is something that can also be known in an ecstatic approach to the
body of the other, as that Dionysian troupe or the close adoration of the
body suggest. Values are transmuted, learned shames are broken, right and
left confused, and all becomes lovable, adored, and sacred.16 Evangile the

The sacred was a very important concept in Epsteins thought, influenced by
Daniel Pitarch Fernndez 99

Jean links both ideas to cinema. Its role is then to teach and show us our
mystery, discovering it first in our body. The erotic, inebriating and
revolutionary role of detailed and close viewing in desire, contaminates
one of Epsteins major themes in his film writing: the close-up. Lautre
ciel fully discloses the inherent eroticism of his theorization and film

3. Conclusions
The three unpublished works of Jean Epstein discussed here are of
significant importance for our understanding of his work. One can see that
his early interest in physiology and the organism was not lost but remained
very important in his entire lifetime, and this knowledge makes possible a
new reading of his books on film. A second conclusion regards the
importance of artificiality for humanity. Cinema is sometimes described by
Epstein as a prosthetic organ and as having a spirit (as this is an immaterial
function of related material fragments). In that sense it is, as homosexuality
may be, an artificial human creation (something at the core of humanity
itself and something approaching us from the future). Thirdly, the
sensuous resonances of some fragments of his film writings (its
description of human bodies seen through cinema) or of his films can be
fully illuminated. After having read Lautre ciel, the lovers gaze echoes
the films gaze. And finally, Epsteins unpublished writings give us many
reflections on the organism and the self, and a celebration of the body in
all its aspects that forms a corpus of work of interest in itself, even if he
were not the important filmmaker and film theorist that he is.

Epstein, Jean. 191820. Caritas Vitae. Paris: Fonds Jean et Marie Epstein,
Bibliothque du film, EPSTEIN284-B88. [unpublished]
. 1921a. La Posie daujourdhui, un nouvel tat dintelligence [The
Poetry of Today, a New State of Intelligence]. Paris: ditions de la
readings such as Mircea Eliade. Chiara Tognolottis dissertation (2003) traces a
path through Epstein thought, using his notes de lecture preserved as well at
Cinmathque Franaise, and the idea of the sacred turns to be the final conclusion
in her narrative of Epstein writings and even filmography (referring to Le
Tempestaire). The sacred, as Lautre ciel shows, is not only what the word recalls
in common language but includes in an explicit way all that is forbidden, all that is
rejected and low like bodily excretions.
100 Geography of the Body

. 1921b. Bonjour cinma [Good Morning, Cinema]. Paris: ditions de la

. 1921c. [bibliography]. Paris: Fonds Jean et Marie Epstein,
Bibliothque du film, EPSTEIN201-B51. [unpublished]
. 1921d. Esculape. Paris: Fonds Jean et Marie Epstein, Bibliothque du
film, EPSTEIN228-B59. [unpublished]
. 1922. La Lyrosophie [Lyrosophy]. Paris: ditions de la Sirne.
. 1926. Le Cinmatographe vu de lEtna [The Cinema Seen from the
Etna]. Paris: Les crivains Runis.
. 193040. Ganymde [Ganymede]. Fonds Jean et Marie Epstein,
Bibliothque du film, Paris, EPSTEIN227-B59. [unpublished]
. 1946. LIntelligence dune machine [The Intelligence of a Machine].
Paris: ditions Jacques Melot.
. 1947. Le cinma du Diable [The Devils Cinema]. Paris: Jacques
. 1950. Le monde fluide de lcran. Les Temps Modernes, no. 56 (June):
. 1955. Esprit de cinma [The Spirit of Cinema]. Geneva: ditions
. 1998a [1921]. Le phnomne littraire. In Jean Epstein. Cinaste,
pote, philosophe [Jean Epstein. Filmmaker, Poet, Philosopher], ed.
Jacques Aumont, 3983. Paris: Cinmathque Franaise, Muse du
. 1998b [1922]. Nous Kabbalistes [We Kabbalists]. In Jean Epstein.
Cinaste, pote, philosophe, ed. Jacques Aumont, 11924. Paris:
Cinmathque Franaise, Muse du cinma.
. Not dated. Lautre ciel [The Other Heaven]. Paris: Fonds Jean et Marie
Epstein, Bibliothque du film, EPSTEIN229-B89. [unpublished]
. Non dated. Contre-penses [Counter-Thoughts]. Paris: Fonds Jean et
Marie Epstein, Bibliothque du film, EPSTEIN224-B57 or
EPSTEIN103-B25, EPSTEIN104-B25, and EPSTEIN105-B26
Gordon, Rae Beth. 2009. Dances with Darwin, 18751910. Vernacular
Modernity in France. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate.
Keller, Sarah and Paul, Jason N., eds. 2012. Jean Epstein. Critical Essays
and New Translations. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Leprohon, Pierre. 1964. Jean Epstein. Paris: Seghers.
Liebman, Stuart. 1980. Jean Epsteins Early Film Theory: 192022. PhD
Dissertation. New York: New York University.
Pitarch, Daniel. 2009. Estetas neurastnicos y mquinas fatigadas en la
teora de Jean Epstein [Neurasthenic States and Weary Machines in the
Daniel Pitarch Fernndez 101

Theory of Jean Epstein]. Archivos de la Filmoteca, no. 63: 3755.

Tognolotti, Chiara. 2003. Jean Epstein, 19461953. Ricostruzione di un
cantiere intellettuale [Reconstruction of an Intellectual Construction].
PhD Dissertation. Firenze: UniFi.
Wall-Romana, Christophe. 2012. Epsteins Photognie as Corporeal
Vision: Inner Sensation, Queer Embodiment, and Ethics. In Jean
Epstein. Critical Essays and New Translations, eds. Sarah Keller and
Jason N. Paul, 5171. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.


One cannot listen and look at

the same time. If there is a
dispute, sight, as the most
developed, the most specialized,
and the most generally popular
sense, always wins. Music
which attracts attention or the
imitation of noises is simply
Jean Epstein,
Magnification, 1977, 15

The remarkable torture scene from Quentin Tarantinos 1992 black

comedy crime film Reservoir Dogs is a cinematic moment that has worked
its way into the collective memory of moviegoers over the last twenty
years. It depicts Michael Madsens gangster character, Mr Blonde,
torturing a police officer that is being held hostage, seemingly for no other
reason than for his own sadistic pleasure. When the scene culminates
violently in Madsens cutting of the helpless cops right ear with a
razorblade, this shocking event is not the only contributor to the scenes
idiosyncratic, memorable qualities. The clear and foregrounded presence
of a bubble gum pop song, which happens to be on the radio, conspires
with the visuals as an evenly disturbing choice. From the moment when
Mr Blonde turns on the radio, the song, Stealers Wheels Stuck in the
Middle with You, immediately calls for attention. As the cop loses his ear
and is doused in inflammable oil, the unbearably light song remains
constantly present, adding an emotive quality that feels highly
inappropriate to the horrific events it accompanies. It is precisely this
phenomenon that is of our interest here. We will refer to it as incongruent
film music, a musical track in narrative film, either diegetic or non-
104 Unsettling Melodies: A Cognitive Approach to Incongruent Film Music

diegetic, which expresses qualities that stand in sharp contrast to the

emotions evoked by the events seen.
Conflicting soundtracks generate an emotional impact that is of a
substantially different nature than the affect of traditional, congruent film
scores. Yet, despite their often memorable status, these salient moments
have not often been described as a specific affective device. The goal of
this paper, first of all, is to contest the assumption that the striking effect of
such music arises merely or mainly from its novelty and estrangement
from film musics conventions of congruence. After all, if it were only for
such musics unexpectedness or self-consciousness to create an audio-
visual shock, the practice would already be out-dated given its presence in
a wide array of (more or less mainstream) films. Secondly, although the
instances of musical incongruity may differ in some respects, we believe
that there are overlapping resemblances in the emotional impact that these
scenes attempt to invoke. Yet, rather than providing any typology, tracing
a history of cases or investigating cultural origins and implications, this
paper focuses on the perceptual-emotional conflict that incongruent film
music forces us to endure. More precisely our aim is to analyse and
explain how audio-visual incongruence works on our multi-modal
cognitive processing, interpretation and emotional evaluation. We propose
that the particular affect produced in the emotional collision of music and
visuals results from a distinct cognitive interplay. This interplay, as we
argue, results from our (evolutionary) propensity to perceive and process
cross-modally, combining sensory data from different senses pre-
consciously. Looking at cognitive and ecological underpinnings, our
approach will explain the practice and effect of incongruent film music
that precedes any culturally influenced interpretation. This cognitive
approach also enables us to define incongruent film music as a historically
recurring strategy of audio-visual affect in its own right. Lastly, such a
perspective helps to re-evaluate conventional assumptions on congruence
that are implied in many earlier theoretical accounts on film music.
In different forms, incongruent film music can be found throughout the
history of narrative film soundtracks,1 in fact, some instances have become
highly prominent in narrative film history. One can think, for example, of

By focusing on classical narrative film, we mean to exclude not only
documentaries, but also, more importantly, other traditions of non-classical, artistic
filmmaking. Experimental film, art cinema and other avant-gardes have long since
experimented with a broad range of incongruent elements, including sound and
image. The reason for exclusion is that such films lack the mimetically evoked
immersion and emotions that classical narrative films exploit, making them
different objects of study that are (for now) outside of the scope of this paper.
Steven Willemsen and Mikls Kiss 105

scenes in the films of Stanley Kubrick (e.g. Vera Lynns Well Meet Again
in the final scene of Dr. Strangelove [1964], Malcolm McDowells sadistic
rendition of Singing in the Rain in A Clockwork Orange [1971]), or the
violent climax of the baptism scene in Francis Ford Coppolas The
Godfather [1972], when the church organ accompanies the assassinations).
The practice can moreover be found recurrently in classical Hollywood
movie scenes as a means of ironic comment. Musical-emotional
incongruences also recur in more explorative narrative cinema, like in the
films of David Lynch (such as the song In Heaven, performed by the lady
in the radiator [Laurel Near/Peter Ivers] in Eraserhead [1977] or the
playing of Roy Orbisons In Dreams in Blue Velvet [1986], which outrages
Dennis Hoppers Frank Booth character), or the shockingly unexpected,
and seemingly unmotivated, appearance of Naked Citys Bonehead in the
exposition of Michael Hanekes Funny Games (1997 and also 2007), to
name just a few.
Yet, as we will prove shortly, traditional film music theory uncritically
and persistently builds on assumptions of how, in order to be emotionally
effective, classical narrative cinemas film music should remain congruent
and subordinated to the images and the story. This is in accordance with
the view that film techniques, such as editing, supposedly should remain
invisible and subordinated to narrative action, and in this way, film
musics role has been constrained to be that of an unnoticed emotive
manipulator. According to this somewhat uncritical view, film music
should remain at all times unobtrusive to be heard only on a
subconscious level. Conflicting music then, as these studies assume, could
point directly to a films artificiality and its manipulative intentions a
simple explanation which foregrounds non-diegetic musics fundamentally
unnatural role in any storyworld.
One of the theoretical works that most enduringly represents this view
is Claudia Gorbmans eloquently entitled Unheard Melodies (1987).
Gorbmans widely acclaimed book is firmly rooted in the 1970s and 80s
paradigm of psychoanalytical film theory and its reliance on conceptions
of film viewing as a suspension of disbelief. Jeff Smith, in his 1996
article Unheard Melodies? A Critique of Psychoanalytic Theories of Film
Music, aptly shows how the idea of unobtrusiveness in film scoring has
fundamentally shaped psychoanalytic film theorys accounts of film
music. For Gorbman, film music has a crucial role in strengthening
viewers immersion and attaching them emotionally to the visually
presented fiction. Crucially, she argues for a central position of the
unheardness in film musics affective capabilities. According to
Gorbman, the double functions of film music are to semiotically prevent
106 Unsettling Melodies: A Cognitive Approach to Incongruent Film Music

viewers from finding unclear or ambiguous signification, as well as to

psychologically enhance their immersion by means of film musics
capacities to bridge visual discontinuities and propel the flow of events
and narration (Gorbman 1987, 5859).
The view proposed by Gorbman entails that it is only by means of
congruence that the music in narrative film can enhance viewer immersion.
After all, it is congruence that helps music to remain unobtrusive and
supplemental to the narrative. As Gorbman notes, were the subject to be
aware (fully conscious) of its [that is the musics] presence as a part of the
films discourse, the game would be all over (Gorbman 1987, 64). From
this psychoanalytical point of view, congruency is not only regarded as the
most common mode of film scoring (which it undoubtedly is), but is also
deemed to be a necessary precondition in order for film music to be
emotionally effective. However true this may be for the majority of film
soundtracks, this explanatory framework is not able to unfold the
emotional affect of incongruence.
Even though our viewing experiences prove that incongruent film
music does not necessarily break immersion as radically as psychoanalytic
accounts presume, its salience may put the viewer in a troubling emotional
state or bring semiotic confusion. Whilst cheerful sounding tunes do not
complement explicit violence either psychologically or semiotically, we
can relate to our own confrontations with scenes in Reservoir Dogs or The
Godfather, where neither displeasure nor disturbing awareness of
obtrusive techniques blocked our emotional experience and narrative
involvement. Although we were consciously aware of the collision taking
place, this awareness did not divert but rather enhanced these scenes
emotional effects. In conclusion, we strongly feel that the somewhat
logical, but still problematic stance of psychoanalytic theories on musical-
emotional congruence provides some untenable assumptions in these
Modes of incongruence in film music have been observed by many
film theorists over the years. Scholars and critics have mostly noted a
practice that is labelled by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson as
ironic contrasting (Bordwell & Thompson 2008, 302). Claudia
Gorbman similarly describes how directors have often used (mostly
diegetic) appearances of (mostly popular) songs to achieve a contrasting
irony towards the accompanied narrative events (Gorbman 1987, 2324).
Drawing on what Michel Chion called such musics anempathetic
relation to the fiction (Chion 1994, 89), Gorbman notices a sense of irony
arising from the musics unawareness or indifference to the unfolding
dramatic developments. In this way the incongruent music comes to
Steven Willemsen and Mikls Kiss 107

function as a kind of authorial ironic comment that expounds the narrative

Defining incongruent film music as ironic contrast allows for many
examples see the previously mentioned cases of films by Stanley
Kubrick for instance. Yet, there are several arguments against reducing
incongruent film musics manifold functions to being merely ironic. First
of all, in his article Popular Songs and Comic Allusions in Contemporary
Cinema (2001) Jeff Smith has rightly noted that in these cases irony
functions more often linguistically than musically. To achieve an ironic
effect, popular songs in film (either diegetic or non-diegetic) often create a
play of meaning through bisociative implications of a songs title or lyrics
(Smith 2001, 428). In such instances, the sense of irony is not primarily
triggered by incongruent musical emotions, but mostly as a result of
noticed lexical ambiguities like indefinite pronouns in the songs title or
a lyrical shift of meaning, for example from figurative to literal (e.g. the
re-contextualized meaning of being stuck in the middle with you during
Reservoir Dogs torture scene). Our second argument presents a perhaps
more obvious point, according to which, not all incongruent film music is
felt to be ironic. Although many examples provide clear emotional
collisions between their musical and visual tracks, they do so without any
trace of irony (see the light classical music that accompanies the
assassinations in The Godfather or the explicit torture scene in Chan-wook
Parks 2003 film Oldboy, which is countered with a light Vivaldi piece
from The Four Seasons). Moreover, even when an ironical component
seems to be present, irony may sometimes be hardly sufficient to fully
cover the complex emotional impact of the audio-visual collision. In
Reservoir Dogs, for example, the gruesomeness of the torture of cutting
off someones ear is simply too abject to hold a merely ironic relation to
the music by use of some comic effect. Actually many viewers have
experienced this scene as not being amusing at all and, to some extent,
have even considered it revolting. 2 It seems to us that in these cases
feelings of irony serve more as a naturalization of an emotional conflict.
We will consider the sensation of irony to be one possible hermeneutic
result from the felt conflict of incongruence, where the likelihood of such
a response depends on the viewer, the context of the narrative situation,
and the nature of the music.
Aiming for a more thorough investigation related to functions of
incongruent film music, we propose a shift in the explanatory perspective.

Multiple accounts exist of viewers walking out of the first Reservoir Dogs
screenings in 1992 because of this specific scene see John Hartles illustrative
article in the Seattle Times (Hartle 1992).
108 Unsettling Melodies: A Cognitive Approach to Incongruent Film Music

The first key question is how can we be, at the same time, aware of
musical incongruence, as well as being emotionally affected and
manipulated by it? Although audio-visual incongruence can surely create
a sense of confusion or disturbance, we argue that it does so within our
immersive experience of the narrative world, and not by wholly disrupting
it in some Brechtian fashion. As noted, much of the problematic points in
psychoanalytic approaches to film music emerged from the discrepancy
between the musics ability to give clear cues and bits of narrative
information, on the one hand, and notions of its supposed inaudibility to
avoid a rupture in the immersion, on the other (Smith 1996). We agree
with Smith that an appropriate theory should not reduce the viewer to a
passive receiver who treats all the presented emotions as its own, but
acknowledge a dynamic relation between musical information and the
viewer. In his article Movie Music As Moving Music (1999), Jeff Smith
provided approaches to film music from a cognitive perspective,
attempting to theorize the relation between film music and emotion while
overcoming some of the problems of psychoanalytical methods (Smith
1999, 148). Drawing from the work of Smith, who builds on Peter Kivy,
Joseph D. Anderson, and Annabel J. Cohen, our proposed framework
brings together the findings of key researches in the field of film, music
and cognition. This will enable us to study film music on the fundamental
levels of perception, cognition, and emotion, thereby bypassing the
untenable theory that discards incongruence in psychoanalytic approaches.
According to Smith it is too often overlooked that all emotions are
composed of both affective and cognitive components (Smith 1999, 155).
Following Peter Kivys division between music as expression and music
being expressive of (Kivy 1989, 1226), i.e. between primary feeling and
recognizing emotions in music, the distinction is between emotions that
are evoked by a scene and its accompanying music (e.g. creating empathy,
offering the spectator emotional arousal), and emotional components that
are communicated by film music (e.g. indicating a characters emotional
state, thus influencing the viewers judgement). Affect and judgement
each may take precedence over the other at different moments to produce
a range of possible responses (Smith 1999, 156). Because of its reliance
on psychological immersion, psychoanalytic theory tends to overlook
these dynamics of communication, presuming that viewers claim all
associated emotions as their own. We can note that in the case of radical
audio-visual incongruence, music never seems to directly arouse the
emotions expressed through its own musical qualities. What is more,
cheerful music accompanying visual brutalities does not make us feel more
cheerful (on the contrary).
Steven Willemsen and Mikls Kiss 109

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the questions raised by psychoanalytic

theory regarding audio-visual incongruence and immersion. As Gorbman
presumes, one would think that in highly conflicting situations viewers
would instantly decide to discard the accompanying music as incongruent,
conflicting or simply mismatched in order to consciously marginalize its
emotional impact. Yet, we can note that film viewers still tend to accept
even clearly conflicting music as referential to the images. How else for
instance could Oldboys non-diegetic Vivaldi piece affect us at all? At this
point it is crucial to ask what compels us to accept such music as
referential to the images, without harming our immersion in the fiction and
our (partial) belief in its realism.
Convention has trained viewers to know and feel that musical
accompaniments tell us something useful about how to interpret and
evaluate narrative situations. Our reliance on film musics usefulness is
partly habitual. Yet we must also note that this dependence too has a
strong cognitive-ecological origin. In his 1996 book The Reality of
Illusion: An Ecological Approach to Cognitive Film Theory Joseph D.
Anderson reminds us of this aspect: we are programmed by evolution to
check and cross-check our perceptions multi-modally. [] The simple
addition of musical accompaniment provides a second modality against
which to check our impressions and provides confirmation on at least two
levels (Anderson 1998, 87). But why should we do this when the musical
addition is clearly false and has seemingly no motivated role in the
diegesis? Building on Lawrence Markss (1978) multimodal theory,
Anderson overcomes this question by arguing for an evolutionarily
evolved cognitive process that binds sound and visual together, thus
creates a percept of a single event (Anderson 1998, 86). On a basic
cognitive level the sounds and images are perceived by film viewers as
coming from one source a single instant generating our perceptions. This
is not strange if one considers the idea from an evolutionary perspective.
The real worlds natural environment never offers false sounds or
artificially added music, and thus, ecologically speaking, anything we hear
must somehow be part of the same situation we can also see. Detecting
synchrony is a crucial part of our experience and perception of everyday
reality. 3 In any case of film sound, synchrony masks the true non-
diegetic source of the sound. When looking at a film, viewers are

Synchrony alone is sufficient for the human processing system in linking the
auditory and visual elements as one event. Multiple researches show a fixed
tendency or even necessity of recognizing and attributing synchrony that is already
present in very low-level, bottom-up, processes of multi-modal perception (Spelke
1979, Hummel & Biederman 1990, Revonsuo 1999).
110 Unsettling Melodies: A Cognitive Approach to Incongruent Film Music

ecologically, even evolutionarily, biased in seeking for synchrony as a

means to connect sound and image.
The presumption that all information originates from one coherent
source can easily lead film viewers to search for patterns and correlations
for bridging the modalities. After all, to unify our perceptions into
something coherent, we must distil and interpret an unambiguous meaning
from the multi-modal flows of information. With film music we favour
congruence, an inclination towards seamless connection being our basic
perceptual disposition. We would argue that this bias of a single
generating instant is what makes us readily ascribe the music, in terms of
emotional or narrative information, to whatever is happening onscreen.
For this reason, music and narrative images tend to conflate on a pre-
conscious, or unheard, level.4 Music cognitivist Annabel J. Cohen has
similarly suggested that in the cognitive selection and determination of
narratively useful information, the semantic meaning of the musical
track is detached from its acoustical source (Cohen 2001, 262). The
musics semantic components are deemed useful as a source of relevant
information and are processed separately in terms of their assistance to
understanding what is seen. The acoustical dimensions, on the other hand,
generally remain consciously unattended by cognition (although they do
steer our visual perception in certain directions, for example, through
temporal correlations). We suspect that immersion-breaking audio-visual
collisions may be prone to emerge primarily when the incongruence
concerns the musics fundamental acoustic or temporal elements. For
example, this may be at the heart of our estrangement when large
deviations in rhythm or clearly flawed synchrony occur, as happens in
Jean-Luc Godards asynchronous or abruptly pausing soundtracks. 5
Verifying this claim would nevertheless require deeper, preferably
empirical, research.
Everything considered, we assume that the binding of sound and image
achieves an interpretational influence before it would be consciously
evaluated as disruptively mismatched. Nevertheless, as Anderson too
notes, following the initial comparing of rhythm, meter and temporal
congruencies with the visual, there is comparison of the tone and emotion

Presumably, it can only be on the basis of such traits and flaws in human
cognition that film music has been able to gain its status as an almost unquestioned
realistic effect in the cinema, despite its lack of mimetic abilities that we would
objectively consider realistic.
See, for example, the recurrently interrupted extra-diegetic music in Pierrot le
Fou (1965) or the temporal disjunctions of sound and image in La Chinoise (1967),
Weekend (1967), and Passion (1980).
Steven Willemsen and Mikls Kiss 111

of the sounds and/or music with the event unfolding on the screen, perhaps
the very emotion of the music confirming or denying the validity of the
viewers response to what is seen (Anderson 1998, 87). For incongruent
film music, this emotional response becomes the most significant, bringing
about the question: how does incongruent music influence and impact
viewers visual perception and emotional evaluation?
There is no need for theoretical explanations to realize that it is always
the music that exerts a great deal of influence over the emotional qualities
of an image, whereas the visual content is hardly able to alter the
emotional affect in the music. Musics emotive meaning is thus constant;
that of the visual track is relatively unstable and changeable. This insight
is at the core of the two cognitive processes, affective congruence and
polarization, that Jeff Smith (1999) distinguishes as the two overarching
affective functions of film music. In the process of affective congruence
the music emotionally matches the visual and narrative events, thereby
heightening the viewers emotional experience. When the emotional and
semantic qualities of the visual and narrative events are largely similar to
those expressed by the music, they reinforce each other, possibly leading
to a stronger arousal of emotions in the viewer. During polarization, on
the other hand, the emotive qualities of music and the visual are not
unambiguously matched i.e. they do not express exactly the same
emotional meaning. This is not to be confused with the incongruence we
are concerned with in this article. As for polarization one should think of a
slight discrepancy, or perhaps an emotionally neutral image
accompanied by music that is expressive of some emotion. This audio-
visual constellation leads to an interaction in which the affective meaning
of music moves the content of the image towards the character of that
music (Smith 1999, 160). Annabel J. Cohen has conducted various
experiments on this process, for example, by testing the effects of different
accompanying music on the evaluation of short animated films presenting
moving geometric figures (Cohen & Marshall 1988, Cohen 1993). In these
cases the emotive qualities that viewers ascribed to the film were moved
towards the qualities expressed by the music. In this sense film music
functions as a semiotic signifier, guiding viewers judgements. Cohen
explains how the music guides us through the interpretation of an image,
directing viewers attention (since temporal congruencies tend to steer
viewers attention), consequently altering the perceived meaning. As Jeff
Smith concludes, auditory elements systematically shape the denotative
and affective meanings of the visual (Smith 1999, 161).
Incongruent cases seem to disregard this general rule. Even though
incongruent music may feel disorienting, unsettling, or ironical, when it
112 Unsettling Melodies: A Cognitive Approach to Incongruent Film Music

stands in clear conflict with the visual, music does not move the visually
perceived towards its own contrasting emotional qualities. It is likely that
whenever the audio-visual incongruence becomes radical, the natural
processes of congruency and its corresponding modes of affect are
suspended. Empirical findings back up this assumption. For example,
Annabel J. Cohen noted that when music and visuals are in clear conflict,
the musical affect is marginalized and the visual information tends to take
precedence over the audio (Cohen & Marshall 1988). Although this only
describes a tendency and not a fixed mechanism, it is assumable that when
primary, cognitively impenetrable, tests of audio-visual correlation fail,
viewers generally tend to rely on the visual information over the audio.6
This could be an underlying reason of why violent images are specifically
effective in creating and maintaining audio-visual incongruence: violent
images are viscerally strong and emotionally unambiguous hence capable
of resisting the interpretational polarization of the accompanying music.
The lack of these effects demonstrates that audio-visual incongruence is
different from Smiths category of polarization.
But what functions remain for the conflicting music then? Anderson
notes that [i]f musical and visual information are in conflict in any of
these instances [i.e. in synchrony, rhythm, or emotion], the conflict will
force the viewer to go back and re-evaluate earlier reactions, to reinterpret
the patterns and the significance of the filmic events (Anderson 1998,
87). Yet, re-evaluation does not seem to be at the core of incongruent film
music. While watching Oldboy, we do not re-evaluate or reinterpret the
whole film, nor the particular scene of torture because of the incongruent
music. Andersons statement seems to be directed more at the narrative
implications, rather than at any emotional effect. Marilyn G. Boltz (2004)
offers another suggestion, following empirical tests on film music and
cognition in terms of our interpretation, emotional affect and memory. The
results of Boltzs experiments with viewers watching short clips paired to
diverse musical soundtracks show that mood-congruent pairs of film and
music are jointly encoded, leading to an integrated memory code. This
encoding underlines our argument on how film and music tend to be
coupled strongly in cognition. A joint encoding, according to Boltz,
may be more likely to occur in cases of mood congruency in which

In cases of narrative films, on the one hand, the primacy of visual information
over the audio could include, even be reinforced by, viewers narrative interest.
On the other, ecological point of view, visual informations dominance could be
easily justified from an evolutionary perspective, as it could refer to survival skills,
which dodge those very rare situations, when natures voices arent reliable to the
dangers of the seen environment.
Steven Willemsen and Mikls Kiss 113

musical affect can direct viewers attending toward those aspects of a film
with a similar connotative meaning and thereby integrate music and film
into one coherent framework (Boltz 2004, 1196). As for cases of
incongruence, Boltzs findings suggest that viewers tend to perceive
conflicting film music as separated from the visuals. After all, the
emotive meaning of [incongruent] music conflicts with that of the film, so
that it is not always clear where attending should be directed or how the
conflict of information can be resolved within one interpretative
framework. Given that music and film seem relatively dissociated from
each other in this situation, each may be encoded independently of the
other (Boltz 2004, 1196). However, we are bound by justice to say that
this finding refers only to a tendency measured in short clips viewed under
rather unnatural circumstances. Even Boltz herself notes that in an
immersive, full-length narrative fiction film, the outcomes may be
different: On an experiential level, the use of ironic contrast often seems
to result in a vivid memory of the film information. For example,
ironically contrasted scenes from A Clockwork Orange are very
memorable, perhaps even more so than they would be if they had
originally been accompanied by mood-congruent music (Boltz 2004,
Concluding the above, it is not some separate encoding or a disjunction
in memory representation that makes incongruent film music an
emotionally powerful audio-visual strategy. Nevertheless, there is a key
notion in Boltzs statement that, when film music remains highly
incongruent, it is not clear for viewers where to direct their attention or
how to solve the emotional problems within a single interpretative
framework. In relation to Boltzs conclusion, Andersons remark,
originally concerning silent films, may be applicable to incongruence too:
Consider the possibility that the absence of the opportunity to confirm
our perceptions cross-modally might account for our discomfort in
viewing a silent film without accompaniment. If we are programmed by
evolution to check and cross-check our perceptions multi-modally, the
inability to do so might well make us fundamentally, vaguely uneasy
(Anderson 1998, 87).
Crucially, the cognitive accounts of film music whether it is Smiths
affective congruence and polarization, Cohens and Boltzs experiments or
Andersons ecological considerations on multi-modality all point to the
same processes of viewers seeking to interpret in favour of congruence.
Essentially, these processes are nothing but economically driven attempts
to bridge the gap of multimodal information in order to create a single,
clear, cognitively consonant meaning. With incongruent film music
114 Unsettling Melodies: A Cognitive Approach to Incongruent Film Music

although the possibility to cross-check our perceptions and interpretation

is essentially given these very processes fail on us as the audio-visual
discrepancy blocks our shortcutting meaning-making routine. Although
the music presents itself as a source of information (relying on our
cognitive and habitual disposition), incongruent film music obstructs the
process of cross-modal testing, since the affective qualities of information
offered are in unanticipated conflict. We would argue that in the clearest
cases of incongruent film music that is when no affective polarization
takes place or the conflict cannot be inferentially resolved in terms of
simple ironic allusions the felt result follows from the evasion of the
processes of correlative interpretation. The role of incongruent music is
therefore one of a deliberate disturber of unambiguous meaning making
and a clear-cut judgement. Sonic perceptions failure to confirm or even
disconfirm visual perceptions creates some vague uneasiness, an unsettling
feeling, similar to the one described by Anderson concerning silent
cinemas soundless viewing experience. Due to audio-visual
incongruence, which makes finding correlation between information from
multimodal sources difficult if not impossible, a thwarted perception of a
scene results in emotional uneasiness.
On the basis of these findings and sources, our paper concludes in a
three-step explanation on the elemental functioning of incongruent film
music. Note that this is not a definitive description of all instances, but
rather principles that generally seem to surround cases of musical
1.) The music is presented as an aspect of the visual. We argue that it
is on the basis of both acquired convention and our cognitive disposition
that one readily and pre-consciously ascribes emotional qualities in music
to images. Following this viewer bias, filmmakers further justify
incongruent musics place by means of stylistic devices. The most
common is a method, through which incongruent music gets some diegetic
validation. A good example is a diegetic song, only accidentally played
on the radio, appearing at an inappropriate moment, as seen in Reservoir
Dogs. Incongruences conflict may become less jarring by calculated
editing that creates temporal congruencies and correlations between music
and visual. This can be achieved through rhythmic scene pacing (as can be
seen in the case of Oldboy) or by smart crosscutting (as happens in The
Godfather, where the church organ music originates from the baptism
scene, yet is increased in volume after each cut to the assassinations). Such
stylistic tricks create a stronger and more convincing perceptual and
evaluative connection between the emotionally colliding audio and video
Steven Willemsen and Mikls Kiss 115

2.) Our cognition attempts to bridge the multi-modal gaps. It is when

we try to bring together two contradictory flows of input, the same way we
automatically do in cases of congruence (cf. Andersons single event
perception), the emotional conflict becomes tangible. It becomes salient
because the emotional gap between visual events and contrasting music
holds emotional implications that are too strong to be seamlessly
3.) The conflict is upheld or even climaxed. Incongruent film music
disturbs unceasingly our emotional response to the given scene. We tend
to feel somewhat uneasy because it seems as if our senses are letting us
down. Confronted with emotionally contradictory flows of information,
one cannot apply a single interpretative framework to the unsettling
experience. This is the moment where the sense of irony or comedy may
arise, since such feelings result precisely from a sustained or sudden
incongruence. Incongruences uneasy experience may necessitate further
viewer response, such as different inferential strategies and interpretations
that serve to naturalize the conflict, for instance ascribing it to an (implied)
author persona or treating the conflict as symbolical.
It seems that when incongruent music is not guiding us towards a
singular emotional response (through an inferential shift producing a
judgement cf. Smith), in order to resolve what exactly is happening, the
situation requires the viewer to focus more on the visual aspects of the
actual narrative event. In this case, following an ecologically determined
trajectory (cf. Cohen & Marshall 1988), the viewer is exerting an
inferential effort to derive meaning from the visual track only. Thus,
ultimately and somewhat paradoxically, incongruent music may
emphasize and strengthen the power of the image on its own.

This preliminary explanation is only a first attempt to connect all the
different modes of incongruence and the cognitive-emotional responses
they evoke. We can conclude that although psychoanalytic theorists were
right in claiming that incongruent film music creates uncertainty, they
fell short in explaining the exact nature as well as the emotional
consequences of such a complex audio-visual stimulus. A mere conflict
between inconsistent semiotic interpretations cannot fully explain why
incongruent film music recurrently invokes feelings of uneasiness. Rather
than regarding it as a phenomenon that works through disrupting
conventions, we stressed a perceptual-cognitive reason that ensures
incongruences emotional strangeness. The consequence of this conclusion
116 Unsettling Melodies: A Cognitive Approach to Incongruent Film Music

is that the effect of incongruent music cannot be fully habitualized through

overuse of the practice. It even seems that the previously described
unsettling impact is at the heart of all radically incongruent cases, even if
they are considered comic or ironic. Other possible emotional and
intellectual responses, we would argue, arise from this initial uneasy

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Further research on incongruence could apply this hypothesis to more specific
scenes, testing how it may give rise to different felt and understood types of
meaning. Other research may be directed to the question of whether immersion and
film musics naturalness are as unstable as psychoanalytical theory implies. It
seems that more severe disruptions are required to really break the audiences
absorption in the fiction. Furthermore, it could prove interesting to see whether the
differences between perceiving diegetic and non-diegetic music, related to their
incongruent use, are as different as assumed. Although the difference between the
two is very clear on an inferential level, they may just function differently while
underscoring incongruently, since we essentially deal with non-diegetic film
music, either perfectly congruent or highly conflicting, as an informative aspect of
the diegesis.
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Flinn, Caryl. 1992. Strains of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia and Hollywood

Film Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Palmarini, 614621. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
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The spectators and in particular the women seeing the film shed
torrents of tears, and didnt see the film just once but twice, three times or
more. The world lived in happy times then, when the only preoccupation
was love. (Nicula 1995, 61.)1 This example of the emotional, even tactile
film experience stems from the Romanian collector Emil Constantinescu.
He refers to the success of the Italian silent film Odette (Giuseppe De
Liguoro, 1916), starring Italian diva Francesca Bertini. She was the most
popular Italian film actress of the 1910s and early 1920s, especially in
Romania, as Romanian film historian Dinu-Ioan Nicula has shown. Nicula
writes that though Transylvania could not see these films during the war,
as it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire then, the rest of Romania
could. And so they cherished the epic Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914),
adventure films with figures like Maciste, and the diva films with Bertini.
One particular aspect within the highly emotionally charged field of
Italian silent cinema is its relationship to the representation of art and
artists during cinemas transition from fairground amusements to
entertainments for middle-class audiences in fashionable movie palaces,
and from vaudeville style to one closer to theatre and painting. In
particular, Italian silent cinema was typical in its dynamic of explicitly
referring to and appropriating such former media as the theatre and visual
arts. Two main topics will be treated here, first the narrative conventions
around the representation of art and artists, and second, the relationship
between the off-screen, real art world and its visual representation in
film. I will treat both painting and sculpture here which, despite their

I owe thanks first to Giovanna Ginex, and then to Claudia Gianetto (Museo
Nazionale del Cinema, Torino), Mario Musumeci, Franca Farini (Cineteca
Nazionale, Roma), Anna Fiaccarini, Andrea Meneghelli (Cineteca di Bologna),
Livio Jacob (Cineteca del Friuli), Rommy Albers (EYE Film Institute,
Amsterdam), and gnes Peth (Sapientia Hungarian University of Transylvania).
122 Of Artists and Models

formal differences, are quite close in the ways that they are narratively
treated. How did Italian silent cinema represent art and artists? What does
this tell us about cinemas own perspective and problematization of art
versus the real? How are art objects treated as physical, touchable objects?
And how do these objects function as stand-ins for characters out of reach
(the Pygmalion effect), no longer alive (the ancestors portrait gallery), or
destined to die (Oscar Wildes The Picture of Dorian Gray or Edgar Allan
Poes The Oval Portrait)? And secondly, what happens when we correlate
the filmic conventions of representation with art historical investigation?
As this territory is rather new for Italian silent cinema, it might be useful
to have a brief look at an area that has been thoroughly researched by
scholars: classical Hollywoods representation of artists and their works.
(See Sykora [2003], Felleman [2006], and Jacobs [2011].)

Narrative Conventions: Dangerous Portraits

In Hitchcocks Motifs (2005), Michael Walker categorizes the meaning
of painted portraits in film: 1) the power of the patriarchal (sometimes
matriarchal) character or portraits of fathers who founded empires; 2) the
power of the family tradition, as with the gallery of ancestors; 3) the lost
love (like a lost wife); and 4) the desire of the beholder (Walker 2005,
320). Such connotations often occur when the portrait is a young woman
and the spectators admiring her are men, as in Laura (Otto Preminger,
1944) or The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944). When the portrait
is painted within the filmic narrative, desire is the most usual association,
even when the classic gender division of male artist and female model is
reversed. Within all these categories, the dominant idea is that the
portraits subject is of lasting importance. In order to obtain this status,
however, the character needs to die first, either before or during the filmic
narrative. In the American cinema of the 1940s the painted portrait is often
linked to murder and suicide. Painters kill their models, in particular when
the latter are young, and thus murdered victims remain visible by their
portraits. Suicide occurs just as often with painters as with their models.
The association of painted portraits with violent deaths was a central
theme at the 1991 conference Le portrait peint au cinma/The Painted
Portrait in Film, held at the Louvre, whose proceedings were published in
the journal Iris. Thomas Elsaesser (1992) emphasized here the feeling of
fatality that looms over so many painted portraits in films. Having a
painted portrait is a hazardous enterprise for a young female character. The
portrait ignites passions in the painter or in other men, which may lead to
violence or self-destruction. Other men can observe the woman of their
Ivo Blom 123

dreams without limitation and this may be more embarrassing when they
are not her choice.2 This was recently confirmed in Susan Fellemans
book, Art in the Cinematic Imagination (2006), where she takes a
gendered perspective of male necrophilic desire in classical Hollywood

Dangerous Portraits in Italian Silent Cinema

Now I wish to turn to some examples of Italian films from the 1910s,
and their conventions of representing art and artists. This is the result of
screening film prints in Rome, Turin, Bologna, and Amsterdam in 2011.
On basis of the excellent reference books on Italian silent cinema by Aldo
Bernardini and Vittorio Martinelli (19911996), I established beforehand
which films were important to my research. Like most silent era films, just
a few titles in my long list survived in Italian and foreign film archives.
First: a few films in which the painting or the sculpture creates mishap,
just like in the American films of the 1940s. In the drama Il fuoco (The
Fire, 1915) by Giovanni Pastrone, a poor painter (Febo Mari) falls in love
with a femme fatale-like rich poetess (Pina Menichelli). She takes him to
her castle and has him paint her portrait, lying on a sofa and teasingly
covering her face, as if not wanting to be painted [Fig. 1].3 The undulating
pose is clearly inspired by Alexandre Cabanels Venus (1863), but it is
also close to a long series of dressed and undressed women stretching
themselves out on a sofa, bed, ocean wave, etc., both in painting and in
cinema, offering themselves to the observer (e.g. Pedro Almodvars
recent La piel que habito [The Skin I Live In, 2011] and its quotations from
Titians Venus, Goyas Maya, Manets Olympia, and so on). Within the
plot of Il fuoco the portrait functions as catalyst. It is crowned with a first
prize at a Salon, the model thus inspiring the artist to make a masterpiece
(a typical narrative convention in the examples I viewed). But soon after,
the lady is warned that her husband is returning, so she flees the castle,
drugging the painter. He is desperate, even though she warned him
previously that their affair would be passionate but short, like a flame.
When they meet again by chance, she refuses to recognize him, causing
him to go mad.4 Another good example is Il quadro di Osvaldo Mars (The

See in the same issue also Felleman (1992), who deals with American cinema of
the 1940s as well.
See my own article (Blom 1992).
The narrative convention of an artist going mad over a femme fatale was repeated
by Febo Mari in his film Il tormento (The Torment, 1917) with Helena Makowska
as the femme fatale and Mari himself as the artist. Makowska was often type-
124 Of Artists and Models

Figure 1. Il fuoco (Giovanni Pastrone, 1915). Courtesy Museo nazionale del

cinema, Turin. Figure 2. Il quadro di Osvaldo Mars (Guido Brignone, 1921).
Courtesy Cineteca di Bologna.

casted as femme fatale in the Italian cinema of those years. The press praised her
beauty but condemned her rather inexpressive acting. In real life she must have
been a kind of femme fatale as well. The Argentinian sculptor Csar Santiano,
collaborator of Bistolfi, made a daring, lascivious nude sculpture of her in 1916,
but in 1919 he committed suicide because of her (Audoli 2008, 2629).
Ivo Blom 125

Painting by Osvaldo Mars, 1921) by Guido Brignone. His sister,

Mercedes, plays a countess who discovers that a daring painting is about
to be exposed publicly, showing her in a Salome outfit and not much more
[Fig. 2]. When the painter, Osvaldo Mars (Domenico Serra), refuses to
withdraw his new masterpiece, she slashes the canvas to pieces, but is also
accused of murdering the painter afterwards. In the end, we learn that the
painter loved a lookalike of the countess (also played by Brignone), a
farmers wife who leaves her husband and child to climb the social ladder.
It is this woman whom Osvaldo Mars painted and over whom he
committed suicide.5
In both Il fuoco and Il quadro di Osvaldo Mars, the painted portraits
are negative catalysts. In Il fuoco the artistic triumph means the end of the
painters love affair, while in Il quadro di Osvaldo Mars the scandalous
painting is destroyed because of its potentially damaging implications for a
noble ladys reputation. This latter narrative trope is also present in an
earlier short film, Il ritratto dellamata (The Portrait of the Beloved,
Gerolamo Lo Savio, 1912), in which a painter named Alma (a hint at
Alma Tadema?) finishes a historical portrait of a lady by giving it the face
of an English diplomats wife with whom he has fallen in love. She notices
it and quickly paints the face black, though the artist manages to wash the
paint away. When unpacked at the ladys home, everybody is embarrassed,
and the husband explodes and chases his wife out of her home and away
from her child. Their child creates reconciliation in the end a classic
narrative convention. So the message here is that even if legitimized
because of a historical or mythological setting, portraits of the well-to-do
in daring outfits risk ruining ones reputation and that of ones family.
Thus, the model, too, may risk both this symbolic and physical loss. In
short, La modella (The Model, Ugo Falena, 1916), a non-professional
model (Stacia Napierkowska) is picked up from the street because she is
more genuine, more authentic, and more honest than a professional model
a common topos in silent cinema. She poses for a statue of an almost

The Salome attire seems to have been inspired by theatrical costumes of Salome
performances in the Belle poque, or at least by their depictions by painters such
as Vladislav Ismaylovich, Leopold von Schmutzler, and Clemens von Pausinger.
One is also reminded of an inter-filmic relationship with actresses wearing Salome
attire in earlier films such as Lyda Borelli in Ma lamor mio non muore (Love
Everlasting, Mario Caserini, 1913) and Rapsodia satanica (Satanic Rhapsody,
Nino Oxilia, 1917).
126 Of Artists and Models

naked woman holding a chalice, set on a pedestal, and falls in love with
the sculptor, who is also her protector [Fig. 3].6

Figure 3. La modella (Ugo Falena, 1916). Courtesy Cineteca di Bologna.

Figure 4. La notte che dormii sotto le stelle (Giovanni Zannini, 1918). Courtesy
Cineteca Nazionale, Rome.

When the statue, however, is publicly exposed, the girl is mocked

another common occurrence in silent films dealing with artists7 by a
former model fired by the artist and now taking revenge by slandering the
newcomer. Fortunately a painter friend mediates, restoring both the girls
honour and her relationship with the sculptor. In both Il ritratto dellamata
and La modella, then, the artwork may damage ones reputation and ones
lover, but the mutual restoration of honour and love remains a narrative

Destructive Art Works

Paintings or sculptures might also mean the end of life, though, in a
more irreparable way, causing death and mutilation. Their physical
presence, their literal weight has serious consequences for protagonists
and/or antagonists. First, paintings and sculptures may function as
avenging saviours of damsels in distress. Often the artwork is venerated by
the protagonists as it portrays deceased heroes. In the Francesca Bertini
vehicle, Il nodo (The Knot, Gaston Ravel, 1921), the poor girl Agnese

I noticed that the statue was recycled one year after in the sculptors workshop in
Il processo Clemenceau (Alfredo De Antoni, 1917), shot at the Caesar Film studios
of Rome.
Another example of a model jealous of a newcomer is Amore sentimentale
(Sentimental Love, Cines, 1911).
Ivo Blom 127

(Elena Lunda) is adopted by the painter Lelio Salviati (Carlo Gualandri),

who paints her portrait featuring her holding flowers. Agnese sacrifices
herself for the good of the painter and his lover, the marchioness Della
Croce (played by Bertini), whose mean and unfaithful husband (Giorgio
Bonaiti) tortures her and refuses a divorce. Knowing she has a terminal
disease, Agnese pretends to be the lady and dies in the burning of the
marchionesss garden house. The lovers are temporarily freed, until the
husband discovers his wife hasnt died when hearing her sing a familiar
tune. Here, sound betrays her a curious plot device for a silent film. The
film concludes with a struggle in which a rifle accidentally shoots the cord
of the life-size painting, killing the evil marquis, allowing the absent girl to
save the lovers a second time from beyond the grave.8 Likewise in La
notte che dormii sotto le stelle (The Night I Slept Under the Stars,
Giovanni Zannini, 1918) a film that survives only in an incomplete print
the girl, Fiamma (Lina Pellegrini), is abducted and raised by gypsies
following a fire in her home when she is a child. She ends up being raised
by her uncle, both being unaware that they are family. The brutal gypsy
foster father, Giacomo (Sergio Mari), pursues the girl, however, and
pushes her into helping him to rob the family. When she refuses, a statue
of a bearded old man that the girl has been cherishing, and for which she
feels an inexplicable attachment, saves her from being molested by the bad
guy.9 She throws the bust on the villain, killing him [Fig. 4]. Of course the
bust is a portrait of the girls dead father (whom we never see in the film).
Through its physical weight, the artwork here too liberates the protagonist
from the clutches of evil, allowing the good supporting character to help
beyond death.
In contrast to the trope of artwork as moral avenger, the physical
weight of the statue may also have a negative effect on the protagonist. In
La Gioconda (Eleuterio Rodolfi, 1916), based on a play by DAnnunzio,
Mercedes Brignone is Sylvia, the wife of sculptor Lucio Settala (Umberto
Mozzato). He has fallen in love with his femme fatale-like model
Gioconda Danti (Helena Makowska), who models for an ecstatic,
Symbolist-like statue [Fig. 5]. The women fight over the same man, but
when the enraged Gioconda throws Sylvia against the sculpture for which
she has modelled, the poor wife tries to save her husbands work from

The film has been restored by the Cineteca Nazionale in Rome.
While the style of the bust is quite general and even banal for late 19th-century
sculpture, Fiammas pose when she venerates the statue is more striking and is
reminiscent of paintings commissioned to commemorate lost relatives, such as
those by Francesco Hayez. It is also similar to late 19th-century funeral sculpture.
128 Of Artists and Models

falling, ruining her hands forever. This extreme sacrifice makes the
sculptor repent and return to her.10

Figure 5. La Gioconda (Eleuterio Rodolfi, 1916). Postcard. Collection Ivo Blom,

Amsterdam. Figure 6. Il processo Clemenceau (Alfredo De Antoni, 1917).
Courtesy Cineteca di Bologna.

Despite the opening of film archives around the globe, no print of the film has
yet been found, but extant original postcards provide a visual impression. I hold
many of these in my own collection.
Ivo Blom 129

In considering the destructive force of artwork in Italian silent cinema,

there are a number of films in which the effigy of the model causes her
serious trouble, with even stronger consequences than in Il ritratto
dellamata and La modella.11 Here the artist confuses his work with the
model, or he believes himself entitled to create and also to destroy it; and,
likewise, to give life to his model, launch her image, but also to destroy
her when she becomes unworthy. So when the model becomes spoiled and
a spend-thrift as a result of her artists success, and cruelly dumps him for
a richer protector, the artist goes berserk and takes revenge. This narrative
convention recurs in a few Italian silent films. In the short, Lidolo
infranto (The Broken Idol, Emilio Ghione, 1913), the artist (Alberto Collo)
has become poor and a drunk after the loss of his model/lover, but is
unable to sell the bust with her likeness as it represents his work and his
love. The once gold-digging model (Bertini) now feels sorry for the mans
downfall and wants to surprise him, so she secretly replaces the bust with
herself. When the drunken artist comes in and sees her smiling in the
reflection of a mirror, he thinks even the models bust mocks him; so he
destroys the sculpture, realizing too late what he has done. In a later film
with Bertini, Il processo Clemenceau (The Clemenceau Affair, Alfredo
De Antoni, 1917), a similar scenario, though more complex, was devised.
Here the sculptor Pierre Clemenceau (Gustavo Serena) confesses in a
flashback how he met his model, the impoverished aristocrat Iza (Bertini);
how she dropped him first for a rich count before returning, marrying and
having a child with him; but then how she cheated on him again because
of her lust for money and adventure and her disgust over a morally
restricted middle class life (represented by the artists mother). This
function of the artists mother is also a recurring topos in many Italian
silent films.12 First, the man destroys the bust he made of her, as it
functions as a stand-in for her physical presence but also as a symbol of

This was a topos rather common in the cinema of the 1910s, also outside of
Italy. In the Russian silent film Umirayushchii lebed (The Dying Swan, Yevgeni
Bauer, 1917) an artist obsessed by death in art is inspired by a ballerina dancing
the Dying Swan. But when she is too cheerful as a model, he kills her, permitting
him to pose her correctly for his artwork.
A good example is La madre (The Mother, Giuseppe Sterni, 1917), starring
Vitalia Italiani. It was based on the play La madre by the Catalan writer Santiago
Rusiol, which Vitaliani had performed with great success all over Spain in 1907,
before having it adapted for the screen a decade later. Actually, Vitaliani had been
a regular performer of Rusiols plays around the 1900s, to great acclaim in Spain,
and in particular in Barcelona. The film La madre was rediscovered at the EYE
Filmmuseum not too long ago.
130 Of Artists and Models

his love [Fig. 6]. Then when the model returns to him a second time (in
torment over her conduct and desperately missing her child), he kills her
since he cannot cope with her behaviour and is unwilling to believe in her
moral contrition. Just like in Lidolo infranto, the man realizes afterwards
what he has done in blind rage. So the artist creates and destroys the
model, just like he creates and destroys the artwork.13

Narrative Convention vs. Artistic Practice

Of course, the above-mentioned narrative conventions are not just
cinematic conventions, but have predecessors in art, as Steven Jacobs has
explained in Framing Pictures: Film and the Visual Arts (2011), in his
analysis of the narrative conventions in artists biographies by, for
example, Kris and Kurz, Von Schlosser and Wittkower (Jacobs 2011, 43
47). Still, after discussing all these narrative conventions on the filmic
representation of art and artists, one wonders: do these films still have
some correlation with the off-screen, real art world, or are they only
simulacra self-contained, filmic clichs alive only within the diegesis of
the films? When starting this research, my hypothesis was that most of
what I would encounter would be just cinemas perspective of art and the
art world, a very coloured and biased perspective, using that world to
create a milieu in which things were permitted which ordinary mortals
that is, the cinema spectators were not supposed to do. Relatively few
props were necessary to express this milieu, to stage a set recognizable as
an artists workshop. Sometimes these props were copies of famous
classical sculptures, such as the Capitoline Venus, the Laocon Group,
Giambolognas Rape of the Sabine Women, or copies from 19th-century
popular sculptures once famous and now forgotten. Other props were just
coarse, hastily made artworks, only serving to decorate the set of the
artists studio. This generalization of the artists studio in Italian silent
cinema characterizes short comedies in particular. As the comedy genre
represents the world in a farcical way, this is expressed in the set design of
the artists workshop or in the art that he makes. Modern art is often

We see this narrative convention of the artist who creates and destroys his model
in the Italian silent film La chiamavano Cosetta (They Called Her Cosetta,
Eugenio Perego, 1917). Here a sculptor (Amleto Novelli) is devastated when he
discovers his femme fatale-like model (Soava Gallone) has caused his only son to
commit suicide over her, at the foot of the fathers statue representing her beauty.
The artist crushes his model under his own statue.
Ivo Blom 131

ridiculed.14 Representational strategies in the dramatic features of the 1910s

and early 1920s are, however, more complex. Not only do we see more
diversification in the workshops of poor and established artists, but both are
also more closely modelled on images of real workshops, though rather
those of non-avant-garde artists of the turn-of-the century or even before.
The emphasis on the non-avant-garde workshops also goes for the art
represented in the films. The paintings and sculptures in dramatic features
of the 1910s are mostly not the art of that decade but the later decades of
the 19th century, either the more naturalist styles in painting or sculpture or
the more Salon-like academic versions. This is perhaps not surprising as
cinema needed a conventional, reassuring version of art for its lower and
middle class audiences, who were mostly little acquainted or favourable to
the many -isms of the 1910s: Cubism, Futurism, etc. Moreover, naturalist
art was itself strongly based on and aided by photography in order to
catch reality as closely as possible. Naturalist art was widely visible in
public buildings such as city halls (Weisberg 2010). Moreover, the
established art of the late 19th century, the academic art of orientalists and
idealists, as well as those of the naturalists had been massively reproduced
and distributed through the rise of illustrated postcards from the 1890s
onwards, as well as by illustrated magazines, thanks to the introduction of
half-block reprography. Paintings and sculptures hitherto visible only to
social elites were now freely available everywhere, even more than during
the introduction of the etching.15 They were now used on the covers of
matchboxes, cigarette and chocolate boxes, etc., and thus transformed into
iconic images. They became part of the collective memory, providing a
repertoire of images for filmmakers to draw upon (nowadays we no longer
have any notion of that collective memory.) Just to give an example, when
in La madre (Giuseppe Sterni, 1917), the artist (played by Sterni himself)
is working in a shared studio, he is working on a painting that depicts the
biblical Flight to Egypt. It is a copy of the naturalist painting by Maxime
Dastugue, La Fuite en Egypte (1889), made after Dastugues trip to Egypt
the same year [Figs.78]. Dastugues painting was popular well into the
1910s and 1920s through reproductions on postcards and in illustrated
magazines. There is also a practical explanation. Within a films plot,
paintings and sculptures were often used as portraits of characters, so
audiences had to be able to recognize them otherwise their function as

Examples are a.o. La signora Fricot gelosa (Ambrosio, 1913) and Robinet
geloso (Tweedledum is Jealous, Ambrosio, 1914).
It suffices to have a glance at modern digital shops like eBay and Delcampe to
notice the enormous divulgation of these postcards of late 19th-century and early
20th-century painting and sculpture.
132 Of Artists and Models

meaningful props would have been lost.16 To find the pictorial equivalents
of paintings or sculptures represented in the Italian cinema of the 1910s,
one has to look therefore at late 19th-century portraits or even at the
monumental sculpture in Italian graveyards, such as that by Giulio
Monteverde (Angel, 1882).

Figure 7. La madre (Giuseppe Sterni, 1917). Courtesy EYE Filmmuseum,

Amsterdam. Figure 8. La fuite en Egypte (Maxime Dastugue, 1889). Illustration.
Collection Ivo Blom, Amsterdam.

This goes both for short comedies like La signora Fricot gelosa and Robinet
geloso and dramatic features such as Il processo Clemenceau. The plot would fail
if recognition of the statue as a portrait of one of the characters was not possible.
Ivo Blom 133

Figures 910. Giuseppe Riva: Fauno (1917) (courtesy Armando Audoli), and the
sculpture in Il fauno (Febo Mari, 1917). Courtesy Museo nazionale del cinema,

There is, however, a flipside to this. In the 1910s and early 1920s
several Italian artists collaborated with the Italian cinema industry, either
as set and costume designers (such as Duilio Cambellotti and Camillo
Innocenti), as poster designers, or as creators of the art works visible in
films. Thus, contemporary artists created art for film sets. While film
historical research has focused too narrowly on the infrequent
collaborations between the avant-garde of the Italian Futurists and the
professional film industry, this other, vaster territory has hardly been
explored. Let me provide two examples. For Il fauno (1917) by Febo Mari,
a kind of reversed Pygmalion story a woman falling in love with the
statue of a male faun the Piemontese sculptor Giuseppe Riva made the
statue, even in multiple versions (Audoli 2008, 1861) [Figs. 910].17 Riva
stood in a late 19th-century representational tradition of the Faun that was
present not only in Stphane Mallarms famous poem, but also in
sculptures in- and outside of Italy like Antonio Bezzolas The Idol (1891).
Thus, an iconography was already there, only the form was altered.
Finally, the bust of Francesca Bertinis character in Il processo
Clemenceau that was destroyed by its creator, was based on an identical

Actor turned director Febo Mari had often scripts about artists such as La gloria
(The Glory, 1916), in which a sculptor ruins his own statue, and Il tormento
(1917), see note 4.
134 Of Artists and Models

real bust of Bertini made by the Neapolitan sculptor Amleto Cataldi which
was published in the renowned Italian art journal Emporium in 1917, the
same year the film was released [Figs.1112]. (See Geraci [1917]. The
bust of Bertini is depicted on pages 166 and 170.)

Figures 1112. Amleto Cataldi: Francesca Bertini (1917), and a still from Il
processo Clemenceau (Alfredo De Antoni, 1917). Courtesy Cineteca di Bologna.

In conclusion, we can say that, while more research is necessary,

Italian silent cinema was surely not only looking backwards but also
keeping an eye on the artistic present as well. In that sense the presence of
art works and artists in Italian silent cinema was not only linked to
particular narrative conventions, but also to the art world outside of the
filmic diegesis. Following Jens Schrters categorization of intermediality,
we can define the representation of one medium (art) in the other (cinema)
as transformational intermediality, but intrinsically we are dealing with
ontological intermediality as well, as the cinema is redefined through its
comparison with painting and sculpture (Schrter, 1998). While the
pictorial invites us to make a comparison between the cinema and the
framing and deep staging in figurative painting, the sculptural refers to
cinemas ability to sculpt as well but with light rather than stone.
Ivo Blom 135

Audoli, Armando. 2008. Chimere. Miti, allegorie e simbolismi plastici da
Bistolfi a Martinazzi. [Chimeras. Myths, Allegories, and Painterly
Symbolism from Bistolfi to Martinazzi], Torino: Weber & Weber.
Bernardini, Aldo and Vittorio Martinelli. 19911996. Il cinema muto
italiano, 19051931. [The Italian Silent Cinema, 19051931], Rome:
Nuova ERI/CSC.
Blom, Ivo. 1992. Il Fuoco or the Fatal Portrait. The XIXth Century in the
Italian Silent Cinema. Le portrait peint au cinma. Iris no. 1415
(Autumn): 5566.
Elsaesser, Thomas. 1992. Mirror, Muse, Medusa: Experiment Perilous. Le
portrait peint au cinma. Iris no. 1415 (Autumn): 147159.
Felleman, Susan. 1992. The Moving Picture Gallery. Le portrait peint au
cinma. Iris no. 1415 (Autumn): 193200.
. 2006. Art in the Cinematic Imagination. Austin: University of Texas
Jacobs, Steven. 2011. Framing Pictures. Film and the Visual Arts.
Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Geraci, Francesco. 1917. Artisti contemporanei: Amleto Cataldi.
[Contemporary Artists: Amleto Cataldi], Emporium, vol. 267 no. 45
(March): 163175.
Nicula, Dinu-Ioan. 1995. Film italiani in Romania. Dagli anni 10 alla
Seconda Guerra Mondiale. [Italian Films in Romania. From the 1910s
to the Second World War], In Cinema italiano in Europa, 19071929,
II, ed. Francesco Bono, 5967. Rome: Associazione Italiana per le
Ricerche di Storia del Cinema.
Schrter, Jens. 1998. Intermedialitt. Facetten und Problemen eines
aktuellen medienwissenschaftlichen Begriffes. Montage a/v, vol. 7 no.
2: 129154.
Sykora, Katharina. 2003. As You Desire me. Das Bildnis im Film.
Cologne: Walther Knig.
Walker, Michael 2005. Hitchcocks Motifs. Amsterdam: Amsterdam
University Press.
Weisberg, Gabriel P., et.al. 2010. Illusions of Reality. Naturalist Painting,
Photography, Theatre and Cinema, 18751918. Brussels: Mercatorfonds.


In his self-fictional essay film, Leons de tnbres Vincent Dieutre1

embarks on a journey across Europe, from Utrecht, to Naples and Rome,
in which he undertakes a sensory exploration of Caravaggism, and
successively meets two men. From the voice over narrative, the viewer
understands that the first is his partner who joins him on the trip, while the
second is a stranger encountered in a gay cruising park of Naples.
Throughout the film, Vincent, alone or accompanied, visits museums and
churches so that paintings, many of them depicting Christian scenes of the
Passion, are omnipresent.
On a rather different note, Mariana Oteros2 Histoire dun secret is a
personal film about a childhood trauma of which she has no recollection:
the death in 1968 of her mother, Clotilde, an event that remained buried
under secrecy and lies for over twenty years. The filmmaker only
discovered the truth in her thirties, when her father eventually confessed
that Clotilde had died of the consequences of an illegal abortion. She had
been a painter and as a result, Otero gives her mothers work a prominent
place in the film. Coincidentally, a significant proportion of these
paintings represent human bodies, notably female nudes.

Vincent Dieutre, born in 1960, is a French filmmaker whose work is often
described as pertaining to Queer cinema. His films tend to be constructed like self-
fictions in which he intertwines stories about his homosexuality and his former
heroine addiction with images of often derelict urban settings. Leons de
tnbres (France, Les films de la croisade, 2000) is his second feature length film.
Mariana Otero, born in 1963, is a French documentary-maker. Unlike Dieutre,
whose work is almost entirely centred around his persona, Histoire dun secret
(France, Archipel 35, 2003) is Oteros only film so far focused on a personal issue.
138 The Body as Interstitial Space between Media

This essay seeks to explore, through these two case studies, the
significance of the paintings and the ways in which their presence in the
films contributes to emphasising the materiality of the medium. A
preliminary hypothesis is that this process takes place via the physicality
of the body. It thus not only enhances sensory affect and haptic vision, but
also underscores intermediality, which ultimately points to a reflection
upon cinema itself. If the comparison of these two films may come across
as rather eclectic, the juxtaposition of their differences and similarities
proves extremely useful. Indeed, despite and beyond their specific and
very different narratives as well as aesthetics, both films point to similar
questions about sensation in relation to cinema and art in general, while
showing how the body works as a conduit for sensory perception.

Bodily Presence
The Body in Pain
The paintings appearing in Dieutres film include pieces based on
biblical scenes, such as Guido Renis David with the Head of Goliath
(1605, Muse du Louvre, Paris); or on Greek mythology, such as Dirck
van Baburens Prometheus Being Chained by Vulcan (1623, Rijksmuseum,
Amsterdam). Yet, not only do Christian scenes seem predominant, but the
religious connotation is also explicit for the films title, Tenebrae Lessons,
refers to the lessons based on the Old Testaments Book of Jeremiah which
are sung in Church during the Holy Week. To give a few examples, the
film opens on a close-up of Caravaggios Christ at the Column (ca. 1607,
Muse des Beaux-Arts, Rouen); later, we see a still, full screen shot of
Gerrit van Honthorsts Saint Sebastian (1623, National Gallery, London),
and one of Dirck van Baburens Crowning with Thorns (1623,
Catharijneconvent, Utrecht). But Vincents interest is not restricted to
painting: as he wanders in the Church of Saint Cecilia in Rome, the
camera also lingers on the statue of Saint Cecilias Martyrdom by Stefano
Maderno (15991600, Chiesa di Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome). In
other words, these works tend to focus on suffering and violence.
From a narrative point of view, this depiction of pain enhances
Dieutres expression of his own suffering and existential malaise as a
homosexual addicted to heroin and surrounded by friends dying of drug
overdose and/or AIDS during the early 1980s. As for Clotildes paintings
in Oteros film, it is hard not to see in the curvy nudes an implicit hint at
maternity and, by extension, an unwitting metaphor for her own undesired
pregnancy. As such, the paintings thus bear the hidden clues of her untold
Marlne Monteiro 139

pain and agony as a result of her failed abortion [Fig. 1]. The expression of
pain and suffering contributes to emphasising the presence and material
reality of the body. In keeping with this, Georges Canguilhem writes that
for the ill person the state of health is the unconsciousness in which the
subject is of his own body. Conversely, the consciousness of the body
arises from feeling the limits, the threats, the obstacles to health
(Canguilhem 1993, 52, my translation). Doleo ergo sum, as it were, I
suffer therefore I am, for pain asserts the reality of existence. This is
particularly significant for Dieutre and homosexuals at large as he
strives to assert his place in the world, having been hidden and invisible
(Dyer 2002, 15) for years: to stress suffering thus grounds him in the
reality of existence.

Figure 1. Partial view of Femme sa toilette 2 [Woman at Her Toilette 2],

Clotilde Vautiers last (unfinished) painting. Histoire dun Secret (Mariana Otero,

Yet, Canguilhems point has some relevance in Oteros case as well.

Obviously, what is at stake here is not Clotildes consciousness of her own
body for she is dead; but her suffering, which is implicitly relayed by the
paintings and their materiality, harks back to the reality of her existence, of
her having-been-there, by opposition to her death which may have seemed
unreal to Mariana and her elder sister Isabel. And indeed, we learn early in
the film that the family first told them that Clotilde was simply working in
a different town. It is only a year later that their grandmother, faced with
Isabels insistent questioning, eventually admitted that she was in fact
140 The Body as Interstitial Space between Media

dead. In other words, it was as if Clotilde had not died but merely
vanished. Mariana thus feels the need to make her mothers life (and
death) real and visible and endeavours to bring her body back to the
surface metaphorically, that is. In this sense, the films final sequence
which stages a public exhibition of Clotildes paintings certainly acts as an
exhumation of her body in lieu of the mourning ritual that the daughters
were denied.

Erotic Bodies
Clotildes paintings convey stark erotic presence, which necessarily
points to the physicality and sensuality of the body. At one point in the
film, a conservationist examines the paintings and notes Clotildes
particular predilection for the representation of female flesh and pubic
hair, which constitutes a landscape in its own right, as she puts it. George
Bataille posits that the difference between a simple sexual activity which
consists of reproduction and eroticism is a psychological quest
independent of the natural goal (Bataille 1986, 11). In this sense, the
abortion that led to Clotildes death comes across as a marker or sign of
eroticism as prefatorily defined by Bataille, that is, as assenting to life up
to the point of death (1986, 11). This is also in keeping with Dieutres
representation of eroticism, which is necessarily envisaged from the angle
of his assumed, exposed and expressed homosexuality. In his film, the
intertwining of his personal story (narrated in voice over) with images of
Caravaggist painting presents eroticism as inherent to suffering.
Furthermore, the religious motifs painted by Caravaggio also contain
for Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit a certain degree of eroticism.
Commenting on his Calling of Saint Matthew (1600, Chiesa San Luigi dei
Francesi, Rome), they argue that the artist proposes continuities between
what we would ordinarily think of as vastly different categories of
experience: the erotic come-on and Christs summoning his future disciple
to follow him (Bersani and Dutoit 1998, 26). To put it differently,
Caravaggio introduced humanity in its most physiological and worldly
aspects into the religious motif. As far as Caravaggism is concerned, the
erotic charge is also manifested through the contrast between suffering and
pleasure, both located in the physicality of the body. Yet it also emanates
from the intrusive and insistent gaze of the cameras close-ups on body
parts in the paintings [Fig. 2]. Like images stolen at a glance, these close-
ups provide a fragmented representation of the body, thus evoking
sensation more vividly.
Marlne Monteiro 141

Figure 2. Close-up of Christs shoulder in Caravaggios Christ at the Column,

Leons de tnbres (Vincent Dieutre, 2000). Figure 3. Vincents body lit by a
hand held projector, Leons de tnbres (Vincent Dieutre, 2000).

The Haptic Gaze

As a result, many elements in both films seem to be working towards
emphasising the physicality of the body and, by extension, matter. For
Dieutre, the Caravaggesque mode of representation becomes a starting
point for his own personal sensory explorations within the moving image.
As for Otero, it partakes perhaps less of a self-conscious aesthetic choice
than of a desire to touch her mother, as it were, not only through her
paintings but also through the process of film-making, by way of the
haptic gaze, for instance. On a formal level, the use of light and the close-
up in particular partake of this attempt to produce a tactile image.

Dieutre makes an interesting use of the Caravaggist chiaroscuro. The
film is almost entirely shot at night or indoors so that the light always
comes from an artificial source. Just after the opening sequence, Vincent
appears in a dark room or in what resembles a shooting studio; the only
source of light comes from a small light projector (held by a technician),
which hovers back and forth over and around his naked torso: light is thus
mobile. [Fig. 3.] The projectors movements are entangled with those of
the handheld camera. The chiaroscuro thereby created sculpts the body
and echoes Caravaggesque representations of the body, while enhancing
the haptic gaze. Similar sequences in which Vincent is filmed with another
man are dispersed throughout the film like extra-diegetic moments.
However, if light is often said to emanate from a divine source in
142 The Body as Interstitial Space between Media

Caravaggesque painting, here it appears as a diffuse expression of emotion

caused by the sensation of the bodies.
In Oteros film, one sequence strongly resonates with Dieutres
chiaroscuro scenes: a lateral tracking shot of the street at night, filmed
from inside a car, reveals in low-angle the succession of light beams from
the street lamps. After a cut, a painting by Clotilde (a female nude)
appears on screen; it is placed inside the car, thus intermittently
illuminated by the passing lights so that a streak of shadow keeps going
back and forth over it [Fig. 4]. The lighting creates amber shades which
underscore the skins colour in the painting. At the same time, it also
creates a chiaroscuro setting whose emotional charge takes on a
melancholic tone, just as in Dieutres Leons. In his book Lattrait de la
lumire (The Attraction of Light, 2010), Jacques Aumont describes a scene
in Ordet (The Word, Carl Dreyer, 1955) in which a dark living room is
illuminated by car lights through a window on the side, while a woman is
agonising in the room next door. For Aumont, this light is Death passing
by and he adds that it suggests to us a figure of light and figure here is
to be understood in its full meaning, that is, of figura, of modelling and
intentional artifice (Aumont 2010, 47). In a similar way here, death and
the secret that characterise Clotildes story are suggested through a figure
of light, whereby the chiaroscuro, as intentional artifice, models and
physically marks the body in the painting.

Figure 4. Clotildes La loge de la comdienne [The Actresss Lodge] filmed in

chiaroscuro inside the car in Histoire dun secret.
Figure 5. Close-up of a painting by Clotilde, Histoire dun Secret.

The Tactile Close-up

To come back to the close-ups briefly mentioned above in relation to
eroticism, both films similarly display the paintings in extreme close-up as
if the camera were trying to penetrate inside the canvas, as if the image
had depth. In Histoire dun secret, as the conservationist thoroughly
Marlne Monteiro 143

examines Clotildes paintings, she scrutinises the canvases quality and

size, then starts to analyse their preparation and the painting technique.
She infers from her observations that Clotilde seemed much more
interested in paint and colour than in the precision of drawing, and that she
probably used thick applications of paint and vigorous strokes while the
shapes are vague and suggested, rather than accurately outlined. In other
words, Clotildes painting technique emphasises texture. The womans
explanations are intertwined with close-ups on the canvases, which reveal
their pattern as well as the thick texture of the brushstrokes [Fig. 5]. As a
result, Clotildes technique and Marianas close-ups coalesce into matter
and physicality, one sustains the other; and as Bla Balzs puts it, the
magnifying glass of the cinematograph brings us closer to the individual
cells of life, it allows us to feel the texture and substance of life in its
concrete detail (Balzs 2010, 38).
During her observations, the conservationist regularly runs her fingers
along the contours and lines of the paintings, as if to enhance her
comments, thereby re-enacting by the same token Clotildes own gestures
over three decades earlier, in an attempt to understand, almost like a
detective, how the painter may have proceeded [Fig. 6]. Similarly in
Leons de tnbres, Vincent runs his hands along the contours of a painted
body. Later in the film, he transposes these gestures from the paintings
onto his own images, onto his lovers face for instance [Fig. 7].
Laura U. Markss expression of tactile close-ups (Marks 2000, 172)
is very appropriate here. In fact, Otero and Dieutres tactile close-up
brings the viewer extremely close to the surface and even gradually
becomes literal touch. However, if the term tactile in Markss expression
may appear as synonym with haptic, it seems to be understood instead as
partaking in the broader spectrum of what she describes as haptic visuality.
In addition, the expression also serves the purpose of spelling out the
property of such visuality which functions like the sense of touch and in
which haptic images engage the viewer tactilely (Marks, 2000, 22).
Similarly, in the films described here, the hands and finger gestures come
across as a way of making explicit and magnifying the sense of touch
inherent to the films haptic images. After all, the fingertips are nothing
but the index itself and as modelling tools, as it were, they are constitutive
of the Figura as defined by Erich Auerbach, that is to say, in very
simplified terms, the cavity of a mould or an imprint.3

Against all odds, finger and figure have a different etymological origin, despite
the apparent resemblance of the former with the Latin root (fingere) of the latter.
Finger stems from common Germanic and, while its pre-Germanic antecedent is
144 The Body as Interstitial Space between Media

Figure 6. The conservationist examining Clotildes work, Histoire dun Secret.

Figure 7. Vincent running his hand over his lovers face, Leons de tnbres.

Let us not forget either that Peirce defined the index in terms of
physical connexion and not mere analogy. Interestingly enough, Otero
shows seven black and white photographs of her mother in the film, which
follow one another in full screen mode and stand outside the diegetic
space, by contrast with a scene in which the characters would have held
them and looked at them. All are group photographs so that the viewer is
not even sure if Clotilde is present in them. As a result, their iconic and
indexical property is undermined and fails to satisfactorily evoke Clotilde
to Mariana who cannot remember her mother, not even what she looked
like. Hence the paramount significance of the paintings, for they are the
only physical link, through their tactility, with Clotilde. As a result, touch
establishes here a connexion, via the figure and the index, between
pictorial and filmic images, as well as between mother and daughter.4

Seeing Through the Skin

Balzs also argues that the close-up can reveal details that the normal
eye does not see, it exposes the face beneath the surface (Balzs 2010,
103). This resonates strongly with Marianas search for traces of her
mother, as the close-ups on the canvases look like an attempt to uncover
the secret, to detect the hidden detail beneath the surface. Throughout
Dieutres film, we also see recurrent images of pierced bodies, starting
with the different representations of the Christs own body as well as that
of Saint Sebastian pierced by arrows, as in Gerrit van Honthorsts Saint
Sebastian, cited above, or in Saint Sebastian aided by Saint Irene

uncertain, the word tends to be related to the root of the number five. See The
Oxford English Dictionary (1991, 932).
Of course, the paintings also point to artistic creation as another level of
connection between mother and daughter.
Marlne Monteiro 145

(Trophime Bigot, ca. 1620, Pinacoteca, Vatican). It is as if the camera

were also trying to penetrate the canvas and the body, by extension, to
check out its mechanics inside, akin to a doubting Thomas sticking his
finger inside the wound of the resurrected Christ.5 Similarly, Otero is very
explicit about her intentions in this respect for she writes in the films
script that, thanks to editing, she wants us to enter in the painting
(Otero 2006, 91).
This, in turn, raises the question of the surface and, most importantly,
of its depth. The attempt to see through the skin of the image harks back to
Jacques Rancires criticism about the surface as ontologically bi-dimensional:
he argues that the pictorial surface is not a mere geometric composition
of lines, but also corresponds to a certain distribution of the sensible
(Rancire 2004, 15). Rancire adds that it should not be opposed to depth,
but rather to the living that is, to the living act of speech. The point here
is certainly not to argue instead that pictorial and film images are
necessarily and/or ontologically three-dimensional. More important is the
fact that these cuts in the surface, as attempts to look beyond the surface,
seem to underscore the notion of passage from one surface to another for
instance which bears some common traits with Rancires idea of
different forms of expression being combined, such as the intertwining of
graphic and pictorial capabilities (2004, 15) which took place in the
Renaissance. For him, such movements inspired a new idea of pictorial
surface as a surface of shared writing (Rancire 2004, 15). In keeping
with this, the passage through the surface described above draws attention
to the combination of different media as a surface of shared writing, or
in this case, of shared filming.

In-between Media
Intermediality as a Figure of Sensation
While the images of pierced bodies mentioned above certainly elicit
emotional and physical reactions, the endeavour of both filmmakers and
Dieutre perhaps more explicitly also denotes a fascination for the
medium and its materiality. In other words, it is not only the blood or the
erotic gaze in close-up which cause sensation, but also the passage from
one state to another, as well as from one form to another. Sketching a line

See for instance Caravaggios version, The Incredulity of St Thomas,
(16011602, Sanssouci, Potsdam), even if the painting does not appear in Leon de
146 The Body as Interstitial Space between Media

between Tom Gunnings cinema of attractions and Gilles Deleuzes logic

of sensation, Eivind Rsaak reminds us that the figure of sensation arises
in the in-between (Rsaak 2006). Deleuze argues indeed about Francis
Bacons painting that the sensation lies between figurative representation
and abstraction.6 As for Gunning, as far as early cinema is concerned,
sensation is related to the medium and to the passage from stillness to
motion. For Rsaak, this space between stillness and movement is an
emotional space [] where the audience is transported from the familiar
to the unfamiliar, from the canny, to the uncanny. The emotions are
specifically linked to the appearance of motion, which transforms the
emotion into a state of shock (2006, 322). Yet, as he examines the time
slice effect in a sequence of The Matrix (Andy & Lana Wachowski,
Warner Brothers, US, 1999), Rsaak posits that new technologies have
somehow reversed the process so that the emotional shock, while it still
arises in the in-between, emerges this time in the passage from motion to
stillness, used as we are today to movement and speed. His argument is
also interesting in that it emphasises the relevance of the medium
specificity combined with the notion of passage from one state to another,
in other words: in-betweenness.
Something of that order seems to be happening in Dieutres film, as
our gaze is caught upon static camera shots, which break the flow of the
handheld camera movements to reveal an empty backstreet, a wall, scenes
of a city at night, or the still image of a painting. The viewers emotion
thus arises in the passage from the moving film image to the delayed
moment of contemplation of pictorial and picturesque in the
etymological understanding of the term images.7 Yet, Bellours pensive
and/or Mulveys possessive spectator has somehow given way to a
bewildered one. Moreover, the uncanny or the sensation effect does not
merely come from the stilled moment of contemplation, it is also linked to
painting. In the introduction to her book Cinema and Sensation, Martine
Beugnet describes the opening scene of Leons de tnbres in which
Vincent faints in a museum after looking at Caravaggios Christ at the

Deleuze in fact attributes this idea to Bacon himself who speaks of sensation as
among other things the passage from one order to another, from one level to
another, from one area to another. (Deleuze 2003, 36.)
See in this respect Laura Mulvey, Death 24 x a Second, (2006), especially
Chapter Eight: Delaying Cinema, 144160. Her point whereby new technologies
have redefined our modes of viewing is particularly pertinent here: when looking
at Leons de tnbres in fast forward mode, the contrast between the flowing of the
moving images and the pauses on the paintings and other picturesque shots
becomes particularly striking.
Marlne Monteiro 147

Column. Dieutre himself described this reaction in an interview8 as the

physical consequence of the power that painting can have on a human
being, while Beugnet rightly argues that it points to a sensory awareness
and that to let oneself be physically affected by an art work or a spectacle
is to relinquish the will to gain full mastery over it, choosing intensity and
chaos over rational detachment (Beugnet 2007, 3). This emotional shock
could also be understood as a manifestation of the abject in the sense that
Julia Kristeva ascribes to it: the abject, [] the jettisoned object, is
radically excluded and draws me toward the place where meaning
collapses (Kristeva 1982, 2). Vincent is drawn to the painting, but at the
same time or because? , he is confronted with an emotion that he
cannot comprehend and which is beyond rational meaning. His collapsing
is thus due to his attraction for something whose overpowering effect he
cannot rationalise.

Involvement with the Medium

Vincents wanderings throughout the city at night allow him to play at
recreating typically Caravaggesque settings and motifs, as he films the
cities poor areas, or the frenzy of urban nightlife. At one point, he buys
smuggled cigarettes from an elderly woman and a younger man both
presumably homeless. The transaction takes place in a street corner of
Naples around a fire, so that the light comes from the flames, at the centre
of the image. On other occasions, Vincent and his partner are sitting in
busy, dimly lit restaurants. In one such sequence, Vincents partner takes
the candle from the table and holds it above the menu while they talk to
the waiter. Such mises-en-scne are redolent of the numerous Caravaggesque
representations of players, drinkers, and other revellers sitting around
tables in taverns. Finally, Dieutre also makes connections by juxtaposition,
through editing, between scenes he films and the paintings. Drawing on
Laura Marks, Martine Beugnet argues that the effect of such mimesis is a
sign of involvement with the object of the gaze, and this in opposition to
the world of abstraction. Marks adds that through mimesis we can not
only understand our world, but create a transformed relationship to it or
restore a forgotten relationship (Marks 2000, 141). This last remark could
not apply more accurately to Otero as she strives to restore her forgotten
relationship to her mother by also miming the latters painting through her
own film-making. The films recurrent panoramic tracking shots of

Vincent Dieutre, Interview with Pascal Bonenfant, in Leons de tnbres, bonus
track of the DVD release (2004).
148 The Body as Interstitial Space between Media

Normandys countryside echo Clotildes painted landscapes, especially in

Oteros treatment of colour and light. On one occasion, Mariana even
places the painting of a landscape on an easel in the middle of a meadow;
on another, she brings family and friends to the flat in which the family
lived for a while and asks her mothers former models to explain and
mime how they had posed for her. And last but not least, Clotildes
gestures are repeated in front of the camera by the conservationist, as
already mentioned, as well as by Marianas uncle, also a painter.
As for Dieutre, the chiaroscuro sequences in the studio, which seem to
mime Caravaggesque bodily gestures, similarly point to a physical
involvement with the medium. And physical involvement is to be
understood here in the literal sense, for, indeed, both camera and light
projector turn around and encircle the protagonists. This involvement
enables the filmmaker Vincent to come to terms (or at least try to) with his
narcissistic crisis and to ascertain his place in the world, as he puts it in the
films opening sequence. Yet, there is perhaps another dimension to these
particular sequences. Staged in a studio or dark room, they stand outside
the diegesis and come across as visual interludes. Thus isolated, they are
comparable to the way in which Gilles Deleuze sees the circle and the oval
in Francis Bacons work: it is about isolating the Figure without
compelling it to immobility but, on the contrary, render sensible a kind of
progression, an exploration of the Figure within the place, or upon itself.
The relation of the Figure to its isolating place defines a fact: the fact
is, what takes place is Thus isolated, the Figure becomes an Image,
an Icon. (Deleuze 2003, 12.) To a certain extent, Vincent Dieutre takes
Deleuzes point to the letter as he isolates the Caravaggesque Figure, and
literally explores its mobility by turning it into a moving image.
Furthermore, Dieutres formal experimentations with the medium and
play with mimesis are also self-reflexive, exploring his status and work as
an artist as well as his strategy of using film as a sensory experience.
Generally, he tends to resort to different film formats and technologies to
organise his narrative structure, in this case, he uses a video, a Super 8,
and a 35mm camera. While this aesthetic choice also has narrative
implications which will not be developed here, Dieutre explained that
varying formats allowed him to achieve a diversity of image textures. The
digital camera, which is used for most of the film, gives the image an
impression of immediacy and relative closeness to the filmed object
because it is handheld, and thus evocative of a journalistic and
documentary style for instance: we are physically there with the
characters, as it were. The Super 8 is used essentially in the studio scenes
and, by contrast with the video and the 35mm formats, confers on the
Marlne Monteiro 149

images a very distinctive dirty grain that echoes the canvas texture and
the patina of age characteristic of the 17th-century paintings. In fact, the
haptic sensation obtained in these sequences through chiaroscuro lighting
(as discussed above) is here reinforced by several factors: not only does it
enhance tactility through its image quality, but the very materiality of the
film strip draws attention to matter in general. In addition, because
originally designed as an amateur format, the Super 8 format tends to be
associated to handicraft. As for the scenes filmed on 35mm, they
correspond to the long static sequences of urban settings. The neat and
limpid image quality gives them the appearance of cinematic tableaux, as
it were. Moreover, the cameras immobility (notwithstanding the images
own movement) places such sequences at the same level, in narrative
terms, as the stills of paintings inserted in the film, for they similarly
arouse sensation and provide moments of contemplation. Through this
strategy of conspicuously alternating film formats, Dieutre subverts the
codes and conventions traditionally attached to each of them, but most
importantly, he also shows that their function and significance is not only
contextual, but also fully contingent to the historical moment. In other
words, the status of such formats shifts and evolves in time and in relation
to one another.

Mise en abyme
If the paintings provide a material and sensory dimension in Dieutres
and Oteros films, they also enable the directors/protagonists to stage a
mise en abyme of the viewing experience [Figs. 89]. Indeed, to watch
them looking at the paintings brings the viewers back to their own position
as spectators and thus emphasises the reflexive dimension in the art
experience in general and in cinema in particular. This is what Vincent
Dieutre also refers to when he explains his intention with this film. This is
not to posit that the mise en abyme of the spectator position takes place
through intermediality exclusively; in any case, cinema abounds in
counter-examples of characters watching films within the film and which
lead to similar effects. What the interplay with media allows is perhaps a
shift in the nature of the viewing experience: it is about questioning our
position as spectators in relation to art, but as feeling, rather than
understanding spectators, to paraphrase Philippe Dubois for whom the
Figural partakes more of seeing and sensing, than of perceiving and
understanding (Dubois 1999, 248).
gnes Peths application of ekphrasis to film is very appropriate here:
a film is ekphrastic when the embedded art form in this case the
150 The Body as Interstitial Space between Media

paintings corresponds, among other things, to the manifestation of a

medium that is different from that of the cinematic image in which it is
embedded. In short, an ekphrasis requires the perception of intermedial
relations, as transformative inscriptions or figurations of mediality in a
work (Peth 2010, 213). In Dieutres and Oteros respective films indeed,
the paintings are not merely part of the diegesis. While they are paramount
to the narrative, they are also constitutive of its aesthetics and make the
medium conspicuous by contributing to the process of mise en abyme for
instance, which ultimately harks back to the broader issue of the cinematic
medium. At the same time, the paintings point to materiality: for both
filmmakers, their personal coming to terms with loss and absence is thus
expressed through their filmmaking and is counterbalanced by a focus on
matter, texture and presence.

Figure 8: Mariana and her sister looking at one of their mothers paintings in
Histoire dun Secret.
Marlne Monteiro 151

Figure 9: Vincent and his partner in front of Jan van Bijlerts Calling of St
Matthew (16251630), Leons de tnbres.

The body functions here as a sort of sensible interface between the

paintings and film. In a way, the body itself is a medium which constitutes
an instance of inscription and even of self-inscription in these specific
case studies of sensations and emotions. Indeed, as Deleuze puts it, the
body is the Figure, or rather, the material of the Figure (Deleuze 2003,
20). In this sense, the body is the Figure which, in turn, is the mould, in
which sensation is inscribed. Suffering and eroticism thus come across as
the physical manifestation of such inscriptions, while the cinematic device
relies on the haptic gaze to point to materiality and sensory affect. If in-
betweenness is considered as a figure of sensation, it certainly applies to
intermediality, which, in these specific films, combines the in-betweenness
of media with the balance between movement and stillness, between the
visibility and invisibility of the gay man, or between the absence and
haunting presence of the mother who died in secret.
For Jean-Marie Schaeffer, the body, as it has been represented in
Western European culture because of its Christian roots, is embedded in
the dialectic relation between matter and abstraction: Christ is the
incarnation of God in a human body, hence simultaneously real flesh and
image (of God). This explains why we can equally say that our
understanding of the body is an understanding of the image, and our
understanding of the image is an understanding of the body (Schaeffer
152 The Body as Interstitial Space between Media

2006, 62). In other words, the image is where the body comes to constitute
itself. Interestingly enough, Philippe Dubois also reminds us of the
paradoxical duality of the Figure which is simultaneously concrete (as
imprint, index, etc.) and abstract (as image and icon) (Dubois 1999). In the
films discussed here, the body is represented through paintings, it is
therefore always already a body as image. At the same time, many
elements work towards emphasising the carnal dimension of these bodies,
by way of the texture and tactility of the media. In other words, it
embodies, so to speak, the tension between abstraction and materiality,
which is exactly where cinema lies, that is to say, in the interface between
image and reality, between abstraction and concreteness.

Aumont, Jacques. 2010. Lattrait de la lumire [The Attraction of the
Light]. Paris: ditions Yellow Now.
Balzs, Bla. 2010. Early Film Theory The Visible Man and The Spirit
of Film. New York & Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Bataille, Georges. 1986 [1957]. Eroticism, Death & Sensuality. San
Francisco: City Lights Books.
Bersani, Leo and Ulysse Dutoit. 1998. Caravaggios Secrets. Cambridge,
MA, & London: The MIT Press.
Beugnet, Martine. 2007. Cinema and Sensation, French Film and the Art
of Transgression. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Canguilhem, Georges. 1993 [1966]. Le normal et le pathologique [The
Normal and the Pathological]. Paris: PUF. 4th edition.
Deleuze, Gilles. 2003 [1981]. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation.
London & New York: Continuum.
Dubois, Philippe. 1999. Lcriture figurale dans le cinma muet des
annes 20 [Figural Writing in the Silent Cinema of the 20s]. In Figure,
Figural, eds. Franois Aubral and Dominique Chteau, 245274. Paris:
Dyer, Richard. 2002. The Culture of Queers. London & New York:
Kristeva, Julia. 1982 [1980]. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.
New York: Columbia University Press.
Marks, Laura U. 2000. The Skin of Film. Durham & London: Duke
University Press.
Mulvey, Laura. 2006. Death 24 x a Second. London: Reaktion Books.
Otero, Mariana. 2006. Scnario dHistoire dun secret. In Le style dans le
cinma documentaire Rflexions sur le style, Entretiens et
Marlne Monteiro 153

contributions [Style in Documentary Cinema Reflexions on Style,

Interviews and Contributions], eds. Guy Baudon, Anne Baudry, Jean-
Louis Baudry [et al], 71103. Paris: ADDOC/LHarmattan.
Peth, gnes. 2010. Media in the Cinematic Imagination: Ekphrasis and
the Poetics of the In-Between in Jean-Luc Godards Cinema. In Media
Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality, ed. Lars Ellestrm, 211
222. New York: Palgrave Macmillan Press.
Rancire, Jacques. 2004 [2000]. The Politics of Aesthetics The Distribution
of the Sensible. Translated with an Introduction by Gabriel Rockhill.
London & New York: Continuum.
Rsaak, Eivind. 2006. Figures of Sensation: Between Still and Moving
Images. In The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, ed. Wanda Strauven,
321336. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Schaeffer, Jean-Marie. 2006. La chair est image [The Flesh is Image]. In
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5881. Paris: Flammarion/Muse du Quai Branly (Exhibition
The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, Volume V. 1991. Oxford:
Clarendon Press.


The Tableau as a Post-Cinematic Image

The tableau vivant in cinema has always been the terrain of liminalities,
framing an image at the thresholds of film, photography, painting,
sculpture, theatre, performance, and even literature (considering the
narratives it may ekphrastically conjure up through its references). More
recently we can also witness extremely productive intersections between
film, video, installation art, and digital media. Video art installations
experiment with the tableau form of animated still pictures, often making
use of famous paintings or sculptures (e.g. Eve Sussmans 89 Seconds at
Alczar, 2004, expanding the world of Velzquezs famous painting, Las
Meninas, into a cinematic sequence of bodies in motion displayed in a
continuous loop, or Adad Hannahs video stills, which show moving
images of immobile people in interaction with famous artworks in a
museum2). In David Claerbouts single channel video installation entitled
Oil Workers (from the Shell Company of Nigeria) Returning Home from
Work, Caught in Torrential Rain (2013) a low resolution photograph
found on the internet is reproduced with 3D computer techniques and a
simple camera movement as a high definition photo-filmic tableau3
becoming a meditation upon medial differences, and upon the sensuous
This work was supported by a grant of the Romanian Ministry of National
Education, CNCS UEFISCDI, project number PN-II-ID-PCE-2012-4-0573.
See Hannahs Museum Stills series of 2002 alongside other projects playing with
the format of the tableau vivant and the structure of mise en abyme on his website:
http://adadhannah.com/. (Last accessed 1. 09. 2014.)
See a more detailed description of the project and an excerpt of the video on the
artists website: http://davidclaerbout.com/Oil-workers-from-the-Shell-company-
of-Nigeria-returning-home-from. (Last accessed 1. 09. 2014.)
156 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

impression of bodies and matter achieved in the remediated image. The

digital era also revitalizes the tableau vivant as a form in which high art
seeps into popular culture. Motion picture adaptations of famous
artworks have also become fashionable in advertising, moreover,
applications have been developed for everyday users of smart phones and
tablets that enable them to make reproductions of paintings, or their own
photographs seem to come alive with the introduction of a few elements of
movement into the pictures.4 The fondness for transforming images into
tableaux vivants perceived as stillness unfolding into subtle motion is
perhaps also well exemplified by the latest trend in web design of the so-
called parallax scrolling technique, in which the background image
(often a high resolution photograph) moving at a slower rate to the
foreground creates a 3D effect as one scrolls down the page. Hence, the
contemporary tableau vivant in all its ubiquity may be considered not just
an essentially intermedial image, but a typical post-photographic and post-
cinematic image of our times, blurring the boundaries between media,
connecting the photographic and the cinematic experience not only to
almost any of the traditional arts, but also to a media world dominated by
digital networks, movements of convergence, and trans-medialization.
In cinema we see experiments that match the general interest in
painterly tableaux that seems to permeate all layers of contemporary visual
culture, and that sometimes result in films that constitute extensions of the
tableau vivant into feature film length moving image projects that embrace
an ambivalent status: they can be shown either as feature films or as video
projections in an art gallery. In such hybrid cinematic projects the tableau
form can be regarded more than a trope in a rhetorical sense, a mere
ornament of style or a vehicle for conveying a condensed symbolic or
allegorical meaning, which has often been the case both in the great self-
reflexive films of modern and postmodern cinema.5 Instead, it can be seen

See Rino Stefano Tagliafierros animation of paintings in an experimental video
titled Beauty that was shown at several film festivals around the globe in 2014, and
which was also accompanied by the creation of an application that makes it
possible for its users, with the help of an available database of digital images, to
experiment with animated paintings on their own using their phones or tablets.
(See an excerpt of the video here: http://www.rinostefanotagliafierro.com/beauty
_video.html. Last accessed 1. 09. 2014.)
An allegorical use of paraphrases of paintings can also be observed in recent East
European cinema, in films that use the tableau vivant as a means to imply the
existence of a bigger picture, and revert to universal stories staging mythological
themes of genesis, apocalypse, the loss of Paradise, and sacrifice. See a theoretical
investigation of this in the films of Gyrgy Plfi, Benedek Fliegauf, Kornl
gnes Peth 157

as a site where authors can experiment with new affective-performative

aspects of the moving image, and where the inherent tensions and intricate
relations between both elements of the syntagm, tableau vivant, i.e. living
picture can be emphasized: connecting the artificiality and stillness of the
mediated image with the volatile phenomena of life, and the
corporeal, sensual experience of the flesh. Brigitte Peucker notes that the
tableau vivant is central to the staging of intermediality in film revealing
the merger of representation with reality (2007, 14), and this can also
happen especially in its recent manifestations in a form in which
complex relationships between image and body, art and life are not only
implied, but explicitly and manifoldly thematized.
In the works of Lech Majewski (Poland), Sharunas Bartas (Lithuania),
and Ihor Podolchak (Ukraine) we have a unique corpus of such post-
cinematic films, with autonomous sequences that can be also displayed as
installation art, and that offer ample examples of tableaux vivants conceived
of such polarizations of bodies and images perceivable in the synesthetic
liminal space of different arts. In what follows I propose to delimit and
theorize these two interrelated aspects in some of their films: a) the
interpretation of the relationship between bodies and images from an
analytic, anthropological point of view based on Hans Beltings concepts
of image, body and medium; b) the description of the tableau style
pictorialism in these works through the Deleuzian concept of sensation
and its relationship with figurativity, gesture and composition.

The Tableau as a Container for Chiastic Interchanges:

Image versus Body Art versus Life
In this particular paradigm we find films in which the tableau is used
not for the sake of creating satirical or aestheticized detachment, but as a
way to emphasize the palpable interaction, interpenetration of art and life,
as well as a chiastic interchangeability of image and body. Among the
directors mentioned above, Lech Majewskis work is perhaps the most
remarkable for the extremely versatile ways in which he reconceives the
cinematic tableau vivant, exploiting its affective and embodied aspects
through a chiastic doubling of this trope: by repeatedly showing bodies
caught in the act of (re)constructing or deconstructing a painting, and
painting unfolding, or being dismembered into individual bodies, textures
and tissues.

Mundrucz, Bla Tarr and Andrei Zvyagintsev in my article titled The Tableau
Vivant as a Figure of Return in Contemporary East European Cinema (2014a).
158 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

In another, more detailed essay, I have analysed how Majewskis The

Garden of Earthly Delights (2004)6 may be considered as a reflection
upon the decomposition of cinema in the post-media age. Here I would
like to emphasize how the tableau vivant constitutes for him not a means
for establishing an ironic distance, but an emotionally charged ritual,
breaking down the barriers between life and art, art and life. The film
presents a dying woman and her lover who travel to Venice and spend
their last days together by making a documentary (or perhaps only an
amateur home movie) on Boschs eponymous painting searching for its
sources of inspiration in real life, re-creating and video recording erotic
scenes from it as tableaux vivants. In an attempt to divert her attention
from her illness and from the experience of her failing body, the couple
engages in a series of private performances staging and filming details
of Boschs Garden as living pictures, seeing in them a playful
celebration of the sensual wonders of both art and life. [Figs. 14.]

Figures 14. Lech Majewski: The Garden of Earthly Delights (2004).

The story unfolds from the protagonists video recordings that we see after
the woman has already passed away, as the surviving young man

The Garden of Intermedial Delights. Cinematic Adaptations of Bosch from
Modernism to the Postmedia Age, forthcoming in Screen (Peth 2014b). Here I
summarize some of the ideas expressed in that article about the relationship
between images and bodies.
gnes Peth 159

obsessively replays them while he is also making a recording of this act of

mourning his lost love. Accordingly, the film was shot entirely on video
producing a maze of mirror reflections with the characters continually
looking into the lens of the small camera held at arms length. In this way
skin, canvas and screen, painting and video are continuously folded upon
each other to produce a sensual interface for cinematic memory on the one
hand, and the perception of the chemistry between art and life, on the
other. As a result, the moving image itself becomes a unique membrane
for a fusion between art, bodies and the movie camera with which they are
shown in a perpetual symbiosis, video appearing not just as embodied
technology in a post-phenomenological sense (i.e. a prosthesis both for the
eye and the touch), but also corresponding to what Don Ihde (1995)
termed as the alterity relation to technology7 the camera appears as a
body in-between bodies, as well as an object of fascination that requires
the constant interaction of the eye and the hand (it needs to be looked at,
and touched). Thus the video recording of intimacy is doubled by the
intimacy of the video recording, (and an unusual intimacy with the camera
as an object). Consequently, the camera eye of classical cinema morphs
into the camera-body of a domesticated digital medium.
The explicit interaction with the camera that is foregrounded in this
film may point to a fascination with imageness and with the possibilities
of new technologies that underlies more subtly in many contemporary art
projects that may be placed in-between feature films, experimental cinema
and new media art. Perhaps the most eloquent example of this is
Majewskis The Mill and the Cross (2011), a feature film length tableau
vivant, also exhibited in a shorter version as a multichannel installation titled
Brueghel Suite,8 where the performative quality of cinematic technology
itself comes to the fore9 as a virtuoso exercise in post-cinema, mixing
painted backgrounds, photographic techniques within a digital collage. The
film presents in a self-reflexive and metaleptic loop the creation of Pieter

With alterity relations technology becomes the other or quasi-other to which
one relates. See more about these relations in Ihdes Postphenomenology (1995).
The artists personal website (http://www.lechmajewski.com/) defines the film as
a unique digital tapestry, and although it can be considered a theatrical movie,
the film has often been shown in museum spaces around the world. In 2011 parts
of it were displayed as a moving image installation both in the Louvre and in
Venice as a part of the 54th Biennale.
In many ways Majewskis film constitutes an alternative to Alexander Sokurovs
Russian Ark (2002) in which the virtuoso camera, travelling through the rooms in
one continuous take throughout the film, achieves a sensation of the technological
sublime alongside the emphatic use of paintings, and the elaborate choreography
of bodies in motion.
160 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

Brueghel the Elders 1564 masterpiece, The Procession to Calvary in the

same space with the characters represented by the painting, showing the
viewer scenes in which Brueghel arranges the models for his composition,
makes sketches for the painting, embedding the figure of the painter within
the painting he is working on. [Figs. 56.]
Figures 56. The Mill and the Cross (2011): the self-reflexive, metaleptic loop of
the painter and his models incorporated within the painting being created.

And while the space of the painting and the fictional context
(re)created in the film collapses into one cinematic spatial construct, the
time frames also overlap: we can see the painting both from the
gnes Peth 161

perspective of its coming into being (thus somehow from before it became
fixed and framed for eternity10) and also from considerable distance after
its completion, from the perspective of todays viewer already familiar with
Brueghels work. This duality corresponding to the vantage points of life
(the scenes captured by the painter played by Rutger Hauer in the film, the
scenes of the painting brought to life in the film) and of the image, the
painting as a finished artwork that we already know, which frames them
all. Life is framed by the act of painting and, the other way round, the
painting as an art object and representation is framed by the larger context
of all the lives of the multitude of little figures that we now see in it
together with that of the painter who painted them. On top of all this,
Majewskis work, the digital tapestry elegantly folds back upon itself,
showing us how cinema (and new digital media) can reframe them all.
Majewski emphasizes this latter viewpoint at the end of the film by
wrapping up the cinematic tableau in an even further reflexive frame as
the camera slowly backs away from the scene revealing the original
Brueghel picture hanging in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna
[Fig. 7]. The details of Brueghels painting itself are spread out into a series
of loosely connected vignettes in the film focusing on the activities of the
small figures at the foot of the Calvary. As the panorama breaks down into
the individual scenes that often display frames within frames acting as
small tableaux within the overall tableau [Fig. 8], the hybrid moving
image becomes a unique platform for a fusion between the sublime art of
painting, the tangibility of moving, bleeding bodies, and the technical
wonder of digital cinema.
The metaleptic loop between painter and his painting, furthermore,
between the painting in the film and the original in the museum that we
see in The Mill and the Cross, is also consistent with the current penchant
in cinema for tangled narrative hierarchies and stunning pictorial effects,
or for self-reflexive mise en abyme constructions in video art.

This may remind us of the complex relationship Pierre Klossowski describes
between life and art in the practice of the tableau vivant, in which the tableau can
be seen as both something that precedes the painting (as a model, an unfinished
gesture) being inscribed in the painting, and as something that may reproduce a
painting in search of the original gesture, as illustrated also by Raul Ruizs
Hypothesis of a Stolen Painting (LHypothse du tableau vol, 1978), based on
Klossowskis novel. The tableau vivant, according to Klossowski, is not simply
life imitating art [...]. The emotion sought after was that of life giving itself as a
spectacle to life; of life hanging in suspense (1969, 100).
162 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

Figures 7-8. Lech Majewski: The Mill and the Cross (2011).

The way the still composition, the image-world of the painting

unwinds in the film into a diegetic space around the figures transformed
into characters of a multi-linear, fragmented narrative that provides
glimpses into the anonymous, everyday life lived in the shadow of the
grand narrative of the Passion of Christ, may even remind us of the logic
of transmedia storytelling that has become so popular in our networked
culture, and in which narratives are developed and expanded ad infinitum
within an overarching storyworld, making use of different media. Painted
scenery, cinematic tableau vivant, or naturalistic scenes of action, verbal
gnes Peth 163

narrative come together as extensions of the same world depicted by

Brueghels original canvas.11 From this point of view, therefore,
Majewskis elaborate, multimedial fiction is fashioned not as a restaging
or an adaptation (of either the painting or of Michael Francis Gibsons
eponymous book that inspired the director), but as an effective narrative
trans-medialization capitalizing on the possibilities of intermediality in
digital cinema (i.e. on the hybridity of the image that combines different
media, and on the hybridity of the format: viewed either as a single movie
or as a multichannel installation). At the same time, this structure of The
Mill and the Cross also enacts the basic narrative of the still image as a
medium, displaying the process of characters and stories being fleshed out
in the imagination of the viewer, and pointing to the chiastic relationship
of bodies constituting images and images unfolding into bodies.
Majewskis preceding work, Glass Lips (2007), a dialogue-free
surrealistic film, offers a whole set of kaleidoscopic variations of such
chiastic interchanges within tableau style compositions. The film was
assembled from 33 pieces of independent video shorts originally shown as
a gallery installation with the title Blood of a Poet (a deliberate homage to
Cocteau) at the 2006 Majewski retrospective at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York (and a year later the collection was included in the
programme of the Venice Biennale, shown on multiple screens on
different locations before being put together as a feature film for theatrical
release).12 The attraction and interchange between humans and the
animate and the inanimate world, between human body and animal flesh,
between humans and objects, the juxtaposition of representations and
palpable reality, image and body, art and life runs through the film as a
leitmotif that connects the individual episodes. In a chiastic exchange we
see in the beginning of the movie how a baby is tied with an umbilical
cord to a rock amid a breathtaking scenery of high mountain peaks, glacial
lakes and gorges of the kind immortalized by the Romantic paintings of
Caspar David Friedrich, in a later scene we see a postcard of these
mountains pinned to the wall of a hospital where a young woman seems to
be fascinated by it and where, in a later scene, she is shown to be in labour
giving birth to a huge piece of stone. Towards the end of the movie we

In another article I have also discussed Majewskis film as a palimpsest of
narratives and narrative modes (The Vertigo of the Single Image: From the Classic
Narrative Glitch to the Post-Cinematic Adaptations of Paintings, 2013).
See pictures and information at the artists website: http://www.lechmajewski.
com/html/blood_of_a_poet.html. (Last accessed 1. 09 2014.)
164 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

find the recurrence of the umbilical cord theme as a womans arm is

connected by an intravenous tube to a satellite dish.13 [Figs. 916.]

Figures 916. The attraction between humans and objects, art and life in
Majewskis Glass Lips (2007).

These kinds of bizarre associations constitute a recurring motif in Majewskis
films, in the Roes Room (1997), which we will discuss later in this article, we see
grass growing inside a house, and pictures bleeding on the wall, in Gospel
according to Harry (1994) TV screens grow in the desert.
gnes Peth 165

In a short scene that we may regard as perhaps the centerpiece of this

ambivalent, installation art/theatrical movie project, Majewski reveals in a
very simple interaction between art and its beholders, between
representation and reality, an important new vantage point over the
cinematic tableau vivant, and which may also be interpreted as a
minimalist allegory of what happens in such films. In this we see how the
young man whom we identify as the protagonist of these loosely linked
sequences visits an unidentified museum which will soon become the
setting for a bizarre ritual (that may only take place in his own
imagination, as the technique of superimposed images might suggest to us
in the end of the episode): the spectators gathering in front of Rogier van
der Weydens painting, The Descent from the Cross,14 all of a sudden
begin to undress and put on robes and assume poses to imitate the painting
until they reproduce the same scene, creating a tableau vivant with the
original picture standing in the background as an art object included within
the act of a performance. [Figs.1718.] As the spectators become
incarnations of the image, the painting acts as a silent witness to the whole
event, and the roles become reversed: the viewers assume the position of
the objects of our gaze. At the same time, as the composition is
reassembled, the embodied image becomes the product of a precise
choreography of movements, of the arrangement of fabric, and of an
exercise in human discipline. The performance caught on camera not
only transmutes the Biblical scene into an amateurish theatrical role play,
but also secularizes the revered artwork through emphasizing not an
aesthetic, not even a narrative, but an essentially analytic and
anthropological perspective, reminding us of Hans Beltings theory of
images which ascribes special importance to the interaction of body,
image and medium as a performative process. In Beltings words, images
are neither on the wall (or on the screen) nor in the head alone. They do
not exist by themselves, but they happen; they take place whether they are
moving images (where this is so obvious) or not. They happen via
transmission and perception. (2005, 302303.) Image and medium both
are linked with the body, Belting claims, for perception alone does not
explain the interaction of body and medium that takes place in the
transmission of images. Images [] happen, or are negotiated, between
bodies and media. [] Bodies perform images (of themselves or even
against themselves) as much as they perceive outside images. In this
double sense, they are living media (2005, 311, emphasis in the original).

The painting is exhibited in the Prado Museum in Madrid, but unlike Majewskis
The Mill and the Cross, the sequence deliberately avoids any reference to place
showing only the bare white walls surrounding it.
166 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

Figures 1718. The re-enactment of Rogier van der Weydens painting, The
Descent from the Cross (c. 1435) in Majewskis Glass Lips.

The original Early Netherlandish painting which creates in its unique,

compact way a whole, self-contained world and narrates a poignant story,
is famous for the expression of grief and the shining pearls of tears on
the faces.15 Here, however, the picture as a tableau vivant is no longer

See Erwin Panofskys remark on the painting: It may be said that the painted
tear, a shining pearl born of the strongest emotion, epitomizes that which Italian
gnes Peth 167

about the Biblical narrative but about the people performing it, and about
the events of this performance. Van der Weydens picture is reduced to
a mere backdrop to the action, while the group of people become the
mediums for a different image that dismembers the unified composition
of the painting into individual bodies, not only substituting the canvas and
the stroke of the painters brush with the surface of skin and the movement
of the camera gliding along the body, but also introducing a crucial
element: instead of the rich emotions depicted by the original painting
resonating with their potentially empathic spectator, we have the
impassible interaction of the fragmented body and the camera, as well as
the emergence of a specifically cinematic sensation through the close-up
of the trembling flesh. [Figs. 1923.] The palpable corporeality of such a
photo-filmic image released from both its original materiality and its
plastic figurativeness may bring to mind what Deleuze calls in his book on
Bacon the encounter with a body of sensation, uniting a sensation that
is transmitted directly, and avoids the detour and boredom of conveying a
story (2003, 36), something that is located not in the eye of the beholder,
or in the air, but directly in the body, with the body itself that can be
understood as a figure, not a structure (2003, 20), the body of
sensation being in this way the submission of the figurative to
sensation in the words of Elizabeth Grosz (2008, 88) interpreting
Or the way Majewski gradually breaks down the scene from people
walking around and contemplating the artwork exhibited in the museum to
dressing up and assuming their poses to match the ones in van der
Weydens painting, to the camera zooming in on disconnected body parts,
the texture of skin and flesh, as well as the small movements observable
on the level of living tissue all of this might also remind us of Giorgio
Agambens (1993, 138) comment on Deleuze that it is gesture rather than
the image that is the essentially cinematic element in film. And although
some interpreters may see in this comment something that clearly sets
Deleuze and Agamben apart, rather than as a connection between their
theories (which is probably justified if we take into consideration
Deleuzes two books on cinema), in what follows, I will argue that
Deleuzes ideas, not on the type of cinematic images (i.e. the movement-
image or the time-image), but mostly on the type of painting practiced by
Francis Bacon, his notion of sensation can be seen in convergence with
Agambens notes on gestures in cinema.

most admired in Early Flemish painting: pictorial brilliance and sentiment (1953,
168 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

Figures 1923. The expression of grief, the shining pearls of tears on the faces
in the painting (E. Panofsky) versus an impassible choreography of cinematic
gnes Peth 169

Give me an Image, Then! Cinematic Pictorialism

in-between Sensation and Figurativity, Gesture
and Composition
Majewskis The Roes Room (Pokj saren, 1997), Sharunas Bartass
The House (A Casa, 1997), and Ihor Podolchaks Las Meninas (2008) are
all feature film length cinematic works, comparable to some of other
recent movies bordering on installation art,16 and that rely on such a
Deleuzian sensation conceived mainly as a succession of images
perceivable in the in-between zone of several arts (poetry, painting, music,
video art and cinema). In each of them it seems that the main character is a
house, not the people inhabiting it, a house acting not as a location for a
narrative, but rather as a mere binding for the unfolding images which
appear like single channel video art displays exhibited in a gallery. In each
case the house appears as a fictional space where sensual impressions,
recollections are reshaped by an artistic imagination. Neither of them
presents any story in a conventional sense, just a series of monotonous
everyday activities (like sleeping, preparing meals, eating, moving from
one room to another and gazing at things, punctuated by the changes of the
As such, they are relevant for the study of contemporary inflections of
the post-cinematic tableau vivant not only due to the fact that they extend
the tableau style over the entire length of the movies (which makes them
somewhat unusual even in the so-called slow film canon that has gained
terrain in the last decades within the global festival circuit), but because
using the confined diegetic space and visual frame of the house and its
rooms for staging their tableau-like images, they construct a model in
which the tableau vivant emerges as a container that may effectively
hold and fold together the artificiality of being composed and framed as a
self-enclosed image with the sensuous experience of the vibrancy of
life, manifest in contingency, corporeality, texture and gesture. This is in
essence the same model that we also find in many of the exhibited
photofilmic tableaux or single channel video installations in contemporary
art. Eve Sussman uses the space of Alczar palace in a similar way in her

We may compare them for example to Tsai Ming-Liangs Face (Visage, 2009)
which also consists of a loose string of vignettes. Ming-Liangs film (partially
funded by the Louvre Museum in Paris) uses the spaces in and around the Louvre
(its exhibition halls and its royal apartments) to create a dreamlike world
connecting in a similar way the inside with the outside, art and life, cinema and
170 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

high definition video transcript of Velzquezs Las Meninas, 89 Seconds

at Alczar, to reframe the original painting as a collection of sensuous
impressions of bodies moving within a room. The multiple screen
structures boxing in the images used by Bill Viola in some of his video
artworks exploit this very same dynamics between the confinement of the
frame and the sensuous quality of bodies, fabrics, natural elements, along
with the foregrounding of gestures.
In Majewskis surrealistic vision the house is a container for a lyrical
autobiography tapping into his own memories as a young man, a unique
Gesamtkunstwerk offering the viewers an opera in the form of a video
fresco as he calls it in his commentary for the DVD edition.17 The film
starts with a self-reflexive gesture, we hear Majewskis voice instructing his
actors to stand motionless and look into the camera, thus implicitly, at him
directing the movie. The family, father, mother, son pose as in a
photograph, and the film begins with this tableau inviting us into the
world of the film as if viewing a family picture (also acting as a magic
mirror opening up a window for the author to access and share his
memories). [Fig. 24.] And as soon as the invisible connection between
author and narration, presence and remembrance, Majewski and his actors
is established, the film unfolds in a unique choreography of stillness and
movement, silence and music; showing people framed in still
compositions, quietly inhabiting the rooms, interacting each with their
characteristic objects in silence (mother with the house plants, father with
his books and stamp collection, the son with the pictures on the wall, or
filmed against the window which reveals a beautiful girl across the house,
etc.), while the orchestra plays the enchanting score composed by
Majewski himself together with Jzef Skrzek.18

Majewski confesses in the same audio commentary to the DVD: The origin of
The Roes Room starts with my poems. I am basically a painter and a poet, adding
that the immediate source of the script/libretto was a cycle of poems he wrote at
the time he was in film school, and that was published with the title Home. The
Roes Room was originally written as an opera that was presented as such, as a
live, theatrical show in March 1996 at the Silesian Opera. Majewski made the
fiction film based on this opera a year later, which was subsequently also screened
at several art museums and galleries: Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art
(2000), Palagraziussi Venice (Venice Biennale, 2001), Museum of Modern Art,
New York (2002), Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris (2004), the San
Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2007).
In the audio commentary to the DVD Majewski admits that having experienced
a series of contemporary opera works as torture, it was his deliberate goal to
write a kind of melodious, spiritually and emotionally uplifting music that he
admired in the old Romantic masters.
gnes Peth 171

The camera glides unobstructedly to and fro, horizontally stitching

together the images within a panoramic, panning movement across the
rooms, or moves up and down the different levels of the house, all in a
majestic slowness, as we hear songs performed as inner monologues and
pieces of choir music added to the sumptuous images in a voice over.
There is no real story, at least not in the conventional sense, only images,
and images superimposed on other images that build a poetic space (a
space of art and a symbolic space of the soul and mind) changing with the
sequence of the seasons to make the passing of time palpable, a space
where memories can be conjured up and imagination can flourish, a space
overflowing with archetypal and Biblical symbolism, as the house appears
like an enchanted castle and a place for rituals of initiations, a setting
where the cycle of life unfolds, a place defined by light and darkness, by
the presence of the elements (earth, fire, water), but it is also an Edenic
place bringing together a variety of living and inanimate things, and where
we are constantly reminded of Christianity through the presence of the
crucifix. [Figs. 2427.]

Figures 2427. Lech Majewski: The Roes Room (1997), an opera in the form of a
video fresco.
172 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

In what is perhaps one of the most poetic autobiographies in recent

cinema, the sensuous experience of music, rhythm, poetic language and
painterly image conveys both a young mans sensual and spiritual
awakening to all that is magical in life and the adult Majewskis nostalgic
recollection of the impressions that have shaped his sensitivity as an artist.
Bartass The House unfolds in a similar manner, like a continuous
dream, and also like in the case of Majewskis visual poem, the inspiration
comes from poetry.19 The only words we hear are in the first two minutes
of the film in which a male voice over recites a few lines spoken in
French. The lyrical text addresses an unnamed (and absent) Mother20 as
in an interior monologue and speaks of frustrations in communication, the
fleeting sensation of time and the endurance of the subjective images in
ones mind, placing the whole vision somewhere between recollection and
fantasy.21 The film was made as a Lithuanian, French and Portuguese
coproduction and with an international cast including the French director,
Leos Carax, appearing in a small role (in a static pose, wrapped in a thick
armour made of newspapers glued together with a book in his hand, see
Fig. 31). In its introductory sequence it evokes two important predecessors
for this type of cinema: the films of Andrei Tarkovsky (in the title
sequence we hear the same fragment from Bachs St Matthew Passion,

See the conversation about the film in Guillaume Coudrays documentary essay
on Bartass work, Sharunas Bartas: An Army of One (2010).
Although some reviewers speak of this as a metaphor for motherland,
interpreting the film (and the symbolism of the house) as Bartass allegoric way of
speaking about his country, isolated within a larger, controversial motherland
and unable to communicate with her, or nurturing highly ambivalent feelings
towards her, the film remains up to the end extremely stylized and abstract even
though some elements (like the reference to Ilya Repins painting of Ivan the
Terrible murdering his own son, the presence of the soldiers and menacing army
tanks closing in on the house at the end of the film, or the image of the sad, young
boy replacing Christ on the cross) may obviously be seen as references to a
troubled (though not necessarily contemporary) East European reality. Bartas
himself insists on the poetic, undigested quality of the film, something made of
primitive feelings (see Coudrays documentary).
Here are a few sentences from this monologue: Mother, often I wanted to talk
to you about everything, but I never did. But deep inside I was talking to you. [...]
In the future I am free. Free, because it doesnt yet exist. I dont understand the
present. The present moment is so fleeting. Im not really sure that it exists.
Mother, time has passed. And I am far from you. What is important, mother, for
me, is to believe that these things will not vanish. In Coudrays 2010
documentary mentioned in the previous footnotes Bartas speaks of the house in the
film being a space of the mind showing the images that we carry within us.
gnes Peth 173

BWV 244 as Tarkovsky used accompanying the detail from Leonardo da

Vincis The Adoration of the Magi in the prologue of his last film,
Sacrifice [Offret, 1986]) and Alain Resnaiss Last Year at Marienbad
(Lanne dernire Marienbad, 1961), which also begins with a
dreamlike and repetitive voice over narration, and in which the majestic
edifice shown from the outside emerges as a similarly enigmatic image
framing the film and the wandering of the protagonist inside the building
itself presented like a passage through a labyrinth. While in Majewskis
film there is a family living inside the house, clearly making it their own
through gestures and rituals, Bartass house reveals (deploying a similarly
dense archetypal and Christian symbolism as Majewskis haunting vision)
a mere collection of picturesque animals and objects, of people of different
ages and races (men and women, young and old, beautiful and ugly, black
and white, naked and clothed) appearing one after the other, engaged in
different, mostly solitary, quiet activities, or sitting motionless, displayed
as exhibits within tableau vivant-like compositions22 [Figs. 2835], as
the young male protagonist goes from room to room, observing them.
Ihor Podolchak, who is also a well-known painter, photographer and
installation artist,23 presents in his enigmatic Las Meninas a house full of
mirrors and mirroring surfaces in which images are reflected and
multiplied acquiring an eerie, trance-like quality (hence the reference in
the title to the reflexive structure of Velazquezs painting). As a veritable
tour de force in cinematography, Podolchak claims to have filmed 7075%
of the film through mirrors.24 The film takes the viewer into the dull,
everyday routine of a family (elderly parents, a grown up daughter, a
sickly son) with slow, static shots showing them mostly in their dining
room as they eat or prepare to eat, or, sometimes, play music, or get
dressed. Time and reality, vague as they appear, also get refracted: some
of the scenes seem to take place in the past, when the son was merely a

Bartass next film, Freedom (2000), is conceived similarly as a string of
beautiful tableau compositions, this time, however, perhaps as a deliberate
antithesis, away from the framing structures provided by houses and rooms:
presenting its characters in vast open spaces, as figures in a landscape in sensuous
interconnection with the elements (water, wind, sand) as they escape to a
desolate land of picturesque nothingness.
He has also risen to some fame due to the fact that he is the author of the first art
exhibition ever to be held in space, as two small woodcut prints made by him were
taken by Russian cosmonauts on the Mir Space Station in 1993. (See:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnKcWWhj_hY. Last accessed 1. 09. 2014.)
See: http://www.kinokultura.com/specials/9/lasmeninas.shtml. (Last accessed 1.
09. 2014.)
174 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

Figures 2835. Sharunas Bartas: The House (1997).

gnes Peth 175

boy, and some appear as pure fantasy. The film is further hybridized by
the collaboration of the American music video director Dean Karr, who
directed a scene in the film which is in stark contrast to the dark greenish
tones of the images and the lethargic tempo of the rest of the film with its
abrupt editing style and bright colours (thus feels like a dream within a
In all three films many scenes are conceived on the thresholds between
cinematic movement and the still image, but also, between narrativity and
non-narrativity, as we see a kind of minimalist action taking place in these
frames, yet this amounts to in essence no more than a series of gestures
(laying the table, spooning the soup, mashing the Brussels sprouts on a
plate with a fork, holding a book, sitting silently at the edge of a bed,
watering plants, putting on a necklace or a dress, standing at a window,
examining stamps through a magnifying glass, arranging fruit in a bowl,
etc.). In fact, Las Meninas, perhaps even more than Majewskis and
Bartass films, is composed of a fixation on gestures, gestures revealed in
fragmented close-ups and repeated over and over again in a world in
which house, family, art, perception and memory, present and past become
parts of the same organic rhizomatic network. If cinema in the words of
Agamben leads images back to the homeland of gesture (2000, 56),
because, Agamben claims, in the cinema, a society that has lost its
gestures seeks to reappropriate what it has lost while simultaneously
recording that loss, (1993, 137) then post-cinema in such moving image
projects, only amplifies, feeds on this possibility, that we so often see
exploited in photo-filmic installation art, of oscillating between the
immobility of the pose and its slow dissolution into (often barely
perceptible) movement, of building tableau compositions around gestures
and gestures connected to objects.
In this sense, Podolchaks film, alongside Majewskis and Bartass
work, appears to be a perfect example for a cinematic or post-cinematic
dream of a gesture (Agamben 1993, 139) transporting the viewer into a
visibly subjective and surreal universe of enigmatic pictures, yet, at the
same time, bearing the nostalgic, gestural imprints of a long lost lifestyle
that we can recognize even in these stylized frames suggesting
timelessness from our own memories, from old photographs, literary
descriptions, paintings or poems. In Majewskis case it is the life in the
fifties or sixties of an urban family living in a typical two or three storey,
turn of the century townhouse somewhere in Eastern Europe where the old
architecture, reminiscent of more glamorous times, is like a communal,
extended family nest for its many inhabitants, who have most likely been
allotted rooms here replacing the original owners during communist times.
176 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

In Podolchaks Las Meninas it is a provincial villa (perhaps sometime in

the second half of the 19th or at the beginning of the 20th centuries, in a
place that could be anywhere in Europe), with special emphasis on
household objects, items of decoration and clothing which could well be
the same in any adaptation of Chekhov, Tolstoy or Turgenev. Bartass
house is perhaps the least specific, yet the pictures on the wall, the large
dining hall with the crystal chandelier and people gathered around the long
dining table, eating and chattering, the image of the dog lying at the foot of
the old woman may seem like similar vestiges of times gone by as
Podolchaks villa.
In each of these films, in the structure of the house, we have a
sensuous, liminal space, merging the outside with the inside, the natural
with the artificial, with birds wearing bow ties and headdresses [Figs. 30,
31], and humans stripped naked [Fig. 33], paintings that look alive and
bleed [Fig. 27], and with bodies framed as paintings or appearing as
sculptures (being covered with layers that look like bronze, or being
smeared with clay [Figs. 32]) in interconnected rooms displaying signs of
dreary decay alongside images of lush life, with vines that crack the walls,
and in Majewskis and Bartass case people cohabitating with animals,
birds and plants [Figs. 26, 29, 30, 34]. As the films progress vegetation
seems to conquer all. The father has to cut the grass in the living-room, a
huge tree grows inside the house in Majewskis film opening up the space
of the traditional, nuclear family and the young boys awakening to the
pleasures of the flesh onto the world of uninhibited, adult sexuality as we
peek into the life of the promiscuous neighbour through the leaves. In
Bartass house, by the end of the movie, the flowers planted by the old
woman are shown in full bloom in the attic, implying perhaps through the
apparent final victory of nature over culture again a triumph of the senses.
Images are saturated with the sensation of forms, colours, and sounds. As
already mentioned, the soundtrack of Majewskis The Roes Room is an
opera, and Bartas and Podolchak both use a polyphony of ambient, on and
off-screen noises, people playing music, reminding us of the essentially
musical nature of Deleuzes notion of sensation, (which he defines as
essentially rhythm, or appearing as the vibration that flows through the
body Deleuze 2003, 72.)25
As the camera zooms in on the bodies, which are either youthfully,
beautifully erotic (like in The Roes Room), or often deformed, bizarre (in
Bartass The House), or overweight and unpleasant to watch (as some of

See also Elisabeth Groszs interpretation of Deleuze: sensation requires no
mediation or translation. It is not representation, sign, symbol, but force, energy,
rhythm, resonance (2008, 73).
gnes Peth 177

the inhabitants of the villa in Las Meninas), the movement of the image is
absorbed by almost imperceptible movements at the level of skin and
texture. Accordingly, what we see in these films is haptic cinema at its
richest, a cinema of small gestures, of the flesh, of pulsations, energies,
and intensities, where organic and inorganic matter become almost
indistinguishable. It is a cinema that can perhaps best be described through
the conflicting notions of the Deleuzian figural and figuration. As
Elizabeth Grosz summarizes, the figural is, for Deleuze, the end of
figuration, the abandonment of art as representation, signification, narrative,
though it involves the retention of the body, planes, and colors, which it
extracts from the figurative (2008, 88). Relying on Deleuze, Martine
Beugnet describes such films in this way: between the cinema of
psychological situations and that of pure abstraction, the cinema of
sensation opens a space of becoming, a space where the human form is
less character and more figure, a figure caught [...] in the material reality
of the film as event (Beugnet 2007, 149, emphasis mine, . P.). She also
says: one way or another, the cinema of sensation is always drawn
towards the formless (linforme): where background and foreground
merge, and the subjective body appears to melt into matter (2007, 65).
Deleuze considers such a body a body without organs, mere flesh and
nerve taking on a spasmodic appearance, (2003, 45) as he writes in his
book on Bacon. He also mentions that there are two ways of going
beyond figuration [in art]: either toward the abstract form, or toward the
Figure, the sensation (2003, 34).
In an article that deals with similar issues focusing on the films of
Philippe Grandrieux mainly from the theoretical vantage points defined by
Pascal Bonitzer and Georges Didi-Huberman the authors, Fran Benavente
and Gloria Salvad, note that: there is an extensive trend in contemporary
film that focuses on this shift to the logic of sensation or, [] the ambition
to translate the invisible into a disfiguration process of the visible (2010,
131). What sets these films analyzed here apart from this trend is that the
logic of sensation applied here does not perform a disfiguration of the
visible, or at least not exclusively: both building the image around
gestures and foregrounding its intermedial qualities (i.e. its associations
with paintings) turn this process of disfiguration around, back to the
territory of figurativity and pictorial composition. [Figs. 3638.]
178 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

Figures 3638. Ihor Podolchak: Las Meninas (2008): haptic images gravitating
towards the formless and images folding imageness back onto themselves.
gnes Peth 179

What is unique in this particular corpus of post-cinematic films is that

they continually move toward the fragmented body of sensation,
decomposing the narrative organization of the sequence, as well as the
optical structure of image into a haptic space with patches of colours and
vibrations of sound, but we also see an obsessively repeated reconstruction
of the image as a whole.26 Deleuze begins his chapter on cinema, body,
brain and thought with these words: Give me a body then! saying life
will no longer be made to appear before the categories of thought, thought
will be thrown into the categories of life, indicating a way in which in
certain examples of modern cinema life can be made accessible not
through representing it, but by thinking directly through a body, and
gestures of the body (Deleuze 1989, 189). The constant re-composition of
haptic fragments into tableau-like images in the three films mentioned
here suggest another path that we might define with the demand
(modifying the Deleuzian motto) as Give me an image then!, an urge to
throw, paradoxically, life into categories of the image. We see this
movement for the recovery or reconstruction of the (autonomous,
painterly) image from the formless mass of flesh and spasms
dispersed within a haptic space in the recurring mirror reflections that fold

At the same time we have a loose reconnection with some kind of a narrative
frame, as if chaos would gravitate towards order both in image and narrative:
Majewski and Bartas use something similar to a stream of consciousness technique
with a clearly designated (alter-ego) protagonist whose visions we can directly
access, Podolchak frames the film with the image of a man and a woman
reminiscing about their past.
180 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

the imageness back onto itself [Fig. 38], and this is what we see in the
instances in which the cinematic frame appears to be haunted by another
image, a photo, a painting,27 or a mere echo of pictorialism (as an in-
between of photography, painting and cinema28). [Figs. 3941.]

Figures 3941. Quotations of paintings: Velzquezs eponymous painting in

Podolchaks Las Meninas, Ilya Repins Ivan the Terrible and his Son in Bartass
The House, and Giorgio de Chiricos painting in Majewskis The Roes Room.

In the case of Las Meninas the title itself evokes an image that haunts the
entire film.
E.g. we have beautiful still-life compositions of fruit resembling 17th-century
baroque compositions in Las Meninas.
gnes Peth 181

This process of recovering, framing or reframing a picture which

modulates the image in these films in-between the figural and the
figurative, confers a new and unexpected dynamic and intensity to
rendering visible forces that are not themselves visible. Consequently
life (or memory, or imagination) does not appear as something represented
by images, but as the sensuous experience of moving through a series of
images: where the image, re-emerging as a whole, does not show life, it
houses its own sensuous, synesthetic, molecular life. While the
Deleuzian sensation always tears bodies into flesh, and descends flesh
from the bones, (2003, 12) dissolving the picture as an object of
observation and redefining it as an object of contact and interaction, what
we have here is post-cinema constituting in a tableau no less and no more
than a space (a block) for becoming an image, for the experience of
being an image. In Deleuze and Guattaris definition becoming is always
double, that which one becomes becomes no less than the one that
becomes block is formed, essentially mobile, never in equilibrium
(2004, 305). Seen from this perspective we may find that bodies become
images within a tableau vivant, just as much as images become bodies, or
the cinematic characteristics of painting in such an image are also made
visible at the same time as cinema acquires the quality of painting.
Moreover, in each case presented here the tableau as a block of
becoming involves not just a triple relationship between image body
camera, but also multiple metalepses: of art and life, of the observer and
the observed (the protagonists of each of these films are repeatedly shown
as touching the world around them, looking at pictures as well as being
framed within the cinematic tableau). The loop of the formless into form
results in an imageness perceivable both as art permeating the skin of the
screen and as artificiality, as something visibly produced by an apparatus
that records the acts of bodies performing images,29 and performs optical
tricks that constantly de-territorialize and re-territorialize the image, along
the process through which cinema reaches beyond cinema, into the
expanded field of pictorialist photography and a sensation of embodied
In such examples similarly to what we see in contemporary video art
tableaux we have a post-cinematic expansion of the in-between zone of
narrativity and non-narrativity through a Deleuzian sensation that stems
from a molecular, unformed level of cinema, yet repeatedly performs
a folding of this figural back onto the figuration, the molar

This connection is only made self-reflexively palpable in the earlier example of
Majewskis Garden of Earthly Delights, where the camera also takes part in the
performance itself with its actual interaction with people.
182 Housing a Deleuzian Sensation

formation of the ambivalent, photo-filmic tableau vivant. The tableau

itself contains the movements in both directions: from molecular to
molar, as well as the other way round. The free flowing images, which
constantly break down into mere gestures, into pure exhibitions of
mediality,30 in Agambens words, generate a particular self-reflexive
narrative in which the gestures of the body become gestures of the
image itself, unfolding its own imageness perceivable in the liminality
of arts and media through the sensuous details, thus performing its own
mediality and inter-mediality.

Agamben, Giorgio. 1993. Infancy and History. The Destruction of
Experience. London, New York: Verso.
. 2000. Notes on Gesture. In Means without End, Notes on Politics, 49
63. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press.
Belting, Hans. 2005. Image, Medium, Body: A New Approach to
Iconology. Critical Inquiry, No. 31 (Winter): 302319.
Benavente, Fran and Gloria Salvad. 2010. From Figure to Figural. Body
and Incarnation in Contemporary Film. Akademisk kvarter/Academic
Quarter. Volume 01. Fall: 130138.
Beugnet, Martine. 2007. Cinema and Sensation. French Film and the Art
of Transgression. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2. 1989 [1985]. Cinema 2. The Time-Image.
London: The Athlone Press.
. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. London, New York:
Deleuze, Gilles and Flix Guattari. 2004 [1980]. Thousand Plateaus:
Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum International
Publishing Group.
Grosz, Elizabeth. 2008. Chaos, Territory, Art. Deleuze and the Framing of
the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press.
Ihde, Don. 1995. Postphenomenology: Essays in the Postmodern Context.
Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press.
Klossowski, Pierre. 1969. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. New
York: Grove.

Using the example of dance movements Agamben defines gestures as pure
means without end, exhibiting the media character of corporal movements and
allowing the emergence of the being-in-a-medium of human beings (2000, 58).
gnes Peth 183

Panofsky, Erwin. 1953. Early Netherlandish Painting, Cambridge

Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Peucker, Brigitte. 2007. The Material Image. Art and the Real in Film.
Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Peth, gnes. 2013. The Vertigo of the Single Image: From the Classic
Narrative Glitch to the Post-Cinematic Adaptations of Paintings.
Acta Universitatis Sapientiae: Film and Media Studies, 6. 6590.
. 2014a. The Tableau Vivant as a Figure of Return in Contemporary
East European Cinema. Forthcoming in Acta Universitatis Sapientiae.
Film and Media Studies, Volume 9.
. 2014b. The Garden of Intermedial Delights. Cinematic Adaptations
of Bosch from Modernism to the Postmedia Age. Forthcoming in
Screen, Vol. 55, issue 4 (Winter).


Starting from the 1980s, a number of theoretical works proposed a

new critical approach to cinema beyond the postmodernist discourse of
appropriation that would consider aestheticism in terms of the figurative
potential of film and its affinities with cultural studies. Will Straw in his
1987 essay Discipline of Forms, taking as example Rainer Werner
Fassbinders later films, questions whether in these the aesthetic
distanciation is necessarily critical or, increasingly, an index of non-
commitment and aesthetic dandyism (1987, 365). As an answer to this, at
the end of his essay he urges for a realignment of film studies with
cultural studies which adopts the latters attention to ways in which
cultural practices or phenomena are embedded within more general
processes of sociological or political interest. This is less an argument for
a sociology of film than for a weakening of the link between textual
analysis and the formation or confirmation of existent canons. (Straw
1987, 372.) This search for significations excessive to narrative has been
anticipated in film studies by Thierry Kuntzels Fim-Work 1 (1978) and 2
(1980) which, by his allusion to Freuds concept of dreamwork, posits
cinemas figurative dimension as a discourse of its own, an approach taken
further in David. N. Rodowicks media philosophical work Reading the
Figural, or, Philosophy after the new media (2001). In a similar vein, the
book of Hungarian born Yvette Br, Profane Mythology (1982) claims
that films (re)generate myths while depicting scenes of everyday life,
emphasizing the cultural relevance of figurative writing in film.
This critical approach in film studies has been informed by the larger
context of an aesthetic debate that proposed to re-define the relationship
between art and reality, i.e. to restore the distance between them.

This work was supported by a grant of the Romanian Ministry of National
Education, CNCS UEFISCDI, project number PN-II-ID-PCE-2012-4-0573.
186 The Alienated Body

According to Lyotard, art must renounce its claims to representation and

seek out new ways of revealing that every representation is condemned to
a forgetting, the presence of the Other, the trauma of an event, that is
constitutive of thought, and only able to be remembered as forgotten.
(1990, 18) In a very similar vein, Giorgio Agamben argues that aesthetics
is the very destiny of art in the era in which, with tradition now severed,
man is no longer able to find, between past and future, the space of the
present, and gets lost in the linear time of history (1999, 69). Jacques
Rancires concept of rgime or politics of the sensible emphasizes the
same difference between meaning (sense) and what offers itself to our
senses. As Joseph J. Tanke formulates in his essay defusing the concept of
the aesthetic rgime: What is common to a number of different artistic
practices is a conception of art according to which art is art only on the
condition that it is more than art, and more than art only to the extent that
it defines itself as distinct from life, that is, as art (2011, 81).
I consider the ongoing debate around the aesthetic, in general, and
the discourse on figurativity and figural in cinema, in special, a theoretical
framework inside which contemporary Hungarian cinema, especially from
the last decade, can be interpreted. These films show a remarkable
homogeneity not only in terms of aesthetic mannerism reminiscent of that
of Jancs and Tarr (minimalism of the setting, acting and dialogues,
extremely long shots, closely following camera, stylized camera
movement and lighting), but also in terms of their reluctance to represent
directly acute and actual social situations.2 These films often re-enact
mythical and biblical scenes meant to generate symbolic meaning, in the
spirit of Brs already mentioned book, Profane Mythology: Bla Tarr,
who started his career with socio-dramas, in his last film The Turin Horse
(A torini l, 2011) chose a reverse Genesis story to depict the
pointlessness of all human actions and efforts. Kornl Mundruczs films
also show a preference for myths, legends and allegorical stories: his
Johanna (2005) reiterates the legend of Saint Joan, the concepts of
sacrifice and miracle in a story about a nurse healing terminally ill patients
with sex. Delta (2008) is a compilation of readymade, archetypical and
stereotypical images, as well as biblical and mythical stories, such as that
of the Prodigal Son, the Miraculous Catch of Fish, the feeding of a crowd
with bread and fish, the Last Supper, ritual settling and killing, in sum a
profane Messianic story. Interestingly enough, the script is signed by

They are often blamed for providing a rather stereotypical image of this part of
Europe. See, for example, Mnika Dnl on the depiction of patriarchal
relationships and an archaic femininity (2013) and Mikls Sghy on images of
poverty as cultural export products (2013).
Hajnal Kirly 187

Yvette Br herself, that makes this film a kind of exercise of

application of the theoretical ideas from Profane Mythology. Similarly,
Mundruczs latest White God (Fehr isten, 2014) depicting tensioned
relationships between dogs and humans, is just another allegory of class
and racial oppression. The films of Benedek Fliegauf and gnes Kocsis
present other solutions of aesthetic distanciation and mannerism: in
Fliegaufs case the utopistic topic (Womb, 2010, about human cloning),
the dialogues which simply dont work (in Dealer, 2004 and Just the
Wind, [Csak a szl, 2012]), a too closely following camera in Just the
Wind, meant to depict not only the mental state of particular characters,
but, as the director has repeatedly pointed out in interviews,3 also to
represent fear and the position of the victim in general. Kocsis, on her turn,
makes feminine melodramas (Fresh Air [Friss leveg], 2006, Adrienn Pl,
2010) devoid of bodily sensations and emotions (sobs and tears), so
specific of the genre according to Linda Williams (1990). Hungarian film
critic Gbor Gelencsr has rightly called the winners of 2006 Hungarian
Film Week (Plfis Taxidermia, 2005, Szabolcs Hajdus White Palm
[Fehr Tenyr], 2005 and Mundruczs Johanna, 2005) tales of the
body, pointing out the excessive use of the body as motif and metaphor in
these films (2006). I argue that this is true for most Hungarian films made
in the last decade, all being obsessed less with the sensual body that
triggers an embodied spectatorship, than with the aesthetic, figurative
potential of its image: a body that makes sense, i.e. meaning. In what
follows, after an overview of the lineage of aesthetic practices of body
representations in Taxidermia, that proves to be paradigmatic from the
point of view of the analysis below, I will proceed with the interpretation
of the representation (or non-representation) of touch and smell in these
films, just to conclude with a chapter on the clinical gaze, symptomatic
of the oculocentric representation of the body that prevails in this
The Body without Organs
Plfis Taxidermia presents three tales of the body, providing a history of
post-second World War Hungarian politics through body memory, thus
revealing the traces that political power relationships left on the body.4

See the directors comments on the film on http://www.filmpressplus.com
/wpcontent/uploads/dl_docs/JustTheWind-Notes.pdf, and an interview with Andrs
Vgvlgyi and Zsuzsanna Debre on http://www. civiljutub.hu/play.php?
vid=9518#.VB80sfmSxFs. (Last accessed 21. 09. 2014.)
See on this Lszl Strauszs The Archeology of Flesh. History and Body-Memory
in Taxidermia (2011).
188 The Alienated Body

According to Steven Shaviro, the three parts correspond to three rgimes of

the body, in a Foucauldian genealogy, with different representational styles
meant to define masculinity as a bodily performance in given social,
political and economic circumstances (see: Shaviro 2012, 3031). But
beyond the political, allegorical context, Plfi also provides us with three
paradigmatic moments of the cinematic practice of bodily representations,
that he conceives as a linear process: the first two parts correspond, as
Shaviro also argues, to the category described by Linda Williams as body
genre, that forces us to feel (1990). The first story, that of
Morosgovnyi, evokes the masculine body genre of pornographic films,
presenting an intensely sexual, sensual, even sensational body (capable
to produce a firework). [Fig. 1.] The second part is closest to what Shaviro
calls body horror, showing excessive, repulsive bodily practices: speed-
eating and vomiting under external (political) threat and control. [Fig. 2.]
Shaviro identifies in the third part, the story of Lajos, the taxidermist, a
perfect illustration of the concept of the bachelor machine, described by
Deleuze and Guattari, that transposes the eroticism of the body onto a
machine: a genuine consummation is achieved by the new machine, a
pleasure that can rightly be called autoerotic, or rather automatic; the
nuptial celebration of a new alliance, a new birth, a radiant ecstasy, as
though the eroticism of the machine liberated other unlimited forces.
(1983, 18.) [Figs. 34.] But Lajoss self-taxidermizing act is also the
sublimation of the previously presented bodily practices (stuffing and
eviscerating) into a work of art, a par excellence fetish and commodity of
the capitalist era. Not surprisingly, the film ends with the camera entering
the void of Lajoss artwork-body, in a striking image illustrating the
notion of body without organs of Deleuze and Guattari. Borrowing it
from Artaud (The body is the body / it stands alone /it has no need of
organs / the body is never an organism / organisms are the enemies of
bodies) Deleuze identifies it with the Figure in Francis Bacons painting.
In his approach, it is a whole nonorganic life, (dismantle the organism in
favor of the body, the face in favor of the head, he says), an image striking
in its sensational materiality (2003, 4446). This provocative term, used in
various contexts, relies on the opposition between surface (a world of
appearances) and a deeper meaning, explained by the authors with the
metaphoric image of the egg, that contains all the potentials: The body
without organs is an egg: it is crisscrossed with axes and thresholds, with
latitudes and longitudes and geodesic lines, traversed by gradients marking
the transitions and the becomings, the destinations of the subject
developing along these particular vectors. (Deleuze 1983, 19.)
Hajnal Kirly 189

Figures 14. From body horror to body art: regimes of representation of the
body in Gyrgy Plfis Taxidermia.

Laura Marks, on her turn, interprets this concept as a malleable surface

that can be re-shaped at ease: Only a body that is not libidinally fixated in
terms of particular parts can invest with desire something outside. I picture
the Deleuze-Guattarian body without organs (1983) as something like a
water balloon. You can wilfully twist shapes onto its surface, play with
them until they lose their fascination, and then undo them and make
others. (Marks 2000, 123.) With these interpretations in mind, the
historical triptych in Plfis film can be seen as an evolution of cinematic
representations of the body from the active, organic, narrativized body to
the bodily figuration (metaphor and allegory) of a political discourse and
ultimately to the figural, i.e. the sublimation of the body into a complex
aesthetic discourse on capitalism, commodity and fetish. Beyond
figuration, the body as the figural makes sense without the narrative. I
argue that in the contemporary Hungarian films under analysis the
representation of the bodies often falls under the categories of figuration of
the narrative, or sometimes even the figural, in images isolated from
narrative, engaging in an extra-narrative, aesthetic or philosophical
discourse. The bodies in these films are numb and senseless, they show no
emotions or desires, rarely have bodily contacts and hardly communicate.
They are a surface, an image, often abstracted into a colour, a specific
lighting and a painterly or photographic composition. Mundruczs
characters, for example, are figures, metaphors in allegorical stories,
shadows (as I will argue below, in the chapter The Untouchables), while
those of Fliegauf are isolated in rigorous compositions, as if pushed to the
edge of the frame. In gnes Kocsiss two films, Fresh Air and Adrienn
Pl, colours of clothes and environment become the only expressive,
190 The Alienated Body

figurative surface of bodies and relationships. As a counterpart of Plfis

play on male body genres, the pornographic film and the horror, both films
represent what Linda Williams lists on the feminine side of the body
genres, the maternal melodrama and the womans film showing women
in crisis in their traditional role under patriarchy (1990, 4). But all
emotions and gross bodily reactions and sensations have been extracted
from these films, as if in another figuration of the body without organs:
only the surface remained, the colourful (or colourless) skin of the film,
accessible to the eyes but without a chance of spectatorial embodiment
through other senses. In Adrienn Pl, the white robe of the nurse makes
her body dissolve in the white environment of her workplace, a hospital.
Even though we see her eating or sitting on the toilet, her body remains the
same non-penetrable, white surface all over the film, just to become to
gain new shape at the end of her self-discovering journey, when she starts
re-entering the hospital as a private person, wearing light-coloured clothes.
[Figs. 56.] Similarly, in Fresh Air, red and green are systematically
representing mother and daughter, the blooming femininity of the former
and the teenage isolation of the latter, as complementary colours that
figurate, at the same time, the ambivalent relationship of tension and
dependence between them.

Figures 56. The body of the nurse as a non-penetrable, white surface in

Adrienn Pl.

But besides this visual figuration there is another sense strongly involved
in the figurative depiction of their relationship: smell. Described by Laura
Marks as a sense of closeness that requires a bodily contact with the
world (2000, 115), in Hungarian films smell, if referred to at all, is
repulsive, responsible for the distant relationship between bodies.
Hajnal Kirly 191

The Smell of Bodies

Laura Marks distinguishes three ways to represent smell in films: by
identification (we watch someone smell something and we identify with
him), with the use of sound (that is closer to the body than sight), and by
bringing the image even closer, showing its texture, thus transforming it
into a haptic image (2002, 117). Needless to say, Taxidermia uses all ways
to affect our senses, including smell: perhaps the most memorable scenes
are the close images of vomiting speed-eaters, accompanied with the
sound that makes our stomach turn.
The repulsive smell occupies a central narrative position in gnes
Kocsiss Fresh Air, even contributing to a complex figuration of the
mother-daughter relationship and, beyond that, of the East-West opposition.
There is a recurrent scene in this film: the mother, who works at a public
toilet (an Eastern European specificity), returns home, and her teenage
daughter rushes to the window to open it and get some fresh air (hence the
title). It is the example of the most widespread representation of smell,
through identification. But smell here is also charged with cultural
signification, opposed to the fresh air out there, over the borders of the
country, where the girl finally tries to escape. The exaggerated reaction of
the daughter at the return of her mother is due to imagination: as she never
goes to visit her mother at her workplace, it is too frustrating and shameful
to her to bear the idea of the mother cleaning toilets. Her reaction
generates, at the same time, a whole hidden narrative, the unseen story of
the two women. As Marks argues: Smell is already a movie, in the sense
that it is a perception that generates a mental narrative for the perceiver.
We may also understand smell as what Deleuze would call a fossil image,
or a kind of image that contains the material trace of the past within it.
(2002, 114) One signification of the dramatic repulsion of smell goes
back as far as to early bonding, that in the story of a single mother, with an
unknown father (there is a suspicious uncle at some point showing up,
asking for money), reveals another story of shame and frustration. In
Markss words: smell has a privileged connection to emotion and
memory that the other senses do not, hence its affinity with the Deleuzian
affection-image (2002, 120). Thus in the film the closeness of bodies
implied by smell is replaced by a visual connection: the single thing
mother and daughter enjoy watching together is the popular Italian TV
series, The Octopus (La Piovra, 1984, directed by Damiano Damiani), the
192 The Alienated Body

main character of which appears to embody the missing, ideal husband and
father, respectively.5 [Fig. 7.]

Figures 710. Oculocentrism in Agnes Kocsiss Fresh Air: Interpersonal

connection through the visual, the colour hiding smell, olfactory branding and
visual representation of smell.

Ironically, the family of the main protagonist, a police inspector, is killed, so that
mother and daughter on the other side of the screen can easily picture themselves
as the missing part of his family.
Hajnal Kirly 193

Similarly, image and colour appears often in the film as a screen meant
to hide, or at least counterbalance odour. We see the mother
decorating her workplace, the public toilet, covering the walls all over
with red fabric, a symbol of her attractive femininity. [Fig. 8.] When, after
being attacked and transported to the hospital, the daughter is forced to
take up her job at the public toilet, she is surprised to find a cosy place that
bears the mothers trace in every detail. She also finds tens of air
fresheners of most varied brands in a cupboard, this is what Marks calls
the branding of olfactory associations (2002, 122) here meant to
signify ironically the striking discrepancy between the commodities of
194 The Alienated Body

western globalization and the local smells, that do not respect walls or
national borders: they drift and infuse and inhabit. (Marks 2000, 246.)
[Figs. 910.]
In another example of repulsive smells that alienate the body, the
odour of bodily excrements is evoked in Kocsiss Adrien Pl in a scene of
diaper changing for a patient in intensive care at the hospital. The beginner
nurse is having a violent reaction to the smell that, however, doesnt
provoke the full embodiment of the spectator, because, due to
camerawork, she identifies with the senseless, distant attitude of the
protagonist. In Fliegaufs Just the Wind the toilet odour becomes a
stereotypical motif of ethnic segregation and racism. It stands for the
prejudice that poverty smells, thus Roma smell, either because they live
in precarious circumstances, or because they are usually doing cleaning
jobs. The doorman identifies the Roma girl as the source of the unpleasant
smell and verbalizes his opinion, that is symptomatic (and metaphoric) of
a racist discourse blaming minorities as the cause of political, economical
troubles. Again, the allusion to the sense of smell doesnt trigger
spectatorial embodiment, because odour here is rather part of a
stereotypical, judgmental image of the untouchables of society.

The Untouchables
In Just the Wind the modern topos of alienated bodies is given a
cultural, interethnic dimension, where touch or its lack becomes
significant in depicting the majority-minority relationship. As it has been
observed, sometimes critically, Fliegauf tries to neutralize the implied
socio-political message of the film by introducing scenes in which
members of the Hungarian majority actually touch Romas, the
untouchables of the society, charged with the lowest range of works. The
group leader woman of the environmental cleaning team where Rig, the
mother works, actually kisses her, handing over a package with second
hand clothes. These clothes, bearing the memory of the body of the
majority population, are being displayed in the last scene, when the bodies
of the Roma family members killed in a racist attack are carefully, even
tenderly cleaned and dressed in the morgue. This scene can be also
interpreted as an ironical figuration of the assimilative tendency of the
majority: the minoritarian body is finally still, clean and dressed properly.
Even though Just the Wind was his first film inspired from actual
events, bringing a new vision into the Hungarian filmmaking, we can say
that all the previous films of Fliegauf show a certain sensitivity to social
issues, i.e. a preoccupation with the untouchables of society. Accordingly,
Hajnal Kirly 195

in all his films appears a concern to isolate visually the body from other
bodies. As he pointed out in his comments on Just the Wind, this approach
meant to subvert the stereotypical, unruly group-image of Gypsies,
showing instead the individual haunted by fears. Similarly, in Dealer, the
protagonist and his drug addict clients are all social outcasts, that is also
reflected in the peculiar framing of bodies and faces, as if pushed to the
edge of the frame. [Figs. 1112.] Moreover, sometimes their skin, the most
social of all the senses, that, according to Luce Irigaray should be the
model of a mutually implicating relationship of self and world, (quoted in
Marks 2000, 149) is damaged: either severely burned and bandaged all
over, like a mummy, or too sensitive to be exposed, thus covered with
black clothes, including the head (Dealers ex-sportsman friend). To the
category of social untouchables falls the clone boy in Womb, who is
avoided by his schoolmates due to his otherness. This inevitably leads to
an incestual closeness to his mother, displayed in scenes of explicit
touchy intimacy. Fliegaufs sci-fi doesnt conceive (human) clone as
something alien, unnatural, on the contrary, as a body too close. [Figs. 15

Figures 1112. Figuration of isolation through framing in Benedek Fliegaufs

Dealer (2005)

Figures 1314. The clone as a body too close, a fetish in Benedek Fliegaufs

Set in a not so far future (as animal cloning has already been achieved,
stirring huge controversies about human cloning, on a moral, religious
basis), the rejection of the human clone by society here reveals the horror
196 The Alienated Body

of an absolute profanation of the sacred secret of human life, by

turning it into another reproducible capitalist commodity. As Agamben
argues in his Profanations, referring to Benjamins Capitalism and
Religion: An absolute profanation without remainder now coincides with
an equally vacuous and total consecration. In the commodity, separation
inheres in the very form of the object, which splits into use-value and
exchange value and is transformed into an ungraspable fetish. The same is
true for everything that is done, produced, or experienced, even the human
body, even sexuality, even language. (2006, 81.) In fact, Womb models a
fetishistic thinking that, according to Laura Marks affirms not only the
materiality of ones body but also the incompleteness of ones self: it
suggests that meaning inheres in the communication between self, objects,
and others rather than in a communication mediated by the mind alone
(2000, 119120). Conceived as a truth experienced as a movement from
inside the self into a material object outside, a fetish always defines
social phenomena, in the case of this film solitude and alienation in an era
when everything can be reproduced. The loss of the lover is compensated
by the closeness to his (re)produced body, that loses its fetishistic content
once the distance between the inside and the outside collapses, and the
original scene that the fetish stood for is re-enacted in the incestuous
Fetish as an object standing for the missing, distant or untouchable
body appears in an intercultural context in Szabolcs Hajdus Bibliothque
Pascal (2010). A number of studies have already argued convincingly
about the colonizing Western male gaze represented in this film in the
setting of a brothel where the exquisite clientele is served with Eastern
European bodies re-enacting scenes from Western-European cultural
heritage.6 The unknown, thus untouchable Eastern-European body can be
approached only if culturally domesticated, thus Mona, the fifty-fifty
Hungarian-Romanian woman is forced to enact, in turn, Joan DArc and
Desdemona. [Figs. 1516.] As Laura Marks has shown, [f]etishism aptly
describes the violent colonialist impulse to freeze living cultures and

In Katalin Sndors words, in one of these scenes the body is overwritten by
most heterogeneous cultural codes and fantasies of male sexuality and dominance.
The image of this body discloses the way the racial, the ethnic and the gendered
Other is represented and exoticized within the broader context of certain Western
patriarchal discourses and cultural practices: Mona is pictured as wild, tribal,
foreign, both European and other than European. (2014). On womens
stigmatized otherness and the films deconstruction of male and cultural
superiority see also Dnl (2013, 267) and on Monas self-created, colonized
Western image, Pieldner (2013, 103).
Hajnal Kirly 197

suspend them outside of time, (2000, 85) while, we can add, imposing on
it a new gaze and narrative. In the Desdemona-scene, the alien female
body and Shakespeares drama meet in a fetishistic object-image, a figure
covered all over in black plastic stretchy clothes. Besides acting as an
artificial skin that excludes all authentic social communication between
the perpetrator-colonizer and his victim, the plastic cover works as an
attractive packaging that exposes her as a commodity, a common
capitalist currency. Moreover, the image of this morbidly sexy body
(recalling the Catwoman from the Batman films) appears on the poster of
the movie, becoming the official image of the film conceived as just
another Eastern European product, turned into a Western commodity.

Figures 15-16. Eastern-European body turned into a Western commodity (enacting

Joan DArc and Desdemona in a brothel) in Szabolcs Hajdus Bibliothque Pascal

This body, bearing the traces of cultural memory, is both a transnational

and a transitional object involved in a complex intercultural translation
between East and West.7 In the last scene set back at home, in a global
chain store that looks like the IKEA, commercializing a wide range of
home accessories, the protagonist Mona and her daughter are moving
freely in a world of Western commodities authenticating them by trying
them out, while their bodies, together with that of the director, merge into
the official marketing image of the company, that of family and
In a sort of male version of Monas story, in Delta a young man arrives
home from Western Europe, where he apparently has worked in a ZOO,
and now he is in possession of foreign currency (Euros) to build himself a
home in the picturesque region of the Delta of the Danube, in Romania.

See also Laura Markss comment on object-images (2000, 76).
In this scene the director joins them in front of the camera. Besides the
Hitchcockian signature, this gesture can be termed a metalepsis as the three of
them are a family in reality (see on this Sndor, 2014).
198 The Alienated Body

The social alienation of bodies is immediately detectable in a

communication that lacks all materiality, something that Marks would
define as embodied, precognitive, and sensuous (2002, 116). Mihail, the
protagonist himself strikes us with his fragility and shyness: he hardly
speaks, avoids eye contact and social interaction in general. His inert body
is closest to what Leder calls absent body, not empty, but a being that is
away from itself, (quoted in Marks 2000, 134) a senseless body
alienated through gaze: he is a silent observer who resists provocation and
tries to avoid conflict.9
Intriguingly, this role is played by Flix Lajk, a world famous
virtuoso violinist, ethnic Hungarian from Serbia, whose music
accompanies offscreen certain scenes of the film. The star-musicians
passionate, intense body is away: all that remains of him is an image, a
surface on which the spectator can project figurative meanings inherent to
a story charged with biblical and mythological allusions. The tensions
stirred by Mihails return erupt in two violent acts: the rape of his sister
by the stepfather and the killing of Mihail and his sister by the villagers
on the suspicion of their incestuous relationship. This suspicion is not fully
confirmed by the narrative, which again plays with stereotypical
spectatorial expectations for romance and melodrama, similar to those of
the villagers. We see the girl swimming naked after a (presumed) sexual
act, and then her walking all long the pier, exposing her meagre, non-
erotic, childish body. We rarely see the two touch, speak or laugh together.
Interestingly enough, the most intimate scene between them is that of a
shadow-game, behind the laundry that they are hanging out together: on
the white sheet their shadows touch, even merge, in a joyful promise of a
new life. [Fig. 17.]
As Deleuze pointed out, Francis Bacon has often stated that in the
domain of figures shadow has as much presence as the body; but the
shadow acquires its presence only because it escapes the body (2003, 16).

According to Drew Lederer certain degree of alienation from our bodies is
crucial, made possible by vision, the sense generally most separate from the body
in its ability to perceive over distances (see in Marks 2000, 132). The most
eloquent example of this absent body we can find in the scene of the first visit of
the protagonist on the island: his contemplative gaze is detached from the body and
makes a full, panoramic circle around it, recalling, at the same time, the circular
camera movements of Mikls Jancs.
Hajnal Kirly 199

Figures 1718. A theatre of shadows in Kornl Mundruczs Delta (2010) and

Johanna (2005).

A few pages later, in the chapter Body, Meat and Spirit, Becoming an
Animal, he completes Bacons statement with the sentence that has been
quoted as a Deleuzian aphorism: the shadow escapes from the body like
an animal we have been sheltering (2003, 21). The shadow as an
animalic, instinctual presence returns in Johanna, in another game of
shadows that reveals the sexual body healing terminally ill patients in a
hospital. [Fig. 18.] The sense of touch subverts the observing, controlling
clinical gaze that characterizes the film and is responsible for the
200 The Alienated Body

aesthetic distanciation, together with the opera recitativos sung by the


The Clinical Gaze

The overwhelming mannerism of Johanna is introduced with a self-
reflexive gesture right at the beginning of the film, revealing cinemas
power to create illusion: the emergency-scene at the hospital turns out to
be staged and the presumed victims of an accident walk away as extras.
Only Johanna, the young drug addict girl remains trapped in the
nightmarish setting of the hospital, showing signs of decay everywhere,
envelopped in green light that makes bodies look cadaveric. But beyond
the slave or captivity narrative (she is retained at the hospital as a nurse
and closely observed), the film displays also what Foster calls the
taxonomy of capture, of captive bodies in cinema, that, beyond
spectatorial, individual pleasure draws itself as a power/knowledge grid
around the whole cinematic dispositif (history of filmmaking,
spectatorship, production, distribution, etc.) (1999, 1) The body of the
protagonist is repeatedly captured by medical machines, painterly
compositions reminding of Vermeers paintings, x-ray images, just to be
disposed of in a plastic bag and sent to the waste land at the end of the
film. [Figs. 1922.]

Figures 1922. The body of the protagonist captured in medical imaging and
painterly compositions in Mundruczs Johanna (2005)
Hajnal Kirly 201

Moreover, the body of Orsi Tth, the emblematic actress of

Mundruczs films, is captured over and over in the same image of a
fragile child-woman that becomes victim of a patriarchal society, a
fetishistic image that she preserves even in her roles in non-Hungarian
As Foster argues, the x-ray, a technology that appeared in the same
year with cinema, aims to capture the inside of the body. In fact, early
cinema shares a scientific preoccupation with measuring and capturing it,
that, according to Linda Williams, is just another implantation of
perversions over the body. In her analysis of the theatre of shadows of
Muybridge she argues that in the fetishistic pleasure the viewer is
entranced with the ability of machines to capture bodies (1981). Thus the
theatre of shadows displaying the healing sex scene in Johanna, addresses
a fetishistic viewer captured not only by the image of bodies, but also by
the whole cinematic dispositif. As Christian Metz has formulated: The
cinema fetishist is the person who is enchanted by what the machine is
capable of, at the theatre of shadows as such. For the establishment of his
full potency for cinematic enjoyment (jouissance) he must think at every
moment (and above all simultaneously) of the force of presence the film
has and of the absence on which this force is constructed [...] his pleasure
lodges in the gap between the two. (Metz 1975, 72.)
Johanna is a palimpsest of discourses on cinematic entertainment/
spectatorship, of a scientific/cinematic inquiry on the body and of
Foucauldian concepts of regulation and control.11 In a version of the
Pygmalion complex, the young doctor re-models the body of the girl
through a clinical gaze: technical images (x-ray, MRI imaging) and
constant observation, often from the point of view of a machine. In an
evaluation of the x-ray images of Johannas body, in front of the medical
committee, he calls Johanna a miracle and argues against her release
from the hospital. The artificially multiplied technique of the observing
gaze, as Foucault puts it, refrains from intervening: it is silent and
gestureless. Observation leaves things as they are; there is nothing hidden
to it in what is given. (Foucault 2003, 133.) This distant, controlling gaze
is subverted by Johannas healing technique, with touch, that triggers the

In Shirin Neshats film Women without Men (2009) she is playing a maltreated
prostitute in an Iranian brothel during the 1953 revolution, who finds solace, with
other fugitive women, in a house in the middle of an orchard. Similarly, in Ricky
Rijnekes recent The Silent Ones (2013) she is a young girl assaulted by a self-
proclaimed businessman, ending up in a hallucinatory trip between life and death.
On the intertwining of these discourses in a post-colonial theoretical context see
Lisa Cartwrights Screening the Body. Tracing Medicines Visual Culture (1995).
202 The Alienated Body

accusation of witchcraft and ultimately her execution. In this allegorical

story opposing healing with clinical observation and verbalization of
symptoms, touch, traditionally considered a primitive sense, is
discredited by vision. As Laura Marks points out, healing does imply a
closeness to the body, while vision is the sense that permits the greatest
distance between the body and the object. (Marks 2000, 211.)
Foucault, at the end of his archaeology of the clinical gaze emphasizes
its attraction to death: To know life is given only to that derisory,
reductive, and already infernal knowledge that only wishes it dead. The
Gaze that envelops, caresses, details, atomizes the most individual flesh
and enumerates its secret bites is that fixed, attentive, rather dilated gaze
which, from the height of death, has already condemned life. (Foucault
2003, 211.) The morbidity of this gaze finds its expression in the
representation of dead or terminally ill bodies in both Johanna and
Adrienn Pl, gnes Kocsiss film. Both films display a figurative
representation of death in painterly compositions reminding of Holbeins
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520-22) and Andrea
Mantegnas The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1480). [Figs. 23
28.] As I have already argued elsewhere, these intermedial images also
become the figuration of the unspeakable (post-communist) loss, grief
and melancholia.12 In Foucaults words: The morbid authorizes a subtle
perception of the way in which life finds in death its most differentiated
figure [] Death left its old tragic heaven and became the lyrical core of
man: his invisible truth, his visible secret (2003, 245).

Figures 2328. Figurations of melancholia with painterly compositions reminding

of Andrea Mantegnas The Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1480) and Hans
Holbein the Youngers The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (152022) in
Mundruczs Johanna and Kocsiss Adrienn Pl.

See Kirly: Playing Dead. Pictorial Figurations of Melancholia in
Contemporary Hungarian Cinema. Manuscript. Forthcoming in Studies in Eastern
European Cinema.
Hajnal Kirly 203

One of these places thoroughly described by Foucault is the clinic:

according to him, its spectacular organization constitutes a language of
modalities of observation, while the disposition of bodies and machines
reflects power relationships of society.
Kocsiss film Adrienn Pl displays one of the most striking
technologies of the visible that reveals actual institutional structures
through an organization of bodies in space and time: the wall of monitors
surveying the bodily functions of the patients. This is actually a version of
the Panopticon, described by Foucault as the diagram of a mechanism of
power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any
obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural
and optical system: it is in fact a figure of political technology that may
and must be detached from any specific use. (1976, 205). [Figs. 2930.]

Figures 2930. The Panopticon, the ultimate diagram of power relations and social
supervision, a figuration of the clinical gaze in Kocsiss Adrienn Pl.
204 The Alienated Body

Beyond being a map of power relations, based on the principle of seeing

without being seen, this diagram also stands for the alienation of bodies
through visual technology, by reducing them to abstract formulas. The
scenes set in the room with the wall of monitors alternate with those of
washing, feeding, undressing, resuscitating powerless or dead, equally de-
personalized bodies. When a name emerges, attached to a body, that
happens to be the name of the childhood friend of the protagonist, she
decides to find herself outside the clinic, while apparently looking for her
long lost friend. In one of the films most emblematic scenes we see her
supervising a multitude of bodies on the wall of monitors, while she loses
control over her own body: she is engorging creamy cakes. Besides
condensing the basic mechanism of melancholia (caring too much for
others triggers the loss of the self), this image is just another figuration of
the absent body, alienated through gaze. The scenes of compulsive eating
also recall the excessive eating and self-stuffing images from Taxidermia,
although without the body horror of the latter. At the beginning of the
film, nurse Piroska is just another empty body that figurates, according
to Lszl Strausz, the identity crisis and disorientation that followed the
fall of communism (2011). The message of Kocsiss film is, however,
optimistic: it is possible to fill the void by remembering, accepting and
ultimately reconciling the communist (old, forgotten, sick, dying, dead,
smelly, deformed) body with the post-communist absent body.

In the foreword to the English edition of her Profane Mythology,
Yvette Br claims the necessity of a new approach to cinema emphasizing
its mythologizing tendency, against a still prevailing realist theory of the
medium. The book proposes visual thinking as a common ground for film
analysis, related to the spectatorial ability to read symbolic, metaphoric
and metonimic visual writing. I argued that this line of thought,
confirmed by a wider philosophical preoccupation with the reinstauration
of the aesthetic distance between art and reality (see Lyotard, Rancire and
Rodowick), finds a close implementation in the cinema of a new
generation of Hungarian filmmakers.13 The films that I chose for analysis
share the conviction that beyond modernist paradigms, so easily worn out
by popular genres, there is another way to appropriate human

These filmmakers are probably familiar with the book of Br, whose work is
part of the theoretical training at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in
Budapest, Hungary.
Hajnal Kirly 205

consciousness and subjectivity: through extensive figuration and the

intrusion of mythology into the representation of everyday life. As we
have seen, the central figure of this formalism is the body: not the
sensual body of the popular body genres, but a body without organs,
an absent or empty body, an untouchable body. This body becomes
a surface, a screen onto which varied cultural discourses post-
colonialism, transnationality, racism, feminism, capitalism and
commodity, just to name a few can be easily projected. Thus it is only
accessible to the most distant and intellectual of all senses: vision, in its
paradigmatic version, the clinical gaze, as thematized in Mundruczs
and Kocsiss films. But the image of the alienated body is not the product
of aesthetic dandyism, it bears the implied message that, due to the
traces left by the collision of old and new times, the social body is still
too damaged and problematic to be shown. Despite an apparent lack of
social sensitivity, these films are still political, in the sense proposed by
Rancire: they re-configure appearances, reframe problems and re-define
what can be seen and said.

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Tanke, Joseph J. 2011. What is the Aesthetic Regime? Parrhesia, No. 12,
Williams, Linda. 1990. Film Bodies. Gender, Genre and Excess. Film
Quarterly, Vol. 44, no. 4 (Summer), 213.
. 1981. Film Body: An Implantation of Perversions. Cine-Tracts, vol. 3,
no. 4 (Winter), 19 35.


In this essay, I discuss films and video installations that present figures
of the sick, dying, or intoxicated body and that trigger sensations
associated with fear of death and physical decline. In the presence of these
suffering figures, the viewer feels discomfort in his or her own body
through an empathetic response. The viewers strongly dysphoric bodily
sensations come to signal his or her empathetic bond with others a bond
that he or she may accept or reject when it provokes dysphoric sensations.
I argue here, as I did in my recent book Linsistance du regard sur le corps
prouv. Pathos et contre-pathos (The Insistent Gaze upon the Afflicted
Body: Pathos and Counter-Pathos, Tremblay 2013a), that these film and
video works act as spaces for the viewer to negotiate and exercise empathy
and the accompanying dysphoric sensations.
In the artworks under examination here, the body appears pathemic,
failing, troubled, suffering, and weak in its postures, movements, and
appearance, allowing an empathetic contact with the viewers body. Using
the bonding power of the pathos conveyed by the suffering figure, along
with long observation strategies, these artists practise an art of the
encounter with the other represented, rather than an art of the narrative.
They do so through an attempt at reaching the bodies before the
discourses, as Deleuze puts it in his book The Time-Image (Deleuze
1989, 172).
Artists and filmmakers who use the figure of the suffering body
obviously want to provoke dysphoric sensations and empathetic responses,
but many of them today are reluctant to use such pathos-loaded figures
without questioning or disrupting their effect. Given that pathos is well
210 Sensations of Dysphoria in the Encounter of Failing Bodies

known to trigger automatic responses and sensorial schemas, many artists,

including Bertolt Brecht, have tried to use counter-strategies to free the
viewer from these reflex-based bonds. But how does one keep the viewer
from being overwhelmed without making the emotion-triggering device
ineffective or risking a loss of empathy?

Pathos and Counter-Pathos

The rhetoric of pathos is a proven vector for inspiring fascination and
sensation in the viewer. The posture of the engaged, emotional viewer
indicates an intense, passionate relationship with the images in which the
viewer is captivated, eyes riveted to the artwork. Through empathy, the
viewer associates his or her own body with the bodies experiencing
physical and emotional pain on screen.
The term pathos is used here in the sense of the suffering happening
to someone. Something that conveys pathos is pathemic, and something
that disrupts and counteracts pathos is counter-pathemic. As Mriam
Korichi defines it in her book Passions, The Greek meaning of the term
[pathos] refers primarily to the idea of suffering or pain, as revealed in
the Homeric sense of pathein to endure a treatment or be punished but
the pain is not necessarily intended in the physical sense and the meaning
is specific to the designation of mourning penthein, the same root as
pathein, meaning to be in mourning, to lament the death of someone so
that pathema, what happens to someone, suffering, misery, disease refers
not only to the idea of a passive state, but also to the significance of this
passivity, this suffering. (Korichi 2000, 238, my translation, E. T.)
Korichi establishes in this definition that the pain happening to
someone takes on meaning in the eyes of a witness; it is experienced by an
outside viewer. The figure of the mourner can be associated with the
viewer who feels pain through anothers pain, to which he or she is the
passive witness. Pathos is revealed as a relational device between the
sufferer and the viewer as an emotion-carrying device, moving from one
body to another.
Not only do the three artworks discussed here display suffering bodies,
but they also show movement both toward and away from the pathos
conveyed by those figures. The former direction of movement creates a
fusional empathetic response to the suffering figure, whereas the latter
creates a distance that reduces the dysphoric sensation and can favour self-
observation of empathetic somatic responses. Viewers can thus experience
sensory fascination before being released from the overwhelming power of
pathos. Counter-pathos is created by the distancing made possible by
lne Tremblay 211

diverse strategies, such as activation of doubt, and the inclusion of signs of

mise en scne, repetition, different versions or emotional treatments of the
same scenes, comic relief, ruptures, and offering a very long and repeated
observation time that can foster self-examination and reflection. This is
particularly true in video art installations and a certain form of auteur
cinema, in which reflexive practices take the viewers role into
consideration and make the viewer aware of that role.
Phoria and dysphoria pleasure and displeasure are disseminated
primarily through bodily empathetic sensations before they become the
object of conscious perception and analysis. The point of contact with the
viewer highlighted by Wearing, Cumming, and Van Sant is, above all, the
human bodys ability to communicate through its postural and kinesthetic
dimensions. Pathos is expressed through the non-verbal performance of
the lead actor in Van Sants Last Days, who, like Wearings drunken
figures in Drunk, loses control over his body in the repeated and extended
motion of falling. Both Last Days and Drunk, because they communicate
mainly through the body, bear similarities to contemporary dance
practices, especially to choreographer Pina Bauschs dance-theatre
Pathemic postures and movements make bodies appear empty, lacking
intentionality, caught in fate, displaying motion failure. 
     are bent backs, bowed heads,
hanging arms, curved chest, sitting or lying position, clumsiness, tilting of
the head and body, slumping. Their movements are the fall, stumble,
tumble, trip, and drop. They stagger, totter, surrender, and quit as if they
have lost self-control, are disabled, or are too heavy or weak. Their
functionality is disturbed, as limbs and organs do not perform as expected.
Their sensori-motor schemas are disrupted. Their postures and movements
come to signify disorder, weakness, contingency, vulnerability, loss of
control, resignation, and the foreshadowing of a death to come, the sight of
a still body bereft of life.
Through detailed examinations of pathemic body states offered by
filmic strategies such as the long take and repetition, these artworks offer
the viewer the opportunity to move from sensation to sentiment to
sensitivity. Sensations happen in the viewers body; sentiments, in the
viewers mind that is, on a more reasoned stage; sensitivity refers to the
broader social ability to bond with others.
212 Sensations of Dysphoria in the Encounter of Failing Bodies

Karaoke1, by Donigan Cumming, a video loop presented as a larger-
than-life projection in a gallery, uses pathemic and counter-pathemic
strategies at two very distinct moments. The camera first lingers in a very
tight close-up at an intimate distance, as the anthropologist Edward T.
Hall (1966) would put it, or a haptic distance on the face of an old man
whose physical appearance leads us to believe that he is in agony. His eyes
appear opaque and blind, and he seems to breathe with difficulty through
an open mouth as he passes an atrophied tongue over his parched lips and
swallows painfully. In the background, we hear music, a simple and
joyous song, the lyrics of which are incomprehensible.

Figure 1. Screenshot from video Karaoke, by Donigan Cumming (1998). Courtesy

of the artist.

Karaoke is part of a video installation titled Moving Stills (1998), by
internationally renowned Canadian artist Donigan Cumming. For three minutes the
camera is focused on a dying old man lying on a bed, panning down and up his
body. This three-minute video is projected in a loop with two other videos, each of
which shows a character crying and displaying despair, also shot in close-up (Petit
Jesus and Four Storeys).
lne Tremblay 213

The camera begins a slow pan down the prostrate body, finally
revealing the mans foot as it beats in time to this strange music. Then, the
camera pans back up to the old mans face and we understand that this is
the same shot as the first, but reversed, as the music plays backwards. The
work is divided into two parts: in the first part, we identify strongly and
empathetically with the agony of the reclining body; in the second part, we
revisit our initial judgment as we discover the old mans foot expressing
his enjoyment of the music.
The use of the extreme close-up on the dying old mans body induces
haptic perception. The intimate distance into which the viewer is projected
allows him or her to capture the details of the skin its wrinkles and folds
the dryness of the mouth, the veil that covers the eyes and indicates that
vision is no longer possible. This intimate distance of the haptic perception
of a dying body is unusual and brutal for the viewer, who is drawn in and
cannot escape. As in an intimate relationship, personal boundaries come
into contact and intertwine. As Marks (2000, 188) has explained, The
haptic is a form of visuality that muddies intersubjective boundaries.
Such a perception, as induced by Cumming, is an imperative and invasive
prescription to see and recognize the Other.
Tactile epistemology involves thinking with our skin, or giving as
much significance to the physical presence of an other as to the mental
operations of symbolization. This is not a call to wilful regression but to
recognize the intelligence in the perceiving body. Haptic cinema, by
appearing to us as an object with which we interact rather than an illusion
into which we enter, calls upon this sort of embodied and mimetic
intelligence. In the dynamic movement between optical and haptic ways of
seeing, it is possible to compare different ways of knowing and interacting
with an other. (Marks 2000, 190.)
The forced encounter through haptic visuality makes the viewers body
react and engage in an empathetic relationship marked by dysphoria.
These dysphoric feelings that invade the viewers body make him or her
feel the strength of his or her sympathy, as well as the ambiguity of the
attraction-repulsion duality that characterizes it. The viewer, at first
overwhelmed by dysphoric emotion and expecting to share only pain and
discomfort with the man in the video, is later relieved to discover that the
man enjoys the music that is playing. Upon this realization and reversal,
the viewer is partially relieved of the automatic response of his or her
mirror neurons in front of the dying old man. That beating foot is a snub to
death and to the viewers propensity to pity and reduce the other. The
recumbent figure comes to life and indicates that life overcomes the
immobility of death. During the unfolding of Karaoke, dysphoria first
214 Sensations of Dysphoria in the Encounter of Failing Bodies

enters the viewers body through empathy with the dying body; then
phoria arises through cognition, pushing the dysphoria aside. Dysphoric
sensations are invasive, and the disruptive strategies employed by
Cumming can help to counter their powerful effect.

Last Days
Useful to our discussion is Deleuzes observation that the sensori-
motor schemas of characters bodies in postSecond World War films are
broken. The film character is no longer a hero with a purpose and a task in
a grand narrative but a figure wandering in a world from which he is
alienated, as the camera follows him. The character of Blake, inspired by
the tragic figure of Kurt Cobain, in Gus Van Sants Last Days is certainly
an example of that wandering figure. Last Days bears an aura of pathos in
its reference to the actual suicide of the well-known and beloved musician.
Blake appears to be unaware of himself and barely says a word
throughout the film. Obviously, communication here occurs not through
words but through the body. It is through the body that we perceive
Blakes mental state and his relationship or lack of relationship with
places, objects, and others. Falls, collapses, and losses of consciousness
punctuate his journey until his very last fall to his death at the end.

Figures 24. Screenshots from Last Days by Gus Van Sant, 2005.
lne Tremblay 215

Throughout the film, we are witnessing Blakes body break down

emptied of its power, its intentionality, and, ultimately, its consciousness.
Not only do his actions not seem to have any purpose, but his whole body
indicates, through his postures, the decomposition of his motor schema.
Since we are informed that Blake is a character inspired by Kurt Cobain,
we can therefore already consider that he is a dead man a walking dead
man. From the beginning, Blake appears small, fragile, and lost in a forest
landscape through which he moves with difficulty. Dressed in simple,
dirty red-and-white pyjamas, his presence in the forest seems
anachronistic. When he finally arrives at a house and picks up a shovel, he
slips and falls again before going to dig up a box that we guess contains
the drugs that he has tried to stop using and which he will consume right
216 Sensations of Dysphoria in the Encounter of Failing Bodies

after. We are witnessing Blakes slow slippage toward his own obliteration
and his being overpowered by the death instinct.
The figure of the suffering body of Christ is frequently evoked, Blake
appears particularly skinny: when he washes in the river, we can see his
bones through his skin. When, intoxicated, he goes to his bedroom with a
bowl of cereal, falls backward onto the bed, and then awkwardly raises his
head and upper body, it looks as if a soul is leaving a dead body. This
scene foreshadows the final scene of his death, when, through a
superimposition effect, we see his ghostly body emerging from his dead
body and rising. The reference to Christ is also openly made earlier in the
film, when Van Sant brings in two Jehovahs Witnesses who explain the
role of the sacrificial lamb which is, according to them, to take the place
of Jesus and then shows us Blake walking on all fours like a lamb.
Later, when Asia opens a door against which he has fallen asleep,
Blake falls again in a heap, making her fear that he is dead. The scene is
repeated from two different points of view: inside and outside the room.
Another repeated scene is the one of his arrival at the house from the
forest; the first time, he is wearing a white T-shirt, whereas the second
time, he is wearing a red-and-black striped sweater like the one that Kurt
Cobain wore on the day of his death. With these repetitions and variations,
Van Sant borrows radical strategies from experimental film and video art
to create a disrupted fictional time apart from action-image and the
conventional linear narrative. These strategies break up the naturalism of
linearism and suggest multiple points of view and interpretations. The
temporality that Van Sant creates throughout Last Days is one of slow
observation and pathemic time. As they follow Blake, viewers are left to
linger in pathos and witness his slow physical decline. This process is
expressed in the repeated and extended movement of the fall and by the
body losing its power and drive. The exaggerated duration of Van Sants
takes on the failing body bears a pathemic effect and acts as his
Some counter-pathemic elements can be observed in the absurd
apparition of the Yellow Pages salesman and the Jehovahs Witness
brothers, whose anachronistic presence makes us laugh. These characters
also play the role of a normative background against which the difference
of Blakes behaviour stands out.

Pathosformel is a German word used by art historian Aby Warburg to describe
the formulas of pathos in artworks. See discussion later in this text.
lne Tremblay 217

Similarly to Van Sant with Last Days, British artist Gillian Wearing
slowly observes, in exaggerated duration, falling intoxicated bodies in her
video installation Drunk. She asked real alcoholics living in the street to
come in her studio to be filmed on a white background. The resulting films
are exhibited in galleries in a monumental three-channel video projection
that renders the subjects larger than life. They stagger, urinate, fight, and
fall asleep on the floor. Here, the failing motor skills of the bodies are
emphasized by isolating them against a white background. The viewer can
identify, beyond the identity of the persons depicted, with body failure as a
common, shared space experienced by everyone to different degrees.3
But the identity of the alcoholics, their clumsy bodies, can also
provoke counter-pathemic laughter and reduction to caricature. The
responsibility for the empathic link is thus returned to the viewer. If the
viewer identifies with the people on screen, the pathos in this work is
effective. Only the extended duration, the loop presentation, the bodies
magnified by monumental projection, the displacement of the drunks into
a studio, and the effect of the space of art mediation can offer a slight
distance: the drunks movements appear choreographed and almost
graceful as they exhibit disturbed bodies deserted by restraint and self-

Pathemic Time
In these three works pathemic bodies are caught up in pathemic time
a doubling or tautological strategy that subjects both the viewer and the
represented figure to the long duration of dysphoric experiences. The
frozen repetitive time of this pathemic strategy afflicts the passive viewer
through the use of the long take in all of the works, the repetition of the
loop in the video installations, and the variations on the same scene
repeated in Last Days. Pathemic time does not unfold and cannot sustain
the development of a tragic, heroic narrative, but can only express a
passive enduring of time. The duration offered to pathos by the long take
and the video loop acts in the same way as the imposition of the pathemic
posture on the human figure: it slows things down to an almost stationary

Gillian Wearing, Drunk, three-channel video projection, black and white, with
sound, 23 minutes, 1999. In a larger-than-life projection, real drunk people stagger
and fall in a white studio. Wearing is a conceptual artist from Great Britain who
won the Turner Prize in 1997.
218 Sensations of Dysphoria in the Encounter of Failing Bodies

state, it stretches and repeats. Pathemic time bears insistence. It insists and
stares at the filmed figure and projects the viewer into a staring, attentive
position (Tremblay, 2013a).
In Karaoke, the recumbent figure of the emaciated, dying body evokes
the corpse to come as well as the image of the dead Christ lying wrapped
in his shroud. This image provokes fear of impotence and weakness and
fear of ones own death. According to art historian Aby Warburg, pathos,
by the strength of the emotions it stirs, has configured and modelled
representations throughout history. Emotions imprint matter, set it in
motion, in the emblematic sculpture of the Laocon. Warburg names this
phenomenon pathosformel, or pathos formula, an energy based on passion,
fear, and fascination that emerges not only in iconographic themes but in a
works formal and aesthetic qualities for example, in the movement of
the twists and folds of the clothes and draped fabric and in the tormented
bodies of the Laocon (Tremblay 2013a).
In the video and film works of Cumming, Wearing, and Van Sant, the
passion or fear derived from pathos does not imprint its movement on
matter as it did in the statues of antiquity, but is translated into the frozen,
fascinated gaze at the slow and repeated observation of emaciated,
failing bodies. A fascination with pathos ties the viewers gaze to this
image, as do the repetition of the looped presentation and the long take, all
of which enclose the subject in an endless temporality that could be
associated with purgatory. Repetition and the emphasis of the insistent
gaze embodied by the camera and the editing become figures of the
fascinated gaze. This slow, repetitive observation is the sign of a
temporality affected by pathos. One could say that in these time-based
artworks, Warburgs pathosformel gives shape to time rather than matter.
This shape or energy, as Warburg would put it carries the fear of
death and decay. Although, unlike the characters in Warburgs corpus of
study and the ancient portrayals, the characters depicted here are not tragic
heroes but resolutely modern anti-heroes whose fate and misfortune
provoke fascination. The meaning of their fate is not provided by a
narrative, but remains rather opaque in the long, slow observation time of
this insistent gaze.
The empathetic response engages the viewers entire body in a
relational dynamic. Empathy here is kinesthesic (through movement) and
thymic (through pain). Kinesthesic and thymic empathy trigger activity in
the areas of the viewers brain linked to the gestures, movements, and pain
that he or she witnesses. If a figure is slowly falling, the part of the
viewers brain linked to that movement reacts, just as one might yawn if
one watches a person who is yawning. As neuroscientist Tania Singer and
lne Tremblay 219

her colleagues have observed,4 empathetic reactions are produced in the

area of the brain concerned with that action but do not use all of the area,
as does the brain of the person actually performing the action. Even if
empathy unfolds, what is felt is not the same as what is observed.
Moreover, the viewer can modify (reduce) his or her reaction with
awareness.5 When experiencing fiction, the viewer perceives emotions as
true and subscribes to them through empathy, but he or she can also
remain aware that it is a work of fiction and therefore maintain distance
and the possibility of controlling his or her emotions.
Because the viewer agrees to follow the rules of fiction and to
momentarily believe the reality of his or her emotions, empathy can occur.
Fiction offers an empathetic exercise based on the suspension of disbelief.
Faced with documentary images of people in difficulty presented in the
gallery, however, one cannot avail oneself of the mediation of the actor.
Perceiving the truth of the people represented on screen, the viewer is
instead placed in the uneasy position of the voyeur. Gazing at such
documentary figures in video installations, he or she can choose either to
escape or to take on the voyeuristic role and immerse himself or herself in
its accompanying fascination and dysphoria. In either case entering the
movie theatre or the gallery the audience knows that dysphoric emotions
may be part of the viewing experience. Art and fiction generate emotions,
without calling upon the urgent and immediate obligation to act or the
threat of real situations. Both prepare people, to a certain degree, to
experience pain to themselves and others. In this expansion of viewers
emotional experience, the figure of the suffering body plays the role of a
key immediately opening the doors of empathy. Distancing strategies close
these doors slightly to render reception more bearable and reasonable. This
possibility of reasonableness in the empathic response offered by the

Our data suggest that empathizing with the pain of others does not involve the
activation of the whole pain matrix, but is based on activation of those second-
order re-representations containing the subjective affective dimension of pain.
(Singer and al. 2004, 1161.)
Consistent evidence shows that sharing the emotions of others is associated with
activation in neural structures that are also active during the first-hand experience
of that emotion. Part of the neural activation shared between self- and other-related
experiences seems to be rather automatically activated. However, recent studies
also show that empathy is a highly flexible phenomenon, and that vicarious
responses are malleable with respect to a number of factors such as contextual
appraisal, the interpersonal relationship between empathizer and other, or the
perspective adopted during observation of the other. (Singer and Lamm 2009, 81
96, 81.)
220 Sensations of Dysphoria in the Encounter of Failing Bodies

artwork promotes ethical deliberation regarding the viewers reactions vis-

-vis the pain of others.
As the viewer watches a film or video installation, the experience of
relative pain by empathy also creates displeasure reactions in his or her
brain. In these three artworks, one can observe three different kinds of
pain; first, the pain of the figure represented on screen; second, the
viewers own empathetic pain, similar to but different from the one
experienced first hand by the figure represented; third, the viewers pain of
experiencing displeasure by empathy (secondary displeasure). This
secondary displeasure is added to the dissimilar pain experienced in
empathy, as Jacques Fontanille (2007, 39, our translation) points out: It is
a question not of directly sharing the pain or pleasure of others but of
managing the indirect products of its exhibition to us, which I shall call
secondary pleasure and displeasure.
Empathy appears to be based not on altruism but on the desire to
relieve oneself of dysphoria. Reactions as diverse as looking away,
fleeing, staring, and reducing and diminishing what is perceived are
manifestations of the same process of experiencing and trying to relieve
oneself of the dysphoric sensations felt through empathy. Both the artist
filming and the viewer watching experience these reactions. In the
filmmakers case, they translate into enunciation and aesthetic strategies.
The slight distance of counter-pathos offered by Karaoke, and in a
lesser way by Last Days and Drunk, allows the artists and their audience to
create a space in which it becomes possible to manage secondary
dysphoria. In the long duration of pathemic time, the viewer becomes
attentive to his or her own empathetic responses. The distance offered by
the experience of a pathemic time doubling a pathemic representation
along with a movement against pathos, allows us to feel ourselves
feeling, as Vivian Sobchack (2004, 77) puts it, and to observe the
progress and changes in sensations and emotions from a fusional
disturbing state to a relatively more distanced, reasoned position. In these
artworks, sensations and emotions not only are part of the cognitive
experience, but become their very subject and object of examination. In
the case of the video loop in the gallery space, because viewers are free to
stay in front of the projection or leave, they can modulate the duration of
their exposure to pathos. On another level, they can try to modulate their
internal reactions to the pathos by creating emotional armour for
Unlike in Brechtian strategies, pathos here is not countered at the very
beginning, at the root, which would render the figures non-credible and the
pathos ineffective; only later on, after allowing pathos to unfold and touch
lne Tremblay 221

the viewer, do these artworks bring him or her to observe and reconsider
what has happened. Being touched and then distanced allows for cognition
with emotion and contact, away from simple cynicism and indifferent
distance. The awareness of the action of pathos and empathy in the
viewers perception is made possible first by bringing forward the body
figure and its powerful affects and then through repetition, variations, a
slow and long observation process, and ruptures of pathos with humorous
elements. Through this process, these works propose an encounter in
which the viewers empathy is revealed, tested, and becomes part of a
process of self-examination.
This experience of dysphoria and phoria, felt successively, in the
double movement toward and away from pathos observed in Karaoke
reveals ambivalence. This ambivalent position, which both binds us to and
frees us from the suffering of others represented, forms a new space for
deliberation and the negotiation of pathos along the axis of the empathetic
bond. The figure of the suffering body plays the role of an agora, a
common space, in which encounter, self-awareness, and empathy can be
tested in simulation and sensations experienced through empathy, with
their bonding role, and become the object of embodied sensitive
observation and ethical deliberation.

Deleuze, Gilles. 1989. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Didi-Huberman, Georges. 2002. Limage survivante: histoire de lart et
temps des fantmes selon Aby Warburg [The Surviving Picture:
History of Art and Time of Phantoms at Aby Warburg]. Paris: Les
ditions de Minuit.
Fontanille, Jacques. 2007. Le temps de la compassion. La diffusion
thymique et ses rgimes temporels [The Time of Compassion. The
Thymic Diffusion and its Temporal Regimes]. Le plaisir des sens.
Euphories et dysphories [The Pleasure of the Senses. Euphorias and
Dysphorias], ed. Louis Hbert, 2351. Quebec City: Les presses de
lUniversit Laval.
Hall, E. T. 1966. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Korichi, Meriam. 2000. Les passions. [The Passions] Paris: Flammarion.
Marks, Laura. U. 2000. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema,
Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham and London: Duke University
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Sobchack, Vivian. 2004. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving

Image Culture. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Singer, T. and C. Lamm. 2009. The Social Neuroscience of Empathy. In
The Year in Cognitive Neuroscience, eds. Michael B. Miller and Alan
Kingstone, vol. 1156: 8196.
Singer, T. and al. 2004. Empathy for Pain Involves the Affective but not
Sensory Components of Pain, Science, 303 (5661): 11571162.
Tremblay, lne. 2013a. Linsistance du regard sur le corps prouv.
Pathos et contre-pathos [Insistent Gaze upon the Afflicted Body:
Pathos and Counter-pathos]. Udine: Forum.
. 2013b. Le phnomne de lempathie dans lespace figural du corps
prouv [The Phenomenon of Empathy in the Figural Space of the
Afflicted Body]. In Corps et espaces [Bodies and Spaces], eds. Sabine
Kraenker and Xavier Martin. Helsinki: Les publications romanes de
luniversit dHelsinki.


When talk turns to changes in media constellations, one of the

transformations most discussed in recent decades must surely be the
omnipresence of digital media. This change has often been accompanied
by overblown rhetoric suggesting a profound break with the past. There
were voices predicting, for example, that digital images would lose all
relation to the world, and that virtual reality would become
indistinguishable from the world, or, at least, that completely new,
interactive, hypertextual, etc. aesthetic forms would emerge. And yet it has
become more apparent over the years that perhaps not everything is
changing and that perhaps many cherished aesthetic forms of
composition and narration are still with us. We can still distinguish images
which are intended to make reference to the world from those which do
not do so, or not directly; in other words, fiction is still basically
distinguishable from reality and many of the established narrative
conventions are still in use.
Instead, the question to be asked is what forms have been preserved or
changed, in what contexts, and in what way. We need to switch from
global theses to more detailed analyses illustrating continuities and
discontinuities in individual cases. I would like to demonstrate this with
the film Monsters, Inc. from Pixar (2001). This seems to me to be well-
suited as an example: firstly, it is one of those completely computer-
generated films which thus stands paradigmatically for the shift to a digital
media culture. In 1995, Pixar produced the first of these films, Toy Story,
to considerable acclaim. Secondly, however, its relative intelligibility it
is addressed to children, after all shows, prior to any theorizing, that
there are evidently no radically new patterns of narration or composition in
use here, these normally result in a deliberate reduction in intelligibility.
The film thus seems to combine discontinuity with continuity. To
investigate this, I will proceed as follows: In the first section I would like
to make a few preliminary remarks about theory and method, to form the
224 Visuality and Narration in Monsters, Inc.

basis for the following analyses. This leads to the second section, in which
I take a look at the narrative structure of Monsters, Inc., and to the third
section, which is concerned with the visual imagery of the film, and with
whether and how this relates to the narrative structure. This brings me,
finally, to the fourth section, in which I discuss the highly self-reflexive
nature of Monsters, Inc., something which seems to me to be far from
coincidental. It seems as though the film not only stands at the threshold
between traditional and new forms, but also that it draws attention to this
historical situation itself.

1. Transmedial and Transmaterial Forms

The thesis that the digital new media mark the start of a radical
revolution which, at the very least, will turn media culture inside out is
problematic because, for one thing, it assumes that forms appearing in
media can only arise from the specifics of their media. Only if this were
the case would new media more or less automatically bring forth
completely new forms. This, however, overlooks the fact that forms can
also be transmedial (cf. Schrter 2011).
This means that there are forms which appear in identifiable guise in
artefacts of varying media provenance. A relatively simple example is
central perspective, which was developed around 1425 and codified for the
first time (in mathematical terms as well) in Albertis De Pictura in 1435.
It is an optional procedure for the representation of a pictorial space,
which is available to painting, but does not necessarily have to be followed
(other cultures have favoured other procedures, e.g. parallel perspective,
see below). In technical visual media which follow geometric optics, such
as photography, film or video, this mode of representation must be
followed (borderline cases occur when certain kinds of telephoto lenses
are used). In digitally generated images, on the other hand, central
perspective is optional, since, as Friedrich Kittler (2001, 35) once put it,
computer graphics make optic modes optional at all. Central perspective
is a mode of composition found in images across different media, and can
be formally identified in a comparison of images by means of the diagonal
vanishing lines, which lead to a vanishing point. In the history of computer
graphics, incidentally, the computer scientists who developed algorithms
for representation using central perspective are known to have studied the
relevant textbooks from the Renaissance (and later) and the instructions
given there some of which were already formulated in mathematical
terms. This also shows that new media do not simply adopt older forms in
a transitional phase as is sometimes assumed in order to get close to
Jens Schrter 225

the audience. That may certainly play a part to begin with, but why should
one forego established forms later on? Would it not be nonsensical to
artificially restrict ones own creative options? And is this not even more
the case with digital technologies which by definition, due to their
programmability, have few specific forms of their own?
Another important transmedia form that can be used by very different
media is narrative structuring of audiovisual media in time. Thus, for
example, the narratologist Seymour Chatman (1981, 117, emphasis mine)
once noted: One of the most important observations to come out of
narratology is that narrative itself is a deep structure quite independent of
its medium. Admittedly this thesis has repeatedly been subjected to
critical discussion, but it does seem to have some validity at least: if it
were not so, there would be no film adaptations of literature. In section 2 I
will outline the transmedia structure of the narrative in Monsters, Inc..
Neoformalism seems a suitable theoretical framework for this; Bordwell
(1993, 51), writes, for example: As a distinction the fabula/syuzhet pair
cuts across the media. At a gross level, the same fabula could be inferred
from a novel, a film, a painting, or a play. Fabula is his expression for the
story, syuzhet his expression for the plot (more or less, in any case).
This does not mean, however, that all forms are transmedial, and
equally available to all media. Painting and drawing have always also
included modes of representation using parallel perspective, which have
no vanishing point and which are still preferred in technical drawing and
architectural drafting because they avoid changes in angle and relative
changes in length (cf. Beil/Schrter 2011). Photographic media cannot
represent such forms (they can only approximate them in the borderline
case of certain telephoto lenses), since they follow the behaviour of the
light, whether their mode of recording is chemical, electronic, analogue or
digital. Computer-generated images, on the other hand, since they can
represent anything which is computable within a reasonable time, can also
use forms based on parallel perspective. This means that it is necessary to
analyse precisely, in each specific case, which forms have been connected
with which other forms and in what way and to which media these forms
are available or unavailable.
There is, however, another point which must be considered when it
comes to digitally generated images: insofar as such images are based on
processes of computer simulation, they are not only able to pick up forms
which are already transmedial anyway; they can also, partially and
approximately, treat as form that element which has been considered, in
the analogue media, as the other side of form, i.e. the materiality of the
226 Visuality and Narration in Monsters, Inc.

What is computer simulation? On the basis of collected or sampled

data of various kinds it is possible to derive rules for or at least regularities
in the behaviour of an object or process, a theory (base model). The base
model is then translated into a computer-executable formalized model
(lumped model). This formalized model must then be validated by
aligning it with experimental data. Such procedures have been and are
used for climate models, for example, or for other scientific prognoses (see
Raser 1972). Now it is also possible to simulate other technological media.
There are many examples of this, e.g. computer-graphic photorealism.
Photorealism is simulation, because the qualities (particular features) of
photographic media are measured and the computer models are based on
these data. A simulated or virtual camera is a real camera which, in
accordance with the available data, can be brought ever closer to its
material prototype (if this is what is desired). This virtual camera is now
used to take a virtual photograph of a virtual object field, which is lit by a
virtual source of light. With regard to their visual appearance, images
generated in this manner follow, insofar as this is desired and computable,
the fundamental characteristics of chemical photography: firstly the wealth
of unintended details. Secondly, the effects caused by the camera optics
must be mentioned. Computer-generated images could also obey other
logics of projection, but if they are intended to be photorealistic they
follow the linear or central perspective-based structure passed down
through photography and film. Thirdly, the aim is to model the qualities of
the photographic emulsion itself, e.g. the grainy structure of the image,
particularly in enlargements or very light-sensitive films (cf. Schrter
2003). Insofar as computer simulation can itself partially and
approximately transform the materiality of analogue media into forms, I
would speak here of transmaterial in contradistinction to: transmedial
forms. Such forms are new, quite simply because the medium/form
difference of the analogue media becomes a form itself in the medium of
the digital. They are different from transmedial forms: transmedial forms
point to no specific medium; transmaterial forms point to a media-specific
materiality, albeit in a different medial context. So what is the situation
with transmedial and transmaterial forms in Monsters, Inc., a computer-
simulated film?

2. Transmedial Narrative in Monsters, Inc.

If we first consider the transmedia structure of Monsters, Inc. on the
level of the audiovisual narration, we can note to preview the results
that the film follows the classical Hollywood mode of narration as
Jens Schrter 227

described by Bordwell, Thompson et al. for Hollywood cinema from about

1917. This applies to the movements of the virtual camera, which could of
course fly around at will: Craig Good (quoted in Siebert 2005, 182),
responsible for the post-production of Toy Story, commented: We wanted
the audience to respond to traditional dolly and crane movements, not to
make them dizzy. There has clearly been a process of transfer of
established forms into the aesthetics of digital media. The narrative
structure of Monsters, Inc. cannot be analysed in detail here. A few remarks
must suffice.
Bordwell (1986, 18) writes: The classical Hollywood film presents
psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut
problem or to attain specific goals. Clearly this also applies to Monsters,
Inc. There is no indistinct blurring of objectivity and subjectivity, as in
many forms of what Bordwell (1993, chapter 10) refers to as the art
cinema mode of narration. Instead, a clear situation is established at the
outset: Sulley and Mike work at the company Monsters, Inc., after which
the film is named, and are depicted as successful and, in this sense, career-
oriented monsters; a subtle rendering of their facial expressions shows a
psychological inner life which, for example, clearly associates success
with enjoyment. And then, with the accidental entry of the small child
(Boo) into the monsters world, a problem arises which upsets the stable
situation. For the remainder of the film Sulley and Mike try to solve the
problem, i.e. to return Boo to her world, facing various complications on
the way. And in the end, they succeed. The whole construction of the film
serves to build up the causal steps of this chain of action as clearly and
unambiguously as possible. Bordwell (1986, 27, 28): Most explicitly
codified into rules is the system of classical continuity editing. The
reliance upon an axis of action orients the spectator to the space and:
Most Hollywood scenes begin with establishing shots, break the space
into closer views linked by eyeline-matches. This classic structure can be
found in precisely this form in Monsters, Inc.
I will analyse one sequence. Before beginning their work at Monsters,
Inc., Sulley, the furry monster and Mike, his round, green friend, get ready
in a sort of changing room: [Fig. 1] 1st shot: establishing shot, the space is
established, along with a line of sight (eyeline match) between Mike and
Sulley; [Fig. 2] 2nd shot: the antagonist, Randall, is introduced, a new line
of sight is created between him and Mike; Mike gets a fright and jumps
over the bench to Sulleys side (incidentally, the psychological depiction
of the characters can be studied particularly well by watching Mikes face
here), the eyeline match remains in place, however; [Fig. 36] 3rd to 6th
shots: a classic sequence of shot/reverse shot begins here, whereby the
228 Visuality and Narration in Monsters, Inc.

virtual camera always remains on this side of the eyeline, i.e. it observes
the 180 degree rule; [Fig. 7] 7th shot: there is another long shot which
makes the spatial configuration absolutely clear again. In short: the
construction of the space is completely focused on consistency. The space
is intended to be the stable background for the development of the causal
chains of action by the protagonists and antagonists, and is not supposed to
confuse matters by intervening itself. This is typical of the classic
Hollywood film. Deviations from this, such as a conspicuously tilted line
of sight [Fig. 8], are only permissible because this is a still from a hectic
chase situation, Bordwell (1986, 27): Stylistic disorientation, in short, is
permissible when it conveys disorienting story situations.
In short: the film confirms the assertion that classical narration
quickly cues us to construct story logic (causality, parallelisms), time, and
space in ways that make the events before the camera our principal
source of information (Bordwell 1986, 24). But: in a computer-generated
film there actually is no before the camera (unless we count the virtual
space in front of the virtual camera, but thats quite metaphorically). It
is significant that, during the closing credits of the film, (very amusing)
bloopers are shown, constructing pre-film events with an ironic wink:
the clapper board, a microphone in the picture, and finally an out-of-
control machine which knocks over the camera. Here Monsters, Inc. is
of course ironizing its own mode of narration (and its production
culture, cf. Caldwell 2008) in one of the blooper scenes a monster
botches a dialogue, and is berated by his monster colleague: Youre
messin up this scene, were never gonna work in Hollywood again.
Precisely: classical Hollywood narration. In short, Monsters, Inc., although
completely digitally simulated, follows this classic narrative tradition.

3. Transmaterial Visual Imagery in Monsters, Inc.

The discontinuities must therefore lie on a different level. The obvious
aspect is the visual imagery, the look of Monsters, Inc. [Fig. 9] is still
organized using central perspective. Now computer graphics do not have
to have central perspective, of course; unlike photographic media, the
choice of central perspective in computer graphics is always a conscious
stylistic decision, and here, or course, its purpose is to make the cartoon
image seem photorealistic at the same time. The reference to the
simulation of photography is obvious in many respects: for example when
Sulley observes Randall pursuing his machinations from under a table, and
the table legs and edges in the foreground are out of focus [Fig. 10]; or the
other way around, when the background is out of focus [Fig. 11]. In
Jens Schrter 229

photographic optics (be it photography, film, or analogue, or digital video)

such varying levels of focus are part of the dispositif; in simulated images,
on the other hand, they have to be wanted and brought about deliberately,
e.g. in order to achieve a photorealistic effect. Fig. 11 also shows another
typical way of getting closer to the visual imagery of photography,
marking a considerable difference from many cartoon styles that is, the
numerous apparently random surface details. It is hardly necessary to point
out that the photographic monocular is evoked even in the logo of
Monsters, Inc., which is also one-eyed [Fig. 12]. This is taken to extremes
and here the meaning of the term transmateriality becomes particularly
clear when even faults in photographic optics are simulated, such as in
Fig. 13, we see lens flares, which occur when shooting into the light with
an optical lens system. But there is no material lens system in a simulated
film. This effect is deliberately built in to reinforce the photographic
appearance of the picture. (As an aside: there are programmes specially
designed just to create such effects). So the point is: faults which result
from the material specifics of media technologies behind the
transmedial forms become transmaterial forms themselves. Here we have
the faults in photographic optics which are transferred into a completely
different context, in this case the cartoon. For the visual imagery of
Monsters, Inc. is not simply photorealistic: on the contrary, the film links
photographic with cartoonish visual imagery, as can be seen in, amongst
other things, the extreme colourfulness, especially of the shadows, see Fig.
12. This role of drawing and painting, the tradition to which cartoons and
animation belong, is thematized intradiegetically at various points in the
film, for example when the childish drawings produced by Boo point
directly to the potential of non-photorealistic rendering (cf.
Strothotte/Schlechtweg 2002, see Fig. 14). This hybrid form of image is
the actual new visual/aesthetic achievement of the Pixar films (I exclude a
few marginal predecessors in computer graphics research).1
Above and beyond this and the significance of this element should
not be underestimated a further aspect plays a part in the visual imagery
of these films and thus also that of Monsters, Inc.. Pixar, the firm behind
Monsters, Inc., was substantially built up with money from Steve Jobs,
and does not only make money with films. Since 1989 it has also been

Non-photorealistic rendering is especially interesting, since Kittlers (2001, 35)
famous claim that computer graphics make optic modes optional at all does not
cover drawn or painted pictures insofar as they use conventions of representation
(e.g. parallel perspective) that are not a form of optics be it an optics describing
the behavior of light (geometrical or wave optics) or an optics describing the
behavior of human sense perception (physiological optics).
230 Visuality and Narration in Monsters, Inc.

selling software, PhotoRealisticRenderMan, based on the RenderMan

standard. Pixar also defines the cutting edge of the computer graphics
industry standard.2 Seen in this light, the films are also advertising for the
graphic achievements of Pixar. The technical state of play definitely
determines the choice of subject of the films. Hence Friedrich Kittler
(2001, 36) noted in 1998 Not coincidentally, computer generated films
like Jurassic Park do not even attempt to compete with the fur coats [!] in
Hans Holbeins The Ambassadors; they content themselves with armored
and thus optically unadorned dinosaurs. But in Monsters, Inc. it was the
rendering of fur and hair which was foregrounded, precisely because it had
previously been difficult to simulate such complex structures
convincingly.3 This is the reason for the narrative digression of Mike and
Sulleys banishment to the Himalayas: when Sulley attempts to reach a
nearby village he falls from the sled and lies in the snow, and his fur is
blown about by the harsh wind and gradually covered by snowflakes. This
scene demonstrates what was then the state of the art in the simulation of
moving fur-like surfaces.
Knowledge of this function of the Pixar films can in itself become an
attraction for viewers. Thus neo-formalist film theoretician Kristin
Thompson commented: For me, part of the fun of watching a Pixars film
is to try and figure out what technical challenge the filmmakers have set
themselves this time. Every film pushes the limits of computer animation
in one major area, so that the studio has been perpetually on the cutting
edge.4 Certain elements of the film, then, are not simply subordinated to
the narrative process. The lens flares, for example, have no function in the
development of the causal chain, nor does Sulleys elaborate fur;
furthermore, this in the words of David Bordwell could at best be
transtextually motivated, as something borrowed from a knowledge of the
design of monster films. But they represent elements which can be
understood in Kristin Thompsons terms as excess, or in Bordwells terms
as purely artistically motivated (Thompson 1986; Bordwell 1993, 36,
53, 164 and passim). These are elements which display their own
fabricated nature and thus form a discourse about the state of development
of the computer image, over and above the narrative. In this respect the
new visual imagery of the Pixar films does in fact change the narrative.
Although the narrative largely conforms to the classical Hollywood mode

See: http://renderman.pixar.com/view/renderman (Last accessed 22. 08. 2012).
See: http://renderman.pixar.com/products/whats_renderman/4.html (Last
accessed 22. 10. 2014).
See: http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2006/10/08/reflections-on-cars/ (Last
accessed 22. 10. 2014).
Jens Schrter 231

of narration, it is to use another term of Bordwells (1993, 58, 59)

more self-conscious or self-referential, since it does not merely
conceal itself in order to seamlessly convey the story/fabula/information,
as is usually the case in this mode of narration. Attention is increasingly
focused on its own fabricated nature, to the point where one wonders
whether the films subject was chosen as a showcase for a specific new
accomplishment of simulated visual imagery.

Figures 115. Monsters Inc. (2001)

232 Visuality and Narration in Monsters, Inc.
Jens Schrter 233

The various processes of transfer, on the one hand, of the form of

photography into the digital image, and on the other hand, of the form of
classical narration into the arrangement of the digital images and sounds,
therefore interfere with one another. That also means: different methods
and theories have to be combined, here: media archaeology (Kittler) to
explain the synthetic image and neo-formalist film theory (Bordwell,
Thompson) to explain the narrative structure.

4. On the Reflexivity of Monsters, Inc.

The increased self-referentiality or self-consciousness of the narrative,
which arises from its interference with the hybrid visual imagery (and the
discourses surrounding this) in Pixar films and in particular in Monsters,
Inc., reveals itself in the many self-reflexive references, some of which
have already been mentioned. There are many more levels and ways in
which the film is reflexive. Thus in Film Theory. An Introduction through
the Senses Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener (2010, 170187)
explicitly pointed out the role of the doors through which the monsters can
enter the childrens world in order to frighten them. This evokes
discourses about the portal to another world which have, since the
1990s, referred directly to cyberspace and virtual reality (see Schrter
2004, 227). Furthermore, Monsters, Inc. i.e. the company our monsters
234 Visuality and Narration in Monsters, Inc.

work for is an industry for the production of terror and (at the end of the
film) laughter, so in this sense it is a reflection of the production of affect
by the film industry. All that can be added to this precise analysis is that
the motif of the door later expands into a massive archive of doors, a
database; this in turn, to paraphrase Lev Manovich, introduces a new
theme to the digital film: the logic of the database, which is typical of the
new media (see Manovich 2001, 212). Furthermore, in the chase at the end
of the film the doors function, as it were, as shortcuts through the diegetic
space, which is at the same time global space, and allow a sort of montage
within the image, which in turn displaces and reflects the forms of spatial
construction in classical Hollywood cinema. The motif of the door would
be worthy of a more detailed commentary.
I would like to finish, however, by discussing something much more
straightforward. Monsters, Inc. begins in a simulator. The sequence is
established with sounds off-camera, indicating that parents have put their
child to bed; in the establishing shot (which is in fact the third shot) we see
the child sleeping. The door that portal to the monsters world opens.
A monster has entered. It rears up to frighten the child, the child screams,
and what happens? The monster gets the most dreadful fright itself, trips
over a football, hurts itself: in short, messes everything up. Then the light
goes on. A technical voice off-camera repeats again and again:
Simulation terminated, and we learn that the child was only a machine.
And in a further doubling of the theme of the door to another world, one
wall of the apparent childs bedroom slides up and we see the trainer as
she tries to explain to the monster-in-training (and to the other monster
trainees who are watching) what he has done wrong, in the first instance,
this is an allusion to the diegetic 4th wall. More important still: it is a
simulator, just like those flight simulators which, in some respects at least,
stood at the beginning of the development of certain forms of
photorealistic computer graphics (see Schrter 2003). And one of the
reasons why the simulator is established here is because it appears again
later on. Sulley and Boo, on the run from the evil boss of the company
the classical evil capitalist of Hollywood cinema, later to be replaced by
Sulley as the good capitalist have apparently fled through a door into a
childs bedroom. The evil boss, who is also behind Randalls machinations,
wants to get hold of Boo, but when he reaches out to seize her from the
bed, it turns out that they are in the simulator. The evil boss is utterly
confused. But that is not important any more, because he has just revealed
his sinister plans to Sulley while in the simulator, thinking it was a childs
bedroom. However, Mike was controlling the simulator, and has recorded
the bosss crucial confession on a sort of video tape. This representation
Jens Schrter 235

not only reflects back to another pre-digital visual form, in that the
interlace lines are part of the simulation [Fig. 15]. More importantly, a
turning point in the narrative is explicitly connected with the theme of
simulation here. Here the interference between the narrative and the
simulative visual imagery in Monsters, Inc. is itself thematized

5. Very Brief Conclusion

I would like to come to a very brief conclusion. My analysis has
attempted to identify two different processes of transfer in Monsters, Inc.
in the narrative and in the visual imagery which interfere with one
another and thus represent a complex reaction to the changing media
constellation as it shifts towards digital media. In Monsters, Inc. one can
clearly see that media change does not of course lead to completely
new forms, but that old and new processes and forms appear in new
constellations. And this necessitates perhaps unexpected constellations of
methods e.g. combining media archaeology (Kittler), production studies
(Caldwell) and neo-formalism (Bordwell). Pixar films seem a worthwhile
object for an interdisciplinary dialogue about intermedial processes within
the changing media. Is it a coincidence that a sequel to Monsters, Inc.
came to the cinemas in 2013, with the title Monsters University?

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digitalen Bild [The Parallel Perspective in Digital Images]. Zeitschrift
fr Medienwissenschaft No. 4: 127138.
Bordwell, David. 1986. Classical Hollywood Cinema. Narrational
Principles and Procedures. In: Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Phil
Rosen, 1734. New York: Columbia University Press.
. 1993. Narration in the Fiction Film. London: Routledge.
Caldwell, John. 2008. Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and
Critical Practice in Film and Television. Durham/NC: Duke
University Press.
Chatman, Seymour. 1981. What Novels Can Do That Films Cant (and
Vice Versa). In On Narrative, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell, 117136.
Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press.
Elsaesser, Thomas/Hagener, Malte. 2010. Film Theory. An Introduction
Through the Senses. New York: Routledge.
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Kittler, Friedrich. 2001. Computer Graphics. A Semi-Technical Introduction.

Grey Room No. 2 (Winter): 3045.
Manovich, Lev. 2001. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press.
Raser, John. 1972. Simulation and Society. An Exploration of Scientific
Gaming. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Schrter, Jens. 2003. Virtuelle Kamera. Zum Fortbestand fotografischer
Medien in computergenerierten Bildern [Virtual Camera. About the
Survival of Photographic Media in Computer Imagery]. Fotogeschichte
Vol. 23 No. 88: 316.
. 2004. Das Netz und die Virtuelle Realitt. Zur Selbstprogrammierung
der Gesellschaft durch die universelle Maschine [The Net and Virtual
Reality. Societys Self-Programming through the Universal Machine].
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(September). http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol13/iss3/. (Last
accessed 22. 08. 2012.)
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Zeichentrickfilm [Flexible Figures. Media-reflexive Comic Effects in
Cartoons]. Bielefeld: Transcript.
Strothotte, Thomas and Stefan Schlechtweg. 2002. Non-photorealistic
Computer Graphics: Modeling, Rendering, and Animation. San
Francisco, CA: Morgan Kaufmann.
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Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Phil Rosen, 130142. New York:
Columbia University Press.


Beyond the Ideological Content: On Form as Ideology

Concerning James Camerons Avatar (2009), the polemical reading of
the title of this paper (indicated by the adverb vs) is disputing and
denying from the outset the 3D numerical pretention to graphically render
the unaccountable wholeness of real space. In fact, Merleau-Pontys
single whole dimension that he calls profondeur (Merleau-Ponty 1960),
corresponding not to a spectatorial subject/object external interface, but to
the always-already structure of being-in-the-world, is not gradually
gathered together by adding yet another dimension (or by explicitly
featuring the visual effect of illusory depth created by an adequate 2D
perspectivism), and three-dimensional could be the kind of space cube
displayed in front of me in the movie theatre, but not the space where I
am. Indeed, 3D is not just a somewhat misleading banner summarizing a
complex cinematic processing of digital HDI, motion & performance capture
techniques (and stage significantly called The Volume) and digital 3D
Cameron/Pace Fusion Camera System, but actually a perfectly accurate
fetish formula focusing on the central visual and symbolic issue of the film
(3D space functioning as our avatar into Pandoras world with as much
success as Jakes into becoming a real Navi) and marketing for a
technical exploit meant to ideologically capture in advance also the
audiences willingness to be a part of it namely, of a prodigious
stereometric space both (contradictorily) exhibiting itself as such (as
stereometric, not as real) before my eyes and involving (yet without
actually embracing) me in it when its irresistibly high reality rate
supposedly dissolves itself into reality proper.
What I am implying here is that the acclaimed unprecedented
realistic-immersive qualities of 3D are mostly a matter of an enticing
promotion discourse turning into a generalized public clich only to be
then naively reaffirmed by the single spectator at speech level without any
238 Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion

real grounding in actual filmic experience; in fact, in overt contradiction

with it, and utterly equivocated about the nature of filmic space and film
3D is thus not the label for a more subtle set of phenomena, but an
adequate description of the bulk of the commodity were being (extra-)
charged for. It works as an ideological device, summoning us up to
identify and to partake of a glorious new-age, transcultural, deep
ecological, neuro-spiritual, posthuman journey of (and the unavoidable
battle for) rebirth of ourselves as expanded 3D Navi-like spectators, while
grossly omitting the (falsely) advertised means to accomplish the assigned
mission; moreover, this very medium interposing itself self-obstructively
as the main obstacle leading to failure. Its full ideological depth reveals
itself, however, in the fact that this failure remains unacknowledged and is
even substituted by a verbal claim of success.
A similar (and parallel) disavowal takes place at the level of content:
namely, the refusal to acknowledge the racist undercurrent of the White
Messiah fable pointed out both by David Brooks and Slavoj iek at
the heart of the apparently irreproachable eco-ethno-political agenda of
Camerons blockbuster, as well as its collusion with a general military-
industrial-entertainment complex expressing the white/human supremacy
status equalling the military, the movie-making, the scientific, and the
heroic-messianic vehicles and attitudes according to the analyses of
iek and Thomas Elsaesser, here broadly referred to without entering in
further details. My thesis is that the unconscious semantic core of the film
consists of the magical interconfirmation, taking place between the form
and the content levels (and suggesting a magical equivalence between the
fictional technology the avatar device and the technology of fiction
the 3D device), of the same basic impulse of becoming the very substance
of fantasy: Jake Sully, transporting himself into his vehicle, until
ultimately becoming it, through the canonical phases of incarnation, death,
and resurrection (post-technologically Christianizing its Hindu matrix, and
thus indulging in a full New Age cinematic boasting); us, being
transported by the corporification of space layers and boxes until
ultimately vanishing into the fiction of a 3D reality (which coincides with
the far distant, yet so eminently reachable, world of Pandora thus
inverting the relation that for Benjamin defines the aura).
The self-denying character of these twin moves is already inscribed
into their very constitution: because Jake becomes one of them, his
(human, all too human) role as the central hero and the destined savior
tends to go unnoticed both to the average Western moviegoer and,
according to iek and Elsaesser, to a wealth of anti-capitalist fighters
Jos Manuel Martins 239

spanning from President Evo Morales to the Dongria Kondh people in

India or the Palestinians, in no way bothered to identify themselves with
the sage primitivism of these much too Hollywoodesque constructed
Navi. And if, according to Elsaesser, Camerons and Hollywoods new
film game does consist of allegorically self-reflecting its own several and
contradictory conditions of possibility, using a shrewdly balanced double-
bind control in order to surmount sheer contradiction, then, the result is not
merely [] a reflexive doubled parable of the communication circuit that
Hollywood seeks with its global audiences, where a studios films are its
avatars, leading spectators while ideologically seeming to act on their
behalf (Elsaesser 2011). As Elsaesser himself recognizes, Hollywood
does not try for a moment to conceal that it is making good use of its most
vernacular recipes to enlist worldwide potentially hostile audiences: but by
honestly staging (in order to not having to show) this very circuit of
idealized native people and ethnocentric/anthropocentric narrative
leadership, the industry manages to keep the whole operation unknown
to its subjects, in a sort of magic circuit between film as myth and film as
rite: we (mythically) identify with the Navi in the film because we have
already accepted to be structurally identified by the film ritual as its Navi
(by merely massively assembling to watch it), and we accept it so that we
may go to Pandora (through the 3D amazing star gate, in itself another
Hero a Hero of geometry) and identify with them following the
leader, the white hero made blue and thus apparently redeeming himself
from his intrusive redemptive quality in the very moment of its
superhuman (or humanly transhuman) consummation. What is more
human, nowadays, more Deleuzian and delightfully no-longer-merely-
human, than becoming the Other? Hollywood knows this better than its
enemies do.
I am arguing here that the secret core that warrants the success of the
double-bind operation Elsaesser is pointing out, lies in fact at a deeper
formal level: if it is the blue tribe that captures the political identification
drive of the colonized peoples on Earth watching this soft-toxic
Hollywood product, their empowerment fantasy directly originates in the
partaking of the thrilling 3D joint venture (a simple 2D identification not
being sufficient to ensure the very particular sort of heightened cult an Evo
Morales or the Dongria Kondh were expressing, facing a unique object:
something special must have occurred at the same time, different from
some sort of a newly enhanced and fully consequent Dances With Wolves:
and that is not the simple Navi saga, but the immediately materialized
saga of a 3D Navi and a 3D Pandora). But since McLuhan we have been
well aware of how much form and medium are the primary message and
240 Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion

entail their own semantic content: namely, 3D as an escaping vehicle into

the fantasy-world of a non-human tribe. Human tribes, as human, will feel
attracted both by the non-human character of the Navi and by their
humanizing and modelling role; at the same time, they will strongly
surmise the central place they now find themselves occupying in the
dialectical redefinition of humanness and humanity by its internal and
external Others, whereby they both internally redefine the dominant white
paradigm and expose themselves to the appeal of being externally
redefined in their anthropocentrism by the archetypal fantasy of another
Mankind (to which the shared condition of banishment renders them all
the more sensitive).
In other words, the Palestinians etc. can in the first place afford to
identify themselves with the Navi thanks to the formal 3D empowerment,
but this will in turn be the cause of an overidentification with a cosmic
fantasy which will again dissolve its critical function as a role model.
Through the corruptive overempowerment contained within the
empowerment, Hollywood ultimately wins back the Western
technological will to power the very populations it seemed to be instigating
to rebel against it. Insidiously establishing the primary identification not
with the represented Navi, but with the human and white representation
apparatus ultimately mobilised to actually produce them, Cameron is
urging his riotous tribes/target audiences to engage primarily with the
cinematic machine that creates the spectacular simulacrum of reality (the
3D fake-hyperreal) and through it with what remains of the blue tribe as its
by-product (the bon sauvage Western fiction generating here a second
degree filmic avatar), candidly advertising in the very title of the film that
its deal is with all sorts of avatars i.e., with human-technologically
produced legitimate Navi as well as with humanly produced dream-
work sci-fi Navi fables, offered by Hollywoods agenda to its obedient
consumers. The transference of the empowerment focus from content to
form, from the blue tribe to the exhilarating 3D human power over reality
(technically reproducible as it is the case with any simple Navi) entails
the voiding of the Navi substance, in fact turning the film into a gigantic
insufflation of the avatar device proper to a Western fabrication of dreams
to be sold to the world, at a gambits cost. The piece is exchanged for a
better position on the worlds chessboard: the Navi pawns are offered as
allies to the worlds tribes in order to secure to the West the
transcendental domain over the territory, wherein the Pandora inmates
have been constructed from the outset as the vanishing puppets they in fact
turn out to be (self-reflectively, the in-universe mirrors the cinematic
contrivance that produced the Navi entity as such out of a skinny
Jos Manuel Martins 241

digitalization of optical effects, so that all the Navi are indeed genuine
avatars and, their blue colour, a mere white projection. The cutting-edge
technology actually used to produce the film parallels the one displayed in
its fictional universe, and Sam Worthington animates from within his
filmic avatar much in the same way Jake Sully dresses his, in either case
feeling or acting through another body).
The fundamental mechanism of meaning developing in Avatar could
be outlined as follows:

1. Form (the 3D displaying) deeply symbolizes and performs content,

providing our real selves with a powerful avatar to enter the filmic realm;
conversely, narrative meaning (Jake Sullys half and full avatar
transferences) illuminates back the ultimate sense of its formal, meta-
narrative framing;
2. The unobtainium deadlock (the name of the material being mined
in Pandora and a term designating a perfect theoretical solution impossible
to apply) notoriously affecting the results at both the formal and the
material levels of the film (which, like the military-industrial corporation
mining in Pandora, is trying to obtain unobtainium to the industrial-
entertainment corporation of movie-making in an era of audience crisis)
remains persistently denied in the ideological consciousness of the public:
the obvious shortcomings and countereffects of the celebrated 3D upgrade
in conveying the fusion of real and fictional spaces are replaced by the
affirmativity of a self-fulfilling discourse about (hyper)reality-like immersive
experience; and, on the other hand, the global Navi cult from the part of
indistinctly Western and non-Western, American, non-American, and anti-
American publics masks the obvious technological construction and digital
forging, and the ethno-culturally and ideologically aberrant idealized
projection of this recycled Pocahontas, extra-planetarian tribe of most
excellent deep-ecological, postmodern tree-webbed savages. These are the
product of a profoundly ethnocentric, patronizing (mis)representation of
the Other (hence, so utterly, and yet canonically Other; which is also, in
patent cognitive dissonance, the strict opposite to the technological culture
which thus invents its cinematic pre-industrial, untouched profile);
3. Far from being the effect of some misinterpretation from our part,
this is a two-levelled delusion system originally embedded in the very
structure of the film. Does it work similarly in the 2D and the 3D
versions? Is the 3D actual perceptual effect and conceptual fetish
responsible for a radical reinforcement of our ethno-political empathy with
the Navis way of life, strong enough to make us disregard the ideological
outrage encapsulated therein? In the face of the massive box office world
242 Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion

record, the answer is yes, and the answer includes not only our
sympathetic condescendence of Occidentals, but also the more odd
manifestations of identification with the Alpha Centauri blue tribe on the
part of other more earthly tribes in our planet, out of an acknowledged
affinity, as described by Elsaesser. The first case could be explained in
terms of an incomplete critical stand as regards the unconscious
pervasiveness of ideology, failing to recognize the traditional ethnocentric
representation of the Other as a subsidiary partner of the white male
protagonist; while embracing the right cause at a superficial political level,
and thus failing to perceive that everybody and everything in the film
behaves according to the same invasive, avataresque pattern adopted by
the quintessential villain Colonel Quaritch, alias the Capitalist military-
industrial complex in person from the troops to the scientists
(respectively strip-mining and data-mining the planet [in Elsaessers
terms], not in opposition to each other but in a complementary, symbiotic
relation), from the redemptive hero to Camerons redemptive gesture
towards the movies historical crisis through the avatar/3D reciprocal
devices. In this case, ideology comes out not diminished, but reinforced
through this simulation of a progressive view, a mere gambit to keep its
true basis intact.1

And, as inevitably as with any other big, big production lets peep into this
page of the directors signed confession: Q. Have you gotten any criticism that the
film might be perceived as anti-American?
A. Its something that Ive anticipated the possibility of because people will
misinterpret things in certain ways. You can almost count on people
misinterpreting things. The film is definitely not anti-American. Its not anti-
human either. My perception of the film is that the Navi represent that sort of
aspirational part of ourselves that wants to be better, that wants to respect nature.
(Murphy 2009.) Q.e.d. Of course the film is not and could not be anti-American, of
course it had to be interpreted as politically correct (that is, as anti-American), of
course audiences are worldwide anti-American, of course the film subministers to
them the American way of being so (the poison and the antidote): namely by
crossing (literally: thats what the avatar fetiche is all about) the cult of our
paraplegic (anti-)hero and the cult of the Other (as a part of ourselves, of
course). And, of course, whos against nature? Unfortunately, the film is not about
respecting nature, but about the myth of respecting nature: it is about History.
Nature is the bait. Anticipating and accomodating opposed views under one single
perspective has been the politics of Western painting since the Renaissance. 3D
geometry goes one step further in this direction: hypercubic space is keen on
integrating overt contradiction. Access for all means that ideology no longer
veils: it complexifies.
Jos Manuel Martins 243

The second case is trickier: why the Heaven would young Palestinians
[] begin to dress up like the blue creatures, in order to protest?
(Elsaesser 2011.) Certainly not because they are young, besides being
Palestinians, nor while waiting for a Jewish Messiah who would convert to
their cause and spirit, fight back his own evil government and marry their
beauty queen (and without whom, according to the myth, the Palestinian
tribe will be unable, by its own efforts alone, to overcome servitude
liberation thus amounting, symbolically, to an implicit confession and
acceptance of minority status and ultimate mythical dependency), but due
to a reason also operating in the previous case, a reason that appears here
in reverse form: the 3D factor.
Our (and, for that matter, the Palestinians, etc.) first allegiance is to
the 3D myth (even before the identification with the blue tribe/white
saviour one). The greedy dominance of this vantage point takes possession
of filmic space like any other techno-industrial conqueror of foreign
territory: it relays to us (the conquered conquerors) the secret pleasure felt
in disposing of (and apparently magnifying, enhancing, and paying
homage to) the space of Pandoras seven wonders. Ours is Quaritchs and
Camerons will to power (and Sullys power to will). We are empowered,
all right: in our case, through this empowerment we identify with
ourselves; the Palestinians seemingly identify with the aggressor, whose
power they (being only too human, not enlightened Navi) secretly admire
and overtly envy: power over reality and power over nature, in the first
place: human power.
This primordial identification, prior to any other, provides the
regressive Procusts bed to any subsequent progressive identification: the
identification with the power over space is the a priori to any
identification with the space of things itself with territories, habitats,
places, planets; the identification with the power over nature (its not just
the same old boring nature, now, its a 3D brand new nature, in fact a
genuine hyperreal upgrade); the identification with the power over the
Navi (exerted by us, empowered occidental Navi, or by them,
empowered Indians, Chinese, or Aboriginal Navi) gives us (them) the
confidence to identify with their/our plea for freedom and dignity, and
with a common aspiration to sublime wisdom.
The question remains, though, whether there is a real power to rely
upon, or merely the phantomatic will to do it, the self-delusional
ideological concept of what 3D space is meant to be and would in fact
consist of were it not the formula for a typical nonobtainium (the
Camerons cousin of Hitchcocks MacGuffin), something that would be
perfect only if it would exist; or rather: only if it could be real, in the
244 Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion

strong sense: if reality could really be like that. But real space is not 3D
nor even three-dimensional. Notwithstanding a choir of appraisals, where
we can surprisingly meet the voice of an authority such as Thomas
Elsaesser, what a rough phenomenological description of standard 3D
space would point out is that such a forcible construct would hardly be
able to involve me, to invade my body (Elsaesser 2011) and to provoke
an exquisite immersive experience: in fact, it begins and ends quite
graphically in front of me, keeping folding and unfolding its stereoscopic
layers and boxes at variable telescopic distance rates and inscribing itself
as an object (as a reified ostensive dimension) within my space, which it
partially overlaps and with which it disputes and divides scope and range,
the physical real space of the movie theatre where I am. Unlike the
invisible, non-thematic pure dimension which space is, 3D displays itself
as a limited frontal object-space I almost could touch as a soap bubble or a
visual toy, but could certainly not merge with (if for no other reason,
because of its telescopic instability, a sort of virtuoso peacock fan-tail an
instability not just due to the humorous choices of the Stereographer
concerning the Convergence Control, the amount of 3D in any given
shot, but due to the objective Depth Budget, the budgetary estimate
established beforehand for the whole production). 3D delineates and draws
itself as a self-represented space of strengthened iconic spatiality: a lethal
overdose of artificialism (space, plus notorious spatiality indexes) that
destroys any hope for reality.
But the last thing the moviegoer longs for is precisely that some kind
of technically improved cinema will come to match reality and the sense
of reality. And here we come upon the crucial point at the opening of the
whole discussion. The two related aspects generally stressed by 3D
devotees are barely compatible: namely, 3Ds ability to transpose the
spectator inside the palpable film reality, the dream of entering and
physically belonging to this new kind of proliferous onscreen/around the
screen image; and the ability to convert that reality (specifically the
filmic sense of reality/space/realm/world) into a real sense of reality
assuming 3D spatial architecture to qualitatively coincide with it, and
expecting the Negative Parallax effect (the invasion of real space by a
protruding fictional filmic 3D space) to ensure the connective overlap that
will allow us to trespass the films forbidden threshold while at the same
time accessing a realm of fully established real, solid 3D space; the
proof of its genuineness consisting of its materializing all over the place
alongside the very extension of perpendicular space available before me
over the front rows of the movie theatre, where there is plenty of room just
Jos Manuel Martins 245

waiting to be filled by this sheer filmic flood, floating in a sort of

ectoplasmic ecstasy up to my nose.

Van Gogh as a Chinese Painter, or Kurosawa

as a Phenomenologist: the Meeting Point of East and West
The paradox of a geometrically constructed space of representation
apparently aiming at the utmost realistic fidelity to the objective reality of
the world, but in fact overrepresenting it by submitting the object to the
constitutive powers of the subject and thus substituting a worldview for
the world and the domain of the subject for the realm of the objects, is
nothing new in History; in fact it corresponds (as symbolical form, in
Panofskys sense) to the founding gesture of Modernity, the invention of
perspective in Renaissance oil painting. To accurately reproduce the most
perfect likeness to the visible and to its objects actually means, and
implies, reconstructing them within the framework of a forged representational
device the visual pyramid, in whose dimensional terms they are then
presented as stabilized projections, rather than as they manifest themselves
in actual perception: the digitally generated world of Pandora, projected
onto the naked walls of the performance-capture stage, and the avatar of
the avatar provided by the e-motion capture system, are but the last step
in a long lineage of this re-foundation of (technologically controlled and
dominated) reality by the modern Cartesian and Kantian Subject. The
Dongria Kondh just fail to acknowledge the Copernican revolution taking
place in (and as) Avatar, the transcendental determination of the Navi by
Hollywood, of the thing represented by the pure (Western, American)
conditions of the (budgetary, and techno geek) possibility of its (on-
screen) representation. Indeed, in the digital era, representation is itself
that which is represented, and Pandoras pure nature is pure technology.
Are we nevertheless allowed into such a paradise? Alas, no: contrarily
to what might be expected from cinema as the contemporary antidote to
the ancient expulsion, again we are expelled. Interposing between us and
itself, we now find this sort of spacing design as the direct heir to the
former visual pyramid, but somehow in reversed form (its depth-structure
oriented not only from the screen onwards, but also towards us) and
conspicuously self-conscious as a solid block at whose outside gates we
are left (and literally pointed out as if shown to our seats in the movie
theatre by the fingers of the film itself), instead of simply becoming the
world viewed.
That seems to be the price to be paid for the powers of knowledge, not
only mythically, but also technically, and Merleau-Ponty famously
246 Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion

challenged the dominant Cartesian epistemology, which he critically

depicted as a vision de survol, the kind of distinct and clear view a
Subject can take of the world from above it indeed, totalizing it before
him from the outside. But this was precisely already the case with the
perspective system, positioning itself as a forerunner three centuries before
Descartes: the eye draws back and retires from the place of the spectacle
(moreover, it withdraws from its own bodily rooting) until it manages to
unify under a single vantage point and according to a single dominant
space axis the totality of the visible that is, of its own perception and of
the world. Proceeding in this manner, perspective doesnt do justice either
to the objects of perception or to natural perception itself, because it
separates what in reality remains originally deeply intertwined, to the point
of their vanishing as such: subject and object. Perspective is not truer to
the subjects actual mode of perception than it is to the objects mode of
being: it does not amount to an imposition on the part of the subjects
perception upon the natural world, but on the part of a self-constructed
pure subject upon its own natural perception and upon the natural world at
once. On the contrary, not only do we perceive the world in the world
and not from the outside, but in an originary condition of non-
separateness: and that is what the in-the-world existential structure
means, in the particular bodily and perceptual turn this Heideggerian
notion acquires in its Merleau-Pontyan reception.
Classical Chinese landscape painting (conceived of as a spiritual
method), which preceded Western landscape genre by several centuries,
offers a strong and most instructive contrast to this later. It is not the kind
of space that will be boasting its invasive and engulfing powers over the
spectator, as in Avatar, where, incidentally, it establishes a sort of
ideological visual rhyme and undoubtedly a common epistemological-
political pattern with the para-avatar fighting robot that Colonel Quaritch
dons in the battlefield, figuring the mechanical and electronic prosthetic
expansion of his imperialist musculature and brain; nor will it be
displaying its infinity (up to the meeting point of the converging parallel
lines) for the monocular eye to behold and to master, as occurs with the
laws of perspective in Western painting. Rather, it aims at reinforcing the
true state of a reciprocal inherence of the painter/beholder in the natural
landscape and of the external world in the interior of man, mutually
expressing the shared balance of the cosmic organizing principles of the
polar interplay of oppositions, exchanges, and ultimate union, at its
different levels: water and mountain, earth and heaven/sky, emptiness
and fullness, yin and yang. Strikingly at odds with the Western way of
preemptively taking possession of the territory (a priori space is also a
Jos Manuel Martins 247

welcomed condition of possibility of military strategy, and Cameron plays

the transcendental ally to Quaritch and to Sully, the redemptor in the
enterprise of conquering Pandora, of making it our space), Chinese
painting achieves this through the importance given to emptiness, mostly
consisting of clouds and mists and the sky, beyond mere vacant spaces,
and in fact pervading all the substantial elements of the world. In other
words, it stresses the dimension that allows things to become and to be,
and to dispose themselves throughout space therefore inviting the painter
to do the same, and (as in the paradigmatic Marguerite Yourcenars tale of
the painter Wang F) to enter the painting, to stroll around and eventually
to abide in it. But the deep implicated meaning of the practice of the
double perspective the one prescribing that a natural being, or a house,
should be rendered as if viewed at the same time from a distance, from
close range, and from within is that the painter must have occupied the
same double stance (in front/inside) he is now being invited to pose in
relation to the tableau, while primarily perceiving nature. Because in the
same way as the double perspective is structuring both the aesthetic
perception and the artistic work itself (accounting for the awkward
aspect of objects, distance, and space in most oriental art), it also lends its
structure to natural perception and to the onto-phenomenological modality
of the presence of nature, i.e., the world (Cheng 1991, 92105). It should
be noticed that Cheng is writing one year after Kurosawas Dreams. Here
is his final synthesis: The movement of moving away in space is in fact a
circular movement in space that returns and, through the reversal of
perspective and look, eventually transforms the relation between subject
and object. (The subject projecting itself gradually outwards; and the
exterior becoming the internal landscape of the subject). (Cheng 1991,
The self-reflective work of art (i.e., self-theorizing both as film and in
its intermedial relation to painting), offering an unparalleled illustration
both of this Far Eastern tradition and of contemporary Continental
phenomenological and post-phenomenological theory (lets say, of
Merleau-Pontys interlace structure of the chair and of Deleuzes plane
of immanence) is the film episode Crows, the fifth in Akira Kurosawas
Dreams (1990). At first, the Japanese visitor indulges in the trivial dual
form of perception, having a glimpse of the several paintings hanging on

Le mouvement dloignement dans lespace est en fait un mouvement circulaire
qui revient et qui, par le renversement de la perspective et du regard, transforme
finalement la relation du sujet et de lobject. (Le sujet se projetant, par degr, au
dehors; et le dehors devenant le paysage intrieur du sujet.) (My translation, J. M.
248 Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion

the wall in front of him. How are we to interpret the metalepsis that
follows, when the planes of the beholder and of the painting overcome
their initial separateness (transcendence) and he finds himself within the
general plane of consistency of van Goghs world (encompassing this
latters being-in the natural setting and his general plane of pictorial
composition, as well as the complex process of reciprocal exchange
between the two)? Certainly not in a literal sense (either magical or
happening only in dreams), and neither as a mere metaphor, since the
point is not a fictional one, but the very transcending of the distinction
between reality and fiction such transcending precisely amounting
to pure immanence. What (Kurosawas) van Gogh says to his unexpected
guest about the reciprocal bodily assimilation gradually taking place
between the painter and the landscape3 (different from a mere distantial

The passage reads as follows: [van Gogh] Why arent you painting? To me this
scene is beyond belief. A scene that looks like a painting does not make a painting.
But [I] if you take the time and look closely, all the nature has its own beauty. And
when that natural beauty is there, [II] I just lose myself in it. And then, as if its in
a dream, [III] the scene just paints itself for me. Yes, [IV] I consume this natural
setting, I devour it completely and hold it. And when Im through, [V] the painting
paints itself for me completely. But its so difficult to hold it inside!
[Japanese] Then, what do you do?
[van Gogh] [VI] I work, I slave, I drive myself like a locomotive!
I numerate the successive stages in the process of painting; it will be noticed that
the actual application of paint on the canvas only begins at stage VI, which by no
means entails a separation between perception and action, rather, emphasizes the
fact that aesthetic perception is already invested by the artistic operation.
Kurosawas scenery including natural landscape vividly retouched in van
Goghs fashion, offers the visual equivalent to the concepts expressed. A whole
gamut of reciprocal overlapping features of nature and culture, subject and object
and of Deleuzian processes of becoming is displayed all over this ten-minute
masterpiece of Modernist artwork about the artwork and offers a significant
counterpart to the avataresque tour de force, rooting instead that phenomenon
deeply in natural and aesthetic (and specifically cinematic) perception rather than
in VR-like technology (the avatar/3D/motion-capture complex) ideologically
reverberated in Pandoras New-Age spiritualized nature, with all its neuro-
connexions between the Navi and the ikran (flying dragons) ultimately regulated
by the bio-neuro-cybernetics of the Tree of Souls. The Cartesian leitmotiv at stake
in the 3D controversy reappears as the mind/body duality, presupposed in the cases
of the (unequal) avatar transference and of the (unequal) ikran symbiosis (two
double-bind features responsible for generously fuelling drama and intrigue),
always doubled by its own characteristic hierarchical structure: and so, subduing
the ikran culminates in becoming a toruk makto, the mighty (makto, its avatar-
word) rider that is, the master of the toruk, much in the same way as playing
Jos Manuel Martins 249

visual operation) also gives a good description of what is just happening to

the latter as he enters the frame and somehow turns his vision into the
visibility of the things themselves a visibility conveyed by, and as, the
It also happens to correspond to the phenomenological description of
the standard film-viewing experience, namely, the disappearance into the
non-thematic both of real space (the movie theatre, the world, our seat,
ourselves) and of the fictional topos, the (on-)screen. A painting is not
hanging on the wall, a film is not on, or in the screen for there are no
longer such things as a screen, a wall. The painting, the film constitute
their own self-consistent world (but non-thematic as such). Coleridges
suspension of disbelief is still a partial formula: what is really suspended is
the very awareness of the difference between belief and disbelief, reality
and fiction. What collapses, then, is the measurable spatial distance and
distinction between the subject and the object. The moviegoer is no longer
watching the film, nor is he co-present in it (the artifice Kurosawa was
nonetheless constrained to use): he is rather in a state of film. And he is
in that space, rather than surrounded by it (which, on the other hand, fails
to be the case with 3D, in spite of what the false advertising campaigns
wilfully keep repeating). Precisely in the same way in which Heidegger
explains the sense of the preposition in: we are in the world, not because
as a matter of fact we are evidently surrounded by it (as a separate entity
objectively placed within a physical-geometrical extensive space, like
inside a container), but we can be surrounded by the world only insofar as
we are in (not inside) it, in an ontological kind of proximity previous to
any sort of particular relationship, be it frontal, or distant, or practical, or
immersive, or contemplative.

The Cinema of Sensing

This paper comes to an end at the very point where it should start
developing the fundamental phenomenological approach which constitutes
the implied point of view in what precedes. Let me briefly indicate the
core of the question and telegraphically add two final polemizing remarks.
Avoiding any falling back into a philosophy of the conscience, it was
Merleau-Pontys major contribution since Phnomnologie de la perception

the avatar game will culminate in becoming the Navi supreme hero, and once
again the duality of a minds eye outside a totalized and dominated world (the
perspective/Cartesian paradigm) translates into the vertical axis of masterhood,
fulfilling and profusely illustrating the double meaning of the expression vision de
250 Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion

to reformulate Heideggers Daseinsanalyse in terms of the perceptive

body (later, the flesh) in its phenomenological constitutive involvement
with the world. In fact, in the case of cinema (and of painting, and of
nature, according to Kurosawa) it is not visibility as such that catches and
captures the spectator (not just her eye, but her whole being), but vision,
insofar as it carries the body and is carried by it: Before being an
objective spectacle the quality is acknowledged by a type of behaviour that
intentionally aims at its essence, and that is the reason why from the
moment my body adopts the attitude of the blue I obtain a quasi-presence
of the blue4 (Merleau-Ponty 1945, 245). Which was the whole point in
Avatar, except that it is with my body that I perform such a Deleuzian
inhuman devenir, not as a god-like transmigratory res cogitans, as
Cameron himself claims in a Time Magazine interview: What is an
avatar, anyway? Its an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods taking a flesh
form. In this film what that means is that the human technology in the
future is capable of injecting a humans intelligence into a remotely
located body, a biological body (Winters Keegan 2007) (my italics). And it
is such a body agency that also accounts for the similar experience of
reading a book or listening to music: we become the symphony, or the
world of the book, and if it is with our lungs that the fictional characters
breathe (when the typed page gives way to a world), as Sartre puts it in a
very fine analysis which emulates Kurosawas silent philosophy (Sartre
1947), that just means we are already there, breathing with theirs.
In the abovementioned line, Merleau-Ponty is implying four crucial
aspects: that the blue is not a mere visual quality objectively present at
hand, but a dimension requiring a way of being and caught up in a
dynamic relationship with it; that it is not primarily an ocular event, but a
bodily one; and that the perceiving body implies a moving body, in fact,
that body is fundamentally movement, before being cognition. The key-
aspect is however the fourth: the non-thematic level corresponding to such
an anticipative bodily behaviour towards (or fleshly involvement with)
the blue colour and according to it. These four aspects outline and
condense some of the recurrent features in Merleau-Pontys Phnomnologie
de la perception, where he is building an entire theory of phenomenological
constitution around the notion of the virtual projection of a motor body

Ainsi avant dtre un spectacle objectif la qualit se laisse reconnatre par un
type de comportement qui la vise dans son essence et cest pourquoi ds que mon
corps adopte lattitude du bleu jobtiens une quasi-prsence du bleu. (My
translation, J. M. M.)
Jos Manuel Martins 251

unto the world at the infraconscious level of sensing5 (characteristically

independent of the instance of the subject). In short, it is through the
ecstatic nature of the virtual movement of the sensitive-kinesthetic body
that the spatial horizon is secured and access to the things in the world is
gained. This network of movements is not to be understood as a mimetic
internal recapitulation taking place inside the body, nor as its actual
projection unto the exterior, rather as a virtual abiding of the perceptive
body among the virtual givenness of the world, and of things; and it is
only because the body sets itself in a disposition attuned to other beings
and open to their ways of making themselves present there it is only
because the body so to say enacts the behaviour of the (pre-objective)
sensible, that it may encounter things at that radical level of originary
givenness that converts perception into the primary ontological condition
from whose irrecusable and saturated condition everything else and every
theoretical consideration concerning reality stems. A legion of micro-
avataresque embodiments take thus place at the most fundamental level,
where the body will be sensing the bodily qualities of everything in an
overlap of flesh(es) evolving in an overlap of body-space and world-
space (as opposed as it could be to the partes extra partes Cartesian 3D
kind of space6).

The author uses the verbal infinitive (le sentir) as corresponding to a motor-
synesthetic gestalt whole, rather than the traditional concept of sensation
misleadingly pointing at an atomic and specific element in the composition of
perception. Being itself a gestalt whole, though, perception is not partible (into
sensations); yet, being an originary phenomenon, it is notwithstanding an
articulated (not mediated!) one (namely, by sensing). Its explanation is the
formidable task that is motivating the title.
Another worth-quoting dictum from the same interview: Avatar will be in 3-D.
Why did you choose that format? Its immersive. It wraps the movie around you.
Its not necessarily just for kids films either. It works in a dramatic sense because
it gives you a heightened sense of reality. (Winters Keegan 2007.) A brief
commentary: indeed, it becomes immersive in the exact proportion in which we
(are allowed to) forget about the 3D effect. We are not surrounded by the film: this
is plainly a false statement (already more than a pre-production 2007 wishful
thinking). As for the sense of reality, 3D and digital technology produce the same
petitive kind of self-delusion as Renaissance perspective does: it gives the sense,
and the pattern of reality that we are supposed to sense. An image in the obscurity
of the vanishing theatre compares magically with itself, not with reality; curiously
enough, neither do colour movies give us a sense of heightened reality, nor do
black and white films fail to. They are reality, and so were even the silent
252 Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion

We find, perhaps unsurprisingly, at the bottom of natural perception

exactly the same specious structure that is generally assumed to be
distinctive of the exquisitely elaborated aesthetic experience: an unfolded
body situated between here and there, simultaneously occupying its
place and projecting itself unto the background of the visible, sensing itself
and the other beings (losing itself in nature/devouring it, in a visceral
reciprocal engulfment, so van Gogh utters), inescapably bound to its
sentant senti condition. Voil the double perspective in Chinese
painting, and also the ubiquity of the Japanese visitor (Kurosawas
avatar), who has to remain standing in the museum room in order to be
able to project himself elsewhere, that is, not here (in a tension between
the reciprocally defining here and not which restablishes the aura
First remark: it is possible that Deleuzes (drawing on Vertovs and
abundantly drawn upon by Shaviros) distinction between technical,
inhuman perception and natural perception, essentially defining the
technical cinematic image against Bazins theory of the intensification of
natural perception, might be only partially true. The mechanical apparatus
is perhaps producing a new kind of perception (and of worldhood), but
that does not exclude that this brand new type is at the same time
conveying and recasting, not certainly unqualified or trivial natural
perception, but the non-thematic, virtual aspect involved in it. The
cinematic moving image does certainly reveal some of the symptoms of
the perceptual level of sensing, and it is only to blame the anti-
phenomenological temper of Deleuze if he fails to acknowledge that
beneath the borderline dividing natural and mechanical perception, there
exists the borderline distinguishing natural perception and its own (rather
unnatural) non-thematic anticipative structure. And just as Deleuzes
cinema offers through mechanical mediation to an unwilling Bergson the
pure image that should be extracted from its decay in the natural image,
so too it could come to realize that the kino-eye does not indeed
intensify an originary potency,7 but that it does provide an actualization of
the virtual stratum of natural perception, and that probably both phrases
are saying the same.
Second remark: Vivian Sobchacks diagram combining all the possible
functions of the viewers and of the films explicit perceptions does not
seem to take in enough consideration the non-thematic quality of them

As regards the Deleuzian pair virtual/actual, there is nothing to fear from
Merleau-Pontys notion of the originary: ltre sauvage does not pre-define
anything, nor is it in itself defined. Perception is immediately a sort of open
stylization, or boundless virtuality. That should easily meet Deleuzes requests.
Jos Manuel Martins 253

both, beside the non-thematic (and decidedly non-intentional) matrix of

typical Merleau-Pontyan perception in general.
The day in which an accomplished 3D film will consist of a 360
hologram, well finally have nowhere to go inside the Pandora box and
nothing to do but to stay en garde in the face of as Cameron will
undoubtedly put it reality: ce mauvais film, in Deleuzes word.

Brooks, David. 2010. The Messiah Complex. New York Times 7. 1.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/opinion/08brooks.html (Last
accessed 12. 04. 2014.)
Cheng, Franois. 1991. Vide et plein: Le langage pictural chinois. [Empty
and Full: the Language of Chinese Painting.] Paris: Seuil.
Elsaesser, Thomas. 2011. James Camerons Avatar: access for all. New
Review of Film and Television Studies Vol. 9 No. 3: 247264.
(Last accessed 12. 04. 2014.)
Marks, Laura U. 2000. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema,
Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham: Duke University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1945. Phnomnologie de la perception.
[Phenomenology of Perception.] Paris: Gallimard.
. 1960. Lil et lesprit. [The Eye and the Spirit.] Paris: Gallimard.
. 1969. Le langage indirect. [Indirect Language.] In La prose du monde
[The Prose of the World], 66161. Paris: Gallimard.
Murphy, Mekado. 2009. A Few Questions for James Cameron. The New
York Times 21. 12.
for-james-cameron/ (Last accessed 02. 04. 2014.)
Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1947. Franois Mauriac et la libert. [Franois Mauriac
and the Liberty.] In Situations I. 3657. Paris: Gallimard.
Shaviro, Steven. 1993. The Cinematic Body. Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press.
Sobchack, Vivian. 1992. The Adress of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film
Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Winters Keegan, Rebecca. 2007. Q&A with James Cameron. Time
Magazine 11. 01. http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,15766
22,00.html#ixzz0a69HUhNB. (Last accessed 12. 04. 2014.)
iek, Slavoj. 2010. Avatar: un exercice didologie politiquement
correcte. [Avatar: a Politically Correct Exercise of Ideology.] Cahiers
du Cinma No. 654 (March): 6669.
254 Crows vs. Avatar, or: 3D vs. Total-Dimension Immersion

. 2010. Return of the Natives. New Statesman 04. 03.

couple-sex (Last accessed 12. 04. 2014.)




Retomada, rebirth, is the label that is often used to describe a

revitalization of Brazilian cinema after a crisis engendered by the
extinction, in 1990, of Embrafilme, the most important funder for Brazilian
cinema, controlled by the State. For half a decade film production in Brazil
was a precarious affair. However, with a new legislation that allowed
investments by private companies through a system based on tax waiver,
funding was again available and this new configuration not only favored
the return of veteran filmmaker but it also created a space for the
emergence of a new generation of directors (Walter Salles, Beto Brant,
Fernando Meirelles, amongst many other). The Retomada, with its
connotation of a renewal, may sound like a label that conveys the wrong
idea of a uniform development of the film industry in Brazil since then. On
the contrary, although film production has survived the near blackout of
the early 1990s, the new form of funding via tax waiver has engendered at
least two competing views among film critics and academics in Brazil: one
hurriedly celebrated the diversification of the production, an attitude that
betrays an allegiance to market and state discourses; the other group,
nonetheless, cautiously tried to avoid generalizations, instead focusing on
each film in particular so as to extract possible relations that could
eventually lead to a broader understanding of the contemporary scenario
(Nagib 2002, Oricchio 2003, Debs 2004, Eduardo 2005). A decade and a
half after this shift in the production cycle, the latter attitude is still a valid
approach towards the comprehension of what is now being called the
Brand New Brazilian Cinema the films of young filmmakers, a second
generation after the Retomada.

I wish to thank CAPES (Coordenao de Aperfeioamento de Pessoal de Nvel
Superior) and Unisul (Universidade do Sul de Santa Catarina) for granting me
funds and paid leave, respectively, for my postdoctoral research at the Centre for
World Cinemas (University of Leeds). This article is a partial result of this
258 Affective Realism and the Brand New Brazilian Cinema

The expression Novssimo Cinema Brasileiro (Brand New Brazilian

Cinema) has been used by film critics in Brazil to describe the emergence
of new directors but it would be misleading to say it bears any connection
with Brazilian New Cinema (Cinema Novo), either in aesthetic or in
political terms. Therefore, Im using the expression to describe a new
generation of filmmakers whose logic of production and circulation is
relatively independent from industrial patterns. Some of the main aspects
of the productions I am referring to here are: a) the films are mostly
funded by public money, via tax waiver and direct financing coming from
regional and national government, even though some of the films are
completely independent of public money, adopting a totally independent
attitude towards filmmaking; b) the films have a limited circulation in
commercial circuits but they can be seen on public and cable TV (though
not on primetime) or through alternative means of distribution; c)
collective work is valued and shared authorship seems to put a dent on the
figure of the author; d) the younger filmmakers are distancing themselves
from the tradition of the struggling individual artist and of the director who
speaks for a subaltern group (so closely associated with the 1960s and
1970s generations); e) as a consequence, contemporary films do not carry
out totalizing discourses about individual or groups nor do they seem to
reach any encompassing interpretation of the nation.
Bypassing traditional themes in Brazilian cinematography such as
urban violence and historical revisionism, the Brand New Brazilian
Cinema demands we rethink our parameters and reassess their political
potential. Furthermore, there seems to be an interest in images that are not
images of Brazil, indicating a post-identity politics which extravasates
the contours of narratives of nation, class, race, and gender. This is a
cinema that tends not to judge national reality, opting for singular
configurations, not allegorical ones. Although it is certainly not my
ambition here to reach universal classifications, I want to trace some of the
lines of force of this recent cinema and map a few points of escape from
ubiquitous aesthetics and thematics. I identify a number of paradoxes that
seem to feed the power of the image in these recent productions. Finally, I
will briefly explore two films and finish with some methodological
considerations, which, I hope, could be extrapolated to other cinemas.
In dialogue with audiovisual forms such as Hollywood genre film and
exploitive TV news programs, a number of Brazilian films produced
(roughly) between 1995 and 2010 have approached filmmaking through an
allegedly realist standpoint and were saluted as a rediscovery of
Brazilian society through which filmmakers exposed their critical social
Ramayana Lira 259

awareness. The use of the expressions reality and reveal is pervasive2

when referring to the approach described here, indicating a belief in the
possibility of a true revelation, of an objective expression of the world.
Interestingly, in these circulating discourses about Brazilian films, the
constructed reality of the film is taken as reality itself.
This problematics is addressed by a number of Brazilian scholars.
Lcia Nagib, for instance, in A Utopia no Cinema Brasileiro [The Utopia
in Brazilian Cinema], explores The Trespasser (O Invasor, Beto Brant,
2002) saying that O Invasor is a work of fiction. However, fiction can
reveal more than the document through critical analysis. [] Marinas
character [] is, perhaps, the films main revelation as a symptom of late
capitalism (Nagib 2006, 177). The trope of the revelation is textually
present. Moreover, even if Nagibs study of the fate of utopia in Brazilian
cinema questions the way contemporary films deal with a national project,
it eventually falls into a rather non-analytical praise of filmmakers like
Walter Salles and Fernando Meirelles, who have an international career.
She says: If the Brazilian utopia is far from being realized, the Brazilian
cinema utopia, at least in aesthetic terms, has taken place (Nagib 2006,
21). The cinematic utopia: the recognition in a world market and the
capacity to talk about violence and social convulsion in a realist way
that is palatable for domestic and foreign audiences.
Esther Hamburger in Violncia e pobreza no cinema brasileiro recente
[Violence and Poverty in Recent Brazilian Cinema] analyses contemporary
films that stress the visibility of poor, black dwellers of slums and
periphery. She argues that when television and cinema bring these subjects
to public attention, they intensify and stimulate a struggle for the control
of visibility, for the definition of which subjects and characters will have
audiovisual expression. Her approach, however, deals in terms of
stereotypes how to correct or diversify the production of the images of
poor violent people. What such truth-oriented perspective neglects is the
fact that what is said to be true or not about a given community is not
easily unveiled or wholly unproblematic.
A different account of the issues discussed here is given by Ismail
Xavier. In Da violncia justiceira violncia ressentida [From Vengeful
Violence to Resentful Violence], he argues that contemporary films resist
the temptation to romanticize criminals like works in the past. The

If we take the example of criticism about City of God (Cidade de Deus, directed
by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, 2002) in major periodic publications, we
will see that the idea of the films revelation of Brazilian society is present in
Bravo! (July 2008), Revista de Cinema (November 2003) and Veja (October 2002),
to name a few.
260 Affective Realism and the Brand New Brazilian Cinema

objective is to undermine the criminals representativity (as a spokesperson)

in contrast with the violent characters of the past mainly from the 1960s
and 1970s whose violence, although unequivocally criticized, still
resounded as a justifiable response to social injustice. In this text,
however, Xavier reveals a nostalgic reference to filmmakers of the past, as
if they, like the criminals they produced on the screen, also held the
legitimacy for social criticism. He states that the 196070s metaphors
[] transformed the rifle into a camera, the left-winged filmmaker into a
proto-guerilla confronting the media, and associated the aesthetics of
violence to the wars of national liberation. The emphasis now changes and
introduces a cinema whose unfoldings are more problematic because this
modern instrument can corrode relationships and has unpredictable
consequences. (Xavier 2006, 667.)
What I find controversial about his argument is the qualification of
recent works as more problematic. This characteristic implies a less
problematic past, which would portray violence and poverty in a more
adequate way. To a certain extent, this is the same argument put forward
by Ivana Bentes in her discussion of the cosmetics of violence as
opposed to the aesthetics of violence. Bentes defends that recent
Brazilian films are resuming Cinema Novo themes such as poverty and
violence, but without the political inflection of social denounce. For
Bentes, contemporary cinema, on the contrary, makes a spectacle out of
misery and violence, increasingly consumed as a typical or natural,
albeit helpless element (Bentes 2007, 243).
In her account, violence emerges as a new urban folklore, with its
stories of crimes, massacres and horrors. A new brutality that does not
create spaces for complicity or mercy. Such random, meaningless violence
eventually becomes a spectacle, representing the ultimate scission between
favelas and the rest of the city. Moreover, there is no political discourse
like in the 1960s (Bentes 2007, 249). What is different from the Cinema
Novo context is the fact that presently the images of violence are also
being appropriated by the marginalized subjects which conventional
cinema demonizes. She concludes the article by stating that there are
many aesthetics of violence, with diverse ethics and consequences:
affirmative, reactive, resistant, they can be symptoms and expression of
forms of living, valuing and thinking (Bentes 2007, 254). Although
Bentes makes an important point by making reference to the different
appropriations of images of violence, in these texts she stills reverberates
the prominence of the images of violence as a good or bad
Ramayana Lira 261

When society and its vicissitudes are portrayed in films like City of
God, Mango Yellow (Amarelo Manga, Claudio Assis, 2002), Carandiru
(Hector Babenco, 2003), Lower City (Cidade Baixa, Srgio Machado,
2005), and Elite Squad, and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (Tropa de
Elite and Tropa de Elite 2 O Inimigo Agora Outro, Jos Padilha, 2007
and 2010) they are contained in the representation of the urban space as a
symptom of a naturalist impulse, an impulse that looks for legitimation by
bringing to fore the truth about the reality in Brazil. In this sense,
those films are reinforcing a consensus on the appropriate way to look at
a given reality.
We can, for a final example, refer to Fatima Toledos collaboration in
the preparation of actors for City of God, Lower City, Elite Squad, among
other contemporary films. In an interview to the Piau magazine entitled
How Not To Be An Actor, Toledo defends that actors should not prepare for
their roles according to Stanislavskis What if, which, according to
her, is based on the possibility of not being (Toledo 2009, 54). She does
not deny it that actor can not be, but she argues that being immediately
awakens the sensorial. Its real! Its like in life! (Toledo 2009, 54.) For
Toledo, people are becoming desensitized and the expression What if
serves as a sort of security device that prevents people from acting. This
search for the real is also present in her directorial debut, to come out in
2010, and which, according to the Piau article, is provisionally entitled
Sobre a Verdade [On Truth].
As we can see, there has a been a strong discourse in Brazilian film
culture that appeals to a real constructed as immediate, as if the
characters were directly denouncing reality. Such search for the real
that can also be perceived in the increasing production of documentaries
is, however, more often than not, coated with an aesthetic or narrative
varnish to prevent from a traumatic encounter. Realism becomes a way to
achieve a certain general truth about society, whose evils are artfully
denounced. The group of films I dub Brand New Brazilian Cinema has
taken a different approach towards realism, which is now associated with
the affective force of the image, renouncing the efforts to form a critical
image that explains society to the viewers.
In an upper middle-class Rio de Janeiro home, a delivery man and his
girlfriend, the housemaid, are caught red-handed by the owner of the
house as they were trying to steal from the family she works for. The
delivery man takes the man as a hostage. A police officer who happened to
be passing by invades the house in an attempt to stop the crime. His
rashness leads to the hostages death. This is how Eye of the Storm,
directed by Eduardo Valente in 2009, starts. The story, however, does not
262 Affective Realism and the Brand New Brazilian Cinema

unfold in a straightforward way. What we have in the first minutes of the

film are images of the police officer entering the house, but we do not get
to know what is happening inside, for what we see is a long shot of the
faade. Violence is only heard, as off-screen sounds indicate that
something has gone terribly wrong.
We are then taken into the coexistence of three temporalities: a) Z
Maria (Mrcio Vito), the police officer, deals with the consequence of his
intervention immediately after the crime; b) the hostages family returns
after five years to the scene of the crime, as widow Elisa (Dedina
Bernadelli) tries to finally come to terms with the death of her husband;
and c) delivery man Beto (Raphae Sil) and housemaid Sandra (Luciana
Bezerra) in the weeks before the murder. This narrative organization molds
the film into an account of the capacity to articulate memory. Characters
have very few interactions in a diegetic present and the story is only
intelligible through a common, a community that is created by the
films materiality. Narrative dispersal, then, is not a function of space, but
of time. Films like Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004) and Babel (Alejandro
Gonzles Iarrit, 2006), for example, emphasize the (semi-)synchronous
temporality of a geography that has to be re-imagined from narrative plots
that are scattered across space. Eye of the Storm, on the contrary, stresses
the re-articulation of disperse temporalities in the (semi-)homogenous
space of Rio de Janeiro.
Furthermore, Valentes film explores narrative dispersion, but it is not
so much concerned with the reconstruction of the truth about the crime, as
a police report would be. Jacques Rancire (1996, 41) opposes politics to
police for him, police is a set of processes that produce aggregation and
consent in societies, that organizes powers, the distribution of places and
functions, and the systems that legitimize such distribution. Although Eye
of the Storm does not totally refuse narrative intelligibility, it still lends
more force to the images per se instead of stressing a need to clarify/justify
actions. What is most important are the intensities that traverse the
characters and characterize the image: silences, replicated gestures (lit
cigarettes, bodies lying on the couch, talks on the phone). The films
politics has a lot to do with how the film memory is constructed: it is
figured in the tension, created in the cinematography, between dimming
images and insistent glimmer of people and things. Memory thus becomes
a fine cloud of fireflies. The image is a battlefield where dark endeavors to
engulf forms and forms are made to redefine themselves following re-
framings and camera movements.
Without dismissing Giorgio Agambens theorization about the coming
community as an arena of the common being/being common (but still
Ramayana Lira 263

thought of in terms of a messianic kingdom), I would like to explore the

fireflies metaphor following Georges Didi-Hubermans discussion of the
image as something that resists, like fireflies resisting in their fight both
against irrational dark and the blinding light of spectacle. For Didi-
Huberman the image of the fireflies evokes signals emitted by intermittence,
the very precarious like of a community of those who remain (Didi-
Huberman 2011, 149) and that share with the image the fact that they are
very little: remains or fissures (Didi-Huberman 2011, 87). As in Valentes
film, we have the notion of a community whose memory/history is not a
totalizing horizon, but rather a function of glimmers.
It is no accident that one of the most remarkable reconfigurations in the
film is the father figure. The totem, the speech of the law, is in crisis. The
dead father reappears in dreams and in home video images, a ghost, or
rather, as will-o-the-wisp, ignis fatuus, cold light that emanates from the
decomposition of organic matter. Z Marias relationship with his daughter
is nearly incestuous and is threatened by his inability to deal with the
consequences of the crime. Betos father figure is his decadent alcoholic
uncle. The film seems to suggest the dissolution of central figures,
undertaken by both the narratives agency and by the representation of the
redistribution of social roles.
One of the most telling instances of the working of affects in Eyes of
the Storm is, in fact, an apparently unimportant scene with Beto and his
uncle. As in other sequences in the film there is little verbalization. The
conversation is actually quite awkward, vacillating. The topics are never
fully developed as uncle and nephew seem to fumble with words. The
scene is marked by a graceful interaction that is not meant to be functional
in the narrative but that exudes affect. Even when portraying unprivileged
people, the film does not focus on the description of their social status or
comment on injustice; on the contrary, it explores pauses and shadows,
relying on affect in order to engage the spectator.
At the end of Eye of the Storm a song works as a post-scriptum. The
lyrics say: l onde tudo acaba / longe da fala / tudo que afeta / aqui
[there where it all ends / away from speech / all that affects / is here].
Here we may have a hint that helps us understand the original title in
Portuguese: No Meu Lugar can be literally translated as in my place. As
the song suggests, there is a place where it all ends and where all that
affects is. This is the place where affect opens up the present for the
reconstruction of memory through the very subtle, ever fragile glimmer of
the image and of the characters, who are not agents in a narrative that
emanates from the centre. In fact, they disperse events in affects which are
small lights, forms that emerge in spite of all. This is the fireflies
264 Affective Realism and the Brand New Brazilian Cinema

movement, the paradoxical image that unfolds between the memory that
fades and the memory that resists.
Another paradoxical image can be seen in a film released shortly after
Eye of the Storm. In it, three lives look through a bus window. Three
affection-images of characters who roam through the city. We watch them
with apprehension, trying to find a scene, a narrative line that would
situate them. And we are denied that. What we are given are instants (once
again, glimmering) of lives embedded in subtle everyday plots. Their
lightness is unbearable. That is the burden of The Sky Above (O Cu Sobre
os Ombros, 2011), directed by Srgio Borges.
The Sky Above portrays the lives of three lower middle-class people a
transsexual prostitute and academic, a hare krishna telemarketing operator
who loves football, and a disillusioned writer from Congo, who has a
disabled child. The multilayered characters are not portrayed as
exotic/victimized others. In a way, Borgess films radicalize the
performative immanence of film as images and lives are completely
imbricated. The static shots with few re-framings leave a lot of space for
the subtle variations in gestures and speech. The film is not about giving
voice to the marginalized other; rather, it is concerned with the
presentation of the intensities that form the lives in question. There is
nothing programmatic, or critical in the sense of an impulse to explicate
some kind of social evil.
Elena del Rio comments about performance that in its fundamental
ontological sense, performance gives rise to the real. While representation
is mimetic, performance is creative and ontogenetic (del Rio 2008, 4). So
performances in the contemporary Brazilian cinema I am referring to are
not a matter of registering the ephemeral, but of creating something new,
new affects, new worlds. In The Sky Above the actors bodies are
extracting something new from the image in a process that Elena del Rio
summarizes as such: Thus the body simultaneously figures as a normative
structure regulated by binary power relations (on a molar plane of formed
subjects and identities) and as an excessive, destabilizing intensity
responsive to its own forces and capacities (on a molecular plane of
impersonal and unformed becomings) (del Rio 2008, 9). Del Rio also
dismisses the idea that the performative force of films would be restricted
to certain genres or filmic forms. She says: Rather than depending upon a
particular kind of film (a stabilizing condition inimical to the very
disruptive function of the affective-performative), the eruption of
affective-performative moments is a matter of a constantly fluctuating
distribution of degrees of intensity between two series of images: those
belonging to explainable narrative structures, and those that disorganize
Ramayana Lira 265

these structures with the force of affective-performative events (del Rio

2008, 15). Therefore, both fiction and documentary films can be affected
by the forces of performance.
Indeed, if we take some of the recent documentary films produced by
young filmmakers in Brazil, we will be able to see performance in the very
core of a profound critique of truth. These films allow us to observe that
not only does performance disorganize narrative strictures/structures, as
proposed by Del Rio, but it is also a function of the image: we could say
that the image itself is performing something. The Sky Above insists on
static framing (we rarely see re-framings or de-framings) and its mise-en-
scne values the subtle variations in the characters lives, never the grand
gestures. Blocs of everyday situations are presented without narrative
coherence, as if the film were accepting lifes irresistible contingency.
But what is even more troubling in Borgess film is the fact that these
situations were staged by the characters for the camera. The films realism
is, then, the reality of those performances, of their coming to the world in a
temporality that the film preserves without submitting it to a functionalist
logic. The strength of its image lies in the very vaporous state of these
lives. In this movement, world and image merge. And that brings the
second paradox: the paradox of the critical potential of that which is
These are some of the possible lines of force of a realism that is being
refashioned in recent Brazilian films. These works are marked by in-
betweenness at the intersection of the impulse to keep a certain distance in
order to see the world and to be immersed in it, in its intensities. They
make us face paradoxes but dont immobilize us; on the contrary, they
com-move us with their contradictory forces. The question that underlies
this recent production is exactly how to grasp political configurations from
such dispersive, fragmented, diffuse forces. Dispersion seems to evoke
dissolution. Subtlety can look like weakness, impotence. However, what
interests me in the study of the politics of affects in the Brand New
Brazilian Cinema are the connections between these affects and the
complex social processes and issues like the reconstruction of memory and
the possibility of creating a world along with the image are examples of
such connections.
Considering that representation works by means of immobilization,
and spatialization, it conveniently becomes a process through which we
interpret the always implied referent. The analogies and correspondences
it creates between elements are produced to the detriment of their
differences, movements and changes. However, we can argue that the
affective potential of film is not that it resembles the objects it represents
266 Affective Realism and the Brand New Brazilian Cinema

(the iconic nature of cinema). This potential would lie in the capacity of
film to defy the limitations of the intellect, drawing us not to a chain of
action and reaction, but to a zone of indeterminacy between perception and
action, one that leaves us with no straight forward response to the
In this perspective, the body no longer reassures reality, identities or
self on the contrary, it is exposed to variations, fluxes and mutations.
This much more complex understanding of what a body can do surpasses
the widespread simplification that the body thinks. What this platitude
fails to perceive is that the variations and intensities that traverse the body
force us to think about something that, from its origins, belongs to the
sphere of the unthinkable. The body makes us think about that which is not
Affects emerge in the cinema I am talking about both in the creative
encounters in the filmmaking processes and in the reconfigurations of
relations between characters that suggest new models for being together.
And it is affect that is at stake when our response-ability (to use Marco
Abels terminology) is at stake as spectators. Cinema may thus become, as
Nicole Brenez puts it, that creature haunted by heterogeneity which, more
than knowing itself, prefers to verify that something else is still possible (a
body, a friend, a world) (1997).

Abel, Marco. 2007. Violent Affect: Literature, Cinema, and Critique after
Representation. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Bentes, Ivana. 2007. Sertes e Favelas no Cinema Brasileiro Contemporneo:
Esttica e Cosmtica da Fome [Barrens and Slums in Contemporary
Brazilian Cinema: Aesthetics and Cosmetics of Hunger]. Alceu Vol. 8
No. 15: 242255.
Brenez, Nicole. 1997. The Ultimate Journey: Remarks on Contemporary
Theory. Screening the Past 2.
http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/reruns/brenez.html. (Last
accessed 01.03.2013.)
Debs, Sylvie. 2004. El cine brasileo de la reativacin [Brazilian Cinema
Revival]. Cinmas DAmrique Latine, No. 12. Paris-France: ed. Press
Universitaires Du Mirail (PUM).
Del Rio, Elena. 2008. Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance: Powers
of Affection. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Didi-Huberman, Georges. 2011. Sobrevivncia dos vaga lumes. Belo
Horizonte: UFMG.
Ramayana Lira 267

Eduardo, Clber. 2005. Fugindo do inferno A distopia na redemocratizao

[Escaping Hell the Re-Democratization Dystopia]. In Cinema
Brasileiro 19952005: reviso de uma dcada [Brazilian Film
19952005: a Review of a Decade], ed. Daniel Caetano. Rio de
Janeiro: Azougue Editorial.
Hamburger, Esther. 2007. Violncia e Pobreza no Cinema Brasileiro
Recente [Violence and Poverty in Recent Brazilian Cinema]. Novos
Estudos No. 79: 113120.
Nagib, Lcia. 2002. O Cinema da Retomada: depoimento de 90 cineastas
dos anos 90 [The Cinema of Recovery: Testimony of 90 Filmmakers of
the 90s]. So Paulo: Editora 34.
. 2006. A Utopia no Cinema Brasileiro [Utopia in Brazilian Cinema].
So Paulo: Cosac & Naify.
Oricchio, Luiz Zanin. 2003. Cinema da Retomada alimenta o mito da
diversidade [Cinema da Retomada Feeds the Myth of Diversity].
Revista de cinema No. 35 (March).
Rancire, Jacques. 1996. O desentendimento: poltica e filosofia
[Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy]. So Paulo: Ed 34.
Toledo, Ftima. 2009. Como no ser ator [How Not to Be an Actor]. Piaui
No. 28 (January): 5458.
interpretacao/como-nao-ser-ator. (Last accessed 31. 07. 2013.)
Xavier, Ismail. 2006. Da Violncia Justiceira Violncia Ressentida [From
Vengeful Violence to Resentful Violence]. Ilha do Desterro No. 51:


What is more real in our universe than a mans life, and how can we
hope to preserve it better than in a realistic film? These words are Albert
Camuss, and with this quote Roy Armes opens the first part of his book
titled Patterns of Realism, which he wrote about Italian Neo-Realism in
1971. With his rhetorical question, Camus identifies two of the main
bastions upholding any Realist project: on the one hand, the object of
study is reality itself, which is the reference point throughout the creative
process; and on the other, reality is constructed according to certain
expressive codes that define a particular style, which is known in the
different forms of artistic expression painting, literature and film as the
Realist style. This is all with the intention of representing as accurately as
possible, returning to the words of Camus, the reality that has aroused the
interest of an author who, for whatever reason, has been drawn to it.
Nevertheless, although it may be among the authors intentions to
capture reality as honestly as possible, that representation can never be an
exact reproduction of reality, as the nature of representation in itself
prevents this. Thus, Andr Bazin (1971, 26) speaks of the illusion of
reality; however, that illusion, according to the predicates of the French
critic himself, should be as close as possible to its referent, of course
within the limits of the logical demands of cinematographic narrative and
of the current limits of technique, since, as Colin MacCabe notes (1976,

The research for this article was enabled with the support of the Research Project
Study and analysis for development of Research Network on Film Studies
through Web 2.0 platforms, financed by the National R+D+i Plan of the Spanish
Ministry of Economy and Competitivity (code HAR2010-18648).
270 The New Realistic Trend in Contemporary World Cinema

9), for Bazin, as for almost all Realist theorists (among others, Lapsley
and Westlakem 1988, Bill Nichols 1991, and Brian Winston 1995), what
is in question is not just a rendering of reality but the rendering of a reality
made more real by the use of aesthetic device. Thus, according to these
theorists, Realism is a set of conventions and norms for representing
reality transparently, thereby achieving what Stephen Prince (1996, 31)
calls the reality effect. This set of codes is known as the Realist style.
It is an undeniable fact that over the last two decades the international
film scene has seen a significant number of independent films with an
authorial tone that have taken the real world as their point of reference,
approaching that real world through the application of a Realist style.
These films have had a notable impact both at major festivals and with
international critics. An example of the latter is the article written by A. O.
Scott (2009) of The New York Times titled Neo-Neo Realism. In this
article, Scott, one of the most renowned critics in New York City, echoing
the expression used to define Italian cinema of the post-war era, describes
the new Realist trend in contemporary American independent cinema as
Neo-Neo Realism.2 This new movement began in the early 1990s and
although it would have a worldwide impact, it developed mainly as a
national trend in certain countries. Perhaps the one that has had the
greatest impact has been the Iranian movement, with internationally
acclaimed directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar
Panahi. As will be discussed below, Iranian films have been among the
main sources of inspiration for the director of the film examined in this
As noted above, the main point of reference for this type of film is the
work of Italian filmmakers such as Roberto Rosellini, Luchino Visconti
and Vittorio de Sica, who, after the end of World War II, by taking their
cameras out into the streets and forgetting the dead rules of conventional
film-making, come face to face with reality again (Armes 1971, 20).
Thus, the dramas were found on the streets of a Europe destroyed after the
war; all that was needed was the ability to observe this mutilated reality to
find the seeds of possible stories that told of the terrible consequences for
a society torn apart by military conflict. It must be said and herein lies
the main ongoing influence of Italian Neo-Realism these directors knew
how to approach reality the right way. They did this through a Realist style
that could both reproduce and represent reality on the screen in an

Scotts critique focuses mainly on productions released in 2008 and 2009, made,
among others, by So Yong Kim, Ramin Bahrani, Lance Hammer, Anna Boden,
Ryan Fleck and Kelly Riechardt.
Fernando Canet 271

authentic manner, avoiding the artificiality that characterised studio film

prior to World War II.
However, the creative treatment of actuality, to appropriate the
famous expression attributed to John Grierson, can be traced back to the
early 1920s, to two film-makers for whom reality was also the benchmark:
Andr Antoine and Robert J. Flaherty. Nonetheless, unlike their
predecessors, the Lumire Brothers, rather than merely reproducing reality,
these film-makers construct it creatively, taking storytelling strategies
from the fictional narrative style of popular cinema, which was already
dominant by that time. La terre (Earth, Andr Antoine, 1921) is the result
of years of filming in the Beauce region south-west of Paris. In order to
avoid the artificiality of stories acted out in the studio, Antoine travelled to
the Beauce region to adapt the mile Zola novel of the same name, set in
this French region in the late 19th century (the novel was published in
1887). Thus, Antoines work (both his films and the plays with which he
began his career) was influenced by the Naturalist and Realist postulates
of 19th century literature represented particularly by Zola and fellow
French writer Honor de Balzac (see Erich Auerbach 1946).
As Quintana (2003, 69) points out, Antoines adaptation of La terre
establishes one of the basic elements of cinematic realism: the difficulty
of finding a balance between film reproduction and the rhetorical
processes of reality construction that are characteristics of fiction. Indeed,
in La terre this balance was not fully achieved. Both the artificiality of an
excessively forced interpretation, which undermines the authenticity of the
story narrated (the actors were not real peasants but actors from the
Comdie Franaise and the Odon Theatre in Paris), and the excessive
dependence on dramatic structure detract from the more realistic scenes
where rural life in this region of France takes the central role. As a result,
the most interesting moments in La terre occur when the drama takes
second place and the dominance of the landscape reduces the bodies of the
actors to the status of mere figurative extras (Quintana 2003, 70).
On the other hand, this adulteration of reality through excessive
dramatization of the narration is less of a problem in the film shot in the
same period by Robert J. Flaherty. In his case, referential reality is much
more distant and exotic than in the case of Antoine. The Barren Lands and
the Eskimos who inhabit it were the subject of the Nanook of the North
(1922), Flahertys first film. As Robert Sherwood (1979, 16) notes, Mr.
Flaherty had to spend years with the Eskimos so that he could learn to
understand. Otherwise, he could not have made a faithful reflection of
their emotions, their philosophy, and their endless privations. An Eskimo,
Nanook, was the one selected to become the character. Thus, unlike in
272 The New Realistic Trend in Contemporary World Cinema

Antoines film, a real person is the protagonist of the plot constructed to

represent reality. Through tracking Nanooks life, Flaherty vested the
movie with temporal continuity as well as dramatic structure. But unlike
Antoine, Flaherty manages to achieve a perfect balance between the
reproduction of reality and its dramatisation, thereby successfully
conveying the illusion to spectators that everything shown on the screen is
To differing degrees, these two films and the works of Italian Neo-
Realism can be considered examples of what Bazin defined as the Realist
style, which he describes as all narrative means tending to bring an added
measure of reality to the screen (1971, 27). These films are also points of
reference for the new resurgence of the Realist style in contemporary film,
a movement which in turn has revived an interest among film theorists in
cinematographic Realism. Thus, in recent years a significant number of
essays have been published on this question, which, after being disparaged
by the dominant theoretical movements of the 1960s and 1970s, has now
regained a certain prominence in film studies. Indeed, in the past few
years, and very especially in 2011, the Realist film theories championed in
the 1940s by Andr Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer are resurfacing in the
work of Richard Rushton (2011), Dudley Andrew (2011), Bert Cardullo
(2011) and Lcia Nagib (2011), among others. Contemporary Realism was
even the topic of the special autumn issue of Cinephile: The University of
British Columbias Film Journal, edited by Shaun Inouye.
In short, the purpose of this article is to examine the codes that define
the Realist style today, and how through the application of this style
filmmakers can ensure, on the one hand, a perfect balance between the
reproduction and construction of reality and, on the other, that this very
dramatisation, developed with the purpose of eliciting an emotional
response from the spectator, does not undermine the authenticity of reality
on the screen, but, on the contrary, keeps the illusion or effect of that
reality unadulterated, so that spectators experience the stories told as true
stories. In order to assess the relevance of the Realist style in contemporary
film, I have analysed a contemporary film by a director who, according to
Scott, forms part of the new Realist trend in contemporary American
independent cinema. The director is Ramin Bahrani and the film in
question is Chop Shop (2007).
Bahrani is a US-born filmmaker of Iranian origin. He has tried, despite
the considerable distance involved, to keep in touch with his cultural roots
through contact with the well-known Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami,
whom we could define as his film-making mentor and who, as Scott
(2009) notes, refined the old Neorealist spirit through the 1990s and into
Fernando Canet 273

the next decade. Bahrani himself acknowledges this influence through his
desire to make an Iranian-style movie here in New York.3

Real Life as Subject

As MacCabe (1976, 9) notes, by the criteria of one of the great Realist
critics, Andr Bazin, for a film to be realistic, it must locate its characters
and action in a determinate social and historical setting. The specific
reality dealt with in this film is relatively unknown; the Willets Point
neighbourhood in Queens, although paradoxically it is located in the city
most often portrayed in the history of film, New York City. Willets Point
is one of the most neglected areas of Queens, popularly known as the Iron
Triangle for its chop shops. Chop Shop in the local slang means an
undercover workshop where cars are broken up for spare parts to be sold
on the black market, thus making the whole area an authentic junkyard, a
particular diegetic universe, full of dismantled cars and unpaved dirty
streets in which the puddles only dry up during the hot days of summer.
[Figs. 12.] The film lifts the curtain by placing this real location in
context. The director chooses a setting outside the neighbourhood to focus
on the distant skyscrapers of Manhattan, as if letting the audience know
from the beginning that this is, although it does not seem like, a story set
in New York City. [Fig. 3.]
Later in the movie, Bahrani also uses another First World symbol, the
nearby City Field (the new stadium for the New York Mets baseball team),
as a contrast to the Third World-esque Willets Point. [Figs. 45.] For
Bahrani it was paradoxical to observe how quickly you could migrate from
a place of despair to another where you could read on a giant billboard
Make Dreams Happen. Bahrani confesses he was curious to know what
dreams can happen in this place?, or in other words, how can the
American Dream be so close yet so far away for those who live in Willets
Point? Indeed, in this city one is constantly aware of the geographical
proximity of such socially and culturally distant worlds.
It was, in fact, precisely this gray world of poverty that inspired the
director to make the film. Thus, reality was the inspiration for the story. As
Alain Cavalier points out, movies are born of an encounter. Bahranis
cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, came to Willets Point looking for a
spare part for his car, immediately fell in love with the place and told
Bahrani about it. After visiting the neighbourhood in the winter of 2004,
Bahrani, whose first reaction was: My God, this place is the world, the

This quote is taken from an interview with Scott, and is quoted in Scotts article.
274 The New Realistic Trend in Contemporary World Cinema

world in 20 blocks, motivated by that inner drive to understand a subject,

whether it is far away or just around the corner, decided to make what
would be his second feature film, Chop Shop, a project that came to
fruition three years later.
As Jean Rouch claimed in his first short film, Initiation la danse des
posseder (Initiation into Possession Dance, 1949), an essential condition
for portraying reality is to be a part of it. Of course, Flaherty had already
done this before him. It took him three years to shoot his first film,
Nanook of the North (1922). Thus, as Rouch himself suggests (1962),
Flaherty believed that, in order to film some men belonging to a foreign
culture, it was necessary first to know them. Likewise, as Viestenz (2009,
544545) observes, the ethos of first living, then filming is posited not
only by Flaherty but also by Christian Metz (1999, 356359) in his essay
Aural Objects: In order for me to have tried to dismantle the objects
which so strike the native [] it was necessary that I be that native
myself. Bahrani himself admits in his films pressbook that he spent a
year trying to become part of the world of the Latino children who spent
their time in the workshops or roaming the streets of Willets Point. As Roy
Armes points out (1971, 187), the basic material is experienced at first
hand by the film-maker before the film is elaborated. De Sica studied the
shoeshine boys before making Sciusci and Rossellini went to Berlin
before beginning work on Germania anno zero.
Thus, the observation of reality allowed him to pick and choose what
interested him most: the kids. Bahrani himself admits in his films
pressbook: I became increasingly interested in the lives of these young
boys who worked and lived amidst grown men, in this very tough location.
I wanted to know who they were, what kind of dreams they had, and how
they managed the challenges and decisions that most of us as adults never
have to face. Thus, the main character in Chop Shop is Ale (Alejandro
Polanco), a child growing up on the street, who has to struggle with the
hostile environment. Even though Ale is Latino, speaks Spanish, and is not
a professional actor, he doesnt really belong to the group described above.
He was born and grew up in Manhattans Lower East Side. However,
Bahrani knew how to solve this problem by sending Ale to soak up the
local atmosphere. He thus spent six months in Rob Sowulskis shop the
real owner, who also plays himself in the film before shooting started,
learning firsthand the skills he would need rather than merely performing
them in front of the camera. Ale points out in the films pressbook: Every
day I would get like $30, I learned how to sand down cars, paint cars, and
how to fix dents. I even learned how to drive! It was really hard but a lot
of fun. He thus managed to become part of the neighbourhood, making
Fernando Canet 275

Figures 16. Screenshots from Ramin Bahranis Chop Shop (2007).

276 The New Realistic Trend in Contemporary World Cinema
Fernando Canet 277

friends and getting respect from adults to the point that, as the director
says, People in the Iron Triangle thought we were making a documentary
about Ale, a boy who worked there, because theyd really seen him
working there for so long. [Fig. 6.]
We can find the narrative of the child growing up on the street who has
to struggle with a hostile environment in Vittorio de Sicas Shoeshine
(Sciusci, 1946), Roberto Rossellinis Germany Year Zero (Germania
anno zero, 1948), and Luis Buuels Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones,
1950). As Bahrani himself recognizes, if [Luis Bunuels] Los Olvidados
were to be made today in America, it would be made here, referring to
Willets Point. Moreover, Ale reminds us of Alexandre Napoleon Ulysses
Latour in Flahertys Louisiana Story (1948), or, more recently, the leading
children in contemporary Iranian Realism, for instance, Ahmed in Abbas
Kiarostamis Where is the Friends Home? (1987), Mina in Jafar Panahis
The Mirror (1997), Massoumeh and Zahra Naderi in Samira
Makhmalbafs The Apple (1998), to name a few. All of these children are
real people from the reality that has been selected as subject, who are
picked out to become the protagonists of the plots developed in the film.
As Bazin notes (1971, 24), The non-professionals are naturally chosen for
their suitability for the part, either because they fit physically or because
there is some parallel between the role and their lives. Bazins words can
be applied to anybody, whether an adult or a child. In the specific case of
children, given their innocence and lower level of awareness of the
mechanism of filmmaking, their performance may prove much more
spontaneous and therefore more genuine. It is therefore no surprise that a
film genre that aims for naturalness in its representation should have a
preference for stories in which children are the protagonists.
Another hallmark that defines the Realist style is the focus on everyday
routine. As Bill Nichols notes (1991, 165), Realism builds upon a
presentation of things as they appear to the eye and the ear in everyday
life. Thus, in Chop Shop, through the point of view of Ale, the audience
can see how the characters break up, sand, polish and paint cars, change
tyres or lure customers to their shops and also show people in their time
off, having fun playing dice or enjoying barbecues, while the ever-present
Latin music can be heard blaring out in the background. As Bordwell
points out (2009), Chop Shop features a greater sense of dailiness.
278 The New Realistic Trend in Contemporary World Cinema

Combining Threads of Routine Structures with Dramatic

The reality in which these children live is not easy; on the contrary, it
is full of travails and challenges that they have to face. Such conflictive
situations are the perfect pretext for unfolding dramatic structures in the
film. Thus, in Realist films there is a place for both dramatic structures and
the threads of routine structures. Indeed, part of the success of this type of
film lies in the ability to combine typically everyday activities with
dramatic episodes. This balance is achieved by alternating moments in the
film in which routines occupy the foreground with moments in which such
routines move into the background. Generally, everyday activities play a
more central role at the beginning of the film, where the presentation of
the context and the activities carried out in that context are the focus of
attention. As the story develops, these activities lose their importance,
giving way to dramatic episodes. Nonetheless, scenes of everyday
activities not only serve the purpose of presenting the reality in which the
action occurs but also of planting information that will be of relevance
later on in the narration when more dramatic situations unfold. As
Bordwell notes (2009), most of the routines establish a backdrop against
which moments of change and conflict will stand out. To illustrate this
point, Bordwell makes reference to the scene in which Ale and his buddy,
Carlos discover that Ales sister, Isamar, has become one of the hookers
who service men in the cab of a tractor-trailer [...]. Bahranis script
motivates their discovery by explaining that they habitually spy on the
truck assignations [...]. In two later scenes, the truck-stop becomes an
arena for conflict.
This situation proves very moving for Ale. As Greg G. Smith notes
(2003, 102), dense configurations of emotion cues to mark scenes in
which characters make important recognitions. This recognition situation
also marks a shift in the characters hardships. Although Ales situation is
not easy, he has a close friend, gets a job, gets a home, and, ultimately,
gets his sister to live with him. Things are going well (positive value) and,
moreover, he has a goal to improve his situation; as many cognitive film
theorists point out,4 goal-driven plotting is central to unfolding an
emotional film structure. He wants a better life for Isamar and for himself,

On characters goals, see Greg M. Smith, Film Structure and the Emotion System,
(Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Carl R. Plantinga, Moving Viewers:
American Film and the Spectator's Experience (University of California Press,
Fernando Canet 279

and so he works hard to save money to buy a van, which will be repaired
to convert it into a push cart to sell food on the street. From this emotional
turning-point to the end of the film, the characters situation goes from bad
to worse. As is very common in classical narrative, the crisis unfolds in the
climax, the peak dramatic moment, when Ale is faced with the most
emotionally charged situation.
Ale ultimately decides to face the situation involving Isamar. Having
so decided, he heads off again to the truck stop with the intention of
putting a stop to his sisters activity. The moment is filled with emotion,
mainly due to the fact that what is at stake for Ale is of vital importance to
him, because, as Ed S. Tan notes (2009, 44) without concerns, there can
be no emotion; conversely, emotion signifies that some concern of the
individual has been affected. At the same time, the scene seems real. And
this is due mainly to Bahranis style of direction. With the purpose of
eliciting an authentic reaction from Ale, Bahrani took advantage of an
incident that the youth had experienced when he was only nine years old.
At that age, he witnessed a murder that seriously disturbed him. Bahrani
thus took a fake gun and gave it to the man who was enjoying Isamar's
services, telling him to put it to Isamars head in order to add an element
of terror to the situation. The strategy achieved its aim, striking an
emotional chord in Ale. The anger provoked by his memory resulted in an
aggressive response to the man with the fake gun. As Bahrani (Richard
Porton 2008, 46) himself wonders: is Ales reaction acting or is it a
documentary reaction to an event? It doesnt matter. Theres only one
question that matters: does it work and is it a good story?
After this intense moment, Bahrani allows time to go by for the
situation to cool down. Time for both Ale and Isamar to reflect about their
situation; time to allow not only the external actions but also the internal
action of the characters to unfold. Time for what Robert Bresson calls
(1997) sculpting the invisible winds through the motion of waves; in
other words, to make visible what is invisible, in this case the emotions of
the characters. Thus, after the stormy night, the new day brings calm. With
the dawn, a hopeful situation arises. A moment charged with emotion for
the characters has passed, and reconciliation is extremely important to
both. As Nichols points out (1991, 155), emotional realism selects
aspects of a scene in accordance with their emotional importance to
characters. Just a few seconds are necessary to provoke this emotive
moment, for three main reasons: firstly, as already stated, what is at stake
for the characters is very important; secondly, after a series of negative
situations, the mood of the narrative needs to be broken with a positive one
(that is, after conflicts, a moment of pleasure is experienced at the end,
280 The New Realistic Trend in Contemporary World Cinema

even if the situation staged is as minimal as the return of a smile to the

characters faces and pigeons taking flight); and thirdly, Ales goal is
partially achieved. As Bordwell points out (2009), so we have an open,
somewhat ambivalent ending another convention of realist storytelling
and modern cinema (especially after Neorealism). Life goes on, as we, and
many movies, often say.

Figures 78. Screenshots from Ramin Bahranis Chop Shop (2007).

Searching for Naturalness and Authenticity

The prior cohabitation with the reality to be filmed, as noted earlier,
and the subsequent rehearsals held in the same locations not only serve to
Fernando Canet 281

start shaping the dialogues and actions, but also to begin structuring the
plot to be acted out by the three children in this reality chosen as the
context for the plot. Thus, in addition to allowing the children to begin
assuming their roles in the story and establishing the relationships between
them, the rehearsals helped them to begin adapting to the environment so
that to some extent they begin to feel part of the reality of Willets Point. At
the same time, the rehearsals were performed on camera, thereby
mitigating the dreaded camera effect. This is a key point, especially in
cases where the characters are being performed by non-professionals.
Thus, in Chop Shop the rehearsals also served to accustom the three
children to the film equipment so as to reduce their consciousness of its
presence during shooting. One of the essential purposes of all this
preliminary work is to achieve the highest degree of naturalness and
authenticity possible in the final product.
As Vertov believes, the only way to make the sequence more real is
precisely through spontaneity. Nonetheless, spontaneity was not the only
strategy that Bahrani used during shooting; control was also extremely
important. As Scott points out (2009), transparency, immediacy and a
sense of immersion in life are not the automatic results of turning on a
camera but rather effects achieved through the painstaking application of
craft. Thus, the camera movements, composition and details into the
frame were also adjusted and controlled by director and crew. Therefore,
another of the hallmarks of the Realist style is the tension between scripted
situations, which are acted out by the characters, and unscripted situations
that arise from the spontaneity of the moment. This is particularly true in
unstaged public scenes where the only controlled aspect is the action of the
main character. This happens in the scenes in which Ale and his friend,
Carlos sell candy on the subway, or when Ale is waiting for his sister on
the platform. In the first case, a small crew with a hand-held camera is the
only way to shoot the scene without altering the environment in which the
action unfolds. [Fig. 7.] In the second case, the effect is achieved by using
lenses in a selective approach that keeps Ale in focus at all times, even
though he often disappears into the crowd waiting for the train. [Fig. 8.]
Both scenes are especially reminiscent of the Neorealist scenes. As Roy
Armes (1971, 191) notes, streets, crowds and railway-stations, the
countryside and the sea all provide marvelously expressive backgrounds
for the film to use and the sense of life going on beyond the limits of the
frame is one of the great qualities of this new cinema. Bazin, (2004, 313)
referring to such scenes, said: The subtlety and flexibility of the camera
movements in these tight and crowded spaces, and the natural behavior of
282 The New Realistic Trend in Contemporary World Cinema

all persons in frame, are the main reasons that make these scenes the
highlights of Italian cinema.

Chop Shop is a film that exemplifies the rebirth in the last two decades
of a Realist trend in contemporary world cinema based on a belief in the
ontological power of reality. This is the seed of the story, which is
nurtured and grown through the contact that its author has with this reality
throughout the creative process. Moreover, this reality is the real
background in which the plot unfolds. And this reality can also become the
foreground of the film, and can even change the plot during shooting.
Thus, the tension between reality and fiction is one of the key aspects of
Realism. Indeed, the question of how to integrate fiction into the real
world without undermining the viewers impression of reality is one of the
main concerns of cinematic Realism, as the foremost purpose of this type
of cinema is to make the film look real. To achieve this, filmmakers apply
the Realist style, a set of conventions and norms which tell the story in the
context of the real world, using devices that are closer historically to the
documentary genre and which allow the reproduction of reality so that
what is filmed doesnt seem staged, but has the appearance of life
unfolding before the camera. I refer here to the documentarys impulse for
attaining that utopia of authenticity: making the film look real. On the
other hand, this style also involves the dramatisation of reality using
devices from fiction to achieve character engagement (on this topic see the
work of cognitive film theorists, especially Murray Smith [2004], Nol
Carroll [2007], and Amy Coplans works [2009]), which is central to the
spectators emotional response to a film. The proper balance between
these two devices is crucial to the success of the Realist approach to
reality, since the more realistic the effect achieved in the film, the truer the
emotions that surface on the screen.

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Starting in the mid-1950s, the close correlation between Bergmans

cinema and the possibility of representing time in film became evident.
French film critique played a key role in this respect, highlighting a central
aspect of a film opus in continuous evolution that went through various
phases concluding with diverse outcomes (Rohmer 1956, Branger 1957,
Godard 1958, Hoveyda 1959).
Eric Rohmer noted how Bergman recognized cinemas ability to
represent life and its unadulterated length, divesting it of intrigue and
suspense, and showing that life is, basically, monotonous (Rohmer 1956,
7). This became the defining trait of a type of cinema that represents a
potential capitulation to a flow of time which captures every qualitative
level and not just those which create strong dramaturgical and narrative
dimensions (Steene 2005, 131141).
In his critique of Prison (Fngelse, 1949), Jean Douchet analyzed the
film from an ethical standpoint which considered Bergmans desire to
explain the presence of hell which reigns on earth as the fulcrum of the
filmmakers poetics, and introduced the concept of instant privilgi. To
the French critic, this is a moment of equilibrium between the
protagonists realization of the cruelty and indifference of the world and
the possibility of experiencing a moment of joy and peace despite
everything. Actually, more than equilibrium, it is a suspension in the flow
of the pain of time, which, as it crystallizes itself in an instantaneous
dimension, removes those experiencing it from the chronological flow of
time and places them in a privileged and abstract dimension which,
nonetheless, is destined to disappear almost instantaneously (Douchet
1959, 52).
Douchets reasoning is interesting and productive when it evokes the
gaze, that act of looking which is so closely tied to how the gazers face is
filmed, and regards Godards reflection that Bergman is the filmmaker of
286 The Sensation of Time in Bergmans Poetics of Bodies and Minds

the instant (Godard 1958, 2). The Swedish director demonstrated not only
the desire to use the cinematographic means in virtue of its fundamental
ability to mold time, but also and above all, of the possibility it offers to
subject time to a continuous metamorphosis which captures it qualitatively
and develops it quantitatively by acquiring, mastering, and giving new
meaning to conventional and proven narrative structures (for example, the
flashback) and to a spatial dimension involving the mise-en-scne and the
shots, above all of the face. This paper is based on the conviction that,
even though Bergmans films are populated with figures who embody
Time (in particular, the representation of Death, a pervasive presence in
the Swedish directors filmography), the focal point of a reflection on the
possibility of analyzing temporality in film lies in how the body and, more
specifically, the face are represented.
Jacques Aumont suggests that Ingmar Bergmans mature filmmaking
phase coincided with his invention of forms showing the process of
possession and abstraction of the face, which no longer refers to a purely
physical dimension but also embodies a subsequent level of the persons
alteration. To Aumont, Bergman perfected these staging techniques of
close-ups and full close-ups in his tetralogy of films shot on the island of
Fr characterized by his study of neurosis in its relation to the mental
image, establishing a parallel between practices of stylization and
abstraction aimed at defining a limit of the subjective and memory-based
dimension (represented by qualitative time), and its relationship with a
spatial dimension as characteristic as that of the close-up (Aumont 2003,
Bergmans creation consisted in perfecting what Aumont defined as
the hyper-close-up, in which the identifying form of a person (the face)
is spatially constrained within the edges of the frame, thus liberating its
clarity and expressivity (Aumont 2003, 170). [Fig. 1.] The Swedish
filmmakers opus progressively distanced itself from psychologizing ways
of representing the human face and created a new way of staging the
spatiality of the actors body that also influenced the temporal dimension.
Two frames are emblematic of the evolution in Bergmans use of the
close-up in his reflections on time: the first features Maj-Britt Nilson (in
the role of Mrta) and is taken from Waiting Women (Kvinnor vntan,
1952); the second is from Cries and Whispers (Viskningar och rop, 1972)
and shows Liv Ullmann (in the role of Maria) visiting her bedridden sister
in Agness resurrection scene. [Figs. 23.] The narrative, psychological
dimension prevails in Waiting Women; on the other hand, Cries and
Whispers is based on the juxtaposition and clash between the
deconstruction of the story and the characters, and the intensification of
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion 287

classical dramaturgy using premodern cinematographic technology

(Neyrat 2007, 12). Although Waiting Women is constructed on three
flashbacks, its temporality is linear. In Cries and Whispers, the temporal
dimension is shattered and challenged, and there is no clear confine
between the real world and the one created by the altered reality of
dreams and memory; the close-ups of the protagonists lie at the junction of
this problematic temporality, in a fluctuating structure generated by the
interiority of the characters and by delving into the singularity of psychic
During the 1950s, Bergman believed that the close-up still had the
value of emphasizing feelings: it traced them, underlining and rendering
them explicit. Later, the close-up became an instrument for stylizing space
and concentrating time. This can occur by shattering the temporal
dimension, pushing it to the limit; in this dimension, a clear division is
drawn between the real world and the one created by the altered reality
of dreams, memory, the peculiarity of psychological time (Gervais 1999,

Figures 14. Close-ups in Persona (1966), Waiting Women (1952), Cries and
Whispers (1972), and Winter Light (1963).
288 The Sensation of Time in Bergmans Poetics of Bodies and Minds

It also occurs in the close-up of Mrta reading the letter in Winter Light
(Nattvardsgsterna, 1963), a close-up which blends together not just
different temporalities but different experiential situations as well (that of
Mrta and that of Tomas Ericsson). Thus, faced with what can technically
be considered two equivalent planes, Bergman introduced a sideslip which
tempers the passage from one form of mise-en-scne to another and
renders time visible through close-ups of the face (cf. Aumont 1992, 100).
[Fig. 4.]
The method used by Bergman to make time perceptible is to insist on
the body, denuding it through a process of painful unveiling which is often
accompanied by monologues, with the character gazing at the mirror
image of his own conscience or that of others. A mirror which is not only
metaphorical, since it becomes the tangible and privileged object in which
the characters reflect themselves and reflect on themselves. The mirror is
the instrument which separates face from body, isolating it. It enables one
to choose the unique, identitary cipher of the body, isolating it and
insisting on it: in Bergmans films, the face becomes a sensorial space on
which the directors camera registers the passing of the instants. But, in his
films, images of the face are not always accompanied by the use of a
mirror: this might be the instrument which thematizes the use of the face,
but its function is, in fact, to focus the gaze on what is being reflected. An
equivalency can be established between the techniques used to stage the
reflected image of the characters (which doubles the subjects, making
them unstable, forcing them to confront themselves) and that of the full-
face close-up shot of the characters. Thus, just like a mirror offers its own
evidence to the person looking into it, the full-face shot offers the
spectator the naked evidence of the character, providing a mirror-effect
which tends to reflect a vision of pure time, objectively correlated to a
distressing idea of mortality, of impending death.
Winter Light is perhaps the most evident example of this practice. In
this film, Bergman proposes interesting stylistic features in his portrayal of
temporality: the long scene in which the letter is re-cited by Mrta
Lundberg is, in the body-time of the film, a moment of otherness which,
rather than interrupting the chronologically linear dimension of the film
and its unity of time-place-action, indicates instead a possible and concrete
elsewhere. That is, Bergman creates a double level of temporality, a fringe
of the past that becomes crystallized in the present and places it under
constant tension. Through this tension, he makes time manifest: it is as
though he can visualize time and make it perceptible in the concrete
experience of its flow. Regarding the relationship of cinema with time and
becoming, Paolo Bertetto writes that the filmic image is [] a moving
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion 289

image which shows the flows of things in space and time, produced by the
mise-en-scne; these images are able to also show in a clear manner the
temporal character of people and things. Everything that is visible appears
in a temporal articulation and the things are distributed along the
temporality of the flow. The moving image, therefore, very clearly
articulates the procedural fluidity and the spatial transfer of things, as well
as the temporal character of the flow, of its state of being chronos
(Bertetto 2010, 159160).
An austere and stringent film, Winter Light marks a radical break in
Ingmar Bergmans cinematographic style: striving for intense stylistic
perfection that revolves round the aesthetic pole of realism (Donner
1970, 119), forced into the three unities of time, place, and action, the
film nonetheless tends toward a dimension of the abstraction of
phenomenological reality which finds particular relevance in the
filmmakers pondered use of the close-up and its associated temporality.
In fact, even when the mise-en-scne disallows the close-up, it is evoked
by its very absence, as in the long scene in which the body of Jonas
Persson, who committed suicide, is found. Filmed as a long shot bearing
detached and objective witness, the scene depicts the impossibility of
communication between individuals. [Fig. 5.]

Figure 5. Winter Light (1963): a close-up evoked by its very absence. Figure 6.
The pain, in its visual effects on the body, marks the inexorable passage of time
which consumes and destroys.

By disallowing a close-up of the face, the emotional vector par

excellence, it manifests the moral and human defeat of the pastor Tomas
Ericsson and creates an ultimately excruciating sensation of passing time.
The film is constructed in the present; what matters is the ongoing,
unrepeatable moment in which existential solitude is experienced
(portrayed by a simple mise-en-scne, in which the actors body is the
290 The Sensation of Time in Bergmans Poetics of Bodies and Minds

inevitable focal point of a plane which tends to annul itself in the void): to
the characters in this film, time is pain; in fact, if the objective use of space
contributes to creating a feeling of isolation, the subjective perception of
time highlights the crisis of the present, which is full of suffering and
Bergman, through his work on space and the actors body, achieved a
more aware and mature confrontation with the possibilities of representing
time. Time becomes flesh, it assumes a physical, emotional, and spiritual
concreteness in bodies whose actions and decay are brazenly flaunted by
the director. [Fig. 6.] The many ill characters (in whom the illness
undermining the physique is also the metaphor of an infirmity of the soul
and refers to a spiritual dimension that is able to transcend the confessional
and religious limits which have often been used to interpret Bergmans
cinema) populating his films embody a private pain which is often viewed
as universal. This pain, in its visual effects on the body, marks the
inexorable passage of time which consumes and destroys, and which often
does not even leave the illusory comfort of memory, because even
memories are often bent to a logic of lies which reflects the inevitable
moral, relational, and human defeat of the characters. The pastor Tomas
Ericsson is emblematic of this approach; he constructs a fictitious memory
that is a far cry from the reality of his personal relationship with his
defunct wife. The inability to accept the painful evidence of the failure of
human and emotional relationships is the theme of Cries and Whispers, a
film which is entirely constructed on the resurfacing of memories which
are irreconcilable with the defensive reality which the protagonists have
tried to erect around themselves.
Mrta Lundbergs blistered hands in Winter Light, Esters body
wracked by consumption in The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963), and Agness
cancer-riddled body in Cries and Whispers are only a few of the most
obvious examples of an opus that is able to render the physicality of pain
concrete and perceptible, of the mise-en-scne of bodies consumed by time
and consecrated to consuming themselves in death. This ability of
Bergman is even more exceptional if one takes into account that these
three films belong to the period in his career during which he consciously
espoused techniques of explicit stylization. If the mise-en-scne tends
toward sobriety in the adopted solutions, these solutions insist on the
actors (the true measure of Bergmans cinema), exalting their possibilities
and capturing (and transfiguring) their physical concreteness. Thanks to
his experience in the theatre (where what counts is the here and now of the
unrepeatable presence of a body determined by time and performing
within a space), Bergman transferred to his films an awareness of their
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion 291

ability to also represent the flow of time, encapsulated in a body that is

inevitably destined to be annulled: hence, the exceptional value attributed
to the instant. Michel Estve stresses the fact that in opposition to
Sartres thesis, according to which the present is nothing other than an
escape, a flight from death and empty perdurance, Christian existential
conception (to which both Bernanos and Kierkegaard adhered) underlines
the exceptional value of the instant, an intersection point between eternity
and our temporality, the possible fullness of time and duration (Estve
1966, 67).
But time which consumes the body is also time which corrodes human
relationships: to stage and film the process with a camera that follows it
throughout its duration means to tread a path that unveils the lie and leads
to a dimension of annulment. And to work on the image in order to push it
toward the limits of the void was one of the objectives Bergman pursued
in some of the key films of his opus. Reflecting on the cinematographic
images of Bergmans films of the 1960s, Jean Narboni writes that long
confined to the margins of his films, the silent forces and their power to
create the voids surreptitiously slipped into their very texture, softening
the outlines and blurring the boundaries (Narboni 1967, 41).
Persona is the film which most explicitly confronts this limit,
reflecting on the role of cinema as a device and the dimension inherent to
the individual person. Enclosed between a prologue and an epilogue which
thematize the meta-cinematographic dimension, constructed almost
entirely of close-ups and long takes, Persona is representative of the
tension of research in Bergmans films from the 1960s, research which
invests the meaning and the use of the close-up. An emblematic synthesis
of a process of subtraction and abstraction (which veers toward
destruction: of the screen, of the device, of the character, and of the
narration), the film problematizes the correlation between the close-up
of the face and the psychological dimension of the subject. In depicting
Elisabet Vogler, Bergman highlights the parallelism between the physical
dimension and what could, for simplicitys sake, be defined as the spiritual
dimension of a person who is drawn toward his or her own depletion and
annihilation. Aumont writes: To represent a face, to draw a portrait
(whether or not it belongs to the pictorial genre known as portraiture),
means to contemporaneously search for two things: resemblance and,
again, resemblance. Visual resemblance, which can be empirically
detected by the eye, which can be adjusted through artifices of the atelier,
which can be analyzed in localized similitudes, in proportions; and the
spiritual or simply personal resemblance, which cannot be detected but
292 The Sensation of Time in Bergmans Poetics of Bodies and Minds

which can be sensed, which cannot be analyzed but which carries

conviction (Aumont 1992, 2627).
This dimension of abstraction also regards the characters, whose faces
undergo a process of metamorphosis which confounds their identifying
contours, both from a physical point of view and from the point of view of
their relationship with the surrounding world. To this regard, Steve
Vineberg writes: The mystery at the heart of Persona is the mystery of
identity, articulated by Bergman and his two actresses chiefly in two ways.
The first is the mirror exercise, in which we cannot say for sure which of
the two women is the initiator and which is the responding mirror. The
other is the metamorphosis, a process whereby an actor undergoes a
dramatic mutation of some kind. [] The central image of Persona the
unforgettable mirror shot in which the two womens faces merge is, of
course, an image of metamorphosis (Vineberg 2000, 124).
Persona intentionally creates a world that is suspended between the
concreteness of reality and the impalpability of dreams, a complex
surreality which ends up acquiring the traits of the subjective world of the
protagonists, setting in motion a process of osmosis, by means of which
the mental subjectivity of the characters tends to invade and dominate the
objectivity of the physical world. [Fig. 7.] Persona is a psychological
battleground, on which the individual subjectivities of the protagonists
fight for the expressive territory which exalts the individual and becomes
the location expressing the soul: the close-up, the location of the confusion
between the objective dimension afferent to the world and the characters
own subjectivity. [Fig. 8.]

Figure 7. Persona (1966): a world suspended between the concreteness of reality

and the impalpability of dreams. Figure 8. The close-up as the location of the
confusion between the objective dimension afferent to the world and the
characters own subjectivity.
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion 293

In the foundational figure of the close-up and full close-up, Bergman

experiments with the possibilities of a new type of cinema, freed from the
urgency to confront reality and assuming aspects which are increasingly
frayed, undefined, ephemeral. In a cinema on the threshold of life which
always overlaps with Death (evoked, suggested, and ambiguously
represented), an obsessive and constant figure casting its long shadow
even in films consecrated to summertime and love, is embodied in a last,
powerful, and abstract image: time (Aumont 2003, 126). Bergman
confronted time by using two apparently different methods that are
actually complementary and interconnected: thematizing and reflecting on
the best cinematographic means for rendering time perceptible. Over the
years, by working on the possibilities of and the many methods for staging
an instantaneous temporality (able to capture life as it unfolds but also to
concentrate on the precise instant in which it seems to suspend itself and
hover in a dimension that is not within the jurisdiction of the chronological
passage of time), Bergman constantly redefined the canons of his own film
technique, passing from the extreme freedom and ease of the filmic with
regard to the profilmic, to his desire to closely control the shots. By thus
passing from the forms of a free cinema to those of a rigorous cinema, the
director constantly expanded his own reflection on time and the
possibilities of its representation, starting with methods of chronological
analysis and ending with extreme forms of abstraction.
Like Winter Light, the film Hour of the Wolf (Vargtimmen, 1968), too,
explores the duration of time but it also opens up to another reflection and
a new level of ambiguity: reality (or rather: here is time) which falls into
a hallucinated dimension (or rather: which time?). Similar to The Face
(Ansiktet, 1958) in both its thematic choices (the humiliation of the artist,
the fusion of reality and the fantastic) and its stylistic ciphers (the
continuous friction between objective and subjective elements, between
various levels of reality and the possibility of experiencing the surreality
of magic and dreams), Hour of the Wolf is the film which carries the
hallucinatory dimension of Bergmans opus to the extreme. Like a true
Strindbergian ghost sonata, the film is populated by vampire-like
characters moving within a mise-en-scne in which the confines of
nightmares entwine with those of awakening.
The film also addresses methods of mise-en-scne and questions of
temporality with which the director had already experimented in Wild
Strawberries (Smultronstllet, 1957). In fact, in Wild Strawberries,
Bergman explicitly deals with the theme of time. If his previous films had
clearly displayed complex and sophisticated research on the portrayal of
temporality, this film compares quantitative time and qualitative time, and
294 The Sensation of Time in Bergmans Poetics of Bodies and Minds

clearly reveals the theoretic deviation which the filmmaker would imprint
on his opus from then on. Wild Strawberries is the laboratory in which he
experiments in depth with possible ways to render the constant fluctuation
between the quantitative and the qualitative dimensions in how time is
experienced. For example, observe how his flashbacks have more than just
an evident dramaturgical function; they are also endowed with an added
significance because his structuring of the film creates a virtual confusion
in its temporal levels. In other words, Bergman gives the flashback a
double role: it ferries the story from one temporal dimension to another,
dimensions which are nonetheless characterized by a quantitative acceptance
(time which has passed, which can be measured), and, at the same time, it
creates a fracture in the chronological dimension, into which he inserts the
qualitative experience of time. Moreover, in Wild Strawberries, Bergman
begins to consciously display his own desire to create a type of cinema
which studies the possibility of comprehending the many levels of reality:
in fact, the filmmaker held that if cinema can pay attention to a strictly
phenomenological dimension of reality (through a mechanism that exploits
the illusion), it can also create a surreal dimension. In other words, a
dimension that contains phenomenological reality, but which is difficult to
perceive. This highlighting of the surreal derives from cinemas ability to
deal with a plurality of times, above all with qualitative times which define
the experiential horizon of the characters.
Let us now consider the construction of the film, Hour of the Wolf, in
order to try to understand how Bergmans work on temporality led to the
re-definition of a particular type of film image which is characterized by
its relationship to the ambiguous dimension of fantastic temporality. This
re-definition is a type of confirmation, an institutionalization of a
constitutive process whose traces can be found in past experiments since,
as Jacques Aumont notes, already with Persona Bergman invents a new
statute of the filmic image: no longer an indication, a trace which is
ontologically coupled to the appearance of reality, no longer fantasies or
pure extravaganza, but rather the enchanted realism of interior images
(Aumont 2003, 161162).
Hour of the Wolf, which is born in a dimension of problematic and
hallucinated realism, which develops in the ambiguous confrontation of
the realities of the two protagonists (Johan and his wife Alma), which
clashes and concludes with a horrific dimension that has almost an
expressionist matrix, takes the intuitions of Persona and pushes them
toward the outer limit of obscurity. The light treatment in this film is
carefully calibrated: the characters are engulfed and swallowed up by
darkness, and light is constantly battling obscurity. Moreover, when light
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion 295

is present, the images are over-exposed to the point when everything is

precipitated into a hallucinatory atmosphere of nightmares that are coming

Figures 910. Hour of the Wolf (1968).

The film opens with a monologue by Alma, who is looking straight

into the camera. [Fig. 9.] This mise-en-scne is important not just because
it is repeated in the finale of the film, in which the woman is talking to an
invisible listener, but also because it is preceded by the sounds of the scene
itself being prepared. We can hear the prop men moving objects and
movie cameras around on the set, we can presumably hear Bergman
coaching Ullmann on how to interpret the scene. Thus, we are faced with a
procedure of alienation which, on the one hand, makes it more difficult for
us as the spectators of the cinematographic device Bergman is setting up,
and, on the other, represents a different time with respect to the story
which the film is about to present us. We are faced with an initial fracture
of the films temporal reality, or better, of the temporal continuity of the
storys main level. We realize that the time of the filming is about to be
substituted by the time of the film: and a very special film it is, with its
fantastic and dreamlike dimension.
Within the framework of Almas monologues which open and
conclude the film (which support this framework and give it meaning,
making us perceive the film as a story told by the woman), the story
unrolls as a complete flashback. At first glance, Hour of the Wolf is the
narration of Johan Borgs crisis, which he recounts to his wife after he has
already died. We are confronted with yet another temporal level, a critical
moment of the past: the past as a dimension of memory in which the
recollections that are sparked bear the seed of ambiguity, of fallaciousness,
of the possibility of not existing. From this point of view, the shot of Alma
Borg as she observes the painting of Veronica Vogler on the wall in
296 The Sensation of Time in Bergmans Poetics of Bodies and Minds

Baroness von Merkenss bedroom is emblematic. We know that the

woman is looking at the painting but we dont see it and never will. The
painting, the portrait which brings the past concretely into the present, is
annulled, as is the period of time which could have been conserved in it:
the only time which remains is the duration of the shot, which is filled
with Almas interior time. [Fig. 10.]
A further loop of this spiral evolution of time is proposed right after
the apparition of the Old Lady (Naima Wifstrand), who tells Alma where
she can find her husbands diary. This episode is of dual importance to the
economy of the film: it is the first moment in which the dimension of
ambiguity (which is a prelude to the fantastic) is linked to time. In what
sense? In the sense that the statute, the index of reality of the Old Lady, is
never made clear. She might be a real presence but then again she might
be a ghost. Or rather, it is possible that Alma, too, in virtue of her love and
cohabitation with Johan, sees the same ghosts her husband sees (and, in
fact, the film closes with this question).
Bergman insists on this element of ambiguity; rather than limiting
himself to dialogue (with the Old Ladys slip of the tongue, when she first
says she is 216 years old and then corrects herself, saying she is 76), he
uses a precise strategy in the mise-en-scne. First we see Alma taking a
blanket outside and spreading it out on a table to air; then, when she senses
that someone is standing behind her, she turns around and the movie
camera pans until it comes to a stop on the Old Lady. From that moment
on, we are authorized to believe in the actual presence of the Old Lady,
except for the fact that the director never shows Alma and her together in
the same frame. And when the old woman goes away, the doubt remains:
Alma is shown on her own and the long shot seems to confirm that until
that moment she really has always been by herself. The doubt that this
sequence generates grafts a dimension of altered reality onto the fabric of
the film; in this sequence, we are confronted with a moment of suspended
and uncertain temporality, in which chronological, objective time is
substituted by a dimension of time which is purely personal: the dimension
of the characters interiority. However, it must be immediately stressed
that, in the case in question, this is true only after the whole film has been
viewed, because at that particular moment the narrative has not yet been
developed enough for us to propend for either the real or the fantastic
dimension. At this point in the film, we can only have doubts, no
certainties above all regarding Alma. It is interesting to note that, before
this sequence, Bergman had proposed a reflection on the concreteness of
the duration of time. Johan looks at his watch and tells his wife not to fall
asleep before dawn has broken, after which he times one minute, as though
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion 297

to define a very precise horizon of objective temporality, which is tied to

the seconds as they pass. From this point of view, time which never
passes, which becomes an oppressive and unbearable weight, could be the
key to our approach to the film. [Fig. 11.]
As mentioned above, the apparition of the Old Lady who reveals the
existence of the diary leads to another twist, which undermines the
temporal dimension which had been created such a short time before. In
fact, as Alma reads her husbands diary, she activates three suspensions of
the linear passage of time: her reading evokes three encounters Johan Borg
had on the island, the first with Baron von Merkens, the second with his
former lover Veronica Vogler, and the third with Mr. Heerbrand. The
nature of these suspensions (or flashbacks within the principal flashback,
which is the film itself), of these disturbing fractures which disrupt our
comprehension of temporality, is ambiguous and it shifts the film from the
dominion of reality to that of unreality, of mental creation, of dreams and
desires. The facts recounted in the diary might have truly happened, but
then again, maybe they didnt: they could have simply been imagined by
Johan Borg, who, as we know, has been ill and hasnt completely
And, if the encounters with von Merkens and Heerbrand can be ascribed
to the dimension of reality, in part because of the mise-en-scne of these
encounters, Veronica Voglers apparition leaves little doubt as to the nature
of the protagonists mental projections. In this scene, we see Johan sitting
down and holding his head between his hands; the sudden appearance of the
other, the image-body of desire, takes place at the edge of the shot. Until
that moment, the shot had been dominated by a single temporality (which
registers Johan Borg on a stony beach). But now it is filled with the other,
her subjective time, the time of memory, of remembrance and desire that
takes the form of Veronica Vogler, who is also the bearer of a message
which highlights the horrific dimension of the film: unbeknownst to Johan,
he is being observed by the creatures who populate the island and soon his
nightmares will become real. In a single plane, Bergman manages to depict
two different temporalities: this is yet another example of how the directors
portrayal of time works on different levels. Moreover, as we have seen so
far, this multiplicity of levels is reached by stages, and the cohabitation of
different times defines an ambiguous difficulty in the relationship between
real and imagined. [Figs. 1213.]
The same thing happens during the story-confession that Johan tells to
Alma after the dinner at the castle: the murder of the young man, who was
first crushed against a rocky wall and then beaten to death with stones and
thrown into the water. This story, which is depicted in coarse-grained,
298 The Sensation of Time in Bergmans Poetics of Bodies and Minds

overexposed images which clearly portray a highly hallucinatory

dimension, is yet another loop in the temporal spiral on which the director
concentrates. It also corroborates that horizon of doubt, of ambiguousness
which is fundamental to the film: the protagonist himself says that he
doesnt know if what happened really did happen for real. On the surface,
this flashback is similar to the previous three, but in the dramaturgical
progression of the film, we are unable to note that it takes place after the
turning point represented by the dinner at the von Merkens.
Why is this dinner, this moment which leads to the protagonists
denouement, so important? Because it is at this precise point in Hour of
the Wolf that the protagonists solipsistic dimension gets the upper hand.
If, in fact, in the first part of the film the dimension of time, of reality, and
of that ambiguousness which could veer toward the fantastic was mediated
by the figure of Alma, from this point on her mediation vanishes; or better,
even when present like in the sequence in the forest her mediation is
infected by the malady of Johans demons. This passage takes place during
the sequence immediately prior to the dinner sequence, when Johan
returns home, sits down at the table, and listens to Almas boring story of
her shopping trip. Johan, in a close-up, turns and looks into the camera
long enough for us to understand that it isnt just a look of affection, a look
full of empathy and morality; from that moment on, the claustrophobic
world of the film will be seen through that look. Johan Borgs mental
images will populate the film and will decisively influence the temporal
dimension and its continuous slipping between real and imagined.
In the sequence right afterward, when Johan confesses to his wife,
Heerbrand shows up at Borgs house and invites the man to another party,
where Veronica Vogler will also be present. When he goes away, he
leaves a pistol on the table, since neither he nor Baron von Merkens is sure
that the painter can defend himself against the islands spells. At this point,
after a dramatic confrontation between the husband and wife which ends
with Johan shooting at Alma and grazing her with the bullet, the film
opens up to a dimension of greater unreality. The subtle ambiguousness,
which until then had traversed and bathed the happenings and apparitions
in a dreamlike and disturbing light, opens up completely to the mental
dimension, to the mise-en-scne of the protagonists ghosts. This eruption
of a hallucinatory dimension also defines a complex treatment of time, a
fracture characterized by a new quality: time is no longer evoked (for
example, by reading a diary or telling a story in the first person); time
directly concretizes the interiority of Johan and, at a certain point,
symbiotically of Alma, as well.
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion 299

Figures 1114. Hour of the Wolf (1968).

After the sequence described above, a sharp cut presents us with Johan
wandering through the corridors of von Merkenss castle. Here he
encounters various characters he had previously met and who now present
themselves with their spectral and fantastic attributes: the Baron walks on
the walls and the ceiling; Lindhorst takes on the guise of an enormous bird
after conducting Borg to the door of Veronica Voglers room; Veronica
appears to be dead but then she reawakens, as all the guests of the castle
observe her and Johan, and laugh. It is the moment of the final and
definitive confession (in a film which is constructed like a continuous
confession), when the masks fall. But the confession is interior, it takes
place in the intimacy of the mans mind, which has come unhinged; he
now only sees what he wants to see. This is made clear by the way time is
treated: after the end of this sequence of painful humiliation, there is a cut
and we return to Alma as she starts telling her story once again to an
invisible listener. The woman says that after Johan shot at her, he left the
house but returned a few minutes later and then wrote in his diary for
hours. Thus, there is a temporal incongruence between the sequence in the
castle and the womans story. Therefore, what we saw is a form of time
which depicts the temporal dimension of the mans interiority. And this
300 The Sensation of Time in Bergmans Poetics of Bodies and Minds

temporal dimension is made even more problematic and is pushed to a

new extreme: it is this tension which concretely defines the suspended
dimension of the fantastical ambiguity of the Hour of the Wolf.
Let us observe the sequence of the pre-finale which takes place in the
forest and briefly analyze how it is structured. It opens with Alma
running through the forest as she searches for Johan. She finds him sitting
on the ground and she hugs him. [Fig. 14.] At this point, Bergman, with a
fade-out, shows us that Alma is no longer with Johan: in fact, we see that
she is with Baron von Merkens. We later see Johan being attacked by the
guests of the castle; but then the forest is deserted, Johan has disappeared,
and Alma is all alone. This sequence is emblematic of how Bergman uses
time to define the horizon of the fantastic: he overthrows the character
who is the vector of the interior temporality on which the second part of
the film is constructed. If, until this moment, the time we saw portrayed
was Johans, the main protagonist of the sequence in the forest is the man
who is attacked and wounded by his demons, but as seen through Almas
It is a further example of the mise-en-scne of time: before, Bergman
had shown us how the objective dimension of time could coexist on the
same plane and in the same shot with its subjective dimension; here, he
confronts us with the coexistence of two subjective times: Johans and
Almas. In fact, he does even more he adds another loop to that temporal
spiral which is the basis of the Hour of the Wolf and does so by letting
the womans temporal dimension be invaded by her husbands. The times
intertwine and blend together, making it impossible to distinguish reality
from the hallucinated dimension of the fantastic and mental projections.
Bergmans research of time and his ability to make it slip from the
objective to the subjective, from the concreteness of the duration to the
immeasurable perception of its entirety, creates the indefinite outlines of a
mental image which is frayed and ambiguous: an image in which reality
can generate the fantastic, with all its demons and ghosts. Thus, Hour of
the Wolf portrays the directors attempt to make a plurality of dimensions
coexist, in which the borderline between reality and the imaginary is
cancelled out and leads to that equivalence in which the fantastic possesses
the same ontological status as reality.
Starting in the 1960s, Bergmans films traverse new cinematographic
territory, reflecting his increasing mastery of the use of the close-up and, at
the same time, of the processes for staging a form of purely cinematographic
time that is able to bring together the plane of reality with that of the
imagination, memory, and dreams. From the union of an explicitly
cinematographic technique like the close-up (and the full close-up) and a
Fabio Pezzetti Tonion 301

multifaceted method of representing time, Bergman ferried his own

reflections on cinema toward abstraction, consciously and irreversibly.
But, at the same time, he rendered increasingly explicit the emotional
failure of his characters, who are unable to find authentic human contact,
unable to let their faces be convulsed by spasms of emotion: forced, like
Andreas Winkelmann in A Passion (Passion, 1969) to wear a neutral
mask. A face-surface which reveals nothing and which seems to
discourage even the evidence of the inevitable passage of time and life

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Editions de lEtoile/Cahiers du Cinma.
. 2003. Ingmar Bergman. Mes films sont lexplication de mes images.
[Ingmar Bergman. My Films Are the Explanation of My Images.]
Paris: Cahiers du Cinma.
Branger, Jean. 1957. Les trois mtamorphoses dIngmar Bergman [The
Three Metamorphoses of Ingmar Bergman]. Cahiers du Cinma No.
74 (August/September): 1928.
Bertetto, Paolo. 2010. La macchina del cinema [The Machine of Cinema].
Roma-Bari: Laterza.
Donner, Jrn. 1970. Ingmar Bergman. Paris: Editions Seghers.
Douchet, Jean. 1959. Linstant privilgi [The Pregnant Moment]. Cahiers
du Cinma No. 95 (May): 5153.
Estve, Michel. 1966. Nattvardgsterna (Les Communiants) ou le silence
de Dieu [Nattvardgsterna (The Communicants) or the Silence of
God]. tudes cinmatographiques No. 4647 (1st trimester).
Gervais, Marc. 1999. Ingmar Bergman. Magician and Prophet. Montreal
& Kingston/London/Ithaca: McGill-Quenns University Press.
Godard, Jean-Luc. 1958. Bergmanorama. Cahiers du Cinma No. 85
(July): 15.
Hoveyda, Fereydoun. 1959. Le plus grand anneau de la spirale [The
Largest Ring of the Spiral]. Cahiers du Cinma No. 95 (May): 4047.
Narboni, Jean. 1967. Ingmar Bergman: Le festin de laraigne [The Feast
of Blood]. Cahiers du Cinma No. 193 (September): 3441.
Neyrat, Cyril. 2007. Le dompteur de dmons [The Tamer of Demons].
Cahiers du Cinma. Hors-srie: 1113.
Rohmer, Eric. 1956. Prsentation dIngmar Bergman [Presentation of
Ingmar Bergman]. Cahiers du Cinma No. 61 (July): 79.
Steene, Birgitta. 2005. Ingmar Bergman. A Reference Guide. Amsterdam:
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Amsterdam University Press.

Vineberg, Steve. 2000. Persona and the Seduction of Performance. In
Ingmar Bergmans Persona, ed. Lloyd Michaels, 110129.
Cambridge/New York/Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.


Towards a Sensable Intermediality

Not so recent shifts of emphasis in the humanities (cultural studies,
anthropology, literary and art theory, film studies, gender studies, etc.)
referred to as corporeal turn or as sensuous scholarship directed the
attention towards the role of corporeality, sensuality, and embodiment in
social, cultural, and artistic practices, in the constitution of the self and
intersubjectivity, in the unsettling relationship of the self and the Other
from social, anthropological, cultural, political, ethical, or aesthetic
perspectives. The cultural hierarchy of the senses and the dominance of the
paradigm of vision have been challenged by foregrounding other senses
like smell or touch or the synaesthetic aspect of perception. In 1997 Paul
Stoller proposes from an anthropological perspective a sensuous
scholarship that is both analytical and sensible, and can be an alternative
to the disembodied perspective and bloodless language of the Eurocentric
scholarship that textualizes the body it tries to critically liberate from the
Cartesian tradition and the bodymind dualism (1997, xivxv).
Laura U. Marks in her phenomenological approach to film speaks
about haptic criticism, and relying on Deleuze and Guattari as well as on
E. Riegl intends to restore a flow between the haptic and the optical that
our culture is currently lacking as a consequence of post-Enlightenment
rationality (Marks 2002, xiii). Marks aims at approaching vision not only
in terms of distance and disembodiment but as a form of contact, as an
embodied sense to maintain a robust flow between sensuous closeness
and symbolic distance (2002, xiii). Haptic vision is interested not

This work was supported by a grant of the Romanian Ministry of National
Education, CNCS UEFISCDI, project number PN-II-ID-PCE-2012-4-0573.
304 Own Deaths

primarily (or not only) in conceptual meaning-making and narrativity, but

in the sensuality of the medium, and together with optical vision requiring
distance and abstraction, it shapes the unsettling experience of perception.
Turning to the corporeal and the sensual does not result in a nave
concept of a direct, culturally, or ideologically neutral, unmediated
accessibility of the body, materiality, or corporeality. The perceiving
subject is itself defined dialectically as being neither (pure) consciousness
nor (physical, in itself) body (Madison, quoted in Sobchack 2004, 4). The
lived body never coincides with itself, never achieves a stable identity,
being continually shaped by historical and cultural systems (Madison,
quoted in Sobchack 2004, 4). This is also what Vivian Sobchack (relying
on existentialist phenomenology) underlines by the concept of embodiment
in her phenomenological approach to moving image culture (2004).
Approaches to intermediality have also been sensitive to the scientific
shifts of emphasis that do not only thematize corporeality, the embodied
subject, or the sensual aspect of social and cultural practices, but also try
to rethink the perspective, the methodology, and the terminology of
research. Henk Oosterling (2003) relying on post-structuralist philosophies
of difference conceives intermediality as sensational, as the reflectivity of
the sensable, as an ongoing transition between presence and absence,
between the sensual and the discursive. Reflectivity is never merely
conceptual or discursive but opens up towards the thinking body (Lyotard),
the unrepresentable, the sublime, the non-discursive, the subversively
gnes Peth reflecting on theories of intermediality and phenomenological
film theory points several times to the structural and the sensual modes of
becoming intermedial within cinema. The sensual mode invites the
viewer to literally get in touch with a world portrayed not at a distance but
at the proximity of entangled synesthetic sensations, and resulting in a
cinema that can be perceived in the terms of music, painting, architectural
forms or haptic textures (2010, 99).

The In-Betweenness of Cinematic Stillness

Sensable cinematic intermediality can be related to figures of stillness
and slowness in film: to the (temporary) release of the moving image from
narrative functions and its arrest in a still frame (photo-filmic or painterly)
that foregrounds the sensuous, tactile, and textured qualities of the image
palpable through vision. The stillness and the intermediality of the
photo-filmic or the painterly trigger the awareness of imageness, of filmic
Katalin Sndor 305

materiality in the spectator, disturbs medial transparency, and questions

the idea of self-enclosed medium specificity.
Laura Mulvey considers that stillness in the moving image, as well as
the process of delaying a film inevitably highlights its aesthetics and the
illusion of movement, and the hidden presence of the filmstrip on which
the illusion depends (2006, 185). Moreover, the delay, the association
with the frame, may also act as a conduit to the films uncertain,
unstable, materiality torn between the stillness of the celluloid strip and the
illusion of its movement (2006, 26). Through the ability to foreground
filmic mediality and to expose film time within cinema time, which
as narrative time usually conceals the first, Mulvey following Bellour
links stillness and delay to a different spectatorial experience, that of the
pensive spectator who reflects on the halted images of the film, not being
hurried by the narrative flow (2006, 181196). 2
Withholding or suspending the narrative through still frames, close-
ups, photo-filmic inserts makes room for a lingering, sensable, palpating
gaze through which the surface, the (inter)sensoriality, the hapticality of
the image comes to the fore. Another possibility of exposing the sensuality
of the moving image lies within slow motion cinematography. Slow
motion according to Vivian Sobchack has a particularly compelling
quality in a contemporary cinema of attractions that is based primarily on
intensely kinetic movement and speed (2006, 337). Slow motion does not
erase or eradicate movement but as Sobchack points out paradoxically
hyperbolizes it, forestalling and distilling it to what seems its
essence (2006, 337).3

Streitberger and van Gelder point out that with the advent of digital technology,
the boundaries between the photographic and the filmic image are constantly
blurred, both technically in drawing on the same software and hardware
engineering and perceptively in leaving the spectator in doubt of the
(photographic or filmic) nature of the image (2010, 48). Therefore they agree
with David Greens view according to which the distinctions between the filmic
and the photographic, between the moving and the still image [] will wither in
the face of these profound shifts in the complex technology of the visual (Green,
quoted in Streitberger van Gelder 2010, 48).
Sobchack following Ryan Bishops and John Phillipss approach perceives
slowness not as qualitatively opposed to speed, but as a relative category: thus
slow and fast should be regarded as relative powers of the single category
speed. (Bishop Philips quoted in Sobchack 2006, 338.) For Sobchack slow
and fast are not abstractions: as relative powers, they are always beholden for
their specific ascription not only to each other but also to the embodied and
situated subjects who sense them as such (2006, 338).
306 Own Deaths

Slowing down the moving image may denaturalize the transparency of

the film and the unreflected naturality of the represented movement by
disclosing the movement of the image, of representation itself in a media-
reflexive way.
Still frames, photo-filmic imagery and slow motion in cinema produce
a sensation of suspended time within the unfolding temporality of the film.
The sensual mode of becoming intermedial, as well as the self-reflexivity
of the filmic image can be related to withholding cinematic time or
narrative time and leaving room for filmic time that favors the sensable
apprehension of the image both in its haptic and optical qualities, calling
for the methodological approach of what Oosterling calls sensable
intermediality. The sensability of intermedial or heteromedial relations
can be conceived as the dialectic (and a productive tension) between the
sensuous and the conceptual, between sensation and embodied reflection
in approaching cultural products or practices.

The Book as Corpus

Sensable intermediality can be a revealing research perspective for the
discussion of the book Own Death by Pter Ndas, published in English in
2006,4 and its screen adaptation, Own Death by Pter Forgcs, released in
2007. Ndass book is an essayistic narrative about the writers liminal
experience of clinical death from the first signs of heart failure to the
resuscitation, reflecting with philosophical sensitivity on life, birth, and
body from the revealing perspective of death, on the embodiment and
disembodiment of the self in its becoming, on the limits of conceptual
thinking, on the unperceived, invisible sensations and workings of the
carnal body and self-perception that come to the fore due to illness and the
proximity of death. The narrative also exposes the way body, illness, and
death are constructed by medical discourses and perceived in the space of
social relations in which the body is never a self-enclosed biological entity
but is inscribed by cultural, social, ideological, scientific etc. conceptions.
A recurrent question of this reflection is the (un)representability of ones
own death within and beyond culturally familiar and socially established
metaphors, clichs, or conceptual language (e.g. how subjectivity or the
body and illness are a relational experience even in the ultimate loneliness,
how death and the body cannot be possessed and be ones own, only own
and other at the same time). The title already points to the conceptual
elusiveness of corporeality and death: instead of a clear relation of

The book was first published in German (2002), and then in Hungarian (2004).
Katalin Sndor 307

possession and a grammatical structure of genitive we read a gesture of

detachment: own death that is: own and impossible to possess at the
same time.
In 2001 the text was published in a Hungarian periodical (let s
Irodalom), then it was published as a book and the text was differently
edited and made up. A series of photographs was inserted into the book: a
series with its own story, temporality, and concept: Ndas, the author of
the text had been taking pictures of the old pear-tree in his courtyard for a
year. According to one of the most sensitive readers of the volume, the
heavy book-format probably did not do any good to the text, but the
album-book certainly attracted more readers than the text in the periodical
(Borbly 2007, 40). One can certainly agree that the intervention of
photography really does something to the text: it does not only become
an ambiguous, indeterminate context for reading, but it displaces and
opens up the very notion of the text and book itself.
In Own Death corporeal liminality and its medial (un)translatability are
not only thematized (e.g. through the untranslated German word umkippen
tip over, fall over), but shape the embodied experience of reading
through the use of photographs dislocating the process of reading, through
the repetitive interruption and fragmentation of the text traversed by white
spaces, through the typographic isolation or close-up of certain
sentences in the empty space of the pages.5 These do not only reflect on
the foreign, undomesticable experience of the body, illness, or clinical
death, but also disclose the medium, the body of the book.
The liminal experience of the body disturbs the conceptual system of
language, the concepts of time, narration, and physical space, and
confronts the subject not only with the unsettling proximity between death
and life, but also with a certain loss of language. The elusive experience of
being in-between life and death is described as being beyond conceptual
thinking, beyond the realm of clear distinctions: as if thinking did not only
happen within the body but with the body.6 The liminal experience that is
beyond familiar concepts but within the realm of a strangely abstract
physical perception and remembrance makes any retrospective narration

Orsolya Milin considers that these white spaces are the visible, typographic
breaths of the text that relate to the narrators breaths or loss of air, to the
interruptions of the fragmented narrative or to the invisible breathing and
temporality of reading itself (2007, 9293).
The universe as sensual phenomenon is entirely familiar while it remains
beyond reach for concepts [] With a life rich in conceptual thinking behind me, I
look back at what, for lack of concepts, I cannot think, since it happens for the first
time. (Ndas 2006, 211.)
308 Own Deaths

appear as an intervention, as a struggle to impose on liminality concepts of

space, temporality, or sequence.
The book offers itself as a continuous enfolding, umkippen and at
the same time interruption between the conceptual and the sensual,
reading and viewing, words and photographs, speech and the unspeakable.
The insertion of the photos is unsettling in many respects: the photos
appear to mediate temporality and change, the life of a tree throughout a
year by still images, by arresting time, by picturing pastness or the own
death of time. The incorporation of the photographic series into the
volume brings up the problem of the representability of the temporal and
the liminal. It can be argued that not only the representation of the tree and
temporal change becomes a metaphor of ephemerality, rebirth and death,
as Nomi Kiss rightfully proposes, acknowledging that photography is the
abstract, conceptual signifier of death (2007, 86), but rather it is the
modality of representation and the photographic medium itself7 that can be
related to the question of exit, absence, or passing: through the suspension
of the flow of time, its encapsulation within a frame, and the elusive
indexicality of the photographic trace whose presence affirms the absence
of the referent.
Photographic representation as an image-act intervenes into the
continuity of time and temporal change, slices up time and space into still
frames. Photos as image-acts (see, for instance, in Belting [2011]) are not
documents but ambiguous, unstable traces, records of a fragment of
inscribed reality that may be meaningless or indecipherable (Mulvey
2006, 31). The photos in Own Death are not so much the archive of a
recorded reality but rather the archive of the gaze8 directed towards a
visible slice of the world a pear tree in an almost ritualistic process of
staying near the tree, of being with the tree for one year. The reader also
has to stay with the elusive photos during the process of reading: with the
Polaroid and black and white pictures, with the different angles and the
displacement of the photos on the page through which the unreadable,
sensual aspects of the book are foregrounded. The book is not only an
immaterial sign to look through, but also a palpable, visible, corporeal
object to look at.

A vast amount of literature deals with the relationship between photography and
death: Roland Barthes, Andr Bazin, Hans Belting, Susan Sontag etc. to mention
only a few.
In Hans Beltings anthropological approach photographs do not render the world
but rather our gaze cast at it. Thus a photograph is actually a medium between two
gazes, two looks: the one recorded by the photo and our own way of looking at it
(Belting 2011, 145167).
Katalin Sndor 309

Figures 12. Photographs, white spaces, isolated sentences folding unto each
other. (Pter Ndas: Own Death.)

At the same time the photographic and typographic arrangement of the

book may divert the readability of the text, the deictic words, and the
reference of some pronouns, as it happens in the line The barking dogs of
hell would want me to keep my mouth shut, to remain silent about this.
(Ndas 2006, 23, emphasis mine, K. S.) In the mythological allusion the
barking dogs of hell recall the myth of Cerberus, the tree-headed monster
guarding the gate of hell, marking a point of transition and passage, a
space of in-between. In this instance the pronoun might point to the
liminal experience of heart failure and death, reminding us that death and
the workings of the body are not only cultural taboos whose thematization
is a socially regulated practice, but they might also entail a retreat from
representation. Due to the arrangement of the text and the photograph, the
pronoun may also point to the photographic image or to the white
emptiness, the silence of the page, which also confronts the reader-
viewer with something that cannot be completely translated, a
photographic or a visual excess which nevertheless depends on or
generates discourse. Another example of the diversion of deixis is the
sentence: It is happening now. (Ndas 2006, 143, emphasis mine, K. S.)
The word now can deictically point to the elusive time of passage between
life and death, to the indefinite temporality of the photograph or that of the
white page, but also to the temporality of reading. The typographic
isolation or close-up of the sentences de- and re-contextualizes the
fragments, allows for alternative readings, and makes the sentences
palpable in their verbal materiality. The sentence Somebody pierced
me with a beautiful gaze. (Ndas 2006, 159) is part of the passage
narrating the happenings at the hospital, and it refers to the look of a
doctor, presumably. Nevertheless, in its typographic isolation the sentence
might confront the reader-viewer with his/her own gaze touching the very
surface of the page or the photograph next to the text. [Figs. 12.]
310 Own Deaths

The unnamable in Own Death is not only a thematic issue (e. g. related
to body, illness, death) but also the unsaid, the unspeakable within
language. The book format does not only speak about the loss of concepts,
about the narrators reluctance to reestablish social orientation, about his
desire for the ungraspable such as the memory of a perfume or the
experience of some lack and absence, but the large white spaces, the
empty pages visualize silence, amplify interruption and rupture within
representation itself. The photographs resist any caption, and their presence
cannot be domesticated by adjusting them to the logic of the text. The
interrupted sentences of the text, the interruptions themselves, as well as
the non-semantic but meaningfully quiet, airy white spaces withholding
the words (or taking a breath), the continual return and the displacement
of the photographs can be addressed as an instance of sensable
intermediality exposing the book as a corpus working through the otherness
of the body, through the unnamable experience of (dis)embodiment and

The Sensability of the Filmed and the Filmic Body

Pter Forgcss film, Own Death,9 based on the book by Ndas,
adapts/adopts the text and the photographic mode of the book by using
discrete and still photographic frames, close-ups, blurred, faded images of
bodies and textures, images of the pear tree, amateur found footage, slow
sequences of movement, all of which confer the film a specific rhythm and
expose the moving image as an archive of still frames. The photographs
are at times interrupted by live action, and though Forgcs uses images
from amateur footage, the film consists mainly of material he directed
himself. The smooth, even non-dramatic narratorial voice-over of the
film10 is done by Ndas, the author of the book himself, who reads the text
rather than acts it out, exposing the textuality rather than the dramatic
aspect of the essayistic narration, performing a detachment from the
narrated story and the narrated (that is: constructed and unavoidably
fictionalized) self. In the film the role of someone suffering a heart attack
is played by Istvn Benk, which is another instance of distancing,
overwriting the mediated presence of the authorial voice through the figure
of otherness and absence.

The film won the Grand Prize for Experimental Films at the 2008 Hungarian
Film Week.
In the English version of the film the text is recited by Peter Meikle Moor.
Katalin Sndor 311

Figures of Double Vision

Double vision is an explicit metafigure of the book and the film in
many respects:11 the text foregrounds the problem of perception and
representation through language and through the camera, raising even the
question of the autobiographical context: the author-narrators identity as a
writer and photographer entails a professional(ized) predisposition (but
also a distrust) towards the multifold perception, interpretation, and
representation of the world or the self. Due to the liminal experience of the
embodied subject in the proximity of death, there is an ongoing reflection
on the elusive otherness of the own corporeality and self,12 on the altered
conditions of perception and self-perception, on the way perception
constructs the perceived, as well as on the way the subject faces the limits
of conceptual thinking and the incommensurability of sensations all
these emphasizing the act of mediated, retrospective, narrative meaning-
making. The linguistic-conceptual and the photographic mode of
perception and representation shape each other through the dialectic of
approximation and distance in narrating the self and the liminality of
experience. Seeing, visual perception is permanently foregrounded in the
verbal narration and photographs, text fragments and white spaces are
literally folded into each other on the pages of the book. The meek and
reflexive irony of self-observation and self-detachment in narrating the
own death dismisses the possibility of pathos and also presupposes a
double (or rather multiple) vision, a displacement, a shift of perspective
within the own as other, within narrating an elusive experience that cannot
be possessed, only constructed through the figurations and detours of a
retrospective, culturally embedded first-person account.
The figure of double vision also shapes the filmic representation, the
layering of narratorial voice-over or visual text fragments on the image,
revealing the non-transparent, textured aspect of the image and the textual
linkage of the film to the book [Figs. 34], as well as the intermedial
endeavor of the adaptation itself. The act of telling and the act of seeing
often overlap as in the sensual photographic close-up of an eye (a recurrent

A double vision that comes almost inevitably with my profession often
impaired my sense of reality, and so I had to be on guard against my own
perception. (Ndas 2006, 93.) It proved to be an amusing little advantage, useful
in interpretation, that in my previous life I had been not only a writer dealing with
the value and evaluation of words, but also a photographer who deals with the
nature of light. (Ndas 2006, 221.)
My other self wanted to have firm control over this delicate matter. (Ndas
2006, 93.)
312 Own Deaths

image throughout the film) occupying the whole frame, shown while the
mother of all narrations (Ndas 2006, 169), Polymnia is evoked in the
text to help the narrator cross the Styx.13 The film, while exploring figures
of proximity and touch through a camera palpating the pores or the
sweat of the skin, also adopts the perspective of double or multiple vision,
of detachment, of gentle irony or reflexivity in dealing with the in-
betweenness of birth and death or in reinterpreting certain cultural and
literary metaphors, quotes or concepts. The text reflecting on passing, on
exit, on the moment of leaving ones life is accompanied by the eroticism
of slowness, delay, and partial disclosure in the found footage (?) showing
the process of pulling down the zipper on a womans dress.14

Figures 34. Text-layers on the image: suspending the transparency of the film.

Figures 56. In-between image and text, pain and pleasure: the slow sequence of
pulling down a zipper accompanying the text about leaving ones life.

Mother of all narrations, Polymnia, hear my plea, let me cross the Styx with
common words. (Ndas 2006, 169.)
Ndas writes about the ambiguous commensurability of the experience of
totality with religious or amorous ecstasy: You are granted an experience of
totality to which, in this vale of tears, only the ecstasy of religion or love can come
close. And probably giving birth, for women. The more courageous of them will
tell you that in those moments pain and pleasure melt into each other, turning the
whole thing into a great cosmic, erotic adventure. (Ndas 2006, 201.)
Katalin Sndor 313

The filmic images eroticize (rather than feminize) the experience of

departure, of dissolution, and cannot be linked to a narrative function or to
a definite origin: they only create a sensation, the sensation of slowness, of
erotic processuality and fading. [Figs. 56.]

The Intermediality of the Photo-Filmic

The film adapting and adopting the photographic mode of the book
becomes extensively photo-filmic, and it is not surprising that the use of
still photographs reminds one of Chris Markers La Jete (1963).15 Vivian
Sobchack discussing the use of photography in Markers film, which is
made up of a series of discrete and still photographs, emphasizes that the
film projects phenomenologically as a temporal flow and an existential
becoming and organizes the discrete photographs into animated and
intentional coherence. This highlights the difference between the
transcendental, posited moment of the photograph and the existential
momentum of the cinema, between the scene to be contemplated and the
scene as it is lived (Sobchack 2004, 145). La Jete in Sobchacks
interpretation allegorizes the transformation of the moment to momentum
that constitutes the ontology of the cinematic and the latent background of
every film (Sobchack 2004, 148). Forgcss film, inquiring into the
ontology and the anatomy of the body and death and also that of a text,
exposes the ontology and the anatomy of the cinematic: the body of
the film and the memory of the celluloid constituted of stills. However, the
still photographic frames are carried away, displaced, contextualized by
a temporal and narrative flow in a re-animated media archive, a moving
photo-filmic album, conveying stillness in motion or the stillness of
motion, performing and not merely thematizing medial acts of transition
(the slowing down of the moving image and its inverse: the re-animation
of the still photographs of the pear tree).
Moreover, from the much broader context of artistic and cultural
practices as van Alphen argues the increasing use of photography,
documentary film, home movies, archives, and family albums can be
related to memory practices signalling either the celebration of memory
and the desire to look back or a memory crisis and a fear of forgetting
(2011, 59). In Own Death the memory practices through photography do
not pertain to a broader cultural-historical recollection, but rather to the

According to Scott Macdonald, Forgcss film is formally reminiscent of
Markers La Jete (Macdonald 2011, 8).
314 Own Deaths

embodied and culturally embedded private remembrance both in its

conceptual and sensual dimensions.

Figures 78. Blurred images mediating the disturbance of vision and exposing the
medium in its opacity.

In Forgcss film the ongoing reflection on the altered conditions of

bodily perception due to illness entails that the function of the filmic and
photographic blur as a trace of media experience is twofold: using Joachim
Paechs terms, the blur in Own Death has a cinematographic
(kinematographisch) function that alludes to photography in a media-
referential way, but it also has a filmic (filmisch) function16 when it is used
thematically: e.g. to suggest, but also to perform the disturbance of
perception, of vision through the blurred moving image. The modulation
between the blurred and the sharp within the same frame indicates an act
of medial transition or medial event of difference within the image. [Figs.
78.] Thus the blur as a medial figure can be related to the way in which
the diegetic world and its medial articulation shape each other:
thematically it signals the alteration of sensations and bodily perception
through fluid images, and at the same time it disrupts medial transparency,
making the medium observable in its opacity.

Laura Mulvey uses the terms film or filmic in a somewhat different way
with a media-referential meaning when she discusses film time and cinema
time: This affects the opposition between film time, the inscription of an image
onto the still frames of celluloid, and cinema time, the structure of significance
and flow that constitutes the temporal aesthetic of any movie, fiction or
documentary. Usually, the second conceals the first, but when the forward
movement is halted the balance changes. The time of the films original moment of
registration can suddenly burst through its narrative time. (2006, 3031.) Cf. sie
funktioniert einmal kinematographisch, also medien-referentiell auf die
Fotografie bezogen, und filmisch, indem sie tematisch-sujethafte Aspekte
(mentale Aufmerksamkeitsstrungen z. B.) formuliert (Paech 2008, 350).
Katalin Sndor 315

As illness and pain displace the transparency and the unreflected

familiarity of the body, and make it both own and other, the close-ups of
the body parts decompose the image and the concept of the body as a self-
evident integrity and expose it in its pores, textures, and membranes with
either an anatomic precision or on the contrary: as a blurred, ungraspable,
evasive phenomenon. The close-ups or the faded, blurred images enable
the intimacy and the hapticality of viewing, of seeing as palpation in
Merleau-Pontyan terms which is both embodied and reflective. The still
close-ups of the body parts are viscerally intimate images of the body but
at the same time are abstracted, disconnected from the unity of a singular,
self-same body or identity which they question and decompose, disclosing
a camera interested in approaching and touching a surface [Figs. 914].

Figures 914. The body as image disjointed into close-ups.

316 Own Deaths

This may resonate with the narrated experience of not-yet-death in

which the body experiences itself in its fragments, in its organs exposed by
the pain, in its self-sameness and otherness at the same time. (The image
of the body traversed by infusion tubes questions any clear-cut boundary
between the biological body and the medically-technologically assisted
and inhabited body.) Whereas in optical visuality the relationship between
the viewer and the image may be one of mastery, in which the image can
be isolated and comprehended, haptic visuality implies making oneself
vulnerable to the image, reversing the relation of mastery that
characterizes optical viewing (Marks 2000, 185). In Own Death the
haptic images and close-ups of the fragmented body mark a withdrawal
from the mastery of the image, pointing not only to the trauma of (clinical)
death but also to that of representation.
Moreover, the close-ups also affect the temporality and the rhythm of
the film, as well as the conditions of spectatorship. As Mulvey puts it, the
close-up has always provided a mechanism of delay, slowing cinema
down into contemplation of the human face, allowing for a moment of
possession in which the image is extracted, whatever the narrative
rationalization may be, from the flow of a story (2006, 163164). The
slowing down or the suspension of the flow of the story enables a sensable
spectatorship through which the sensual and the discursive aspects of the
image shape each other. The own death of the body is twofold: the
carnal body becomes its own image in death and the body as image is
arrested in a still frame within the moving image.
It is not only the bodies that are decomposed into visually palpable
surfaces of close-ups; the film as a whole, as a transparent body is cut up
and exposed as suturing together still frames, long segments being made
up of a series of still photographs whose unsettling mode of existence is
linked phenomenologically to the qualities of presence and absence,
present and past, now and then, a here before us now encompassing a there
displaced in time (Rodowick 2007, 56). The narrative or diegetic
integration of certain frames is delayed, withheld for a sensable viewing
lingering on the (temporarily) non-referential sensuality of the image.
Some frames, for instance, display an abstract, blurred image with a fragile
line crossing the surface, and even if we hear the sharp sound of an
ambulance counterpointing the visible, and later on we hear the text about
the infusion disambiguating the fragile line, the images still remain
suspended for a while in the indeterminateness of sensation. [Figs. 1516.]
Katalin Sndor 317

The experience of breathlessness and suffocation during the heart failure

(There was no air in the air17) is not thematically but methodologically
adapted through slowing down the moving image (of a hand opening a
window), through cutting it up into still frames arranged into a movement
sequence reminiscent of the older technique of chronophotography. In this
sequence the viewer experiences a suffocating or on the contrary: air-
giving (?) sensation through the lack of movement in movement, through
the paradox of still motion or stillness in motion. [Figs. 1718.]

Figures 1516. The images of the infusion tube suspended in the

indeterminateness of sensation.

Figures 1718. A hand opening a window: the visual paradox of stillness in/of

Along theoretical concepts that link the photographic index to death

and pastness, photography in Own Death can be related to the uncanny in-
betweenness of animate and inanimate, life and death: the photographic
index reaches out towards the uncanny as an effect of confusion between
living and dead. (Mulvey 2006, 31.) This ambiguity defines the aesthetics
of the film that works through a text about the intertwining of being and
non-being, birth and death, proximity and detachment: My mother gave
birth to my body, I give birth to its death. (Ndas 2006, 217.) The first

There was no air in the air: that was my problem. (Ndas 2006, 91.)
318 Own Deaths

images of the film show the moments of a birth. The slow motion black
and white shots do not document the biological moment of coming into
life: the monochromatic quality and the slowness of the images
denaturalize and de-mystify the body and the moment of birth (shown as
both amazing and violent). The scene is exposed as the image of life and
birth to look at in a film in which a body is about to deliver its death,
resembling nevertheless a re-birth into the (cosmic) impersonality of
In the book the narrator alludes to Andrea Mantegnas painting,
Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 14801490), which is well-known
not only for the famous foreshortened perspective but also for the close-
up aspect of the image of the body in which even the hardened, dried skin
around the wounds is visible, showing not an ethereal but an embodied,
human, physical body of Christ. In Ndass Mantegna-allusion the
perspective is inversed; the narrator is looking out on himself in an almost
grotesque perspectival foreshortening (Ndas 2006, 231). This visual
experience is linked through the figure of double vision to the
techniques of observation: to photographic seeing and the awareness of an
imagined camera-position beyond the conceptual world, higher than his
own actual position, a distance that articulates the visual experience of the
own body or subjectivity as other. The narratorial position and the
modality of self-perception are shaped by a technical apparatus of seeing
that requires distance and points to the unavoidably mediated aspect of the
liminal experience. In the book the Mantegna-allusion is rethought not
only in relation to the technical-photographic mode of observation but also
in relation to medical discourses and technologies that ultimately
reanimate the body: They have burned the stamp of reanimation into the
very flesh of my chest (Ndas 2006, 255). Cultural, religious, and
medical discourses intersect in the almost palpable textual figure of the
burnt seal on the body, the imprint of a technically assisted, secular
resuscitation. The film also incorporates the Mantegna-allusion and its
inverse: the painting is re-enacted through bodies and through photo-filmic
images. [Figs. 1920.] The head is not fully visible whereas in Mantegnas
work the composition, the foreshortening leads to the head of Christ (and
according to some also to his genitalia). The partial, distorted, blurred re-
enactment of the painting can also be linked to the secularizing re-
appropriation of the iconographic and cultural tradition in which the carnal
and the filmic body are the media of re-animation. Due to the unusual
perspective and the significance of foreshortening, the Mantegna-allusion
foregrounds the interconnectedness of viewpoint, representation and self-
Katalin Sndor 319

perception, as well as the medial and cultural embeddedness of memory,

of a visceral liminal experience and its retrospective narration.

Figures 1920. The re-enactment of Mantegnas Dead Christ through the medium
of the body and film.

The photographic re-enactment of Mantegna is shown in the film after

the professionalized photographic vision is verbally thematized in relation
to light. The images accompanying this textual passage are sensual,
textured, surface-based, and everything that happens at all, happens to and
in the membrane of the film not in the diegetic world: the scratched skin of
the film is media-reflexively exposed. The deteriorating and/but at the
same time changing, living membrane of the film discloses the material
fragility of the medium: it does not mediate images, but becomes the
image of its own decomposition reminding the viewer of corporeal
vulnerability [Figs. 2122]. In this sequence and throughout the film there
are inserts of Pter Ndass and Lenke Szilgyis photographs, as well as
found photos and footage from the Private Photo and Film Foundation18
and ECOFilm Association.

Figures 2122. Exposing the membrane of the film.

The foundation is a unique collection of amateur films founded by Forgcs
himself in 1983.
320 Own Deaths

The photos seem to be random imprints of an indefinite private,

personal memory, resisting any unequivocal readability. In the
appropriating context of the film about death and liminal corporeality the
found photos and footage expose the body, often the young, alive, moving,
and lived body of the other, producing a sensation of pastness, of temporal
detour, of random remembrance. The unsettling relation between the
indexicality of the found footage and the photographic images and their
ambiguity in the context of the film undermines the ontological certainty
of the index and posits these images (and photographs in general) as
unstable, indefinite traces. Ernst van Alphen following Kaja Silvermans
line of thought according to which Forgcss films are based on strategies
of repersonalization rather than objectification or categorization
considers that in these films the function of the archival footage evoking
the phenomenal world, vitality, enjoyment, or activities like dancing and
playing differs from that of the archival practices: Whereas the archival
mechanisms of objectification and categorization strip images of their
singularity, Forgcss archival footage keeps insisting on the private and
affective dimension of the images (van Alphen 2011, 61). In Own Death
the found footage is also detached from documenting, objectifying
functions, and folding unto rather than illustrating the text lingers in
the indefiniteness of memory or remembrance related to the diegetic
world. Nevertheless, the found footage together with the photo-filmic
imprints or with the reminiscent technique of chronophotography also
function as traces of media-historical memory: the found material cannot
only be linked to the memory practices of an embodied subject but it also
constitutes the memory of the film itself as a historical medium.

Sensable Reflectivity, Sensable Spectator

The intermediality and the reflexivity of stillness and slowness in
Forgcss film are manifold. The photo-filmic images are linked (among
others) to the question of the representability of the body eluding its own
medial mummification: the body is fragmented and exposed as a still
image, as its own effigy, remaining ungraspable as a self-same totality.
Still frames, fragmented close-ups, slow motion, or medially textured
images not only expose the unnamable experience of illness or death in
which the own (body) appears as other, but also uncover the medium, the
membrane of the film.
The photo-filmic disrupts the medial transparency of the film by
folding the filmic into the photographic or the pictorial and by arresting
the temporality of the moving image through an almost album-like
Katalin Sndor 321

seriality. The insertion of photo-filmic frames, the slowing down of

movement to a suffocating (or air-giving?) stillness in motion, the blurring
of the images, and the detachment of the sensuous, haptic imagery from
narrative functions all these are part of a media-reflexivity which is not
self-enclosed. What we see is rather a fold in which the modality of
working through the phenomenology of birth, illness, death, body,
perception, and self-perception, as well as through their conceptual,
cultural, or visual (un)representability exposes the cinematic body with
its constituent cuts, interruptions, inserts, frames, textures without losing
sight of the liminal experience of the carnal body and the embodied self.
The experimental photo-filmic anatomy of the body, the close-ups of the
pores of the skin stretch in front of the eye as surfaces the viewing of
which cannot be but a sensually reflective experience calling not only for a
pensive spectator (Bellour, Mulvey),19 but for an embodied viewer, a
sensable spectator, and the research perspective of sensable intermediality.

Belting, Hans. 2011. An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body.
Princeton University Press.
Borbly Szilrd. 2007. tbillenni, tbukni, tfordulni, levlni... (Lers
Ndas Pter Sajt hall cm knyvrl) [To Tilt Over, to Tumble
Over, to Turn Over, to Peel Off]. In Testre szabott let. rsok
Ndas Pter Sajt hall s Prhuzamos trtnetek cm mveirl
[Customized Life. Writings About Pter Ndass Own Death and
Parallel Stories], ed. Rcz I. Pter, 4064. Budapest: Kijrat.
Kiss Nomi. 2007. A fotogrfia, az let negatvja [Photography, the
Negative of Life]. In Testre szabott let. rsok Ndas Pter Sajt hall
s Prhuzamos trtnetek cm mveirl [Customized Life. Writings
About Pter Ndass Own Death and Parallel Stories], ed. Rcz I.
Pter, 7991. Budapest: Kijrat.
Macdonald, Scott. 2011. Pter Forgcs. An Interview. In Cinemas
Alchemist. The Films of Pter Forgcs, eds. Bill Nichols and Michael
Renov, 338. Minneapolis London: University of Minnesota Press.
Marks, Laura U. 2000. The Skin of the Film. Intercultural Cinema,
Embodiment and the Senses. DurhamLondon: Duke University Press.

Bellours helpful and inspiring term pensive spectator and the way Mulvey
uses it emphasizes rather the intellectual, cerebral aspect of the spectatorial
322 Own Deaths

. 2002. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minneapolis,

London: University of Minnesota Press.
Milin Orsolya. 2007. Sajt helyek fragmentum [Own Places
Fragment]. In Testre szabott let. rsok Ndas Pter Sajt hall s
Prhuzamos trtnetek cm mveirl [Customized Life. Writings
About Pter Ndass Own Death and Parallel Stories], ed. Rcz I.
Pter, 92103. Budapest: Kijrat.
Mulvey, Laura. 2006. Death 24x a Second. Stillness and the Moving
Image. London: Reaktion Books.
Ndas Pter. 2006. Own Death. Gttingen: Steidl.
Oosterling, Henk. 2003. Sens(a)ble Intermediality and Interesse. Towards
an Ontology of the In-Between. Intermdialits [Intermedialities] No.
1: 2946.
Paech, Joachim. 2008. Le Nouveau Vague oder Unschrfe als intermediale
Figur [La Nouveau Vague or The Blur as an Intermedial Figure]. In
Intermedialitt Analog/Digital. Theorien Methoden Analysen
[Intermediality Analogue/Digital. Theories Methods Analyses],
eds. Joachim Paech and Jens Schrter, 345361. Mnchen: Wilhelm
Fink Verlag.
Peth gnes. 2010. Cinema and Intermediality. The Passion for the In-
Between. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Rodowick, D. N. 2007. The Virtual Life of Film. Cambridge,
Massachusetts London: Harvard University Press.
Sobchack, Vivian. 2004. Carnal Thoughts. Embodiment and Moving
Image Culture. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of
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. 2006. Cutting to the Quick: Techne, Physis, and Poiesis and the
Attractions of Slow Motion. In The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded,
ed. Wanda Strauven, 337351. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University
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The Disappearing Image as Embodied Experience

Whether simply belonging to the ever widening circle of spectators or
to those being overwhelmed by the desire to account for their spectatorial
experience, our intimate relationship with the moving image can most
probably be traced back to some early cinematic experiences or to the
experience of the early film. Those who once got mesmerised by the
magic of film and have remained in its companion ever since, have formed
their private history of the cinema, with early films occasioned by their
first encounters with the medium, which may function as their private
cinema of attractions.2 Without risking a solipsistic discourse, I wish to
argue that no matter which films or media fulfil the role of our own
cinema of attractions, we share the embodied experience of the pure and
unconditioned spectacle3 as being part of the set of images that are at the
core of our spectatorial identity, of our private visual archives. These early
film experiences may live vividly in us or may have lost their contours; in
the latter case we may wish to access, to revitalize the vanishing images
just like some true-born archivists.

This work was supported by a grant of the Romanian Ministry of National
Education, CNCS UEFISCDI, project number PN-II-ID-PCE-2012-4-0573.
I use here Tom Gunnings (1992) term referring to early films character of
displaying a series of images rather than narrating stories, arousing the wonder and
astonishment of the spectators through the power of representation.
It was the fascination of the unconditioned spectacle that determined the
spectatorial experience of the legendary film entitled Arrival of a Train at La
Ciotat (lArrive dun train en gare de La Ciotat, Auguste Lumire and Louis
Lumire, 1895).
324 Remediating Past Images

Cinematic experience is in close connection with the sense of

disappearance. Cinema history is strongly related to the quick succession
of disappearing images, media carriers, and media specificities in the
process of discontinuous tastes, advancement in technology, shifts in
spectatorial needs and habits as well as attitudes to what has passed, to
what is past. The resulting melancholy state of past images is also
discernible in everyday spectatorial experiences or in educational situations.
As Laura U. Marks confesses in her volume entitled Touch. Sensuous
Theory and Multisensory Media: When I began to teach film studies, I
realized that the students will never really see a film in class: its always a
film thats half-disappeared, or a projected video that just teases us, with
its stripes of pastel color, that there might be an image in there somewhere,
that there once was an indexical relationship to real things, real bodies
(Marks 2002, 92). On the occasion of such spectatorial experiences the
distinct temporality, the transient character of the recorded image is
revealed, and in strong correlation with this, the sense of our own
transience will get to the fore. As Laura U. Marks further says in the
chapter Loving a Disappearing Image: To have an aging body, as we all
do, raises the question of why we are compelled to identify with images of
wholeness, as psychoanalytic film theory would have it; the question of
whether this still is, or indeed was ever, the case; and the question of what
it would be like to identify with an image that is disintegrating. Following
Vivian Sobchack, I suggest that identification is a bodily relationship with
the screen, thus when we witness a disappearing image we may respond
with a sense of our own disappearance (Marks 2002, 92).
Along Laura U. Markss line of thoughts, the disappearing image does
not only trigger our mourning for it. Paradoxically, its transience reinserts
its auratic quality in Walter Benjamins sense of the term , the very
aura that is supposed to have been lost together with the act of technical
reproduction: as images decay, they become unique again: every unhappy
film is unhappy after its own fashion (Marks 2002, 94). Due to their
regained aura and uniqueness, they become affective images, simultaneously
asserting and celebrating the passage of time, acknowledged as the ultimate
truth of our vulnerable existence: Loving a disappearing image means
finding a way to allow the figure to pass while embracing the tracks of its
presence, in the physical fragility of the medium (Marks 2002, 96). The
considerations above can lead us to a plethora of ways in which cinema
has attempted at facing resisting or displaying its transience. Laura U.
Markss chapter title, Loving a Disappearing Image, evokes in my mind
a determining film experience related to a quaint cinematic experiment
marking the start of career of Hungarian experimental filmmaker Gbor
Judit Pieldner 325

Bdy.4 The set of images I recall are damaged, deteriorated, grainy from
the outset, situated on the boundary between assertion and erasure,
transparence and opacity, representation and dissolution [Figs. 12]. It is
these (non-)images, however, that redeem the auratic quality of cinema in
the age of technical reproduction as carriers of embodied perception, of an
intimate, private connection with the cinematic image.

Figures 12. Damaged, deteriorated, grainy images from American Torso

(Amerikai anzix, Gbor Bdy, 1975)

Past Images. The Use of Archival/Found Footage

as Remediation and Figuration
In an essentialist approach, the film medium was born out of a desire
of archiving, that is, the wish to preserve visual material on a long-term
basis. As Thomas Ballhausen points out in his essay entitled On the
History and Function of Film Archives, once this desire is fulfilled, the

Gbor Bdy (19461985), charismatic figure of the Hungarian filmmaking of the
1970s and 1980s, created his first films in the Bla Balzs Studio; he was the first
to direct films in the BBS already before graduating the College of Theatre and
Film Art. He founded the Film Language Series, the first experimental film project
of the studio, then he created his diploma film, American Torso (Amerikai anzix,
1975). He presented himself in front of the large public with his feature film
Narcissus and Psyche (Nrcisz s Psych, 1980), a screen adaptation expanded
into a self-reflexive and intermedial hypernarrative. On his initiative the first
international video magazine was founded; he established the experimental section
of the MAFILM. He held lectures on film theory; in his theoretical writings he
elaborated his views on serialism and the attribution of meaning in motion picture.
He himself acted the main role of his third and last feature film entitled Dogs
Night Song (Kutya ji dala, 1983), characterized by manifold generic and
intermedial transgressions.
326 Remediating Past Images

subsequent need to preserve films themselves was born, implying an

ethical responsibility, that of saving the values of the past from cultural
amnesia, of preventing them from becoming obsolete. As Ballhausen
notes, the Avant-Garde discovered film history by following in the path of
archives: it returned to the beginnings of film with the purpose of
confronting the mediums origins and its tradition. Already in the early
period of film history, in the period of Avant-Garde cinema, the utilization
of found material, of prior images, goes beyond the mere effort of
preservation: the found footage becomes an interface which enables the
avantgarde director to evoke the subversive potential and quality of early
cinema (Ballhausen 2008).
The use of archival/found5 footage has been a general practice of film
throughout cinema history, present in the filmmaking practice of Esfir I.
Shub (co-worker of Eisenstein and Kuleshov), Joseph Cornell, Bruce
Conner, Ken Jacobs, Hollis Frampton, to mention but a few of the most
outstanding examples (cf. Yeo 2004). Ever since the Avant-Garde
endeavours of utilizing found material in the spirit of Marcel Duchamps
objet trouve, the span of film history from the early Avant-Garde to the
post-media age, with the significant contribution of the experimental
filmmaking of the 1970s and 1980s, has assigned an emphasized role to
the found/archival footage, implying but going far beyond the intent of
Archival/found footage knows a great variety of cultural uses, designated
by a great number of terms such as recontextualization, recycling, reuse,

As for the difference between archival footage and found footage, I resort to
Michael Zyrds distinction: The found footage film is a specific subgenre of
experimental (or avant-garde) cinema that integrates previously shot film material
into new productions. The etymology of the phrase suggests its devotion to
uncovering hidden meanings in film material. [] Found footage is different
from archival footage: the archive is an official record from the outtake; much of
the material used in experimental found footage films is not archived but from
private collections, commercial stock shot agencies, junk stores and garbage bins,
or has literally been found in the street. Found footage filmmakers play at the
margins, whether with the obscurity of the ephemeral footage itself (filmmaker
Nathaniel Dorsky likes to call it lost footage) or with the countercultural
meanings excavated from culturally iconic footage. Found footage filmmaking is a
metahistorical form commenting on the cultural discourses and narrative patterns
behind history. Whether picking through the detritus of the mass mediascape or
redefining (through image processing and optical printing) the new in the familiar,
the found footage artist critically investigates the history behind the image,
discursively embedded within its history of production, circulation, and
consumption. (Zyrd 2003, 4142.)
Judit Pieldner 327

repurpose, rewriting, and has become a, if not the, dominant critical

procedure in independent film and videomaking (McDonald, quoted in
Yeo 2004). Steve F. Anderson highlights the significance of the use of
archival/found footage in terms of representation criticism: The
appropriation and reuse of found footage inaugurates multiple possibilities
for reinscription and critique of previously articulated codes of representation,
and invites us to question the manner and extent to which history may be
constituted through images at the most basic level (Anderson 2011, 70).
In his volume Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found
Footage Films William C. Wees speaks about three modes of found
footage use corresponding to three paradigms/political positions: using
archival/found footage for the purpose of documentation (documentary
realism), collage (along the aesthetic principles of modernism), and
appropriation (in the context of postmodernism) (Wees 1993). These three
modes rely on distinct perceptions of archival/found footage, from serving
as the evidence of the past, in the case of documentation, to more subtle
medial and representational games relying on the tension between
authenticity and mediatedness of the embedded archival/found footage that
can be encountered in modern and postmodern cinematic productions. As
Steve F. Anderson puts it, The appropriation and use of found footage
may be understood as a tactical maneuver within which the simultaneous
deployment and subversion of ontological certainty is a crucial factor. The
discursive import of found footage thus relies upon its claim to a prior,
indexical connection to the world, at the same time it is inscribed in a fully
articulated and conventionalized system of filmic signification.
(Anderson 2011, 7071.)
Along Steve F. Andersons considerations, a shift can be detected in the
theoretical discourses of the archival/found footage from recontextualization
to rhetorical strategy (2011, 72). This shift provides a distinct standpoint,
from where the archival/found footage can be viewed not as a set of
images (simply) standing for the real, rendering some kind of
transparent representation within the body of cinematic discourse, but
rather as figuration in itself, as an alternative modality of mediation and
representation, creating productive tension and opening up the possibility
of interaction between two distinct sets of moving images.
Thus, we arrive at the paradox of the archival/found footage: the less
becomes more, the apparently transparent turns into the figural and
becomes the carrier of manifold cultural, temporal, medial
significations. In a phenomenological approach, it is this ontological and
temporal disparity and tension of the distinct visual registers implied by
the use of archival/found footage that becomes significant, together with
328 Remediating Past Images

the question of what kind of cinematic experience this ontological and

temporal rupture provides.
Indexical archival footage embedded into feature film, as an
ontological nich, creates a dynamic structure, induces fluctuation, and
inscribes a sense of difference together with a displacement of spectatorial
positions. Its presence as figuration may serve as the locus of meditation
upon time and history, it may as well open up a more profound, existential
dimension, as, for instance, in Andrei Tarkovskys The Mirror (Zerkalo,
1975), in which the sequences taken over from a war documentary
exhausted soldiers are trailing a cannon in mud and water deepen the
discourse of film and endow it with an additional metaphysical dimension,
activating in the spectator the documentary consciousness in the sense
Vivian Sobchack discusses the term, that is, a particular mode of
embodied and ethical spectatorship that informs and transforms the space
of the irreal into the space of the real (Sobchack 2004, 261).6
The use of archival/found footage can also be discussed in terms of
remediation, in the sense Jay Bolter and David Grusin rethink the term in
their volume entitled Remediation. Understanding New Media (2000).
Differently from former conceptions of the term (that is, the process by
which new media technologies improve upon or remedy prior
technologies), Bolter and Grusin suggest by remediation the formal logic
by which new media refashion prior media forms. In the case of the use of
archival/found footage the gesture of revitalizing earlier forms of moving
images is present; this revitalization can take place in the gesture of
offering the earlier images as they are, without manipulating them (but
also in this case the reuse itself can be considered as a subtle form of touch

It has to be noted here that documentary consciousness, as Vivian Sobchack puts
it, goes beyond the generic distinction between fiction and documentary; the terms
fiction and documentary designate subjective relations rather than cinematic
objects. In Toward a Phenomenology of Nonfictional Film Experience she defines
documentary as less a thing than an experience and the term names not only a
cinematic object, but also the experienced difference or sufficiency of a specific
mode of consciousness and identification with the cinematic image (Sobchack
1999, 241, emphases in the original). In the chapter entitled The Charge of the
Real. Embodied Knowledge and Cinematic Consciousness of her volume Carnal
Thoughts. Embodiment and Moving Image Culture she thinks further the
phenomenological model of cinematic identification, stating that fiction and
documentary, as supposedly different logical types as genres, are reducible to the
same logical types as cinematic images (Sobchack 2004, 260, emphases in the
original). Thus what Sobchack calls the charge of the real is not particularly
related to documentary as a genre, but it is the specificity of the phenomenological
experience of the cinema.
Judit Pieldner 329

and selective/authoritative intervention, activating an altered spectatorial

gaze, sensitive to cultural, temporal, and medial differences) or
manipulating the archival/found material with various techniques and with
various purposes, including the intent of creating a fruitful dialogue with
the history and identity of the cinematic medium itself.
The use of archival footage in film art can also be approached by
adapting the idea of the anachronism of images to cinema: Hans Belting
borrows the term and its meaning from the art historian and philosopher