A Cinema of Sensations
Rendering the Operative
If cinema at the beginning of the 20th century was interested in what Tom Gunning has called a 'cinema of attractions', film at the beginning of the 21st has been fascinated by a 'cinema of sensations'. If a cinema of attractions involved an aesthetic where "visual curiosity was aroused, and satisfied, by novelty, surprise, even shock" (The Cinema Book), then a century on the image has often equally been interested in putting the story on hold for the purposes of affective force, of feeling over narrative. But if in early cinema there was the sense that in this thirst for attractions it was about cinema as a low art form, then a cinema of sensation is often linked to high art film.
We should of course be wary of such dichotomies: the early cinema as one of attractions; the recent film fascinated by sensation; low art versus high art and so on. Yet, if we want to understand something of this sensational turn in film, we could do worse than contrast and compare it to a cinema of attractions where the link was to the fairground ride, to the scientific experiment (would all four legs of a horse remain in the air at the same time?), to President McKinley's funeral.
What we want to explore chiefly is cinematic sensation not as an exploitation device as we find in many a low-budget, and high-budget horror film, nor as an experimental device either, but more as an issue of sensation over representation, but with the representation still apparent. Frequently horror cinema utilizes sensation but chiefly as a strong image that scares us momentarily. There is rarely anything representationally troublesome about the image, but the film succeeds in very briefly frightening us. Now it is true at the very moment of being frightened we are often not thinking about who it is that happens to be doing the frightening. The shock is so momentary that we aren't musing over who the bogeyman happens to be, but recovering from the surprise the director has sprung on us. This shock, though, is not usually because the filmmaker wants us to question our epistemological relationship with the film, but more that it wants to exploit our capacity for being scared. As Phil Hardy, quoted in Genre and Hollywood, says: "theatrical horror is of special significance to the Anglo-American tradition of horror. It announced the kind of sensationalism that film-makers would seek to duplicate, and then to further intensify with apparatus and techniques newly available to them." When John Carpenter makes us jump when someone walks out in front of Jamie Lee Curtis as she walks along the street in Halloween, or when the camera hurtles towards the house in Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead, this is film as fairground ride: it is an attempt to frighten the audience more than illuminate or test it. These are not at all terrible films, but by invoking them we might be able to get closer to what we mean by a cinema of sensations.
Equally, when Michael Snow in the experimental Wavelength allows an intrusive noise to become evident during the lengthy zoom shot into a photo, or Andy Warhol shifts from black and white to colour in Chelsea Girls, or Shirley Clark offers dizzying editing juxtapositions in Bridges-Go-Round, this is again not quite what we mean by a cinema of sensations. If in the horror examples we have the strength of narrative to the detriment of sensation being explored, and in the latter representation secondary to sensation, then what a cinema of sensations searches out is a sensation that calls into question representation, but doesn't at all want to obliterate its narrative potential. By combining the two - the sensation with the representation - the image becomes radically problematic without however quite becoming experimental and anarrational.
In this sense we might regard Philippe Grandrieux's recent White Epilepsy as a failure not at all because it is poorly made but because it seems unlike his earlier three features (Sombre, La vie nouvelle and Un Lac) to leave behind the tension between representation and sensation to become more clearly a work of the latter to the deliberate detriment of the former. There is no story to be teased out of White Epilepsy, more abstract principles at play. As Grandrieux says, "the figures that haunt the film exist in a strange invasive reality. They are subjected to subterranean forces linking them between each other. Their actions respond to an injunction we cannot understand, to which we have no access, but whose imperious sovereignty we feel. In the heart of the forest an ancient archaic humanity rehearses the disordered scenes of a ceremony...The film is built on an assemblage of affective intensities." (Edinburgh International Film Festival Catalogue, 2013) This isn't narrative exposition, but theoretical imposition; Grandrieux interprets his film as much as he explains it, as if no assumptions can be made about its ready meaning.
In this sense it lacks the tension of his earlier works, and while the language he uses towards it is clearly Deleuzean ("assemblage", "intensities" and "affective"), we might instead invoke Deleuze's remarks in his book on Francis Bacon to see that Grandrieux's earlier films, and a number of others that we want to discuss here, contain the fascinating tension between representation and sensation. Quoting Paul Valery, Deleuze says, "sensation is that which is transmitted directly, and avoids the detour and boredom of conveying a story", but he also adds: "there are two ways in which the painting can fail: once visually and once manually. One can remain entangled in the figurative givens and the optical organization of representation; but one can also spoil the diagram, botch it, so overload it that it is rendered inoperative." Bacon's work retains the tension between the figure and its collapse, between representation and sensation. Now of course painting is not film, and whatever story it tells it tells it without the force of duration that is central to cinema. If a filmmaker wants to escape the boredom of the story he nevertheless must acknowledge the necessity of the durational, and this is where the tension between sensation and representation often resides in film. If it too easily conveys the representation we have the boredom of the story as Valery proposes, but if the film focuses too strongly on the sensation "one can also spoil the diagram, botch it, so overload it that it is rendered inoperative".
Now we want to be careful here not to make grand claims against experimental cinemaand against narratively conventional cinema. But if we're going to define however loosely a cinema of sensations it is for the purposes of acknowledging the tension that takes place between narration and the impact of the senses. From this perspective, Grandrieux's three earlier features are a success, White Epilepsy is, if not a failure, a success of a different kind.
If we look at films as varied as Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, Raging Bull, A masoeur!, Twenty Nine Palms, Cache, La vie nouvelle, Trouble Every Day, Uzak, LostHighway and Hunger, we can see how the filmmakers seek the meshing of the two, where in each film there is a sensational dimension that insists we do not only follow the story and see any sensation as an exemplification of it, but that the sensation is vital to the image. To help us further let us break this down into four categories: the sensationally surprising (Twenty Nine Palms, Hidden, A ma soeur!), the bodily specific (Hunger, Trouble Every Day, Battle in Heaven, La vie nouvelle), the dramatically sensational (Psycho, Bonnie and Clyde, Raging Bull) and the audio sensational (Blue Velvet, Uzak, Mother and Son). Of course the examples we give often involve more than one element. Lavie nouvelle is a wonderful exploration of bodies, while at the same time interested in an audio hyperbole that creates a world of immense unease. Hunger has a scene where an Irish prison officer is shot that shares similarities with moments in Twenty Nine Palms, Hidden and A ma soeur!, and so on. Our purpose here is to do no more than show some ways in which the sensational enters the film.
Take for example the sensationally surprising: in Twenty Nine Palms, Hidden and A maSoeur! all three films have a moment that has the audience gasping, and the sound elicited seems different from the one we hear when someone is gauged in the eye, has their head lopped off or is stabbed in the woods in a horror or terror film. The latter films take place within a climate of violence and are generically coded so that the viewer doesn't expect to be shocked by the violence, only surprised in their failed anticipation: the viewer expects it at one moment and gets it instead at another. This is often why people laugh after the violence comes; by analogy, the filmmaker, like the striker who feigns a dummy, and sends the defender the wrong way, wrong foots the viewer. Bruno Dumont, Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat respectively, want to use the slow-paced, milieu specific world they show us to give way suddenly to a burst of sensational violence, and it is a little like leaning forward expecting someone to whisper in our ear, and instead screaming into it.
In Twenty Nine Palms Dumont follows the difficulties of a couple in love who can't quite communicate with each other: she is a Russian model with broken English; he is an American photographer fed up with what he sees as her princess behaviour. Late in the film the movie turns into something else: a revenge drama with some good ol' boys brutally raping David. If we don't see it coming it is because the film doesn't suggest we ought to do so. This isn't generic expectation met, but a psychological study intruded upon by a generic moment. In Hidden, the central character's half-brother takes his own life, horrifying not only because of the explicitness of the scene, but also due to the film's climate: it looks like we are following an examination of a bourgeois family with stories to hide, and so the sudden brutality of the violence shocks us. Near the end of A ma soeur!Briellat shows someone attacking the family's car screen window in a scene that might have been horrific in a more generically inclined film, but is all the more so since there has been no sense that this is what awaits the characters. However these moments shouldn't be seen as the equivalent of a practical joke, or easy manipulation. It is closer to a warning: closer to someone about to whisper in your ear who suddenly sees someone coming up behind you and warns you as clearly as possible. In these three European films the directors are saying that the danger of climatic violence, of generic expectation of, and desensitization towards, violent images, is that we become oblivious to their force, and their relation to life. How to re-sensitize violence, they appear to be saying, evident in Haneke's claim that he remade Funny Games as the issues it raised hadn't gone away. "People don't like to be confronted with reality. They like to be confronted with a consumable reality. Even the most brutal violence is shown in a way that you can consume it so that you are thrilled, not touched. I always try to find a way so that people are touched too," (Time Out) Then there is Dumont's insistence that "Hollywood produces a certain sensibility, a certain audience, those films toss people off quite a bit! If you make people eat bland stuff all the time, then they lose their ability to taste and they don't feel anymore." (Scene 360 Magazine)
Now the aforementioned White Epilepsy may seem to be a particularly forceful example of the bodily turn in film, a film exclusively concerned with the body to the detriment of any narrative content at all, but three features that absorb the body within the story without letting go of the tale being told, while also insisting on the body's significance, are Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day, Grandrieux's La vie nouvelle, and Hunger by Steve McQueen. Few films have explored the texture of the skin so attentively as Denis and her regular camerawoman Agnes Godard in Trouble Every Day. Though ostensibly a horror film in its interest in splatter and gore, and in a virus that turns people into murderous beasts, Denis's film is dermatological in its fascination with skin tones, moles and scars. When two of the leading characters make love in a hotel room in Paris, this is skin on skin more than person on person: these are skin textures meeting and combining, like two colours in a paint mix. Denis doesn't give us a sex scene, but a piece of body welding. She allows for the sensation of bodies to commingle. In Battle in Heaven there are two key sex scenes. One is between the leading character Marcos and his wife, another between Marcos and a beautiful young woman whose father he chauffers. The bodies of Marcos and his wife are fleshy, with folds of fat giving a certain shape to the sexual act as director Carlos Reygadas wonders not so much in Spinoza's words what a body can do, but what it is, how it comes to have the shape and textures it possesses. Anna's is very different, a beautiful body by most definitions, yet in Reygadas's enquiry it becomes unmarked except through choice: a small tattoo carefully placed near the navel. In La vie nouvelle Grandrieux seeks what Nicole Brenez calls the body's night, an attitude to the body that is based less on the demands of the ego in the world, acting in a clearly defined social space, but instead on the body pursuing basic drives. La vie nouvelle goes so far into this problem that Grandrieux goes beyond the skin Denis shows in such detail to show the skeletal self in a club scene that suggests the most primordial of states. In Hunger, McQueen, shows the IRA's Bobby Sands on hunger strike, but also focuses very specifically on the body of this emaciated man. Actor Michael Fassbender lost 16 kilograms to play the role, and McQueen observes the actor's physique as if torn between its move towards death and its lean purity. While the film is of course concerned with the story of Sands' hunger strike; McQueen seems no less interested in the specifics of that body as the film lingers over it when, for example, Sands gets in and out of the bath. In these four examples the directors search out the body's day and night, its flesh and its nerves (both Denis and Grandrieux are good on its rawness) and even its skeletal base.
Hitchcock, Penn and Scorsese are all brilliant filmmakers, but they also all work within the Hollywood idiom that directors like Denis, Grandrieux, Reygadas and others are trying to escape. Their originality is tempered by convention, but they are all fine directors of the sensational as dramatic impact. If the Psycho shower sequence remains so important a scene in cinema history it isn't only because it removes the film's leading character before the halfway stage, but also that much of the violence takes place in the editing. As Hitchcock says in an interview with Francois Truffaut, "it took us seven days to shoot that scene, and there were seventy camera setups for forty-five seconds of footage. I used a live girl instead, a naked model who stood in for Janet Leigh. We only showed Miss Leigh's hands, shoulders, and head." (Hitchcock) This is a clear example of the sensation taking precedence over the representation, with Hitchcock cutting both the character and the performance up for his sensational requirements. In Bonnie and Clyde the concluding sequence where the leading characters meet their end could have been filmed without numerous shots that are strictly speaking superfluous for the furtherance of the story, but add to the dramatic intensity of the sequence: like Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch's opening shoot-out and Coppola's christening sequence in The Godfather, we see the filmmaker pushing into the sensational not only through violence, but also aesthetic euphemism: by cutting that plays up the formal properties of the image and not only the violently representational. Cuts to the birds leaving the trees, to car doors opening and closing, to matching cuts as characters flick their head in the same direction, emphasise the sensational and not only the dramatic: they give a sense of violence to the image without the images themselves showing violence. This is also true in the boxing sequences in Raging Bull. Scorsese's editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, according to Valerie Orpen (Editing) first "edited for narrative structure and then reworked the scene for movement, lighting and effects. This scene lasts only 1 minute and 52 seconds but contains fifty shots." As with Hitchcock and Penn, there is the importance of the narrative dimension, but also the overlaying for impact.
The fourth dimension of a cinema of sensations lies in the audio exaggeration and sensitization we find in many contemporary films, and especially pronounced due to developments in technology. As Michel Chion in Audio Vision says "from the beginning [of cinema] the art of sound recording focused principally on the voice (spoken and sung), and on music. Much less attention was paid to noises, which presented problems for recording; in the old films noises didn't sound good and they often interfered with the comprehension of dialogue." In more recent cinema this has changed with the standardization of Dolby sound, which allows for objects to have their own acoustic individuality. As Michel Chion says of Scorsese's work, his "sound vibrates, gushes, trembles, and cracks (think of the crackling of the flashbulbs in Raging Bull, the clicking of billiard balls in The Color of Money." If the great realist critic Siegfried Kracauer talked of "Thing Normally Unseen" in cinema that film could show (objects incredibly small and incredibly large for example), Dolby brought into cinema the sound of objects that were hitherto not heard. In David Lynch films, like Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, a sound like a cigarette being lit will have the swoosh of a forest fire in a moment of audio hyperbole, while in Mother and Son, director Aleksandr Sokurov will allow the close up of a character's breathing to be matched by the sounds of the forest. The sound is immensely close as it seems to be capturing the very sounds in his body, but also the sound extends far beyond the space in which he stands. As the soundscape is so much more dense in many contemporary films, so visual details become much more pronounced. In Uzak, as one of the film's leading characters walks around the park in Istanbul, so he is attentive to sounds in the distance, a boat's horn, its movement through water, feet crunching in the snow, people in the distance playing. These remain narratively irrelevant moments, but the audio texture to the scene gives them a strong sensory feel and low-key meaning.
Just as we've suggested that sensation in cinema can avoid our ready desensitization by violence, can allow for a more intense dramatization and can thus allow us to see bodies not chiefly as narrative pawns but flesh and mass, so sound in film can make us aware of the auditory nature of our world. Often we can screen out noises that are of little immediate use to us, and film usually has, and often still does, forego audio complexity. As Chion says, one of the reasons for this general absence of varied sound in film lies in the culture. "Noise is an element of the sensory world that is totally devalued on the aesthetic level. Even cultivated people today respond with resistance and sarcasm to the notion that music can be made out of it." But whether it happens to be Terrence Malick, Gus Van Sant and David Lynch in the American context, Lucrecia Martel and Carlos Reygadas in the Latin American one, Grandrieux, Bruno Dumont, Steve McQueen and Andrea Arnold in Europe, there are now numerous filmmakers interested in working with sound with the intensity of a musical score. In a scene in The Tree of Life, where one of the kids goes into the house and steals a dress, the scene's suspenseful dimension is no stronger than its sensory one. At one moment the character hears a noise from afar that mildly startles him, but just afterwards the sound of the boy opening the drawer is no less noisy. A more thriller oriented, sound eschewing filmmaker would have made the abrupt noise much louder than the opening of a drawer. Often Martel, Arnold and others are interested in making sound more democratic; or rather refuse a clear dramatic hierarchy, as sounds that might usually seem secondary become paramount.
In conclusion, a good way of understanding sensation in cinema is to take into account three comments. One comes from Gilles Deleuze and his book on Spinoza, Expressionismin Philosphy where he asks the Spinoza-ist question: what is a body capable of? The second comes from the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton who claims in Photography and Representation that film is an art only because of what it shows not what it is. In other words, Wild Strawberries and The Rules of the Game are great films only because of what they show dramatically, not for the dimensions of the sound and the image as sensual form. Scruton here offers a curiously limited take on cinema, but one perhaps echoed by many who want from film little more than the story told, and not for it to take advantage of the sensational possibilities available. The third is a remark Christian Metz interestingly makes in a piece called 'Aural Objects'. Here he says that if we have two different coloured jumpers in a shop, then they are still regarded as the some object, where if the jumper is made up of two different shapes (cuts), then we regard them as separate. Something of the same hierarchy exists in film, with narrative the equivalent of different cuts and colours, sounds etc very much secondary. A properly sensory cinema will call this hierarchy into question, and yet at the same time (taking into account our remarks about Bacon), this leads not to abstraction, but instead to a sensory tension and complexity.
© Tony McKibbin