Cinema and Information
How much information does an image contain? We have the well-known adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. We also know that much effort has been made to create the equivalent image search engine that for years has been easy to do when looking up a name or a place. It is very easy to put a name into Google or Yahoo and arrive at a visage, but always much harder to have a face and go in search of a name. Just say you are watching a film and you recognise one of the actors, remember their name, go to IMDB and see what other films they have done. An easy task. It isn't very different from having a film encyclopedia to hand and looking up the actor and seeing their credits. But what if you didn't have the name, can't find them on the credits and still are determined to find out who they are? You would rely on delayed memory or contingency. The name might eventually come back to you or you would see an image of them somewhere with the name attached and your enquiry reaches termination. But now, with facial recognition technology, mnemonics and chance are no longer necessary. "Thanks to Flickr, Instagram, Facebook, Google and others, the internet holds billions of photos of people's faces which have been scraped together into massive image datasets. They are used to train deep neural networks, a mainstay of modern artificial intelligence, to detect and recognise faces." (Guardian)
Our purpose isn't to talk about advances in technology, however, but to ask certain questions of cinema; to see why Pasolini and Deleuze are in this context more useful to our understanding of the image than Christian Metz and Umberto Eco. The semiotic questions Metz and others asked in the sixties and into the seventies were of immense help in comprehending film chiefly as a narrative system, but less so in making sense of film as informational. "If the frame has an analogue", Gilles Deleuze says, "it is to be found in an information system rather than a linguistic one." (The Movement Image) For this, Deleuze sees Pasolini as very useful even if he notes that Pasolini often drew on linguistics to understand the image. Speaking of the semi-subjective images to be found in films like Murnau's The Last Laugh, Jean Mitry, Deleuze says, "put forward the notion of the generalised semi-subjective image, in order to designate this 'being-with' of the camera: it no longer mingles with the characters with the character nor is it outside: it is with him." (The Movement-Image) Deleuze sees that it is difficult to find an equivalent status in natural perception for this semi-subjectivity and mentions that Pasolini uses a linguistic analogy, speaking of free indirect discourse from literature: the way a novelist will offer a character's dialogue indirectly to convey an affinity with the character without putting their words in speech marks. Later, in The Time-Image, Deleuze says "Pasolini wants to go still further than the semiologists: he wants cinema to be a language system, to be provided with a double articulation (the shot, equivalent to the moneme, but also the objects appearing in the frame, 'cinemes' equivalent to phonemes).
We might find ourselves asking whether Deleuze sees cinema as an information or a language system, and whether the confusion rests on quoting Pasolini without quite aligning himself with the Italian filmmaker and theorists's position, or whether in outlining Pasolini's stance he finds contradictions that he doesn't quite see it as his purpose to resolve. Were we to get too caught up in these debates, we would be trying to get inside the head of Deleuze and Pasolini, puzzling over what we may see as irresolvable problems it isn't our business to solve. However if we extract from this important discussion an acceptance that cinema can neither ignore nor overstate the linguistic aspect, then we might be fairer to the complexity of Deleuze and Pasolini's thought, knowing that we cannot easily go further without them, while refusing to do no more than entertain the complexity of their position. This is why we can return to our opening remark and align it to a comment by Pasolini.
If an image is worth a thousand words and the frame is an image, we cannot reduce the smallest unit of film to a frame but then what can we reduce it to instead? If the smallest unit in language is a phoneme, with hat made up of three, h, a and t, then we can see that each phoneme is irreducible and initself carries no meaning. T means nothing, but a frame is the equivalent of a photo and can contain within it all those three phonemes as a hat may be but one of many objects in the frame. Pasolini, like Metz, notes that the shot cannot be the smallest unit and instead wonders if the "the various real objects that compose a shot are the smallest unit of film language." (Heretical Empiricism) But he believes that "there cannot be a shot composed of a single object because there is no object in nature composed only of itself, and which cannot further be subdivided or broken down..." Not only this, but even if we could accept that an object is the equivalent of a phoneme, phonemes are few and more or less fixed no matter the pharangeal fricatives, the glottids and the clicks Pasolini mentions. "As opposed to the phonemes, which are few, however, the kinemes are infinite, or at least innumerable." This is film's problem from a linguistic point of view: objects are irreducible, and the number of them is innumerable. Perhaps an image is worth far more than a thousand words.
But this doesn't mean we need to get rid of a linguistic notion of film altogether, only to put it alongside an informational one that accepts film is always doing more than one thing at once, and that it both records unavoidably and dictates inevitably. When we watch a film we can often give a rough estimation of its date even if we don't have any idea in advance of when it was made. Watching a Douglas Sirk film and looking at the costumes, the cars, the house interiors, even someone with a passing knowledge of design, will know this is the fifties. Even with a historical film usually the haircuts, the costumes, the dwellings will reflect a little the moment in time in which it was made. Comparing two versions of Mary Queen of Scots from 1971 and 2018, we can see that though the period-setting is obviously the same, the costumes look a little different, as if Margaret Furst was designing for a historical film and Alexandra Byrne for costume drama. As Byrne says of the 2018 version, and filming in harsh weather conditions in Scotland, she decided to make everything herself rather than renting costumes. "They didn't have dry cleaners back then...They would've gotten wet in their clothes, the sun would've dried them, they would've sweated in them. I think they would've become quite molded to the body, which is difficult when you're making costumes." (Who What Wear) And even a passing awareness of film would tell us that Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson are actresses from an earlier era; Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan from a recent one. If that takes care of what is in front of the camera, what about how that camera is deployed, or how music is utilised? The earlier one is more inclined to use longer shots and zooms; the latter faster editing and drone shots.
For argument's sake, the costumes and so on represent an informational model and the zooms etc a linguistic one, even if we should add that while phonemes tend to be fixed, film techniques are often dynamic. But we could add too that, while the technology may change the convention behind the shot, it is often very similar. The film may use a drone to offer a sweeping vista while before a crane would have been used. If cinema isn't like a language in many ways it can be similar in others. It can direct our attention as words can guide our thoughts and this is why it might be useful to differentiate between what we see and what the film does. When halfway through Margin Call a tracking shot passes a line of computers at night, the workers elsewhere, we are very likely to see in the background an American flag on the wall as the camera passes. But throughout, the film has also shown us other things on the wall, including numerous Abstract paintings. We are unlikely to notice them as we will notice the American flag (another one is less conspicuously in the same tracking shot and at a further distance), as the director guides our attention towards the flag but not towards the paintings. We are inclined to observe the flag and notice the paintings, a correlative of what the film does and what we see. In the film's doing we observe; in the film's relative absence of doing we may notice.
We offer the example of the flag because it might apparently function quite differently from more conspicuous examples of directorial assertiveness. When Hitchcock directs our attention to the key in Dial M for Murder, it is so that we can follow the plot, while the shot in Margin Call wishes perhaps to develop the theme: to tell us this is America and look at what the country is reduced to as everybody chases money. How a film differentiates from pushing its story and exploring its theme isn't always easy to discern and maybe many a film is all the better for that indiscernibility. Partly what made many American films of the late sixties and early seventies, for example, so intriguing was a sense of inquiry that proposed the shot could tell the story, and yet propose the theme by holding shots a little longer than expected, or change the perspective on a typical conventional image. In Downhill Racer, for example, we are following skier Robert Redford as he careens down the mountain and then watch as he fails to keep his balance. In the next scene he tells the coach that if he had been several places higher up in the team, he would have had good snow and wouldn't have fallen. But what is more interesting is how it is filmed. When Redford falls, the film zooms out slightly, then zooms in a little, and then holds the shot for several seconds as people come to the aid of the fallen Redford. Yet it seems the shot isn't held to convey additional narrative information, otherwise, we might expect a cut to medium close ups of those seeing if he is ok. It holds at a distance before cutting to a cavernous restaurant where Redford and coach Gene Hackman talk. It appears especially cavernous because of the shot choice. Instead of opening with an external establishing shot and moving to the interior, director Michael Ritchie opens with an interior long shot, capturing well the arched ceiling as we spot two figures in the distance seated by the window. They are the only people in the restaurant and the shot captures an aloof chilliness that the previous shot exemplified in using the snow and the camera distance, and will be used throughout the film as we wonder what motivates Redford's character. He wants to win, clearly, but when a film creates a space between that desire for victory and its own querying of such an ambition as we watch Redford's often selfish and ruthless actions framed by a broader question, the story gets absorbed into its theme. It is as though Ritchie and his screenwriter the novelist James Salter asked what is ambition rather than how does a skier win, and finds in the chilly landscapes it films a correlative to the action it shows. The conventional shot of an accident becomes a complex examination augmented by the next shot that captures a general aloofness. The story moves forward but it is more the theme that is getting pushed.
Clearly, this is complicating our notion of what a film shows and what we see, even if we accept that everyone will be inclined to say that Redford wins the championship at the end, not everyone will say his victory is hollow. The film has tried to show that hollowness in a form that asks what underpins ambition. But this isn't accidental even if it isn't quite assertive either. When the film shows us Redford hurtling down the mountain in his various races, the film offers brilliantly functional shots that convey the thrill of skiing and the determination of his character. But the two shots we have invoked, the zoom after he crashes, and the establishing shot in the restaurant, have a different purpose. The storytelling has no need for such shots and partly why we can claim they serve a thematic function. Yet we might usefully distinguish between an underdetermined and overdetermined thematic, and this is partly what allows a film to be connotatively powerful without being symbolically assertive. Classic Hollywood is full of symbolically assertive films and we wouldn't wish to undermine them; only to say that much of their thematic import comes from locating them within a dense and categorical mise en scene: few filmmakers more brilliantly than Douglas Sirk. When he shows us a lovelorn character in Written on the Wind, she is surrounded by red plastic flowers. As Dorothy Malone dances with a photograph of the man she loves who doesn't love her, Sirk is leaving us in no doubt about how she feels and wants the screen space not just to reflect her feelings but to exacerbate them, as though the photograph and the flowers are vital to her self-pity. Nobody is likely to doubt the director's intentions behind how the space is delineated, but someone might with Ritchie's placing of the establishing shot inside rather than outside the restaurant. Both filmmakers are showing us something, but it would seem that Ritchie wants us to muse over what he shows us, while Sirk wishes us to be well aware of the symbolic import of his images. Even if one were to say of Ritchie's shot that it reflects alienation, Ritchie's often removed framing asks us to see Redford's character as out of touch with his feelings (just as the Malone character in Written on the Wind is preoccupied with hers), that would be to make an assertion Ritchie's films appears to deny: that he wishes more to muse over Redford's character rather than to define it. Sirk chooses definition over reflection and thus creates little opportunity for the viewer to see, over what he as a filmmaker shows.
Let us be clear. Both Downhill Racer and Written on the Wind can be equally well-crafted but create a different expectation in the viewer as a consequence of the craft, and why we can talk about the symbolically assertive over the connotatively powerful. Both films at certain moments retreat from the plot but they don't create the same level of viewer confidence in that retreat. In the scene in Written on the Wind, Malone's dance is oddly ecstatic and we could have found justification for it as Sirk crosscuts with the father falling down the stairs to his death. If Malone poisoned him and was waiting for him to die and get his money, we would have plot motivation in her ecstasy, but this isn't the case at all and we are left accepting that her strange behaviour rests on a hysterical desire that can't be met that she cannot have the man she loves. The film doesn't turn the scene into a plot-motivated one but it does make clear what the symbolism serves. In Downhill Racer, the film has absorbed both Michelangelo Antonioni and documentary-inflected cinema. The screenwriter James Salter would sometimes namecheck the Italian director and Ritchie would later cast Antonioni's main leading lady Monica Vitti in An Affair to Remember. Cinematographer Brian Probyn worked in documentary, and on films like The War Game and Poor Cow before shooting Downhill Racer. The film possesses an aspect of Antonioni's framing but even more a feeling for the environment, for using the long lens to give the impression of observing behaviour rather than having it signalled to the viewer. It was as if Ritchie wished to play up the ambiguity of Salter and Redford's differing position on the character. "At dinner one night, I remarked that I saw Billy Kidd as the model for the main character. Kidd was the dominant skier on the U.S. team and, in the manner of champions, was somewhat arrogant and aloof. He was toughfrom a poor part of town, I imagined, honed by years on the icy runs of the East. Redford shook his head. The racer he was interested in was at another table. Over there. I looked. Golden, unimpressible, a bit like Redford himself." (New Yorker) Sirk's assertive symbolism leaves us in no doubt that Malone is utterly besotted by Rock Hudson's character; Ritchie's connotative power rests on the viewer trying to make sense of an ambiguous figure.
In Written on the Wind, the film shows us how Malone feels; in Downhill Racer, Ritchie creates space enough for the viewer to wonder how Redford feels. Clearly, anybody who thinks that Ritichie's film is more casual in its meaning than Sirk's would be misunderstanding the argument, even if explaining it means arriving at a paradox: that Ritchie is determined to hold assertively to ambiguity; Sirk no less assertively to remove it. This needn't make one film better than the other but it might usefully allow us to say that whether we concern ourselves with what the film does and how we see it reveals an aspect of the type of film it is. Some may insist that what we think about the film isn't important. Whether we believe Redford is superior or insecure, enormously ambitious or just escaping from small-town life in the most distancing way he can, is of no critical value whatsoever. What matters is that we see what the filmmaker intends. If the director intends ambiguity that is all to the good but that doesn't mean we need to have anything to say about the character as a consequence of this enigma. The critic's purpose is to say that in Downhill Racer the exploration of character is ambiguous; in Written on the Wind unequivocally so, even if even here we may muse over the exaggeration in Malone's dance, and its coinciding with the father's demise. But we could just say that Sirk wishes to show the family collapsing in various manifestations: whether it is the father's heart attack as he falls down the stairs, or Malone cracking up as she dances in her room.
Such an approach to intentionality contains its own paradox, and can be found in much criticism that valorises the work to the detriment of the author, but at the same time doesn't quite generate freedom in the reader as a consequence. If the author has no intention and yet the work nevertheless has meaning, how does this come about? Modern criticism may have "...tended to the point of view that anything except the work itself is irrelevant" and that the intentional fallacy lies in "...the error of criticising and judging a work of literature by attempting to assess what the writer's intention was and whether or not he has fulfilled it..." (Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory) The chief difference perhaps between New Critics like Richards, Beardsley, Wimsatt jr and others, and Roland Barthes rests on this invitation. The latter's death of the author gave way potentially to the birth of the reader: "once the Author is removed, the claim to decipher a text becomes quite futile. To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing." ('The Death of the Author') But it was in his book on photography, Camera Lucida, that this freedom became an interrogation as Barthes mused over what it means to look and to see, to observe the rudiments of a photograph and to examine its impact upon him beyond its ready purpose. When Barthes sees photographs of Nicaraguan despair he knows how he is expected to respond but the photographs don't especially move him. What does is a belt worn low by a member of a family of three blacks. Why, he cannot readily say, as he can readily say what ought to move him for example in a photograph of a young boy lying dead in a street covered by a bedsheet. It can be a trivial detail he fixates upon and potentially expands upon. "This power is often metonymic" Barthes says.
Raymond Bellour notes that for Barthes film doesn't offer the same opportunity for reflection "The photographic instant - no matter how poignant or close to the pose, as Barthes thought, is always by the force of circumstance a 'decisive instant' torn from reality. It can only be called meaningful in relation to the reversal of time and the generality of death of which it is the trace and the trauma, the secret subject that doubles the apparent one." Bellour reckons that "otherwise, it is at best the sublimated but immanent form of any-instant-whatever. So there wouldn't be in the literal sense a meaningful instant in cinema because, as one can see, its privileged instant can only spring from any-instant-whatever, from the photograph reduced, in terms of its movement, to its quality as pure snapshot." ('The Film Stilled') But if we accept that the film is an informational system, it needn't eradicate this type of reflection but create a greater level of complexity in the processing of it. If film moves too fast, capturing instants, maybe, consequently, it makes the spectator even more wilful than the one facing the photograph. Barthes was writing Camera Lucida in 1980; VHS had become available in homes in 1978 and had become popular by the eighties. People could turn films into photographs, truth could be what you wanted it to be, 1/24th of a second. Film may have always been a photographic medium turned into a moving image thanks to the phi effect, but those single frames weren't available to the general viewer to turn into singular images until video allowed people to freeze-frame a moment in their homes. Yet this also meant generating specific meaning out of what from a mathematical point of view would be in a typical hundred-minute film 144,000 frames. That is a lot of information to sift through to find that aspect of the image which seizes you. Yet we should remember that for Barthes this prick of shock that he talks about isn't a research project; it is the product of immediacy.
This again, however, needn't invalidate the possibility of such recognition in the film image; it only makes it much harder to discern. If one were to return to the film, fast-forwarding through those photograms that pass by so quickly, it is to find the moment that may initially have moved too fast for the eye to fix on what it has seen. We can think of a couple of examples, even though we could have chosen from probably thousands of films; even if some films may offer these observational possibilities more than others. In John Huston's Fat City, Stacey Keach's ageing boxer is making a comeback and the film cuts away after he looks like he is losing the fight. The film shows us a reaction shot to the crowd and the most prominent member of it will be the other main character in the film, fellow boxer Jeff Bridges. Yet we might also notice a blond woman to his left, who is chewing gum and seems more troubled by the fight than the others. We could find ourselves wondering why she is there since she doesn't seem excited by the idea of men beating each other up, and we may notice a little later after the fight that she is one of the women in the foyer along with the manager and others discussing the fight with Keach and Bridges. We are given no close-up and in most of the shots this small woman is behind others. The other women there, who were sitting in the same row at the fight, are Bridges' girlfriend and the manager's, and only a viewer attentive to every aspect of the film (an impossible task) will pay this blonde woman much attention. We don't see her again and only observation and reflection on the viewer's part will make her of any significance at all. Film is full of such possibilities and it rests on the amount of information it gives us. A viewer could choose another person watching the fight and focus on them. We may believe that this blonde woman is more important than many of the other extras in the film since she is sitting next to Bridges at the fight, will be seen after it and congratulates Keach on winning it. But her role is so small, her significance to the narrative so negligible, that we could find any number of other people at the ring that we could briefly project upon.
In Five Easy Pieces there is a well-known scene in a diner with Jack Nicholson insulting a waitress when she won't let him order exactly what he wishes and, at the end of the scene when she asks him and the others to leave, he sweeps his hand across the table while the drinks crash to the floor. We may have noticed earlier in the exchange others in the background of the shot, seated a couple of tables behind Nicholson. They are extras serving no more a function than giving the impression the diner is half-full, but when Nicholson gets irate all three of the diners react by rising out of their seats. Strictly speaking, they do more in the scene than the diners ordering with Nicholson, who remain seated, even if those with Nicholson have far greater roles: his partner, played by Karen Black, and a couple of hitchhikers they have picked up earlier.
What is our point? Imagine if there was no crowd at all at the fight and nobody else in the diner. It would be an empty auditorium and an empty restaurant. A film can't not show something and assume in the absence it chooses no meaning will be extracted. In a book, even on a stage, the writer isn't obliged to provide such information. The diner is just a diner, neither full nor empty unless the writer wants to make it so, the adjective chosen or ignored in print, while an inconvenience on stage if one were suddenly to fill it with numerous diners. This suggests that however we choose to define literature or theatre, it wouldn't be useful to regard them as information systems. Since cinema cannot ignore the information that it invokes, it is remiss to think of it first of all as a linguistic system when some other art forms (especially and most obviously literature) so clearly reflect that fact.
If we have given what might seem fairly random examples from film it is because almost all films generate this type of informational fullness. Yet if we acknowledge more than randomness it rests on some films over others showing a concern for this information as an exploration and generation of a milieu. Like Downhill Racer, Fat City and Five Easy Pieces are all examples of New Hollywood and show a respect for realism usually absent from classic American film. It doesn't make them better films, though many will be, but it makes them alert to a shift in cinematic focus. The story is still important, yet it seems to demand a higher degree of verisimilitude. Some might see this as a Bazinian turn in American cinema at a time when theory was turning against Bazin's claims. But it can also be a recognition that Pasolini's insistence on the smallest unit is impossible to define and provides an opportunity to marry Bazin's beliefs with Pasolini's perplexity. Film theory needn't have reached a linguistic dead-end but instead could have seen that a combination of Bazin's respect for the pro-filmic image, and Pasolini's interest in the failure of the smallest unit, would have shown us that what makes film specific (if it is so), rests not on how it resembles literature but how it deviates from it to give us life. In this, both Pasolini and Bazin were in agreement even if for different reasons. While Bazin was drawn to scientific analogies, Pasolini drew instead on anthropological ones. If Bazin saw film as the development of a chemical process, Pasolini saw cinema as drawing upon a primitive, pre-verbal language.
Bazin's claim that film is ontologically linked to the real through a chemical process is no longer valid, even if occasionally filmmakers still work on celluloid. But we can still rescue the French theorist's need for the real if we see in it a respect for the manifold nature of the image. If Bazin so admired longer takes and deeper focus, it was that film could, by default, capture what is in front of the lens while a painter needed to paint it, and thus to eschew much of what is captured would seem a denial of its ontology. When a painter paints, even if he shows us something that is out there in the world, like a well-known lake, a garden, a street corner, we don't assume an extension of that image and there are at least two reasons for this. The first rests on our assumption that this is a work of deliberate imagination, that the painter is responsible for the frame: a point we may take literally when we think of the shape and ratio of paintings, much broader than that of film, no matter if ratio-wise film's re-exhibition (DVD, TV etc) leads to numerous new ratios. However, the painting is originally available in many different shapes and sizes; the film image is subsequently available in a size that means a film can be watched on a television, a laptop or a mobile phone. It doesn't change its original dimensions any more than looking at a Van Gogh on a mobile phone changes the dimensions of The Olive Trees. The painter's purpose is to delimit the frame; the filmmakers to propose its extension. As Bazin pronounced: "the screen is not a frame as in a painting, but a mask which only lets us perceive a part of the event." (Theatre and Cinema)
There may be filmmakers who delimit too, creating a fixed frame aesthetic that makes a mockery of off-screen space. But even here in films by Tsai Ming-Liang or Aki Kaurismaki, the presence of the off-screen is pronounced, often with the interruption of a character entering the frame, or of a sound that comes from beyond it. In a brief moment in Kaurismaki's The Other Side of Hope, for example, the director offers what amounts to a still life of two glasses of port and the bottle half out of the frame, before one hand comes in on the left of the screen; another hand on the right, as the two characters take a drink. Equally, painters occasionally suggest a partial framing as though there ought to be more to the image than there is: Philip Pearlstein for example. Yet the gag in film rests on the play with the limits of the frame; in painting on its apparent extension. The play on the form rests on the assumptions we generally make about it: that film expands into the next image; that painting is limited by the frame the artist insists upon.
The second is that film after thirty silent years absorbed sound, thus giving to the image an offscreen inevitability that painting, photography and silent film needn't concern themselves over. Since what interested Bazin was the evolution of the language of film, additions like sound added to the reality cinema could explore; it needn't curtail its artistic deliberation. Bazin could see that life was an uninterrupted take that film could respect by showing in its longer shots and its deeper focus humility in the face of it. He admired much more Renoir than Eisenstein, Wyler over Hitchcock, and did so since he believed Wyler and Renoir wished to be as faithful as they could to life in its unfolding, over the manipulative devices adopted by the Russian and the Englishman. Pasolini extended that claim metaphysically and anthropologically, seeing the long take extending into an infinity that would be limited not by life but one's life: the shot ending as one's life concludes. In reality, we make cinema by living....By living, therefore, we represent ourselves, and we observe the representation of others. The reality of the human world is nothing more than this double representation in which we are both actors and spectators: a gigantic happening, if you will. ('The Written Language of Reality') At the time the claim was made, Pasolini's remark could be seen as both technological and metaphysical nonsense. A take could be no more than ten minutes long; now with digital technology no such limit is evident. But is it still metaphysically idiotic? Stephen Heath reckoned that in such a notion "...cinema becomes not a process of the articulation of meaning, but direct duplication of some Reality; it represents 'reality' with 'reality.' Certain ideas of Pasolini will perhaps have been recognized at this point." (Screen). If Pasolini insisted that "Semiology... has not taken the step which would lead it to become a Philosophy" (Heresies: The Body of Pasolini's Semiotics), then this suggested he wished to see the semiotic contained by a metaphysic: to wonder how a language of signs could predicate itself on a system greater than a discipline. If Pasolini offered absurdity in his claim about a shot that would lead to an infinity contained by an individual life, then this is the sort of philosophical absurdity offered by Nietzsche when he proposes eternal return, or Descartes a world ruled by a malevolent God. But Pasolini also wanted to show the absurd more practically, by suggesting as we have noted that one cannot reduce the film image to the smallest unit as one can in language. If the evolution of the language of film keeps adding aspects that make it resemble life (sound, colour, the indefinite take), then it might seem an error not to see this as at the root of its being. It could appear naive to say that film is like life but it might be even more so to deny that this is where the source of its power resides. If it didn't, why bother adding sound, and colour to an image that is perfect as it is? When painting recognised its ontological status, it didn't absorb more representational reality; it retreated from it, seeing what made painting an art form was the paint and the frame. The evolution of the language of painting, in this sense, showed less 'reality', not more of it.
There were of course some theorists in painting who would insist abstract expressionism was not the way to go, just as there were film critics who believed that cinema should go the way of painting and regard film as about no more than the components that made up film: with sound, colour and the frame the blocks of film, as paint and the frame were the rudiments of painting. But it was as though experimental film had adopted the ontology of painting and very usefully proposed new possibilities in the medium without itself being the ontology of cinema. If we believe Pasolini and Bazin have much more to say about film ontologically than, for example, P Adam Sitney and Gene Youngblood, it rests on trying to define cinema rather than determining to expand it experimentally. Film can resemble painting and some very useful ideas and works can come out of such a claim, but it amounts to an expansive insistence rather than a cinematic first principle.
As Deleuze proposes that cinema might more usefully be seen as an information system over a linguistic one, it allows us to incorporate within the informational the linguistic, as we cannot if offering it the other way round. The semiotic system starts from meaning and the meaningless, while the information system starts from the chaotic. The smallest unit of language has no meaning as it awaits other phonemes to make sense; to produce words and sentences. The frame as the equivalent unit (the smallest unit of film) is potentially a surplus of meaning and not meaningless and hence the chaos. The filmmaker's purpose wouldn't then be to build meaning but contain the chaos, creating the chaosmos, the composed chaos perhaps, that Deleuze and Guattari invoke in What Is Philosophy? Film becomes chaotic because it is not meaningless, but constantly full of a meaning that we can find if we choose to focus on elements that might not be especially meaningful to the film itself. Imagine someone were to discover who those three people in the diner in Five Easy Pieces were, and then wrote a book about these lives that became recognised and researchable based on only a few seconds in a film while they were in the background of the shots. They could become major figures in a novel or perverse biography, and we could do it with millions of people in thousands of films.
Such books are written, though they are often done when someone becomes famous who was in a non-speaking part at the beginning of their careers. Renee Zelwegger was an extra in Dazed and Confused; Bruce Willis in The Verdict and Stallone had a slightly larger but uncredited role as a mugger in Bananas. Their later fame gave these micro-parts great significance, and books have been thus written about these stars. But we could do it with any number of people who have no impact on the narrative, nor who became famous, but are vital to the film's information system. Someone may only be an extra because film as a form needs extras; but the extra is evidence of film as an information system. We know that if the film were devoid of these extras, something would be missing from it, otherwise why over so many years have they been paid to do 'nothing'? Their doing nothing proposes that the film is doing something and that without them the film would be doing something else. They make sure a bar isn't empty; that a cafe is full; a subway train is occupied. A novelist does not need to dole out a hundred dollars a day to fill in such scenes.
Yet what we have been discussing is human extras, and now all those people needn't be there at all. "In the days before computers, filmmakers simply hired extras, dressed them in costume, and put them in front of the camera. The 1959 film Ben-Hur used 10,000 extras. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy made use of the New Zealand Armed Forces. Unfortunately, real life extras can get expensive fast. Even at minimum wage, once you factor in parking, food, and makeup, you can spend $100+ a day per extra, which makes a crowd a big expense." (Premium Beat) The more anonymously present the people are, the more homogenised the number, the less apparent they need to be. If a film only has to show a full stadium, then it doesn't much matter whether they are made up of ones and zeroes or flesh and bone. Flesh and bone need food and drink, toilet visits and sleep. From a Bazinian perspective, we will lose the relationship with the real but we might wonder too if it changes the nature of the information system. All those millions of people we have seen in films, who have lives that we can potentially follow beyond their moments in the scene, become digitally rendered. Even if they are based on individuals, their individuality will be reduced all the better so that it can be duplicated. As Rubidum Wu says, "One cost-effective way to get the best of both worlds is to use a small group of extras and duplicate them into a larger crowd. This is done by carefully shooting multiple passes, with the extras standing in different locations, and then laying these "plates" on top of one another." (Premium Beat) All you need to do is create enough of a blur in the background and you have a crowd without an audience seeing repetition.
If we look again at the fight scenes in Fat City, we can distinguish numerous individuals in the crowd, with director John Huston under no obligation to create a shallow focus to hide what we might call digital homogenisation, as opposed to analogue heterogeneity. If there are many reasons why viewers might mourn the loss of celluloid one of the least likely to be played up will be the relative absence of extras. But from the perspective of a complex information system, we can see how digitised images can reduce that informational breadth, forcing the filmmaker into closing off their shots and countering the Bazinian fullness of the image. Some have little problem with this, seeing instead that the director increases their creativity. Orit Fussfeld Cohen quotes some of Lev Manovich's observations. "Manovich remarks upon digital imaging's "richness of control" and emphasises "the concept of the surface in a computer interface as a virtual control panel, similar to the control panel on a car, plane or any other complex machine." This allows filmmakers "to perform complex and detailed actions on computer data" while trying to create their own language, all the while taking advantage of all the new capacities offered by a computer." (The New Language of Digital Film) There are few writers better at looking at the advances in digital image exploration than Manovich, yet that doesn't mean we need to agree that advances in technology necessarily lead to greater creative possibilities. If we are right that the filmmaker who relies on digitised extras is then likely to create a shallower focus to accommodate them, then this will undeniably be cheaper (paying potentially three or four extras instead of a thousand). But a director may often wish to see their creativity in tandem with the reality they film rather than viewing their work as creating a reality that attends only to narrow, diegetic specifics. Pasolini himself said of working with even actors who have significant roles in his films: "I tell him what he has to do for example, slap someone or pick up a glass but I let him do this with the gestures that are natural to him." I don't like to make an organized and calculated I never intervene regarding his gestures." (Film Comment)
Bazin was never quite the naive realist many took him to be and that even his admirers were in danger of propagating. Dudley Andrew says, "for Bazin the situation was clear: either a filmmaker utilizes empirical reality for his personal ends or else he explores empirical reality for its own sake. In the former case, the filmmaker is making of empirical reality a series of signs which point to or create an aesthetic or rhetorical truth, perhaps lofty and noble, perhaps prosaic and debased. In the latter case, however, the filmmaker brings us closer to the events filmed by seeking the significance of a scene somewhere within the unadorned tracings it left on the celluloid." (The Major Film Theories) Yet while there is a lot more to Bazin than that (and how can there not be when he wrote around 2,500 articles), Bazin's importance rests partly on how he saw film in the context of a reality that film drew from and ought to be drawn to. And Pasolini was no more naive than Bazin, though it might be the problem of the critic or theorist who views the image as containing life or exploring it, to seem ingenuous when so many manipulations in the other direction are involved.
But our position isn't one of the sophisticated versus the guileless. It is more about the choice filmmakers may wish to make when confronted with the specificity of their art form. We needn't hold to that old saw the specificity thesis as some absolute aspect of the medium, even if we have noted how we may make assumptions about an art form's specificity when a practitioner uses it in a manner that can seem odd whether a painter shows a partial frame, or a filmmaker insists on a restricted one. Bazin's great insight was that rather than countering reality, film could absorb reality, making much of the notion that the film could be art by respecting what was filmed rather than transforming it. The unit of cinematic narrative in Paisa is not the 'shot,' an abstract view of a reality which is being analyzed but the 'fact'. A fragment of concrete reality is itself multiple and full of ambiguity... ('An Aesthetic of Reality') Noel Carroll might say in the context of the specificity thesis that "the idea that each art form has its own domain and that it should not overlap with the effects of other art forms hails from the eighteenth century, when theorists such as Jean Baptiste Dubos, James Harris, Moses Mendelsohn, and, most famously, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing revolted against the kind of art theory proposed in Charles Batteux's tract entitled 'The Fine Arts Reduced to the Same Principle'." ('The Specificity of Media in the Arts') Clearly, Bazin wouldn't have been interested in such a notion or why write an essay called in 'Defence of Mixed Cinema'? Yet like Pasolini he did want to claim a privileged role for film as an art form that needn't make it escapist, nor formalist; that wouldn't make it so pragmatic that it didn't care about its recording device status (Hollywood), nor so aware of that origin that it could become a joke on how little was required to make a film (Warhol).
Perhaps a notion of film's specificity however has an important role to play in the 21st-century, where screens and images are everywhere, and with film seen by many as just one form of media amongst others and not always the most elevated. "For decades, television found it difficult", Stuart Heritage says, "to shake its reputation as cinema's poorer cousin. Sure, television was exciting - as the box in the corner of your room, it had a familiar intimacy that was hard to replicate - but it couldn't hold a candle to the money, the glamour, the flat-out star power of the movies. How distant that now seems." (Guardian) It is as though cinema has lost its purpose and found it in bombast: in making large-scale comic strip films and numerous sequels that care little for the sort of image that Bazin found vital to the form. However, that is only a small aspect of contemporary film, even if a very large source of its income. As Sam Mendes says, "You look at the multiplexes and people go 'there's six screens' and then you go to those six screens and it says 'screen one Avatar, screen two Avatar, screen three Avatar' - that's not a six-screen cinema; that's just six screens showing the same movie." (Guardian) This isn't the place to go into the pragmatic ways in which cinema might become pertinent again, though it may demand a reversal of the multiplex culture that works well for the blockbuster but little else, and a move towards smaller screens and a communal, community focus.
It seems unlikely that though screens have proliferated, the desire for one's attention to be distracted by multiple screens, manifold sources of information, numerous open windows, has become greater. As Daniel Fairfax astutely put it: What I think has changed is that where once the cinema was seen as an object of distraction, now it's an object of concentration. It's the place where we have the possibility for the most concentrated experiences possible in the modern world. (Senses of Cinema) Attention Deficit Disorder is as the name suggests hardly a positive, and has inevitably been on the rise. "Researchers have recognized that ADHD symptoms persist into adulthood for as many as 60 percent of those who were diagnosed with the disorder during childhood. Recognition of this fact may explain the 123 percent increase in ADHD prevalence among adults reported between 2007 and 2016 (from 0.43 percent to 0.96 percent)." (Psychology Today) Film isn't there as a cure but it might be useful for those commenting on the image to accept that attention is an important aspect of its meaning and comprehension. The process of absorbing a Marvel film or a work by Antonioni is going to be quite different. We have had now for a while a popular term to describe films by contemporary directors like Lav Diaz, Albert Serra, Bela Tarr and Carlos Reygadas: slow cinema. It is a simple term, and a popular way of describing a large range of films and directors. But slowness may be a different form of absorbing information, as though the filmmaker acknowledges the absurd richness of perceptual possibilities in the image, taking into account our earlier remark about a typical film containing 144,000 frames. By photographic standards, even a slow film can seem very fast indeed, and partly why Barthes says that film doesn't allow for the noticing a photograph can entertain. From such a perspective a slow film is a contradiction in terms and maybe the closest to an example of it wouldn't even be Warhol works like Empire and Sleep but Douglas Gordon's 24-Hour Psycho. The sort of details a photograph can linger on a film in slow-motion can at least partially offer, and hint at the pacing Barthes demanded. Yet if slow cinema is prevalent, slow-motion cinema has understandably never caught on for various reasons. If the sound moves at the same pace as the image, then you have a smeared sound. The image isn't necessarily distorted by slowness, but anybody who has tried listening to an old music cassette when the tape has dried out knows this isn't the same thing as watching a Sam Peckinpah action scene in slow motion. Gordon's film is a provocation, not an innovation it asks us to see a film differently, not film differently.
There are various ways in which a decelerated cinema (to use Peter Wollen's term in 'Speed and Cinema') can produce a perception of slowness, and we can look at three: the incremental, the attentive and the compositional. Bela Tarr is a great incrementalist director, someone who often insists on a very deliberate approach to revealing information. In Satantango, a woman starts to nod off and the director holds on her as she falls asleep, before moving the camera to the left as she is no longer awake, and we see a man who looks like he has been asleep for a while, before Tarr then showing us a third who looks so comatose he could be dead. The camera shows his head on the floor and then travels the length of the table before revealing his feet and then past the man who has been playing the accordian throughout the scene, before arriving at a couple sharing a sandwich as if sharing a kiss. The scene is over four minutes long and an attentive director might have offered it as a fixed frame, allowing the viewer to scan the image to gather the amount of information it offers. A compositional filmmaker might have used a fixed frame as well but for a slightly different purpose seeing the frame as a still life, an image of objects that happen to be people.
Jacques Tati in this sense was a great filmmaker of the attentive, risking the certitude of the gag to the desire that the audience will find it, or will believe that amused concentration is a form of humour in itself. In a scene in Playtime, the director shows us the outside of a glass building, with people living in their apartments as if they are offices, and the impression is of humans existing in goldfish bowls to be observed by passersby. The camera is the passerby, as we see initially four apartments in one building, all viewed from an establishing shot that changes the angle but never moves to the interior shot. We never go inside any of the four apartments as Tati mainly focuses on events in the two downstairs, and we hear no sounds emanating from them. In one moment, when the viewer sees all four apartments, someone upstairs in the left-hand one seems to be fulminating and we might notice downstairs someone looking up as though annoyed at the noise coming from above. It is a detail that could be easily missed and even if we do see it we might wonder whether there is a joke to be had. If there is it might rest on the person no less annoyed by what is in front of him as what is above him, as he watches TV, and as we may assume that what has annoyed the man above him has been on the television as well, as all four apartments appear to have a television on and placed against the wall. We don't know for sure that this apartment above has a TV (we can't see that part of the wall) but as the other three do so it is a fair inference, and so we may find ourselves laughing at the notion that what matters is the capacity for irritation and the goggle box a tool for expressing it. If the neighbour above is getting annoyed by what is on the television, and making a noise that adds to the irateness of the downstairs neighbour, then all to the good, since the TV is there to unleash the irate and everybody is suitably worked up. If we do notice the downstair neighbour's response, it may be that our central character, played of course by Tati himself, is sitting next to him, and of the four apartments we are going to concentrate on this one. But we would still have to notice the upstairs neighbour to get the potential humour in the downstair neighbours' reaction. It is as if the gag is there but we have to find it both within the frame and within ourselves. Tati offers the opposite of universal humour even if more than any comedian of his era he relies on the universalising comedy of the silent period: visual humour that isn't reliant on the spoken word. There is a chance while watching a Tati film that one person will be laughing heartily and others might wonder what they find so amusing.
What matters more than the humour captured in Tati is the observation offered. It would be too easy to say that Tati insists here on a critique of television, though we might wonder when the people he visits set up a screen and a projector as an alternative. But it is a bigger gag than a critique, with Tati himself creating in the image in this scene four screens as each apartment functions like an enormous television. The moment echoes Rear Window and anticipates all those screens David Bowie could absorb in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tati asks us to be attentive to the image, while Tarr expects us to follow his camera as it reveals incrementally information about the screen space. Tati asks us to search the frame to make sense of the information and the jokes contained therein. "The images are designed so that after you see the picture two or three times, it's no longer my film," Tati said in an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum "It starts to be your film. You recognize the people, you know them, and you don't even know who directed the picture. (Film Comment) He says nobody would say this of Fellini's Roma and we would be inclined to say nobody would say it of Satantango either, even if it is a film strongly reliant on collaborators including Tarr's wife Agnes Hranitzky and composer Mihaly Vig.
Few directors were more compositionally exact than Antonioni, someone for whom the frame was close to an ethos and rarely less than a parti pris. Antonioni could never just establish a shot, offering an exterior building so that he could locate the place before moving on to an interior. He insisted the exterior must chiefly have a compositional balance, a precision of framing that proposed we find ourselves looking at the world afresh because the shot demands our concentration, as though the director isn't asking us to wait for the next shot but to muse over the one he has captured. In Red Desert, Richard Harris is waiting outside a building and while we might be curious to see where Monica Vitti is while he waits, what matters more, what allows for the Antonionesque, is the frame, with Harris on the left-hand side taking up about 1/15 of it. It is a common feature in Antonioni's work, a low fractional ratio given to the character within the image. We see it too in an image from early in the film, with Monica Vitti and her son, again taking up a very small fraction of the frame, and again at the very end of the film with Monica Vitti and her son in front of an industrial plant where the fraction is minimal. In The Eclipse there is a shot of the stock exchange, with the three imposing pillars and numerous people crammed into the building. Vitti can be spotted in the shot near the bottom left-hand corner. But if Antonioni wants us to notice her at all he wishes that we do so not because he demands our informational attention, but because he wants the compositional precision that will often allow objects to outweigh subjects, containing them in a frame that leaves us thinking about the image as an image. It is true that in Tati's Playtime, we also have this compositional fractionality, with Tati often small with the frame as well, but this appears to be much more for the attentive than the compositional.
It isn't of course that a given filmmaker exclusively focuses on one aspect to the complete detriment of the others. All we have to say is that Tarr's priority is incremental, Tati's attentive and Antonioni's compositional. What they all have in common is seeing film as an information system, one that asks us to look at images without immediately turning them into the narrational, and thus into a linguistic principle, one that can reduce the shot to a unit of information which can then function as little more than a phoneme. Numerous filmmakers insist that instead of seeing this as a problem of the image, where its residual information might endanger the narrational momentum, it is the very core of the image: its inability to be thus reduced. If an image contains a thousand words, then this can be seen as a very good reason why film isn't much of an art form when complete control is demanded. To put phonemes together to form words which become sentences suggests a very high degree of control, and the writer needn't worry about a background extra smuggled into a syllable.
To think of film as like a language may have benefits for teaching the subject, just as insisting the film shows us images rather than that we see them is pedagogically useful too. But for all the talk of reaction shots, close-ups, establishing shots, medium shots and cross-cutting, we know in many instances we are talking about proximations that lack the certitude of a phoneme or a verb, noun or adjective. Seeing film as an information system chiefly and a linguistic system secondarily, rather than the other way round, might make film a harder subject to teach, but a better one to think about. Film has been built out of these proximations and there are at least two ways of seeing this. One is that the image becomes a technique, a system of comprehending the visual that generates expectation to be met: that viewers have internalised standards of visual perception and the filmmakers' purpose is to meet them. It may modify them and David Bordwell's The Way Hollywood Tells It is a very good account of many of these modifications, as shots become shorter, the close-up tighter, the lens lengths more varied. But the assumption is that there is a language that can be modified rather than an information system that the language carves into. When looking at films by Antonioni, Tati and Tarr, we see this carved audio-visual world, and this is true also of numerous directors we can name: Carlos Reygadas, Lars Von Trier, Michael Haneke, Lucrecia Martel, Alexander Sokurov, Gus Van Sant, Alessandro Alsonso, Tsai Ming Liang. Yet of course other directors are sometimes marvellous modifiers of the language, directors who as if absorbing either Hitchcock or Kubrick (or both), sometimes generate images that produce a new menace out of given forms like David Fincher's Zodiac and P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood.
Jacques Aumont reckons: "the filmmaker is presently faced within an infinite, almost totally open, palette of possibilities. We can do what we want, extend the shots, shorten them, mix them up, modify them on certain points - and beyond that, we can experiment as much as we want. A good filmmaker who can concretely reflect on this will still find good solutions. It's just that they will find these solutions either in their own experience, or in that of the past (taking one's ideas from the masterpieces of the past is not reprehensible), but never in theory." (Senses of Cinema) He may be right, if we accept that filmmakers no longer feel the need to theorise about the images that are produced, as neo-realism was backed up by Bazin's fact-image, Godard, Bertolucci and Antonioni by Pasolini's cinema of poetry, as the Straubs by Brecht meeting Marx (by proposing that the image alienates all the better to engage the viewer politically even if it risks a disengagement on the diegetic level). Aumont might be right if one sees the importance of theory engaging with practice: film theory responds quickly to the questions contemporary film raises. But a lot of film theory in recent decades has become a meta-subject, using films as the basis for explorations in theory that isn't especially interested in the individual works themselves. Cognitive theory tells us how the viewer responds to images generally; phenomenological theory to images specifically. But these are often arguments over how we should make sense of images rather than an interest in comprehending how we receive new ones.
Yet the same could be said of psychoanalytic theory. It wasn't as if there were a set of films that forced film to think psychoanalytically about itself. it was more that Marx met Freud and theories developed about the spectator as subjugated by the text, even if many a theorist was also interested in how directors could find forms that would allow the viewer to escape that subjugation. Yet perhaps that was part of the problem: there was still an assumption of language that could be countered rather than an image that could be carved out informationally. Aumont was part of Cahiers du Cinema during its late/sixties early seventies radicalisation, even if he was never one of the most politically insistent, and retrospectively wondered how valid were its earlier claims. "Honestly I do not see what remains [of Cahiers] as a theoretical construction. There was a great intellectual agitation, which is undeniable, which I do not disown, and of which I have kept an emotional, pleasant recollection, but as an intellectual construction I don't see anything. On the other hand, [...] there are ethical values. As an ethical content I would say that it is something that is worth continuing to be considered." (Cahiers: The Red Years) Interestingly, he also says, of Deleuze's two cinema books in the early eighties, "there is this great philosopher who has landed on the cinema and says things that have nothing to do with what we were doing, and who we don't understand. It was a difficult moment, which, I believe, destabilized film studies for a very long time." (Cahiers: The Red Years)
If Deleuze vitally saw cinema as an information system, he also saw that it could be constantly made anew by great directors and comprehended by the philosophical problems they could illuminate. This didn't mean one applied a philosopher and understood the films, nor that the filmmakers adopted a philosopher's position and made a Nietzschean work, a Kantian film or whatever it might be. It was more that a problematic would be found and cinema the best way to comprehend it. It could be a relationship with time that shared similarities with Proust but wasn't dependent upon the Proustian, or Hollywood's coincidental interest in different approaches to history that chimed with Nietzsche's. If cinema had often sought a philosophical underpinning for the cinematic, whether it be Arnheim's Kantianism, Bazin's spiritual phenomenology, Eisenstein's Hegelianism or Metz's use of Saussure, Deleuze may have predicated his books on Bergson, and within that utilised very significantly C..S Peirce, but the purpose of the books was never to subordinate the filmmakers to theory. It was to insist that directors would create their own problem while seeking a specific solution. A general application would not prove useful. The cinema is always as perfect as it can be, taking into account the images and signs which it invents and which it has at its disposal at a given moment. This is why this study must interweave concrete analyses of images and sign with the 'monographs' of the great directors who have created or renewed them. (Cinema 1: The Movement-Image)
The chief difference between a linguistic model and an informational one is that while the former builds on the preexistent, the latter is constantly carving time and space out of the existent. A linguistic model can be a marvellous way of understanding genre codes, artistic traditions and formal developments. At the same time, though, it's as if it cannot quite explain the new without fitting it into a pre-established pattern that the new work may deviate from but is still indebted towards. There will be very few works that won't possess that debt, but one of the greater dangers in taking such an approach is the neutralising evident in such an angle. If we view film, like language as a building block, working from smaller to larger units, then there is the possibility that the block built from will contain a false comprehension. No such falsity is required when we say the phonemes make up a word. The word is produced out of the smallest of units, and even words struggle to indicate a given style. In Henri Georges-Cluzet's La Prisonierre, one of the characters is showing some slides of the word rien, nothing. He notes that one comes from a Paul Valery sentence; and another from Lamartine. As he says, it is the same word but it doesn't mean the same thing. He is showing the words on screen as handwriting, and the words may mean the same but they look different. They have become visual signs as well as a piece of semantic content. While the word is the same as phonemes making up rien, they are very distinct as handwriting. Thus, one way of looking at cinema is to take Alexandre Astruc's famous notion of camera stylo, of filmmakers becoming free enough to make films as if they were to pick up a pen, but to see the camera as both making textual meaning yet also extra-textual significance. When one sees on the projected image in La Prisonniere both Valery and Lamartine's rien there is absolutely no difference except visually, yet that difference is large. Since cinema is an audio-visual medium that uses words as only one of its means of expression, and where for the first thirty years of its history only used them as occasional inter-titles, it seems perverse that the linguistic model was seen for so long as an important way of understanding the art form. Some may insist that was in the sixties and seventies and theory has moved on, but how many are comfortable with seeing film as an information system, constantly beyond their grasp, over a linguistic system that is within one's capacity to comprehend?
Even when we say a shot shows such and such we might be falling into a linguistic fallacy, the idea that a unit of information can be so contained. It is partly why have distinguished what we see from what a film shows, to say that what a film asks us to focus upon might not be what we choose to notice, and we can end on that master of controlled image-making, Alfred Hitchcock. Few directors generated images more inclined to reduce the shot to its necessary narrative components, yet within the films Hitchcock often offered a detail that could be easily missed: His cameo appearance in the film. On occasion, he would be no more than another character in a crowd (Frenzy), a figure in an advertisement (Lifeboat), a person in a photograph (Dial M for Murder), a person crossing the frame (Vertigo). Even Hitchcock knew that what he showed us might depend on what we see, and never more evident than in his brief roles in the films. Though he sometimes gave himself more conspicuous cameos, the purpose was that his role wouldn't necessarily be noticed; he would be so unimportant a part of the plot (so un-shown a figure) so that we might not notice him. While many a filmmaker has learnt from Hitchcock's mastery of screen space in directing our attention, let us provocatively propose that the lesson the master taught numerous others is that if you can hide a world-famous and far-from slender figure in your film image, what can't you hide there?
If so much film theory has been predicated on how Hitchcock's visual mastery taught filmmakers how to show us things, there is still much to be said about what we have been able to notice for ourselves. It seems to us that a Pasolini shot is no less distinct than one by Hitchcock. The main difference rests on how much the filmmaker expects us to follow convention and how much they regard the image as a constantly new thing, hewn out of the world rather than mastered like a grammar. If film loses that tension it loses much, as if every filmmaker needs to feel that they are working in an information system and not a linguistic one. As Bertolucci said of Pasolini: "It was a kind of new birth of cinema because Pasolini never having made a movie himself before...when he made a close-up, it seemed like the first close-up in movie history because it was the first for Pier Paolo." ('A Conversation with Bernardo Bertolucci') From a cine-linguistic perspective, this might seem like the height of naivety; from that of an information system, a realisation no image is given.
© Tony McKibbin