Cinema and the World
An Apparatus of the Possible
Does cinema have a purpose? It might seem an odd question to ask, but if we were to wonder whether an X-ray, binoculars or a microscope have a purpose we wouldn't find it so odd. This partly rests on whether the answer can constitute a fact or an opinion. An X-ray allows us to see the human body below the skin; binoculars to see things at long-distance, and a microscope things in close up. Most would agree with the observation made, and the argument would conclude. But cinema is like our other examples a machine of the visible (to use Jean-Louis Comolli's term). Yet it isn't only a machine of the visible (as Comolli well understood, and that we will touch upon later); it is also an apparatus of the possible, which makes it an art form. Someone might say, in answer to the question, that cinema's purpose is to tell stories; another that cinema is no more than an entertainment, but these would be opinions more than facts.
To understand what cinema is, one needs to understand what cinema can be, so that closing it down to demand of it necessary and sufficient conditions doesn't really take us anywhere. However, it might be a useful starting point. It is not a necessary and sufficient condition that cinema tells stories; many experimental films don't. It isn't even a necessary and sufficient condition that the film records the world in front of the camera. Numerous films draw directly on the celluloid frame. One reason why theorists ask such questions of film, however, lies in the perplexing nature of cinema. Few would fret over what makes an x-ray an x-ray: someone might innovatively use the technology associated with x rays for cinematic experimentation (as we find in Philippe Grandrieux's La vie Nouvelle for example), but its purpose remains. Cinema has no such given purpose and has thus throughout its history been moot in relation to its aims, and moot when theorists have mused over what its components and qualities ought to be. For early theorist Rudolph Arnheim sound and colour were catastrophic. For Sergei Eisenstein cinema should be based on cutting rather than extended takes; for Andre Bazin it should be the opposite. For some widescreen was only good for snakes; for Bazin, again, it was another development towards capturing the real on film. One wouldn't expect such arguments to develop over x-ray technology: it is a medical tool. Cinema possesses an aesthetic purpose.
If we think of how tools are usually used, we might say that, when we see someone use the head of a screwdriver to hammer in a nail, what they really need is a hammer; just as if we see someone hammering a screw into place we would propose a screwdriver. We use these examples because they aren't especially absurd: if you don't have a hammer to hand but a heavy screwdriver then perhaps it would do the job and the same with the hammer and the screw. It will be functional but won't be the ideal object to utilise. Only the contrary would insist when you give them a hammer for the nail that they would prefer the screwdriver.
Here we see tools have a function, but let us suggest that cinema has a purpose. Only an obvious filmmaker will insist on using it as a tool; believing that in this situation a close up must be used; in another that a long shot is required. No doubt many shots are commonly utilised to represent certain feelings. If a character is told their partner has just died, many directors would move into close up to show how she responds. Yet a great filmmaker would perhaps be more inclined to do one of two things. They might move in much closer as Ingmar Bergman often does to register not only the exterior response but to hint at the interior feeling: to capture in the nerves on the face and in the dilation of the eyes the texture of the reaction, as we sometimes notice in shots from Cries and Whispers. We might notice the dialogue dropping out and the music coming in and wonder why Bergman has chosen to do this. Why are the two faces in such close proximity; cramming the frame? Another filmmaker might do the opposite, moving the camera further back, eschewing music altogether, registering feeling, or its lack of it, in an aloof long shot as we might find in a Haneke film. What do we make of the central character's response to his half-brother's death in Hidden? The shot after we see the body lying on the floor is of Georges coming out of the cinema. A close up on the face within the scene becomes a long shot in the next one. It makes Georges slightly inscrutable and quite unsympathetic.
No one could say to Haneke that he is using the wrong 'tool': that the close up is needed here and not the long shot. As we've suggested, a competent director would offer a standard close up, but a great one would find another approach to counter the conventional. If we find many films efficient, watchable and entertaining it perhaps rests on how close they might get to the functional over the purposeful. The more interesting the filmmaker the further he or she will get from the function of film and towards the new, generating fresh possibilities in the art form; an art form that is more perplexing than most because it is such a wonderful combination of technology and aesthetics. Any question concerning the necessary and sufficient conditions should be secondary to what cinema is capable of as we perhaps echo here Stanley Cavell when he talks about automatism. "I characterized the task of the modern artist as one of creating not a new instance of his art but a new medium in it. One might think of this as the task of establishing a new automatism." What is vital in automatism, as Cavell defines it, is the idea that there are means by which we can be absent to the seen world. "I have spoken of film as satisfying the wish for the magical reproduction of the world by enabling us to view it unseen. What we wish to see in this way is the world itself - that is to say, everything. Nothing less than that is what modern philosophy has told us (whether for Kant's reasons, or for Locke's metaphysics, or Hume's), is metaphysically beyond our reach or (as Hegel or Marx or Kierkegaard or Nietzsche might rather put it) beyond our reach metaphysically." (The World Viewed) Central to Cavell's purpose is to escape from seeing cinema as a technology that reveals the world and seeing it instead as part of an ongoing metaphysical problem of what we can have access to. This is why he can talk in his later book Pursuits of Happiness about limitations of knowledge. "Put it this way: to know the world as a whole, or the world as it is initself, would require us to have God's knowledge, to know the world the way we more or less picture God to know the world, with every event and all its possibilities directly present." Cinema can hint at the possibility and also deny it. If numerous films give us the sense of absolute knowledge (that the film hasn't missed a thing, that it always gives us the close up when we wish for it, the establishing shot when we would expect it, and the cutaway when we might wonder what another character makes of what is going on) many others, by Haneke, Antonioni and Bresson, for example, make us well aware of the partiality of perspective, of our un-God-like awareness of the world.
But another way of understanding something about cinema, and not entirely inconsistent with what we have just been saying, is to think of Sartre's work on the imaginary, and also Mikkel Dufrenne's analysis of Sartre's usage. For Dufrenne the image cannot be the thing in front of our eyes, but the image an intermediary stage between the object and the subject. We have the Eiffel Tower as an object and the person looking at it. But we wouldn't call this the image of the Paris monument: the monument is a thing in front of our eyes. An image by Dufrenne's reckoning is the Eiffel Tower in our mind afterwards. We wouldn't say to someone while we are standing in front of the steel structure that one has an image of it; we would be more inclined to say while looking at it that we have an image of, say, the Pyramids or La Sagrada Familia.
This is partly why cinema might seem closer to an x-ray than an art form. When a writer describes a character walking past the Eiffel Tower we have an image of it in our mind, but when a filmmaker shows a character doing the same thing, we have the tower in front of us as recorded reality. Someone next to us would be more inclined to say - look, there is the Eiffel Tower! - rather than saying there is an image of it. It is as if the recording gives it a presence that a description does not possess. Strictly speaking we could say to the person who says there it is: that isn't the Eiffel Tower; it is a recording of it. This would, of course, be true, but it would also sound pedantic. The same person would be unlikely to say when looking at Cezanne's 'Mont St Victoire' there is the mountain. Wouldn't they be much more likely to say there is an image of St Victoire?
To muddy the waters and yet hopefully further our argument, let us invoke a few more terms to put alongside Sartre/Dufrenne's notion of the image. These are Peirce's oft-quoted the index, the icon and the symbol, and Saussure's the signifier, the signifier and the sign. The index is existentially associated with the object, like a thermometer, a footprint or an x-ray. The icon bears a likeness but is indirect, like a painting. The symbol indirectly represents something else: an apple symbolizing temptation; an owl wisdom and so on. We can also think of fellow semiotician Saussure's distinctions. The signifier is a word like apple that is not the apple itself, but when someone uses the word it conjures up in our mind this apple: this mental image is the signifier. Then we have the sign: which would be the object of the apple. In writing we have the signifier and the signified; in cinema we have the sign.
This should help us to see why when looking at the Eiffel Tower in a film we talk of seeing the tower; while in painting we will talk about an image of it. This is the difference in Peircean terms of the index and the icon: one records; the other copies. One is technologically caught; the other recreated through the mental faculties and the skill of the artist's hand. By the same reckoning and at a further remove we have in a book the writer describing the Eiffel Tower, and this is the signifier as the reader then conjures up the tower from the words, which is the signified. We don't need know much about semiotics to acknowledge these differentiations, but semiotics can help us to understand them. One needn't have studied the subject to say that we see a building in a film, and see an image of the same building in a painting. Yet equally, when we see an object in a film it is not the object in front of our eyes, but a recording of it. We still use the word see, but Peirce helps us understand why we would use seeing the object over seeing an image of it because of the indexical nature of cinema.
Perhaps we are now in a better place to return to our original question: what is cinema's purpose? In the early years of its development, some people would have suggested that it was scientific and that it did have an aim. Weren't Muybridge and Marey interested in finding out facts about the world through using cinematic means to reveal them? Whether it was discovering if a horse's legs were off the ground simultaneously, in Muybridge's case, or Marey, whose "career was phenomenally fruitful and varied; he had an effect on physiology, aviation, physical education, industrial management..." (New York Times), film was not always an art form.
However, it has evolved aesthetically as the x-ray has not. It is able to understand not only the facts of the world but also its soul: it can comprehend the nature of being in various manifestations and through its particular masters. Bergman will tell us new things about the face; Bresson about the hands; Tarkovsky about the soil and land, and Godard about urban body language. Scorsese can help us to comprehend nervous energy, Lynch the afflictions of the deformed body or of the deranged mind. They do not experiment in the scientific sense; they experiment ontologically.
Yet this experimentation is not the same as we find in painting or literature, partly because it does not create through icons or symbols, signifiers and signifieds. If we accept that the images filmmakers create are the likenesses the painter offers iconically through their hand and their mind, so we see the writer does so symbolically through the words being abstract expressions of the objects so described. An apple by a painter is an iconic sign; an apple in a novel is a symbolic one, but an apple in film is an indexical sign: we believe in the presence of the apple of the filmmaker more than the apple of the writer or painter not because the novelists and painters lie, but that cinema would appear the most ontologically evident of the three mediums. The camera never lies might be a nonsense, but there is a fundamental justification for the claim which we have begun to explore. The novelist and painter's ontological relationship with the real is abstract; the filmmaker's is concrete. As Bazin so well argued, a photograph does not need a human presence to show us a building, a face or a flower. Anything capable of pressing the button would capture the reality in front of it: an animal with a paw will do just as well as a human finger. A painting or a novel, however, requires not just a gesture, but a thought process, a skill, a craft. As Mikkel Dufrenne says "The world or a world? Where does this world stand when the painter is no longer Poussin, Cezanne, or Klee, but the later Kandinsky, Fautrier or Newman?" (In the Presence of the Sensuous) Painters are always creating a world, and the move towards abstraction is a means by which to express this fact. But the filmmaker unless working in animation would generally be giving us the world.
Yet do both 'good' and 'bad' filmmakers escape the world; one into the authorial, the other into the generic. The former wants to create an imitation of the world and the latter a removal of it: the former still wants to suggest the world; the latter a world. This is partly why so much film theory has concerned itself with the ideological, with theorists seeing the ease with which one can feel in the presence of 'reality' in the face of the image. As Comolli says: "Directly and totally programmed by the ideology of resemblance, of the 'objective' duplication of a 'real' itself conceived as specular reflection, cinema technology occupied itself in improving and refining the initial imperfect dispositif, always imperfect by virtue of the ideological delusion by the film as impression of reality." ('The Cinematic Apparatus') It is a point Dufrenne makes in the essay 'Why Go to the Movies?' "The essence of ideology is to create illusions, disguise the real, and substitute something unreal for it without this substitution being apparent." Dufrenne adds, invoking Christian Metz, "for a host of reasons...the public is ready to swallow the ideological pill, to believe that the screen shows things, people, and events "as they really are; that film is always 'direct,' and fiction always 'documentary'." (In The Presence of the Sensuous)
The question then becomes how does one expose the reality of the image or make the image yield to an artist's vision. These are problems less obviously present in the other arts: there is the assumption of the made object that means reality cannot be automatically sought, while the art is indubitably created. Even the worst book might still invoke in people the surprise that somebody had managed to write it, but a photograph or footage that someone calls a film would be less likely to do so. A film, then, is both easy to achieve and hard to impose oneself upon. If a monkey can take a photograph or press record, where in film does the human agency come in?
Perhaps it does so by becoming the most resistant of the arts. It is the Bartleby of art forms: the one that says I would prefer not to. The auteur refuses ready realism, refuses generic assumption, refuses commercial imperatives; all much more pronounced than the painter in front of his canvas, the novelist in front of the page, even the theatre director fretting over whether the cast and stagehands will get paid if they have a bad opening night. To understand something of this tension within film, let us think of the acrimonious exchange between Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut around the time of Truffaut's Day for Night and Godard's Tout va Bien. Godard's letter accused Truffaut's film of being dishonest since the only person not sleeping with anyone in the film is the director, with Godard mentioning that Truffaut was nevertheless seen with his leading lady Jacqueline Bisset in a Paris restaurant, with an affair clearly taking place. Godard believed a film needed to be made not about the director stressed and trying to get everybody motivated (and then eschewing the affair that the director himself was having), but about the small details of production. This would be about "the other people who make movies and how these 'others' do it. How your intern dials the phone, how the guy from Eclair carries bags, how the old man from Publidecor paints the ass [in the ad] for [Last] Tango [on a billdboard]..." (Everything is Cinema) Truffaut's reply was vicious: "I don't give a shit what you think of La nuit Americaine [Day for Night], what I find deplorable on your part is the fact that, even now, you continue to go and see films whose subject-matter you know in advance will not correspond to either your conception of cinema or your conception of life." Truffaut adds: "Now it's my turn to call you a liar... Everyone knows how determined you were to get J. Fonda who was beginning to lose interest, when all your backers were telling you to take just anyone." Godard might not have cared for commercial cinema, Truffaut proposes, but he very much still wanted to use stars, whatever reservations Godard had about the film industry.
Our purpose isn't to take sides in this debate, but to suggest the debate itself exemplifies an aspect of cinema: that here we have two filmmakers whose early work was seen as similarly innovative, and within little more than decade Godard had become an aesthetic radical and Truffaut a cinematic conservative. Vital to this dispute we might feel is the nature of resistance, a point Godard would still be making many years later at the turn of the millennium and long after Truffaut's death: "...the artistic act is an act of resistance against something. I wouldn't call it an act of freedom, but an act of resistance." (Enthusiasm) The easier the art form perhaps the more necessary this happens to be, and central to the dispute with Truffaut would seem to be Godard's belief that Truffaut did not resist enough, that he had succumbed to the ease of the image and the generic demands placed upon it. Godard would probably claim that even his casting of Fonda possessed an aspect of resistance. She was a huge star but for many a troublesome personality who in defending the interests of the Viet Cong had overstepped the mark when it came to being a good American.
This problem we feel goes back to the art's easiness; as if cinema is constantly in danger of falling into the facile and the obvious. Yet because cinema appears to resemble life, our usual way of perceiving it, then we do not think of it as nave in quite the same way as we might see naivety in painting and poetry. Naive art by Henri Rousseau and Louis Seraphine is so in the richness of its colours and the eschewal of perspective; while at the same time suggesting an interest in imitating the real world. As Robert Hughes says of Rousseau: "if he could have painted "better", and shed his primitive traits, he would certainly have done so...The first quality that a modern eye finds enchanting in Rousseau's work, its intense stylization, was not at all what the painter wanted. He meant his visions to be absolutely real, each figure, face, leaf, flower, and tree measured and concrete, enumerated leaf by leaf, vein by vein, hair for hair." (The Shock of the New) In poetry we have someone like William McGonagall, with lines such as "Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Sil'vry Tay!/ Alas I am very sorry to say/ That ninety lives have been taken away."
In painting and poetry, the form reveals the obvious in the way film does not. Of course, there are home videos that show in the shakiness of the camera and the lack of focus a certain amateurism, but this can come across much more like laziness and incompetence, not naivety. Rousseau and McGonagall might be working in different art forms, and Rousseau is seen as a certain type of master while McGonagall is often referred to as the worst poet in the world, but the nave is evident in each instance. Our point on painting and poetry resides in a certain notion of craft however reformulated and radicalised, as we find in abstract art and free verse poetry, and cinema a medium of resistance. The great directors learn craft too, of course, but cinema is a communal medium that means a director need know very little about lighting and lenses, music and production design to make a film. Some know a lot more than others, but we do not expect the director to be their own cinematographer (though Steven Soderbergh, for example, would sometimes be his own DP), compose the music (even if John Carpenter would score his films), edit the work (as Soderbergh, the Coens and Kitano often do) or act in their films (from Scorsese's cameos to Welles' bigger roles there is often a sense of the gimmick in a director appearing as an actor in their work). For a director to be able to do all of the above would suggest a renaissance man, the sort of figure Dufrenne sees in Leonardo da Vinci. When he talks of Leanardo's mind being "far too universal to become narrowly specialized", he adds, quoting Paul Valery: "to paint, for Leonardo, was an operation that demanded every form of knowledge and almost all scientific disciplines: geometry, dynamics, geology, physiology." (In The Presence of the Sensuous) There are occasionally filmmakers who are perceived this way (Welles and Kubrick most obviously), but even Kubrick would expect the experiments in camerawork to be farmed out to people in the know. In Kubrick, Vincent LoBruto explains how the director achieved the requisite effects of proper period lighting in Barry Lyndon. "As Kubrick pondered doing a period film, he learned the German Zeiss Company had developed very fast 50mm still-photography lenses for the Apollo space programme at Nasa." LoBrutto adds: "the availability of such lenses gave Kubrick the opportunity to push the limits of cinematography...historical period films were shot with artificial light, filling and illuminating scenes that were supposed to be lit by the candle's flame." Kubrick wanted candlelight, and knew he would need to work with very sophisticated technical minds to achieve the necessary effects, talking to amongst others Ed Di Giulio, head of a camera manufacturing company in LA. Even Kubrick needed the help of others; no matter his immense technological knowledge.
Thus if we have suggested cinema is a resistant art form let us add a second claim: that it is delegatory. We might now more or less be in the age of technology that gives credence to Alexander Astruc's claim that the filmmakers camera could be like a pen, but when we look at many of the great films over the history of cinema, they combine a strong and singular vision, with a need for collaborators who can help express it. When we think of Scorsese's best films we also think of Robert De Niro; we might recall the importance of Bergman and his actors, Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Erland Josephson, Max Von Sydow and others, and cameraman Sven Nykvist; Hitchcock and Bernard Hermann on Vertigo and Psycho; Godard and his DP Raoul Coutard. If there is an art form in which John Donne's remark 'no man is an island' happens to be especially pertinent it is cinema. While most arts demand from the artist an integral force finding outer form, does a filmmaker instead need an extrinsic relationship with the material that is already out there as 'reality'; and then must resist and delegate to render their vision?
If for so long so many were fretting over whether cinema should be viewed as an art, part of the problem perhaps resided in justifying it on terms that were more pertinent to the other arts than to film. If one predicates art on the amount of control a filmmaker has over their material, as a poet has over his or a painter over hers, then the nature of the question can undermine the answer. In other words, a filmmaker who uses an editor, a cameraman, a sound designer and art director cannot compete as an artist with a poet who marshals every word to generate their own sound design, and the painter does the same with colour to produce a visual effect on the canvas. The filmmaker from this perspective just looks like someone telling others what to do, without quite doing anything themselves.
Yet this would be a certain type of aesthetic misapprehension: the fallacy of intentional action. In this view, only someone physically responsible for putting the paint on the canvas would be held accountable for the painting that results, but we know of Old Masters who allowed their apprentices to do much of the hands-on work. "The production of art was, first and foremost, a cooperative venture. Within the shop there was an organization and working procedure developed through long experience to allow maximum efficiency. At the head of the organization was the master, who obtained the commissions and oversaw all the shop's activities." The writer adds "looking at the works themselves, we can tell that the master was usually in charge of the overall design. The consistency of design and iconographic interpretation by Giotto, Donatello, Raphael, or scores of other well-known artists indicates that the genesis of the work and its earliest development were most often products of the master's mind and hand." (Art History Resources) The notion that great art comes from physical application seems finally secondary to the nature of one's vision, and there is no reason why a filmmaker's vision cannot be as pronounced as in any other art form.
By proposing however that resistance and delegation might be the most important elements, we can acknowledge cinema as both art and technology. The painter and novelist don't resist, they create: it returns us to our comments about icons and indices. The painter creates something from their imagination however much it resembles the real they see before them, just as the writer finds in the symbols that are words a means by which to conjure up a house, a character, a garden. There is no offscreen space for the painter or for the novelist, even if they imply it. It is not an ontological given of their art form. In cinema, if the director films someone walking along the street, we are aware of the space surrounding the figure that the director does not show. They might imply it, with a sound design that extends far beyond the parameters of the frame, or incorporates a greater depth than would seem necessary: we might see the character in the foreground coming towards us, but we can also see because the director has used a lens that keeps the foreground and background equally in focus. He can resist maximising screen space through lenses and the audio, or he can choose to maximise it. But the type of decision made is quite different from the novelist. It is as though the novelist and painter serenely choose what to tell us and show us, while the filmmaker represses reality or chooses to reveal as much of it as possible. The filmmaker is in the eye of the storm that is the real world. The poet and novelist are capable of the serenity of the imagination; they are in an easy battle against the contingency of the quotidian.
But is this just an opinion we are offering or can we bolster it with a few remarks by significant filmmakers themselves? Tarkovsky says in Sculpting in Time "perhaps the effect of colour should be neutralised by alternating colour and monochrome sequences, so that the impression made by the complete spectrum is spaced out, toned down. Why is it, when all that the camera is doing is recording real life on film, that a coloured shot should seem so unbelievably, monstrously false? The explanation must surely be that colour, reproduced, mechanically, lacks the touch of the artist's hand; in this area he loses his organising function, and has no means of selecting what he wants." Antonioni, also talking of colour, reckons "many colour films I have seen have fascinated me and at the same time left me unsatisfied. Because while, on the one hand, they gave me a more realistic picture of the external reality of people and things, on the other hand, the colors were never the right ones to fully capture the feelings generated by the relationship between people..." (Architecture of Vision) Robert Altman talks about the importance of mixing sound, and how he likes to have various mikes set up that will capture a full range of live sounds in the place he is filming, but there is no need for boom mikes and the problems of shadows this might cause. It means that a lot of the work takes place in the sound mix as one adjust the levels according to the sounds one wants to play up or play down, but they are live sounds caught on the set. "Unmixing sound is literally what using multiple tracks is. In other words, you are miked, and me, and there's a mike out the window, getting street noises, and I put a mike on the clock, or in the kitchen." (Film Forum) Godard insists on the issue of lens length: "as a general rule I use 30 to 40mm lenses. That gives the impression of close-up but at the same time keeps precision, focal depth, and perspective. Fifty millimetre at closer perspective also destroys the focal depth and is more impressionist, similar to Manet, who saw first through "30mm" then through "50mm" "(Film Forum)
Why do we invoke these remarks? They all make clear that cinema is an art form of choosing as much as it is of creating. When Godard talks of Manet using 30mm and 50mm lenses his remarks are in inverted commas; of course, Manet didn't choose the way Godard does. He created a certain perceptual field from his own imagination. Godard chooses a lens on the basis of the available technological options. Both Tarkovsky and Antonioni acknowledge colour in the real world but also see that it cannot quite work for their visions; it needs to be tampered with. But there is this notion of a world of colour colliding with a technology that records it. Meanwhile, Altman wants to take advantage of advances in sound engineering to achieve a certain aesthetic effect. But as he talks he does so invoking the means by which the technology can capture the reality he hears daily.
By way of contrast let us quote passages from van Gogh's and Fitzgerald's letters. Van Gogh says: "in the studies, too, one is conscious of a nervousness and a certain dryness which is the exact opposite of the calm, broad touch one strives for, and yet it doesn't work well if one applies oneself too much to acquiring that broadness of touch."(The Letters if Vincent Van Gogh) Fitzgerald talking of Tender is the Night says: "isn't there a mechanical means by which you can arrange to include the 1400 words of the arrest in Cannes? The more I think of it the more I think it is absolutely necessary for the unity of the book and the effectiveness of the finale to show Dick in the dignified and respectable aspect toward the world and his neighbour that implies so strongly in the first half of the book." (Collected Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald) Let us not exaggerate and pretend such thoughts couldn't be relevant to a film. Filmmakers can rush their work, just as Van Gogh feels he could rush his paintings. A director could be in discussion with his scriptwriter and talk as Fitzgerald does. But at the same time, the filmmaker knows that a script is merely a template: it remains an unfinished thing. Van Gogh talks aware it is his own nervous system that is responsible for the brush stroke. There is in both Fitzgerald and Van Gogh's remarks a sovereign aesthetic right that filmmakers would struggle to claim.
Of course, this can lead to a belief that cinema isn't an art form and that the director is not a singular artist. "In the early days of cinema it was sometimes suggested that film is never an art" Jesse J. Prinz says in 'When is Film Art?' Paul Sellors in Film Authorship insists "a central tenet of my argument is directors are not necessarily the authors of films, and when they are they will rarely be the sole authors of films." For obvious reasons, we wouldn't expect a book on literature or painting to make a similar claim, even though most books produced involve, editors, sub-editors, proofreaders, cover designers and people behind the font and layout. "Think of your favourite famous painting", Phil Daoust says, "the one you could describe with your eyes closed. Now try to remember how it is framed. A riot of gold-leafed carvings? A simple strip of ebony? Nothing at all? A tenner to a penny says you haven't the faintest." (Guardian) And what about the importance of the model in an artist's work? If directors have fetish actors, people they work with, again and again, diluting the notion of auteurism, don't painters also? Think of Marie-Therese Walter for Picasso, or George Dyer for Bacon. And yet are they famous the way Clint Eastwood or Audrey Hepburn happen to be?
This suggests that other art forms are collaborative but that any collaboration isn't seen as at all detrimental to the subjectivity of the artist: that the collaborators often remain all but unknown. We can accept that the filmmaker is rarely perceived to be in control of their art as painters or writers are, and we can acknowledge this without needing to undermine the notion that Godard or Antonioni, Tarkovsky or Bresson, cannot be discussed evaluatively as artist's equal to Picasso or Bacon, Van Gogh or Fitzgerald. By accepting that cinema is an industrial, technological mode of aesthetic practise, as an art form working with what is already there in the world rather than first and foremost inside someone's head and their nervous system, we comprehend a director's greatness partly on the basis of how they can reconfigure the real; how they can choose and how they can extract or subtract from a notion of reality.
It is why we talk of choice and delegation. Of course for this idea to have any validity as a general belief, it would have to incorporate very different filmmakers, from a realist like Ken Loach to directors apparently much more dictatorial in how they arrange their material. Yet even Hitchcock would admit the importance of the real and the choices we make in the face of it. Describing the cornfields scene in North by Northwest, to Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock, the English director says, "here you're not dealing with time but space. The length of the shots was to indicate the various distances that a man had to run for cover and, more than that, to show that there was no cover to run to. This kind of scene can't be wholly subjective because it would go by in a flash." Hitchcock describes the same approach in The Birds. Elsewhere in this book of interviews with Truffaut he reckons The Wrong Man takes the opposite approach, and it doesn't work for a particular scene. "Truffaut says: "this case history has a dramatic strength of its own. It should have been done in a very objective way, with the camera always at normal level, like a documentary; it should have been handled like a newsreel reportage." Hitchcock instead shows Henry Fonda's character going into the cell and the walls spinning. This isn't Truffaut insisting on realism, so much as saying that Hitchcock's choice in this instance was the wrong one. Speaking of using music in film, that rather different English, director, Loach, says: "music will tend to generalize the feelings you're striving for by turning the mood into sadness or pathos or whatever. It will never achieve the complexity that the emotions - the relationship - should have." (Loach on Loach) We might believe Loach doesn't always escape from using music too categorically himself, but what interests us is the idea that he is thinking of the choices involved in using it, and how whether it is an apparent stylist like Hitchcock or an apparent realist like Loach, choices are constantly being made.
Of course, some will say a writer is making choices all the time. But it is one thing to choose one word over another on the blank page in the privacy of one's own study, and quite another to have a real street or at the very least a set and numerous technicians around you wondering how something is going to be filmed. This doesn't negate the art of cinema and needn't even undermine the notion of authorship. It asks us to see the creative act differently rather than seeing it as non-existent in the cinematic context. There will always be those who insist cinema isn't really an art, but all we ask is that it be seen as of a different nature. The force of its origins can impact on the perception of its possibilities, and there is no doubt some would prefer to see it as no more than a branch of technology useful for science, or a medium of entertainment. Yet it is also the realm of the possible in a manner very distinct from the other arts, and thus we might usefully conclude on a couple of remarks by two of France's greatest critics; writers who really believed in cinema and the world. As Bazin insisted: "while it is true that it [cinema] relies entirely on the outside world for its objects it has a thousand ways of acting on the appearance of an object so as to eliminate any equivocation and to make of this outward sign one and only one inner reality." ('In Defense of Mixed Cinema') Daney reckons, referencing Bazin's essay, "I am not even sure what this idea of an impure art means for Bazin, but I know what it means for me: the truth of cinema is recording; moving away from it is moving away from cinema." (Postcards from the Cinema) Combining the two remarks we can see cinema as an apparatus of the possible, a means by which to record the world but at the same time with all the potential to reconfigure it.
© Tony McKibbin