Film Spaces

27/09/2011

A Glimmer of Consciousness

Should critics spend less time commenting on the symbolic and narrative dimension of a film’s mise-en-scene, and more time on the mise-en-scene as style of life, on the art of living as the Ancients would often put it? Now this is not quite the same thing as talking about a lifestyle film, and too often classic French filmmakers like Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol are dismissed one suspects for this very reason. Rohmer is commonly seen as a breezy, vacationing filmmaker, while Chabrol is a thriller director with an almost fetishistic interest in the mores of bourgeois life, a focus so emphasised that Richard Combs in an article on the director in Film Comment refused to use the word bourgeois as he tried to find a fresh perspective. Meanwhile, Molly Haskell in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary talks of the “idle ambience of St Tropez” and the “capitulation to bourgeois morality” in Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse and Love in the Afternoon, respectively.

When we think of the holiday house in Pauline at the Beach, the villa in La Collectionneuse or even Delphine’s small apartment in The Green Ray, we may notice they function very differently from the no less memorable houses in Chabrol’s work. Chabrol is like Rohmer in that he is interested in the mise-en-scene as style of life (and this is central to his difference from Hitchcock), but his cinematic sense of space still serves narrative and symbolic function much more readily than in Rohmer.  This may take the form of the Brittany house that Sandrine Bonnaire’s character works in in La Ceremonie, or the house Stephane Audran owns in the South of France in Les Biches. These are not ‘innocent’ spaces as they motivate jealousy and murderous thoughts, and Chabrol films them with a full awareness of their symbolic and narrative function. When Positif interviewed Chabrol on the release of La Ceremonie, the critics insisted “the film is a stylized account of class war”, and Chabrol concurred, adding, “the film really does depict a schematic view of class war.” This serves both narrative and symbolic purpose as the film initially informs us of the meagre sum that Bonnaire will make as the maid, before some typically envious Chabrol pans that show us the enormity of the house and gardens. There is already within the first couple of minutes a sort of class narrative developing between the haves – the family Bonnaire will work for – and the have nots. The symbolism is clear when Chabrol talks of his use of the oval mirror in the hall, “a simple straightforward indication of the separation between two worlds”.

We wouldn’t want to exaggerate Chabrol’s narrative motivations and symbolic use of imagery – by thriller standards he is an exemplary realist, and place proves vital to his work. We shouldn’t forget also that Chabrol has always been keen to subordinate story. “I think the plot doesn’t matter” he proposed in an interview with Ellen Oumano in the book Film Forum.  Yet when we notice the way he films spaces in his work, we see there is a thriller’s sense of portent absent from Rohmer’s films; that Chabrol often utilises the narrativistic and the symbolic to bring out the problem of class structures. In contrast, at the beginning of An Autumn Tale Rohmer shows a series of still shots of the beautiful village in the south of France where the film is set, and the impression given is not that this is an enviable space, though it could lend itself well to a class clash, but that it is a meditative one – a space where Rohmer can work through an ironic tale of romance, contained by an exploration of found realities.

Rohmer is but one of many filmmakers in loosely French cinema creating not so much symbolic and narratively focused mise-en-scene, but epistemologically aesthetic spaces – as if to say what sort of narrative can conceivably develop out of this type of space?  In recent films like Summer Hours and Private Property, the space seems to exist first and the tentative story comes out of it, as in Rohmer’s aforementioned La Collectionneuse, the painter’s house in Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, and Jacques Bonnaffe’s apartment in Va Savoir. In such an approach to narrative development it’s as though the filmmakers have tried to work with space as one works with space in our own lives: the space is indeterminate rather than determinate. The way many other filmmakers utilise space would by analogy be similar to those who buy a house and live in it as if their existence were scripted. This one can almost understand from the point of view of the filmmaker whose work seems halfway between the architect and the homeowner – for isn’t the director both the creator of the mise-en-scene and the person who hires people (namely actors) to occupy these spaces? But what of the viewer; should we be so constrained as to feel the film we are watching is such a predetermined space that we can only interpret it within this predetermination?

Here Milan Kundera can prove instructive. In a piece on Broch’s The Sleepwalkers, in The Art of the Novel, Kundera says: “These characters [in the novel] are not capable of facing reality as a concrete thing. Before their eyes everything turns into a symbol…and it is to symbols they are reacting when they believe they are acting upon reality.” Obviously film is not reality, it is a mediated form and clearly choices have usually been made; any insistence that we’re watching reality would be even more misguided than to insist on the work as a symbolic construction. But film has the potential to be like reality, and whether it is filmmakers such as Rohmer and Tarkovsky, or theorists including Andre Bazin and Gilberto Perez, the respect for the real runs through film form and analysis. Bazin insists that what film has over the novel in its search for the essentials of man is “that it presents man only in the present” (What is Cinema?, Volume II), while Perez in The Material Ghost talks of the film as setting “in motion the photographic look into the actual appearance of things”. Perez may also say “no film ever quite disappears into abstraction, but no film exactly plunges us into concrete reality either,” just as Bazin has his own provisos in relation to realism: “to anybody with eyes in his head, it is quite evident that the one-shot sequences used by Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons are in no sense the purely passive recording of an action shot within the same framing” (What is Cinema?, Vol 1). Nevertheless both critics pay especial attention to the reality of what is filmed.

It is this nuanced realism that Rohmer was so adamant to defend in a significant interview with Cahiers du Cinema at the beginning of the seventies. His interviewers counter-posed film as an end in-itself and cinema as means, and that Rohmer was interested in the latter. Rohmer adds later in the interview that “film is a reconstruction, an interpretation of the world. But of all the arts, the cinema – and this is its paradoxical character – is the one where the reality of the thing filmed is of the greatest importance…” When Rohmer adds, with reference to Pascal, that films can make us admire “things that we did not know how to admire in their original form”; this is an argument not for symbolic interpretation but for as concrete an engagement as possible. It is the Bazinian window onto the world with the director framing our perceptions to make us see the world all the more clearly.

Now this isn’t quite the same as saying that the filmmaker must consequently work with ‘found realities’, with pre-existent spaces, but if he foregoes the reality of space it must be for a greater sense of reality elsewhere. When Rohmer says he used a set for Maud’s apartment in My Night at Maud’s, he adds that this was because it was impossible to allow for the movements through space that so interested him in a pre-existent apartment. Rohmer was willing to sacrifice the real in one place to offer it more precisely elsewhere. When Cahiers say though that the layout of the apartment hardly matters, Rohmer disagrees, saying he was well aware of the sacrifice (it was the first time he hadn’t shot in an actual location) but that it was the only way “the characters could be guided by the real moves they had to make.” This is if you like an ethos of the real even when the real is paradoxically surrendered to it. What Rohmer is really arguing for is that we do not see characters as artificial constructs for the purposes of symbolic meaning, but embodied constructs to allow us to see reality better. In this he chimes with Kundera when he says of Broch’s novel that Sleepwalkers explores the problematic nature of symbolic thought, the type of thought Kundera sees too readily existing in most people’s lives.

Actually Broch’s examination of the problematic of symbolic thought has its echo in films by Rohmer and Rivette, for it is as though both directors want to avoid the misapprehensions of the symbolic by making mediation part of their world. So many of Rohmer’s films work with the dialectic of subjective thought and objective action, whether that is the central character getting to touch Claire’s Knee in the film of that title, after creating a circuitous theory around doing so, or Delphine constantly seeing hints of green wherever she goes in The Green Ray. In the former film, for example, it is the character that consciously turns the knee into an object of symbolic significance; it isn’t a sub-textual insistence on the part of the filmmaker. The knee gets to keep its ‘kneeness’ as Rohmer allows a character intellectually to project onto it, while at the same time leaving us well aware of the amusing absurdity of its significance. In Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating, Rivette offers a time capsule Paris in the early seventies, but also generates around the realism an Alice in Wonderland story of a couple of girls who seem to conjure up another couple of women and an old house as Rivette plays with realism without falling into the symbolic. The Paris locations feel all the more vividly real for the apparently fantastic elements the film contains.

Indeed in an essay in Cities in Transition, François Penz mentions both Rivette and Rohmer as directors who use Paris very distinctively in their work, talking of ‘topographical coherence’ in Rohmer’s case and ‘creative geographies’ in Rivette’s. But whether being absolutely true to the coherence of the geographic reality as Rohmer often is, or true to the fantastic possibilities the city throws up in Rivette’s Parisian films, both filmmakers are interested in spaces having a pre-existent reality, and that these are spaces we can learn to utilise. It is one thing for a filmmaker to use bits and pieces of location to create a narratively eventful and stylised piece of work (as we can find in such different French films as Jean-Jacques Beineix’s fine Diva, and Guillaime Canet’s passable Tell No One) and quite another to see the city as so much more than a location. To see it as a window onto the world that can make our perceptions sharper is to find a place between the naïve notion that film is reality captured, and the over-determined idea that it is a construct we are constantly interpreting. As Abbas Kiarostami once proposed, when talking of the long take, “the role of the filmmaker gets less and less in the long take after the first is dictated. Something can happen in a long take that is out of the filmmaker’s control, which is preferred by me, because the actors are not mine anymore, because I cannot interrupt during the shooting.”

Meanwhile when Rohmer talks of the importance of the body language in My Night at Maud’s, and utilises a studio space to capture it, he nevertheless still wants us to focus on the reality of that body language. This is consistent with his comments on his other work. In an interview on the DVD extras to An Autumn Tale he mentions how rarely crossed arms are shown in film and yet are common in life, and wanted to utilise that fact. In relation to the early short, La Carriere de Suzanne, Rohmer insisted in the Cahiersinterview “what is specifically cinematic here is to bring into play a real girl, one who exists, and even to feel uneasy about making remarks on the film, since any judgement passed on Suzanne will automatically be a judgement on the person who played her.”  In each instance Rohmer and Kiarostami are interested in the exploration of the nature of reality and our perceptions in relation to it. Even when Rohmer says, in the DVD extras, that he noted certain gestural differences between his two leading actresses, this interpretive bent is consistent with what we’ve been pushing for so far. Where Marie Riviere would put her hands behind her head or clasp them in front of her, and indicate diamond shapes; Beatrice Romand, with her bushy hair and her folded arms would indicate instead the triangular. Rohmer insists, however, that this “geometric harmony should not be planned in advance, when it happens by chance it gives the film this pictorial aspect”. It is true that we notice the actresses and in turn the characters lend themselves to an interpretation, but Rohmer insists this isn’t the sort of over-determined meaning put there deliberately by the filmmaker and that has to be deliberately extracted by the viewer. It is not an issue of a categorical creative input leading to a categorical interpretive output.

It is in such a contingent approach that we can perhaps escape the interpretive freeform of psychoanalysis, or the pragmatism of cognitive approaches. When Noel Carroll takes psycho-analysis to task in an essay in Post-Theory, he insists that in the wake of cognitivism, for psychoanalysis to re-enter the debate “it must be demonstrated that there is something about the data of which given cognitivist or organic explanations can give no adequate account…” Basically what Carroll’s getting at is the idea that cognitivism is a better place to start than psychoanalysis if for no better reason than one deals with conscious processes; the other unconscious ones. But is this another way of saying the former deals with intentionality; the latter un-intentionality: be it on the part of the filmmaker or on the part of the critic? Would a cognitivist claim that the arms crossed meant Rohmer intended to show Romand’s character’s intentions –  that at this moment she was an independent woman and not open to the suggestion of her friend finding her a man? Would a psychoanalytically minded critic instead muse over the symbolic idea that Riviere’s diamond shaped gestures contrast with Romand’s triangular gestures and that the characters reflect a much broader meaning than their own actions?

For example, a psychoanalytic critic like Tania Modleski in an essay ‘Femininity By Design’ will talk of Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest: “For if woman, who is posited as she whom man must know and possess in order to guarantee his truth and his identity, does not exist, then in some important sense he does not exist either, but rather is faced with his own nothingness – the nothingness, for example, that is at the heart of Roger O. Thornhill’s identity (“What does the ‘O’ stand for?” Eve asks, and he answers “nothing”.) Contrast it with Thompson and Bordwell’s loosely cognitivist take on the same film: “Some crosscutting informs us of the spies’ progress following the couple [during the Mount Rushmore sequence], but on the whole the narration restricts us to what Eve and Thornhill know.” In the former we have speculation; in the latter categorical perception. As David Bordwell says on his website “Cognitive film studies emphasizes explanationsover interpretations. Explanations can be causal (what made this happen) or functional (pointing out the purposes that something fulfills).” Many a viewer will entirely disagree with Modleski, but this wouldn’t only be because it is a dubious line of reasoning (it may well be), but also because it is set up as a speculative probe into the idea of masculinity and Hitchcock’s examination of it. Thompson and Bordwell don’t create that speculative space, and where possible confine themselves to statements that are inarguable – but by the same token are hardly revelatory. Perhaps the problem with psychoanalytic film criticism is that it can’t see the wood for the trees; while cognitivist criticism often does no more than count the foliage.

But what interests us here is neither psychoanalytic speculation of what is hidden; nor cognitivist observation of the obvious, but closer to the sort of claims made by phenomenological and existential philosophers like Gaston Bachelard and Jean-Paul Sartre. When Bachelard says in The Poetics of Reverie, for example, that “phenomenology does not involve an empirical description of phenomena. Empirical description involves enslavement to the object by decreeing passivity on the part of the subject”, this is almost a critique of film cognitivism before the event. Meanwhile, Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, “existential psychoanalysis [in contrast to empirical, Freudian psychoanalysis] rejects the hypothesis of the unconscious; it makes the psychic act coextensive with consciousness…” The latter suggests wariness towards the type of theorising that can get away with broad claims towards unconscious drives, the sort of comments Modleski makes about man’s nothingness in Hitchcock’s work. What interests us is a sort of active observation; neither the passive reception of categorical images; nor the perhaps overly active analysis of psycho-analytically interpreted ones.

This allows us to return to some of our initial claims about cinematic spaces as explorations of ethos, of modes of being in the world as filmmakers tell not so much a story, as create a story to search out the possibilities in spaces captured by film. Thus if one admires French cinema far beyond its capacity for creating seasonal, breezy spaces, it lies in the epistemologically spatial, where the space feels like an ‘adventure’. Perhaps we could note the ways in which filmmakers introduce us to the spaces they show us, and see that while many filmmakers create, to utilise David Mamet’s notion of uninflected images, uninflected spaces, others, like Rohmer, like Rivette, and even Chabrol and Resnais, create inflected ones. The shot is not an uninflected unit of action, but an inflected, open enquiry into space. Numerous critics (including Jonathan Romney and B. Kite) have commented on the fact that in Resnais’ Muriel, for example, we don’t see in its entirety the apartment that is at the film’s centre until the closing shot of the film. Like Claire Denis, like Rohmer and Rivette, Resnais and Chabrol, as well as young filmmakers including Bruno Dumont, the Argentinean Lucrecia Martel, and the Mexican Carlos Reygadas, work much more with inflected spaces. Even if, as in Resnais, for example, the space is very much an edited over a long take space. The shots might seem uninflected in their length, but would seem inflected in their use: many shots of objects would by Mamet’s standards be irrelevant for the furthering of the story.

In Assayas’s recent Summer Hours, the film offers a tale of a mother who dies and leaves the family home to the three adult children, and the film offers up the space rather like a striptease. As the kids discuss whether or not the house should be sold, so Assayas continually returns to the space and we sense the house is if you like the reverse of a McGuffin. The house doesn’t just set in motion the characters’ aims and ambitions and relationships with each other, it is a hovering presence, a space of well-being and permanence that is especially pronounced at the end of the film as Assayas attends to it in all its details. The grandkids of the mother who has died throw a party in the empty house before it is sold, and Assayas offers it as a space not only of tradition (the house contained many antiques and paintings), but also exuberance and soul sustenance. As the kids party, so one of the grandkids goes off with a girl and explores what we realise is a large garden that we assume has given many hours of pleasure throughout the years. Yet it is a space that has been held from the viewer till the very end of the film as Assayas in the closing scene gives us a crane shot of the garden as spatial epiphany.

This spatially epiphanic dimension is also present in Bruno Dumont’s work. Talking about landscape, he insists that it “has such a strong presence for us, because we have a primitive tie with nature. Landscape is the first expression of nature – it’s the surface truth.” He mentions that whenever his central character in L’humanite “is happy or sad he always returns to the countryside, and he looks at the sky.” (Projections, 12) In Dumont’s features, from La vie de Jesus to Flandres, the character is contained by a landscape larger than his own ambitions, intentions and purposes. When Dumont says “I love cinema when it’s mysterious – when I don’t understand exactly what I’ve seen, when I’m forced to go away and reflect”, this is consistent with the inflected approach and the antithesis of Mamet’s idea that once the work is over we can all go home. Mamet is talking of a mystery that can be solved, and resolved; Dumont of a mystery that ought to contain an irresolute aspect that demands viewer speculation.

Mamet would clearly disagree with Dumont’s approach to nature, and especially the French director’s claims that he prefers to see himself as a painter – a good impressionist or expressionist. Mamet might reply that he’s making a rudimentary error. Dumont is not a painter: he’s a filmmaker – “directing is just a technical skill”, Mamet would insist in On Directing Film. “Make your shot list.” In making one’s shot list, though, does the space give way to the story, and is this not the very problem we’ve been addressing? If Mamet’s method indicates the house that is built and the characters told exactly how to live in it; does the approach adopted by the French filmmakers and others we’ve invoked indicate a freedom to live in the house more on one’s own terms? In one there would seem to be manifold options in being; in the other, a high degree of constraint. When for example Mamet mentions a great moment of Bogart acting in Casablanca, he also adds that Bogart explained that all he did was stand over by the balcony as the director told him, and when Michael Curtiz said action Bogart offered a beat and a nod. For Mamet this is a perfect example of uninflected acting, where the actor does no more than offer his contribution to the next stage of the story. But in a filmmaker like Robert Altman’s work there are no more than loose boundaries, where Altman will say “as long as you stay within these boundaries, it’s OK.” (Directing the Film)

This may be the difference between a method and an approach. When Claire Denis mentions working on Wenders’ Paris, Texas she says it was important “if only because of the work with landscapes which has affected how I have worked with landscapes in my own work. I never use the landscape separately from the characters”. (Talking Pictures) This approach is consistent with Rohmer when he talks in a Positif interview of the importance of backlighting, but not in a prescriptive way. “…I like using accident, and light is subject to this. When the sky is grey, that lends one kind of beauty and when the sky is bright, well, there is the beauty that comes from going against the light.”

In each instance the filmmakers are talking about an approach over a method, and basically what we mean by this is that the space is both narrational and para-narrational; the contingencies of actual space is incorporated into the diegesis. The methodical that interests Mamet means there is no place for the para-narrational. Mamet does admit that there are filmmakers with “great visual acuity, a great visual sense”, but adds that he is not one of those people, and so he offers the only answer he knows. But this doesn’t really make the tone any the less prescriptive, and chimes with numerous other filmmakers interviewed, for example, in Directing the Film. John Huston says the film “…also follows physical processes”, and gives an example of him and the interviewer looking from a lamp in one place to a lamp in another. “You blink. That’s a cut. You don’t do this because you know what the spatial relationship is. You’re used to this room now.” Another director, Tamas Renyi, says “I make my films by almost always precisely knowing the camera setups in advance,” while William Friedkin says “what I do is first make sketches, and from those sketches I write out in longhand a complete verbal description of every single shot in every single sequence….Every shot is laid out.” These are all comments consistent with Mamet’s argument, and examples of method. But then we have Friedkin himself saying that on The Exorcist he shot a lot of footage in Iraq that was basically documentary and had nothing to do with the film – but it made the final cut.  “It means nothing. I assure you. It doesn’t belong in the picture. It’s my favourite moment in the picture. It has nothing to do with the picture.”

This latter comment flies in the face of Mamet’s insistence that the important thing is to stick to the channel; that it is marked. “The channel is the superobjective, and the marker buoys are the small objectives of each scene, and the smaller objectives of each beat, and the smallest unit of all, the shot.” But Friedkin obviously wanted to include the narratively irrelevant for a beauty and texture that would risk proving irrelevant next to the rest of the story. Friedkin’s inclusion of the Iraqi scenes would be an example of the para-narrational as if there is reality that one films, a reality that one can’t quite not include, no matter if it ostensibly counters the thrust of the story. Bernardo Bertolucci talks about a moment in The Conformist “…when the professor knocks over the wine glass, it was an accident. It’s life coming in the movie.” (Directing the Film)

Life coming into the movie is perhaps the best way to describe this para-narrational dimension and it is basically the difference between the method and the approach as we’ve been describing it. When we proposed at the beginning of the article that critics seem to attend more to form than to life, to narrative expectation and symbolic import – perhaps consistent with cognitive analysis in the first instance and psychoanalytic responses in the second? – we want to muse over the naïve but fruitful notion of the reality of what is filmed. This is the ‘what’ as readily as the ‘how’, the impact of the real on our consciousness as much as the created. One problem with the normative approaches adopted by the cognitivists is that while their analytic assumptions are often true, they are true only from a certain perspective, and that perspective is often far from the most interesting one. It is correct for example, as Bordwell and Thompson in Film Art indicate, and as we’ve noted, that during the chase across the presidents’ faces near the end of North by Northwest “some crosscutting informs us of the spies’ progress in following the couple, but on the whole the narration restricts us to what Eve and Thornhill know.” But is it more interesting than to muse over the idea of Cary Grant as an icon crawling over Mt Rushmore and proving in this instance small against the faces of others, though of course like all stars he made his name through his face being so much larger than life? In the first instance we would be talking about the narrative problems from the perspective of filmmaker and viewer, the sort of problem/solution model that Bordwell proposes. Here we have the filmmaker perhaps deciding that he wants to minimize the cross-cutting and hold mainly to Roger and Eve’s point of view because there are immediate problems concerning negotiating the mountain that provides, for the moment, tension enough. As a viewer we accept this as the most rational and plausible reason. If we wonder where the baddies are at a certain point, idly no longer interested in Roger and Eve’s immediate problem, then we may believe Hitchcock has lost the tension in the scene, and that he should have cut more frequently between the heroes and the villains.

Bordwell’s approach is central to the practical problems of making and watching films, but this doesn’t mean he has an awful lot to say about the art of film. The way Bordwell and Thompson describe North by Northwest brings out its conventionality, but not its singularity – and yet it is the singularity that counts: as the great critic Gilberto Perez proposes, when saying in The Material Ghost, “the deviation, what violates the norm or exceeds it or reimagines it, is just what this book, in its combination of criticism and theory, often deals with.” Even when addressing A Bout de Souffle, where Bordwell and Thompson do talk about its breaking of the norms, it is not its singularity that they bring out, but the norms it rejects.

This is partly why Bordwell uses a term not unlike our own to describe narrative eccentricities ? parametric narrative, taken from Noel Burch ? as he explains how a number of films move beyond the parameter fence of conventional narrative meaning and signification. Bordwell, though, generally uses the term as a limit device, evident in the way he and Thompson in Film Art would read a film like A Bout de Souffle (where the term parametric isn’t used, but where the deviation of norms is more focused upon than the specifics of Godardian problematics), or in the way Bordwell explores the ending of Pickpocket in Narration in the Fiction Film. Here, for example, Bordwell notes the stylistic ambiguity of a key line at the end of the film that could be offered in voice-over, or could be mouthed by the character but that we do not know because the central character’s mouth is blocked by the leading female character. This is evidentially the case, and leads Bordwell to say “thus the narration creates a partial frame and a diegetic effect simultaneously,” and is all part of an “abstract stylistic formula”.  For Bordwell the parametric is not so much the excess of reality but the excess of form: the manner in which the film forces us to be aware of the form. The para-narrational on the other hand shows us the pro-filmic, the actual world that is filmed.

Thus, what we’re interested in here is not the stylistic assertiveness of the parametric, but the personalisation of the para-narrational. This isn’t remaining within the frame of formal analysis, but musing over the life beyond and within that frame. This is an invitation to hermeneutic investigation, yet of a specific sort. This is not the insistent deep reading of psychoanalysis, but closer to the reverie, to a sort of day-dreaming in front of the image. This allows us of course to follow the general structure of the story, the characters’ motivations, their desires and their wants, but to show no less interest in the incidentals that are perceptually significant, the sort of images that, as Bachelard noted above, can destroy our passivity in front of the object. “We are told”, he says, “to divide each difficulty into as many parts as possible, the better to solve them. Yes chew well, drink a little at a time, savor poems line by line,” before adding: “all these precepts are well and good. But one precept orders them. One first needs a good desire to eat, drink and read.” Just as earlier we proposed Bachelard seems to have been critiquing Bordwell before the event, so we see it again here. When Bachelard invokes the ‘appropriate way’ to read a poem, it resembles Bordwell and Thompson’s advice in Film Art in how students should write an essay. “The chemist who analyzes a compound breaks it into constituent elements. The orchestra conductor who analyzes a score takes it apart mentally in order to see how the melodies and motifs are organized.” All analysis, they suggest, “implies breaking something down into its component parts. Your thesis will be a general claim about the functions, effects, or meanings of the film.”  What Bachelard insists upon, though, isn’t the sort of piecemeal unequivocalness of a cognitivist’s position, but the need to understand one’s own desire in the face of an art work.

Thus when for example Rohmer is faithful geographically to the spaces he films in The Aviator’s Wife, or when he tries to be true to the body language of his actors in An Autumn Tale, this doesn’t mean he knows exactly what he wants to say; it is more it would seem that he wants to create a space for the equivocal, multiplicit observation. This is no doubt why he says things such as: “I like using accident, and light is subject to this”, or when he says in the DVD interview that the geometry of the actresses’ stances occurred to him after the event. This can create a double freedom instead of the double oppression Mamet seems to invoke. For Rohmer we have the freedom of the filmmaker and the viewer; in Mamet we have the preconception of filmmaker and viewer. It is true that Mamet mentions “the purpose of technique is to free the unconscious”, but he adds that “…if you follow the rules ploddingly, they will allow your unconscious mind to be free.”

Rohmer is probably no less interested in the structure of his scripts than Mamet would be in the structure of his, but the purpose seems quite different. When Rohmer says that there were two distinct phases to the films he made under the heading Moral Tales, he mentions the writing stage and the filming stage, admitting the films had a pre-cinematic existence in the sense that some of the tales were fully written, others sketched.  But when he says “their mise-en-scene seemed to me to be above all an act of transmitting something – though it could also be an act of creation: but it is not for me to judge”, this is the sort of ambivalence that can lead to the double freedom on the part of viewer and filmmaker as reality is broached. Mamet is less interested in the art work opening up onto the world, than the opportunity for everyone to leave for good once it is finished: “…it’s only up to you to do your job as well as you can, and when you’re done, then you can go home.” The artist makes the work and goes home; the viewer watches it and goes home also. But an art of living, the sort of opening up of aesthetic spaces to show characters living and breathing and creating without the restrictions of hemmed in shooting and uninflected shots, gives both the filmmaker and the viewer the freedom not to free only their unconscious in the Mametian sense – for this would be a curious marrying of cognitivist instinct and unconscious cultural codes; and thus not so much a collective unconscious as a mechanical one – but to free up the conscious mind. In Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard proposes that “…reverie is an oneiric activity in which a glimmer of consciousness subsists.” It is this glimmer of consciousness that refuses the passivity of the subject in relation to the object. By adopting an approach rather than a method, by working more with phenomenological rather than cognitive or psychoanalytic concepts, one can arrive at a form that gives the filmmaker the space to film beyond uninflected shots, and the viewer to feel the sort of freedom Bachelard sees as necessary to a healthy existence as we work imaginatively with the images. As he says, “man is an imagining being”. We might wonder whether cognitivist and psychoanalytic film criticism deny him much of this freedom; they deny us, finally, consciousness’s glimmering.

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Film Spaces

A Glimmer of Consciousness

Should critics spend less time commenting on the symbolic and narrative dimension of a film's mise-en-scene, and more time on the mise-en-scene as style of life, on the art of living as the Ancients would often put it? Now this is not quite the same thing as talking about a lifestyle film, and too often classic French filmmakers like Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol are dismissed one suspects for this very reason. Rohmer is commonly seen as a breezy, vacationing filmmaker, while Chabrol is a thriller director with an almost fetishistic interest in the mores of bourgeois life, a focus so emphasised that Richard Combs in an article on the director in Film Comment refused to use the word bourgeois as he tried to find a fresh perspective. Meanwhile, Molly Haskell in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary talks of the "idle ambience of St Tropez" and the "capitulation to bourgeois morality" in Rohmer's La Collectionneuse and Love in the Afternoon, respectively.

When we think of the holiday house in Pauline at the Beach, the villa in La Collectionneuse or even Delphine's small apartment in The Green Ray, we may notice they function very differently from the no less memorable houses in Chabrol's work. Chabrol is like Rohmer in that he is interested in the mise-en-scene as style of life (and this is central to his difference from Hitchcock), but his cinematic sense of space still serves narrative and symbolic function much more readily than in Rohmer. This may take the form of the Brittany house that Sandrine Bonnaire's character works in in La Ceremonie, or the house Stephane Audran owns in the South of France in Les Biches. These are not 'innocent' spaces as they motivate jealousy and murderous thoughts, and Chabrol films them with a full awareness of their symbolic and narrative function. When Positif interviewed Chabrol on the release of La Ceremonie, the critics insisted "the film is a stylized account of class war", and Chabrol concurred, adding, "the film really does depict a schematic view of class war." This serves both narrative and symbolic purpose as the film initially informs us of the meagre sum that Bonnaire will make as the maid, before some typically envious Chabrol pans that show us the enormity of the house and gardens. There is already within the first couple of minutes a sort of class narrative developing between the haves - the family Bonnaire will work for - and the have nots. The symbolism is clear when Chabrol talks of his use of the oval mirror in the hall, "a simple straightforward indication of the separation between two worlds".

We wouldn't want to exaggerate Chabrol's narrative motivations and symbolic use of imagery - by thriller standards he is an exemplary realist, and place proves vital to his work. We shouldn't forget also that Chabrol has always been keen to subordinate story. "I think the plot doesn't matter" he proposed in an interview with Ellen Oumano in the book Film Forum. Yet when we notice the way he films spaces in his work, we see there is a thriller's sense of portent absent from Rohmer's films; that Chabrol often utilises the narrativistic and the symbolic to bring out the problem of class structures. In contrast, at the beginning of An Autumn Tale Rohmer shows a series of still shots of the beautiful village in the south of France where the film is set, and the impression given is not that this is an enviable space, though it could lend itself well to a class clash, but that it is a meditative one - a space where Rohmer can work through an ironic tale of romance, contained by an exploration of found realities.

Rohmer is but one of many filmmakers in loosely French cinema creating not so much symbolic and narratively focused mise-en-scene, but epistemologically aesthetic spaces - as if to say what sort of narrative can conceivably develop out of this type of space? In recent films like Summer Hours and Private Property, the space seems to exist first and the tentative story comes out of it, as in Rohmer's aforementioned La Collectionneuse, the painter's house in Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse, and Jacques Bonnaffe's apartment in Va Savoir. In such an approach to narrative development it's as though the filmmakers have tried to work with space as one works with space in our own lives: the space is indeterminate rather than determinate. The way many other filmmakers utilise space would by analogy be similar to those who buy a house and live in it as if their existence were scripted. This one can almost understand from the point of view of the filmmaker whose work seems halfway between the architect and the homeowner - for isn't the director both the creator of the mise-en-scene and the person who hires people (namely actors) to occupy these spaces? But what of the viewer; should we be so constrained as to feel the film we are watching is such a predetermined space that we can only interpret it within this predetermination?

Here Milan Kundera can prove instructive. In a piece on Broch's The Sleepwalkers, in The Art of the Novel, Kundera says: "These characters [in the novel] are not capable of facing reality as a concrete thing. Before their eyes everything turns into a symbol...and it is to symbols they are reacting when they believe they are acting upon reality." Obviously film is not reality, it is a mediated form and clearly choices have usually been made; any insistence that we're watching reality would be even more misguided than to insist on the work as a symbolic construction. But film has the potential to be like reality, and whether it is filmmakers such as Rohmer and Tarkovsky, or theorists including Andre Bazin and Gilberto Perez, the respect for the real runs through film form and analysis. Bazin insists that what film has over the novel in its search for the essentials of man is "that it presents man only in the present" (What is Cinema?, Volume II), while Perez in The Material Ghost talks of the film as setting "in motion the photographic look into the actual appearance of things". Perez may also say "no film ever quite disappears into abstraction, but no film exactly plunges us into concrete reality either," just as Bazin has his own provisos in relation to realism: "to anybody with eyes in his head, it is quite evident that the one-shot sequences used by Welles in The Magnificent Ambersons are in no sense the purely passive recording of an action shot within the same framing" (What is Cinema?, Vol 1). Nevertheless both critics pay especial attention to the reality of what is filmed.

It is this nuanced realism that Rohmer was so adamant to defend in a significant interview with Cahiers du Cinema at the beginning of the seventies. His interviewers counter-posed film as an end in-itself and cinema as means, and that Rohmer was interested in the latter. Rohmer adds later in the interview that "film is a reconstruction, an interpretation of the world. But of all the arts, the cinema - and this is its paradoxical character - is the one where the reality of the thing filmed is of the greatest importance..." When Rohmer adds, with reference to Pascal, that films can make us admire "things that we did not know how to admire in their original form"; this is an argument not for symbolic interpretation but for as concrete an engagement as possible. It is the Bazinian window onto the world with the director framing our perceptions to make us see the world all the more clearly.

Now this isn't quite the same as saying that the filmmaker must consequently work with 'found realities', with pre-existent spaces, but if he foregoes the reality of space it must be for a greater sense of reality elsewhere. When Rohmer says he used a set for Maud's apartment in My Night at Maud's, he adds that this was because it was impossible to allow for the movements through space that so interested him in a pre-existent apartment. Rohmer was willing to sacrifice the real in one place to offer it more precisely elsewhere. When Cahiers say though that the layout of the apartment hardly matters, Rohmer disagrees, saying he was well aware of the sacrifice (it was the first time he hadn't shot in an actual location) but that it was the only way "the characters could be guided by the real moves they had to make." This is if you like an ethos of the real even when the real is paradoxically surrendered to it. What Rohmer is really arguing for is that we do not see characters as artificial constructs for the purposes of symbolic meaning, but embodied constructs to allow us to see reality better. In this he chimes with Kundera when he says of Broch's novel that Sleepwalkers explores the problematic nature of symbolic thought, the type of thought Kundera sees too readily existing in most people's lives.

Actually Broch's examination of the problematic of symbolic thought has its echo in films by Rohmer and Rivette, for it is as though both directors want to avoid the misapprehensions of the symbolic by making mediation part of their world. So many of Rohmer's films work with the dialectic of subjective thought and objective action, whether that is the central character getting to touch Claire's Knee in the film of that title, after creating a circuitous theory around doing so, or Delphine constantly seeing hints of green wherever she goes in The Green Ray. In the former film, for example, it is the character that consciously turns the knee into an object of symbolic significance; it isn't a sub-textual insistence on the part of the filmmaker. The knee gets to keep its 'kneeness' as Rohmer allows a character intellectually to project onto it, while at the same time leaving us well aware of the amusing absurdity of its significance. In Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating, Rivette offers a time capsule Paris in the early seventies, but also generates around the realism an Alice in Wonderland story of a couple of girls who seem to conjure up another couple of women and an old house as Rivette plays with realism without falling into the symbolic. The Paris locations feel all the more vividly real for the apparently fantastic elements the film contains.

Indeed in an essay in Cities in Transition, Franois Penz mentions both Rivette and Rohmer as directors who use Paris very distinctively in their work, talking of 'topographical coherence' in Rohmer's case and 'creative geographies' in Rivette's. But whether being absolutely true to the coherence of the geographic reality as Rohmer often is, or true to the fantastic possibilities the city throws up in Rivette's Parisian films, both filmmakers are interested in spaces having a pre-existent reality, and that these are spaces we can learn to utilise. It is one thing for a filmmaker to use bits and pieces of location to create a narratively eventful and stylised piece of work (as we can find in such different French films as Jean-Jacques Beineix's fine Diva, and Guillaime Canet's passable Tell No One) and quite another to see the city as so much more than a location. To see it as a window onto the world that can make our perceptions sharper is to find a place between the nave notion that film is reality captured, and the over-determined idea that it is a construct we are constantly interpreting. As Abbas Kiarostami once proposed, when talking of the long take, "the role of the filmmaker gets less and less in the long take after the first is dictated. Something can happen in a long take that is out of the filmmaker's control, which is preferred by me, because the actors are not mine anymore, because I cannot interrupt during the shooting."

Meanwhile when Rohmer talks of the importance of the body language in My Night at Maud's, and utilises a studio space to capture it, he nevertheless still wants us to focus on the reality of that body language. This is consistent with his comments on his other work. In an interview on the DVD extras to An Autumn Tale he mentions how rarely crossed arms are shown in film and yet are common in life, and wanted to utilise that fact. In relation to the early short, La Carriere de Suzanne, Rohmer insisted in the Cahiersinterview "what is specifically cinematic here is to bring into play a real girl, one who exists, and even to feel uneasy about making remarks on the film, since any judgement passed on Suzanne will automatically be a judgement on the person who played her." In each instance Rohmer and Kiarostami are interested in the exploration of the nature of reality and our perceptions in relation to it. Even when Rohmer says, in the DVD extras, that he noted certain gestural differences between his two leading actresses, this interpretive bent is consistent with what we've been pushing for so far. Where Marie Riviere would put her hands behind her head or clasp them in front of her, and indicate diamond shapes; Beatrice Romand, with her bushy hair and her folded arms would indicate instead the triangular. Rohmer insists, however, that this "geometric harmony should not be planned in advance, when it happens by chance it gives the film this pictorial aspect". It is true that we notice the actresses and in turn the characters lend themselves to an interpretation, but Rohmer insists this isn't the sort of over-determined meaning put there deliberately by the filmmaker and that has to be deliberately extracted by the viewer. It is not an issue of a categorical creative input leading to a categorical interpretive output.

It is in such a contingent approach that we can perhaps escape the interpretive freeform of psychoanalysis, or the pragmatism of cognitive approaches. When Noel Carroll takes psycho-analysis to task in an essay in Post-Theory, he insists that in the wake of cognitivism, for psychoanalysis to re-enter the debate "it must be demonstrated that there is something about the data of which given cognitivist or organic explanations can give no adequate account..." Basically what Carroll's getting at is the idea that cognitivism is a better place to start than psychoanalysis if for no better reason than one deals with conscious processes; the other unconscious ones. But is this another way of saying the former deals with intentionality; the latter un-intentionality: be it on the part of the filmmaker or on the part of the critic? Would a cognitivist claim that the arms crossed meant Rohmer intended to show Romand's character's intentions - that at this moment she was an independent woman and not open to the suggestion of her friend finding her a man? Would a psychoanalytically minded critic instead muse over the symbolic idea that Riviere's diamond shaped gestures contrast with Romand's triangular gestures and that the characters reflect a much broader meaning than their own actions?

For example, a psychoanalytic critic like Tania Modleski in an essay 'Femininity By Design' will talk of Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest: "For if woman, who is posited as she whom man must know and possess in order to guarantee his truth and his identity, does not exist, then in some important sense he does not exist either, but rather is faced with his own nothingness - the nothingness, for example, that is at the heart of Roger O. Thornhill's identity ("What does the 'O' stand for?" Eve asks, and he answers "nothing".) Contrast it with Thompson and Bordwell's loosely cognitivist take on the same film: "Some crosscutting informs us of the spies' progress following the couple [during the Mount Rushmore sequence], but on the whole the narration restricts us to what Eve and Thornhill know." In the former we have speculation; in the latter categorical perception. As David Bordwell says on his website "Cognitive film studies emphasizes explanationsover interpretations. Explanations can be causal (what made this happen) or functional (pointing out the purposes that something fulfills)." Many a viewer will entirely disagree with Modleski, but this wouldn't only be because it is a dubious line of reasoning (it may well be), but also because it is set up as a speculative probe into the idea of masculinity and Hitchcock's examination of it. Thompson and Bordwell don't create that speculative space, and where possible confine themselves to statements that are inarguable - but by the same token are hardly revelatory. Perhaps the problem with psychoanalytic film criticism is that it can't see the wood for the trees; while cognitivist criticism often does no more than count the foliage.

But what interests us here is neither psychoanalytic speculation of what is hidden; nor cognitivist observation of the obvious, but closer to the sort of claims made by phenomenological and existential philosophers like Gaston Bachelard and Jean-Paul Sartre. When Bachelard says in The Poetics of Reverie, for example, that "phenomenology does not involve an empirical description of phenomena. Empirical description involves enslavement to the object by decreeing passivity on the part of the subject", this is almost a critique of film cognitivism before the event. Meanwhile, Sartre says in Being and Nothingness, "existential psychoanalysis [in contrast to empirical, Freudian psychoanalysis] rejects the hypothesis of the unconscious; it makes the psychic act coextensive with consciousness..." The latter suggests wariness towards the type of theorising that can get away with broad claims towards unconscious drives, the sort of comments Modleski makes about man's nothingness in Hitchcock's work. What interests us is a sort of active observation; neither the passive reception of categorical images; nor the perhaps overly active analysis of psycho-analytically interpreted ones.

This allows us to return to some of our initial claims about cinematic spaces as explorations of ethos, of modes of being in the world as filmmakers tell not so much a story, as create a story to search out the possibilities in spaces captured by film. Thus if one admires French cinema far beyond its capacity for creating seasonal, breezy spaces, it lies in the epistemologically spatial, where the space feels like an 'adventure'. Perhaps we could note the ways in which filmmakers introduce us to the spaces they show us, and see that while many filmmakers create, to utilise David Mamet's notion of uninflected images, uninflected spaces, others, like Rohmer, like Rivette, and even Chabrol and Resnais, create inflected ones. The shot is not an uninflected unit of action, but an inflected, open enquiry into space. Numerous critics (including Jonathan Romney and B. Kite) have commented on the fact that in Resnais' Muriel, for example, we don't see in its entirety the apartment that is at the film's centre until the closing shot of the film. Like Claire Denis, like Rohmer and Rivette, Resnais and Chabrol, as well as young filmmakers including Bruno Dumont, the Argentinean Lucrecia Martel, and the Mexican Carlos Reygadas, work much more with inflected spaces. Even if, as in Resnais, for example, the space is very much an edited over a long take space. The shots might seem uninflected in their length, but would seem inflected in their use: many shots of objects would by Mamet's standards be irrelevant for the furthering of the story.

In Assayas's recent Summer Hours, the film offers a tale of a mother who dies and leaves the family home to the three adult children, and the film offers up the space rather like a striptease. As the kids discuss whether or not the house should be sold, so Assayas continually returns to the space and we sense the house is if you like the reverse of a McGuffin. The house doesn't just set in motion the characters' aims and ambitions and relationships with each other, it is a hovering presence, a space of well-being and permanence that is especially pronounced at the end of the film as Assayas attends to it in all its details. The grandkids of the mother who has died throw a party in the empty house before it is sold, and Assayas offers it as a space not only of tradition (the house contained many antiques and paintings), but also exuberance and soul sustenance. As the kids party, so one of the grandkids goes off with a girl and explores what we realise is a large garden that we assume has given many hours of pleasure throughout the years. Yet it is a space that has been held from the viewer till the very end of the film as Assayas in the closing scene gives us a crane shot of the garden as spatial epiphany.

This spatially epiphanic dimension is also present in Bruno Dumont's work. Talking about landscape, he insists that it "has such a strong presence for us, because we have a primitive tie with nature. Landscape is the first expression of nature - it's the surface truth." He mentions that whenever his central character in L'humanite "is happy or sad he always returns to the countryside, and he looks at the sky." (Projections, 12) In Dumont's features, from La vie de Jesus to Flandres, the character is contained by a landscape larger than his own ambitions, intentions and purposes. When Dumont says "I love cinema when it's mysterious - when I don't understand exactly what I've seen, when I'm forced to go away and reflect", this is consistent with the inflected approach and the antithesis of Mamet's idea that once the work is over we can all go home. Mamet is talking of a mystery that can be solved, and resolved; Dumont of a mystery that ought to contain an irresolute aspect that demands viewer speculation.

Mamet would clearly disagree with Dumont's approach to nature, and especially the French director's claims that he prefers to see himself as a painter - a good impressionist or expressionist. Mamet might reply that he's making a rudimentary error. Dumont is not a painter: he's a filmmaker - "directing is just a technical skill", Mamet would insist in On Directing Film. "Make your shot list." In making one's shot list, though, does the space give way to the story, and is this not the very problem we've been addressing? If Mamet's method indicates the house that is built and the characters told exactly how to live in it; does the approach adopted by the French filmmakers and others we've invoked indicate a freedom to live in the house more on one's own terms? In one there would seem to be manifold options in being; in the other, a high degree of constraint. When for example Mamet mentions a great moment of Bogart acting in Casablanca, he also adds that Bogart explained that all he did was stand over by the balcony as the director told him, and when Michael Curtiz said action Bogart offered a beat and a nod. For Mamet this is a perfect example of uninflected acting, where the actor does no more than offer his contribution to the next stage of the story. But in a filmmaker like Robert Altman's work there are no more than loose boundaries, where Altman will say "as long as you stay within these boundaries, it's OK." (Directing the Film)

This may be the difference between a method and an approach. When Claire Denis mentions working on Wenders' Paris, Texas she says it was important "if only because of the work with landscapes which has affected how I have worked with landscapes in my own work. I never use the landscape separately from the characters". (Talking Pictures) This approach is consistent with Rohmer when he talks in a Positif interview of the importance of backlighting, but not in a prescriptive way. "...I like using accident, and light is subject to this. When the sky is grey, that lends one kind of beauty and when the sky is bright, well, there is the beauty that comes from going against the light."

In each instance the filmmakers are talking about an approach over a method, and basically what we mean by this is that the space is both narrational and para-narrational; the contingencies of actual space is incorporated into the diegesis. The methodical that interests Mamet means there is no place for the para-narrational. Mamet does admit that there are filmmakers with "great visual acuity, a great visual sense", but adds that he is not one of those people, and so he offers the only answer he knows. But this doesn't really make the tone any the less prescriptive, and chimes with numerous other filmmakers interviewed, for example, in Directing the Film. John Huston says the film "...also follows physical processes", and gives an example of him and the interviewer looking from a lamp in one place to a lamp in another. "You blink. That's a cut. You don't do this because you know what the spatial relationship is. You're used to this room now." Another director, Tamas Renyi, says "I make my films by almost always precisely knowing the camera setups in advance," while William Friedkin says "what I do is first make sketches, and from those sketches I write out in longhand a complete verbal description of every single shot in every single sequence....Every shot is laid out." These are all comments consistent with Mamet's argument, and examples of method. But then we have Friedkin himself saying that on The Exorcist he shot a lot of footage in Iraq that was basically documentary and had nothing to do with the film - but it made the final cut. "It means nothing. I assure you. It doesn't belong in the picture. It's my favourite moment in the picture. It has nothing to do with the picture."

This latter comment flies in the face of Mamet's insistence that the important thing is to stick to the channel; that it is marked. "The channel is the superobjective, and the marker buoys are the small objectives of each scene, and the smaller objectives of each beat, and the smallest unit of all, the shot." But Friedkin obviously wanted to include the narratively irrelevant for a beauty and texture that would risk proving irrelevant next to the rest of the story. Friedkin's inclusion of the Iraqi scenes would be an example of the para-narrational as if there is reality that one films, a reality that one can't quite not include, no matter if it ostensibly counters the thrust of the story. Bernardo Bertolucci talks about a moment in The Conformist "...when the professor knocks over the wine glass, it was an accident. It's life coming in the movie." (Directing the Film)

Life coming into the movie is perhaps the best way to describe this para-narrational dimension and it is basically the difference between the method and the approach as we've been describing it. When we proposed at the beginning of the article that critics seem to attend more to form than to life, to narrative expectation and symbolic import - perhaps consistent with cognitive analysis in the first instance and psychoanalytic responses in the second? - we want to muse over the nave but fruitful notion of the reality of what is filmed. This is the 'what' as readily as the 'how', the impact of the real on our consciousness as much as the created. One problem with the normative approaches adopted by the cognitivists is that while their analytic assumptions are often true, they are true only from a certain perspective, and that perspective is often far from the most interesting one. It is correct for example, as Bordwell and Thompson in Film Art indicate, and as we've noted, that during the chase across the presidents' faces near the end of North by Northwest "some crosscutting informs us of the spies' progress in following the couple, but on the whole the narration restricts us to what Eve and Thornhill know." But is it more interesting than to muse over the idea of Cary Grant as an icon crawling over Mt Rushmore and proving in this instance small against the faces of others, though of course like all stars he made his name through his face being so much larger than life? In the first instance we would be talking about the narrative problems from the perspective of filmmaker and viewer, the sort of problem/solution model that Bordwell proposes. Here we have the filmmaker perhaps deciding that he wants to minimize the cross-cutting and hold mainly to Roger and Eve's point of view because there are immediate problems concerning negotiating the mountain that provides, for the moment, tension enough. As a viewer we accept this as the most rational and plausible reason. If we wonder where the baddies are at a certain point, idly no longer interested in Roger and Eve's immediate problem, then we may believe Hitchcock has lost the tension in the scene, and that he should have cut more frequently between the heroes and the villains.

Bordwell's approach is central to the practical problems of making and watching films, but this doesn't mean he has an awful lot to say about the art of film. The way Bordwell and Thompson describe North by Northwest brings out its conventionality, but not its singularity - and yet it is the singularity that counts: as the great critic Gilberto Perez proposes, when saying in The Material Ghost, "the deviation, what violates the norm or exceeds it or reimagines it, is just what this book, in its combination of criticism and theory, often deals with." Even when addressing A Bout de Souffle, where Bordwell and Thompson do talk about its breaking of the norms, it is not its singularity that they bring out, but the norms it rejects.

This is partly why Bordwell uses a term not unlike our own to describe narrative eccentricities ? parametric narrative, taken from Noel Burch ? as he explains how a number of films move beyond the parameter fence of conventional narrative meaning and signification. Bordwell, though, generally uses the term as a limit device, evident in the way he and Thompson in Film Art would read a film like A Bout de Souffle (where the term parametric isn't used, but where the deviation of norms is more focused upon than the specifics of Godardian problematics), or in the way Bordwell explores the ending of Pickpocket in Narration in the Fiction Film. Here, for example, Bordwell notes the stylistic ambiguity of a key line at the end of the film that could be offered in voice-over, or could be mouthed by the character but that we do not know because the central character's mouth is blocked by the leading female character. This is evidentially the case, and leads Bordwell to say "thus the narration creates a partial frame and a diegetic effect simultaneously," and is all part of an "abstract stylistic formula". For Bordwell the parametric is not so much the excess of reality but the excess of form: the manner in which the film forces us to be aware of the form. The para-narrational on the other hand shows us the pro-filmic, the actual world that is filmed.

Thus, what we're interested in here is not the stylistic assertiveness of the parametric, but the personalisation of the para-narrational. This isn't remaining within the frame of formal analysis, but musing over the life beyond and within that frame. This is an invitation to hermeneutic investigation, yet of a specific sort. This is not the insistent deep reading of psychoanalysis, but closer to the reverie, to a sort of day-dreaming in front of the image. This allows us of course to follow the general structure of the story, the characters' motivations, their desires and their wants, but to show no less interest in the incidentals that are perceptually significant, the sort of images that, as Bachelard noted above, can destroy our passivity in front of the object. "We are told", he says, "to divide each difficulty into as many parts as possible, the better to solve them. Yes chew well, drink a little at a time, savor poems line by line," before adding: "all these precepts are well and good. But one precept orders them. One first needs a good desire to eat, drink and read." Just as earlier we proposed Bachelard seems to have been critiquing Bordwell before the event, so we see it again here. When Bachelard invokes the 'appropriate way' to read a poem, it resembles Bordwell and Thompson's advice in Film Art in how students should write an essay. "The chemist who analyzes a compound breaks it into constituent elements. The orchestra conductor who analyzes a score takes it apart mentally in order to see how the melodies and motifs are organized." All analysis, they suggest, "implies breaking something down into its component parts. Your thesis will be a general claim about the functions, effects, or meanings of the film." What Bachelard insists upon, though, isn't the sort of piecemeal unequivocalness of a cognitivist's position, but the need to understand one's own desire in the face of an art work.

Thus when for example Rohmer is faithful geographically to the spaces he films in The Aviator's Wife, or when he tries to be true to the body language of his actors in An Autumn Tale, this doesn't mean he knows exactly what he wants to say; it is more it would seem that he wants to create a space for the equivocal, multiplicit observation. This is no doubt why he says things such as: "I like using accident, and light is subject to this", or when he says in the DVD interview that the geometry of the actresses' stances occurred to him after the event. This can create a double freedom instead of the double oppression Mamet seems to invoke. For Rohmer we have the freedom of the filmmaker and the viewer; in Mamet we have the preconception of filmmaker and viewer. It is true that Mamet mentions "the purpose of technique is to free the unconscious", but he adds that "...if you follow the rules ploddingly, they will allow your unconscious mind to be free."

Rohmer is probably no less interested in the structure of his scripts than Mamet would be in the structure of his, but the purpose seems quite different. When Rohmer says that there were two distinct phases to the films he made under the heading Moral Tales, he mentions the writing stage and the filming stage, admitting the films had a pre-cinematic existence in the sense that some of the tales were fully written, others sketched. But when he says "their mise-en-scene seemed to me to be above all an act of transmitting something - though it could also be an act of creation: but it is not for me to judge", this is the sort of ambivalence that can lead to the double freedom on the part of viewer and filmmaker as reality is broached. Mamet is less interested in the art work opening up onto the world, than the opportunity for everyone to leave for good once it is finished: "...it's only up to you to do your job as well as you can, and when you're done, then you can go home." The artist makes the work and goes home; the viewer watches it and goes home also. But an art of living, the sort of opening up of aesthetic spaces to show characters living and breathing and creating without the restrictions of hemmed in shooting and uninflected shots, gives both the filmmaker and the viewer the freedom not to free only their unconscious in the Mametian sense - for this would be a curious marrying of cognitivist instinct and unconscious cultural codes; and thus not so much a collective unconscious as a mechanical one - but to free up the conscious mind. In Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard proposes that "...reverie is an oneiric activity in which a glimmer of consciousness subsists." It is this glimmer of consciousness that refuses the passivity of the subject in relation to the object. By adopting an approach rather than a method, by working more with phenomenological rather than cognitive or psychoanalytic concepts, one can arrive at a form that gives the filmmaker the space to film beyond uninflected shots, and the viewer to feel the sort of freedom Bachelard sees as necessary to a healthy existence as we work imaginatively with the images. As he says, "man is an imagining being". We might wonder whether cognitivist and psychoanalytic film criticism deny him much of this freedom; they deny us, finally, consciousness's glimmering.


© Tony McKibbin