The Ordering of Feeling
Although Dan Yacavone's book is a fair attempt to explore and explain aspects of film theory often half-ignored in the stampede for all things theoretically fashionable, if it earns its keep as a work of significance it lies in the marrying of Nelson Goodman's notion of worldmaking, with Mikel Dufrenne's idea that there is an important distinction to be made between the art work and the aesthetic object. It allows for a combination of analytic concepts and phenomenological perceptions. If central to Yacavone's project is to escape from clear dividing lines between the story and its surplus, and to question the assumptions of phenomenological cinematic experience that gives too central a place to the immersive encounter, then Goodman and Dufrenne are very useful thinkers to help him conceptualise a way out of these too common postulations.
As Yacavone says, introducing Goodman's ideas about worldmaking: "they can improve not only our understanding of some of the processes that Mitry and Pasolini identify, but also processes operating on relatively "higher" levels of film-world creation and aesthetic significance." While writers like David Bordwell, Carl Plantinga, Noel Carroll, Ed Tan and others cognitively put the story centre stage even if they are astute (as Bordwell so often is) to the formal patterning of the work, Goodman and Dufrenne offer a way of seeing film not as a pragmatic exercise in seeing patterns, but in engaging with unique experiences. From Goodman, Yacavone utilises five areas in which worldmaking can generate the perceptually fresh rather than the conventionally inclined.
The first is 'Composition and Decomposition'. Yacavone notes that Goodman was "a committed nominalist and empiricist" who regarded "objects and things as largely the creatures of the schemes of categories we accept or choose to apply in our sense experience." In relation to art works, this concerns the "differences between work-worlds with respect to what represented objects and properties they contain or acknowledge the existence of." Most of the films we watch do not ask us to think of their compositions partly because they do not at all acknowledge the possibility of their decomposition. The shot is usually visually balanced to contain all the necessary information, and if anything outside of the shot happens to be of importance, then the filmmaker reframes or cuts to incorporate this new info. Yet great filmmakers are great partly because they don't only concern themselves with the limits of the frame, but also acknowledge a cinematic space far greater than what the camera actually captures. Whether it is Bresson, Antonioni or Godard or newer filmmakers including Cristi Puiu, Lucrecia Martel or Philippe Grandrieux, the composition of the image also contains the possibility of its decomposition. Yacavone gives as examples Bresson's Lancelot du Lac and Martel's The Headless Woman. In a shot from Bresson's film we see two bodies on the left-to-centre of the frame and a figure in the distance on a horse in the right of it. This is a deframing because we do not see the faces of the two people sitting even though they are in the foreground; the image focuses much more on their hands. Now of course if the hand had just gone to grab a sword, this wouldn't be deframing unless the film refuses then to show us the face of the person grabbing the weapon, and then refuses to show us the person he is wielding it against. Deframing resides often in the partiality of perspective limiting our perceptual demands. In The Headless Woman, Martel often films that little too close in on faces so that the surrounding soundscape becomes vague and menacing, or she doesn't quite pull back far enough so that consequently the tops of heads are lopped off by the top of the frame. In each instance, this is a properly decompositional cinema, one that asks us to view the film with a constant awareness of the partiality of perspective.
The second aspect of world-making Yacavone takes from Goodman is filmic 'weighting'. This is where the film puts great emphasis on an aspect that in most films would be given its due but not given undue priority. Yacavone notices the difference between Bresson's The Trial of Joan of Arc and Dreyer's earlier The Passion of Joan of Arc, where one weighs heavily upon the face (Dreyer's) and the other offers a more aloof position more concerned with hands and doors. Dreyer's film very much emphasises the passion; Bresson focuses much more on the trial. We can also see it at work in films that are less obviously formalist in their approach, from Bergman's emphasis on the close-up in many of his films, to Leone's extreme close-ups used for rather different effect in his spaghetti westerns. Bergman's close-ups often suggest the complexity of the soul; Leone's, we might say, the motives of the soulless.
Next up is 'Ordering' in film worlds. Ordering "pertains to how what is recognizably present in a given world (according to its composition/decomposition) as stressed or unstressed (through weighting) is patterned and positioned in comparison with other worlds." In other words, it involves "the spatiotemporal arrangement of parts." Yacavone says that, as Goodman notes, "many patterns of perception and meaning alter with the different ordering of the same elements, such as when the same block of time is divided up in different ways via different clocks or calendar systems, or when the same geographical area is represented in a road map versus a contour map." This can lead to no fixed meaning, or one that is difficult to discern because of the differences in perspective. In a film such as Robbe-Grillet's The Man Who Lies, the plot is so achronological, and so untrustworthy partly because of its titular protagonist, that coherent meaning becomes all but impossible. In Bad Timing meaning becomes possible but certitude difficult. Who exactly is the monster in this relationship between a university professor and a woman almost half his age? Has she been playing with his mind; or has he been manipulating her thoughts? The film's complex relationship with time as the film moves between several different temporal periods makes evaluation difficult, and is echoed by the difficulties Harvey Keitel's detective has in investigating the case after the woman's suicide attempt, an attempt that more or less opens the film.
Of course, numerous movies in recent years have created narrative novelty out of ordering, from Memento to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; it isn't always a mode of radical experimentation. Yet sometimes this ordering can be radical in different, more formally rather than narrationally inclined ways. Yacavone quotes V. F. Perkins saying Godard's Vivre sa vie is "a series of dialogues on which Godard's camera plays a suite of variations, offering both an actual mise en scene and a string of suggestions as to how one might film a conversation." Sometimes it will be through how a particular scene is ordered. In Jackie Brown, Tarantino instead of cross-cutting between three different perspectives simultaneously lays them out separately one after the other. Alain Resnais's Smoking/No Smoking lays out the whole film separately and turns it into two works. In one film a central character takes a cigarette and in the other she doesn't, and the films diverge accordingly. Equally, ordering can be found in any film that adopts this type of contingent narrative patterning: from Sliding Doors to Run Lola Run we see it in less challenging material.
The fourth category from Goodman is 'deletion and supplementation'. "In the arts", Yacavone says, "deletion frequently takes the form of fragmentation or abstraction." He quotes Bresson's remark: "Don't show all sides of things" and "one does not create by adding, but by taking away", noting the impressive approach to the joust in Lancelot du Lac, "where, though close-ups and matching cuts, a jousting tournament is ruthlessly pared down to a repetitive and hypnotic series of close-up images of banners, horses' legs and splintering lances." In Ten, Abbas Kiarostami sets the cameras on a car dashboard and they remain there throughout the film as the director films a woman's conversations with her son, her sister, a prostitute, a bride and various others in long takes. These are clear examples of deletion. Supplementation would include a Jacques Tati film like Playtime, with its numerous jokes going off in various parts of the frame, and Robert Altman's work, with multi-track sound creating a babble of conversation, a widescreen frame dense with information, and numerous characters within the one film narrative (Nashville, Short Cuts).
The fifth grouping is Deformation, or distortion. This is where in Yacavone's take a film works from another and transforms it. Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon plays up its relationship to the 1956 short The Red Balloon; Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions gets the filmmaker of the Perfect Man, Jorgen Leth, to remake the film in various ways, with von Trier forcing upon the older director a number of obstructions. A filmmaker can, of course, distort his own earlier project, with 2046 playing on numerous elements of Wong Kar-wai's earlier In the Mood for Love without quite passing itself off as a sequel. We could also think of remakes that remain faithful except chiefly in one detail (Gus van Sant's remake of Psycho in colour), or a remake far enough removed from the original to generate new shocks (Maria Bello's death in the remake of Assault on Precinct 13).
What Goodman's notion of worldmaking provides, is an analytic account of image creation. Few people will care to contradict the claims thus far made. Kiarostami's film unequivocally seems more restricted in its formal choices than, say, Scorsese's The Departed or Fincher's Fight Club. Run Lola Run has a less focused narrative than Taxi Driver as it tells three variations of the same story in one film. Not much to argue with there. But what happens if a critic says that Ten is a "very interesting film, despite structural limitations that keep it from approaching greatness." This is a claim made by Peter Howell in The Toronto Star where he doesn't just note the dimension of deletion but insists it is a parti pris too far that gets in the way of the film's brilliance. This is where Dufrenne helps us. By distinguishing between the artwork and the aesthetic object, we can acknowledge the world unto itself that Goodman's work can help us comprehend, but that doesn't quite get us out of a problem when someone insists the device restricts the quality of the work. We could say Howell is missing the point, and dismiss it as empty opinion, but it still won't solve the issue of the twofold nature of the artwork that Goodman's approach doesn't quite entertain. Dufrenne's does as he sees that "aesthetic objects and their associated worlds compel a more affective and complete immersive engagement because they are fundamentally dualistic."
The art work is there and we are here, but there is also unity in this disjunction. The art work "changes and yet remains the same, sustaining a kind of organic development which does not change its essence", but that comes into contact with the self that does change. We might watch a film like 1999's Fight Club in our early twenties and see a film of energy and anger, and watch it fifteen years later seeing a petulant immaturity and puerile self-absorption. We may see the film on its original release and note that it is fascinated by emasculated masculinity, by white collar male America's inability to feel anything unless receiving a punch in the face. Watching it a decade and a half later we instead notice the anxieties it predicts. The film's conclusion shows various financial institutions being blown up as the central character's alter-ego wants to set the whole debt cycle back to zero. Who cannot see the destruction of the Twin Towers in 2001 and the economic collapse in 2008 in such images? The film hasn't changed - there has been no director's cut, no studio tampering, no censorship at work - but the perception of the work may have done.
If Goodman's analytic approach allows us to see the work and to make categorical claims about it, Dufrenne's phenomenological angle asks us to experience it. Looking at the film nothing changes; experiencing the film many things might. When Dudley Andrew looks at phenomenology and film in The Major Film Theories he quotes Andre Bazin encapsulating the notion. "We can coldly isolate patterns in music or logic in dreams as does the psychoanalyst, but more warmly, we can begin to live the rhythm of the music as an invitation to dance and to vibrate; and we can feel in it a sense, as an unveiling of the world expressed in the epiphany of the sensible." Yacavone is very keen to explore this experience of the film: he wants to see film experience as much more than viewing the art work as if with either an empty or a calculating mind.
These are accusations that could be levelled at some contemporary phenomenological criticism under the influence of Vivian Sobchack, on the one hand, and the anatomical dissections sometimes practised by Bordwellians on the other. Yacavone instead insists that we experience the work with a decidedly open mind: part analytic, part perceptually engulfed. Where phenomenological film theory emphasises the bodily immersion, Yacavone wants more remove. Sobchack says, for example, in an interview with Scott Bukatman, "You're in the theater (or living room) and in your body and your seat as much as you are in the film. And so one approaches the film on a slant with a kind of oblique vision, watching it from the corners of your eyes - or in your lap. Sound plays a huge part in cuing you as to when you can look up again. You're aware of being somehow trapped in your seat, insofar as you agree to sit there." Sobchack adds, "there is an intensity and viscerality to this experience - for me, totally unpleasurable. But thinking about this form of viewing led me to tease out, too, the temporal as well as spatial structure of not only my experience but also of the films, which themselves play with the occlusion of vision and then reveal something horrible." (E-Media Studies)
The emphasis here is very much on the viewing experience and what the work is doing to the viewer, namely Sobchack. Bordwell's approach is surely the opposite when he says of Boyhood: "Although the jumps from year to year are somewhat disorienting, Linklater helps us out. He draws upon the old device of having the haircuts of the characters differ each time, even emphasizing this way of marking the passage of time by showing Mason getting an unwanted buzz-cut onscreen." Yacavone wants to acknowledge what the work is doing, but not to the detriment of what is on the screen, nor requiring the most general of spectators in the auditorium.
Speaking of a work that would probably have Sobchack spending half the time behind the couch, Trouble Every Day, Yacavone says, the film "...furnishes plenty of opportunity for character - and story-based identifications and engagement, as tied to what I have called cognitive-diegetic expression (emotion). Yet within a still recognizable horror-film framework, featuring the gruesome, graphic violence...these features are, overall, secondary in importance to what the film most powerfully foregrounds in affective and aesthetic terms: a world-feeling in the form of an overriding mesmeric and uncanny atmosphere..." Think of the opening few minutes of the film. Here a couple kiss in a car, with director Claire Denis' camera nuzzling up close like a possible third party. Black leader then leads us into the Seine shown at night in close-up; at dawn in long shot. The first image complicitly brings us in close to human feeling; the latter shots remove us from the intimacy of the human to the contemplative dimension of the river. We have moved from Klimt to Claude Monet. If we are a bit too immersed in the intensity of the image, where is the distance required to acknowledge the sort of fundamentally aesthetic effect that might have us thinking (however consciously or otherwise) of the image, and not only our feelings?
Yacavone offers three distinct categories to help us navigate the different tensions at work in a film experience. The first is sensory-affective, the second, as we saw in the above quote, cognitive-diegetic, the third formal-aesthetic. All three fall under the local as Yacavone defines them, and these are then contained by the global, the "cine-asethetic expression", or world feeling. If for example semiotics has paid too much attention to the cognitive-diegetic as it assumes the basis of cinema is that of the narratively-driven, Sobchack's phenomenological approach too readily redressed the balance and took it in the direction of the sensory-affective. In turn, much formalist criticism (from such different places as V. F. Perkins and David Bordwell) has emphasized more the formal-aesthetic. But aren't these three working simultaneously and producing cine-aesthetic expression? Understandably various schools of thought want to emphasize their own particular concerns, but the art work often gets lost in the skirmish.
If we look again at the opening sequence from Trouble Every Day, and include the immediate post-credit scene, we notice that all three of Yacavone's areas of experience are introduced. The kissing couple suggests the sensory-affective, the shots of the Seine the formal-aesthetic, and then, after the credits when we see a woman standing next to the van in the cold, we might believe this is the cognitive-diegetic story kicking in. Containing all three by the end of the film we wonder what we have experienced, how we can contain these responses in a meaning that acknowledges the various categories but cannot quite be contained by them. "As an indecomposable, experiential unity, this strongly holistic expression eludes, almost defies, any definitive list of such contributing factors." This is partly what can have us going back to a film again and again, or at least returning to our thoughts about it.
Yacavone near the end of the book quotes Truffaut saying "a successful film has simultaneously to express an idea of the world and of cinema; La regle de jeu and Citizen Kane correspond to this definition perfectly". He adds that Truffaut's critical maxim is "more profound than its brevity may indicate at first blush." Its importance for Yacavone lies in its encapsulation of the theory Yacavone has laid out, which insists that cinema is of the world and a world: it utilises the pro-filmic space in front of the camera, and the afilmic facts of the world, and offers them through editing, framing, lens length etc. that shapes it into an art work. Though through film history many critics have been drawn in a particular direction (with Kracauer and Bazin famously realist; Arnheim and Eisenstein formalist) most writers have neither fallen clearly on one side or the other. For all Bazin's respect for the pro-filmic, few critics have been more nuanced in their dissection of the images created. Tarkovsky may have attacked Eisenstein for his emphasis on montage, but hardly anyone would claim that this made Tarkovsky a realist. Yacavone's book wouldn't be taking us very far if its main point resided in saying film is neither one thing nor another. The point and purpose of Film Worlds seems much more to say if it is both realist and formalist, both of the world and a world, then what is the best way in which to couch this? This is where the notion of an analytic perspective meets a phenomenological need, and where Yacavone accepts the importance of film form contained by forms of feeling that belong as much to the viewer as to the art work.
Yet we should also add that the dichotomy we offered between realism and formalism (between superficially a film being of the world and a world) is to ignore various distinctions Yacavone makes over the pro-filmic or flimic event, of the reality drawn upon in most films. "Even apart from the ways in which digital technologies and processes may now call this dichotomy between physical reality and camera-given images into question, it is deeply problematic." By focusing chiefly on the world of film as an object unto itself and then as an experience (an art work and an aesthetic object respectively in Dufrenne's terms) the question of realism versus formalism is recouched not as an issue of Cain and Abel rivalry between Melies and Lumiere, but as a Siamese twin. It contains two inseparable aspects of the film experience: the object made and the affects felt.
How significant Yacavone's book is we cannot perhaps yet say. The last big attempt at a new theory for cinema in the English language film world was Filmosophy by Daniel Frampton, but it seems to have yielded little influence. When we look back at important works of film analysis (from Mulvey's 'Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema', Cavell's 'The World Viewed', Deleuze's two books on cinema, Christian Metz's 'Film Language') we cannot deny their importance partly because we cannot deny their use and usefulness. Comments on the back of the book by D. N. Rodowick and Dudley Andrew may seem premature, with Rodowick insisting "this brilliant and original work will be of interest to philosophy and film scholars alike." Perhaps, but at the very least it is an ambitious and impressive attempt to straddle traditions (cognitive versus phenomenological) usually kept apart. The proof will reside partly in application. As a work of essentially abstract film theory we can acknowledge the book is well argued, but is it an argument only as good as the insights it helps generate? That is a debatable point but not an irrelevant one. We might even hope that Yacavone himself will start practising what he preaches, and see how his work plays out in analysis of individual films. But that is perhaps for another book, and this one is more than enough to be getting on with for the moment.
© Tony McKibbin