On and About Film
Stained Glass Hermetics
We might wonder whether writing on film and about film is the same activity. Noel Burch says in Theory of Film Practice that the work must be "rigorous in every respect", "organically coherent" and that "every element works with each other". David Bordwell, referencing E. H. Gombrich, talks of the difference between perception of meaning and the perception of order, and the interest of the formalist for the latter over the former. These are examples of writing on film. In an article on Dreyer in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, when Burch distinguishes in Gertrud "three basic options underlying the tectonics of the film", this is again writing on film, as he talks of an "obvious parti prisrespected with utter rigour", and proposes that Dreyer offers a "perfectly coherent editing scheme". Other examples of writing on rather than about film would be V. F. Perkins' work, where he wonders in Film as Film whether the "weakness of much criticism is its insistence on imposing conventions which a movie is clearly not using and criteria which are not applicable to its form." Perkins adds, in reference to an earlier part of the book, that "I offered the Psycho murder as an example of cinematic excellence, and the Potemkin lions as an example of the critically suspect...that is not because Eisenstein infringed an aesthetic law on the proper context of a movie scene; rather, because his animals were inconsistent with the discipline which he had himself established." This would be another example of writing on rather than about film.
Yet of course sometimes one formalist writer's insistence in seeing lack of cohesion will be another's ever more subtle coherence. Perkins sees structural incoherence in Potemkin, while Bordwell, viewing the film within a historical-materialist mode in Narration in the Fiction Film, will see that throughout Soviet cinema of the twenties and early thirties, "once the film uses poetic procedures or rhetorical ends, the narrational process becomes quite overt." These can include metaphors or similes, personification and punning as Bordwell notes. However, when Bordwell says of a Godard film "there is no discernible pattern to the jump cuts in A Bout de Souffle", another finds pertinence. When Bordwell says that "Godard...raises as does no other director the possibility of a sheerly capricious or arbitrary use of technique," Valerie Orpen in her book Editing quotes Godard's frequent editor Agnes Guillemot saying "Godard does not specialise in jump cuts, he specialises in cinema's correct pulse." One critic sees arbitrariness; someone else sees inner coherence. Perkins admits this problem. "It is common experience that a previously unobserved coherence may become apparent in the course of time or through increased familiarity with a work." As he adds: "if we come to perceive the pattern, it was presumably always available for perception. The argument spins away and leaves us continually looking over our shoulders at posterity with judgement in suspense." Perkins says there is then the temptation to deny the validity of judgement altogether and "confine criticism to a descriptive role with no claim to be able to evaluate." But of course, as he says, "even description depends upon forms of evaluation which are no less 'subjective' than judgement."
There are obviously dangers in writing 'on' films, as we may regard all the writers above as doing, and writing 'about' films, where the work is premised on the intricacy of a subjective thought over the intricacy of the work to hand. There is no clear dividing line, but the way that Bordwell writes about Godard in a chapter on Narration in the Fiction Film is very different from Deleuze's analysis of the same director's work in an essay published in Negotiations, and in his comments on Godard in Cinema 2: The Time Image. Bordwell takes the work as a factual given: these are texts that we can unequivocally talk about even if we can by no means unequivocally make sense of them. As Bordwell says "the real problem is that [Godard's films] remain elusive on a simple denotative level." Bordwell's purpose is to explain why they remain hard to decipher even in straightforward terms, and is wary of trying to make sense of them on a connotative level that might leave what he sees as their fundamental difficulties untouched. Thus Bordwell isn't too happy with Godard being defined as an essayist, partly because his films have characters in them and stories to tell, however fragmentarily, and that any message they may be seen to offer can be reduced to a platitude. "...what essayistic point is made in Alphaville or Deux ou trois choses that cannot be reduced to the clichs which a critic might ascribe to any critical fiction set in the contemporary world (e.g. "the technology of the future already exists," or "modern life commodifies human relations")?"
However such an approach can be a common device in the hands of the critic writing on film: the dismissal of thinking about it. When they comment on the significance of form over clichs about content, they are perhaps doing no more than finding a round about way of saying that they are very good at attending to the film at hand, but not especially good at expressing their own thoughts and feelings about the film. It is right and proper that if Bordwell has nothing more interesting to say on the content or meaning of Godard's films, then it makes sense he attends to the form, but this doesn't mean there aren't more perceptive minds capable of talking about Godard's work and subsequently eschewing the commonplaces Bordwell mentions. Bordwell offers them not as examples of his own impoverished subjectivity, but of the impoverishment of subjectivity in relation to film criticism. Bordwell would presumably be in sympathy with Jonathan Rosenbaum's observation in Movies as Politics that "...anyone wishing to describe a Bresson film - as opposed to the experience of one - is obliged to leave these "white spaces" intact rather than attempt to fill them in, for otherwise he runs the risk of merely taking his own pulse."
But what about the idea of taking one's own pulse as we're experiencing the art work? When for example Deleuze talks about Godard in the Cahiers du Cinma interview republished in Negotiations, he does so not viewing the work as an object, but Godard as a subject, and himself likewise. As Deleuze starts by explaining his image of Godard "as someone who works a great deal, he must be a very solitary figure. But it's not just any solitude, it's an extraordinarily animated solitude," he is telling us how he perceives. Another person could equally say that their image of Godard is as an arrogant, selfish, lonely figure who is a workaholic to compensate for his social incompetence. The latter image in fact isn't too far removed from Richard Brody's account of the filmmaker in Everything is Cinema, nor Colin McCabe's in Godard. Brody talks of how Godard kept his leading lady on Hail Mary, Myriam Roussel, "in a sort of supervised isolation in Nyon, between Rolle and Geneva, where the film was shot." McCabe tells of how Anna Karina and Godard were in a nightclub when they were still together in the early sixties and Karina accepted a dance from another man. Godard hit her. Even more chillingly, she recalls how glad she was of the attention." Such stories don't suggest a lonely man, so much as a sadistic one. But then at another moment McCabe talks of how after the New Wave filmmakers had started becoming well known and successful, they were no longer close. "We never see each other anymore," Godard said. "It's completely stupid. We've taken off for our own planet and we no longer see each other in close up but only in long shot." Brody notes how Godard claimed he wanted to replace framing with centres. "The only thing I succeeded in doing - which the crew didn't understand at all, even technically - is that there is no frame... I can't manage to explain to a camera operator that there's no frame, that there's a point to find."
Here we have two different approaches to Godard's loneliness that allows plenty space to see Godard as sadistically selfish or vulnerably lonely, but what Deleuze introduces is a perspective on Godard that will allow the philosopher a way into the work, and a way into the work that may even help alleviate the loneliness he believes Godard feels. Deleuze might well know of the troublesome personality Godard was believed to possess, yet what interests him is less the socially sadistic than the 'aesthetically lonely'. This allows for an affirmation of contraries on two levels. Affirmation in the sense that there is conflicting material on somebody, but that the critic wants to draw together the contrary perspectives to arrive at a useful not so much hypothesis, as 'hyposynthesis', and secondly it is an affirmation in the sense of the positive. Someone could extract from Godard the sadistic, and leave it at that, or could try and explore the aesthetic personality in such a way that the sadistic is but one aspect of a complex self. Thus when talking of Six Times Two in the Cahiers piece, Deleuze says Godard "talks with workers not as a boss, or another worker or an intellectual, or a director talking with actors." He says "It has nothing to do with adopting their tone, in a wily sort of way, it's because his solitude gives him a great capacity, is so full." Deleuze then works into this assumption about Godard's loneliness, certain preoccupations Godard has over the image. While Bordwell will see Godard as the great director who calls into question the schemata of cinema, who pushes further than most into the legibility of the image, Deleuze sees this as all very well but knows that form is a means to an end.
If one were to ask Bordwell why Godard utilises such a radical style, he may say it isn't his business to know: what he wants to do is explain how Godard differs stylistically and narratively from other filmmakers. However, Bordwell's deeply un-engaging approach, however brilliant on its own limited terms, leaves Godard as a filmmaker fiddling with form rather than trying to make sense of being. When Deleuze says "it's not the same factory gate when I go in, and when I come out and then when I go past unemployed. A convicted man's wife isn't the same before and after the conviction", he is approaching the problem of multiplicity in Godard's work - the idea and importance of perspective. Where Bordwell would say what Deleuze is offering is speculation, we can see that he is offering a twofold freedom out of the speculative. On the one hand he is freeing up his own impressions to make sense of the art work, and on the other freeing up the viewer's to agree or offer a counter perspective. Where Bordwell would comment on what is unequivocally in the film, Deleuze will also incorporate what he believes the film is about. Deleuze's claims may be contentious, but that is the very point. They contend as readily as attend as the philosopher tries to explain why Godard's work counts.
Now it may be argued that Bordwell's account of Godard does this also. But while Bordwell talks of Godard as a radically impressive deviator of norms, does this really say anything about the meaning of the work? Bordwell might remind us of his Gombrich quotation, and that he is interested in the order of the art work, not its meaning. But, as we've suggested, through some of our observations above, to comment on its order is itself an issue of meaning and interpretation. It is true that what he sees is there, but this doesn't mean that is all there is to see. When Bordwell says "Godard does not synthesize norms; he makes them collide", and then comments on a scene from Une Femme mariee in detail, he concludes "the sequence manages to parody both the suspense conventions of the thriller and the commentative interjections of the art-film narrator." This is true as far as it goes, but that is the very point: it rarely goes far enough. We have all seen what Bordwell describes, even if we have not been quite as alert to the film, or viewed it as many times as this fastidious formalist. We may not agree with philosopher Stanley Cavell on Godard in The World Viewed when he says "how do you distinguish the world's dehumanization of its inhabitants from your depersonalizing them", but he is asking the sort of question that a formalist can describe but can't quite address. Cavell wants to muse over Godard's choices speculatively: to wonder whether his critique of dehumanisation is really Godard's own depersonalising of his own characters. A formalist would be wary of such speculation, and so a Bordwell can explain in detail how Godard refuses the usual development of character but can't offer speculative probing upon it, and this is exactly what Bordwell illustrates when he says for example "the story has gaps not because there are any constraints on the narrator's range of knowledge but because the narrator has skipped decisions, or just hasn't worked it all out yet." This is the narrator playing games with us, and it would be correct to say that we cannot work everything out because Godard has withheld certain information. But we're still left wondering why Godard might do so. For Bordwell, Godard's work "could have been created only in the era of the art cinema, with its valorization of an authorial presence hovering over the text, its drift toward confusing narrator and creator, and the concomitant sense that we know vaguely how a film is produced." But such comments leave us feeling as empty as Cavell feels watching a Godard film. The difference, however, is where Cavell offers it as a problem to be addressed; for Bordwell it is a problem resolved. That Godard can play with our expectations of the game that is cinema is enough; for Cavell the problem with Godard is he wonders whether he is doing much more than that.
In most films there is no need to enquire into the problem of meaning and order: films usually work them in conjunction so that the film's order releases meaning. When Bordwell in Narration in the Fiction Film comments on the similarity between screen-writing manuals and structural analyses of stories, he notes that both comment on the plot consisting of "an undisturbed stage, the disturbance, the struggle, and the elimination of the disturbance". The gap between meaning and order is non-existent because the order gives meaning. A man is happily married but his wife and daughter are kidnapped; the man is disturbed by this and determines to get them back, finds where they're being kept prisoner, and kills the kidnappers and takes his wife and daughter home. The order and meaning cohere. But what if the man leaves the wife and child, hears they are kidnapped, is relieved that they are no longer his responsibility and even secretly wishes that the kidnappers will kill them so that he won't even have to pay alimony, and feels little when the kidnappers do? It will be true that the filmmaker has taken certain narrative norms and rearranged them, but will we not also want to enquire into what the filmmaker is getting at in the process of denying these norms? If cinema is an art form and not only a game, what is it that underpins the rearrangement of form? When Cavell offers the problem of dehumanization and depersonalization he is opening up an argumentative space that, for all Bordwell's precision, can't answer some of the most pertinent of questions.
So for example one speculative way of addressing Cavell's problem of dehumanization and depersonalization is to say that Godard refuses agency of character to instead generate freedom of creation. Thus any dehumanization of character that comes from Godard's narrative aloofness is compensated for by a perceptual freedom in what Godard can show us. If most films playing by narrative rules are obliged to show us images that contribute to the telling of the story, Godard de-humanises characterisation and humanises the images themselves: more than in almost any filmmaker's work, Godard takes responsibility for his images on their own terms. When he kills the sound except for that of shuffling feet, finger- clicking and hand-clapping in Bande a part, and then utilises voice over, what might we observe in this formal device? Are we somehow more privy to body language without the music, just as in Stealing Beauty Bernardo Bertolucci offers a shot of Liv Tyler dancing with earphones on as he initially offers us Tyler moving to the music without sound, before putting the music she is listening to on the soundtrack? In each instance a certain vulnerability of the body is achieved, and the play with form allows this to come through.
What such an approach can do, an approach that tries to understand not only the formal strategies but what the formal strategies can say about being in the world, is speculativelytry and solve several problems at once. We can say that Godard's is a gamble more than a game: that he wants to risk alienating the audience from characters to create immediacy between viewer and creator. When Godard once said that he wanted to film not stories but thought, this needn't be because he wanted to make essay films, as Bordwell indicates dismissively that was what other critics believed he was doing, but that he wanted to create a space for radical perceptual freedom: that for much of cinema's history this freedom had been curtailed by narrative expectation. Thus Godard isn't especially deviating from norms, as forging a path for perceptual freedom on film. This helps explain Godard's aesthetic loneliness as Deleuze couches it, and also helps make sense of Godard's desire to think not of the frame but of the centre. How to create the maximum amount of freedom for oneself? This isn't only about deviating from norms, but about creating new possibilities in the image. It is the case that Bordwell acknowledges new possibilities also, but he does so from the shores of the norm. Godard's brilliance for Bordwell resides in the distance he has moved from these norms; not the intuitive freedoms he has created. This may partly be why Bordwell says at the end of his chapter on Godard, written in the early eighties, "the most recent tendency in Godard's work is difficult to assess because it seems to be a regression". This is basically Bordwell wondering whether Godard is moving closer to the shore. Maybe Godard's eighties work would seem less formally radical than his seventies films, but what is more interesting than the formal originality is the perceptual freshness. The question isn't how far away from the norms one can get, but how close to the immediacy of perception: the centre of the shot rather than the frame. We might say it isn't enough to succeed in offering deviations; what we want to know is what is interesting in the new forms. Even when Bordwell talks interestingly of Godard's one parametric film, a film that Bordwell believes shows Godard working with deliberate formal constraint, the description of the formal constraint is enough. As he describes Godard's style in Vivre sa vie, he says, for example, "there are variants upon an arcing camera movement, one in which the conversing figures are arranged perpendicular to the lens axis (Episode 3), another in which they sit parallel to it (episode 7). Episode 8 is a montage sequence highly fragmented by editing, while Episode 9 consists of very long takes." When he quotes V. F. Perkins' observation that the film can be seen as "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", Bordwell merely says "against the background of classical narration, Vivre sa vie's stylistic devices achieve a structural prominence that is more than simply ornamental."
Bordwell seems to think that if we want to say anything about these stylistic features then we are reading the film, assigning "them thematic meanings". But there must be ways of doing more than describing their formal patterns, without reducing them to symbolic import. By writing about the film the critic can try to understand why Godard might want to offer up variations and suggestions about mise-en-scene in relation to conversation. We may think of Kiarostami filming conversations adjacently in And Life Goes on, The Taste of Cherry and Ten, and his comment "in my experience, the conversations that I have had in a car are important conversations that normally it's not possible to have at home. Many years ago, a woman said that she normally told the important things to her husband in their car not their house. A house, although it is a big place, doesn't give opportunities to talk and to have conversation." (Film Ireland) We might think of Godard and how he keeps the character Berthe quite literally in the dark as she talks to the film's central character Edgar in a scene where she is cleaning a train in Eloge de L'Amour. We can also think of Godard's comment in Enthusiasm magazine that sometimes he looks at a face and thinks that "I would need a camera to look at that." These are comments where form and content are moves towards understanding the world. When Bordwell says that "the urge to read stylistic effects in this way must also be traced to a broader tendency, that of assuming that everything in any film (or any good film) must be interpretable thematically," there needn't be this dichotomy between style and theme. Stylistic options can help us make sense of the world beyond the film; not interpret the film thematically through its style. Godard and Kiarostami's utilising variations on the convention of conversation may make us wonder how we converse in our own lives. Do we feel most comfortable talking adjacently in a car, standing at a bar, seated opposite another in a caf, lying on a couch, whilst going for a walk, or any number of other options? If Godard offers numerous choices within his work as formal device, is that not a bit like the philosopher or thinker who extracts words and actions from everyday life to muse over them? If most films use film language unthinkingly, or at least to serve the demands of the diegesis, Godard's abstractions can lead us to think about things in new ways.
Let us take for example the early scenes from Godard's Une Femme mariee. Here Godard in the first few minutes of his film shows us the separate body parts of his leading lady. She is clearly nude, but at no stage do we see her entirely naked. Indeed we may even attend to her nudity much more than if we were to see her naked, for Godard has compartmentalised her body so that he can make each part not so much represent the whole as we find in synecdoche, where the most significant part stands for the complete thing, as in the high heels of a femme fatale heroine, but where each part must be examined for itself. In most films if we are shown a series of close ups we do not usually wonder what is being hidden by the absence of the rest of the body; what we've been shown is the appropriate part that can signify the whole. In Godard's partial shots of the body he creates a sort of corporeal suspense, as we may wonder what the body will look like in its entirety. At the same time as he is showing his leading lady partially, the man's face in the sequence remains completely off-screen, so that when she comments on aspects of his looks, like admiring his eyebrows, we are likely to pay them much more attention than we would if we had already seen them, as we wait to see if we share her liking for them: the wait makes us curious not only observant. If she were to comment on the eyebrows as we see them, we can observe, but there would no suspense in that observing.
This could be Godard as arch-formalist, or it could be Godard's way of saying he wants to look at reality more closely, and perversely the camera offers him this privilege the way he wishes he had a camera to look at a girl's face. Perhaps Godard is sometimes interested in the sort of formal rigour Bordwell proposes when using the term parametric narration to describe film's capacity to create "patterns distinct from the demands of the syuzhet[narrative] system", but everything in his style, approach and commentary suggests much more someone for whom film is an opportunity to explore reality in manifold ways, and that narrative is too hidebound by story to do this. Godard may provocatively have said his "dream is to make all my films inside the studio", but more typical would be his remark in Godard on Godard that in La Femme mariee he made a film "where subjects are seen as objects, where pursuits by taxi alternate with ethnological interviews, where the spectacle of life finally mingles with its analysis: a film, in short, where the cinema plays happily, delighted to be only what it is."
If Godard remains so significant a filmmaker is it because of his formal rigour or because of a curiosity about the world that doesn't want to be hampered by the limitations of conventional form and thus looks for ways to break it? Bordwell's approach is so form- centred that while he explains Godard's 'deviations' astutely, he hardly explains why Godard may choose to look for other ways of filming reality, or what may result from such innovativeness. Near the beginning of Libidinal Economy, Jean-Francois Lyotard says "...the madman, lover of singularities, be his name Proust, Sterne, Pascal, Nietzsche, Joyce, a madman determined to judge a given swim as unexchangeable for any other", he offers a fugue to the singular. Whether this takes the form of a moment in time or an accumulation of subjectivity that can suggest the Proustian, the Joycean, the Nietzschean, what counts is the expressive need to achieve impressions and expressions. It would be all very well to say how they deviate from perceived norms, but a deviation from a norm doesn't quite explain a singularity. It explains an anomaly, and formalist writers like Bordwell are very good at describing the anomalous. When Bordwell says "on the whole, then, a Godard film solicits comprehension according to several narrational schemata, but then it denies the ability of any single schema to unify syuzhet/fabula [story/plot] relations", this tells us nothing about his singularity, only his anomalousness. If someone were to say instead that Godard is a great director of love not as a diegetic subject but a non-diegetic exploration, that Godard wants the feeling of love to be in the image more than in the story, we might be moving towards his singularity. We haven't positioned the filmmaker first and foremost within film history and form, but within what we perceive is his own preoccupations and nature.
To try and understand that nature, though, is a speculative activity. It requires writing about and not on film. A casual anecdote can prove as useful as a scene within the work; a comment by a critic as handy as one by Godard, a passage from a novel as pertinent as a formal breakdown of the shots. Writing about film is a pragmatic activity, an opportunity to think aloud which the film allows one the opportunity to do. When Bordwell writes about Godard in Narration in the Fiction Film he endlessly talks about norms. "Godard will also solicit us to apply norms more appropriate to the art cinema." "Other norms are brought into Godard's work." "Most important is Godard's undercutting of various narrational modes..." "A Godard film solicits comprehension according to several narrational schema." This tells us nothing about either Godard's singularity, nor very much about Bordwell's perceptual faculties. Bordwell may take the nothing if not speculative Slavoj Zizek to task in Figures Traced in Light after Zizek's critique of Bordwell and Carroll's position in Post Theory, and he may be right to do so. But, overall, better Zizek's speculative thinking about cinema than Bordwell's deliberate attention to the work in front of him, but with little sense of its worth. For example Zizek talks in an essay in the Zizek Reader of Wild at Heart, where Laura Dern "brings into play the tension between reality and its fantasmatic background", with the repulsive Willem Dafoe character forcing the terrified and repelled Dern to say 'fuck me', and then replies "No Thanks, I don't have time today; but on another occasion I would do it gladly." For Zizek this is an inversion of the standard seduction scene where the gentle approach is followed by the sexual act. As Zizek says, in such a scene: "The proper order of succession and implication is perverted: in a mocking imitation of the 'normal' order, I compel the victim to insult me voluntarily -ie. to assume the discursive position of the offender and thereby to justify my violent outburst." Partly what makes us despise the would-be rapist, the would-be lyncher and so on is they've inverted the symbolic order for their own crude ends.
Here Zizek can tell us a great deal about the nature of screen villainy, without simply talking about accepting and rejecting norms. Even when Zizek attacks Bordwell in The Fright of Real Tears, he does so with the idea of critical creative freedom. "The procedure of comparing different cultures and isolating or identifying their common features is never a neutral procedure, but presupposes some specific viewpoint." Bordwell believes Zizek finally credits him with a position he doesn't really hold - on occasion he claims to be saying the opposite of what Zizek claims he is saying - but the general thrust of the disagreement would be about normative patterning in Bordwell; original patterning in Zizek's work. Where Bordwell looks for norms and their countering; Zizek usually looks for original moments in film and then opens them up for theoretical enquiry. Like Deleuze, like Cavell, Zizek wants film to be an opportunity to think and feel lucidly, consciously. It is not the normal thought that they are looking to offer, but the exceptional one - the sort of thinking that sits behind most people's everyday thoughts and perceptions but cannot readily be articulated.
It is a speculative mode quite different from loosely cognitive thinkers like Bordwell and Noel Carroll, and also Perkins and Burch, who nevertheless occupy a different sphere of analysis. The former would be cognitivist/formalist; the latter based no less on close film readings, but without the same underpinning cognitivist assumptions. Perkins says Film as Film was "written in the belief that film criticism becomes rational, if not 'objective', when it displays and inspects the nature of its evidence and the base of its arguments". Like Burch, he would seem interested in close analysis to bring out the formal patterning, but would be unlikely, again like Burch, to insist, as Carroll does in an essay in Post-Theory, on seeing objectivity in certain documentaries. "Let's take a trivial example. Take a factory instruction film about how milk is bottled. It doesn't seem to me that there is any reason to think that the truth about how this mechanism works can't be conveyed by a perfectly objective documentary film." Such an approach seems based less on concrete evidence than logical procedures, and we might wonder, empirically, what Carroll would make of a film like Our Daily Bread, which in long takes with no voice over shows us how the food we eat is produced. No one would claim however the film is objective, and it is clear the director wants us to see how much processing is involved in the food we eat. Could a documentary about how milk is produced not do exactly the same? Even if itthought it was being objective, would the viewer be? Bordwell and Carroll, as evidenced in their co-editing of the book Post Theory, are generally looking for norms, for certain statements to be universally valid - so that terms like truth and objectivity needn't be abandoned. This would not seem especially to be the concern of Burch and Perkins, who are interested in, like Bordwell frequently is, formal patterning.
Thus just because we're saying someone writes on film rather than about film, this doesn't mean they will all be writing in the same way, or with the same underlying premises. But what often runs through formalist discourse is a sense of perspiration over inspiration, of looking over and over again at a work until it reveals certain patterns and procedures. However, writing about film one feel much of the thinking takes place not in front of the film so much as in the critic's mind, as the film plays over and over again in the person's head as they try to make sense of a moment or a scene that seems to be saying something pertinent about the world at large rather than just relevant to the film itself. In Zizek's comments in Wild at Heart there is no sense that he has seen the film more than once, and perhaps hasn't seen it for a very long time. When Deleuze talks about what he liked in Godard's Six Times Two in the Cahiers interview, the magazine wonders whether Deleuze hasn't concentrated first on the general rather than the specific things: "You haven't answered our question...we can always talk about everything else afterward, even if it's what is most important." But for Deleuze there is no sense of talking about the film as object and the film as instigator of thought, they're basically one and the same, just as Cavell can say in relation to certain error-making he committed in writing The World Viewed, that "so far these errors, however annoying or hateful, have not seemed to vitiate the interpretations based upon them, perhaps because while certain images may have been tampered with, the ideas and feelings in them have not been."
Cavell goes on to say some critics might insist on noting his errors that one should be sensible and "speak and teach not about the reading of film (whatever that is supposed to mean) but about seeing them." Cavell reckons though that "reading is not an alternative to seeing but (as its root in a word for advising suggests) an effort to detail a way of seeing something more clearly, an interpretation of how things look and why they appear as, and in the order, they do." Zizek, Deleuze and Cavell are all interested in thinking about film; Perkins, Burch, Bordwell and others, on film. There is a place of course for both critical approaches, but it is when the critic gets high-minded about the other way of doing things, as Rosenbaum does, for example, with Deleuze in a piece in Placing Movies, as Robin Wood does in attacking Manny Farber in Film Comment, and when Burch and Bordwell insist on seeing the art work in its totality, that the need to defend writing about film rather than on film becomes paramount. Rosenbaum takes Deleuze to task for not always being meticulous, for misspellings and typos, and getting the order of a sequence in F for Fake wrong. He doesn't address the line of Deleuze's thought at all. Wood talks of impressionist criticism as "useless disordered casual jottings that frequently pass for perceptive criticism", goes on to note errors in Farber's comments on Touch of Evil and Weekend, and says Farber's criticism is an "example of what you an get away with, with a bit of swagger." Such comments can sit alongside the opening ones from Bordwell and Burch as not only formalist but also straitening - making general demands on what criticism ought to be.
But Deleuze, Zizek and Cavell are infinitely more perceptive writers than most of the others mentioned, and it isn't so much their swagger that the reader responds to, as their capacity to make perceptive connections between things, even if in their collagist efforts mistakes are often made. This is one of the risks evident in writing about films rather than on them, but these are critics who like Godard are interested in the gamble over the game. As Godard once proposed in the book Film Forum, "making pictures is to clean, like a window you clean to be able to see". It is an observation making clear that film is a window onto the world; not a frame containing it. Bordwell and others, no matter their formalist qualities, seem to want stained glass hermetics; Deleuze, Cavell and others a perceptual framework to the world that cinema can provide.
© Tony McKibbin