The Cinematically Possible
Desiring the Infinite
Is cinema the great medium of the possible? We use the word as Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard would seem to have utilized it: what can give our lives meaning beyond the meaning it already has. "If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!" (Either/Or) It is also a way of philosophically inverting what many in the sixties and seventies saw as the problem with film: that in utilising the image of Plato's cave theorists could see that cinema was a medium of the shadows, giving a false impression of reality rather like the prisoners in Platos's cave mistaking the images created by the fire as the whole of reality, and Plato suggesting they must break out and see that there is more to reality than that. Indeed much of what was called Apparatus theory through Jean-Louis Baudry, Jean-Louis Commoli as well as the psychoanalytic school at Screen, the Maoist phase at Cahiers du Cinema, showed this Platonic influence. Here there is the suggestion that cinema can be the home of false consciousness. As Baudry says in drawing similarities between the prisoners in Plato's cave and film viewers, "it is the apparatus that creates the illusion, and not the degree of fidelity with the Real: here the prisoners have been chained since childhood, and it will therefore not be the reproduction of this or that specific aspect of that reality, which they do not know, which will lead them to attribute a greater degree of reality to the illusion to which they are subject..." ('The Apparatus'). Baudry's article is subtle and fascinating, seeing in Plato a proper pre-history of cinema much more suggestive than the simple historic, scientific progression that includes the magic lantern and the praxisnoscope. But it is an idea that can also lend itself all too well to questioning film as a medium of the real when there are limits to the reality that one can see - as in Plato's cave.
Our purpose isn't to argue too strenuously with this Platonic scepticism; this need to see in the cinematic image its capacity to generate in the viewer false consciousness. This was a very useful and necessary attempt to dismantle the dream factory of Hollywood, thus undermining its ideological effects. However, this was also a materialist endeavour, passing from Marx to Althusser: arriving at the need for a new and different society reflected in important films of the time: from Godard's Tout va bien, to Rene Allio's I, Pierre Riviere, from the Straubs' History Lessons to Je tu il Elle.Ours is instead a spiritual aesthetics without the need to fall into the religious. It takes into account films where the possible is explored not always theologically, but at least with a sense of something beyond the materialist. We of course have in mind films likeThe Green Ray by Rohmer, Pickpocket by Bresson, To the Wonder by Malick, The Sacrifice by Tarkovsky, and Ordet by Dryer. Yet we also want to keep in mind that these are films where the exploration of choice at the highest level is paramount, while we are also interested in this notion of the possible as an ontological condition of the medium. It doesn't ignore the categorically spiritual in the great works we have just invoked, but we want to unpack Kierkegaard's comment in the context of cinema itself. When we watch an actor cross a room, when we see a lover in film glance at another, when we wonder if a character should act selfishly to protect his family, we are in the realm of the possible, even if the films so often close down these possibilities to become what we will call actualities - filmic conclusions. The films by Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Malick, Rohmer and Bresson insist upon the possible partly because they refuse full actualisation. Most American films do not invite it but cannot completely suppress it. There are plenty American movies that premise themselves on the metaphysical but do not retain that piety of thought Heidegger saw in the questioning: their conclusions offer answers, as we find in Groundhog Day, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I Heart Huckabees, The Matrix. The possible is actualised; the problem addressed metaphysically becomes a problem answered pragmatically. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day becomes a better person and gets to fall in love as he learns from his experience of waking up every day on February the 2nd. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the characters have had their memories wiped out after a painful relationship, but will try again after discovering their records and realizing what has happened. In each instance the metaphysical question - the repetitiveness of one's life, the idea that we would wish to remove painful memories - becomes an opportunity for conclusiveness of the love story: what we are calling actualisation.
Yet we are claiming that cinema as an art form is an art of the possible: even if many films close down the meaning to become categorically about something, the nature of the image allows it also to be about many other possibilities too. Numerous writers and theorists of the sixties and seventies saw Andre Bazin as a nave realist who would often emphasize the importance of the long take over montage, as if refusing to acknowledge the degree to which film is a manipulated medium that also relies on assumptions about representations and ideology to function. Nevertheless, as Girish Shambu says: "the first great champion of the long take was Andr Bazin. To him, film was the "art of reality." He once wrote: "All the arts depend on the presence of man; only photography lets us delight in his absence." What he meant was that by not interposing oneself between the camera and the subject, the filmmaker had the potential to truly capture reality. Shambu adds, "As V.F. Perkins put it: '[A] sonnet or a sonata created a world which might reflect the subjective vision of its maker; film recorded the world which existed objectively.'" Obviously, this was seen as nave by the writers who wanted to point up cinema as an ideological form, and wished to replace the image of Bazin's window to the world with the idea of the troublesome mirror out of Jacques Lacan and psychoanalysis. As Dudley Andrew reckons: with the mirror replacing the window, " a new faculty, the unconscious, instantly became a necessary part of any overarching film theory, and new discourse, psychoanalysis, was called upon to explain what before had been of little consequence." (Concepts in Film Theory) But Bazin's realism was less nave than spiritual: he wanted to see in cinema the possible. Not so much how to create a dream factory that would manipulate our feelings and fill our head with nonsense, as some psychoanalytically inclined theorists would propose, but give to our lives a perceptual yearning that could be all the more pronounced by the everyday many times magnified on the screen. If we think for example of the scene Bazin so admires from Umberto D. where the maid enters the kitchen, we can notice what we might call the quotidian nature of the possible. Here the maid is making a coffee, patting her burgeoning pregnant stomach while the camera movements and the music offer to these moments a magnitude they wouldn't seem entitled to possess. Bazin didn't just want reality filmed, he wanted the artists of film to capture moments in cinema that could go beyond the everyday within the everyday; "to make cinema the asymptote of reality: but in order that it should ultimately be life itself that becomes spectacle, in order that life might in the perfect mirror be visible poetry, be the self into which film finally changes it." (What is Cinema Vol. 2?) Reality filmed wouldn't possess this quality, and reality too readily manipulated wouldn't have it either. In the former instance it would be merely replicating reality and missing the spiritual residue; in the latter instance transforming reality through strong plot and situation and thus foregoing the everyday. The scene in Umberto D. balances the quotidian with the possible, the need to capture reality but not to reconfigurate it so that it no longer bears any resemblance to the quotidian. Yet the spiritually quotidian as we are choosing to define it can be found potentially in any film partly because film is an art form made not only out of reality as Shambu is suggesting, but also because it is made up of so many elements, and combining so many creative forces. When we watch in Groundhog Day walk along the street with Andie McDowell and ask her what she wants, what she really wants from life, we might be reminded that Murray a few years earlier had dropped out of Hollywood after appearing in Razor's Edge - a film Murray co-wrote from Somerset Maugham's novel, about someone trying to find meaning in the world and travelling to do so. After its box-office failure Murray studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and frequented the cinematheque and thus watching him offer these lines in a film made a few years later we might inform the scene with this other knowledge we have of the actor playing the role. For some this would be to impose oneself upon the diegesis, to force upon it a meaning that is beyond the scene, though we would be inclined to think this is partly what makes film the art form it is. Made up of so many disparate elements we consciously or otherwise find ourselves working with the dimensions of the real world that cinema draws upon. It isn't only the pro-filmic fact that films are recordings of the world, it is also that they use in front of the camera humans who have lives beyond the frame and besides the character, figures we inevitably find ourselves projecting upon.
Even a cinema made up of non-professionals cannot avoid this. When Ken Loach employs the young boy Dai Bradley in Kes, or when Bruno Dumont casts unknowns inLa vie de Jesus, Hors satan and others, we know that they have lives beyond the film. There have been plenty of articles looking at Bradley's life since Loach's 1970 account of living in the north of England, including with the Guardian and the BBC. We might be shocked to find out that the young actors from the Dumont films are now dead. Whether the actors are professional or amateur, because the film focuses on life, they live and die beyond the temporality of the cinema experience. It is a basic difference between the pro-filmic and the animated. Animation has nothing beyond the image in time or in space. Even if animation can occasionally through immense attention to historical detail replicate an aspect of the yearning film so often achieves (as we may find in The Illusionist, which documents in animated form fifties Edinburgh), it is far from a given. Cinema has it as a given that it can try to suppress - evident in so many films that push the story that is taking place over the recording that has taken place. When we watch Casablanca the film emphasizes the story over the location: Paris and Casablanca are Hollywood backlots, sets in which the story plays out. The story seeks an atemporal dimension not unlike that of a novel, but unlike a novel it has within its diegesis actors: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Peter Lorre - all long since dead. The recording of live beings on film turns the work into an act of memorialisation before the event. The actors deny the story its presentness as we could easily be watching Casablanca today and shift between saying Bergman is beautiful and Bergman was beautiful. Snow White in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfswill always exist in the present tense; Bergman shuttles between the two.
We are saying nothing new here, of course, and Andre Bazin (in his essay on cinema as mummification), and Laura Mulvey, in Death 24 Times a Second, both expertly negotiate this question, but what interests us especially is the Kierkergaardian possibility contained within the cinematic image. When Kierkegaard was writing in the middle of the 19th century, the possible could manifest itself chiefly through what we call suspension of disbelief. Even if theatre utilises real people within the play, it does so like animation, if for very different reasons, by denying the confusion of tenses. People would watch an actor on the stage and might say they are beautiful, but the play remains in the present tense of the audience member watching it. One might have gone to the theatre to suspend that disbelief, but there was no further belief within that suspension. Cinema possesses this dimension; and partly why we insist it is the art form of the possible like no other.
We might think here of remarks by Christian Keathley and Raul Ruiz. Keathley, talking about Jean Epstein's notion of photogenie, says "rather than being slaves to the narrative in which they are caged, photogenic objects spring forth, declaring their existence as things in their own right." (Cinephelia and History, or The Wind in the Trees) Ruiz mentions Walter Benjamin and the photographic, or optical unconscious. Here he discusses a photograph that has a few salient features that added together can pass for the photo, but adds, what about all the other elements that seem incidental that we might nevertheless choose to focus upon? Ruiz says what he intends to do is "try and examine the phenomena of photography and cinema as seen from the dark jungle of involuntary or uncontrolled signs." (Poetics of Cinema) It isn't just that we are invited to believe in another world beyond our own that happens to be the play, or the novel we are reading, or the painting we are looking at, but that the work has within it the possible that no other art form possesses.
This is the pro-filmic that can be evident in the details of telling the story as we find in films that insist on focusing on the narrative and utilising studio sets, or it can open up the set to become not a timelesss space but a timely one. Casablanca might have a specific location (however artificial) and a specific temporality (WWII), but it contains a dimension of the fairy tale that suggests the film is offering a general story of courage and sacrifice. We can imagine the film opening with a voice over saying once upon a time there were two people very much in love but circumstances would make their love impossible. We cannot easily imagine the same for those great timely New York films Taxi Driver and Manhattan, no matter if they do utilise voice-over. This rests for us on the difference between timeless films and timely ones: that central to modern cinema is the introduction of the timely, and the freedom it thus gives to the possible as it opens up the aspects Keathley and Ruiz focus upon. When in Taxi Driver Robert De Niro is driving along the streets and he hears someone screaming and cracking-up, we must assume that this was a moment director Martin Scorsese deliberately filmed, yet it also gives us the sense of the teeming, crazy streets of New York, with Scorsese looking to dissolve the line between the dramatic and the documented. In Casablanca, though it was recorded too, the events have no sense of documentation. The recording focuses almost exclusively on the dramatic; in Taxi Driver Scorsese absorbs the dramatic into the documented. When we see De Niro watching Cybill Shepherd as she goes into the campaign office, we witness various people in the vicinity too, as the scene brings to mind Ruiz's remark about the incidental in the photograph he looks at. "What function does the dog to the left in the background have? And that man dressed in black, missing his right shoe? And the eagle in the sky? Why do all these passers-by look at the same point off camera? All these unnecessary elements have a tendency, curiously to reorganize themselves forming an enigmatic corpus, a set of signs that conspires against the ordinary reading of the picture..." (Poetics of Cinema) In the scene from Taxi Driver one of these people is none other than Scorsese, offering a cameo appearance not unlike Hitchcock's insistent momentary roles in his own films, but also quite different, and for two reasons. Firstly, Hitchcock's cameos were brief but unavoidable: his large girth spread across the screen so that it was hard to miss him. Scorsese is just another figure in the frame as Shepherd walks into the office. Secondly, Scorsese will later show up in the film as a character with a speaking part, sitting in the back of the cab jabbering away to De Niro as he looks up at a window saying what he wants to do to the woman behind it. Is this the same person, or is the former simply a cameo role with Scorsese as Scorsese, the latter Scorsese playing a role that has no connection whatsoever with his brief appearance earlier? Taxi Driver would seem happy with the ambiguity in the way a thirties or forties film would not, and this rests partly on the terms we are offering here: the timely versus the timeless, the dramatic versus the documented.
One watches Taxi Driver as though the story bleeds into the milieu and the milieu bleeds into the story. Scorsese is using New York not just to record a tale, but to document a moment in time that is New York in the mid-seventies. Though American films of the decade would often have a genre element (noir, western, revenge drama, comedy) many exceeded the bounds of the generic by incorporating within the story the milieu that is expressed rather than suppressed. Woody Allen's Gordon Willis-shotManhattan is a comedy of sorts, but if it is such a fine film it rests on exploring New York in the late seventies, utilising the Guggenheim museum, Elaines' restaurant and The Russian Tea Room among numerous other carefully chosen locations. It is plausible that these well-heeled characters would occupy such places, but classic Hollywood might emphasize the plausibility but they would be less inclined to document the specifics of locale. Scorsese and Allen's approach gives to film a belief within the suspension of disbelief, but this is a belief that combines belief in the spiritual sense of the term Kierkegaard would see in the possible, and belief in the optical unconscious. As Richard Prouty says, "film changed how we view the least significant minutiae of reality just as surely as Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life changed how we look at incidental phenomenon like slips of the tongue. In other words, film serves as an optical unconscious. Benjamin asserts the film camera 'introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.'" (One Way Street) The more film can access the optical unconscious, the more space it gives us to believe within the disbelief. The film isn't there as a suspicious blend of Platonic and Marxist false consciousness, but a medium that allows for our consciousness to open itself up to new possibilities, new ways of looking and thinking about the world. It doesn't just record the dramatic; it unlocks the powers of the unconscious, the power of memory against forgetting in a very specific sense. As Fergus Daly indicates: "In Deleuze's view the cinema can give rise to a spiritual automaton, a thinking machine but one that must be nurtured lest it become the puppet of power and totalitarian forces: "cerebral creation or deficiency of the cerebellum?" This is the crucial question for cinephilia. Is an obsession with film an enslavement to an industry and to the clichd images it peddles, or can it become a technology of the self that can give rise to genuine thinking, to new affects and to a resistance to Power?" (From Method Acting to Method Viewing) When we watch Casablanca the optical unconscious is offered as a weak lens that asks us to focus almost exclusively on the story. Taxi Driver and Manhattan offer strong lenses to drill their way into our advanced perceptual faculties. This wasn't a technological issue based on the limits of the zoom lens for example. Willis rarely used it according to Matthew Day in Camera and Lighting, while documentary filmmaker Carl Hirsh onVimeo explores its use in films from Rouben Mamoulian's Love Me Tonight to Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. It wasn't simply a technological issue if it could be eschewed by a contemporary cinematographer and utilized by a classical director: it was more an ontological one. What did the director want to reveal in its use? The camera in classical cinema was usually dictating terms rather than offering perceptions: when Mamoulian zooms up to show others in the apartment block, or when Hitchcock zooms in on Robert Walker, the emphasis is on the story no matter if the technology is available to offer the observational aspect the seventies films were more inclined to allow for.
When Scorsese or Robert Altman for example use it, the optical unconscious is activated and the possible realisable. The camera is no longer merely actualising the story - even if no film ever does just that - but wants to fit the story into the documented, into a world greater than the narrative telling. The more this aspect is pronounced, the more the possible becomes a condition of the experience. We can find in the film, moments that we can make our own in ways that we could not when the director focused so centrally on the story told. Thus when Hitchcock zooms in on Robert Walker in Strangers on the Train this is quite different from Altman zooming in on details of Mexican life when Elliot Gould crosses the border in The Long Goodbye. Hitchcock may have been a director fascinated by the psychoanalytic, evident inSpellbound, Vertigo, Psycho and Marnie, but this would not be the psychopathology of everyday life, but the psychopathology of the exceptional experience. Altman and Scorsese wanted instead to find in the milieu the texture of meaning over the meaningful in the text. The filmic worlds become symptomatic, capable of emitting numerous signs that centrifugally go beyond the limits of the story. Manhattan, Taxi Driver and The Long Goodbye are timely not timeless. They seek to tell not only a story but to wonder how much of the event resides in a given milieu at a given time. The complications they afford rest partly on the spaces they seek and the possibilities thus offered in the viewing experience. When Allen utilises a long take of his central character walking along the street with his son this is not the backdrop to a conversation, it is an invitation to move with the characters through a city space. The same is evident when Gould goes to the supermarket for cat food, and Bickle drives through the streets of New York.
We can see in such moments two very antithetical influences, Hitchcock and Rossellini: on the one hand Vertigo with James Stewart following Kim Novak through the streets of San Francisco; on the other Ingrid Bergman driving along the streets of Naples inVoyage to Italy. Hitchcock brilliantly closes the image down; Rossellini insistently opens the image out and became a key director for later filmmakers interested in exploring reality as we are couching it. While the obsessive Stewart has a strong reason to follow Novak; Bergman aimlessly drives through Naples as Rossellini asks us to see in the image the symptomatic milieu. If Hitchcock could insist that the chase sequence was the essence of cinema and slowed it down in Vertigo, Rossellini might be more inclined to say the street is the essence of cinema so that what matters is not the goal in front of one's eyes, but the peripheral on the edge of our vision. "It was very important for me to show Italy, Naples," Rossellini says, "that strange atmosphere which is mingled with a very real, very deep feeling..." (Cahiers du Cinema)
We could say one reason why Kierkegaard is useful for our understanding of cinema rests on his capacity to believe in the image as manifold: that he is a vital thinker of the possible in all its manifestations over the actual in its limited, narrative sphere. In other words, what matters are not images that readily reveal but frequently have a dimension of the hidden. In the aptly named 'Silhouettes', Kierkegaard says "if we apply to the relation between sorrow and joy that which has been casually stated but not developed here, it is easy to perceive that joy is far easier to depict artistically than sorrow. By no means does this deny that grief can be depicted artistically. But it certainly does say that there comes a point where it is essential to posit a contrast between the interior and the exterior, which makes a depiction of it impossible in art. By nature, joy wishes to disclose itself, sorrow wishes to conceal itself." What interests us here is the problem of narration versus the problem of the un-narratable. Sorrow in Kierkegaard's take hides itself, while joy reveals itself, and few would argue that people are much more inclined to attend analysis after unhappy experiences rather than happy ones. By extension, it is also why many of the New Hollywood films of the seventies are much more intractable than the generally happier films of the classic period. If someone insists that cinema should tell a story they are perhaps by implication suggesting that only happy, or at least disclosable stories should be told, while we are saying that once cinema acknowledges what cannot be readily disclosed the image becomes possible: full of symptoms and signs that cannot be immediately comprehended but must be extracted and explored. The timeless film will generally and accurately assume that its story can be contained well within its diegesis. This doesn't mean that the film cannot be emotionally and ethically complex, but the nature of its impossible romance, for example, can still arrive at what we might call the ethically happy. Thus, though Bergman and Bogart cannot become a couple for the film's conclusion in Casablanca, the failure contains a bigger moral success. It is an impossible romance, but a moral tale. They do not add up to a hill of beans next to the war effort as they offer a noble sacrifice. But what of the impossible romances in Taxi, Driver, The Long Goodbye andManhattan? In Taxi Driver Betsy rejects Bickle after he takes her to the porn theatre, while at the end of the film there seems to be more than a trickle of interest again as he has slain some pimps and become a folk hero. In The Long Goodbye, Gould shows an interest in a man's wife, but by the end of the film we know that the wife is the lover of what Gould assumed was a good friend of his, and the friend and the wife have been responsible for the husband's death and Gould's earlier arrest. In Manhattan, Allen is having an affair with a seventeen year old high school kid whom he leaves for Diane Keaton, who has been having an affair with his best friend. In all three films there is an undisclosable problem that forestalls narrative: that won't quite allow the films to end. Hollywood films didn't always have happy endings, but they had endings, and an ending itself is a form of happiness - an epistemological completeness. Casablanca possesses that epistemological happiness. Come the end of Taxi Driver we have no idea whether an affair will start between De Niro and Shepherd, and whether it would be a good thing if it does, or whether De Niro, fresh and focused after the slaughter, might just see that health resides in being an occasional killing machine - as he would seem to have been in in Vietnam before the film starts. The Long Goodbye wonders what Gould will do with himself after being betrayed by his good friend, and the musical conclusion to "Hooray for Hollywood" demands an irony that cannot easily be placed. It is not quite an ending. In Manhattan the teenager will go off to Europe and just before she goes Allen tries to dissuade her, a moment of immense selfishness that we must take to be at the same time a moment of feeling as again we arrive at the inconclusive. Will Allen follow her to Europe?
Thus what we are thinking of here is not whether a film has a happy ending but an ending at all. An ending can arrive at the actual: the experience complete. The absence of an ending in classic Hollywood terms suggests the possible, an interpretive freedom that is not at all the same as subtext. It doesn't sit underneath the film as a likely meaning, but finds itself dispersed across the story, through the greater information available in the image as its documents the milieu, and the timeliness that insists the given period in which it is set and filmed plays a part too. There will be many who prefer classic Hollywood film (and there are still many being made today), over films that do not move towards strong conclusions, but this is the difference between those who fear agoraphobia and those who fear claustrophobia. The narratively agoraphobic wish for an experience that protects themselves from the world, that will give the viewer an aesthetic experience that doesn't opens the film to the world but (often) brilliantly insulates it from that world. This needn't mean it has nothing to do with the world (after all Casablanca is conspicuously set during WWII), but in both milieu and morality it will close the possibilities down: the set utilized sometimes reflecting the moral system deployed. Casablanca does not end happily in that the couple who love each other do not get together, but it is happy in the sense that it feels like an unequivocal ending: that the best moral value has been extracted.
In many post-classical films the value can no longer be extracted and the milieu can no longer be closed down. This generates what might seem like a narrative agoraphobia that for us is nevertheless the possible. It asks us not to accept the world as it is but proposes how we might make it in our image. At the end of Manhattan, few will claim that Allen's character is right in trying to dissuade his teen love from going to Europe. But there ought to be ambivalence in seeing that she is right to go, and why he might wish her to stay. He is being selfish in his request, yet we can understand why he is making it. He knows he is probably losing this young woman whom he has previously treated badly, and we can feel his pain in the loss, but while the loss is felt by the viewer, the self-pitying aspect and the desperate desire to put his own needs over someone else's can't be ignored either. There is ambivalence here but then we have had nothing but ambivalence in the image too as the film explores New York without always closing it down to narrative essentials and character specificity. Whether it is the scenes in cars that focus on the cars driving through the highway over the faces of the people in them, or the hubbub in Elaine's as the character talk, Allen offers us a world that is open, not closed, and the narrative thus reflects this.
One reason why we have focused on seventies films Manhattan, Taxi Driver and The Long Goodbye is because we want to extend the possible beyond the spiritual. There is no doubt a Kierkegaardian cinema and Gilles Deleuze has written astutely of its presence in Bresson, Dreyer and Rohmer. We could also include Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice as a variation of Kierkegaard's version of the Abraham story, with Erland Josephson wondering whether in burning down his house he can save the world, and Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, with the title character insisting on the possible in the form of an opera house in the jungle. There is, in this form of Kierkergaardian cinema, madness and the ridiculous at play, the notion of the dare and its possible failure. "To Dare is to Lose one's footing momentarily. Not to dare is to lose oneself." Herzog would probably concur: seeing himself as a "conquistidor of the Useless." (Herzog on Herzog) This is the formula of metaphysical risk, so whether it is Josephson in The Sacrifice following God's orders, or Kinski recklessly acting on a whim, the point rests in the daring. One has a choice, and yet the choice presented is an enormous one. Do we destroy our house to save the world; do we stay at home or build an opera house in the jungle? Yet even if the choice is apparently negligible, it must contain within it a metaphysical magnitude. Will a man cheat on his wife in Rohmer's Love in the Afternoon and risk his well-being even if another man could do the same deed with hardly a thought; will the central character in La Collectioneuse succumb to a young woman's flirtatiousness and damage his will? It is not strictly the size of the choice, but the spiritual aspect contained therein.
Yet for our purposes we wish to indicate that cinema is the great art form of choice; even if many films close down the options, the options which are all but a given of the form. If one of the main criticisms leveled at cinema in its earlier years in respect to its status as an art form was that it could indiscriminately record numerous details from the real world, then these details needed to be shaped according to a clear purpose to become art. Hence the praise for Birth of a Nation's use of cross-cutting and the admiration heaped upon Battleship Potemkin's Odessa steps montage sequence. But Bazin's importance as a critic rests partly on his resistance to such praise, seeing in Eisenstein's work brilliance, but also ontological limitation. This resistance to the great Russian rested in part on the director's materialist asesthetics which meant that the director's work was corralled into a Marxist vision of social progress. This didn't make Bazin a conservative; his primary interest was in seeing cinema as a tool of the spirit in itsbroadest sense. Film's purpose wasn't to manipulate the world into clear ideological configurations but to reveal it in all its spiritual ambiguity. If we think of the scene mentioned above that Bazin greatly praised in Umberto D. (the maid making coffee), and contrast it with the Odessa Steps sequence, we can see both concern themselves with questions of oppression and poverty. But while Eisenstein insists on the presence of power in dialectical form as the townspeople supporting the mutiny on the boat of the title start to get trampled on by the Cossacks, Bazin sees in Umberto D. a rather different approach. Both films are political as we are left to muse over the power struggle in the former example and the social struggle in the latter. Watching the sequence where she touches her stomach in isolation we might wonder why she is doing so, guessing perhaps that she is pregnant, but based on the sequence itself we cannot say for sure. It is implicit rather than explicit. Bazin sees in Umberto D. a very different aesthetic from Eisenstein and sees in it the property of the cinematic art form over the expectations of art. It might have seemed to many that cinema was too easy a thing to do to pass for the aesthetic: after all, the technology allowed us to press a button and record what was in front of our eyes. To make it art one needed to create dynamic images that broke down the recorded detail. This fitted perfectly with Eisenstein's ideological, historical and aesthetic programme. "According to Marx and Engels the dialectic system is only the conscious reproduction of the dialectic course (substance) of the external events of the world." (Film Form) Eisenstein adds, "By what, then, is montage characterized and, consequently, its cell - the shot? By collision. By the conflict of two pieces in opposition to each other. By conflict. By collision."
Eisenstein thus ran with the assumption that film was not an art form unless it was strenuously manipulated, neatly aligned with the director's historical and political beliefs. Bazin, however, would be more inclined to see that the political resided in perception rather than action. Instead of the revolutionary coming out of the dialectical montage, the democratic would come out of the well-observed long-take. As Robert Phillip Kolker put it: "Bazin believed that the long take could create a film image that would be analogous to the spatial and temporal continuity of the world as directly perceived." (The Altering Eye) The filmmaker would be less inclined to manipulate the image than amplify it. Instead of shaping the image around a preconceived idea; the image would allow for the perceptual faculties to be expanded. This would be consistent with Benjamin's the optical unconscious and our own thoughts on Kierkegaard, just as we might say Eisenstein's would be closer to the Platonic reservations of Baudry and others.
The materialistic cannot easily contain the spiritually possible; it is, in fact, contrary to its likelihood. Yet we needn't assume that the possible is contrary to the materialistic revolutionary potential of an Eisenstein. The revolutionary is a possibility within the transformative. If we so often talk about the spirit of change we should acknowledge the spirit in that change. In cinematic terms every image contains this potential if it manages to magnify our reality and allows us to reconfigure aspects of self and the world within it. "Life is not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced." It is a remark often attributed to Kierkegaard and would seem consistent with his thinking. Eisenstein's twenties cinema, Strike, Battleship Potemkin and October, would seem to indicate the need to solve a problem, but Bazin's position is closer to a world experienced. What form do we need cinematically to experience the world, and out of that experience to generate the possible? In contrast to Eisenstein's dialectical montage, Bazin saw in neo-realism the potential to see things whole. Speaking of Rossellini, Bazin says, "Neorealism is a description of reality conceived as a whole by a consciousness disposed to see things as a whole...If you like, what is realist in Paisa is the Italian Resistance, but what is neo-realist is Rossellini's direction - his presentation of the events, a presentation which is at once elliptic and synthetic." ('In Defense of Rossellini') David Thomson draws out a similar distinction using Hitchcock and Renoir. While the former is "a natural decision-making director... someone like Renoir, say, is much less forcefully a decider. He prefers to show you things in a way that will let you make up your own mind. Hitchcock shows you things as though his mind is made up. Renoir will put the camera in a more neutral point of view, a place in which the naturalism of the scene plays out more fully, and we are asked to search the screen for possibilities and meanings." (The White Review) Eisenstein and Hitchcock brilliantly insist on meaning; Rossellini and Renoir give us a bit more room to find it - to find the possible within it.
Yet just as we can claim the possible needn't only find itself in the categorically spiritually inclined cinema of Bresson, Dreyer and Tarkovsky, neither does it mean that it would be absent from Eisenstein and Hitchcock. We need only think of how many interpretations Vertigo has undergone to see that the possible manifests itself even in the most unlikely of filmmakers. It is as though there is something in the image that will not become categorical: that the infinity of images cannot fail to generate the possible while literature must accept a freedom that has fundamental ontological limits. As Christian Metz says, "film images are, like statements and unlike words, infinite in number; they are not themselves in discrete units." (Film Language) This is partly why it is very hard to limit a film's meaning. If literature so often tries to create works that suggest ambiguity; film cannot help but do so as viewer response. One viewer might choose to focus on the suit a character is wearing; another on a character in the background of a shot; a third wonders about the architecture in the frame.
"Most people are subjective towards themselves" Kierkegaard says, "and objective towards everyone else, sometimes frightfully objective - but the task is precisely to be objective to themselves and subjective towards all others." (Papers and Journals) Is this what cinema does to us as we project onto others as the film projects onto the screen? And this needn't only be about identifying with characters and following a story: film creates a reality bearing more than a resemblance to ours greater than any other art form. In The Ordinary Man of Cinema, Jean-Louis Schefer mentions Kierkegaard as he says: "the duration of the passions (what Kierkegaard named the alternative to the life of character) can only be measured in the persistence of images - not, that is, by their duration in screen time, but by their power of persistence, iteration and recurrence." Schefer writes saying he has no great awareness of film: "there is nothing here that presupposes any specialised knowledge, just a certain habitual usage of the invisible part of ourselves - the part of us that needs to be taken up, taken in hand and into our own usage as it were. This part, which is without any sort of reflection upon us, is hopelessly given over to transforming its own obscurity into a visible world." Schefer doesn't only see cinema resembling reality so that we can observe the world as a consequence of this astonishing invention called film, but also that the mechanism of film allows us to possess thoughts we wouldn't have found without cinema. "Cinema is an art that awakens memory, in mysterious conjunction with the experience of a depth of feeling, but also a quite specific life of isolated affects."
Schefer is not talking about some films, the way we might insist on the spiritual in Tarkovsky, Dreyer and Bresson, or a radical phenomenological invitation we may expect from Brakhage, Viola or Belson. This possibility lies in all of cinema; though the book was written in 1980, the films he focuses on are Freaks, The Mummy, Nana, The Blue Angel, The Merry Widow and a handful of others. He is interested in the capacity of cinema per se, just as we are insisting that the possible must be available to all films too. Many movies will insistently close down the options as they try to focus our attention of the story and the characters, but the information exceeds narrative's grasp as it does not in literature, or even in the theatre. It is this possibility that is vital to the ontology of film that would unite anyone from Schefer to Cavell. When Schefer says "cinema and cinematic images don't automatically call up any technical or theoretical knowledge. That kind of knowledge doesn't matter so much to me" it echoes Cavell's claims. "In paying my respects to James Agee, I noted that in any film, however unpromising, some moment of interest, even beauty, is likely to appear. That is what the camera, left to itself, is like: the objects it manufactures have for us the same natural interest, of fascinating, of boredom, or nothing, or poignance, or terror, as the world itself." (The World Viewed) Of course, Cavell is well aware of the naivety of his claim, and offers within in various subtleties, but it is a point that stands: the medium films the world and we are in the face of that world aware of its, and our, possibilities. Think of the feeling we have watching a film from the sixties that almost accidentally captures the cars that other films of the same period play up. While the Astin Martin in a Bond film is a diegetically fetishised object, the cars in Belle de Jour have no such narrative function, but they are still cars we might now look at, musing over how precise and well-designed vehicles of the time happened to be. And of course when a contemporary film sets itself in the past it has to remove all the modern signs of culture that would interrupt the diegesis; that would make the film anachronistic. Whether unavoidably showing the vehicles of the past, or avoiding showing modern ones, film knows it is in a constant relationship with its diegetic intentions and its non-diegetic demands. It cannot easily leave out the cars of its time any more than it can leave in cars not of its time. Part of the pleasure of film rests on this tension that may come out of the narrative but is far from exclusive to it.
But Schefer seems to be going further still. While he isn't really interested in the technical and theoretical, he is fascinated by the mechanics of film: its capacity to be a perceptual machine. "It is as if we went to the movies to progressively annihilate the film (on those few images we would retain of it) on the feelings we experience there, and then as if this mass of affects could progressively restore, in their light and affective coloring, chains of images." (The Ordinary Man of Cinema) Thus the images aren't only recordings of the real, they are imaginative possibilities out of the real: a reconfiguration of the real as the possible. Rather than the Eisensteinian need to manipulate the images into dialectical opposition and generate the socio-politically new, we absorb the images as the perceptually fresh. The images aren't compacted into a hardened expectation, but loose enough to allow for constantly new thoughts around them. Cinema has often been compared to dreams, but daydreaming would seem more appropriate as the film cannot easily coral us into the specificity of its diegesis, and overflows into the possibility available in our thoughts: a kind of extension of Benjamin's observations in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction'. "...In photography, process reproduction can bring out those aspects of the original that are unattainable to the naked eye yet accessible to the lens, which is adjustable and chooses its angle at will. And photographic reproduction, with the aid of certain processes, such as enlargement or slow motion, can capture images which escape natural vision." However, it still seems to us that Benjamin would be talking of what Jean-Louis Commoli would later call the machines of the visible: that photography, cinema, the telescope, binoculars and so on can prove prosthetically useful to the naked eye. What interests us much more is the naked soul and the machines of the possible. Is Kierkegaard offering its metaphysical possibility when he says, "I would like to write a short story in which the main character is a man which has acquired a pair of spectacles one lens of which reduces images as powerfully as an oxhydrogen microscope and the other magnifies on the same scale so that he apprehends everything very relatively." (Papers and Journals) Is this cinema before the event?
The possible for Kierkegaard was a spiritual surplus, evident in his claim that "for the purposes of becoming (and the self must become itself freely) possibility and necessity are equally essential...a self that has no possibility is in despair, and likewise a self that has no necessity." (The Sickness Unto Death). Film is a medium of necessity but also of possibility, as many machines of the visible are not. We don't generally go to see how many lines an actor has accumulated on his face since we last saw him in a film several years earlier, though we might notice in the process those lines and feel a pang of aging as our countenance will have aged too in that time. This is partly the brilliance of cinema: we go to see a film, to follow a plot, to view characters' predicaments and have an aesthetic experience, but we also go and find in the amplification of objects aspects of our thoughts and feelings constantly being instigated by the film's. When we find ourselves paying attention to the actor's wrinkles, or watch an older film and marvel at the cars' design, we are not ignoring the film, we are capturing aspects of its full potential. If we watch a film dutifully concentrating on its story we are merely following a story and not watching a film. Unless we access its possibilities, unless we daydream with it, we are in danger of accepting it as a categorical experience and refusing it as a possible one. We must have the possible, then, but this is as much an individuating experience as a transcendent one. As Kierkegaard says, "There is a view of life which holds that where the crowd is, the truth is also, that it is a need in truth itself, that it must have the crowd on its side." However, he sees that "there is another view of life; which holds that wherever the crowd is, there is untruth, so that, for a moment to carry the matter out to its farthest conclusion, even if every individual possessed the truth in private, yet if they came together into a crowd (so that "the crowd" received any decisive, voting, noisy, audible importance), untruth would at once be let in. For "the crowd" is untruth." (Papers and Journals) Cinema which in many ways was seen as the great medium of the crowd is nevertheless also the great art form of the individual, which is in turn the opportunity for the possible, and gives us the chance to access the truth in private, within the public sphere. As Fergus Daly so succinctly puts it: Cinephilia might well be one of the final strategies to inhabit the world through 'desiring the infinite'. To have watched, attentively, thousands of films, creates a unique kind of human. A new relationship is established between self and world and between perception and memory - and ensuring that these are productive relationships is the task of the discipline, the technology of the self, involved in any worthwhile cinephilia." ('From Method Acting to Method Viewing')
© Tony McKibbin