The Paradoxes of Picture-Thinking
What might we call the image? Television shows are full of images, some better made than others from the mediocre images of a quiz show, the sophisticated images of a miniseries, the manipulative images of an advert. But perhaps they never quite aspire to the image as we wish to explore the word. Our interest in the image is perhaps quite close to Fredric Jameson's interrogation in his book The Hegel Variations. Jameson uses the philosopher's Phenomenology of Spirit to draw out what Hegel calls 'picture-thinking' (Vorstellung). Drawing distinctions between Vernunft (reason) and Verstand (the understanding), Jameson says: "if Verstand brings with it the errors of empiricism, picture-thinking on the other hand is already an experience of truth, albeit a distorted and preconceptual one. Reason must transcend and transform the errors of Verstand, but it must hermeneutically recover the truths of Vorstellung, even though the latter have also been formed into images in accordance with the logic of the senses and externality." Jameson is here discussing aesthetics and religion, seeing in both "the very impossibility of specifying their identities as autonomous levels or elements." D. N. Rodowick, looking at Hegel's aesthetics in Elegy for Theory, notes that Hegel "characterizes sight and hearing as 'theoretical senses' not only because, in his view, they exclude enjoyment as the satisfaction of desire but also because, at a distance from touch and from nature, through them the sensuous appearance of art is spiritualised in a negation or overcoming of matter and space as withdrawal into an immaterial perception set at a nontactile distance."
Rodowick's book is only partly about cinema and Jameson's not at all. Hegel was of course writing almost a hundred years before its birth, yet can we not see in some of Hegel's intuitions a means by which to rescue the properly cinematic image from its numerous deviations and variations? When Jacques Ranciere in The Future of the Image says, "the nature of the amusement television offers us, and the affects it produces in us, is independent of the fact that the light derives from the apparatus", he indicates that images are not central to the medium that shows them just as an Hegelian account of picture-thinking is more than a representation. "Discussing the term "Vorstellung", Malcolm Clark says, "It is, on the one hand, a functional "picture-thinking" which, immersed in the particularity of space and time, is inadequate to the self-possession of thought. Yet it is not simply "below" thought as a level which can be passed and forgotten. The first efforts to rise beyond it produce a merely formal thinking which, in its abstract universality, must pass through a reincarnation in the particularity of Vorstellung before claims can be made to a higher level in the true experience of thought." Clark adds, "that is, the Hegelian dialectic of particularity, universality, and individuality is here represented as a complementary movement of passage from Vorstellung and return to Vorstellung, in the search for philosophical meaning. Vorstellung is the "other" of thought, and yet is "interior" to it." ('The Place of Vorstellung in the Philosophy of Spirit') A Robert Bresson on TV is still a Bresson film; an advert shown in the cinema is still an advert. This can seem obvious, and Ranciere is very far from that, but it is important to keep in mind when so many places want to get rid of cinema as a special form of the image and wish to dissolve all images into 'media'. Yet utilising an aspect of Hegel's thinking without drawing too heavily on thought generated a few decades before film, we wish to do no more than indicate that most images are not 'picture-thinking', that the images created by Bresson and others need to retain their privileged status. Now a proper understanding of Hegel's thought would also work with what the German philosopher calls Begriff or Notion but Jameson suggests that Hegel's theorization here is shaky and concludes: but the drift is clear enough: picture-thinking is halfway between Verstand and Vernunft, and somehow marked as such and informed by an upward movement. (The Hegel Variations)
For our purposes, central to giving thought to this picture-thinking means seeing in the image something more than sensation and narration something more than the image made to generate modes of spectacle and narrative curiosity. These may prove vital ingredients to many a fine film but they are not the elements that drive them. Sensation in its lowest form might be special effects to generate awe but it might also be costumes and antiques in a film or TV show that leaves us in no doubt that these are enviable objects. We don't think about them; we admire them. In narration, it could be a talk show where the interviewer primes a few well-worn anecdotes out of their guest, or a quiz show that asks us to find out after the break if the quizzed can get the question right to win half a million pounds. It can be a cliffhanger posed at the end of a TV episode that asks us to wait with immense anticipation for the next show in a week's time. If we have terms like empty spectacle and empty suspense it might be that they have fallen into the empirical (spectacle) or the logical (narration) in their lowest form. They have completely failed to elevate the image, to bring it even close to the picture-thinking of the aesthetic, an aesthetic that isn't too far removed from the religious but that needn't at all rely on it.
Thus even though Bresson's films clearly draw upon religious inspiration, we needn't at all think as Paul Schrader does of a transcendental style in film, one that he sees also in Dreyer and Ozu, even if we would agree that all three filmmakers are picture-thinkers. But then so is Godard, Resnais, Herzog, Wenders and Bunuel. Yet we are not only thinking here of 'difficult' filmmakers: Hawks and Ford, Nicholas Ray and Charlie Chaplin are picture-thinkers too. Nevertheless, not all filmmakers are picture-thinkers, and some are less obviously so at certain moments in their careers than at others. Spielberg seems to us to be picture-thinking in Jaws but less so in Saving Private Ryan, even if the latter would appear a much more serious project. If picture-thinking in film form is wary of sensation and ready narration, it is also resistant to our third 'empty' category empty cliche. Is there consequently such a thing as full cliche, surely a contradiction in terms? Yet there is nevertheless the full use of convention which needn't be pejorative. Jaws is conventional but not cliched as Spielberg is in no doubt about the effects he hopes to achieve and insists on marshalling his craft for a clear purpose. To understand this difference, and to see Spielberg as a director who can picture-think in one film and struggle to do so in another, we can contrast scenes from Jaws and Saving Private Ryan. Near the end of Saving Private Ryan, Sergeant Horvath (Tom Sizemore) grabs Corporal Upham (Jeremy Davies) and drags him out of a building but the prior shots gave us no sense of where Horvath was or how he got to the building. Perhaps Spielberg wanted to capture the chaos of war over the logistics of people spatially but therein lies the danger of the fallacy of imitative form: of believing that to register chaos you need a chaotic aesthetic. While we've earlier seen Horvath getting shot and leaning against a building, he disappears from the story for a couple of minutes as we follow action elsewhere before he turns up to help Upham. There is no sense of how he gets from one place to another. In Jaws, by contrast, when the crew try to kill the shark, each shot fills out the context and shows us the risks. With the shark so capable of hiding in the sea, and where only the fin is usually visible, this leaves the shark a difficult target, but the crew has lined up yellow barrels that are attached to ropes that will be fired from a harpoon, with the shark pulling the barrel in its wake and allowing the crew to keep tabs. Then they have to try and keep up, with Hooper manning the boat, Brodie on the lookout with a gun and Quint the man determined to get the shark with a rifle. The scene lays out very clearly what is at stake in the scene and what needs to be done to get the shark. Saving Private Ryan might be deemed a serious work and Jaws a frivolous one but there is more economy of means in the latter than in the former a clearer sense of the variables. Many of the scenes in Saving Private Ryan push the sentimentality of Spielberg's theme: the self-sacrifice of many during WWII, exemplified in the sacrifices the soldiers make in saving the titular character and allowing his mother to have one remaining son alive. The film is predicated on the mission to find Ryan when it is discovered his three brothers are already dead; just as it concludes on Ryan in Normandy as an older man paying homage to the sergeant who died in the process of saving him. The film is constantly pushing through its mawkish and hawkish through-line and the film's craft is weakened by sacrificial sentiment.
Nevertheless, even a very mediocre Spielberg film is vastly superior to a quiz show or many a TV series, but that doesn't mean it has achieved picture-thinking it hasn't drawn enough resistance to the sensational aspect of the image, the need to push the narration and the need to resist the cliche. In Saving Private Ryan, as well as AI, Schindler's List and Amistad, Spielberg doesn't advance on Ford or Hawks but retreats from them and this retreat might seem hard to place because of the ostensibly superior craft that is involved. Spielberg has advances in technology and a greater awareness of the tropes than his precursors, but what he doesn't have is a greater grasp of the spirit of the aesthetic. This would be where form doesn't so much meet content as find in the form the pressing force of content upon it. Ford and Hawks are making the American consciousness; Spielberg is returning to it. When he makes Saving Private Ryan, Amistad and others through the nineties and noughties he is in the process of recuperating the values of the past and asking them to play out in the present. It isn't only that they draw upon the past (after all AI is science fiction), it is that the films are determined to find a categorical value system out of their images. They draw too much upon sensation, narration and cliche for their affects. Some may insist this is precisely what Hawks and Ford do too, and are we not just playing with words if we believe that Hawks and Ford are drawing instead on convention? Not if we see conventions as containers of the aesthetic dimension of a work and a cliche concerning the consumption of that work. When Ford uses the conventions of the aesthetic, when he deploys broad character types in Stagecoach including the preacher, the prostitute, and the cowboy, it rests on drawing together types all the better to indicate how America is in the process of making itself how it will manage to coalesce. The conventions of the stagecoach as a container for these disparate types and then the threat they are under from the Indians, allows Ford to show this process. One can have problems with the presentation of the Indians, one can have problems with the broadness of Ford's characterisations, but it is as though they contribute towards a question that can best be explored through the predictable forms he happens to be utilising. Spielberg however in Saving Private Ryan uses the types (a sergeant who is like a father-figure to his troops, a hot-head, a nervy type, and so on) for immediate audience gratification that'll accumulate until the film's finale a gratification on a national scale that will involve bugles, the stars and stripes and the sense that nobody sacrificed more in WWII than the Americans. If Ford would often ask what is it that makes America America, Spielberg asks what is it that can make the US feel good about itself. Ford, in Stagecoach, The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, as with Hawks in films like Red River and Rio Bravo, asks questions about America. Spielberg instead seeks answers that allow for the self-congratulatory.
If Amistad and Saving Private Ryan do it both diegetically and non-diegetically (through exploring how the US is a country deserving of its greatnesss), Spielberg does it non-diegetically in Schindler's List. There are no Americans in the film but there is an American sensibility that permeates it: one which suggests that if Americans aren't shown riding to the rescue, nevertheless the film shows a great country doing what it can to remember the Holocaust. Is this not registered in the shift from black and white to colour, from the hell of the camps to the sunny gratitude of those putting stones on Schindler's grave? We don't want to be cynical here (that isn't our point). It is only to say that there isn't a world of a difference between Spielberg and Trump's desire to make America great again from the point of view of sentimental reiteration. What matters is the affect created rather than the problem addressed. We may well be moved by films like Stagecoach, but it seems a secondary concern to the micro-making of a nation. We see it in Jaws too but as an unmaking of the nation evident in the corruption of the mayor who seeks only money for a tourist resort and the heroics of the three men and a boat who go out and take on the shark. Jaws works partly because it knows it could not easily in the mid-seventies be a film of recuperative sentimentality; it needed to call into question the America in the unmaking and finds ways in which it could make itself again. As J .Hoberman notes, speaking of the release of Jaws and Nashville: "June 1975 six weeks after Time headlined the fall of Saigon as 'The Anatomy of a debacle' and wondered how 'How Should America feel?' two movies opened, each in its way a brilliant modification on the current cycle of 'disaster' films that had appeared with Nixon II and were now, at the nadir of the nation's self-esteem, paralleled by the spectacular collapse of South Vietnam and unprecedented Watergate drama." ('Nashville Contra Jaws') Robert Shaw seems as stock a character as any in a Ford film and the three leading characters together suggest a Hawks adventure, where men will be men, but it still feels more conventional than cliched, using tropes to explore what it means to be an American at a time when heroic values were regarded with scepticism.
Thus a filmmaker who uses a modest amount of sensation and narration within the conventional might still be able to picture-think, but a director who uses the combination for the purposes of pushing through cliches cannot hope to do so. Central to this failure perhaps resides in the audience that the convention is adopted to generate the work; the cliche is adopted to satisfy the viewer. One reason why many classic Hollywood films still hold meaning for us is that they aren't offering cliches; they are, like Jaws, adopting conventions. Some might argue that It's a Wonderful Life is a cliched work (hence the nickname Capracorn) but we're more inclined to see in it less the need to please an audience than to work through a problematic. This is threefold: how to indicate the merits of smalltown life on a man who never left; how to suggest the American way of life is the right way of living while acknowledging capitalism isn't without a few problems, and how to absorb less ostensibly America's recent involvement in WWII. Capra had earlier made American Madness, a film produced three years after the 1929 crash that remains a surprisingly vivid account of the world of money as it revolves around a struggling bank that is to merge with New York Trust. Its director is expected to resign, but in a plot that concerns the theft of a $100,000, which leads to a run on the bank, bank director Walter Huston finds out that it isn't his loyal friend who has gone off with the money, but someone else with a gambling habit. The upshot is that the bank is saved as friends help Huston out. It's a Wonderful Life was released in 1946, just after the war and is a much broader account of the influence of finance on people's lives but equally relies on good values winning out and friends helping out. We can see in the scene where everybody comes round at Christmas to give money after they realise George is in financial trouble that what matters are communal values rather than the hoarding of wealth. After all, the film has little time for George's rival who wants to bankrupt him when George's uncle Billy misplaces $8000 that the rival picks up and keeps quiet about. In the end, George proves that by staying in a small town he can nevertheless have far more influence than he would likely have had had he gone elsewhere. By the conclusion, because of his own dire situation predicated on a housing project that was to help the poorer townspeople, he makes clear to the locals that money matters less than the good deed and in turn, they help him out. George is shown to be an important member of the community, never more evident than when an angel shows him what the place would have become had he never been born: a den of greed and iniquity.
Clearly, Capra's film is heavy on narration and not short of sensation it lays on very thickly indeed the moment when the townspeople come round and offer money. But it is a combination of conventions that nevertheless arrive at a worthwhile sentiment rather than a sentimentality that is worthless. It manages very well to combine aspects of the Dickensian (the Scrooge element of George's rival), with the context of smalltown American life. It does so while indicating that capitalism is only as good as its capacity to work as a circulatory system that insists on share and share alike. One feels as with Hawks and Ford that Capra was no less interested than the others in working through what American values ought to be, what distinguishes the US from other countries and sees it often in the problem of greed and corruption (evident too in Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Mr Deeds Goes to Town). Part of the tension in Capra's work comes from acknowledging the ease with which the American financial and political system can be manipulated but it is also well aware that Communism would be no sort of answer. It is why smalltown values are promoted as a means of finding a middle ground (a sort of Mid-West ground), between urban greed and a revolutionary wish for a different value system altogether. The American system is just fine, Capra says, as long as small-town values are those that are promoted. He eulogises conservatism rather than capitalism, but with the communal priority that from a certain point of view doesn't rule out aspects of socialism. Yet watching Capra's work, it would be unfair to say he made films that wanted to please audiences chiefly. Instead, he wished to work through a series of problems that would satisfy an audience.
It is this difference between satisfying an audience and pleasing them that is important: to insist on the former is not to attend to the viewer but to attend to the problem that the viewer will, in turn, be satisfied with as a problematic dealt with. If the crowd is pleased too quickly then no problem is evident, only a quick solution offered and we provide such a remark far from flippantly. A film that plays to the crowd isn't very different from a politician who does likewise. Whenever the problem is much weaker than the solution, whenever we feel that the gratification of the crowd is of more importance than the problem that is being worked through, we might worry not only about the detrimental impact on the aesthetic but on the broader politic too. It is why we might see little difference between later Spielberg films and Trump when it comes to working a crowd, no matter if their political positions appear quite distinct.
But to talk about the political draws us away from our primary concern, which is how does a filmmaker create an image, how do they separate their images from the billions of others that are constantly getting generated without falling into these billions too? As French critic Serge Daney once proposed: "a cliche is neither true nor false. It's an image that doesn't move, no longer makes anybody move and generates laziness." (SergeDaneyinEnglish) A convention at least allows for movement within the predictable, but the cliche insists that our responses must be immediate and obvious: there is no need to explain anything because we should all know what the cliche stands for. But if picture-thinking is the antithesis of the cliche it rests on the constant need to explain and explore the images that the film produces, which is why it can come from Chaplin or Bresson, Nicholas Ray or Andrei Tarkovsky. When in Chaplin's Modern Times, Charlie shows us his central character trying to adjust to factory production and becoming an automaton in everything he does, these are funny moments that audiences do indeed love and quickly comprehend, but that isn't the same as saying they are cliches. Even when others have drawn on such scenes in their own work it doesn't mean they are offering cliches either. In Woody Allen's Bananas exercise machines seem to be turning Woody into an automaton too, but like Charlie he is just too clumsy to adjust. In Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl, Gregory doesn't quite know what to do with the new-fangled kitchen gadgets and leaves the electric toothbrush rattling away on the table when he goes off to school. It is more that we see in each film a progression; that each stage of technology generates new gags within the convention of modern times. A cliche on the other hand would play up the ease of new technologies the way a phone might illustrate how cool and modish you are, a car possessing new gear control shows the man driving it self-satisfied, or a home illustrating how happy a couple is with their double glazing. A film determined to picture-make rather than cliche-make will take such images and turn them around, making of them a problem. The new gears might fail, leaving the driver to rely on basic know-how, the double glazing might point up anything from alienation to a person's screams that cannot now be heard. Obviously, this might generate no more than a generic countering to the advertorial, but our three comedic examples of technical know-how turned around, manage, at least in Chaplin and Forsyth's case, to create a properly framed perspective out of their approach.
Chaplin said he made Modern Times after an interview with a journalist. "Hearing that I was visiting Detroit, he had told me of the factory-belt system there - a harrowing story of big industry luring healthy young men off the farms who, after four or five years at the belt system, became nervous wrecks." (Charles Chaplin - My Autobiography) Forsyth, explaining why he chose to film Gregory's Girl in a Scottish New Town, says: "I suppose a number of reasons. In one sense it was a reaction against That Sinking Feeling which was the film that we made in the gritty, dirty end of Glasgow with unemployment in the late seventies. That was a more typical film in the way that Glasgow is or was portrayed in endless social documentaries and TV plays." Forsyth adds, "so it was a deliberate attempt to show the different face of Scotland or Glasgow, and Cumbernauld is a satellite of Glasgow. Another reason was because the film was about adolescence and about being young and the pains of growing. I thought to myself, why don't we set the film in an adolescent town? I remember saying to someone, 'Even the trees in Cumbernauld are teenagers, so everything fits.'" (The ArtsDesk.com) Whether it is Chaplin finding comedy in something close to tragedy (the destruction of young men's lives) or Forsyth discovering a properly adolescent environment for the story he wished to tell in a country that had too few stories of its own on screen, this is picture-framing as this properly framed perspective.
The best way to describe this is through something of a paradox: the form must be of paramount importance but only because of what needs to be said demanding of it a formal insistence. If the formal insistence becomes primary, and especially when it becomes foremost as an assumption that is not acknowledged then, no matter the subject, the material becomes subsumed to it. Though it might seem that nobody more than Alain Robbe-Grillet or the Straubs cared about form, we could argue that those most wedded and welded to it are filmmakers in contemporary mainstream entertainment filmmakers incapable of picture-thinking. To explain in more detail we can think of some comments Gilles Deleuze makes on montage in chapter 3 of The Movement-Image as the philosopher notes that "American montage is organico-active. It is wrong to criticise it as being subordinate to the narration; it is the reverse, for the narrativity flows from this conception of montage." Little has changed but circumstances have become worse: one can at least see in this organic montage Hollywood practiced both the birth of America and the birth of cinema. Griffith's A Birth of a Nation was an attempt (however problematic) to explore an America still in the making, and Griffith developed techniques to register this idea that the US was indeed god's own country. But the idea remained in the lower case, a set of assumptions about the nature of things rather than the consequence of certain historical forces. It is why, as Deleuze notes, Eisenstein could admire Griffith's abilities but could not accept his preconceptions. "While he fully acknowledged his debt to Griffith, Eisenstein nevertheless makes two objections." These reside in Griffith's obliviousness "to the fact that rich and poor are not given as independent phenomena, but are dependent on a single general cause, which is social exploitation..." and "for having conceived of its unity in a completely extrinsic way as a unity of collection, the gathering together of juxtaposed parts, and not as a unity of production." (The Movement-Image) As Eisenstein says: "our conception of montage has far outgrown the classic montage aesthetic of Griffith, symbolised by the two never convergent parallel racers, interweaving the thematically variegated strips with a view towards the mutual intensification of entertainment, tension and tempi." (Film Form) Eisenstein's work contains what Deleuze calls the Idea. Griffith 'merely' reflects an idea, but it is the idea that remains so strongly pertinent in most American entertainment (and which is now far from exclusive to the US even if American cinema constantly finds ways to add technological innovations to its processes). If we take a look at films such as Armageddon, Spiderman and War of the Worlds, we see the shot structure is more or less the same even if the stories are distinct and the special effects in different stages of advancement. A scene in Armageddon focuses on a father discovering a young man is sleeping with his daughter; in Spiderman our hero must tackle the damage being done by the Green Goblin, and in War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise witnesses the first signs of a Martian invasion. In each instance, we might wonder if the montage dictates the story rather than the other way round as though no matter the story (there is surely an enormous difference between a father discovering his daughter happens to be having sex, and Martians invading) the montage dictates. The films need cross-cutting conflict as if the US more broadly must acknowledge that everything is a battle, that what matters is not narrative resolution but the centrality of tension.
If Deleuze can note that what counts is the nature of the montage that refuses to be subordinate to narration, this is useful only if the montage serves an attempt to picture-make, to find a resource within the material that needn't reduce it to the story. But if one senses that the formal properties of the film are so paramount that any story it tells is reduced merely to a means of its representation, then nothing new can come out of film. It remains statically within its form, unable to find in its story a means by which to escape it. Let us think again of Modern Times and Gregory's Girl. In a scene two-thirds of the way through Chaplin's film, there is the famous moment when Charlie is trying to make sense of some new technology and his foreman gets caught in the gears of the machine. As Charlie tries to find a way of getting him out as the foreman is trapped in various cogs, so the siren goes for lunch. The machine grinds to a halt and Charlie can't work the leavers until the end of the break. The foreman is flat on his back with his head sticking out of the machine as Charlie tries to feed him and help him drink his coffee. The scene is a great example of burlesque intelligence if we see an aspect of burlesque residing in momentary innovation. When Deleuze reckons that "a very slight difference introduced into the object will induce opposable functions or opposed situations" (The Movement-Image) so we see Charlie finding ways in which to feed and water the foreman. First, he tries pouring the coffee directly before thinking an oil funnel might be helpful, only for the foreman to taste it in disgust. In the end, he feeds him through a roasted whole chicken, noticing that there is no reason why he can't pour it down the dead bird's head and out of its backside. Throughout, the film plays up the contrast between human innovation at its most basic (Charlie and the chicken), and human innovation at its most oppressive: the machinery of capitalism that destroys lives while ostensibly making them better. Chaplin, a master of burlesque form as Deleuze notes, finds a story equal to that mastery.
In Gregory's Girl, Forsyth utilises what we might call the humorousness of the anomalous. As a director, he is so often drawn to the unlikelihood of events as a means by which to generate the laughter. In Local Hero, the rich businessman finds it isn't monetary wealth that matters but the properties of our being in the wider natural world that needn't be reduced to real estate. In Comfort and Joy, the central character Dickie finds nothing more bracing than a good ice-cream gangster war to get an ex-girlfriend out of his mind. In Gregory's Girl, this anomalous aspect is played out in numerous manifestations but predicated chiefly on insisting that a New Town is a wonderful place to live. These new towns (Livingston, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld, Glenrothes and Irvine) were presented as Scottish urban ideals just as Fordism was likewise supposed to improve immensely the lives of millions of working-class Americans. Yet where Chaplin uses the burlesque to indicate how terrible such an 'improvement' can be, Forsyth slyly suggests they can be ideal places to live, as if determined to see in the project, not its perhaps inevitable failure but an odd type of success. Central character Gregory is as incompetent as Chaplin's hero, yet the film indicates his way of being in the world isn't so much innovative in the face of a horrible system, but eccentric in the easy way one can (dysfunction) in advanced capitalism. Rather than concentrating on the incipient Thatcher revolution (the film was made the year after she came to power) and the damage that was being done to Scottish industry, Forsyth instead muses over the idealistic idleness of the young and how they appropriate and amuse themselves with newer technologies, as we see when Gregory takes a late breakfast and mucks around with an electric tin opener and a fancy machine to make a juice. One may see this as a depoliticization yet it's more useful instead to see that, just like Chaplin, Forsyth wants an aestheticization to show not only what capitalism is capable of as a human nightmare, but what the human is capable of as progressive fantasy. It might be very useful indeed to find ways in which to undermine politically the neo-liberal model but Forsyth says it is no less useful to discover imaginative ways to live under it. This might not be an ideal solution but it is, if you like, an idealistic one: a means by which to cope with a system that has been designed to the detriment of many of the people living under it.
We can think again of Jameson's book on Hegel. "For the idealist then, images are presumably already part of Spirit in ways in which sense-impressions are not (or at least not obviously); or to put it another way, we do not bring to the exercise of picture-thinking the same kind of certainty which accompanies Verstand [the empirical]; the former is somehow fictional or imaginary, while the latter is legitimated by reference to external objects." (The Hegel Variations) For our purposes, there may be important things we can do empirically to change the world, but the artist's purpose is to understand that their world isn't the world but a world and must generate freedom within that. Whether it is Chaplin showing the grinding difficulties of Fordism against the little man trying to get by, or Forsyth showing Gregory luxuriating in a lazy acceptance of the gadget, both find a world within capitalism without merely accepting it or unimaginatively rejecting it. Reason (Vernunft) isn't so much respected as played with, evident in Deleuze's remarks about the burlesque: Chaplin and Forsyth take a detail and follow the logic of it in a certain direction. The foreman gets watered via a cooked chicken; Gregory will dawdle over breakfast as he uses the new gadgets to make up a fancy fruit cocktail drink.
Picture-thinking as we're defining it in cinematic terms comes when a filmmaker meets the world and the world is no longer as empirically strong as it seemed to be. However, this needn't mean the director foregoes reality and arrives at fantasy. That could lead to failure in a different direction. It is a challenge to the empirical not a rejection of it. Chaplin's interest in making Modern Times comes very much from the reality he was informed about; Forsyth's film needed a New Town setting. But when a filmmaker is too beholden to the subject, or too resistant to reality, picture-thinking doesn't quite form as the filmmaker respects too strongly the subject or doesn't find their own singularity in it and retreats into fantasy. If we reckon Spielberg's best film remains Jaws it rests on the tension between his need to attend to his own tangible anxieties with an interest in mistrust of governance that preoccupied so many in the wake of Watergate. But it also found a first principle, evident when Spielberg says: "when I first got involved in the project, the thing that terrified me most was the idea that there is something else out there; that has a digestive system with intake; and the whole idea of being on somebody else's menu was just an utterly horrifying thought. It was a horrifying thought to be part of a food chain..." ('Primal Scream')
We offer examples as varied and yet ostensibly as frivolous as Chaplin, Forsyth and Spielberg to make clear that our interest in the image, and in picture-thinking, needn't be remotely 'spiritual', in the sense of Tarkovsky or Bresson's work, that it needn't demand a combination of the cinematic and the theological. Such an approach is a very particular form of picture-thinking that might ostensibly seem more consistent with Hegel's interest in the aesthetic and the spiritual coming together, and of course Paul Schrader explored it (albeit without Hegel or any particular philosophical bolstering) in his important book that we have already invoked, Transcendental Style in Film. In it, he says: "throughout this essay there has been one persistent assumption: that the transcendental style is the proper method for conveying the Holy in film." Thus the difference we have seen Ranciere make between a TV game show and a Bresson doesn't reside in the Holy aspect of the latter and its complete absence in the former; that would be to create a very restrictive image indeed one which would ignore the examples we have given. Our take on picture-making consists of works where we believe ready sensation and insistent narration contain within them a problematic, one that means the film can easily many years later be rewatched without feeling there is little left because we already know the story, or because the sensational aspects seem ridiculous in light of new technological developments. Jaws works not due to the sensational impact of the now so obviously rubbery shark but due to the John Williams soundtrack and Spielberg and his team's editing and camerawork. Equally, the story doesn't only invoke the Watergate scandal as the mayor and co want to make light of the situation they find themselves in, but can also be seen to draw on Ibsen's Enemy of the People (as Neil Sinyard claims in The Films of Steven Spielberg), which in itself draws upon a problematic reality showing just how often power hides the truth in its determination to make money rather than practice honesty and justice. Spielberg may have believed he was making no more than entertainment, just as he thought he was making something monumental with Schindler's List, but picture-thinking is often paradoxical: the serious subject can lack the thematically residual while the apparent entertainment oddly possesses it. One may appear provocative claiming a more significant status for Jaws than Schindler's List, but let us look briefly at the way craft in the former seems to us more precise and illuminating than in the latter. In Jaws, there is the scene with local police officer Brody on the beach keeping an eye on the water, fearing an imminent shark attack. Throughout the sequence, Spielberg keeps the situation dense. There is a woman screaming in the water who turns out to have been dunked in the sea by her boyfriend, the man asking Brody about parking issues, the man's wife calling him. An old man comes over after going for a swim and says he notices Brody doesn't go into the sea. Brody's wife gives him a back massage as she claims he is very uptight. And so on, as the film offers a wide range of characters and techniques to convey the complexity of the situation Brody finds himself in. He wants to protect the locals, knows his superiors don't want to risk the tourist trade by closing the beach, and wonders whether he is just feeling a bit edgy. The attack takes place and Spielberg masterly gives us all the shots we need to convey both the awfulness of the incident, the problem this will create for Brody, and the grief that the mother feels when her son's yellow inflatable raft washes ashore deflated and tooth marked. It isn't just an action sequence requiring all the shots that define a given deed, like a driver crashing into a tree. The scene has at least two focal points as we worry with Brody and grieve with the mother. Whether it is the dolly zoom on Brody or the mother anxiously walking along the shore hoping that her son might still be alive, Spielberg shows in this instance not just a kinetic expertise but an emotional one too. We move from fretting with Brody to being bereft with the mother in a couple of minutes, while throughout Spielberg manages to convey the bustle of the beach.
By contrast, a vaguely similar scene in Schindler's List seems much more straightforward and less nuanced. Here the onlooker is Schindler, looking down from the hill with his secretary as the Jewish people in the ghetto are taken away or shot by the Nazis. The monochrome film constantly cuts back and forth between Schindler and the Jews below, focusing especially on a girl in a red coat, the one dash of colour in the sequence. We might think that Spielberg keeps things simple because he is concentrating on Schindler's viewpoint on events, but then near the end of the sequence, he changes focus and shows the little girl hiding in a house under the bed. There was no reason why Spielberg couldn't have offered a more logistically complex scene since he doesn't focus exclusively on what Schindler sees. The sequence like the one in Jaws starts on one character and ends on another but for all the manipulation involved in the former as a scare sequence, nevertheless, the emotional shot from one character to another is well-delineated as we're caught in the flux of a situation and have no problem with our focal point shifting from one character to another. In Schindler's List, it is much more manipulative because the sequence lacks Jaws's visual complexity, with Spielberg constantly cutting back to Schindler's concerned face, to the girl symbolically in red, and then makes us cower with her under the bed as it breaks its original limited perspective
Our point is that Jaws offers a much more worked out and worked through sequence even if the material might be apparently schlock. Schindler's List takes on the Holocaust and arrives at a far less complex moment of cinema. If picture-thinking acknowledges the variables at work, if it must find in the material its transcendent dimension, this has nothing to do necessarily with religious concerns, even if Jameson notes that we cannot easily separate this relationship between religion and culture. "Indeed, Hegel's notion of religion, in this final substantive chapter of the phenomenology, may be grasped as an attempt to conceptualize, in advance and in the form or a groping historical anticipation, the problematic of what we call culture in our own period, in the broadest anthropological or cultural studies sense of what organises daily life and interpolates and forms subjectivities." (The Hegel Variations)
If it happens to be true that we need to understand an aspect of culture as a question of values, seeing in religion the generation of a belief system as readily as a belief in a higher being, then what sort of films might constitute a culture in a manner that can "organise daily life and interpolates and forms subjectivities" as Jameson notes? It wouldn't be enough to draw on theologically inclined films from Bresson, Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Sokurov and a few others. It would be a narrow field indeed, next to the range of cinema available. But while we believe that the range can be broad (if it can incorporate early Spielberg, Chaplin and Forsyth) that doesn't mean it can be all-inclusive. Most images still do not picture-think, and even films that are very laboriously determined to carry meaning (as in Schindler's List) do so for us less imaginatively and complexly than apparently more trivial examples like Jaws and Gregory's Girl. It may be valid to say that picture-thinking at its most elaborate is evidenced in Bresson, Tarkovsky and others but this wouldn't be due to the seriousness of their purpose but how the form and content generate an intent that produces values rather than assumes them. Someone coming away from Schindler's List is unlikely to doubt the specifics of its message but what is the message of Bresson films like Balthazar, au hazard or L'argent?
We may have created for ourselves a few paradoxes too many: defending lighter films against weightier works while rejecting TV shows because they lack meaning while defending Bresson's world because unlike Spielberg's Holocaust film it isn't burdened with meaning. But most television has little intent beyond viewing figures; it is rare that TV commits to a show for years in advance, hoping that the audience will still be around by the end of it. We needn't pretend cinema is that different when it comes to making money but someone is unlikely to release a film an hour-long because they couldn't get funding for a two-hour film they wanted to make and they aren't likely to make a ten-hour one because there is more money available, though the sequel culture might be an exception to that rule. Yet it may say something about the integrity of a given film that sequels are merely seen as an exploitative cashing in rather than an expanding out. Who watches Jaws II or III? The Godfather II remains the film sequel that people acknowledge deepens the first film, but then fifteen years later along came the third part and even that claim had to be reassessed. Television shows seem to be made in such a way that they can absorb constant extension or accommodate sudden curtailment but this seems also to limit their intent. At the opposite extreme, a film like Schindler's List carries with it a contained, careful and determined meaning and craft that allows Spielberg to film more or less in monochrome and make a work almost four hours in length that will be very much respected as a complete object of praise and virtue. But if it seems to us a weaker film than Jaws it rests on a weaker sense of craft and underlying purpose. Watching the scene quoted from Jaws we see Spielberg's remark about humans being part of another's food chain given texture and meaning as the mother must see her son as no more, finally than a protein fix: the inflatable raft is punctured and uneaten, the equivalent of leaving bones on a plate, no matter the shark's often indiscriminate diet. Spielberg manages to be hugely manipulative in this scene but not at all sentimental; in Schindler's List, the scene shows the manipulative serving the sentimental. Its picture-thinking feels compromised in the opposite direction from 'mere' entertainment. If television often offers up empty sentimentality, Spielberg insists instead on worthy sentiment but it is still sentimental nevertheless. Jaws picture-thinks more successfully if we see as vital to picture-thinking the need to explore something with economy and deliberation, to make a claim without making a statement. Thus Jaws is more successful than Schindler's List.
In conclusion, we have tried to rescue the image of picture-thinking from existing exclusively in its most elevated state (though we wouldn't deny Bresson, Tarkovsky, Dreyer and Sokurov are all examples of its highest attainment), and/or in its most aesthetically evolved, as we find in Godard, Antonioni and Resnais, for example. We can see it too in numerous works indicating invention and craft applied to pertinent areas of enquiry. But we have also been resistant to works that suggest the most important element in the image is the subject matter behind it often many film works contain within them a ponderously explicit value system that modest craft justifies. We offer nothing new in this claim Pauline Kael wrote a well-known article many years ago on the intentions of Stanley Kramer on this point, concluding "in Kramer's work the artist's accuracy is missing. That is why he is so often congratulated for his intentions. Intentions, despite what schoolteachers say, are what we shouldn't have to think about in the arts...Kramer asks for congratulations on the size and importance of his unrealised aspirations...Stanley Kramer runs for office in the arts." (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) Spielberg making Schindler's List has far higher intentions than when making Jaws but the latter manages to offer complexity within its apparent entertainment remit greater than the former in its high-mindedness. Jaws elevates a schlock entertainment into a work of American art that doesn't completely embarrass itself in the face of Moby Dick; Schindler's List looks weak next to a reading of Primo Levi. In the nineties, with Schindler's List, Amistad and Saving Private Ryan Spielberg came a little too close to being the Stanley Kramer of his generation.
But, in conclusion, back to Jameson's breakdown of the three terms, 'picture-thinking' (Vorstellung), Vernunft (reason) and Verstand (the empirical), and his claim that "picture-thinking, however, emerges from the conviction that the absolutely true idea cannot be grasped by way of a picture, indeed that pictorial representation is a limitation of its content; picture-thinking thereby sublates the unity of intuition, destroys the unity of the picture and its meanings and lifts the latter up for itself." (The Hegel Variations) Picture-thinking in this sense is representation and Hegel makes clear the limits of it: that what lies behind representation is what matters but that picture-thinking can bring into being what remains somehow in being and not just in the world. As Rodowick says, quoting Hegel, as an object of theoretical consideration, "the work of art stands in the middle between immediate sensuousness and ideal thought. It is not yet pure thought but, despite its sensuousness, is no longer a purely material existent either...; on the contrary, the sensuous in the work of art is itself something ideal, but which, not being ideal as thought is ideal, is still at the same time externally there as a thing." (Elegy for Theory) If one believes there is no idea behind the thing, then we have empty representation and few can doubt that Ranciere is right to say that there is an enormous difference between a TV quiz show and a Bresson film. Both are on television, both use audio-vision, both are credited with a director and a technical crew. Both may even use in a strict sense non-professionals whether quiz show guests trying to answer a question or Bresson 'Models' trying to master lines. But that difference is enormous because the TV show has no interest in an 'idea' while Bresson's work cannot easily be comprehended without either an understanding of certain ideas (a Catholic existential tradition of which he is a part) or at least with a need to impose an idea upon the film.
Yet this is the easy bit few would be inclined to disagree on that point. But when we might also wish if not to dismiss but at least question even television shows that are much more developed and dramatic than a quiz show (as people name series like The Wire, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos) many will no doubt start to disagree. And if one were to add to these example films like Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan and Amistad, wondering whether or not they are capable of picture-thinking, it will make our argument even more suspect still. How can we include Modern Times, Gregory's Girl and Jaws and not include Spielberg's three 'serious' nineties films and some of the most acclaimed television shows? We would say no more than that we sense the 'idea' behind the film or show is too weak, its aesthetic organisation overdeveloped for the purposes of sensation or narration, or underpinned by a value system that is too given, too assured. We cannot pretend that such a position offered here won't be dismissed as 'subjective' but that needn't be perceived as a pejorative claim but an invitation to justify that 'subjectivity' which searches out the idea behind the material. Each person can find their own justification for 'picture -thinking' even if surely some arguments will inevitably be much stronger than others.
© Tony McKibbin