Monday, April 24, 2006

Brenez and the Cinematic Image

Nicole Brenez, "The Ultimate Journey":

"Theoreticians, like cineastes, base a part of their meditation (written or filmed) on two common premises which [Vachel] Lindsay argued at the edge of cinema theory: the idea that film, because it does not imitate a referent but allows it to come forth from the real, can eventually provide the world; and the corollary that an image is not a plastic phantom but a dynamic principle endowed with the powers that demand to be deployed and reflected. From that spring the three axes of theorisation which seem to me to have been of major significance through this decade: work on the powers of the image, on the figurability of the subject, and on the thinkable relations between the cinematograph and history."

Trying to fully understand Brenez at her most abstract can be a real challenge, and only after years of reading her am I starting to feel comfortable appropriating a few of her ideas for myself. This paragraph I've read several times before, however, about what has moved her during a certain period of contemporary film theory (and its historical precendents), this time seemed like a real gold mine of an 'entry point' for a reader of her work. I'd like to unpack a few of the things she says as I understand them and explain why I find them productive.


1) 'Film does not imitate a referent but allows it to come forth from the real and can eventually provide the world'
Many people talk about images as though they are fundamentally likenesses. (In his Iconology, this is how WJT Mitchell writes about it...) I would suggest that the image is its own clear 'action,' 'event,' 'happening,' 'being,' 'becoming,' whatever. The referents to which (some) images bear likenesses are "allowed to come forth" from the real by association with the imagistic enunciation, and it is this imaginative-psychic faculty (not simply representational correlation) that allows reality's profound connection to images. (The presentation of an image, perhaps, is not to create a noun but to perform a verb?) Images are the constant reverberant echo of their first moment of enunciation. To me, Brenez's call is one that recognizes that even utter non-likenesses are 'images,' which isn't to say that this is the one true denotation or connotation for the word, but that it is perhaps the most productive. Insofar as I am personally interested in the possibilities and properties of images, Rothko also gives us images. Ornamental tile mosaic: image. A letter or a pictogram: images. Furthermore, this conception might get us into a territory where the photographic possibilities of the cinema are not reproduced as essential properties of the cinema.

2) 'An image is not a plastic phantom but a dynamic principle endowed with powers that demand to be deployed and reflected'
The 'corollary' to the above--that images are not simply representations of the real (a 'plastic phantom' of it painted onto canvas, projected onto screen, printed onto page, digitally presented on a monitor...) but that they are actions ('dynamic principle') that call forth a complex set of individual and social effects in their real, material, historical presence ('powers that demand to be deployed and reflected').


a) powers of the image: what can an image do (to one or many viewers), what are the limits of what it is able to represent, what can it express, what can it embody and be? What are beauty and/or sublimity in an image? What are the effects, the consequences, of an image?

b) figurability of the subject: how does the subject manifest itself on-screen, in images? What is its philosophical genealogy? How does cinema 'configure' a subject--one who acts (Deleuzian classicism) or watches (Deleuzian modernism), a subject who represents a quality or quest (the conventionalized narrative character), a subject which edxists only in a social totality of individual-fragments (Renoir's Rules of the Game and Godard's Prénom: Carmen, pace Fredric Jameson), a subject without fictions but existent in the space between the plastic-projected film and a seat in the cinema (much avant-garde work; a component of Brechtian or otherwise direct forms of cinematic address: the Straubs, Rouch).

c) relations between the cinematograph and history: what are the material practices which make the cinematograph (as that generic instrument-name for moving image-making) what it is, what it has been? How do specific technologies and/or physical properties inhibit or encourage various practices (e.g., how might portability--thus mobility--affect what and how we film)? How do people see these images (not just 'movies,' but all manner of cinematic or semi-cinematic appearances)? How are people made to see some of these images? What roles do the images have in relating the past (and their own past) to the audiences of a present?

What is the ultimate significance of all this? Well for me, the idea that an image (and an image in time) is not simply a thing but very much an event, an action, opens up a whole new space to think about the films and videos I watch. One of the things I actually agreed with in David Bordwell's recently blog-discussed "Against Insight" article in Cinema-Scope is that there is indeed a severe limitation on the widespread idea that "there is a Zeitgeist, and films reflect it." Films also help produce the Zeitgeist, they act out minute strands of its flow through history, the image of (for example) a civilian war casualty isn't only a window onto real horror, a record, but a propulsion into some visual-informational sphere or another a piece of rhetoric--perhaps sometimes a very complex rhetoric. The same characteristics that can give images great, enjoyable freedoms are what can allow them be employed in a number of devious ways as propaganda, as lies. Images don't just "sit around," as soon as they exist they are pushed into employment in social reality. I'm feeling more and more strongly that to deal with images--and to deal with cinema--means dealing with its uses, effects, and consequences not because these things have "meaning" or that "content" is somehow more important than "form," but because no images exist without some kind of material entrenchment.

What I'm seeking--what I'm still striving to cultivate in myself--is a dynamic and balanced integration of various 'modes' of analysis , so that if I watch a DVD of a film, I can discuss the work as a rich text with an exegetical potential (a treatise), the film's historical place upon its time of release (its social function: an argument), my real-time engagement with the work (experience), and also the fact that I am watching this film on a digital reproduction (which is both argument & experience). Readers who find these issues interesting may want to read a previous entry I wrote on these issues at Argument, Treatise, Experience.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Out 1: Spectre

Unfortunately I can't offer the greatest report of Rivette's shorter and slightly less incredibly-rare version of Out 1, which enjoys three screenings this weekend at Anthology Film Archives. (As I start typing this, at tonight's showing the first of the reels--which run 40-50 minutes apiece according to Dan Sallitt's watch--should be winding down.) First things first: the print, while pretty worn, is hardly a travesty. It's pink, but watchable. What is a travesty is the fact that this film only has a single English-subtitled print known to exist.

I had gotten up a little early on Saturday morning (look at the post time for my 'Notes on Borowczyk'--that's when I started writing), and after a long day in miserable weather, and 9 or 10pm began to feel more like past midnight. Rivette's leisurely improvisational project just didn't get my best viewership, and though I don't know that I'd call the film a masterpiece, I'm quite certain that it's a worthy film whose worthiness I only partly grasped. (One could make a joke at Rivette's expense, maybe call his work boring and my giving it the benefit of a doubt authorial fanboyism, but let it be known that a few weeks ago I actually had to turn off my DVD of Cronenberg's Scanners--a film I like, and one with plenty of base "entertainment" value--with maybe 15 minutes left to go. Because I was similarly exhausted at an early hour. Seasonal allergies can do this to people!)

One of the most interesting things I came away with from the film was triggered by a comment that Dan made between reel changes about how Rivette and Rohmer both make a lot of films about characters trying to figure out some big truth. The major difference as I see it, however, is that Rohmer's characters are searching for what we might simplistically call a 'center,' a stable something that might dictate moral or ethical behavior. Rivette is interested in esoteric knowledge and its presence on the fringes of everyday life: he's both gnostic and skeptic (we might say he's skeptical by virtue first of his fascination with performance & improvisation, and his relative disinterest in "naturalism" or psychology) whereas Rohmer's approach speaks of his much more historically old-fashioned (i.e., conservative) ideas about society & truth. Where we go from there, testing and challenging and unpacking this observation/supposition, well, I'm not sure ... but I thought I'd throw it out there.

Mr. Clayfield, too bad you couldn't have been here to see the film. But we still have Noli me tangere to look forward to ...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Notes on Borowczyk

I have just not been watching very much or writing very much these past few weeks, but as I was going through files on my computer I came across some notes I wrote months back on two films by the late Walerian Borowczyk: La Marge (1976) and Blanche (1971). Here they are, mostly unaltered and unedited from when I wrote them. Beware that there are spoilers for La Marge, though it's not exactly a suspenseful film ...

* * *

The generic erotic film can be transformed through distanciation techniques which foreground the artificiality of moralistic trappings. In La Marge the topos of the Sinful City finds itself abstracted and strained into something new.

In the opening scenes the viewer is given every indication that the protagonist, Sigimond Pons (Joe Dallesandro) is happy with his domestic life: a beautiful young wife and child in a country house. He gives to his wife various declarations of love in a handful of scenes, all appearing genuine enough. But business compels Sigimond to travel to Paris, and once there, he casually enters an affair with a prostitute, Diana (Sylvia Kristel). This unfaithful excursion is handled obliquely, with no character psychology or progression to cushion it, and as such the transition from marital fidelity to urban polyamory, from country to city, comes off as a rupture. This is our first clue that the film is doing something different, and valuable, with respect to the conventions and expectations of the erotic story structure. [ ... some general spoilers begin here and continue throughout the writing on La Marge! ... ] For later in the film, when news arrives of the deaths of both Sigimond's wife and his son, the moment is contemplative rather than mournful, lyrically matter-of-fact rather than tragic.

Thematically the city is a place of sin, lust, infidelity, mystery, commerce, even perversion: a familiar mix. But tonally--and I would argue textually--the city is simply an alternate location, and as such inspires alternate "needs" and "wants" than the country. The arbitrary production of desire that leads Dallesandro towards infidelity is an answer to the question produced by the social environment of the city; equally arbitrary, even nonsensical, the film suggests, is the moralistic punishment via loss of family that results in the story (i.e., the letters from the maid to Sigimond at film's end). In other words, the usual moralistic underpinnings which would 'punish' aren't given by Borowczyk the concomitant moralistic-psychologistic execution. This film tells a story about temptation and punishment, but its way of connecting the causal dots is one big skeptical shrug.

So this film takes the topos of the "sin city" and, through magnification, renders its underlying moralistic mechanism visible, palpable. There are two abrupt "nonsenses" which signify the critical (rather than generic) nature of the film: first Joe's excursion into infidelity, the other is the death of his family (punishment). Psychology, these treatments make no sense. Their generic requirement is pushed out into the open.

These are "nonsenses" because, in the first instance, the film elides clear character psychology (there is no gradual temptation, no rhetoric of the downfall of the country bumpkin); in the second instance, because the off-screen deaths come as a deus ex surprise rather than as a machinated progression. The deaths are treated (by the film's matter-of-factness, and in this way through Dallesandro, too) stoically rather than tragically: pondered rather than mourned.

By affecting this tone to the "sin city" trajectory, the film pulls back from the moralism and clings instead to the emotions instilled in the chain of events. La Marge captures something about the stupid, terrifying, ineffable, unfair, predictable structure of experiential life. This is also why it is so resolutely a physical film, so tied to the materiality of objects, bodies, furniture, rooms (and at least a cursory comparison to Bresson is anything but unwarranted). These are the things that stand out in the face of tragedy: the film is a lyrical reminder of that most obvious proposition of all, the immanence of the material world.

* * *

Blanche is a narrative with a passive female at its center, but the mechanisms which ensure her passivity are precisely what the film examines, and they are stylized so as to deny any semblance of illusion as to their naturalism or necessity.

Every performance in the film is great because of the total lack of self-consciousness on the part of each player, though the actors are asked (or allowed) by Borowczyk to do very different things: the great old Michel Simon to bluster about a bit, to wear his age and indignity heavily on his shoulders; the divine Ligia Branice to reflect the broken glass of the narrative around her in her luminous white face and eyes; the two youths to be relatively stolid like Bressonian models.

An image of Blanche emerging naked from her bath is one of the first in the film, and it's a brief, casual flash that marks Borowczyk's aesthetic: he's very interested in glimpses, periphery, esoterica, transience--all that which gets pushed to the margins and washed over in the continuum of time and space. More on this later.

Boro's sense of space and editing is peculiar and highly individual (I'm not sure where he'd fit in Deleuze's taxonomy). He begins with a number of close-ups and closed-in framings, but ends up cutting (arhythmically?) to 'establishment shots' in which the story gets going. The composition for much of the story is flat, laid out like medieval tapestry. (Perhaps I should go into more detail about differences in space in medieval and renaissance space, and visual cultures in general? Mention Boro's use of period instruments? His love of aura and craftsmanship?) Borowczyk seems to love to cut on camera movement.

Blanche herself is a bit of a cipher, but the film enables us to see how and why this is so. Every attempt she makes to assert herself in some minor way (usually to protect a male whose suspected affections have aroused Simon's jealousy) is generally ignored. The film's stylization shows the utter theatricality of the men's treatment of Blanche, and whether it's dashingly chivalric or hideously patriarchal, it is rooted in the same source, the same drive towards idealization-possession of Blanche/women.

Onto the glimpses, or 'that which gets pushed to the margins of space and time.' Borowczyk is in many ways an Artisan in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Oh, not totally--he's not trying to turn his films into distinct and unique material works which have an aura. But he's trying to smuggle into this Age some of the values and objects which are from the time and place of auras. This is why Borowczyk is (can be) a supremely erotic filmmaker, not only a sensual one--because he understands the charge that can result from something rare, something denied, something swift, something precious; more than recreating a 'passing fancy,' he understands the appeal of one's fancy as it is in the passing. This is why there are so many quick but extravagant, lush, complex, shocking shots in Borowczyk's cinema. By articulating through film language this glimpse of something that cannot be ascertained easily, he is doing two things at once, one of which looks toward the past (because he is trying to capture and have resonate for the viewers something special, momentary, and unique, as objects and moments and people at one time were, and seemed, thus) and the other of which looks toward the future (because he is imagining things at least partly in a pre-capitalist mindset, which is to say a non-capitalist mindset: where something is not a commodity available to one who pays, but an experience that might touch and few and cannot be bought). Borowczyk is trying to remind us of the nature of the material and economic world, its very constructedness, by obliquely referring us to its alternatives, its precursors, and thus signifying its own limits.

I suppose it would be a great defiance of Borowczk's art if for example a "raincoat" viewer were to watch Blanche (or Love Rites, or La Marge ...) on video and pause or rewind during the erotic scenes. The moment is supposed to have passed; the glimpse is supposed to have been special.


That's all I've got.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


First off, I know I haven't been posting much lately (though when I do, it's incredibly long-winded). Spring allergies have just taken the life out of me, and though I've gotten over the worst of it--I think--I still don't have a whole lot of energy. I've felt very passive and vegetative lately--and this is not consonant with my new year's resolutions. I've watched almost no movies thus far in the month of April (though I have seen several episodes of The L Word on DVD ... maybe that will be a blog entry for the future).

I do have a question for my readers: let's say one keeps a blog, and one also publishes a piece of film writing. The sort of film writing that has footnotes. If one uses ideas one has already expressed in a blog entry, is there some protocol for citation? A prefatory note? Something? I'm finding that some things I blogged a while back have actually been useful for things I'm writing now, but I'm not entirely sure how to incorporate them ...

And, honestly, I have a second question for readers: has anyone read Mary Ann Doane's The Emergence of Cinematic Time? Any opinions?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Before the Looming End

I have tried very hard, several times, to write about Linklater's Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. Unfortunately I'm still not able to sculpt the highly emotional content of my relationship to them into something intelligible & usable for other people. I do have a certain amount of notes on these films; I do have material I can use. What I don't yet have is a writer's critical engagement (whether "critical distance" or "critical intimacy," pace some recent Sontag discussion). Consider this a 'coming attraction' for a long piece I will write ... eventually. Hopefully soon.

I will at least offer one pretty basic observation, the gist of which pleases me. At first, Celine is a romantic and perhaps even a mystical believer (she believes in love; she believes in reincarnation) and Jesse is a skeptic, a bit of a pessimist. By the second film, Celine is more world-weary, she comes across as the pragmatist and the agnostic; Jesse has softened into a romantic, himself. These aren't reversals of character: they remain "believable," they are evolutionary, developmental. But why the developments? Over the intervening nine years from their first meeting their daily mundane realities--their very personalities--have been marked by their profound subconscious yearnings into the ideal images each has of the other--which have no doubt manifested themselves in countless tantalizing dreams (cf. Waking Life).

P.S. If one goes here one can read an article on the two films by an esteemed reader of Elusive Lucidity (though that's of course the very least of his descriptors!) ...

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Truth & Fiction

An Associated Press article, written by one Allen G. Breed, caught my eye. Read the first lines, which opine that the case "seems to fit the stereotypes so perfectly" (my emphasis). Two black women were paid to strip at a party for Duke's lacrosse team (mostly white), though one, the alleged rape victim, asserts that they thought they'd be dancing for a small group of people and did not expect forty men. The police have stated that medical evidence supports the woman's claim, not to mention broken fingernails, cash, and other belongings being found at the Duke University-owned house where the party and alleged rape took place. At least one eyewitness (the lacrosse team's next door neighbor) attests to at least a certain amount of conflict between the woman and the partiers, though his witness is only of verbal assaults. At any rate, this rape accusation seems quite credible even if a thorough investigation were hypothetically to disprove it. Despite this credibility, this AP article rhetorically dances about in trying to paint an objective picture of "conflict" in race and class in Durham, North Carolina.

The only "evidence" that Mr. Breed puts forth in this "dilemma" is assertions by the lacrosse team and members of the local population who support the team (mostly white, it appears). "It's so easy to see the incident ... in terms of powerlessness and privilege, town and gown, black and white. Many on campus and in the streets of this gritty working-class vertex of the famed Research Triangle are framing it just that way. But not everybody is comfortable with that." Obviously, I don't know what happened this night a few weeks ago, and if the accused are innocent I hope they're absolved. But what bothers me about this specific article (and not, say, three more balanced ones put out by the NYTimes--here, here, and here) is how heavily it stacks the deck against the black woman and the black community, as though they were on trial for being too resentful from their oppressed past, against their more privileged white neighbors--resentful enough, in the case of the accuser, to fabricate accusations. A black woman "sobs with impotent rage" when she reports racial slurs in her neighborhood; some people still refer to the University as "the plantation"--as though they're just unable to "let go" and are consequently oversensitive when white people might go just a tad too far.

Meanwhile, as I said, this article offers zero evidence that would bolster the case of Duke's lacrosse team. Only self-defense and cant from the team itself and those who sympathize with them. Nothing mentioned in their corner that would act as counterweight to the accuser's physical evidence of sexual assault and the evidence of at least some level of conflict at the party that night. The article tries to manufacture a tortured social and moral dilemma out of something that does not appear to be such. Certainly, we should not rush to judgment of the lacrosse players; but this is a journalistic case that goes well beyond the principle of 'innocent until proven guilty.' Allen G. Breed's bedrock assumption here is that it just seems too easy for this accusation to be credible. White privilege enacting sexual violence upon a member of a poor black population? It's just a little played-out, right? Of course--Roots did it better anyway! As though a woman's claim of rape victimhood were not subject to forensic investigation and juridical deliberation so much as narrative-aesthetic evaluation. "There's more than meets the eye," one white Durham local asserts in the article, though this elusive "more" stinks of a canard to me, based on what I've read. If there's more evidence that suggests this allegation really is a very complex one and that the lacrosse players may all be quite innocent, why don't articles actually mention this evidence? We have otherwise only assertions, and for now it seems that the word of privileged white college athletes is still worth at least as much as the word of a black woman and preliminary forensic evidence and eyewitness testimony. Or is it "too easy" to point that out?

Critiquing a fiction for presenting "too easy" a statement is one thing; dismissing or casting dubious aspersions on a real-life allegation because it, too, simply seems "too easy" is a sign of an ethical lapse on a societal scale. Why is it so difficult to believe that in 2006, privileged white male groupthink can still deal a vicious blow to a poor black woman? We can critique fiction, and art, for being "too easy" because we presumably can still maintain some moral clarity in real life. A film or novel that simply narrates an elementary historical injustice and asks us to feel upset about it should be insulting precisely because we already know this, and are already upset by it. And yet: apparently not all of us are so upset. Can I really allow myself the indignance I feel when so many of my fellow whites assume that racism is a thing of the past?

One reads the occasional article about the "CSI effect," whereby prosecutors are finding it more difficult to get convictions because TV-watching jurors want to be swayed by high-tech forensics. The mindset betrayed by this AP article seems to me to be related. We are subordinating material, historical reality to the aesthetic demands of our pop culture. Two relevant references from two of the twentieth century's great figures of literary theory come to mind here. Walter Benjamin, in his most famous essay, wrote that "[Mankind's] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic." Meanwhile, Roland Barthes wrote (in what might be my favorite essay of his that I've read, "Dominici, or the Triumph of Literature") of accused murderer Gaston Dominici, who was defeated by a Justice that "took the mask of Realist literature"--according to Barthes, prosecutors spoke to give the provincial Dominici a "credible psychology" which "explained" his alleged actions, thus convicting him in what Barthes might have characterized as a dual act of jurisprudence and literary criticism.

If the alleged victim is, for some reason, lying or withholding information, then I hope she's revealed. If the lacrosse players are all basically telling the truth, I hope they make it out of this unscathed. But from where things stand, and from my perspective, some of the media are not giving this black woman a fair shake. Her victimhood or their innocence are the paramount issues; but what interests me further though is the media rhetoric that surrounds this situation and which may or may not correspond to actuality. I hope that further coverage doesn't come off like this AP article. Consider this my gesture of support (however feeble) for both of the black women's rights and their voices.

Finally: a few links - Justice 4 Two Sisters (blog) and Alas, a blog (round-up of links).