Monday, February 06, 2012

The Myth of Film Language

Sometimes in order to clarify things for oneself it's good to go through old problems and old arguments.

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“Hitchcock said this to Truffaut back in the day. You know, when they scream in that shower they’re screaming in Tokyo the same way they’re screaming in Paris. It isn’t the language that’s making them scream. It’s not the words, man. It’s the pure cinema that is effective. And when you’re speaking with the images, and you’re putting those images together, they way they’re supposed to be put together, then you’re speaking the language. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Serbia, or in a fucking igloo with Eskimos. You’re speaking that one universal language, and that’s the language of the cinema. And that’s holy.” (Abel Ferrara)

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Let us leave aside, first, the nagging problem of the aptness of metaphor.  (Or even the literality of the choice of language to denote what cinema does.)  Can we really call film "a language," or say that it has one?  Is "language" the appropriate word?  Those questions are not quite what I want to consider for a moment.  For even if one thinks of the language in "the language of film" as only a tentative, working solution, there is still something at the heart of the connection - the thing which this metaphor would seek to name.

The idea that cinema equates to stories is not an opinion that holds any weight here.  It is obviously false to anyone who has actually bothered to see a little cinema.  But what about the idea that the representational film, at least, embodies a certain potential for grammar?  (There we go, with "grammar" - another word whose metaphorical appropriateness will raise questions.)  What about the loved (or dreaded) system of continuity editing for instance, as described by Bordwell & Thompson?  If we look at wordless narrative films, even - like Murnau's The Last Laugh or Cavalier's Libera Me - might we not recognize some kernel of truth to this idea, that the cinema operates on a register which we can liken to language?  However problematically?  The idea that cinema could be or have its own language is a positive expression of the negative claim that cinema requires no other language to complete or complement it.

If there is, in fact, language of film it can only and always be provisional and conditional.  One could suggest that each great work of cinema, or each great author, creates its own language - but to posit this is then to retreat away from the universalism, the barrier-crossing potential of film language itself, as a larger category.  We'd then be talking about cinematic Esperanto at best (of which countless examples would come forth), and some of the problems presented by a private language at least.

Maybe cinema both does and does not require other language.  It does not in the sense that one can produce representational cinematic works which  have no "words" in them.  But it does in that cinema is screened for people who themselves have words, and is made by people who have words.  A discursive dimension imbues all cinema with life and is, in fact, what works against the otherwise.  There is no cinema purely of words, just as there is no cinema purely of senses, or of any other oppositional term.  (And indeed to think of them in such terms does require the constitutive or at least mediating presence of words themselves.)  In Claude Faraldo's wordless Themroc, the conceit of a being (being-socially) without language is expressed amidst the decay (destructive and pleasurable, both) of conditions of society. 

And the cinephile's devotion to the language of cinema is also a kind of fantasy.  Such a cinephile professes faith in the idea that the language she does not have is a language that is inessential.  Likewise, the connoisseurship of this cinephile is the central category of appreciation ... from which all contestation about meaning enters a circuit of a purely cinematic exegesis.  I am unconvinced, though, that the words elsewhere and the words otherwise are extraneous or can be neatly bracketed.

From what else would we bracket off "the film" than the very world ...

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"In a certain way contemporary cinephilia is a cult of the universal surface, one of whose most potent expressions is a particular cinephile practice: Watching films without subtitles including films in languages one doesn't have the slightest clue about (for practical purposes we'll just ignore the problem of dubbing). This practice, cinephilia-mythology-wise, originates with Henri Langlois and his legendary programming dogma of showing everything in its as original state as possible and in the way it's easiest available which quite often meant prints without subtitels. Being close in time to the late silent era also meant a greater general acceptance of the concept of cinema as an art of self-explanatory moving images, meaning that films would generally make themselves understood more through images than through words. Another cinephilia-myth tells of the Nouvelle Vague'ians' problems with English which lead them to look more closely at the pictures and 'feel' their way into the film as they weren't quite able to follow the dialogue. The concept of mise-en-scene has also quite a lot to do with enabling the viewer to make sense of a film without the need to understand its language -- as Rivette had it, polemically: The language one needed to understand in order to appreciate Mizoguchi was not Japanese but mise-en-scene. Personally and equally polemically speaking I think this is utter bullshit but I appreciate the noble sentiment motivating it: the Utopia of an universal language, an Esperanto of the mechano-objectively observed world.

"The problem is: A cinephilia based on the idea/ideal of mise-en-scene is only able to describe a film's 'secondary reality' which is the surface itself ie it can only make 'abstract humanist' sense of the images and sounds and rythms -- its 'primary reality' which is the film's essence in its cultural conditions gets lost, and with it all possibillities for mistakes and misunderstandings, per Goethe the only things that unite mankind." (Olaf Möller, "We Come from Afar and We Will Go Further")


mike said...

Hey Zach,

Great post, as always...

I was wondering if you agree that a film's 'primary reality' is as Möller puts it, "the film's essence in its cultural conditions."

How does this take precedence over 'the surface' itself?

This feels like a first year film student question. I apologize in advance. If you'd like to refer me to literature, I'd be glad to take your recommendations.

Thanks for posting.

Zach Campbell said...

Hi Mike,

A lot of OM's fellow critics might balk and consign what he calls 'primary reality' to 'cultural context.' (And this will set upon its own path for discussion, see Girish's blog recently.) But if I understand Möller correctly, he's making a simple materialist point. A Mizoguchi film (e.g.) is not self-contained first, and a product of/within Japanese culture, industry, history, etc., second ... but rather, the object is necessarily produced in concrete time and space and social relations. And when we either lose or ignore some of these material facts, we do so at our peril.

The 'surface' of the film might arrive to us as, seemingly, a primary reality. But I think Möller is trying to address the larger politics of circulation, publicity, global inequalities that structure the ways in which some films come to some audiences as pure. And yet we never do come to films, or any cultural objects, "pure" or "cold," or "without language." (Some art can do really beautiful and amazing and revelatory things in the quest for this kind of purity, e.g. Brakhage, but I don't believe it exists, myself.) And so, as a way of stabilizing the variations in our own knowledge before objects, we resort to the level of phenomenology.

So one could argue that what Möller calls 'secondary reality' - or the surface of a film - is in fact primary, if one were to give the experiental/phenomenological register of art priority. But I think the argument against this prioritization is that we only ever do this selectively, and it's generally as a cover-up over our own ignorance (and it doesn't matter if this ignorance is our own "fault" - this isn't, first, a moralizing argument). So Möller's point, which I think I do agree with, attempts to understand better and more deeply how we engage with the films we encounter.

I think that the idea of the 'surface of the film' as a 'primary reality' is like an N-th generation video dub of certain older ideas, like l'art pour l'art and New Criticism. At the same time, this doesn't mean that the surface is unimportant, especially not for the cinephile or the connoisseur. (Though maybe connoisseurship is less important in the big scheme of things than connoisseurs would like to believe...) But to say that it is important is different than saying it is primary or, morever, the paramount feature of a film. It's a matter of precedence or essence, and what one recognizes as having it, I guess.

mike said...

Hey Zach,

Just dropping a note to say thanks for your reply. I have read it more than few times, and I am now left with even more difficult questions to grapple with.

Time to dust off and read some books.


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