Mysteries of cinema : reflections on film theory, history and culture, 1982-2016 9789462986831, 9462986835

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Mysteries of cinema : reflections on film theory, history and culture, 1982-2016
 9789462986831, 9462986835

Table of contents :
PART I[-]LETTERS OF INTRODUCTION[-]1. Retying the Threads [-]2. The Path and the Passeur [-]3. That Summer Feeling [-][-]PART II[-]SCENOGRAPHIES[-][-]4. Scenes [-]5. Wishful Thinking [-]6. Entities and Energies [-]7. Entranced [-][-]PART III[-]A CINEPHILE IN AUSTRALIA[-]8. No Flowers for the Cinephile: The Fates of Cultural Populism [-][-]PART IV[-]THE LYRICAL IMPULSE[-]9. Refractory Characters, Shards of Time and Space [-]10. The Trouble with Fiction [-]11. Ball of Fire: The Mysteries [-]12. The Ever-Tested Limit: Cinematic Apparitions [-]13. Delirious Enchantment [-][-]PART V[-]GENRE GAMES[-][-]14. Mr Big: Gangsters and Power [-]15. Unlawful Entries: Anatomy of a Film Cycle [-]16. Lady, Beware: Paths of the Female Gothic [-]17. Live to Tell: Teen Movies Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow [-]18. In the Mood for (Something Like) Love [-]19. Shivers, Surprise and Discomfort: Sadism and Sublimation in Contemporary Cinema [-][-]PART VI[-]INTERVENTIONS[-]20. Making a Bad Script Worse: The Curse of the Scriptwriting Manual [-]21. The Offended Critic: Film Reviewing and Social Commentary [-]22. Wild Psychoanalysis of a Precarious, Unstable Reality [-][-]PART VII[-]ENVOI [-]23. No Direction Home: Creative Criticism [-]24. Farewells, Full Circles and Ellipses [-]25. My Back Pages [-]26. The File We Accompany, with Cristina lvarez L pez [-]Notes [-]Sources of Texts [-]Index

Citation preview


Mysteries of


Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016 adrian martin

Mysteries of Cinema

Mysteries of Cinema Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016

Adrian Martin

Amsterdam University Press

Cover illustration: Within the Light (2017) by Vicky Mousoulis Cover design: Kok Korpershoek, Amsterdam Lay-out: Crius Group, Hulshout 978 94 6298 683 1 isbn e-isbn 978 90 4853 820 1 doi 10.5117/9789462986831 nur 670 © A. Martin / Amsterdam University Press B.V., Amsterdam 2018 All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this book may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the written permission of both the copyright owner and the author of the book.

para Cristina, mi angelita

Table of Contents

Part I  Letters of Introduction 1. Retying the Threads 2. The Path and the Passeur 3. That Summer Feeling

13 29 33

Part II  Scenographies 4. Scenes 5. Wishful Thinking 6. Entities and Energies 7. Entranced

41 51 63 79

Part III  A Cinephile in Australia 8. No Flowers for the Cinephile


Part IV  The Lyrical Impulse

9. Refractory Characters, Shards of Time and Space 10. The Trouble with Fiction 11. Ball of Fire 12. The Ever-Tested Limit 13. Delirious Enchantment

139 157 173 193 223

Part V  Genre Games

14. Mr Big 15. Unlawful Entries 16. Lady, Beware 17. Live to Tell 18. In the Mood For (Something Like) Love 19. Shivers, Surprise and Discomfort

243 265 277 291 301 311

Part VI  Interventions

20. Making a Bad Script Worse 21. The Offended Critic 22. Wild Psychoanalysis of a Vicarious, Unstable Reality

329 339 355

Part VII  Envoi

23. No Direction Home 24. Farewells, Full Circles and Ellipses 25. My Back Pages 26. The File We Accompany

365 371 377 385

Sources of Texts 413 Index 417

I don’t believe in the influence of one form of expression on another: painting on literature, sculpture or architecture on music, etc. There is simply an aptitude for one form or other, and the predominance of a certain orientation. So don’t ask me about the influence of cinema on writing. Rather, ask me about the influence of cinema on behaviour: that’s real. Modern love directly flows from cinema, and by cinema I mean not only the spectacle on screen, but also the theatre itself, the artificial night. – Robert Desnos, response to an inquiry on “Literature, Modern Thought and Cinema”, Les Cahiers du mois, no. 16/17 (1925), reprinted in Desnos, Les rayons et les ombres (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1992), p. 77.

Part I Letters of Introduction


Retying the Threads Abstract An introductory essay to the collection Mysteries of Cinema, outlining author Adrian Martin’s path as a film critic and cinema scholar from the early-1980s cultural scene in Melbourne (Australia) to writing for the Internet and making audiovisual essays in the late 2010s. This introduction explains Martin’s method, developed over these years, of “tying threads” between the numerous films he has seen, and the cinematic theories or cultural ideas he has encountered along the way. Martin’s particular involvement in, and unusual position in-between academic and journalistic modes of discourse is explained. The introduction ends by speculating that, while conventional critical writing constitutes a singular “personality”, the newer, collaborative form of the audiovisual essay disperses this subjectivity and opens different possibilities. Keywords: Film criticism, film theory, popular culture, Australia, audiovisual essay

It is an alternative life, freed from the tyranny of “that old devil consequence”, from the limitation of having only one life to live. One’s favourite films are one’s unlived lives, one’s hopes, fears, libido. They constitute a magic mirror, their shadowy forms are woven from one’s shadow selves, one’s limbo loves. – Raymond Durgnat, 19671

1. This book covers 34 years of a writing life, so far. (I plan for a Volume 2 in 2050.) It is not a “collected essays” that contains all my work to date (far from it), nor is it a “selected essays” that tries to represent all the different areas and modes in which I practice (again, far from it). It is not quite a book of film criticism,

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH01


Mysteries of Cinema

because it lacks articles on specific films or directors’s careers; nor is it a book of conventional academic scholarship, since I have worked within the tertiary education system only for a couple of relatively short periods in my life, and none of the essays contained here derive from university-approved publications. So, what kind of assemblage is this, exactly? It is a book of general, transversal reflections – clusters of associations, each time around a different centre or theme. It is, as I would like to describe it, a book of threads. There are threads that accompany all of us as we make our way through time – historical time as well as personal, subjective, lived time. This book is a record of how I have constantly tried to tie or weave two particular threads together: to put this in the simplest way, the thread of films (and other creative works) I have experienced, with the thread of written texts I have read, heard, noted, and upon which I have reflected. When bound together, collectively, these threads form what we (sometimes airily) refer to as a film culture. Maybe that threading – things we have seen plus things we have read – sounds like a minimal definition of what most of us in the field of studying film (however we define or mark out that field) do. But I mean it in a more particular way. Most of the time, I have not been explicitly asked by my editors or publishers to reflect on whatever point I have reached in my personal threading-together of films and ideas; I am rarely obliged to speculate on the state of a film culture per se. The commission is usually more straightforward: review this or that movie trend, group art show, or timely conjunction of books released at the same moment. But the strange destiny of a freelance writer’s life is to walk a particular type of tightrope: the passions you pursue in your head – which you may frequently draw up imaginary plans for, in the form of one phantom book after another that you will never have time to write – will inevitably force their way, whether you consciously want them to or not, into almost anything you happen to be working on materially. And, at any given pit stop of an unruly career, that turns out to be the writing you have actually achieved, the writing that has managed to come into existence and express itself. Writing is what happens (to tweak a folk expression) while making other plans? Something like that. Raymond Bellour puts it more grandly, discussing the journalistic output of his friend Serge Daney as gathered in the 1986 book Ciné journal: Daney knew, and this is the most astonishing thing, how to constantly maintain the whole of his thought within the contingency of the journalistic event (a film, whether old or new, TV show, shoot, obituary, anniversary celebration). Even better, he understood that this contingency became his pretext, and (for a while at least) his very form – spurring him to live and to write. And we feel that. Each of his texts reconciles, in the best

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way, the charming lightness of the quotidian with the weighty demands of rationality.2

And Bellour concludes his remarks by zooming out from this generative struggle of the daily and the weighty: “From the tension, as always, emotion is born.”3 One will see in the following pages, under specified rubrics (and also dancing between them), a few phantom books never written per se by me, yet somehow elaborated, and constantly updated, along the Ariadnean thread of years. These rubrics are an attempt to capture or corral some of my longstanding obsessions, waxing and waning over time. Putting together any book, as a friend once remarked to me, is all a matter of “retying the threads”, gathering up the lines of the past.

2. Like many people, I have often wondered what to call myself, how to describe myself in public. Critic? Scholar? Independent researcher? Freelance intellectual? I felt great relief on the day – which finally arrived somewhere in my 40s – when I suddenly thought that I should simply call myself a writer. Writing (about film, primarily) has been the most consistent thread in my life. But, alongside the Romantic connotations of being a writer, which I fully embrace – in the sense that I have tried to develop, in writing, a voice, a particular style, a persona, and a form of expression – there is also a material, even industrial side to such a designation. As a freelance writer for long periods, I have tried to keep myself open to any opportunity that has come (and hopefully may continue to come) my way. I have frequently written about art, as well as TV, books, music, and culture (popular and otherwise) in general. The result of all this is that my writing-persona has been dispersed across multiple sites – print, radio, TV, public speaking, teaching, DVD audio commentary – and over many different pitches or modes of address. And it also means, finally, that nobody except me has much of a grasp of the totality of my efforts. (Curriculum vitae available on request.) There is also an unavoidable geo-cultural aspect to being a writer constantly on the move between different sites and modes of writing. I was born in Australia in 1959 and lived there until the beginning of 2013, when I decamped to Europe. I was a weekly reviewer at the Melbourne newspaper The Age between 1995 and 2006 but, in that mainly pre-Internet period (at least as far as the Fairfax Media conglomerate was concerned), few people beyond the state of Victoria read me there and then. Many of the magazines


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local to Australia for which I have written since the beginning of the 1980s (with titles such as Tension, Mesh, Stuffing, Cantrills Filmnotes and Photofile) led an ephemeral, small-scale existence within their particular subcultures, and are almost entirely unknown and unarchived beyond Australian shores – and likely are not so well known or archived even within them. Not many of these magazines were, indeed, solely or even centrally devoted to film: the 1980s were a period of generalist “art and culture” publications aiming for a diverse, broad audience. This diffuse targeting has, today, assisted in their banishment from tidy catalogues, indexes and archives. So, part of the impulse behind the selection for Mysteries of Cinema is to retrieve the best and most transversal of these now quite obscure, hard-to-access texts. Because – and this is a point I was at pains to make at the start of my previous book Mise en scène and Film Style4 – Australia has (and it is not unique in this regard), until quite recently, hardly ever been included on the map of global film culture. This national horizon is important in many of the essays that follow: these were the threads of films and ideas that came to me in that time and place – even (or especially) when my imaginary life, my “shadow self” formed from those same threads, was intensely cosmopolitan.

3. It is hard for individuals to view themselves within history, as a symptom of some cultural moment, or movement, or a sensibility that reigned in a particular time and place. But I’ll have a stab at it. To this end, a little autobiography is in order. I began seriously writing (more than seriously partying, alas) as a teenager in the late 1970s, and by the early 1980s, I was appearing (partly through sheer, dogged persistence) in a wide range of publications. The path of my sensibility fits fairly snugly – as much as I hate to periodise myself – into the postmodern culture that sprang to life during that time, even before it received this name. And nowhere more intensely than in the “neo Popist”, post-Warholian art scene of Melbourne, led by the charismatic, self-styled “impresario” Paul Taylor, editor of Art & Text magazine. It was a formative experience that I have testified to, at length, elsewhere;5 and the white heat of it is reflected in this book’s earliest piece, “Scenes”, from 1982. Suffice to say here, the Melbourne scene of that period was (to use words we never used then) intensely interdisciplinary and multi-media in approach: almost everyone dabbled in just about everything, from writing and performance art to music (live and recorded) and fashion design. Our major watchword

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across all this activity was appropriation (in its many variations: quotation, pastiche, parody, copy, simulacrum, repetition, détournement): the re-use (usually involving little or no money) of what was already lying around. My initial grounding in film study – as, largely, an autodidact who locked himself up for long periods of time in various university libraries – derived from what was recognisably a 1970s culture: in the pages of journals that I pored over, such as Screen, Camera Obscura and Framework, it was the heyday of Barthesian semiotics, Althusserian Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis. (It took only four decades after I first picked a bound 1976 volume of Screen from the shelf to actually appear in it as a contributor myself.) But then, for many reasons, I took a turn, in the company of those friends I had made in the course of Melbourne’s Popist adventure: something intensely spoke to me in a newer wave of desire-mad theory associated with figures such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Julia Kristeva, Jean-François Lyotard and Luce Irigaray. And these ideas chimed in very well with the types of art practice and experimentation blossoming all around me in the early 1980s. There was something doubtlessly apolitical and dandy-like in this early phase of postmodernism, but there was also – to speak of cultural symptoms in hindsight – something that sincerely expressed the life-experience of a certain generation in a particular place and time: this conviction that, distinct from the phantom revolutions of various types promised (and not delivered) by those who came before us in the 1960s and 1970s, what now mattered was a coming-to-terms with what we found around us – not in acquiescence or mere acceptance, but in the spirit of transformative play and re-presentation. The appropriation ethos of the 1980s scene was less (we believed, or hoped) about aristocratic, elite, leisure-time fun than about scarcity (or precarity, as we say today) and strategies for surviving it. I was moved, in this light, by Guattari’s proclamation in a mid-1980s interview about hardboiled, American crime fiction: Look at the warmth of intimacy, of suspense, of subjectivity that you need to grab to stay warm, to sleep, to feel good, to feel sheltered; it’s really something. What are they using to create that? […] [They] produce a more than tolerable and comfortable subjectivity, warm, passionate, exciting, in this pile of metal, this heap of shit, this load of stupidities. Isn’t that really quite a feat?6

My early texts also contained a premonition of a theoretical and critical model I was later to develop more explicitly: already, the taste for culture grasped as a merry swirl of signifiers, signs, figures, tropes, clichés and


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stereotypes not only helped me to get clear of the blackmailing tenets of a three-dimensional, humanist depiction, but also instantly clinched the alliance between what would later be endlessly debated as the apparently opposed realms of high and low culture.7 I did not really need, as a 21 year old, to be drawn into any polemic on this apparently very postmodern, relativistic manner of looking at things; it was not so much an intellectual position for me (even less a perverse stance, as it was sometimes interpreted) as a natural expression of my taste, right back to early childhood. The beloved Bugs Bunny cartoons and Frank Tashlin movies playing on my parents’s black-and-white TV were always mixed up, in my head, with the weird, experimental rock music that came my way as a kid (courtesy of my big brother’s record collection) and with strange, allegorical texts such as The Pilgrim’s Progress, that I stumbled upon in the local, suburban library, and that fascinated me. Secretly, in my heart, I have never felt any particular need to defend myself publicly on this score: you more-or-less come into this world loving what you love, and you had better be prepared to stick by it, come what may. I experienced an extension of this particular network of elements thanks to my first screen studies teachers at Melbourne State College in the late 1970s, where I developed an immense investment in (and high tolerance for) for experimental, avant-garde work of all stripes and tendencies. That much is evident from the 1980s pieces included in this collection: Chantal Akerman, Michael Snow and Marguerite Duras swim with Brian De Palma, Larry Cohen and Kathryn Bigelow in these surveys of certain motifs across the media field. In the section titled “Scenographies”, one can also see the development of a particular, haunting concept that has stuck to me since the early 1980s: the pop culture myth of a “Book of Life”, in which all the significant and crucial events of a lifetime are already pre-set, pre-written. There was (and still is) something profoundly disquieting about the ideological underpinning of this image or scenario – at the time, I was impressed by Genesis P-Orridge’s proto-punk proclamation that “our identity is fictional, written by parents, relatives, education, society” – and I have never ceased trying to find, within culture, ways of turning this Book upside down. The art world context of the early 1980s gave me some sustenance and support in the first period of my writing life – and that thread along my path continues today – but, ultimately, I always considered myself more a film person than an art person. The same goes for cultural studies, which had already formed a solid pedagogical block in Australian universities by the mid 1980s, and in which I participated with articles about TV, media trends, blockbuster movies, pop music, fashion, and so on (the culmination of this

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thread of work came in my first book, published in 1994, Phantasms).8 But I felt myself at risk of getting lost in a sea of rhizomatic connections and generalities, so I shifted my priorities and focused, during the second half of the 1980s, on the need to produce solid, analytical work on cinema as a material microcosm of culture – to work from the inside out, as it were, rather than vice versa (in this collection, “Wishful Thinking” and “Mr Big” mark that reorientation). I was also, in that same self-help campaign, trying to move beyond the by-then reflex “critique of film theory” – which can sound hollow by the umpteenth repetition, especially when the worst, anti-intellectual conservatives in the vicinity chummily start agreeing with you – and trying, instead, to actually deliver the goods on a better, more inclusive kind of critical film study. So I went looking for a mode of synthetic film analysis attuned to what I call here the mysteries of cinema, in homage to Raúl Ruiz’s magnificent TV mini-series and feature film, Mistérios de Lisboa (2010). Cinema is mysterious on many levels: in its craft (how did they get that effect?) as well as its art (why is this film making me cry?), in its general, cultural role (simultaneously pro-social and antisocial) as well as in the disputed meaning or “reading” of individual films. When I turned myself more squarely toward cinema, I also merrily plunged into what is called today, in the era of quality TV, binge-watching. This was, above all, an experience of film genre, and the subsequent course of my attention in this area is tracked in the section titled “Genre Games”. Indeed, in 1987 alone, I clocked up 1000 feature-length movies on VHS: I still have the list. The video shop revolution of the later 1980s, seemingly happening on every suburban street corner, revealed an incredible explosion of contemporary, popular genres: teen, horror, romantic comedy, action, thriller. I became fascinated with analysing networks of films, both within and across genres, following this hunch articulated by my Melbourne comrade, Philip Brophy: I prefer to treat the movies as though they have lives of their own; as though they are working together, talking and referring to one another, reworking each other’s forms, styles, contents and themes. That’s why I’ll always enjoy writing about a group of movies rather than a single film.9

Like many cinephiles of the 1980s, I spent most of my time spinning on an Anglo-Euro axis – more particularly fixated on the twin peaks of American cinema and French theory. Of course, and certainly in my case, there were influences from elsewhere, too – especially the various factions of film criticism and theory washing in from the UK (Movie, Screen, Framework, etc).


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My long 1987 essay “No Flowers for the Cinephile” – comprising the entire section of this book devoted to “A Cinephile in Australia” – is testament both to the obsessive depths and the blinkered limits of that engagement. Of all the pieces in this book,“No Flowers for the Cinephile” is the one that most calls out for a postscript or update that would likely be as long as the original text. So much has changed, and often surprisingly so, since I surveyed what I, in that time, took to be the intransigent, outsider status of cinephilia. Not only has cinephilia arrived at a place of honour at the academic table, but its rather cloistered, nerdy gender bias (prime symptom: the cinephile is “he” throughout much of my essay, and most of its hero figures from cinema and theory alike are male) has been knocked sideways by successive, salutary social movements spotlighting the successive stations of an identity politics (sexual, racial, etc.). The dawning of some consciousness of all this can be traced across the book, and is especially evident in its final two sections, “Interventions” and “Envoi”. In many senses and on many levels, something was coming to an end as the 1980s pop ethos waned, although I did not quite see the truth of this straight away. The salutary aftershocks came some way into the 1990s, such as the startling presence on the international film festival circuit of a “world cinema” that was suddenly too large, visible and important to ignore (although most commercial art house cinema chains – still stuck in a largely 1960s-formed taste – had managed to keep it at bay almost entirely). The emergence of world cinema in Western consciousness brought to light such master auteurs as Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien, but also the belated catch-up by genre-freaks like me on the extensive, florid forms of Asian horror, action, comedy and anime. The mid 1990s also brought another kind of critical engagement to me, and another kind of immersion: in the areas of journalistic film reviewing (which I pursued, only timidly at first but later on a weekly basis, for almost two decades) and radio (with an occasional, bitter taste of TV experience). Personally, this was the period of negotiating, sometimes combatively, with the restrictions placed upon my writing style and voice by these media institutions – and thus diversifying my critical modes of address. Almost nothing of what I wrote or spoke in those gigs, beyond “The Path and the Passeur” from 1993, appears here (they form the material for a website project).10 Simultaneously, however, I kept chipping away at longer, freer formulations of my central obsessions – in particular, my long-stewing hunches about the role of artifice and lyricism in a “cinema of poetry” (to borrow Pier Paolo Pasolini’s term), which comprise the central core of this book (“The Lyrical Impulse”).

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Then another adventure happily opened up. The decisive change in my wayward career came with my involvement in the Internet, as writer and co-editor/publisher of online magazines (Senses of Cinema in its early years, and later Rouge, Screening the Past and LOLA), beginning in the late 1990s. Suddenly, I had many more readers beyond my small, national-local space. I was being regularly invited to film festivals, conferences and arts events around the world. The effect on me of all this commotion was, frankly, intoxicating; it altered my life and my outlook in many ways. And, beginning in 1997, I was lucky enough to be part of a truly international project led by Jonathan Rosenbaum, a series of epistolary exchanges that eventually found book form in 2003 as Movie Mutations, which continues to be translated in new editions around the world, inspiring projects of programming and collective critical writing.11 But it is precisely because of the (in the main) greater visibility of this entire period of my Internet writing work that I have mostly withheld its presence from the pages to follow; I hope to gather that material elsewhere, in ways more suited to the affordances of digital media. After I quit journalism (that’s another tale) in 2006, I was invited to take up a university position at Monash in Melbourne, which allowed me, at that point, a different, precious kind of freedom: to escape the weekly calendar of commercial film releases and dive back into cinema history. It also allowed me to pick up the thread of many research projects I had started in the 1980s and 1990s, but had been unable to complete before journalism imposed its ever-rolling deadlines: essays on Australian cinema, B movie auteurs (Edgar G. Ulmer, Tod Browning, Jean-Claude Brisseau), aspects of cinema theory, and the historiography of film culture and criticism.12 Since the start of 2015, I have returned to the life of a freelancer. That has brought me back, in a 21st-century context, to the world of “small magazines” (now mostly online) across several arts and media, and to the fervent, early1980s dream of a creative form of writing on cinema – but, this time, with an all-important twist.

4. Probably like some readers of this book – and also like Theodor Adorno13 – I have intermittently kept, since my early teenage years, a dream diary. I have long been amazed that studies of film directors (with the striking exception of Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon’s book on King Vidor)14 do not access this type of record, where it is available, more often. Although it is


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highly unlikely I will ever publish my own diary of this kind (too much of it is incomprehensible to anyone but me), I have already given it a title: Last Night’s Dream, because I always scribble down the memory of these audiovisions the moment I wake, before they vanish altogether from consciousness. My attachment to dreams, and the narration of dreams, immediately indicates my highly sympathetic relation to, on the one hand, Surrealism (long before I discovered, in my mid 20s, the films of Raúl Ruiz), and on the other hand, psychoanalysis; and, following along the line of these threads, later to various theories of dream comprehension, and to what Lyotard called “the unconscious as mise en scène”.15 My dreams are frequently very cinematic (if not meta-cinematic); I even once transcribed verbatim the dream-analysis of a particular film and delivered it (without telling its origin) in a lecture that same day. There is one, particularly ecstatic dream that I regard as being so central to my life that I have recounted it in several different contexts over the 34-year period circumscribed by this book. I first used it soon after experiencing it, as part of a talk given to a film discussion group in Melbourne in the early 1980s; it arose in the aforementioned Popist period of furious activity. In the dream, which amounts to less a narrative than a single scene or a sequence of jump-cut images, I have the magical power to reach up to a cinema screen – complete with some movie still playing loudly and brightly upon it – and to take, handle, fold, and reduce it. The dream ends as I happily stride down a busy city street, holding a kind of cinema-suitcase by its handle: it is a screen, still containing and “projecting” its movie content. One of the most notable things about this final image, for me, is its aspect of burning, bright daylight – a light that, however, can no longer dim or cancel the cinematic image that swings along with me. This seems to respond to an evocative expression that entered my head at an early adult age, and now provides the epigraph to this book: cinema as the “artificial night”. That is how Robert Desnos characterised the “condition” of cinema, as an apparatus/experience that is not dependent on the diurnal and nocturnal, rhythmic cycle of nature, but imposes its own, pre-emptory black-out upon the rational world and its consciousness.16 My dream went one better than Desnos: it freed cinema into the open daylight, without any diminishing of its soulful, mysterious power. Remember, this was a long time (at least in my sphere of experience) before mobile phones, touch screens, personal computers, or the Internet; the dream took place at least three years before I even owned a domestic video player. It expressed a wish to access and interact with cinema directly, to domesticate and customise it in the sense of bringing it down from the

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separate, magisterial, but also somewhat alienating realm of “the big screen”. When I first retold the dream in public, I linked it to a sketchy but passionately held theory that all art and media forms were connected, under the umbrella of something I even then called “audio-vision”, but in a funky, lo-fi form characteristic of the avant-garde practices of the time. I argued that projected slides, Polaroid photos and freeze-frames printed from films onto paper could be combined and “sped up” in our imaginations (or in makeshift performance-installations) to form previously unseen, unexpected films – and the soundtrack could derive from the selections on any old audiocassette compilation, the way that George Kuchar in the 1980s shot his videos while fiddling with the humble cassette player hanging around his neck. I speculated that, for the public cinema to truly become our “secret cinema”, each of us must find a way to absorb, incorporate and remake our most beloved films. Some avant-garde artists (like Joseph Cornell), and even some especially “literary” critical writers (such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante) had illuminated this path, but we still needed to seize it for ourselves. I was unaware, then, that Ado Kyrou had already essentially made the exact same case almost 30 years before, in the first 1953 edition of his great book Le surréalisme au cinéma: Watching a film, I necessarily perform an action upon this object – I duly transform it and, on the basis of its given elements, I make my own thing, so as to withdraw from it some scraps of knowledge and better place them within myself.17

Moreover, Kyrou had claimed the postmodern lingo of 1980s appropriation art well before its time, with a nod to Marcel Duchamp and his contemporaries: Certain films (their genre hardly matters, only a particular detail, an ambience, an impression of déjà-vu count) are especially mine. I could take them just as they are, simply adding my signature. Ready-made films …18

This web of dreams coincided with another, concerning more specifically a certain style or manner of experimental writing. I was very inspired, as a teenager, by the work of Roland Barthes, and many others (such as, in the Australian context, Meaghan Morris) who toiled in the wild grass of what was later labelled “ficto-criticism”.19 Ficto-criticism is neither fiction nor criticism, but some untamed, anti-formulaic hybrid in-between, making use of fragmentation and vivid evocation, scattering quotations (cited and uncited), adopting different “voices”, applying what were known at the time


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as “shifters” to all matters of pronoun, tense and address. Some pieces I did in this period were collaborations with artists or graphic designers, trying to break down the longstanding wall between text and “illustration”. I never took such experiments as far out as I wished, but “Scenes” in this book testifies to the desire I pursued during the 1980s to write in a way that was proudly different from either “straight” film criticism or straitjacketed academic prose. For many reasons – among them the fact that ficto-criticism became increasingly hard to get published (beyond a few subcultural art magazines) and thus paid for, and that efforts in this field quickly gathered a repertoire of over-familiar moves – I gave up the ghost of this dream. Instead, I immersed myself more deeply in professionalised discourse-genres such as journalism and, later on, university research. But I never forgot the ficto-critical dream – even though, as late as 2004 (in the penultimate piece of this book, “My Back Pages”), I was still, somewhat melancholically, rehearsing to myself the vaguely poststructuralist adage that “you cannot write film criticism only in rhythms, colours and shapes, even if you long to do so”, that a gap between the subject of writing and the object of cinema is insurmountable, and perhaps even constitutive of the act of criticism. Terrence Malick and George Miller had to put aside, in the 1980s, their cherished, respective projects for Q (later morphed into The Tree of Life [2011]) and Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) for the better part of three decades, until the capabilities of digital technology had caught up with their imaginations. On a tiny fraction of that budgetary scale, I, too, as it turned out, had to wait for a machine to reignite my “ancient teenage dream” (as John Cale sang it) of a hands-on, customised and “writerly” (in the Barthesian sense of scriptible)19 approach to the available materials of culture. That machine was the personal computer, and specifically the software that allowed the manipulation and re-editing of downloaded films. The spirit of appropriation had made its cultural comeback at last! Even more decisive was my personal encounter with Cristina Álvarez López, with whom I today explore and enjoy both the fruits of collaboration and the elaboration of a critical practice we call the audiovisual essay – film analysis using the very materials (in digital form) of image and sound. We think of it as creative film criticism (see the essay “No Direction Home”). Again, the prescient vision of Kyrou, outlining long ago what he wanted to do with his favourite, chosen films: Perhaps I would have to work on them – make some editing modifications; cut, raise or lower the intensity of the sound – in short, interpret them so that, ultimately, my subjective vision could become objective. […] All it needs are some small changes for everyone to perceive what I sense and detect.20

Re t ying the Threads


Those particular audiovisions I have helped make are, in their substance, beyond the scope of this printed, literary, word-based book.21 But the final chapter cowritten with Cristina, “The File We Accompany” (the title is a play on Bellour’s essay “The Film We Accompany”),22 returns the written portion of this multi-media work to its intersection with a particular itinerary (mine), and closes a circle just at the point where the type of work I do (and the type of place or space I do it in) is, once more, in the process of mutating. In embracing the audiovisual essay form (without, of course, abandoning writing), I have gratefully experienced the sensation of breaking the seductive spell that imprisons far too many critics: the sense that one’s “life’s work” is the strenuous effort to individually measure up to the medium of cinema (or whichever art form), to comment upon and include more and more of it within the domain of a single, ever-enlarging, relentlessly forward-moving, literary sensibility (as Bellour said of Daney: “the whole of his thought”!).23 This is the “fiction” that, according to Jean Louis Schefer, animates the modern figure of the essayist: “the idea […] of covering the world with paper, with bits of writing”.24 In that scenario, the Romantic credo of what Surrealism’s chronicler Jean Schuster called the “indestructible nature of the [writer’s] interior poetic voice”,25 not to mention his or her public persona, can easily become a trap, a recipe for endless repetition and sterile reflexivity. Fracturing the through-line of relentless progress and accumulation in this way can have a freeing effect on a writer; in my case, at any rate, it opened the liberty of ransacking my own archive, of sometimes taking an idea, phrase or description from an old text and using it as the springboard for a new and different, collaboratively reworked, image/sound montage. The threads are being scrambled again, for retying in another way, at another time. A final, prefatory note. With all the essays in Mysteries of Cinema, I have returned to my original manuscripts, rather than the edited versions as published, and restored them. Bibliographic references have been (wherever possible) duly updated (thanks to the many friends who helped with this arduous, archaeological task), factual errors corrected, and infelicities of expression removed. I have suppressed some (but not all) inevitable re-use or repetition of certain material across the years. For the most part, however, I present these pieces as I first wrote them, in part as a chronicle or document of the times in which they were composed. (2016)


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Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1. 2.

Raymond Durgnat, Films and Feelings (London: Faber & Faber, 1967), p. 135. Raymond Bellour, “Le voyage absolu”, Le Magazine littéraire, no. 232 (July/ August 1986), p. 79. 3. Ibid. 4. Adrian Martin, Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (London: Palgrave, 2014). 5. See Helen Hughes & Nicholas Croggon (eds), Impresario: Paul Taylor, The Melbourne Years, 1981-1984 (Melbourne: Surpllus/Monash University Museum of Art, 2013). 6. Charles J. Stivale, “Pragmatic/Machinic: A Discussion with Félix Guattari”, Pre/Text, Vol. 14 No. 3/4 (1995), p. 12. 7. See Adrian Martin & Philip Brophy, “The Archaeology of Culture, or How to Say Everything at Once”, Cantrills Filmnotes, no. 37/38 (April 1982), pp. 44-53. 8. Adrian Martin, Phantasms (Ringwood: Penguin, 1994). 9. Philip Brophy, “Editorial (Kind of …)”, Restuff: Horror/Gore/Exploitation (Northcote: Stuff Publications, 1988), p. 3. 10. See the website Film Critic: Adrian Martin []. Accessed 28 October 2017. Its accompanying Patreon page is at: [www.patreon. com/adrianmartin]. 11. Adrian Martin & Jonathan Rosenbaum (eds), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute, 2003). 12. See “‘Trust Your Instincts’ – Adrian Martin Interviewed by Deane Williams”, in Noel King & Deane Williams (eds), Australian Film Theory and Criticism: Volume 2 – Interviews (Bristol: Intellect, 2014), pp. 205-218. 13. See Theodor Adorno (trans. Jan Philipp Reemtsma), Dream Notes (London: Polity, 2007). 14. Raymond Durgnat & Scott Simmon, King Vidor, American (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988). 15. Jean-François Lyotard (trans. Joseph Maier), “The Unconscious as Mise en scène”, in Michael Benamou & Charles Caramello (eds), Performance in Postmodern Culture (Madison: Coda Press, 1977), pp. 87-98. 16. See Robert Desnos, Les rayons et les ombres (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1992), p. 77. 17. Ado Kyrou, Le surréalisme au cinéma (Paris: Ramsay, 2005), p. 292. 18. Ibid. 19. See Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), S/Z (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974). 20. Kyrou, Le surréalisme au cinéma, p. 293. 21. See the website The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies (Sussex University, 2014) [http://reframe.]. Accessed 11 March 2017.

Re t ying the Threads



Raymond Bellour (trans. Fergus Daly & Adrian Martin), “The Film We Accompany”, Rouge, no. 3 (2004) []. Accessed 13 November 2016. 23. See, in this vein, Colin MacCabe’s similar eulogisation of André Bazin: “Every review and preview, however short, brought the whole weight of Bazin’s experience and thought about the cinema to bear […] Bazin was a writer who at every moment and on every occasion that he sat down to write brought with him the entire history and theory of cinema in a continuous reflection”. In Dudley Andrew (ed.), Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory and its Afterlife (London: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 66-67. 24. Jean Louis Schefer, “Preface”, in Paul Smith (ed. & trans.), The Enigmatic Body: Essays on the Arts by Jean Louis Schefer (London: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. xix. 25. Jean Schuster quoted in Paul Hammond, “Specialists in Revolt”, New Statesman, no. 2958 (4 December 1987), p. 23.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).


The Path and the Passeur Abstract This short “opinion piece”, commissioned by an Australian newspaper in 1993, discusses the role of the film reviewer as someone ideally involved with diverse sectors of culture, endeavouring to “build bridges” between these sectors. This ideal is compared to the sad reality of many professional reviewers, who decry or dismiss anything that is unfamiliar or challenging to their already fixed, rigid, largely conservative cultural sensibilities. The idea that all film critics share a single “common culture” of global cinema is interrogated. The chapter discusses the paradoxes of a “career path” in the unpredictable life of a freelance critic, while extolling the open-minded possibilities of being a “passeur”, one who wanders between multiple films, theoretical ideas and widely varying socio-cultural situations. Keywords: Film criticism, film reviewing, subcultures, Serge Daney

In his parting reflection as Arts Editor of The Age newspaper in Melbourne, Michael Shmith issued a piquant lament: “There is still no established career path for critics. Where is the next generation?”1 Part of me can sympathise with Shmith’s cri de cœur. In all my years of freelance writing and talking about cinema in public, I have never stumbled across anything that looks remotely like a career path. But that does not mean there are no new critics lurking on the scene. The real problem is in knowing where and how to find them. Film critics do not always arrive with the legitimacy of university degrees. Those who have managed to become professionals in the field often get dismayed over the prevailing attitude that anyone can be a movie reviewer. Yet there is some justice in this; many of the critics I most admire are passionate amateurs, proud autodidacts. Another complicating factor is that film critics are not necessarily people who write a large number of reviews – or even write at all. Some critics do their best and most influential work by inspiring their friends and students in

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH02


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conversation; others by running a repertory cinema or programming a film society.  Jean-Luc Godard has often said that he never stopped being a critic – he simply moved his critical speculations off the page and onto the screen. Perhaps the major reason why critics can be hard to locate these days is that they do not necessarily all attend the same movies. It is a perpetual crime that the cinema is customarily defined, at any given moment, by the features that are playing at the major commercial and art house theatre chains. These are, as a rule, the only films that reviewers for newspapers feel obliged – or inclined – to cover. I would not dispute that there are filmic events of great importance regularly happening in the mainstream arena. But there are sometimes even more important movies unreeling weekly at the Cinémathèque, at experimental art venues, at the several Chinese cinemas dotted around the city, at various festivals and special events, and on VHS. Perhaps, a few decades ago, it was possible for critics to imagine that, by diligently catching most major releases and a good slice of the yearly Melbourne or Sydney Film Festivals, they could more or less encompass all that the cinema had to offer. These days, that myth has been well and truly exploded. As the moviegoing audience has been split into dozens of niche markets, film criticism itself has become a fragmented, specialised activity. The fan who knows every horror movie on video, the Asian cinema expert, and the nostalgia freak who adores Judy Garland simply do not share the same cinema culture. There is no longer any central venue – certainly not the broad-circulation, print newspapers – where these diverse critics air their views. One needs to scour small-circulation magazines, radio programmes and public seminars to get a sense of what people are really discussing. In a society that is increasingly both subcultural and multicultural, it is very easy for a lone critic to be suddenly freaked out by a movie that seems strange, unfamiliar, or baffling. The Age’s resident film critic since the early 1980s, Neil Jillett, blasted American director John Singleton because his film Poetic Justice (1993), full of black, urban slang, lacked subtitles. Jillett remarked: “He again seems to be limiting his audience to urban black Americans”.2 On the very same page, he reviewed Much Ado about Nothing (1993) – but did not ask Kenneth Branagh to supply subtitles for those (like myself) not especially well versed in Shakespearean English. Then again, the sometimes amply confused Mr Jillett also declared, in a public forum at the beginning of the 1990s, that the restored version of Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) was a poor choice for Opening Night presentation at the Melbourne International Film Festival, because it was “of historic interest only” …

The Path and the Passeur


It is a plain fact of life, these days, that what is perfectly familiar to a person in one sphere of culture is instantly esoteric to someone else in another sphere – or that what is of historic interest to some is passionately present-tense for others. This should not be a sad or threatening situation; rather, it allows us all to watch movies the way that the great surrealist critic Ado Kyrou did, in search of “surprise rather than satisfaction, discovery rather than certainty”.3 Another inspirational French writer, Serge Daney, once suggested that any critic who wishes to do the job well needs to be less a walking movie encyclopaedia than a passeur: one who wanders between worlds, dipping into many kinds of movie experiences and cultural debates. Moreover, this passeur should take on the challenge of building bridges between these worlds, opening up lines of communication and exchange. 4 If it is true that both movies and ideas about movies have become extremely diverse, it follows that there will never be an established career path for film critics. There are as many different paths as there are different types of cinema, and different ways of talking about cinema. So where is the Next Generation of critics? My guess is that, if you look properly, you will find plenty of them out there, passeurs already beating these multiple paths. (1993)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1. 2. 3. 4.

Michael Shmith, “A Farewell to Arts”, The Age (12 November 1993), p. 15. Neil Jillett, The Age (21 October 1993), p. 20. Louis Seguin, “Un homme libre”, Cinéma, no. 329 (1985), p. 3. Serge Daney (trans. Malcolm Imrie), “Falling Out of Love”, Sight and Sound (July 1992), pp. 14-16.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).


That Summer Feeling Abstract This essay offers a personal reflection that traces two major influences on Adrian Martin’s work in film criticism and film analysis, both of which he encountered during the impressionable years of early adolescence. The first influence is the classical approach of British scholar Victor (aka V.F.) Perkins (1936-2016), whose famous 1972 book Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies offers a reasoned, logical, sensitive systematic approach to analysing the expressive functions of narrative film style. The second influence is the formalist work of the theorist and filmmaker Noël Burch (1932– ), whose equally famous Theory of Film Practice (1973) introduced to the English-speaking world a different, highly materialist approach to film style and technique. The essay compares and contrasts them. Keywords: Film criticism, film analysis, V.F. Perkins, Noël Burch, formalism

Occasional collisions unexpectedly encountered determine the direction of a lifetime. – Elias Canetti, Auto da Fé1

I tend to believe that the cultural experiences we encounter in our impressionable youth – the films we see, the music we hear, the books we read – form us in ways that we seldom recognise, scarcely understand, and often resist. I am not talking here about the movies that we set out to see in the first militant flush of cinephilia – viewings full of expectation, learning and acculturation – but the movies we, in a sense, never meant to see, that were part of no self-advancement programme, but that grip us until the day we die, crystallising some obscure, unconscious part of our identities. Jonathan Richman once sang, so poignantly and memorably, about this moment: “That summer feeling is gonna haunt you / The rest of your life”.

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At the age of fifteen, I started reading my first film books. I was already nurturing my cinephilia, but had not yet crammed any particular cineliterary taste – I did not (yet) take an imaginary side in the wars between Cahiers du cinéma and Positif or Movie and Screen, I had not yet settled on an allegiance to Manny Farber over Pauline Kael. I read seriously – hungry for knowledge – but also haphazardly. I was not very far from the childlike phase of combing handsome, coffee-table books for intriguing titles (and colour photos) of films – just as Scorsese describes that kind of kid-in-a-library experience in his documentary, A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies (1995) – but I wanted something more substantial, some first thoughts about cinema, beyond the bewilderingly profuse lists of masterpieces and greats. (It must be more bewildering for a fifteen-year-old cinephile today: the entire film world has gone list-crazy!) In that youthful summer of my cinephilia, two books, selected at random in this trembling phase of initiation, wielded a life-long impact: Film as Film by V.F. (Victor) Perkins, and Theory of Film Practice (French title: Praxis du cinéma) by Noël Burch.2 These books appeared in English within a year of each other (1972 and 1973) but, in every respect, they make an unlikely couple; in fact, it would be hard to think of two books more different in their tone and approach, not to mention the sorts of films valorised in each (Preminger-Hitchcock-Ray for Perkins, Bresson-Hanoun-Lang for Burch). Actually, I have to face the brutally psychoanalytic fact of the matter: in the constellation of my personal, cinematic imaginary, Film as Film and Theory of Film Practice are my mother and father, although I find it hard to definitively establish their respective genders. Nobody chooses their mother and father, and I did not choose these two books, either – each prodigious and wonderful in their own, sweet way. As with every child, my personality (emotional and intellectual) was formed in the tension between the personalities of my parents, a somewhat uneasy but also endlessly fertile amalgam of their differences and arguments. I will spend the rest of my life trying to put these twin, formative experiences together. Perkins represents classical aesthetics: style serves content, form is expressive, movies are about characters, destinies and symbolic worlds. Later, reading more of Perkins and his close colleagues at Movie (including Robin Wood, Douglas Pye, Andrew Britton and Deborah Thomas) in work dating from the early 1960s until now, I would be led to trace the various, formative influences on this school (if it can be called that): F. R. Leavis, Paul Ricoeur and Stanley Cavell. It is a type of criticism that always had (and still has) trouble coming to terms with film Modernism in its

That Summer Feeling


most disruptive forms – Jean-Luc Godard, forever the great divider, the deal-breaker. On the other hand, the legacy of classicism is inexhaustible, and I am still in thrall to Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), which Perkins wrote about so eloquently and extensively. As Michael Henry Wilson (Scorsese’s co-writer and co-director on A Personal Journey, and longtime critic for Positif) once remarked in his review of colleague Gérard Legrand’s great 1979 book Cinémanie: it may well be the case that the art of classical, precisely framed mise en scène died (or at least transformed itself beyond recognition) on the very first day that a director started shooting with simultaneous, multiple cameras, but, nonetheless, this school of criticism still has “a great past ahead of it”.3 Burch, on the other hand, is a strident Modernist, even toward his own work: he has regularly disowned his past achievements, wiped the slate clean, and started over again. He is so Modernist that he has reached the ultimate point of repudiating the Modernist impulse altogether – and has become a populist, no less. His intellectual inspirations in the period leading to Theory of Film Practice included people such as the serialist composer Pierre Boulez, with his severe theory of a “crest line” of advanced artistic achievement. Starting roughly in the same period as Perkins (late 1950s/ early 1960s), but in a completely different context (a France-USA axis uniting the Nouvelle Vague and the American avant-garde), Burch trailblazed a particular kind of film formalism. The classical, organic language of theme, style and character meant little to Burch, while the sheerly material delight of framing, montage, image/sound counterpoint, camera movement, and all such aspects of filmic language, were everything. It was through reading Burch that I came to know – and love – the thrill of off-screen space, of disjunctive sound, of long takes and scene découpage, of all the ways that the type of cut known as a raccord (weakly rendered into English as “match”) can connect and articulate two shots or two elements, along any parameter (as David Bordwell would later call it)4 whatsoever. Long after first reading and falling captive to these two remarkable books, I developed my own little theory to help heal the wounding rift between them in my psyche. Perhaps, within the medium of cinema, it is a matter of a differential economy of style or form to content: within the classical approach, form is subject to a restrained economy whereas, within modernism, materialist form takes the upper hand and creates the foreground experience.5 That is okay as a theory (it has kept me going), but it is also a rationalisation. When I try to grasp now what I got from Film as Film and Theory of Film


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Practice, I see something that does, in fact, unite them: in both works, there is a rigorous, analytical sense, a demonstration of some form-to-content logic in every film Perkins and Burch alight upon, often dazzlingly intuited and demonstrated. These days, film criticism – even the best-written – does little for me, finally, unless it can unearth, propose and, in some way, prove the existence of the logic that makes a film tick, that coheres it into some kind of whole work, whether classical-expressive or Modernist-disjunctive. And this logic is (preferably) not instantly obvious on the surface of the work. As I like to counsel students: try to tell me something about a film that the film – or the director in press interviews – does not already tell me itself. Godard said it best in his challenge to Kael and, beyond her, all critics: “I want the evidence”, he demanded – so bring it in.6 Film analysis or criticism without that logic, that evidence, is just assertion – and assertion is something I can take or leave (usually depending on whether or not I agree with it). It is the work of logic that I still admire so much today in the best work of Jonathan Rosenbaum, Meaghan Morris, Joe McElhaney, Nicole Brenez, Bill Routt, or Lesley Stern. I may still be rationalising, however. Before, beyond, or below logic, there is … What? Obsession? Passion? Cinephilia is no stranger to cinemania – so long as we agree to elevate such mania to include the passion of thought and debate, not just endless viewing and listing. I believe it was in the calm argumentation of Film as Film as in the proselytising eccentricity of Theory of Film Practice alike that I first encountered the persuasive force of that intellectual obsession which is true cinephilia. And, almost 30 years later, I am still hooked. So I would like to thank my Mum and Dad … (2004)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3.

Elias Canetti (trans. C.V. Wedgwood), Auto da Fé (London: Continuum, 1982), p. 13. V.F. Perkins, Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (London: Penguin, 1972); Noël Burch (trans. Helen Lane), Theory of Film Practice (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973). Michael Henry Wilson, “Cinémanie”, Positif, no. 231 (June 1980), p. 79.

That Summer Feeling

4. 5. 6.


See David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985). See Adrian Martin, Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (London: Palgrave, 2014). Jean-Luc Godard and Pauline Kael (1981), “The Economics of Film Criticism: A Debate”, reprinted in David Sterritt (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998), p. 124.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

Part II Scenographies

4. Scenes Abstract This essay from 1982, written in a fragmentary and experimental literary style, addresses the idea of a scene in both cinema and life. A scene is defined as a given, pre-written situation, a familiar or universal human experience captured in the audiovisual media of film and television as an ever-repeatable cliché. These clichés weave together to form a rigid and ideologically conservative Book of Life, informing numerous representations in Western culture. The essay begins by evoking the content and form of typical scenes in narrative cinema: crisis, death, confrontation, decision, and so on. It then considers the 20th century’s Modernist art challenges to the idea of the scene: breaking a scene down, dissolving it, downplaying it, eliding it, and escaping it. Keywords: Scene, script, Chantal Akerman, Brian De Palma, Modernism

We ask our pupils, then, who have finished their books in a couple of sittings and are eager to go onto other books, to tell the story of one moment, one scene, when the hero learned a lesson or gained an insight or had to act in a dilemma. We need to have reports on the exciting moments, on moments that are dramatic, funny, adventurous, violent; but we are looking for those searching moments that brought forth a decision or gave birth to a dream.1

Bringing forth a decision: Carrie White, mortified, humiliated, all eyes upon her at the stage of the school prom, turns nasty – summoning her powers of kinesis, she slams the doors shut, brings the roof caving in and starts a fire. At last, Carrie makes the scene. (Carrie, Brian De Palma, 1976). Giving birth to a dream: child-lovers in a Garden of Eden, their time cut short by a separation imposed on them by adults. For the rest of their lives, they will find themselves returning to the garden – that actual garden, or some displacement of it. And the scene will descend upon them each time

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in pristine repetition: a break, a separation, finally a death. Only in heaven will their dream be fulfilled. (Peter Ibbetson, Henry Hathaway, 1935). * * * In the terminology of both film production and film criticism, a scene is precisely defined: it is when film time equals story time. Meaning, it is a perfect unity of action, of space, as well as of time; a perfect economy. The scene is where it all comes together – the denouement, the climax, the turning point, the big moment – where all is said and done. Scenes never simply happen. They are arrived at, carefully, via the scenic route, prepared for, suggested, ripened slowly for the eventual bursting. They are at once – as filmmakers and screenwriters love to say – inevitable and surprising, predestined and revelatory. Or they are remembered, painstakingly retrieved, the reason for memory and the locus of identity – a primal scene. * * * Coasting, drifting. I had a sense that something was up. I passed through the next few days in a hurry, sleeping a lot, spurred on by a kind of impatience. It was all overtones and undercurrents, nothing concrete, and it was frustrating me. I was waiting for one of us to show their hand. I was looking forward to a confrontation. We’re not getting anywhere as we are. * * * While Sigmund Freud came to the decision that the scene was not an actual childhood trauma but a structuring phantasy of the psyche, Hollywood decided to stick with the former intuition.2 From Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1948) to Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959) to Sybil (1978), it’s the same old scene: with the help of lover, mother/father figure or analyst (sometimes the three in one – for love is the sweetest transference), a trauma is retrieved, negotiated, worked through, resolved: either you find out who you really are (like Edwardes [Gregory Peck] in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound [1945]) or you learn to accept what you have always been. From misrecognition to recognition, disavowal to avowal, blindness to light. Here, Hollywood is not guilty of misreading Freud, but merely taking the pulse of Western, pop psychology: Arthur Janov’s primal scream therapy, confessional encounter groups, drama exercises for aspiring Method actors, tortured recollections of a religious upbringing. The scene you carry within



your brain, your soul – the mark of your subjectivity – will be your sad story to tell and retell, your token of intersubjective exchange. Your “scenography”. * * * The scene is always separate, detachable; it announces, through numerous rhetorical devices, its status as privileged moment. You cannot miss a scene. The scene is where all the discontinuities, the shifts, the traversals, the articulations that go to make up the fabric of a fiction disappear: here, in the one spot, in a definite, measurable time span, things will be spelt out. The scene is where partial vision — the passage through the labyrinth – gives way to total vision.3 Like when the title of Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973) changes from being a teaser (don’t look now, you’re still being strung along, nothing is in place for you to see it correctly yet – is that the ghost of a dead little girl darting out of frame in her bright red raincoat?) to a brutal statement of fact (don’t look now, but it’s happening: up close, what has been lurking off-screen, and is here, now, is another victim, indeed our central character, getting the knife). The scene is where sound and image run together in perfect, representational synchronisation, where an event presents itself as homogenous and unified: so much the worse for Jack (John Travolta) at the end of Blow Out (De Palma, 1981) who, lacking our ideal position as spectators upon the film scene, can only hear his girlfriend being killed through his earpiece, unable to be at the scene of the crime to stop it from happening, unable to even see where it is taking place. * * * Why do the scenes that occur to me as I write so often revolve around death, or at least an extreme act of physical violence? Is the unity, the totalisation, the closure that scenes exist to bring about only possible by these means? The notion of the scene exists in a symbolic nexus, where such death is not real but metaphorical – catharsis, sensation, dramatic exaggeration. No wonder that the scene presents itself, to several decades of Modernist cinema and performance art, as a kind of bad object, a dead end, a graveyard. The scene – the site of certainty, truth, the apogee of a tradition of so-called narrative realism – is the place where you must never find yourself. For a Modernism whose practice and desire is to be ceaselessly on the run, in flight, dispersed and scattered, an approaching scene signals domestication, territorialisation, the fatal, final moment of absolute historical determination and subjection. All these metaphors are brought together


Mysteries of Cinema

at the end of Miklós Jancsó’s Vizi Privati, Pubbliche Virtù (1976) where, after almost an entre film of delirious gender and filmic confusion, no fixed identities and no fixed spaces, the scene comes crashing down. And it is stasis, death, the return of the police state, and finally the camera (i.e., the cinema as a medium) itself that are glued down as an ideological apparatus in the service of that state – the corpses of the transgressive libertines decorated and posed for visual documentation in police files. So it is not really a question, here, of slighting the scene, in some total or general way, for any supposedly inherent formal or ideological properties it may possess; but, rather, of defining its place, its construction as significant and worth struggling for or against, in the twin rhetorics of classicism and Modernism. * * * Ways out of the scene, then. For a Modernism beginning, say, with the Nouvelle Vague, that stream of Modernism that obsessively, ambivalently tussles with notions of fictions, narration and representation, the scene has been the site for a vast set of games and strategies. At times, in this period that is still very much with us of in-and-out-of-the-scene, fiction gets a sudden, violent boot out the door, and the scene is recalled as its gross, ugly caricature, its quintessence: thus the apparition of a soldier by a waterfall, policeman of bourgeois illusionism, evoked in order to be immediately negated by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin in Le vent d’est (1970). Or only the place, the setting left standing when fiction is evicted and human presence is emptied: the atemporal, non-linear exploration of landscape in films by Australian avant-gardists Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, or Paul Winkler. Mostly, though, the scene is somehow, somewhere retained – in order for it to be circled, interrogated, subverted, overplayed or underplayed, split, multiplied. * * * The scene, classically, rests on formal assumptions of unity and homogeneity – singular space and time, once through only. Modernism goes against the nature of the scene by doubling, multiplying. For Alain Resnais (Je t’a ime, je t’a ime, 1968) or Alain Robbe-Grillet in both his novels and films (TransEurop-Express, 1966), the truth-status of scenes is undermined, rendered absurd, by differential repetition – seen over and over again, with slight, nagging variations, the scene never arrives into the diegesis of the film; it is still being juggled on the editing desk. The film as definitively unfinished.



* * * The scene demands a concentration of the gaze, providing a direction, a focusing into a unitary space. But this command to look here must hide what it always implies – the simultaneous presence of there, of surrounding space, other space, off-space as opposed to in-space. In Lyndal Jones’ performance work Prediction Pieces (1981), the slide, which, near to the on-stage actor, initially directs us to “watch this space” functions as a gag, a ruse, a decoy – for soon the space will open up, behind and around us, a second performer will emerge from nowhere, what was assumed as dead, unused space. In the subsequent Prediction Pieces, several scenes will unfold, but they are always split, staggered across at least two spaces or times. Jones looks at a television set and is instructed to relate what she sees: what she then describes is the next or a future shot in the video. (This game is reminiscent of the image/sound set-up in Hollis Frampton’s (Nostalgia) [1971].) The scene can only be settled or verified for us later, when we see the shot in question ourselves – by which time something else is being described. Or, employing a tactic dear to much Modernist art practice (Chantal Akerman’s Je, tu, il, elle [1974], Bette Gordon’s Empty Suitcases [1980], Marguerite Duras’s India Song [1975]), a scene (already fragmented into a serial chain of gestures and poses) is doubled by its description, narrated by a speaking voice located elsewhere which supposedly sees or controls the actions that unfold. The two levels of the scene, however, increasingly cleave away from one another, chronically mismatch, contradict each other – what is their exact relation of coincidence or mutual cause-and-effect? From where is such a scene narrated? Hence, the virtual chorus of different voices, some of which seem to set a scene in motion as we watch it, some of which seem to precede its formulation, others clearly after or beyond the scene (even from the audience) that invade David Chesworth’s work, from record (Layer On Layer, 1981) to film (Lost in Space, 1981), from installation (Transposition: Mirror View, 1981) to performance (Industry and Leisure, 1982). * * * I come upon this Lacanian treatment of India Song by Elizabeth Lyon in the journal Camera Obscura and it bothers me: “The first part of the film sets up a circulation among positions of subject and object, the look and looked at, characteristic of the structure of the fantasy where the subject is at once included in the scene and excluded from it.”4 Attempting to break up the coherence of the scene, as Duras’s film so radically and irrevocably does, the article ends


Mysteries of Cinema

up merely reinstating its logic by expanding its field: in and off screen are tied together by the gaze which traverses them, the fantasy which structures and unites them, a modest, alternating swing between inclusion and exclusion. What Duras called the “fundamental way the film casts doubt”5 escapes the certainty of this analysis – that a voice may never be referring to the space it accompanies, that the characters named may not be the characters seen. India Song is thus brought back by Lyons’s analysis – with enormous loss of its textual power – into the limits of a scene that it never really attempts to narrate. * * * In a scene, all objects and props are strictly functional: they are drawn into its dynamics, its violence. The scene is like a theatrical tableau, the set carefully arranged so as to virtually announce the sequence of events that will unfold in rapid succession. In the third of Graeme Davis’s performance pieces titled Scripts (1981) at the George Paton Gallery in Melbourne, a scene is thus arranged, excessively, melodramatically: in the foreground, a man obsessively washes his hands and arms in a basin for ten minutes; in the background, ever present and overpowering in its stench, a hospital bed covered with shit and, next to it, a tray of white plastic bottles. (Intentionally or not, it is somewhat reminiscent of the bedwetting tableau in David Lynch’s The Grandmother [1970].) We wait for, anticipate, guess at the eventual pay-off: the man walks back, and proceeds to cover the shit methodically with talcum powder from the bottles. With the action completed and the narrative possibilities of the set exhausted, he exits. Elsewhere, this extreme functionalism of the scene is dispersed, scattered via the process that Marie-Claire Ropars calls the “the trace’s ceaseless work”.6 In Yvonne Rainer’s Working Title: Journeys from Berlin/1971 (1980), any object seen or referred to in one moment of the film will, illogically and arbitrarily, reappear at another moment – a libidinal economy to replace the strict narrative economy that finds its tightest organisation in the scene. Or mise en scène becomes, in the familiar practice of the Nouveau Roman, mise en abyme – scenes within which other scenes, other representational traces (photos, films, writings) are produced, and are later foregrounded, circulated, made to generate further scenes, resulting in overlapping and dovetailing that undermine any secure origin or first instance – any primal scene – that could ground or anchor the text (Resnais’s Muriel ou le temps d’un retour [1963], Chesworth’s Industry and Leisure). * * *



Could there be pleasure in the spinning of a fiction, the assembly of its elements, without the obligations and constraints imposed by the eventual delivery of a scene? For some women filmmakers, this question is one that implies a certain sexual difference within modes of fiction. Luce Irigaray: “In their sexual life, at least up until now, most men tend to structure sexuality as a scene – their scene – and repeat it almost indefinitely”.7 By analogy, sexual intercourse is a narrative trajectory, and ejaculation is the perfect scene – for men, who have need of such scenes. For women, pleasure through fiction is an entirely different business, a nonchalant stroll along the scene route, where scenes are under no pressure to occur. The space or setting of a possible fiction can be left alone to assert itself gently, and long expanses of time can hollow out the exigencies of narrative to the point at which lucky spectators can reach that jouissance that Roland Barthes promised was on the other side of boredom … Although the theory of this is dubious, some of the work that has resulted from it is tremendous, such as Chantal Akerman’s films, or Maria Kozic’s Super-8 short Manless (1981). Je, tu, il, elle is an extended commentary upon the notion of the scene and the various sexual metaphors it encompasses – from the woman alone in a flat with which she can literally never settle, ceaselessly reorganising her space as if to indefinitely postpone the arrival of a scene; to the man whose masturbation and ejaculation (the fastest and most condensed narrative line in the film) is kept off-screen, below frame, marked as other, male, conventional. Akerman’s project has always been centred around the idea of the scene – whether to defuse its power within the languorous almost-fictions of Hotel Monterey (1972) and News from Home (1976); to relativise, thus reducing the distance between, conventional types of scenes (peeling potatoes and taking a bath as exciting as prostitution and murder in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles [1975]); or to use the scene as given, to deliver it – but then offer something unexpected, excessive, taboo (the energetic lesbian sex scene that concludes Je, tu, il, elle). In Manless, one mode of fiction is referenced – a story about loss, about a woman who lacks a man, a story that thus defines women as a function of, and in relation to, men – and quite another constitutes the actual text of the film: the story or scene is literally never seen. What we get are particular, very concretely and sensuously conveyed passages of time, pauses, moments in which the plot drains away and the setting, the gestures, the sounds work free of their mere narrative function. * * *


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When I’m in the thick of a scene, I’m completely there, everything’s firing at once. I’m totally keyed up to the present moment. The tension is incredible. It’s what I’ve been waiting and preparing for. So we have it out, everything on the table. Afterwards, I feel embarrassed. Scenes can be kind of corny. You’re trying to be spontaneous, but you sound calculated. It’s all been worked out beforehand, in your head. You go through the motions when the opportunity comes. I sound like someone out of a movie. So does she. That’s just the way it comes out. You think to yourself later: “Did I really just say that?” * * * Maybe you do not have to skip the scene in order to deal with it. The scene is, in content as in form, completely congealed, conventional, predictable. There are many, different ways of presenting or representing scenes that insinuate a subtle distance between the énonciation and the énoncé. Some Modernist fictions are nothing but scenes, dispensing with the narrative filler that would give them an individualised location and weight (Mark Rappaport’s The Scenic Route [1978]). Or the scene can be offered as raw material, a pre-text awaiting a reading, in the double sense of a dramatisation and a subsequent interpretation – as in Paul Taylor’s performance Play-Reading (1982), in which the text of Samuel Beckett’s Play (1963) is projected onto a transparent screen for both performers and audience to read. The scene, when it comes, can appear strangely displaced, at one remove, when all that motivates it is convention – when it arrives purely and solely as an effect of inevitability, system, forced necessity. That is how all of Godard’s early films (Vivre sa vie [1962], Le mépris [1963], Pierrot le fou [1965]) end, with those strange, disembodied, generic flourishes that seem to belong to another film entirely: pristine, no-nonsense scenes in which a heroine is gunned down, a hero blows his head off with dynamite, or a runaway couple meets Destiny at an intersection car smash. A curious, subversive shadow of doubt hangs over these scenes: are they actually happening, inside the diegesis, to these characters? If not, then where, what, why are they? In Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980), a similar play returns. Every reviewer presumes to describe its final scene in the following terms: the principal male character, Paul (Jacques Dutronc), is run over by a car and dies, leaving the other characters to walk off into the rest of their lives. In two shots, what you actually get is this: a figure being hit by a car and falling, in slow motion; then the same actor lying on his back, in the street, with his eyes wide open, saying, “I didn’t think it would be like this … I thought my life would flash before my eyes”. The best one can say, by way of description, is that somebody is disappointed that a classic death scene has not eventuated.



Inscribed here is a distance between a social subject (like Paul, like Godard, like you, like me) and the words, the scenes, the destiny prescribed for that subject within an interlocking series of systems – the film industry, narrative form, conventions of genre, audience expectation, personal ambition, family life, and so on. To repeat a familiar scene is not necessarily to reproduce that scene; there are all kinds of sneaky reasons for agreeing to deliver the goods that have little or nothing to do with (variously or in conjunction) sincerity, belief, self-effacement, or being an unwitting symptom of the ideological determinations of history. And we do not always need Modernism to make this type of distinction: in Hollywood’s great, comedic succession of Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Frank Tashlin, Billy Wilder, Jerry Lewis and Blake Edwards, there is the same doubt, the same distance, the same corrosive hollowness that eats away at the heart of the scene. * * * Write an autobiography about one part of your life, selecting six or seven intense episodes or scenes that contribute to your central idea. Unify your theme by centring it on one person, one time, one feeling, one problem, one summer, one place, one impression of yourself. In each main episode, include one dramatic moment in which you use many images of place and person to sweep your reader into your story. Build up each moment with the following resources: 1. Time of day, season of year 2. Images of places 3. Images of person 4. Images of action 5. An image of touch 6. Bit of dialogue 7. Colours 8. Sounds 9. Introspection 10 Similes and metaphors Your topics are: 1. My Dad and I: Five Moments 2. How a Friendship Grew: Five Moments 3. My Definition of Love 4. Our Kitchen: A Place of Happy Moments


Mysteries of Cinema

5. My Ambition and How it Grew 6. A Teacher in My Life 7. A Job I Disliked: Five Moments 8. My Greatest Influence in Life 9. My Greatest Decision and How I Made It 10. My First Meeting with Death 11. The Most Important Year of My Life 12. A Turning Point in My Life8


Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

Don M. Wolfe, Language Arts and Life Patterns (New York: Odyssey Press, 1972), pp. 447-448. See Marc Vernet, “Freud: effets spéciaux – Mise en scène: U.S.A.”, Communications, no. 23 (1975), pp. 223-234. See Pascal Bonitzer (trans. Fabrice Ziolkowski), “Partial Vision: Film and the Labyrinth”, Wide Angle, Vol. 4 No. 4 (1981), pp. 56-63. Elisabeth Lyon, “The Cinema of Lol V. Stein”, reprinted in Constance Penley (ed.), Feminism and Film Theory (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 265. Marguerite Duras (trans. Edith Cohen & Peter Connor), “Notes on India Song”, in Duras by Duras (San Francisco: City Lights, 1987), p. 15. Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, “Muriel as Text”, Film Reader, no. 3 (1978), p. 267. Luce Irigaray quoted in Marie-Françoise Hans & Gilles Lapouge (eds), Les femmes, la pornographie, l’érotisme (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1978), p. 48. Wolfe, Language Arts, p. 506.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).


Wishful Thinking Abstract This 1985 essay examines the Utopian impulse in cinematic narratives. The fantasy of Utopia, or the dream of a perfect world, offers a way both of grasping the problems of contemporary society, and also of imagining how things could potentially be better. At the same time, the type of dreaming encouraged by Utopian reveries is countered, within Western culture, by a more stringently realistic, sometimes cynical, extravagantly Dystopian point of view. The ongoing cultural conflict between these two tendencies is traced in an analysis of the 1954 musical Brigadoon, Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984), and Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen’s independent feature Crystal Gazing (1982). The critical theories of Utopia formulated by Richard Dyer and Fredric Jameson are discussed. Keywords: Utopia, imagination, musicals, fantasy, dance

A rarely seen Raúl Ruiz tele-film addressing Utopia (1975) bears a subtitle announcing its tale of “the scattered body and the world upside down”. In it, two travelling salesmen search for the scattered pieces of a dead man’s body, with the mythical intuition that each piece represents a separate aspect of Utopia. Presumably, once this body can be reconstituted and reanimated, the age of Utopia begins, with a place appearing out of nowhere, erupting in the midst of normal society like a Shangri-La or a Brigadoon. We can hardly imagine that Ruiz, or indeed almost any other modern filmmaker, would actually take us all the way to this magic conclusion. His allegory of Utopia is one already couched in absurdity, disbelief and disavowal. Bits of the body might get lost; the noble explorers will probably go crazy; and a final scrappy, half-hearted attempt to piece together perfection will no doubt render the opposite result, some monstrous mutation or ultimate world catastrophe: Dystopia, the sad inversion of all dreams, the crushing last word.

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH05


Mysteries of Cinema

This is reminiscent of R.A. Lafferty’s tale of archaeologists in “Continued on Next Rock”. The archaeologists stare so long at their discoveries and believe so fervently in the immutable truths etched and revealed in stone that they do not notice the writing on the rocks actually changing, and the landscape around them breaking up and becoming fluid, nor do they perceive that the story narrated from rock to rock is twisting itself into an ironic, perverted commentary-reflection on their own lives and dreams.1 Utopia turns and eats up those who desire it – particularly those who wish to find and hold it, or endeavour to build it. In another Dystopian allegory by Lafferty, the novel Past Master (1968), science fiction whimsy meets the classical history of the Utopian urge: town planners of the future decide to bring back from the past Sir Thomas More himself, in order that his sketches and dreams might finally be realised, materialised. Of course, everything turns out badly.

A Difficult Desire Alternatives, hopes, wishes – these are the stuff of utopia, the sense that things could be better, that something other than what is can be imagined and maybe realised.2

We never talk about real Utopias, only about allegories of Utopia – symbolic arguments and essays that address themselves to a desire, a desire for and a barely organised drive toward Utopia: somewhere else, some place better. This is what the allegories, in their dramatic-essayistic way, endlessly debate. A false desire? A productive desire? A necessary desire? An unreal desire? A liberating desire? Herbert Marcuse deplored the “atrophy of the utopian imagination in our society”.3 And it is precisely imagination that is at stake – the Utopian impulse. An actual, physical Utopia on a grand scale will neither be here nor there, now or ever – that perfect environment, built to the specifications of desire, can never be. We will only ever read its allegory in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and science fiction novels, or see it blink in and out of existence in Hollywood musicals, glossy advertisements and the television series Fantasy Island (1977-1984). This is why, in a sense, the early 1980s rage for materialising dystopian visions – the wet, decaying, malfunctioning society of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), the barbaric, gang-war riddled, post-Holocaust ruins of Mad Max 2 (George Miller, 1981) and any number of its rip-offs – is as irrelevant to the real issue of Utopian thought as all those piddling, cut-rate, manifested utopias (nature reserves, fun palaces, pleasure domes) that litter

Wishful Thinking


our consumerist, industrialist society. The place and function of imagination is not contingent upon the existence or non-existence of such worlds. Desire, dreaming, fantasy: we have rarely known what to do with them in cultural and political theory. Or rather, we have tended to point them too far in either of two directions. Fantasy is celebrated as a subjective be-all and end-all, an individualistic triumph over a mean and alienating environment, or it is damned as mystificatory, escapist, itself a product and perpetuator of alienation. It is hard to know what to do with this daunting dualism: if it can be taken apart, and how; if there is a meaningful mid-way point between celebration and dismissal that is convincing and satisfying. In Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) – one of the three Utopian fables considered here alongside Crystal Gazing (Laura Mulvey & Peter Wollen, 1982) and The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola, 1984) – a line of dialogue pinpoints the problem. A vivacious woman, Meg (Dody Heath), belonging to the magical, out-of-time world of Brigadoon, comes on strong to Jeff (Van Johnson); she projects onto this cynical, beaten-up city slicker all her desires for a young, strong, robust man. Jeff reels back and lets fly with this observation: “That’s either a deliberate lie – or wishful thinking!” Caught between the luxuriousness and longing of wishful thinking and the brute facts of a big lie: this is, in a nutshell, the nervous space out of which the discourse of Utopia makes itself heard. It is a discourse not of plans and projects, but of allegories, fictional forms in which problems and anxieties can be broached and thought – allegories of imagination and of the possible.

Stairway to Heaven Adopting the framework and attitude offered by Richard Dyer’s programmatic 1977 essay “Entertainment and Utopia”, we can spin out the implications and possibilities of popular art that is labelled “escapist”. 4 Buried in that word is an entire scenario. Escape from what? How? Into what else? Utopian entertainments – supremely, the Hollywood musical comedy – are necessarily premised on a tacit acknowledgment of painful, social contradictions and problems. Before forgetting those problems in magical transcendence – the idiot grin of a happy ending – they have first to face them and symbolise them. Raymond Durgnat said it well in 1973: discussing Minnelli’s musical comedy Bells Are Ringing (1960), he suggested that what makes certain films so keenly fascinating is the intuitive way that, while “accepting all that is true in the conformist myth”, they nonetheless “reveal at least the


Mysteries of Cinema

outlines of those parts of reality against which the myth is braced”.5 Dyer, for his part, maps out the field of social problems in relation to which Utopian art offers its imaginary solutions – abundance in place of poverty, energy (love and work combined) in place of exhaustion and alienation, intensity in place of dreariness, transparency in place of manipulation and community in place of fragmentation. We must never forget that this is a paradigm with both giveaway lacks – there are plenty of political and cultural struggles that mainstream entertainment rarely gets around to admitting into its fictions – and a tender trap. For every problem capitalism acknowledges, it has its own preferred solution, thus leading its social subjects right back into the heart of the system through well-tried safety valves: consumerism, individualism, all those tackily mythical illusions of personal freedom (“If you want something badly enough, you’ll get it!”). Yet we have to hold on to the positivity of Utopian fictions, for “to draw attention to the gap between what is and what could be, is, ideologically speaking, playing with fire”,6 and we need to emphasise the progressive insights they allow – even if they are insights that, in the works themselves, are only half-formed, at the very point of being disavowed, drenched in a disabling melancholia or smothered by an impossible hope. That hope is writ large in the happy ending of a musical such as Brigadoon – an ending forced beyond any regard for the logic of the fiction. Melancholia, too, is registered in this ending: in the unbridgeable gap between the f ilm’s modern metropolis of New York City – laceratingly superficial, banal, claustrophobic – and the wistful memory of an ideal that disrupts this urban scene in its irrepressible bursts and swells of music and singing. Such sad longings animate Utopian fictions – not simply the desire to escape, but also, and even more acutely, the desire to fulfil oneself and others, to realise potentials and to release bottled-up energies. One is thus led to wonder whether poignancy might not ever be a force, a spring to action, or if it only leads back to lassitude, despair, blockage, a death-drive. Does Utopian desire ever have a hold on power, or does it always spin itself out in the aftermath of a separation from the means that would lead to ends, a denial of access to action?

Reality Wreckers The Cotton Club is a special Utopian fable, insofar as it can be read as providing a complex allegory of the very need for Utopia. It does so through a richly symbolic description and articulation of the conditions that give

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rise to this desire. The film expresses the need for a free space – a magic place free of contradiction and tension – that serves to define Coppola’s own intense relation to and investment in cinema itself as a medium. Think of One from the Heart (1982) – “filmed entirely on the sets of Zoetrope studio”, as the end credit proudly boasts – with its vision of cinema as a laboratory space in which differences between people and distances in time and space can eventually be dissolved. This vision is symbolised within the fiction by the junkyard “Reality Wreckers”, allowing the birth of play, desire and miraculous bricolage. The Cotton Club – both as a film and as a place – is another such free space in which, finally, every partition and constraint is dissolved. Without these restraints, desire explodes upon the death of mob boss Dutch Schultz (James Remar). An ecstatic vision is produced: there is a white and black, multicultural community; there is no distinction between a performing stage and a train station platform; energy abounds; and there is authentic openness between previously separated brothers, lovers, families. In The Cotton Club, “life aspires to the condition of music”,7 of harmony and free expressiveness – and succeeds. Working back from this quintessentially Utopian moment, however, The Cotton Club holds down a tough line in its drawing of the field of miserable conditions that need to be transcended. Physically, space is not free – the film demarcates all the hierarchies of command, control and possession that parcel up the space of the Cotton Club and rigidly direct its flow of segregated bodies. Emotionally, the characters have to resort to numerous strategies of bluff, deception and disguise, putting immense strain on their relationships. The film is resolutely unromantic in its grasp of a pragmatics of social relations – a need to survive via “dancing” (“I dance in the underworld. Where do you dance, Sandman?”) and improvisation, giving rise to subterfuge, coolness, necessarily selfish plans to make good at the expense of another. “Why do you pretend?” – “Because I can”: a refrain repeated across several pairs of characters in the film, where “can” means “must” with reference to the dominant relations of power. But the fiction looks both backward (the wonderful scene of the old black dancers’s bar) and forward to a point in time when transparency is again possible, when friendship can again be acknowledged (the reunion of the dancing brothers) and personal destiny is again in the hands of free individuals (the passage of Vera [Diane Lane] and Dixie [Richard Gere] away from the control of Schultz). There are those for whom Coppola’s film would register as nothing but unremitting hokum, however entertaining; it would inexorably fall into


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that most despised category of Utopias: the nostalgic. Nostalgia is sticky and dreamy; it grasps onto fake memories of a golden age that never was. Nostalgia ignores the present and fabricates escapism, conjuring up times and places of innocence anywhere they can pass as half-convincing: decades misremembered as golden and glitzy (the 1920s, 1930s, 1950s …), minus their socioeconomic turbulences. Think of Meet Me in St Louis (Minnelli, 1944), Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978), Squizzy Taylor (Kevin James Dobson, 1982), or American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973). Then there are the savage inversions of nostalgia that are relentlessly unromantic, such as The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971), Thieves Like Us (Robert Altman, 1974), or Emperor of the North (Robert Aldrich, 1973). Yet, these gestures of anti-nostalgia (however fine as films), like the fictions of dystopia, somewhat miss the point at stake in the cultural phenomenon of escapism: by fiercely insisting on their representation of a real past, they forget that a nostalgic movie such as The Cotton Club is first and foremost a symbolic, allegorical gesture in and for the present. There are several voices of realism that speak up in chorus against the Utopian imagination, pointing out the “big lie”, discounting the potential efficacy of dreams. “Utopia, of course, is ‘no place’”;8 and “no one has been able to make it happen”.9 Wishful thinking falters, according to this realist outlook, because it cannot actually take us anywhere, cannot lead to anything, cannot establish a process or a mechanism whereby change might materially come about. Friedrich Engels coined a famous and seemingly deathless dualism in his title Socialism: Utopian and Scientific – in which the former is disparaged and the latter adopted. Utopian thought is often cast out as a species of religion, sharing all its worst traits: crippling belief, blind faith, hope against hope, longing for miracles. A particular strain in Marxism has long militated against Utopian thought precisely in these terms, giving rise to that gesture wherein labelling something Utopian (or Romantic) registers as an automatic term of abuse. To be sure, in a classic Hollywood, Utopian fable such as Brigadoon, Paradise is something you just find yourself in – if you are lucky enough, if your love and faith is strong enough, if you can prove your allegiance to a particular spiritual code. Fictional Utopias so often become systems that are even more rigid than those to which they ostensibly provide an alternative. The Utopia of Brigadoon, as a place and as a community, is shown to be founded on the exclusion of radical fringe elements (cynics, adventurers, those bored with perpetual perfection), and disturbing rituals of scapegoating (sacrifice of the Minister who, once upon a time, pleaded with God that Brigadoon be removed from time so as to keep out the “dangers

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from the outside world”; sacrifice of anyone who wishes to leave for, if they do, the spell is broken). At the very end of the story, Jeff (who has described Brigadoon as his “prison”) and Tommy/Gene Kelly (who believes that his love can bring Brigadoon back) arrive at the magic moment in time and space in which the happy ending materialises; while the camera follows Tommy into the arms of his retrieved beloved, into the centre of Brigadoon, it can only leave Jeff at the border, lost and disavowed. This is a desperate Utopian solution, achieved at any cost. A favourite conservative, realist fiction of the 1950s indulges and humours Utopian fantasies and related personal reveries, but only to the extent that they could finally be returned to the bosom of society, utterly domesticated. Judy Holliday as Gladys in It Should Happen to You (George Cukor, 1954) dares to put herself on billboards in New York; the film finds this cute for awhile but finally gives her desire the no-go. Doubtlessly speaking for the dominant ideology, such fictions only want to pose the Utopian impulse as an allegory of the individual, of his or her legitimate needs – but also of the necessary limits that must be set on the sphere of personal action. That Gladys might stand for a class, a gender, or a sensibility, and that a trans-personal desire might also be legitimate: this was unthinkable, impossible for a particular slice of cultural discourse at that moment in history. Utopia, Limited; or, The Flowers of Progress – the highly expressive title of an opera written by Gilbert and Sullivan in 1893. It is the story of King Paramount and his South Pacific island of Utopia “modelled on the British Empire”. Six Englishmen – those Flowers of Progress – who represent the highest achievements of British culture are brought to the island as living examples for the subjects of this Utopia. Unfortunately, the Flowers do their work so well that all laws are perfect; there is no crime, no illness, no war or poverty. Life is suddenly very boring, so the islanders rebel. Zara, the King’s daughter, then remembers the one aspect of the British Empire that this Utopia forgot to include: Party Government. All will be well, she reasons, once one Party is there to inevitably undo all that the other Party has done; legislature will come to a standstill, sickness, lawsuits, crime, and war will return – “in short, general and unexampled prosperity!” Utopia, Limited; or, The Flowers of Progress is another cutely satirical allegory of Utopia, this time as a social system, and another jocular return to a status quo, to the ethic of realism – with all the dice loaded in advance, since Utopia can only be imagined here as an imperfect mirror or imitation of the Empire.


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Dreams and Redundancy Although sometimes weakly realised as a film, Mulvey and Wollen’s Crystal Gazing remains one of the most lucid contemporary allegories of the Utopian sensibility. Following several simultaneous and interconnecting narrative trajectories, it lays out different symbolisations and conceptualisations of the problem of Utopian thought – the problem of having to decide between wishful thinking and the big lie. Crystal gazing – peering into a dim future, speculating hopefully or nihilistically on its outcome – is the film’s metaphor for this thought, and as a motif it links clearly escapist, cultural Utopianisms (illustrations for science fiction stories) with political movements based on campaigns that organise their actions (such as industrial strikes) and mobilise their forces around a necessary projection into the future, a belief in the possibility of change. Mulvey and Wollen want to count these different Utopianisms as part of the same, basic, essential impulse. They resist the mutually exclusive tendencies to either celebrate or disregard it. “Despair, like hope, is a vanity”, runs the final quotation (from Lu Xun); the film is committed to a necessarily openended here-and-nowness that is still somewhat unthinkable, and empirically unrepresentable, within their own cinematic fiction. Although Crystal Gazing may want to just get down to describing the variable movements of power and desire within social life, it, too, becomes caught in and fascinated by a poignant reflectiveness in relation to the unresolved problem of Utopia. It cannot help getting a little sadly poetic and wistful – and hence wishful. None of the Utopian trajectories of Crystal Gazing’s characters end well. Neil (Gavin Richards), the science fiction illustrator, is shocked to find his fantastic, invented worlds troubled by the ugly, exterior facts of economic rationalisation and retrenchment. Unemployed, he drifts – not entirely unhappily – through a series of chance encounters and experiences, improvisations of various sorts. But it is chance (in the form of a bus carrying strikers to a factory site) that eventually kills him, ironically enough at his fledgling moment of political “consciousness” (or at least curiosity). On the other hand, the story of Kim (Lora Logic), living out her dream to be a pop star, comes in the form of a familiar, Marxist lesson: the more she approaches her personal ideal for the future, the less human and less connected she becomes. She is identified, finally, only by an assortment of consumerist props and accessories: phone, TV set, a rock video, high-tech musical instruments. Utopianism is here damned as escapism and alienation; dreaming is merely an empty mirage of fame and stardom in the society of the spectacle.

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The tale of intellectual Julian (Jeff Rawle) is the grimmest of all. He believes in a Utopia of desire that would be opposed to, and beyond, the empires of sense, reason, language and power. He has a theoretical problem – how will this Utopia emerge, how can it ever be spoken? – and a practical one: no one will listen to him, and his PhD assessors fail him as a misguided eccentric. Driven to despair, he kills himself, leaving behind a videotape envoi accusing society of all its ills and crimes against desire. It is a gesture as esoteric as anything he has ever done or said. His vision of Utopia – the film seems to say in resignation – is inaccessible. Crystal Gazing is a sad, wise movie that knows its own doubts, confusions and ambivalence. One end-point it reaches is simply a re-posing of the wishful thinking/big lie dualism: one of the fiction’s few survivors, who ends up at least still recognisably human, realises the emptiness and banality of her own forms of crystal gazing – astrology, weather maps, microscopes – and asks herself what she saw when she looked into Neil. “Dreams … redundancy”: a bleak stand-off. In the central dialogue between Julian and Neil, the existence of a Utopia of Desire is doubted. “How would you speak it?”, wonders Julian and, moreover, how would you convince the British Labour Party that desire is worth fighting for? Neil’s response to this latter question is pragmatic, improvisatory: he suggests to Julian that he put his problem into a story, an allegory, “then maybe people would understand.” Crystal Gazing realises that fiction is treated with much well-founded suspicion these days, as something inherently repressive and conservative. “No More Fiction”, declares one of Lora’s songs. Yet, the film holds out for the here-and-nowness of fiction, its capacity to speak, communicate, articulate – and inspire. Fiction, ultimately, is the film’s own Utopia: it wants to believe in fiction as a free space in which problems can be thought out aloud today, rather than projected and dissolved into the desirous becomings of tomorrow. Fiction as fable, allegory, even fairy tale – always a little absurd (as the film’s own fairy tale section makes clear), but not, for all that, totally ridiculous or useless. Yet, on another level, this simply reiterates the same, old problem: just what is the use-value of a Utopian imagination?

Room to Move Fredric Jameson, summarising the schema of the great analyst of Utopias, Ernst Bloch, suggests that there are two modes of the presentation of “notyet-being”: a dramatic Utopian mode, which involves “the movement of the world in time toward the future’s ultimate moment”, and a lyrical Utopian


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mode, “the more spatial notion of that adequation of object to subject which must characterise that moment’s content”.10 The dramatic mode is the more classical and familiar one, involving visions of future worlds, dreams of perfection, plans for organising and building a new system. The lyrical mode has been the object of my concern here – partly in the hunch that lyricism (wistfulness, reflectiveness, allegory) may be among the few activities left to us as citizens. The adequation of object to subject: what is suggested by this phrase is a particular situation wherein a social and cultural environment is already given. Although its broad details and determinations are largely in place (hence no dream of overall change or revolution appears possible), there still exists just enough room to alter and vary the relations between individual subjects and the objects that press upon them from all sides. This is what I have called the free space, precarious, fragile, temporary: that gap or pause for breath that opens between people and their world, allowing reflection and insight, survival and improvisation. The Utopian imagination is all about the dream of finding or creating a series of free spaces within the social order – projected symbolically as a physical space such as the Cotton Club, or more pragmatically as the activity of storytelling in Crystal Gazing. In a sense, we can now understand much of the recent investment in the idea of popular culture itself as precisely the expression of a Utopian desire to find and demarcate one such free space – the last fun palace wherein individual choice and play is still possible, a delirious mutation within consumerist capitalism; but also a zone of disbelief from which one can question and laugh at all manner of dogmas and certainties. The adequation of subject of object: what better way to describe those pop writings whose simple, desperate desire is to assert, hopefully, that life is still bearably liveable, that some kind of creativity is possible? But the final question to the Utopian imagination is the hardest, toughest one of all to hack: can free spaces really exist? Are we fooling ourselves to think that they do? Is the imaginative perception of them merely another well-regulated diversion that distracts and disables us? Does the act of symbolically dreaming the future – and hence batting around the problems of the present – become sufficient unto itself, ensuring that nothing ever actually happens as a result? There is no good, easy answer to these questions. So I want, a little sadly, just to leave the problem of wishful thinking there, lodged between the terms of the real and the ideal, not willing and not able to fully inhabit, or to identify with, either term. (1985)

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Notes 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

In R.A. Lafferty, Strange Doings (New York: Daw Books, 1972); also see my “Lafferty Looper” in Amelia Barikin & Helen Hughes (eds), Making Worlds: Art and Science Fiction (Melbourne: Surpllus, 2013), pp. 55-61. Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 18. Quoted in Joan Copjec, “Crystal Gazing: Seeing Red”, Millennium Film Journal, no. 13 (Fall/Winter 1983-1984), p. 32. Dyer, Only Entertainment, pp. 17-34. Raymond Durgnat, “Bells are Ringing”, in Gregg Rickman (ed.), The Film Comedy Reader (New York: Limelight, 2001), p. 236. Dyer, Only Entertainment, pp. 25-26. Stuart Cunningham, In the Vernacular: A Generation of Australian Culture and Controversy (St Lucia: Queensland University Press, 2008), p. 65. Ibid. Ross Harley, personal correspondence (1985). Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: 20th Century Dialectical Theories of Literature (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 146.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

6. Entities and Energies Abstract This essay examines the relationship between two seemingly very different films, Sidney J. Furie’s horror movie The Entity (1982), and the avant-garde short by Peter Tscherkassky, Outer Space (2001), which creatively utilises as its “found footage” a print of The Entity. Expert commentators often assume that The Entity is a sordid, trashy, mediocre Hollywood genre film, while Tscherkassky’s reworking of it is a savvy, critical achievement that redeems such trash for the purposes of experimental art. However, one can put the films in a much closer and more sympathetic relationship, using the same theoretical tools to analyse both. J-F Lyotard’s re-reading of Freudian psychoanalysis provides a theoretical framework for the investigation of drives and energies in cinema, whether experimental or mainstream. Keywords: Avant-garde, psychoanalysis, energy, drives, horror

It’s hard to make people understand that cinema is always poetic. – Raúl Ruiz1

In late 1980, the American scholar Brian Henderson came to a screen studies conference in Perth, Australia, and delivered a keynote lecture on “Film Theory and the Avant-Garde”. It pursued a line of thought Henderson had previewed in his then just-released book – one that has remained significant to me every year since – titled, plainly but powerfully, A Critique of Film Theory. In essence, Henderson’s talk argued that so-called classical film theory (from its earliest pioneers up through Christian Metz in the 1960s) was proving itself, more egregiously every day, unable to deal with the fact, the history and the challenge of experimental or avant-garde film (and video). This inability was due to the unavoidable truth that, almost a priori, film theory excluded most experimentation from its definition of the film

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH06


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object and its proposed “essence”. For these theories, cinema remained – in business-as-usual mode – a matter of storytelling, pictorial representation, and the illusion of fictional characters in their world. Although semiotic-andbeyond approaches (including Metz’s own later work) had intensively and critically examined the codes of narrative by 1980, and regularly gestured toward “other”, alternative cinemas, it nonetheless ended up “preserv[ing] the centrality of narrative film” in the relentless bias of its analyses, case studies and curricula.2 Indeed, even Metz himself, in his tour of Australia two years after Henderson’s visit, publicly responded to a stern question from Laleen Jayamanne in the crowd about his “erasure” of the avant-garde (during an unpublished lecture on “Film Between Novel, Theatre and Poem”) with a typically Gallic shrug: “The avant-garde, ah yes, the avant-garde … Well, the avant-garde does not need me!” At the Perth podium that day in 1980, the soft-spoken, rather shy Mr Henderson posed these stirring, indeed revolutionary, questions to us: Can film theory make explicit its tacit definition of object and then alter it to include this vast realm? Can it do so and still remain film theory? Or will the attempt to include the avant-garde cinema explode film theory and turn it into something else? Will the attempt hasten the completion of the critique of film theory by inducing in it a kind of nervous breakdown or a catastrophe in the mathematical sense?3

At that precise moment in 1980 I had recently turned 21; it was the first academic conference I had ever attended. And those remarks by Henderson are just the sort of fighting words you long to hear when you are 21 and (frankly) a bit of a punk. Inside myself (since I was a rather quiet, demure punk), I greeted this call for the catastrophic, nervous breakdown of established film theory with wild glee – and intense anticipation. Surely it was due to happen imminently! Henderson himself hailed from a hothouse laboratory of 1970s avant-gardism in Buffalo (working alongside Steina and Woody Vasulka, Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad): a context that had exposed to him, in a striking way, the severe limitations of film theory, whether classical or radical. So the anarchic cry welled up within me: let it all burn! I waited for this magnificent conflagration to take place; 28 years later, I am still waiting. The existence of practical, avant-garde experimentation – although it was incorporated here and there into writing and teaching about cinema, sometimes very well – did not, alas, precipitate the total collapse of the canons and institutions of film theory. My only solace (admittedly rather solipsistic) was the accidental discovery, years later, of Bengali filmmaker

Entities and Energies


Ritwik Ghatak’s weary conclusion, penned in the early 1960s, to his critique of Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film: “Perhaps one should not theorise”. 4 But let us return, with renewed vigour, to the challenge that avant-garde cinema (in all its forms and mutations) eternally sets for film theory – and also for the more workaday practice of film criticism. My particular drive, in this regard, is a bug I undoubtedly picked up from being recently reimmersed in the work (both writing and painting) of Manny Farber, who passed away in August 2008: how can we interrelate, on an equal footing, avant-garde and narrative work in our analyses without continuing to bolster the supremacy of narrative film, nor creating a ghetto (as too often happens) for experimentation? Farber is an inspiring model here. We can sense, and closely trace in his work, that, for him, the same questions apply, no matter what kind of filmobject seizes his attention: the problems of how to make a colour come alive, how to work a space, how to offset a gesture, or how to design a frame – all of these elements are on Farber’s agenda, whether the example is by Chantal Akerman or Raoul Walsh, Michael Snow or Anthony Mann, Stan Brakhage or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. True, he tended mostly to some form of narrative/ representational cinema; but pure abstraction (as his early art criticism shows) was always, as an extreme point, part of his aesthetic system.5 This drive in me connects to another, even broader one, concerning the particular aesthetic economies that tend to govern how we go about our business, whether as analysts or critics of film. This is a complex area, but to put it in a nutshell: how do we choose (consciously or otherwise) to interrelate form and content, style and subject, or form and material in cinema? A concentration on narrative film invariably channels these assumptions in a particular direction, and places the elements in a fairly fixed hierarchy: style is what expresses meaning, embodies a narrative, and gives form to a fictional world. Conversely, jumping to the avant-garde side of the question poses, in many people, an immediate blockage since, without (often) the anchor of many (or any) such representational elements, what do we have left to discuss, exactly? The idea of an economy, interrelation, or hierarchy can disappear altogether; at least, it seemed that way to even a sympathetic follower of the avant-garde such as Serge Daney, in his reference to the brute, perceptual “primary processes” first theorised by Sigmund Freud: Probably the position of the critic is no longer justified at all in the case of these [experimental] films, because these films don’t need mediation, since most of them play directly on primary processes. It’s one big difference between them and the European avant-garde (the one which


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interests us [i.e., Cahiers du cinéma] most: Godard, Straub) where any play on primary processes (on perception) has real impact only if it is also brought to bear on elements of thought, of the signified.6

This comment hails from an interview conducted by Bill Krohn in 1977; around that moment, Jean-François Lyotard was contemplating the same issue in relation to how one might reformulate the concept of mise en scène (and Freudian dream theory itself) in order to adequately deal with something like Michael Snow’s La région centrale (1971), a veritable monument of the decade’s avant-garde production. Lyotard fervently believed that Freud’s later model of psychic drives (as formulated in the 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle) was more suitable for describing and tracing the work of the unconscious (in all domains of art and life) than the earlier system outlined in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899) – a system bound very closely (in the philosopher’s view) to a quite classical notion of how mise en scène worked in the theatre and opera of Freud’s time and place, precisely as a procedure of “secondary elaboration” that communicates or expresses hidden, coded, and, finally, rather linguistic or propositional meanings. What draws Lyotard to the later Freud is a more radical, less linear, more fluid conception of the work of the unconscious as “a bloc of forces, in the sense of a dynamics”.7 Yet there is a difficulty inevitably encountered by the critic or analyst here, because “the drives are never observable in themselves; they are always represented, and by three kinds of representatives: words, images, and affects”.8 This type of transformation is no longer secondary elaboration or “translation” in a direct format, decipherable with reference to some fixed symbolic key; but it remains, all the same, a complicated process of transfer or “transcription”9 – thus still begging the question of how we are to trace, describe, interpret and account for its workings. In anticipating a mode of cinema critique fixed on affects, energies and intensities, at least as much as on literary meanings, Lyotard did open a door here – and it is my task, as well as my pleasure, to try to enter this new realm. I do so in relation to a contemporary masterpiece of the Austrian avant-garde, Peter Tscherkassky’s ten-minute Outer Space (1999). In the decades following Daney’s 1977 pronouncement (an involuntary echo of Peter Wollen’s earlier outline of “The Two Avant-Gardes”),10 the history of this field twisted unexpectedly. Although clearly part of a “European avantgarde”, Outer Space is unquestionably (like many contemporary Austrian practitioners) “play[ing] on primary processes” and on perception – and very intensely so. At the same time, all the “operations” and “operators” (as Lyotard loves to call them) in Outer Space have as their initial point of reference

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and departure an American genre film, wielded as a “found footage object” so rich and precious that Tscherkassky raided it three times over, for three entirely different works: namely, Sidney J. Furie’s horror movie The Entity (1982) starring Barbara Hershey. And it is at this juncture-point that the crisscrossed “elements of thought, of the signified” between mainstream and avant-garde cinemas become particularly fascinating. In short, what if we decided to take The Entity – as so few avant-garde specialists seem willing to countenance – as seriously, as patiently, as lovingly as we take Outer Space itself? It is in the genuine interplay of these two works – rather than the hierarchy of posing one above the other – that we can discover something about what unites narrative and non-narrative cinemas at the deepest levels of their signifying processes. From the outset of this quest, I assume that the terrain we seek to explore is the materiality of cinema – once, that is, we manage to overcome the biases ingrained in both narrative-centred and experimentally-specialised approaches. In many enthusiastic accounts of Outer Space, its exegetes take one thing pretty much for granted: that The Entity is, if not outright trash, at least a very mediocre, formulaic and typical piece of genre cinema. Indeed, Tscherkassky himself came to it by way of a “short plot summary which stated that an invisible ghost attacks the leading actress”.11 That synopsis, although a little clumsy and misleading (whether the entity in question is a ghost per se remains a moot point), was enough to engage Tscherkassky’s focus as an artist, because he immediately saw the potential to use “imprints of the film to replace the invisible entity”.12 In person, the filmmaker freely admits that, in the lengthy course of his work on this “found object”, he came to appreciate and even to love The Entity for many reasons, and on many levels – not least because of its baroque, visual richness.13 (Furie has long been a master at what Pascal Bonitzer calls “deframing”, a practice that, sixteen years prior to The Entity, had led Marlon Brando on the set of The Appaloosa, as legend has it, to complain that the director spent way too much time “shooting up the horse’s ass”.) That appreciation is, to me, quite evident in the paroxysmic “experimental tribute” that Tscherkassky pays to The Entity in his three “remakes” (apart from Outer Space, also the eleven-minute Dream Work [2001] and the one-minute trailer for the Viennale, Get Ready [1999]). Many commentators, however, begin from a different bias. Stefan Grissemann identifies Tscherkassky’s source only as “found footage from Hollywood”!14 The Entity is thus pegged not merely as indifferent, raw material in the hands of a true alchemist (fellow experimental filmmaker Guy Maddin hails Outer Space as “actually considerably more terrifying than the original


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material”);15 it is also, from the outset, ideologically loaded. Tscherkassky’s reworkings of “Hollywood”, like those of his Austrian compatriot Martin Arnold (who brutally transformed a fragment of Robert Mulligan’s beloved To Kill a Mockingbird [1962] in his magnificent Passage à l’acte [1992]), are regularly hailed as finding and unleashing what has been “repressed” within the rigid templates of conventional, narrative cinema. For Christa Blümlinger, among Tscherkassky’s finest analysts, The Entity registers as simply “an American horror film in the tradition of Poltergeist” – quite a historic feat, considering that Furie shot his movie in 1981, while the Tobe Hooper/Steven Spielberg project was released mid-1982 – and “relies on readily-established codes”.16 Maddin is considerably blunter in his estimation of The Entity: “crude and sometimes stupid”.17 All fans of Outer Space appear to agree that it says, underlines, or reveals something that The Entity does not and cannot: that violence is gendered, and that cinema is complicit in this assault.18 Outer Space, as a particularly vivid case of an “essay film” (working not through voice-over but through montage associations), is thus a powerful act of criticism directed, all at once, at a film, a genre, an industry, a culture, and an entire, unconscious mindset. Let us have a decent, open-minded look at The Entity, then, on its own terms. Personally, I came to the film very late, rather dutifully and even reluctantly, after having already seen the Tscherkassy reworkings several times, and also having read the commentaries on them. I was astonished at what I found: a film that, in its own way, completely flies on affects and intensities – gripping, well-crafted, complex, and inventive in numerous ways. It is a work that releases many suggestive ideas, while at the same time giving off the impression that it is never entirely in control of this “semantic contagion”, as we might well call it – and, in this, it would join many notable works of pop culture. More particularly, The Entity – not least on the level of its insistently pulsing sound design, which artfully confuses the borders between diegetic speech, music, and harsh noises that “score” the action – can be grouped with films inhabiting a certain, wilful “cinema of hysteria” including William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and Bug (2006), most of Donald Cammell’s work, some of Paul Verhoeven’s, and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession (1981). Here, in passing, we must confront one of the most deeply ingrained prejudices of a certain critical tradition; I will call it (in iconic film magazine terms) the Movie/Positif/CineAction! tradition. This tradition is rather too fixed (in my opinion) on establishing an evolving canon of the greatest film works. Why must a great film be one that is “masterful” (let alone a masterpiece!), completely coherent, fully in control of itself and its processes?

Entities and Energies


A different trajectory – such as the trail blazed by Raymond Durgnat – suggests another set of possibilities for both appreciation and interpretation of cinema, and it is these possibilities that we must mine in relation to a chaotic but undeniably compelling film such as The Entity. If Furie’s film exists in any specific tradition, it is the one inaugurated by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), which left an enormous legacy not only in horror cinema generally, but more specifically on the slasher movie, beginning with Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980) – as well as on more unusual variations and intermixings of these various horror/ thriller conventions in, for instance, the prolific work of Larry Cohen as both screenwriter and director. There are two crucial elements in this tradition. First, the narratives rely less on conventional, dramatic exposition and character development (or “arcs”) than on a colder, more mechanical form of repetition or seriality – a chain of attacks. (Naturally, this internal seriality easily led to external, franchised seriality for the more successful movies of this type – even The Birds has a lame 1994 telemovie sequel.) Thus, the serial drive of these films – which can reach obsessive levels – is substantially different from the standard, classical-narrative model. Second, particularly when there is a supernatural aspect involved (rather than merely a deranged but fully mortal serial killer), ambiguity rules. It proves impossible to fully explain or rationalise what is happening, even though the characters offer many different, contradictory interpretations. (This is the element Cohen seizes on in films including God Told Me To [1976] and Q – The Winged Serpent [1982].) The Entity works with both of these core elements. As it happens, The Birds has enjoyed a special encounter with experimental, conceptual art. In 2008, Dutch artist Martijn Hendriks began a project called Give Us Today Our Daily Terror in which he proceeded to methodically, digitally erase one crucial, repeated element from the image-track of Hitchcock’s film: the birds themselves.19 The recurring “special effect” thus added has a deliberately slapdash aura – we can see the resulting “holes” in the image unfussily filled in, an all-too-apparent suturing – but also introduces a whole new level of uncanniness to this already beguiling masterwork. An artist statement on Hendriks’s website declares that his aim is to explore “how such unproductive acts like displacements, mistranslation, removals, withholding things, obstructions, overdoing things, repetition, mismatchings, and attempts at impossible or redundant tasks may become productive”.20 In the case of Give Us Today Our Daily Terror, we are struck by the oddness of the synthesised bird sounds without their visual accompaniment. We may


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think back – in the absence of a represented physical attack by a seagull on the character of Melanie (Tippi Hedren) – on the long history of critical and theoretical commentaries on the film (beginning, in a Lacanian vein, with Jean-André Fieschi’s prescient 1963 review in Cahiers du cinéma),21 and especially on the drive of aggressivity often associated with the rigorous system of vision (point-of-view, glasses, screens) that Hitchcock elaborates.22 Above all, thanks to Hendriks, we can experience a sort of phantom return to the film strip as it came (more or less) straight out of the camera – i.e., before the special effects work of mattes, superimpositions, and so forth, that placed many of these birds in frame. We see, or at least get a feeling for, what it was like for the actors to gesticulate wildly in space without anything real with which to react – a common enough reality in film production. As we shall see, this is the type of nascent reflexivity that Outer Space takes a very long way. What is The Entity about? In the bare plot terms that first attracted Tscherkassky’s attention, it is a tale – “based on the true story” of Doris Bither in the 1970s – of a woman, Carla (Hershey), repeatedly attacked and raped by an invisible entity, or perhaps several entities working in tandem. (The film, like Frank De Felitta’s 1978 novel, discreetly omits the real-life detail of Bither claiming these beings were Asian.) Carla lives alone as a working-class mother with three children; her past is marked by incidents of sexual abuse and trauma. She has a hard time convincing anyone – especially members of the psychiatric profession – of the reality of the attacks, despite the evident marks on her body. Various explanatory theories are advanced by these experts – such as the hypothesis that Carla is an over-active masturbator! Eventually, several scientists researching the paranormal decide to move into the house, and attempt to record any visual or aural trace of this gruesome activity. Then the house itself is recreated in a laboratory for a final showdown with the now large and singular creature, who is seemingly frozen and destroyed – although a typical coda returns us to the entity’s obscene, vocal presence in the humble abode that Carla and her kids gladly vacate. To identify The Entity’s subject a bit differently: it is about how to represent, how to show something invisible (as is Verhoeven’s Hollow Man [2000]). Invisibility can only be depicted, as Lyotard said of the drives, through traces. Furie and his team present an impressive inventory of such traces. This entity is seen, heard and felt through effects of wind, light, electric currents, vibration, noise, displacements of objects and people, and even (in one especially disquieting scene) the momentary imprints of monstrous fingers pressed into Carla’s skin. Every form of cinematic

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animation (understanding this technique in its broadest sense) is utilised. The drive to represent eventually becomes part of the plot itself (attempts to record the phenomena in video and audio), culminating in the ultimate solution of the frozen helium mould in which the entity is encased, thereby outlining his form and features (before this ice, too, cracks, explodes and disappears). Some will regard what I have just proposed as an overly detached, formalist, or figural way of describing this movie (or any movie). Yet, it is precisely this type of dare or game of filmic craft – how to render the invisible visible, palpable – that levers open the broader, symbolic field so richly canvassed (even if chaotically or hysterically) by The Entity. The problem of being able to see, record, or trace the entity is an issue, fundamentally, of agency: who is to blame for all this misery, what can we point the finger at? Everything moves, rattles and hums, but what is the real force behind all this animation? By displacing the visibility of the villain, the film ensures (however unconsciously or intuitively) that everything that is plainly visible or representable in the narrative frame can potentially shoulder this blame, this guilt or responsibility. Such is the wildly paranoiac procedure of many horror-thrillers since the start of the 1970s – casting suspicion on everyone and everything in sight – and yet it can also be, to adapt Salvador Dalí’s immortal term, a critical paranoia: it has the power to illuminate what is (on various levels, and for diverse reasons) invisible, unseeable, unspoken.23 Paranoiac criticism runs rampant through The Entity; Carla’s frustration and anger (at all those who do not believe her) are, in this sense, progressively contagious, expanding their semantic field as the story progresses. The film shares in what it shows. If we take it as an ingenious variation on the popular thriller-trope of the “stranger hiding in the house”, we must note the remarkable way it duplicates one dwelling (Carla’s home) inside another (her best friend’s), and then even inside a moving vehicle where the heroine is again menaced – before opting, via the plot premise, for an exact simulacrum of the initial home on a laboratory “stage” that looks uncannily like a movie set! This is the film’s own spontaneous, matter-of-fact “reflexive turn” inward – however distant it may seem from any familiar station of the avant-garde – and the complicity of cinema in some kind of crime is certainly signalled by it. Everywhere Carla finds herself imprisoned, and almost all the visible jailers (as in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs [1991]), are male: cops, psychiatrists, social workers, boyfriends, even her own teenage son. All of the guys have odd, creepy, unsettling roles in this film, and each one lets her down and helps to lock her in, where she is least safe from attack.


Mysteries of Cinema

Protection, even in the most intimate spheres of life, is a scarce commodity in this scary world. In this context, The Entity is an immaculate Female Gothic movie.24 Meanwhile, the Birds-like swirl of explanations (psychological, environmental, religious, etc.), offered by various characters throughout, arrives to no satisfying conclusion, only create a social smokescreen to cover the unspeakable truth: that patriarchy – something else that is too large and too amorphous to literally “see” – is, for all intents and purposes, the Entity. At this point, we are far from the assumption that The Entity is itself only unconscious, unthinking, obediently formulaic and gender-blind. It is exactly on this level – far too up-front and spectacular to be labelled implicit or “subtextual”, even when swathed in layers of ideological double-talk – that horror movies can work as powerful and profound moviegoing experiences, even when they fall well short of masterpiece perfection. It can be said – many critics have done so – that Outer Space has very little to do, finally, with The Entity; it only uses a few fragments from the original. A proper textual analysis, however, would no doubt correct that assumption – since some of Tscherkassky’s single frames simultaneously pillage no less than six different scenes of Furie’s film.25 I propose we look at this relation between the two movies in another way. Outer Space is not so much a radical transformation, critique, or upgrade of The Entity as it is a sympathetic critical intensification of it (to borrow a term from Nicole Brenez’s figural analyses).26 And, just as we can rightly credit these lowly horror makers with a far-reaching sense of intuition, we should extend the same courtesy, paradoxically, to the avant-garde master: Tscherkassky, too, works intuitively and emotively, and we cannot expect that he consciously thought out and theorised, beforehand, everything we subsequently make of his work. Tscherkassky’s well-documented creative processes are painstaking and time consuming – each major, short work takes several years to produce. Using a light pen and dual, aligned film strips in a photographic dark room (no digital processes are involved), he shines a beam that imprints – sometimes with deliberate roughness or shakiness – a particle from the original film frame (a face, an object, all the way up to an entire widescreen composition) onto his own celluloid strip. Each individual frame in his own piece is built up through successive “passes” of this process, filling or layering (sometimes with left-right flipping, switches into negative, multi-frame streaming, and other tricks) the different points and zones of the image. The original optical soundtrack, too (as for Outer Space, but not its “sequel”, Dream Work), can be subjected to this frame-by-frame copying and deformation. The end result is not slick; rather, it is close in spirit (and matter) to the “chiselled”

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cinema of the Lettrist artists (Isidore Isou, Maurice Lemaître, etc.) of the 1950s and beyond. Individual film frames thus become – as is only rarely the case in narrative cinema, but frequently so in the Austrian avant-garde – carriers or vectors of energy and intensity. Viewers and critics regularly testify to the experience of Tscherkassky’s work as a cascade, a “sound and light show”, or even as an assault on the senses. Indeed, Tscherksassky did not escape the reprimand – directed at him within a film conference by no less an avantgarde luminary than Yvonne Rainer – that Outer Space merely reproduced, in another way and for another crowd, the violence inflicted upon women by the entity … and by The Entity. It is a charge Tscherkassky answers in this way: in his film, Barbara Hershey not only fights back – but also wins. Outer Space has its own “script”, a story woven from the mentally disassembled fragments of The Entity (Tscherkassky does not literally harm the original print at all, beyond breaking it into manageable sections for his workroom). He seizes – critically intensifies – the possibility of generalisable, symbolic metaphor that is (I have been arguing) already latent, and indeed often quite manifest, in The Entity: for him, the unseen monster/attacker is the cinema itself, a creature formed from both camera and montage, and the woman, once again, is aggressed, violated. The smallest particles of filmic materiality get drawn into this almighty war: the work’s reflexivity extends all the way to errant sprocket holes and various cut-out objects placed on the film strip. Even if one does not always necessarily see or detect every move of Tscherkassky’s re-scripting (I am always surprised by some new detail of this conception whenever I attend one of the filmmaker’s superb “how I do it” demonstrations), the dramatic energy-waves of the piece are unmistakeable, captivating and, yet again, contagious. Several times over, Outer Space appears to “break down” under the ferocious weight of its own enacted violence – this is the avant-garde catastrophe of which I have long dreamed! – and then re-start, re-gathering and reanimating its forces, until Carla/Hershey (in a shot that has nothing like this weight or effect when it fleetingly occurs in The Entity) gazes out at us at the end, still standing … until she, too, flickers out like all solitary particles of filmic materiality. There is, in this finale, an unexpected (and probably inadvertent on Tscherkassky’s part) rendezvous with certain “experimental splittings” within mainstream cinema itself: think, for example, of the flickering strobe-light, accompanied by a harsh on-and-off sound, that distressingly illuminates the corpse of Theresa (Diane Keaton) for split-second frame durations in the ultimate scene of Richard Brooks’s Looking for Mr Goodbar


Mysteries of Cinema

(1977). In fact, Outer Space invites us – if we are open to the call – to revisit The Entity with this avant-garde possibility always in mind. Furie pushes the disruptive procedures and energy waves as far as they will go, almost to the breaking point. But this is not only a matter of valuing, enhancing, or somehow liberating the material signifiers of the filmic medium; Outer Space’s rescripting of gender/cinema relations helps us to appreciate anew the Gothic element already patently there in the original. Let us recall the two models of dream analysis presented by Freud in his lifetime, and somewhat set in opposition by Lyotard: the dream-work versus the drives. Tscherkassky, a highly articulate theorist and teacher of film, regularly makes references to both models in an alternating or combined way, as did the French critic-artist Thierry Kuntzel (1948-2007) in his positing of a process of “film-work” inspired by The Interpretation of Dreams.27 Tscherkassky speaks of taking a pre-existing, more or less classical film narrative, and then studying it so hard and so closely (to the point of memorising its tiniest elements) that it disintegrates in his mind – thus leaving itself available for transformation via such dream-work techniques as condensation and metaphor.28 At the same time, the drive structures work at a maximum pitch of intensity, simultaneity and ambivalence in Tscherkassky’s reconstructions of found, filmic objects. There is, in fact, a hinge between these two models: let us not forget that among Freud’s initial dream-work mechanisms, alongside those more popularly known and used tropes of metaphor and displacement, is precisely “representability” or figurability, what Lyotard glosses as “the taking into consideration of suitability for plastic representation”.29 In other words, there are things that are difficult (maybe even impossible, but at the very least uncomfortable) to show, narrate, contemplate, or convert into images and sounds of any kind – and it is this expanded, signifying process with which both experimental works and popular genre films (especially of the fantastique variety) most vividly and inventively struggle. In Outer Space, Tscherkassky operates a fundamental displacement upon the source material of The Entity – by shifting it into black-and-white – and performs many stunning condensations that only really become apparent when one sits down and closely compares the two works. Tscherkassky’s script or story – a woman attacked by the cinematic mechanism – takes place in a single house that is, in fact, built from all the dwellings shown in The Entity, including the final house-simulacrum. Outer Space thus takes full advantage of, and intensif ies, the effects of strangeness and incongruity already built into the original’s leaping from one “home” to another. Much of Furie’s and Felitta’s plotting is, of necessity, jettisoned

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(most of the secondary characters, beyond Carla and her glimpsed kids, disappear), and this results in an intensive tightening of the central trope or figural cluster upon which both films are built: a Female Gothic portrait of a “woman in peril”, under attack in her own domestic space. Indeed, Tscherkassky manages to condense The Entity, for his purpose, down to a single, prolonged, stop-start scene of attack – and, to achieve this, he raids from literally every pertinent frame-corner of the original. In his enthusiasm for Outer Space, Stefan Grissemann celebrates its revelation of “a life against the mainstream, in the refusal to comply with the designated direction”. In high materialist style, this critic invokes “the beauty of chaos – in the radical movement of objects, bodies and the senses lies the power of film”.30 This cry is splendid, and I feel like a bit of a killjoy for pointing out that it is, in truth, the familiar wielding of a handy opposition, and a tale oft told within radical, avant-garde cultural scenes: from the ruins of classicism comes a triumphant Modernism, liberating the energetic substance repressed by the awful mainstream. A year after Brian Henderson spoke in Perth about the avant-garde and film theory, the Australian art critic Edward Colless and literary scholar David Kelly voiced their sceptical opinion of what they regarded as this opportunistic pitting of old versus new and conservative versus emancipatory in the cinematic realm. “The cinematic truth liberated by the avant-garde can only be another fiction […] a convenient fiction of freedom […] a phantom freedom”.31 Giving another of Freud’s classics a twist, they title their polemic not The Future of an Illusion, but “The Illusion of a Future”. Providing a veritable catalogue of film theory clichés from that era to be shot down in a peanut gallery, Colless and Kelly fume: Constituted in opposition to the coercive or constraining power of a mainstream, avant-garde cinemas have always been invoked in a rhetoric of liberation: whether of some elemental substance of film, of a visual and phenomenal essence, or a materiality of its signifiers, of an inhibited iconography, or a spectator-subject bound into a relay of looks.32

In some senses, we have come far since these theory tussles of the early 1980s. There is room made for more (and more finely differentiated) types of cinema today, and less binary battling on such a grandiose scale. But old rhetorical habits die hard, and the tendency to specialisation – exclusive devotion to either populist narrative or demanding avant-garde – still wields its unfortunate reality-bite. I have tried to trace another path through the critical woods here: a dual projection of energies and entities, materiality and


Mysteries of Cinema

signification, across the spaces of possibility in narrative and non-narrative cinemas alike. What Grissemann rightly hails as “the power of film” can be excavated and brought to light from some of the least likely sites of production – even The Entity. (2008)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3. 4. 5.

6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11.

12. 13.

Raúl Ruiz, Diario. Notas, recuerdos y secuencias de cosas vistas – Volumen I 1993-2001 (Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2017), p. 408. Brian Henderson, A Critique of Film Theory (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980), p. xxi. Ibid. The full text of Henderson’s important (and sadly little known) lecture subsequently appeared in The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 9/10 (1981), pp. 156-165. Ritwik Ghatak, Rows and Rows of Fences: Ritwik Ghatak on Cinema (Calcutta: Seagull, 2000), p. 15. See Greg Taylor, Artists in the Audience: Cult, Camp, and American Film Criticism (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001); and David Bordwell, The Rhapsodes: How 1940s Critics Changed American Film Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2016). For the most extensive Farber collection to date, see Robert Polito (ed.), Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (New York: Library of America, 2009). Bill Krohn, “Les Cahiers du cinéma 1968-1977: Interview with Serge Daney”, The Thousand Eyes, no. 2 (1977), p. 28. Jean-François Lyotard (trans. Joseph Maier), “The Unconscious as Mise en scène”, in Michael Benamou & Charles Caramello (eds), Performance in Postmodern Culture (Madison: Center for 20th Century Studies, 1977), p. 93. Ibid. Ibid., p. 89. See Peter Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes” (1975), reprinted in his Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies (London: Verso, 1982), pp. 92-104. Peter Tscherkassky, “Epilogue, Prologue. Autobiographical Notes Along the Lines of a Filmography”, in Sandra Gómez, Maximiliano Cruz & Moisés Cosio (eds), From a Dark Room: The Manufractured Cinema of Peter Tscherkassky (Mexico: Interior13 Cine/Alumnos47, 2012), p. 120. Ibid. Personal conversation with the author, 2008.

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Stefan Grissemann, “Outer Space”, quoted on the website for Tscherkassky’s Austrian distributor, sixpackfilm []. Accessed 8 January 2017. 15. Guy Maddin, “You Give Me Fever”, The Village Voice, 11 June 2002 [http://www.]. Accessed 7 January 2017. 16. Christa Blümlinger (trans. Alice Lovejoy), “Found Face: On Outer Space”, Senses of Cinema, no. 28 (October 2003) [ peter-tscherkassky-the-austrian-avant-garde/outer_space/]. Accessed 7 January 2017. For a more comprehensive analysis of this and related Tscherkassky works, see Blümlinger, Cinéma de seconde main. Esthétique de remploi dans l’art du film et des nouveau médias (Paris: Klinksieck, 2013), pp. 116-133. 17. Maddin, “You Give Me Fever”. 18. Dirk de Bruyn recalls for us (in the course of his own analysis of Outer Space) that the celebrated avant-garde filmmaker Peter Gidal has, in his theoretical writings, pointedly referenced The Entity and the feminist protest it sparked on its initial UK release. See de Bruyn, The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art (London: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), pp. 188-190. 19. Due to inevitable copyright claims, fragments of Hendriks’s project keep appearing and disappearing online. On 7 January 2017, this scene – coincidentally the same Bodega Bay boat-crossing scene analysed by Raymond Bellour in the famous essay “System of a Fragment” reprinted in his collection The Analysis of Film (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000), as well as by Camille Paglia in her monograph The Birds (London: BFI, 1998) – could be found under the Spanish title Los Pájaros de Alfred Hitchcock sin pájaros (“Hitchcock’s The Birds Without Birds”) at [ com/watch?v=ANk1FKMKLFU]. 20. See []. Accessed 9 January 2017. 21. Jean-André Fieschi, “Franchi le pont”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 148 (October 1963), pp. 51-56. The Lacanian orientation of Fieschi’s analysis is made more explicit in his essay on Hitchcock likely written in the early 1970s and eventually published (trans. Tom Milne) in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema – A Critical Dictionary, Volume 1 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980), pp. 502-510. 22. See, for instance, Jacqueline Rose, “Paranoia and the Film System”, Screen, Vol. 17 No. 4 (1976), pp. 85-104. 23. See Salvador Dalí, “The Stinking Ass”, in Lucy R. Lippard (ed.), Surrealists on Art (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1970), pp. 97-100. 24. See Chapter 16, “Lady, Beware”. 25. 2017 note: For a demonstration and development of this point (and others made in this chapter), see the audiovisual essay subsequently made in collaboration with Cristina Álvarez López, Pieces of Spaces, in de Filmkrant, 29 March 2017 []. Accessed 19 April 2017.


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26. See Nicole Brenez, De la figure en général et du corps en particulier. L’invention figurative au cinéma (Brussels: DeBoeck, 1998). 27. See Thierry Kuntzel, Title TK (Nantes: Éditions Anarchive/Musée des BeauxArts de Nantes, 2006). 28. See Tscherkassky, “Epilogue, Prologue”. 29. Lyotard, “The Unconscious as Mise en scène”, p. 90. 30. Grissemann, “Outer Space”. 31. Edward Colless and David Kelly, “Avant-Garde Film: The Illusion of a Future”, in Peter Haynes (ed.), Art Gallery of New South Wales Seminar: Modernism (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1981), p. 80. 32. Ibid., p. 78.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

7. Entranced Abstract This essay investigates the prevalence of the phenomenon of trance and trance states in contemporary film, television, media and digital culture – from being used as a premise in situation comedies, to providing the ground for instant, psychotherapeutic cures online. The modern idea of the trance, derived from the history of hypnosis, is often opposed to the Freudian, psychoanalytic theory of the deep, dark, Gothic unconscious; treatment by trance is a “quick f ix”, geared to a fast-paced, problemsolving culture. Variations in the depiction of trance states are explored in examples ranging from the TV series Louis to Benoît Jacquot’s film Au fond des bois (2010). Theoretical references discussed include Raymond Bellour, Milton Erickson, and the filmmaker turned shamanic therapist Alejandro Jodorowsky. Keywords: trance, hypnosis, Raymond Bellour, Miton Erickson, Alejandro Jodorowsky

There is a particular cinematic situation – Marc Vernet would call it a “figure of absence”1 – that I have always found mysteriously compelling. We have a person alone in a dark house, beset by various inner anxieties. Gradually, strange noises and signs begin to manifest. Fleeting shadows and groaning pipes prepare for a sudden, more terrifying apparition: perhaps a fully embodied stranger who begins to attack or rape our central character, as atonal music builds and the camera work becomes more agitated … But then, at the highpoint of this frenzy, comes a cut. We now see our hero or heroine the following morning, placidly munching on breakfast, reading a newspaper, or going for a stroll. Everything is perfectly fine and back to normal; it is as if nothing dramatic whatsoever has occurred. There are no physical traces, no flashback memories, no discussion on the phone with the police or the protagonist’s best friend concerning the violence of the

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH07


Mysteries of Cinema

previous night. The “incident” is never again mentioned in the film – even if, in the course of the plot, such incidents indeed recur. It was all a dream? A psychotic hallucination? Perhaps. But some filmmakers – referring here especially to filmmakers of the various national New Waves and art cinemas of the 1960s and 1970s, keen to distance themselves from the stuffy protocols of a once-classical Hollywood product – like to place these kinds of tidy attributions in doubt. Not for them the old-fashioned introduction to a typical dream scene – like the screen going all wavy – or the equally outmoded end-point, when the character awakes and sits bolt upright, screaming in bed. Directors such as André Delvaux in Belgium or Andrei Tarkovsky in Russia preferred to weave hallucinatory moments or happenings into the unfolding of the everyday world of their films – partly as a way of indicating that this quotidian realm, far from being the site of mundanity, is full of disturbing undercurrents and traces of past trauma, of both an individual and collective nature. Film artists of a more Surrealist temperament, from Luis Buñuel to JeanClaude Brisseau, like to show dream and reality in a fluid continuum: the moment a character falls asleep or even just closes their eyes, the hand of a stranger slips into the same frame to caress their leg or shoulder … American filmmakers such as William Friedkin have been using variations on this particular technique for shock and surprise tactics since the time of The Exorcist (1973), all the way up to the present day in, for example, Bug (2006). For all of these filmmakers, the dream scene has no clear beginning and no definite end. Our typical example, however – of a protagonist shown brutally assaulted, and then cheerily oblivious in the following scene, an event that Roman Polanski stages several times over with Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (1965) – has an even more specific mood and sense. What has always fascinated me in this kind of spectacle is the sensation of a simple break – marked by the cinematic cut – between two worlds, or two planes of experience. A swift passage from one realm to another, a drop or a rise to another level – like in the playing of a video game – and all without particular fuss, drama or consequence, as if the person on screen were merely passing, like a curious spectator, through different possible scenarios of his or her own life and times. This is not a state of unconscious dreaming in the classic, Freudian sense – not a heightened, visionary experience in which signs of a repressed truth force their way to the surface of an individual’s consciousness – but something more pacific, less Gothic. Something like a trance state – in which life itself is conjured as one, vast trance; or, rather, the continual passage between various levels and intensities of being entranced.

Entr anced


Naturally, in most narrative cinema, what is dramatically and morally inconsequential – the pleasant flotation of the trance – cannot rule forever. Nina (Natalie Portman) in Black Swan (2010) discovers that the violent struggle with her hallucinated doppelgänger results in her actually murdering someone else – someone she did not even realise was in the room with her. Polanski as his own leading man in Le locataire (1976) is shown to be really strangling himself when he imagines his nasty neighbours doing that deed. Ambitious films that gleefully draw upon the current conventions of popular horror-thriller formats, such as David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and Brian De Palma’s Passion (2012), engineer high-intensity instances of this disconcerting switch back from mental fantasy into bloody reality – in which the everyday always turns out to be much worse than its imaginary makeover. In these cases, the Freudian paradigm broadly reasserts itself: psychic blackouts are instances of dissociation, of fugue states, of the denial or blotting-out of reality – until it is too late. Certainly the bleakest version of this scenario that cinema has offered us to date is in a Portuguese film about international sex trafficking, Teresa Villaverde’s starkly titled Transe (2006). Nonetheless, the trance state, as a way of both depicting and explaining phenomena, is gaining traction in the culture at large – as well as in particular, specialised pockets of it.

A Nearby Place The semi-conscious nature of the trance experience is frequently offered today – explicitly or implicitly – as an alternative to, or refutation of, the unconscious as Freud and subsequent generations of his followers (including Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Žižek) have long conceptualised it. The unconscious as something dark and oceanic, the veritable negation of consciousness (rather than its complement), with its own, hyper-complex logic, that might take an entire lifetime to unravel – no, this characterisation is not easily accommodated in our speedy, neo-liberal times. Indeed, the casual triumph of the word subconscious – as if there was something situated only slightly below or beneath consciousness, just out of reach, that can more or less easily be retrieved – over unconscious in daily conversation is a symptom of this swift cultural transformation. Something was definitely afoot in the zeitgeist when Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster “event movie” Inception (2010), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, appeared. This was a movie – of a new type that Thomas Elsaesser has


Mysteries of Cinema

dubbed the “mind-game film”2 – that boldly spatialised the movements of mental life in the most literal way, via elaborate digital effects. In its world of perpetual waking dream, anything lost to immediate consciousness is neither denied nor repressed, but more exactly misplaced – and able to be located and snatched up on a lower level, thanks to a handy elevator of the psyche. As in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and other contemporaneous blockbusters ferreting around in subjectivity and memory for the sake of a tricky, high-concept, action plot, any notion that is even remotely Freudian is sidestepped here: the mind is like an old warehouse, you just have to f ind that battered old box in the corner to restore the missing piece you need in order to get on with your life – happy, satisfied and in full possession of your faculties. The motif of trance, however, is almost constant in these films. In an independent American film of quite bewildering narrative complexity, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013), virtually every character seems to be walking around in a perpetual daze, in the grip of some compulsion of which they are completely unaware. But no Freudian or Lacanian analyst could help these poor souls; what they need is a particularly ingenious detective. It is eventually revealed to us, in the film’s fragmented, back-and-forth storytelling style, that the consciousness of one of these characters has been fogged or distracted by the villainous Thief (his only name in the movie) by forcing the kidnapped victim to create a long paper chain in which each link is associated with a transcribed and memorised passage from Henry David Thoreau’s classic book Walden. It is a more pretentious version of Inception, basically: too much frantic activity on an upper floor of the brain crowds out recollection of what is stored below. Trance states also make a starring appearance in some recent products of quality television from around the world. In the vein of disquieting comedy, Louis C.K.’s young daughter Jane (Ursula Parker), in the “Elevator Part 1” episode of Louie (season 4, 2014), begins to imagine, while she is awake, that she is in fact asleep and dreaming, and can therefore do anything she pleases – even when it comes to getting on and off trains in the New York City subway. Parker, ten years old at the time, told the online “devouring culture” magazine Vulture: “Personally, I think Jane is growing up and she’s questioning reality and asking, ‘Am I in a dream? What’s real?’”, adding that this kind of behaviour makes her character “sort of colourful, complex, and even mysterious!”3 More predictably in generic terms, trance is a major motif in inventive horror/thriller TV narratives such as True Detective (beginning in 2014) or particularly Hannibal (2013-2015), derived from elements in Thomas Harris’s

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novel Red Dragon (1981). Apparitions abound in this latter gruesome saga, especially whenever criminal profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) gets anywhere near a place or person involved in violent acts of murder: he enters a trance state and suddenly sees (sometimes even interacts with) these past events. Conversely, the favoured weapon of genius-killer-psychopath Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), in his drive to conceal his guilt and further his wicked way, is mind control – sometimes delivered under the institutional guise of psychiatric therapy. However, the particular style of mind-fucking that Lecter indulges has nothing, it seems, to do with rational interpretation or persuasion; rather, it appears to be a particularly brilliant (because surreptitious) form of hypnosis, in which (as we are frequently told) he “implants” things – images, beliefs, commands – in people’s heads, things they will follow and live out, even against their own moral sense. (One can detect here the ingenious update of a “popular science” theory from almost six decades ago, that of “subliminal messages” in audiovisual advertising.) Furthermore, Lecter implants these tokens so deep, in such a distant corner of the psychic warehouse, down so many levels of the elevator shaft, that it takes at least three television seasons to fish them out into the daylight. Deciphering the messy, complex messages of the unconscious has been utterly replaced, at this point, by a spooky drama of hypnotic suggestion. In this scenario, the brain is conceptualised as a kind of hard disc storing data, perhaps overwritten, encrypted, or damaged – but still susceptible, at the end of the day, to a good, forensic sweep. An early, prophetic moment in this cultural changeover was provided by the intriguingly named character of Lincoln Rhyme (Denzel Washington) in The Bone Collector (Phillip Noyce, 1999): his sense-memory is like a pristine audiovisual recording, and all he needs to do to find any previously unspotted detail in a crime scene is to simply concentrate and “zoom in” as he replays his first impression!

Keep a Close Watch In cinema history, and particularly in its popular genres, trance has traditionally been depicted in two ways – either in relation to tribal voodoo and similar practices of “ancient” magic, or to hypnosis. The first variation I will leave aside here – while noting, in passing, the central significance of the artist, dancer, theorist, avant-garde filmmaker and ethnographer Maya Deren (1917-1961), whose research into religious possession in Haiti (recorded in her 1953 book Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti) led to her own continued trance experiences there as well as back home in New York, to


Mysteries of Cinema

the point of being able (as filmmaker Stan Brakhage often recounted) to pick up and hurl a refrigerator clear across a room. 4 The depiction of hypnosis has a long and colourful history in cinema – logically enough, as hypnosis and cinema share some crucial features, and overlap in their development throughout the 20th century. In the realms of clinical practice and psychoanalytic theory, hypnosis has even managed to survive its bad PR image as a hokey, sideshow trick – an image that popular movies did much to bolster – and returned, not without generating some uneasiness, into the field of serious discussion, as evidenced by the work of ex-psychoanalyst and current hypnotherapist François Roustang, and eminent philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers.5 In the area of film theory, Raymond Bellour has devoted a third of his magnum opus Le corps du cinéma (2009) to the intimate exchange between hypnosis and film.6 Bellour distinguishes two main paths by which hypnosis is represented in movies. The first path – the most popular and best-known – is to depict the hypnotic séance as a spectacle that is, in itself, highly cinematic, in that it conjures the experience of a rapt viewer inside a theatre during the projection of a film: dark room, sedentary position, fixed gaze, beam of light onto an object (the screen) that becomes a fascinating dance of shapes and reflections … and all culminating in the perceptual-emotional state, somewhere between somnambulance and hyper-alertness, that is common among moviegoers. Great directors of Hollywood’s classical period who had emigrated from Europe, including Jacques Tourneur and Fritz Lang, were especially drawn to the recreation of these grand séances, in which lit-up watches swing rhythmically in the dark, and the eyes of the hypnotist seem to bug out of his head like alien orbs. This tendency reaches its postmodern apogee in an outrageous Spanish horror film, Angustia (1987) by Bigas Luna, in which a Hitchcock-like hypnosis scene within an imaginary movie manages to turn those who watch it, inside a cinema, into murderous automatons. The second path outlined by Bellour is less familiar – and involves a different kind of “close watch”. It is when the entire spectacle of hypnosis, its full gamut of effects, becomes concentrated not just in the eyes of the characters – both hypnotiser and hypnotised – but in their gestures, and indeed their whole bodies. In this version, the dark room, the talismanic objects, the lulling into sleep, can all be dispensed with; any setting will do, daylight, outdoors, a family dinner, a lit room in full, public view. Intriguingly, the historic transition to this more matter-of-fact mode of depicting hypnosis in cinema comes via a musical comedy starring Barbra Streisand and Yves Montand, Vincente Minnelli’s On a Clear

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Day You Can See Forever (1970). In that film, Marc (Montand) merely has to utter a single word or snap his f ingers to instantly plunge Daisy (Streisand) into a complete trance state, whether in private or public – that is how weak-willed and susceptible to suggestion she is. And when Daisy eventually flees Marc’s immediate space of hypnotic influence, he simply has to sing on a rooftop in order to entrance his patient at a distance – his song issuing from the mouth of any person or animal at which Daisy happens to glance. But it is in a much graver and too little seen French film contemporary with Inception, Benoît Jacquot’s Au fond des bois (2010), that this model of bodily hypnosis asserts itself most strongly. The f ilm is based on a strange, true case from 1865 in Southern France, in which Joséphine (Isild Le Besco), a virginal woman in her mid 20s living with her family, was lured away – possessed, as she later claimed in court – by a mysterious young beggar, Timothée (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who took her into the woods and repeatedly raped her. Everything rests on the ambiguity of the situation: is Joséphine – already given to trance-like reveries before she even encounters the stranger – in truth living out the desire, even the amour fou, forbidden by her family and society? Or is she indeed a victim of a brutally manipulative magician? The f ilm provides ample evidence for both readings.7 For the officials depicted in the story, the case presents an impossible legal dilemma: upholding Joséphine’s innocent virtue means affirming that hypnosis is, indeed, a medical method that gets sure results. (Jacquot discreetly suppresses the almost comic detail from the original trial of the presiding Judge announcing that he would need to shield his eyes so as not to fall under Timothée’s entrancing spell himself.) What is most striking about this film (Jacquot is himself quite a specialist in psychoanalysis and its history, being at one time close to Lacan and his circle) is the ledger of gestures that Timothée uses to induce the hypnotic state in Joséphine. No play with lights and darkness, no Dr Mabuse-like gaze: simply by running his hand up and down Joséphine’s spine, he can turn her into a veritable marionette, performing punishing physical actions on her knees, or withstanding the touch of a hot poker on her shoulder. Every obscure, ambiguous thing that takes place between these two people happens in a choreographed ballet of their bodies. In particular, the specific trigger that Timothée uses to possess Joséphine is an odd movement of rubbing his fingers together, as if he were spreading salt on a meal – this is what, every time, rivets her attention and sends her cascading into an altered psycho-physical state.


Mysteries of Cinema

Distraction and Improvement Au fond des bois brings us forcibly back to the trance experience – and also to a particular American champion of the therapeutic powers of trance whom Bellour omits to mention in his account of cinema and hypnosis, even though this gentleman’s story would make for a stunning biopic. Milton H. Erickson (1901-1980) was, during his lifetime, a controversial figure for his development of practices including “brief therapy” and “solution focused therapy”; his work has been revisited, in recent decades, by sympathetic commentators such as Roustang and Stengers.8 We might say that, in the age of Inception, Erickson’s time has well and truly come because he, too, began from a position antithetical to Freud: for him, the unconscious was not dark and largely unknowable, but a resource far closer to consciousness. He considered the unconscious to be a helpful instrument, geared – if we know how to trigger and guide its healthiest processes – toward problem-solving, the breaking of behavioural impasses. When faced with his patients’ neuroses – such as fear of getting into elevators – Erickson would seek a swift way to divert that person’s mind from its set pattern, to shift its gear or re-orient it onto another, neighbouring plane of cognition. In the case of a man with elevator phobia, for instance, Erickson set up, without announcing it, a little show: once the lift was in motion, his secretary began making unexpected, amorous advances to the patient. All of a sudden, the latter was very happy for the lift to get to the ground floor and thus free him from the clutches of this embarrassing madwoman! And, as far as Erickson was concerned, the guy was thus duly cured. Erickson had powers uncannily similar to those of Timothée in Au fond des bois – and he landed himself in some roughly similar troubles when his therapy dealt with the sexual issues of his patients. However hard it may be to believe, Erickson, according to all accounts, was able to induce a trance state with simple gestures, such as what he called the handshake induction – a “confusion technique” wherein the typical, automatically performed sequence of actions involved in shaking another person’s hand is somehow interrupted or interfered with, by grabbing the wrist instead, or introducing a strange motion of one’s fingers inside the other’s palm. This strategy immediately disoriented the patient and opened the split-second possibility of placing them into a trance. Erickson and several of his disciples, such as Charles Tart, came to the conclusion that human consciousness unfolded simultaneously, moment by moment, on diverse levels – and that all these levels can be considered as trance states. Here we are close to the cinematic trope with which I began:

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consciousness as an easy slide between diverse levels of perception and sensation; or, as in the Hannibal mode, a cluttered workroom where some things can be deliberately planted or lost. In this model, there is no moment of waking up from the dream, as there is for Freudians (awaking so that the talking cure can begin), or for the German essayist Walter Benjamin, whose critique of Surrealism in the 1920s was that it needed, ultimately, a nasty jolt out of its pleasant reveries and back into a tough reality: For histrionic or fanatical stress on the mysterious side of the mysterious takes us no further; we penetrate the mystery only to the degree that we recognize it in the everyday world, by virtue of a dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday.9

Indeed, Tart – adding a political dimension to Erickson’s theories – goes so far as to assert that what we consider our shared, waking reality is merely a “consensus trance”.10 In cinema, this image of social consensus is immortalised, in a sinister vein, by John Carpenter in his sci-fi film They Live (1988), so beloved of Žižek – all obedient, conformist citizens see exactly the same projected illusion around them, and only the action-hero’s special sunglasses reveal the hideous truth underneath the façade. The film’s ingenious tag line is: “They live, we sleep”. In many intellectual and professional circles today, we can observe the move away from Freud, and the adoption of paradigms that render the unconscious almost obsolete – or else re-conceive it as something no longer so inaccessible and mysterious. Developments in areas including cognitive science and neuroscience – which have affected film theory as deeply as in every other area of the humanities – stress the realm of the pre-conscious: “what lies beneath” (to use another film title) our immediate thoughts, but not so far away as to be out of reach and out of use. For some neuroscientists in particular, it would seem that mapping the life of the psyche is almost wholly transformed into detecting synaptic activity in the brain – and rendering that activity as visible signals on a screen. It is little wonder, then, that the eminent Lacanian practitioner Renata Salecl was moved to exclaim in exasperation at these developments in neuroscience, during her lecture at the University of Melbourne in 2010 on “Subjectivity in Times of Uncertainty”: “No psychoanalysis! They see no difference between the brain and the mind!” – and just as little difference between the unconscious and a quantitative chart. For Salecl, neuroscience has entered its veritably Spielbergian, Minority Report (2002) phase: aiming to calculate risk and predict the future behaviour of citizens, it


Mysteries of Cinema

embraces, to a new and unprecedented degree, the ideology (and industry) of self-improvement.11

Mastering the Psychomagical Dream Another, more surprising but closely related trend is associated with the Chilean-born, Paris-based Alejandro Jodorowsky – a true cult figure for his ongoing work in film (El Topo, 1970), graphic novels and experimental theatre. Like David Lynch and his proselytising on behalf of Transcendental Meditation (a love which appears to have stalled his filmmaking career for a decade between Inland Empire in 2006 and the new season for TV of Twin Peaks), Jodorowsky may be even more celebrated today for his clinical work in “psychomagic”, a shamanic practice borrowing from the writings of Carlos Castaneda, than for his art.12 Jodorowsky’s belief – illustrated in his comeback film La Danza de la Realidad (2013), based on the autobiographical book of the same name, and its sequel Poesía sin fin (2016) – is that reality is neither fixed nor solid: we change it through the force of our wills and desires, through poetic acts in everyday life. Jodorowsky vividly advocates the process of lucid dreaming, locating its origin as a theory in psychology, long before Castaneda, in Hervey de Saint-Denis’s Dreams and How to Direct Them of 1867 – a book recommended to Jodorowsky by Surrealism’s original star, André Breton himself.13 Lucid dreaming connects the reality-dance to trance states of which we are the masters, rather than the passive victims – which is how most of the aforementioned film characters experience their trances. Does this sound like a bad flashback to the hippie era, crossed with the worst of ersatz New Age wisdoms? Jodorowsky claimed on a Spanish TV show (viewable on YouTube) that all illness (even cancer) is merely a psychosomatic cry for love; then he (somewhat reluctantly) performed instant therapy on a victim of sexual abuse by having her crack apart a stick that symbolised her trauma, and, finally, “breaking every law of psychoanalysis” (as he proudly put it), took the woman into his arms and hugged her on camera. In relation to this incident, one might wonder if Jodorowsky´s psychomagical practice is basically a superficial, quick-fix approach to deeper, less easily resolved problems of conscious and unconscious life.14 But Jodorowsky does not reject Freud; he holds onto the idea of the unconscious. This part of his psychomagical argument is persuasive: why do we think that the best way to speak to the unconscious and work with its complex energies is through the model of the patient on the couch and

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the analyst in the chair, with its rituals of verbalisation and interpretation – that is, the translation of the profoundly cinematic, multi-media show of images and sounds, gestures and colours in the unconscious stream of fantasy, dream and imagination, into a purely word-based, rationalised account? In a poststructuralist vein, Jean-François Lyotard said much the same thing in the mid 1970s, in the course of comparing the operations of the unconscious to cinematic processes: the dynamic principles theorised by Freud as the “dream-work” may be “universal operators for mise en scène” but “it is certain that […] they are not linguistic operators”.15 Words will play a part in unconscious processes for Lyotard, but only an on equal footing alongside “images, and affects”.16 In a similar spirit, Jodorowsky recommends – and Maya Deren would certainly have agreed with him on this – sending messages back into the unconscious in the language it already speaks and understands: the language of poetic acts, images and sounds, the language of cinema. Hence his practice of advising patients to perform actions – like burying sticks or planting trees – that externalise both their pain and their future potential to change and grow. The fix will not necessarily be quick, but, for Jodorowsky, it has to flow and evolve in a lively trance, a flux of diverse realities. In fact, the Freudian unconscious, with its black holes and its longue durée (or even interminable) analytic process, has not entirely departed our cultural scene today; the popularity of W.G. Sebald novels such as Austerlitz (2001) indicates a pointed nostalgia for it. For my own part, I remain unconvinced that every serious problem of psychic life – especially those of repression, denial, neurosis and psychosis – can be reduced to short-term procedures of accessibility and resolved through a wilful art of “distraction”. But another significant difference between the Freudian unconscious and Milton Erickson’s model of the instrumental, problem-solving unconscious speaks to something in our times, and perhaps in our human natures, that goes beyond mere mass-media fashionability or capitalist opportunism. For Erickson, the trance experience is not about being dissociated or absent from oneself; it is, rather, being fiercely concentrated – on a thought, a task, or an exterior object. Some writers, for example, are lucky enough to know this state: after having put in a concentrated burst on a piece or a story, they are likely to surprise themselves – and particularly those closest to them – when looking, once out of the work-trance, at the result; it is not uncommon for such a writer (or their partner) to wonder “where did that come from?”, or even “when did I write that?”. For this is not simply a matter of the strict time given to a project or activity; concentration involves a sometimes almost magical intensif ication of one’s energies – at times,


Mysteries of Cinema

energies that one was not even aware of possessing (like Deren with her fridge). Certain obsessive rituals of cultural fandom – such as watching films as a true cinephile does, not only engrossed but fully engaged – can also, at privileged moments, create this sense of an alternate time-scale, a parallel world or (as Leonard Cohen sang) a “secret life” that runs alongside, but also extends beyond, the clock-time of daily, humdrum existence. Not a fruitless escape from reality – as bibliophiles and cinephiles alike are so often accused of indulging – but a different kind of access to its imaginative layers. It is this quite normal experience of trance as concentration that carves the sense of another world that can be visited, on and off, in and out – not just as a one-off hallucination, apparition, or dream erupting from the dark and unfathomable unconscious, but as a shadow zone that constantly accompanies us. That is what Daisy/Streisand finally learned in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever: her hypnotic states opened a door to her past lives, far less inhibited and more glamorous than the neurotic, chain-smoking one she endured day to day in the world’s consensus trance. But we do not need to believe in reincarnation, or accept an entirely rose-coloured, trauma-free conception of the unconscious, in order to explore and enjoy the benefits of everyday trance – with its cinematic cuts and its dance of realities. (2015)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.



See Marc Vernet, Figures de l’absence. De l’invisible au cinéma (Paris: Cahiers du cinéma, 1988); and Carlos Losilla (trans. A. Martin), “The Absent Image, the Invisible Narrative”, The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies (September 2014) [http://reframe.]. Accessed 24 April 2017. See Thomas Elsaesser, “The Mind-Game Film”, in Warren Buckland (ed.), Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema (London: Wiley, 2009), pp. 13-41. See also Elsaesser, “Freud as Media Theorist: Mystic WritingPads and the Matter of Memory”, Screen, Vol. 50 No. 1 (2009), pp. 100-113. Denise Martin, “Louie’s Ursula Parker on Jumping Off Subway Cars and Playing Louis C.K.’s Daughter, Jane”, Vulture, 13 May 2014 [http://www.vulture.

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4. 5.

6. 7. 8.

9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16.


com/2014/05/ursula-parker-louie-ck-jane-chat.html]. Accessed 26 March 2017. Maya Deren, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (New York: Documentext, 1983); see also Ute Holl, Cinema, Trance and Cybernetics (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017). See François Roustang, Qu’est-ce que l’hypnose? (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1994); and Léon Chertok & Isabelle Stengers (trans. Martha Noel Evans), A Critique of Scientific Reason: Hypnosis as a Scientific Problem from Lavoisier to Lacan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992). See Raymond Bellour, Le Corps du cinéma. Hypnoses, émotions, animalités (Paris: P.O.L, 2009), pp. 19-123. See Bellour’s detailed account of this film in Pensées du cinéma (Paris: P.O.L, 2016), pp. 168-177. See Milton H. Erickson & Ernest L. Rossi, Hypnotherapy: An Exploratory Casebook (New Hampshire: Irvington Publishers, 1979); and Jay Haley, Uncommon Therapy: The Psychiatric Techniques of Milton H. Erickson (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993). Walter Benjamin (trans. Edmund Jephcott), “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia”, in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – Volume 2, 1927-1934 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 216. See Charles T. Tart, Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potential (Lincoln: iUniverse, 2001). See Renata Salecl, The Tyranny of Choice (New York: Profile Books, 2011). See Alejandro Jodorowsky (trans. Rachael LeValley), Psychomagic: The Transformative Power of Shamanic Psychotherapy (Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2010). Hervey de Saint-Denis (trans. N. Fry), Dreams and How to Guide Them (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1982). See the video interview series with Jodorowsky by Fernando Sanchez Dragó on YouTube, for instance the episode “Psicomagia y Psicogenealogía” []. Accessed 27 March 2017. Jean-François Lyotard (trans. Joseph Maier), “The Unconscious as Mise en scène”, in Michael Benamou & Charles Caramello (eds), Performance in Postmodern Culture (Madison: Center for 20th Century Studies, 1977), p. 90. Ibid., p. 93.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

Part III A Cinephile in Australia

8. No Flowers for the Cinephile The Fates of Cultural Populism 1960-1987 Abstract A study of the history and development of cinephilia – the serious love of cinema – in Australia from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. Concentrating mainly on the capitol cities of Melbourne and Sydney, and on the documented traces left behind such as programme notes and independently published magazines, this history starts with small, intense film clubs, intersects with the stirrings of the filmmaking renaissance in Australia in the 1970s, and ends with both the spilling of cinephilia into pop subcultures (such as the music, literature and art worlds), and its sometimes stern revision and critique within academic film theory curricula. Issues of elitism and sexism within cinephilic circles are discussed, and a positive notion of cultural populism is proposed. Keywords: populism, cinephilia, f ilm criticism, f ilm theory, popular culture, film history

For me, a voice, the voice of a father, spoke quietly in the warm darkness of the Ashril Cinema in Greensborough in the days before it was buried beneath the shopping complexes. It spoke of Randolph Scott riding tall in the saddle, of Spencer Tracy surveying his empire from a well-used armchair in Father of the Bride [1950], of Alan Ladd riding slowly away into the romantic hills of Shane [1953], and many, many more. It spoke as only a father can speak to a son, from a vast pool of mysterious knowledge to which only those who love the movies – as distinct from those who merely watch them – can have access.

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH08


Mysteries of Cinema

Now that voice speaks in different tongues from different faces … Perhaps the role once played by the father is itself no more than a part in an ancient rite, tolerated only for the sake of custom, or out of nostalgia. And perhaps the appeal of the movie hosts lies in the way they provide us with a way of remembering that “once upon a time …”. – Tom Ryan on TV’s movie hosts, 19871 Budd Boetticher Westerns are better than a beautiful dream because we live them. – David Downey, 19692 Cinephiles are cut off from the most elementary truths of existence. – Michel Mardore, 19653


Once Upon a Time in America

The cinephile is a fated figure. He – within the history I circumscribe, it is predominantly a he – lives in a dream world: that world of cinema that is both the screen image, and the darkened womb of the picture theatre. He is a mad, voracious consumer of film. He regards the cinema as something almost sacred – the source of his most intense and intimate pleasures. To some, the cinephile is purely a quaint figure in history, a romantic legend – or a dead dinosaur. The story of the original cinephiles – particularly those such as Jean-Luc Godard or Jacques Rivette who belong to the French magazine Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s – can be told as one in which cold, material reality finally slaps the film fan in the face, forever transforming the object of his desire and evaporating his childlike feelings of pleasure. For what provides the first word of the cinephilic experience – immersion in the film itself – also announces its last word; what sustains the magic also ultimately gives the lie. In a 1959 issue of Cahiers, the cinephile Michel Mourlet bears witness to his consuming passion: The curtains open. The house goes dark. A rectangle of light presently vibrates before our eyes. Soon it is invaded by gestures and sounds. Here we are absorbed by that unreal space and time. More or less absorbed. The mysterious energy which sustains, with varying felicities, the swirl of shadow and light and their foam of sounds is called mise en scène. It is

No Flowers for the Cinephile


on mise en scène that our attention is set, organising a universe, covering the screen – mise en scéne, and nothing else. 4

In 1978, Louis Skorecki, a later Cahiers writer, one marked by the long and difficult history that passes through May 1968, looks back on this same period with unmistakable nostalgia – and enumerates, in the course of his reflection, most of the key features of the cinephilic passion: At the start of the 1960s (and earlier for others of whom I am not one), a few dozen spectators live furiously and blindly their passion for cinema: at the Cinémathèque on the rue d’Ulm, later at the one in Chaillot, in the specialist ciné-clubs (Nickel Odéon, Ciné Qua Non), even on trips to Brussels (seven, eight films a day, or a weekend of Z grade American films unseeable in Paris), in spite of some differences which individualise us, we are united by two or three things: a mad love of American cinema (against winds and tides, official criticism, good taste), unconditional admiration for certain directors (each has his own list, his preferences), and above all a shared space: the first three to five rows of the theatre are ours, that’s where we watch the films, that’s where we are in the domain of knowledge, where we take ourselves for what we are: advanced cinephiles.5

“Cinephilia didn’t survive 1968”, states Paul Willemen.6 Nostalgia must give way to anguish: Skorecki is among those cinephiles who know that, while his endless movie played, everything else changed in the real world outside – history, politics, and not least of all the cinema itself, the entire institution of cinema. The movie must end. For the cinephile, this is apocalyptic. The Last Movie: That was the final scene That was the final session And the curtain has fallen on the screen.7

From the womb of the imaginary to the shock of the real: a classic trajectory, and a neat tale. It is used to narrate not only the psychopathology of the individual cinephile, but also the larger cultural situation of which he is a part. Cinephilia, as an indiscriminate and all-consuming “passion for films”8 or (in Willemen’s phrase) a “desire for cinema”,9 is written as the originating moment of all national histories of film culture. This culture is born in the rooms of modest film societies and in the pages of small but fervent magazines. Cinephilia – a time of innocence – is the childhood and


Mysteries of Cinema

adolescence of film culture. Once matured, this culture is, according to some, entirely different. It gives up what Pascal Kané calls “the sterile and finally masochistic fascination with the object”10 and seeks a productive mobilisation of the desire for cinema, either in the direction of the mainstream industry, or toward an increasing “politicisation […] the harnessing of cinephilia to an oppositional culture.”11 A film culture finally expanded and out in the public sphere may even come to regard its cinephilic past as something once furtive and now rather shameful, to the point of vigorously policing any remaining trace of such activity, and declaring the “buff” to be “still one of film culture’s main enemies.”12 Taken out of the context of foreign legend – and also out of the hands of an implacable, narrative fate – cinephilia is a much more complex historical and cultural phenomenon than has hitherto been grasped. Certainly, as what Raymond Bellour calls a state of désir brut, cinephilia is never easily laid to rest either personally or collectively.13 It resists repression, returning melancholically as nostalgia, perversely as resistance, or triumphantly as born-again wonder. Yet it would be equally wrong, in another way, to state that cinephilia always wins the day in the story of film culture – which would simply be another story based on a mechanism of fate, positing its cinephile hero as somehow truer, stronger, more passionate and longer-lasting than any of the film-workers who sprang up in his wake. What we need is a history of cinephilia that recognises three things. First, cinephilia always (whether it intends to or not) assumes the status of a gesture (social, political, cultural) in relation to the other forces and powers that make up any national film culture. We cannot say, in advance of evaluating the particular balance of powers at a given moment, whether the part that cinephilia plays in the scenario will be inherently residual or emergent (to use the terms proposed for cultural analysis by Raymond Williams), reactionary or progressive; its practice takes on various meanings, and serves different purposes, over the course of its history. The story of the cinephile provides us with a way of viewing the battleground of the film-cultural sphere. Second, cinephilia has a complicated transnational – not simply international or cosmopolitan – aspect. Truly an island in the stream, any local cinephilia embarks on its cycle after taking its cue from elsewhere, from a culture that is already partly or wholly through its own version of the cycle. For instance, cinephilia in Australia (my cinephilia) begins in the early 1960s, taking its cue from 1950s Cahiers, just as 1960s Cahiers was going somewhere altogether different. Moreover, the general Anglo adaptation of this older Cahiers ethos was also mediated through the pioneering effort of Andrew

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Sarris in America, as well as the British film culture scene (especially, at the start, Movie magazine). Eventually, all these sites of culture move through their own cycles of enchantment, disenchantment and possible re-enchantment in relation to cinephilia. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, as Cahiers passes, in the Anglo consciousness, further into the shadows of legend and myth – and the original American influence of Sarris somewhat recedes – the links between the Australian and British film culture scenes tie more closely, and some battles take place on extended ground. No truly global history of cinephilia can afford to ignore this transnational network of affiliations, delays, influences, correspondences and non-correspondences. Third, the cinephile agenda – again, whether cinephiles wish it or not – always opens onto other potential or already contested agendas in the sphere of cultural criticism. Although the reason why cinephilia ever starts in the first place (for an individual or a group) can perhaps only be explained by recourse to a notion of désir brut – impulsive fascination, spontaneous attachment – the passion virtually immediately discovers (or has thrust upon it) a larger cause, rationale, or political programme. I see the coming-to-consciousness of cinephilia – in Skorecki’s terms, its capacity and its drive to form an idea of cinema14– as something qualitatively different from Willemen’s psychoanalytic diagnosis of Freudian sekundäre Bearbeitung (secondary elaboration or revision), wherein cinephilia has to find a rationalising alibi under cover of which to pursue its anxiously libidinal “joy of looking”.15 As Skorecki so charmingly puts it: how is that an activity so associated with tired eyes, hatred of the sun, even a kind of “blindness”, can lead so often to such “logic and lucidity, such discernment and ideas”?16 I am positively suggesting that, at the very least, cinephilia has always had a profound relation to – and deserves a recognised place within – all debate on mass culture, popular culture, popular art. This should be self-evident, given cinephilia’s close devotion to popular cinema: its enquiry into despised genres such as the Western, its finding of art and artists where highbrow culture previously assumed there to be none, and its Surrealist-derived slogans such as “the marvellous is popular”.17 Either as a lever into a critique of popular culture, or as itself a form or expression of cultural populism, cinephilia demands our attention. Why is it then that we find, when we look into the annals of Australian cultural studies as into the traditions of Australian cultural populism, no flowers for the cinephile? He exists nowhere; not in the pages of a 1979 anthology like Australian Popular Culture, nor in the genealogies of our


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cultural intelligentsia drawn up by John Docker and Tim Rowse.18 As a possible exemplary rhetorical figure for populist discourse, the cinephile does not stand a chance against Donald Horne’s suburbanite or Craig McGregor’s beachcomber.19 This is not only because the filmgoing of the cinephile (as of the casual fan) is often construed as a passive, introverted, alienating activity. A still more embarrassing and difficult factor involved in cinephilia still today awaits recognition and discussion. It is the factor I have thus far deliberately held back from my evocation of cinephilia and its cultural histories (although it has peeped out of most of the quotations): Americanism. Cinephilia is a general love of or desire for cinema, but – at least for a certain, historical period – it is more specifically constituted by a fixation on American (Hollywood) cinema, “which the great majority of cinephiles regarded as not just fundamental and especially privileged, but even magical” (as Jean-André Fieschi complained in 1965).20 This is what turns cinephilia into a queerly local phenomenon for France, Britain, or Australia – its gaze, and its heart, is perennially elsewhere, over the seas, rarely at home. Politically, a non-American’s fascination with American culture has always been – and remains – a hot potato, conflicting headlong with both radical and conservative nationalisms. Yet, even in Richard White´s authoritative 1980 study, which is sensitive to the issues subtended and repressed by the Australian, nationalist fear of “Americanization” (with that dreaded z), the genealogy offered stops dead at mid-1960s Craig McGregor (representing all those fated “celebrators of popular culture” for whom “disillusionment came later”).21 In White’s account, there is not a visionary cinephile in sight to trumpet Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Samuel Fuller, Douglas Sirk, Sam Peckinpah, Jerry Lewis, or Raoul Walsh … all of whom had been discussed, written about, or taught in some depth in Australia by 1980, and had provided the occasion for several, exemplary dramas of cultural fascination, class struggle and political disillusionment. It is surely one of the great and abiding social contradictions of cinephilia – and the wellspring of its dynamism – that something so intent on declaring the purity (as in “pure cinema”) and the primitive spontaneity (désir brut) of its love should be so drawn to the most hegemonic of national cinemas – the one that tries most strenuously and ingeniously to make you love it. The eternal cultural pessimist of today, flying the flag of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and the Frankfurt School, would probably persist on seeing the cinephile as simply a dupe, or a dope: one who has let himself be invaded by the imperialist enemy. Recall the famous line in Wim Wenders’s Im Lauf der Zeit (1976): “The Americans have colonised our subconscious”.

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Indeed, the cinephile often willingly lets himself fall under the magnificent, imperial sway of the terminological slippage that defines or suggests effective world cultural domination: from Hollywood (one production site) to American cinema itself; from the United States to America; and from one country’s dominant filmmaking practice to a world model, a shorthand label (as in the video shop promotion that promises “Hollywood at Home” on all titles, regardless of whether they originate from Los Angeles, Montreal, or Sydney). But – assuming that the cinephile is not so utterly interpellated as a subject of this show business ideology – we should be able to appreciate that, for him, Hollywood is distinctly more than a few acres of dream-factories, and that, likewise, America is more than a nasty world power. But what, exactly? Hollywood cinema as a vast “oneiric space”? America as the Myth of the New World?22 A cinematic dreamscape and a cultural mythology open, democratically, to all people in their imaginings and their complex longings? It might be ventured that, for the cinephile, as for the character of Danilo (Craig Wasson) in Arthur Penn’s Four Friends (aka Georgia, 1981), “It was always America, like he saw something when he said it”. But what, exactly? It would be fair to say that the cinephile has often been at the edge of an answer to that query of “what, exactly?” – that, at least, cinephiles are in a good position to explore both the implied problems and the potential values of a pro-American cultural populism. It would be inaccurate, however, to state that cinephiles have conclusively done so. Why the blockage? For one thing, it must be admitted that the cinephile is a strange hero for even a halfway triumphant story of cultural critique. Like a Robert De Niro character in a Martin Scorsese film, he is not an especially conscious, let alone self-critical figure. Many of the criticisms laid upon him at certain times, reflecting particular cultural moments, are indeed demonstrably true: he has been blind, parochial, fixated, anachronistic, chauvinistic, reactionary, sexist, anally retentive, neurotic and obsessive – for starters. If there is a potential politique in cinephilia, cinephiles are often not aware of it (they are all too happy and willing to retreat into the historical realm of the purely aesthetic); and if cinephiles are aware of this politique, they are not always willing to fight for it. “Today”, suggested William Routt in 1977, “I wonder how many actually saw so very much at all”, since “elite standards are everywhere triumphant” – and, if anything, the ten years in between his remarks and mine have intensified the truth of that prognosis.23 Furthermore, and perhaps most damagingly, the cinephile has learned to fear fate. If the trails of so many unfinished projects can be found littered


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across the transnational history of cinephilia, this may be because the shadow of fate looms so mightily and ominously – history has its ways of catching up with the innocent cinephile. Let us look back, once more, over the Cahiers du cinéma story, for it is the one writ most dramatically in legend for all cinephiles to contemplate. Everything in that story points to an initial dream of America – American cinema and popular film generally – that became an awful cropper, essentially because it was so ill-founded, so ultimately narcissistic. Éric Rohmer titled a 1955 Cahiers article “Rediscovering America”; he spoke there of finding “re-lit across the ocean” the “flame of a certain idea of man relinquished by France, a rugged and profoundly moral humanism”.24 In the same year, Jacques Rivette saw fit to separate out the “Hollywood of sums” from the “Hollywood of individuals”, thus encapsulating in one stroke the shamelessly Romantic, idealist principle underlying the critical practice that came to be known as auteurism (the idea that a film artist, a true and identifiable author, could transcend Hollywood’s assembly-line production system, revealing to us a distinctive style and world-view).25 When the guiding aesthetic taste of Cahiers gradually shifted over time from Romanticism to Modernism, critics including Claude Ollier, André Téchiné, Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni chose unproblematically (for awhile) to see in the works of their favourite Hollywood auteurs the reflection of their own interests. Thus, Hawks’s Red Line 7000 (1965) could be taken as “an epitome of and treatise on deconstruction” and George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964) seen as “an astonishing ‘vacuum’ […] a clear rejection of spectacle”.26 Meanwhile, throughout this period from the early 1950s to the mid 1960s, the apprehension of mise en scène as the pure exercise of cinematic style led, in both its Romantic and Modernist versions, to a formalism often quite empty of any content, theme, or cultural reference. With the balance sheet before us, we can see in retrospect that the critics in Cahiers made of America, and its culture, only what they wanted or needed to make of it, whether philosophically, aesthetically, or politically. This was all too much for the trenchant film-culture observer, Robert Benayoun; in a 1970 issue of Positif, he called it “a rather sorry spectacle of bad faith and rationalisation”.27 The Cahiers cinephiles had kept their heads in the clouds for too long. From the retrospective vantage point of 1965, and the occasion of an editorial self-critique, Michel Mardore’s feistiness seemed justified and acute: “If there have been excesses on the side of the politique des auteurs and the worship of mise en scène, perhaps this has something to do with the personality of people who had no contact with reality?”28 Thus, when reality – the

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Vietnam War and, closer to home, America’s imperialist stranglehold on the French film industry – hit the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague, it hit hard. Godard, still clinging to the last vestige of a dream, could say in 1967: “There isn’t an American cinema any more. There’s a phony cinema calling itself American, but it’s only a poor shadow of what American cinema once was.”29 Jean-Marie Straub agreed: “The cinema which really got its teeth into American society, which was profoundly American, is dead.”30 Fieschi had, some years earlier, dispensed with even the chimera of a once-authentic Hollywood: We have been forced to concede that once you divest the American cinema of its magical function, which it largely owes to the charm of the exotic, then for us young Europeans who want to make films it is not exemplary in the way that has been claimed rather irresponsibly.31

Thomas Elsaesser, in his 1975 essay “Two Decades in Another Country: Hollywood and the Cinephiles”, traces this fated trajectory of the Cahiers cinephile of the 1950s, concluding: The episode of Hollywood in another country contains the lesson that any critical system or aesthetic discourse which is unable to refer to and reflect upon the social and economic conditions under which the medium or the art in question produce and maintain themselves is liable not only to be incoherent and distorted, but to remain ignorant about the nature of its own activity. The cinema, with its curious status, halfway between an art form of self-expression and a capital-intensive industry of international importance, may put this into particular relief, but it is a sobering thought that it might be equally true of less “popular” manifestations of modern culture. The French intellectuals who championed Hollywood by raising it to the level of high art, in order to snatch it from the clutches of the sociologists, had to discover that they were themselves the victims of the ideology they had affected to transcend.32

There is a spooky subtext in this piece by Elsaesser – as if he had just uttered what amounts to a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom over all projects, in whichever country, resembling or beginning from the Cahiers ethos. For almost a decade prior to 1975, Elsaesser in the UK context had worked to develop – in the modest pages of the Brighton Film Review and then, more ambitiously, in Monogram – one of the most sophisticated accounts of Hollywood cinema that we possess.33 His work (and the intense, collective


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work he co-ordinated) arose out of Britain’s great cinephilic moment at the end of the 1960s, set in motion by the Movie critics at the beginning of that decade. This wave of activity determined the film culture defined by both the influential and resourceful Education Department of the British Film Institute (BFI), and by the publishing policies of various BFI-related bodies and events (such as the Edinburgh Film Festival). The classical American cinema (predominantly Hollywood 1930-1960) was self-evidently and unquestioningly assumed as the principal subject of this work, from BFI courses on “Myth and Genre in the American Cinema”34 to the (never to be repeated) conjunction of books from Secker and Warburg’s “Cinema One” series, Ian Cameron’s Movie series for Studio Vista, and the annual Edinburgh Festival retrospective volumes. The excessive, rude health of this moment is shown by the fact that, amidst important works on American genres (Western and gangster), Sirk, Frank Tashlin, Walsh, Elia Kazan and more, there was time and room for no less than three books on Samuel Fuller. And in one of those books (by Nicholas Garnham, fated to become an editor of the journal Media, Culture and Society later), we find the proof of a not yet particularly tortured and even leftist-flavoured, populist pro-Americanism. The United States is central to our society, and our culture, as a frontier for us all. It is a country set up as a political, social and cultural test-bed where we see acted out to their limits certain of the possibilities for the rest of us. It is still our New World and our future. I don’t mean by this that we are destined to follow in America’s footsteps. There are, as we are beginning to realise, other test-beds, other frontiers – China, Cuba, Czechoslovakia. But the United States remains the most potent, and even if the dream is turning into a nightmare, that nightmare is part of the experiment and part of our experience.35

While continuing to write about Hollywood from diverse perspectives, Elsaesser’s own set of priorities appeared to shift by the end of the 1970s. He turned, in particular, to the problematic of national cinemas (his major case study being Germany past and present), and to burgeoning trends in media theory.36 To some extent, this mirrors the conversion of virtually a whole generation of British cinephiles from the early days of the Edinburgh retrospectives and Cinema magazine (co-edited by David Will) through Screen and its political contestations to Framework in the 1980s – which was the magazine to announce the “buff” as film culture Enemy Number One. Now cut across from Framework and its editor Paul Willemen to Australia in 1983 and 1984. Several public exchanges between the two national film

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cultures are clinched. Willemen appears as teacher and conference guest in Australia; he is interviewed by Sydney’s progressive magazine Filmnews; his 1979 essay “Remarks on Screen: Introductory Notes For a Theory of Contexts” shows up in the Adelaide-based, academic journal Southern Review with a thank-you to “my friends involved in the construction of an oppositional culture in Australia.”37 Two issues of Framework carry dossiers on Australian film culture, writ large and in line with Framework policy as “oppositional”, featuring (in the main) a variety of institutional analyses (of funding bodies, nationalist discourse, and newspaper reviewing practice).38 Whereas Framework in this period regularly targets the sorry cinephilic past of its native film culture, it presents Australia as if it simply never had one. So I am left with a task and a stack of questions. The task is to search for a history of Australian cinephilia and to insert it (however violently) into the total picture of a national film culture. The questions are more delicate. Can or should the dropped projects of cinephiles (here and overseas) be picked up and continued? What could be gained from such a move? What sort of political gesture would it constitute? What new space needs to be cleared in 1987 for cinephilia to function effectively and productively? And lastly, as Monogram once asked: Why Hollywood?39


Between Pearl Harbor and the Bay of Pigs Fallen Angel [1945] seen again. Mystery and fascination of this American cinema. How can I hate [Robert] McNamara and adore Sergeant York [1941], hate John Wayne upholding [Barry] Goldwater and love him tenderly when he abruptly takes Natalie Wood into his arms in the next-to-last reel of The Searchers [1956]? – Jean-Luc Godard, 196640 [T]he man who moved me (and my friends) with Colorado Territory [1949] laughed over the death of Allende. How can this be? – Jon Halliday, 198141

Sketching the history of Australian cinephilia and indicating what is at stake is no easy matter; there are clouds and complications. As a first obstacle, recent historiographical attempts to pigeonhole the 1960s film society cinephile in a cultural genealogy tend to be superficial and contradictory. In one account, the cinephile features as an embryonic nationalist fighting for the Australian Film Renaissance; in another, the cinephile is an underground


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avant-gardist aligned with the Filmmakers’s Co-Operatives; and, in a third, the cinephile is a European art house and film festival devotee. 42 While the cinephiles of that time indeed had an eclectic investment in many cultural activities, and straddled several stools, I think it is truer and more productive to grasp cinephilia as a force proceeding in a permanent tension with these other key forces and tendencies – nationalism, Modernist filmmaking and art house humanism. Certainly, the varied fates that befell the individuals of that period – their paths into different pockets of the industry or into obscurity – bear out some of the tensions and differences that were in play from the very beginning of Australian film culture. A second obstacle is the degree to which the documents left by cinephiles (journals, film society bulletins, low-budget films) actually testify to the nature of cinephilia as individual passion and social activity, and how much they reveal (or even reflect) of what cinephilia is about as a cultural and political gesture. 43 Open polemic within the ranks of cinephiles or on the outskirts of the scene is rare, and these skirmishes, when they occurred, were rarely recorded for posterity; the same goes for the type of ongoing self-reflection (musing rather than self-criticism) dear to some Cahiers writers (“Mystery and fascination of this American cinema”). Retrospective contextualisations of the time by insiders are being produced;44 this outsider must bring to bear on the shadowy documents his (sympathetic) experience of the cinephilia of a later generation, mainly across Melbourne and Sydney. A third obstacle – or rather, trap – is the move to discuss cinephilia purely in the terms in which it “has allowed itself to be defined by its enemies”45 – an almost inevitable recourse, given its lack of self-definition. These “othered” definitions are invariably reductive (not to mention ungenerous), and to spend all one’s time refuting them point-by-point is to risk missing the outline of a bigger picture. Still, we will find the jabs of adversaries useful in making some careful distinctions between different cinephilic tendencies – even if the heart of this passion has never quite been bared out in the centre of the film culture arena. For instance, is cinephilia simply a subculture founded on a rigid principle of group taste: canons, cults, star figures? One could be forgiven for thinking so in the Australian instance. From the film society programmes of the 1960s that relentlessly re-screened the touted masters of American cinema (Hawks, Hitchcock, Fuller, Jerry Lewis) to the passionate declaration of a 1980s cinephile that “Scorsese’s film canon is the sacred text of the film cultist”46 – an element of aesthetic purism and elitism is definitely present. In a Melbourne University Film Group bulletin, one devotee was stirred to complain: “What’s all this American cinema crap! Any national cinema is

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ultimately the important people making the films. […] It is on these artists that the final value of the American cinema depends”.47 With the Golden Age centred as falling between 1954 and 1958 (!), the role call of masters proceeds – Josef von Sternberg, Sirk, Fritz Lang, Boetticher, Allan Dwan, Nicholas Ray, Leo McCarey, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Donen, Anthony Mann, George Cukor, Walsh and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. All such aberrations in the culture of cinephilia are inevitably referred to its most notorious case, that of the MacMahonists in France.48 No consideration (even a kindly one) of cinephilia is complete without a reminder of this group’s scandalous practice of “schismatic idolatry”. 49 Programmers of the MacMahon cinema, principals of the School of McMahon and then sole members of the Circle of MacMahon and publishers of the magazine Présence du cinéma (1959-1967), the MacMahonists honed their love of the cinema to the worship of four Great Gods: Joseph Losey (but only in his American period!), Lang, Walsh and Otto Preminger. The Cahiers group overlapped with and tolerated MacMahonists like Michel Mourlet for a brief time, but their divergence soon became pronounced. When MacMahonism as a coherent movement vanished, its traces dispersed through the subsequent trajectories of its principal protagonists, such as Jacques Lourcelles (who got down to work on a massive dictionary of cinema that took him several decades to write) and Pierre Rissient: a strange fate indeed awaited the latter, as a Cannes Film Festival scout in the 1970s and beyond, representing exotic, far flung territories such as Australia. But, as rhetorical exemplar of all cinephilia’s supposed worst sins, we will have cause to return to MacMahonism in the context of the present discussion. For the less culpable Australian cinephile, what is the knot that needs to be untied here? Let us say, schematically, that the cinephile arrives on the stage of his grand passion with a general love of cinema – or, rather, of a certain kind of cinema which he finds to be mostly American. From there, cinephiles needs to orient themselves by means of some map – the field before them is too vast, overwhelming, and largely uncharted. The only such map available in the early 1960s – and here the lists and commentaries published by Andrew Sarris in a 1963 issue of the American magazine Film Culture are of crucial significance50 – is one that focuses on directors and places them in a hierarchy of auteurs (artists) and metteurs en scène (professional journeymen at best, hacks at worst). The research agenda is then set for decades to come: explore the œuvre of each director, and sort the directors into categories. Voilà, what Skorecki calls the “missionary, exalted era of the heroic cinephile.”51 This can – and often did – become an end in itself, giving rise to the label of “vulgar auteurism”. Way back in


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1957, André Bazin was already asking his young friends on Cahiers: “Auteur, yes, but what of ?”52 But it is equally possible that this specif ically auteurist practice of cinephilia might trace its roots and hence enable the posing of wider, more general questions, like: What is the American cinema? What are the different forms and genres of cinema? What is popular cinema? And hence, popular art? This potentiality – sometimes realised and sometimes not – is what allows William Routt to assert in 1977 that auteurism has been “widely misinterpreted as being only or primarily about authorship”;53 or Raymond Bellour to suggest that the creators in America cinema were finally only “the nameable part of a much broader entity.”54 If the tendency to canonisation via the auteur policy – and the consequent misrecognition of the broadest nature of American cinema – is the MacMahonist sin of cinephilia, it is only the first in a line of such sins. A second volley of critique is condensed admirably in a Screen editorial of 1971 in which Sam Rohdie makes (in the British context) the historic move contra cinephilia (here reduced to its auteurist component): “Auteur criticism […] buries itself in an archaeology of the past or the not so present – Ford, Hitchcock, Hawks, Mann – and seems without terms or understanding for new movies, new directors”.55 This characterisation of the cinephile’s work as irrelevant or anachronistic (“the usual auteur study out of place, out of time”)56 is given a radical-nationalist slant a year later, in another rallying editorial: One impulse behind this number of Screen devoted to British cinema is distress about that cinema, the recognition of a need to understand it and the inadequacy of an approach which finds its ideas from France, its movies from abroad and particularly from Hollywood, and which periodically reviles British productions and British critical ideas.57

Substitute Australia for Britain in those remarks, and you have what Michael Thornhill or Jack Hibberd were saying to neighbourhood cinephiles a few years earlier.58 The final nail in the UK coffin is Rohdie’s direct confrontation with the Movie group and specifically V.F. Perkins’s flagship book, Film as Film (1972), the aesthetic of which is dismissed as conservative, ignorant of theory and anti-modern.59 The terms of Rohdie’s attack appear again and again in all future skirmishes involving the cinephile – with Rohdie himself emigrating to Australia in the mid 1970s as teacher, writer and broadcaster to incite some of these battles. Does the cinephile “bury himself in an archaeology of the past or not so present”? For the Australian cinephile of the 1960s, this can be countered

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defensively. American cinema in the 1960s, after the collapse of the studio system – which was (as is clearer in retrospect) the enabling condition of both its art and craft, and certainly of its so-called classicism – became a strange, undecidable creature, hard to resolve within auteurist tenets. Turning away from Cleopatra in 1963 (a monumentally symptomatic dud by once-great auteur Mankiewicz), cinephiles chose not, in the mid 1960s, to turn instead to The Sound of Music (as well they might have – and later did),60 but to the precious and fragile, or possibly confused and misjudged, works of the ageing masters; to the striking prefigurations of new types of cinema (Arthur Penn, Jerry Lewis, Fuller); and, above all, to the past – a past that, it is important to remember, had not yet been sufficiently explored or uncovered. For a later generation of local cinephiles, this “unerring return”61 to the Hollywood past – however mitigated by an interest in new auteurs such as Clint Eastwood, Jonathan Kaplan, or Walter Hill, who contribute to the creation of a contemporary, genre-based classicism – takes on a more intense, and more historically specific, colouring. Paul Willemen has attempted to periodise what he terms the “object of cinephilia par excellence” – placing it squarely “between Pearl Harbor and the Bay of Pigs.”62 This takes in, to be sure, many proud cinephilic fixations: the “classy B movies”, stylish and hysterical, of Edgar G. Ulmer, Joseph H. Lewis and Robert Siodmak (absorbing the category of film noir);63 the Westerns, epic and chamber, respectively, of Ford and Boetticher; the melodramas of Sirk and Ray; and the grand musicals of Minnelli, Gene Kelly and Donen. Willemen is less sensitive than he ought to be to the not entirely recent cinephilic excavations of the 1930s and early 1940s (Frank Capra, Ernst Lubitsch, McCarey and William Wellman in the screwball/ romantic comedy and crime genres) in venues such as Positif magazine; but, nonetheless, I would like to adopt his essential framework. Between Pearl Harbor and the Bay of Pigs: the phrase implies facts both of a cinematic and a political order. In Willemen’s version, the “still active residues of Surrealism in post-war French culture” gave rise to a particular apprehension of the Hollywood text: Like the Surrealist’s attitude to the cinema, cinephilia was founded on a theory of the sublime moment, the breathtaking fragment which suddenly and momentarily bore witness to the presence and force of desire in the midst of appallingly routinised and oppressive conditions of production. In such moments, cinema revealed itself to be founded on a desiring-looking, a mise en scène not of stories but of a sexualised look. The script was shown to be merely a device to sustain that look, to


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motivate the parade of images incarnating desire itself. Which is why cinephilia (and Surrealism) shies away from the “quality” film and its respectably literary pretences deflecting attention from the sheer pleasure of looking. Such moments reveal the bedrock of the cinematic institution, the space for the inter(dis)course of desiring looks, the lust for looking thinly disguised under the veil of a hastily concocted storyline. Cinephilia gets off on this shimmering through of desire, manifested in “sublime” images, extraordinary and apparently senseless camera movements, the tension inherent in the sequence shot, the involuntary glance, the fleeting expression, the gesture, the unmotivated detail. Of course, in the process any notion of the ideological function or operation of cinematic discourses goes out the window as well. Cinema becomes strictly a space for the play of desire, asocial, irresponsible.64

The ghost of MacMahonism has returned to haunt us in Willemen’s rhetoric. Shimmering, senseless, sublime, involuntary, fleeting and unmotivated: this most closely resembles Mourlet in rhapsody over the sheerest delights of the purest mise en scène (“Like the shimmer of the notes of a piano piece. Like the flow of words of a poem. Like the harmonies and discords of the colours of a painting”).65 And, no doubt, numerous auteurist epiphanies – of the “Party Girl [Nicholas Ray, 1958] gives me a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven” type66 – could be quoted from the pages of many a journal to fit this bill. But can Willemen’s description suffice as an encapsulation of Movie and Perkins’s concept of “significant form”? Of Monogram and Elsaesser’s work on the “drive structure” underpinning classical American film? Of the Sydney University Film Group bulletin and John Flaus’s or Barrett Hodsdon’s ruminations on genre and myth? Of Richard Dyer’s writings on entertainment, spectacle and showbiz? Of Positif and Michel Ciment’s or Jean-Loup Bourget’s consideration of melodrama as the space par excellence of ideological contradiction?67 Willemen would perhaps dismiss all this as so much rationalisation or secondary revision, and claim that what really drives these cinephiles to obsessive rapture is something more fundamentally scopophiliac, narcissistic and fetishistic. But is it not his argument, then, rather than cinephilia itself, that is depoliticising in its logic and dehistoricising in its effects? Willemen regards present day cinephilia as a “neurotic knot” but, considering that he posits it contradictorily as both a “historically determinate regime […] liable to change and even disappearance”, and as an archaic libidinal “bedrock” underlying any act of filmmaking or film-seeing, it would seem that the neurosis is all his.68

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There is certainly an aspect of cinephilia that intractably resides within the pleasures of the “privileged moment” or sublime fragment. This is a phenomenon that I believe calls out for a higher level of discussion and theorisation, an opportunity unfailingly passed over by the synthetic aesthetic of Perkins or the organic analyses of Andrew Britton with their (finally, in a sense, rather literary) concentration on the coherent action of whole texts. On the flip side, there is also a somewhat philistine, wilfully empty-headed tendency within cinephilia that aligns the camp enjoyment of privileged moments with an encyclopaedic recitation of release dates, behind-thescenes trivia, bit-players’s names, and the like – similar in constitution to Fieschi’s bête noire, “that cinephile’s aberration of only seeing in a film that wonderful moment when Jack Elam crushes his cigarette butt into the left eye of a one-legged Apache chief while whistling the ‘Marseillaise’”, which degrades auteurism into “a politique of the craftsman and then of the jobber”.69 This species of cinephile – with a keen eye for glamorous actors and limitless head-space for useless facts – found its Australian home in the pages of Sydney’s Film Digest (1965-1967), a journal that caused one of the few documented, sectarian fights of the time. Geoff Gardner in Melbourne’s UFG Bulletin called Film Digest “self-indulgent, semi-corrupt, hopelessly out of date in its tastes”.70 Film Digest represented, it is accurate to say, a reactionary flank of cinephilia: the journal was deeply suspicious of auteurism and Modernism alike (Ray’s Johnny Guitar [1954] was merely to be taken as “enjoyably lunatic”), curt before the prospect of a growing film-nationalism (Barrie Pattison on the importation of Michael Powell to produce Oz flicks: “I don’t think a more appropriate selection could be brought to bear on the problems of making films in Australia”),71 and self-deprecatingly on the side of its imagined common man at the movies. Some of the magazine’s principal editors/contributors (such as John Baxter and Charles Higham) followed their fate-line into mainstream journalism, coffee-table or scandal-mongering biography writing, and TV presentation. Yet Film Digest, alone of the available documents, evokes the monastic rituals that inform all manifestations of cinephilia, such as hunting down obscure or long-lost films at suburban children’s matinees or on late night television. Another MacMahonist sin that all cinephile sects would find impossible to disavow (try as they may) is that of sexism. For, although there are passionate, encyclopaedic cinephiles of both genders everywhere, the fact remains that the high, public profile of cinephilia, as evidenced by the editorial boards and contents pages of its magazines from Cahiers du cinéma in 1951


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to Stuffing in 1987, is overwhelmingly masculine. This is in contrast to the Film Festival sector, which has traditionally absorbed many women of a Fine Arts orientation,72 or to the key film administration positions more lately occupied by women (Heads of the Australian Film Institute, editors of Cinema Papers and Filmnews). To some, this predominantly male constituency is enough to secure cinephilia its dead dinosaur status; Barbara Creed alludes to this masculine bias when she mocked those lads who seemed to be calling in public forums for a return to “the good old ‘Gee! Whiz! Wow!’ approach to cinema”.73 Is the cinephile only “he” by historical default? Or is cinephilia indeed a sick rose containing one of the darker secrets of the masculine condition? The late 1970s Cahiers reclamation of the cinephilic passion74 does not mince words on this subject. For Narboni, cinephilia is “fundamentally homosexual in essence”75 while, for Bernard Boland, “there exists a cinematic écriture of the masculine imaginary just as there exists a feminine and feminist mise en scène of the feminine, and feminist, imaginary, as the recent appearance of women comedians in the café-theatres shows” (!).76 For both these guys, the privileged allegories of cinephilia are art house buddy movies such as Wenders’s Der amerikanische Freund (1977) and Jean-François Stévenin’s Passe montagne (1978). Skorecki neatly suggests in a 1981 review of John Cassavetes’ Gloria (1980) that the cinephile is best represented as an innocent, awestruck little boy.77 The gender dynamics of cinephile groups change with history – and we need to know and say more about the women who have already participated in these mainly male milieux of the past. I suspect, however, that there is a deeply ingrained matter of cultural habit and assumption, rather than biological essence, about cinephilia as a form of masculine being-upfrontin-the-world that will take a little while longer yet to disappear. The sexist language, rhetoric, and dramatic fixations of 1960s cinephiles make for easy targets in retrospect. Walsh and Hawks, for instance, are celebrated as “virile” directors with a repetitive insistence that inevitably recalls another staple of MacMahonist excess: Mourlet’s manly evocation that “there spurts forth a world of which the least one can ask is that it does not render vain the effort which gave it birth”;78 or Jacques Saada’s effusive summation of the Walshian oeuvre arriving “by fire, by blood, I would even say by sperm, at White Heat [1949]: the world explodes!”79 As one history of Australia’s feminist film culture by Annette Blonski did not fail to note,80 the first tabloid issue of Cinema Papers in 1969 carried on its very first page an article by Philippe Mora called “Mythology of Guts”, which lays a standard cinephilic obsession right on the line, and with plenty

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of capital letters: “The bulk of American cinema is a Masculine cinema. […] This Cinema of Men has at its centre the Mythology of Guts”.81 Such a sentiment is still echoed five years later, with Jack Clancy celebrating Robert Aldrich as “a filmmaker with some iron in his guts”.82 Right up until 1973, influential educationist John C. Murray (whose highly refined aesthetic system is comparable to that of V.F. Perkins) could offhandedly write in the pages of Melbourne’s Lumiere magazine (1970-1974) that we should “make a lady out of film” because “she’s a good-looking wench in her own right” (as distinct from “Old Mother Television” who “gets pretty fetid at times”).83 Speculate on the nature of the average male cinephile’s psychic investment in classy, B movie noir fantasies of the femme fatale, and you are doubtless very close to the nightmare of many women. The historical moment of feminism’s intervention into f ilm culture (particularly at the levels of education and public debate) puts into sharp relief the different fates to which cinephiles of various ages and situations were headed. The time is roughly 1976. Australia’s own “missionary, exalted” cinephilic era had come to its end around 1970; the 1960s cinephiles had, by then, finally left the campus film societies and the modest journals, which immediately vanished. Other sites for keeping the repertoire of the cinephilic imaginary alive and circulating became available – some relatively secretive and protected (shamelessly auteurist courses of “film appreciation” in secondary schools), others more precariously shared and contested (the National Film Theatre of Australia, cultural activities of the film institutions and government-run departments such as the National Library). The tensions that had kept the Melbourne bulletins of the 1960s hopping editorially from one cause to another became more apparent as its protagonists went their separate ways; some plunged wholly into the film festival ethos, others took up the thankless adventures of fly-by-night independent exhibition or distribution; some sublimated their passion into the nationalist filmmaking cause, while others converted holus-bolus to counter-cultural Modernism. And many others disappeared altogether. Cinephilia suddenly looked like a lonely platform amidst the eclectic flux of positions governing the popular film journals of the 1970s (especially Cinema Papers); there was effectively no more space for a Raoul Walsh retrospective in a bourgeois culture ruled by the taste of highly visible “public intellectuals” such as Phillip Adams or Bob Ellis, sarcastically blaring their contempt for, and abysmal ignorance of, all things culturally American at every possible media opportunity. For those cinephiles with at least one foot in the academy, 1976 was a bombshell. Film theory, all evidence of which had hitherto been successfully


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quelled or delayed, was beginning to emerge – either in the form of powerfully charismatic import-personalities (such as Rohdie or Lesley Stern), or equally fervent local converts. We should never forget or underestimate the extent to which many of the key, theoretical texts of the 1970s – such as Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Christian Metz’s The Imaginary Signifier and Bellour’s work of the period84– announce their radicality precisely in terms of the violent break they enact with the “sterile” fascinations of a close, cinephilic past. (Mulvey, is, in truth, a complex case: while she asked us in the 1970s to “view the decline of the traditional film form” with nothing more than “sentimental regret”, she also proudly listed her ten favourite Westerns in an issue of the deeply cinephilic American magazine, The Velvet Light Trap.) Doesn’t it make greater, retrospective sense of film theory’s favourite straw men – the hungry male voyeur, the fascinated fetishist, the regressive narcissist – if we grasp their unspoken correlative in reality to be not the average moviegoer, but the far from average male cinephile? Some cinephiles indeed reacted as the theory might have predicted, crying for mother and scuttling back to the imaginary plenitude of their favourite, as yet unproblematised, Hollywood musicals.85 Others, however, had a prolonged and difficult period of agony before them – and this was so most intensely for that new, second wave of cinephiles who had gone straight from the teenage discovery of their passions into the arena of tertiary film education, where they were thrown from teacher to teacher (and position to position) like so many experimental guinea pigs. For young cinephiles at that time (I was one of them), incubation in the womb of “Hitchcocko-Hawksianism” (as the Cahiers ethos had gleefully tagged itself) tended to be short-lived indeed – Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959) had to be ritually, publicly traded in for Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Tout va bien (1972). Some of their more troubled teachers, pulled between their training in the serious Movie or Monogram tradition and the call to a more spectacular politicisation of their critical practice, swapped the domain of themes (time, love, morality) for the realm of dominant ideology (and the critique thereof), and began to plead for recognition of the progressive or subversive implications in a Brian De Palma as in a Sirk.86 But the case for keeping the file open on either auteurism (however sophisticated) or Hollywood was not well received; the proceedings of Melbourne’s legendary 1977 conference devoted to Bette Davis’s screenwriter Casey Robinson testify vividly to the historic moment when Hollywood was strategically flattened into an exemplar of both classical narrative and patriarchal moral tale.87 This moment effectively set the critical agenda for

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some years to come: cinephilia went underground in the early 1980s. The climate was clearly not right for a Melbourne tabloid with the immodest title of Buff (four issues from 1980 to 1981) and an arcane back page of endless film titles indexed against a “code of notable elements” including “significant artistic value”, “strong subtext” and “political references/implications”. This back-page “Film Buffs’ Forecast” was compiled, in print form, by one John Flaus, who had long been a cherished hero among cinephiles all across Australia since his first, fiery public interventions as a critic in the mid 1950s. The wheel of fate will turn on all this (Flaus included) at least one more time before we reach the end of the 1980s. Meanwhile, one of Willemen’s implied charges against cinephilia between Pearl Harbor and the Bay of Pigs is still lying around unanswered, for it is the toughest nut of all to crack. Do cinephiles, in their own fashion, however contained or short-reaching the effect, simply collude in America’s imperial domination and its occupation of other cultures? Are cinephiles’ loyalties so utterly elsewhere that they are guilty of giving nothing to their site-specific homeland? Can cinephiles productively engage in local debate? The cases of those worldly cinephiles (the most celebrated being David Thomson)88 who follow their fateful dream of America all the way to the point of actually uprooting themselves and settling there, might conceivably be taken as proof of the seduction-collusion thesis. This is echoed in the instance of Alexandre Astruc (occasionally associated with Cahiers in the 1950s) and his typical declaration in 1986 that “to love the American cinema is to love America”, and that, at heart, “we are all Americans.”89More quietly disturbing was the practice of a sophisticated, cinephilic magazine such as Movie, which – long after all the embarrassing political questions had been posed to it – persisted in rarely interrogating the predominantly American character of its critical agenda.90 Here, yet again, MacMahonism looms as the sign of the extreme (inevitable?) fate of such cinephilia, for no magazine was ever more frankly pro-American than Présence du cinéma.91 Would we care to see in the contemporary cinephile’s fascination with John Milius or James Cameron some shading of this ideology, some teasing game of faint complicity with it? Personally, I would not conclude here that cinephilic non-localism leads so fatefully to a right-wing persuasion. This is because I do not assume that cinephilia is an energy that goes solely in one direction, away from home; I want at least to try leaving the intercultural (transnational) door open to see if any traffic actually passes through it in a two-way fashion. Why Hollywood? Let us see if the answer can be found in the form of a strategic feedback of the cinephile’s passion from the object of desire to the place


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where the cinephile lives – some complicated, cultural and emotional investment in the local and its relation to “over there”. To this end, I examine three local heroes of Australian cinephilia.92 The first is Richard Franklin who, I think it is fair to say, brings out the more rearguard inclinations of Aussie cinephiles. Franklin is a 1960s figurehead; few journals of the time are complete without the latest bulletin concerning his training at University of Southern California (USC) film school, and particularly his apprenticeship on the set of Hitchcock’s Topaz (1969). Franklin is the first to go to the USA, learn the craft, and bring it back home. Craft is the operative word here: in his adjacent role as educator and advisor in the film appreciation milieu of the 1960s, he stands for know-how, technical mastery, cleverness within convention, professionalism – a species of home-grown HitchcockoHawksianism shorn of both interpretive excess and mythic resonance. Eventually, Franklin climbs enough steps of the industry ladder to make what is, for some cinephiles, a breakthrough Australian film, a privileged instance of American lessons well absorbed and put to work: the horror-thriller Patrick (1978). Hostile commentators more attached to the nationalist dream deride Franklin’s work as “trans-Pacific”, but some cinephiles stay with him as he starts to make the ritual move back in the direction of Hollywood: first via the 1981 American-Australian co-production Roadgames (Tom Ryan, negotiating his path between the memory of the Ashril cinema and the critique necessary to defend De Palma against an army of outraged ideologues, acts as script consultant and bit-player); and then the real thing, a bona fide American movie, Psycho II (1983):. now the Hitchcockian circle is closed, and other film and TV work follows in its wake (Cloak and Dagger [1984], Link [1986]). Franklin’s particular brand of Americanism (in whichever country he practices it) is declared by his loyal cinephile supporters to be brave and under-appreciated by the film culture of his homeland; to them, he is Australian cinema’s underdog.93 This has been a refrain – sometimes subdued, sometimes loud and proud – underlying much 1980s writing by cinephiles choosing (or forced) to confront the local product: the scandalous praise that such-and-such a film is good because it understands the lessons of American cinema, thereby implying that the majority of Australian films do not, and certainly should.94 It is in this decade that we begin to hear the rallying cry, at the very margin of the film industry, that Australia does not make enough “genre films” (an odd and imprecise label, but everyone immediately knows what it means: thrillers, horror movies, fantasies, sex films, and so on) – and it is the cinephiles who, historically, originated this argument. Under this rhetoric lies an even more ferocious, and basically true, accusation: that the majority of personnel in Australia’s movie and TV

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industry (makers, producers, practical trainers in filmmaking schools) and the culture industry (assessors, promoters, some academics and their pet students) possess little deep or substantial knowledge (let alone love) of cinema style or cinema history. This line of attack can easily shrink to a (necessary) complaint about the lack of aesthetics (and aesthetic pleasure) in Australian film – cinephilia functioning as the bad conscience niggling (as it devoutly hopes) media culture; but it can also expand to questions of a cultural and political order. These are questions perhaps unreachable through the example of Richard Franklin. But what of – to change tack dramatically – the somewhat notorious Antony I. Ginnane? Ginnane’s case study is a rich one. Beginning as the editor of Melbourne’s Film Chronicle (two issues, 1968), his critical writing is overripe to the point of providing our closest local equivalent to MacMahonism, in at least two respects: style and taste. Ginnane was a pure aesthete; reporting from the 1973 Cannes Festival, he was able to admire in Losey, Fuller and Jean Eustache alike the presence of “one magnificent moment”, “wildly beautiful crane and tracking shots” or “amazing stylistic flourishes” – markings of a caméra-stylo that “abound”, despite the mere connivances of a script, and thus “astound” the viewer.95 Moving into independent film distribution, Ginnane displayed the marked eclecticism of position and perversity of taste (seizing, as cultists elsewhere did, on only the most bizarre and hence paradoxically pure fringes of this popular art: Z grade exploitation, Terence Hill Westerns) that define the sensibility of the working cinephile of the 1970s. Here, in 1974, is a man who distributes Godard and Gorin’s heavy Maoist tracts such as Le Vent d’est (1970) alongside the trashy horror movie The Corpse Grinders (Ted V. Mikels, 1971), without any apparent sign that he experiences this as a contradiction.96 Ginnane’s subsequent career as a producer is better known. The sensibility of “exploitative shoddiness” displayed in films such as Thirst (Rod Hardy, 1979) and Turkey Shoot (Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1982) is disowned (predictably) by Phillip Adams, but also by those cinephiles whose hero is Richard Franklin.97 Americanism, it seems, is no longer so readily defensible when it shades into the dreaded ideology of “internationalism”. Politically, this is indeed suspicious. Ginnane stands by the concept of “a mega-culture embracing Australia, Canada and the U.S.”, without the slightest recognition of hegemonic power proceeding from one particular member of the party. But culturally? From the cinephilic priority of a popular aesthetic, Ginnane draws two creeds: genre (“working within certain rules of the cinema”) and entertainment (“in the real world of film distribution and exhibition, people go to the movies to be entertained”) – no longer so professional


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in the classical Hollywood sense, but vulgar, spectacular, cartoon-like, heterogeneous and hokey. But Ginnane, while embracing a popular aesthetic, also sells it out like a true industry philistine when he claims that films such as Eastwood’s Firefox (1982) “don’t have anything to say, except at a sub-sub-text level, about the United States.”98 In light of his subsequent career contradiction – backing art or middlebrow movies like High Tide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987) and The Lighthorsemen (Simon Wincer, 1987) – Ginnane perhaps exemplifies the fate of the cultural-populist cinephile turning, by degrees, into a cynical player of the market: a rather sorry spectacle of bad faith and rationalisation? Ginnane was notably short of champions from any sector of 1970s or 1980s Australian film culture. Polemics from the late 1980s wave of cinephiles, however, promised (or threatened) to make him into some kind of hero, at the right hand of our third exemplar. Philippe Mora wrote in the late 1960s and early 1970s phases of Cinema Papers, sharing in that period’s prevailing perversity and eclecticism of taste (articles on violence, Pop Art in film, Buster Keaton).99 Less cynical and more exuberant in his open embrace of diverse filmic forms than Ginnane, Mora as a filmmaker moved through attempts at avant-garde comedy and compilation documentary to arrive – at home and abroad – at what some unkindly call schlock cinema (Mad Dog Morgan [1976], The Beast Within [1982], The Return of Captain Invincible [1983], Howling II: Striba – Werewolf Bitch [1985] and Howling III: The Marsupials [1987]). In the course of an article that praises Mora for the sorts of generic and stylistic perversions theorised as always existing potentially within (not outside or against) popular art, Philip Brophy unleashes a remarkable, anti-nationalist diatribe of the kind that can only be spoken by a cinephile under the age of 30. Perhaps this is why I like Philippe Mora – as an “Australian” director who has been able to maintain an identity (cinematic not national) in the face of our film culture’s mandates to the industry to produce the professional, ref ined, sophisticated, nationalistic, sensitive, thought provoking, personal and socially-aware crap that makes our cinema so predictable and unappealing.100

This strategic preference (for Mora and Ginnane over Gillian Armstrong and renowned producer Tony Buckley, for “cinema” over “nation”) is based on an assumption that is not only aesthetic but also avowedly political: that “Australian film culture is in fact more terrorised by British colonialism

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than American imperialism.”101 This bespeaks more than the nation-child’s pitting of Mother Country against Father Culture – in the vain hope of thereby neutralising all imperialisms. As Richard White reminds us, the Anglophile’s perennial campaign against Americanisation, and the proAmerican backlash it inevitably provokes, can be comprehended as a form of class warfare – or, at least, a war of representations of class interest, the petit bourgeois populist’s invocation of what the masses are really into, hurled against the high bourgeoisie’s assumed knowledge of what is good for all.102 In film culture, this splits cinephiles as a camp against both film festival humanists and radical nationalists who, in the last instance, naturally spend most of their time and energy worrying about how the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) will uphold its rather British cultural standards in the face of its latest organisational crisis, rather than, say, speculating over the textual and cultural meanings of David Cronenberg’s exciting 1986 remake of The Fly (1986) – as any issue of another middle class bastion of the period, The Age Monthly Review, makes abundantly clear. Although there is a tendency within democratic-consensus, populist sentiment to blunt the edge of this class warfare – an echo stretching from Frank Moorhouse’s claim in a 1966 Sydney Cinema Journal that “consumer choice” is in no way constrained or defined by class position,103 to Brophy’s stand that taste is not “ideological, cultural and industrial” but “arbitrary, personal and unaccountable”104 – the war and its antagonists remain firmly in place. Cinephilia is rooted in longing; and longing is rooted in a recognition of an absence in the place where one is – hence carrying implicitly within it a critical insight on given, local conditions. We must recognise that the Hollywood of which the Australian cinephile dreams is neither the one which the radical nationalist (fast becoming another species of dead dinosaur within the film industry conjuncture of the late 1980s) rejects, nor the one which the entrepreneurs of the Film Commissions have eventually come – after the success of The Man from Snowy River (George T. Miller, 1982) and particularly Crocodile Dundee (Peter Faiman, 1986) – to embrace. Australian cinephiles are much like their British counterparts who would love to love the homegrown product – if only they could. Cinephiles everywhere are cursed by their idealism. Thus, in the Australian instance, it is not enough to lecture the cinephile about the necessity for “bums on seats” (i.e., box office success), as if that was the same thing as the popular aesthetic the cinephile so single-mindedly pursues. Furthermore, it is not nearly enough to coax him with the prospect of brave, intractable, experimental features (like Tim Burns’s Against the Grain [1980] or Susan Lambert &


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Sarah Gibson’s Landslides [1987]) that supposedly open up the closed doors of classical, narrative film. What might the Hollywood-inclined cinephile understand that no one else quite seems able to? If the cinephile loves America, it is perhaps because America understood cinema. Only one kind of cinema, of course – the cinema of fiction, expression and action; storytelling, theme-building and the physical manifestation of internal energies. Yet America made that cinema necessary: not solely through the force of industrial and cultural hegemony, but more profoundly by finding its inner truth or soul. The soul of a creative medium is the place where its materials and meanings fit together perfectly – not for eternal art, but for a material culture that is (in this case) specifically Western or Western-influenced. Herein are the secrets of a popular aesthetic.


Secrets of a Soul

Like many other people, my first and enduring experience of cinema had been Hollywood; in the 1950s and 1960s I had grown up under the sway of its powerful fantasy. The popular culture of America belonged to me, as much as the popular culture of my native land, if not more so. Later, when I first seriously tried my hand at writing about film, it was for the magazine Monogram, whose policy under its founder and editor Thomas Elsaesser took it for granted that American cinema was the cinema to write about. None of the contributors was American himself, but it was unthinkable in the context of that time that this should be perceived as a disqualification. I remember vividly coming across the first issue of the magazine in a bookstore. Under the intriguing logo was a picture of Gloria Grahame stretched languidly on a sofa, in a scene from The Big Heat [1953], which coincidentally I had only just that day ordered for my film club. Beneath, in bold lettering, the caption: “Why Hollywood?” I knew, I think, almost without reading the article, that I would have to become a contributor. – Mark Le Fanu, 1985105

In 1982, David Will in Framework looked back and wondered why half the British cinephile scene of the 1960s consisted of writers (such as Peter Wollen, Alan Lovell and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith) noted for their affiliation with the magazine New Left Review in the same period. Following Willemen’s historiographical outline,106 Will suggests this “Marxist cultural intelligentsia was to become preoccupied by the American cinema out of anti-colonialist

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desire to define and understand the enemy” – a desire, indeed, to colonise the colonisers, whose culture could be grasped as ideologically all-powerful but fundamentally primitive (prime specimen in this zoo of savage, American primitives: Samuel Fuller). Clearly, the important thing for Will – and what enables the sureness of his retrospection – is that the NLR gang (like Will himself) grew out of their obsession with the American cinema and the need for such primitivism, in the same way that they exhausted the scandalous, anti-humanist, anti-liberal potential of flaunting Hollywood movies at the establishment. Will concludes: “In 1982, we on the left no longer require these demands to be met in this way”.107 In 1982, the film-oriented left presumably required a programme for an oppositional culture, a programme that held little place for Hollywood. Yet that past which has been so assiduously and neatly closed off by Will – the coloniser colonised, the mighty USA primitive chained and vanquished like King Kong – is the entire complex, continuing history of cinephilia and its investments in Hollywood cinema. To reduce this to a scenario in which cinephiles of both left and right acted, once upon a time, as “civilised interpreters of the savages”108 is to miss a few terms and problems that have not yet gone away – not the least of which is cinephilia as a form of populist discourse. Will’s account of cinephilia assumes that any elaborated discussion of Hollywood – however necessary and useful as an appropriation for a particular conjuncture – is basically a hallucination; the critic cannot really influence, and must come around to admitting, the unassailably hard, enduring reality of this capitalist industry par excellence. All that is then left is for the critic is to move on to more important (and politically sensible) tasks. A populist would indeed be shocked by this logic; he or she would never want to think of themselves as merely hallucinating popular art, and would not want to be in the business of simply appropriating its effects. The populist observes, testifies, and then generalises; the populist claims, in fact, to be on the pulse of a widespread and lived reality. Cultural populism as a discourse, however, is founded (as many have pointed out) on a fatal contradiction that renders it fundamentally untenable, or at least illogical. To imagine oneself as speaking for the people, and to attach names and analyses to the realm of everyday life, is to separate oneself from the people immediately, and to shove real life perpetually elsewhere – an exhibit to be pointed at, invoked from afar. Populists rarely like to acknowledge that they are in fact involved in the rhetorical task of


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constructing figures like “the common person” for a presumed listener or reader even more displaced from the norm than the populist. Therefore, populism is a discourse pitched as a type of pleading to a higher power on behalf of (or in the name of) the assumed interests of this common person.109 I believe it is possible to productively live the contradictions of populism as a position for thinking and speaking; and, concomitantly, that the cinephile is in a particularly good situation to do just this. Cinephiles tend to be walking contradictions – lower middle-class aesthetes drawn to the rough, vital authenticity of popular cinema; or (even more painfully, as I can attest) intellectuals born in and uneasily inhabiting a working class milieu. They believe themselves to be average people intensely living out one of the principal pleasures of everyday life in the 20th century. As Bernard Boland puts it: “If cinephiles are different from average spectators, it is not because they form a separate group; on the contrary, they are more average and more simple than most spectators, they are purely spectators.”110 But this ritual intensification leads immediately to specialisation and differentiation; if the cinephile organises a Hawks retro and translates bits of Cahiers or Positif for a film club bulletin, he is no longer an ordinary Joe. The cinephile cannot, however, even if he wanted to, climb the ladder in the other direction to fully fledged, middle class cultural respectability, either; an unmistakable air of something daggy, declassé and potentially unmanageable forever surrounds someone who is seriously passionate about John Wayne Westerns or Jerry Lewis comedies. Try teaching this material in a university setting, and you will soon discover the truth of that – from your students even more quickly than from your colleagues. The cinephile as cultural populist can probably still get some good mileage out of speaking as if between the two great social classes, living at the border of each, and acting in order to shock the one and educate the other. But the cinephile as social type exists in a cultural framework that, more apparently at time goes by, is full of abundantly real spaces or networks for different in-betweens, relays, mutations. The cinephile needs, more than ever, to get a good grip of these intermediate, social spaces. For if cinephiles pretend to be too much “of the people” when they are not, they will be rightly dismissed as inauthentic and irrelevant; if they take on the duty of intellectualising the popular, they must not forfeit the opportunity by seeming either pretentious or merely a cheeky larrikin (as we Aussies say) in the court of the academy. Such are, all too often, the fates of cultural populism. In these 1980s days of acute fragmentation of critical, cultural discourse – days of culture magazines arty, poppy and yuppie – it has not become any easier to speak seriously of the popular; in fact, it has become infinitely more

No Flowers for the Cinephile


difficult. Various institutions claim popular art and define the violently exclusive ways it can be spoken about – nostalgically, campily, academically, professionally, allegorically, or moralistically. Not the least of the cinephile’s problems, in this regard, is the rise of what Skorecki disparagingly calls the “new cinephilia” and its reconstructive raids on the meaning of Hollywood cinema, within a framework popularly known today as postmodernism. The new, postmodern cinephilia in Australia is the Valhalla repertory cinema circuit with its camp-cult mentality; it is a post-punk songwriter interviewed in Rolling Stone magazine naming his influences as Godard and Sam Peckinpah; it is one young, Super-8 filmmaker describing the work of a colleague as a “homage to Hitchcock, Minnelli and Orson Welles”;111 it is the art house complex that screens David Byrne’s True Stories (1986) and David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) for a new and large audience now turned on to pop culture (i.e., popular art in the second degree), and eager to ritualise its consumption as one facet of an integrated lifestyle. The enormous home-video phenomenon is another part of the landscape of this new cinephilia. It is in this context that the cinephile has been born again – brought out of the closet and given a devoted public. Historical ironies abound. Who could have imagined that Flaus’s “The Film Buffs’ Forecast” would end up (with the help of Paul Harris and the new cinephilia), in a new form, as one of the most popular shows on public radio in Melbourne? Or that Sydney’s Filmnews magazine, once the mirror of the independent filmmaking scene and the intense theory/practice debates of the 1970s, would become, after the demise of the Sydney Filmmakers Co-Op, a safe refuge for cinephiles of several generations? Younger cinephiles, moving with ease in and out of zero-budget video art and experimental filmmaking, even find themselves colluding with the postmodern, pop philosophy of the new cinephilia. Not for them the conflict, lived so acutely by the 1960s cinephiles, of the discrepancy between what the Cahiers critics wrote in the 1950s and the increasingly radical work they went on to fashion as filmmakers in the 1960s. Today, Europhilia (expressed in the love of the Nouvelle Vague and early Godard in particular) and cinephilia perfectly merge together in the dream-like evocation of American cinema as the melancholic, lost object par excellence – perpetually vanishing whenever you try to understand its secrets or to imitate its look. What once functioned, in 1962, as an entrée into the modernity of a new cinema – Godard’s remark that “when we were at last able to make films, we could no longer make the kind of films which made us want to make films”112 – now triggers a ritual of elegy and mourning, a sensibility well


Mysteries of Cinema

caught in the cinephile’s favourite, second-degree Hollywood films: Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart (1982), Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) or, supremely, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). While the new cinephilia leaves nationalists (conservative and radical alike) barking about the renewed presence of Americanisation 113 – with nobody much listening to them anymore – it poses a more substantial challenge to an oppositional film culture that chooses, in the main, not to acknowledge it. But the new cinephilia is also a challenge for any established cinephile. This last challenge is, as it always been, how to keep alive an engagement with, and an apprehension of, the true soul of American cinema. That is serious business in a discursive field not particularly open to such business. Granted the cinephile’s distance from the people (or mass audience) to whom this popular art is mainly directed, it should not immediately follow that the cinephile has nothing valuable to say about it. Elsaesser pinpoints the potential problem area of populist discourse: […] the conflict of the intellectual when trying to articulate the values inherent in non-intellectual art, or indeed any art that grows from different cultural and social preconditions: doomed to resort to his own language, he necessarily distorts his own intuition and transforms the object of his study into a metaphor […] the dilemma of finding a nonmetaphorical critical discourse.114

I am not as fatalistic as Elsaesser or Will about the inevitability of distorting and transforming popular art to fit one’s pre-existing bourgeois-aesthete preoccupations – even though such a tendency is particularly rife in contemporary art world-informed publications such as the Sydney-based On The Beach. It is more politically pertinent at the present moment to grasp the way in which reactionary, anti-populist critiques seize on this presumed inevitability, and its associated inauthenticity, in order to immediately conclude that nothing in the sphere of popular culture is even worth talking about – that nothing at all is at stake. For instance, in 1985, ascendant art critic John McDonald mocks cinephiles in the following terms: [They] feel behoved to promote a mainstream cinema that, one might justifiably claim, really needs no such help with its publicity. They give the bizarre impression that they have just discovered the films of Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Blake Edwards, etc. How very quaint, considering the average member of the public probably discovered them all many years ago.115

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The bottom-line for McDonald, here dutifully following in the Clement Greenberg tradition, is that popular cinema would always (no matter what the critical approach) turn out to be “junk when there’s never been any reason to suspect otherwise”.116 Not far removed from this is the widespread, paranoid fantasy of the ultra-conservative critic that meddling intellectuals have by now indeed ruined popular culture for everyone else. For instance, Ronald Conway, writing in the right-wing rag Quadrant, makes at least three mistakes in two sentences as he upholds the simple entertainment value of a humble Australian TV series over: […] the ostentatious heart-searching and all the arrogant “Auteurism” of many orthodox features put together. It was a sad day for the cinema as a popular art form when the intellectuals got hold of it, more hot air emanating from Cannes than ever came out of Canberra.117

What is truly incredible in these remarks by conservative ideologues is an identification with (and superior knowledge of) the average member of the public that most populists would be too modest or too wary to contemplate for very long. This identification closes down the range of meanings, affects and functions in popular art – reduced to the simple, egalitarian value of entertainment or the enjoyment of kitsch – in the same stroke as it portrays all enthusiastic critical discussion of this art as a simple mirror of PR hype, promoting and discovering consumable product. Both ways, the status quo is re-affirmed, and discussion stops dead. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith suggested in 1985 that the “hidden history of cinema in British culture, and in popular culture in particular, has been the history of American films popular with the British public”.118 The same diagnosis applies to Australian film culture and Australian cultural studies alike – shown up for their blindness in this regard by Gerald Murnane’s 1976 novel A Lifetime On Clouds, one of the few documents that gives a historical sense of the kinds of emotional and cultural investments made by Australian folk in popular American cinema between Pearl Harbor and the Bay of Pigs.119 What claim does the cinephile possess on some understanding of this “hidden history” and its continuation into the present? Two of the cinephile’s least congratulated characteristics – the drive to encyclopaedic viewing, and immersion in the subjective experience of a film – may in fact provide a decent means of generalising (and not metaphorising) their apprehension of popular cinema. Classical film depends on a vast system of familiarity and recognition on the viewer’s part – a prior relation not only to plot structures, genre


Mysteries of Cinema

conventions and character stereotypes, but also to what Elsaesser calls “a symbolic system of notation within which very differentiated statements could be articulated” on the level of the narration (i.e., the treatment and delivery of the story material).120 Where these articulations – the true intelligence of the Hollywood film – occur is not on a subtle (and therefore buried) level of artistry but in the shifts, transferences, overloadings, teasings and satisfactions of emotion. The American cinema is one that first and foremost works on energies – in the film and in the viewer – and this is as true today as yesterday. This channeling through the emotions is erroneously labeled by some as primitive or nonintellectual. Such emotion, however, is not lacking in substantial content or a reference in reality; it is a psychic reality through which many collectively lived, social experiences pass. Elsaesser asserts: “It is this emotional proximity to the viewer maintained across an immense variety of subjects, situations and filmic genres that one has to reckon with in any argument about the nature of popular culture in the cinema”.121 This is the component of energy or élan that Australian cinephiles, like their British counterparts, often finds sadly lacking in the films of their homeland. And it is in this emotional register that myths form. Myth – like desire or dream – is a much abused and degraded concept; it is too readily drained of its cultural specificity and relevance not only by contemporary Hollywood itself (Steven Spielberg, for instance, contributes enthusiastically to a static, one-dimensional understanding of entertainment and its escapist value), but also by some well-meaning theorists who speak of American cinema’s will-to-mythology as the creation of a vast, self-enclosed, illusory world (“It is like a kind of music, a mythological vibration”).122 Myth should be understood here as ideological dynamism. John Flaus proposes in a 1970 SUFG Bulletin that “myths embody the conflicts and aspirations of a collective anguish; they compress, transfigure and objectify areas of distress and yearning which society cannot bear to confront directly; and they manifest only as much reality as a common level of consciousness can bear”.123 Into any mythic representation of the social good go contradictory wants, needs and memories. All of the great American film genres were built on such tumultuous, mythic bases: the gangster movies, musicals, Westerns and melodramas exist precisely in order to dramatise the problems of social experience and the difficult place of the individual subject caught between irreconcilable urges. This understanding of myth has the potential to break the fate-line that leads straight from the aesthete’s dreams of Hollywood as art to the politico’s bitter realisation that the American film industry is an arm of

No Flowers for the Cinephile


imperial power. It can even be ventured that American imperialism as a political fact needs to be considered more openly and generously as a cultural phenomenon in the light of its national cinema. For America as a nation has never been “one”; what cinephiles have positively (sometimes naively) responded to as the democratic character of the American cinema-dream124 derives from the complex project of this cinema to unify what Nowell-Smith describes as an “extremely diverse and largely immigrant public” around an image – a myth – of America.125 Thus, a space is opened wherein cultural differences must necessarily be approached and negotiated; this elaborate, artful rhetoric of cinematic storytelling inevitably draws in audiences of other nations. Add to this the formidable flexibility of American liberalism (as in the “conservative radicalism” of Samuel Fuller)126 that tends to be at its most searching and self-critical precisely when imperial expansion is most secure and self-assured – a situation that, according to Andrew Britton, allows the “critical bourgeois text to examine the social conditions […] of supremacy”.127 It is in this context that we can still dare to talk of the subversive insight of the great auteurs like Sirk or Sternberg; that is, if we understand by this a situation in which these filmmakers shared with many other practitioners in a rich set of diverse, dynamic conventions, traditions and conditions, to formulate an always contemporary, social discourse. I am not saying that the American cinema was “of the people” (it was not); only that it tried consciously and unconsciously to speak to the people, and that – again, consciously and unconsciously – it got through. Have I left the average member of the Australian public too far outside the terms of this brief attempt to theorise seriously a popular art? I do not think so. What the cinephile feels is hopefully not so different from what the mass of people experience when they take themselves to the movies in search of an experience of the senses and the emotions. Whatever the cinephile then makes of that complicated transaction – between screen and subject, between the world and its metaphor – happens elsewhere: in forums, articles, discussions, classrooms, social occasions, new films. Not in so-called, mythic, everyday life – where everything would simply buzz and flow indifferently, namelessly – but in the everyday practice of a cultural politics.128 Perhaps one of those average moviegoers might be a constituent member of one of the new, fragmented, intermediate audiences for pop-cultural analysis – that is in the cards, after all. If the f ixated cinephile managed to light up even one little thing in the vast, interactive drama of social subjectivity, would not that be enough of a contribution?


Mysteries of Cinema

Fate is closure; and closure is often held to be a principal defining feature of narrative, narrative cinema, and especially American narrative cinema. The cinephile begs to differ; in the energetic fluxes of social myth, things come apart, resonating in different ways, travelling in different directions – and speaking or writing facilitates the mobility of these cultural materials. One Australian cinephile put it well in describing the privileged object of his desire: the Hollywood film is a concrete object that ceaselessly abstracts itself, and operates at “multiple levels of closure.”129 Instead of the trap-door which shuts the viewer into the film and the cinephile into his fate, might not we imagine a series of doors – some resistant, some swinging – allowing us to engage once more, “analytically and productively”, in “the definition of the real”?130 (1987)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3.

4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

Tom Ryan, “The Movie Men”, The Herald Monday Magazine (Melbourne), 10 August 1987, pp. 1, 6. David Downey, Annotations on Film (Melbourne), Terms III & IV (1969), unpaginated. Jean-Louis Comolli et al, “Twenty Years On: A Discussion about American Cinema and the politique des auteurs” In Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du Cinéma 1960- 1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Reevluating Hollywood (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), pp. 203-204. Michel Mourlet, quoted in Hillier (ed.), ibid., p. 117. Louis Skorecki, “Contre la nouvelle cinéphilie”, originally in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 293 (October 1978); reprinted in Skorecki, Raoul Walsh et moi (Paris: PUF, 2001), citation p. 49. Translation by myself and Paul Foss. Paul Willemen, “The Desire for Cinema: An Edinburgh Retrospective”, Framework, no. 19 (1982), p. 49. Eddy Mitchell’s song “La dernière séance”, quoted in Skorecki, Raoul Walsh et moi, p. 49. Skorecki later amplifies this apocalyptic tone with a citation of The Sex Pistols’s then current “God Save the Queen”, p. 91. Richard Roud’s biography of Henri Langlois, director for many years of the Cinémathèque Française, is titled A Passion For Films (London: Secker and Warburg, 1983). Willemen, “The Desire for Cinema”, p. 48. Pascal Kané, “Réponse à ‘C.N.C.’”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 293 (October 1978), p. 52.

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11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18.


20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27.

28. 29. 30.


Willemen, “The Desire for Cinema”, p. 48. Ben Gibson, reply to letter from Jonathan Rosenbaum, Framework, no. 18 (1982), p. 58. Raymond Bellour, “Nostalgies”, Autrement, no. 79 (April 1986), p. 234. Skorecki, Raoul Walsh et moi, p. 54. Paul Willemen, “Letter”, Screen, Vol. 25 No. 1 (Jan-Feb 1984), pp. 82-83. Skorecki, Raoul Walsh et moi, p. 54. See Ado Kyrou, “The Marvellous is Popular” in Franklin Rosemont (ed.), Surrealism and its Popular Accomplices (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1980), p. 45. See Peter Spearitt and David Walker (eds.), Australian Popular Culture (Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 1979); John Docker, Australian Cultural Elites (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1974); Tim Rowse, Australian Liberalism and National Character (Malmsbury: Kibble Books, 1978). See Donald Horne, The Lucky Country (Ringwood: Penguin, 1964), especially Chapter 2; and Craig McGregor, People, Politics and Pop (Sydney: Ure Smith, Sydney, 1968). Nineteen years later, McGregor was still using Bondi beach as the privileged symbol of everyday life; see “Goodbye Oz Culture”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 September 1987, pp. 43-44. Comolli et al., “Twenty Years On”, p. 197. Richard White, “‘Combating Cultural Aggression’: Australian Opposition to Americanisation”, Meanjin, Vol. 39 No. 3 (October 1980), p. 285. These two descriptions are derived from articles by Raymond Bellour; respectively, “Video Utopia” (1986), reprinted in his collection Between-theImages (Zürich: JRP|Ringier, 2012); and “Nostalgies”, p. 234. William D. Routt, “The Hollywood Screenwriter”, The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 4 (1978), p. 15. Éric Rohmer, “Rediscovering America”, in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma – The 1950s: Neo-realism, Hollywood, New Wave (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 89. Jacques Rivette, “Notes on a Revolution”, in ibid., p. 94. Jean Narboni, “Against the Clock: Red Line 7000”, in Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968, p. 218; Comolli et al, “Twenty Years On”, p. 199. Robert Benayoun paraphrased by Thomas Elsaesser, “Two Decades In Another Country: Hollywood and the Cinephiles” (1975), reprinted in Elsaesser, European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 205), p. 247; he refers to Benayoun, “Les enfants du paradigme”, Positif, no. 122 (December 1970), pp. 7-26. Comolli et al, “Twenty Years On”, p. 204. Jean-Luc Godard interview, “Struggling on Two Fronts”, in Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968, p. 295. Pierre Clémenti, Miklós Jancsó and Jean-Marie Straub, “There’s Nothing More International Than a Pack of Pimps”, transcript of a 1971 roundtable, Rouge, no. 3 (2004) []. Accessed 1 May 2017.


Mysteries of Cinema

31. 32. 33.

Comolli et al, “Twenty Years On”, p. 197. Elsaesser, European Cinema, p. 249. See the essays collected in Thomas Elsaesser, The Persistence of Hollywood (London: Routledge, 2012). See the bemused but enthusiastic summary of this course by Australian participant Graham Barry, “Teaching Film: How the BFI does it”, Lumiere (Australia), no. 29 (November 1973). Nicholas Garnham, Samuel Fuller (London: Secker and Warburg, 1971), p. 11. See the essays collected in Elsaesser, Weimar Cinema and After: Germany’s Historical Imaginary (London: Routledge, 2000); and New German Cinema: A History (London: Palgrave/BFI, 1989). Paul Willemen, “Remarks on Screen: Introductory Notes For a Theory of Contexts”, Southern Review, Vol. 16 No. 2 (July 1983), pp. 292-311. Framework, no. 22/23 (Autumn 1983), contains articles by Willemen, Sam Rohdie, Tom O’Regan, Noel King & Tim Rowse, Albert Moran, Ross Gibson and Meaghan Morris; issue 24 (Spring 1984) has articles by Jan McSweeney, Felicity Collins, Sylvia Lawson and Helen Grace & Erika Addis. See the ensemble of articles by David Morse, Thomas Elsaesser and Peter Lloyd in Monogram, no. 1 (1970), pp. 2-13. Jean-Luc Godard, “Three Thousand Hours of Cinema”, in Toby Mussman (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968), p. 293. The original is in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 184 (November 1966), p. 47. Jon Halliday, “Trying to Remember an Afternoon with Raoul Walsh”, Framework, no. 14 (Spring 1981), p. 31. Respectively, Tom O’Regan, “Australian Film Making: Its Public Circulation”, Framework, no. 22/23 (Autumn 1983), p. 31; Susan Dermody and Liz Jacka, The Screening of Australia Volume 1: Anatomy of a Film Industry (Sydney: Currency Press, 1987), p. 50; Annette Blonski, “At The Government’s Pleasure: Independent Cinema”, in Blonski, Creed and Freiberg (eds.), Don’t Shoot Darling (Melbourne: Greenhouse Publications, Melbourne, 1987), p. 45. Particularly confusing across the first two of these references is an explicit mobilisation of Cahiers du cinéma as a historical factor in cinephilia; O’Regan arguing that Cahiers represented “the feature film” as “the prime form of creativity”, Dermody and Jacka linking avant-garde practice with a politique des auteurs. I have been able to consult sometimes incomplete runs of the following journals. From Melbourne: Annotations on Film, 1957-1968; University Film Group Bulletin, 1966-1968, then renamed as Melbourne Film Bulletin, 1968-1971, incorporating Annotations on Film; Film Journal, 1956-1965; Association of Teachers of Film Appreciation (AFTA) Newsletters, 1964-1973, then renamed Metro, still running in 2016; Lumiere, 1970-1974, Cinema Papers tabloid 1969-1970, re-emerging as a magazine in 1974, ending in 2001; and Film Chronicle, 1968. From Sydney: the Sydney University Film Group Bulletin, 1965-1971; Film Digest, 1965-1967; SCJ: The Sydney Cinema Journal,

34. 35. 36. 37. 38.

39. 40. 41. 42.


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44. 45. 46. 47. 48. 49.


51. 52. 53. 54.

55. 56. 57. 58.


1966-1967; and the Armidale Arts Council Film Group Bulletin, 1965. From Brisbane: Cineaste: Journal of the University of Queensland Film Group, 1970, and special film event documents from this group in 1966 and 1968. Other states of Australian and their cinephilic centres of activity (such as Adelaide and Perth) require historical excavations that I have not been able to perform here. See Barrett Hodsdon, Straight Roads and Crossed Lines: The Quest for Film Culture in Australia? (Perth: Bernt Porridge, 2001); and Nigel Buesst’s lively, 145-minute documentary, Carlton + Godard = Cinema (2003). Routt, “The Hollywood Screenwriter”, p. 15. Rolando Caputo, “The Color of Money”, Cinema Papers, no. 62 (March 1987), p. 46. Michael Campi, “The American Cinema in Perspective (or One Man’s Fantasies)”, UFG Bulletin, no. 5 (1966), pp. 27-28. See Michel Boujot, “Qu’est-ce que le Mac-Mahonisme?”, Autrement, no. 79 (April 1986), pp. 116-117. Gilbert Adair, “The Critical Faculty”, Sight and Sound (Autumn 1982), p. 252. Typical references to MacMahonism can be found in Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (London: Secker and Warburg, 1969), p. 79; and Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1982), pp. 79-80. Andrew Sarris, “The American Cinema”, Film Culture, no. 28 (Spring 1963), pp. 1-68; expanded and revised as The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968 (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968). Many young cinephiles (this one included) cut their teeth on this book. Jacques Saada interviewed by Louis Skorecki, “Pour l’amour de Walsh”, Autrement, no. 79 (April 1986), p. 125. André Bazin, “La Politique des auteurs”, in Peter Graham with Ginette Vincendeau (eds), The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks (London: British Film Institute, 2009), p. 147. Routt, “The Hollywood Screenwriter”, p. 15. Bellour, “Nostalgies”, p. 235. Auteurism as a rigid selection principle for analytical work has dogged many film journals, of all theoretical and political persuasions. For a critique of this tendency, see Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “Six Authors in Pursuit of The Searchers”, Screen, Vol. 17 No. 1 (1976), pp. 26-33. Sam Rohdie, “Education and Criticism: Notes on Work to be Done”, Screen, Vol. 12 No. 1 (Spring 1971), p. 12. Sam Rohdie, “Editorial”, Screen, Vol. 12 No. 2 (Summer 1971), p. 4. Sam Rohdie, “Editorial – Power and Culture”, Screen, Vol. 13 No. 2 (Summer 1972), p. 2. Although Thornhill (later a film director) attempted to popularise certain auteurist approaches in his function as a mainstream film reviewer, he had little time for what he regarded as the “bourgeois aesthete” tastes of the cinephiles. Similarly, Hibberd, although closely involved in the Melbourne



60. 61. 62. 63. 64. 65. 66.


68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73.

Mysteries of Cinema

film scene and contributor to several journals, mocked what he termed the “post-Cahiers abstract impressionists” and chose to write about counterculture heroes like Godard and Buñuel. Sam Rohdie, “Review: Movie Reader, Film as Film”, Screen, Vol. 13 No. 4 (1972), pp. 135-145. Movie has suffered the indignity of attacks phrased almost incidentally from both the left and right flanks of British film culture. See Adair’s “The Critical Faculty” for a particularly virulent and reactionary attack on Movie and its “litter”, including Monogram. See Richard Dyer, “The Sound of Music”, reprinted in his Only Entertainment (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 45-59. Willemen, “The Desire for Cinema”, p. 49. Ibid. See Paul Kerr, “My Name is Joseph H. Lewis”, Screen, Vol. 24 No. 5 (1983), pp. 48-66. Willemen, “The Desire for Cinema”, p. 49. Michel Mourlet, quoted in Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968, p. 117. Penelope Houston was the first to incredulously single out this particular epiphany, in “Conversations with Nicholas Ray and Joseph Losey”, Sight and Sound (Autumn 1961). The full quotation is worth restoring: “And if people insist on thinking that Party Girl is rubbish, then I proclaim, ‘Long live this rubbish which so dazzles my eyes, fascinates my heart and gives me a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven’”. Fereydoun Hoveyda, “Nicholas Ray’s Reply: Party Girl”, in Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968, p. 127. See V.F. Perkins, Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972); Elsaesser, The Persistence of Hollywood; SUFG Bulletin of Second Term, 1966 (“The Western Myth” by John Flaus) and Second Term, 1968 (“Written On the Wind and Sandra: Melodramatic Exposition” by Barrett Hodson); Dyer, Stars (London: British Film Institute, 1979) and Heavenly Bodies (London: British Film Institute, 1986); and the books Les Conquérants d’un nouveau monde. Essais sur le cinéma hollywoodien (Paris: Gallimard, 2015) by Ciment and Le mélodrame Hollywoodien (Paris: Stock, 2001) by Bourget. Willemen, “Letter”, pp. 82-83. Comolli et al, “Twenty Years On”, p. 203. Geoff Gardner, “A Subject of Concern”, UFG Bulletin, no. 5 (1966), p. 29. Film Digest sneered back in a subsequent editorial about the Melbourne scene’s elitism. Barrie Pattison, Film Digest, no. 17/18 (November/December 1966), special Michael Powell issue, p. 4. Melbourne’s Film Journal, the most festival-oriented, Sight and Soundinspired publication of the 1950s and 1960s, correspondingly boasts the highest number of female contributors. Barbara Creed, “Feminist Film Theory, or the Incredible Shrinking Woman”, Cinema Papers, no. 62 (March 1987), p. 39.

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74. 75. 76. 77. 78. 79. 80. 81. 82. 83. 84.



87. 88. 89.

90. 91. 92.


See the interview with Serge Daney in The Thousand Eyes, no. 2 (1977). Jean Narboni, “Traquenards (L’ami américain)”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 282 (November 1977), p. 30. Bernard Boland, “Sur Passe montagne, film français”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 298 (March 1979), p. 45. Louis Skorecki, “Sans famille”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 320 (February 1981), p. 47. Mourlet, quoted in Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968, p. 117. Skorecki and Saada, “Pour l’amour de Walsh”, p. 125. See Annette Blonski, “Cinema Papers: An Endless Parade of Interviews with Naked Women”, in Blonski et al, Don’t Shoot Darling, p. 269. Philippe Mora, “Mythology of Guts”, Cinema Papers, Vol. 1 No. 1 (October 1969), p. 1. Jack Clancy, “Emperor of the North”, Lumiere, no. 33 (April/May 1974), p. 29. John C. Murray, “Lest We Forget”, Lumiere, no. 23 (May 1973), p. 34. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975), reprinted in Visual and Other Pleasures (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier; Raymond Bellour, The Analysis of Film (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000). Two suitably outraged responses to textual analysis of Hollywood cinema can be found in reports on “The Second Australian Film Conference” by Brian McFarlane and Adrian Martin – unlikely bedfellows! – in Cinema Papers, no. 31 (March-April 1981), pp. 40-41, 101. See Tom Ryan’s articles on De Palma: “They’re Showing the Wrong Film’, Lumiere, no. 26 (August 1973), pp. 20-21; and “Looking In On Dressed to Kill”, Cinema Papers, no. 36 (February 1982). Feminist responses to De Palma can be sampled in Pat Longmore, “Dressed to Kill – Sexual Horror”, Buff, no. 1 (October 1980), p. 3; and Barbara Creed, “Feminist Film Theory: Reading the Text”, in Don’t Shoot Darling, p. 291. A version of these proceedings appears in The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 4 (1978). Thomson moved from England to America and wrote some eloquent testaments to cinephilia, especially his novel Suspects (London: Secker and Warburg, 1985). Alexandre Astruc, “Vive le cinéma américain!”, Autrement, no. 79 (April 1986), p. 132. For further background on this little-known (in English) side of Astruc, see Adrian Martin, “Introduction to ‘The Future of Cinema’ by Alexandre Astruc”, The Third Rail, no. 9 (2016), pp. 43-45. See, for an instance of the relative absence of such self-interrogation, the roundtable discussion, “The Return of Movie”, Movie, no. 20 (Spring 1975), pp. 1-25. See Boujot, “Qu’est-ce que le Mac-Mahonisme?”, p. 117. Other more famous cases have received sophisticated discussion elsewhere; see Stuart Cunningham on George Miller throughout In the Vernacular: A Generation of Australian Culture and Controversy (Brisbane: University of Queensland, 2009); and Meaghan Morris on Paul Hogan and Peter Faiman’s


93. 94. 95. 96.

97. 98. 99. 100. 101. 102. 103. 104. 105. 106. 107. 108. 109. 110. 111. 112. 113. 114.

Mysteries of Cinema

Crocodile Dundee in The Pirate’s Fiancée: Feminism, Reading, Postmodernism (London: Verso, 1988), pp. 241-269, 284-287. See Brian McFarlane, Australian Cinema 1970-1985 (London: William Heinemann, 1987), p. 191. Richard Franklin died in 2007; his final feature was Visitors (2003). For an explicit example, see Adrian Martin, “Chain Reaction”, Buff, no. 2 (October 1980), p. 6. Antony Ginnane, “Report from Cannes”, Lumiere, no. 25 (July 1973), pp. 3334. “‘How are Things on the Gaza Strip?’ Independent Distribution: An Interview with Tony Ginnane”, Cinema Papers, no. 1 (January 1974). In this interview, Ginnane announces his intention to produce films that “lie in the area that I think is the last outpost of a certain trait in American cinema, almost extinct since the end of the ‘50s and the coming of the intellectuals to Hollywood in the ‘60s […] I feel the films I’m planning will resemble the kinds of movies I’ve liked from American cinema” (p. 41). McFarlane, Australian Cinema, p. 186. Ginnane interviewed in Peter Hamilton and Sue Mathews, American Dreams: Australian Movies (Sydney Currency Press), pp. 95-97. Philippe Mora, “Mythology of Guts”; and “Cops – Buster Keaton”, Cinema Papers, Vol. 1 No. 2 (1974), p. 5. Philip Brophy, “That’s Exploitation – Part One: An introduction”, Filmviews, no. 132 (Winter 1987), p. 29. Ibid. Richard White, “‘Combating Cultural Aggression’”, p. 286. Frank Moorhouse, “Teaching the Masses Their Media”, Sydney Cinema Journal, no. 2 (Winter 1966), pp. 3-8. Philip Brophy, “That’s Exploitation – Part Two: Turkeys!!”, Filmviews, no. 133 (Spring 1987), p. 41. Mark Le Fanu, “Looking for Mr De Niro”, Sight and Sound (Winter 1985/1986), p. 46. Willemen, “Remarks on Screen”. David Will, “Classic American Cinema – Sam Fuller”, Framework, no. 19, 1982, p. 20. Ibid. Tim Rowse analyses the history and politics of Australian populism at length in Australian Liberalism and National Character. Boland, “Sur Passe Montagne”, p. 40. Simon Cooper, “Some Thoughts on ‘Gulfstream’”, Filmviews, no. 133 (Spring 1987), p. 45. Jean-Luc Godard, “From Critic to Film-Maker”, in Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma 1960-1968, p. 63. For an acidic attack on the Time Out/City Limits style of film reviewing in Britain, see Adair, “The Critical Faculty”, pp. 254-255. Elsaesser, European Cinema, p. 246.

No Flowers for the Cinephile

115. 116. 117. 118. 119. 120. 121. 122. 123.

124. 125. 126. 127. 128. 129. 130.


John McDonald, “Implosive Pops”, The Age Monthly Review (June 1985), p. 12. Ibid., p. 11. Ronald Conway, “In a Deep Purple Mood”, Quadrant (September 1987), p. 39. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, “But Do We Need it?”, in Martyn Auty & Nick Roddick (eds), British Cinema Now (London: BFI Publishing, 1985), p. 151. Gerald Murnane, A Lifetime on Clouds (Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2013). Elsaesser, European Cinema, p. 240. Ibid., pp. 239-240. Bellour, “Nostalgies”, p. 234. John Flaus, “The Western Myth: Ride Lonesome and Guns In The Afternoon”, SUFG Bulletin, First Term 1970, p. 44; an earlier, related piece from Flaus in 1966, “The Western Myth”, is reprinted in Senses of Cinema, no. 72 (October 2014) []. Accessed 18 March 2017. See Astruc, “Vive le cinéma américaine”, p. 132; Le Fanu, “Looking for Mr De Niro”, pp. 48-49. Nowell-Smith, “But Do We Need It?”, pp. 151-2. Elsaesser, European Cinema, p. 246; see also “Sam Fuller’s Productive Pathologies: The Hero as (His Own Best) Enemy” in Elsaesser, The Persistence of Hollywood, pp. 53-62. Andrew Britton, “Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment” (1986), in Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009), p. 154. See Stephen Muecke, “Fashioning Stories”, The Age Monthly Review (October 1987), p. 17; also Sylvia Lawson, “Pieces of a Cultural Geography”, The Age Monthly Review (February 1987), pp. 10-13. Barrett Hodson, “Neo-Marxist Critique of Hollywood: Some Observations”, The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 11/12 (1982), p. 114. Britton, Britton on Film, p. 154.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

Part IV The Lyrical Impulse

9. Refractory Characters, Shards of Time and Space Abstract A study of formal techniques and narrative strategies in films and filmmakers associated with the Post Nouvelle Vague legacy in French and Francophone cinema. A specif ic and new type of cinematic lyricism, often harsh and fragmented, emerged in films of the 1980s and 1990s. The roots of this new style are traced in the early Post Nouvelle Vague work of Jean Eustache, Maurice Pialat and Philippe Garrel in the 1960s. The essay follows this impulse through Chantal Akerman and Wim Wenders in their minimalist work of the 1970s, through to Jean-Luc Godard, Anne-Marie Miéville, Leos Carax, Benoît Jacquot and others subsequently. Connections are also made to predecessors and related artists in American cinema, such as John Cassavetes and Abel Ferrara. Keywords: Montage, Narrative, Space, Time, Post Nouvelle Vague, Lyricism, Jean-Luc Godard

An Ingmar Bergman film is, if you like, one 24th of a second metamorphosed and expanded over an hour and a half. It is the world between two blinks of the eyelids, the sadness between two heart-beats, the gaiety between two handclaps […] His camera seeks only one thing: to seize the present moment at its most fugitive, and to delve deep into it so as to give it the quality of eternity. – Jean-Luc Godard, 19581 In Les baisers de secours [Philippe Garrel, 1989], every instant plays on what is most fundamental to cinema: the movement of life, change and exchange, the very process of evolution, the making evident of a space-time […] Garrel plunges us back into the cinema of Lumière: we are in the thrall of the present moment, and the surprise of each instant.

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH09


Mysteries of Cinema

The cinema-machine is there to capture the ephemeral palpitation of life and resituate it eternally. – Jean Douchet, 19892

1. Anne-Marie Miéville’s Le livre de Marie (1985) starts with a flurry of disconnections. We hear the testy dialogue of an estranged couple, abstracted from immediacy by its crystal-clear audio fidelity, as if recorded for a radio play. Meanwhile, we see sixteen shots, empty of these characters or indeed any human figure, shots that (like in a Marguerite Duras movie) may or may not be building up a pointillist inventory of the domestic environs where this family drama occurs: the sun, a house, a rose, a fruit bowl, a chair. Finally, there is a blast of direct sound, as a woman (Aurore Clément) launches up from her seat, locked in verbal combat with her man (Bruno Cremer). But the disconnection and fragmentation still linger, across the rest of this fairly cerebral exchange about copying and inventing in love: strange shifts in the volume and distribution of light and darkness in the room; jump cuts; movements of lips that do not match the words we hear. “It’s the beginning of the movie”, as Godard said of his Passion (1982), “and your foot is not yet inside your shoe as we say in France”.3 Later in Le livre de Marie there will be more jump cutting, insertions of black frames between scenes, odd compositions and movements into and out of the frame that confuse and scatter the relation of voices to bodies, of actions to events. There is a particular tradition, very prevalent and powerful in the Anglo critical world, which is often used to talk about such stylistic devices. It is an intellectual and artistic tradition going back to Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, given revived impetus by Godard and other politicised, montage filmmakers of the 1960s, relayed through ensuing decades by Screen and October magazines. This tradition stresses perturbations, ruptures, violent transgressions against the seamless temporal and spatial unities of the classical, narrative, realist style; today, it applauds the radically decentred, fragmented essay-mosaics of Yvonne Rainer, Alexander Kluge, Todd Haynes, or the Australian political filmmaker John Hughes. Yet it may well be the case that Miéville’s film, for all its breaks and discontinuities, for all its philosophically inspired chat, cannot really be understood or experienced very well within this particular tradition. It is, in the first place, a quite simple work, perfectly transparent in its subject and intentions. A husband and wife split up, decide to live apart; this situation

Refr ac tory Char ac ters, Shards of Time and Space


impacts young Marie (Rebecca Hampton), who spontaneously reflects the turbulence and confusion in various kinds of gestures and behaviours (play acting, loud singing, mad monologues, vigorous dancing). Marie is caught, alive and kicking, in between a past situation that has shattered and a future pattern that has yet to settle into a recognisable shape. Her mother assures her, in the penultimate scene, that “nothing can stay the same” in life, that “when a thing stops moving, it’s dead”. So the film observes the banality and the fun of Marie’s newfound state of shuttling back and forth between her parents on a train, finding herself together with her father in an unfamiliar apartment, or suddenly alone and free in the old, familiar flat, while her mother looks for a new abode elsewhere. Above all, Le livre de Marie is a lyrical f ilm. This is what all the discontinuities, fluxes and quiverings of style serve: a particular kind of lyricism. Thus, we must start over on the description of it, picking up from some other point or level in which the material workings of this lyric poetry become evident. The second scene, after the opening just recounted, begins on a medium close-up of Marie. It is a shot of her listening, as the voices of her mother and father continue their interminable argument off-screen; her eyes dart back and forth between two spots, not exactly in sync with the words being heard. Then there is a disarming close-up of the father, a bulky, intense man in dark glasses. He talks, reacts, broods, sucks in the space of the room, becomes a world or island unto himself; the camera stays on him in a set-up that, although corresponding to no actual point-of-view of either other character in the scene, registers as a particularly intense gaze. When Miéville returns to this set-up later in the découpage, the unnamed father broods once more as, off-screen, Marie talks and walks and then exits the room, appearing in the image only as a pair of lips in the very top left of the frame, pressed to the side of her father’s heavy head. The space of the room thus becomes a multiplicity of micro-spaces or micro-worlds, always able to be redrawn or recommenced in the following shot. Colette Mazabrard could have been describing this scene when she wrote (of a quite different film): “Sometimes a counter-shot is missing: the camera frames a face that is talking and we hear the protagonist’s voice off-camera. The camera films the silence of the listener” – a style that transforms a potentially ordinary scene of naturalistic interaction into what she calls “a gaze on a gaze”.4 In a sense, all the shots in this dinner table scene (for eventually we can piece enough together to call it such), all of the singles on each character in turn, have this contemplative, open-ended, separated-out quality: they do not begin in precise scenic continuity, and they could end anywhere, anytime.


Mysteries of Cinema

Miéville’s scene is also a dynamic one, its logic constituted in continual swings from dreamy gazes to sudden outbursts (of voice, as when Marie suddenly starts gabbling; or of physical gesture, as when the mother bangs the table in rage), breaks in rhythm, steep rises or falls in emotional temperature. Later, Marie listens to a Chopin piano concerto with her father and muses on its “changes of mood, icy, exasperated, I demand, fire, fire, careful, error, horror, suffering …”. Le livre de Marie is more about looking and listening, meditating and absorbing, than about talking and acting. When there is action – and Marie is certainly no comatose child-heroine – it has a quality not of clarity or will, but occurs, instead, at extremes of either hysteria or somnambulism, lack of control or remote control. Scenes drift off, lose their classical moorings of spatio-temporal unities – not because of grand, stylistic ruptures, but because of this quiet, steady insistence on looking and listening, this proliferation of ambiguously motivated gestures, this saturation of cut-off portions of micro-space by the passing of time. In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze sees the crux of a modern, European postwar cinema in this steady replacement of action by observation: The character has become a kind of viewer. He shifts, runs and becomes animated in vain, the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action. He records rather than reacts. He is prey to a vision, pursued by it or pursuing it, rather than engaged in an action.5

Jean Douchet agrees: all modern cinema – and, for him, especially French cinema – “plays on what is present and instantaneous”.6

2. I seek here the lineaments of a particular, cinematic style – lyrical and harsh, flowing and intense, based on the subtle fracturing of each crystalline moment of feeling that passes within a scene. I am prompted to do so because of the revelation afforded by my inaugural viewing of the unique and remarkable example of Garrel’s Les baisers de secours, which is the film Mazabrard described as a “gaze on a gaze”. Is this an affair of national cinema? The style I evoke here is not wholly French (or even Francophone), but I associate it with certain French directors, especially of the Post Nouvelle Vague generation, beginning their careers in

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the mid-to late 1960s: Garrel, Jean Eustache, André Téchiné, Maurice Pialat. Others emerge in the 1970s to carry on this line: Jacques Doillon, Benoît Jacquot, Chantal Akerman from Belgium, Alain Tanner from Switzerland, Werner Schroeter when he travels from Germany to shoot in French; then in the 1980s: Catherine Breillat, Miéville, Leos Carax, Claire Denis, Olivier Assayas. Meanwhile, the methods of some Nouvelle Vague and Left Bank troupers, especially Jacques Rivette, Agnès Varda and Godard, themselves evolve and shift during the 1980s, coming to resonate closely with this peculiarly modern style. I could suggest, to take a wider view, a special family of European filmmakers gathered around a French base – the very family gestured to by Godard when he salutes “Chantal, Jacques, Wim [Wenders]” in his video Scénario du film Passion (1982), or by Garrel when he makes a diary-film for television about Eustache, Carax, Doillon, Akerman and Schroeter, calling it Les ministères de l’a rt (1988). This entire family romance, it must be said, is very much a Cahiers du cinéma affair, taking in a good complement of Cahiers critics-turned-directors (from Éric Rohmer to Assayas), plus the filmmakers they have championed for 40 years (from Roberto Rossellini to Emir Kusturica). It is impossible to summarise Cahiers’s aesthetic sensibility in a few words, particularly given the complex history of the magazine’s changing political orientations, but perhaps one attribute stands out above all: an emphasis on the dynamism of life caught in its fugitive effusions. Luc Moullet recalls how, in the early to mid 1960s, Cahiers “glorified a cinema of spontaneity”.7 In the 1990s, Cahiers editor Thierry Jousse found himself celebrating the films of John Cassavetes in these same terms: “It is through him that life entered the cinema”.8 This is assuredly not the well-mannered, more classically styled, more critically distanced French cinema of Bertrand Tavernier, Michel Deville, Alain Corneau, or Claude Sautet, cinema of the sort prized by Positif. There are specific screen moments that, in my personal viewing experience, encapsulate the style I am describing here. Cars come to mind: characters exiting the film at all speeds and at all directions in the final shots of Passion; the cramped, claustrophobic car scenes of teenagers on tawdry dates, filmed from a single, close angle as if to map the surviving shard of some previously full space, in Philippe Faucon’s L’a mour (1990). Or Mangin (Gérard Depardieu) and Noria (Sophie Marceau) in the front seat of a cop car in Pialat’s Police (1985): an agonised exchange, the two of them swinging between hyper-alertness and bombed-out lassitude, street lights playing on their faces in the darkness, close-ups that abstract each, in turn, from their surroundings and from the subject of their conversation.


Mysteries of Cinema

There are other types of effects integral to this cinema that do not take such a spectacular form, such as the ellipses, those split-second transitions between scenes that seem to move heaven and earth. Take the astonishing sequence of three shots of Sandrine Bonnaire as Mouchette in Pialat’s Sous le soleil de Satan (1987): crying over the corpse of the lover she has just shot; washing her shoes in a river; and then, in the midst of conversation with a subsequent lover to whom she is pregnant – maybe six months of a life without dissolves, intertitles, or narration. And there are effects of distance, in which a film only ever approaches its subjects from various respectful vantage points, never presuming to pounce and capture – such as the voice-over narrations that accompany (rather than strictly recount) the images and events in La belle noiseuse (Rivette, 1991), Nuit et jour (Akerman, 1991) and India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975). There is a particular kind of rhythm internal to these films: an alternation between full, thick passages of intimate exchange, and their abrupt withdrawal. These films stage a hide-and-seek game between the characters on the one hand, and the camera, plus then the viewer, on the other. Assayas’s Désordre (1986) begins with two youngsters wildly kissing in a car; with a flick of the camera and a sudden reorganisation of the bodies in view, we realise that we are witnessing the contortions of a ménage à trois. As often as we are hurled into the physicality of such encounters, we are also suddenly pulled away into a void: the announcement that someone has died off-screen between scenes, that everything has changed. “It is truly in flight, in the ellipse, in equivocation”, suggests Bérénice Reynaud, “that Assayas’s characters find themselves – and find us”.9 Jacques Aumont, in his work on the face in cinema,10 notes a dramaturgical pattern common to Assayas and many contemporary French filmmakers. Scenes begin in silence, inaction and emptiness, then slowly work up to a fever-pitch confrontation between characters, in which (as Jean Narboni said of Pialat’s work) no one gets out of a shot unharmed: bodies and faces are lacerated by the intensity of space, sound, angle, a war of cries and gestures.11 It is, as Reynaud remarks, a “cinema of wear and tear” in which “bodies are thrown, collide, fall, where the camera takes risks, where the fragility of beings is expressed in the fragility of shots”.12

3. Philippe Arnaud’s 1993 essay “Réfractaires”13 – essentially an analysis of Robert Bresson’s L’a rgent (1983) – ends with a speculative proposal about a

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specific tradition within modern French cinema; he lists Pialat’s L’enfancenue (1968), Eustache’s Mes petites amoureuses (1974), Jean-Pierre Limosin’s Gardien de la nuit (1986), Breillat’s 36 fillette (1988), Doillon’s Le petit criminel (1990), Jacquot’s Le désenchantée (1990) and Cédric Kahn’s Bar des rails (1992). One facet of this list can be instantly noted: the privileged place given to films whose subject is the intense, fugitive, confusing experiences of childhood and adolescence – partly because, as Deleuze observes, “in the adult world, the child is affected by a certain motor helplessness, but one which makes him all the more capable of seeing and hearing”.14 “The link between these films is fragile”, cautions Arnaud, “constituting neither a school nor a tendency”.15 They do, however, all have one thing in common: they circle extremely mysterious, central characters who “are not reducible to the narrative that happens to them, is constituted through them, and persists, finally, as an interrogation of them”.16 These characters remain opaque, secret, as inexplicable in conventional, psychological terms to themselves as to anyone else watching them. Yet we track them, along with the f ilm, staring at their every flicker of emotion, every physical manifestation, every external clue to their inner, existential selves. The central question – “what do they really want?” – will remain unanswered. Arnaud chooses to call them refractory characters. According to a metallurgical definition given by the Macquarie dictionary, refractory means “difficult to fuse, reduce or work”. There is a terse pathos, rarely maudlin, that surrounds refractory characters on screen: they are bodies and souls in flight, never entirely in themselves or out of themselves, restless, searching. They do not come together as selves or egos; rather, they are constituted in a succession of moments – moments of feeling, sensation, intellection. These characters are fundamentally unstable. They are less “three dimensional” people (as the cliché goes) than shifting configurations of mood, bodily disposition, and facial expression; characters whose behaviour in an eternal present is marked less by a coherent life story than by the ruins of such a biography – its inscrutability, forgetting, oblivion. In an essay on the Australian experimental films A Song of Ceylon (Laleen Jayamanne, 1985) and In This Life’s Body (Corinne Cantrill, 1984), Lesley Stern recalls an exchange she had with a friend about performance, “about the difficulties of working with actors who insist upon a story, a ‘life story’ as a prerequisite to performance”: She said, what is lost in that insistence is the notion of loss itself. The compulsion for a story is a search for connections, continuity and wholeness as though character precedes the actor, as though character is there


Mysteries of Cinema

to be embodied. But what of the body of the actor? she said. How can this body perform to conjure the discontinuous, to conjure not presence but the signs of loss: how to perform a holey rather than a wholesome text?17

Deleuze calls the ever-looking and listening heroes and heroines of modern European cinema (Monica Vitti in Michelangelo Antonioni or Jean-Pierre Léaud in Godard) mutants – not necessarily passive or alienated, but certainly a little alien, and most definitely mutating, undergoing some sort of historic, social, trans-personal evolution. Refractory cinema, for all its abstracting, isolating close-ups, is not an individualising cinema. As Serge Daney argued apropos Garrel and his contemporaries, the unconscious that this modern cinema tracks, this black hole of authentic experience, takes place in the shifting, rarefied space between people, in a mysterious, inter-subjective zone. Fantasies are the least personal thing in the world. They are collective. And dreams only become troubling when they are retold, as in Buñuel. When you recount your dream, you are no longer yourself. A dream is only a montage of coded elements, obeying precise, impersonal rules.18

There is no self for a refractory hero because there is always an Other, usually too many others, pushing and pulling the body-psyche of the protagonist around and altering or reconfiguring it in the process.

4. Are there precedents for this cinema of refractory characters? There are clear presentiments of it in the heroic years of the Nouvelle Vague, particularly in Godard’s first period up to 1965: these stories of enigmatic souls (usually female) who seem to be fleeing or keeping themselves from the joint gaze of hero and camera (as in Vivre sa vie [1962]); or of couples interrogating, battering each other as their intersubjective bind frays and falls away. In Leos Carax’s work we see, re-imagined for today, the clear, passionate recall of what it is to be a teenage cinephile experiencing Godard’s Bande à part (1964) for the first time: a flurry of images of beautiful, young things in motion on foot, in trains, or in cars; lyrical montages that range freely across time and space; intermittent, whispered narration (in Godard’s case, sometimes spoken by himself) that seems alternately intimate with, and very distant from, the characters; the scattered splinters of a coherent scenario, people playing at generic roles they can never successfully fill as

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gangsters or romantic leads; sudden, rapturous shots of Anna Karina’s face turning toward or, more often, away from the camera’s eye. Godard’s style and concerns then take a markedly different turn for some fifteen years, before plunging into the frenzied lyricism of refractory characters and utterly fragmented scene-crystals in the period inaugurated by Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980). One particular aspect of early Godard, however, most evident in Vivre sa vie, Une femme mariée (1964) and Masculin féminin (1965), lays a crucial groundwork for the cinema that is to follow: the documentary element, inspired by Jean Rouch and the burgeoning schools of cinéma-vérité around the world in the early 1960s. When simulated at the heart of a fiction, this gives events the air of reportage, a headlong attempt to capture the faits divers of life. In Godard, the documentary gaze frequently brushes against a secret that stays locked up within a character who usually takes that secret to the grave: Nana (Karina) who “gave her body but kept her soul” in Vivre sa vie; the murky motivations and circumstances behind the death of Paul (Léaud) in Masculin féminin. What we could call constructivist cinema beyond its strict Soviet sense, in all its diverse manifestations across countries and periods, provides another path into the cinema of refractory characters and shards of time and space. It does so via a particular kind of narrative design: the mosaic, lining up various accounts of a character’s life from many, radically diverse perspectives, comparing and contrasting them, and usually not presuming that they add up to any comprehensive, biographical truth. This is the principle that generates Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) – and, as in Godard, its mosaic structure uses a documentary, reportage element, mocked-up with heavy irony. Other films in the mosaic tradition use a less spectacular investigative premise: memories or stories of a character are collected, or the character reflects back through the mists of time and recollection (as in Julien Duvivier’s Lydia [1941] and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp [1943]). Dark or absurdist comedies from Zelig (Woody Allen, 1983) to Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993) offer us chameleonic characters who helplessly absorb, and literally become, whomever or whatever they encounter. Then there are all those f ilms that juggle incommensurate, eye-witness accounts of a single event – the Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950) tradition that leads to a complex conceit such as John A. Scott’s novel What I Have Written (1993), adapted for film by John Hughes in 1996. The most radical extension of this constructivist aesthetic, seizing upon and multiplying the rich, structural ambiguities offered by Max Ophüls in


Mysteries of Cinema

Lola Montès (1955), is the cinema of Alain Resnais – with its quasi-scientific amalgams of different character perceptions, narrative outcomes and parallel worlds, from Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) to Smoking/No Smoking (1994). We must dwell a little longer on the significance of Welles, since the convoluted narrative structure of Citizen Kane unleashed a thoroughly baroque aesthetic that this auteur was able to then move inside even the most seemingly normal or conventional scenario. Characterisation is a dynamic, puzzling process in Welles´ work: the figures (particularly those he himself plays) are more like phantoms, possessed at different, successive moments by vastly different personages, as in The Lady from Shanghai (1948). Intersubjectivity plays a particularly treacherous and abysmal role in these intrigues, with hapless heroes (like those of Mr Arkadin [1955] and The Trial [1963]) tending to assume whichever persona is projected onto them by sinister operatives. One can see traces of this Wellesian legacy in the films of Bertrand Blier, whose Tenue de soirée (1986) was described by Serge Toubiana in Cahiers as showing an ever-mutating ménage à trois in which the characters function as ghosts assuming whatever sexual desire, disposition, or characteristic seems to be arbitrarily called down by the dynamic of the situation or the direction of the scene.19 Two special films by women directors mark a crossover point from the form of the constructivist mosaic to that of the refractive crystal. First, Akerman’s Je, tu, il, elle (1974) consists of four tableau-like glimpses of a woman: by herself, then writing to another, with a man, and finally, with a woman. These are fragments of obsessive, murky behaviour; a self (the “I” of the film, played by Akerman) who goes violently in and out of focus, brought to the surface of her skin by a woman, obliterated by a man; in one tableau mute and blocked and, in another, loquacious and supple. The second case is Agnès Varda’s Sans toit ni loi (1985), which juxtaposes a series of wildly different testimonies concerning Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), with a completely inscrutable, fictive document of the months and events leading up to her death. Thus, refractory characters are launched from the structure of what Deleuze calls the trip/ballad, such as in road movie journeys, or even less personal itineraries or inventories – such as the premise of La désenchantée, in which Beth (Judith Godrèche), a teenager, encounters four men over a course of three days, proclaiming at the outset that she will sleep with the ugliest of them all. The dispassionate sight of Varda’s tramp dead in the snow in Sans toit ni loi is reminiscent of the many disquietingly calm deaths and suicides in the cinema of Robert Bresson. He is an important precursor of refractory cinema, and remains a key reference for contemporary French filmmakers

Refr ac tory Char ac ters, Shards of Time and Space


including Jacquot, Téchiné and Jean-Claude Brisseau, as a 1989 round-table discussion organised by Cahiers on the re-release of Pickpocket (1959) amply shows.20 All of Bresson’s films, from the moment of Journal d’un curé de campagne (1951), marry a dispossession of the performing act – his famous use of actors as near-impassive models parroting their lines and carrying out their gestures like automatons – with a soulful, poetic lyricism. Bresson´s characters are moved less from within than without, taken up, blown by the wind, transformed by external forces whether social, spiritual, or merely accidental and contingent. Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964) is the central precursor to the contemporary, refractory tradition. Here, we move well away from a constructivist or even baroque aesthetic – or rather, the constructivism has gone so deeply inside the fiction, editing and mise en scène that the ruptures and transgressions it works are extremely subtle, pervasive and unnerving. It is another story of a woman (Nina Pens Rode as Gertrud) who, however central to the story and appearing in almost every frame of the image track, remains an elusive enigma. She is neither passive nor silent; indeed, she spends the whole film demanding recognition and acknowledgment of her self and her desires, rarely receiving it from the men around her. Many heroines of contemporary European cinema are, quite evidently, displaced Gertruds: Douchet sees Brigitte Sy in Les baisers de secours – striding into the first shot of the film, angry and sorrowful, demanding to know of her husband/director Garrel, “I’m not in the film?” – as heading up this fine, foreign legion of women.21 Is Gertrud even in her own f ilm? It is fascinating to look back upon the 1969 description of Dreyer’s masterwork by another director crucially influenced by it, Jacques Rivette – a description later picked up by Deleuze in Cinema 2. Rivette gestures to the striking, unexpected ellipses in Gertrud, “tranquilly intervening within the supposed continuity of the scene: tantalising cuts, deliberately disturbing, which mean that the spectator is made to wonder where Gertrud ‘went’; well, she went in the splice”.22 More generally, in Rivette’s account, Gertrud has the vocabulary of a dream, or rather the analysis of a dream, in which the characters inhabit “roles [that] are unceasingly changing”: [S]ubjected to the flow, the regular tide of the long takes, the mesmeric passes of the incessant camera movements, the even monotone of the voices, the steadiness of the eyes – always turned aside, often parallel, towards us: a little above us – the strained immobility of the bodies, huddled in armchairs, on sofas behind which the other silently stands, fixed in ritual attitudes which make them no more than corridors for


Mysteries of Cinema

speech to pass through, gliding through a semi-obscurity arbitrarily punctuated with luminous zones into which the somnambulists emerge of their own accord …23

5. The cinema of refractory characters is also a cinema of disconnected spaces, disarticulated from shot to shot – the unit of the “any-space-whatever”, in Deleuze’s term.24 The empirical “floor plan” of a scene is not necessarily contradicted or violated in any strict sense, but rendered floating, uncertain, hard to map, as in the extended Le livre de Marie example with which I began. Many contemporary directors admire in Dreyer’s films (especially La passion de Jeanne d’Arc [1928]) the use of extreme close-ups that are sudden, disconcerting, disorienting, excessively expressive and affecting beyond the assumed dramaturgical demands of characterisation. “I like to use close-ups because they fragment the totality of the scene. I don’t like them for psychological reasons, but really for emotional ones, like when all of a sudden you cut to a big close-up of a face, it’s almost dizzying for the spectator” (Benoît Jacquot).25 Mazabrard refers to Garrel’s “cinema of faces”.26 Faces and bodies – however internally discombobulated or externally fraught those bodies might be. A cinema of physical presence: Bresson’s models; Godard’s star-icons (Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Gérard Depardieu); Wenders’s sacks of saggy flesh, dragging themselves around the world in Alice in den Städten (1974), hanging out in a hotel at world’s end in Der Stand der Dinge (1982), or bending to shit in the sand in Im Lauf der Zeit (1976) – a film about which Pascal Bonitzer remarked: “To find the new, it’s always to the body that one appeals”.27 And it is a phenomenological cinema, in which bodies, and especially hands, feel out and create the spaces they find themselves within, a process that Deleuze describes as “the mode of construction of a space which is adequate to the decisions of the mind”.28 He evokes Pickpocket, in which hands connect the any-spaces-whatever by choreographing an object, “brushing it, arresting it in its movement, giving it another direction, passing it on and making it circulate in this space”.29 Then there is Garrel’s suggestive motto: “Cinema is manual work with the unconscious”.30 There are many cinema styles, classical and Modernist alike, that do not have such an investment in the body: classical Hollywood styles, like those of Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges, privilege the plan américain (medium long shot) and the ensemble view; Rohmer´s measured contemporary style, as his cinematographer Néstor Almendros explains, “keeps close-ups for a

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very strong moment and there’s only one or two in a whole movie” because “close-up exaggerates things”;31 the philosophical style of Yasujirô Ozu, where people come and go in the static frame, but places and objects remain. Films of a left-radical persuasion, too, have often decentred the bodily figure in the name of a strategic anti-humanism: Paul Willemen praises the method of Amos Gitai whilst inveighing against the mass of films that deny “any access at all to some engagement with the forces shaping the world we live in, as we are stuck with our noses up against samples of warm and wonderful humanity emoting in close-up”.32 Films that feature refractory characters attack what can be taken as the seamless and reassuring unities of such humanist drama from quite a different angle to that explored by Gitai, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, or Jon Jost. In the 1969 Cahiers roundtable on montage, Sylvie Pierre mused on a mode of “natural expressionism” in John Cassavetes’ films, taking the you-are-there immediacy of cinéma-vérité to a point of paroxysm: “What has to be expressed is edginess, doubts, hesitations, illuminations, fleeting and contradictory expressions, lassitudes, irritations, idle moments and bursts of activity succeeding one another as they do in life”.33 The end result of such expressionism is not an increase in realism but something far more combative: “A war waged, by tremors and hesitations, on meaning in its living inexactitude”.34 Various critics, across the years, have admired Cassavetes for creating a kind of “alcoholic cinema” in which the frequent imbibing of the characters seemed to inebriate the form of the film itself, opening it up to that war of tremors, hesitations and inexactitudes. It is as if the movie translates, or rather takes on, a certain form of deranged perception – whether derangement through drink, drugs, madness, or extravagant emotion. Thus, the films I have discussed here branch onto a certain cinema of sensation, which includes Welles (the hero of The Lady from Shanghai, played by the director, who “can’t see straight” for desire, intoxication and pummeled consciousness); Carax (Les amants du Pont-Neuf with its blindness, laceration, poverty and cheap wine, constituting a pinnacle of bodily wear and tear); and Abel Ferrara – with his key motifs of obsession and addiction in King of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992) and Dangerous Game (aka Snake Eyes, 1993), Ferrara is really the only contemporary American filmmaker who genuinely continues the exploration of the Cassavetes legacy in all its dimensions. And then an impressive German contingent: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Ulrike Ottinger (her Bildnis einer Trinkerin [1979] is an ode to female alcoholism) and Werner Schroeter, whose Malina (1991), based on the celebrated novel by Ingeborg Bachmann, stars Isabelle Huppert as a chain-smoker who eventually disappears from our view amidst the ever-burning flames of her apartment – an immortal


Mysteries of Cinema

melodramatisation of Lesley Stern’s paean to “incendiary sadism” and “the ruinous relation between smoking and desire”.35 Stern refers to the “being-eaten-aliveness” of her favourite incendiary films, Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956) among them.36 This devouring of refractory characters on screen, by the screen, which Cassavetes, Ferrara and Pialat reach through a frenetic blurring of figures, spaces and focal lengths, occurs in a different fashion for those films in the Gertrud lineage. In these films, it is more a matter of a slow (but nonetheless cruel) absorption of the human form: eaten by light in Dreyer, or by the dark in La belle noiseuse, smothered by vast walls of sound in Carax (the fireworks dance on the Pont-Neuf), merged with the tiniest fluctuations of the elements in Garrel (the insistently falling raindrops or bed sheets blowing in the wind, claiming our poetic attention during crucial dialogue scenes in his films).37 This is part of the rhythm of appearance and disappearance, fullness and emptiness, which governs the figuration of these characters: passing constantly, as it were, from three dimensions to two and back again.

6. Difficult to fuse, reduce or work. In his article on refractory characters, Arnaud points to another important dimension of the films he lists: each of them puts on display heroes and heroines who are maladaptive in one way or another, violent or just surly, disengaged in a crucial way from the Symbolic Order of society.38 They are characters who do not play by the rules, usually not out of willed rebellion so much as a groundless alienation or anomie – “Never properly introduced to the world we live in”, as the opening titles of Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1949) say of its young, outcast protagonists. Reynaud speaks of the terrifying violence that the characters of Assayas’s films undergo as they embody a wider drama of the “social and affective insertion of the individual subject”.39 Society, in turn, tries to read these characters, their motivations and actions, to align them within the terms of a normative psychology or sociology – grossly failing on all counts. Hence the investigative plot structures, invariably undermined or aborted, which launch so many of these refracted stories. Everywhere, cops, journalists, family members, and documentary filmmakers (recall Léaud’s atypical role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Ultimo tango a Parigi [1972]), strain to reduce someone else’s inexplicable life into a nutshell – and, outrunning these efforts, all the fugitive signs of life gathered by the film, implicitly show the spectator that this encapsulation is impossible.

Refr ac tory Char ac ters, Shards of Time and Space


Arnaud refers to the odd paths of these refractory characters, often harbouring a mission that is revealed to us only in its eventual actuality. Their holding of a secret, for most of the film, is what renders them so opaque. 40 The mission might be to kill oneself (as in Bresson) or another (Jacquot’s Emma Zunz, 1992); to have sex with a certain person (La désenchantée) or in a certain way (36 fillette); to see or hear some rare phenomenon in the world (Rohmer); or to stage-manage a cold-hearted scenario of revenge (as in the finale of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois couleurs: Blanc [1994]). There is a line of unspoken, often crazed intent joining the spiritual sleepwalkers of Bresson and Jacquot, Delon as the cool hit man in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le samouraï (1967), the silent, ubiquitous figures who bring down cataclysms in Robert Altman’s or Alan Rudolph’s films, and the hardboiled low-lives in Cassavetes and Ferrara. In every case, their jagged, sudden itineraries are presented to us without the slightest narrative exposition or backgrounding, forever unfolding in an eternal present. These refractory characters appear and disappear, come into themselves and lose themselves, before our very eyes. One of the most poignant and memorable of them appears in Les baisers de secours. Where, in so many of the works I have mentioned, the refracting glasses are male, and women are positioned as the privileged repositories of a fugitive soul and a malaise-ridden flesh, here, for a change, for a few scenes at least, the director gazes on another man. Garrel puts himself in the scene as the filmmaker Mathieu, and the interlocutor is his father, famous Nouvelle Vague actor Maurice Garrel from Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (1962). They meet at a café and talk (as fathers and sons may rarely do in life) about love and sex, about the difficulties of art and expression, about the break-up of the father’s marriage and the distress presently affecting the son’s. The border between fiction and real life here is exceedingly porous. Mathieu barks that he cannot and will not dump all his unresolved personal problems into his films, and his father sagely warns hims: “You shouldn’t dump them into your bed, either”. A little later we see an image – only one shot, at a slightly flattened, wide angle – of Garrel senior walking off down the street. We notice his age, his walking stick, the immense and somewhat troubled energy within him, mixed with a measure both of grace and resignation. He stops, leans on his stick, turns his body a little: he may be gesturing a farewell to his son, we will never know. He lumbers off on his way, the camera’s “gaze on a gaze” lingering awhile. We will not see him again in the film. He went in the splice. (1994)


Mysteries of Cinema

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

An amalgamation of quotations from two pieces by Godard (trans. Tom Milne), “Bergmanorama” and “Summer with Monika”, in Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), pp. 77, 85. 2. Jean Douchet, “L’ennui? Quel ennui?”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 425 (December 1989), p. 52. 3. Don Ranvaud & Alberto Farassino, “An Interview with Jean-Luc Godard”, Framework, no. 21 (Summer 1983), p. 9. 4. Colette Mazabrard (trans. M. Jani, R. Sharma & A. Forler), “Love, Cinema”, in Cahiers du cinéma 1951-1991 (Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1994), p. 39. 5. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 3. 6. Jean Douchet, “La Rue et le studio”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 419/420 (May 1989), p. 50. 7. Luc Moullet, “Un repas manqué”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 443/444 (May 1991), p. 48. 8. Thierry Jousse, “La Force de vie”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 417 (March 1989), p. 12. 9. Bérénice Reynaud, “Olivier Assayas”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 443/444 (May 1991), p. 9. 10. Jacques Aumont (trans. James Eddy), “Image, Face, Passage”, in Passages de l’image, eds. Bellour, Catherine David & C. Van Assche (Barcelona: Fundació Caixa de Pensions, 1991), p. 90. 11. Jean Narboni (trans. M. Jani, R. Sharma & A. Forler), “The Harm is Done”, in Cahiers du cinéma 1951-1991 (Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1994), pp. 34-35. 12. Reynaud, “Olivier Assayas”, p. 9. 13. Philippe Arnaud, “Réfractaires”, reprinted in his posthumous collection Les paupières du visible. Écrits de cinéma (Crisnée: Yellow Now, 2001), pp. 219-231. 14. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 3. 15. Arnaud, Les Paupières du visible, p. 230. 16. Ibid. 17. Lesley Stern, “As Long As This Life Lasts”, Photofile (Winter 1987), pp. 17-18. 18. Serge Daney and Philippe Garrel, “Dialogue”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 443/444 (May 1991), pp. 61-62. 19. Serge Toubiana, “Tenue de soirée”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 382 (April 1986), p. 6. 20. “Autour de Pickpocket”, roundtable discussion with Olivier Assayas, JeanClaude Brisseau, Benoît Jacquot, André Téchiné, Thierry Jousse and Serge Toubiana, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 416 (February 1989), pp. 26-32. 21. Douchet, “L’ennui?”, p. 52. 22. Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre & Jacques Rivette (trans. Tom Milne), “Montage”, in Rivette: Texts and Interviews, ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum (London: British Film Institute, 1977), p. 87.

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23. Ibid., p. 86. 24. Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 108-122. Note here a crucial error in both the French original and its English translation: the “Pascal Augé” to whom the term any-space-whatever is credited is, in fact, the avant-garde filmmaker Pascal Auger (and not the anthropologist Marc Augé, famous for his discussion of “non-places”, as some readers of Deleuze have mistakenly assumed). 25. See comments by Jacquot assembled in Ellen (now Elena) Oumano (ed.), Film Forum: Thirty-Five Top Filmmakers Discuss Their Craft (New York: St Martins Press, 1985). 26. Mazabrard, “Love, Cinema”, p. 39. 27. Pascal Bonitzer, “Im Lauf der Zeit (Kings of the Road)”, in The Thousand Eyes, no. 2 (1977), p. 58. 28. Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 12. I have amended the translation of esprit, in this context, to “mind” rather than “spirit”. 29. Ibid., p. 13. 30. Daney & Garrel, “Dialogue”, p. 59. 31. Néstor Almendros in Film Forum, p. 87. 32. Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press/BFI, 1994), pp. 165-166. 33. Narboni, Pierre & Rivette, “Montage”, p. 74. 34. Ibid. 35. Lesley Stern, The Smoking Book (University of Chicago Press, 1999), p. 199. 36. Ibid. 37. See Deleuze, Cinema 2, pp. 198-202; Roger Cardinal, “Pausing over Peripheral Detail”, Framework, no. 30/31 (1986), pp. 121-122; and Jodi Brooks, “Consumed by Cinematic Monstrosity”, Art & Text, no. 34 (Spring 1989), pp. 79-94. 38. Arnaud, Les paupières du visible, p. 228. 39. Reynaud, “Olivier Assayas”, p. 9. 40. Arnaud, Les paupières du visible, p. 230.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

10. The Trouble with Fiction Abstract This essay explores the theme of the palpable but fascinating difficulty that many filmmakers, especially those of the Post Nouvelle Vague generations, experience in relation to the duty of storytelling or fiction in cinema. Since the work of Jean-Luc Godard, filmmakers have often sought to avoid the conventional tropes and clichés of narrative, to de-dramatise their sensationalist aspects, and yet still make feature-length films within a storytelling framework. Examples from across European cinema since the 1970s are discussed, with particular emphasis on the film J’entends plus la guitare (1991) by Philippe Garrel. The theory of a generative “trouble with fiction” is developed in relation to the literary work of Maurice Blanchot, and the practical reflections on screenwriting by Jean-Claude Carrière. Keywords: Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Claude Carrière, Philippe Garrel, narrative, fiction

The Madness of the Day, written in 1973 by Maurice Blanchot, is a short, compacted novel in the tradition of Samuel Beckett. It is less a fiction than a voice, a monologue, a mysterious, elliptical narration. The ghostly narrator, hovering between life and death, evokes states of anonymity, poverty, sickness and blindness. He testifies: “As nobody, I was sovereign”.1 Yet, in this haze, there are sudden, indistinct flashes of drama: abstract moments of violence and intensity happening somewhere, somehow, to someone. At one point, the narrator gets particularly excited when he witnesses a banal yet strangely magical incident on the street involving a woman and her pram. The narrator exclaims: I was sure of it, that I had seized the moment when the day, having stumbled against a real event, would begin hurtling to its end. Here it comes, I said to myself, the end is coming; something is happening, the end is beginning.2

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH10


Mysteries of Cinema

By the conclusion of his monologue, however, the narrator has collapsed back into morbidity and aimlessness. He retreats from these affects and states that gather in a poetic cluster: the day, light, madness, things happening and rushing to their end. Everyone around his sickbed pressures him to tell his story – but stories, too, are part of the madness of the day. The final words of the narrator, and the final line of Blanchot’s text: “A story? No. No stories, never again”.3 I first came upon this line when I was living in Sydney in the mid 1980s. At that time, it was not always directly attributed to Blanchot. It floated around, like a prophecy or a curse, in articles in small magazines, and on the soundtracks of short experimental films and videos. A story? No. No stories, never again. It reminded me of a scene in a British movie by two renowned film theorists, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen. The film is Crystal Gazing (1982); in it, the post-punk musician Lora Logic performs a song in a single take – a rousing anthem called “No More Fiction”. Mulvey and Wollen commented that, with this film, they were trying to get out of their own anti-narrative, anti-fiction period, trying to give up what they called their “scorched earth policy”. 4 There is a trouble with fiction in French cinema, too. Tonie Marshall’s Pas très catholique (1994) is a minor but fascinating symptom. The film is, in part, a mystery-thriller. It involves murder and corruption in high, capitalist places. Anémone (remarkable in Philippe Garrel’s Les baisers de secours [1989]) plays Maxime, a private eye, who takes it upon herself to investigate this corrupt situation, and to ponder the moral implications of her actions if she publicises the findings. There is a Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) element involved: Maxime’s investigations put her on the trail of her own ex-husband. The threads of a family melodrama (also involving her teenage son) weave together with the mystery. Yet, of all this potentially rich and spectacular plot material, there is very little to actually see. The plot often unfolds off-screen, or in the past; it is alluded to or talked about, but not really dramatised in any conventional, “classical narrative” sense. One passage is particularly striking in this regard. First, there is a fragment of Maxime, at night, scrambling around in a sinister suburb doing her detective work. Spying, she inadvertently makes a noise, causing the man she is tracking to yell abuse at her. Finally, he shows up at his front door with a gun. Maxime runs. Then we hear a gunshot. But Marshall has already cut away from the scene. The gunshot sound accompanies a shot of Maxime on her moped, burning wildly down the street. The sound has been transformed from any old, functional gun blast into a poetic, expressionist device. It is as if Maxime has been fired from a cannon; she is wild, footloose and existentially free – as she often is in Pas très catholique.

The Trouble with Fic tion


So now we are looking at Maxime – a rather “refractory” character, as Philippe Arnaud would doubtless describe her5 – on a moped. Into this overhead, wide angle comes another moped, with a man on it. Without any great ado, the two bikes collide, and Maxime skids along the ground. The man parks his bike, comes over, and helps her up. She is not hurt. In the next scene, they have a drink together, and, not much later in the story, they become lovers. I find myself entranced by this odd sequence of not-quite-connected actions, which is emblematic of a certain style in Post Nouvelle Vague cinema. At every point, the sensational possibilities of a frankly melodramatic fiction are undercut and avoided: no bullet wounds, no motorbike injuries, no excruciating screen suspense about whether one rider will collide with the other. Events happen that are spectacular and engaging – but in a quiet, understated, literal way, in a whimsical or even comical key. This is what gives Marshall’s film its characteristic tone. There is only a loose relation, all throughout, between strict narrative actions and the psychological motivations of the characters who are caught up in them, perform them, or are affected by them. This is substantially different from the American model of screen narrative hammered home in most screenwriting manuals: action is character is narrative. Here, actions provide at best a kind of easy, swinging door that allows us into an expansive exploration of a complex, mysterious, refractory personality – that of Maxime. And the strict narrative line falls away, coming in and out of this picture. In this, Pas très catholique would be in accord with Jean Douchet’s general observation about French cinema: that it concentrates not on action but the “dissection, analysis, contemplation” of action.6 It is a weakly plotted film. This does not mean badly plotted; only that the plot element is not strong, tight, or driving. Yet, at the same time, it is far from plotless. It is not anti-narrative, not a Brechtian exposé of fictive illusion, nor is it a minimalist or severely de-dramatised piece. Rather, it plays on a rhythm, a tone, and a dialectic that is present in much contemporary, French cinema. The film alternates strong and weak moments of fiction, in which the contrast between these poles is extreme and exaggerated, with very little modulation or preparation in-between. (This manner, which swiftly poured into music video and TV advertising, appears in even quite mainstream French productions such as Paroles et musique [Élie Chouraqui, 1984], and has elsewhere influenced box-office hits such as Truly Madly Deeply [Anthony Minghella, 1990]). Passages of so-called dead time – comprising narrative contemplation, reflection, or pure observation – are punctuated by sudden moments of melodramatic linkage. There are sudden flashes of fiction, abrupt liaisons, which can set-up personal interrelationships for perhaps the next 30 minutes


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or so of screen time. The large-scale narrative moves in Post Nouvelle Vague cinema are few and far between. Look, for instance, at how gradually Jacques Rivette plays out the power shifts between artist and model in his four-hour masterpiece, La belle noiseuse (1991).

In Order to Get Started The moment that the two motorbikes collide in Pas très catholique is emblematic, because it (or something very much like it) happens often in French cinema. Look at the films of Maurice Pialat, for instance, such as Loulou (1980) or Passe ton bac d’a bord (1979); they are full of manic to-and-fro-ing, the restless and neurotic motion of large gangs of people on foot or in vehicles. Scenes start off empty – and then, suddenly, two individuals or two gangs collide, or someone enters an inhabited space that is not their own. There is a fracas, recriminations, shouting, blows. Suddenly, everyone scatters, leaving the frame empty again. There are strong narrative effects – characters get maimed, thrown off-guard, or transformed – and much aimless motion and sulking between these tough moments. The films of André Téchiné have a similar but cooler structure. They, too, feature characters that run over each other or collide in the street – liaisons that alter the course of their destinies. Téchiné’s masterful Les roseaux sauvages (1994) plots out an entire, careful geometry of relations between four young people (three men and a woman). Gradually, the script contrives for every possible pairing of these four characters to take place. It is a little like Val Lewton’s and Jacques Tourneur’s low-key, supernatural films of the 1940s and, as in those movies, the characters are more like ghosts – mobile or potential beings – rather than solidified, psychological characters. These ethereal creatures float and interlace, and that is what constitutes the fiction. There is often a sense, in Téchiné’s films, that the big events have already happened, that, as he put it in 1988, “the story has ended at the very moment that the fiction commences”.7 To take this further, there is a sense that what we are seeing is the fall-out of some nameless catastrophe or trauma – as in much of Blanchot’s writing. What Narboni says of Pialat’s work also serves as a good description of Téchiné: “This cinema […] is hardly narrative and certainly not existential”.8 In screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Secret Language of Film, we find a very similar idea about narrative, time and action. This is how he describes William Shakespeare’s The Tempest in his chapter “Time Dissected”:

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In The Tempest [Shakespeare] even chose to do away with chronology altogether, as if the action proper, which is in truth very simple, were over even before it began, as if Prospero had already decided to forgive his brother. In a state of seeming befuddlement, the castaways stumble ashore on an island ruled by spells. Despite the disaster, their bodies and clothing are unharmed. As if at some foppish court, they exchange absurd puns. They can suddenly fall asleep or wake up, with no night to compel them. They glimpse divinities, vast palaces in the clouds, a nymph, a banquet – all of which will vanish. Two of them move through events in a state of obvious drunkenness, as if to enhance for us the sense of detachment from things, the unreality that stamps the whole play – which ends with the word “free”. The island is truly free of space and time.9

There is sometimes something abstract, purely citational, something not quite real about the piecemeal narrative moves of Post Nouvelle Vague cinema: a mannered, self-conscious type of fictional action. Tom Wolfe, in the introduction to his 1987 novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, rails against all those Modernist writers who have kicked against the obligations of realist fiction. For Wolfe, the lowest point of such absurdity is the opening sentence of a Robert Coover story titled “Beginnings”: “In order to get started, he went to live alone on an island and shot himself”.10 In cinema, this temptation to empty out narrative has different sources, and leads in different directions, to different pleasures. Cinema is, after all, an art of showing, spectacle, and “monstration”. A non-narrative can still be full of spectacle, full of things to see, hear and savour. We know this from the work of many fine directors: Chantal Akerman, Stephen Dwoskin, Michael Snow, and Terence Davies, for example. In French cinema, the dream of such disembodied spectacle in a loose or collapsing narrative frame goes back to Jean Epstein, theorist of photogénie. In 1926, Epstein wrote: Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was no American drama without the revolver scene, the weapon being slowly withdrawn from a half-open drawer. I loved that revolver. It appeared as the symbol of a thousand possibilities.11

From another text by Epstein: I love the mouth which is about to speak and holds back, the gesture which hesitates between right and left, the recoil before the leap, and the moment before landing, the becoming, the hesitation, the taut spring, the prelude,


Mysteries of Cinema

and even more than all these, the piano being tuned before the overture. The photogenic is conjugated in the future and in the imperative.12

Imagining the possibility of a spectacle created from discontinuous events does not, however, entirely free us from fiction’s trouble. Even Epstein in full rapture was bothered by the problem of how anybody could ever contrive an entire film comprised of such pregnant, photogenic moments: “One must admit that the photogenic is like a spark that appears in fits and starts”.13 There is a connection, little recognised, that runs from Epstein to Jean-Luc Godard, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s. Godard once tried, in his 1978 Montreal lectures compiled as Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, to def ine the essence of the cinema medium. He chose moments, in his own films and in others (such as Roberto Rossellini’s), in which characters look at each other, or look at an object, in a charged way. “If we look at it, there’s fiction. It’s looking that creates fiction, and we realise this after a while”.14 He forgot to add that sometimes, in his films and in the films of others, the look is the fiction, its sum total. There is precious little more to the fiction in Godard’s Hélas pour moi (1993), for instance, than the sad eyes of Gérard Depardieu darting this way and that, at people and objects unseen.

Love and Death It is sometimes said of Godard in the French press that he is not very good with stories. You can reject that off-hand comment as inane or irrelevant. But, then again, you can try to think through its implications. We can sense in Godard the same quality that infiltrates the work of many directors influenced by him, such as Carax or Akerman: namely, a certain kind of hesitancy, doubt, or unease, which I am calling their trouble with fiction. This is not intended as reproach or criticism; I am not trying to pinpoint any cowardice or moral failing on the part of these individuals. (A rather moralistic conjunction of the need to tell stories and thereby the capacity to engage in the real world fills – with a large whiff of bad faith – Wim Wenders’s Der Himmel über Berlin [1987] sequel, the vapid In weiter Ferne, so nah! [1993].) There is a trouble with fiction that – so runs my hypothesis – underlies all fiction, accompanying any attempt at storytelling. In these strenuous days when screenwriting teachers tell us ad nauseam about mythic stories and the wonder of storytelling, we forget this kind of anxiety, conveniently shoving it aside.

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I speak to you as someone who has never been able to write f iction, although I have certainly tried. It does not come easily or naturally to me, as it does to (as we say) “born storytellers”. So I understand this anxiety, this trouble, intimately and well. In fact, I would venture that many of the new, fancy, hybrid forms of fiction writing and filmmaking that have popped up over the last few decades are driven by this same anxiety, although they do not always recognise or admit it. I refer to those forms that go under labels such as meta-fiction, ficto-criticism, or the essay-film. Jean Louis Schefer attests to “accepting only an intellectual biography as a real novel”, since novels “proceed from the illusory notion, dressed up in bodies or figures, that our lives play out a consistent role”. For him, the more noble (and certainly more modern) vocation of the essayist is to be “a novelist beset by doubts about the material of fiction”.15 So what it is this trouble, this doubt? It starts small and then grows outward at a rapid rate. Imagining a fiction, creating it, means that one must commit oneself to the depiction of certain, definite acts. The man picked up the gun and shot the woman. The woman crashed her car into the wall and broke her leg. Another man sweeps her off her feet and takes her away to an exotic foreign country. Of course, it is easy to for me to write these things as quotations, abstract examples or detached, third degree emblems of narrative. It is much harder to really dramatise or to stage them, and to go on from there. Tonie Marshall, it seems, cannot show any of these things in Pas très catholique. Her film ends with Maxime rushing to an airport to get a plane to Russia to be with her dream man, but all we hear of that is a bit of air-travel sound over the final credits. Marshall cannot show it because she does not want to show it. By only alluding to this romance, she can be coy, ironic, inconclusive, and mysterious about it. But once you commit yourself to narrative acts like these, acts of love and death and so on, you cannot so easily retract or qualify them. This is the principle of classical narrative that the American cinema has understood perfectly well, and enthusiastically embraced, since its inception. It is this principle that separates, in the first and last instance, Godard and Carax from Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. It also separates these French directors discussed here from other, more classically minded ones, such as Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, Bertrand Tavernier and François Truffaut. On a larger scale, what is troubling about narrative is its singularity. There is one world, one set of characters, and one essential, consistent narrative logic. Anyone who has ever worked in any capacity on a novel or screenplay will know that there is a marvelous stage, early on, where everything is possible, where all narrative roads shimmer in the air. You dream of taking


Mysteries of Cinema

the characters in this direction or that, of introducing whole layers to the descriptive world of the story, of employing some daring, formal structure, and ending with any one of twelve options. The story exists as a mirage, an infinite world, a wild jungle of notes, random scenes and intentions. However, the moment you lock down the pathways, the “through lines” of the narrative and the “arcs” of the characters, it can seem as if a great richness has been lost – too much has been compromised or thrown away. There are many storytellers in this world who have never experienced this anxiety, and would have absolutely no inkling of the malaise I evoke here. For some, however, this fall from the Eden of open narrative is so traumatic that their attempts to grapple with storytelling pretty much stop dead right there. Others try to find another way, enabling them to continue working while consciously trying to manage their well-founded anxieties about fiction; they try to incorporate aspects of that initial “open plan” phase. Claude Ollier (sometime film critic and screenwriter as well as novelist) testifies: “If one writes, it’s precisely, in my view, in order to make things ‘move’, both the elements of the narrative and the readers of narratives. Writing is that which displaces, dislodges, dislocates, dismantles, and then realigns and recomposes differently”.16 Modernist cinema arises from this moment of refusal to play ball with fiction as a system of constraint – a constraining logic. Post Nouvelle Vague French cinema is full of experiments in suspended, open fiction. For example, Carax’s Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) involves wild, unannounced diversions into fantasy, as well as a succession of multiple endings, as if it is forever restarting itself; or Rivette’s films in general. And, outside France but ultimately crossing over into it, the cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski, a director who always gives more than one of everything: two endings, a double life, ten commandments, three colours (with another series on the three “afterlives” – Heaven, Hell and Purgatory – left partly scripted at his death).

The Neurosis of Spectacle Philippe Garrel is a figure who comes from the experimental cinema of the 1960s; indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, he was among France’s most celebrated avant-garde filmmakers. He made features in this period that are sometimes wholly silent, completely imagistic, steeped in Romantic art and literature, at once “spaced out” and psychodramatic in a way that gestures toward the films of Andy Warhol (whom Garrel met and admired). Even in these films, fiction is never entirely absent. Garrel always used actors, often quite

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famous stars, and had them improvise within sometimes cryptic tableaux (as is the case with Jean Seberg in Les hautes solitudes [1974]) – there is a plot, but Garrel does not always let us in on what it actually is. From the start, Garrel´s work is a curious mixture: his work displays the visual, formal purity of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, the blank, unflinching gaze of a Warhol, but also – and this is rarer in modern French cinema – a highly concentrated point of soulful intensity and emotional “truth” (his constantly reiterated watchword). Indeed, the intimate exchanges between people establish an entire world, a complete reality in Garrel, as in the American films of John Cassavetes, or (to take an oeuvre closer to his home) of Pialat. Garrel’s career intersects with two important stages in the history of French cinema’s trouble with fiction. In the 1960s, in the first Post Nouvelle Vague moment, he was one of a group of filmmakers (whose father figure is Jean Eustache) deeply influenced by the ideas of the radical thinkers and creators known as the Situationists. Only Jill Forbes’ French Cinema After the New Wave has properly elucidated this influence on filmmakers including Garrel, Luc Moullet, Akerman and Marguerite Duras.17 The stake here is an extremely minimal form of fiction – Akerman’s Hotel Monterey (1972), for instance, which is simply a collection of views, shot in New York, inside an rather depopulated hotel. Garrel (who remarked in 1994, “I believe that the choice of a minimalist cinema is specific to the Eustache generation”)18 still holds, to a strong degree, to this aesthetic, as well as a Situationist sensibility. In a dialogue with Serge Daney, he remarked, echoing the slogans of Guy Debord: “The most difficult thing at this moment is to resist the neurosis of spectacle”.19 By neurotic spectacle, Garrel meant anything that was too sensational, too vulgar, too manipulative of the spectator, too exhibitionist and performative, too keen to please and to flatter. Even the spectacular elements espoused by Epstein, or practiced by Godard or Carax, probably go too far for Garrel. It is not difficult to recognise the affinity between this minimalist discretion or purity and a model French director: Robert Bresson. Today, for many cinephiles, Bresson is virtually deified, beyond critique. But it is intriguing to recall that, in Theory of Film Practice, one of the most revered texts of 1960s film theory, Noël Burch complained that Bresson’s films of the time were too prudish in their tactful refusal to include “painful violations of taboos”.20 By the mid 1970s, something else started to happen with fiction in Garrel’s cultural circle: a movement dubbed the “return to fiction” (at times even the “return to cinema”) – a return, presumably, for those who had departed or abandoned this divine realm for a spell. According to a 1991 history of


Mysteries of Cinema

Cahiers du cinéma, this transition started one fine day in 1977 when the celebrated critic-screenwriter-director Pascal Bonitzer uttered a “sudden outburst”: “Why do we get so fucking bored?”21 The return to f iction that followed is one of the richest moments in French filmmaking, and also in French criticism. It is the moment when the Chilean exile Raúl Ruiz is discovered and promoted; when Téchiné makes his breakthrough films; when directors including Benoît Jacquot begin to work. It is also the moment of similar films from other countries, particularly the striking, early features of Wenders such as Im Lauf der Zeit (1976) and Der amerikanische Freund (1977). Godard makes his return to quasi-conventional feature filmmaking with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (1980); Rohmer is rehabilitated; and Americans such as De Palma and John Carpenter are claimed as eccentric subversives working within the Hollywood system. We must be clear about what sort of fiction the troops returned to in this moment: it is not American, classical narrative, of any variety. Indeed, it is often rather melancholic; the trouble with fiction remains alive and well. In a perceptive formulation from the period, the American Francophile (and Cahiers correspondent) Bill Krohn suggested that the return to fiction sets out to “display the erotic paradoxes of classical cinema (Hitchcock’s cinema, not Eisenstein’s) and reflect its extinguished brilliance at quirky angles, and with a lunar pallor”.22 In so many films of this time – which goes right through to Godard’s Détéctive in 1985 – we see the terms of Blanchot’s The Madness of the Day recurring in an uncanny sequence. Wenders’s Der Stand der Dinge (1982) puts it succinctly: too much fiction, and you’re dead. The real beginning of the story, the moment that it starts to gather momentum and drive through to the ending, is always tenaciously resisted. Narrative is death, movement is death, chronology is death, linearity is death: that is the upfront lesson. These films suspend themselves as long as they can within a precarious world, a floating house of fiction, but are not eager to initiate the story. They tremble on the brink of fiction. Garrel’s films have this trembling, fragile quality. He made his personal and public return to fiction in 1982, with the release of the film L’enfant secret (which he had completed three years previously, but could not afford to claim back from the print lab). He announced that, for him, the attempt at fiction would take the form of a project he had begun and abandoned with the very first films he made at the age of sixteen: his autobiography. Virtually all of Garrel’s subsequent works have been based on incidents or periods from his life. J’entends plus la guitare is a unique screen

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autobiography, at once extraordinarily frank and revealing – Philippe (who becomes Gérard, played by Benoît Régent) does not really come out of his own life story terribly well – but also very mysterious. Garrel stages a hide-and-seek game with the personal element. J’entends plus la guitare is about Garrel’s relationship with Nico, singer with The Velvet Underground before going solo, to whom it is dedicated. (The film’s title is deliberately ungrammatical in French, mimicking Nico’s own faulty grasp of the language). In this account, Nico becomes Marianne, played by Johanna ter Steege. Garrel strips almost everything away from this story except its barest bones. This is an exigency connected to very low budgets, but it is also much more – virtually an ethical stance. He has commented: “I always sacrifice points of detail. I always find good reasons to do away with artifice”.23 Certain people play themselves – such as Édith Boulogne (Alain Delon’s mother), who gained legal custody over Nico’s son (the “secret child”) after the male star would not acknowledge the boy as his own – and key locations (homes, apartments) are absolutely authentic to the real story. Yet these guarantors of authenticity are not really underlined or brandished in any way, as biopics are usually at pains to do. The facts that Garrel is a filmmaker and Nico a musician (during this period of her finest and most experimental albums) do not enter the film – everyone in the camera’s range seems to partake in a vague, amorphous, artistic life. In fact, there are only three, fleeting allusions to the fact that the character of Marianne is actually Nico, and I find them so indirect that they are rather chilling, as if some kind of voodoo is at play. On two occasions, Garrel fades up and down, like a distant echo, the sound of a discordant rock riff: it is music by Nico and The Velvet Underground, presumably sourced from a bootlegged tape. And in one of the film’s most affecting passages, the gravestone that Gérard stands in front of and obscures is, in fact, Nico’s grave in East Berlin. Even more remarkable is Garrel’s treatment of narrative time, space and action. Those viewers unfamiliar with the real story of Garrel and Nico may be surprised to learn that J’entends plus la guitare covers some fifteen to eighteen years in their lives, from the start of the 1970s to near the end of the 1980s. Garrel deliberately omits any period detail, and refuses to mark the passage of narrative time in any conventional sense. The film evokes a series of what could be remembered fragments – although there is no conventional signal of a flashback structure or any appropriately “novelistic” mode of recollection. In terms of narrative space, Garrel is a filmmaker who takes seriously the famous, oft-cited declaration of Luchino Visconti on “anthropomorphic


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cinema”: “I could make a film in front of a bare wall, if I was able to find the true material of humanity to place against this naked, scenographic element: find it, and tell it”.24 In Garrel’s cinema, gestures and poses often occur in an indeterminate space; select portions of this space are cut off and disconnected from one another. Recall the scene in which Gérard first meets his young lover, Adrienne (Anouk Grinberg) in a café: both Gérard and his wife, Aline (played by Garrel’s wife of the period, Brigitte Sy), are in the scene, but all we see is an oddly decentred frame, through the café window, of Adrienne and her anonymous friend sitting at a table. In general, the eyelines of characters sometimes do not join up anything very clearly. This film gives the illusion, at times, that scenes that might have been staged, filmed and edited in a more classical fashion are reduced only to their most essential, intense and intimate moments. But there is, in fact, no improvisation: every word is scripted, just as in Cassavetes. Garrel’s découpage may be largely instinctive (he does not arrive at the shoot with storyboards or a shot list), but it is nonetheless logical and rigorous in its step-by-step construction. And the narrative? J’entends plus la guitare is, once again, not a plotless film. It is full of events, many of which occur off-screen, between scenes: Marianne’s death, or repeated scenes of drug taking (which occupy at least five to eight years worth of this story), or the numerous times that one lover leaves the other. Sometimes, in the Bressonian manner, Garrel reduces key narrative events to a single, simple, signifying moment, such as the first time that Gérard walks out on Marianne: we merely see him climbing a flight of stairs. Nonetheless, J’entends plus la guitare is full of a certain kind of quietly intense, narrative intrigue. Almost every scene, starting on the close-up of a human face against a bare wall, poses a mystery: where are we now? Where is Gérard, where is Marianne? Who are these new women that keep popping up in Gérard’s life, where did they come from? Who is that forlorn, intense, young boy that Gérard is smiling at, whose child is this exactly? It always takes us a little way into the scene to figure out the (often sparse) cues and clues about these mysteries – and sometimes they remain mysterious. Garrel, like Abel Ferrara, systematically expunges traditional narrative exposition, and this creates the aura of an eternal present tense. As spectators, we are always plunged into the middle of things. There is so much fiction off-screen that, when it does appear on-screen, it assumes an unprecedented force and gravity. When Marianne returns to Gérard, this small event becomes the film’s only happy moment (the suggestion to include it came from ter Steege): sweet music plays, and Garrel’s

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camera, for the one and only time, moves gently towards the smiling faces of these lovers, in a lyrical, intercutting gaze. Likewise with the film’s crucial turning point, in which Marianne holds up a little packet and says: “Come and look, it’s heroin”. Or the café scene previously cited, in which we study, in a mid-shot, the expression on Adrienne’s face, full of curiosity, desire, and gamesmanship. Garrel cuts from this shot to another of Adrienne, in another unspecified space and at a later unspecified time, now in close-up, saying to an off-screen Gérard: “I’m glad you called me”. In Godard’s terms, the look creates the fiction, and Garrel needs little more than this look. Herein lies not only the economy but also the emotion of his style. Reflecting on Garrel’s treatment of narrative time, space and action, I am drawn back to Carrière’s description of The Tempest: “The island is truly free of time and space”. Like a number of Post Nouvelle Vague directors, Garrel shapes films that are like precious, fragile, little islands. Carrière talks of Shakespeare’s characters in The Tempest as castaways from some prior, unseen disaster. Garrel’s autobiographical films have often been described this way: as crystalline pieces of memory assembled as the scattered fall-out from a cataclysmic, personal-sphere explosion. There is a haunting malaise in Garrel’s cinema – indeed, life seems to equal almost constant malaise for him – but also, in the entire manner of his style and sensibility, a gesture of self-protection. Many commentators have observed this: too much fiction, a sudden acceleration into melodrama, any trace of manipulation or sensation, and the delicate spell of Garrel’s films would be ruined – poised, as they are, just on the brink of that point of no return.25 It is as if, recovering from some prior life catastrophe, Garrel is trying to hold off the next one, trying to work a magic charm. Like Maurice Blanchot’s narrator, Philippe Garrel in his films tries, with quiet desperation, to break his calamitous fall into the madness of the day. (1995)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3.

Maurice Blanchot (trans. Lydia Davis), The Madness of the Day (New York: Station Hill Press, 1981), p. 9. Ibid., p. 10. Ibid., p. 18.


4. 5. 6.

Mysteries of Cinema

For further analysis of Crystal Gazing, see Chapter 5, “Wishful Thinking”. See Chapter 9, “Refractory Characters, Shards of Time and Space”. Jean Douchet, “La Rue et le studio”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 419/420 (MayJune 1989), p. 50. 7. André Téchiné, “La Tentation du mal”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 403 (January 1988), p. 8. 8. Jean Narboni (trans. M. Jani, R. Sharma & A. Forler), “The Harm is Done”, in Cahiers du cinéma 1951-1991, texts chosen and presented by Antoine de Baecque (Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1994), p. 35. 9. Jean-Claude Carrière (trans. Jeremy Leggatt), The Secret Language of Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), pp. 112-113. 10. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities (London: Picador, 1988), p. xvi. Wolfe’s acidic account of Modernist literature – Neo-Fabulist, Magical Realist, Absurdist, Minimalist, and Radically Disjunct – and his corresponding call for a return to the monumental realism of “Balzac, Zola or Lewis” has its French echo, too – in the work of Éric Rohmer. In the 1980s interview that prefaces his collection The Taste for Beauty (London: Cambridge University Press, 1989), Rohmer tells Narboni he is “Balzacian, yes. That is, antiexistentialist, against the new novel, against people like Moravia, Sartre, and Beckett […] in 20th century novels things occur, one is subjected to them, but there’s no plot […] there’s no psychology either” (p. 18). 11. Jean Epstein, quoted in Carrière, The Secret Language of Film, p. 212. 12. Epstein (trans. Stuart Liebman), “Magnification and Other Writings”, October, no. 3 (Spring 1977), p. 9. 13. Ibid. 14. Jean-Luc Godard (trans. Timothy Barnard), Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television (Montreal: Caboose, 2014), p. 157. 15. Jean Louis Schefer, “Preface”, in Paul Smith (ed. & trans.), The Enigmatic Body: Essays on the Arts by Jean Louis Schefer (London: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. xviii-xix. 16. Cecile Lindsay, “A Conversation with Claude Ollier” (1986), The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 8 No. 2 (1988), reprinted at []. 17. Jill Forbes, The Cinema in France After the New Wave (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1992). 18. Philippe Garrel, Maurice Pialat and Isabelle Huppert, “Dialogues”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 477 (March 1994), p.28. This is part of a special issue titled “Autoportrait(s)” guest-edited by Huppert. 19. Philippe Garrel and Serge Daney, “Dialogue”, Cahiers du cinéma, Issue 443/44 (May 1991), p. 63. 20. Noël Burch (trans. Helen R. Lane), Theory of Film Practice (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973), p. 127. For further discussion, see Chapter 19, “Shivers, Surprise and Discomfort”.

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Antoine de Baecque & Thierry Jousse (trans. M. Jani, R. Sharma & A. Forler), “Portable Chronology of the Cahiers for Use of the Younger Generations”, in Cahiers du cinéma 1951-1991, p. 46. Note that this translation contains more (and juicier) material than the original French version, “Chronologie Portative des Cahiers à l’usage des Jeunes Générations”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 443/444, May 1991. 22. Bill Krohn, “Translator’s Note” appended to Pascal Bonitzer’s “Here: The Notion of the Shot and the Subject of Cinema”, Film Reader, no. 4 (1979), p. 119. 23. Philippe Garrel, “Propos rompus”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 447 (September 1991), pp. 34-35. 24. Luchino Visconti, “Cinema antropomorfico”, Cinema, no. 173/174 (October 1943). 25. On this tendency, see especially Colette Mazabrard (trans. M. Jani, R. Sharma & A. Forler), “Love, Cinema”, in Cahiers du cinéma 1951-1991, pp. 38-39.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

11. Ball of Fire The Mysteries Abstract This essay explores the elusive quality of poetic mystery in cinema, beyond the conventional sense of mysteries that structure plots. Poetic mystery is at once atmospheric and suggestive; it envelops a rich film and offers a different, and at first glance hidden, pattern that allows us to grasp its events and motifs more deeply and thoroughly. Although mystery is a matter of mood, it is also fully material, and can be traced through careful analysis. Looking at works by Víctor Erice, Leos Carax, Samuel Fuller and others, the essay suggests ways of tracing the sense of mystery in a film, paying particular attention to narrative alternation and suspension. Theorists considered include Pier Paolo Pasolini, André Bazin, and Raymond Bellour. Keywords: Mystery, poetic f ilm, cinema aesthetics, Víctor Erice, Pier Paolo Pasolini

Mystery belongs to everyone and is the principle of genuine community. – Louis Aragon, 19271 At any rate the point is first of all to find again the mysteries. – Norman O. Brown, 19602

Mystery I often think that we go about the analysis of films the wrong way around. We usually start from the end of the film, as it were, and project all the things that we have come to know about the themes, the characters, the form, the entire trajectory, back to its beginning. Once we think, speak, or write about a film, the hardest thing to recapture, as we re-view it, is the

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH11


Mysteries of Cinema

experience of starting in blissful ignorance, knowing (for the most part) nothing of what is to unfold, understanding nothing of the strange figures, places, objects and incidents that appear before us. There is a phrase, from a panel discussion transcribed at the end of the 1970s, that I often recall: responding to some negative remarks about experimental cinema made by the theorist Jean-Louis Comolli, Peter Gidal snapped, “You must be blind”. To this, Comolli calmly, cryptically replied: “I am blind, and we are all blind”.3 In Le Récit au cinéma, Alain Masson emphasises the intense aura of mystery that accompanies almost any film in its initial moments.4 Everything is unfamiliar, ambiguous, full of multiple potentialities. At the start, we are all blind, groping in the dark. Masson argues that, to understand a film, to follow it, we have to pass through a series of what might best be called gateways (his word is seuil or threshold). At each of these successive gateways, we ask a question or test a hypothesis about the status or identity of what we see and hear. Gradually – usually over the course of a few action-packed minutes – we come to enter the world of the film, the world of its fiction. Víctor Erice’s masterpiece El espíritu de la colmena (1973) begins very slowly. It takes a full nineteen minutes to completely establish a few, basic simple facts – ground that more ordinary films would cover far more quickly. But the time it takes, the inherent mystery, the suspension of this opening segment contain, in a microcosm, the entire art of Erice. It takes these nineteen minutes for the film, and us, to establish that there is a family comprising a father, a mother, and two girls, who all share the same house – who belong, in some sense, to one another. Despite some suggestive linkages in the editing transitions from character to character, and despite some vague dialogue and voice-over references – and since, as Masson rightly remarks, we only truly believe the evidence of what we see in a film, over the evidence of what we merely hear or read – all these characters must all literally pass through the same gateway for us to know definitively this bit of family business. It is as if Erice seeks to recreate for us, here, the birth of cinema itself: the sequence has many marks of early filmmaking, such as static, repeated set-ups, a makeshift screening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) in a community hall, and even a train arriving at a station. Erice shows us a man, Fernando (Fernando Fernán Gómez), with his bees, and then in his study; he shows us a woman, Teresa (Teresa Gimpera), writing a letter to her (never seen) lover, then riding on her bicycle to post this letter into the mail box of a passing train. With the children, Ana (Ana Torrent) and Isabel (Isabel Tellería), Erice is even cagier and stealthier in the way he

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creeps up on them, and reveals them as a central focus of interest. At first, there is only a crowd gathered to watch a movie; and then, by steps, we are guided to pay attention to these two specific children; and then, subtly, to especially focus on only Ana – who is particularly scared, indeed scarred as we shall later discover, by the apparition of Frankenstein’s monster on screen. Even with Fernando and Teresa, the “reveal” by Erice, this process of identification, is gradual, proceeding by parts, by bits and pieces: Teresa is, at first, just a voice set over images of a man; and this man, Fernando, just a hand in a glove. Erice’s characters are never just there, never simply, self-evidently present for us straight away: they must emerge as figures from the actions, situations and emotions into which they are already melted – such as an obsessive, daily routine; or an ongoing, interior monologue; or a restless, hungry, movie-loving, makeshift crowd. Only slowly will they be disentangled from either a social flux, or the hard interminability of their solitude, and then re-configured into a diagram that assigns them a place in that strange community we call a family. The starts of films are very particular things. There is a wealth of crafty knowledge in the movie industry about how to establish the sense of a beginning – how to deliver a swift exposition that gets all the necessary plot information in place for the viewer: the who, where, when and why of it all. I am fascinated by that craft myself, but it is not what I am on the track of here: not the clarity of narrative, but its mystery. How far is it possible to sustain that mystery throughout a film, beyond its first, trembling moments and steps? And what does this quality of mystery have to do with what Pier Paolo Pasolini called, long ago and between enigmatic quotation marks, the “cinema of poetry”? In 1965, Pasolini proposed a distinction between a cinema of poetry and a cinema of prose – and felt compelled, instantly, to elaborate the latter as the “cinema of prose narrative”.5 The cinema of poetry would be something like a free stream of image and sound events, akin to a certain kind of avant-garde filmmaking. Narrative enters into this poetry only as a compromise or a constraint – Pasolini calls it a pretext, an alibi. He cites Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard and Bernardo Bertolucci as three directors who use particular kinds of characters – mad, hyper-sensitive or ecstatic – solely so that the filmmaking can launch into what he calls a “free indirect discourse” that mimics these characters’s inner, mental states. Pasolini was neither the first nor the last filmmaker-theorist to plot a distinction between cinema poetry and prose on a narrative/non-narrative axis. Jean Epstein in the 1920s wrote one of his typical pieces about the wonderful, opening images of an entirely ordinary film – fragmented, oneiric close-ups of a moving hand, a gun in a drawer, a doorknob mysteriously turning – but


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then, suddenly, a telephone would ring in the film and a character would pick it up, inaugurating the story and thus breaking the magic spell, putting a rude end to its sublimity. Prose narrative, for Epstein, marked a fall from the Eden of pure, unbounded cinema poetry – or photogénie (sometimes weakly translated as “the photogenic”), as he immortally called it.6 The most striking statement of the poetry/prose relation that I have ever encountered is an analysis written in the early 1970s by Noël Burch about Fritz Lang’s merry espionage film of the late silent era, Spione (1928). Burch begins his discussion by dismissing the “stereotyped banality” of the film’s plot, as opposed to its dexterous and intricate work on cinematic form; he concludes by suggesting that the film advances in the following way: [It is] almost as though only the narrowest possible area were to be allocated to the meagre prose of the story, the better to allow it to expand between a pyrotechnic poetry, often obscure, often built on elements superfluous to the narrative, and the languorous poetry of “undue” gestures, of “excessively long” shots, a poetry of time beguiled.7

Yet there is a poetry of time beguiled in El espíritu de la colmena – in fact, in many narrative films: time beguiled, and sense beguiled. And it is in the poetry of certain narrative films that I look for mystery, mood, texture and sensuality – all those so-called impressionistic words that we too readily expunge from film criticism, save in the most gushing of populist, mass media journalism. One reason that impressions like mystery, mood and sensuality are difficult to discuss in relation to cinema is that they are hard to pinpoint or quantify. They are qualities of atmosphere, of air – but atmosphere does not have to waft like a mist or a stylistic overlay atop of the plot. We can more productively think of atmosphere as that which joins, defines, puts into circulation and transforms all the elements of a film – its characters, events, gestures, places, spaces, images and sounds. “A mood, after all”, suggests Raymond Durgnat, “is a matter of implications, which intuition has sensed before analysis has grasped. An atmosphere is a matter of assumptions and insinuations. And hallucination implies a theory about the world.”8 What does it mean to think atmospherics and narrative together as the equal and intertwined parts of a cinema of poetry? Let us imagine narrative as a map of connections – connections constantly made, unmade and remade. At every point, lines are drawn and redrawn: delicate, fragile webs of interrelation are spun (as in Erice or Robert Bresson); or brutal, enveloping traps are sprung (as in Lang or Brian De Palma). The cinema of

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poetry, then, would be the cinema of relation, relations between characters, places, incidents and gestures – but relations that are subject to a constant metamorphosis, exchange, or vibration. There is a scene that has become, for me, an emblem of tricky, poetic action in narrative cinema. It is the astonishingly economical opening, only two-and-a-half minutes long, of Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953). This scene contains what may be my favourite introductory dialogue exchange in any film: “What happened?” – “I’m not sure yet”. This is a statement of not only the characters’ bewilderment, but our own, too – because, before any words have been spoken, we have already been hurled into a fiction that is spinning off in three different directions at once. There is so much compacted into this little scene. Where Erice likes to separate his characters – containing them in their solitude and private epiphanies, keeping their storylines mostly apart from each other – Fuller, in an entirely contrary spirit, likes to run them all into each other, so that they interrupt, cancel, or (more usually) transform each other in flight. In this single compartment of a hurtling train, there are three distinct plots – Candy (Jean Peters) carries secret microfilm, the FBI agents tail and watch her, and the pickpocket, Skip (Richard Widmark), happens to choose this very carriage and that very woman on which to practice his craft. In the course of the scene, a fourth intrigue is also born – the erotic spark between Candy and Skip – which constitutes the typical, tough-tender, sado-masochistic, Fuller-style love story. Even outlining the plot in this way, I already project back from later in the film. What you actually see in the scene is a series of mysterious plot gateways that have to be prised open in a hurry. Who is this woman? What is in her purse? Who are these men staring at her? Who is this other guy getting close to her? What are the lines, the connections, the prior, present, or future bonds between any of them? Fuller simply shows us the headlong action of these plots interlacing with each other before he proceeds, in the next few scenes, to answer such questions. As he does so, he also extends them into other complicating lines and threads – when the woman makes a phone call, when the FBI agents split up and go to different places, when Skip arrives at home. In a Fuller narrative, we are always on the run, asking “What just happened?” and getting back the response, “I’m not sure yet”.

Alternation (1): Theory Among the many intriguing turns of phrase in Pasolini’s ruminations (across several essays written between 1965 and 1967) on the cinema of poetry, we


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find this description of the new language of 1960s art films: “a story told through a renewed beginning and repetition which is absolutely irregular in the language of the cinema”.9 Renewed beginning and repetition: what Pasolini particularly means here is that the form of the films is a kind of stuttering action, constantly going back and starting again. We are confronted, he says, with multiple, just slightly different views, angles, aspects of a gesture, a landscape, or a human face. He describes this as an insistent, indeed “obsessive” activity, and coins an indelible term for it: “atonal neocubism”.10 In a series of essays written in the 1970s, Raymond Bellour paid strict attention to the phenomenon of repetition in cinema. Insofar as his primary object of study, in that period, was classical Hollywood film, he did not uncover the ever-renewed, obsessively retraced beginning and repetition that Pasolini celebrated. Bellour theorised, instead, a completely opposite phenomenon, which he named repetition-resolution.11 The classical film narrative resolves itself, he argued, because it repeats and moves ahead incrementally, always gathering itself up in rhymes, motifs and symmetrical structures in order to arrive at its ultimate closure. In studying this structure of seriality, Bellour came to the realisation that the principal, guiding, most powerful form of repetition in classical cinema is alternation. Put simply: a fiction takes a unity, breaks that unity into two separated, divided pieces, and works its way through a sequence of narrative moves, always jumping back and forth between A and B until, at the end, the unity can be repaired. Breaking a unity means breaking up character units – like a family – and also story units. Alternation works best, classically, when you have two characters in two separate spaces or places, each inside their own plot thread – and, in some way or another, racing toward a collision, an encounter. From D.W. Griffith onward, that is the overriding impression: always the satisfaction of a meeting, a rescue, a last-second reprieve, a clinch, collision, or explosion – some full, final moment that lays to rest all of the wandering, tension and fragmentation of the story preceding it. Yet, despite that self-evident, classical truth, the structures of narrative alternation in cinema constitute one of the most mysterious, elastic, poetic games in the filmmaking book. Let us take the proposition for which Bellour in the 1970s became most famous and influential: the Hollywood film, he said, is a machine for producing the couple – meaning, the romantic couple (traditionally heterosexual, since “sexual difference” also plays a conventional but crucial part in the alternation). Split them up, keep them apart, bring them together: we know the formula well in a thousand movies from Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927) to Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle (1993). One of the cute, modern variations

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on this formula is to ensure that the characters do not even know each other until they meet in the final scene or frame: that is the principle of deliberately odd romances like Alan Rudolph’s Made in Heaven (1987) or Chantal Akerman’s A Couch in New York (1996). These films flirt with us, tease us by leaning throughout on the possibility that maybe these characters will never meet, never connect, never recognise each other in a mutual look of love. The films of Wong Kar-wai (Chung hing sam lam [1995], Do lok tin si [1996], Chun gwong cha sit [1997]) make that possibility of disconnection their very substance, texture and subject. Sometimes couples (straight or gay) get together in Wong’s films, and sometimes they do not; sometimes they stay together and sometimes they do not. His films are definitely not machines for producing couples, even in a cool, slack, Generation-X kind of way. They are something infinitely more fragile: an investigation into the conditions of connection and disconnection, constantly posing the question: what makes a couple? What brings people together or drives them away, like particles in an experiment? When is any one of these characters ever fully there, ever fully present, to be in place to make such a soul connection when and if it arises? Where Pickup on South Street begins with the question “What happened?”, the first line of Do lok tin si (known in English as Fallen Angels) is: “Are we still partners?” Characters in Wong’s films are often more like ghosts or chimeras than people. They appear interchangeable as they float around each other on their various, overlapping, satellite trajectories; they constantly fade in and out of their personal consciousnesses, their subjectivities. They repeat each other’s actions in the same places, unknowingly and uncannily, as if bound together by some higher, alien logic. Wong’s work is part of an exploration that began in force in 1960s art cinema around the possibilities of what can be called large-scale alternation. In a 1969 discussion of montage in Cahiers du cinéma, Jean Narboni describes such film narratives as built upon the “mobile suspension between […] the larger units of the discourse”. He elaborates the trend in these terms: A sizeable portion of the modern cinema is concerned with the movement of compact blocks, the arrangement of long, continuous effluxions, the gradual and carefully controlled imbrication of homogenous parts, of narrative elements that seem themselves to be seeking and indicating their most appropriate position within the overall system of the film.12

Within a block construction – two or three or more ongoing story lines or threads, which the film switches between – each different thread will


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usually have its own character or set of characters, in their own place, space, situation, or plot. Atom Egoyan uses this structure in virtually all his films; Robert Altman uses it just as frequently. Blake Edwards plays a comedic game with it in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975). Takeshi Kitano’s Hana-bi (1997) is one of the richest examples in recent memory: in this intensely poetic film, two men on two different trajectories, Nishi (Kitano) and Horiba (Ren Osugi), trace an interlinked, uncanny, symbiotic path. One is physically wounded and the other emotionally traumatised, but they seem conjoined in a twinning or mirroring movement that again renders them ghostly and interchangeable: one man paints what the other man feels and dreams, even what he literally sees. There are many contemporary films that use alternation between pieces in a jazzy way, akin to zapping with a TV remote control; all that really registers is the speed, precision and graphic cleverness of the entry and exit points, the raccords joining one bit to the next. Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991) is in that vein, or the Australian film What I Have Written (1995). I am more drawn to the mobile suspension of parts, because it is with this kind of ongoing, large-scale process that a film can keep relaying and expanding its initial air of mystery. The first moment that a film goes from one story into another, somewhere else, starring someone else, a bottomless well of potential mysteries and questions opens up. The move from one story-space to another produces at first an effect of shock, of intense disorientation. As the alternations continue, however, the shock is replaced by a type of curiosity, driven by questions such as: will these stories, like the divided parts of a couple or a family, ever meet up? Are they indeed part of the same fictional universe? Do they occur within the same time frame? What logic connects these diverse stories? Jacques Rivette’s epic serial Out 1 (1971/1990) is a profound meditation on these questions, as is Raúl Ruiz’s El realismo socialista (1973). John Cassavetes’ Love Streams (1984) crosses, in a fairly leisurely way, between the story of a man, Robert (Cassavetes), and the story of a woman, Sarah (Gena Rowlands). For almost a full hour, we have to ask ourselves if we are watching two completely different films spliced together. Then, in one of the most audacious and completely overwhelming narrative moves I have witnessed in cinema, these two characters suddenly meet and embrace. Some viewers immediately assume that they are lovers; Cassavetes takes his sweet time in leaking out to us the significant news that they are, in fact, brother and sister. Right inside that ambiguous, overflowing, amorous clinch in the car of Love Streams is the essence of Cassavetes’ cinema: the intensity of a bond or connection between people always pulverises and

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puts in question their nominal, social, or familial relation, be it brother and sister here, or the grown woman (Rowlands) trailing around with a little boy (John Adames), the “neighbour’s kid” who becomes her companion in adventure, in Gloria (1980). In films based on large-scale alternation of narrative parts, the gateways of narrative comprehension are left wide open. There are always questions as to the precise, fictional status of what we see on-screen. When we go from one story to another, can we be sure that the second is a story like the first? What if it is a dream, a memory, a reverie, or some sort of embedded fiction invented by one of the characters? What if the second, alternating story is another kind of interpellation altogether on the filmmaker’s part – the glimpse of a parallel world, a fantasmic recreation of elements from the first story, emanations from some imaginary past that never really happened – something, in other words, issuing from an unconscious logic, but not attributable to the unconscious of any visible character? What if we are simply watching the experiment of several completely distinct films cut together, or an exercise in speculative narrative – on the order of, “let us imagine how this story would come out if we started it over, just slightly differently, three times”. Filmmakers such as Krzysztof Kieślowski, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Rivette and Ruiz have explored all of these possibilities, and more.

Alternation (2): Forms and Variations Alternation is a special cinematic phenomenon because it charges things up on the levels of form and content simultaneously. Pasolini spoke of how, in his favoured cinema of poetry, rhythmic editing asserts itself over mere denotative editing (“beyond a certain point the rhythmic editing would appear to be typical of a form of expressiveness which should be opposed to denotation as such”).13 But, in truth, we do not need to choose between them when alternation swings in. It simultaneously tells the story (denotative editing) and openly riffs on the formal parameters (rhythmic editing). Bellour speaks of alternation as that which is “constantly at the point of articulation between expression and content”.14 Alternation as a principle of montage, of linking in whatever possible mode, is again a deeply mysterious and open-ended business. Sylvie Pierre, in her contribution to the Cahiers montage discussion, defines the “general problematic of montage” in the following terms: “an inquiry into all notions of liaison, juxtaposition, combinative (and their corollaries: difference,


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rupture, analysis)”.15 Alternation raises all of these possibilities, on the level of block transitions and scene transitions as much as on the atomised level of shot transitions. From D.W. Griffith onwards, filmmakers (even the most classical ones) realised that, far from binding a story into some absolutely realistic tightness, alternation between scenes or actions offers incredible elasticity and freedom in relation to strict, narrative time. This is because, when you jump from story block A to story block B, what goes on in block B can stand in for an infinitely small or an infinitely long passage of time back in block A. Once a story is off-screen, eclipsed, shuffled out of view, in some sense its energy, life, reality are gone (even if, by various rhyme and echo effects, it can still haunt its on-screen rival). When we return to it, we may enter at a surprising point; it is the mobile suspension of the parts that constantly renews and animates each individual part. There is another opening scene that plays, in a special way, on the surreal possibilities of alternation – especially, in this case, shot alternation. The start of Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante (1934) demonstrates a particular kind of alternating form: alternation between the parts of a scene that exist in the same time, but are just a bit distant in space. This opening sequence is, at one level, comedic, paying obvious homage to Buster Keaton (compare, for instance, the slow-burn alternation gag that begins College [1927]). One of the crucial modes of encounter and connection in cinema is precisely the gag: a form that, in whatever clever or crude way, joins up people and objects, often on a collision course. Modern film comedy – the work of Jacques Tati and Jerry Lewis, supremely – creates its special atmosphere of suspension and whimsy from deferred gags: there is the build-up, all the careful manoeuvring into position of everything and everybody, but not necessarily the anticipated pay-off or punchline. In its suspending, stretching, or compacting of narrative moves, the gag mode for Vigo functions much as it does for Ruiz, who once declared: “When gags happen all the time in a film, they are just ‘extras’. But I like to work with the moment just before the gag; or make it a very, very long joke, so long that it becomes tragic”.16 The first scene of L’Atalante shows two actions that are basically the same, performed along the same path, but with just a slight delay placed between them – Père Jules (Michel Simon) and his young cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre), walk the path to the boat; the wedding entourage for Jean (Jean Dasté) and Juliette (Dita Parlo) trace that same path. In the alternation of these two performances, the comparative time scale goes completely to hell. What takes a short time on the first go-around takes an enormously longer

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time on the second pass. Alongside the expansions of time, there are also sudden contractions, as when the cabin boy picks a garland of flowers, or Jean does a quick change into his boat wear. Vigo is among the cinema’s greatest poets because, like Erice, he finds an infinite number of differences within the performance of same or similar gestures. So much is expressed for us here – not only all the social detail to do with class and cultural difference, but also a myriad of moods in the way that Jean and Juliette walk arm in arm to the boat. At one moment, they are stiff, foolish mannequins or automatons; the next moment, they are proud, sublime, transfigured. When Juliette swings onto the boat, she is an angel in mid-air; when Père Jules swings on, he is a brute, physical presence, a force of nature, his “personal space” literally invaded by his own numerous pets. Like L’Atalante, Leos Carax’s Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1991) poses, at the outset, what Bellour calls “the conjunction of the couple”17 – but fleetingly, just for a prefiguring instant, as Wong might present it. Carax’s style and method suggest a radical combination of Fuller’s dynamic sense of narrative moves and Vigo’s poetic license with time, space and point-of-view. The energy of this introductory scene – in literal terms, the force, speed and direction of its vehicular motions – makes us ponder what it means, as spectators, to enter a film, a text, a fiction. We plunge into Les Amants du Pont-Neuf ambiguously, with a headlong point-of-view that may belong to a character, or just to the film itself. The scene orchestrates four points of interest: two cars, one a cab and the other bearing a couple; plus, out on the streets, what will turn out to be the film’s two central characters, Alex (Denis Lavant) and Michèle (Juliette Binoche). As for the drivers and passengers of the cars, we see only the back of a neck and a hand in one; and we do not see the cab driver at all. Both cars burn in or cruise along and then pass out of the film; they have no further part to play in the action. They take us into the film, but they also deposit us there rudely, with just a fleeting glimpse of Alex in a rearview mirror, matching Michèle’s sudden, magical disappearance in an ellipse (just two of Carax’s many stylistic shock tactics). Rather than a large-scale alternation between separate story-blocks (as in Erice), or a smaller-scale alternation between diverse actions within the same time-space frame (Vigo), some filmmakers explore a spacing-out of elements within the very same scene and its nominal unities: everyone is present, mostly in the same space, but still with a suspension, a tension, and a mystery as to how and when they will connect – if ever. Altman, who has explored every kind of alternation, is one of the true masters and inventors of this third variation. His Three Women (1977)


Mysteries of Cinema

is an explicitly dreamlike film – Altman sketched the plot upon waking up from a dream – and, like many of his works, it draws out the unsettling symbiosis between its key characters (akin to the two brothers in Vincent & Theo [1990]). Like Luis Buñuel or Ingmar Bergman, Altman plots his dreamy psychodramas between moments when characters are eerily twinned and interchangeable, and others when they are brutally revealed as utterly different, alien and other, within conversations that never meet up, exchanges that cannot be negotiated, and situations that go horribly wrong. In Three Women’s second scene, Pinky (Sissy Spacek) waits for her appointment with Millie (Shelley Duvall) at her new job in a care home for the elderly. Altman constantly, even maliciously plays on connection and disconnection, recognition and non-recognition. He uses tiny alternations of action for suspense, that then lead to brusque, embarrassing anti-climaxes. He deploys the space of the set, and objects such as mirrors, to keep all the elements of the scene visible, and to maintain ongoing bits of business – but also to stress the separateness of things, taunting us with the possibility of connection and the agony of disconnection. Altman’s beloved zoom lens both flattens and elasticises the space; and his distinctive practice of cutting between different, elaborate master shots (each one focusing on a specific character) keeps us, perceptually, on the hop. This scene has the unusual, floating, suspended effect – the atmospheric effect of atonal neocubism – so characteristic of his work.

Money (A Synthetic Example) Just over an hour into L’a rgent, a sudden burst of bright whiteness – the view of Yvon (Christian Patey), looking at toys in a shop window – introduces an unexpected turn in the narrative and its mood. A character identified in the credits only as the “grey haired woman” (Sylvie Van den Elsen) walks by, and an almost imperceptible glance passes between them. A few moments later, everything, for the first time in L’a rgent, is green and natural: the woman steps over a little footbridge in a field on her way home, and the tiny, babbling brook below her fills the soundtrack with a nearly supernatural omnipresence. In the distance of the deep focus frame, Yvon trails behind. The woman unlocks her door, looks off (presumably at Yvon) and goes inside. Cut to Yvon, pausing at the bridge, and turning back. Then an ellipse to the woman later that evening, her dog growling with menace as she prepares a meal. Yvon simply lets himself in through

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the kitchen door and, at the woman’s invitation, sits down: “I’m hungry”, he announces, “but I can do without supper”. Mystery is a watchword in the cinema of Robert Bresson, but this relationship between Yvon and his benefactor is the most mysterious he ever portrayed in his entire career. Little is spoken between these characters, and not much more is shown about the nature and extent of their mutual understandings. From that first sidewalk glance, the woman seems to realise that she has a murderer on her hands. Her submission to him is all at once masochistic, spiritual and sexual in its impulse – not to mention, eventually suicidal. Is this grey-haired lady a Viridiana-figure doomed by her own foolish code of misplaced goodness, or a saint who brings momentary grace to a damned soul with her all-inclusive creed: “If I were God, I’d forgive the whole world”? As for Yvon, what is he by this stage of his pitiful, harrowing journey – an alienated madman, a cold manipulator, or a sad victim in desperate search of his own, lost innocence? Philippe Arnaud describes Yvon as an exemplary refractory hero of modern French cinema – contradictory, cryptic, unreadable, with a personality as fragmented as the film form that gives him a shadowy, fugitive presence.18 Nothing in the first hour of the film has really prepared us for any of these arresting complications. Bresson’s fans and acolytes (from Paul Schrader to Benoît Jacquot) are used to reading the blank mode of acting in his films, the understated melodrama of the narratives and the economic restraint of the style, as transcendental keys to an exactly opposite realm: a world of passion, spirituality and meaning. L’a rgent, however, comes very close to a purely literal marriage between form and content. This world is meant to be cold and bleak, barren and bare, and most of its inhabitants are unfeeling, amoral automatons. The first hour has a colour scheme to match the prevailing gloom: virtually everything, from suits to walls, is a dirty shade of grey, brown, or green, and there is little to vary or relieve the impressionist murk. Even though the field through which the old woman walks is a modest patch of nature, it is a veritable, verdant paradise in comparison to the forbidding cityscape that has preceded it. The unlovely architecture of shops, courtrooms and prisons is matched by an equally harsh, sonic collage of alarm sirens, passing cars, whirring and clanking machinery (beginning with the auto-bank under the credits). It is a fiercely middle class world of bureaucratic institutions and service industries – the first rest stop for Yvon after his prison release is an ominous Hôtel Moderne. The silent, dispirited bodies of the characters – especially Yvon and his wife Elise (Caroline Lang) – are frequently glimpsed pinned within the lines and bars of doorways and windows.


Mysteries of Cinema

The regal procession of disembodied gestures abstracted in what Gilles Deleuze once described as “any space whatever” no longer carries the suspenseful or erotic energy it did in Pickpocket (1959) or Un Condamné À Mort s’est Échappé (1956); now every movement seems tired, listless, locked in upon itself, merely functional. The film is at its profoundly disconnected in the penultimate sequence of shots, in which a dog ineffectually trails around the dark rooms of the woman’s house, discovering the traces of Yvon’s cold slaughter of most of its occupants. (For a more classical example, compare a shot early in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist [1982] in which a dog’s passage through a house quickly and deftly establishes all the members of a family and their relation to one another.) At another level, a higher logic emerges. In its first, forbidding hour, L’argent resembles – as no other Bresson film so closely does – a Fritz Lang-style mechanism or trap. There is a steely precision to its closed circuit, as the 500 franc note forged by a trio of schoolboys inexorably triggers, step by step, the complete dissolution of Yvon’s life – his gradual loss of job, family, liberty and soul. The film’s title pinpoints its central agent: it is money that animates and corrupts everything in this world, at one point resembling the excremental “filthy lucre” that Norman O. Brown immortalised in his classic 1959 text Life Against Death, as it spits out of another ugly auto-bank.19 Everyone is inevitably caught up in the trap that the omnipotent moneymechanism sets for them – the somber philosopher who shares a cell with Yvon paces, clutches a Marxist tome from the 1960s, and laments: “Money, visible god, what wouldn’t you make us do?” Like an exemplary, Modernist Everyman, Yvon takes the worst of Fate’s malign blows. The film is full of implacable, linking gestures that ensure the efficiency of this poor patsy’s demise – such as the letters from Elise to Yvon in jail, which the camera follows as they are cruelly, publicly passed from hand to hand. In one of the film’s most striking (and most Langian) conjunctions, a single shot shows first the arrival of the van that brings Lucien (Vincent Risterucci), a more willful criminal also bound up in the adventures of the initial counterfeit note, and then the ambulance returning Yvon to captivity after his unsuccessful suicide attempt. In both L’a rgent and Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Bresson interweaves a serendipitous plot from different characters and their distinct trajectories. With each surprising relocation of its narrative thread, L’a rgent threatens momentarily to become the story of Lucien (with his Albert Camus-like code of the acte gratuit, and his swift off-screen demise while daring to escape from jail), or the couple in the photo shop (clumsily scamming as best they can to survive), just as Au hasard Balthazar artfully wavers between

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centring on the donkey, the girl (Anne Wiazemsky as Marie), or the Satanic boy (François Lafarge as Gérard) with leather jacket and transistor radio. Although much of the narrative movement in L’argent is subject to the same, grey laws of determinism that govern its overall mood, there are intriguing, surplus details that Bresson deliberately lets slip from the materialistic mechanism. The camera lingers on a man strolling along, reading a newspaper – his lazy action almost incidentally bringing us to the police who lie in wait for bank robbers. A wide shot invites us to speculate on the quotidian lives and stories that pass through a Metro tunnel before and after the flight of the trio of schoolkids with their grand stash. A touching sidebar in the final act gives us a glimpse into the broken biography of a hardened, old man (Michel Briguet), the grey-haired woman’s father, as he helplessly spills his glass of wine and remembers better days as a piano teacher. An hour in, it is that patch of another green world ushered in by the old woman that gives us the greatest hope for release. This section of L’a rgent builds to one of the simplest yet most poignant passages in any Bresson film – three jump-cut shots of Yvon’s hand collecting hazelnuts from tree leaves, and then the sight of him sharing his bounty with the old woman, as white sheets gently blow in the breeze. This all turns out, somewhat cruelly, to be a temporary reprise from the doom of the modern world: far from being freed from his burden of alienation, Yvon has simply been biding his time and collecting the means to begin his final, bloody campaign of theft and murder – wielding an axe above his benefactor as he asks the spine-tingling question, “Where’s the money?” A friend once expressed his eager anticipation, before seeing L’a rgent, that it would be the “ultimate art house slasher film”. There is something apt in this description because, in its fragmentation and mystery, L’a rgent does indeed strike us as a violent work, certainly Bresson’s most violent alongside Lancelot du Lac (1974). As a film about the making of a murderer by a capitalist society, L’a rgent has an undeniable kinship with movies such as John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990). Inadvertently inaugurating a popular genre, Bresson’s own portrait of a sociopath lays out the founding, primal ambiguities of such a tale – as when it momentarily flirts with conventional psychology by having the old woman ask Yvon, “Why did you kill them? There’s always a motive for murder”, merely to prompt the matter-of-fact, In Cold Blood-type response: “It gave me a thrill”. Bresson mostly disposed of the second half of his source material, Leo Tolstoy’s novella “The Forged Coupon”, in which (according to Richard


Mysteries of Cinema

Linklater) the maligned hero, “after participating in this circle of evil, eventually puts forth a contagion of goodness and redemption”.20 Instead, Bresson offers us a cryptic epilogue in which Yvon gives himself up to the cops at the local tavern – his passionless exit draws stares from a blackened crowd. Like Godard in Soigne ta droite (1987) and Philippe Garrel in L’enfant Secret (1982), Bresson cuts directly from the severe chiaroscuro of this final image to a dark screen – no final credits. The effect is bleak, even apocalyptic; no obvious redemption is anywhere in sight. Yet, if this ending can cause us to weep, that is because Bresson has allowed us to fully enter the same crucible of confusion that Jon Jost (another off-beat, avant-garde chronicler of male killers and monsters) crystallised in a poignant, crucial image of The Bed You Sleep In (1993): the hands of a man who may or may not be a monster cupping water in a stream, and bringing it up to splash his face. We intuit, in this modest cleansing of a self as in the sharing of a few hazelnuts, the profound mystery of beings who move through landscapes of dehumanising violence with their capacities for evil and goodness alike locked, invisible and unknowable, inside them – and we witness fleeting moments of absolute, natural purity in a world all gone to hell.

Community All my examples are from films that are about groups of people, however constituted; films about an experience of intersubjectivity. Some of them may seem to be primarily about couples, but there is usually a larger group, circle or web at stake – like the crew who run the boat in L’Atalante, or the old bum (Klaus-Michael Grüber as Hans) ruling his little kingdom on the bridge in Les amants du Pont-Neuf, or, as in L’argent, a group is constituted in an ever-widening network of connections. In short, there is always some kind of community. Indeed, the philosophical question underlying a great many poetic films is precisely this: what is a human, social community and what can constitute it? What forces form it, and what forces threaten its cohesion, its survival? What is a couple, a family, a gang, a mob, a city, a nation? How can the dispersed, fragmented apparitions we laughably call characters ever hold together long enough within themselves to cement the bonds of exchange, trust and responsibility that ensure any shape or form of community? Films philosophise not only about conceptual abstractions; in the moves, alternations, transactions and circulations they set in play, they

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also endlessly interrogate what it means, and how it goes, to bring people together or hold them apart. In El espíritu de la colmena, at the heart of these questions of community, there is not only political history (the Franco years), but also deeply poetic secrets and mysteries, as well as blind spots: a mobile suspension. Erice uses the structure of large-scale alternation and rigorously, systematically adheres to it for the entire plot. After the long, opening sequence I have discussed, the subsequent structure maintains and respects the separateness of its characters; as Monte Hellman has noted, it is a film about solitude, loneliness and privacy.21 Tsai Ming-liang, equally admired by Hellman, pushes the prolonged, cryptic introduction to the separate members of a family to an even greater extent in He liu (1997), known in English as The River. El espíritu de la colmena does not lock its characters and threads together into a tight narrative; the things that most of the characters do remain a secret to everyone but themselves. Nevertheless, Erice wants us to know that these characters share the same world, the same town and home, the same fictional space. The incredibly careful and detailed topography of the film, with its landmarks and key times of day taken up in elegantly observed patterns of repetition, tells us as much: these people must walk the same paths, see the same objects, pass through that same gateway. What are the lines uniting these characters, drawing them together? The links are, in the first place, physical, material ones. Ana and Isabel watch a film in a hastily converted hall; its dubbed soundtrack reaches Fernando in his study when he opens a window. It is surely a small town: the home is shouting distance from the hall, and Teresa must pass this hall on the way to her front gate. Beyond these spatial and architectural links, Erice uses the cinematic codes of overlapping and layering: the sound of Teresa’s voice placed over shots of Fernando, for instance. His single boldest stroke in editing is the way he deliberately omits, via the alternation, the moment in Frankenstein that most disturbs Ana – the creature’s murder of a young girl. Yet it is precisely this traumatic moment around which the entire, core logic of the film will turn. Erice’s linking techniques amount to much more than a way of drawing thematic contrasts and comparisons between characters (which would be a conventional, novelistic mode). His style shows, in the first place, how every character is caught up in the webs – physical and psychological – spun by every other character. There is a sense in which each character serves to metaphorise aspects of every other one. With the overlaps of voice over image, for example, we wonder for a moment whether Fernando


Mysteries of Cinema

might actually be the lover to whom Teresa writes; we also wonder whether Fernando, in his beehive, is something of a Dr Frankenstein. Erice uses subtly similar sounds that serve, as much as the picture editing, to interrelate and intermesh these characters, settings and actions: the buzzing of the bees, the whirring of the projector and the whizzing of the bicycle on the road are all made to belong to the same family of noises. On its deepest level, the logic that joins these characters is a logic of fantasy; each person, it is suggested, imagines or conjures the other, or at least envelops them in a dream or fantasy projection. Erice is among those filmmakers who richly exploits all the poetic ambiguities of alternation. To Ana, the figure of Fernando and that of Frankenstein will soon, in her recurring nightmares, be equivalent; the absent lover to whom Teresa posts her letter is fleetingly materialised, incarnated (it would appear) in the visage of a soldier on the train. “There are no accidental images nor extraneous scenes”, comments Hellman22 – and this logic of mutual fantasies is behind that. This is a film about spirits – spirits who walk, words and dream-images made flesh. This spirit blows where it will, whipping around like a shapeshifter; it is, variously, the spirit of the father’s beehive; the spirit of Frankenstein that has emerged from a movie screen to enter a girl’s mind; the spirit of war that passes through this humble town, leaving its traces. The spirit is also the angel of death; and the temptation to evil, as well as the temptation to exist. As Jacques Rivette said of Straub and Huillet’s Nicht versöhnt oder Es hilft nur Gewalt herrscht (1965), El espíritu de la colmena ultimately traces or shapes “an unconscious […] whose structure comprises only multiple re-crossings and literal echoes […] the discourse of a space-time where all times and all spaces are collided and compounded”.23 As well, the film embodies an unconscious in action, in motion, in constant displacement and transformation – which belongs to no one in particular, and to everyone at once. Contemplating the compelling, sensual, magical quality of Erice’s film, I recall words written by André Bazin from his notes on Jean Renoir’s underrated American production, The Woman on the Beach (1947). Bazin called it “a strange film, stubborn, sincere, elusive, obscure”24 – like Renoir’s previous The Diary of a Chambermaid (1946), it is “dominated by fantasy”,25 presenting a scenario in which “the hero lives the adventure like a real nightmare”.26 The deliberately sparse plot of The Woman on the Beach concerns a mysterious, triangular relationship between a woman, Peggy (Joan Bennett)

Ball of Fire


and two men, Butler (Charles Bickford) and Scott (Robert Ryan). Butler is blind; in fact, they are all blind, in one way or another. What Bazin speculates about the sexuality and sensuality in it is applicable to many films in which characters, places, times and incidents are linked in a thickly textured, suspended, narrative web: Renoir says he wanted to portray pure sexual attraction, but between which characters? The sensuality is there certainly; but it goes from one character to another like a mysterious ball of fire. We don’t know exactly where it is.27


Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

7. 8. 9. 10. 11.

Louis Aragon, quoted in Marie-Rose Carre, “René Crevel: Surrealism and the Individual”, Yale French Studies, no. 31 (1964), p. 82. Norman O. Brown, Apocalypse and/or Metamorphosis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), p. 3. Peter Gidal, “Technology and Ideology in/through/and Avant-Garde Film – An Instance: Discussion”, in Teresa de Lauretis & Stephen Heath (eds), The Cinematic Apparatus (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 170. Alain Masson, Le Récit au cinéma (Paris: Éditions de l’Étoile, 1994), pp. 17-25. Pier Paolo Pasolini (trans. Ben Lawton & Louise K. Barnett), Heretical Empiricism (Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2005), p. 172. Jean Epstein (trans. Tom Milne), “Bonjour Cinéma and Other Writings”, Afterimage, no. 10 (1981), p. 11. See also Sarah Keller & Jason N. Paul (eds), Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam University Press, 2012). Noël Burch (trans. Tom Milne), “Fritz Lang: German Period”, in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980), p. 591. Raymond Durgnat, Franju (London: Studio Vista, 1967), p. 8. Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, p. 221. Ibid., p. 182. See Raymond Bellour (trans. Inge Pruks & Roxanne Lapidus), The Analysis of Film (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000), pp. 262-277. In later work, Bellour analysed repetition and alternation as mechanisms in experimental film and video; see, for example, “Cinema and …”, Semiotica, Vol. 112 No. 1/2 (1996), pp. 207-229.


Mysteries of Cinema


Jean Narboni, Sylvie Pierre & Jacques Rivette (trans. Tom Milne), “Montage”, in Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), Rivette: Texts and Interview (London: British Film Institute, 1977), p. 71. 13. Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism, p. 211. 14. Janet Bergstrom, “Alternation, Segmentation, Hypnosis: An Interview with Raymond Bellour”, Camera Obscura, no. 3/4 (Summer 1979), p. 79. 15. Narboni, Pierre & Rivette, “Montage”, p. 70. 16. Adrian Martin, “Never One Space: The Cinema of Raúl Ruiz”, Cinema Papers, no. 91 (January 1993), p. 60. 17. Bellour, The Analysis of Film, p. 277. 18. Philippe Arnaud, Les paupières du visible. Écrits de cinéma (Crisnée: Yellow Now, 2001), pp. 219-226. See also Chapter 9, “Refractory Characters, Shards of Time and Space”. 19. Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1988). 20. Richard Linklater, “L’Argent”, in John Boorman & Walter Donohue (eds), Projections 4½ (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 244. For a more detailed and precise comparison of novella and film, see Kent Jones, L’Argent (London: British Film Institute, 1999), pp. 24-34. 21. Monte Hellman, “Víctor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive”, in Boorman & Donohue (eds), Projections 4½, pp. 84-86. 22. Ibid., p. 84. 23. Narboni, Pierre & Rivette, “Montage”, p. 86. 24. André Bazin (trans. W.W. Halsey II & William H. Simon), Jean Renoir (New York: Da Capo Press, 1992), p. 98. 25. Ibid., p. 97. 26. Ibid., p. 99. 27. Ibid.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

12. The Ever-Tested Limit Cinematic Apparitions Abstract This essay explores the notion of cinematic apparition: those moments or sequences in a film that seem to blur the line completely between objective representation and the inner subjectivity of either fictional characters or our own, viewing selves. Setting out from the inspiring example of Surrealist filmmakers and theorists in the 1920s and beyond, the essay examines various types of narrative structures and stylistic approaches that favour and prepare for the emergence of mind-boggling apparitions of various sorts. In this way, crucial links are made between popular horror or thriller genres, and radical, avant-garde experimentation. Films by Brian De Palma, Philippe Garrel, Jean Vigo and Agnès Varda are discussed, and theorists considered include Daniel Percheron, Jacques Brunius and Ronnie Scheib. Keywords: Apparition, dream, narrative, memory, mental imagery

Beguiling too it was to him who struggled in the grip of these sights and sounds, shamelessly awaiting the coming feast and the uttermost surrender. – Thomas Mann, Death in Venice1


The Night Shift

92 minutes into Philippe Garrel’s Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights … (1985) – one of his least seen and most mysterious films – the camera focuses closely on Marie (Mireille Perrier), from the back, as she starts her car and begins to pilot it through Paris traffic. The shot uses only available, natural light (a sign of Garrel’s meager budget as well as his hard-edge aesthetic), so the image is mostly dark; additionally, a shallow focus lens blurs

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH12


Mysteries of Cinema

the background beyond the car windows. The scene begins in silence, but a rendition by Nico and the Blue Orchids of Lou Reed’s classic “All Tomorrow’s Parties” unfussily glides in via a quick fade-up at the ten-second mark. In its own, modest way, the scene is a kinetic carnival: beyond the play of light from outside and the jiggly camera motion created by the car, there are also sudden cuts, split-seconds of blackness, intrusions of other images caught (and not subsequently discarded) as the cinematographer’s finger eased on and off the button, shot-end flares, and a glimpse of clapboard notation. Marie eventually stops the car, fidgets around for a while, and then – seen in the blurry background of the same set-up, decorated and smudged by raindrops on the window – she greets her guy, Gracq (Lou Castel). Over two minutes have already passed in this segment, and Nico has sung two verses. Things become suddenly frenetic. From a new angle (but still through rain-streaked glass), we see Marie and Gracq play their embrace over a second time (cued by an unashamed editing mismatch), much more exuberantly; they spin around, fall in and out of the frame, as the camera tries out a few different focus-pulls. And then an image that is pure melodrama: in a melancholic, creamy composition, presumably viewed through the car’s back window, the camera pulls away as Jacques (Jacques Bonnaffé) runs after it in seeming desperation – although, in any realistic narrative geography, he is in the location Marie left behind at the start of this sequence, not where she arrived. Jacques cannot keep up; he stops in the street and becomes small in the frame as the travelling arrière movement continues. A new set of quick shots while the song plays on: Marie is in a different top, and she is in the passenger’s seat of the car. She lifts her head from her arm at the very start of the shot, a fleeting suggestion that the previous image of Jacques may have been a dream or reverie; but nothing is so certain. A similar cinematic study of her as before ensues – at close range, and shot from the back seat. Her posture and mood are different, but we do not know how exactly, or why. Windscreen wipers dance in the image behind her slumped figure. She glances for a long time off-screen, frame left, and eventually a pan takes us over to the driver’s seat: it is Gracq, wearing his glasses now, and smoking. Pan back to her looking, and the song fades out as the guitar shreds its final chords. We are three minutes in, and silence returns to dominate the soundtrack for well over another minute. The scene flickers out abruptly to make way for its successor: another duet, this time between Jacques and Christa (Anne Wiazemsky) – playing the central characters of the other narrative with which Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights … began, in what is later revealed to be a film-within-the-film.


The Ever-Tested Limit

Who knows what we have seen, and what has been narrated, in these past four minutes? The image of Jacques running after the car seems to have no logical place in the sequence; in the light of it, even the preceding, wild embrace of Marie and Gracq seems forced, like another enacted or projected dream-image. Yet whose projection is it, exactly – a character’s (if so, which one?), or Garrel’s? And all these small but reverberant perturbations find their place in the larger, complicated, somewhat baffling structure of Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights … . Marie and Gracq are themselves only figments, albeit highly material figments, conjured into life by a filmmaker (Garrel, acting as a fictionalised version of himself) in the throes of sorting out his own difficult, intimate relationships. Marie and Gracq are the character names of actors named Marie and Lou – who are not, exactly, Perrier and Castel. Throughout the film, various interactions between the actors and their director seem either ambiguously real or staged. Bonnaffé functions as the alter ego of the auteur Garrel – and yet Garrel himself also appears in the film, on another level entirely, for a series of encounters/discussion with cine-comrades Chantal Akerman and Jacques Doillon (these scenes overlap with a subsequent documentary/diary project, Les ministères de l’a rt [1988]), and as the father of a newborn son, Louis. And lastly, there are five, crucial dream sequences (some of which are recited rather than enacted) that are interwoven throughout, and unannounced as such. Garrel has commented on this structure: We start with a scene where there’s a character who is, let’s say, imaginary (as in “written”, scripted); and then we bifurcate toward the real, or toward the dream […] There are always these three levels – dream, reality, and the imagined – with some points of conjunction between them.2

“There is no linear narration in Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights …”, sums up Garrel. “The same fact can find several equivalents on the screen”. Furthermore, he regards this as a normal vacillation of fiction: “You can’t know it, any more than you can know the precise origin of such a scene when reading a novel.”3 What Raymond Bellour once remarked of Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) thus holds true also for this example from Garrel: “The cinema here recognises itself in its ever-tested limit, so difficult to attain, between interior and exterior, realist image and mental image, perception and hallucination”. 4 * * *


Mysteries of Cinema

Let us consider mental images as gateways: hinges between various levels, states and moods; transformers that can raise a film (even if only momentarily) to a higher plane or power; strangers, interlopers in the house of a fiction, swiftly, uncannily, stealthily rearranging all the furnishings and set spatial relations, raising the dust and disturbing the atmosphere. As depictions of what our conscious and unconscious brains actually do, such mental imagery can be dismissed as simplistic, superficial, or absurdly functional. Who actually dreams, remembers or fancies like that, the way it happens in movies? But, in the best cases, these images and scenes do act like an unconscious, an undertow of drives, impulses and possibilities that set a film soaring off somewhere else. Mental images constitute the first type of cinematic apparition explored in this essay. * * * Mental images in movies – dream sequences, flashbacks, fantasies, hallucinations – can be kind of corny. We know all the clichés, and we have seen them parodied rotten by the Monty Python team or Steve Martin: wavy lines introducing a flashback; characters suddenly sitting bolt upright in modern movies exclaiming, “It was only a dream!”; slow-motion, wishfulfillment fantasy images, drenched in soppy music, of a bird or kite in the sky, or waves pounding the shore; or the screen flushed with dangerous red or burnt out to hot white to convey the state of a protagonist’s emotions. We can think of such images as merely conventional — and hoary conventions, at that. But there is a complicated and diverse history to mental images in cinema, and possibilities within that history that still beckon to artists and theorists alike. Let us take two moments from two ends of cinema history. The first is from Buster Keaton’s silent classic, Our Hospitality (1923). An intertitle informs us about the house that Willie (Keaton) is about to inherit. Then there is a knee-to-head, plan américain frame of Willie, standing still, looking blank in the star’s famous way. This look of Keaton’s can mean many different things in many different situations, but (since there is no gag in sight right now) we suspect that it means he is thinking, dreaming, or remembering; at any rate, that his mind is working. Then the film takes us, through a slow, super-imposed lap-dissolve, to the facade of a grand mansion. And then back, after a while, via another lap-dissolve, to the first shot of Willie. What is remarkable about this sequence of shots (and so many others like it in the annals of silent cinema) is how unforced and open it is. One takes


The Ever-Tested Limit

it, conventionally, as signifying Willie’s mental fantasy about the house he has inherited (the comic pay-off to this comes later, when we see that, in reality, the mansion is a run-down dump). But the pieces or elements of the sequence seem to float, disconnected. The shot of the house looks, for all the world, like an objective, documentary image. The shot of Keaton has no conventional acting or mise en scène indications to tell you that a man is thinking, and that we, with the film, are about to enter his head. If the scene were shot and cut in exactly this way today, it would look surreal, avant-garde, or it would simply be confusing: why are we getting a dissolve to a house between two shots of an inexpressive actor? This apparently primitive sequence must have looked strange and wonderful to some sophisticated folk even back in the 1920s, since Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1928) is full of such odd connections and disconnections achieved via lap-dissolves – as if to satirise a typical melodrama of the period.5 * * * In the annals of 1970s film theory, we read a lot about shifters, verbal or literary indicators of narrative placement, such as pronouns or tenses. Shifters gave rise, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, to a small but international movement dubbed the “new talkies”.6 It explored experimental narrative – neither conventional narrative, nor avant-garde abstraction. The auteur-stars of this movement included Yvonne Rainer, Mark Rappaport, Marguerite Duras and Alexander Kluge. The new talkies were, indeed, very wordy films – particularly in their voice-over texts. These wall-to-wall recitals were wildly shifty: the speaking voice went from I to you to he to she to they; the events it described swung madly in their locution and location from past to present to future. Furthermore, the exact identity or status of this speaker was always in doubt, vacillating: at one moment an omniscient narrator, at another a character in the fiction, at yet another a mere quotation or citation from some unnamed archive of social-cultural texts. It was fashionable and thrilling, for a while, to pluck out examples of this shifty work in independent film and ask pointedly, in the classroom or at the seminar podium: who is speaking here? Or even more tersely: who speaks? The correct answer was usually: everyone and no one, all at once. Strangely, under the verbal and intellectual spell of the new talkie, few thought to ask a logical, supplementary question: who sees? From which head has this image been projected, whose eyes claim it within the purview of


Mysteries of Cinema

their vision? This is a question fundamental to cinema. Vision is as ambiguous in its shifts and nuances as anything spoken or heard on a soundtrack (Garrel certainly agrees), and these images enter into some extraordinarily devious, dancing relations with the natural and contrived ambiguities of sound. * * * In the middle of Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996) there is an intoxicating scene, a self-contained set-piece that runs for about eight minutes. In this embedded plot, an actress working in Paris, Maggie (Maggie Cheung), seems to decide suddenly to become, in real life, the character she currently plays in a movie – the silent movie vamp, Irma Vep (anagram for vampire). So she stages her own, private adventure in the hotel where she is staying. She steals jewelry from a nearby room while its occupant, a naked woman (Arsinée Khanjian), is handily distracted by a phone argument with a lover. The scene is like no other in the film: it has a heightened, intensely dreamlike style; it exhibits signs of metamorphosing into a suspense-thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma style (complete with cruising, point-of-view shots zeroing in on the desired jewels); and is accompanied at the beginning by the driving, post-punk music of Sonic Youth. The set-piece ends with the ghostly apparition of Cheung, outside on a hotel landing in the rain, throwing the stolen jewels (in slow motion) into a dark abyss. This nocturnal robbery scene received more public comment of an adverse nature than any other part of the film. It is puzzling or disconcerting in terms of conventional, narrative protocols and expectations because it comes completely from left field. What happens within it is never mentioned again in the rest of the plot. There are no repercussions, there is no follow-up and no pay-off – no hotel detectives, no disgruntled burglary victim, no further glimpse into the naked stranger’s private life. Reviewers testily asked: is it a dream sequence, a reverie, or an actual adventure? There are internal clues that it may be a fantasy, but no verification of this thesis. A more radical doubt lurks as to the fundamental “reality status” of this incident: does it even truly happen within the fictional world of the film, its otherwise reasonably stable and rationally well-behaved diegesis? The thrill of this scene, for those who are open to its charm, is precisely its mystery and undecidability. Jonathan Rosenbaum evokes it well: the scene enacts itself as a “terminal boundary”, an unbidden event in which Irma Vep, as it were, falls asleep and starts dreaming itself – borrowing, rearranging and transforming its fictional elements in unusual combinations


The Ever-Tested Limit

that comprise the narrative’s “unconscious”.7 Many great or notable films – whether overtly oneiric or not – work and play in exactly this fashion. * * * There is a shot in De Palma’s Sisters (1973) that few viewers seem to retain in their memories, even moments after the film has finished. It is so incomprehensible and unreadable – mindboggling and thus terrifying precisely because of this fundamental illegibility – that people (myself included) seem to block or censor it almost as soon as it appears. I have stared at it repeatedly since my first viewing, frozen and broken it down on my VCR, and still cannot make out, can barely hypothesise what is going on in it. It arrives at the high point of a dream-cum-hallucination sequence that presents itself as the feverish culmination, even a grand parody, of every sequence of this type in 1960s cinema – from the f ilms of Buñuel, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roman Polanski to their most vulgar and degraded imitations. The sequence unfolds in black and white, uses grotesquely distorted, fish-eye lens compositions, booms with echoing, overlapping voices speaking nonsense, and is replete with grinning faces staring into the camera – and even a Fellini-esque assortment of nuns dancing through the background of a frame. De Palma is doubtless nailing the coffin of what was already, by 1973, a stale repertoire of pictorial and dramatic strategies to signify the onset of a mental image – reverie, hallucination, memory, or nightmare. But he also has a serious agenda, to destroy every conventional certainty related to narrative point-of-view. We enter this phantasmagoria through the drugged consciousness of one character (helpless journalist Grace [Jennifer Salt]) but are swiftly shunted onto what appears to be the mental track of another (sinister doctor Emil [William Finley]). Furthermore, in a microcosm of the entire plot, we observe the disastrously euphoric effects of an uncontrollable transference in subjectivity between Danielle (Margot Kidder) and her Siamese twin, Dominique. Then, as if to add one more layer of displacement, a further shifter to this dizzy series, De Palma gives us a piece of this sequence on a screen within the screen, at an odd angle, framed in darkness. In front of this screen is the silhouette of an unidentif iable, Mabuse-like manipulator, perhaps twiddling the buttons in some editing suite of the collective unconscious. This is the supreme moment of disorientation. Who, where, what is this person, who resembles no one previously glimpsed? The film is fast racing to its dead end, scattering narrative pieces everywhere or cancelling them


Mysteries of Cinema

abruptly via amnesia or death – so, in fact, we will never get the answers to these questions. * * * Comparable mystery is an opening gambit in another De Palma film, Mission: Impossible (1996). We witness almost an entire, heroic crew bumped off in the streets of Prague – a narrative shock akin to the disposal of Marion (Janet Leigh) not far into Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). So Ethan (Tom Cruise) goes into investigative mode to find out the real, behind-the-scene story. Phelps (Jon Voight) shows up out of nowhere and starts to recount to a startled and by now quite paranoid Ethan what happened on that fatal night in Prague. Images we have not seen before flash up on the screen to illustrate the account. Very soon, we realise that these operatic, gruesome sights are completely at variance with the words Phelps is saying; they illustrate an exactly opposite text. The images are too souped-up, too intense to be a simple, objective flashback inserted by the filmmakers. They are most likely mental images. But who (as an Australian would say) is chucking this mental? Is it Phelps, sadistically replaying in his mind the secret truth he is not telling? Is it Ethan, practicing a bit of what Salvador Dalí once called paranoiac criticism – speculating, projecting, imagining the worst possible scenario? Or is the entire insert a vast, audiovisual ploy, an extravagant, left-of-field, red herring of the sort that fans have come to enthusiastically expect from De Palma? Or, more profoundly, is it a gesture that launches a philosophical inquiry into appearances and essences, phantasms and visions, equally characteristic of this director – the world as dream (Obsession [1976), Body Double [1984]) or nightmare (Casualties of War [1989], Raising Cain [1992])?


Mad Laughter

Cinema is the art of surprise and disorientation, the art that creates constant confusion. We should often be reminded that every cut is potentially a chaotic moment, a leap into the abyss – suddenly a new image, a shift in the camera’s view, a change in the landscape, a leap or gap in space or time, forward or backward. Where the hell are we? This is a key theme for Raúl Ruiz in his Poetics of Cinema book series.8 Daniel Percheron sketched a theory covering at least three popular film genres (comedies, thrillers and horror movies) by concentrating on these prime moments of uncertainty, confusion and chaos.9 The burst of laughter,


The Ever-Tested Limit

the stab of fear, the engulfment of sheer terror: Percheron locates such intense, spectatorial effects in instants in which there is a cut and we do not know, for a moment, what we see and hear. Blurred shots, unrecognisable or indefinite objects, illegible figures, strange and inexplicable intrusions – these, on the formal plane, are what release and secure emotion. This experience is familiar from the horror films of Dario Argento, so often baffling and hard to follow from moment to moment, but no less absorbing for that. Or John Carpenter’s most extreme movies, such as The Fog (1980) and In the Mouth of Madness (1995). Or even Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) and The Lost World (1997), which, at the very pinnacle of mainstream entertainment, regularly reduce scenes down to their elemental principles: an abstract play of light and dark; the unexpected appearance of a dinosaur or human head in the top, bottom or side of frame; words and cries fused into pure sheets of undifferentiated noise; inky-blank darkness or dazzling light in strobe-flicker alternation. Alejandro Amenábar gives this form of horrific minimalism a new elegance in The Others (2001), in which every new angle on the dark mass of Grace (Nicole Kidman) in an ultra-thick, white fog registers as a violent, visual intrusion – in an indistinct realm where bodies can either materialise or dematerialise. Such works recall Thierry Kuntzel’s reverie: Given this point of departure, another film might be imagined: a film in which the initial figure would not find its place in the flow of a narrative, in which the configuration of events contained in the formal matrix would not form a progressive order, in which the spectator/subject would never be reassured. Lyotard’s acinema: within the dominant system of production and consumption, this would be a film of sustained terror.10

Kuntzel is unable to find this ideal film (congruent with Jean-François Lyotard’s cited dream of acinema)11 in toto – a vision realised in the years since only by his former collaborator Philippe Grandrieux in such thoroughly experimental and frequently terrifying works as Sombre (1998)12 – but only glimpses, moments of it in films otherwise constrained by that “dominant system of production and consumption”. Maybe this is exactly why we need to excavate B movies, horror movies, silly comedies and scare-tactic thrillers for moments of delicious disorientation: there, at least, is still an operative norm, a fictional world with characters (no matter how ludicrous or implausible), still a base or pretext out of which surprise and disorientation can emerge. * * *


Mysteries of Cinema

Ruiz asks: why don’t films drive us mad, at every second, with their chronic, constitutive, ubiquitous processes of disorientation? His goal is to make films that could drive us this crazy – and he sometimes succeeds. Ruiz likes to make us nervous, for instance, about the off-screen spaces that we usually take for granted – spaces that we assume will remain well-behaved and static so that, when we return to them, they will be exactly as we last saw them. The undermining of such certainties by Ruiz occurs even within something as simple and basic as the shot/reverse shot pattern, used for showing two people standing near each other and talking. In his La vocation suspendue (1977), the cut back to the listener in one such volley shows him already, calmly, retreating out the door. Or consider one of the cinema’s great sleights-of-hand: people going all still and dreamy-eyed so as to cue their flashback. Long after the Golden Age of Hollywood, film characters manage to do this anytime, anywhere: at a crowded party (Thank God He Met Lizzie, Cherie Nowlan, 1997), at a road stop gas station (Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry [1998]), during sex (Stella Does Tricks, Coky Giedroyc, 1996). These flashbacks can even happen in the middle of a shot/reverse shot conversation: Harmonica (Charles Bronson) goes into a long, exquisite flashback in Sergio Leone’s C’era una volta il West (1968) before Frank (Henry Fonda) – in a typically playful, reflexive Leone touch – shakes him out of it with the immortal words: “I wouldn’t take too long thinkin’ about it if I were you”. In Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948), an elaborate, 42-minute flashback covering about fifteen years fits into the present-tense time it takes the anti-hero (Zachary Scott) to light his match. Where do remembering characters go while they remember? For the purposes of a narrative film, they become abstract, ethereal, mere conduits for a mental image. It seems as if the time that passes within the flashback corresponds to the merest moment in real time, like those long, extravagant dreams that (as research suggests) are compacted into a few seconds of deep sleep – or the Joycean, “event-generated” dreams theorised by scientist-mystic Pavel Florensky, whom Ruiz is fond of citing.13 It is as if these characters lose the breath of life and receive it back once the present-track plot switches in. But what if these ghostly characters – their bodies, their stories, their worlds – kept moving and changing while the flashback clocked over? The suddenly absent dreamer or reminiscer, dead to the world, is often a creaky device. As Ruiz’s films show, however, the clunky aspects of narrative cinema – the obvious gaps, the crunching of gears, the contradiction of levels – should also be grasped as engaging effects in themselves; moreover, they can be turned into productive, eccentric, systematic formal devices.


The Ever-Tested Limit

This is spectacularly the case in John Woo’s Dip huet seung hung (1989), known in English as The Killer, in which the entire, cinematic apparatus of remembrance – frozen faces in close-up, sequences in slow-motion, crucial moments of trauma replayed again and again – becomes a grand, lyrical, quite hallucinatory circuit of displacements and transformations catching each main, male character in the loop of the mental projections emanating from his double or alter ego. * * * Cinema is also the art of another, second major type of apparition: the flash. Years ago, I began to keep a list of mindboggling, spectacular flashes in cinema; things one never expected to see. This type of apparition comes from the left field of perception or a blind spot in the fiction, but it is rarely only wacky and incongruous; rather, at their best, these flash phenomena seem to arise from an unconscious stream of thought, a nagging undertone, an associative line running along parallel to the film’s fiction and its world. Flash apparitions answer to a mad logic, a “hyperlogic”. This is a Surrealist idea, but a Surrealism that stays close to the ground tone of an ordered, rational logic, eating into and feeding off it. Like all canonised classics, Jean Vigo’s Zéro de conduite (1933) needs to have the mothballs periodically shaken off so that people can see it afresh. Here’s a scene: a headmaster talks gravely about his troublesome, young students, on the verge of anarchic rebellion. He gets psychoanalytic about the problem, earnest and intense, muttering with a rising pitch and haste about the kids’ “neuroses and psychoses”. Then, in the very next (nominally continuous) shot, a full-blown expressionism takes over: lit from underneath and shot from above, the headmaster – who happens to be a dwarf – leaps up from his seat, his arms outstretched like a demented Christ, yelling hysterically: “Anything can happen!” It is a superb edit, creating a sudden transition from one plane of solemn reality to its surreal fulfillment in a nearby, fantasy universe. Perhaps the character is dreaming his own divine apotheosis, transfigured by his extravagant show of virile emotion. Or perhaps we have already imagined the true face of this character, only to see that reverie materialised, thanks to a master filmmaker who cannily anticipated (and also stoked) our thoughts. Isn’t that what f ilmmaking is, at this minute, formal level – the anticipation of energy waves, their fulfillment and doubling, saturation and exhaustion? Such apparitions are (as Percheron intuited) apotheoses of terror and/or joy.


Mysteries of Cinema

* * * Comedies are full of moments that mix terror and joy, flash apparitions that boggle the mind. Blake Edwards, in a parody of the Sam Peckinpah action style, milks the apparition gag as often as possible in his comeback Pink Panther films (The Return of the Pink Panther [1975], The Pink Panther Strikes Again [1976], Revenge of the Pink Panther [1978]) whenever, during the endless combat scenes between Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) and Cato (Burt Kwouk), he abruptly switches to slow motion for especially cataclysmic conclusions. A more surprising and inventive example of flash apparitions in comedy is offered by a scene in Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971). It records the immediate aftermath of a callous aristocrat, Henry (Walter Matthau), being informed that his store of money has finally run out. The sinking-in of this realisation is played out in a four-minute montage dripping with ironic excess. Henry stumbles out into the main street, drives past the establishments he once used to frequent (literally saying “goodbye” to them), and pops in for a last look at his favourite tailor, restaurant, hotel and riding stables, before returning to his soon-to-vanish apartment with its tasteful painting and sculpture acquisitions. Throughout, the music is a syrupy, string theme complete with a choir and trilling flutes battling for supremacy against actual, souped-up birdsong. It is a further sonic element that really leaps out and explodes in one’s ear (an aural apparition?): in perfect redundancy, Matthau’s voice booms with post-synchronised gravity, several times throughout the sequence: “I’m poor” – a hilariously overdetermined effect equivalent to those Warner Bros. cartoon characters who suddenly produce little printed signs from behind their backs to let us know the exact nature of their predicament. * * * Because cinema is an art of energies, it also utterly depends on timing. Timing is more a showbiz concept than a theoretical one; in academic work, we learn a great deal about philosophies of time and temporality, about time-images and duration, but rarely about actual timing. Yet we all recognise, instinctively or practically, that the split-second timing of apparitions is fundamental to their force. This is as much the case in the bursts of cartoon figuration amidst streams of abstraction in Stan Brakhage’s Murder Psalm (1980) as in a Mad Max movie.

The Ever-Tested Limit


Wes Craven explains his approach to editing: “The essence of good editing is beating the shit out of the material. Just keep cutting it, and cutting it, and cutting it until it works, and never stop trying different solutions”.14 He radically experiments during editing with moving around the order of scenes, regardless of what this might do to their strict plot logic; this is evident in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and Shocker (1989). Unsurprisingly, Craven’s films are full of ambiguous passages of mental imagery. In The Serpent and the Rainbow, the bedeviled hero, Dennis (Bill Pullman), is buried alive. Under muffled noises that come and go, and between brief inserts of the surrounding cemetery grounds, the image-track goes to absolute blackness three times in rapid succession – first for ten seconds, then 22, and finally 20. This void in the image is at once realistic and psychological. It also strikes, with brazen reflexivity, at the heart of the cinematic apparatus: Craven wanted the audience to wonder whether the projector had really broken down. Craven boasted that he found the exact frame on which to end these stretches of black – one frame shorter and the effect would not have been so unnerving, one frame longer and the trick would have lost the crowd.

III Contagion Cinematic apparition is not just a matter, ultimately, of isolated moments of rupture, confusion or poesis, special effects of editing or optical treatments. It can generate entirely new models of narrative construction. As Buñuel’s films show us, what begins as a point of aesthetic transgression (like a shock cut or insert) can slowly expand and extend like a contagion, infecting and destabilising whole plateaux of narrative, character and meaning. This Buñuelian contagion is at work in the films of David Cronenberg and David Lynch. What begins as the pristine interiority of a seeming mental image works its way up, out and across, transforming the depicted material world, its objects and bodies, into a responsive, sensual sponge, expanding and contracting under the influence of primal, unconscious forces and fancies. Martin Scorsese – whose cinema would, at first glance, seem to traffic very little in overt dream-apparitions (except, a little cornily and generically, in Cape Fear [1991] and Bringing Out the Dead [1999]) – is a master of such contagion. Playful, surprising moments – such as the sudden vision of May (Winona Ryder) in The Age of Innocence (1993) speaking the text of a letter into-camera, or the contemplative view of sparks fanning out


Mysteries of Cinema

under the body of an impaled man in Bringing Out the Dead, even the haunting, prologue image of the isolated Jake (Robert De Niro), sparring in the ring, that opens Raging Bull (1980) – register as seismic jolts to the entire, textual system of the film: pinpoint, flash moments offering “simple preludes to these magnificent orgies” (Petr Král).15 The King of Comedy (1983) marks Scorsese’s most elaborate exploration of the powers of contagion. Via patchwork scenes that knit real and imaginary spaces together across the shot/reverse shot figure, the film begins to introduce scenes (such as a restaurant meeting between Rupert [Robert De Niro] and Langford [Jerry Lewis]) that slide from naturalism to surrealism – and usually end in mid-air, snatched away with as little subjective grounding at the terminus as at the origin. We go to another level, and find, on returning, that the level we started from has irrevocably changed as well. * * * In Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), Kit (Martin Sheen) and Holly (Sissy Spacek), lovers and killers on the run, drive through a hauntingly beautiful, nocturnal desert landscape. On the soundtrack, Holly remembers the moment, as always, in florid, soap-operatic terms: I felt all kind of things looking at the lights of Cheyenne, but most important I made up my mind to never again tag around with the hell-bent type, no matter how in love with him I was. Finally, I found the strength to tell Kit this. I pointed out that even if we got to the Far North, he still couldn’t make a living.

Even the exact tense of these statements, their narrational status as reflective comments located in some future moment, is weirdly hybrid.16 More perturbing still is the discrepancy between word and image. In the image accompanying this voice-over text, the apparently objective image-record of the past event described, Holly, her head buried vacantly in a map, is paying no attention to Kit at all, nor to the landscape around her. Malick cuts from the end of her narration to a rambling monologue from Kit – apparently unprompted by the content of what Holly has just recounted saying to him – and then to her pointed response: “What? … I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening”. In a matter of seconds, Malick piles up the evident (and comic) discrepancies between what the text says and what the image shows, and offers no ready or foolproof explanation to fill that gap. The film exacerbates


The Ever-Tested Limit

such ever-wavering levels of fit or contradiction between word and image from start to end. Badlands plays, in a particularly cagey way, at the limit of what a nominally realistic voice-over can do. Malick understands well the ambiguity that is at the heart of every classical film that narrates its story, or even only a part of that story, through the combination of flashback, memory-images and voice-over. The spoken words cue an act of subjective reminiscence. Yet, except in the most extreme and experimental cases, the images that then unfold the past do not, and usually cannot, possibly belong to the person who is talking. In many cases, once we are a decent way into a flashback, traditional Hollywood movies may even include major scenes within which the supposed narrator is not even present, and therefore cannot possibly have witnessed in order to tell the tale – John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1945) provides a typical illustration. This can produce an oddly poignant, poetic effect that certain, radical films seize on and take to an extreme. At the violent, high point of the flashback that supposedly generates and constitutes Josef von Sternberg’s The Saga of Anatahan (1953), we hear these lost and lonely words from the narrator (voiced by the director himself): “At all these events that began now, we were not present”. * * * Consider this case study in the fundamental, narrational ambiguity of cinema. We hear a great deal these days about the mythic and therapeutic power of storytelling – telling the story of your life in order to find your self and your way. There has been a fad, in popular-cum-classy literature, for novels that are mosaics of many life-stories, duly adapted for the screen: The Joy Luck Club (1993) and How to Make an American Quilt (1995) contain ritual ceremonies of storytelling, around a mahjong game or a quilting bee, or even the classic campfire. In literature, on the page, this mosaic is easily achieved. It is a simple, direct matter for a novel to be a tapestry of first-person stories: both the tale and the teller, the narrative and the narration, the information and the inflected quality of a personal voice, all can be equally evident at once. It is easy to maintain the impression that each story belongs to its narrator. But in a film, to whom does a story belong? Which character in the fiction can ever lay claim over his or her story? Images can contradict voice-over, and gallop away into their own fuzzy space between subjective and objective realms. The Australian film What I Have Written (1996), adapted


Mysteries of Cinema

by director John Hughes from the novel by John A. Scott, strides into this minefield.17 Even its title does not really work well for a film. In the novel, the literary conceit is perfect. The entire story revolves around a manuscript, a duplicitous document, left by a character, Christopher, who is dying in the hospital. This manuscript begins the book; it is there for you to read, as if it were the actual material object left behind. It sits there as evidence, as fact, as a text. What he has written is what you read. In the filmic adaptation, Hughes keeps the words of this fictive manuscript as a voice-over, and adds images to them – static, sometimes blurred images that eventually, across the film, nudge their way into movement, as in a famous moment from Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962). Where do these images come from? Hughes could have invented a filmic conceit to match Scott’s literary conceit: these could have been, at a stretch, images somehow deposited by the character, Polaroid snapshots or a video document, even a reel of footage. There are many films constructed around such audiovisual documents that are left behind or placed in hiding by fictional characters, documents unveiled at a high moment of drama or revelation, as in Crystal Gazing (1982), Benny’s Video (1992), Friendship’s Death (1990), To vlemma tou Odyssea (1995), Irma Vep, or – a limit-case – The Blair Witch Project (1999). Sometimes, these attempts only go to prove that it is better, finally, to keep such magical audiovisual documents forever veiled, because the moment of revelation can be a letdown, not even half of what you imagined it would or could be. That is why Jacques Rivette keeps a particular, troubling painting almost completely hidden from our gaze for the entire four hours of his film about art and the artistic process, La belle noiseuse (1991). John Hughes does not go down this road in What I Have Written. The words and images appear from nowhere, authorised or claimed by no one. It is not neat but it is intriguing, because it makes us ponder how completely unmoored and unhinged, at a fundamental level, every illustrated voice-over narration in a film really is. The screen narrative thus becomes a paradoxical thing: its images belong neither to the subjective regime of the character telling the story, nor to the objective regime of the filmmaker telling that story from a more distant perspective (as in the classical manner). So, in that light, we are in both spaces at once, the subjective and the objective. * * * There are f ilms that exaggerate this blurry double-effect or strange superimposition, this fuzzy border of subjective/objective levels: films by


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Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet and Ruiz. I will never forget the shock of seeing Duras’s India Song (1975) for the f irst time. From the initial shot after the credits (printed over a setting sun), there are objective, wide-angle views of rooms, objects, framed photos on a piano and decadent people lounging about. We explore this interior space in a relatively conventional manner, passing from “inserts” to a panoramic view of the façade, and back inside the luxuriant rooms. Throughout, a f irst-person narration, a voice, a text that insists heavily on its “I”, seems to take and guide us into this place. Overall, a sense of narrational distance is established and maintained. But suddenly, near the 26 minute point, there is a shot, excessively close, almost barbaric, rupturing in its effect, of the bared breast of Anne-Marie (Delphine Seyrig). Whose eye is seeing this shock image, which consciousness is giving us this cut? The conventional answer would be the Vice-Consul (Michael Lonsdale), who is next given two, lingering shots showing him in a doorway looking, crying and eventually turning away – but his implied point-of-view has deliberately been kicked into the wrong spot for any logical découpage, as has the gaze of two previous men in the scene. From that moment on, India Song is a veritable carnival of shifters: different voices, points-of-view, cues of narrative direction and sense rise and die in a constant, impossible warring. * * * The devious dream sequence also plays with the overlap and discrepancy between objective and subjective. In such sequences, the end-point of a dream is marked – when the dreaming person suddenly wakes up – but the starting-point is suppressed. This narrative trick has moved from the films of Buñuel (such as Tristana [1970]) into the byways of the contemporary horror movie. Cronenberg does it particularly well in his version of The Fly (1986), and makes it the entire generating principle of eXistenZ (1999), in which the dream-state is replaced by virtual-reality immersion. On an even grander scale, the curious, Holocaust comedy Train de vie (Radu Mihăileanu, 1998) hinges wholly upon a suppressed fantasy that is revealed only at the end. The devious game is delightfully played more compactly, and for less disturbing laughs, in a crazy “dreams come true” sequence of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion (1997). As we watch such devious sequences the first time around, we are likely to be bothered by certain, slightly or glaringly unrealistic details. In Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, this is the source of great humour;


Mysteries of Cinema

in The Fly, it is the source of an uncanny dread. Then, re-watching the film, you see how these details were not at all slips or mistakes but, rather, clues to the unreality soon to be revealed. Even more pointedly, the greater challenge becomes working out exactly when the ostensibly real fiction left off and the dream fiction started. On this criterion, the single most audacious use of the devious dream sequence occurs in Mark Peploe’s neglected Afraid of the Dark (1991). * * * In recent years, the devious dream sequence has become one of the key strategies of a particular, even fashionable trend in independent cinema – we could call it prismatic narrative, ushered in by the success of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). A prismatic film narrative is jazzy, fragmented in a large-scale way, playing with different levels of representation. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994), The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995), Mi vida loca (Alison Anders, 1994), The Underneath (Steven Soderbergh, 1994), Living in Oblivion (Tom DiCillo, 1995) and The Funeral (Abel Ferrara, 1996) all belong to this trend, through diverse formal structures: dream sequences, false fictional worlds strategically conjured by a character within the story, shuffled (sometimes backward) chronologies, and the successive presentations of the same event from different players’ viewpoints. These films create a prism effect by turning key plot events and characters around, looking at them from different angles – multiplying the available interpretations, and complicating or making strange our usual comprehension of the workings of linear cause and effect (Tarantino’s specialty). More particularly, when there is an element of deviousness involved – a dream or version of reality that we do not immediately realise is such – these films offer a peculiar pleasure: we encounter the fantasised images of characters and events before being introduced to their diegetic reality. There is the fun or the horror of instant comparison at work here, a double-take effect: we stare at the supposedly real characters, and wonder how far they diverge from their previous, fictional incarnations. This game is handled in a seminal fashion by Resnais’s Providence (1977), for comic effect in Living in Oblivion, and for maximum nightmarishness in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a supremely prismatic film. Involved in the double-take effect is a special sort of confusion: we watch ghostly composites or palimpsests of characters, their fantastic and real manifestations superimposed in a complex, teasing, even magical way. Magic


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is an essential part of Tarantino’s “monkeying around with the structure”, as he likes to describe it: Pulp Fiction offers the child-like thrill of seeing Vincent (John Travolta) seemingly resurrected so that he can have his fine, ultimate moment of exiting the diner. * * * What we receive from these formal and structural experiments can be interpreted (and often is) as an aesthetic analogy for the actual complexity of people’s inner and outer lives, the ambiguity of their motives and actions, and the mutual interference of subjective and objective experiences – a familiar goal of art cinema since Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950). At the delicious point of utmost spectatorial confusion and disorientation, however, something deeper takes place: reality and fantasy change places so quickly before our eyes, and in our heads, that it is no longer a question of judging one against the other, or sorting out, once and for all, the levels of verisimilitude at play. This is a quasi-Deleuzian notion, recalling the cinephile-philosopher’s rumination on a “crystalline system” of images and fictions that would dispense with the need for a category of the imaginary.18 Films seen in this non-imaginary way become not a tense war of various intersubjective and evidential levels, but rather prisms, crystals, or circuits – in which a fiction’s reality encounters not its negation (in dreams, tall tales, false flashbacks, and so on), but its various virtual dimensions, its imaginably or logically possible extensions, inversions and reassemblages, such as in Irma Vep’s jewel theft sequence. Bertrand Blier’s films (such as Mon homme [1997]) offer the pleasure of such dizzy circuitry – with their “hallucinated characters who suddenly assume flesh”, as Serge Toubiana once put it19 – as do particularly convoluted and fanciful mystery-thriller-horror movies that play on mistaken and disguised identity, from Argento and De Palma to John McNaughton’s Wild Things (1998). Some long-running TV sitcoms (from Taxi to Seinfeld) also employ these techniques, when they devote special episodes showing their familiar characters utterly deformed or reformed in veritable parallel universes based less on somebody’s individualised dream than a generalised “what if” speculation. It is a little like the magical gift that the guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) offers George Bailey (James Stewart) in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), when he conjures the cinema of what the world would have been like if its unsung hero had never been born.



Mysteries of Cinema

Out of My Head

Cinema, at many levels, went crazy in the 1960s, and some of the most salutary effects of this madness lasted a long time. Suddenly, in art house and popular movies alike, the conventions governing the presentation of mental images were stripped bare. No more wavy lines, soppy music cues and neat, bookended shots of a thinking or gazing human face – not for awhile, anyway. All bases ensuring immediate comprehension and legibility were scrambled. English-language films from Joseph Losey’s Accident (1966) and Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1967) to Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) used every kind of short-cut imaginable in the depiction of memories and dreams. Images flashed up in all their ambiguity – some of it cleared up later in the plot, retrospectively, as in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica (1994); some remaining for good. The difference in status between a fantasy and a memory was blurred; so, too, the difference between a flashback and that fairly rare commodity (and a true 1960s invention), the flash-forward. In some, extreme cases, the legacy of alternating present and past stories, barely cued to a character’s active recall, leads to an almost avant-garde structure of parallel films or parallel worlds, held in a mobile suspension (as in the Australian comedy, Doin’ Time for Patsy Cline [Chris Kennedy, 1997]).20 The inauguration of this 1960s history can be safely attributed to Resnais and Robbe-Grillet’s L’a nnée dernière à Marienbad (1961). Its narrative, in its successive variations, is purely speculative, a set of experimental possibilities that are like the splintered shards of some lost, coherent plot. Robbe-Grillet took this game even further in his own, subsequent films, such as L’immortelle (1963) and L’homme qui ment (1968), the latter generating devious dream-sequences, flashbacks, waking fantasies, in fact the whole devious works. Resnais himself returned to this turf in Providence. In a prescient essay written on the release of L’a nnée dernière à Marienbad, the merry Surrealist Jacques Brunius wrote that it was a film for which he and his comrades had been waiting all their lives, one that presented the perfect picture of inner, mental processes: how we think, remember, conjure, dream, fantasise – the atemporal flow of all that in our heads, complete with diversions, interruptions and superimpositions. Brunius’s essay is a masterpiece of criticism that seeks to “preserve [the] polyvalent ambiguities”21 of an especially mysterious film marked by “hypnotic fascination […] visual beauty and dignity […] purity of writing”.22 Midway through


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his text, Brunius lists the various interpretative possibilities in play when trying to label the scenes in Resnais’s film: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

Recollections of actual facts. Recollections of dreams or day-dreams. Invention on the spur of the moment. A blend of the three. A possible difference of nature between: (a) scenes illustrating these recollections or inventions, representing the past; and (b) scenes of persuasion representing the present.23

There was something progressive in what Brunius celebrated here – and also something instantly, deadeningly conservative, tame and predictable, at least in the way it came to be repeated and deployed by other, far less creative commentators. Brunius himself narrowed the possibilities in the course of his argument into something infinitely more assimilable than his giddy, five-point plan: “Whatever it is that the Narrator recollects – real facts, imaginings or dreams – the mental process is the same. The film is conceived as a clinical report of such a mental process”.24 The notion that these crazy 1960s films showed what went on inside a person’s head was, f inally, a way of coding their action, constraining their dynamism and ambiguity, anchoring and regulating their unnerving mysteries and sweet confusions. Brunius’s conclusion is still being recycled four decades later, with boring regularity, by critics who acclaim the supposed innovations of Dennis Potter’s TV dramas, such as The Singing Detective, his script for Nicolas Roeg’s Track 29 (1987), or his sole directorial effort in cinema, Secret Friends (1991). How do we get outside these all-encompassing heads containing the myriad of thoughts, these handy, fictitious eyes that see, guide and channel every apparition? * * * The fact is that the loopy, skipping-around f ilms of the 1960s were not always so constrained by the laws and logics of an individual, subjective consciousness. While they often concerned characters who remembered, dreamed and lived particularly vivid, inner, imaginative lives, they were also great, hulking, formal contraptions, veritable time-machines, launched off the springboard of a central, ruminating character in crisis. From the trippy, psychedelic films of that bygone era to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), from the work of Nagisa Oshima


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early (Gishiki, 1971) to late (Gohatto, 2000), and taking in the uneven career of Roeg (Walkabout [1971], Don’t Look Now [1973], Bad Timing [1980], Eureka [1983]), the cinema shuttles back and forth on these corroded rails of subjectivity. Dream-like films certainly, but not “dream films” in any uncomplicated sense, because their journeys are tense and fraught, rather than simply dreamy. The anguish they can sometimes generate comes from the tension between their levels, this friction of gears between a scary, shattered world, and the splintered consciousness that tries in vain to apprehend and re-compose it. * * * For migraine sufferers like myself, movies about head pain carry a special poignancy and power. Headache can serve as an extravagant, expressionist metaphor: supernatural films in which heads start to shake uncontrollably; horror movies in which they explode; sadistic action films in which they are blown off. All those bedeviled by recurring headaches in real life know the melodramatic wish to have their head somehow removed in order to ease the pain. Some of the most haunting images in cinema are of uncontrollably shaking heads: Arthur reborn as Tony (Rock Hudson) strapped to a hospital trolley, his mouth gagged, head and neck going into helpless, hopeless spasms in John Frankenheimer’s Seconds (1966); the wobbling, blurry head of a mysterious visitor in Jacob’s Ladder (1990); the jittery, shuddering, hyper-handheld, close-up portrait shots in Sombre; the head of Fred (Bill Pullman) changing into god-knows-who-or-what, while his body stays fixed and rigid at the wheel of a speeding car, in the thundering finale of Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997); not forgetting, of course, the egghead exploded by energy waves of excessive telekinesis in Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) – a sentimental favourite for my cinephile generation. There is a further resonance to the head-splitting phantasm. It is as if the literal pressure to get outside a head metaphorically expresses a desire to scatter certain perceptions, sensations and visions to the four winds. Lost Highway is the apotheosis of this mini-tradition of head pain movies. Lynch describes its subject not as sex, murder or guilt but, quite simply, “a thinking man in trouble”.25 Fred is in trouble because he thinks too much, holds too much in his head. He does not like video cameras: distrusting all pictorial representation exterior to his senses, he prefers things as he remembers them. Note how insistently, palpably, even lovingly the film renders head injury – bruised, cut, sliced by a table top.


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Lost Highway is literally about getting out of one’s body: swapping one body for another, or merging with somebody else’s. This is enacted in the bizarre plot, with its highly cryptic, multiple identity premise (taken further still in Mulholland Drive), and on every stylistic level. Characters often disappear into utter darkness, magically re-emerging after we assume they might have disappeared for good, absorbed by oblivion. This prompts Nicole Brenez to speculate that the film invites us to “dream together an undifferentiated dream in the hospitality of its night”.26 Imagery of darkness and night naturally makes us ponder the way Lynch pillages or, more creatively, recharges the memory-bank of film noir. Especially the more surreal entries in this tradition: Ulmer’s Detour (1945), in which a femme fatale (Ann Savage as Vera) at one point emerges from sleep to utter the exact, worst nightmare of the anti-hero, Al (Tom Neal); Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), with its manic separation of voices and bodies, stark alternation of blinding light and corrosive dark, and intimations of apocalypse; and Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944) in which (according to Kristin Thompson) the ambiguous markers of an oncoming dream sequence throw the diegetic status of half the movie into severe question.27 As a film that documents a consciousness that, like a plasma, struggles to piece itself together, to find a form and a face, surely Lost Highway’s dearest debt is to the uncanniest, ghostliest, and also tenderest masterpiece of the genre, Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage (1947). Lost Highway also sits in a mini-tradition of contemporary films, a family tree comprising Barton Fink (Joel Coen, 1991), Naked Lunch (Cronenberg, 1991), Providence and Afraid of the Dark. All these are about what is called in Barton Fink the “life of the mind” (“I’ll show you the life of the mind!”: the immortal line of Charlie [John Goodman] as he storms down the hotel corridor blasting his shotgun, his dark energy igniting fires all around him) – individual consciousness at a terminus, about to explode. Or what Ruiz in Le jeu de l’oie (1980) calls “the didactic nightmare”, born from the insomnia of reason and an excess of rationality – “the kind of nightmare that ensues when, through a delirium of literalism, thought becomes flesh and the universe becomes a brain dreaming of thoughts yet unborn”.28 * * * These films are more than the “clinical report of […] a mental process” or the document of a pathology. Below the surface traces of thoughts, memories and fantasies, they are elaborately defensive fictions, wish-fulfillment scenarios marked by self-repression – sundry slips, distortions and bungled cover-ups


Mysteries of Cinema

testifying to a psychic truth too painful to directly encounter. Brunius intuited something along these lines in L’a nnée dernière à Marienbad, as he picked out the hints of a hidden or censored scenario animating its permutations of content and style: “If, as I believe, the relationship between the three main characters is derived from […] an incestuous situation, the mood of artificially stilted emotion becomes not only understandable but fitting and necessary”.29 Lost Highway is, here again, a suitable case for treatment. We may well sense that the entire second half of the film, revolving around a younger protagonist, Pete (Balthazar Getty), is a projective fantasy that responds to and solves every wretched inadequacy of the masculine condition exposed in the first half. The second man is younger, more glamorous; he has no problems getting sex, in fact he is prodigious in this area; he is able to confront the bad guys in violence like an action-movie hero; and he is able to freight the blame onto the generic femme fatale for every awful thing that has happened. If the second half is one vast phantasm of self-absolution for the thinking man in trouble, then even this reassuring dream starts badly, fumblingly – with a severely hurt and misshapen head. The dream finally crumbles away altogether, as the naked Renee (Patricia Arquette) disappears into the darkness uttering the immortal, chilling words: “You’ll never have me” – cueing the plot to start twisting around on itself like an excruciating head pain. * * * Ronnie Scheib once described a corny cue for a modern mental image, evoking the cinematic “zoom or dolly into an object quivering with its montage potential to leap to an ego-defining past”.30 For some films, mental images provide the ground, the reassuring proof, for a particular conception of ego, selfhood and individual identity. Characters integrate themselves through their memories, define themselves through their fantasies, find themselves through their dreams – no matter what confusions, blackouts, or black holes are encountered along the way. This is a model of narrative operative from Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) to Susan Streitfeld’s Female Perversions (1996), via the extended internal dream-plays of Ingmar Bergman and Woody Allen. There are many other films that present us with open-ended, desolate mindscapes, in which mental images peter out and lead nowhere, as in Gishiki, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), or Bergman’s

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Persona (1966); or they lead only to oblivion, self-destruction and death, as in Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (1983), Dead Ringers (1988) and M Butterfly (1993). These are the black, negative inversions of the ego-defining model; the self dissipates, implodes, or blows out. Such inversions are also to be found in a modern tradition of “male melancholic” cinema signed by Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann, James Toback, Ferrara and Scorsese, as well as in the feminist action films of Kathryn Bigelow (especially Blue Steel [1990]).31 Scheib, like Gilles Deleuze, points to a phenomenon of dislocation in cinema since the 1980s: she calls it “images in exile”, in which mental projections float free of the consciousnesses that nominally give rise to them.32 Mental images start to take on an autonomous life; if there is more than one stream, emanating from more than one head, they tend to expand, mutate and cross-fertilise. Individual dreams willy-nilly form collective dreams, or autonomous dream-worlds, as in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solyaris (1972), Lynch’s surreal reveries and Walerian Borowczyk’s erotic fantasias (such as Goto, l’île d’a mour [1968]). Fassbinder titled the final episode of his TV adaptation of the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) “my dream of the dream of Alfred Döblin”; in this “epilogue”, all characters, plot moves and perverse longings animating the entirety of the previous diegesis are reconfigured, recombined and reimagined.


Only Seeing

Even in the most dispersed dream of a dream, however, we will never entirely escape the drama of vision that cinema incessantly stages for us – and who would want to? Cinema depends, for at least part of its power, on moments of character-centred recognition: moments when a truth is revealed (according to those aesthetic powers of showing and telling peculiar to the medium) and someone fictional is there to see and absorb it in our place. Films including Once Upon a Time in America, Arthur Penn’s Four Friends (aka Georgia, 1981) and even Jaco Van Dormael’s Toto le héros (1991) stage such moments in which a horrible or voluptuous truth wells up in someone’s eyes and etches itself onto a brain forever. Maybe, as spectators, we have been anticipating, imagining, conjuring, or even trying to ward off this ultimate apparition (or epiphany) for a long time; if so, the phantasmatic logic of the “other film” (Kuntzel’s term) accompanying the visible film feeds the power of this process.33 Still, at the heart of such high drama, there can be a crucial, generative ambiguity. At moments of revelation, when the main character may just


Mysteries of Cinema

miss or simply overlook the truth flowering before them in the world – and we alone, as viewers, are given this privileged spectacle. The shot of the burning Rosebud sled at the end of Citizen Kane (1941) works this way, as does the painting offhandedly shown by the camera in the final frames of Assayas’s Fin août, début septembre (1998), and the last glimpse of Susan (Diahnne Abbott) in John Cassavetes’ Love Streams (1984) just as she is on the point of being abandoned forever by her vagrant boyfriend, Robert (Cassavetes), by the reckless plot trajectory, and by the film itself. Both modes of cinematic vision – centred and dispersed – thread through a key scene of Michael Powell’s and Emeric Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale (1944). An intense ritual emerges from what starts as a fairly ordinary gathering in a country town hall. We witness an incantation, almost a hypnotic séance. An orator, Culpepper (Eric Portman), tries to evoke for his listeners the ghosts of the past on Chaucer’s road to Canterbury. His silhouette lit up with a halo of light, this chummy storyteller constantly alludes to a primal scene of vision and hearing. “You’re only seeing what their eyes saw”, long ago; and he suggests that, if you lie back and listen, you will hear what they once heard. He asks his audience to dream, and prompts them to do so, seducing them with words and an elementary light show. At least half a dozen details in this remarkable vignette function as cues that we are about to get an interior, mental image – a fantasy, daydream, memory, or outright dream sequence. A young woman in the audience, Alison (Sheila Sim), softens her posture, relaxes, collapses back a little; some I’m-dreaming orchestral music begins; the image of Alison’s face fades almost to black; the eyes of both orator and listener are highlighted, clinching the atmosphere of hypnosis; the latter even closes her eyes, as if drifting away or nodding off. All the while, the orator’s voice becomes dreamier, more poetic and incantatory in tone and rhythm. But the f ilm abruptly takes us all out of this trance; the lecture is over, and everyone goes home. We never get Alison’s mental image, whatever it would have been at that moment; we can only imagine it. Where does it go, this deferred mental image promised, held out, in A Canterbury Tale – this dream of image and sound evoked by the mesmerising storyteller? It never arrives whole and entire in any subsequent scene. At least, not as dreamed by, or attributed to, any one character. Instead, something rather marvellous happens. The mental projection that has been conjured disperses: its echo and traces go on to fill every part of the story and its world; everything and everybody is touched by its aura.


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Characters lie down in the grass, as Culpepper suggested, and they listen; they find themselves journeying on the road to Canterbury; and, almost despite themselves, almost by accident, they end up communicating with the spirits of the past, on hills and in a cathedral. * * * According to the art historian Albert Béguin (as cited by novelist and screenwriter Emmanuel Carrère), the nineteenth century age of Romanticism offered a view of the human person counter to the currents of both eighteenth century psychological realism and 20th century psychoanalysis (“at least in the school of Freudian orthodoxy”). The conscious and the unconscious exchange certain of their contents, but the circuit which composes these dual halves of ourselves is a closed and purely individual one (even if one adds, as second generation Freudians did, the persistence of ancestral images). In opposition to that, the Romantics fully admit that our mysterious lives are in incessant communication with another reality, vaster, anterior and superior to individual existence.34

These days, alas, we are all thinking people in deep trouble. But there are traces of the Romantic outlook – in Surrealist art and thought, popular genres like horror and fantasy, and inspired revivals of archaic theatrical or poetic forms – that endure. The Romantic creed, as it has renewed and fortified itself, is summed up in the potent phrase “life is a dream” – meaning that daily, banal, real life is the true chimera, the merest veil, while the world of our shared, indistinct dreams is the truer and more vital realm. Some movies show us this secret realm surging forth in glimpses and apparitions: Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), the Surrealist favourite Peter Ibbetson (1935), and Tim Burton’s portfolio (Edward Scissorhands [1990], Ed Wood [1995]). Other films such as Lost Highway, Barton Fink and Tarkovsky’s work go further still, conjuring a world that, far from being contained inside an individual or collective consciousness, is itself a great, teeming unconscious. Is this vision of Romantics old and new just an extravagant fantasy, a fond wish, a feverish dream? Perhaps. But the emotions, energies and intensities it prompts in our experience of cinema are indeed real, and they keep taking us to the brink of that ever-tested limit. 

(1997 / 2001)


Mysteries of Cinema

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

9. 10. 11. 12.

13. 14. 15.

Thomas Mann (trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter), Death In Venice (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), pp. 71-72. Although perfect for my purpose here, this translation from the German happens to be far from exact. Vinzenz Hediger (personal correspondence) suggests this alternative: “But everything permeated and dominated the deep, beguiling sound of the flute. Did it not also lure him, the reluctant witness, with shameless insistence, to join in the feast and the excess of the utmost sacrifice?” Philippe Garrel and Thomas Lescure, Une caméra à la place du cœur (Aix en Provence: Admiranda/Institut de l’Image, 1992), p. 147. Ibid. Raymond Bellour (trans. Fergus Daly & Adrian Martin), “The Film We Accompany”, Rouge, no. 3 (2004) []. Accessed 13 November 2016. See Raymond Durgnat, “Theory of Theory – and Buñuel the Joker,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 44 No. 1 (1990), pp. 32-44. See October, no. 17 (Summer 1981), a special issue on “The New Talkies”. Jonathan Rosenbaum (1997), “Life Intimidates Art”, reprinted in his collection Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), p. 169. Raúl Ruiz (trans. Brian Holmes & Carlos Morreo), Poetics of Cinema (Paris: Dis Voir, 1995) and Poetics of Cinema 2 (Paris: Dis Voir, 2007); a rough assemblage of the projected third volume (unfinished due to the author’s death in 2011) can be found in Spanish as Poéticas del cine (Santiago: Ediciones Universidad Diego Portales, 2013), pp. 293-440. See Daniel Percheron, “Arrêts sur l’image”, Communications, no. 19 (1972), pp. 195-200; and “Rire au cinéma”, Communications, no. 23 (1975), pp. 190-201. Thierry Kuntzel (trans. Nancy Huston), “The Film-Work, 2”, Camera Obscura, Vol. 2 No. 5 (1980), pp. 24-25. See Jean-François Lyotard (trans. Paisley Livingstone), “Acinema”, Wide Angle, Vol. 2 No. 3 (1978), pp. 52-59. See Adrian Martin, “A Magic Identification with Forms: Philippe Grandrieux in the Night of Artaud”, Image [&] Narrative, Vol. 17 No. 5 (December 2016) [ view/1372]. Accessed 20 March 2017. See Pavel Florensky (trans. Donald Sheehan & Olga Andrejev), Iconostasis (Essex: Oakwood Publications, 1996). Adrian Martin, “Wes – Craving Respectability,” Cinema Papers, no. 70 (1988), p. 15. Quoted in “Contributions to Tex Averian Studies,” in Franklin Rosemont (ed.), Surrealism and its Popular Accomplices (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1980), p. 54.

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16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34.


See Brian Henderson, “Exploring Badlands,” Wide Angle, Vol. 5 No. 4 (1983), pp. 38-51. John A. Scott, What I Have Written (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1993). See Gilles Deleuze (trans. Martin Joughin), “Doubts About the Imaginary”, in his collection Negotiations: 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 62-67. Serge Toubiana, “Tenue de soirée,” Cahiers du cinéma, no. 382 (April 1986), p. 6. The term “mobile suspension” derives from Jean Narboni; see Chapter 11, “Ball of Fire”. Jacques Brunius, “Every Year in Marienbad, or The Discipline of Uncertainty”, Sight and Sound Vol. 31 No. 3 (Summer 1962), p. 153. Ibid., p. 123. Ibid., p. 124. Ibid. David Lynch and Barry Gifford, Lost Highway (London: Faber & Faber, 1997), p. xi. Nicole Brenez (trans. A. Martin), “Incomparable Bodies”, Screening the Past, no. 31 (August 2011) []. Accessed 13 November 2016. Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 162-194. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Placing Movies: The Practice of Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), p. 235. Brunius, “Every Year in Marienbad”, p. 153. Ronnie Scheib, “Images in Exile”, American Film, Vol. 10 No. 5 (March 1985), p. 31. On this trend, see Pam Cook, “Dead Ringers”, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 660 (January 1989), p. 3. Scheib, “Images in Exile”. Kuntzel, “The Film-Work, 2”. Emmanuel Carrère, “La Somnambule et le magnétiseur (quelques images du rêve dans le cinéma fantastique)”, Positif, no. 193 (May 1977), p. 49.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

13. Delirious Enchantment Abstract This essay from 2000 marks an early, pioneering contribution to the study of emotional affect in cinema, and how affects are triggered in viewers by films via the means of formal or stylistic effects and structures. The notions of aesthetic flow and modulation in cinema are proposed. Looking closely at moments from a highly diverse range of films including Michael Mann’s The Insider, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh, Chantal Akerman’s Night and Day, and Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence, the essay studies elements of rhythm, colour, line and shape, music, noise and sound, and how their total interplay cues, creates and moulds emotional responses in the spectator. Theorists considered include Susanne Langer, Richard Dyer, Jean-André Fieschi, Gilberto Perez and Gilles Deleuze. Keywords: Affect, form, style, aesthetics, Richard Dyer

The Red and the White The film has just started. Liquid, twisting graphics are superimposed over shots of plastic bags and hospital dials. The proud words appear, declaring simply: “Un film de Almodóvar”. Credit sequences are always important in Pedro Almodóvar’s work – not just for what they inaugurate and anticipate in the story and world of the film to come, but in themselves, as a gesture, a first sketch of the form, tone and style. His credits are a design object, a graphic event. The shape of the letters, their colour, the speed at which they fade in and out – all this is already expressive, even if we are not sure yet what exactly they are meant to express. The brief opening scene plays itself out and a second scene immediately begins: a domestic glimpse of a mother, Manuela (Cecilia Roth), and her teenage son, Esteban (Eloy Azorín), whose birthday is approaching. It seems we are into the movie now, into its world, past the obligatory threshold of opening credits. This pair of characters starts to eat dinner on their sofa

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH13


Mysteries of Cinema

while discussing the classic black-and-white movie playing on TV: All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), dubbed in Spanish. They discuss the title and its mistranslation. Esteban starts to write in his notepad; we see his hand inscribe todo: all. Then there is a very unusual image, which could be called a point-of-view shot from the notepad: the huge, rather fearsome close-up of a moving nib. We do not see the notepad page again; and we will, in fact, never see all the words that Esteban writes in this moment. Then there is a two-shot of mother and son, during which, suddenly, something mildly shocking occurs. The title of the film – Todo sobre mi madre – appears literally in the middle of this scene; we had probably not noticed that this title had not yet featured in the opening credits. The four words appear down the centre of the image, on a rapid fade-in, dividing the two figures in the frame. The first three words are in red, and the fourth is in white. This is where the film really starts, with this action of the title appearing – because a mysterious transformation has just taken place. Those secret words that the boy was in the process of writing – so ostentatiously hidden from our view by Almodóvar – are taken up, claimed, transmuted by the film itself. We infer, retroactively, that this is what the boy wrote down – “all about my mother”, a title for his short story in progress. His concealed text thus becomes, in this gesture of the main credit, the trigger for the larger, more inclusive dream or testament that is Almodóvar’s own film. I find the way that Almodóvar opens Todo sobre mi madre (1999) so moving – but mysteriously, cryptically so. It is as if he offers a manifesto for his very own brand of total cinema. This would be a cinema in which shapes, colours and the precise timing of credits matter every bit as much as faces, settings, dialogue and dramatic plot happenings – the things we imprecisely but understandably regard as its “literary” elements. The complex of shapes and colours, on the other hand, might be considered the abstract or plastic side of cinema as a pictorial medium. And when that complex is put into motion through time, it is also a matter of the cinema’s affinity with music – music as a language of feeling and form. In a 1953 book called precisely Feeling and Form, the aesthetic philosopher Susanne K. Langer suggests that the essential shapes of music – “forms of growth and of attenuation, flowing and stowing, conflict and resolution, speed, arrest, terrific excitement, calm, or subtle activation and dreamy lapses”1 – are also structures of feeling. Feeling in the abstract, before it is necessarily connected to any specific content of story, words, or characters – and yet it is already powerful feeling. Form or style (call it what you will) affects us in movies. Not surreptitiously, invisibly or subliminally: it grips us explicitly, theatrically. Almodóvar

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does this through colour and design. Other directors go straight for our sensorium using different registers of film language in varying combinations. The Todo sobre mi madre example is relatively subdued. Another kind of emotional, cinema experience comes from the big, set-piece scenes in films by Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, or Michael Mann. In every film by Mann, for instance, I wait for the first signs or cues that the biggest of these big scenes is coming, that it is going to build and explode soon. In Mann’s The Insider (1999), there is a passage so powerful it is almost unbearable. It is the unforgettable scene – a delirious homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) – in which the large mural behind Wigand (Russell Crowe) in his hotel room starts to morph into a living, rotating diorama of his kids, from whom he has become estranged. The central, poignant action of the scene is simply his look at these phantoms who, in every sense, cannot return his look. This film is all about a man who wants, more than anything, for his children to be able to see him (specifically, to see him speaking on TV about the evils of a tobacco corporation) and to acknowledge him with their eyes. You know that the big scene in a Mann film is coming from a few different events of form. The editing pace is going to quicken – maybe just a fraction, perhaps over a series of very ordinary, unspectacular shots at the outset – but this is enough to get our blood pumping, to get our dual senses of anticipation and dread working. Then there is the music, always very sparse, perhaps arhythmic at the start, just textures of sound – that is, before the rhythm kicks in, and a repetitive cycle of chords and motifs starts churning, inexorably building. Alongside all this, the action itself eventually splinters into an alternating montage: into two or three locations, all somehow interconnected, yet painfully, poignantly, maybe tragically held apart, out of contact with one another. These are the two, golden principles of Mann’s style: quicken the scene, and thicken the scene – take it from quiet to noisy, and manufacture a commotion of actions. It is a technique of layering: constantly adding layers and taking them away, dynamically adding and subtracting elements from moment to moment, almost frame to frame. As Wigand has his intensely private vision, and the music reaches a peak of intensity, the editing becomes more frantic. We see the 60 Minutes reporter Bergman (Al Pacino) on his mobile phone, trying to reach Wigand – because Bergman, like us, suspects that he might be about to kill himself – and then we see a hapless hotel concierge at the end of that conversation on another mobile phone, just outside the hotel room’s door. This concierge, duly cajoled, tries to get Wigand’s attention: no response. “Tell him to get on the phone”,


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Bergman says. “I can’t do that”, says the concierge. Bergman gets louder: “Tell him to get on the fucking phone!”. Finally, the concierge snaps, yelling like a good lad: “Sir, he says to… get on the fucking phone!” And then, after all this, Wigand finally moves: he grabs the concierge’s mobile, the music stops completely dead on the soundtrack at that instant of contact, and he slams the door. Cinema does not get any more magnificent than this.

Fireworks In the annals of film criticism and theory, I am drawn back to a challenge proposed by Richard Dyer in his classic 1977 essay, “Entertainment and Utopia”. Dyer stresses that films use two kinds of signs, representational and non-representational – and he adds polemically that “the reading of non-representational signs in the cinema is particularly undeveloped”.2 Under non-representational signs, he includes “colour, texture, movement, rhythm, melody, camerawork”.3 He specifically discusses musicals, but his point covers the entire field of cinema as an expressive medium – since musicals are simply the extreme, exacerbated, ideal form of what most films are: namely, image, sound, music and gesture fused in a dynamic, mobile, time-driven way. It is not as if critics, then or now, altogether neglect to talk about colour, movement and editing. But it is a question of where we place these nonrepresentational signs or figures, how we locate their action and in what particular economy or relation of form and content we put them. Dyer observes that one dominant, essentially classical tradition in film studies “tends to treat the non-representational as a function of the representational, simply a way of bringing out, emphasising, aspects of plot, character, situation”. 4 That can be a simple or a complex procedure: a character’s red car signifies her passion, the tune on the soundtrack is a motif of melancholia, the dark shadows signal foreboding and menace, an actor’s body language expresses his hidden thoughts. That is a very controlled economy of form to content. Another, more modern tradition in film studies goes to the opposite extreme, and stresses the excess of everything – every blast of colour, every extreme physical gesture, every montage scene spilling out of the naturalistic confines of story and situation. This is the return of the non-representational with a vengeance. A line of such thinking on cinema can be traced from Manny Farber’s category of termite art, to Roland Barthes’ essay on “The Third Meaning”

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(and his later, ubiquitously cited theory of studium and punctum in still photography); from Roger Cardinal encouraging an obsessive attention to peripheral detail in the film frame, to Lesley Stern’s writing on Scorsese, in which colour (for example) breaks free of all representational constraint, and overwhelms the spectator.5 Noel King, commenting on this critical history, points to the prevalent drive to “direct our attention away from the centre to the margin, suggesting that the most important thing is likely to reside in unexpected places”.6 Within this alternative tradition of cinema aesthetics, there are excessive films that belong to critics and cult fans: the gloriously messy and wayward films of Edward D. Wood Jr., for instance, where excess oozes out unbidden, uncontrolled by the filmmaker. There are also filmmakers who cultivate excess of all sorts, pushing towards its grandiloquent, usually melodramatic release – filmmakers including Douglas Sirk, John Waters, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Paul Verhoeven, George Kuchar and Almodóvar. I have a problem with the film theory of excess, and it is a simple one. Excessive in relation to what, exactly? The most restricted definition of the term appears in an essay by Kristin Thompson, who proposes that excess occurs in a film when “the physical presence [of a device] retains a perceptual interest beyond its function in the work”.7 (“Device” here denotes any element whatsoever of a film that can be repeated and thus patterned or systematised: a particular kind of camera angle, a use of music, a style of acting, a narrative pattern, etc.). This turns out to be a more subjective definition than intended. “A perceptual interest beyond its function”: how is it to be determined when the mere function of a device runs out, and its juicy, surplus, excessive interest begins? There is a questionable system of value buried in this idea: what is functional has to be dead and boring, whereas what spills over, transgresses or ruptures is to be devoutly desired. In general, theories of cinematic excess are underwritten by routine and sometimes facile assumptions about that phantom beast known as “classical Hollywood realist narrative” – conjured as fundamentally a straitjacketed, rule-bound, mechanical, inert form, bent on functionally delivering stories on a conveyor belt, and little more. It is a fantastically enabling assumption for maverick critics, theorists and viewers alike, because it puts us all on the hunt for the novel, the subversive, the freewheeling. But how many classical films – those real ones that we actually cherish – conform to such middling rules and obediently recycle such an unappealing game plan? This essay is not a polemic in defence of filmic classicism. Rather, I take my cue from Gilberto Perez’s The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium, which refuses to split classical from Modernist achievement in cinema.


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Perez searches for the subtle, multi-layered intricacies of style in supposedly classical works by Buster Keaton, Jean Renoir, or John Ford – revealing their paradoxes, complexities, reflexivities, layerings of viewpoint; as well as the deep coherence of form, feeling and purpose in Modernist masterpieces by Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, going much further than the standard, scattered assertions about these filmmakers’s effects of collage, rupture and Brechtian alienation.8 Discussion of excess in cinema is ultimately a dead end. It captures some aspect of our enjoyment of the spectacular side of the medium; and it rivets our attention in a salutary way to what 1970s theorists rightly called the heterogeneity of the film medium, the multiplicity and materiality of its materials (of image, sound, performance, and so on). But the hunt for excess tends to fragment movies into a random, disorganised bunch of disposable attractions, moments and special effects. Something of the singular, unified spirit, the mood and meaning of great movies is dispersed, stolen away in this effort. There is inevitably a personal dimension to this: I could never get close to the measure of my favourite films by talking about them only as spectacles or carnivals, banquets or fireworks. Similarly, I can never derive much joy from celebrating a film that is supposedly out of control, because the mastery of a medium as technically and artistically complex as film is actually something impressive and laudable whenever it happens – and it happens in the films of Almodóvar or Mann, for example, high priests of fine-grain, aesthetic control. I believe that one of the functions of film criticism – at least some of the time – is to understand what it is that filmmakers actually do, particularly on the level of the defining choices they make.

Moving We are still left with the question of how to discuss the expressive properties of film, its forms and feelings combined. To find a path that does not subordinate style to content, that “treat[s] the non-representational as a function of the representational”; but also does not merely expend the work of style in a sterile show of fireworks. Rather, we must strive to hook style to something, some energy or insight that lives, and comes alive, for us and in us as spectators. We commonly describe emotions in a language of motion – to be moved, transported, taken somewhere. The common, ersatz wisdom of the film industry today obsessively speaks about stories as journeys, with characters

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on arcs of sentimental and moral development. But that is not even half of what can be moved in a film, or what moves us. The journey of a film is not only in its broad, mythic strokes, or its iconic characters. Some films, some characters, do not have to move anywhere at all, or at least not very far, in order to move us deeply; sometimes it is we who move into the film, as it were, towards a realisation, understanding, or feeling – even if the characters themselves precisely never do. The great films do not lose themselves in peripheral, excessive attractions, nor do they go like a lean, mean bullet-train toward some narrative goal that exhausts and empties the work, thus rendering it immediately forgettable and disposable. Rather, everything has to move and mutate in concert – the colours and the characters, the shapes and the themes, the places and the plot. This motion will often seem timeless, suspended, dream-like – all the elements of the film constantly replaying and gathering themselves up in new configurations. But there will be a linear journey of a sort, in the way the film unfolds from start to end: solemn announcements of the journey to come (like the appearance of Almodóvar’s title), unmistakable itineraries posted (a passage through some days and nights, for example), stations along the way, including major stopovers (like that big scene in The Insider). And there will always be an ending that makes us feel, somehow, however mysteriously, that we are different people in our seats at the end than we were when we walked into the theatre at the start. This is part of the ritual enchantment offered by the art of cinema. Gabbeh (1996) by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a great film. It creates what the critic and video artist Jean-André Fieschi referred to in the 1970s as an “imaginary space”, a concept of cinematic form that he attributes to the German master, Friedrich W. Murnau.9 In Murnau’s Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), this imaginary space is constructed from the way that the story, the physical geography and geometry of scenes, and finally the editing patterns, create certain irrational, charged matches or raccords, connections between characters in vastly different places: the look of the heroine up and to the left is met, answered and energised by the corresponding look of Nosferatu, somewhere else altogether, looking down and to the right – as if they are looking at each other, as if their desires meet at this moment, across this cut. The grounding, framing scene of Gabbeh is simply presented, staged and filmed, but it is quickly infused with a touch of magic. It starts with a nomadic couple, an old man and woman (Hossein and Rogheih Moharami), with their gabbeh carpet in a stream. The carpets are woven stories that include representational figures. Then a younger woman (Shagayeh Djodat)


Mysteries of Cinema

appears, as if out of her symbol in the carpet, and her name, too, is Gabbeh; we later come to realise that she is, in fact, the old woman, but in a youthful incarnation. But while this younger woman is present within her own future, she tells her story – and each look she gives beyond the frame, in a particular direction, activates different parts of the tale, different times, different characters, diverse modules of the filmic material. Gabbeh is perfectly simple to watch and follow, but has an astonishingly intricate, complex montage structure of both sight and sound – in fact, the entire 74 minutes of the film encompass one gigantic, large-scale montage sequence, which keeps weaving and reweaving all the elements of its form and content into an eternal present and an imaginary space. It is not quite right to say that the character named Gabbeh grounds, frames and directs the film as a classical, folktale narrator would. In fact, the film constantly escapes her narration, her look and her magical power to invoke an imaginary space – just as it escapes all the characters. The pieces or elements rapidly multiply and begin to join up as if of their own accord. These relations are evident in a brief segment that occurs eighteen minutes in, leading up to the courtship of two central characters. Abbas (Abbas Sayah) – a teacher figure as well as Gabbeh’s uncle in the story – mourns his recently deceased mother. His grieving is cued by the chant-like repetition of the words, “You came late and your beloved is lost”, a proverb associated with this province of Iran. This chant melancholically enchants the whole world for a spell: its birds and flowers, the hands of unseen carpet weavers at work, a field waving restlessly and rhythmically with the wind. Gabbeh is surprised by the intrusion of a shot of Abbas’s hand pointing to a field – a shot that has occurred earlier in the film – and she inserts her gathered flowers into this purely imaginary meeting space, where they are “plucked” by the storyteller without actually appearing in the frame. Everything hinges, in the piecing-together of this fantastically imaginary space, on the direction of looks: Gabbeh seems to see Abbas on screen-left, and an old man with his sparrow on screen-right; she addresses and implores both of them in turn. The sparrow that the old man lets fly, beyond the top of the frame, becomes the sparrow that Abbas pulls into his frame from the screen-left side – except now he can change its colour, with the help of the yellow flowers provided. The whole of Gabbeh proceeds, in this fashion, by associations, echoes, rhymes and repetitions that skip from one level of the film to another, taking on a life, rhythm and energy of their own. The metaphor-making of the film is dizzying and unending, without hierarchy, syncretic: a carpet is like a field, bird song folds into human song, streaming water mimics the action of time.

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Take the sound that the carpet weavers make with their tools, heard in an unadorned state over the opening credits: a rhythmic pattern of three beats and then two. This becomes the musical background for a song layered into the soundtrack. Since Gabbeh is about the capacity to conjure worlds and renew stories, to unpick them and remake them, there are many framing, bracing structures in the montage: not just Gabbeh’s monologue, but also the carpet itself in the water; or Abbas in his classroom; or nature, the environment with its imposing landscapes and scampering animals, its indomitable presence (an image of the field in this sequence is held for a comparatively long time of 30 seconds) and ceaselessly churning action. In this type of supremely poetic cinema, characters, with their drives and goals, quests and journeys, do not always lead the action, or claim it, or fashion it. A person can become just a hand, and any part of the body can become just a colour, a shape, or a piece of fabric. Gabbeh is about the independent, autonomous life of colours as forces in the world, things unto themselves that embody, emit and produce feelings. The teacher magically takes or captures colour from the world to make objects and birds, like a god; but he is also imprinted by this colour, painted like a clown by it, with his comical blue hand. Characters as figures constantly vanish or are dispersed within material flows, more lyrically than violently. Much of the speech in our chosen scene is off-frame, such as the words of wisdom offered by the two little boys at the start, whose lips we do not see moving; such rapid, tripping disjunctions have a Wellesian touch. Words cannot be located or contained; they are more like invocations, chants, or poetic talismans, words to be passed on, danced, sung – words to entrance, possess, enchant. The sound mix or design is technically quite simple – using only a few tracks for direct sound, ambient effects and music – but the way one sound overlays, absorbs and interrupts another (such as when the high-pitched wedding cry of the women starts, suddenly ending the song) creates its own aesthetic logic of sound, separate from but intermeshing with the logic of the images.

Full of Feeling There are films that strike us as being full of feeling – it is everywhere in them, their dominant mood has seeped into every level, part, detail and gesture. It is the films we re-watch many times that most often grab us this way, since we arrive at the point of investing in them, retroactively, everything we have come to know, sense, experience and speculate.


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It also can happen with these very same films that, even on the first time we see them, we apprehend them as already full of feeling, already trembling and pregnant in every part – even though we do not yet know how these fictional characters, their worlds and dilemmas, or the filmic adventures of form, will end up. Each of us would have a different list of films that seemed full of feeling like this from the first moment of their initial viewing: for me, the list includes Todo sobre mi madre, The Age of Innocence (1993), Il gattopardo (1963), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), L’atalante (1934), Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), Vertigo, Once Upon a Time in America (1984) and Days of Heaven (1978). In these films, every scene works as a microcosm, containing not only the mood of the entire work, but also a diagram of its events, its dynamics, its emotional ebbs and flows. Take Todo sobre mi madre again. It is a film of enormous gravity, carrying the emotional weight of the bonds of blood, love, hurt and responsibility, bonds that come to join and unite the characters – over years, across cities (Madrid and Barcelona) crisscrossed by train tracks, through the generations of families. Because no event happens only once, in one place or one time, in this intimate saga, it follows that each scene, each situation, each moment both catches an echo of a previous event, and uncannily forecasts something in the future. There are so many off-screen affairs and deaths in this movie, so many second-degree theatrical performances in so many different modes, so many characters named Esteban, that the whole film comes to swirl all at once, all the time. Almodóvar’s style, the entire, full gesture of his filmic language, pours this entire reservoir of hurting and grieving, connecting and hoping, these ever-constant modes of lived crisis and epiphany into each scene. Recall the sequence in which young Esteban is killed by a passing car on the road: the event is given a preview just a few minutes earlier in plot time, when Esteban frightens his mother while crossing the road, almost getting run over. Far more powerfully, there is a shot of Manuela, holding her umbrella in the middle of the street, as Esteban races off-screen, chasing after the theatre diva, Huma Rojo (Marisa Paredes). As Manuela simply stands there, before anything consequential or tragic has even happened, Almodóvar’s camera tracks back from her, keeping her in the centre of the frame: all the sadness of the loss she is about to experience, for years and years, is already concentrated here, before the melodramatic cries and tears begin. And we feel the same sadness in many of its grave details, like the exceptionally long lap-dissolves that place the enormous, printed face of Huma against the brilliant red of painted walls and the character’s clothes, or situate the cover of Esteban’s fatal notepad against an iconic pattern of theatre lights.

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Gone in 60 Seconds As Gabbeh shows, films affect us for the ways they make non-living things human, and personal things impersonal. In the annals of everyday film criticism, this traffic tends to be a one-way street. It flatters us to think about how everything – every rock, building and book cover – has human significance and is endowed with human expression. We are maniacs for the anthropomorphic. We readily take the cinema as an expressionistic medium because expressionism (broadly understood) takes the inside of people and projects it outward into the external world, spraying it all over the set. According to the expressionist principle, the world is made over and resonates with the souls, hearts and minds of people. I suspect that there is another register of feeling in our contact with the arts (especially film). It is the moment when, in the imaginary experience of viewing, hearing and being absorbed in something unfolding, we pass out of ourselves – just a precious little bit, for a precious little while. We become rivers, pylons, doors, tin cans. And we also join with the flux of the non-representational: the colours, shapes and edits, those gestures of the film itself as a living, breathing, pulsating organism. Emotion is not absent in these unusual rituals of identif ication, transference and introjection – just the conventional signs and tropes of what it is to be human. This is the thrill of abstraction in art. It can be a liberation: humanity, feeling, emotion – these things pass, at last, through us and beyond us. I recognise this idea, this dream, in Gilles Deleuze’s mad categories (from his cinema books) of liquid and gaseous perception, which echo his earlier philosophical ideas of the importance of being a dog, or becoming an ocean – however you can, through thought or drugs or art.10 There is no point in rejecting, wholesale, the contribution of psychoanalysis to film theory; but we do need to experiment on films with a style of psychoanalysis that, rather than tying the category of the imaginary to individual psyches, investigates what Deleuze calls a set or “circuit of exchanges” manifesting itself in “what we see” (and also hear).11 There are many experiments in cinema history in which predominantly character-based narrative films leave off for periods, as if to channel the emotional energy of their fictive worlds through some displacement or detour: the lengthy passages of unpopulated landscapes in Ingmar Bergman’s teen melodrama Sommaren med Monika (1953); the abstract, particlesin-the-void animation that wafts in for minutes at a time in Alain Resnais’s somber L’a mour à mort (1984); Godard in his work of the 1980s and 1990s


Mysteries of Cinema

regularly cutting away from his principal figures to chamber orchestras, stones plunging into pools, or night traffic. In the myths and legends surrounding the classic art cinema of an earlier era, filmmakers such as Antonioni and Yasujirô Ozu are sometimes celebrated for their empty interiors – rooms, corridors, doorways and train stations that stay on the screen before and after the characters have been and gone and played their scenes. This method is sometimes opposed, once more, to that phantom “classical narrative” style, as if Hollywood films are supposedly full of sound, action and fury, while these minimalist, architectural, time-standing-still films are all about emptiness, blankness, negation, degree zero. But it rarely happens exactly that way, because these apparently blank, undramatic films can also be full of feeling. Abstraction can be dramatic because it involves tension. There is no film in the world (not by Andy Warhol, not by anybody) that is not involved with the art and craft of tension and timing, with dynamics. You do not need a story line to have suspense; abstract art in motion is sheer suspense. Cinematic tension and timing are ways of relaying, re-routing, displacing and transforming emotion. That feeling can go through the line of a form, a split second’s flicker or perturbation, a shift in values of light or colour – as much as through a face, a word, or an entirely identified, personalised human action. This is the stated ideal for filmmakers like Raúl Ruiz, Chantal Akerman, Alexander Sokurov and Philippe Garrel, who emphasise the non-human realm: place, environment, the world of objects, architectural lines and containments, spaces for dwelling in or passing through. Their films, if you can feel with and through them, are the furthest thing from cold impersonality. Rewatching Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), we can easily become entranced by its unusual, very 1970s visual language (doubtless due, in large part, to master cinematographer Gordon Willis). Characters in the middle ground, in focus, are regularly blocked and obscured by huge, out-of-focus bits of bodies or gangster suits, in absolutely static set-ups; Coppola never racks focus, like in a slick Steven Spielberg movie, to mimic the volley of dialogue and clarify who is actually speaking, and he rarely reframes the action with slight tilts or pans of the camera. Rather, he loves foregrounds of every kind: up front in the shot, we see windows, ornate glass frames, doorways and archways, tables filled with baroque objects, or eyesore crowds of extras getting in between us and the principal characters. So Coppola turns bodies into objects, and objects into oddly fascinating presences. Commentators tend to associate this device with a certain intellectual distance, a critical perspective installed for the viewer (as is habitually attributed, also, to Douglas Sirk, Max Ophüls, or Fassbinder).

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There is, on the contrary, a ritual, enchanting quality to it: turning the world into a ceremonial theatre or church, burdened with the weight of time and the gravity of repetition. And in this church, the impersonal fixtures – the objects, visual blobs and blurs formed by the figures, dark interiors – all become a part of the show, its mood and meaning. Akerman takes this seemingly impersonal style to an exquisite and ecstatic height of emotional tension. In Nuit et jour (1991) a young woman, Julie (Guilaine Londez), has simultaneous affairs with two guys, Jack (Thomas Langmann) and Joseph (François Négret), both taxi drivers: one drives by night, the other by day. Jack (with whom Julie lives) does not know about the existence of this delicate triangle; Joseph does. It is already, once again, an unreal, almost magical set-up for a modern fairy tale. The characters have a very physical presence and bearing, but, psychologically, they are deliberately weightless, unreal, rather blank and certainly interchangeable, as their J-names immediately indicate. It is a melodramatic situation, but played without melodramatic consequence – in the tradition of Agnès Varda’s pleasantly disconcerting, blithely “amoral” Le bonheur (1965). These characters are marked by a beguiling form of what post-Nietzschean philosophy calls eternal return. They always repeat the same gestures – erotic gestures of love, and everyday gestures like going for a walk, having a shower, or opening the window – in slightly different permutations and combinations. For instance, the movement of Jack’s hand along Julie’s body later becomes Joseph’s hand: Akerman almost always films these gradually revolving repetitions in exactly the same way, from the same camera set-ups, with the same kind of light of day or night, in the same kind of space. Like Coppola, she likes foregrounds and abhors traditional shot/reverse shot arrangements; in their place, she uses her own signature treatments, like the stately, lateral, tracking shot following a moving figure, or the actors laid out in a line, turned frontally to the camera. The intensities and emotions of the story thus become diffused, disseminated, invested everywhere: in the exact quality of dusk light, in the textures of walls and their abutted planes of primary colour; and, above all, in places, bits of places, private or public “spots”, which we always see carved out by the camera in the same formal-architectural way, like painterly tableaux or the Stations of the Cross. This device contains, and artfully conceals for a time, its animating, surprise factor: when something does change – a ritual gesture, a place, a camera angle – it is like a major catastrophe for everyone in the movie, and also for its spectators. A short slice of Nuit et jour, a fragment of a sequence that is gone in less than 60 seconds, is exemplary. It is a reprise of something we have already


Mysteries of Cinema

seen at least half a dozen times: Julie and Jack leave home, she goes one way for a walk, he goes the other way to work – but sometimes it gets played out differently, and therein lies the surprise factor. Here, that factor is especially intense, because something happens that we did not expect at all: Joseph, the other guy she is about to have her ritual rendezvous with, is secretly waiting outside, looking on. Akerman transforms a tiny, simple gesture – Julie and Jack turning to look at each other – into a powerful and mysterious moment of intrigue, sustained over three separate shots. The action is arrested, frozen for several seconds, in stillness and silence. Then there is a shot, quite atypical of Akerman, which is worthy of Scorsese: the camera moves in just a little, from below, on Julie with her familiar Mona Lisa smile. Still frozen, she blinks – what a stupendously timed blink it is! – then turns and clack-clacks away. It is a decisive gesture, but we hardly ever know what Julie has decided, why or when, in this story, even in its final sequence-shot. As in Gabbeh, this is a scene in which everything sings, woven into the sort of musique concrète soundscape characteristic of Akerman: the sound of the buzzer, the slam of the door, the clack of Julie’s shoes. As always, the emotion of the scene is in the layering, mixing, adding, and subtracting. The process of thinning and thickening has a direct, visceral effect of making the fictional world seem dull and heavy, or light and free; even more profoundly, the passage from one arrangement of formal elements to another dissolves the world, or recreates it, or returns us to it with a thud. The music is the main element that effects such dynamic transitions here. The piece by Villa-Lobos, Bachiana Brasileira no 1 (Akerman was to re-use it in A Couch in New York [1996]),12 starts as a low, storm-cloud-gathering rumble under the tense face-off between Julie and Jack. It gains intensity and volume as the sound of Julie’s shoes disappear, fading out in the off-screen distance. The main melodic line for the cello imposes itself as Joseph begins his laterally tracked walk, eyes fixed (presumably) on Jack off-screen. Then, in a truly superb cut, Akerman takes us to a vision of Julie sitting in a café, tracking the approach of Joseph like a camera with the steady, steely movement of her eyes. She is simply sitting there, but it is as if she, and we, are in heaven: music has now replaced all ambient sound and, pictorially, the line of reflected, out-of-focus car lights in the window redraws the spatial reality. It is as if all of this taken together – the music, the lights, the gravity-free zone, her eyes – sweetly draw Joseph into the frame, into a two-shot. This heaven, however, does not and cannot last: the soft toot of a car horn cues the return of ambient sound, and ushers in the ensuing dialogue marked by jealousy and torment.13

Delirious Enchantment


You Came Late and Your Beloved is Lost I began this essay with the impulse to downplay elements of cinema such as acting, character, story, theme – usually assumed as the privileged vessels of emotion – and to look elsewhere, at purely formal, non-representational elements. Like most categorical, schematic distinctions, this one turned out to be false and misleading. Ultimately, it is a waste of time to set abstract against concrete, form against content, signifier against signified. In the films that move us, that take us somewhere in the truest sense, there is no distinction between these levels – only the deepest, inseparable fusion. This is an economy of form and content as equal partners, one to which we are not yet accustomed: every so-called device can absorb and express feeling; can move and transform the impulses and concerns of the film; can carry us, frame by frame, through thick and thin, to some place we have not quite been or seen or heard before. The film is about to end; a sad film, in which things turn out badly. Voluptuously melancholic, a hushed, pained, romantic melodrama full of mutual misunderstandings, missed connections and masochistic stupidities. The world ends, drains away, in the concluding four-minute scene of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. Poor Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis): he came late, and his beloved is lost. Newland is the sad anti-hero, terribly moving, but also difficult and troubling, because he actually does not move, in any sense, much at all: as the film draws to its magisterial ending, Newland takes refuge in cryptic statements of denial, lines like “She never asked me” and “Just say I’m old-fashioned, that should be enough”. A great deal flows in and out of this final scene, much is gathered and dispersed – even those birds that, in the last shot, circle up high and then assemble in a spot on the ground which Newland, obliviously, walks through and disturbs. Most spectacularly, the centrepiece of these four minutes is a theatre of memory. Newland gets to replay in his mind, and at last put right, the moment that, once upon a time, stymied him for the rest of his long and uneventful life. He wished for the Countess Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) to turn around before that Murnau-like boat has passed and, if so, all would be well with the world, and between them as lovers. It did not happen then, and now it happens with tremendous yearning but no joy: Newland looks assaulted, wounded by that harsh, reflected light that causes him to blink, and sends him into fantasy-land with his eyes wide shut. These shots, while encapsulating a character and his destiny, also soar high and far from him; they constitute, like Almodóvar’s apparition of a title, a gesture. Light, flicker, rapid montage, superimposition, a spectator and a vision: this is one of those privileged passages, also gone in less than


Mysteries of Cinema

60 seconds, when cinema, all of a sudden, bears witness to itself, reflecting on its powers of creation and destruction, as if to declare its hand at the dark or light heart of all our fantasy projections. This much constitutes the evident fireworks of the scene. But its force is channeled and amplified by the more seemingly ordinary material on either side of it. Newland’s son, Ted (Robert Sean Leonard), is the sequence’s reality-principle. The only thing he talks about and embodies are facts of place (on the third floor) and time (almost six o’clock) and etiquettes of social reasonableness (she will not understand). Ted is a comfortably dressed, chipper guy; his jaunty walk and movements briskly set up a shot/reverse shot, low/high angle volley. That is his function and his form: to secure an orderly progression of elements and incidents. Newland, on the other hand, walks slowly – in fact, he is almost petrified. For most of the scene, he barely moves more than a couple of feet – essentially in order to sit down. Scorsese has a found a street setting that can centre Newland perfectly in the frame, wrap around him, as if he is a tree rooted to the spot; or perhaps an insect, since we almost always view him here from above. In this setting, once more, bodies become ritual objects, and the non-human is invested with presence. All the sadness of the film flows around Newland in this truncated street space, of which we deliberately see very little. It has a static, solemn, church-like air. All it offers, finally, is a back exit: the passage into off-screen oblivion and anonymity that Newland will duly, gratefully take, as extras walk on by, as Elmer Bernstein’s music concludes, and as the film takes us to the sharply wrenching but also deeply satisfying void of a black and soundless screen for some long seconds – the only place we can bear to be at this moment. The voice-over narration (spoken by Joanne Woodward) is sparse, located only in the scene’s opening moments. Appropriately, it speaks about the mystery, grace and pathos of being moved: “After a little while, he did not regret Ted’s indiscretion. It seemed to take an iron band from his heart to know that, after all, someone had guessed, and pitied. And that it should have been his wife, moved him inexpressibly”. At the very end, for Scorsese, there are only images and sounds, a gesture and a place, and then nothingness: things and feelings that words (even the best chosen words) can no longer express. The duration of the final, long-held, static shot, the closing cadences of the music, the black screen – are these signs of an excess, a melodramatic overflowing? No. They are the signs of artistry and richness, a hyper-saturation of mood, feeling and meaning taken to the point of ecstasy: a delirious enchantment. (2000)

Delirious Enchantment


Notes 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

11. 12. 13.

Susanne K. Langer, Feeling and Form: A Theory of Art (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), p. 27. Richard Dyer, Only Entertainment (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 22. Ibid, p. 18. Ibid, p. 22. Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on Movies (New York: Da Capo, 1998); Roland Barthes (trans. Stephen Heath), Image-Music-Text (Glasgow: Fontana, 1977) and Camera Lucida (London: Flamingo, 1984); Roger Cardinal, “Pausing Over Peripheral Detail”, Framework, no. 30/31 (1986), pp. 112130; Lesley Stern, The Scorsese Connection (London: British Film Institute, 1995). Noel King, “Manny Farber”, Framework, no. 40 (April 1999), p. 13. Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 259. Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988). Jean-André Fieschi (trans. Tom Milne), “F. W. Murnau”, in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980), pp. 706-707. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996); and, with Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988). Gilles Deleuze (trans. Martin Joughin), Negotiations: 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 66. The musical extract used in both films is included on the CD soundtrack of A Couch in New York (BMG France, 74321 370 942, 1996). 2017 note: I later developed this scene analysis, with greater precision, in collaboration with Cristina Álvarez López; see our “Small Moves”, Transit (5 November 2015) []. Accessed 14 November 2016.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

Part V Genre Games

14. Mr Big Gangsters and Power Abstract This 1987 essay examines the genre of the gangster f ilm, with special reference to developments since the 1960s. Its working model of genre theory is expansive, refusing to corral the gangster film within an enclosed definition of its themes, moods, plots and iconography. Rather, the essay’s emphasis is on tracing the representation of social power, in both its individual and collective forms, across diverse, generic settings of action, violence, and intrigue. The cultural figure of the gangster is significant because he embodies a social myth or fantasy: the dream that power can be contained and co-ordinated within a special individual’s body, brain and subjectivity. Examples range from Brian De Palma’s Scarface to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Keywords: Genre, Action, Raymond Durgnat, Robert Warshow, narrative, point-of-view, Brian De Palma

Two Bulletins from the mid 1980s Case One: Ran (1985). In a discussion of the contemporary representation of warfare in cinema, Paul Virilio brackets off this Akira Kurosawa film and its predecessor Kagemusha (1980) from the prevailing dominant trend of “a return to the war propaganda film”. These “studies of medieval Japan” by Kurosawa are proposed as “celebrations” of the “archaeology of chivalry”.1 There is certainly something nostalgic and wistful in Kurosawa’s conjuring of feudal power relations: a note of regret for the loss of that era when the patriarchal Lord or King could wage war, as it were, through his very eyes and with his own body. That is what, initially at least, Kurosawa’s filmic style – those enormous, static landscape vistas rendered in deep focus

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH14


Mysteries of Cinema

– celebrates: the interweaving of a great man’s omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence, each attribute enabling the others. Ran, however, says something more elaborate and disquieting. Its symbolic tie to the present is not only in this looking back to what can no longer be; it also charts, within the terms of its fiction, the gradual and catastrophic move from one mode of warfare to another. Kurosawa systematically haunts and destabilises his initial premise by introducing into the plein air of feudal power the new and disturbing condition of the blind spot, the unseen, the hidden stage upon which history machinates its next move. This game of the blind spot is how, from the start, Kyoami the Fool (Shinosuke Ikehata) taunts the Lear-like hero, Lord Hidetora (Tatuya Nakadai), with his game of making others believe that he senses something moving in the open space of which they are unaware, and thus warning them of its potential. A blind spot is also what the magnificent Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada) exploits to the hilt in her plan of revenge (via the duplicity of her appearance and manner). And a blind spot of another magnitude is at stake in the new regime of war that Hidetora invites upon himself and his world, at the very moment he thinks he is handing his power down to his solely trusted and beloved son – instead of passing it, as in fact is the case, into the arena of treacherous, shifting group alliances. Symbolically, then, the catastrophe (ran) of the title, and the frightening image of ignorance perched precariously at the edge of the abyss with which the film leaves us, is not so much existential (universal and timeless in art cinema’s preferred interpretive mode) as immediately and relevantly political. Watching the film, our terror, in suddenly facing the nuclear age and trying to comprehend the steps that got us here, is registered profoundly, albeit suggestively. Case Two: Mixed Blood (1984). Paul Morrissey’s film – remarkable in many respects – is another that guts primitivist nostalgia with a cold blade of catastrophic escalation. It evokes a believably pure situation of urban warfare: the modern feudalism of gangs and clans in a New York ghetto, well beyond the checks of conventional law and order, complete with a contemporary embodiment – appropriately twisted – of the all-powerful Lord. In the figure of Rita La Punta (Marília Pêra), we have a matriarchal Ms Big – not without precedent (think of Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama [1970]), but exceptionally subversive in the context of 1980s generic, pop cinema. In a sense, the catastrophe that Mixed Blood traces is cool rather than calamitous – more operatively everyday than symbolically millennial. Miscegenation (mixed blood) induces a messy, extreme crisis, but nothing

Mr Big


that cannot be returned to an uneasy equilibrium of murderously functional relations. Catastrophe is inscribed and calculated at every moment in the unpredictable, trigger-edge transactions of this world. Power – pure power, killing capability, the decisive, split-second move – resides within, and is wielded by, individual bodies. This idea of power (which the film celebrates in the sense of conjuring, imagining and playing with it) is embodied most particularly in one character, whose name is his function: Juan the Bullet (Angel David). We can begin to write the cultural history of a certain genre backwards from the amazing Juan the Bullet. For he, as the deposed Mr Big, acts out – in an exaggerated and animalistic way – the once glorious functions of the gangster hero and the urban warlord. Juan the Bullet is who the gangster hero becomes after he has been Brian De Palma’s Scarface (Al Pacino as Tony Montana) in the 1983 remake of that title – now that he has completely “blown out”. Juan is truly the living dead, the symbolic phantom of a genre. That blow out has not been singular but gradual, historical, subject to all manner of revisions, raidings, reversals and nostalgic, wish-fulf illment operations along the line of the genre. This essay is a rhizomatic stab at sketching that history, and at placing the genre and its motifs within a wider cultural question concerning the representation of power in fiction. Let us say, for the moment, with the vivid, ugly image of Juan the Bullet indelibly in our minds, that the figure of the gangster or criminal hero expresses a particular social fantasy, one that takes an enormous number of forms in the collective, social imaginary. It is the fantasy of being able to wage war from, and on the ground of, an individual’s body and its physical senses. This is a fantasy of survival and control; a fantasy created to cope with the changing, dimly comprehensible situation of power in our modern world; a fantasy about the possibility of people having or getting power – or a piece of it – by grounding it, defining it within the operative sphere of the individual. Within the gangster/crime film, this fantasy often situates itself, far from innocently or unknowingly, as exactly that: fantasy, a drive pushed or act committed before reality can step into the scene, as it inevitably does. Juan the Bullet’s arrival reveals and sums up the real, underlying desperation of the gangster hero – desperation rather than the libidinal luxuriance of a pleasure-principle. His motto, now entirely vicious, without any alibi whatsoever, would be that of Howard Hawks’s original Scarface, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), in 1932: “Do it first, do it yourself, and keep doing it”.


Mysteries of Cinema

A Double Game Three details from Roger Corman’s The St Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), as each character is introduced into the film and the omniscient narrator gives us a quick rundown on their origin and destiny. First, a young, orphaned punk is encapsulated thus: “When he was nine years old, his father was murdered. By the time he was 20, he had personally killed every man connected with his father’s death”. Second, another, older gangster is given a rather more somber requiem: “On March 19 1943, while under indictment for income tax evasion, Nitti will use a gun for the last time, to take his own life”. And third, in a key scene, Al Capone (Jason Robards) struts around those seated at a board meeting, conjuring aloud the struggle of gods between himself and Bugs Moran (Ralph Meeker): he simply has to be killed, and pronto. “I don’t think that’s a good business move, boss”, suggests a crony. “Business?’, snaps back Al. “I’m talking about staying alive!” With The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, we are already deep into a post-genre, so-called revisionist phase of crime/gangster movie history. It is an outsize, mythic comic book of a film in which every move, character and event is rendered with obvious and exaggerated iconicity: we have seen, for instance, that heroic strut around the boardroom both before and after 1967, in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond (1960), Hammett (1983), or The Untouchables (1987). The film therefore cuts right to the heart of the genre – to the very reasons why the genre exists and why it fascinates viewers. The gangster genre concerns itself with special, elite, magical individuals – characters whose singularity is marked by highly charged nicknames such as Bugs, Legs, Noodles, Scarface, etc., which replace any trace of a past actual name, and thus a normal identity. It is a truism to note, in this light, that the genre’s principal social myth is that of heroism, individualism and machismo. We know, from classic studies such as Robert Warshow’s essay “The Gangster as Tragic Hero”, that the gangster is a bigger-than-life figure who represents a desire for both absolute success, as well as access to a lost, reckless, anarchistic childishness (i.e., he is another kind of unrepressed Monster from the Id).2 Sociologically, it is commonplace to speculate that, for a mass audience, the gangster represents a particular type of stardom fantasy, a character who plays out what we, as constrained social subjects, cannot – that the gangster stands for and lives out an unbridled pleasureprinciple in true and glorious safety-valve style, letting off transgressive steam until the reality-principle slammer of the “crime doesn’t pay and the fast die young” moral ending comes along, as in the Gun Crazy (1950)

Mr Big


or Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Certain modern gangster films internalise such commentaries, such as John Milius’s Dillinger (1973), and parts of De Palma’s Scarface (Montana yelling at the ritzy restaurant crowd, “You need people like me – the bad guy!”). There is a way of inflecting this standard-model, sociological understanding of the genre that can tie its central, cultural myths more closely to the diagrammatic dynamics of a mass audience’s everyday life. What is at stake in the crime/gangster genre – what it rehearses, negotiates and discusses – is not so much a larger-than-life super-individualism, but rather the very constitution of the category of the individual, and of an individual’s subjectivity. Indeed, one way of conceptualising and mapping the social and cultural history of all cinema’s major genres is to distinguish them in terms of their function in engaging this problematic of subjectivity – and the degree to which they are allowed to deal with this terrain under or over another. A genre, as a form of social thought, is always a hopeful, imaginary slicing – it juggles one thing into view while shuffling out something else that might too obviously or unmanageably contradict it. All the classic Hollywood genres are mutually complementary and evasive in this way; at the very least, each genre gives itself a particular task, a specific, mythic terrain to work over. Whereas, for instance, the musical or the Western concern themselves with the problematics of group dynamics within the social formation, the detective and horror genres are intimately involved with the drama of subjectivity – trembling with Gothic phantasms of an individual’s vision, understanding and experience. As for the gangster film, its concern with individual subjectivity is performative and boastful: think of titles such as I, Mobster (1958) or I, the Jury (1953 and 1982). Rather than assume that an individual’s interior is some sort of pre-social, sacrosanct space, it is useful to think critically about the types of values we learn to place upon the notion of inner life, and the scenarios through which we are asked to think and experience it. All these will be historically determined constructions. The gangster genre is one such construction; it puts into play a particular definition of the individual and his or her subjectivity. Equally, the social action of the genre is not a simple, ideological inculcation of a pre-existing, social standard; rather, it puts on trial, as much as it puts into play, its very premise and definition as a genre. The gangster film is a spectacle with two edges. At one edge, it creates an enormous, imaginary investment in the idea of the individual as a performing body, a body in action, and action as the exercise of control and power (see the bank robbery shot from behind the counter which opens Dillinger).


Mysteries of Cinema

At another edge, it regularly comes around to exploring its own myth of origin by marking from above, as it were, the bloody, brutal limit of the individual body up against everything that is suddenly beyond its control (Scarface provides the most vivid example from the 1980s). So spectators – to put it schematically – are moved through several different subject positions that are contradictorily on display: finding themselves encouraged, at one and the same time, to bring into being and consolidate a sense of self, whilst also experiencing (sometimes painfully) the undermining of that very myth, a complete loss of subjectivity’s support-structures. This loss is laid out, in all its operatic detail, in another “zombie gangster” film, as sad as Mixed Blood is mad, at the phantom end of the genre: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984).3 The gangster film constructs its particular brand of individual for the purpose, above all, of appropriating an available, social understanding of power – what it is, what it does, who has it and how it works. In the face of those social networks of power that, in the 20th century, are increasingly governmental, economic, corporate and technological, the story of the gangster – whenever and wherever it is told – is always nostalgic. The genre posits one, very fragile understanding of power that it would like to believe still exists in the world – namely, that the individual is the seat of power, that power resides within, and is harnessed by, individuals. The widespread acceptance, in everyday life, of the very notion of a “powerful individual” is one of the key social accomplishments of the genre. Historically, the genre tries to counter, on the plane of myth, the prevalent feeling that power is something mysterious and malignant, beyond social subjects, acting upon them, utterly out of their hands. Two other cycles in popular cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, reactive forces to the gangster’s contemporary mythology, can be mentioned here in passing. The first is a cycle of films known as the paranoid thriller, in which a central investigator-hero ends up totally lost, alienated, bewildered, or dead: Sisters (De Palma, 1973), The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974), The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppla, 1974), Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975), Winter Kills (William Richert, 1979) and Blow Out (De Palma, 1981). If individualism is the positive phantasm of power, then paranoia is its negative phantasm: power conceived as total, global, conspiratorial, predetermined, beyond any conceivable, personal intervention at any level. The second reactive trend is the violent, pitiless abjection of the heroic self in graphic horror movies including Dead and Buried (Gary A. Sherman, 1981) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983); a type of blow out which is sometimes curiously revoked by the positing of a new, optimistic threshold of

Mr Big


self beyond the limits of body and brain, as in Douglas Trumbull’s visionary SF melodrama, Brainstorm (1983). Returning to the gangster genre, it is truer and closer to the complex nuances of particular works to say that, within the dual-edged spectacle evoked above, the crime/gangster film weighs up, in the course of its fiction, a number of different ways of conceptualising power and its relation to the individual. There is often a complex schema pitting the pleasure/wish/ fantasy principle of an individual – who is not so much actually powerful as he is believing in his power – against a reality-principle power that has either passed onto another, superior individual (see the last shot of De Palma’s Scarface or the final movement of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club [1984]), or resides in some larger, impersonal body such as an institution (bank, government, corporation). At times, still more mythically, power is in the hands of history itself, the progressive force of the changing times (immortal line of advice offered to Legs Diamond [Ray Danton]: “The world is changing – it’s time you left it”). Whatever the case, the important point is that the switch in the possession of power is no longer simply a hierarchical change (power cannot be handed down or up or along), but a change in the very rules of the power game. Now we are in a better position to understand the resonance of those details cited from The St Valentine’s Day Massacre beyond their vivid, generic, iconographic familiarity. Take, for instance, the motif of revenge, in the narrative form of someone methodically, over years, tracking down the killers of a lover or parent: examples include Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A (1961), François Truffaut’s La mariée était en noir (1968), and Jorge Luis Borges’ story “Emma Zunz”, no doubt a chilling inspiration to many filmmakers for decades; or the rape-revenge cycle of the 1970s and 1980s, including Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave (1984), Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45 (1981) and Andy Anderson’s Positive I.D. (1986). On the plane of myth, nothing could be more alluring to beleaguered, subjected individuals than the idea of being able to map and design the plan of their life so exactly as to impose their will upon all contingencies. These contingencies include time (the initial, primal moment of murder frozen and revisited until it is eradicated, fully answered in the act of revenge); space (the victims are spied upon, their lives and routines calculated precisely in preparation for the deadly intervention); oneself (training in firearms, bodily development, rehearsing fake identities – Legs Diamond leading the way on this curve to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver [1976]); and, finally, other selves (the moment of being able to raise a gun and intone “Say your prayers” … or, as Nick Nolte puts it in Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. [1982], “You’re


Mysteries of Cinema

dead – end of story”). The revenge narrative thus allows the veritable creation of a self (sometimes a monstrous self) as a fully empowered individual, often from quite humble or nondescript beginnings (the transformation of Julie [Jeanne Moreau] from plain Jane to crack killer in La mariée était en noir). In The St Valentine’s Day Massacre, we can also see, summarily, the way in which the genre plays off reality-based conceptions of power (the tax department, like the bank in De Palma’s Scarface, being the ultimate arbiter and wielder of power) against fantasising, egotistical perceptions of power (“I’m talking about staying alive!” – the words “staying alive” being virtually synonymous in our contemporary pop culture with being intensely alive). This play-off becomes particularly dramatic when the matter of survival is at stake. On the one hand, the sense that one is fighting to stay alive can actually increase the individual’s sense that he is special, magical, indestructible, living on incredible wits (Legs Diamond: “The bullet hasn’t been made than can kill me!”; James Cagney as Cody in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat [1949]: “Look, Ma, top of the world!”; the disbelief of the killer [James Remar] in 48 Hrs. that he is actually bleeding and dying). On the other hand, this dialectic of reality and fantasy principles can lead some canny gangsters, by necessity, to adopting other understandings and strategies of power. The individual changing with the game and the rules, by forming alliances or switching sides, disappearing or changing identity: this is the strategy of Max (James Woods) as opposed to the solipsism of Noodles (Robert De Niro) in Once Upon a Time in America.

The Eyes of a Gangster I think it might be a pity […] to abandon completely something that was so exciting in the traditional cinema: this play with the protagonist, the so-called central character, the Hitchcockian-Langian play on the phony central consciousness and all that this allows. 4

The crux of the gangster film as a cinematic genre – the mesh of its specific techniques and stylistics with the terms of the socio-psychological imaginary so far outlined – is in the way it maps the social myths of interiority and of power originating and held within individual bodies onto a central illusionistic structure of fiction film. This involves what Jacques Rivette calls (in the above quotation) the “phony central consciousness” of the hero who is the “so-called central character”.

Mr Big


Why phony, why so-called? The device of a particular sort of main character (in the style of Alfred Hitchcock/Fritz Lang/De Palma/Claude Chabrol/ Dario Argento) can be construed as a wish, a construction analogous to the wish for a hero in the social space. I refer here to the type of main character who coheres, unifies and narrates – who seems to be the one literally in control not only of the fictional world but also of the film itself, its “motor force” (Rivette’s term), driving the film from shot to shot and scene to scene. After all, this character cannot really direct the film – he or she does not even exist outside it, being merely its device – but the illusory suggestion that this is somehow so, somehow happening, can be very strong. When this illusion of the main character as the driving force behind the film occurs successfully, the hero’s consciousness appears as the film’s consciousness; the entire work, in its movement, energy and logic, seems as if funneled through the skull of the main character. This happens not only on the (critically and theoretically overemphasised) level of point-of-view shots, but, just as crucially, at levels of dramaturgy, scene transitions, rhythmic shape and energy flow.5 Through this use of the main character as a driving force, the gangster genre generates a ruse structure – thus tallying with the idea of playing different scenarios and conceptualisations of power against one another. It is a question of again putting into play, and then putting on trial, not the real but the imagined (or imaginary) power of the hero as constituted by and in the film. Both the character and the spectator are seduced into initially believing and accepting the grounds of this power. But then, as so often happens in this genre, the game can turn, ejecting the hero from the narrational driver’s seat and installing a higher power in charge. Up until this turning point, the spectator has usually been given to see, hear and know only what that “phony central consciousness” of the hero has seen, heard and known. But when his subjectivity falls out of the position of enunciation – when it is revealed as precisely phony, lacking, blind, or deluded – he and we (as spectators) are invaded by other images, sounds and crucial pieces of information. The hero loses grip both in the film and of the film. Why is the gangster film so obsessed with the elimination of certain of its characters – enemies or crusading do-gooders? It is apparently never a matter of taking away someone’s power base, as in the scenario of, for instance, swinging boardroom votes in a corporate machination (in Milius’s film, Dillinger [Warren Oates] actually declares while robbing a bank, “This ain’t no board directors’s meeting!”). Part of the nostalgia attending the genre is in its fervent, operative belief in a pre-corporate state of fully constituted,


Mysteries of Cinema

integral selves. For the gangster who makes a move, the Other whom he perceives as having or wielding power is that power incarnate; to “cancel” this person is to immediately cancel a concentrated centre of power. Think of the obsessive drive in De Palma’s Scarface to eliminate an influential reformist, Matos (Carlos Cestero), before he can deliver his public speech to the United Nations – as if what he knows begins and ends with him and in him. (The same mythology – very real in its consequences – filters down to all those sensational documentary segments on TV programmes such as 60 Minutes about people who have told on the mob and now live under conditions of maximum security, for fear of being eliminated at any moment because of “what they know”.) The body is the dynamic centre of the gangster genre, always at stake. It is cast as powerful – all-powerful – in tandem with a proviso that reveals the reverse side of that myth. Consider, for example, a classic piece of gangster iconography, the bodyguard – or rather, a pair of bodyguards, flanking the hero a little way behind, so as to form an iconic triangle of power and energy. The presence of a bodyguard testifies at once to the importance and primacy of the gangster’s body, as well as to the desperate need to watch over and protect it. The function of the twin bodyguards is to extend the hero’s powerful body magically – six pairs of eyes and guns, saturation management of physical space (they are his “shadow”). More disturbingly and precariously, these bodyguards can also be the indices of his fundamental impotence (witness the successive waves of fourteen-year-old bodyguards mowed down by machine gun fire in Mixed Blood), or the ultimate Achilles heel that is his undoing. It is as if, once the gangster’s magical body becomes too big or stretches too far, it becomes uncontrollable, gets out of reach. One of the greatest fears in the fictions of this genre is that the gangster’s principal bodyguard – the most trusted functionary whom he lets get “under his skin”, close to him – will betray or cancel the rules of the contract and take the boss’s power for himself. This is what both Legs Diamond – who speaks of getting “close to Rothstein’s skin” – and Camonte in the original Scarface do on their way to the top. A similar fear surrounds those other extensions of the gangster’s body – flesh of his flesh such as children, brothers, or sisters – which are the potentially exposed limbs, the vulnerable parts of his organism (this is doubly so for law-abiding citizens: think of the massacres of the do-gooder’s family members in films such as The Big Heat [Fritz Lang, 1953] and Underworld U.S.A.). Legs deliberately lets his geriatric brother slip into oblivion, but cannot later so easily hide or dispose of his spouse – when he claims “There’s no one close to me”, his rival replies: “You have a wife”.6

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An indelible scene in De Palma’s Scarface – virtually cartoon-like in its foreshortening of spatial relations and compression of time – speaks volumes about this aspect of the genre. It is the scene of a drug deal in Bolivia that begins with the middleman, Omar (F. Murray Abraham), telling his bodyguard Montana: “I’m doing the talking, you watch my back”. After the negotiation with Sosa (Paul Shenar), who smells a double deal, there is a shot of Omar walking inside, conspicuously uncovered, unprotected – and, as Warshow notes, “no convention of the gangster film is more strongly established than this: it is dangerous to be alone”.7 Accordingly, mere seconds later in both screen time and diegetic time, Omar is seen swinging dead from a helicopter.

Limit of Control A closer discussion of The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond can serve to draw some of these ideas together. The particular genius of Boetticher’s film arises from the way it exaggerates the symbolic, performative function of his gangster hero – Legs’s slick charisma expresses itself not only in action and seduction, but also in the literal performance of being a prize-winning dancer. More than any other film made up to 1960, The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond rigorously and systematically figures, on the level of its filmic style and structure, the metaphor of gangster hero as metteur en scène of the very movie we are watching. He both drives (on the level of energy) and articulates (on the level of logic) the greater part of the film: he is – or appears to be – its consciousness. This occurs, for instance, through Legs’s eyes, in the way his point-of-view shots mesh with the gradually accumulating implications of editing patterns. A point-of-view swish pan near the start takes in Legs’s lateral association of jewels in a shop window, an adjacent theatre, and a sign advertising a dance class. The plot is hatched in this moment: to get a partner for a dance contest, enter a competition at the theatre, make an excuse to get to the toilet, through its window, and into the jewel shop. On the level of the larger scene-articulations that carry the film’s logic, Legs’s consciousness seems to drive the film through the apparent forcing of strong, cause-and-effect transitions – for instance, his declaration “I’m going to Miami!” immediately calls up the subsequent stock shot of the city, as if the film were trailing after him. The transitions in The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond are often strong ellipses, leaps that require the spectator to take a moment or two to figure


Mysteries of Cinema

out the missing item of knowledge that is (as it were) already locked into the character’s controlling consciousness. These ellipses either pivot around an object that is part of Legs’s schemes (a trophy, a necklace, a gun) or jump from the “planting” of a move to its successful completion (a particular treatment of the narrative code that Roland Barthes calls the proairetic).8 Legs is always one step ahead of us in the figuring of the plot, as, for instance, in this sequence of shots: a. Legs behind a prison grill performing his contrition; b. reverse shot of Alice softening, taking pity; lap-dissolve to c. Legs on his knees with outstretched arms – but now (it takes the second until Alice enters frame for us to grasp this) released from jail and dancing in a public hall once more. Many such ellipses function as winks to the spectator that Legs is in complete control of the logic and flow of events. The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond shows us another instance of this mapping or doubling of form in relation to content that is distinctive, in its inflections, to the gangster film. Plot comes to be interdependently exploited in its two senses – the hero’s plot or scheme, and the film’s own, narrative plot. Certain gangster films run the two together until the chosen moment arrives to split them apart, with all the apocalyptic consequences that follow. A film’s own plotting, its pattern of narration, concerns how much information it chooses to convey at any given moment. It thus creates for itself the opportunity to imply that there is a certain sum of knowledge that is not being entirely revealed all at once but, rather, leaked out slowly to the spectator. This allows the film to trace a shifting set of relations between what viewers sense that they do not yet know, and what the film and/or the central character seem to already know. This is a complex game-structure, familiar from the collected works of Lang, Hitchcock and De Palma. Why does Legs fall? According to a scenario familiar in the genre, the times change; in other words, a new power game is installed – a move from individualistic gangsterism to corporate criminality. Three aspects of this shift are worth noting. First, Boetticher underlines the idea that the gangster hero’s grasp on power is conditional on his management of (or omnipresence within) space itself. He does this by marking the beginning of Legs’s fall from the precise moment that he removes himself from his immediate location – by taking a holiday! Far from the USA, he impotently, frustratedly watches the newsreels that herald the arrival of the era of the economic New Deal back home. Second, the film, when it shifts from rise to fall, renders pathetic the means and strategies of Legs’s particular power game. For him, as for the gangster hero generally, power lies in what he has over other individuals – concentrated here in a crucial object, the little book that alone contains

Mr Big


the master index of names, addresses, phone numbers and ledgers of debit and credit. Earlier, Legs has struggled to win control of this document because, once he has it, he possesses all of the people inscribed within it. (This generic icon of the magical book, tape, or piece of film, apparently beyond modern technical reproduction – and thus analogous to the pristine, individual body – structures many fictions, including Cassavetes’ Gloria [1980] and John Carpenter’s Escape from New York [1981]). When Legs waves his little book around in the corporate boardroom near the film’s end, he is curtly informed that his information is outdated and his methods outmoded – such once-precious books can no longer secure power; we might say that the “media” that support such power have changed. Third, the principal theme involves self/other relations and Legs’s fatal misrecognition of the basis of his power. His rise is achieved more through seduction than through the brute force of eliminating opponents. As a seducer, Legs overpowers others while still keeping them alive – but without realising that his game then depends on maintaining that spell. He is as dependent on these others (such as his wife and brother) for the (illusion of) power as they are dependent upon him for (the illusion of) love. We might, in fact, sense these accomplices are fully aware of the illusion and pretence involved – masochists happy and willing to be the victims in an intersubjective game – but it is precisely this contract that Legs ends up failing to honour. When Legs’s ego inflates – when he himself comes to believe the illusion that power is constituted wholly in a self – he lets the seduction slip, promptly losing his power base. His game-plan becomes contradictory, incoherent and counterproductive. In relation to his brother (played by Warren Oates), he is pointedly asked, “Whose bluff were you calling when you let Eddie die?” While he believes his magic lies in his indestructibility (“The bullet hasn’t been made that can kill me!”), his wife reminds him, when he is beyond salvation, “That was the magic – as long as someone loved you, you were OK”. The bitter, final epitaph is thus a pragmatic judgment, not a humanist, tragic one, on Legs as a failed Mr Big: “He never loved anybody; that’s why he’s dead”.

The World is Yours At the time of Scarface’s initial release in 1983, De Palma spoke of wanting to make the audience live through the rise and fall of his main character. Already, from that very premise, he is playing with the process of identification.


Mysteries of Cinema

Pacino’s incarnation of Montana is as far from conventional heroism as possible: no glamour, no romance, no catharsis. De Palma films Warshow’s “The Gangster as Tragic Hero” virtually at its word: there is nothing much to the trajectory of this hero except the pure drive for success, a pyrrhic, material victory displayed most ebulliently after the film’s midway, entr’acte point, when every one of Montana’s dreams (mansion, wife, even a tiger on leash in the garden) is flamboyantly incarnated. Scarface makes a particular intervention in genre history by its total de-eroticisation of the hero’s rise to power. In a film notorious for its use of the word “fuck” on the soundtrack, actual fucking is what is least possible or conceivable within its world. Doubtless what most attracted De Palma to the prospect of remaking Hawks’s film is the bold structure that the original offers: the paradox of having a “dumb animal” (an ethnic outcast and “political refugee” eager to live out the American Dream) in the narrative position of the hero, with all the contradictions this allows. Looking at the remake, for a moment, through the auteur lens of its screenwriter (rather than its director), we can see that Scarface relates to a typical Oliver Stone scenario, wherein both the nominal hero and villain – as interchangeable, mirror figures that occupy the same semantic space in the overall structure – exist as characters who are “too much”. They burn out at the climax of their rise, becoming the sacrificial scapegoats of both the system (which they help regulate until they can no longer be contained within it) and a society of hungry spectators. Hence, the hero and/or villain need not be in any way attractive – their only raison d’être is their excessiveness. One of the most intriguing aspects of Stone’s Weltanschauung is that he sees this scapegoating process as not purely mythic or a mere fantasy projection but, quite literally, materially economic and socially “useful”. It is Montana who keeps capitalism going, just as it is Stanley (Mickey Rourke) in Year of the Dragon (Michael Cimino, 1985) who solves certain law enforcement problems; as he says, “When I give up, the system gives up”. Stone sees social systems or institutions as volatile agencies that gamble on particular, conjunctural conditions – and that, therefore, enact the modern conceptualisation of power as a changing game with changing rules. Let us return to the question of how cinematic structures mesh with conceptual models. Within film theory and analysis, it is Thierry Kuntzel who most fully illuminated the matrix within which a cinematic hero is inscribed: his superior powers of seeing and hearing (sense impressions, in general) lead to his privileged position of knowledge, and then to his particular ability to act (to gain and use power).9 The model functioning

Mr Big


of this is clear from the example of The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond. This matrix can open up (in the hands of skilled and inventive filmmakers) a complex game-space that proceeds on an elaborate series of split layers and distinctions. The figurations of sensory impression, knowledge and power can be distributed differentially, opening up gaps in a fiction. There are differences, for instance, between characters – what two characters may both see and hear, only one may understand. There might be a gap, within the heroes, between what they have come to know, and the action that is possible for them to take: think of the agony of Jack (John Travolta) at the end of Blow Out, hearing but not seeing Sally (Nancy Allen) being killed, unable to locate the scene and intervene in it; or the pathos and suspense involved in whether Johnny (Christopher Walken) in Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (1983) will be able to influence the events whose predetermined outcome he has seen in his psychic visions. There can be a game between the film and the spectator – tricks as to what the audience thinks it has seen, or believes it has correctly deduced. Both Sisters and Blow Out reveal to the spectator, as is shockingly clear on a second viewing, elements of their enigmas at the very outset – but without the guided framework in which we are cued to take correct note of certain visual or aural details as key events or items of information. Our perceptual habits thus betray us; we simply see without properly understanding the import of what we are shown. It is useful, for the sake of a full taxonomy of these generative possibilities, to couple Kuntzel’s schema with Peter Wollen’s essay, “The Hermeneutic Code”. Wollen sketches distinctions between what he calls the three times of the look: the instant of the look, the time to understand, the moment of conclusion – in couplets, respectively, of seeing/being blind to, interpreting/ misinterpreting, and knowing/denying. He indicates the character positions that form around these looks and the possibility of their rotation, as well as the consequent film-to-spectator relations of suspense, mystery and shock.10 Hawks’s Scarface contains two moments paradigmatic of the possibilities of the sense/knowledge/power heroic matrix; both moments are retained in De Palma’s version, but extended and made to resonate across the entire film. The first moment is when Montana confronts his boss, Frank (Robert Loggia), whom he is about to depose and replace in the power hierarchy. What Montana has planted – we have already seen him do this – is a phone call to Frank, set to occur at a precise, prearranged moment. This is the gangster hero as fully empowered metteur en scène, in command of the co-ordinates of time and space. We see and hear, alongside Montana, Frank


Mysteries of Cinema

answer his phone, and know that what he says is a dissimulation, revealing his machinations and sealing his fate. It is a model moment of the rising, gangster hero as narrative and cinematic motor force. The second moment occurs at the other, inverse extreme of this paradigm. In the key event that tips the fiction into its final, catastrophic mode, we see, through Montana’s eyes and in extreme slow-motion, his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and closest ally Manny (Steven Bauer) in conspicuously post-coital dress and pose. But (in Wollen’s terms) the instant of this look jumps to a conclusion that gives rise to an immediate, murderous action – without, in between, any time taken to understand what has just been seen. What neither Montana nor we have yet been given to know, in this instance, is that the couple were married the previous night. Their innocent intention to surprise Montana by withholding this information opens up the disastrous possibility of a blind spot in the hero’s grasp of the world – and the couple suffers the consequences of this momentary lapse in the conditions of Montana’s maintenance of power. This is an especially complex moment in the relation of film to spectator, since we were given to see – over and above Montana’s consciousness – the signs of what we probably assumed to be the beginning of this clandestine affair. Hence, the force of Montana’s look, the rightness of his action (in some insane sense of gangster morality) is doubled by our possible sense that “we could have told him so”. Thus, the subsequent revelation of the scene turns against us, as well as against Montana, for this hasty, damning presumption. From early on, Scarface plays up Montana’s subjectivity – both in his highly theatrical way of calling the shots, drawing people’s attention to what he wants them to see (as with the scene on the beach with Manny: “You see that man”); and in the emphatic use of cinematic point-of-view, including the multiple shots of Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) as first spied by Montana (the camera tracks in to isolate his act of looking and detach it from the otherwise mundane scene), complete with a fade-down of the diegetic sound under Giorgio Moroder’s ethereal synth score. Yet the question of surveillance – the adequate coverage and management of territory – becomes more of a problem for Montana as his turf expands. Mid-way through the film, a pivotal shot emphasises the passing of power from his own eye to a police-planted camera-eye hidden inside a clock. In the closing movement, and at its crowning moment of irony, Montana’s artificially extended eye – the battery of video cameras and monitors covering his estate – shows in full view what Montana, head down in cocaine, is beyond even seeing, let alone acting upon: a commando team entering the grounds to annihilate him.

Mr Big


Seeing and hearing, with Tony Montana as with many a gangster hero, is linked to a particular conception of self. This evidence of the senses is used to formulate a crucial series of beliefs, judgments and intuitions about the world in which the hero acts. The problem of whom the gangster can trust in a duplicitous world is one that keeps pushing him inside himself, elevating his wits to a decisive role in the pragmatics of power games. This provides the ground for the ultimate, fatal paradox of the gangster hero: what makes him a hero is his superior sense of self, but, when this sense enlarges beyond any workable flexibility, it kills him. This scenario is certainly the case for De Palma’s Scarface, who swears on “my word and my balls” (i.e., his hopeful self/other relation is: “I’m telling you that you can trust me, so I hope I can trust you”). Subsequently, he is put through trials never conceived for Hawks’s more conventionally doomed hero. Once in decline, Montana is forced to participate in power-games wherein he is far from being the self-made hero – no longer the grandly metaphoric driver of the film, only the passive functionary who literally drives, at the behest of Sosa, a carload of killers. The sequence detailing the attempted plan to kill Matos sums up much of what the film is about. This scene stages the crisis in Montana’s subjectivity when he is faced with methods of power that do not depend on any notion of self that resembles his personal code. He identifies his entire sense of self in, and determines his code of ethics by, what he sees through his own eyes. When he (and we) see the targeted car of Matos double back to pick up his family, there is no question, in Tony’s mind, of proceeding with the mission: it is immoral, in fact inconceivable, to kill the innocent wife and children. Alberto (Mark Margolis), the assassin sitting in the car’s front seat next to Tony – decidedly the expression of a new philosophy of power, kin to Juan the Bullet – entertains no such doubt. For him, the problem is easily ignored with the remark, “You don’t look them in the eyes when you kill them”. For Tony, however, the experience of this unbearable hallucination welling up in his mind’s eye is enough to double-bind and short-circuit his subjectivity in a split-second – he goes mad and derails the mission, killing the assassin rather than Matos, and immediately cokes himself up in order to ignore the lethal consequences of his act. It seems (from the examples of Legs and Montana) that the gangster hero is eternally doomed to misrecognise the truth of the self/other relations that construct him in his very particular place. It is the emphasis on the other over the self in the games of power that suggests a Lacanian, psychoanalytic reading of the genre (Wollen uses Lacan’s seminar on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” to reconstruct the fictional structures of blackmail


Mysteries of Cinema

in Hitchcock’s movies).11 Surely the cruelest fictional twist in either version of Scarface, the trope that most bespeaks the utter alienation of a self from itself, is that famous declaration in neon, high up in the urban landscape: “The world is yours”. Montana gazes upon this message in the sky and then installs it in his home as a sculptural decoration, to reassure himself that it is speaking to and about him. Yet, at the moment of the hero’s death, this fickle énoncé shines upon whomever is next in line – such as his killer, the angel of death known as The Skull (Geno Silva) – to gaze upon it. This is, in a nutshell, the trajectory of cinematic gangster fiction – at first bolstering the subjectivity of its hero only to then undermine and explode it.

The Hero Blows Out John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) marks a decisive moment in the history of a masculine subjectivity represented in and through narrative film. It crystallises a bleak, crisis structure around the eclipsing, hollowing out or annihilation of the hero as central consciousness – something that the gangster genre has prepared for, and which it (along with the police/investigative film and the horror movie) adopts with a grim glee. The passage from Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) to The Godfather Part II (1974) illustrates this shift from a classical gangster subjectivity to a beleaguered, fragmented one. The “blank point” of Boorman’s title is more than an arty symbol of man’s failed quest, the meaninglessness of life in the modern metropolis, or whichever airy, existential bromide one chooses. It is, literally but suggestively, the blank consciousness of the hero, the point from which power can no longer be seen, secured, or organised. As Raymond Durgnat succinctly observed in 1977: “In Boorman’s Point Blank an identification figure (Lee Marvin) turns out to be a ghost.”12 Point Blank inaugurates a new model in film history; it has four essential elements. First, a fragmented time structure that expresses the metaphoric sense that the hero is a figure returned from the dead, a phantom, “departed” from the very first moments of the plot’s unfolding (Marvin’s ghostlike passivity as Walker is often remarked upon by those around him – and Chris [Angie Dickinson] even remarks, “You did die back there in prison”). Second, the narrative is based on a perpetual cycle of losing and failing: an eternal return to the originary moment of death. In this trajectory, the hero will undergo a slow fade-out – as happens to Walker, disappearing eerily into the shadows as he forfeits the reward that could still be his at the end of the pursuit.

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Third, a central switch takes narrative command away from the hero who (naively) believes he is in control of its progression. In Boorman’s film, this takes the classic form of a hero who kills his way up a power hierarchy, only to find that the ultimate king pin is the one who hired him in the first place – in order to kill off the opposition. The hero has thus been duped at the most intimate levels of his professionalism: his contract and his trust. Orson Welles’ Mr Arkadin (1955) adumbrated this proto-paranoid model twelve years earlier; variations more contemporaneous with Point Blank include Blake Edwards’s Gunn (1967) and Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973). The fourth key element of Point Blank is a structural doubling of the ghost-hero with his mirror-rival (John Vernon as Reese), the suave brothertraitor-killer who literally lives the life that was destined for the hero, stealing it (and thus his very subjectivity) from him. At the highest pitch of intensity, the mirror-rival turns out to be the true central consciousness behind events; at the very least, we can expect him to spend the fortune first put aside for the nominal hero, and to carry off the woman who had promised herself to him, once, long ago. It should not be hard now to make the leap from Point Blank, which inaugurates a cycle, to the film that most richly fulfils it: Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Leone’s work is an attempt to essentialise the gangster genre, penetrate its very core. We needed such a completely post-genre event as this to persuade us that the core of the gangster movie is not in action or violence, but elsewhere: in the whole elaborate, textual armature of the hero’s subjectivity. This is the crisis that the film plays out, in an extremely contemplative fashion; it systematically robs the hero of every one of his supports. Leone provides the melancholic – even apocalyptic – flipside to the classic, rise-and-fall gangster fictions; here there is nothing but the fall, looped several times over. In Once Upon a Time in America, Max, the sinister mirror-rival to Noodles, represents a new, canny kind of Mr Big – one who disappears from history and then reappears with a new identity; a subject with a necessarily multiple ego. Yet Leone makes history turn, in its turn, on Max as well, as heavily as it did on Legs Diamond, so that the only possible outcome is death – at his own hand, or another’s. What we see, at the end of Leone’s film and at the seeming end of a genre, are two kinds of suicides, both of them inglorious. For the mirror-rival, this modern gangster, all that is left is death inside the jaws of a garbage truck – which is where the game of arrangements with power has led Max. For Noodles, on the other hand, what he chooses to continue to live is his


Mysteries of Cinema

absolute loss of self, his passivity. He denies the possibility of action one more time, and withdraws. Is this not, for the subject-ego, the deepest melancholia of all? Mr Big is dead, and the loser who has never understood anything in the shadow of his power elects, in the haze of semi-consciousness, to see nothing, to know nothing – and to feel nothing. Noodles disappears in an opium haze in the film’s final freeze-frame. Yet it is only beyond the point of this historic meltdown that we can begin to imagine a new way of thinking and being for the individual subject – and a new way of representing it on screen. (1987)

Notes 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.

Paul Virilio, “Star Wars”, Art and Text, no. 22 (1986), pp. 15-18; see also his Speed and Politics (New York: Foreign Agents Series, 1986) and War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (London: Verso, 1989). See Robert Warshow, The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture (New York: Harvard University Press, 2001). This analysis of Leone’s film was subsequently elaborated in my Once Upon a Time in America (London: BFI Modern Classics, 1998). Jacques Rivette quoted in Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), Rivette: Texts and Interviews (London: British Film Institute, 1977), p. 51. See Peter Lloyd, “Walsh, a Preliminary Demarcation”, in Phil Hardy (ed.), Raoul Walsh (Edinbugh Film Festival, 1974); this essay distils a number of pieces Lloyd wrote in 1969 and 1970 for the Brighton Film Review. For a rich account of the relation of the gangster hero to those physically and emotionally close to him, see William D. Routt, “Todorov Among the Gangsters”, Art & Text, no. 34 (1989), pp. 109-126. Warshow, The Immediate Experience, p. 103. See Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), S/Z (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), pp. 18-20. See the collection of Kuntzel’s texts in the CD-ROM section of his Title TK (Nantes: Éditions Anarchive/Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, 2006). Peter Wollen, “The Hermeneutic Code”, in his collection Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies (London: Verso, 1982), pp. 40-48. Ibid., pp. 18-48. Raymond Durgnat, The Essential Raymond Durgnat (London: British Film Institute, 2014), p. 130.

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About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

15. Unlawful Entries Anatomy of a Film Cycle Abstract This 1993 essay looks at a specific trend, cycle or sub-genre within the thriller film genre – the 1990s trend labelled the “intimacy thriller”, which includes titles such as Cape Fear, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Poison Ivy, Guilty as Sin, Single White Female and Raising Cain. Cycles in cinema depend not only on the close proximity in time from one film to next, but also on their shared reference to a contemporaneous “social text” of problems and issues. In the case of the intimacy thriller, these social problems spin around vexed questions of trust and suspicion, keyed to issues of gender, class and race. Indeed, the cultural function of these films would seem to be to sharpen everyday paranoia. Keywords: Genre, thriller, intimacy, social text, Camille Paglia

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (Curtis Hanson, 1992) is a contemporary thriller framed by a reassuring parable. At the start, yuppie housewife Claire (Annabella Sciorra) is scared by the sudden appearance at her kitchen window of a hooded, black intruder. Taken in hand by Michael (Matt McCoy), the Sensitive New Age Guy of the house, the intruder turns out to be Solomon (Ernie Hudson), a mentally disabled person sent by the “Better Day” association to do helpful carpentry chores for the family. Solomon figures as the innocent, non-threatening Other of the story; Claire and Michael eventually learn to overcome their residual doubts and prejudices and, in the film’s final moments, welcome him in as a nurturing and nurtured member of their happy family. The more central intruder is the mirror opposite of Solomon in virtually every conceivable way. Peyton (Rebecca De Mornay) is white, female, a cultured bourgeois like Claire and Michael. Whereas Solomon’s physical contact with the children of the household is cautiously restricted, Peyton

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH15


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is entrusted with unlimited access: she is to be their live-in nanny for the months that Claire builds an elaborate, backyard greenhouse. Where the parents are quick to suspect Solomon of grave misconduct, they realise almost too late that the real villain of the piece is in fact Peyton, seeking revenge for both the husband and child she lost as a result of legal action encouraged by Claire. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle proposes, in short, a social and moral lesson in how to distinguish truly threatening outsiders from only seemingly threatening ones. It provides a lesson in refining one’s paranoid sense. Paranoia provides the very fuel of the thriller genre in cinema. The term needs to be understood here in its most physical, spatial sense – paranoia as border panic, the fear that one’s fragile perimeter is about to be violated, or (even worse) the sudden realisation that it has already been violated. The specific border most pertinent to the thriller is in fact double, and doubly metaphorical, as is well caught in the cleverest title of recent years, Unlawful Entry (Jonathan Kaplan, 1992). The lawful border transgressed in the genre is alternately – and sometimes simultaneously – the facade of the family home, and the surface of the human body. Hence, the two most obsessive motifs of recent thrillers: the effortless breaking-and-entering of a house that has been frantically fortified in vain; and sexual violation, whether through violent rape or insidious seduction. I speak here of a cycle of thrillers released in 1992 – specifically Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Poison Ivy (Katt Shea Ruben), Unlawful Entry, Raising Cain (Brian De Palma), and Single White Female (Barbet Schroeder). In movie industry parlance, a cycle designates a blatantly commercial phenomenon: a quick rash of films that try to cash in on the fleeting, popular taste for a particular trend. Predictably enough, many critics and reviewers find it difficult to take the products of such a cycle seriously; cycles are much too far, it seems, from that rarefied realm of popular aesthetics in which a handful of artists are seen to ennoble mass culture by addressing and reworking its classic genres or traditions. Thus, while Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992) is hailed by Film Comment as “the first great Western since Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid [1973]”,1 Single White Female is dismissed by virtually all newspaper and magazine reviewers as yet another clichéd, exploitative thriller with a sicko killer, a yuppie couple in peril, a murdered domestic pet, and a brutally violent denouement lifted opportunistically from that box-office hit, Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987). Yet genres in popular f ilm have always been commercial formulae, templates for designing a safe bet within the marketplace – which does

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not mean that the resultant product cannot be considered as either good art or interesting culture. Cycles are simply genres sped up, small sub-genres that quickly permutate and exhaust themselves. Critically, cycles demand an intensification of thinking in terms of genre – that is, a willingness to consider films as members of a swarming pack, an intertextual network, rather than as singular, closed, organic entities. There is no model against which the entries in a popular cycle can be judged as failures or unwarranted deviations. Just as, across the historical span of a classic genre, extremely disparate films can be drawn into a fertile game of family resemblance (His Girl Friday [1940] and The War of the Roses [1989] make starkly opposing propositions about the nature of romantic comedy), each entry in a cycle can be appreciated for the way it proposes its own, novel variation on a loose set of currently available, recurring elements (themes, characters, settings, topical obsessions). The irresistible memory of Fatal Attraction should have been a spur to critics and reviewers to think more precisely about the current situation of popular genres – and particularly the interpretation and interrelation of broadly different genres. The commercial coup of Lyne’s film lay in the fact that it married elements of the thriller and horror genres. In doing so, it showed both the potential overlap and the ultimate divergence between these types. Robin Wood once suggested a simple but sturdy formula for the horror genre: normality is threatened by the monster. Horror depends, essentially, on the absolute otherness of the outsider (monster or alien) vis-à-vis the unit of normality (family or community). In the model proposed by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror, this abject creature must ultimately be expelled, entirely obliterated.2 It is in such monstrous, abject otherness that Lyne chooses to cloak the intruder (Glenn Close as Alex) threatening the Holy Family triangle in Fatal Attraction. The basic matrix of the thriller, although superficially similar, is fundamentally quite different. As bef its the uncertainty that attends any instance of border panic – Where exactly are my borders? Have they been crossed yet? – the thriller is a genre of ambiguity and ambivalence. Insofar as the thriller sets in play a crisis of the already-known Self (either family home or individual body) in relation to its encroaching, not-yet-known Other, its primal questions are always halting, uncertain ones: Who are you, really? Do I want you to go away or come closer? What do you mean to me? Hence, the rampant, often unsettling, sexual ambiguity of these films, oscillating between common-sense revulsion at the imminent prospect of rape and the tantalising allure of taking a walk on the wild side with


Mysteries of Cinema

a real, uncontrollable animal. Hence, also, the sorts of spatial confusions thematised in the dialogue of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle: “Do you want the fence to keep people in, or to keep people out?” If thrillers run on paranoia, it is often, paradoxically, a highly sophisticated, self-critical form of paranoid thinking. Herein lies the genuine intelligence of many current thrillers. The terms of normality and the monster, self and other, are set into a constant spin, and often reverse their positions. The yuppie homes in Unlawful Entry and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle are presented coldly and clinically, often framed as empty, soulless shells. The principal marital and familial relationships in all films of the cycle are internally troubled, riddled with malaise. The outsider appears in such contexts, with inexorable logic, as a devilish Prince Charming, an answer to each individual’s suppressed needs and desires. Historically, this is the logic bequeathed to cinema by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), taken to its extreme in Cape Fear. It is not only the normal folk who are beset by queasy ambivalences. In Poison Ivy, Unlawful Entry and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, the antiheros suffer from an equivocation that the cinema has explored at least since John Ford’s The Searchers (1956): is their deepest yearning to destroy the Norman Rockwell-like, happy family unit, or to become part of it? One of the central sources of unease and enigma in the thriller genre comes from the way in which the films make it hard for us to adjudicate an exact answer to that question – an anxiety exacerbated by hints that these villainous characters (with their unspoken, effortlessly complex strategies of revenge or invasion) are themselves equivocating, and changing their tactics accordingly. This is the kind of psychological suspense that most profoundly characterises the thriller genre – above and beyond the (often rather mechanical) thrills associated with looming assaults or murders. Virtually every thriller today has to wear (to its debit or credit) the easy journalistic label of “Hitchcockian”, but we do Hitchcock and his contribution to the genre a grave disservice if we associate his name only with bombs exploding on buses, baddies falling off Mount Rushmore, vicious birds and male transvestites wielding knives in showers. In films including Suspicion (1941), Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and Notorious (1946), Hitchcock located the central enigma – with all its associated effects of suspense, intrigue, surprise and reversal – squarely within the mystery of the characters and the inscrutable bases of their love/hate relationships. This very attenuated (and often quite bloodless) form of cinematic suspense – sometimes referred to as the film blanc (as opposed to film

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noir) – was also developed by Val Lewton in his horror-mystery productions of the 1940s (such as The Seventh Victim [1943]), Otto Preminger in such thrillers as Angel Face (1953) and Whirlpool (1949), Jacques Tourneur in his hushed, extremely enigmatic films of the supernatural (I Walked with a Zombie [1943], Night of the Demon [1957]), and Fritz Lang in the investigative films of his American period (Beyond a Reasonable Doubt [1956], Scarlet Street [1945]). Its further, contemporary extension within European art cinema occurs via screenwriters such as the former Cahiers du cinéma critic Pascal Bonitzer, and directors including André Téchiné (Rendez-vous [1985], Le lieu du crime [1986]) and Benoît Jacquot (Les Mendiants, 1987). Indeed, Bonitzer could be describing his own scripts as much as the Hollywood models he so admires when he speaks of the axiomatic need in cinema for “a secret element of the film, but a crucial secret, one that contains all the ambiguities and unspoken elements that constitute its fiction”.3 Only through such a secretive and suspenseful displacement of the very key to the story can a “strong, disquieting intersubjectivity” between the characters be generated – a charged, mysterious exchange of glances, desires, actions, counter-reactions and sublimations that constitute an ever-shifting and often perverse diagram of psychological interrelations.4 For instance, the unspoken hint of lesbian attraction gives particular frisson and special gravity to the scenes of heterosexual lovemaking that are watched by the other central female character in both Single White Female and Poison Ivy. Of the entries in the current thriller cycle, Poison Ivy most resembles a film blanc, floating between the ghostly B movies of Lewton and the art film ambience of Téchiné. It particularly resembles an American remake of Teorema: a mysterious, waif-like intruder (Drew Barrymore as Ivy) who seduces (in both literal and figurative ways) the father, mother and daughter of a collapsing, middle class, family unit. Its general mood is the darkest and dankest of the cycle, full of melancholic intimations of death and decay (particularly via the figure of the moody, bed-ridden mother, Georgie, played by Cheryl Ladd). The inscrutability of the anti-hero and her ambivalent motivations reaches a frenzied, wordless height as Ivy pauses between saving Georgie at her bedroom balcony or letting her plunge to death – a mere preparation, as it turns out, for the simultaneously shocking and tantalising spectacle of Ivy, having taken the mother’s place, making love to the father (Tom Skerritt) as his daughter, Sylvie (Sara Gilbert), looks on. Both Poison Ivy and Unlawful Entry are genre films that demand a critical sensitivity to the undertones, atmospheres and ironies (subtle or


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unsubtle) woven in and around the broad givens of the current, paranoiac formula. This kind of artistic embellishment, so easy to miss, is a strategy familiar from the most classical and industrialised era of Old Hollywood. It is perhaps most famously associated with Douglas Sirk, the self-consciously Brechtian filmmaker who fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood, directing such “women’s weepies” as Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955). Jonathan Kaplan can be considered (all proportions kept) a Sirk of contemporary American cinema. His early exploitation films (White Line Fever [1975], Over the Edge [1979]) were frankly Marxist or Situationist in intention – confrontational allegories of class conflict and social alienation. These days, Kaplan finds himself helming either liberal message dramas (like Project X [1987] and The Accused [1988]), or films with a queasily reactionary, ideological project such as Immediate Family (1989). Faced with such material, Kaplan does not so much subvert it spectacularly from within as insinuate his own doubts and questions into the very staging of the scenes – at least for the benefit of those who are attuned to such a second tier of meanings. Kaplan’s critical distance from the inherently conservative, paranoiac premise of Unlawful Entry – secure your gentrified doors against all those lawless crazies running wild in the streets of Los Angeles – reveals itself in several ways. He exaggerates the familiar lovelessness of the central yuppie characters, Michael (Kurt Russell) and Karen (Madeleine Stowe). By making Pete (Ray Liotta) a not entirely reprehensible villain, he angles the film towards an anarchic allegory of class: the revenge of the urban proletariat. Refusing to assume that lawlessness is an unbridled evil, Kaplan draws a line connecting Pete’s disruptive actions and the rioting blacks in the surrounding neighbourhood (here, the film gains in dramatic effect from the topical proximity of the Los Angeles riots). Lastly, he renders the final Straw Dogs (1971 & 2011) style of confrontation between Pete and Michael – a contest of masculinities wherein the yuppie wimp has to finally measure up – in a blank, untriumphant way, registering Karen’s recognition of her ultimate insignificance in this all-male scenario. Several works of the cycle reveal a generic element that is crucial to the thriller: its “social text” aspect.5 Unlike the horror film – which is content to work, over many years, with broad and barely changing social definitions of otherness and abjection – thrillers, in order to work effectively, have to be very closely keyed to currently reigning fads, neuroses and obsessions. As a result, the definition of monstrous behaviour tends to change quite rapidly from one yearly cycle to the next.

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In the thriller cycle of 1990/1991 (including the adaptation of Stephen King’s Misery and the Julia Roberts vehicle Sleeping with the Enemy), the emblematic monster was incarnated by Michael Keaton as Carter in John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights: a tenant doing strange things in his apartment, ambiguously both underclass and idle rich, with scarily artistic friends and a blaring cassette tape of Heavy Metal music. He is, again, more of a horror movie monster – at least to the handsome, landlord couple of Patty (Melanie Griffith) and Drake (Matthew Modine), who figure as the film’s normal protagonists. In 1992, it seems, pervasive social threat comes from quite different sources. The monsters already have open access to the familial home: they are babysitters, a teenage daughter’s best friends, flatmates, friendly cops, or fathers rather too keen on personally raising their children. These are, in a way, New Age thrillers – paranoid tales of sharing and caring. Motifs of New Age psychobabble are everywhere in these films – from Max in Cape Fear announcing that he is “getting in touch with his feminine side” to Dr Nix (John Lithgow) in Raising Cain preaching the joys of “quality time parenting”. On one level, thrillers treat such topical, social text references as the source of a rich comedy of manners – an inventory of the bizarre and transient behavioural tics that define the surface level of personal interactions in the real world for about a year at a time, the stuff of everyday chatter that fills TV talk shows and weekly lifestyle magazines. (There was even an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show titled “Single White Female: True Stories”.) Yet, as befits the genre, there always comes a moment when this chatter becomes unnerving, and we pass to rather graver and more vexing levels of popular discourse. Many current thrillers tap into a swirling, confused interplay of feelings and opinions relating to a cluster of topics that are hot in the media and in social life, topics that often travel by shorthand designations: the backlash against feminism, the beauty myth, legislation constraining the sexual harassment of women, political correctness. We should rarely expect popular movies to be exactly coherent once they take on such heated areas of social debate. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is a prime example of a film with inadvertently mixed messages and a curious array of political agendas. Here, as in Cape Fear, the monster seeks revenge for punishment meted out in the name of liberal, feminist-inflected justice. In Scorsese’s film, a defence attorney has ensured that his own client was convicted for a brutal rape; in Hanson’s, a woman seeks revenge for the sexual harassment suit that wrecked her husband’s career and drove him to suicide.


Mysteries of Cinema

The Hand That Rocks the Cradle is clearly more sympathetic to the actions of its liberal, law-abiding, home-protecting characters than Cape Fear, with its unambiguous misogyny and gleeful delight in Max’s exacting of the savage justice which is his due; neither the harassment incident itself, nor the consequent legal steps taken, are ever in question, either factually or morally. Yet, after this elaborate prologue, the film plays on the kind of nightmare that unmistakeably depends on a familiar demonisation of women. The title (one assumes) is a vague memory of Dorothy Dinnerstein’s argument in her well-known book The Mermaid and the Minotaur: that the mothering of children, when it is obsessive and exclusive, breeds a collective condition that is monstrous and pathological.6 In the film, the proverb on which Dinnerstein based her meditation, “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”, is helpfully translated by one character as “never let an attractive woman get a power position in your home”! And Peyton, with the family’s baby illicitly at her breast, is indeed a monstrous amalgam: unnatural mother, unnaturally good looking, unnaturally successful in her babysitting career. For its finale, the film re-scrambles its elements once again, this time into a less troublesome, more familiar ideological theorem – pitting (Aliens-style) the bad, unnatural mother against the good, natural one (helped out by that safe, black friend of the family). Suddenly, savage justice is the crusade of the yuppie driven over the edge into violent personal empowerment: a denouement shared by Unlawful Entry and Single White Female (where it is given its most self-consciously primal rendering). This scene of one-to-one showdown between the representatives of normality and the monster is a typical feature of the cycle – a confrontation that is notably lawless, and often set in the barren ruins of the family home. It is as if, in this most heightened, suspended moment of the drama, all borders, all social identities are at their most tantalisingly fluid. It is striking that, for instance, across the films of the cycle, no permutation of this final conflict seems unshowable: woman kills woman, woman kills man, man kills man, young kills old, black kills white. Although a number of Brian De Palma’s films (particularly Dressed to Kill [1980] and Body Double [1984]) became infamous media events for the way they provocatively catalysed the hot, topical issue of violence towards women, Raising Cain is a work that only superficially shares the prevailing cultural obsessions of the cycle to which it belongs. If De Palma’s films are at times politically provocative, it is because they flaunt the classic dare of black comedy: surely you do not think these contrived images, these stereotyped characters, these outlandish stories refer to anything real? In the

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hands of De Palma, the thriller becomes a pure game-space, wherein theme or content (as we understand them in conventional, literary terms) become secondary props, mere pretexts at best. De Palma’s very modern, personal formulation of the Hitchcockian ideal of “pure cinema” deliberately taunts sociologically minded critics and quickly brings them to the limit of their symptomatic readings: personality disorder is a surreal plot device allowing maximum transformation of characters and their motivating traits, hardly a conscious (or even unconscious) reflection of a social malaise. Yet where De Palma’s film reunites with the cultural imagination of the contemporary thriller is precisely on the level of this so-called pure form. Few directors are more obsessed with cinema as a transgressive desiring machine, capable of staging infinite unlawful entries. Virtually every plot move in Raising Cain conjures a thrilling instance of border panic – a sexual transgression, a tiptoe down a dark corridor, a clandestine invasion of somebody else’s private space. Every character is constantly moving, prowling, seeking, desiring; and the camera’s favourite activity is to alternately pull them forward and then gaze through their hungry, anxious eyes. There is (as Michel Chion has noted) a “phallic exuberance” in De Palma’s visual pyrotechnics,7 but also a mockery of the supposed mastery of that absurdly ideal gaze – as well as a delicious revelling in the masochistic position created for protagonist and spectator alike. Single White Female owes much to the minimalism of Roman Polanski (especially his Repulsion [1965]). Unlike De Palma, however, director Barbet Schroeder is keen to connect the formal mechanics of the thriller with the most intimate fault-lines of contemporary, social life. The theme of savage justice working itself out in an interpersonal zone entirely beyond conventional codes of law and order is perfect for Schroeder; his films from La Vallée (1972) to Barfly (1987) have always focussed on abject outsiders, either presented romantically as libertarian anarchists or misanthropically as demented animals – and often both at once. Schroeder is a fascinating and underrated f ilmmaker. As Raymond Durgnat was the first to appreciate properly, Schroeder’s subject is “the monstrosity of humanity and the humanity of monsters. Man is a naked ape – but trailing clouds of fantasy”.8 Schroeder has a meticulous, social anthropologist’s eye for the transient facade of civilised manners that just barely hide the primal madness within each individual. Rather than exploiting an easy, thematic schism between the realms of the civilised and the savage, Schroeder dramatises their mutually interfering “nuances, disjunctions, hybridisations”.9 As a result, he indelibly creates a rare form of screen characterisation – he shows people who are hardly there in any


Mysteries of Cinema

normal, comprehensible way, people who are, for all intents and purposes, functionally dysfunctional. This observation applies as much to Schroeder’s documentaries (Général Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait [1974] and Koko, le gorille qui parle [1978]) as his fictions (Maîtresse [1976] and Reversal of Fortune [1990]). Single White Female evokes an everyday world of utter alienation, marked by impersonal telecommunication, emotional dislocation, urban neurosis and, above all, paranoia – some of it well justified. The film is generated from a brilliant twist on the basic paranoid formula of the thriller. Allie (Bridget Fonda) assiduously avoids anyone even slightly Other in terms of race, class, or lifestyle when selecting a flatmate. Her ultimate choice is Hedy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), her virtual mirror (the title of John Lutz’s novel on which the film is based is called SWF Seeks Same). But the story turns out to be a cautionary tale about the dangers of excessive sameness between people, drawing upon the psychological theories of Melanie Klein and Alice Miller, and (in its pervasive mirroring imagery) Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). Tightly bound, co-dependent relationships (whether of friendship or romance – Schroeder includes a clip from Vertigo, that all-time classic of obsessive love) nurture psychosis; here, normality harbours its own monsters. Schroeder’s cynicism towards the contemporary, social climate is more savage and more exactly provocative than De Palma’s. The film casually mocks the New Age therapy-speak of child abuse “survivors” (“I’m sure I survived something, but I’m not sure what yet”). It tackles the prevailing anxiety around sexual harassment legislation more directly, by matterof-factly generalising sexual violence across gender lines: to the scene of harassment in the workplace that Allie unfairly suffers early on (and the girl’s-own-revenge that ensues), Schroeder later counterposes the far more vivid and terrifying spectacle of Hedy coldly, sexually violating Allie’s boyfriend. This same brand of table-turning provocation is continued in Larry Cohen’s script for Guilty as Sin (1993), in which the seductive psycho, David (Don Johnson), complains about his sexual objectification at the hands of modern women, and explains why he recklessly removed his gloves while killing someone with this transgressive analogy: “Strangling with gloves on is like fucking with a condom”. In 1967, the Nouvelle Vague director Jacques Rivette (a mentor of Schroeder) made a film that was also about urban neurosis, and a couple who ultimately strip away their civilised masks in order to confront each other as animals; it is called – and what a fine title for a modern thriller this would be – L’a mour fou. Although not a thriller in any conventional sense, it was certainly considered by its maker as an avant-garde, mutant remake

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of a Hitchcock film – in this case, Marnie (1964).10 Rivette anticipated the practice of Schroeder, De Palma and many contemporary thriller directors when he reflected: “The cinema is necessarily fascination and rape, that is how it acts on people; it is something pretty unclear, something one sees shrouded in darkness, where you project the same things as in dreams”.11 Even if one rejects the idea that the cinema is “necessarily” anything – least of all, rape – there is no doubt that the enduring fascination of the thriller, as it evolves through its annual cycles, derives from the fuzziness of the conflicts it sets in play at its ever-shifting cultural borders, that ambiguity of “something pretty unclear”. Cinema is ambiguous because, even in its most transparent and simpleminded instances, it is so descriptively rich. In an interview for Wired magazine, Camille Paglia argues for the place of movies over TV in tertiary education on the grounds that “the inflections of emotion on people’s faces, interrelations of subtleties, of non verbal subtleties of interpersonal sexual relations, are shown by cinema”.12 And of all the movie genres, the thriller is perhaps the one which most capitalises on this density and ambiguity inherent in cinematic representation. This is what makes it ideal as a cultural form through which to channel and explore prevalent social confusions over hot topics. Tellingly, Paglia’s assessment of the educational worth of cinema immediately slides into a topical provocation worthy of the best contemporary thrillers. Responding to Naomi Wolf and others in the midst of heated, early 1990s debates on issues of sexual desire and consent, Paglia asserts that some “feminists want to insist, ‘No always means no’. You’d never believe that if you were seeing cinema”.13 (1993)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3. 4.

Richard T. Jameson, “Deserve’s Got Nothin’ to Do with It”, Film Comment (September/October 1992), p. 12. Julia Kristeva (trans. Leon S. Roudiez), Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982). Pascal Bonitzer, “Une certaine tendance du cinéma américain”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 382 (April 1986), p. 38. Ibid., p. 39.


5. 6.

7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13.

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I adopt this concept from the work of Tom O’Regan; for an example, see his “Too Popular By Far: On Hollywood’s Popularity”, Continuum, Vol. 5 No. 2 (1992), pp. 302-351. See Dorothy Dinnerstein, The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), and its revised UK edition, The Rocking of the Cradle and the Ruling of the World (London: The Women’s Press, 1987). Michel Chion, “De l’écoute comme désir”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 333 (March 1982), p. 55. Raymond Durgnat, “Of Human Bondage”, Z/G, no. 2 (1980), p. 16. Ibid., p. 17. “Time Overflowing: Interview with Jacques Rivette”, in Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), Rivette: Texts and Interviews (London: British Film Institute, 1977), p. 12. Ibid., p. 37. Stewart Brand, “Scream of Consciousness”, Wired, no. 1 (1993) []. Accessed 30 November 2016. Ibid.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

16. Lady, Beware Paths Through the Female Gothic Abstract This 2001 essay examines not a single film genre, but a larger cultural impulse or formation affecting several, overlapping genres of horror, thriller, and fantasy. This larger formation is the Female Gothic, which focuses on women’s fears, desires and traumatic experiences within a dominant, patriarchal society. The form that these stories take is often surrealistic in nature, placing a woman with an ever-shifting identity moving within a male world pictured as a menacing, mutating dreamscape. The Female Gothic is a protean form in cinema, cross-referencing diverse popular genres and trends, as well as experimental, independent and feminist films. Examples discussed include Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, Alison Maclean’s Kitchen Sink, Sondra Locke’s Impulse and Alan J. Pakula’s Dream Lover. Keywords: Genre, Female Gothic, Maya Deren, dreams

In the well-stocked crime section of a large bookstore, a particular cover catches my eye: on the paperback edition of a 1997 novel titled Transgressions by Sarah Dunant, there is a reproduction – graphically treated, but unmistakable – of a famous image from Maya Deren’s experimental short, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943). It shows Deren, the glamorous star of her own, small film, inside a house, at the window, the leaves of off-screen trees lyrically reflected in the glass. As she looks out, wistfully or longingly or perhaps just blankly, she places her hands on the pane. This image has metamorphosed many times in cinema history – into Anna Karina at a futuristic motel window, Paul Éluard poetry book in hand (Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville [1965]); into Annette Benning and Robert Downey Jr, behind the transparent doors of their respective padded asylum cells, gazing down a dark, medical corridor (Neil Jordan’s In Dreams [1998]); into Caroline Dulcey, lost and tormented in her gleaming, white apartment, in Romance

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH16


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(Catherine Breillat, 1999). Whatever its mutation, the image’s meaning is essentially the same: it is a vivid, dreamy, terrifying picture of confinement. There is something obviously arty and knowing about the Dunant novel – in the choice of cover image, and in its very title, Transgressions. But there it is in the most browsed section of the bookstore, replete with press quotes on the back hailing it as a “sinewy and intelligent thriller” and, indeed, a portrayal of “every woman’s nightmare”! In this swirl of references and associations – to women’s cinema, the avant-garde, popular genres (thriller and horror) and social anxieties – we can detect the shape-shifting figure of a particular fictional mode, the Female Gothic. As with any mass genre, it is possible to dredge up a limited, restricted definition of the corpus or field of the Female Gothic – and to trace the history of criticism’s hopeless attempts to police that rigid definition. But this is as good a place as any to begin: with Dana Polan’s gloss on “the female Gothic film, in which a woman wonders about the designs upon her of the man in her life – does he love her, does he hate her, does he wish to do her harm?”.1 Polan refers primarily to a series of 1940s Hollywood films known sometimes as the “wife in peril” cycle, including Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), George Cukor’s Gaslight (1944) and Jacques Tourneur’s Experiment Perilous (1944). His thumbnail description of their primal content is a handy synthesis of several influential accounts of the Female Gothic across literature and film, and its ideology. Two oft-cited quotes serve to impart the flavour and suggestiveness of this critical work on the Female Gothic. The first derives from Thomas Elsaesser, who wondered in 1972 about the way in which: Hollywood tackled Freudian themes in a particularly “romantic” or Gothic guise, through a cycle of movies inaugurated possibly by Hitchcock’s first big American success, Rebecca […] Hitchcock infused his film, and several others, with an oblique intimation of female frigidity producing strange fantasies of persecution, rape and death – masochistic reveries and nightmares, which cast the husband into the rôle of the sadistic murderer. This projection of sexual anxiety and its mechanisms of displacement and transfer is translated into a whole string of movies often involving hypnosis and playing on the ambiguity and suspense of whether the wife is merely imagining it or whether her husband really does have murderous designs on her.2

The second comes from science-fiction writer Joanna Russ who, a year after Elsaesser, oriented her appreciation of the genre around its reflection of, and value for, women’s real-life experiences:

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In one way the Gothics are a kind of justif ied paranoia: people are planning awful things about you; you can’t trust your husband (lover, fiancé); everybody’s motives are devious and complex; only the most severe vigilance will enable you to snatch happiness from the jaws of destruction.3

It is too easy to box the Female Gothic solely into a lineage that runs from a particular, historic slice of popular literature (Tania Modleski: “Gothic romances for women […] traceable through Charlotte Brontë, date back to the eighteenth century and the work of Ann Radcliffe”)4 through to a relatively brief cycle in 1940s popular cinema. From the position of the book browser at the crime shelves, however, the Female Gothic has well and truly shot its tentacles everywhere, infiltrating and transforming many genres and modes, grafting itself onto many kinds of cultural fads and obsessions. Perhaps this exploded, polymorphous Female Gothic is more like an impulse within the history of art, culture and fiction, rather than a strict narrative formula with its traditional settings, iconography, and “family romance” of tortuous, suspicious relationships. Animating or informing impulses – more like an energy that opportunistically, creatively links available formats to only dimly understood contents, rather than an alreadyprescribed set of stories, tones and meanings – can theoretically take any shape, mould, or vessel. If the familiar Female Gothic constellation of dark house, imprisoned woman, tyrannical mother, murderous husband and ambiguous lover can make it through to a Hitchcockian, psychological suspense-thriller like Notorious (1946),5 then we must also be able to follow it even further afield – into the less obviously Gothic moves of a B action flick such as CIA II: Target – Alexa (1993). In this film, just as in Notorious, a state police organisation, and a dashing man, Mark (played by director Lorenzo Lamas), push a woman, Alexa (Kathleen Kinmont), into quasi-prostitution and near-death for the sake of a blindly righteous mission. If the eerie scenes of hypnosis, haunting and hallucination in Otto Preminger’s noir classic Whirlpool (1949) evoke the expressionistic heights of horror within a perfectly domestic, wife-in-peril set-up, then we must be prepared to trace the trail of female dread, victimisation and resistance right through the A Nightmare on Elm St film series (beginning in 1984) and its many variations, up to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series (1997-2003). We must stay on the lookout for the eccentric variations on this impulse, the oddities and inversions, the bold moves and generic mutations performed upon the given, sometimes subterranean Gothic elements: comic Female


Mysteries of Cinema

Gothic in Man Trouble (Bob Rafelson, 1992); a Male Gothic switcheroo, also comic, in So I Married an Axe Murderer (Thomas Schlamme, 1993), done grunge-style in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1996); Female Gothic turned naturalistic and kitchen-sink in Positive I.D. (Andy Anderson, 1987) and paranoid-political in Patty Hearst (1987); a New Age, Jungian, almost feel-good Female Gothic, as in fairy tale films like Paperhouse (Bernard Rose, 1988); Female Gothic meets the slasher and serial killer fads, on a high, respectable, mythic road (Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs [1991]) or a low, trashy, exploitation road (Abel Ferrara’s Ms .45 [1981]), via Kathryn Bigelow’s cult lady-cop film Blue Steel (1990); a strain of art house Gothic, favouring sleepwalking whores, kleptomaniacs and assassins, all delicately disturbed beauties, from Hitchcock’s Marnie and Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso (both 1964) via Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967) through to Lodge Kerrigan’s Claire Dolan and Raúl Ruiz’s Shattered Image (both 1998); and avant-garde Gothic, in a line that runs from Meshes of the Afternoon through to Siesta (Mary Lambert, 1987), Kitchen Sink (Alison Maclean, 1987) and Mayhem (Abigail Child, 1987). The tendency to read the Female Gothic in cleanly ideological terms – as a balming cautionary tale, a unidirectional moral lesson, or a repressively tolerant safety valve for women living in an oppressive world – should be resisted. Decades later, Elsaesser’s evocation – “an oblique intimation of female frigidity producing strange fantasies of persecution, rape and death” – may have a throwaway, pre-psychoanalytic, only half-feminist ring, but it captures quite well the narrative, psychic and emotional confusions of many of these films in which victims and victimisers, abusers and abused, dream lovers and demon lovers, those who can manipulate hard reality and those who succumb to wild, ravishing fantasy, can find themselves trading places in a hallucinatory, vertiginous instant. The Female Gothic is, at its core, a genre based on instability, ambiguity and ambivalence – in relation to the very status of reality, as much as to questions of identity politics. Similarly, I do not think it is especially helpful to separate, a priori, Female Gothics made by men from those made by women – although the intersection of women’s cinema (especially in its experimental branches) with the Female Gothic offers a uniquely fascinating history. In practice, few studies manage to maintain this critical separation, even if they make a founding gesture toward it. Linda Badley’s useful Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic, for example, highlights women filmmakers within popular genres, but explores and values Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs as a key Gothic reflection of women’s experience (just as many take Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise [1991] to be a key moment within women’s cinema).6 And this

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is how it should be, for it is simply not the case that Female Gothics by men can be considered generally conformist, scapegoating, and setting double standards, while those by women are necessarily counter-expressions of social resistance, lawless desire, or Utopian revolt. If prolonged exposure to the fruits of the vast family tree of Female Gothic – films written and directed by artists of both genders and every sexual persuasion – proves anything, it is the heady, unstable, powerfully imaginative process flagged by Raymond Durgnat: “Each sex helps the other to see itself, in the round”.7 It is with this flexible mapping of filmic forms, effects and meanings in mind that I propose a specific, more open-ended formula for the Female Gothic: a woman voyages through a menacing, male dreamscape. Such voyages and dreamscapes can take on starkly different appearances and contents. Taking my cue from the scattered references and associations on the front and back covers of Transgressions, I will sketch a couple of possible paths.

Disputed Passage Meshes of the Afternoon was probably the first film to make the indelible link between a woman’s experience of coming fatally unglued – splintered into multiple personalities, plagued by visions, slipping between alternate realities – and the sunny spaces of a daytime, home environment (in this case, Los Angeles), its every tiny but determining facet magnified, from the slope of the lounge room staircase to the bread knife on the kitchen table. In Deren’s vision, it is the terrain of the everyday, and the domestic, that lays the meshes that ensnare, complicate and traumatise a woman’s life. Surrealism – which has provided the rich blueprints for many dreamscapes and psychodramas in cinema – regularly searched for a transgressive and humorous frisson in the conjunction of the existentially absurd and the mundanely homely: Roman Polanski’s absurdist figures lugging about their domestic furniture (Dwaj ludzie z szafa, 1958), Georges Franju’s image (evoked in an interview) of a phone booth stuck in a vat of jam,8 Buñuel’s horse carcass tied to a lounge piano. The Female Gothic re-invests this conjunction with a new intensity. Suddenly, all the sticky substances, leaden weights, streaming fluids and troublesome objects of home turn into icons of a historically feminine experience that can seem both comforting – since they provide the secret, sacrosanct theatre, the women-only preserve for such intense fantasising – and, at the same time, unbearably, horribly oppressive.


Mysteries of Cinema

The emblematic heroine of Meshes of the Afternoon voyages, certainly – but, as the last shot reveals, she has probably not even moved from her chair. Nonetheless, what she imagines, in her feverish stasis, manages to destroy her; it is the tale of a death-drive, of a dream that kills. This trajectory points to the intriguing differences that tend to arise between “mythic journeys” (as favoured by current script-manual wisdom) for men and for women in cinema. The male journey in popular film tends to be action-driven, externally oriented and linear. Its hero is often a loner who forges communities, but is also free (or cursed) to abandon them in the end (like Mad Max, or Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s classic Western, The Searchers [1956]). The Female Gothic voyage, by contrast, is a fragile palimpsest, wherein multiple layers of times and places, memories and desires, ever threaten to collapse upon the precarious, splintered subjectivity of the protagonist. It is far more internal in its workings and promptings than the classic, male journey: stressing emotion and mental processes as much as intimate, bodily states and sensations, the female voyage admits to a large range of determining neuroses and psychoses at the very heart of the grandest, most public world events. Space is a terrifyingly reversible thing in the Female Gothic, always uncertain and in flux. The physical world is both something outside of women – an emblem of their alienation – and inescapably inside them, unstoppably eating them away. In Ida Lupino’s masterly melodramas (such as Not Wanted [1949] and The Outrage [1950]), for instance, the heroine’s consciousness is, according to Ronnie Scheib: […] neither of nor outside this world: there is a constant interaction between this insistent subjectivity and a world it can neither encompass nor assimilate – positively or negatively. […] Between their subjectivity and the world, there is nothing.9

It is the same problem, decades later, for the dedicated housewife, Carol (Julianne Moore), in Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995), who cannot possibly determine whether her body-crippling and soul-destroying “allergy to the 20th century” is her fault or society’s, or where her disease could ever be said to start or end. Kathleen Murphy’s comment that “Beyond Rangoon [John Boorman, 1995] is the story of a woman who comes to be comfortable in her own skin, one of the better definitions of a hero”10 speaks volumes about those Gothic heroines who spectacularly fail to find any such comfort. Deren’s cinema elaborated the sort of dreamscape we find operative, four decades later, in a film such as Alan J. Pakula’s underrated Dream

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Lover (1986). The mise en scène of this eerie film turns even the slightest movement of heroine Kathy (Kristy McNichol) – such as the walk from the kitchen to the lounge room – into a tense, claustrophobic rite of passage. The camera closely frames Kathy, and tracks just ahead of her, turning every limit or constriction of physical space into a tunnel or gauntlet. This stylistic idea might well have been derived from Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – a rich, seminal hybrid of Female Gothic, psycho thriller, domestic melodrama, small-town family comedy, girl-in-peril and teenage rite of passion – but soon Kathy is plunged into surreal journeys reminiscent of Deren and the Salvador Dalí-designed dream sequences in another Hitchcock classic, Spellbound (1945). Doors beckon, long corridors stretch to infinity, open windows provide launch pads for superhuman flight. As in Deren’s At Land (1944), the simplest editing trick in Dream Lover, almost plaintively Méliès-like in its primitivism, propels Kathy through her dreamscape: across the split-second of a cut, signaled by a look, or ushered in by the removal of a spatial masking device, she is instantly whisked from interior to exterior, dark passage to lush, outdoor tea party – and all the while changing, like Alice in Wonderland, from a child’s or teenager’s costume to that of an adult facing the stringent rituals of the courtroom or the ballroom. Dream Lover is ostensibly a film about sleep disorders – scientific and medical consultants are prominently credited. But this rationale appears to serve (as so often happens in popular cinema) other, more phantasmagoric, less clearly avowed ends. This unfolding logic is driven by several, completely evident but never explicitly mentioned facts: first, that virtually every other figure in the film is male; and second, that her father (Paul Shenar, superbly cast) looms as something of a scary, demon lover figure, threatening and seductive in equal measure. In a film in which the dream sequences are sometimes neither clearly announced at the beginning nor properly closed at the end – Pakula minimises the usual, reassuring, bracketing shots of a character falling asleep and waking up – everything, including the nominally real bits, take on a dreamlike air. So these men in Kathy’s daily world quickly become phantoms, ciphers, at once projections of her inner self and incarnations of everything that is frighteningly, utterly Other to her. In the Female Gothic, men are invariably figures of menace, and also shockingly interchangeable: that boyfriend under the bed covers could easily turn out to be the local serial killer; the monstrous apparition in a dream changes, in the blink of an eye or an edit, to the smoothly solicitous father or father-figure (cop, social worker, doctor, psychotherapist) banging on the window. The finale of a modest telemovie thriller, Hollow Point


Mysteries of Cinema

(Bruce Seth Green, 1987), condenses this in a striking piece of cinematic dream-work: through the front door of a psychologist (Linda Purl) streams, in rapid succession, the boyfriend whom she has just mistakenly, over-zealously shot; the stalker who has been pursuing her and driving her to paranoid frenzies; and the hitherto indifferent cop who arrives in the nick of time to kill that bad guy.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes Evocations of, and allusions to, children’s fairy tales loom large along the “dreamplay” branch of the Female Gothic family tree. This reference, however, can be used to diametrically opposed ends. Films such as Paperhouse and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) assume a level of self-interpretation that essentially derives from Bruno Bettelheim’s analysis of fairy tales and Joseph Campbell’s gloss on world mythology.11 In this mode, the quest for self entails pitfalls and seductions, fears and doubts, a testing of boundaries and limits – but, fundamentally, things work out fine once the rite of passage is successfully traversed and negotiated. Other films move toward explicitly spelling out a different, awful truth underlying such fairy tale dream-journeys: these menacing, shape-shifting men at every turn stand for the formless, infinitely reproducible terror of a patriarchal world as it envelops women, delimiting their choices and defining their environments. Valeria Sarmiento’s nightmarish, Buñuelian melodrama Notre mariage (1984) stirs a veritable maelstrom of female fantasies of frigidity, persecution, rape and death in its images of a band of male protectors who seem more like the heroine’s jailors. The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984), woven by Angela Carter from a bunch of her own fractured fairytales, inverts the comforting pleasantries of the Bettelheim/Campbell model. Jordan exploits all the instant-reversibility devices of contemporary horror cinema: the dreamsequences-within-dream-sequences that never allow the secure resting point of a definite waking up; the open ending of a hand shooting from a grave or a traumatic vision inexorably re-starting, signaling that the fear and terror will never be over. Behind these films (and many other closely related cousins) are two seminal Female Gothic horrors: Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and – with a teen movie twist – Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976). Today, it is virtually impossible to demarcate the genres of horror and thriller cleanly. Crime mysteries, especially those known as intimacy thrillers,12 have taken up, with chilling glee, the key Female Gothic motif

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of the demon lover – the dream guy (usually a stalker or serial killer) who simultaneously menaces the heroine and leads her towards higher planes of ecstasy and/or self-knowledge. This is seen in films as diverse as The City Girl (Martha Coolidge, 1984), Thief of Hearts (Douglas Day Stewart, 1984), Call Me (Sollace Mitchell, 1988), The Silence of the Lambs, Blue Steel, Cape Fear (Martin Scorsese, 1991), Kiss the Girls (Gary Fleder, 1997) and Love Crimes (Lizzie Borden, 1992). All these movies evoke the idea of a special initiation ceremony for their female protagonists – achieved via a walk on the wild side with a brilliant, masterly, evil man. It is a trial from which these women will emerge either triumphant, or dead. In Klute (1971), another, more famous and influential Pakula film, a fertile matrix for the contemporary Female Gothic (especially in its thriller mode) comes into view. Klute puts three key elements into circulation. First, a woman’s banal, workaday life (the mundane duties of hooker Bree [Jane Fonda] are on a par with those of Christine (Sandy McLeod) in Variety [Bette Gordon, 1983], sitting in her dull ticket box out front of a tawdry, 42nd Street porn cinema; or Jackie Raynal beginning a monologue to camera in Deux fois [1971] after furtively but heartily ingesting a pleasant meal). Second, the central female character’s perverse, dangerous sexual desires, usually related to some variation of a sado-masochistic scenario. And third, a species of hallucinatory, female paranoia about the system of patriarchal power around her – an intuition that turns out to contain no small amount of truth. Sondra Locke’s Impulse (1990) offers a model example of the contemporary Female Gothic thriller. Theresa Russell plays Lottie, an undercover cop. Rather fed up one night with working out the intricacies of her meaningful, committed love relationship – to another cop – Lottie decides, one night on an impulse, to do something decadent and reckless. She goes to a sleazy bar and lets herself be picked up by an extravagantly rich, attractive man who promises to fulfill all her dreams of escape. Lottie pretends, in this fantasy scenario, to be a high-class prostitute – because that is what she acts as when she is an undercover cop on the job. Back at the man’s palatial apartment, Lottie looks at herself in the ritzy bathroom mirror and asks that classic question: “What am I doing here?” Then she heads purposefully for the door but, on the way out, hears a gunshot sound from downstairs. Suddenly, Lottie’s would-be one-night-stand has landed her deep into a mess of murder, crime and corruption. Her attempts to cover up her inadvertent presence at the scene of this crime can only lead to the ultimate interrogation – the interrogation of her dirty desires, by the very cop that she usually dates. If Impulse is a mystery film, the mystery


Mysteries of Cinema

eventually centres on the woman herself – why she wants what she wants, and whether or not she should want it. In Alison Maclean’s New Zealand short Kitchen Sink – among the many Gothic, symbolist, mock-allegorical films made under the spell of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1978) – “The Woman” (Theresa Healey) digs a male embryo out of a domestic plughole. “The Man” (Peter Tait) grows, with supernatural speed, into a hairy King Kong character. The woman shaves him, nurtures him, and takes him off to bed. The male, as presented here, is a fundamentally double creature: boy and man, sensitive and animal, passive and aggressive. He invites nurturing one moment, and bondage the next. He is, in an alternating circuit, putty in the woman’s hands, and a life-threatening force to be negotiated, possibly avoided, maybe obliterated.13 Many Female Gothics proceed via the Freudian melodrama of “objectchoice”.14 In this scenario, a woman is positioned between two men, of two very different types; or she copes with a man who is two men in one, somehow doubled or split – men such as Rochester, or Clark Kent, or Dr Henry Jekyll. In Susan Siedelman’s comedy Making Mr Right (1987), Frankie (Ann Magnuson) grapples with both a repressed scientist and the zany robot that he has created in his own image (John Malkovich again takes on a similarly Gothic, dual role in Stephen Frears’s Mary Reilly [1996]). Even when the central male figure is not literally two people, nor dramatically divided within himself due to some dissociative condition, he tends to be, psychologically and emotionally, an ambiguous double-image, a walking superimposition. Is he really a soulful, lovable guy underneath all the tortuous misery, or is he truly some kind of monstrous beast? However, since the men in Female Gothics are so typically ciphers of the heroine’s projective imagination and her own psychic conflicts, these ambiguities and questions tend to devolve from the male characters back onto the women, and the status of their desire. Quite simply, which man is it, in this eternally dual pair, that she desires – the serene, deep, beautiful one, or the beast? What desire is involved in her wanting to tame that beast? Part of what is so tearing and so fascinating in movies that portray this form of desire is precisely the pressure on the central woman character to choose one man over the other – and the impossible dream of somehow being able to have both kinds of man in one. (Jack Nicholson has built his later career on playing seductive and terrifying beast-figures, as in the supernaturally-inflected The Witches of Eastwick [George Miller, 1987] and Wolf [Mike Nichols, 1994].) Some trailblazing, feminist analyses of the film noir genre in the late 1970s saw such a narrativised interrogation or problematisation of female

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sexuality as essentially suspicious, moralistic and judgmental in nature – and hence patriarchal.15 Lady, Beware: the title of Karen Arthur’s archetypal 1987 thriller seems to sum up the sometimes conservative thrust of such stories, which can conclude by depositing their heroines, having renounced their dark desires, in a safe, suburban, monogamous place. From this angle, at least some Female Gothics would function as finger-wagging, cautionary tales, another expression of that ever-popular Stephen King wisdom: don’t cross that line, don’t look into that room, don’t play that game, don’t sing that chant, don’t go near the “dark side” of anything whatsoever! Yet popular art would get nowhere without the perpetual, inconclusive drama of crossing that line – poising at the edge of the abyss, sometimes pulling back, sometimes falling in. The Female Gothic allows us to live that vertigo at high speed many times over, on many levels, within a single fiction. And what of Joanna Russ’ hunch about a “justified paranoia” underlying this cultural impulse and explaining its popularity? This idea of a woman’s terrible flash of truth – even if it comes in a totally fevered, paranoid, or drugged hallucination, or in a dream – is at the very heart of the Female Gothic. Given its allegorical leaning, this awful truth usually implicates more than just one bad apple of a man, one mere cad or villain. Rather, it implicates a whole male order or system, an entire, steely, patriarchal regime that runs on reason, seduction and punishment. There are so many dark and terrifying truths from the past that well up in Female Gothic stories – long-buried or repressed revelations about rape, abuse, or betrayal. It is rarely, however, a matter of one-way victimisation: at stake are the fraught, two-way complexities of mutual desire, no matter how alienated, manipulated, or subject to power games they may be. Sometimes, in this hallucinatory whirl of ever-deeper discovery, the personal traumas suffered by women get connected to even wider evils: nuclear bombs (as in the paroxysmic noir classic Kiss Me Deadly [1955], or the puberty melodrama Desert Bloom [1986]), schemes of urban dispossession (Bernard Rose’s Candyman, 1992), hideous war crimes (Polanski’s Death and the Maiden, 1995). In Ken McMullen’s overly schematic Zina (1985), Lenin’s flaming creature of a daughter searches, via Freud’s psychoanalytic couch, for the motor of history and war; in D. M. Thomas’s novel The White Hotel (at one point slated for filming by either Terrence Malick or Emir Kusturica, from Dennis Potter’s adaptation), the transgressive ecstasy of woman’s orgasm is scandalously deployed as a virtual Holocaust trigger. In Conspiracy Theory (Richard Donner, 1997) – a recasting of the paranoid thrillers so popular in the 1970s – dark, political secrets of state


Mysteries of Cinema

are intimately linked to the buried memories of Alice (Julia Roberts), her loving relation to her shadowy father, and even her girlish love for horses. A similar whirl of skeletons in the family closet, romantic object-choice dilemmas, medical atrocities, and a subterranean, centuries-old Lodge figure in the horror-thriller Anatomie (Stefan Ruzowitzky, 2000). But always, to the bitter end, no matter what horrendous truth is uncovered in Female Gothics, there is still that ambiguity, that vacillation in the woman’s desire: what peace, or what trangression, does she really, ultimately want? Does she seek to save the world, or to end it? And which answer would we, as audience, find more thrilling? (2001)

Notes 1. 2.

3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13.

Dana Polan, In a Lonely Place (London: British Film Institute, 1993), p. 21. Thomas Elsaesser, “Tales of Sound and Fury: Observations on the Family Melodrama”, in Christine Gledhill (ed.), Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (London: British Film Institute, 1987), p. 58. Joanna Russ, “Somebody Is Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic”, Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 6 No. 4 (Spring 1973), p. 681. Tania Modleski, Loving With a Vengeance: Mass-Produced Fantasies for Women (Hamden: Archon Books, 1982), p. 15. See Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory (New York: Methuen, 1988). See Linda Badley, Film, Horror, and the Body Fantastic (Westport: Greenwood Publishing, 1995). Raymond Durgnat, “Inside Out”, Films (October 1982), p. 35. See Raymond Durgnat, Franju (London: Studio Vista, 1967), pp. 18-19. Ronnie Scheib, “Ida Lupino: Auteuress”, Film Comment (January-February 1980), pp. 56-57. Kathleen Murphy, “Water World”, Film Comment (July-August 1995), p. 48. See Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (London: Penguin, 1987); and Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (New York: Pantheon Books, 1949). See Chapter 15, “Unlawful Entries”. For an expansion of this analysis, see Adrian Martin, “Mystery Envelope: Kitchen Sink as Female Gothic”, Short Film Studies, Vol. 2 No. 1 (2012), pp. 75-78.

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14. 15.


See Sigmund Freud, “A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men” (1910), in his collection On Sexuality (London: Penguin, 1977), pp. 227-242. See E. Ann Kaplan (ed.), Women in Film Noir (London: British Film Institute, 1978).

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

17. Live to Tell Teen Movies Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow Abstract This essay examines the international genre of the teen movie, with special reference to developments since the early 1970s. Its working model of genre theory is expansive, refusing to corral the teen movie within an enclosed definition of its themes, moods, plots and iconography. Rather, the essay’s emphasis is on tracing the representation of the cultural figure of youth, youthfulness or “teen spirit” across diverse, generic settings of romance, comedy, and fantasy. The subject of teen movies is liminality: the state of being poised between childhood and adulthood, a state that opens up both possibility and anxiety. The story of the teen-figure as social outsider can be resolved in conservative ways, or taken in politically radical directions. Numerous examples are discussed. Keywords: Genre, Teen movie, adolescence, youth, popular culture

In trying to account for my own abiding fascination with the teen movie genre – a fascination that has gone on for 30 years1 – I figure I could begin in three different ways. First, by simply giving a random list of titles – very diverse films of various styles, moods and qualities, from many different countries, some well known, some hardly known – but all films that capture, for me, some essential part of the contemporary teen movie: Le départ (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1967), En Kärlekshistoria (Roy Andersson, 1970), American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982), Reckless (James Foley, 1984), Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli, 1984), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986), Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987), Les roseaux sauvages (André Téchiné, 1993), Riri Shushu no subete (Shunji Iwai, 2001), Wassup Rockers (Larry Clark, 2005), Prinzessin (Birgit Grosskopf, 2006), The House Bunny (Fred Wolf, 2008), Adventureland

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH17


Mysteries of Cinema

(Greg Mottola, 2009), Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010), Step Up 3D (Jon M. Chu, 2010) and Un amour de jeunesse (Mia Hansen-Løve, 2011). Second, I could offer a quotation. It is from the French director Olivier Assayas, who has made at least three bona fide teen movies, Désordre (1986), L’eau froide (1994) and Après mai (2012). In 1997 at the Melbourne International Film Festival, Assayas confessed: When you’re a filmmaker you have to remain so very close to your youthful ideals, to the things that you have been. You’re sometimes stuck with yourself when you’re an artist. You keep those ideals inside yourself for some reason, and [you] keep on replaying and replaying the same situation of your youth.2

Third, I could offer a little autobiography. I, in fact, came late to the contemporary teen movie – by which I essentially mean teen movies made since the late 1970s or early 1980s. Coming upon this phenomenon around 1985, I had already missed the buzz around a number of key films in the genre, such as Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge, 1982) and Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984) – but I caught up quickly. What my friends told me about these films at the time were comments such as the following: these films are tremendously sharp and funny. There is a whole new generation of actors and a different style of acting: James Spader, Mary Stuart Masterson, Sean Penn, Molly Ringwald. These teen movies showcase many new writers and directors that no one is paying much attention to, including a bunch of unsung women directors such as Penelope Spheeris and Marisa Silver. There is a form of pop knowingness in the genre, a reflection of a generation’s knowledge of and passion for popular culture in all its forms – a showbiz theory of what Prince called the pop life, lived in and through references to pop culture, its images, catch phrases and emotional tones. Furthermore, there was a new filmic style in teen movies, a very 1980s mode that is neither classical nor radical, but something very textured, angular and inventive – working a great deal with editing, performance, music and, above all, a certain energy across all levels of film style. There is a particular play with stereotypes, clichés, formulae: a playfulness that outflanks traditional reviewing criteria of the need for a unique story with three-dimensional characters. An inventiveness inside convention, inside tradition, not completely outside it (as is the case with those mavericks and radical subversives we critics so often like to champion). And finally, there is something extremely sweet and whimsical, touching and tender, about so

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many films in this genre – some feeling for everyday life, on its smallest and most mundane scale, a feeling not accessible from many forms of cinema, and rarely explored in most film theory and criticism. In fact, the teen movie seemed then (and still seems now) to be the least doctrinaire, least self-conscious, and least (as we would later say) politically correct of popular genres. These hunches and ideas about the teen movie still form the basis for much of what I still explore, and find so appealing, in the genre today. Teen movie fans, in that period of the early to mid 1980s, had formed a cult: a true cult, in the sense that, for a while at least, people seemed to discover these films for themselves and pass them around, as they had with particular kinds of horror movies, action films, trash comedies and independent art films – that is, before you could buy every imaginable film cult pre-packaged and pre-sifted by the boutique art cinemas, grunge culture merchants and DVD connoisseur labels of today. In the 1980s, the teen movie exploded as a popular genre in several senses. Firstly, the teen movie template invaded just about every kind of film. In fact, enemies of the form – and there were quite a few back then, although history (and proven box office clout) has since mostly silenced them – once used as their preferred terms of abuse words like virus, germ and (my favourite) “tide”. The latter was coined by Hollywood industry pundit Bart Mills, and varied in colourful ways (such as “hideous tidal wave”) by many others.3 No genre, it seemed, was safe any longer: there were teen action movies like Iron Eagle (Sidney J. Furie, 1986), teen horror movies like The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985), hi-tech, sci-fi teen movies like WarGames (John Badham, 1983). Even if the actors and characters in some of these films were no longer strictly teenagers, there was a teen movie style, flavour, or atmosphere in them. Even if they were not strictly about the problems of teenagers as characters, they were pitched, at least in part, to a teen audience – an audience into tasteless thrills, sweet fun and the MTV rock video aesthetic. (If the sour, 1980s critics of the teen movie had today’s cultural rhetoric, they would, of course, refer to the “dumbing down” of popular film.) Take a look at the kind of advanced teen genre hybrid or palimpsest we arrived at by the end of the 1990s. John McNaughton’s Wild Things (1998) covers every angle and every generation of the form: it has new teen stars of the time (such as Neve Campbell from Wes Craven’s Scream franchise), the now grown-up, ex-teen stars of the 1980s (Matt Dillon and Kevin Bacon), and an eternally vulgar teen, Bill Murray. This is a film that knows the teen movie genre, and knows how to mix it up with everything else – erotic thriller, crazy mystery, Southern Gothic. The teen movie is an essentially


Mysteries of Cinema

impure genre: in the analytical terms popularised by Rick Altman, it is more semantic than syntactical – in other words, it cannabilises and hybridises many pre-existing bits of generic forms, popular cycles and fleeting cultural fads, rather than inventing its own unique, narrative formats. 4 Where is the teen movie today? The genre has been through many twists and turns, high rises and downfalls – including the parodic honour of Not Another Teen Movie (Joel Gallen, 2001) and Dance Flick (Damien Dante Wayans, 2009) – but has shown no sign of departing altogether. On the same day in 2009, for instance, I experienced two significant teen events. One was seeing, in a multiplex cinema, the infectious trailer for (500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009), featuring then-current young stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel – a film that seems to effortlessly combine at least one dozen of my favourites in the genre, from Say Anything … (Cameron Crowe, 1989) and Reality Bites (Ben Stiller, 1994) to All the Real Girls (David Gordon Green, 2003) and The Exploding Girl (Bradley Rust Gray, 2009). The other significant event was the sad news of the death of American John Hughes, felled by a heart attack in the street at age 59. “We are no longer teenagers anymore”, a friend in mutual mourning wrote to me – while tributes to and memories of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986), Some Kind of Wonderful (Deutch, 1987), Weird Science (1986) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off flowed forth on the Internet. Hughes – whose most creative period as writer-director-producer lasted only a few years, even though he scored commercial successes both before and after this period – has won a secure place in cinema history, but not necessarily a terribly positive evaluation. I was shocked to realise (as I began poking around cyberspace) that a vast majority of film critics, scholars and historians – including those of my own generation – have come to retrospectively regard 1980s cinema in toto as something of a write-off: the years of empty glitz and Reaganite ideology, of Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986) and Cocktail (Roger Donaldson, 1988). And Hughes, despite some sentimental indulgence, is usually taken as an exemplar of such ersatz, mindless pop culture. Suddenly, on that teen-ridden day in 2009, the lyrics of a Madonna song – naturally, I first heard it on the soundtrack of a teen movie, James Foley’s At Close Range (1986) – floated into my mind like a call to a solitary mission: “Hope I live to tell the secret I have learned”. Because, at the very least, I can claim to have seen a heck of a lot of teen movies since the mid 1980s. That is important: another crucial thing that makes the teen movie a genre is its sheer quantity, its expanse. Teen movies wildly proliferate from the A to the Z levels of cinema production. I have come to believe that one defining aspect of a deep love for cinema (especially

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pop cinema) is this sense that you will never get to the bottom, or to the end, of a particular passion for a certain sort of film (like the teen movie, or Hong Kong action movies, or horror movies, or erotica). This moment of realisation – and of immersion – is special, because it is the moment when you begin to suspend strict judgments of what is a good and a bad film. To enter into a whole body of work is to start seeing films in different ways, “mixing thus the best and the worst” as the great critic Henri Agel once said of his obsessive love of post-war Hollywood movies – creating a new kind of perception “doubtless impure and at times closer to a junkie’s high”, an “ambiguous magic” but still a precious enchantment.5 It is matter of seeing films of vastly different qualities as part of the one family – and, conversely, valuing films for sometimes simply one or two scenes, or an idea, or just a single detail in them. Genres allow you that latitude as a viewer or a fan. This is not only a matter of spectatorship. When you approach a genre in this spirit, you can also start thinking: hell, I can get into this game, too – I can dream up or write or make one of these things myself. It is a democratic moment, in the best sense – and it can lead to the creation of wonderful cinema. The problem with some teen movies – for instance, the Australian example of Hey Hey It’s Esther Blueburger (Cathy Randall, 2008), a far from isolated case – is that they are so clearly ignorant of these possibilities, so little steeped in the dizzy variations already spun by the genre worldwide. And they lack the sense of cinema that even the modest hits of the genre show off in abundance – often an inventiveness achieved precisely within low-budget means. As is so often the case, films that are frozen at plot development stage become fixated primarily on the literary and theatrical values of plot and character – at the expense of film style, which ends up being considered and treated as mere window dressing, at best an enhancement or underlining of the themes in the script, rather than the primary substance of the cinematic experience for viewers. This divorce between form and content breeds monsters. So there are two prevalent approaches to the teen movie that I try, at all costs, to avoid. One is the filtering of this genre (or any popular genre) into an elect group of great directors and masterpieces. While there certainly are such directors and masterpieces, the teen genre makes no real sense as a genre unless you can take a great deal of it in your stride. The second bad approach is that which praises only what are taken to be the dark, subversive, Gothic and parodic/satirical films of the genre – however fine these might be. Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988), for instance, is a wonderful film in many ways, but I would never automatically say it is wonderful over and above the other, more “normal” movies that it satirises. The problem with


Mysteries of Cinema

what I call Dark Side criticism – even Scorsese introduces it frequently as a supreme measure of value in his essay-video series on American cinema – is that it does not help us value those genres (like romantic comedy) that dwell essentially on the light side. The teen movie is among these genres. I have called the contemporary teen movie a 1980s genre. But teen movies in a wider sense go much further back, to what has been called the “invention of the teenager” early in the 20th century.6 This refers to the birth of a lifestyle or subculture of youth that is, in every essential respect, a world fiercely unto itself, with its own rituals and reference points, and sometimes its own moral code. At least since the eras of jazz and swing, there have been many movies that touch on this “world apart” of youth. The 1950s saw the first great boom in teen films such as The Wild One (László Benedek, 1953) and Blackboard Jungle (Richard Brooks, 1955) – and also a number of key art films that have continued to be extremely influential, such as Federico Fellini’s wild-boy portrait I vitelloni (1953) and Ingmar Bergman’s bleak tale of young-love-gone-wrong, Sommaren med Monika (1953). However, it is in the 1970s that all the seeds of the contemporary teen movie are planted. To briefly discuss four seminal films: 1. American Graffiti, far and away George Lucas’s best. It works out an essential image of teenagehood: kids constantly on the road, cruising in their cars, never in their homes, with no parents ever visible. Even more intricately, everyday life is conjured as a “spectacle in the round”: private life is made completely public, and the entire fabric of the film is woven together through source music emanating from car radios and similar gadgets (logically, when Curt [Richard Dreyfus] finally leaves on a plane, the radio signal to which he listens slowly disappears, as the sound-space of the town recedes). This type of music and sound, utilised to define a communal and public space, was set to become a very prevalent device in teen movies: listen to the DJs, school announcements and other such devices in Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979) or Pump Up the Volume (Allan Moyle, 1990). 2. Summer of ‘4 2 (Robert Mulligan, 1971) sets the tone, and most of the formulaic elements, of the nostalgic, wistful, coming of age or “rites of passage” movie – mixing the first stirrings of adult emotion with various vulgar detours (such as the nervous attempt to buy condoms at a pharmacy). This is the respectable face of the genre – often based on the type of teen novels (such as those by S.E. Hinton) studied in secondary schools – usually executed in a neat, classical manner; it leads to TV series like Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-1993), The Wonder Years (1988-1993) and American Dreams (2002-2005). I have often mocked this type of

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teen movie – precisely because it gets unfairly, snobbishly elevated over the more vulgar types – but let us be ecumenical here: there are many terrific coming-of-age movies, and they are an important strand of the genre. One much-loved classic in this style is John Duigan’s The Year My Voice Broke (1987). 3. Speaking of vulgarity, our third key film from this seminal period is Animal House (John Landis, 1978) – devoted to what Raymond Durgnat calls the tradition of animal comedy, or the comedy of bad manners.7 The tradition trails through the Porky’s films (1982-1985), the Meatballs movies (1979-1992), the Israeli Eskimo Limon series (1978-2001) and many, many other low comedies. Today – in a new and revitalised phase of its (d)evolution, the era of the Farrelly brothers, Judd Apatow, Anna Faris and Will Ferrell – we call it trash comedy. One thing I love in the teen movie genre is that, even in the most sensitive, mature instance, we may also get a glorious outburst of animal/trash comedy: for example, the pie-eating contest that leads to a surreal spectacle of mass barfing in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986). Conversely, even the most vulgar escapade – such as the splendid back-to-school vehicle for Faris, The House Bunny – can flip itself into a conclusion of surprising sweetness. 4. The final, seminal film from this period is Saturday Night Fever (John Badham, 1977), still an unfairly maligned and underrated work. Watching it again with hindsight, we can be struck by its proximity to the tradition of the modern, French teen movie (as represented by, for example, Céline Sciamma’s Naissance des pieuvres [2007]) – in its toughness, tawdriness, elements of violence, misery, oppression and unhappy sexual experiences. Yet this is set against, in a jolting juxtaposition, the sublime dream of escape and romance symbolised by the euphoric release of Tony (John Travolta) on the disco floor. (There are at least two intense art films that address Saturday Night Fever directly: Patricia Mazuy’s edgy depiction of teenage female rebellion and nihilism in Travolta et moi [1994], and the Chilean neo-neorealist piece Tony Manero [Pablo Larraín, 2008].) Note how strongly such items as humiliation, envy, revenge – involving the base, dirty emotions – rule teen movies, from Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) to the European “cinema of cruelty” of Benoît Jacquot’s La désenchantée (1990), Catherine Breillat’s 36 fillette (1988) and many Jacques Doillon films … not forgetting the vivid UK TV series Skins (2007-2013, with a brief USA version in 2011), or the work of Serbian Maja Milos, from the 30-minute Si tu timazin (2004) to her controversial debut feature, Klip (2012).


Mysteries of Cinema

In previous writings on the teen genre, I have stressed the idea of a paradoxical combination of craziness (as defined in the very title of a film like Savage Steve Holland’s One Crazy Summer [1987]) and innocence. Above all, the genre explores of what anthropologists call liminality: the in-between state – a heightened moment of suspension between two conditions (usually, childhood and adulthood). In this ephemeral state of suspension, everything seems eternal – and possible. This is what Chantal Akerman meant when she said that her triangular teen romance Nuit et jour (1991) was about the “sense of the absolute” that teenagers feel as they explore love and sex – and also what Péter Gothár meant when he called his classic Hungarian teen film Megáll az idö (1982) or “time stands still”. More recently, Hansen-Løve’s Un amour de jeunesse is devoted to this same sensation of the absolute. This liminal experience is also the source of the very particular and complex nostalgia, looking back and remembering, that we find in teen movies, especially those that are wrapped around or framed by adult stories – embodied, for example, in Stevie Wonder’s theme tune “Stay Gold” for Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Hinton’s The Outsiders (1983). The key image of summer – one crazy summer, lost summer, the summer feeling that will “haunt you the rest of your life” (as Jonathan Richman sang) – is a dramatic and poetic image of youth, what it is and what it means. It is not a question of hitting the age of 20 and no longer being young; it is more a matter of trying to maintain that originary inspiration and energy, that elevated sense of confidence and the absolute – the replaying that Assayas spoke of, but integrated into the disillusioning, maturing, cynical-making experiences of later life. Youth is also linked to staying loose, free-spirited, spontaneous. Positif critic and Surrealist Robert Benayoun insisted on the inherent, political radicality of youth (a time of life in which “erotomania” is equaled in intensity only by a “sense of injustice”), as it both lives out and questions everything, testing all limits8 – see Accepted (Steve Pink, 2006) or Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta, 2009) for charming examples. The stories of the genre often carry on a kind of argument – one we find a great deal in romantic comedies generally – about the vital, spontaneous life. This primal life energy, a survival energy, is linked to the intimate relation with pop culture that we see embodied and enacted in teen movies. In this sense, the genre introduces a fantasy dimension into ordinary life, almost a magical dimension – and there are many scenes of dreams and daydreams in this genre. But the teen movie is not purely a fantastic, unreal, artificial genre. I insist on something else as well, another paradoxical combination: that, in

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its own way, the teen movie is an extremely everyday, on-the-ground kind of genre. It deals at length with daily, ordinary rituals. Indeed, no scene is more typical of the teen movie than that humble overture in which somebody wakes up in the morning – you see their room, their things, their music collection, their clothes – as they begin their normal day. This is a genre geared to everyday pleasures and pains (particularly of the consumer variety: eating, shopping) and whimsical activities, like friends simply hanging out together. Its dramas are small dramas, and thus often mocked by commentators as trivial – but they are problems that are all-consuming and all-important to the characters themselves. Another way of putting this is that the teen movie is the least sacred and the most secular of genres. Sacred and secular provide two poles between which to define the emphases of specific popular genres. Many teen movies are, to coin a term, anti-Spielbergian: they rarely have a spiritual or religious inflection (unlike horror or fantasy movies). A prime, eye-opening example in this regard is Robert Zemeckis’s feature debut I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978); as a film about the fan-cult phenomenon of Beatlemania it is, in many ways, the earthly (and earthy) response to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), in the sense that it recounts a frankly orgasmic encounter with divinity: pop divinity. Finally, what I am pointing to here are the tender scenes, the humble epiphanies that are a chief source of pleasure and inspiration in this genre. I recall an earlier experience of being excited by glimpsing the trailer for a new teen film, long before (500) Days of Summer: it was for Say Anything … . I knew it would be a special and moving film, just from the glimpse of John Cusack holding a ghetto blaster above his head, wooing his beloved with that corny Peter Gabriel song, “In Your Eyes”. Is this kind of pleasure all that far from what we value in a political-ethical teen movie like Caterina va in città (Paolo Virzi, 2003), a melancholicrealist teen movie like Letter to Brezhnev (Chris Bernard, 1985), or a radically experimental and abrasive teen art movie like Claire Denis’s U.S. Go Home (1994)? When we manage to cover both the depth and breadth of the teen genre in this transversal way, we will discover the many secret, surprising affinities within it – and we will get better ideas for the sorts of teen movies we could all make in the future. 

(1998 / 2012)


Mysteries of Cinema

Notes 1.

2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

See, for example, the chapter on the teen genre in Adrian Martin, Phantasms (Melbourne: Penguin, 1994); and the pieces on individual films collected in the “Teenage Wildlife” dossier in Rouge, no. 13 (2009), . Accessed 1 May 2017. “The Cinema According to Olivier Assayas”, interview by Adrian Martin, Cinema Papers, no. 126 (August 1998); this passage was omitted from the published version. Bart Mills, “Turning the Teen Tide”, in James Park (ed.), The Film Yearbook, Volume 8 (New York: St Martins Press, 1987), pp. 6-11. See Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1988). Henri Agel (trans. Bill Routt), Romance américane (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1963), pp. 12-13. See, for the most comprehensive studies of this phenomenon, Jon Savage, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture (London: Chatto & Windus, 2007) and Catherine Driscoll, Teen Film (London: Sage, 2011). Raymond Durgnat, “Next Time You Say That – Smile: A New and Revised Dictionary of the Comedy of Manners”, Monthly Film Bulletin, no. 656 (September 1988), pp. 258-60. Robert Benayoun, “The Emperor Has No Clothes” (1962), in Peter Graham with Ginette Vincendeau (eds), The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks (London: British Film Institute, 2009), p. 185.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

18. In the Mood For (Something Like) Love Abstract This essay sets out to define the nature of contemporary romantic comedy in cinema, in both its connections to and differences from so-called classic romantic comedy. In the 2010s, critics and champions of popular culture often ignore romantic comedy in favour of violent, action genres – a clear gender bias. The romantic comedy genre is defined as the popular form closest to ephemeral but no less significant fashions in lifestyle, taste, opinion and behaviour. Analysis of the genre has been hampered by a fetishising of a handful of classic American titles from the 1930s and 1940s, thus ignoring both the numerous international variations on the format, and the many mutations it has undergone in the later 20th and early 21st centuries. Keywords: Genre, romantic comedy, popular culture, love, sex, Stanley Cavell

Amidst the usual, bureaucratic flood of my university’s email, an announcement from the School of Political and Social Inquiry piques my attention: Professor Catherine Waldby of Sydney University will address the topic of “Banking Time: Egg Freezing, Internet Dating, and the Negotiation of Future Romance”.1 I quickly learn from this email that non-medical egg freezing – also known as social egg freezing – has been around for only, roughly, the past five years. Waldby’s field research (“interviews with both clinicians and women who have banked their eggs”) raises “broad issues about the relationship between sexuality, reproduction, and the political economy of everyday life”. In particular, egg freezing seems to offer a technical solution to a number of different problems women face with regard to the elongation of the life course, the cost of household

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH18


Mysteries of Cinema

establishment, and the iterative nature of relationship formation, thematised by the ubiquity of Internet dating among the interviewees.

The sociological lingo of this email announcement may be a little dry, but you can guess what, by now, I am thinking: What a great idea for a contemporary romantic comedy! All the necessary elements for a modern take on this genre are there: women who want to have children, but are hampered by their non-lasting, “iterative” relationships (i.e., one partner after another) begun on the Internet, and who, after weighing up the various emotional and economic factors, opt for a “technical solution” via a new, easily buyable option. Perhaps, in the end, there will be a random, non-virtual encounter with a potentially non-iterative partner. Or perhaps not. In 2013, at least according to the usual Hollywood industry diagnoses, romantic comedy is in the doldrums.2 What worked during most of 1990s and 2000s – several, often interlocking formulae, whether the Kate Hudson/ Anne Hathaway/Drew Barrymore/Adam Sandler American model, or the British Working Title production company model – lost its mass drawing power a couple of years back. Furthermore, Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids (2011), the gal-pal flick that managed to mix the rousing vulgarity of trash comedy with a tender, romantic element, has proved to be a success that is hard to repeat. Indeed, to many industry pundits, 2011 clocks in as the last good year, in recent memory, for this genre. And so, an undoubtedly odd experiment such as Lorene Scafaria’s Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012) starring Steve Carell – a cross between a feel-good flick and Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967) – is swiftly shuffled out of view as a major miscalculation of box-office appeal. Romantic comedy – rom-com, to stick with that breezy abbreviation – is an extremely broad and diverse genre that cannot be tied down to a handful of formulae. Like every commercial, popular genre, it enjoys its box-office peaks and weathers the troughs, and, like every genre, it makes perpetual comebacks, often in strange guises. It undergoes metamorphoses, hybridisations and subversions. Sometimes, what we take to be the central elements of the genre might appear only glancingly, as an allusion; at other times, these elements take centre stage, but are heavily qualified by ironic quotation marks. All genres evolve this way. Talk of evolution is probably too organic a metaphor to deal with the messy ebbs and flows of any pop culture form. On a case-by-case basis – which is the only genuine, productive way to chart any movie genre – what we are faced with is an attempt, by any new entry in the cycle, to patch together disparate elements that are “in the air”, culturally speaking. More than other

In the Mood For (Some thing Like) Love


genres (such as action or horror), rom-coms are especially wedded to the fickleness of fashions and the speed of the mass-media zeitgeist. Back in 1975, in a sometimes bewildering (we might say rhizomatic) article on a type of film he labelled “populism and social realism”, the great British critic Raymond Durgnat proposed a unique, and mostly unheeded, way of sorting genres.3 For Durgnat, any genre is a loose, protean, “bill of fare” object, not a sacrosanct myth or ritual: it absorbs what is going on around it (in other genres, for instance), reflects all manner of fads and topical discussions, and swiftly metamorphoses into many variations and sub-types. Durgnat began, quite cheerfully, from the fact that even the most common terms we uses to label genres are profoundly inconsistent: where the Western refers to a particular geographic place/period (the American West), the musical names an aesthetic mode (song and dance), and horror refers to a very loose, amorphous type of content (zombies, werewolves, the supernatural), terms like thriller signal only the kind of emotional affect that the films are designed to prompt in viewers. Durgnat mused that, finally, perhaps the only generic distinction that matters to most people is the broadest one of all, separating drama from comedy – the broadest, and also the loosest, given how quickly any film can skip from one to the other and back again. Defining a romantic comedy as – say – “a film that has something to with love, and that tries to make you laugh somewhere along the way” may not sound terribly scholarly or exact. But it is the way of genre: the films themselves often scramble after a definition of love, and experiment with placing it in different contexts (the couple, the family, social communities, political histories). We need to chase the genre’s self-definition in flight, as it happens. Let us take a very ordinary, contemporary example – something we must always remember to do in genre analysis. What to Expect When You’re Expecting (Kirk Jones, 2012) is a star-studded affair. In fact, its casting is carefully distributed over at least three generations of recognisable actors. There are Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez and Chris Rock in the middle tier; Dennis Quaid standing in for an older generation; and two of the young adults who also appear in the musical Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012), itself a follow-up phenomenon in the wake of the television series Glee (2009-2015): Anna Kendrick (for love interest) and Rebel Wilson (for goofball humor). Like He’s Just Not That Into You (Ken Kwapis, 2009), the script is adapted from, or inspired by, a non-fiction, self-help best-seller – something that, tellingly, happens in no other genre. As a mosaic narrative about pregnancy – wanting a baby, getting pregnant, delivering a baby, losing a baby, adopting a baby, and so on – What to


Mysteries of Cinema

Expect When You’re Expecting revisits situations that any follower of this genre since the late 1980s (especially what was dubbed its “baby cycle”, which included Baby Boom and Three Men and a Baby in 1987) knows well. There is the hospital scene in which a woman (Elizabeth Banks) who runs a “breast feeding boutique” thinks she will not need an epidural to give birth, but ends up shrieking like a banshee for it; there are the gags wherein a married couple attempts to copulate at the optimum moments for conception, whether in the mood or not; there is the agony of fathers-to-be, watching the last of their bachelor-era freedoms quickly vanish – although, on this last point, the film is determined to spin a wholly positive, anti-Mad Men message, with a self-motivating support group of Dads wheeling their babies each afternoon, and asserting things like: “I may be a mediocre husband, but I’m an above-average Dad!” There is also a strong Working Title influence evident here, beginning with the mosaic approach itself (which stretches the running time to 110 minutes). Like in Notting Hill (Roger Michell, 1999), Wimbledon (Richard Loncraine, 2004), or the Bridget Jones series (2001-2016), What to Expect When You’re Expecting makes room not just for the multiple couples at the core of each plot thread, but also their already attached (or weirdly asexual) friends, and some parents (enter Dennis Quaid). A particular type of professional, social milieu is also adapted from the Working Title example: the characters are celebrity hosts on TV reality shows, former racing car drivers, or art photographers who dabble in baby portraiture to pay the bills. Who cares about films like this? Certainly not the vast majority of film critics. Romantic comedy, in cinema at least, does not receive much serious critical attention. (There is more said about Mills & Boon-style fiction in contemporary literary studies, as a matter of course.) Compare this to the flurry of attention, on-line, to what has been labelled (rather misleadingly) “vulgar auteurism”. (This is misleading, because what this loose movement champions is proudly vulgar auteurs, not deludedly vulgar auteurists.) This new wave stands up not only for popular cinema, but also the sub-popular: VOD (video on demand) films and their directors who usually fall off the journalistic radar. This defence of the sub-popular is laudable – in fact, it is a war that has been constantly fought by switched-on observers of mass culture since, at least, Parker Tyler in the 1940s. When we look into the forms of cinema favoured by these neo-auteurists, however, we see an overwhelming emphasis on predominantly male-driven, violent, action genres. When Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, the most gifted spokesperson for vulgar auteurism, praises movies such as Undisputed III: Redemption (Isaac Florentine, 2010) and Universal Soldier: Regeneration

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(John Hyams, 2009) for their “brawny, brutal grace”, “focus on physicality and movement” and “the kind of practicality – unfettered and up-front – that can have a beauty of its own” (almost exactly the same words Manny Farber used 50 or more years ago to describe the films of Raoul Walsh, Don Siegel, or Samuel Fuller) – I get the distinct impression that he would not rush to describe the delightful Friends with Benefits (Will Gluck, 2011) with quite the same fistful of tough-guy adjectives. 4 Rom-coms, like musicals, are obviously far too sissy for many vulgar auteurists. The gender bias here – covered by the spurious aesthetic alibi that physical action is somehow more cinematic than actors delivering sparkling dialogue – simply replays an old, auteurist fixation on the visual (grossly conceived) that long kept masters like Billy Wilder or Joseph Mankiewicz out of the Pantheon, completely unfairly. Of course, there are glowing exceptions to this general critical neglect.5 Too often, however, even some of the best commentators – particularly if they are of an auteurist persuasion (vulgar or otherwise) – tend to draw from a shallow pool of high-quality examples, a process that always results in a skewed picture of the genre as a whole. When critics do address romantic comedy, they usually cite the untouchable exemplars from a now distant past – the so-called classic era of the 1930s and 1940s that included It Happened One Night (1934), His Girl Friday (1940), Holiday (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Lady Eve (1942), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and not very many others. (I can remember, not so long ago, when purists of the genre were testy about letting even the best Doris Day/Rock Hudson comedies of the 1950s and 1960s into the canon.) With hindsight, it is easy to distill from these undoubtedly terrific films something like a solid, stable core of generic conventions – thus giving rise to the illusion of a classical tradition, and artists knowingly working in that tradition. There are the recurring stars, whose work in those years shines as brightly today as it ever did: James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Barbara Stanwyck – not to mention a small galaxy of colourful character actors like Edward Everett Horton or Eugene Pallette. There are similar trigger-situations across the plots: holidays, imminent marriages and road trips. There is the enviable level of emotional and intellectual reciprocity between men and women on screen – something whose loss we have all been bemoaning for about five decades. There are the great directors: Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, George Cukor, Howard Hawks and Frank Capra. And there is the happy, historic coincidence that almost all these anointed classics are in finely shaded black-and-white.


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But did any of these skilled filmmakers think of themselves, at the time, as working inside a (briefly) venerable tradition, as contributing to a classic period? Chances are (to cite the title of a quite decent 1989 entry in the genre), their antennae were as keyed then to the ephemeral zeitgeist of culture, and the changing formulae of what was working at the box office, as the creators of What to Expect When You’re Expecting are now. There is plenty of evidence of this in the movies themselves: from topical references to political arguments in Lubitsch’s work (like the Bolshevik who angrily strolls into a scene to offer the complaint of the proletariat in Trouble in Paradise [1932]), to the blitz of in-jokes about cultural fads circa 1940 in His Girl Friday. The treatment of these films as timeless classics tends to filter out precisely what was attractively timely about them in their day. In this context, the most glaring example of a study of romantic comedy that misses its mark is a book that undoubtedly has many fine, subtle qualities, and has inspired much good work in its wake: Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage by American philosopher Stanley Cavell.6 This is not a book based on wide viewing; it concentrates on seven films (including The Lady Eve, The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib [Cukor, 1949]) – all, by common reckoning, masterpieces. They happen to be Cavell’s favourites, and nobody will begrudge him that love. However, Cavell spends his entire book elaborating a cockeyed definition of romantic comedy – centred completely on the idea and reality of remarriage – that not even all his chosen titles (It Happened One Night?) fit.7 When, some years later, Cavell inverted his imaginary rom-com genre and proclaimed the existence of a “melodrama of the unknown woman”, he again opted for a handful of titles by a few, great Hollywood auteurs.8 In truth, the remarriage plot, as Cavell over-generously defines it – in which two people either literally remarry, or (more usually) rekindle a love grown stale – is simply one available element in the entire arsenal of rom-com scenarios. At least Cavell let himself goaded (by Film Comment magazine) into exercising his philosophical eye on a resolutely ordinary, recent example of the genre, Doug Liman’s Mr and Mrs Smith (2005) starring the celebrity couple of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, which is typical of many similar movies – but, all the same, intriguing for the variations it spins on familiar elements.9 Virtually all genre criticism (and Cavell provides merely an extreme, hyper-intellectualised example) is plagued by the dual tendency to a. draw up a list of supposedly fixed or essential elements that are characteristic of a given genre; and b. sort out individual titles on the basis of whether they do or not fit into the box defined in the previous step. This approach

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quickly leads to the mistake whereby anything falling outside the designated classic period is treated as either a mere precursor, or a dreadful example of withered decadence. To constitute anything approaching a complete history of romantic comedy, however, would mean embarking on the recapture of a long line of ephemeral zeitgeists and fads. It would mean allowing in everything and everybody: not only Doris Day and Rock Hudson, but also Burt Reynolds and Madeline Kahn, Robert Downey, Jr. and Molly Ringwald, Justin Timberlake and Emma Stone. It would mean roping in as much television as cinema, especially in the era of Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls and beyond. It would also mean – as I have scarcely done in this essay so far – getting beyond a fixation on the USA as the special, unique country where the romantic comedy genre is born, raised to classic status, and then dies a thousand deaths. After all, many national cinemas have their own, culture-specific variation on the rom-com – often the last thing exported to the rest of the world, except to diasporic niche audiences. This oversight is not only a matter of ignoring properly global examples of populist cinema. If we spend too much time wondering where Cameron Diaz’s career is going, we may not notice that, over the past few years, it has indeed been so-called “world” art cinema – however securely cordoned off within the cultured walls of film festivals, boutique DVD/Blu-ray labels and designated art house theatres – that has rung some of the most intriguing variations on the romantic comedy genre. Alain Resnais’s recent films, Les herbes folles (2009) and Vous n’avez encore rien vu (2012), constantly return, in ingenious ways, to various conventions of the genre – a preoccupation fed by his love not only for the films of Lubitsch, but also the sophisticated musicals of Stephen Sondheim, as well as the work of British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whom he has adapted several times. Abbas Kiarostami, an elevated figure whose films we do not normally associate with either laughter or romance, is not a million miles from the strange encounter of wildly different souls – another rom-com staple – in Like Someone in Love (2012). Nor is Jean-Claude Brisseau, that “reliably randy auteur” as Richard Porton once dubbed him,10 in La fille de nulle part (2012) – which, like Kiarostami’s film, places two lost people, displaced in different ways (a lonely old man played by Brisseau himself, still grieving over the wife he lost over 30 years earlier, and a homeless young girl, Dora [Virginie Legeay]), into an enigmatic relationship. As these examples also suggest, we sometimes need to turn our attention away from the circuits of purely mainstream production to get the full


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measure of where romantic comedy is in any given period. Independent filmmakers with tiny budgets have often turned to romantic comedy as one of the forms (alongside two-hander thrillers and no-special-effects science-f iction conceits) that allow in-depth exploration of a minimal number of elements – usually throwing a huge burden of responsibility onto the central actors to carry the charm and maintain the interest of the piece. There is a solid substratum of rom-com in the loose Mumblecore movement, for example, as we can see in some films by Andrew Bujalski, Lynn Shelton and Joe Swanberg. The latter’s Drinking Buddies (2013) mixes Mumblecore regulars such as Olivia Wilde with the mainstream figure Anna Kendrick, and sets in motion the subtle, emotional ronde that occurs between two couples on a holiday together: familiar rom-com elements again, but with that deliberate touch of artlessness and open-endedness that is characteristic of Swanberg’s prolific, low-budget, largely digital output. In a quite different register of independent production, look at Joseph Kahn’s brilliant genre experiment Detention (2011). In the field of teen rom-com, this goes far beyond even the inventiveness we find in lively examples such as Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010) or (back in the art house) La vie d’a dèle (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013). Detention takes a hyper-ironic stance – fully assuming that its knowing (and mainly young) viewers regard every depiction of adolescent love as a sentimental cliché – and then begins to spin, at a frantic pace, a whirlwind of assorted, overlapping genres (slasher/horror, time travel science fiction, alien invasion, juveniledelinquent-as-social-problem). When, finally, love conquers all at the school prom, and these teenagers break out their ridiculous dance moves to the beat of “MMMbop” by Hanson, we experience something all too rare in contemporary pop culture: genuine elation. If we need a contemporary rom-com auteur to bridge all these types and levels of production (mainstream, art and independent cinema) – and to bring together several different, national-cultural attitudes to love and relationships – look no further than Danish-born Lone Scherfig. Her Dogme entry Italiensk for begyndere (2000) offers a clever re-creation of rom-com elements by beginning from the admission that its characters are, to some extent, socially maladaptive, wounded by the solitude they have endured. This is something she has pursued in all her subsequent work: Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself (2002), Just Like Home (2007), An Education (2009), and One Day (2011) starring Anne Hathaway. Beyond the patterns we can enjoy and appreciate by looking at a director’s body of work, One Day also brings us back firmly to the chaotic, messy network that comprises the romantic comedy genre over the past

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few years. Like Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013), One Day is more fixed on the past – that “one perfect day” of amorous encounter endlessly remembered and repeated – than the future, which registers as dim, unknowable and menacing. On this point, it meets another ignored hybrid, David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense – a rom-com filtration of the apocalypse genre, more surprising in its moves than either Lars von Trier’s Melancholia or Abel Ferrara’s 4:44 Last Day on Earth (all three hail from 2011, a good year, it seems, for the world’s end). Where is romantic comedy today, after art house World Cinema, after Mumblecore, after Scherfig, after Sex in the City (TV and film versions), after Before Midnight, after an extreme “pop will eat itself” event like Detention? Try Lena Dunham’s Girls (2012-2017). In a New York Review of Books essay, Elaine Blair took the measure of this television series well: she remarked that the predicament of Dunham’s character Hannah “is common enough in life, but it’s not one you see often, if ever, on film”. What is this predicament? “Romantic comedy (and its television variations) devotes its energies to obscuring the possible gaps between things like companionability, attraction, and intense sexual arousal”.11 Squaring all these things – love, sex and friendship – in a perfect fusion is, in a nutshell, the rom-com dream. But, like all rich genres, romantic comedy often proceeds by exploring the insides and outsides of its founding fantasy: affirming it, questioning it, wanting to believe in it … and then starting all over again. Which reminds me: can I interest you in a screenplay about egg freezing? (2013)

Notes 1. 2. 3. 4.

This research was eventually published as Catherine Waldby, “‘Banking Time’: Egg Freezing and the Negotiation of Future Fertility”, Culture, Health and Sexuality, Vol. 17 No. 4 (2014), pp. 470-482. See, for example, Claude Brodesser-Akner, “Can the Romantic Comedy Be Saved?”, Vulture, 27 October 2012 []. Accessed 16 December 2016. Raymond Durgnat, “Genre: Populism and Social Realism”, Film Comment, Vol. 11 No. 4 (July-August 1975), pp. 20-29, 63. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “Today’s Best Action Directors Aren’t Working in Hollywood, but in Direct-to-Video”, A.V. Club, 18 October 2013 [http://



6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11.

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holl-104394]. Accessed 16 December 2016. For a broader sampling of vulgar auteurism, see the website The Vulgar Cinema []. See Kathrina Glitre, Hollywood Romantic Comedy: States of the Union 1934-1965 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006); James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges (New York: Da Capo Press, 1987); Martha Nochimson, Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of 2 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002); and Bruce Babington & Peter William Evans, Affairs to Remember: The Hollywood Comedy of the Sexes (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1991). Stanley Cavell, Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981). For an excoriating critique of Cavell in this regard, see Brian Henderson, “Harvard Film Studies: A Review”, Film Quarterly, Vol. 35 No. 4 (Summer 1982), pp. 22-34. Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). Stanley Cavell, “Falling in Love Again”, Film Comment, Vol. 41 No. 5 (2005), pp. 50-54. Richard Porton, “Rotterdam 2009: Ghosts, Girls, Guns”, Cinema Scope, no. 38 (Spring 2009), p. 54. Elaine Blair, “The Loves of Lena Dunham”, The New York Review of Books, 7 June 2012 []. Accessed 16 December 2016.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

19. Shivers, Surprise and Discomfort Sadism and Sublimation in Contemporary Cinema Abstract Cinema in the 21st century has seen a rise in the number and type of films built upon notions of violent sadism, both in their content and form. The phenomenon ranges from sensational, low-budget horror movies to highly celebrated art films (by Lars von Trier, Michael Haneke, Quentin Tarantino, etc.), via examples in independent and experimental cinema. Everywhere, there is an “upping the ante” of shock and transgression. This essay explores the phenomenon from various cultural, political and aesthetic angles, analysing cinematic sadism both as a social symptom and a provocative means of inquiry. It searches for the most illuminating and unusual examples from recent production, such the Brazilian Filmefobia. Theorists discussed include Noël Burch, Nancy Huston, and Vivian Sobchack. Keywords: Violence, sadism, sublimation, Vivian Sobchack, Noël Burch

Sadism in cinema is back – with (as they say) a vengeance. In Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), a Western built to a 70 millimetre, widescreen scale, a tough prisoner with the deceptively dainty name of Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has to suffer a great deal while handcuffed to the ruthless bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell). She is repeatedly silenced with a punch in the face. As people die around her, she is showered with blood (and guts) that no one ever bothers to clean off. The brains of her own, dearly beloved brother are splattered over her with a gun blast. Finally, she undergoes a particularly savage and agonising death by hanging. That does not even begin to catalogue the fancy reams of obscene, verbal abuse (the Tarantino speciality) that she must endure from a gaggle of men while she is still breathing.

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH19


Mysteries of Cinema

Why such hostility directed at Daisy, in particular? Just about every major character in the movie is equally “hateful”, equally scheming, equally duplicitous. Tarantino works to a strange formula: revisiting the huis clos premise of his debut feature, Reservoir Dogs (1992) – even bringing back Michael Madsen and Tim Roth for this commemorative self-congratulation – he slowly cranks up an agonising, dramatic tension (everybody is locked into a snowbound cabin that seems as vast as a Hilton hotel) that simply has to be released somewhere, somehow, in paroxysmic split-seconds of carnage-cum-catharsis. No one is safe in this set-up, but the woman – partly because the film lets her endure until almost the final frame – is pegged as the most “satisfying” outlet for such aggression, which is primed and pumped at punctual intervals throughout the three-hour running time. This level of sadism has been on a roll in cinema for approximately the past seven years, and Tarantino effectively set the trend in motion with his Inglourious Basterds (2009). Sadism is here conjugated, and justified, in a specific way: revenge. A band of “Nazi killers” during World War II, led by Lt Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), gleefully scalp their victims – and, to eternally “brand” any survivors as the craven scum that they are, carve Nazi insignia into their foreheads. “It’s my masterpiece”, intones Aldo admiringly as he finishes his final touch of gruesome, bloody work on the head of the evil Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) in the last frames of the fiction – no doubt boastfully speaking for the director himself as he sizes up his creation. To be fair, Inglourious Basterds marked a significant change in Tarantino’s career, from making only what he described as “movie movies” – in other words, films that only refer to other films, in an ecstatic state of cinemania – to inventing a work that tackles, in a frankly outrageous fashion, questions of history and politics; indeed, as his devotees at Positif call it, la Grande Histoire itself.1 Where Inglourious Basterds took in a wider, European, wartime context, both the subsequent Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight focus, with an oddly nationalistic pride, on the type of historical conflicts that can be racked into focus by America’s Western genre: black vs. white, North vs. South. It is particularly evident that a concerted logic of righteous revenge – keyed to hot-button cultural and political topics of the present – has been driving Tarantino for some time now. His f ilms are fed by a projective fantasy: since he has the public platform (courtesy of the support of his producers, the once-powerful Weinsteins), he can speak for and represent the deepest wishes of oppressed sectors of the community to which he does not, strictly or literally, belong. Death Proof (2007) announced this campaign, with its (supposedly) pro-feminist triumph of a gang of women

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over an oppressive, killer male (Kurt Russell again) – and, whatever we make of this spectacle, Daisy Domergue surely represents a step backward from it. Inglourious Basterds offered itself to us openly, brazenly, as a wishfulfillment fantasy: Jews at last getting to wreak their murderous revenge not only on innumerable Nazi officers but also on der Führer himself. Both Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight feature charismatic black heroes (incarnated, respectively, by Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson) who take gleefully abominable revenge against their white masters. When Django Unchained appeared, a tart joke went around the social media sites of cynical cinephiles: now that he has liberated women, Jews and blacks with his spectacular rituals of bloody murder, surely his next film will show the queers of the world massacring the straights? We guessed such a fantasy would be beyond the ken of Tarantino’s bullishly hetero, fan-boy sensibility (at least as it shows itself on screen, and in the director’s many interviews). But we guessed wrong, because the central, most vivid sequence of The Hateful Eight gives us a double whammy of righteous revenge: not only does Jackson’s character of Major Marquis Warren get to strip his Southern white attacker naked in the snow and slowly lead him to the point of death, he also forces the guy, in the meantime, to suck his black cock. Tarantino’s own public statements on these matters tend to encourage rather than resolve the evident confusions and contradictions at play. For example, here he is on the opportunistic use in Inglourious Basterds of the Native American “Apache” mythology of scalping – which is not, in fact, an indigenous practice, but one introduced by their European colonisers: The idea of using the Apache resistance […] it works effectively to actually get German soldiers to think of Jews that way […] And they’re not just any Jews, they’re the American Jews. They’re Jews with entitlement. They have the strongest nation in the world behind them. So we’re going to inflict pain where our European aunts and uncles had to endure it. And so the fact that you could actually get Nazis scared of a band of Jews, that’s […] a gigantic psychological thing. The other thing is even the Jews […] metaphorically aligning themselves with Indians […] you have genocide aligning itself with another genocide.2

Genocide aligning itself with another genocide? It is an extreme – perhaps monstrous – transformation of the principle of an eye for an eye, transposed to the world-historical stage of the 20th century. Yet, can we effectively criticise Tarantino for not being an intellectual, a political historian, or a moral philosopher? Those who champion his work stand up for the filmmaker’s


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right to be provocative, incendiary, to shake up safe, neat conventions of historical representation, to indulge in and satisfy our deepest, least realistic fantasy of retribution – and, above all, his right to have fun. Gruesome, black-comic fun: fun with his subject, fun with himself as celebrity auteur, fun with us as the audience whom he effectively leads down a path and then startles, over and over. And those who deny that fun are (apparently) killjoys, the politically correct police of respectable culture. An abyss quickly opens up between a critic such as Jonathan Rosenbaum, for whom Inglourious Basterds is “morally akin to Holocaust denial” because “anything that makes Fascism unreal is wrong”,3 and all those tactical amoralists who find the film a daring, invigorating and complex gesture in the context of current, mainstream cinema. One perceptive US commentator online, Zachary Campbell, summed up the post-Tarantino dilemma of critical culture well: “While every good film critic is probably a bit of a moralist, not every good film critic is a good moralist.”4 Tarantino himself has never had any qualms about presenting and sensationalising vengeful, sadistic violence. Indeed, the horrifying events of 11 September 2001 appear to have had a delirious effect on him: since then, his films have become ecstatic fables of unfettered violence, albeit justified by some handy moral alibi (such as the divinity of motherhood in Kill Bill [2003]). The right to strike back – so much a part of American ideology and the American psyche – overcomes every material barrier in his recent films: geography, language, culture, money. Tarantino is comfortable with the simplified polarities of melodrama: by boiling World War II in Inglourious Basterds down to the struggle between one bad (male) Nazi and one wronged (female) Jew, he manages, miraculously, to obliterate from view the French Resistance! And the disturbing sequence in which several remaining “basterds”, soon for sacrificial immolation, indiscriminately and without a moment’s hesitation slaughter every German in a movie house, is blind to the complex ironies and reversibilities of wartime ethics (unlike, say, Samuel Fuller’s war movies from The Steel Helmet in 1950 to The Big Red One in 1980). For all of his loud talk of how “messy” the course of revenge is, and how unpredictable its consequences, there is, ultimately, not much room for ambiguity in Tarantino: sadistic revenge demands a straight-down-the-line thrill. There is a disconcerting commonality between Tarantino’s f ilms of recent years and another highly symptomatic auteur, Lars von Trier in Denmark. In the epic two “volumes” of Nymphomaniac (2013) and especially in Antichrist (2009), the sadism quotient is again high. The difference is that, in Trier, the sadism is not only gendered but also intensely sexualised.


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The Apache scalping in Inglourious Basterds is upped by a grueling scene in Antichrist wherein She (Charlotte Gainsbourg) bores a large hole in the leg of her psychoanalyst husband, He (Willem Dafoe), attaches a large stone weight to it, smashes his genitals and then masturbates him to the point where he ejaculates blood. More specifically, genocide in one is answered by gynocide in the other: the paranoiac, patriarchal persecution and murder of women in history, which is the topic obsessively researched by She for her academic thesis. Like Tarantino’s film, Antichrist rests upon a disquieting moral reversal: in the grief following the death of her son, She’s civilised identity unravels to the stage where she is indeed revealed to be some kind of demonic witch (an ultimate flashback shows that her taste for orgasm overruled concern for her about-to-perish child), and is ultimately worthy only of being destroyed by He – an act of attrition that seems to cosmically release the tormented souls and bodies caught within the tangle of this unsubtly named Eden forest. (To compound the pretension, Trier unveils a dedication to Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky after this final shot). The lush world of nature, far from carrying a pastoral, sentimental, or redemptive association in Antichrist, is revealed to be the bed of all evil – indeed, “the devil’s house” itself, populated by weird, mutilated animals bearing the power of human speech – and She who is closest to Nature partakes of its “reigning Chaos”. * * * Sadism comes in many forms (psychological, emotional), but, as in the cases of Inglourious Basterds and Antichrist, it is usually yoked to the depiction of physical violence – and the multitude of shocks with which this violence is conveyed or transmitted to the audience, using all the resources of filmic style. From Samuel Fuller to Martin Scorsese, from exploitation drive-in cinema of the 1950s to Takeshi Kitano’s gangster films of the 1990s, via the long tradition of Italian gialli from Mario Bava to Dario Argento, an aesthetics of violence has been celebrated and denounced, back and forth, over and over. Accounts of violence in cinema have run the full gamut from the abstractions of ritual/mythological catharsis and “pure film” (Tarantino’s personal favourite justification) to the quasi-Gothic but all-too-real confession of Lesley Stern in her ficto-critical book The Scorsese Connection that an immersion in the imaginary space of screen violence, this flirting with danger, seemed to usher actual violence and violation into her domestic life.5 In recent years, however, the more particular and ruthless aesthetic of sadism – or, as Tarantino might call it, the art of revenge – has become


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concentrated (and primarily associated in the public’s mind) with two popular genres: horror and thriller (sometimes also overlapping into the action genre as well). Thus, we have seen the birth of what journalists, in a likely excess of moralistic disapproval, have dubbed the torture porn cycle, represented for instance by the Hostel series (2005-2011) masterminded by Eli Roth, Tarantino’s collaborator on Inglourious Basterds (and perpetrator of an especially perverse “feminist revenge” tale, Knock Knock [2015]). Extreme sadistic practices – bloodletting, flaying of naked skin, slow removal of the bodily parts of still-living victims – are regularly rendered in a theatrical, grandiloquent, frequently comical way in these highly commercially successful films, a mode of address made immortal by the serial killer thriller The Silence of the Lambs (1991), its sequel (Hannibal, 2001), prequel (Red Dragon, 2002), and eventual television serialisation (Hannibal, 2013-2015). A particular raft of cinematic techniques and effects has been lovingly, painstakingly developed to deliver these kinds of shocks. In this domain, some young, Australian filmmakers have wielded a world-wide influence: in the Saw cycle (2004-2010) devised by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, Wolf Creek (2005) and Wolf Creek 2 (2013) by Greg McLean, and the lesser-known Acolytes (2008) by Jon Hewitt, we witness the elaboration of a style based wholly on illegibility (out-of-focus or almost entirely dark images), sudden contrasts (sound/silence), and sensory assaults of every imaginable kind. At the same time, contemporary genre films try hard, and often aim high, to create an ever-more chilling sense of dread – a shock that really gets under your skin, gives you the shivers, and cuts right through to your unconscious psyche. English-language cinema has discovered the urgent necessity to move beyond its own, enclosed traditions of suspense and horror, or at least hybridise them with the pillaged remains of successful properties from elsewhere: the unnerving films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa in Japan (his Kairo [2001] has given rise to a three-picture Pulse series [20062009] in America), or the Spanish [REC] cycle (2007-2014) – a live videocam mock-up taking to an extreme the principle of The Blair Witch Project (1999) – whose inaugural entry was immediately and quite closely remade in the US as Quarantine (2008). There have also been moments of plundering or colonisation of avantgarde cinema: Stan Brakhage’s silent The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971), with its lingering abstraction of corpses in a morgue, has become, for some, a masterpiece not of the experimental underground, but a subculture that delights in transgressing taboos (showcased and

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celebrated annually at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival – MUFF for short – among other events of this type around the globe). Meanwhile, directors with proven flair in the horror-thriller genre, such as France’s Alexandre Aja, are transported to USA to helm remakes of The Hills Have Eyes (2006) and Piranha (2010) – and, at the level of marketing and consumption, films including Xavier Gens’s Frontière(s) (2007) and Alexandre Bustillo & Julien Maury’s À l’intérieur (2007) are packaged worldwide on DVD/Blu-Ray labels that promise an “extreme cinema” experience for connoisseurs of sadistic horror. One need only peruse the hundreds of websites and Internet chat groups devoted to the tracking of such films to realise that the principal motif of this veritable audience-cult is the upping of the ante: fans are always searching – and almost always disappointed in their search – for a greater horror, a further-out extremity, an ultimate thrill. Events around the world, in the mould of MUFF or the midnight-to-dawn la noche más freak (freakiest night!) of Spain’s Las Palmas Film Festival, clamour after these newest extreme-of-the-extreme titles, from Pascal Laugier’s intriguing Martyrs (2008) to the Dutch The Human Centipede series (2009-2015) or the notorious Srpski film (Srjdan Spasojevic, 2010), which remains banned in many countries. It is curious to observe those films that are regularly drawn into this “extreme cinema” pool, but, in various ways, resist easy assimilation: like Philippe Grandrieux’s Sombre (1998) and Malgré la nuit (2015), Lucille Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence (2004) and Évolution (2015), the work of Bruno Dumont, Michael Haneke’s two versions of Funny Games (1997 and 2007), or the highly confronting movies of Mexico’s Amat Escalante, Los bastardos (2008) and Heli (2013). Perhaps the most disquieting of all the films in this uneasy category have been created by Claire Denis: Trouble Every Day (2001), mixing AIDS-related fears with vampire-movie cannibalism, and Les salauds (2013), inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, confound any generic classification – and also any kneejerk political reading, whether conservative or progressive. Through their eccentricity, such difficult cases on the far margins of the horror-thriller genres reveal the most troubling tendency of the current entertaining of sadistic cinema: a tendency to isolate, paralyse, draw a protective ring around the spectacle of horror – and hence, as Rosenbaum feared, rendering it unreal, unthinkable, unapproachable except in the safely chilling form of cultural ritual and pure film. Whereas, on the contrary, all the hard-to-classify movies just cited renew the use and depiction of violence (and, furthermore, many kinds of violence: physical, psychic, emotional, political, interpersonal) precisely by mixing genres and generic


Mysteries of Cinema

associations, crossing the borders between the comfortable, self-referential carnival of sadistic effects (packaged as today’s Extreme Cinema) and other social or cinematic histories. Perhaps even Inglourious Basterds, in its leap beyond Tarantino’s previously all-American, movie-mad co-ordinates, disturbs this carnival of business as usual – whereas Antichrist is all too easily absorbed as just another art-horror film, due to its glazed, music-clip stylisation (extreme slow-motion accompanied by Handel) and its predictably auteurist thematic. Like previous Trier heroines who believed in the Lord’s goodness to the point of insanity, She believes in Satan’s evil to the same extreme end – and likewise mocks those rigid gentlemen who embody the institutions of rational society (Church, law, family, psychiatry). One of the films least assimilable to the ethos of extreme cinema is Kiko Goifman’s remarkable, singular and far too little known Filmefobia (2008) from Brazil – a provocation that never fails to divide, and also to confuse, its audiences anywhere. Without exposition, it plunges us into a series of strange enactments, wherein individuals (who have volunteered for this) face their greatest fears: blood, the phallus, rats, dwarves. Behind the scenes, but fully revealed to us, is a Dr Mabuse-like creator in a wheelchair, performed by the Brazilian film critic Jean-Claude Bernardet. Authenticity is this fictive filmmaker’s goal: he seeks the impossible goal of “truth in an image”, visible and incontrovertible truth, and he will seemingly do anything to reach this mad extremity – just like the most unquenchable fan of the extreme cinema cult. Just as Filmefobia blurs the line between Bernardet’s role and Bernardet himself as a public figure – he retells, for example, his real-life story of seeing Roberto Rossellini’s wartime classic Roma città aperta (1945) on a ship as a child, and being completely terrified, even traumatised by it – it also appears to pick up the reference, so prevalent in horror cinema today, to reality television, with its often sadistically demanding physical trials and competitions (there is even a similarly themed show called Fear Factor). Goifman denies that his film has anything at all to do with reality TV, mockumentary, or even horror cinema (even though it frequently shocks and disgusts audiences): it is a truly unclassifiable UFO (Unidentified Filmic Object), sui generis. Its course is unpredictable: gradually, the phobias depicted become stranger, at times frankly comical (a person afraid of buttons is showered with thousands of them), while the obsession of Bernardet grows more ominous, as he confesses to the camera his AIDS condition and his encroaching blindness (this disease and its effects are also part of Bernardet’s real biography, and Goifman later contributed to the script of another film titled, ominously, A


Shivers, Surprise and Discomfort

Destruição de Bernardet [2016], signalling his “destruction”). Formally, and with an intensified critical logic, Goifman moves the work (within a dense 80 minutes) into greater experimentation: increasing patches of blackness both evoke the director’s loss of vision and destroy the possibility of a “true image”, while some very inventive work on sound (each re-enactment has an on-set, live-sound mixer) shifts us from visual fixation to aural attentiveness. Goifman clearly has something else on his mind other than the “spectacle of ultimate horror” to which his stand-in on screen is committed. * * * In April 2009, an international conference titled B for Bad Cinema was held at Monash University in Melbourne; it was devoted to the growing academic interest in cult cinema of all kinds (B films, exploitation films, “paracinema”, pornography).6 In this setting, the taste for violent, extreme cinema received a particular kind of theorisation – or rationalisation. The relation of cinema to any real-world referent is elaborately severed (in reaction to all the dreary sociological studies, over many decades, of the desensitising effects of media violence); sadistic cinema is studied as a form closed in on itself, a repertoire of ironic, self-conscious pleasures for those viewers already in the know; and scholars use these once despised or ignored films as a novel way to explore the realms of the sensorium, the imaginary and the perverse in cinema. Vivian Sobchack, writing in 2006 about what seemed, at that time, the most extreme horror cinema imaginable (the Irish film Isolation [Billy O’Brien, 2005] and The Descent [Neil Marshall, 2005] from Britain, later to birth a 2009 sequel), reached the conclusion that many at the Bad Cinema conference also reached: that, far beyond the symbolics of disgust, transgression, abjection and repression – the sort of terms that have long ruled the discussion and analysis of horror cinema – such films enable a welcome “intensification of my material being”: I was absorbed in, and by, both the now that these two horror films spatialise and extend, and the intense presence of my body as fleshy and vulnerable – aware not only that that I was definitively, responsively, unpleasurably “here” but also intensely (and dare I say it?) very pleasurably alive.7

For Sobchack, this powerfully embodied experience is even a new form or mode of cinephilia, of movie adoration: not consciously or rationally choosing to love such extreme cinema, but “perhaps loving it in such a fierce way that I cannot call it love”.8


Mysteries of Cinema

Sadism in cinema is not only about the content of its representations. It is also about, above all, a viewing experience – a relation of the film to the spectator. There was a time, 50 years ago, when evidence of a filmmaker’s sadism toward his or her audience was viewed as the worst (and certainly the most vulgar) sin in cinema. For example, David Thomson, in his A Biographical Dictionary of Film, relates that “the deliberate emphasis on ‘putting the audience through it’ in Les diaboliques (1955) made Henri-Georges Clouzot artistically suspect”.9 “Putting the audience through it” is a phrase derived from Alfred Hitchcock – a favourite description of his filmmaking method, especially in the era of Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), when his work came closest to the horror genre, as a logical but bold extension of what he had already perfected within the mystery-thriller format. In recent years, the same words about putting the audience through it once used by Hitchcock and applied to Clouzot have also done duty as a description of David Lynch – for instance, his Inland Empire (2006) in which, according to Josef Braun of Canada’s Vue Weekly, “the ‘it’ signifies normally unpleasant sensations such as terror and unease”. This film, according to Braun, is “extremely successful at inflicting unease and one of the ways in which it does so is through sheer hallucinatory relentlessness”. However, there is no longer any hint of moral disapproval in this typical, contemporary account of Lynch’s relentless prompting of the spectator’s emotions of dread; indeed, for Braun, “this sort of transporting experience is precisely what I go to the movies hoping to have”.10 At the Bad Cinema conference in Australia, one lone voice, in the final plenary session, timidly spoke up. After so much talk of the knowing spectator (the basis of what is now called fandom studies), after so much invocation of the self-referential, intertextual complexities of genre, after so much celebration of the extravagantly monstrous beings of horror cinema and of the wonderful physical mayhem they cause, a middle-aged academic/ filmmaker quietly asked from the crowd: “I don’t know much about horror movies, because I haven’t watched many of them, but I can’t help but think, after hearing all your papers, that these films must be, in some way, about the Holocaust. Are they?” A stony silence, descending on the great hall, greeted this impertinent observation: What could this cinema we so fiercely and intricately love have to do with such a stark and monumental historic reality? (In fact, the aforementioned Martyrs is among the few torture/porn/horror films to own up to this inescapable resonance with the Holocaust.) An abyss once again opened up between the moralists and the amoralists, seemingly unable to find the common ground on which to have a debate, or even a conversation.

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Sadistic cinema has long had its sophisticated defenders. One of them, once upon a time, was the French-American filmmaker, teacher and theorist Noël Burch, whose 1969 Praxis du cinéma (in English, Theory of Film Practice) contained a chapter titled “Structures of Aggression”, first published as an essay in Cahiers du cinéma magazine two years previously. With examples ranging from Luis Buñuel’s sliced-eye special Un chien andalou (1929) and George Franju’s slaughterhouse documentary Le sang des bêtes (1949) to Shirô Toyoda’s Yotsuya kaidan (1965) and Tex Avery’s most anarchic cartoons – with a prophetic glimpse along the way at the early gore productions of Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast, 1963), which were later to become a genuine cult item for horror-hounds – Burch argued in favour of the necessarily aggressive tactics of “surprise and discomfort”.11 Burch’s taste for this kind of intervention took him to the margins and the extremes of cinema – to the avant-garde, underground, animation, B grade horror, erotica – and away from those European bastions of artistic f ilmmaking (“Bresson, Antonioni, Resnais”) whom he faulted for their tendency “to exclude from their work any painful violations of taboos, or include such violations only reluctantly, inserting any such element in their films in the most gingerly sort of way”.12 In 1998, at the Rotterdam Film Festival, Burch revisited this period of his work on the occasion of a programme titled “The Cruel Machine”, an investigation of transgression in cinema. His lecture (reworked and published four years later) is called “The Sadeian Aesthetic: A Critical View”. This critical view was, in no small part, a self-critique. In the approximately 30 years that separated him from the initial formulation of the ideas in Praxis du cinéma, Burch had come to see clearly, by his own admission, the “covenant central to the community of high modernism” to which he had once enthusiastically belonged: a covenant “between the demiurgical, megalomaniac, ultimately sadistic power of the avant-garde magician and the stoic masochism of the ordinary devotee, flattered to share the austere tastes of an elite”.13 The films of Stan Brakhage, for instance, whose “grinding ecstasy” had once entranced Burch, now bring forth (in reference to The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes and its neighbours in Brakhage’s “Pittsburgh Trilogy” of the 1970s) a pointed denunciation of their “bland aesthetization of suffering and death combined with that steadfast, sadistic refusal to recognise the expectations of the moviegoer in us all”.14 The invocation of the “moviegoer in us all” marks – as does the disavowal of that “austere elite” of his youth – a surprising, populist turn in Burch’s work as a critical and cultural commentator. This populism comes theorised


Mysteries of Cinema

in tandem with what he proposes as a superior, more radical alternative to the Sadeian aesthetic: surprise surprise, it is a masochistic aesthetic. Masochism – in the specific terms of the relationship or contract between film and spectator – is defined by Burch (via the philosopher Gilles Deleuze on Sacher-Masoch) as a “feminising” and “infantilising” experience, dependent upon a “playful seriousness”, a privileging of “suspense and the deferral of pleasure”, “willful artificiality”, and “loose, arbitrary” narratives that “seem to follow the rambling logic of the fantasising mind with no more than a passing nod at verisimilitude”.15 His exemplary cases are a curious mix: most of Josef von Sternberg’s films with Marlene Dietrich, John Dahl’s thriller The Last Seduction (1994) and, following Carol Clover’s argument in her influential book Men, Women, and Chainsaws,16 the immensely popular slasher/stalker/serial-killer films (like the Friday The 13th and Halloween series) that have allowed male adolescents to “abandon themselves in the sheltering dark to a forbidden, feminising, masochistic experience, to enjoy an ersatz experience not of killing but of dying an ecstatic death”.17 But how many present-day aficionados of extreme cinema would be willing to articulate their pleasures in this precise way? In his 1998 account of what he calls high Modernism, Burch, too, alights upon the Holocaust – that subject which was so unspeakable within the context of Melbourne’s Bad Cinema conference. Making use of Nancy Huston’s historical analysis,18 Burch suggests that the cult of the Marquis de Sade (and thus of the sadistic aesthetic) in the post-war period was “a strategy for coming to terms with the unthinkable violence of Auschwitz and Hiroshima – an instance of the typically French tendency to sexualise phenomena in order to neutralise them emotionally and politically” – as well as a way to bring a world gone to its extremes of madness back into the “Cartesian grid”, since de Sade is “the ultimate Cartesian”, and sadism the ultimate rationality.19 This same analysis informs the social satire in Huston’s subsequent novels, as well – such as the evocation in Infrared (2010) of “the accoutrements of érotisme noir, from de Sade to Madame Robbe-Grillet, from [Pauline] Réage to [Georges] Bataille” which “come straight out of Christian martryology”, are an insult to people for whom the real “memory of slavery is too recent”, and which constitute “hyperintellectualism […] an STD specific to France”.20 A similar complex is treated in another border-crossing literary text, Chris Kraus’s essay-novel Torpor (2006). The character of Jerome in this book, a scholar of the Holocaust, “sees a prescience of horror in the disjointed texts of Georges Bataille and Simone Weil; Artaud, Céline”. As a Jew, Jerome is all too aware of the (often occluded) fact that Bataille, for instance, was at one point “writing rapturously about the primitive, collective thrill of Nazi

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demonstrations”. Nonetheless, Jerome understands the desperate impulse involved: “Bataille loved fascism because it was the most ecstatic antidote to rootless, 20th century European urbanism” – to the malaise of his generation, and other generations to follow. It is only a pity, for Jerome, that Bataille (like so many others of his ilk) could not grasp his own “symptom” as it performed itself so theatrically, across so many fictions and theoretical tomes.21 In a mode of deliberately digressive writing reminiscent of Kraus, Huston’s Infrared alights, in passing, on the biography of Lee Miller, in her remarkable trajectory from a childhood marked by sexual abuse and subsequent painful, genital disease, through a period as passive, nude model and muse for the Surrealists, to becoming an artist herself, photographer of devastated post-war ruins and Holocaust victims, composing her frames up-close and personal: Yes, she must have recognised something in the insane pornography of what she saw in the camps – chaotically exposed nudity, violent effacement of individuality, naked, fragmented, broken Jewish bodies, people turned into objects, non-entities. Unlike the other photographers, Miller approached the corpses without revulsion and photographed them closeup. Instead of framing anonymous heaps, piles, mountains of corpses, she insisted on capturing them as people – one person, another, yet another, each with his or her own history, showing their beauty, their personality, their still-human features, their naked bodies, their living dying bodies, every body a potential body, still human, still so very, very human – just as women exhibited in the nude, treated as if they were interchangeable objects, are in fact human individuals.22

In fact, Burch himself, back in the 1960s, had already made an explicit, conscious connection between his cinematic “structures of aggression” and the horrors of the Holocaust in Praxis du cinéma. In reference to Marcel Hanoun’s unusual, avant-garde, historical fantasy L’authentique procès de Carl Emmanuel Jung (1966), he had vigorously defended the filmmaker’s “right to consider the suffering and death of millions of Jews as an aesthetic object” – because, like other artists who “have made evil into an object of beauty, generally through erotic fantasy” (Burch cites de Sade, Jean Genet, Lautréamont, Bataille and Leni Riefenstahl), it should be possible for Hanoun to “sublimate” those materials of history that are “apparently most resistant to the ‘mathematics of form’ and the most highly charged emotionally”, and yet still “retain their full emotional impact”.23 As Lee Miller did in her photographs. As Burch made clear in the 1960s, his was not an apolitical, purely formalist, art-for-art’s-sake position; rather, those who refuse to accept a film such


Mysteries of Cinema

as Hanoun’s “are the same people who […] are often incapable of regarding Nazi extermination camps and more recent horrors as part of the ‘drama of history’”.24 The drama of cinematic form forcing an encounter with the drama of history itself: Tarantino could make good use of this line today. But it can have a meaning deeper than mere sloganising. What changes, in a very real sense, between Burch’s accounts in the 1960s and then in the 1990s is the value placed on sublimation, and the analysis made of it. In the first instance, he took a classically Freudian, therapeutic line: sublimation seen as a salutary form of taking command of difficult materials, a necessary defense mechanism to ensure the survival of the individual or collective psyche in the face of trauma. 30 years later however, in a different cultural and historic context, Burch was more inclined to interpret sublimation as itself a bad, ideological symptom: an evasive, repressive act (of the kind that Bataille was complicit with) – and one that sidles over, all too easily, into a sadistic mindset. Yet sublimation is not a bad place from which to start – or re-start – our analysis of cinema, whether popular or experimental. In the encounter between reality (historical or contemporary) and film, something more than a simple mediation or interpretation occurs; rather, the result is a full-scale (but not necessarily coherent) psychic processing, a transformation. Sadistic or masochistic, progressive or regressive, defensively boxed in by a cult genre or opened up to complexity: it is only by carefully tracing through and evaluating the work of sublimation in cinema that (some) good film critics may yet turn out, also, to be good moralists. (2009 / 2016)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3.

See the dossier on The Hateful Eight in Positif, no. 659 (January 2016), pp. 6-13. Quentin Tarantino interviewed by Terry Gross, “Pulp and Circumstance: Tarantino Rewrites History”, NPR Online, 27 August 2009 [http://www.npr. org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112286584]. Accessed 26 March 2017. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Recommended Reading: Daniel Mendelsohn on the New Tarantino”, 17 August 2009 [http://www.jonathanrosenbaum. net/2009/08/recommended-reading-daniel-mendelsohn-on-the-new-tarantino/]; and “Some Afterthoughts about Tarantino”, 27 August 2009 [http://www.]. Both accessed 26 March 2017.

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Zachary Campbell, “Tolerable Cruelty”, on his blog Elusive Lucidity, 10 September 2009 []. Accessed 26 March 2017. 5. Lesley Stern, The Scorsese Connection (London: British Film Institute, 1995), pp. 167-221. 6. Three publications subsequently emerged from the event: Claire Perkins & Constantine Verevis (eds), B is for Bad Cinema: Aesthetics, Politics, and Cultural Value (New York: SUNY Press, 2014); Julia Vassilieva & C. Verevis (eds), After Taste: Cultural Value and the Moving Image (London: Routledge, 2012); and a special issue of Colloquy, no. 18 (November 2012) [http://artsonline.]. Accessed 26 March 2017. 7. Vivian Sobchack, “Peek-a-Boo! Thoughts on Seeing (Most of) The Descent and Isolation”, Film Comment, Vol. 42 No. 4 (July/August 2006), p. 41. 8. Ibid., p. 42. 9. David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (New York: André Deutsch, 1994), pp. 135-136. 10. Josef Braun, “David Lynch’s Latest Conquers the Inland Empire”, Vue Weekly, no. 608, 13 June (2007), . Accessed 26 March 2017. 11. Noël Burch (trans. Helen Lane), Theory of Film Practice (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973), p. 123. 12. Ibid., p. 127. 13. Noël Burch, “The Sadeian Aesthetic: A Critical View”, in Dave Beech and John Roberts, The Philistine Controversy (London: Verso, 2002), p. 179. 14. Ibid., pp. 188-189. 15. Ibid., pp. 196-197. 16. Carol J. Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993). 17. Burch, “The Sadeian Aesthetic”, p. 194. 18. Nancy Huston, “La Belle et la bellum”, Lettre internationale (Spring 1992). 19. Burch, “The Sadeian Aesthetic”, p. 183. 20. Nancy Huston, Infrared (London: Atlantic Books, 2011), pp. 108-110. 21. Chris Kraus, Torpor (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2015), p. 37. 22. Huston, Infrared, p. 46. 23. Burch, Theory of Film Practice, p. 134. 24. Ibid., p. 133.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

Part VI Interventions

20. Making a Bad Script Worse The Curse of the Scriptwriting Manual Abstract Since the 1980s, film culture on an international scale has seen the massive and ongoing rise in the number and influence of scriptwriting manuals – “how to” guides that offer convention-bound models and “rules” for the composition of narrative cinema, such as the “three-act structure”. This polemical essay argues that the effect of these manuals has been largely deleterious upon filmmaking at all levels of the cinema industry – from journalistic reviewing and vocational training to government subsidies and studio production. Against this normative model, the essay poses a vast area of diverse film practices (whether in art cinema or B-grade genres) that disrespect the orthodoxy of rules, and consciously or intuitively strive to invent new, possible paths in cinema. Keywords: Scriptwriting, Raúl Ruiz, Jean-Claude Carrière, narrative, B-cinema

In his book Poetics of Cinema, Raúl Ruiz recalls a moment in his youth in Chile when he “began thinking about so-called dramatic construction”.1 He consulted an American textbook by John Howard Lawson (which he refers to as How to Write a Script, but is most likely Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting) and discovered there something that was (and still is) called central conflict theory: the “law” (as Lawson calls it) that all stories must be based on a conflict, usually between two characters, with a hero wanting something and a villain trying to stop him from getting it.2 “Then, I was eighteen”, writes Ruiz. “Now I’m 52. My astonishment is as young now as I was then. I have never understood why every plot should need a central conflict as its backbone”.3 Ruiz’s bewilderment is understandable. The central conflict theory – if you look at it askance – is indeed a weird, almost perverse theory, although this

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH20


Mysteries of Cinema

perversity masquerades as perfect, commonsense normality (as most dangerous ideas usually do). It is a violent theory. And it is a very American theory. But it is a theory whose day has definitely come on the international stage. Ruiz remarks that, 30 or 40 years ago, central conflict theory “was used by the American mainstream industry as a guideline. Now it is the law in the most important centres of film industry in the world”.4 He comments on one of the worst crimes committed in the name of this law – the expulsion of so many strange, eccentric or unfamiliar films (like the B movies Ruiz loved as a child, “as unlikely and extravagant as life itself”)5 as badly made. The long arm of this law can be judged by a perusal of some of the Internet sites devoted, supposedly, to the appreciation and enjoyment of film. Although the Net is regularly touted as holding the key to the future of criticism, the more likely prospect, judging from these sites, is rather sadder. Many well-patronised discussion groups basically provide proud punters with an outlet to express their most pinched, closed-minded, nerdish ideas about movies. Again and again, one reads that a certain, over-praised film is just no good, does not make sense, contains continuity errors, is stupid, pretentious, or a waste of a viewer’s time and a producer’s money. Such a merciless trend is particularly apparent in discussion groups for screenwriters. This ramshackle, open-ended manifestation of Internet criticism is basically enslaved to the publishing industry that has grown up in the last two decades around scriptwriting manuals – all those popular, self-help books for aspiring writers about how to make a good script great, how to write a screenplay in ten easy steps, how to pitch a successful story in Hollywood, etc. These scriptwriting books sell models, formulae, ironclad structures, conventions, rules. They are scarcely ever interested in the depth and scope of cinema history, or the range of its artistic and popular achievements. The only films these authors really care about are those that have reaped the biggest rewards at the box office in recent memory, and the sure-fire lessons they supposedly offer – as if the only cinema that exists, or has ever existed, is the feel-good, blockbuster entertainments of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and their many hopeful imitators. In the discussion groups, all these scriptwriting manuals come predigested and amalgamated into one gooey lump. The three-act structure (sometimes four or eight, depending on which manual you consult); central conflict theory; graphs plotting the upwardly-rising shape of a story; the actions and motivations of the hero; the ubiquitous arcs and journeys that the characters must travel; the correct placement of key plot points, pay-offs, revelations and resolutions; the importance of a backstory … If you have ever dabbled in screenwriting at any level, you will know this often hokey lingo well from

Making a Bad Script Worse


books (all of which have spawned multiple, updated editions and various spin-offs) such as Syd Field’s Screenplay, Linda Segar’s Making a Good Script Great, Michael Hauge’s Writing Screenplays That Sell and Robert McKee’s Story.6 More recently, another layer has been poured on top of this craft advice. It comes from Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, who preaches, bowing deeply to Joseph Campbell, that Hollywood’s currently favoured narrative models are in fact timeless, mythic structures common to all cultures – an apparently comforting piece of sheer nonsense.7 But so what if the manuals limit themselves to a very restricted notion of populist cinema? And so what if a lot of people spend their money and their energy on such dodgy cultural goods? Is it not fine to start with a schooling in the most basic conventions – on the received wisdom that you have to know the rules in order to break them? Are the manuals not perfectly valid guides to composing down-the-line, generic scripts for the mainstream industry? I will agree to, at least, this proposition: that even the worst script manual can be plundered as a tool box, no doubt providing some canny reader, somewhere, with a stray good idea, helpful device, or way to unjam writer’s block. Anything that gets writers to actually write and keeps them writing – aiding a creative process – cannot be an entirely bad thing. My sore point of contention, ultimately, is neither with the authors of best-selling scriptwriting manuals, nor with the opinionated film-nerds on the Internet, nor even with the self-appointed “script doctor” gurus who travel the free world flogging their intensive, expensive, weekend seminars. What I dislike is the culture – the culture of decisions – that is propped up by the script advice industry. All around the globe, right now, studio executives are rejecting, mangling, or rubber-stamping projects; paid assessors are ticking little boxes on report cards and offering marks out of ten to a mountain of scripts clogging their in-trays; and government sponsored, film-funding organisation officers are giving the green light or offering their blessed two cents’ worth on a new proposal for a movie. And what are these people saying or writing? Things on the order of: this script lacks a strong second act … the hero is unlikeable … there’s not enough driving conflict … this character has no journey. All such comments and decisions reflect the ersatz wisdom dished up by scriptwriting manuals; even worse, they serve actively to police this terribly limited view of what cinema can do or be. The composite model of the well-made film is used as a forcible grid – and proposed films are either made to fit that grid, or excluded from potential existence altogether. The script manual industry is poisonous because it has helped cheapen and limit what is possible in cinema – whether you view the medium as


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primarily art or entertainment. So much cinema disappears from view, from discussion, from thought – at risk of never inspiring another new filmmaker to explore, play and experiment on the basis of what has gone before. I speak not only of historic avant-garde cinema, or the once revered art movies of the 1960s (by Alain Resnais, Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, etc.). I am also talking about the highest aesthetic achievements in cinema today (the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Alexander Sokurov, or Hou Hsiao-hsien), as much as the many fertile and eccentric paths of the popular genres in their pre-cult, former glory. I am talking about the lost era of the B movie (Gun Crazy [Joseph H. Lewis, 1950], Unholy Rollers [Vernon Zimmerman, 1972]), when characters were just elegant stereotypes racing through the least likely of plots and worlds. I am talking about the floating, multi-character narratives of a Robert Altman and the complex, jazz-inspired plot structures of a Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee. I am talking about characters who make only the tiniest, almost imperceptible journeys (like the old man played by Michel Serrault in Claude Sautet’s Nelly & Monsieur Arnaud [1995]) – or, indeed, no journey whatsoever, eternally twisting instead in the grip of neurotic, death-driven, compulsive-repetitive states (Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia [1995], Abel Ferrara’s psychodramas). I am talking about films (like Raging Bull [1980] or Hana-bi [1997]) with heroes who are not immediately likeable or even necessarily comprehensible. I am remembering screen characters who are like phantoms or palimpsests of contradictory behaviours, characters whose will is “dark and oceanic” in Ruiz’s terms,8 rather than boringly explicable, three-dimensional personalities – inside stories that are more like surreal dreams, with their own strange logic and subterranean swirls (Vertigo [1958], Crash [David Cronenberg, 1996]), than plots fixed to the unities of verisimilitude. I am talking about films that knowingly burrow into a minimal amount of story, evicting central conflict for the sake of finer filigrees of suspense, bemusement or everyday observation (as in much contemporary Iranian cinema). I am recalling movies that are more spectacle or digression than story (from Jerry Lewis comedies to Leos Carax’s Les amants du Pont-Neuf [1991]), or more about describing, tracing and enlarging complex, imaginary worlds (Goto, l’île d’amour [Walerian Borowczyk, 1968], La cité des enfants perdus [Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1995], Dark City [Alex Proyas, 1998]), than drearily exhausting the destinies of a few privileged heroes, villains and sidekicks. These are only some of the many, tantalising alternatives you will not read about in most screenwriting guides. The amnesiac, myopic mindset of the script manuals f inds its echo in the neighbouring culture of f ilm reviewing and criticism, in all its

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current forms (from on-line fanzines to scholarly journals). Now, more than ever, the prevailing line on movies is a witheringly normative one. As general interest in any form of cinema other than the current mainstream releases drains away, critical judgments become harsher, cockier, deadlier and more certain. Reviewers – like manual writers – think they know exactly what constitutes a well-structured script, a properly crafted, generic exercise, an appropriate mode of screen acting, and so on. Words like overlong, risible, silly, incoherent and implausible – not to mention even nastier ones like confused, pretentious and self-indulgent – are the stock-in-trade of evaluative reviewers hoisted high on their own, magnificent hubris. The assumptions and standards inherent in such judgments are usually quite spurious. Most critics do not argue out their underlying values; they have merely, only semi-consciously, internalised them, after reading too many samples of the same mean, pugilistic approach in Variety and other, market-driven rags. The general, largely unspoken consensus among reviewers and critics as to what constitutes a good film – noble theme, psychologically deep characters, believable story, seamless continuity, a delicate balance of comedy and drama, a strict adherence to genre, a transparent style purely at the service of story, and so forth – is ridiculously rigid and over-prescriptive. Above all, such a model can do justice to less than probably ten per cent of the wonders of world cinema. In Australia, the curse of the scriptwriting manual has had clearly deleterious effects on the state of filmmaking itself. The general feeling of dissatisfaction that many local cinephiles suffer in relation to the national cinema can be traced to this prevailing madness. Directors and producers, like critics, quickly end up internalising – while scarcely being able to defend – the dubious, normative standards of the well-made film. Following these aforementioned normative standards leads to movies empty of dramatic ambiguity, in which every deep, psychological motivation is spelt out verbally, and the final resolution of the central conflict is foreseeable five minutes in. It leads to films with pat, conformist, uninventive narrative structures, wherein the requisite plot points, reversals and “moments of recognition” can almost be clocked with a stopwatch. It leads to films whose grasp of theme (the delicate process whereby the real, underlying subject of a story is proposed, developed, complicated, transformed and concluded) is either hopelessly simplistic and schematic or piecemeal and scattershot. And it leads to films (from Dear Claudia [1999] to Head On [1998]) in which an inner journey is laboriously imposed on the principal characters, whether or not the material really calls for it.


Mysteries of Cinema

Worse still, the script curse goes hand in glove with a willful neglect of everything that makes the cinema truly cinematic. Quite simply, the script industry – the incessant redrafting and development of projects on the page, the funding judgments made solely on the basis of the written text – is overvalued. The truth is plain: a script is not a film. At best it is a plan, a blueprint for a film – the place where the plot, the essential logic of the character relationships, the structure of the themes first get worked out. But in itself, a script – however crucial, however artfully elaborated – is really only a sketch or a proposition for a film. Pier Paolo Pasolini calls the screenplay “a structure that wants to be another structure”9 – and in that second, larger, more complete structure of the finished film, words are only one element amidst performances, colours, rhythms, images and sounds, everything that constitutes the art and craft of direction and is summarised in the noble term mise en scène. The script industry has worked hard to elevate its most favoured texts to the realm of literature – just glance at the enormous Faber and Faber catalogue of published screenplays. Scripts, however, rarely hold up as literary objects, because they are mere skeletons without flesh, tales without poetry or metaphor, figures without life. One reason for the enormous and consistent quality of Hollywood cinema in its golden age was that the best directors (from Ernst Lubitsch to Nicholas Ray) were often silent, uncredited collaborators on their scripts, shaping the material with an eye and ear to its cinematic realisation (the process of “turning words on paper into strips of film”, as director Edmund Goulding explained to his scenarist Casey Robinson in the 1930s)10 – and the writers themselves quickly learned to adopt this orientation. For many reasons, there has been a historical drift toward scriptwriting as an autonomous activity, breaking apart the ideal unity of script conception and screen realisation – an alienation that the current manuals help to reinforce. There is even an Australian manual that seriously advises prospective writers only to read other film scripts, and not to study the actual movies made from them! There has, however, been a welcome counter-development to this trend. All over the world, since the revolution started by the Nouvelle Vague in France and the many neighbouring New Waves in other countries, we have seen the rise of the writer-director, either alone or with other writing collaborators. The writer-director envisages the cinematic substance of a project from the first moment of conception, through writing and into production. In Australia, unfortunately, this development has led to an odd outcome. The writer-director in this country is prized more for literary skill – their way with a plot or urbane dialogue – than for any grasp of mise

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en scène. This much is clear from the film careers of Bob Ellis (who once declared the director to be only the tenth most important person in the credits) and Peter Duncan (Children of the Revolution [1996]) – not to mention the cases of novelists unwisely allowed to direct the adaptations of their own books (Robert Carter’s The Sugar Factory [1998] and Richard Flanagan’s The Sound of One Hand Clapping [1998]). More generally, the over-valuation of the script as the quintessence of a film leads directors (when they have not had a hand in the writing) to take an overly dutiful and respectful approach to its on-screen translation. This results in a bland, overall, TV-style mode of filming, enlivened by only occasional ketchup-dollops of high style: fast edits, a splash of colour, a burst of music, a spray of intense close-ups. Does every film need a script? This heretical question, unsurprisingly, is never asked within the accursed manuals. Raúl Ruiz once personally advised me: “You do not need to write to make a film. You shouldn’t!” – because the act of writing too often imposes instant limits on cinematic invention. Let us quickly remind ourselves of some of the great films that went into production with only the slenderest outline of a script – just the sketch of an intrigue, a few random pieces of text, a list of locations, a cast, and a game crew ready for anything: most of Wong Kar-wai’s films (including Chung hing sam lam [Chungking Express, 1995], Do lok tin si [Fallen Angels, 1996] and Chun gwong cha sit [Happy Together, 1997]), Wim Wenders’s Der Stand der Dinge (1982) and Der Himmel über Berlin (1987), and every single Godard movie. Some Hollywood classics, too, got under way without an ending in sight – most famously, Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942). In fact, across the breadth of cinematic practice, there are a hundred different ways that the most imaginative film artists have incorporated the work of writing into their creative processes. Jacques Rivette (La belle noiseuse, 1991) starts with a 20 page scenario, and then has his writers on set for the entire shoot to write dialogue on the spot, as things develop with the actors. Terrence Malick went into making The Thin Red Line (1998 – a movie way beyond the normative grasp of most reviewers) with a vast, open, variable structure of plots, narrations and backstories – knowing that he would find the definitive shape and form of this material only in the editing. Directors from Orson Welles to Chantal Akerman have written reams of scenes and dialogue exchanges in and around their basic plots, essentially as a means of preparation for the work to be done on set, a way to explore in advance some of the many possibilities. None of these filmmakers reject the contribution that can be made by scripts or scriptwriters – but they all firmly steer this contribution towards the larger, more crucial art of mise en scène.


Mysteries of Cinema

So the art and craft of scriptwriting – which has a more eclectic and inspiring history than the popular manuals let on – is essential. My plea to all who toil within film culture – writers, directors, critics, assessors, funding agents – is this: to loosen up the currently reigning models of film narrative; to recognise the rich plurality of available forms and styles in this medium; to concentrate, with the determination and flair of a true aesthete, on what will actually end up on screen, its mood, rhythm and meaning. There is one book about screenwriting that I enthusiastically, unswervingly recommend. It is Jean-Claude Carrière’s The Secret Language of Film (1994).11 Carrière, in his long and brilliant career, has worked as a scriptwriter for Luis Buñuel, Louis Malle and Jacques Tati, among others. In fact, it was Tati’s editor Suzanne Baron who gave young Jean-Claude the exact same lesson that Edmund Goulding gave Casey Robinson in the 1930s, about the necessity of transforming what is set down on the page into what will work on the screen. In The Secret Language of Film, Carrière downplays the autonomous role of the writer and always privileges the guiding role of the director. He is not into formulae, models, or set structures. His argument essentially rests upon a precious piece of wisdom: there are no scriptwriting or (more broadly) storytelling rules. Anything that you can show or tell that holds, intrigues, or captivates anyone is a story. On screen, this is perhaps even truer than it is in a novel or at the circus: a single look, the smallest gesture, the most subtle alteration of light, colour, or shape, is enough to trigger the excitement, both sensuous and intellectual, of fiction. Carrière encourages his readers to f ind and create this peculiarly cinematic excitement in any conventional or wayward fashion that they possibly can. Look for inspiration in any art form, he urges; do the exact opposite of what prevailing rules decree; work from your most obscure dreams or fantasies. For Carrière, this is all an integral part of the living spirit of cinematic creation. At the movies, we live for surprise, for visions and apparitions, for even just the familiar tweaked in a fresh, unusual, or disconcerting way. The shock and pleasure of the new in film can come from naïveté as much as sophistication, from error as much as mastery. In one of his other books, Carrière offers eight, priceless pages to the aspiring or practicing screenwriter of “Some Tips That Might Help You”. The next section of his text is entitled: “Even The Preceding Observations Are Dangerous”.12 (1999)

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Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3. 4. 5. 6.

7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12.

Raúl Ruiz (trans. Brian Holmes), Poetics of Cinema, Volume 1 (Paris: Dis Voir, 1995), p. 10. John Howard Lawson, Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting (New York: Putnam, 1949), p. 163. Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema, p. 11. Ibid., p. 9. Ibid., p. 10. Syd Field, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (New York: Delta, 1979); Linda Segar, Making a Good Script Great (West Hollywood: SilmanJames Press, 1987); Michael Hauge, Writing Screenplays That Sell: The Complete Guide to Turning Story Concepts into Movie and Television Deals (London: Collins Reference, 1991); and Robert McKee, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: Harper-Collins, 1999). Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (Studio City: Michael Wiese Productions, 1992). Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema, p. 11. See Pier Paolo Pasolini (trans. Ben Lawton & Louise K. Barnett), Heretical Empiricism (Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2005). Casey Robinson, “On Dark Victory”, The Australian Journal of Screen Theory, no. 4 (1978), p. 7. Jean-Claude Carrière (trans. Jeremy Leggatt), The Secret Language of Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1994). Jean-Claude Carrière and Pascal Bonitzer, Exercice du scénario (Paris: La Fémis, 2000).

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

21. The Offended Critic Film Reviewing and Social Commentary Abstract This 1999 essay explores the politics of offense, one of the principal ways in which moral outrage over or disapproval of films is expressed in public discourse. It is argued that offense is, ultimately, a closed-minded response that projects onto the troublesome film and turns it, in psychoanalytic terms, into a “bad object”, the repository of all the difficult feelings and thoughts of which we thereby purge ourselves. Cases from the 1990s discussed include Catherine Breillat’s Romance, the modern adaptation of Lolita, Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful, Todd Solondz’s Happiness, and Showgirls. Another way of reacting to cinema is proposed: trying to stay open to ambivalence, enigma and contradiction, as well as the complexities of our own sensibilities as viewers. Keywords: Morality, offense, censorship, political correctness, Dave Hickey

Hate, we mustn’t forget, is a thoroughly moralised feeling. – William H. Gass1

On the Greek island of Hydra, there is only one movie theatre – and at the time of year I happened to be there, that theatre does not open for business. For an obsessive movie watcher like myself, only a television set can provide any solace. And, on one particular night, there was only a single film screening on the slightly fuzzy, hotel room set, an American movie with Greek subtitles. It was Showgirls, directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas, released worldwide in 1995. On the film’s initial release, I wrote a long, very negative review and delivered it over the airwaves of Australia’s Radio National. As is so often the case with reviewers and critics, I managed my bad vibes by channeling them back at the movie. How often have you read that a film is “confused”,

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH21


Mysteries of Cinema

when it is plainly the critic who is experiencing the confusion, rather than the movie? I argued, essentially, that Showgirls was really, really bad. I actually felt a little uncomfortable doing this, because every other reviewer in the world seemed to be arguing exactly the same thing – Verhoeven’s expensive, splashy melodrama was almost universally damned, appearing on innumerable “worst of the year” lists (it did not do much business at the box office, either). So I in fact went to Showgirls in 1995 hoping to salvage it from the pack of middle-of-the-road reviewers – and I failed in my mission. Instead, I became something very particular: The Offended Critic, declaring my high-minded offence for the world to hear. I was offended not so much by the film’s sensational, supposedly titillating qualities (I could have done with more of those), but rather what I construed as the film’s hypocrisy, its hidden conservatism, its double standard. Here is just a little from my radio review: I don’t think I have ever seen a film which proposes such an absolutely dualistic distinction between evil corruption on the one hand and moral decency on the other. On the bad side of that equation, the film racks up lesbianism, perversion, monetary greed, showbiz celebrity, deceit, careerist backstabbing, even a stray night of casual sex. On the good side, there’s love, friendship, independence and a fierce commitment to one’s art. All the bad things the film calls “whoring”. All the good things the film calls knowing yourself, loving yourself, sticking to your good, moral principles. When big-budget American films start denouncing decadent-capitalist “whoring”, you know you’re in a high bullshit zone.2

Three and a half years later, in front of a TV set in Greece, I remembered this review and wondered, all of a sudden, what the hell I had been going on about back then. Showgirls no longer struck me as an offensive movie; the grounds for my moral-political indignation had evaporated. What I once found grinding, heavy-handed, preachy and insidious, I now found fun, light-hearted, energetic and exuberant. Showgirls is a clever, playful, intricate film in ways that I simply could not, would not see (or enjoy) in 1995. As such, it now joins the army of gaudy, trashy, multi-leveled popular films that I love and have publicly celebrated and championed across the years. When I reviewed Showgirls in 1995, I thought I had pretty much got it in a nutshell – seen through its tricks, its seductions, its sleight of hand, its pernicious ideology. In 1999, on the island of Hydra, I learned the lesson that Showgirls knew more than I did.


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I believe that none of us are entirely immune to the type of rush to judgment that I initially performed on Showgirls. Taking offence, and making a show of it, is a peculiarly self-theatrical, melodramatic, histrionic gesture in the annals of criticism. It is an attractive gesture – attractive to a reading or listening audience, as well as flattering to the one who performs it – because it appears so proud, firm, strong and certain. In fact, the best image of this theatre of offence is probably “leading lady” Elizabeth Berkley as Nomi in Showgirls, swinging around sassily, throwing out a line or giving the finger, before she strides grandly and proudly (as she so often does) out of any situation that has started to bug her, some tawdry business that she has suddenly and magically “seen through” for all its sleazy, corrupt ills. * * * Today we read and hear many political, ideological judgments about the social worth – or danger – of films. Reviews and op-ed commentaries determine, in ringing tones, whether a movie is sexist, misogynist, homophobic – or progressive, promoting fluid sexual identities; whether it is regressive and repressive or, on the other hand, liberating; whether it bolsters conservative, nuclear family values, or subverts them; whether it is militaristic, or pacifistic; whether it reinforces stereotypes and caricatures of races and nations, or expands them; whether it massages and perpetuates an exclusively bourgeois view of experience, or critiques it; whether it shows us, in a salutary fashion, the materialist, soulless emptiness of the modern world, or indulges and wallows in that emptiness. This is film criticism as social commentary – a mutation that especially occurs whenever a particular film becomes more than just another film, but a case, an event, a media phenomenon. This has happened, recently, with Lolita (Adrian Lyne, 1997), La vita è bella (Roberto Benigni, 1997), Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998), Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998), American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) and Romance (Catherine Breillat, 1999). Such commentary always involves a definite, shorthand judgment on the politics, the civic morality, or (more abstractly) the underlying ideology expressed by a movie. Make no mistake, social commentary of this sort has become almost as popular a mode of tagging and rating movies in the public media sphere as old-fashioned remarks on the actors, story, or special effects. What happens when such social, ideological commentary becomes damning – nay, offended? My overwhelming impression is that film criticism or cultural commentary that exhibits offence is, in almost every case, weak


Mysteries of Cinema

and unsatisfying. It comes to appear particularly so as we move away, in time, from the first flash of white heat in the public debate over a movie. Offended critics, and declarations of offence, are everywhere these days, even in the least likely places. Opponents of the new Lolita seem to believe that, simply by virtue of showing the story of Humbert and Lolita on screen, the film amounts to a condoning and encouragement of paedophilia, and a worsening of exploitative social attitudes towards children. Likewise, American Beauty seems to some to present a simple, amoral apologia for men in mid-life crisis who lust for teenage girls. The conservative Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne f ired a small campaign against the local production Redball (Jon Hewitt, 1999), accusing it of irresponsibly implying that all members of the Victorian Police Force are corrupt, perverted, excessively coercive – and what is worse, it was partly funded by a Victorian government subsidy! (This is the old, familiar “abuse of taxpayers’ money” line of public offence.) La vita è bella raises the hackles of those for whom the Holocaust can never be approached via the genre of sentimental comedy – using apparently sophisticated, ethical-aesthetical reasoning, they propose that such monumental terror must only ever be depicted obliquely, indirectly, humbly (as Primo Levi does in literature, Claude Lanzmann in film, or Serge Daney in critical writing). Whenever characters die – for instance, when the lesbian played by Kathy Bates dies in the political satire Primary Colors (Mike Nichols, 1998) – this is instantly condemned around the traps as a willful ideological act on the film’s part: a violent, dismissive, exclusionary gesture of “killing off the dyke” (or the black, or the Arab, or the woman). Surely something is going nutty when every individual character in a film – of a particular gender, sexual orientation, colour, nationality, or age – is taken as a representative of their entire class? This holds movies to an extremely restrictive politics of representation, implicitly or explicitly demanding that they must always deliver positive images of the group in question, and mirror progressive social dynamics in their plots. No wonder so many commentators were perplexed by Romance, which is as much about women’s sexual alienation, debasement and shame as about their liberation, autonomy and self-discovery. This sorry situation reminds me of a bad John Sayles film, wherein plot and characters seem to have been arrived at through a cerebral, schematic process resembling, more than anything, an Equal Opportunity arbitration hearing. When Offended Critics come out with their most sweeping, generalising, and totalising claims, I instinctively resist their political gesture.


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This is because, at the very least, something of the common, everyday reality of what it is to watch films has been ruthlessly evacuated. For example, the artifice, the superficiality, the abstraction and the formulaic qualities of many (maybe most) popular genre films, in which generic goodies and baddies are, of course, going to be cornily cast from some handy “social deviant” stereotype pool. All these “profitless interpretations” (in Stanley Cavell’s phrase)3 are enough to make one decry the baleful effects of political correctness in arts criticism – even as, at the end of the 20th century, we well and truly know that term “politically correct” to be impossibly loaded and/or tritely meaningless. Whatever the solution to this quandary, it will surely involve more than a neat two-step between the bogeys of correctness and incorrectness. * * * It is not all that hard to work up a case against such angry and pointed social commentary upon movies. This case usually comes from cinema scholars or critics who, quite simply, get sick of hearing films being discussed by people – especially those star newspaper columnists called upon to comment authoritatively on everything occurring in society – who sometimes seem to know so little about the medium and its history, but nonetheless pronounce so confidently on the latest movie event. In fact, I would propose that one of the principal impulses driving the discipline of cinema studies over the past 30 years has derived from a feverish attack on sociology and sociological method – or, at least, an attack on a caricature of what sociology is and does when it presumes to talk film. Like all caricatures, this version of sociology is a bit of a straw man; but, again, like all caricatures, it also carries a grain of truth. Nothing sends a certain kind of cinema scholar into paroxysms of rage and annoyance faster than what is known as “window on the world” or “reflectionist” commentary. This term refers to how a film can be taken as an immediate, mirror reflection of people, places, events, problems in the real world; a window opening up on certain topical, problematic issues; or a trigger for public discussion. World-window or reflectionist talk is often referred to, dismissively, as a realist approach to film. Of course, this so-called realism is a relative stance: no one actually, naively believes that fiction films are simply documentary reflections of reality (and even the documentary mode itself is under intense suspicion these days) – although the standard critique of Schindler’s List (1993), for example, often trots out the line that it is pernicious for seducing


Mysteries of Cinema

audiences into accepting the “documentary realism” in its recreation of the Holocaust. Such realist commentary, more generally and less naively, quickly moves to the conceptual point wherein the link between depictions on screen and phenomena in the world – the link, in short, between cinema and reality – can be proposed, observed and adjudicated upon. Responses to this state of affairs from aggrieved film aesthetes, cinema scholars and pop culture connoisseurs are many and varied, but all share a fundamental reflex. Film is not reality, they cry, not a reflection, not a mirror; instead, it is a text, a mediation, a fabrication, a fiction, or a fantasy. Films cannot be abstracted or dissolved into the public coinage of real-life issues, social tendencies, historical events, documentary glimpses of behaviours and lifestyles (so the argument goes); they have their own materiality, their own language, their own codes, conventions and history – and, not least, their own internal, animating agendas. In a provocative address to secondary school media teachers in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s, the cosmopolitan cinema scholar Sam Rohdie counselled against using movies as mere triggers to discuss topical events such as homelessness, apartheid, or environmentalism: “Because films provoke fantasies and desires, they may also provoke our secrets, our immoralities, what we like but are forbidden to have. Social issues in films are often alibis for what really interest us”. Taking Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993) as an example, he remarks: “To discuss the themes in the film would not particularly illuminate the mechanisms of film”. 4 Another striking instance of this opposition to social or sociological commentary on a controversial movie event can be found in the issue of Metro magazine (also addressed, primarily, to media teachers of young teenagers) containing a dossier on the New Zealand production, Once Were Warriors (1994). Geoff Mayer contends that “most New Zealanders […] mainly considered the film within a ‘realist’ framework which was seemingly dependent on the film’s ability, or inability, to capture the ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ of Maori life in South Auckland” – with special emphasis on issues of domestic violence and masculinity. Mayer concludes by suggesting that: “Once Were Warriors is a film that deserves to be seen for many reasons although it should not be confused with reality – nor should any film”.5 Sylvia Lawson, a keen media watcher, eloquently summarised the frustration of many critical practitioners when she plaintively protested: “It simply isn’t possible to talk sensibly about a film anywhere without discussing the sounds and images it’s made of”.6 She was referring specifically to the debates around Dennis O’Rourke’s documentary-cum-personal-essay film The Good Woman of Bangkok (1991), as collected in a Power Institute

The Offended Critic


(University of Sydney) anthology, The Filmmaker and The Prostitute. In those debates, the film itself, any index of its materiality, seemed sometimes lost in the heated exchanges that it prompted about Australian men exploiting Asian women. In the rush to praise or condemn the film’s depiction of this situation, too many filmic and extra-filmic levels were collapsed, condensed, short-circuited. Inevitably, the tendency of these counter-sociological moves is to stress the autonomy of film vis-à-vis whatever real-world issue is floated. The various schools and methods of criticism devoted to close reading make their primary appeal to the text itself, rather than to broad social issues. The great Japanese scholar and critic Shigehiko Hasumi (understandably tired of reading Westerners’ solemn views of the “Japaneseness” of all Japanese films) even formulated a maxim from this: never bring to a film any knowledge that is not generated from within the film itself.7 A barrage of theories and devices get this more apparently sophisticated, cinema-oriented discussion going. Genre is stressed, for instance – Saving Private Ryan is considered as a venerable combat film, activating certain conventions and traditions, rather than a you-are-there record of what taking a bullet into one’s flesh is really like (which was the realist fixation of many commentators on the film, and even the basis of Spielberg’s own promotional hype for it). Often, what a film is nominally about – the Vietnam war, street gangs, religious debates – is breezily dismissed as almost irrelevant, a mere pretext or handy, disguised metaphor for what the critic thinks the movie is really, deeply, often symptomatically or unconsciously about in its imaginary: very often, this is something related to sex, gender, or the institution of the nuclear family. Not so long ago, every third film was diagnosed as being really, secretly about the dirty machinations of the Oedipus complex, as it plays out between men (fathers, father-figures, sons, son-figures) in a patriarchal system under threat – and, as a matter of fact, I think the moral-panic-overneo-Nazism movie American History X (Tony Kaye, 1998) would serve rather well as a handy example of this particular displacement of social anxiety. In a sense, this is the newer-fangled, neo-Freudian version of a previous generation’s appeal to the eternal, Jungian verities of a “collective unconscious” underlying every cultural expression. A more literary tradition in cinema studies stresses artistic intentionality, aesthetic point-of-view, the precise mood and tone of a drama or comedy – in other words, just how (according to the critic’s reading) we as viewers are asked to consider, regard, or reflect upon what we see. The second screen adaptation of Lolita, for instance, easily offers itself up to such salvation-by-criticism. It


Mysteries of Cinema

may not be a particularly high, complex, or subtle artistic achievement, but it definitely has a dramatic and artistic point of view. It is clearly not asking us to love, identify with or emulate Humbert’s perverse longings, but rather to see them as deluded, arrested, pathetic and maudlin. A similar perspective clearly mitigates the amoral goings-on in American Beauty. Such anti-realist, sometimes anti-content arguments have been taken to their furthest extremes in discussions of on-screen violence. Critics who have regard – love, even – for violent cinema in its diverse forms, who want to defend it against the moral panics that regularly surround it, have developed a multi-layered, action-packed response to those who decry everything from Taxi Driver (1976) to Terminator 2 (1991) as dehumanising, desensitising cultural influences. Tarantino says it, anti-censorship spokespersons all over the world say it: that screen violence is not real violence, and should never be confused with it. Movie violence is fun, spectacle, make-believe; it is dramatic metaphor, or a necessary catharsis akin to that provided by Jacobean theatre; it is generic, pure sensation, pure fantasy. It has its own changing history, its codes, its precise, aesthetic uses. By now, however, I fear that these arguments – the recourse to genre, the role of the imaginary, artistic subtlety or pure fantasy – launched variously by film critics, cultural students and pop-trash-genre buffs, have themselves become too pat and simplistic, a way of stopping debate dead rather than furthering it. They constitute less a reasoned defence than a sign of anxious defensiveness, or what Paul Willemen calls a “neurotic knot”, within public discourse.8 * * * How to untie that knot? Personally, I am inclined to see another, more intriguing meaning hidden in Mayer’s warning that Once Were Warriors should not be “confused with reality”. Let us not think of confusing film with reality as a naive act, or a simple error. Rather, consider it as a fully dynamic, projective, complex process – and also something intermittent, not constant for the whole of every film. There are moments (we all know them) when we do feel extremely close to what we witness on screen, when we are “taking it very personally”, as the saying goes – taking it personally as flattery, or insult, or seduction, or assault. At such moments, films touch precisely the part of us that really wants to see (or not to see) some image of ourselves up there, some constructed mental picture we have of our lifestyle, our behaviour, our world, our politics, our community. At such moments (whether the rational, theoretical, aesthete

The Offended Critic


part of us likes it or not), we really do want films to be mirrors – or at least, we want that film to behave like a mirror should behave, as it did for Snow White’s wicked stepmother. This has nothing to do with so-called realism, but everything to do with the public politics of film criticism, including its displays of offence. There is an intensity, an irrationality, a potential hysteria in this everyday process of confusing film with reality – naturally, since it touches and sets in motion every one of our intimate, psychic, conscious and unconscious mechanisms of defensiveness, vanity, desire, longing and aspiration. I am not just referring to intense emotions related to our personal experiences of love or beauty or ageing – but our political passions, too, the identifications and investments that are just as much bound up in and affected by the wiles, strategies, doubts and terrors of our baser selves. Willemen was right to suggest that it is useless taking psychoanalysis on board as a theory of pleasure, desire, satisfaction, or liberation from repression (Rohdie’s formulation: “I think the cinema is essentially about fantasy, hence about pleasure and desire”)9 – unless you are also willing to take it on board as, equally and crucially, a theory of mechanisms of resistance and transference, with all the complex, unconscious confusions, sublimations and denials these processes entail.10 Often, our mirror-relations to movies turn us into viewers who entertain extremely split, dissociated relations with the form and content of a film. We can find ourselves admiring or defending a movie’s style while decrying its supposed message – but then we are stuck with the niggling problem of cleanly, clearly separating the “how” from the “what” of cinema, when we know this to be, ultimately, impossible. In films as much as in daily life, the manner of whatever we encounter fully determines its effect upon us. These common complexities of the film viewing experience were brought home to me in 1999 when I participated in a radio debate on Solondz’s Happiness. I thought I had kicked off with a good point by suggesting that people (such as noted Australian public intellectual Robert Manne) who like the film and champion it (in however disturbed or queasy a way) take it as precisely a mirror reflection, a snapshot of what the Western world (or, at least, American society) is really like today, with its pervasive alienation, humiliation, perversity and misery. Yes, I was once again trotting out the old critique of realism, the aesthete’s stand against simplistic, reflectionist, one-to-one-correspondence social commentary. Later in the discussion, I produced one of my favourite quotations from the annals of critical literature: the filmmaker and teacher Jean-Pierre Gorin’s late 1970s comment (as recalled by his friend Raymond Durgnat) that each


Mysteries of Cinema

of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s screen characters was “a flat encephalogram. Each line, each life is drawn straight and shallow, and it doesn’t take very long before it falls in on itself”. Gorin added: “Fassbinder’s problem is that once he’s constructed his first few visuals, he’s said it all. He has nothing in reserve but all the obviously depressing moves”.11 To me, in light of Gorin’s remarks, Solondz rated as a neo-Fassbinder. Off air, Graham Little, another participant in the discussion (and someone I associated, no doubt simplistically, with the dreaded profession of sociology), politely pointed out to me that, given my comments, would I not be a trifle realist after all, despite my protestations to the contrary? He was right: if I say that I do not like Happiness because it shows people who are drawn shallow and cannot move anywhere except down, and if I publicly prefer films wherein characters express more life, craziness and resistance, that is because, fundamentally, I have in my head and heart this image of the world that I want to see on screen – because that is either how I think the world really works, or how I wish it would work. Many of our most intense love-or-hate reactions to films come down to something like this. Maybe Barbra Streisand was right, after all, when she asserts in her film The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) that “academic opinions are purely subjective”! * * * The projective process helps to explain why offence is such a prevalent stance in acts of criticism. However, I do not think it entirely excuses all crimes against reason committed by Offended Critics in our present climate, and nor do I think it validates just any old social commentary. The anti-realist critique has helped us a little, but also generated its own problems: ultimately, the knight’s move to sever film from reality is as disturbing and dissatisfying as the sociologist’s tendency to mistake film for reality. In a way, many of today’s critics and cinephiles have inadvertently managed to retrace the same backward step made by François Truffaut over 40 years ago, when he withdrew from believing (as a critic) that “every good film must express simultaneously an idea of the world and an idea of cinema”, and adopted the simpler faith (as a director) that movies need only “vibrate” with the joy or agony of “making cinema” – a creed that profoundly informed the Nouvelle Vague in France and all the subsequent, postmodern cinema movements launched in its youthful image.12 How to break this impasse? Clearly, an effort has to be made to get those old sparring partners form and content back together into some kind of

The Offended Critic


marriage, however progressively arranged. Plus something a little larger and grander than form meeting content – that “idea of cinema’” recombined with an “idea of the world”, however multiple those ideas are. Equally, a sense of the knotty, life-and-death, psychic drama underlying any evaluation of film, no matter how seemingly objective, is required. Rather than dissociating form and content, cinema-idea and world-idea, I suggest we consider the category of sensibility – the sensibility of a film or artwork, which is always individual to a particular aesthetic object, although it invariably incorporates a myriad of impulses, conventions and traditions that bring along the baggage of their own histories. When you react to a movie, you react to the whole thing, its entire gestalt of form and content – and you react as fully you, body and mind, emotions and personal history combined. Everything that fits under the category of formal elements in a film, all the things sometimes wrongly considered as on top of or beneath the plot – the colours, the rhythms, the feel of the sound and its ambience, the choice of music, the particular, characteristic way in which people are filmed and gestures and incidents conveyed, the shapes of the narrative structure – trigger in us intense reactions of taste and distaste, tied to all the complex mechanisms of desire and defensiveness. This intensity is completely personal, and completely cultural, all at once; it is completely whimsical, and completely historical. Rather than reducing a film to a series of paltry tokens – characters, stereotypes, plot moves, messages – that are then ground through a grey mill of political adjudication, we can argue, politically, from sensibility and about sensibility. We do not have to fall back into that slightly elitist, literary trap of always stressing the subtle, artistic intention, the dramatic irony, the suggestive mood or the camouflaged, authorial point-of-view. Sensibility takes in all that, but is also equally attuned to the immediate, surface, moment-to-moment level of sensation in a work, that “erotics of art” to which Susan Sontag advised us to attend on a level beyond and against interpretation.13 Sometimes, our gut reaction to a film – that overwhelming sense that something in it is intensely true, or irredeemably phony – is, in fact, a quite reasonable place from which to start (so long as it is not deployed as either an absolute or a show-stopper), since it arises from the whole personal and political formation I am calling a sensibility. How can a category like sensibility help us navigate that split between film-as-a-world and the real world? In fact, sensibility has everything to do with reality – with the reality, especially, of cultural expressions, of styles and idioms that embody attitudes, values, ways of life. I am sticking with my distaste for Happiness, for instance – not, any longer, because I want


Mysteries of Cinema

to attack supposedly dim-witted realists, but because I have realised that I really do detest the sensibility of that film, its mixture of nerdy superiority, casual cruelty and flip, nihilistic humour. I also detest, right inside that, how Solondz’s lazy, uninspired way with narrative, and his utterly inert, schematic approach to film style, reinforce, authorise even, the facile bleakness of his vision. I do not think Solondz sees the world as it really is, and I do not think I see the world as it really is, either – but I do think there should be occasion to collide and debate these various, speculative visions. La vita è bella presents an equally intriguing cause célèbre. I do not believe a persuasive case can be argued against this film from the a priori position that a comedy about the Holocaust – maybe even any conventional, representational, narrative film about the Holocaust – is an ontological impossibility, or a cultural travesty. The history of popular film, and pop culture more generally, shows us that any form whatsoever – absurdist comedy, exploitative horror, pulp-trash fiction, tasteless parody – can be (and probably will be) applied to the events of our collective, real-life history; and that all sorts of unlikely insights may well be generated from these sometimes bizarre, mix-and-match experiments. La vita è bella expressed little for me personally – so desperately determined was it to keep the star and the kid in the foreground the entire time, even in the camps – but I would not move to therefore rhetorically disallow the film from the outset, as some especially offended viewers have done. A similar outcry happened amidst the negative, offended reactions to Schindler’s List: How can anyone turn the Holocaust into a big budget, spectacular, voyeuristic Hollywood movie, and centre it on some saintly, individual saviour-hero? Well, that is just too much offended moralism up front, too many defensively loaded assumptions, before we even get into the film. I was more persuaded by Camille Nevers, a game critic in Cahiers du cinéma – contributing to a dossier titled “Schindler’s List: Is it Beyond Discussion?” – when she implied that it is good to have sensational Hollywood movies about the Holocaust, good to have spectaculars and thrillers like Schindler’s List, because they can create (as Spielberg, in her view, does) a heightened, expressionistic “fictionalised fear” in which “suspense is an apprehension of death, a phantasm of death”.14 According to Nevers’s account, Hitchcockian suspense techniques can offer an artistically true and valid intimation of dread (both personal and historical), thus helping us to appreciate the enormity and significance of that real-life terror. It is because of encountering her wild speculation that I now persist in considering the “Anasazi” episode of The X-Files (Season 2, 1995) about the discovery of alien corpses in a discarded experimental


The Offended Critic

lab, as constituting pop culture’s greatest and most haunting contribution to the 20th century’s intellectual and artistic reflection on the Holocaust. * * * The American art critic Dave Hickey offers a rich account of what it means to fully relate to cultural works, simultaneously as form and content, sensibility and ideology. A superb chapter in his Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy recounts the tale of how, as a schoolboy in the 1950s, he was interviewed by a sociological researcher out to prove, at all costs, the pernicious ideological effects of cartoons (Donald Duck, Tom and Jerry) on children; and how utterly betrayed Hickey felt, as a child, by this experience at the hands of institutional authority. He speaks up for both the adult he is and the child he was by arguing that cartoons worked on two levels for the kids who enjoyed them: [T]he intimidated, abused, and betrayed children at Santa Monica Elementary, at the dawn of the 1950s, without benefit of Lacan or Lukács, managed to stumble upon an axiom of representation that continues to elude graduate students in Cultural Studies; to wit, that there is a vast and usually dialectical difference between that which we wish to see and that which we wish to see represented – that the responses elicited by representations are absolutely contingent upon their status as representations – and upon our knowledge of the difference between actuality and representation.15

Hickey’s short, profound book The Invisible Dragon touches, at many points, on our current regime of critical offence. Hickey detests the way in which our art institutions – not just the big, public galleries, but the entire, governmentsubsidised culture of small, alternative artspaces – have managed to sanitise art and its effects, to bureaucratise and turn it into an art that is first and last “good for you”, wholesome, educative and edifying. This code of aesthetic and cultural good is always tied to what Hickey sarcastically calls the “higher politics of expression” – a “puritanical canon of visual appeal espoused by the therapeutic institution”.16 His thoughts find an echo in the film criticism of Willemen, who celebrates the radical cinema that is “contradictory, never pure, innocent or simply politically correct or incorrect”.17 Hickey describes how, when the art institution goes into bat to defend supposedly scandalous or transgressive artworks, it effectively lessens their impact and meaning by severing form from content, style from sensibility.


Mysteries of Cinema

He takes the example of Robert Mapplethorpe’s privately circulated, pornographic tableaux (known as The X Portfolio), which were reclassified by the institutions as art proper – as works that involve a safe critical distance, an encompassing moral point of view, a considered discourse upon society and its trends – the moment they actually managed to transgress or scandalise anyone outside the back room, artworld cloister that had previously sheltered them. But, Hickey writes, “it was the celebration and not the marginality that made these images dangerous” – and “it was, exactly, their beauty that had lit the charge”.18 The beauty of these extremely explicit, pornographic images was persuasive, Hickey argues, and thus celebratory. And what they celebrated, unambiguously, was their own content. These tableaux invited you in to look in awe, to worship, perhaps ultimately to emulate, to join the celebration, or at least to ponder it seriously as a living possibility. They were not meant – to use the worst cliché of contemporary arts criticism – to disturb, or provide some cute frisson as regards the perverse, the abject, or the supposed dark side of human nature (as horror films are also often said to do). And Mapplethorpe’s images could not possibly be construed (I hope) as ponderous reflections on our society’s lack of morality or spirituality (which is how some commentators chose to take such a proudly, fiercely amoral contemporary work as David Cronenberg’s Crash [1996]). These images gave us something to see, and something to see represented, and challenged us to embrace both in one. Hickey suggests that, once subject to the baroquely sadomasochistic call of Mapplethorpe’s imagery, “we have to trust someone, give ourselves up somehow to one position or the other”19 – even if only in our imaginations. Such a response might help to get us past that frozen, defensive moment of offence that casts everything in black and white, into moral dualities of good and evil, progressive and reactionary. Many cultural works, if we are honest about their effect on us, put us into contradictory positions, and make us feel acutely ambivalent – even Showgirls does this. Confusing films with reality, in the positive sense, should be a sticky business, a sometimes embarrassing encounter. For it is only when we let ourselves be moved – truly moved, in an unsettling rather than reassuring way – that our sensibilities can ever possibly change, adapt and grow. And when it comes to our precious, precarious ground as individuals – or as citizens – our sensibilities are just about everything we have. (1999)

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Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3.


5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16.

17. 18. 19.

William H. Gass, Finding a Form (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), p. 289. Adrian Martin, “The Week in Film”, ABC Radio National (Australia), 28 October 1995. Stanley Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 36. The context in which this term appears is Cavell’s response to a critique of his work (and its Emersonian strain) by Tania Modleski: “How does it help the cause of women, or any emancipation, to listen, for example to Emerson, just long enough to find a profitless interpretation of what he says?” Sam Rohdie, “Sixth Form Film Teaching in Hong Kong”, Metro Education, no. 4 (1995), p. 5. See also Meaghan Morris’s commentary on this essay in “Learning From Bruce Lee: Pedagogy and Political Correctness in Martial Arts Cinema”, Metro no. 117 (1998), pp. 6-15. Geoff Mayer, “Going Home: Once Were Warriors”, Metro no. 101 (1995), p. 6. Sylvia Lawson, “Letters”, Modern Times (August 1992), p. 14. Conversation with the author, October 1996. Paul Willemen, “Letter”, Screen, Vol. 25 No. 1 (Jan-Feb 1984), pp. 82-83. Rohdie, “Sixth Form Film Teaching”, p. 11. See Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory (London: British Film Institute & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994). Raymond Durgnat, “From Caligari to Hitler”, Film Comment (July-August 1980), p. 67. See Charles Tesson, “Idée du cinéma, idée du monde: André Bazin et la Nouvelle Vague”, Nouvelle Vague: une légende en question, Cahiers du cinéma hors-série (1999), pp. 8-13. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966). Camille Nevers, “Schindler’s List: One + One”, Cahiers du cinéma no. 478 (April 1994), p. 53. Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy (Los Angeles: Art issues. Press, 1997), pp. 47-48. Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon: Four Essays on Beauty (Los Angeles: Art issues. Press, 1993), p. 22. A revised and expanded edition of this book, with the subtitle shortened to Essays on Beauty, appeared in 2009 from University of Chicago Press. Paul Willemen, “Passion 3”, Framework, no. 21 (Summer 1983), p. 6. Hickey, The Invisible Dragon, p. 22. Ibid., p. 34.


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About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

22. Wild Psychoanalysis of a Vicarious, Unstable Reality Abstract This essay is an experiment in “networking” or comparing a group of extremely different films and TV series from recent years, trying to find the common impulses and explorations that occur across genres, styles of filmmaking, production formats, and cultural contexts. The role of the auteur is deliberately downplayed. The set of works discussed includes: Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, Andrzej Zulawski’s Cosmos, the horror/ science-fiction film 10 Cloverfield Lane, the TV action series Blindspot, Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, and Maren Ade’s comedy of manners Toni Erdmann. The essay proposes a loose method of “wild psychoanalysis” in order to gauge and decipher the underlying drives and designs of these works, in which the most bedrock reality is itself frequently unstable and mutable. Keywords: Psychoanalysis, genre, network, comparative analysis

1. In musician John Cale’s 1999 autobiography What’s Welsh for Zen, he recalls a particularly turbulent, chaotic period of his life, and offers an intriguing analogy for the experience: “This was something close to cinema. A vicarious, unstable reality”.1 His assumption is striking: cinema, so often conceived of as offering us a whole world, a slice of reality, is here something not only emotionally close to us – a vicarious, substitute life – but also as fundamentally discontinuous and unstable, a world in pieces. Once, teaching a university course on film theory, I gave my students a tough assignment: rather than comment on the theories of other, famous people (André Bazin, Siegfried Kracauer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Maya Deren, etc.), I challenged them to sketch out their own, original, possible theory

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH22


Mysteries of Cinema

of film. Their theory was to be based (as all such theories are) on some proposed essence of the film medium. In general, my students – like most of the hallowed masters of this genre – preferred to postulate something large, flowing and unified as the essence of cinema: time, movement, emotion, space, light … Perhaps if any of them had lived the intense rock’n’roll lifestyle of Cale, they might have gone in his completely different direction: cinema as fragmented, scary, psychedelic. Witold Gombrowicz described his 1965 novel Cosmos as the account of “a reality that is creating itself”2 – a state of ceaseless fluctuation that would certainly appeal to Andrzej Żuławski, whose films, including the immortal Possession (1981), often plunged themselves into the discontinuous and unpredictably unfolding chaos that Cale’s autobiography evokes. In Boris Nelepo’s account of Żuławski’s project of adapting Cosmos (it turned out to be the last work before the filmmaker’s death in February 2016), what unites writer and director is precisely the “foundational inscrutability of the world”,3 a world they seek to render in flashes, sketches and experiments – forever leaping to another hidden level of events, or a new, alternate version of reality. We might expect this type of labyrinthine complexity from an avowed, uncompromising artist such as Żuławski, or the David Lynch of Inland Empire (2006). But in a Hollywood genre film that is part of a lucrative franchise? Yet Dan Trachtenberg’s 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), an ingenious sequel (of a quite unusual kind) to Matt Reeves’ popular success Cloverfield (2008), gives me an experience of cinema that is indeed, in its essence, vicarious and unstable. Everything in 10 Cloverfield Lane enjoys an ambiguous status – beginning with the mystery, sustained for quite a long time, of how exactly this new story bears any relation to the apocalyptic events we saw in Cloverfield (if, indeed, we did happen to see that movie). Most centrally, the plot rests upon a beautifully poised equivocation: is the Cold War “protection bunker” built underground by Howard (John Goodman) just the paranoiac projection of a deranged (indeed, dangerous) mind, or has an alien invasion actually happened above ground, completely poisoning the atmosphere? The various clues point in both directions, especially in the worried heads of Howard’s young captives. It is in the final, frantic reel that 10 Cloverfield Lane reaps the true, cinematic rewards of this well-laid ambiguity. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaps out of the bunker, at last, and starts to run. It seems that, about every 30 seconds, the reality around her transmutes, springing another apparition that redefines her grasp of the world’s current condition. It is the exact inverse of all those glamorous action movies (whether Michael Bay

Wild Psychoanalysis of a Vicarious, Unstable Realit y


or Michael Mann style) in which commandos hit the ground in a foreign country and instantly know their way down every back lane without even a GPS tracker in their hands. Michelle, by contrast, just keeps bouncing from one unstable calamity to the next, in a state of permanent danger. Hollywood movies rarely take us so close to a state of pure psychosis.

2. Now allow me an experiment. Let us bundle together 10 Cloverfield Lane, Abbas Kiarostami’s Copie conforme (2010), Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), the TV action series Blindspot (2015- ), Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016) and Cosmos. What possible critical move could justify gathering these wildly diverse audiovisual phenomena into a provisional corpus? Getting out of our comfort zone as critics can mean a gesture like this: disregarding auteur and genre for a moment; crossing the lines of mainstream, arthouse and film festival exhibition; networking across the increasingly blurry border separating film and television; and opening our minds to the odd, subterranean zeitgeists that always flow in, around and underneath our (sometimes) shared culture. In Copie conforme, a man named James (William Shimell) and a woman who is never named (Juliette Binoche) begin, at some weird, unannounced moment, a role-play game with one another. They have been strangers (or so we assume), but suddenly they are as-if husband and wife, arguing through all the old tensions, difficulties and unresolved business. The woman seems to initiate the game – perhaps gripped by a mad, projective, emotional delirium – and the man, after a delicious split-second of absolute perplexity, decides (it seems) to just go along with it, perhaps for a thrill, perhaps to help her, via a kind of “theatre sport”, to get through this unfortunate moment of hallucination. But, beyond that initial turnaround point (anticipated in a key moment of the same director’s classic Nema-ye Nazdik [1990] when we see, during a bus ride chat with a fellow passenger, Hossain Sabzian’s spontaneous decision to impersonate Mohsen Makhmalbaf), the co-ordinates of the tale become increasingly murky; stories are told and each character begins to inhabit them … As in 10 Cloverfield Lane, everything is set up through careful ambiguities and hesitations, things deliberately left unspoken or never made clear in the first instance. Copie conforme is a puzzle-film without a solution; there is no exit to its mystery, at least not upon the final frame of its open ending. The synopsis I have just matter-of-factly offered is, finally, only an interpretation, or a proposition, or a rough guess. For Alain Bergala – to cite another such


Mysteries of Cinema

proposition – what the film shows is something altogether different, a narrative “palimpsest” in which the characters are “at the same time in the process of meeting each other, at the fifteen-year point of their relationship, and as what they have become today” in their shared old age.4 In that view, the film has more in common with the surrealism of Luis Buñuel’s Cet obscur objet du désir (1977), with its two different actresses taking turns in the same role, than the dramatic snapshot of a couple-in-crisis that is Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (1953) – another evident influence on Kiarostami.5 Whatever the game is, this man and woman on screen lose themselves in it, and the effect for the spectator is exhilarating, liberating; we end up gladly losing the thread of our original, common sense assumptions. It is one of those films that (as Luc Moullet said of Raúl Ruiz’s La chouette aveugle [1987]) you “know a little less about with each viewing”6 – today, I remain as blissfully in the dark as to what really happens in this movie as on my first encounter. These people in Copie conforme become what they play at, what they “act out” (to cite a wildly popular expression), what they pretend (for whatever unfathomable reason) to be. They utterly transform, metamorphose themselves. They are, in this sense, pure creatures of cinema. One can view them as the “certified copy” (the film’s English title) of some other couple – perhaps some frolicsome movie couple, in fact, out of a Hollywood romantic comedy, hashing out their adventure of remarriage, or escapees from some contemporary faux-travelogue under the Tuscan sun. But their transformation, in and of itself, is radical – unsettling, mysterious, total. It suddenly shifts the whole film, kicks it onto another plateau entirely – without announcing this to us at all. In Bergala’s terms, “everything happens as if this forceful imposition of another, mental logic upon reality was entirely self-evident, part of the normal regime of cinema”.7 The film itself metamorphoses, as few films have the courage to do. In Copie conforme, it is a matter of a leap, an ellipse, a sudden edit – but an edit of the being, of character, of the soul itself, not over the fiddle of a cut, but right in the middle of a real time-space, mid-gesture and mid-scene. There is a scalding closeness of cinema to life in this move. The ellipses and the closeness occur not through drugs (Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void, 2009), traumatic violence (Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, 2010), or operatic trance-ecstasy (as in the films of Werner Schroeter or Carmelo Bene); here, the voyage is the daily one, the voyage of the emotions, of moods and their sudden, seizing effects. We can relate the ellipse in Copie conforme to the ellipse in every real-life encounter of significance, every relationship: a line is crossed, the

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fantasy sets in (for good or for ill), and neither person knows exactly when or how it has happened. Love is the intersection of two fantasies, with all the potentiality for disastrous mismatch and unalignment implied by that … But it has occurred, and the adventure has to be played out, the consequences have to be faced – one way or another. This is a wild psychoanalysis: a psychoanalysis that plays out not in the safe, ritualised distance between the analyst and the subject on the couch, but in life, transactionally, in motion, in flight (in Copie conforme, nobody ever stops walking, driving, or talking) – with an air of constant improvisation and surprise: a psychodrama, but a daily kind of psychodrama. James Toback’s When Will I Be Loved (2004) was ahead of this psychodramatic curve, as is an aspect of the Dardennes’ Le silence de Lorna (2008), but, in those films, it is still a matter of people lying, strategising, staging power games. Toni Erdmann falls somewhere in the middle of this continuum: its largely naturalistic depiction of a fraught daughter-father relationship, playing out amidst the grey, neo-liberal world of management industries, places it under the star of romantic comedy, or the modern comedy of manners. At the same time, the film’s undoubted highpoints are its completely unexpected swerves away from standard, narrative logic and the duties of backstory exposition: the sudden, show-stopping delivery by Ines (Sandra Hüller) of “The Greatest Love of All” at a social gathering into which she and her piano-tinkling performer-father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), have just wandered; or her impulsive decision, prompted by a total emotional meltdown, to turn her own, at-home social gathering of co-workers into a nude-only affair – to which Winfried arrives, uninvited, in an enormous (and enormously weird) animal costume. Like Kiarostami’s movie, Ade’s comedy of awkwardness, embarrassment and humiliation (a radicalisation of the type of cringe-inducing humour we find in James L. Brooks’ work) hinges on a spontaneous and rather inscrutable process of role-play and disguise: not only does Winfried pretend, on a whim, to be the imaginary Toni Erdmann (supposedly a professional colleague of his daughter), but Ines actually finds herself jiving along with the act. Copie conforme takes this type of play-acting to a different plateau, more ordinary and yet more mysterious, more compelling. Cinema is psychodrama, or it is nothing. Always risking, always at risk. Putting everything into play: self, other, time, place, and sense. In Antichrist, the situation can seem absurd: a husband-therapist (Willem Dafoe) isolates his own sick wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) in a wilderness cabin to treat her? How scandalously unprofessional! Just like, in fact, the psychoanalyst in Jean-Claude Brisseau’s mystico-erotic À l’aventure (2008), who hypnotises


Mysteries of Cinema

his female patients/friends into frenzies of levitation, and then finds himself making love to them. But what is most compelling about Antichrist, once the first flush of outrage over its unreality dies away, is the type of failed psychic transaction it lays out so precisely, painstakingly and spectacularly. Failed transference occurs not just between therapist and patient or husband and wife, but also between the filmmaker and his subject matter. I do not refer here to the standard male-to-male identification of an auteur with his alter ego hero, but rather the perennial, cross-gender investment, male-to-female, that frequently typifies art cinema at its highest (Kenji Mizoguchi, Ingmar Bergman, Rossellini, etc.). In Trier’s case, something aborts between the moment of identification-projection of the guy behind the camera into his massively depressed leading lady, and the confused, accusatory, misogynistically suspicious results ultimately formed on screen. Not that it is a matter of triumphantly catching the movie out in a bad ideological posture: all of us are caught, embarrassed and in the spotlight, between successful and unsuccessful transferences of emotion and investment, and all our most cherished values are tested and compromised in that movement. If there is a one-word title than can condense all these diverse layers of the cinematic, the psychical, and the grand-historical, it is surely Blindspot, the name of Martin Gero’s series for NBC. According to the unstated tenets of much contemporary TV criticism in the digital age – rather too wedded to old-fashioned standards of verisimilitude and classical storytelling – it has become something of a sin to begin a series from a strong premise (usually with the hook of a central plot enigma) and then “artificially” keep stretching it (thus delaying any logical or conventionally satisfying conclusion) with each, renewed season.8 Blindspot effortlessly hits a peak of anti-verisimilitude in this regard. The (at the time of writing) still open-ended saga of Blindspot begins with the discovery of an amnesiac woman, “Jane Doe” (Jaimie Alexander), who has been covered with elaborate tattoos and left in a bag in public for the FBI to find. In every episode, a seemingly random piece of this tattoo-mosaic is brilliantly decrypted, leading to an immediate race to save a politician from assassination, defuse a bomb, or rescue America from imminent subversion. However – as has been the way in action cinema and TV since The X-Files in the 1990s (as the recent series The Americans also attests) – the rolling-deadline plot is thickly overlaid with an increasing proliferation of interlocking personal traumas relating to mental illness, family background, government conspiracy, repressed secrets, and intimate betrayals affecting its entire cast of characters. Blindspot makes no sense in rational, storytelling terms. It is all crazy coincidence, narrative opportunism, and sensational rejigging of the initial

Wild Psychoanalysis of a Vicarious, Unstable Realit y


premise. Hazily following it from week to week (it is impossible to synopsise in any coherent fashion), however, it comes to resemble a fever-dream with ever-shifting bases, and a fictional world that never settles into one, reasonable diegesis. That is its strange beauty, and (as in 10 Cloverfield Lane) its excitement. Black Swan takes wild psychoanalysis back to the chamber realms of art-making. This is a commercial movie that many people despise. Posturing, incoherent, strained, hysterical: yes, it is all of these things. Nothing like The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948), Center Stage (Nicholas Hytner, 2000), or Todo sobre mi madre (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999); maybe a little too much like Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965). But so what? The film possesses a compelling intensity; it is closer to John Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977) than any previous high-art, ballet movie. Its merry, all-in, every-which-way-but-loose level of hallucinatory madness works for it: confusion of identity and muddled psychic projections are its principal subjects. Mother/monster, the internal dark double, teacher/seducer, whore/rival: the figures spin around, changing places, bouncing from one level of reality (or fantasy) to the next. The film keeps flipping the deck, courting ever less logical convolutions of ambiguity – all for the sake of shock, of incessant vertigo. It is way beyond the cerebral machinations of an Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) style of mind-game movie, and closer, in its weird way, to the unconscious as levered to the surface of Ruiz’s Mistérios de Lisboa (2011) or Jacques Rivette’s 36 vues du Pic Saint-Loup (2009). Black Swan ties itself up, eventually, in a much-previewed, pre-visualised, hyper-choreographed finale that, in exhaustion after so much psychic flux, drains itself out to pure white in a death-impulse: that is the only way to end in this overheated, post-indie, Hollywood context – and assuredly not the way of Opening Night, which had the nerve to suspend itself ten minutes before the end, casting out its initial premise in the course of an ultimate performative play that is among the most daringly open, weightless conclusions in all cinema. In Black Swan, as in Enter the Void, we travel with a new, doubtless fashionable kind of camera-cinema that is situated just at the back of a lead character’s head (diving down stark, plunging passageways like in a sped-up video game) or glued, in deliberately ugly wide-angle, right to the skin pores, face-front (Inland Empire). This is one pole of wild psychoanalysis in the contemporary cinematic field: inner or eyeball subjectivity put under pressure and trembling until it shatters into a thousand tiny fragments, contradictions, loops, short-circuits. Copie conforme is the other, minimalist pole: serene, events viewed from a distance, a two-shot world with plenty of space and locale all around – the only possible reverse-field being the


Mysteries of Cinema

mirror/camera into which the imaginary lovers stare, individually, during the twin bathroom interludes that provisionally conclude their ambiguous game. For we spectator-critics, one pole of wild psychoanalysis is not necessarily better, more sensible, or more ethical than the other. We exist, day to day, strung out between both options. Film criticism has to give up its abundant fantasies of judgement, discernment, purity; it has to plunge into the space between Copie conforme and Black Swan, between Lars von Trier and Blindspot, between 10 Cloverfield Lane and the avant-garde – and seriously visit all stations along the way. To do that, film criticism will need to discard some of its hard-won habits and rituals, and open itself to first-time surprises. It will need to risk itself in an eternal becoming. (2011 / 2016)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

John Cale, What’s Welsh for Zen (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), p. 268. Witold Gombrowicz (trans. Lillian Vallee), Diary Volume 3 (Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 160. Boris Nelepo, “Andrzej Żuławski: A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe”, MUBI Notebook, 13 March 2016 []. Accessed 1 May 2017. Alain Bergala, La Création cinéma (Crisnée: Yellow Now, 2015), p. 267. Ibid., pp. 267-268. Luc Moullet, “The Blind Owl”, Rouge, no. 2 (2004) [ au/2/blind.html]; the complete, original French text is in Trafic, no. 18 (Spring 1996). Bergala, La Création cinéma, p. 268. See David Auerbach, “The Cosmology of Serialized Television”, The American Reader (June 2013) []. Accessed 23 November 2016.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

Part VII Envoi

23. No Direction Home Creative Criticism Abstract This short essay from 2010 considers the fate of intelligent, in-depth film criticism in the digital age. Refusing the pessimistic prognosis that film criticism as an institution is dead or dying because of the decline of available jobs in the print media, and the eclipse of celluloid projection as the ideal mode of film-viewing, this piece asks us to embrace the possibilities and affordances of the Internet. These advantageous, new conditions include: a more genuine internationalism in film criticism than has ever existed; a glimpse of what a progressive democracy of critical views would be; and an explosion of experimental forms of criticism, both in literary and audiovisual modes. This historical change is viewed from the position of being Australian. Keywords: Film criticism, Internet, internationalism, digital culture

Early in 2009, Nicholas Rombes launched the project 10/40/70 on his blog Digital Poetics, for anyone who wished to use it: An experiment in writing about film: select three different, arbitrary time codes (in this case the ten minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute mark), freeze the frames, and use that as the guide to writing about the film. What if, instead of freely choosing what parts of the film to address, one let the film determine this? Constraint as a form of freedom – a new method of film criticism, freed of the old tyrannies of continuity. The discontinuity of the digital age, demanding a new way of seeing. A new way of writing.1

This wonderful, avant-garde call to critical arms recalls – consciously or not – a century of manifesto-style pronouncements. Constraint as freedom: wasn’t that the literary motto of the Oulipo group? Down with the tyranny

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH23


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of continuity: couldn’t that have been the cry of every art movement devoted to collage, montage, or cut-up? Let the film overwhelm us and determine what we will say about it: maybe the “impressionist” Manny Farber could have agreed with the Surrealists on that point? A new way of seeing tied to a new way of writing: hasn’t every revolution in film criticism proceeded with precisely that same, impassioned, almost hallucinatory conviction? So let us place a moratorium on all current discussions of the “crisis of film criticism” (newspaper columnists losing their jobs), the “death of film theory” (academics getting old) and the “lost continent of cinephilia” (the last of the murky sixteen millimetre prints). The forms of writing on cinema may not be exactly the same as they once were, they may not use the same tools and materials, but they are alive and well. Film criticism has returned, in the digital age, to its true and rightful place: the shadows, the margins. Film criticism proliferates everywhere, on a thousand blogs, websites and magazines, but with no solid, permanent, institutional home, no centre. Let us seize a new era in which film criticism can once again be ephemeral and explosive, cosmopolitan and stylish, voluminous and unpredictable, uncompromising and radical. Unpaid and unloved by all but the Happy Few – except that now, around the world, those isolated few have grown into a connected multitude. We live too much in nostalgic awe of everlasting cultural monuments, always very local, even parochial in their nature: cinémathèques and libraries, publications that last 50 years, film festivals with the same old, curatorial heroes still in power. The rapid changeovers in technologies and viewing modes, canons and criteria, are bringing out an anxious, conservative, homing reflex in too many of us. As the philosopher Norman O. Brown once wisely advised: “The solution to the problem of identity is, get lost”.2 All over the world, we are witnessing the rise in experimental ways of writing about film and other arts: a creative criticism. Some write in haiku, recording an impression in 20 words or less. Some explore fiction, or autobiography, or poetry. Others freely mingle words and images. It is pointless to object that none of this is new. Nothing is ever entirely new. Models exist – David Thomson’s Suspects, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Moving Places, Petr Král’s Private Screening (all from the 1980s), Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s A 20th Century Job (original Cuban edition 1963), all the way back to Blaise Cendrars’s The ABC of Cinema in the 1920s and the cine-poems of Vachel Lindsay in the 1910s – and we should draw due inspiration from them.3 The new is also a tradition, except that it is a subterranean, buried tradition, forever in need of militant revival. The forms of technocratic, bureaucratic rationality are always ready to snuff out creative criticism,

No Direc tion Home


poised to police the borders of public expression in the mass media, in the university, and in the government institutions of art and culture. The change is that, today, more creativity leaks out and finds its time and place online. Adventurous developments in film culture often died quickly in the past, because we were all so hung up on our locality: if we could not find 300 people in Barcelona or Melbourne or New Delhi or Lyon or Milwaukee to attend the once-only screening of Marcel Hanoun, or buy the special double-issue of our print journal, we gave up, dispirited. But that was always an illusion: there may only be a few dozen people in the entire world that each of us can truly connect to and productively, imaginatively work with in our lifetimes – and we are not going to find them at home. The standard complaints against the new digital culture are weak. People fret that standards in writing have dropped – but, in fact, more people than ever practice writing and reading on a daily basis, via many technologies. We hear that the new critics have no sense of history or context – when, on the contrary, the film and media students of today see (at their own initiative) more silent, experimental, political and alternative cinema on YouTube, or through downloading sites, than they would ever have been able to see before. We are endlessly told that the big problem of the Internet is its infinite chaos, its disorder, its lack of a reliable guide. But was it truly any better in the pre-digital world? What chance did I ever have, circa 1980, to encounter the cinephiles writing in small, vibrant magazines in Perú, Slovenia and Taiwan or even in Italy, Germany and Spain? Today, something has shifted: there is a new passion for translation, for cross-cultural communication and collaboration – something that seemed to be dormant for two decades after the transnational theory-wave of the 1970s. Now, on the Irish website Experimental Conversations, I can read in-depth appreciations of the Spanish avant-garde legend, Iván Zulueta;4 and on the Portuguese website Ainda não começámos a pensar, I can discover the work of German filmmaker Angela Schanelec.5 Elective affinities spark across the micro-pieces of diverse national cultures, and individuals happily struggle to communicate, and to comprehend, across languages. The example of my own biography is typical of many from the Old World. I spent the first sixteen years of my adult life as a critic scarcely moving outside the small, intense, but festering and divided scene of cinephiles in Melbourne, Australia. I travelled little, had few contacts overseas, and did not seek publication of my work elsewhere. What we did in Australia – our screenings, discussions, magazines, radio emissions, not to mention our best experimental and independent films – was unknown to the rest of the world. And it basically remains largely unknown still, locked in a tomb of the


Mysteries of Cinema

nation’s past. Even if we did not realise it at the time, we were all isolated, depressed, dying on the vine. But in the mid 1990s, I received the siren call from beyond: it was (thanks to Jonathan Rosenbaum) the start of the Movie Mutations experiment in creative criticism.6 Today, much of my work appears first in languages other than English. In Zagreb, a Movie Mutations Film Festival, totally independently, happily rolls on. A Spanish edition of the book, Mutaciones del cine contemporáneo, has appeared – with a lengthy and erudite introduction by the ever radical, experimental, Catalán filmmaker, Pere Portabella. I get to travel and meet people all over the world. And only one thing made all of this possible: the Internet. One day in 2010, I received an email, out of the cyber-ether, from four young filmmakers (Guto Parente, Luiz Pretti, Pedro Diógenes and Ricardo Pretti) in Brazil: they have made a collective film titled Estrada para Ythaca, and they think (as loyal readers of Rouge magazine online, which I formerly co-edited) that I might appreciate it. Would I like to receive a DVD? You bet I would. (2010)

Notes 1. 2. 3.

4. 5. 6.

This website no longer exists, but the result of the project was published as Nicholas Rombes, 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory (London: Zero Books, 2014). Norman O. Brown, Love’s Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 161. David Thomson, Suspects (New York: Oldcastle, 1985); Jonathan Rosenbaum, Moving Places: A Life at the Movies (New York: Harper & Row, 1980); Petr Král, Private Screening (London: Frisson, 1985), Guillermo Cabrera Infante, A 20th Century Job (London: Faber & Faber, 1991); Blaise Cendrars, L’ABC du cinéma (Paris: Les Écrivains Réunis, 1926); Vachel Lindsay, The Congo and Other Poems (Mineola: Dover, 1992). See Experimental Conversations, no. 2 (Autumn 2008), devoted to Spanish avant-garde film: [ autumn-2008-spanish-avant-garde-film/]. Accessed 27 March 2017. See André Dias, Ainda não começámos a pensar/We Have Yet to Start Thinking []. Accessed 27 March 2017. See Adrian Martin & Jonathan Rosenbaum (eds), Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (London: British Film Institute, 2003).

No Direc tion Home


About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

24. Farewells, Full Circles and Ellipses Abstract This personal reflection from 2015 looks back from the point at which the author ends his years as a teacher of film studies; his final courses in Germany take the risky step of being based on his favourite directors (Ernst Lubitsch, Fritz Lang) and films (John Cassavetes’ Gloria, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, and Henry Hathaway’s Peter Ibbetson). This leads to a consideration of those cultural commentators (such as Siegfried Kracauer and Raymond Durgnat) who entered old age and returned to their founding passions, rather than staying abreast of new types of cinema. The essay finally muses on what it means to “come full circle” as a critic and scholar: either to close a chapter in one’s work, or to reinvent oneself. Keywords: Cinephilia, Ernst Lubitsch, Siegfried Kracauer, film history

This week, as I write, I am about to teach my final cinema classes. Perhaps not final forever, but final for now – and the last in a stable, university job. At the young age of 55, I am going back to freelance writing about film and related audiovisual adventures. Serge Daney once defined cinephilia as “an eternal return to a fundamental pleasure”.1 This pleasure’s constitution is somewhat different for each culture, each generation and, finally, each individual. But whatever it is that forms the core of the cinephile passion for any of us, it is to that, apparently, we shall return. Often, when I read synoptic accounts about the work of the best essayists and critics – such as Raymond Durgnat or Siegfried Kracauer – I sense the strange, almost wicked glee of their admiring exegetes in noting that, especially as critics’ lives approach their end, their explorations usually came full circle: right back to the founding moment of their pleasure. They return to the primal obsessions, to the spark that got them into the game in the first place – while cinema history strides on, obliviously, ahead.

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH24


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It is poetic, it is sentimental, but it is also a bit sad: as if the cinephile is doomed to travel backwards. In the last years of his life (so I have been told), Durgnat had no inkling that directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-hsien, or Béla Tarr had achieved cultural visibility; he was happy enough with his beloved VHS tapes of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger and other filmmakers whom he had begun studying decades previously. And Kracauer (as Enno Patalas has testified) spent the portion of the 1960s that he survived cursing “the anti-realist fashion of the day” and especially such decadent manifestations of it as Alain Resnais’s L’a nnée dernière à Marienbad (1961) – a “masterpiece of boredom” that horrified him.2 Is a little regression so blameworthy, in cases like these? Instinctively, and for the pure bliss of it, I formulated my final semester of classes at Frankfurt around particular films that were among the very first that I myself studied in detail, obsessively: in one of these units, we dealt only with Henry Hathaway’s surrealist masterpiece Peter Ibbetson (1935), Alfred Hitchcock’s perfect Notorious (1946), and John Cassavetes’ sublime Gloria (1980). I still have some notes, drawings, scene breakdowns and shot lists that I made when I was eighteen or 20 on these films, and I used them as triggers in my classes of 2014 and 2015. I had the sense that I was, all at once, reopening the book on these marvellously rich works, inquiring into the intimate hold they have on my psyche, and coming around to admit that, despite every trick of analysis, the deepest secrets of their greatness will always slip from my grasp. Was I completing the circle? Or will the circle always, mercifully, be broken? In my other final course, I concentrated on two particular filmmakers I love and exalt above almost all others: Fritz Lang and Ernst Lubitsch. It is always a joy for me to re-watch Lang’s Scarlet Street (1945), which rates high among my all-time, favourite films. A joy to watch, but not always to teach – because there is something inherently dangerous in the act of teaching one’s most cherished loves. It is especially dangerous if you feel that the quality of transmission that is supposedly part and parcel of the cinephile passion – according to experts including Alain Bergala or João Bénard da Costa, the latter of whom invoked the fine saying “others will love the things I loved”3 – is not really happening in the classroom, and you only feel the indifference, that not-quite-getting-it puzzlement or exasperation, of your students. Why, oh why, can’t they understand immediately, just by watching it, my love for this film? But that, naturally, is only a kind of fantasy, a magical wish. In my case, I believe it was this agony of transmission that once led me, when the opportunity arose in the form of an invitation from Movie

Farewells, Full Circles and Ellipses


magazine in 1998 – and this was already a dream come true, to write for the very same publication I had been voraciously reading and re-reading since my 1970s adolescence! – to attempt to set down everything I had come to know, through close analysis and interpretation, about Scarlet Street. 4 Finally, the (triumphant, I hoped) moment would arrive when I could work through this text of mine with students in a two-hour session, with the expectation that I could simply cap the demonstration off at the end with a “so there!” – and then blessed, cinephile illumination would spread through the room like a fine mist. But I taught that class a decade later, in 2008, and it left me feeling terrible, empty. Never again! It took me a long time to understand – fortunately, I grasped it a little before this last semester in Frankfurt – that analysis or appreciation do not (or should not) work in that fashion. There is no last word, no grand summation of a film in a text or diagram – and certainly no way you can simply point to that monolith, as if the slightest contact with such concretised wisdom will serve to transmit it immediately into the minds and bodies of others. In fact – and this is something that Hervé Joubert-Laurencin’s meditation on André Bazin’s critical writing really helped me to see5 – even deep within oneself, the ability to bear witness to a great film, to testify on it in public, can never simply be taken for granted. You have to renew your intimate contact with the film-object; what you have previously laboured to fold into a text or lecture or audiovisual essay now has to be, once again, patiently unfolded once more, the logic laid out and arrived at in the time and space of a rhetorical demonstration or performance. It is “going to be just like starting over” every time, as John Lennon sang. This is precisely why some wise teachers (such as Victor Perkins) have been to able to use the same films over and over, for decades, and never tire of the exercise, never experience that awful moment of emptiness or staleness. Riffing on Joubert-Laurencin’s Bazinian track, I would put it like this: a film is a living, moving thing. It is, by its very nature, open. Anything we say or write about it, any analysis at any level, serves as an act of closure, a levelling-off and tidying-up, a making-coherent. This closure, however, is only ever provisional, temporary. Re-encountering that film, having to grapple with it anew, re-opens both the film itself as a vital experience, and the collective case-file on it. Analysis is thus a foyer, a plateau, a mid-point in that entire cycle of how a film comes to be part of a culture. How different this is from the classic stereotype that what we do when we analyse films is dissect and kill or, at the very least, immobilise them (hence the perverse cult of the analytical freeze frame or screenshot, born


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in the 1970s) – or, less melodramatically, to fix their meanings in a “second order” form, such as writing. For Joubert-Laurencin, any movie should be regarded, paradoxically, as at once both “irreparably dead”, a finished thing of the past, and “incomparably alive, constantly evolving, stretched towards the future in anticipation of a new screening which will overthrow what was written about it”.6 A life of analysing films, if it is to be truly liveable, needs to occur in this curious but finally rather delightful rhythm of compression, decompression and recompression; you will have to keep unfolding and refolding that film as it travels with you, through your days. Even if what you find to say about it, now, is almost exactly the same as what you once said back then, nonetheless, the process of that re-finding, that retracing, is itself dynamic. (This is also the logic of Stanley Cavell’s philosophy of remarriage as he found it immortalised in Hollywood romantic comedies, nicely encapsulated by Elisabeth Bronfen as “recovery as rediscovery”.)7 No mere act of repetition, like those frosty lecturers who read out their same, yellowing pages of dull prose year after year. So, near the very end of my final Frankfurt course, I re-watched Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943). And it was then that I re-experienced a particular, electrifying moment that, at the age of fourteen or fifteen, truly fused my cinephile soul into the shape it still bears today. Heaven Can Wait is a film about time, lived time – the time that marches on, that ages us, marked by the cycle of birthdays and anniversaries; and the time that doubles back, that echoes and remembers itself, thanks to those same, annual rituals. An infinitely melancholic and gorgeous movie. In a scene 96 minutes in, Henry (Don Ameche) reminisces with his wife, Martha (Gene Tierney), in the same room they encountered each other 25 years previously. And then they dance. As they sweep into the middle of an otherwise empty space, the camera – in a movement I would later realise is quite uncharacteristic of Lubitsch – rises to the ceiling to frame them, briefly, from afar. During this move, Henry’s voice tells us, on the soundtrack: “I didn’t know it then, but this was our last anniversary. It was the last time we danced together. There were only a few more months left for Martha. And she made them the happiest of our lives”. The gap between image and sound, between vision and understanding, between the present moment of joy and the coming moment of bereavement: utterly devastating to this innocent, teenage cinephile! But it was also revelatory of a truly magical art: the art of ellipsis. Lubitsch transcends death

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by eliding it, leaping over it, tucking it inside the discrepancy between the dance we see and the voice we hear. It is in the ellipse that time escapes both its forward treadmill and its eternal return; in the ellipse that we can experience a rebirth. (2015)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

2. 3.


5. 6. 7.

Bill Krohn, “Les Cahiers du cinéma 1968-1977: Interview with Serge Daney”, The Thousand Eyes, no. 2 (1977), p. 20. See Enno Patalas, “Scénes de la vie d’un cinéphile allemande. Avant Schluchsee et après”, Cinéma, no. 6 (Autumn 2003), pp. 122-123. See Alain Bergala (trans. Madeline Whittle), The Cinema Hypothesis: Teaching Cinema in the Classroom and Beyond (Vienna: Austrian Filmmuseum/ Synema, 2016); and Manuel Mozos’s film portrait João Bénard da Costa: Outros Amarão as Coisas que eu Amei (2014). In 1998, I wrote three chapters for a Movie book on Lang that, after various travails, never saw the light of day. The Scarlet Street essay eventually appeared, in expanded form, as “Guess-Work: Scarlet Street”, Movie, no. 3 (2011) [ st._final.2.pdf]. Accessed 11 March 2017. Hervé Joubert-Laurencin, “Rewriting the Image: Two Effects of the FuturePerfect in André Bazin”, in Dudley Andrew (ed.), Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory and its Afterlife (London: Oxford, 2011), pp. 200-212. Ibid., p. 200. Elisabeth Bronfen, “Hurray for Hollywood: Philosophy and Cinema According to Stanley Cavell”, in Bernd Herzogenrath (ed.), Film as Philosophy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), p. 183.

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

25. My Back Pages Abstract This reflective exercise in intellectual autobiography begins with a meditation on the popular term “pure cinema”, its limitations and its uses. This cherished ideal of “cinematic specificity” may ultimately be illusory, but it nonetheless points to a special realm of our experience as spectators: the ecstatic thrill of the cinematic. The essay goes on to connect this experience with the film theory since 1985 inspired and informed by the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, as a set of analytical intuitions based not on a film’s paraphrased meanings and themes, but instead on its cinematic energies, intensities and affects. Examples evoked range from Hong Kong action movies and surrealistic fantasies, to John Hughes’ classic teen film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Keywords: Gilles Deleuze, pure cinema, cinematic specif icity, affect, energy, André Bazin

In 2003, I found myself at Lingnan University in Hong Kong to speak at a conference on action cinema.1 What better occasion to reflect on the work of cinematic editing in all its forms, from the blazing guns and flying fists of blockbuster movies to the stridently flickering, visual assaults of the avant-garde? The kinetic kick of the clips I had minutely studied obviously possessed me: in the course of my improvised remarks, I dared use the words pure cinema in an effort to capture and name what was so unique and exciting about these dizzy highlights of screen action. Uttering this term – pure cinema – was an unwise move. Everyone – even my best friends – felt compelled to tell me, publicly on the spot or privately afterwards, that “there is no such thing as pure cinema”. The cinema is gloriously impure, as theorists from André Bazin to Alain Badiou have no doubt proved. It offers the amalgamation and transformation of all the other arts and media. More dramatically still, there is nothing in any film worth describing as “specifically cinematographic”. The search for cinematic

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH25


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specificity – so goes the critical lecture – is a dangerous dream, a delusion, dragging us back to the reassuring fancies and fallacies of art-for-art’s-sake. Retreating into the pleasure of pure cinema is a way of avoiding the messy impurity of the world, of culture, of history and ideology. Bazin gently mocked those purists who nostalgically looked backward to the good old days of silent cinema, or “Cinema with a capital C” as he called it.2 Now, according to the modern, academic wisdom of Anglo-American cultural studies, cinema is merely a mobile, audiovisual assemblage in the flux of the society of spectacle. The cinema reminds us of what Raymond Chandler said of marriages and newspapers: “Above all never forget that a marriage is in one way very like a newspaper. It has to be made fresh every damn day of every damn year”.3 I know all of this, I know it. I recognise the truth of the arguments in favour of an impure, multiple, contaminated, promiscuous cinema. And yet … Sergei Eisenstein believed in defining the specifically cinematographic, and Alfred Hitchcock (with Brian De Palma trailing) eulogised what he called pure film. Were they wrong or deluded to do this, if it drove their own cinematic imagination and creativity? For myself, on that suddenly very lonely day at the microphone in Hong Kong, I could take recourse only to an impulsive cri de cœur. “Cinema is not just any old piece of cultural machinery, interchangeable with all the others”, I asserted. “If it were, why would any of us be here talking about it, studying it? If there isn’t something cinema can do that no other art can do, and if we didn’t feel this force that it wields, why would we even bother with it?” There was mostly silence in the room after that, with some grim and disapproving looks from my colleagues. Some gazed upon me with a nervous, parental concern, as if I had just revealed myself to be disturbed or maladapted. But a couple of fresh-faced, young film students standing modestly at the back of the room seemed to enjoy my outburst. And their eager smiles instantly took me back about 25 years … Young people, especially, love the language of passion, sensation, intensity. The instant that cinema can be connected to something vibrant in their lives – like music or dance or militant politics – it comes alive as an artistic cause and an experiential mystery. Most cinephiles and cineastes live this youthful moment when film is foremost the matter of a feeling, a passionate conviction – within a state of urgency, emergency even, where assertion replaces rational, logical, patient argumentation. The youthful cinephile asserts in the face of all the soul-dead elders: “Can’t you see the intensity, the novelty, the richness of this film-object in front of your eyes? Can’t you feel what I’m feeling?” This is exactly

My Back Pages


what Jacques Rivette said about Howard Hawks, in one of criticism’s great credos: The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks’s genius: you only have to watch Monkey Business [1952] to know that it is a brilliant film. Some people refuse to admit this, however; they refuse to be satisfied by proof. There can’t be any other reason why they don’t recognise it. 4

Or, as William Routt rephrased Rivette’s sentiment: “Those with eyes to see need no arguments to convince them, and those who cannot see are not worth convincing”.5 Bazin, too, was aware of this moment when passion wins the day over logical demonstration. “It is never with arguments that one wins over a person”, he mused. “The conviction one puts into them often counts for more”.6 In a flash, the young, inflamed cinephile sees the totality – the totality of the cinema, of life, of the world. All relationships between the pieces become suddenly clear. There is no gap between what the individual subject feels and what the object (any object, including the film-object) offers up. Existence occurs, without breaks, on an immanent plane of intensity. And there is no gap between form and content: films communicate directly to alert bodies, in rhythms, pulsations and shock waves, through breathtaking apparitions – this is the kingdom of sensual thought, instant illumination pouring from the screen. This is the only thing that Bernardo Bertolucci gets right in his otherwise botched cinephile memoir of May 1968, The Dreamers (2003): his young heroes sit in the front rows, they say, to receive the screen’s images fresh, undiluted and immediate. And yet, the effort to put that moment of revelation or illumination into concrete words might take an entire lifetime – by which stage the biological strength and support of youth has long abandoned the mind. “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now”, sang Bob Dylan in “My Back Pages”, when he was hardly 23 years old himself. This paradox speaks the truth: the youthful moment of absolute certainty, righteousness and self-confidence seems, in retrospect, like the originary moment of maturity and wisdom – and also like the precarious, fleeting Eden from which we all subsequently fall. The question then becomes: how do you live with this memory of youth? How do you stay true to those intuitions; how do you develop them to their point of fullest expression? It is because so many of us lose heart and lose grip of this initiatory moment of illumination that intellectual and cultural history is full of stark reversals and disavowals: political commentators who


Mysteries of Cinema

switch from left to right (but rarely the other way around), musicians who trade anarchy for a middle-of-the-road sound, filmmakers who abandon the path of transgression. But it is equally pathetic to strain to stay “Forever Young” (another Dylan title), frozen in the posture of aggressive youthfulness – like a 40- or 60-year-old punk, past his prime but still spitting and cursing on stage, or an ageing libertine novelist still trying to shock the bourgeois, middlebrow public, like a naughty adolescent. Young cinephiles are easily, almost naturally, Deleuzian – not the Deleuze of the cinema books (too dure et pure for many eighteen year olds), but the Deleuze of Anti-Oedipus (which is really Deleuze-Guattari). They are Deleuzian before they read Deleuze, and indeed even after hearing about him, they may not bother to read very much of him, or read it very closely, but no matter: the connection takes place, it ignites. The language of desire, assemblage, multiplicity, line of flight, rhizome, etc., is irresistible to youth. They scavenge Deleuze for the “Pop Philosophy or Pop Analysis” he both once dreamed of and later feared, once it had become a scary, mangled reality on nightly, talk-show television.7 I was seventeen when I started reading Deleuze and Guattari in English translation, in a now very hard-to-find Australian publication with the great title of Language, Sexuality and Subversion – and I was 21 when I wrote and sang a song dedicated to Deleuze called “Pop Philosophy” in a music band that was part of Melbourne’s New Wave movement (yes, that’s what it was called, a Nouvelle Vague!) in the early 1980s. All during those years I wondered, as did others, about how to translate the feeling I had for Deleuze’s work, and the sense I had of its all-purpose significance, into the languages of film reviewing, film criticism and film theory. I still wonder about it today. Back in the 1980s, a particular desire was born inside me and inside some others of my acquaintance: a desire to speak of cinema in terms of forms, shapes, rhythms, intensities, and effects in all senses, both technical and emotional. But never meanings. Meaning was the bad residue of an old-fashioned, literary and theatrical criticism, an approach that, when turned to film, spoke only of abstract themes – and characters, always this useless speculation on what fictional characters were feeling and thinking. In Australia during the 1970s, this old school made itself look new by adopting, in a mechanical way, the tools of European structuralism – suddenly essays on film were full of lists of binary, structural oppositions arranged in tables. But the inspiration of Roland Barthes, and the suppleness of the poststructuralist movement, was rarely to be found in my homeland in those years: it was business as usual.

My Back Pages


Everything was missing from the reductive snapshot of cinema produced by these dry, literary analyses: movement, colour, the flesh of the actors, sound and music, atmosphere, mood. And not just everything on the material surface of the film, but also everything hovering underneath and around it, invisibly: reveries, phantasms, other suggested films. In 1986, I dashed to the movies, in the company of my friends, after a pleasant meal that included several bottles of wine. We arrived after the projection had started, and settled down in our state of heightened intoxication to watch an American teen movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986). It was a pretty good film when re-viewed in a sober condition, but, as far as I was concerned, that night it was the greatest of all cinematic masterpieces – and a perfect pretext for the Deleuzian method of reception I had been eagerly cultivating. In the state that the Surrealists of the 1950s called “irrational enlargement”, I plunged into this big-screen movie as if it were an entire world.8 Every detail and every corner of the frame came alive. I could enter the space of the screen and explore it at will. The film lost its fixed duration; it became an infinite, virtual zone. Every zig-zag of the characters, every travelling past décor, every crystal-clear blast of pop music became the forward projections of my own imaginary voyage in and through the screen. In an eerie but very beautiful way, the film even seemed to read the minds of we happy few, liberated spectators, answering our prayers and giving form to our desires: when a sad boy named Cameron (Alan Ruck) is trapped at home, suddenly a choir on the soundtrack whispers “Let my Cameron go!”; when the film seemed to have ended, we wanted it to go on forever, but then the young hero flew back into the frame to ask into the camera, “Are you still there?”; and, in an unlikely, impromptu scene at an art gallery, the teenagers’s gaze at Impressionist paintings jump-cuts in deeper and deeper until there are only purely abstract dots and colour-fields. A sequel to Language, Sexuality and Subversion was announced in 1980 – called Deleuze: Philosophy of Desire – and I started sketching out a contribution for it, called “Machines, Desires, Cinemas”. But I never completed it; my aim exceeded my grasp. I have also never finished my text “Inside Ferris Bueller”, my homage to that evening of inner “expanded cinema” and what it taught me. Perhaps some texts are meant never to be written in one’s lifetime. The haunting question is always: can they be written? Somewhere, sometime, we all reach the limit of our sweet delirium; if we do not, maybe we go over the edge, we die or evaporate. Writing brings you back to the deferred problem of meaning – you cannot write film criticism only in rhythms, colours and shapes, even if you long to


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do so. And then, faced with the vertigo of the blank page, other considerations crowd into your mind: history, context, what Barthes called the doxa of grubby, received opinions, the whole social machinery of ideology that you hoped to flee through immersion in the screen. A critical programme based on sheer intensity (up with intensity, down with meaning!) is doomed to failure, or muteness – I suffered a crippling writer’s block for eighteen months in my early 20s – because it crashes on the ineffable shores of inarticulate, passionate assertion. In every critic’s life, there are so many texts unwritten; we all have our own little Arcades Project (à la Walter Benjamin) somewhere tucked away in a drawer or in our minds – a mountain of notes waiting to take form as a book, or a super-course, or an ultimate, curated programme. And maybe it is not so tragic that we leave behind a trail of such unfinished works; as Raymond Bellour once suggested, “only the imaginary realm of science believes that one always insists on finishing – in a limited period – what one has begun”.9 We outgrow some of our youthful intuitions because we become different people, conscious of a different kind of multi-levelled reality. Passing time sometimes brings merciful change, and perhaps the only thing worse than the feeling that you never completed your Grand Project is the realisation, looking back, that you only ever wrote and published the same thing over and over, anyhow. Better to let your identity drift and dissolve and mutate with the years, and for your projects to arise from that shifting mist of interests, intuitions and desires. Still, there is the memory of that flaming creature you once were in your youth: the image that dares you to live in its name and honour its spirit – that dares you not to disappoint it. In the 1964 text “The Journey is Done”, written long after his adventures in the Surrealist circle, the poet René Char mused: The marriage between the mind of a 20 year old and a violent phantom turns out to be disappointing as we ourselves are disappointing. It is no more than the deed created by a natural revolt and carried along by an accompanying fire or rather by a collective mirror. Only too soon is it burnt out by the divorce of its elements.10

But is a remarriage possible? Now – while entirely aware of Char’s warning that “a sovereign and unapproachable object […] splinters into a million fragments once, having broken through the limits of distance, we are about to take hold of it”11 – I set off again to search for this intensity of pure cinema that started my voyage as a critic.

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Paul Willemen once made the fairly startling claim that the most famous keywords of cinema studies – like montage or mise en scène – do not, in fact, mean what they are conventionally taken to mean. Rather, they hide a secretive, unfathomably complex sense, something too hard to speak or define. We use such standard words to help us gesture toward something – some force in cinema – that we do not yet understand.12 And I suspect that the meaningless concept of pure film is – at least for me – one of these terms that marks or divines a churning ocean of drives far beneath the surface of the cinema-earth. Recently, I stumbled upon an intriguing philosophical justification of this concept of pure film à la Hitchcock (and also Antonin Artaud): pure film designates not an ensemble of edits, camera movements, acting gestures and point-of-view shots, but (according to this argument) something that forces its way through the total film-object and coheres it – something like the Will as Arthur Schopenhauer formulated that concept, a cosmic version of the élan vital. Will as the unspeakable intensity, the spark that unites the imaginations of the artist and the critic.13 Looking at those students up the back of the room in Hong Kong in 2003 – my secret comrades across the adult lifetime of a quarter-century and the space of our global film community – I remembered a particular, very keen student who came up to me at the end of the last day of a cinema course I taught in 1983, when I was as old as the Dylan who wrote “My Back Pages”. “I’ve figured out what cinema is all about for you”, this young man said. “What it means, what it gives you”. I was impatient to hear this student’s savage psychoanalysis of his teacher! And then he uttered one, simple word: energy. (2004)

Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.


See Adrian Martin, “At the Edge of the Cut: An Encounter with the Hong Kong Style in Contemporary Action Cinema”, in Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Li & Stephen Chan Ching-kiu (eds), Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema (Hong Kong/New York: Hong Kong University Press/Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 175-188, 311-312. André Bazin (trans. Timothy Barnard), What is Cinema? (Montreal: Caboose, 2009), p. 131.


3. 4. 5. 6. 7.


9. 10. 11. 12. 13.

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Tom Hiney & Frank MacShane (eds), The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction 1909-1959 (New York: Grove Press, 2002), p. 217. Jacques Rivette, “The Genius of Howard Hawks”, in Jim Hillier (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma – The 1950s: Neo-realism, Hollywood, New Wave (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1985), p. 126. William D. Routt, “L’Évidence”, Continuum, Vol. 5 No. 2 (1992), p. 51. André Bazin “In Defense of Rossellini”, in Hugh Gray (ed. & trans.), What is Cinema? Volume 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 101. Gilles Deleuze (trans. Martin Joughin), Negotiations: 1972-1990 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 7; see also Deleuze (trans. Ames Hodges & Mike Taormina), Two Regimes of Madness: Texts and Interviews 1975-1995 (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007), pp. 139-147. See The Surrealist Group (1951), “Data Toward the Irrational Enlargement of a Film: The Shanghai Gesture”, in Paul Hammond (ed. & trans.), The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000), pp. 121-129. Raymond Bellour (trans. Diana Matias), The Analysis of Film (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 195. René Char, “The Journey is Done”, Yale French Studies, no. 31 (1964), p. 126. Ibid. See Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory (London: British Film Institute, 1994), pp. 226-227. See Daniel Frampton, Filmosophy (London: Wallflower Press, 2006).

About the author Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994).

26. The File We Accompany co-author Cristina Álvarez López Abstract Since 2013, Adrian Martin and his collaborator Cristina Álvarez López have been making audiovisual essays – experiments in film criticism and analysis using the format of re-edited images and sounds to produce a revamped mode of commentary upon the object. They conceive this practice as a type of multi-media, mixing written texts with audiovisual montage through the presentational possibilities allowed by digital publishing. This f inal chapter of Mysteries of Cinema isolates the literary element of these experiments: a selection of the short, telegrammatic, self-contained essays that accompany the audiovisual f iles. In these pieces, many themes, motifs and ideas from the preceding chapters of the book are recalled and recast in a different way, opening a new path in the writer’s trajectory. Keywords: Audiovisual essay, film criticism, cinephilia, Alfred Hitchcock, Asian cinema

These are incomplete texts – incomplete, because they were written to accompany the online audiovisual essays that we have collaboratively made for various websites in the US and Europe (predominantly MUBI, as well as Transit, de Filmkrant, Sight and Sound – and Fandor until it expunged much of its past video content) between 2013 and 2016.1 However, these notes are composed in such a way as never merely to reproduce or repeat (and still less to explain) what is in the videos themselves; rather, they offer a supplement, in the fullest sense of that word – variously contextualising, extending, and probing the works. The interplay of such writing and digital image/sound montage is part of what we see (and have proposed elsewhere) as the polyphonic, multi-medial possibility of this new form of criticism.2 Duly detached and placed on their own in this present context of publication, we

Martin, A., Mysteries of Cinema: Reflections on Film Theory, History and Culture 1982-2016, Amsterdam University Press, 2018. doi: 10.5117/9789462986831/CH26


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think of these written texts as poetic-critical fragments: their condensed, at times cryptic form allows a dense, telegraphic energy that is unlike, exactly, either journalistic or academic writing. In them, certain ideas, figures, names and obsessions that are scattered throughout earlier pages and phases of this book are rewired, reignited, not retrospectively or nostalgically, but reinvented thanks to the creative process of collaboration, and the renewed intimacy with materials that the audiovisual essay form allows. – Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin, December 2016

Intimate Catastrophes: Troubles Every Day Cinema is a drama of space. Every true work of cinema (to adapt the words of Raymond Bellour) “offers an irreducibly singular configuration, in which the singularities of space intersect with the fatalities of time”.3 Cinema inscribes lines of movement, of direction, of contact. Cinema is intimately architectural. In Italo Calvino’s classic book Invisible Cities (1972), the evocation of the city of Zaira resembles the remembrance of a film – a film recalled emotionally, but caught in precise measurements of distance and proximity, space and place. Emotional memory resides in the narrative trace left by, for instance, “the height of that railing and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at dawn”. 4 We look at this gap, this absence, and a film plays in our minds. Otto Preminger, Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky – all the great filmmakers of evacuated, pregnant space – have known this. Their plots engineer reprises, recalls in the void left behind after the people of the story have gone, when the encounters are no more. Cinematic memory and the physicality of place enchant one another. Cinema is nothing without its weights and measurements, its openings and impasses. When nothing will have taken place but the place itself, the narrative of the encounter will still echo there. Rewriting Calvino again, we can say: The film, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.5

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Encounters and upsets. In Jean Epstein’s Le tempestaire (1947), an old man of the Brittany coast looks into his magic, crystal ball, sees the sea inside it, blows at it, and tames a fierce storm: at the end of his effort, he drops the ball and it smashes. Almost six decades later, Alain Resnais’s use of backward sound effects in Cœurs (2006), derived from Alan Ayckbourn’s play Private Fears in Public Places – a genuinely intimate drama of space – pays homage to the radical genius of Epstein. In Resnais’s melodrama, lines and movements converge in a gaudily coloured bar. Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré) heads towards her rendez-vous with Dan (Lambert Wilson), already sitting at a table ahead of her; his ex-wife, Nicole (Laura Morante), strides out of the bathroom and reaches this destination first. Meanwhile, the barman, Lionel (Pierre Arditi), sees and knows all. Gaëlle breaks away, backs out, retraces her steps up the stairs: her sudden movement almost knocks over a tray of drinks. A catastrophe is plotted, architecturally planned: the camera tracks, whips, and flies through this busy space. Intimate catastrophe. Bodies flee, lines of connection break. In two films, Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930) and Boris Barnet’s U samogo sinego morya (1936), there is a character-triangle (just as there is in the Cœurs scene, but with the genders reversed): a woman between two men. The trouble, the tear in the social fabric induced by this dissymmetry is dramatised in the rending of something close to the female body: for both women, a necklace. Pearls break, drop, clink, and shatter: below-screen in one case, drawn out in slow motion in the other. An absolute cinematic event, the trembling of the world in its microcosmic movements. Troubles in the everyday, trouble every day. Morocco is about a woman (Marlene Dietrich as Amy Jolly) who swaps a palace for a desert; U samogo sinego morya drops into a kolkhoz in the interregnum between disgorging from and going back out into the sea (evoking the fishing drama of Le tempestaire, or the boating drama of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s I Know Where I’m Going! [1945]). Cœurs is about the mundane – yet somehow intimately spectacular – buying and selling and displacement of real estate. Tectonic movements of land, sea and property to underpin the smallest and most eventful of catastrophes: a necklace breaking. Calvino wrote of a “wave of memories”, and the city – the film – that “soaks up like a sponge and expands”.6 The action and sound of water score this mixed-memory of a fragment of cinema. 

(January 2013)


Mysteries of Cinema

Angst/Fear: Wild Horses The paths of transmission in cinema are mysterious. Rainer Werner Fassbinder was embroiled in a legal case over the source of his film Martha (1974): he claimed not to realise that he had unconsciously appropriated a short story by Cornell Woolrich. As always, he seems to have absorbed much more than this one text: the elements of brief honeymoon, bleak marriage and hideous sunburn in Martha also irresistibly evoke Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972) from two years before. Fassbinder was not unique in any of this: isn’t every truly creative process this kind of sifting and transforming, unconscious osmosis – a richer vein by far than the hyper-conscious, quotational frenzy of intertextuality we associate with the likes of Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers? It is not documented whether James Foley, director of the American intimacy thriller Fear (1996), saw and absorbed Martha. Perhaps it was simply the demands and logic of his given story and genre that led him to shoot his fairground ride, involving two new lovers, in a way uncannily similar to Fassbinder. It is, after all, a properly f igural situation: how many ways are there to f ilm such a Big Dipper scene? Shots of the couple bunched close together in the seat, alternating with point-of-view shots of the movement: setting off, climbing up, plunging down, slowing down to a halt – complete with the same luminous, garish colour scheme, like the “inside of a juke box”, as Vincente Minnelli once said of his fairground scene in Some Came Running (1958).7 More than usual, it is possible to conjure, through montage, an imaginary scene that fuses both depictions. The two scenes enter into an intense dialogue, back and forth; their differences serve to project interpretations, one into the other, each film underlining and bringing out a buried aspect of its double. It is not only the case that Martha, an art-film classic, reveals a more sinister (and more political) dimension in the popular, genre thriller that is Fear – a generalisation of the “charming bad boy” syndrome into an exploration of the terror of patriarchy itself. To rest on merely that exchange between the two films would just be snobbery; besides, this metaphor is already latent throughout much of Foley’s film (and his cinema, in general). The virginal, teenage orgasm of Nicole (Reese Witherspoon), under the deft hand of David (Mark Wahlberg), also reveals something about Martha: the angst of this woman (Margit Carstensen) – and we know how fond Fassbinder was of placing this word angst in his film titles – that makes her vomit after the ride is over is also a perverse source of pleasure, even

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ecstasy, for her. In just a moment, she will be beaming with manic pride at the marriage proposal she receives from Helmut (Karlheinz Böhm). Uncanny, too, is the presence in both films of the same counterpoint: the best friend of the female protagonist, in the background but emphasised by the camera, locked in an illicit, furtive embrace. But there is a big difference here: where Martha’s confidante, Marianne (Barbara Valentin), stands for the woman who can “manage” her passions and interests (marital and extra-marital) like a good bourgeois, Nicole’s gal pal Margo (Alyssa Milano) represents the Hell of angst into which Nicole herself is plunging, headlong – with the pointed, accusing finger of the rough boyfriend serving to massage a residual wave of post-orgasmic guilt. The Rolling Stones song (covered on the Fear soundtrack, and ours, by The Sundays) chants: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away”. The idiomatic expression means: I am so passionate about the situation that I am in, nothing could distract or divert me from it. Heard again here, as used in Fear, but now projected through the shadow of Martha, it conjures the perfect psychological double bind of ecstasy and angst combined: these twin, extreme emotions knot to form a prison, and a paralysis. 

(June 2013)

A Key to After Hours: Manœuvring Martin Scorsese once said (while shooting Cape Fear in 1991) that it is hard to show characters walking out their front door, going to their car while talking about something or other, and getting in.8 Hard to make that visually, dramatically, and cinematically interesting. Hard to compress it ingeniously, or elide it altogether, as his master (one of many masters) Alexander Mackendrick would have done.9 Hard to manœuvre in every sense – to do it well, and then fit it into the exact, best spot in the whole film, the total structure. Such scenes, strung together in a jazzy, Spike Lee-style curve over two or three hours, constitute a narrative archipelago in Scorsese: a pattern of disconnected islands, not a whole, smoothed-out landscape. We know from The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) that Scorsese is not terribly interested, moment to moment, in narrative. He likes a big arc, yes – riches to ruin, fame to incarceration, celebrity to schmuckdom – but not every step of the journey; or rather, not the patient logic of that kind of plot/destiny movement, like we see in Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). It is rather the case that Scorsese loves incident – and when he hits


Mysteries of Cinema

one to really invest his directorial energy into, he expands it is as far, and as big, as it will go: the driving-on-Quaaludes sequence in The Wolf of Wall Street, for instance. In After Hours (1985) – a somewhat forgotten, overlooked work in the director’s 1980s corpus, in that curious lull period between the radical extremity of The King of Comedy (1983) and the good-to-go, epic-chronicle energy of Goodfellas (1990) – there is both a tight, small narrative (the catastrophe of an evening) as scripted by Joseph Minion, and many scenes of the nervy/nerdy hero, Paul (Griffin Dunne), having to get in and out of apartment buildings, cars, clubs: doors at every turn. Fortunately for everybody (Scorsese included), After Hours is virtually nothing but incident, packed wall-to-wall. A busy, busy movie. Scorsese gets to manœuvre, endlessly: look at how even the simple act of hailing a cab becomes a strange, gestural journey for a hand floating free in space, flagging down and then connecting with the vehicle’s door handle. Ceaseless manœuvring is also what the main character does a lot, which makes Paul the perfect mirror and vehicle for the director’s neurotic motion: look at this poor guy hopelessly trying to circle around a bouncer to angle his way into a club, or talk his way through to a discount ticket for an oncoming train. In The Scorsese Connection, Lesley Stern describes this auteur’s work (it is also a prevalent contemporary, American style) in terms of a free-floating, ever-insistent deixis. In other words, his style is not just an underlining, but an aggressive pointing – a non-stop pointing-out that renders everything, even the most normal or everyday thing, as odd, offbeat and fascinatingly mysterious.10 There is manic energy in the air in Scorsese´s films, a dramatic gravity, an aura of meaningfulness – but these are effects given more by the hyper-restless camera, by the insistent cutting to insert details, by the music (here composed by David Cronenberg’s regular collaborator, Howard Shore), by the overlapping voices and noises (it is a screwball soundscape where nobody much listens to anybody else), by the irrational fright, tension, or shiver registered by an actor – not necessarily by the strict content of a scene as scripted. The net effect is infectiously weird, creating that type of frenzied, nerve-jangling, utterly paranoiac high that links Scorsese’s main men – whether they pop upper pills (like Jordan Belfort [Leonardo DiCaprio] in The Wolf of Wall Street and Henry Hill [Ray Liotta] in Goodfellas) or not – into one, big, unhappy family. How can a film about the night’s seduction become a film about the nightmare of the unknown? How can a film about relief become a film about anguish? After Hours is a movie (as Stern saw well) full of tiny, complicated patterns: networks of exchange, spirals of circulating objects,

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and hallucinatory substitutions. It’s the earrings in Madame de … (1953) gone berserk, off their leash. The simplest thing becomes a problem – a big problem – for Paul. Keys fall from the sky, multiply, and create more problems once they let him in somewhere. Push-buttons, coin slots, doorbells and toilet flushers trigger cascades of unstoppable stuff. Getting in and getting out of anything, anywhere, becomes nightmarish. The normally coded zones of social space, public or private, switch without warning: entranceways lead to prisons; illicit havens become potential tombs. Throughout it all, our hero finds himself running, running – turning that ordinary gauntlet of everyday passage (out the door, down the street, into a car) into a nocturnal hell: the “night out” that becomes, at every point and with each step, more closed-in. How can a film about going out become a film about getting trapped in? We offer a key to After Hours. 

(April 2014)

[De Palma’s] Vision There is a story of how Brian De Palma works with his film editors: he looks at what they have already done in assembling a scene, and then instructs them on how to improve it, to his precise specifications, by tapping out a particular beat: “1 … 2 … 3 … cut there!” His work on cinematic form is rhythmic, musical – and always keyed to emotional, physical patterns of tension and relaxation. So he counts out the beats to draw all the elements of image and sound, gesture and architecture together, in a masterful choreography/orchestration. In approaching an audiovisual analysis of De Palma’s films (which we find inexhaustible as objects of study), we too are faced with the task of not merely enumerating the abundant motifs and structures in his work, but also bringing them together and drawing out their unfolding logic – unfolding both within each film, and across his whole career. Many dedicated accounts of this director – from John Ashbrook’s breezy Pocket Essential guide from 2000 to the long, detailed entry in Jean-Pierre Coursodon’s and Bertrand Tavernier’s 50 ans de cinéma américaine – proceed by listing recurring themes, situations, and objects. A standard auteurist method, entirely valid as a starting point, but one that – particularly in the case of this filmmaker – can freeze or fixate the work of analysis. Coursodon and Tavernier (to take the best of these synoptic discussions) offer a list of eight “motifs and figures that constitute this very particular


Mysteries of Cinema

universe” created on film by De Palma. The eight motifs are: voyeurism; the double; the victim protagonist; innocents condemned, twinned with aborted rescue; the unprovable crime with a missing piece of evidence; freaks and manipulators; women, who are either bad mothers or prostitutes; and finally duplication, multiplication and mise en abyme (infinite mirroring).11 This is a perceptive and helpful list; we can find almost all of the eight items in certain, key De Palma films, such as Sisters (1973), Blow Out (1981), Body Double (1984) and Passion (2012). Bruce Kawin, in his essay for the Criterion DVD of Sisters, suggests an even more concise formula for De Palma’s cinema: “What appears to be whole may be divided and what appears to be two may be one”.12 This, indeed, covers much that happens in these films: sometimes, a single character can be revealed as harbouring multiple personalities, each acting of its own accord, as in Raising Cain (1992); at other times, multiple avatars can turn out to be conscious manifestations of a single, lookalike figure, as in Dressed to Kill (1980). And a narrative itself can often split in two, with the introduction of a new, central character (the Hitchcock Psycho [1960] trick) – De Palma likes nothing better than to multiply threads of intrigue, characters (with their points-of-view), and internal narrative worlds, a trait of sensibility that is evident as early as his short Woton’s Wake (1962). Kawin sought a logic to cohere and to unify the various motifs in De Palma’s films, as do we. If we take a cluster of these motifs relating to the idea of vision, then we quickly realise that they allow De Palma to create compositional effects and narrative extravagances of every kind. But this director’s obsession for the visual covers not only the style and narratives of his films; it is also, frequently, the true, deep theme of his cinema. The very act of looking and its consequences; the relationship between the subject who looks and the object of their gaze; the way of processing, decoding and interpreting what we see; the value of absolute truth that we tend to give the information that reaches us through the organ of sight: all of these issues are central to his films. How, according to what material, cinematic forms, does vision become such a central concern for De Palma? 1. In the first place, De Palma is obsessed with the coupling of vision and manipulation. His cinema is full of characters who mislead others, using disguises or masks to adopt a false identity or to project an image of themselves which is not truthful. Obsession (1976), for example, is constructed entirely on the mystery of a person who is not who she seems to be, nor who she claims to be. Beyond manipulation, there is

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another type of deception associated with a form of vision that is even more elaborate and sophisticated. De Palma’s films are often built on an essential scene in which his characters see something crucial. In reality, what they see is the product of a ruse; it is something that has been designed and executed with the intention that the heroes will be witnesses to this event that covers or hides something else that is far more sinister. Later, when the main characters finally understand that they have been used, the scene returns to be shown a second time – but now with the emphasis on the construction of the deception, the panoply of the trap. And when the scene appears for the second time, it serves as a mise en abyme that reveals the inner workings of an illusion, the process of creating a trick that has taken place inside the diegesis (executed by the villain), but also outside it (where De Palma serves as the demiurge of his filmic universe). Passing twice over the same scene, the protagonists (and us with them) cross over from a naïve gaze to the discovery of artifice. 2. Another constant trope related to vision is the eternal return of an image. This is something that, in De Palma’s cinema, is profoundly connected to the idea of trauma. Often, De Palma’s characters bear witness to something terrible, and are unable to get rid of this tormenting vision. Trauma returns as an image that haunts them, sometimes in the form of a dream, hallucination, or memory. In contrast to this, many of De Palma’s films arrest themselves in moments of blindness. This is a matter of lapses in time in which the characters cannot see (whether because of a body standing in front of them, a natural flare, or the artificial flash of a camera). These lapses sometimes last only a few, brief seconds, but De Palma dilates them, because such moments in which characters lose control of a situation are often crucial for the narrative resolution. It is the case, in his cinema, that seeing is not always synonymous with knowing – his films frequently warn us that the eye is a misleading or deceptive bodily organ. Not seeing, however, is definitely a synonym for disaster, as well as a sign of fragility and weakness. For this reason, in films including Dressed to Kill, Raising Cain, Blow Out, Carrie (1976) and Passion, there is something sinister lurking somewhere that escapes vision. So, the concise declension: in De Palma’s cinema, trauma is manifested in an image that returns; catastrophe arises at the moment of impaired vision; and horror is usually localised in a blind spot. 3. The image that appears during the f inal credits of Femme Fatale (2002) – a panorama of a Paris district, formed from the joining of many photographs of small portions of that neighbourhood – perfectly sums up the way in which De Palma constructs his films: he makes us see a reality


Mysteries of Cinema

that, like a puzzle or a collage, is revealed only in the sum of its fragments. Almost all of his films include at least one elaborate sequence in which there is a series of actions, all interrelated, involving many characters. De Palma films these set-pieces like nobody else, because his mastery of rhythm and choreography is total, and also because the conception of this type of sequence is adjusted perfectly to his vision of reality as something that, to be properly appreciated and understood, first needs to be decomposed. We need to isolate the parts of the world, magnify its details and see how they relate to each other, in order to understand the “big picture”. Moreover, reality comes in the form of a palimpsest, constructed at different layers, wherein images are superimposed on other images, sometimes hiding those that are below, at other times offering a combination of several at once. In his most critical mode, De Palma shows us that, in a world of visual dictatorship, some images are concealed, while everybody turns their heads to the same screens. Ultimately, these three stories or structures of vision in De Palma that we have outlined are also, at their deepest level, fantasy-scenarios: situations and configurations that capture De Palma’s imagination, and that he worries over (consciously and unconsciously) from film to film. These fantasy-scenarios combine personal phantasms with all manner of historic, social and political traumas: the ghosts of the 1960s, like the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam, which his films never cease turning over and re-examining. And this is because, even though De Palma will always tell us that he only cares about pure film, the deep, unresolvable impurity of these fantasy-scenarios also drives him on as an artist. 

(May 2014)

Béla Tarr’s Repulsion: Fragments of a Lost Remake Inside every narrative film is a non-narrative film struggling to get out. A film of details, of in-betweens, of atmospheres; of nothing-much-happening and everyday banality. A film of redundant repetition and obligatory scenesetting. A film in which glances fall into the void rather than guiding a drama; in which gestures and actions happen for their own sakes rather than for the symbolic or thematic meaning they project. A film in which the background surges forward and becomes the foreground; in which rooms and objects, for once, really do become (as that lousy reviewing cliché loves to say) “characters in their own right”.

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A film without intrigue. Or, at any rate, only the most minimal filigree of intrigue, perhaps a single turning point or shock. In their book To Dress a Nude: Exercises in Imagination, Yvette Bíró and Marie-Geneviève Ripeau pose to their scriptwriting students this challenge: invent the most boring story in the world, a tale in which absolutely nothing happens. The students quickly discover that the task is impossible: even (or especially) when a story is apparently leeched of all fiction, something incredibly exciting – it could be the smallest thing in the world – will seize and carry it off into a realm of suspense and drama.13 This is the film that many people seek today. It is not unknown or nonexistent; it even forms, by now, an abundant genre: slow cinema. This has been going on for a long time, in one way or another, since Andy Warhol and Chantal Akerman, since early Wim Wenders and Sohrab Shahid-Saless. By now, it already boasts its festivals and textbooks, its masters and lazybones, its sublime epiphanies and rank wastage. Béla Tarr, Lisandro Alonso, Tsai Ming-liang, Jia Zhang-ke, Lav Diaz: we know the roll call. But let us leave aside, for a moment, this special realm of World Cinema (as it is now labelled) and return to the cinema of the world: that great mass of films we would never immediately classify as slow cinema. Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), for example: a strongly narrative, wholly psychological/ subjective movie, virtuosically controlled down to the last frame. Audiovisual essays allow us to form in practice what is called, in many fields, a thought experiment. This is speculative criticism: let us project one film into another, through another. Very different films, from very different times and places, with such apparently different goals. Could we discern, through this experiment, something that unites them: something that inhabits them both, informs them both, and undoes them both? Something deeply rooted in cinema, as a bedrock, before specific genres, markets, and modes of production intervene, channelling the possibilities? So: reimagine Repulsion as a Béla Tarr film. There is some very basic and broad, common ground to begin with: Eastern European sensibility, black-and-white cinematography, and a propensity for interiors – usually set in stark opposition to the world beyond the window. See if you can find in Polanski’s movie the dank spaces and the dead moments, the images of foodas-object, the cycle of everyday activities, the endless, implacable passages of walking – all those signatures we associate with Tarr. Arrange the film into days, like A torinói ló (2011). And eliminate most of the intrigue – in the spirit of the Bíró/Ripeau exercise – while isolating perhaps one thread or incident in the original that can be refashioned into a disquieting, Tarr-like apocalypse of the everyday.


Mysteries of Cinema

Now more directly in relation to Polanski’s own work: try to strip out, as much as possible, the fiction, the psychology, the Cocteau-esque apparitions, the aggressively dramatic, jazz score, the suspenseful arc. Take out the beauty parlour scenes and virtually every other character besides Carol (Catherine Deneuve). But add nothing: use as much of the original image/ sound relations as will work for the experiment. Listen anew to the film’s remarkably subtle sound design of drips and clicks and footsteps; look at its language of bodily gesture before the heroine’s psychosis is writ large as grotesque expressionism. A surprisingly large percentage of Repulsion can be harvested for this purpose; when reassembled in this fashion, we can intuit the profound kinship, across a decade of cinema, between Deneuve as Carol and Delphine Seyrig as Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman. Polanski’s cinema turns out to be a particularly fruitful site to explore the tension between narrative and non-narrative that is inherent in many (most?) films. Polanski himself candidly boasted (in Joseph Gelmis’s legendary interview book The Film Director as Superstar) that his work in the mid 1960s was “well in advance of anything that has been done in the semantics of cinema”, and that, in ideal conditions, he writes (with his collaborator Gérard Brach) “without any story”, purely with an aim to collate “what I like to see in cinema”.14 By the occasion of Le locataire (1976) in Polanski’s filmography, Jonathan Rosenbaum in Sight and Sound was perturbed to find two “dissociated sections” in it, the first a veritable “open text” devoted to “certain formal interests”, and the second eliminating ambiguity and subtlety in favour of “the more ‘saleable’ sides of his artistic persona”. Rosenbaum ruefully noted, in this context, that “formalism in mainstream cinema” has to “sneak in under another label, usually stylistic or thematic”.15 And it has ever been thus in Polanski’s long, illustrious career. Repulsion is not the sort of movie that Béla Tarr would choose to remake. (We are not aware if he has even seen it.) But it can shake up our general sense of what is expected and appropriate in the world of cinema – assumptions that are always repressive of deep, virtual, possible connections, as Jacques Rancière’s musings on the “intervals of cinema” constantly remind us16 – to imagine a lost version of Polanski’s film by Tarr, a reworking of horrorsuspense genre elements into an everyday-apocalypse frame. A formalist ruin accessible only in a few scattered but reconstitutable fragments. 

(January 2015)

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Short-Circuit: A Twin Peaks System 25 May 1991 – Lynch. Saw, somewhat by chance, with S.P., an episode of Twin Peaks on TV. I had already seen one and been positively inclined. Same feeling yesterday. Same pleasure to let myself be “hooked” by the film, once I am (vaguely) clued in to the plot and once I am on the way, always stimulating, from one scene (or shot) to another. Now here (as they say), this is cinema! I mean it’s constantly articulating something. – Serge Daney 17

Many general things can be said about the Twin Peaks phenomenon masterminded by David Lynch and Mark Frost between 1990 and 1992. Its pertinent macro-contexts are many: the convoluted narrative and the crazy characters; the inauguration of a “dead girl” genre (and where that genre has gone since the start of the 1990s, in Top of the Lake [2013-2017] or True Detective [2014- ]); long-form TV drama, its possibilities and pitfalls; and the elaborate, cultish approaches to ithe viewing and interpretation of Twin Peaks developed by fans old and new. Then there is the especially rich, mythological underpinning of Twin Peaks in all its extensions (including spin-off books, the feature Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me [1992], and the “Missing Pieces” shot for the latter unveiled on disc in 2014) – both the mythology conjured by the series, which still holds many fans in its thrall, and the many mythological systems, from Judaeo-Christian to occult, that feed into it. Many of these paths (and others) were explored in-depth by the participants in the May 2015 conference at Salford University in Manchester, I’ll See You Again in 25 Years: The Return of Twin Peaks and Generations of Cult TV.18 In our contribution to the conference, we dwelt more on the “micro” level of Twin Peaks, using audiovisual resources alongside the standard, academic tools – to get at the heart of the particular, televisual “cinema of poetry” that Daney found so captivating. On this micro-level, certain motifs circulate, sensations spark, textures are created. We look (and listen) to isolate material clusters of elements, pockets of feeling, and poetic configurations – constantly in motion across the total work, metamorphosing and transforming. For the cinema (or TV) of poetry – as Pier Paolo Pasolini well understood when he first investigated this term in 1965 – is, at its best, never a matter of static, unchanging symbols that rise above the work and call for a legend or key (mythological or otherwise) to decipher them; rather, a good piece of audiovision (whatever the medium) invents its own systems, and sets them perpetually spinning.


Mysteries of Cinema

So let’s dissolve the lure of Twin Peaks’s narrative intrigue, with its regime of mysteries and clues, questions and answers, at least for a while. Let’s follow, instead, something that happened by accident on set during the shooting of the pilot episode – a light fixture that did not work, flickering on and off – which then became a major motif in the entire scope of the series. Flickering lights, sparks and short-circuits, on/off emissions, lightning, torches, complex strobing patterns, and less “motivated” effects that suggest the sudden overexposures created by photographic lighting or printing: light, for Lynch, is a privileged medium for, or manifestation of, that electrical energy, which, as the critic Stéphane du Mesnildot has noted, he seems to “exalt” in an “almost mystical veneration”.19 This system of light is attached, by poetic association, with the strange fate, and often the failure, of communication devices in the series. Most of these devices come in the form of resolutely old-fashioned technology, in line with the surreal, time-shifting nostalgia of the enterprise: telephones, radios, boxy old TV sets turned to “snow”, big microphones, wires, speakers, earpieces, and antennae, for example. Mechanical or artificial communication tends to go berserk in Lynch’s work, creating every kind of auditory displacement and excess: screaming, sobbing, feedback, echo, static, distortion – as well as music that stops and starts, speeds up and slows down. Telephony is even married to an uncanny, mental telepathy in the Twin Peaks pilot; people know what is to be told them before it is said, and even without it being said. Light and communication, image and sound: is it any wonder that Daney noticed in Twin Peaks the spark of cinema that is “constantly articulating something”? 

(April 2015)

Phantasmagoria of the Interior: Walerian Borowczyk’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne Steven Soderbergh has The Knick (2014-2015), but Walerian Borowczyk (1923-2006) had the flick. It is his auteur trademark, his intimate calligraphy, but if you blink, you can miss it: sometimes just a few frames at the end of a shot, where Borowczyk or cinematographer Noël Véry moves the camera off whatever he has been filming, creating a sudden, inconclusive swerve of vision. And this was often kept in the final edit – to confound our contemplation and shake up our senses. It is like the dazzling rays and reflections of

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light in the images, like the ever-crashing chords and synthesised swirls of Bernard Parmegiani’s music: Borowczyk opens up realms of perception that are beyond the niceties of cultural taste, past the laws of genre, and pay no heed to the supposed distinction between narrative and experimental cinemas. One of the aims of our audiovisual essay on The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981) – Borowczyk preferred this title to Docteur Jekyll et les femmes, so we will stick with it – is to find, through a creative montage, what video artist and theorist Thierry Kuntzel once called the “other film” hidden inside the surface film: a secret logic, a counter-movie, a hidden pattern.20 We seek another way to view and hear the film, turning and observing it from a new angle, or locating a hitherto concealed entry-point (such as the particular Vermeer painting that features as an insistent, background detail). Sometimes, this means discovering the experimental film that lurks inside a seemingly classical, narrative, conventional one – stripping out the fiction and the characters, the evident themes and arcs. In the matter of Borowczyk and his The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne, however, we are (beyond the grave) collaborating with a director who had already, as it were, entirely turned the glove inside out: although there is always a story line, it is his remarkably intricate work with aesthetic exploration that seizes the foreground. There is much common ground between Soderbergh’s knick and Borowczyk’s flick as practiced in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne. Both artists explore a not-so-distant but seemingly medieval past in which the meaning and use of bodies and psyches, blood and chemicals, surgery and sexuality, were all up for grabs. Borowczyk’s film suspends us between the ultra-rationalist, bourgeois dinner-table talk of empirical science (embodied by Patrick Magee, made famous by A Clockwork Orange [1971], and French cinema legend Howard Vernon) and the magical metamorphoses performed, with the aid of a full chemical bath, by Jekyll (Udo Kier in amazing form). Looking into Borowczyk’s unique style of representation, we ask: what is this foreign country called the past, or history, for him, and how did he reveal its strangeness? How did he connect technology with flesh? How did he move – both serenely and violently – across the social division of the sexes? For behind the cabinets of curiosity, someone watches Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde: it is his fiancée, Miss Osbourne (Marina Pierro). Is she shocked, scandalised, betrayed in the knowledge that the man she loves is secretly, truly an Other? Not a bit; she, too, wants total immersion. Miss


Mysteries of Cinema

Osbourne is the Surrealist Woman, one in a long line of “heroines of evil” that Borowczyk celebrated throughout his career. They go all the way, beyond good and evil. This heady brand of feminism is what Borowczyk added to the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel that serves as the loose, mythic scaffolding, or merest point of departure, here. As always in his work (which cinephiles en masse are only now beginning to appreciate, thanks to recent restorations and the availability of much of his oeuvre), Borowczyk’s minutely artisanal, baroque style renders the past as a strange, luminous, trembling place – full of beguiling toys, hidden chambers and transgressive games of love and death. “Phantasmagoria of the interior” is a phrase that derives from Walter Benjamin’s ruminations on the poet Charles Baudelaire, pointing to that intriguing, historical turn when bourgeois privacy – family life spent within the conf ines of one’s own four walls – takes on a Gothic hue. Benjamin could have been providing a prophetic preview of Borowczyk’s cinema: “The bourgeoisie unabashedly makes impressions of a host of objects. For slippers and pocket watches, thermometers and egg cups, cutlery and umbrellas, it tries to get covers and cases. It prefers velvet and plush covers, which preserve the impression of every touch”.21 With the proviso that, in Borowczyk, the intensification of every kind of energy within these dark, restricted spaces leads not to placid, bourgeois comfort, but the inexorable, paroxysmic explosion of forces. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne ends like no other movie: in medias res, in a phantom carriage that seems propelled of its own accord, with a man and woman between life and death, between ecstasy and the abyss, between everyday flesh and the new, metamorphosed flesh that David Cronenberg later imagined. Borowczyk suspends us once more; he flicks us out of the narrative, the screen – in order, no doubt, to seek and to live these delights ourselves. 

(June 2015)

Shapes of Rage Cinephilia – in the form in which it can be shared by spectators and filmmakers alike – has two extreme poles, both of which are associated with fierce, intense drives. There is the cinephilia aligned with love in all its manifestations – romanticism, desire, tenderness, hope – and there is the cinephilia aligned with aggression, violence, and a death drive.

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Neither cinephilia, in an important sense, should be regarded entirely literally: many things on the face of this earth slip under and between love and aggressivity, and these metamorphosing states can stand for, or become attached to, every kind of social, political situation. Samuel Fuller knew the score, and preached it in his famous pronouncement for Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou (1965): “Film is like a battleground. Love. Hate. Action. Violence. Death. In one word – emotion”. And emotion can never be constrained or explained according to a single track or direction, whether humanist or ideological. Alfred Hitchcock – no stranger, as an artist, to the extreme (and extremely complicated) emotions of love and hate – made one of the central and most influential films of modern (post-1960) cinema: The Birds (1963). The entire slasher genre – with its waves of attack and killing, separated by tense periods of waiting – would not exist without it; neither would any of those movies based on a central, recurring enigma that gives rise, within the fiction, to an open, unresolved string of interpretive speculations; and neither, in a sense, would avant-garde classics like those of Peter Tscherkassky (Outer Space [1999], Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine [2005]), which empty out the plot specifics while purifying the aggression, placing it into direct contact with the cinematic apparatus and the spectator.22 Yet The Birds was already pure, in its sublime and frightening way: a total fusion of form and content, disquieting and insistent. Through it, we (student or filmmaker) can learn how to build tension, how to make violence explode, how to turn the movie screen itself into a brittle barrier like a pane of glass, just an inch away from the movie viewer’s battered psyche. And it is utterly impure at the level of its meaning, its supposed “moral vision”, and the uneasy equilibrium with which it leaves us at the end: the film unleashes so much, in so many contradictory directions, that it refuses any ultimate closure. When David Cronenberg made his neglected masterpiece The Brood in 1979, he clearly had the lessons of The Birds embedded deep in his conscious or unconscious brain. How does a filmmaker manifest on screen anger, rage, and murderous violence? How do they find a form, a plastic shape, to express it, mould it, move it around a story? Time and again, The Brood recalls Hitchcock’s masterly tropes – a lone character’s journey to a room where a creature strikes from above; one, two, ten children popping successively into the frame, like the crows on Hitchcock’s playground fixture; the shrieks and cries of kids, like the squawks of birds, mixed into a wall of noise – and ignites the same, concentrated paroxysms of cinematic catastrophe. But more than this: where is all this aggressivity coming from – and towards what is it directed? In his groundbreaking analysis of a scene from The Birds (Melanie’s lake crossing, lovebirds in tow – a scene that also gets


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special attention from Camille Paglia in her BFI Classics book)23 back in 1969, Raymond Bellour spoke of a “mutual desire [between the characters] whose transgressive violence is directed at Melanie, who makes the gift and receiver its threatening sign, in the opposed forms of good and bad birds”.24 The opposed forms of good and bad birds, cute lovebirds and swooping, screeching killers: a wildly uncontrollable and disturbing semantic contagion, like the innocent, blonde daughter in The Brood lined up alongside her deformed mirror-images, the deadly child-spawn. But these carriers of evil and death are always themselves (as Bellour never ceases to say) a displacement, a manifestation of someone else’s rage, someone else’s desire, someone else’s fantasy. But whose, exactly? An individual character, a whole society, the nuclear family, a film director? It all has something, obscurely, to do with mother. Or is it so obscure? “A mother’s love” (a phrase spoken in The Birds) is the most ambiguous thing in the world for both Hitchcock and Cronenberg. Nola (Samantha Eggar) in The Brood has such a deep and complicated anger – passed down and recreated through the generations, as often in Cronenberg – that her body extrudes mutants who then act out her unconscious wishes. She loves them and licks them, fresh out of their non-foetal sacks, as only a mother can; and she remains oblivious to what her unconscious causes. In the end, she, too, like all those around her, becomes a victim of the contagion of enraged violence. Lydia (Jessica Tandy) in The Birds is, in a way, in a state of far deeper denial: she roils inside possessive jealousy for her son, Mitch (Rod Taylor), and triggers energies and emotions that will never be clearly ascribed to her, that she never has to own, or own up to. Her cold gaze sets off a ricochet that entangles and connects everybody and everything: child, adult, man, woman, screen, spectator. Film is like a battleground, with its daylight armies of ambiguously good/ bad creatures, its fields of corpses, its unprosecutable crimes of passion – and its energetic, shifting, material shapes of love and rage. 

(August 2015)

Before and Elsewhere: Chantal Akerman’s La folie almayer It is something of a pity that, due to the sterling work of Criterion and the Belgian Cinematek, Chantal Akerman (1950-2015) is today best known and celebrated chiefly for her widely accessible string of 1970s masterpieces – Je,

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tu, il, elle (1974), Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), News from Home (1976) and Les Rendez-vous d’a nna (1978) – to the exclusion of anything much else that followed in the subsequent 35 years of her career. Many tributes to her memory and legacy that appeared at the moment of her death hardly mentioned this total body of work or, if so, only cursorily. Yet Akerman’s level of achievement and inventiveness never flagged. Considering her fiction feature film output alone, her later trajectory is marked by four towering masterpieces roughly a decade apart: Toute une nuit (1982), Nuit et jour (1991), La captive (1999) and La folie almayer (2011) – not to mention her remarkable work in documentary (D’est [1993], No Home Movie [2015]); art installation (Femmes d’Anvers en novembre, 2008); or her continual work in television formats of varying lengths (Le déménagement [1992], Portrait d’une jeune fille de la fin des années 60 à Bruxelles [1994]); her published writing, the final manifestation of which was Ma mère rit in 2013; or her long-nurtured musical project, Golden Eighties (1986). Akerman’s free adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), abstracts its action to an extraordinary extent. The historical frame is displaced from colonial to post-colonial times, anywhere between the 1950s and now (there is no attempt to dress contemporary street scenes to make them look anything other than what they are). The setting is nominally Malaysia, but the film was shot (and this is again plainly evident) in Cambodia. Akerman erased much potential detail concerning rebel insurgents, capitalist agents and imperial powers. But do not think for a moment that she thereby lessened what was, for her, the political force of the fable: reduced to this elemental form, it probes the deep pathology of racial hatred (a topic that haunted Akerman all her life), as embodied in the hopeless figure of Almayer (Stanislas Merhar). Akerman’s French title La folie almayer points not to an individual affliction but a collective condition, an “Almayer madness” reverberating across all points in a network. Once she has reduced her central characters to figures in such a network, tracing their strong bonds of intersubjectivity (love, hate, dependence, loyalty), Akerman – like Claire Denis – then withdraws large pieces of the plot from directly being narrated, just as John Cale on Music for a New Society (1982, remade 2016) withdrew what he called the musical “core” from the tracks, leaving only his voice and the ornate, interwoven, instrumental embellishments. Akerman knowingly approaches complete dissolution of what she referred to as a “simple story” here. The film comes with two endings, completely


Mysteries of Cinema

opposed in their tone and viewpoint – one of which is given to us at the very start. Some key events in the first half are placed in the narrating possession of the character of Chen (Solida Chan, elsewhere credited as Solida Chorn or Chorn Solyda), servant of Lingard (Marc Barbé), complete with his voice-over – yet Chen’s mastery over events (dubious at best) is abruptly discarded for the rest of the movie. In place of a straightforward or unambiguous story line, a more properly poetic organisation of the materials surges forth – based especially (under the clear influence of the cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien and Tsai Ming-liang) on the metamorphic motif of water, which both creates linkages by riverboat, and dissolves them in thundering storms. La folie almayer can strike one as bleak and severe, yet Akerman spoke of it as a film made in an atmosphere of total joy experienced by everybody involved. She relaxed her normally ultra-systematic, pre-planned style: both the actors and the camera were free to move within the basic parameters she set down. She described it as a rare occasion in which filmmaking and life fully interpenetrated, a time of laughing, singing, eating, dancing and drinking. This is the Akerman Paradox: the intense sensuality of every kind of material (cinematic, gestural, natural, architectural, musical, social) is pressed into the service of exploring the most abominable outposts of supposedly civilised behaviour. Gaspard Almayer is the worst kind of blinkered racist that white culture could possibly produce, but he is also a father completely in love with his daughter – a passion that moved Akerman, and sparked in her the determination to begin the long haul required (four years) to get the movie made and released, against all odds. It would be the last time that Chantal Akerman (in the words of Leonard Cohen) “came so far for beauty”. At least, happily for the world, she left a lot behind. 

(October 2015)

Two Takes on Strategy: Johnnie To’s Election Election (2005, original title Hak se wui) marked an unexpected move in the illustrious career of Johnnie To. As a film about organised crime operating across Hong Kong and China, it has scenes of violence, but no guns are fired; as a story of winning, holding, or losing power, it is less about open, bloody confrontations of gangs or sovereign individuals (the law of

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the urban, gangster jungle) than backroom manipulations of opinion and allegiance (i.e., politics). And it is a movie in which To’s regularly vertiginous, experimental style is pared right down to a minimalistic concentration on the utterance of words, the performance of small gestures, the conveyance of signs and objects that always have a precise, codified role to play in the proceedings. Nowhere more than in the two Election instalments in To’s filmography (the sequel appeared a year later) do we find such intense concentration on plotting, on the precise leakage of information, on the geometry of actions and counter-reactions in an elaborate game. These are not only the defining characteristics of the world depicted in Election, they are also the terms of how To tells and constructs the narrative and its form, and the way he means it to work on us as spectators. Election is a film that makes it essential for us to understand the significance of every plot detail, but not necessarily on a first viewing, where we may find ourselves quite lost, confused, or behind the eight ball – at least at the instant when something happens, as distinct from some subsequent moment when its background context is revealed or unfolded. The more we dig into it, however, we come to place and comprehend the shifting status of each character – especially, the question of whom they take their orders from (which can change with a single mobile phone call), and under which configuration of leaders in higher levels of the organisation. Johnnie To adopts here one very classical theme that we associate, especially, with the legacy of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather series (1972, 1974, 1990) in global cinema: tradition (and respect for tradition as what truly organises “organised crime”) versus modernity. Tradition tends to be associated (with different trappings according to the home culture) with values of family, loyalty, honour, civilisation, ritual, remembrance, endurance; modernity with violence, individualism, fragmentation, destruction and, above all, encroaching capitalism. Election eventually leads us to ponder (and its sequel then takes our pessimistic conclusion for granted) that this structural, thematic opposition is never so clear-cut: for everyone, it seems, the “best bet” is what is going to win the day, regardless of ideology old or new. From its opening images of mahjong tiles being moved around in preparation for the next round, Election offers itself to us under the master metaphor of game play. Crime/gangster cinema has often enlisted this metaphor, but never so systematically as here. Games involve strategy, and the politics of organised crime are, in To’s vision, nothing but strategy. The film contrasts the violent impulsiveness of Big D (Tony Leung Ka-fai) with


Mysteries of Cinema

the calm strategising of Lok (Simon Yam) – who appears to have learned this lesson well from his tradition-minded mentor, Uncle Teng (Wong Tin-lam). Their style of rational, even-tempered strategy is based on waiting, on the virtue of patience: time is required to plant the seed, or to stir the pot, to prepare the dramatic moment when a decision will be made. These moments of decision take many forms in Election, from the show of hands in a voting procedure, to the choice between staying in or exiting a car when the traffic light turns green. The director, likewise, plays with the cinematic time of waiting, of suspense and anticipation, in his masterful ways of staging, framing and cutting these constantly varied scenes. However – and this is the added, all-important chaos factor that has always underpinned the crime/gangster genre – there is also the role of chance, of the unforeseen occurrence that takes all players by surprise. Chance can arrive from anywhere: by coincidence (benevolent or malign), from the surrounding environment, from a hothead’s unpredictable impulse. And to illustrate how completely no detail in Election is merely incidental, take careful note of what the seemingly insignificant economics lecturer says in the background of a university classroom scene – because, if narrative film is a game-space for Johnnie To, it is also a fully economical (measured, balanced, parcelled out) craft and art: In economics, a model is a theoretical construct that represents economic processes by a set of variables, and a set of logical and quantitative relationships between these variables. In general, economic models are simplified, given the enormous complexity of economic processes. Economists must make a reasoned choice of which variables, and which relationships between these variables, are relevant, and which ways of analysing and presenting this information are useful. Economic models can be used to forecast …

(December 2015)

Drifting: João Pedro Rodrigues’ Odete The concept that unifies the work of Portuguese filmmaker João Pedro Rodrigues (signed alone or in collaboration with João Rui Guerra da Mata) is that of shifting: a shifting of gender (in any direction, from male to female, via all hybrid possibilities in between), and of genre (romantic melodrama crossed with the fantastique, or documentary sliding over into fiction as in A Última

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Vez Que Vi Macau [2012]), and even of species (confusion of human and animal realms in O Fantasma [2000]). Most gripping and beguiling of all is the director’s fondness for unexpectedly supernatural themes – all the better to blur the distinction between mortality and immortality, a key theme of several of his works including the best known, Morrer Como Um Homem (2009). Desire is always the motor of this shift. Obsessive, all-consuming desire for another person, desire to inhabit a fantasy, desire to penetrate a mystery. Yet desire never simply goes one-way, or resolves itself in a reciprocal exchange between two parties. Desire initiates a chain, always displacing and complicating itself, and it is along this chain that things (identities, masks, recurring situations) go sliding, thus creating the movement of the fiction. The romantic drive (for a love that exceeds even the limit of death) is intensified, while also becoming deliciously perverse, like in some of André Téchiné’s films – but without that perversity ever cancelling out the romance. In Odete (2005) – also known as Two Drifters – the chain involves three people. Pedro (João Carreira) and Rui (Nuno Gil) are lovers, and their vow to one another is clinched in the matching rings they wear – with the inscription of a line from the song “Moon River” about its “two drifters”. A car accident intervenes just as Rui (in Rodrigues’ fine sense of melodramatics) tries to ring Pedro’s mobile to convey one further message of love. This sets the stage for a traditional, sentimental haunting: lost love, unfinished business, solitude and grieving. Then a second plot collides strangely with the f irst, resulting in a metamorphosis of the elements in both narrative lines – exactly the type of complex plot structure Gilles Deleuze analysed in his 1967 text, “How Do We Recognise Structuralism?”.25 Odete (Ana Cristina de Oliveira) passionately loves Alberto (Carloto Cotta), but is frustrated by his lack of interest in having a child together. She throws him out of her apartment and effectively terminates their relationship. Soon after, an ominous wind blows, and Odete becomes aware of the sadness emanating like an aura from Pedro’s now uninhabited apartment on a floor above hers, where the boy’s mother Teresa (Teresa Madruga) sits, weeping over his things. Odete subsequently and inexplicably becomes wildly attached to the memory, and the soul, of the departed Pedro (whom, of course, she never knew) – to the point of believing she is pregnant by him. Is this, in psychological terms, a classic, Freudian transference of her desire, a crazy, wish-fulfillment scenario? In Rodrigues’ cinematic vision – nurtured equally by the phantasmic mysteries of Jacques Tourneur (I Walked with a Zombie, 1943), and the queer comedy of Blake Edwards (Switch [1991], another film


Mysteries of Cinema

of gender-play and childbirth that also uses Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” as a key soundtrack element) – something more real, both disquieting and miraculous, is at stake. The film becomes nothing less than a tale of genuine possession – and an exploration of the ever-shifting logic whereby any One comes to be possessed by an Other, alive or dead. As the story goes through its vivid convolutions, Rui and Odete join together to form, anew, the two drifters of the f ilm’s English title. Our audiovisual essay enters this drift (which constitutes the entire film) not at its inaugural, inciting plot event (the car accident), but through the consciousness of Odete. We trace the uncannily circular logic of the film’s intricate fantasy by re-ordering some of the motifs that ensure its circulation: the sound and force of the wind, the two rings, flowers, gazes, songs, memory-flashes, an interrupted kiss, and the eternal return of an encounter in a club that includes one of the players fainting. As Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) says – and this can provide the slogan for João Pedro Rodrigues’ cinema on so many levels: “To reach you at last … what a strange path I had to take”. 

(February 2016)

Queer Godard Queer Godard: our title is not intended as any provocative claim or revelation about Jean-Luc Godard as a person, or his biography. Rather, we seek to provoke a new look at Godard’s work from the many angles proposed by queer theory. Virtually all his films, from the earliest, provide rich material for such a study; here, we limit ourselves solely to Masculin féminin (1966). Masculin féminin began its life as a project with a reasonably close, if modernised, adaptation of a short story by Guy de Maupassant: “La femme de Paul” or, as it is generally known in English, “Paul’s Mistress”. (Another of De Maupassant´s tales, “The Signal” – incidentally, the basis for the first fictional short Godard made in 1956, Une femme coquette – is pulped into the supposedly Swedish film-inside-the-film.) “Paul’s Mistress” is explicitly a reverie – a frequently grotesque and misogynistic one – on lesbian sexuality, and the emergence of a lesbian culture. Maupassant as narrator seems, in equal parts, appalled and fascinated by what he documents. As is often the case with Godard’s adaptations, this initial literary source did not (as several Godard commentators and biographers assume) simply vanish in the course of elaborating the movie, to be replaced by a 100 per

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cent heterosexual rondo; rather, it enters the deep structure of the work, surfacing in citations, allusions, vignettes, puns, charged glances between the actors/characters. The central lesbian figure of Pauline in “Paul’s Mistress” becomes Elizabeth (Mylène Jobert, mother of Eva Green), and her place in the basic narrative of Masculin féminin remains exactly the same: her involvement with Madeleine (Chantal Goya) drives the ultra-sensitive, romantic Paul (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to what may be (off-screen, between the two final scenes) either an accidental death, or suicide. Some critics (including Robin Wood) have addressed this queer aspect of the film, only to dismiss its significance rather swiftly. Many others, on its initial release and ever since, simply forget or distort what they have seen and heard on screen: a recent synopsis in Télérama magazine, for instance, imagines that Elizabeth is “consumed by her silent love for Paul”! More usually, Elizabeth simply goes unmentioned, dropping out of the film’s carefully structured organisation of five central, young characters. And there is a truly surreal moment of critical confusion to which we allude in the video: at the time of the film’s initial American release, Scott Burton, a prominent, gay art critic, described its cinema scene thus: “Madeleine is alone in her seat for a moment, and a hand (whose?) steals into the picture to touch her shoulder”.26 Whose? Look again! We are not trying to reclaim Masculin féminin retrospectively as a masterpiece of progressive Queer Cinema. But, in the spirit of Godard’s own exhortation (addressed to Pauline Kael) that critics must bring in “the evidence” in their analyses, and not just rely on faulty recollections or selective descriptions,27 we audiovisually explore two operations. First, we raise Maupassant’s text, once again, to the surface of the film, for the sake of a comparative reading. And second, we lay out, in the line of an implicit argument, the wealth of queer material in the movie that has been overlooked, misunderstood, or repressed for 50 years. 

(May 2016)

Haunted Memory: The Cinema of Víctor Erice Film clips, especially from old Hollywood films great and ordinary, loom large in the cinema of Spanish director Víctor Erice (born 1940): from Boris Karloff in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) as featured in El espíritu de la colmena (1973), to Basil Rathbone in The Secret Claw (Roy William Neill, 1944), figuring in the short La morte rouge (2006), made as part of


Mysteries of Cinema

a museum exhibition shared with the late Abbas Kiarostami. In El sur (1983), Erice goes so far as to invent his own, exact pastiche of an imaginary melodrama in black and white, Flor en la sombra (“Flower in the Shadow”), which his central characters see at a local movie house. In his lyrical writings on cinema, too, Erice pursues a reflection that is close to that of many current practitioners of the audiovisual essay. In 1989, he suggested that it is: […] possible to isolate a series of scenes – of privileged moments – that synthesize the best part of the movies they comprise, one which, once discovered, gives the impression of passing over a threshold, as if images revealed life’s multiple truths.28

For Erice, these truths of life are linked, above all, to memory – the rich, Proustian sense-memory that is formed during childhood and adolescence, and to which his adult characters are virtually condemned to return, whether in rapturous joy or (more often) melancholic regret. Although Erice has made comparatively few films since the 1960s, and found himself blocked from realising several key projects that he extensively prepared, the poetic coherence of his work is, nonetheless, stunning. From film to film, similar images, sounds, situations, settings – as well as an unmistakeable and precise mood – recur, caught in the same entrancing web of haunted memory. This term, haunted memory, is derived from a piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum, who uses it to describe a cluster of films including The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942), Lola Montès (Max Ophüls, 1955), L’a nnée dernière à Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), Gertrud (Carl Dreyer, 1964) and India Song (Marguerite Duras, 1975).29 We would add Once Upon a Time in America (Sergio Leone, 1984) and the entire oeuvre of Erice to that list. In his final book Film Modernism, the scholar Sam Rohdie, who died in 2015, evokes the atmosphere of Luchino Visconti’s Il gattopardo (1963) in words very close to those that Erice wrote about this same film when he was a young critic in the mid 1960s. According to Rohdie: The present, because already a past, becomes nostalgia for what has been lost even as what has been lost comes into being, a future already of the past, that reaches out towards the moments of its disappearance. Sweetness, perhaps something closer to ecstasy, is to seize those moments.30

(September 2016)

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Notes All unattributed translations are mine. 1.

Most of our audiovisual pieces referred to in this chapter are now gathered in the one place and can be viewed at []. 2. See Cristina Álvarez López, Catherine Grant & Adrian Martin, The Audiovisual Essay in Film Criticism and Screen Studies (forthcoming). 3. Raymond Bellour, La Querelle des dispositifs. Cinéma – installations, expositions (Paris: P.O.L, 2012), p. 130. In its original context, the statement describes those art installations that centrally use DVD projection in an overtly cinematic way. 4. Italo Calvino (trans. William Weaver), Invisible Cities (New York: Houghton Miffin Harcourt, 2013), p. 10. 5. Ibid., p. 11. 6. Ibid., p. 10. 7. Vincente Minnelli (with Hector Arce), I Remember It Well (New York: Doubleday, 1974), p. 325. 8. See the Cape Fear production report in Premiere (November 1991). 9. See the exercises outlined in Alexander Mackendrick, On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director (London: Faber and Faber, 2004). 10. Lesley Stern, The Scorsese Connection (London: British Film Institute, 1995), pp. 104-105. 11. Jean-Pierre Coursodon & Bertrand Tavernier, 50 ans de cinéma américain (Paris: Nathan, 1995), pp. 418-421. 12. Bruce Kawin, “Brian De Palma’s Sisters”, booklet in Sisters (Criterion DVD, 2000), p. 4. 13. Yvette Bíró and Marie-Geneviève Ripeau (trans. Carol Volk), To Dress a Nude: Exercises in Imagination (Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1998), pp. 149-151. 14. Polanski interviewed in Joseph Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar (London: Penguin, 1970), pp. 207. 15. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Tenant”, Sight and Sound (Autumn 1976), reprinted at []. Accessed 26 March 2017. 16. See Jacques Rancière (trans. John Howe), The Intervals of Cinema (London: Verso, 2014). 17. Serge Daney, L’Exercice a été profitable, Monsieur (Paris: P.O.L, 1993), pp. 332333. 18. Select proceedings of this conference have been published in two online journal dossiers: Senses of Cinema, no. 79 (July 2016) and Series, Vol. 2 No. 2 (December 2016). 19. Stéphane du Mesnildot, “Dernières nouvelles de Laura Palmer”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 703 (September 2014), p. 65. 20. See the texts assembled in Thierry Kuntzel, Title TK (Nantes: Éditions Anarchive/Musée des Beaux-Arts, 2006).


21. 22. 23. 24. 25. 26. 27. 28.

29. 30.

Mysteries of Cinema

Walter Benjamin (trans. Harry Zohn), “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire”, in Selected Writings Volume 4: 1938-1940 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 26. See Chapter 6, “Entities and Energies”. Camille Paglia, The Birds (London: British Film Institute, 1998). Raymond Bellour (trans. Ben Brewster), The Analysis of Film (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 66. Gilles Deleuze (trans. Michael Taormina), “How Do We Recognise Structuralism?”, reprinted in his collection Desert Islands and Other Texts 1953-1974 (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004), pp. 170-192, 305-308. Scott Burton, “The Film We Secretly Wanted to Live: A Study of MasculinFéminin”, in Toby Mussman (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1968), p. 272. David Sterritt (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard: Interviews (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1998), p. 124. Víctor Erice (trans. J.H. Croy & G.H. Wood), “Can You See Now?: A Detailed Commentary About a Sequence in City Lights” (1989), in Linda C. Ehrlich (ed.), An Open Window: The Cinema of Víctor Erice (Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2000), pp. 54-55. See Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Gertrud as Nonnarrative: The Desire for the Image” (1985), reprinted in his collection Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), pp. 105-116. Sam Rohdie, Film Modernism (Manchester University Press, 2015), p. 99.

About the authors Prof. Adrian Martin (Monash University, Melbourne) is the author of Mise en scène and Film Style (2014), Last Day Every Day (2012), What is Modern Cinema? (2008), The Mad Max Movies (2003) and Phantasms (1994). Cristina Álvarez López (Elías Querejeta Zine-Eskola, San Sebastián) is a film critic and audiovisual essayist. Her essays have appeared in books on Portuguese cinema, Paul Schrader, Max Ophüls, and Bong Joon-ho.

Sources of Texts

Unless otherwise indicated, the country of publication is Australia. Thanks to those publishers at still-existing outlets (Cineaste, Metro, Australian Book Review, Trafic, Caiman cuadernos de cine, de Filmkrant, Transit, and the Centre for Contemporary Photography) who have given kind permission to reprint certain of these essays. “Ball of Fire” (1998), “Delirious Enchantment” (2000), “Lady, Beware” (2001), “That Summer Feeling” (2004), “Entities and Energies” (2008), “Entranced” (2015), “Shivers, Surprise and Discomfort: Sadism and Sublimation in Contemporary Cinema” (2009/2016) and “Retying the Threads” (2016) appear in print here exclusively. “The Path and the Passeur” appeared as an opinion piece in The Age, 27 November 1993. “Scenes” appeared in Art & Text, no. 6 (Winter 1982). “Entities and Energies” was given as a keynote lecture at the Reading University conference Continuity and Innovation: Contemporary Film Form and Film Criticism, 6 September 2008. “No Flowers for the Cinephile” was commissioned as a chapter for the Australian Bicentennial publication edited by Paul Foss, Island in the Stream: Myths of Place in Australian Culture (Leichhardt: Pluto Press, 1988). “Refractory Characters, Shards of Time and Space” appeared in Metro, no. 100 (Summer 1994-1995). “The Trouble with Fiction” was delivered as a lecture at University of Melbourne on 29 April 1995, and published in J. Warren, C. Nettelbeck & W. Kirsop (eds), A Century of Cinema: Australian and French Connections (Parkville: French and Italian Studies, 1996). “Ball of Fire” was given as a keynote lecture at the conference Cinema and the Senses, University of New South Wales, 15 November 1998.


Mysteries of Cinema

“The Ever-Tested Limit: Cinematic Apparitions” was delivered as a lecture throughout Australia in 1997 and appeared in various abridged versions in Mesh, no. 11 (1997) and Stuart Koop (ed.), Value Added Goods: Essays on Contemporary Art, Photography & Ideas (Melbourne: Centre for Contemporary Photography, 2002). “Delirious Enchantment” originated as a paper given at the Special Effects/ Special Affects: Technologies of the Screen seminar held at University of Melbourne, 25 March 2000. “Wishful Thinking” appeared in Tension, no. 8 (1985). “Mr Big: Gangsters and Power” appeared in Stuffing: Film: Genre (Melbourne: Stuff Publications, 1987). “Unlawful Entries: The Anatomy of a Popular Film Cycle” appeared in Scripsi, Vol. 9 No. 1 (1993). “Live to Tell: Teen Movies Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” originated as a lecture given at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (18 May 1998) and was, in updated form, translated into Spanish for Transit (Spain, February 2013). “In the Mood for (Something Like) Love” appeared in Cineaste, Vol. XXXIX No. 1 (USA, December 2013). “Shivers, Surprise and Discomfort: Sadism and Sublimation in Contemporary Cinema” appeared in French translation in Trafic, no. 72 (France, 2009), and was revised and updated in 2016. “Making a Bad Script Worse: The Curse of the Scriptwriting Manual” began as a talk given at the Perth Writers Centre on 12 August 1998. It appeared in Australian Book Review, no. 209 (1999), and was translated into Hungarian for Prizma, no. 14 (2016). “The Offended Critic: Film Reviewing and Social Commentary” was the first annual Cinema Studies Public Lecture delivered at La Trobe University (7 June 1999), and published in Australian Quarterly, Vol. 72 No. 2 (2000); Spanish translation in El Amante, no. 114 (Argentina, 2000).

Sources of Tex ts


“Wild Psychoanalysis of a Vicarious, Unstable Reality” combines an essay for de Filmkrant, no. 329 (Holland, February 2011) with a column for Caiman cuadernos de cine, no. 50 (Spain, June 2016). “No Direction Home: Creative Criticism” first appeared in Spanish translation in Cahiers du cinema España, no. 32 (March 2010). “Farewells, Full Circles and Ellipses” appeared, in abridged form, in Dutch translation in de Filmkrant, no. 374 (March 2015). “My Back Pages” appeared, in French translation, in Trafic, no. 50 (2004). “The File We Accompany” gathers texts co-written with Cristina Álvarez López for the websites of MUBI, Transit, Sight and Sound, de Filmkrant and Fandor between 2013 and 2016.

Index Action (genre) 19-20, 82, 87, 120, 177, 204, 214, 216-217, 243ff, 279, 282, 293, 295, 303-305, 316, 356-357, 360-361, 377, 404-406 Ade, Maren 357, 359 Adorno, Theodor 21, 100 Aesthetics 34-35, 65, 101, 108, 111, 113, 117-118, 120ff, 143, 147-149, 165, 211, 217, 226-228, 231, 237, 266, 293, 303, 305, 315-316, 321-323, 332, 342, 345, 349ff, 399 Afraid of the Dark 210, 215 After Hours 389-391 Age of Innocence, The 205, 232, 237-238 Akerman, Chantal 18, 45, 47, 65, 143-144, 148, 161-162, 165, 195, 234-236, 298, 335, 395-396, 402-404 Aldrich, Robert 56, 113, 215 All About My Mother (Todo sobre mi madre), 223-225, 232, 361 Almayer’s Folly (La Folie Almayer) 402-404 Alternation 177-184 Almodóvar, Pedro 223-225, 227-229, 232, 237, 361 Altman, Robert 56, 153, 180, 183-184, 261, 332 Amants du Pont-Neuf, Les 151, 164, 183, 188, 332 American Beauty 341-342, 346 American cinema 19-20, 30, 34-35, 68, 80, 96ff, 150-151, 159, 161, 163, 166, 243ff, 269-270, 278, 291ff, 301ff, 313-314, 318, 329ff, 339-340, 347, 388-394 American Friend, The (Der amerikanische Freund) 112, 166 American Graffiti 56, 291, 296 Analysis (film) 19, 24-25, 33ff, 46, 72ff, 173ff, 256ff, 319, 324, 372ff, 385ff Année dernière à Marienbad, L’ 212-213, 216, 372, 410 Animal House 297 Antichrist 314ff, 357ff Antonioni, Michelangelo 146, 175, 228, 234, 280, 321-332, 386 Argent, L’ 144-145, 184-188 Argento, Dario 201, 211, 251, 315 Arnaud, Philippe 144-145, 152-153, 159, 185 Artaud, Antonin 220, 322, 383 Asian cinema 20, 30, 189, 243-244, 316, 345, 394-396, 404 Assayas, Olivier 143-144, 152, 198-199, 218, 292, 298 Audiovisual essay 24-25, 373, 385-386, 395, 410 Au fond des bois (Deep in the Woods) 85-86 Aumont, Jacques 144 Australian cinema 15-16, 44, 95ff, 140, 145-146, 180, 207-208, 212, 295, 316, 333ff, 344-345

Auteurism (classical) 102ff, 195, 197, 256, 306, 308, 314, 318, 357, 360, 390-391, 398 Auteurism (vulgar) 107, 304-305 Autobiography 16ff, 49, 166ff, 292, 355-356, 366, 377ff Avant-garde cinema 18, 23, 35, 63ff, 83, 118, 130, 155, 164, 175, 188, 212, 274-275, 278, 280, 316-317, 321ff, 362, 365ff, 377, 401 B cinema 21, 113, 332 Badlands 206-207 Baisers de secours, Les 139-140, 142, 149, 153, 158 Barthes, Roland 17, 23-24, 47, 226-227, 254, 380, 382 Bazin, André 108, 190-191, 355, 373, 378-379 Belle Noiseuse, La 144, 152, 160, 208, 335 Bellour, Raymond, 14-15, 25, 77, 84, 86, 98, 108, 114, 178, 181, 183, 195, 382, 386, 402 Benjamin, Walter 87, 382, 400 Bergala, Alain 357-358, 372 Bergman, Ingmar 139, 184, 216, 233, 274, 296, 332, 360 Bertolucci, Bernardo 152, 175, 379 Bigelow, Kathryn 18, 217, 280, 291 Birds, The 69, 72, 268, 320, 401-402 Black Swan 81, 357, 361-362 Blanchot, Maurice 157-158, 160, 166, 169 Blier, Bertrand 148, 211 Blindspot 357, 360-362 Bloch, Ernst 59-60 Blow Out 43, 248, 257, 392-393 Boetticher, Budd 96, 107, 109, 253-255 Bonitzer, Pascal 50, 67, 150, 166, 269 Bordwell, David 35, 76 Borowczyk, Walerian 217, 332, 398-400 Brakhage, Stan 65, 84, 204, 316-317, 321 Breathless (À bout de souffle) 152 Breillat, Catherine 143, 145, 277-278, 297, 341 Brenez, Nicole 36, 72, 215 Bresson, Robert 34, 144, 148-150, 153, 165, 168, 176, 184-188, 321, 408 Brigadoon 53-54, 56-57 Brisseau, Jean-Claude 21, 80, 149, 307, 359-360 Britton, Andrew 11, 111, 127 Brood, The 401-402 Brophy, Philip 19, 118-119 Brown, Norman O. 173, 186, 366 Brunius, Jacques 212-213, 216 Buñuel, Luis 80, 146, 184, 197, 199, 205, 209, 280-281, 321, 336, 358 Burch, Noël 34-36, 165, 176, 321-324 By the Bluest of Seas (U samogo sinego morya) 387

418  Cahiers du cinéma 34, 66, 70, 96-99, 102-103, 106-108, 111-112, 114-115, 122, 123, 143, 149, 151, 166, 179, 181, 269, 321, 350 Cale, John 24, 83, 355-356, 403 Calvino, Italo 52, 386-387 Canterbury Tale, A 218-219 Cape Fear 205, 266ff, 285, 389 Capra, Frank 109, 211, 305 Carax, Leos 143, 146, 151-152, 162ff, 183, 332 Carrie 41, 284, 297, 393 Carpenter, John 87, 166, 201, 255 Carrière, Jean-Claude 160-161, 169, 336 Cassavetes, John 112, 143, 151-153, 165, 168, 180-181, 218, 255, 361, 372 Cavell, Stanley 34, 306, 343, 374 Censorship 216, 342, 346, 352 Certified Copy (Copie conforme) 357ff Chabrol, Claude 163, 251 Char, René 382 Chesworth, David 45-46 Chungking Express (Chung him sam lam) 179, 335 Cinephilia 19-20, 33-36, 90, 95ff, 146, 185, 211, 214, 313, 319, 333, 338, 366-368, 371ff, 378ff, 400-402 Citizen Kane 147-148, 218 C.K., Louis 82 Cœurs 387 Cohen, Larry 18, 69, 274 Colless, Edward 75 Coppola, Francis Ford 53, 55-56, 124, 234-235, 249, 260, 298, 405 Cosmos 356 Cotton Club, The 55-56, 60, 249 Coursodon, Jean-Pierre 391-392 Craven, Wes 205, 284, 293 Criticism (film) 13ff, 29ff, 33ff, 42, 65ff, 95ff, 176, 226ff, 233ff, 304-305, 332-333, 341ff, 355ff, 365-368, 380ff, 385ff Cronenberg, David 205, 209, 214-215, 217, 248, 257, 332, 352, 390, 400-402 Crystal Gazing 58-59, 158 Culture (of film) 14ff, 29ff, 95ff, 266-267, 304, 307, 311ff, 329ff, 339ff, 365ff, 373, 378 Daney, Serge 14, 25, 31, 65-66, 146, 165, 342, 371, 397-398 Davis, Graeme 46 Deleuze, Gilles 17, 142, 145-146, 148-150, 186, 211, 217, 233, 322, 380-381, 407 Delon, Alain 150, 153, 167 De Niro, Robert 101, 206, 250, 261-262 Denis, Claire 143, 299, 317, 403 De Palma, Brian 18, 41, 43, 81, 114, 116, 124, 163, 166, 176, 198-200, 211, 225, 245-257, 259, 266, 272-275, 284, 297, 378, 391-394 Depardieu, Gérard 143, 150, 162 Deren, Maya 83-84, 89-90, 277-278, 281-283, 355

Mysteries of Cinema

Désenchantée, La 145, 148, 153, 297 Desire 17, 24, 43, 52ff, 85, 88, 96ff, 109-110, 115-116, 126, 128, 148, 151-152, 169, 214, 227, 229, 246, 268ff, 277ff, 344, 347, 349, 377ff, 400-402, 407-408 Desnos, Robert 9, 22 Detention 308-309 Dietrich, Marlene 322, 387 Dillinger 247, 251 Dinnerstein, Dorothy 272 Django Unchained 312-313 Doillon, Jacques 143, 145, 195, 297 Don’t Look Now 43 Dreams 21-23, 41-42, 66, 74-75, 80ff, 126, 146, 149-150, 181, 190, 193ff, 224, 229, 277ff, 297, 361, 391-394 Dreyer, Carl 149-150, 152, 410 Duras, Marguerite 18, 45-46, 140, 144, 165, 197, 208-209, 410 Durgnat, Raymond 13, 21, 53-54, 69, 176, 230, 273, 281, 297, 303, 347-348, 371-372 Dyer, Richard 53-54, 110, 226 Dylan, Bob 379-380, 383 Edwards, Blake 49, 124, 180, 204, 261, 407-408 Egoyan, Atom 180, 212 Eisenstein, Sergei 140, 166, 378 Election (Hak se wui) 404-406 Elle a passé tant d’heures sous les sunlights … 193-195 Elsaesser, Thomas 81-82, 103-104, 110, 120, 124, 126, 278, 280 Emotion (aka affect) 15, 34, 55, 66, 68, 84, 89, 116, 125ff, 142, 145, 150-152, 158, 165ff, 173ff, 201ff, 216, 219, 223ff, 275, 280ff, 292ff, 302ff, 315ff, 347ff, 355ff, 377ff, 386-387, 389, 391, 401-402 Energy (in film) 54-55, 63ff, 96, 115, 126, 182ff, 203, 214, 229ff, 251ff, 279, 292, 298, 383, 386, 390, 398, 400 Enfant secret, L’ 166, 188 Entity, The 67-76 Epstein, Jean 161-162, 165, 175-176, 387 Erice, Víctor 174-177, 183, 189-190, 409-410 Erickson, Milton H. 86-87, 89 Eroticism 166, 177, 186, 217, 235, 256, 293, 295, 321, 323, 349, 359, 398-400 Eustache, Jean 117, 139, 143, 145, 165 Extreme cinema 317-319, 322 Fallen Angels (Do lok tin si) 179, 335 Fantasy 45-46, 51ff, 74, 79ff, 113, 116, 120, 125, 146, 164, 181, 190, 193ff, 230, 237-238, 243ff, 273, 277ff, 291ff, 309, 311ff, 336, 344ff, 358ff, 372, 394, 402, 406-408 Farber, Manny 65, 151, 181, 217, 227, 234, 348, 388-389 Fassbinder, Rainer Werner 65, 151, 181, 217, 227, 234, 348, 388-389



Fatal Attraction 266-267 Fear 388-389 Fellini, Federico 199, 296 Feminism 77, 112-114, 217, 271, 275, 277ff, 316, 400 Ferrara, Abel 151-153, 168, 210, 217, 249, 280, 309, 332 Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 381 Fieschi, Jean-André 70, 100, 111, 229 Figural analysis 71-72, 75, 388 Film noir 109, 215, 286 Filmefobia 318-319 Flashback 79, 167, 196, 200, 202-203, 207, 212, 315 Flaus, John 110, 115, 123, 126 Ford, John 107-109, 228, 268, 282, 410 Formalism 35, 71, 102, 396 Four Friends 101, 217 Framework 17, 19, 104-105, 120 Frampton, Hollis 45, 64 Franklin, Richard 116-117, 134 French cinema 96ff, 139ff, 157ff, 185, 297, 321-322, 402-404 Freud, Sigmund 65-66, 74, 80-81, 88-89 Friedkin, William 68, 80 Fuller, Samuel 100, 104, 106, 109, 117, 121, 127, 177, 183, 249, 314-315, 401 Furie, Sidney J. 67ff, 293 Gabbeh 229ff Gangster (genre) 104, 126, 147, 234, 243ff, 315, 405-406 Garrel, Philippe 139, 142-143, 146, 149-150, 152-153, 158, 164ff, 188, 193-195, 198, 234 Genre (theory) 19-20, 49, 68, 99, 104, 108-110, 116-118, 125-126, 187, 200-201, 219, 245ff, 265ff, 277ff, 291ff, 301ff, 312, 316, 320, 324, 332ff, 342-343, 345-346, 355ff, 388-389, 395-397, 399, 401, 406 Gertrud 149-150, 152, 410 Ghatak, Ritwik 64-65, 195 Ginnane, Tony 117-118 Give Us Today Our Daily Terror 69-70 Godard, Jean-Luc 30, 35-36, 44, 48-49, 66, 96, 103, 105, 114, 117, 123, 132, 140, 143, 146-147, 150, 152, 162-163, 165-166, 169, 175, 188, 288, 233-234, 277, 302, 335, 401, 408-409 Godfather, The 234-235, 260, 405 Gorin, Jean-Pierre 44, 114, 117, 347-348 Gothic 80, 247, 293, 295, 315, 400 Gothic (Female) 72, 74-75, 277ff, 315 Grandrieux, Philippe 201, 214, 317 Guattari, Félix 17, 380 Hand that Rocks the Cradle, The 265ff Hannibal 82-83, 87, 316 Hanoun, Marcel 34, 323-324, 367 Happiness 347-348, 350-351

Happy Together (Chun gwong cha sit) 179, 335 Hasumi, Shigehiko 345 Hateful Eight, The 311-313 Hawks, Howard 100, 102, 106, 108, 112, 114, 122, 150, 245, 256-259, 305, 379 Haynes, Todd 140, 180, 282 Heartbreak Kid, The 388 Heaven Can Wait 374-375 Henderson, Brian 63-64, 75, 310 Hendriks, Martijn 69-70 Hickey, Dave 351-352 Hill, Walter 109, 249-250 History (film) 16ff, 63ff, 79ff, 95ff, 142ff, 162, 165ff, 196ff, 227, 233-234, 245ff, 277ff, 294, 307ff, 330, 336, 343ff, 367, 371ff, 385ff Hitchcock, Alfred 34, 42, 69-70, 84, 100, 106108, 114, 116, 123, 166, 198, 200, 216, 219, 225, 250-251, 254, 259-260, 268, 273, 275, 278-280, 283, 320, 350, 372, 378, 383, 392, 401-402 Hodsdon, Barrett 110, 128 Horror (genre) 19-20, 30, 67, 68ff, 81-82, 84, 116-117, 200-201, 209, 211, 214, 219, 247-248, 260, 267, 269, 270-271, 277ff, 29