An Alphabet of Cinema
Peter Wollen, the pioneering film theorist and film maker, died on Tuesday 17th December at the age of 81. His books and essays transformed the way that cinema is written about in the English speaking world, particularly his 1969 work Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, which is often regarded as one of the most influential books on cinema ever written.
In celebration of his work, we're republishing his 2001 essay "An Alphabet of Cinema", originally published in New Left Review and included in the essay collection Paris Hollywood.
I am going to begin at the beginning, with A. Perhaps with the collaborative film A & B in Ontario that Joyce Wieland made with Hollis Frampton, and completed after his death—in which each film-maker in turn shot a segment of their own for the other to respond to, like a game of tag, or a cinematic dialogue? No,
A is going to be for Aristotle.1 This may seem a strange choice, but I believe that Aristotle can be seen, convincingly enough, as the first theorist of film. Certainly he was the first theorist of narrative and, in his Poetics, written or recorded in the fourth century bc, he wrote about tragic drama as an art-form that had six components—plot, character, dialogue or screenplay (counting both as content, or signifieds—what Aristotle called ‘thought’—and as form, or signifiers, what Aristotle called ‘diction’), music and spectacle. These are also, of course, the basic constituents of the cinema and so it becomes relatively simple to transpose Aristotle’s theory of tragic drama into a theory of film. Aristotle’s approach was marked by his own experience of life, the social and political context in which he lived. His father was a court physician, serving the King of Macedon (Philip, the father of Alexander the Great) and, all his life, Aristotle was inevitably involved with Macedonian politics. He served as tutor for a while to the young Alexander, before he became king, and he remained on close terms with the authorities after the Macedonians went on to conquer Greece itself.
Aristotle’s life was far from calm. He lived through an extraordinary period of history, one during which Alexander extended his empire far to the East, to what is now Pakistan. It was also an extremely bloody and destructive period. Struggles for power were customarily settled by one family member assassinating another. Aristotle’s protector during his period of exile in Asia Minor, his wife’s uncle, was betrayed by the Macedonians to the Persians and killed. Aristotle’s hometown of Stageira was razed to the ground and its inhabitants slaughtered. His nephew was cruelly murdered by Alexander. When Aristotle himself left Athens, shortly before his death, the column erected in his honour was torn down by angry Athenian nationalists, who seem to have regarded him as a Macedonian agent. In effect, his life was marked by a torrent of unexpected and appalling reversals of fortune—peripeties, as he called them—by fatal misunderstandings and miscalculations, and by bloody struggles within the ruling family to which he was connected. In this sense, Aristotle’s view of Greek tragedy as an imitation of life was perfectly plausible. It portrayed events which, however horrific, must have seemed quite normal to him—the Œdipus story, the troubles of the ruling House of Thebes. More than once, Aristotle received unexpected word of some terrible event that would change the course of his life.
I think we can see the cinema as reflecting, in the same kind of way, our own bloody and tragic century. This may seem strange for an art-form created largely in America, where whole cities have never been levelled to the ground, but it is not so hard to understand in the rest of the world—in Europe, Africa or Asia. Like Greek tragedy, cinema has continuously echoed the violence and terror of our century. At the same time, it has distanced itself from them. As Aristotle argued, narrative—or emplotment—distances art from the history it mirrors. It focuses on the ways in which actions are caused and have effects, so that the spectator can learn from them, can gain an understanding of events which may at first seem simply meaningless and arbitrary; and thus gather the practical wisdom necessary to survive and cope in turbulent times. My own reading of Aristotle is not so much that he thought tragedy purged the emotions—he mentions the word ‘catharsis’ just once in passing—but that he thought it enabled us to learn about history and how it works, even—especially—in its most frightening and overwhelming aspects: the fateful moments when hidden truths are revealed, when families and dynasties fall apart and the passions destroy public order. Narrative is interwoven with the shocks and peripeties of fortune.
Paradoxically, I began to read Aristotle in order to understand the writings of his great antagonist, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht himself directly attacked the idea of an Aristotelian theatre, seeking to replace it with what he named ‘Epic’ theatre, but I now think his polemic was based on a common misunderstanding. Aristotle’s idea of tragedy was very far from the kind of psychologically involving theatre that Brecht attacked. Like his fiercest critic, Aristotle saw tragedy as essentially didactic and political. Brecht’s tragic vision of history, a vision shaped by World War, by successful and failed revolution, by the civil strife of the Weimar Period and the rise to power of Hitler, was not so very distant from that of Aristotle, shaped by Alexander of Macedon and the crisis of the Athenian polis. For Daney, cinema—true cinema—began with Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a film about our personal response to an immense historic tragedy. Resnais’s film became the measure against which all others were judged. It was in their relation to Hiroshima, Mon Amour that Daney came to see Rossellini and Godard as the great moral film-directors of our time, an epoch marked by the Holocaust, by the use and proliferation of weapons of unimaginable destruction, by endless episodes of violence and terror—in Algeria, in Cambodia, in France itself. As time went on, the historical and political context of the cinema became increasingly central to Daney’s writing about film, as he turned Godard’s maxim that travelling shots (mise en scène) are always a matter of morality into the touchstone of his critical reflection. Later, I shall have a little more to say about travelling shots.
B is not for Brecht, although of course it could be. Or even for B-movies, much as I always loved them. It is for Bambi. Bambi was the first film I ever saw and it left, no doubt, a deep mark on me, even a traumatic one. After seeing it, I repressed it, I put it out of my mind—until one day, on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, California, I was driving down the road with friends, sitting in the back of an open car, when I looked up and suddenly had a vision of my terrifying childhood memory, right there: the forest fire in Bambi. At first I couldn’t grasp what I had seen but, as I recovered from the shock, I realized that there was a huge drive-in movie screen right across the road and we had happened to drive past it precisely at my traumatic moment. Horror and pity—Aristotle’s categories—had stayed with me, more or less suppressed, for years which, increasingly, I spent in the cinema, without ever thinking back to the trauma. When I did, after my Santa Barbara ‘return of the repressed’, I started to realize that the horror and pity were not simply explicable in terms of the little Disney deer. There was something else at stake. Bambi was made during the War and, in a hidden sense, it was a war film. In fact, it was released in August 1942, at the onset of the Battle of Stalingrad.
My own memories of the war—a little later, when I lived in a small industrial town in the North of England, just south of Manchester—were of air raids: what has become generically known as the Blitz. I remember the sirens, when I had to get out of bed and go down into the closet under the stairs, or crouch under the table in the larder, listening to the buzz of the rocket bombs overhead, aimed at Manchester, but often straying off-course to fall on Macclesfield. Looked at this way, it is easy to interpret Bambi as a war film, with the hunters as the Nazis, the forest fire as the Blitz, the father as missing, away at the front, and the mother as a casualty of war. Aristotle again—the horror stems essentially from political conflict and barbarism. I still think, secretly, that Bambi is one of the great films. Snow White is more admired by connoisseurs but, in an un-Aristotelian way, it has a happy end—in his terms, it is a comedy, and therefore a lower form. From an artistic point of view, Three Caballeros is the most adventurous, less overwhelmed by kitsch than the grandiose Fantasia. But Bambi is the Aristotelian tragedy, the film about trauma. Serge Daney notes, in the very first sentence of his book, Persévérance, that he had never seen Bambi—or, indeed, he boasts, any other Disney film, ever. Instead, he remembers quite a different film—Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, which he saw when he was twelve, the age of the boy in the film, persecuted by Robert Mitchum’s terrifying preacher. The films we remember best from our childhood always seem somehow autobiographical, always seem to be about ourselves in an especially strong sense. But Daney’s flight from Disney has another explanation—Disney represents for him the limit of cinephilia, the point where it becomes complicit with the Society of the Spectacle. Obviously, I can’t entirely agree with him. Bambi has a different meaning for me. It was the source of my cinephilia.
C, then, is for Cinephilia. I read recently an article by Susan Sontag in which she argued that cinephilia was dead, even in Paris. I hope not. I am not convinced. By ‘cinephilia’ I mean an obsessive infatuation with film, to the point of letting it dominate your life. To Serge Daney, looking back, cinephilia seemed a ‘sickness’, a malady which became a duty, almost a religious duty, a form of clandestine self-immolation in the darkness, a voluntary exclusion from social life. At the same time, a sickness that brought immense pleasure, moments which, much later, you recognized had changed your life. I see it differently, not as a sickness, but as the symptom of a desire to remain within the child’s view of the world, always outside, always fascinated by a mysterious parental drama, always seeking to master one’s anxiety by compulsive repetition. Much more than just another leisure activity.
For a number of years, I used to watch around ten to twenty films a week, week in, week out. I used to buy What’s On, then the listings magazine for London, and mark all the films I had not yet seen—not the new releases but the old movies shown in repertory in doomed cinemas like the Electric, the Essoldo, the Tolmer, the Ben Hur, the Starlight Club. Daney’s equivalents in Paris were the Cinéphone, the Cyrano, the Lux, the Magic, the Artistic. When these decrepit, run-down cinemas closed, classic cinema ended with them. I would underline each film after I had seen it—in my battered copy of Coursodon and Boisset’s Twenty Years of American Cinema, a compendium of Hollywood film in which the films were listed by director, from Aldrich to Zinnemann, with a little introductory sketch of each. This was not long after the time when the ‘auteur theory’ was formulated in Paris—the theory that the dominant artistic personality in the cinema was that of the director, at least in any film worth watching. So each week, with my friends, I would plot our course round London, calculating the time it would take to get from one cinema to another, without missing the end of one film, Run Of The Arrow, perhaps, in the Electric, or the beginning of the next, The Tall T, in the Ben Hur, on the other side of town. Often we drove in Oswald Stack’s Citroën DS. Later I published his interview book on Pasolini.
This option of an obsessive cinephilia was imported to London from Paris, from the film culture of the French critics, from Serge Daney’s culture. Just at that time, critics became film-makers: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. Cinephilia takes us back, once again, to the War when American films were banned under the German occupation. The first cinephiles gathered in clandestinity, in secret cine-clubs, to watch forbidden films from the pre-war days. Then, after the Liberation, there was a sudden influx of Hollywood films, unseen since the fall of France—a backlog that generated excited reverence for Citizen Kane and for film noir, seen as a cinema of Liberation, soon to be followed by a new generation of film-makers—Nicholas Ray, Otto Preminger, Frank Tashlin—and the late films of the ‘Old Masters’, Hawks, Hitchcock, Lang. Within France, American cinema remained a guilty pleasure, defiantly upheld. In England, it was French theory that was a guilty pleasure—Hollywood films were refracted through French culture. Movie magazine defiantly followed a MacMahonist line, the same line as Daney. My circle was more interested in Boetticher, Fuller and, among the classics, Douglas Sirk. In fact, it was Serge Daney who first drew our attention to Sirk, when he interviewed him for Cahiers on his return to Munich in 1964. Yet Sirk never figured prominently in Daney’s own canon—he was simply another veteran director to be caught on the tape-recorder, along with Cukor, McCarey or Von Sternberg, an investment in the past which mutated into an investment in the future.
D must certainly be for Daney, but it is also for Dance—Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly. Looking back on the dance film now, having written a whole book on Singin’ In The Rain, I know that the trajectory of the MGM musical is not at all simple—the two stars of the Freed Unit, Kelly and Minnelli, had very different tastes and temperaments. Minnelli was formed by the 1920s, by the revival in smart circles of the Eighteen-Nineties, aestheticism and the Decadence. He revered Freud and Aubrey Beardsley. Gene Kelly was formed by the 1930s, by the Depression and the Popular Front. Minnelli saw himself as part of the fashionable art world—he was influenced by Surrealism and brought a dream-like delirium to the musical. Kelly was part of the down-market dance world: brought up in the world of tap-dancing and working men’s clubs, the world of vaudeville, but aspiring to the world of ballet, to the world of high art. For me, Kelly was one of the few great geniuses of Hollywood. With On The Town, he took the musical out of the studio, on to the streets of New York, into everday life. With Singin’ In The Rain, he perfected his invention of what we might call ‘cine-choreography’, his combination into one person of dancer, choreographer and film-maker, so that each dance was conceived and executed together with camera-angle and movement. Dance was no longer ‘filmed’ from outside. It merged with film. Kelly broke down the distinction between off-stage and on-stage, between narrative and spectacle. He dramatized dance, choreographed action. It was tragic that, after Singin’ In The Rain, Kelly was forced to leave America because of the Blacklist, the witch-hunt, like Chaplin and Welles. By the time he returned, Hollywood had changed and he had aged as a dancer.[book-strip index="1" style="display"]
E, it follows, is for Eisenstein, another ruined film-maker, an image-maker ‘haunted by writing’ (Daney’s phrase), by the shot as ideogram, obsessed with the synchronization of sound, movement and image. Eisenstein became world-famous during the days of silent film and, like so many other directors of that period, he had mixed feelings about the coming of sound. He feared that cinema—which had established itself as an autonomous art during the silent period—would be re-colonized, so to speak, by theatre and by scripted dialogue. So he set out to formulate a completely different project for sound cinema, one that was based on synchronization of the senses, the auditory and the visual, in which the soundtrack would interact with the image, as music interacts with dance. Eisenstein studied Disney’s early sound animation films—especially his Mickey Mouse films—in which gesture and editing were synchronized with the musical score. In Alexander Nevsky, he worked with his composer, Prokofiev, in the same kind of way, to create a kind of integrated audio-visual spectacle. When Soviet tyranny prevented Eisenstein from fulfilling his plans in the cinema, he hoped to realize them in opera. He produced Wagner for the stage, turning to the great nineteenth-century theorist of the integration of the performing arts (drama, spectacle and music) not as a hierarchy, as in the Poetics, but on strictly equal terms.
Daney took the opposite, Brechtian view—sound and image should be in conflict. In his review of Straub and Huillet’s Schoenberg films, Einleitung and Moses and Aaron, he praises them for their disjunction of sound and image, their insistent heterogeneity. Sound and image, Daney puns, were ‘not reconciled’. Like Daney, I was a great admirer of Straub and Huillet, with their Brechtian distaste for unities of any kind. It was the example I followed in my own films. Yet, for me, the most significant aspect of Eisenstein’s response to the coming of sound lay not so much in his specific teaching, as in his strategic turn towards theory in general. Partly this was because, out of favour with the Communist establishment, and unable to direct, he was employed as a teacher in the Moscow Film School. But, fundamentally, it was because he was trying to formulate a new aesthetic, to understand a new medium, sound film, which he saw as completely different from silent cinema—to break with the fetish of silence, just as Straub wanted to break with the fetish of synchronization. Eisenstein’s attempt to combine film theory with film practice made an enormous impact on me. It was linked in my mind to the transition of Jean-Luc Godard from theory to practice, from writing about film to writing with film, as he tried once again to think through the relationship of sound and image in a new way, just as Eisenstein did.
I still cling to the idea that theory and practice belong together. I don’t see my books or my lectures as separate activities from my screen-writing or my film-making. In my essays on counter-cinema, I tried to lay the groundwork for an experimental cinema which would be oppositional in both form and content, both signifier and signified. With Laura Mulvey, I began to make films, experimental films—as Serge Daney put it, in another context, Eisenstein rather than Pudovkin. In the aftermath of May ’68, it seems that Daney too might have ended up as an avant-garde film-maker, making a very similar kind of film—he was one of the group of Parisian film-makers that gathered around Silvina Boissonas, a group that included Philippe Garrel, who Daney judges to have been ‘the best’. I don’t agree. I think that Jackie Raynal was a much more significant film-maker, a pioneer of the unedited long take, and I prefer Boissonas’s own work to Garrel’s. Sadly, Daney gave up film-making for travel, for becoming, as he puts it, the unknown star of a solipsistic film which nobody but himself would ever see, which could only be glimpsed through the postcards he sent back home to his friends, as it were from location. Daney saw Straub–Huillet and Godard–Miéville as the exemplary film-makers of his generation, and struggled, in his writings, to prevent them from being marginalized. He was looking for a model which was neither that of the Industry nor, as it evolved, that of the Festival, however important Festivals had become—increasingly so, since the days of Antonioni and the New Wave. He understood, of course, that Wenders (whose work he liked) was the quintessential Festival director, yet he was not himself what you might call a Festival critic.
F—you have probably guessed—is for Festival. Film Festivals began in the 1930s when the Venice Festival was founded by Mussolini as part of his effort to make Italy the centre for a European cinema. After the War Cannes began to play a similar kind of role. Then came Berlin and Moscow and Edinburgh and Toronto and Pesaro and Tunis and Ouagadougou and Telluride and Sundance and the Midnight Sun Festival in Finland, north of the Arctic Circle. The number of Festivals began to stretch out towards infinity. Recently, when I was in Brazil, the Brazilian artist and videomaker Artur Omar told me his theory that there was a whole new genre of films—the Festival Film genre. Films in this genre were specially made according to their own rules and traditions in order to win prizes at Festivals. They were immediately recognizable as Festival Films by juries, critics and audiences alike. They had become integrated into the institution of cinema.
The Festival Film is hard to separate from the idea of a ‘New Wave’. After the French New Wave came the new cinemas of Italy and Germany—Bertolucci, Pasolini, Fassbinder, Wenders, Syberberg. In fact, support for ‘Young German Cinema’ was consciously organized by Alexander Kluge and Volker Schlöndorff on the model of the French New Wave, very successfully. Gradually ‘New Waves’ spread outside Europe—there was the Brazilian Cinema Novo, under the leadership of Glauber Rocha, director of Black God, White Devil and Antonio Das Mortes, which fused the idea of a European New Wave with the traditional Brazilian project, dating back to Cavalcanti, of creating a ‘Cinema of the North-East’, of the backlands. Later came the discovery of the Chinese New Wave, the Australian New Wave, the Taiwanese New Wave, the Iranian New Wave. In effect, ‘New Wave’ began to fuse with ‘National Cinema’. It no longer represented a revolution, but a tradition.
G—in contrast—is for Godard, for anti-tradition. Godard was the most extraordinary artist to emerge from within the original French New Wave. I was in Paris when Breathless first came out and I saw it every day for a week. At the time, people commented on the way it broke the traditional rules of film-making—its use of jump-cuts, its interpolation of cinéma-vérité techniques into narrative film. Recently, when I saw it again, in a beautiful new 35mm print, it seemed almost classical. Its strangeness had been eroded by time. Godard himself never really fitted into the Festival genre. By the end of the sixties he had moved decisively into the avant-garde. For him, the ‘New Wave’ was more like an escape-hatch from the grip of Hitchcocko–Hawksianism—
H is for Hitchcocko–Hawksianism—and a pathway towards avant-garde film. He was formed by Cahiers du Cinéma, but rather than Hitchcock and Hawks, who became the twin idols of one wing of the Cahiers, Ifeel it was Nicholas Ray who had the biggest impact on Godard. I don’t really agree with Godard about Ray as far as Hollywood was concerned, I always saw Hitchcock as much more of an experimental film-maker than Ray. I revered Hitchcock, not only for the way in which he put his own unmistakable stamp on every Hollywood film he made but, most of all, for having the courage to make an experimental feature film such as Rope, all shot in ten-minute takes, despite the presence of stars like James Stewart and Farley Granger. The Cahiers position, however, offered another, alternative model of the way films were made in the industry, one which fitted Ray much better—that of the film maudit, the ‘accursed’ or ‘doomed film’, the film whose qualities shone through its ruins. Cahiers was founded partly as a result of the Festival du Film Maudit,presided over by Jean Cocteau, himself a kind of doomed film-maker, and this model of doom already implied that the conflict between artist and industry was fundamentally irreconcilable. Godard simply proved this to himself by his own example, making his own equivalents of Johnny Guitar, before following Nicholas Ray out of the industry and into the counter-culture. It is these threads that Wenders picked up and wove back into the fabric of the mainstream cinema, via the Festival Film.
I, by contrast, is for Industry and, more specifically, for Ince. Thomas Ince was the director and producer who should get the main credit, if that’s the word, rather than D. W. Griffith, for creating the institution of Hollywood, for laying the foundations of the industry. It was Ince, at his own studio, who realized that the script was not just a dramatic story told in dialogue, but the template of the entire film, which could be broken down, scene by scene, to determine the estimated cost of production, the shooting schedule, the requirements that would be made of each department (sets, costumes, effects) and so on. Even today, the costume designer and the cinematographer and the props person carry annotated versions of the script, setting out what will be needed from them in each successive scene. Viewed in this light, the script is not so much an artistic product as an organizational tool, the fundamental prerequisite for the creation of Hollywood as an industry. It is the conceptual assembly line on which industrial production is based. It is also the opposite of Improvisation, the opposite of Godard. Blame or credit should go to Thomas Ince.
J is for Japan, the other country, besides America, that is universally recognized as having produced great artists within a commercial and genre-based industry—Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu. This system collapsed in the sixties, when the careers of Mizoguchi and Ozu were already over, although Kurosawa, after a nervous breakdown and a survived suicide attempt, was able to continue working precariously in international co-productions. I rememember how it was mandatory for cinephiles, nearly forty years ago, to choose between the three of them. Kurosawa was the Festival success. Ozu was the traditionalist whose work could be read, paradoxically, as avant-garde because of its extreme formalism. Mizoguchi was the specialist in women’s films and what is now known as melodrama. I chose Mizoguchi and denounced the others, stupidly it now seems to me. Among cinephiles, there was a fierce spirit of exclusion, the inevitable result of their basic project of completely re-writing the canon. For Daney, Mizoguchi always remained the great master, although, much later, he wrote a vigorous defence of Kurosawa’s comeback film, Dodeskaden, one of the great films of all time, seeing there—and especially in Dersou Uzala—an unusually complex play of on-screen and off-screen space, an organization of visuality that refused to favour either extreme, the exclusiveness of the framing edge or the inclusiveness of the moving lens, the travelling shot.
K is for Kane, the film maudit par excellence. In formal terms, it is plainly an Aristotelian tragedy, with its pyramidal rise, its climax or peripety, its downfall and its tragic end. It is also an inventive, even an experimental film, especially in its narrative structure and its use of sound. Welles brought into cinema all the expertise with sound he had acquired in radio. In a way, he was able to solve Eisenstein’s dilemma, to find means of using recorded speech creatively. Symbolically, Kane represents the rebirth of American film, the beginnings of modernity, the break with nineteenth-century conventions, with the mildewed stagecraft Griffith had brought to Hollywood from Broadway. Welles was the only American theatre director Brecht admired.[book-strip index="2" style="display"]
L and M take us to the middle of the alphabet, but to the beginning of cinema, to its legendary founders—Lumière standing for ‘realism’ and Méliès for fantasy, for The Trip To The Moon. But the Lumière brothers also made the first narrative film—The Waterer Watered—based on a story derived from a comic strip. It’s a simple trickster story, hinged around a practical joke, but it’s the microscopic seed of all the narrative cinema that followed, the cinema Welles modernized.
N, there’s no doubt about it, has to be for Narrative. Essentially the history of early cinema is the history of the development of a ‘film language’ that would facilitate story-telling on film. It has been argued that verbal languages develop in the same kind of way—from simple pragmatic procedures, then on through a stage of ‘grammaticalization’, and finally to a fully fledged syntactic structure. We can see the process at work in children’s acquisition of language and in the phenomenon of ‘creolization’, through which pidgins must pass on their way to becoming new languages. I believe much the same process occurred with film language, as ‘grammaticalized’ features such as cross-cutting, the point-of-view shot, the flashback, etc., were gradually introduced and diffused, until they were accepted automatically by the audience. Film never developed into a complex language like English or Japanese. It remains a largely pragmatic discourse, with only the nascent features of a grammar. But, perhaps, at some stage in the evolution of the media, it will develop further. As with dialogue and conversation in verbal language, interactivity would probably be the precondition for this. This reminds us that N is also for New Media, before we move on to our next letter.
O is for Online. Strictly speaking, we are moving away from cinema now, yet the cinema itself is clearly mutating into a digital art, with its dependence on special effects and its potential for home delivery and interactivity. Digital technology is changing the whole nature of image-capture, allowing images to be changed, combined and appropriated. When cinema goes online, we will be able to download films and simultaneously summon up clips from other films for comparison, background information from research libraries and archives, even out-takes that we can use privately to make our own revised versions of sequences. Film-studies seminars will be global events with participants in distance-learning classrooms, watching and discussing the same films. I used to think that film would become an extinct art—like stained glass or tapestry—but I believe now that film as a collective spectacle will continue, just as the theatre has continued, despite the coming of cinema. Cinemas will remain, lovingly maintained by a new breed of retrocinephiles, just as theatres have remained and even flourished. Technology has always been part of the history of film. The Lumière brothers were inventors who put their expertise with still photography together with the intermittent motion of the sewing machine to produce the moving-picture camera. Until recently, we could say nothing much had happened since Christmas 1895 in the technology of cinematography, except for some improvements to lens and film-stock. That is no longer true. Cinema is finally being re-created, or perhaps I should say, re-engineered.
P is personal—for The Passenger, a film directed by Antonioni, which I wrote with my script-writing partner Mark Peploe in the early 1970s. I was going to say something about its innovative use of technology and the use of a remote-controlled camera in the great penultimate shot, but I changed my mind. I want to tell a story, which is really a story about story-telling, a story about narrative. Quite recently I was asked by a screen-writing student about the role of coincidence in story construction—could it ever be justified? By way of an answer, I told the story then. Some years ago I was making a television documentary in Britain, a film about Tatlin’s Tower, an enormous spiral structure, designed to straddle the River Neva in Petrograd, with revolving floors on each level. I wanted to compare it to the Globe Tower, planned for the Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn, a little earlier historically. The Globe Tower was also meant to revolve—although neither structure was ever actually built. I had read about the Tower in Rem Koolhaas’s amazing book, Delirious Manhattan, which contained a long section on Coney Island and reproduced an image from a contemporary postcard which showed what the Globe Tower would have looked like. Somehow I managed to trace Rem Koolhaas, who began as a script-writer himself, but now, of course, is a world-famous architect. To my surprise he had an apartment in London, although he is Dutch, still based in Rotterdam, I believe, and so I telephoned and arranged to go round and see him. He produced a huge battered suitcase full of old postcards of New York, and there, sure enough, were a set of images of the Globe Tower. After I had found them, I began chatting with him about the film and suddenly he said, ‘You know, I once met Mark Peploe. It was quite a strange situation. I was on the train from Paris to Rotterdam . . .’ and I said, ‘I think I know this story. Mark already told me about it.’
Some time earlier—quite a few years earlier, in fact—Mark Peploe had told me the story of how he had once got on the train in Paris in order to travel to the Netherlands on business. After a while, he had gone to the restaurant car to get something to eat. He had just finished his meal and was having coffee when a stranger appeared and asked if he could share the table—just like Eve Kendall in North By North-West. Mark said, ‘Of course’ and after that, there wasn’t any further conversation—Mark just finished his meal and sat there reading his newspaper—when, suddenly, as they began to approach the station for Rotterdam, the stranger in the other seat leaned forward and asked him, ‘Excuse me, but are you perhaps Mark Peploe?’ Mark was stunned. He said yes, he was, and then, as the train drew into the station, the stranger got up, apologized for interrupting, picked up his bag and left.
Rem Koolhaas confirmed to me that, yes, of course, this was the very same story that he was going to tell, but from his point of view, from the other side of the encounter. I mentioned that Mark had never been able to understand how a complete stranger could possibly have guessed who he was, so Rem Koolhaas tried to explain, with words to this effect: ‘Well, really, it just occurred to me. I could see he was reading an English newspaper, so I thought he was probably English—and I noticed he seemed to be reading the film page very closely. And then, quite recently, I had been to see The Passenger andI knew that the writers were both English. I had seen a photograph of you somewhere, and so I knew it wasn’t you. That meant it might be Mark Peploe, so I asked him if he was.’ I said, ‘But why? There must have been more to it than that.’ He paused, and then he said, ‘Well, in a way, there was. There was something else. I had gone to see The Passenger with some friends and, afterwards, we had argued about it. They liked the film, but I didn’t. I had a problem with the script. I thought that the story line depended far too much on a series of coincidences, and then, sitting there in the train, wondering who I was looking at, it crossed my mind, wouldn’t it be a strange coincidence if that was Mark Peploe.’ So—coincidence validated. Aristotle would have approved. Serge Daney mentions The Passenger, unexpectedly, in a discussion on documentary. He praises the moment when an African seizes the camera from the European journalist who is filming him and reverses its gaze. Not just chance, not just coincidence—a shared vision of cinema, springing from 1968.
Q is for Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?—What is cinema?—the title of the four pocket-size books of collected essays written by the great critic and theorist, André Bazin, founder, first editor and intellectual godfather of Cahiers du Cinéma. So what is cinema? For Bazin’s generation, it was Citizen Kane and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City and Jean Renoir’s La Règle Du Jeu, Rules of the Game. The Welles and the Renoir are still the top two films on the Critics’ Poll that the British film journal Sight and Sound conducts every ten years—in fact, they have been ever since the 1960s.
R, as chance would have it, is not only for Roberto Rossellini and Rome, Open City, but also for Renoir and Rules of the Game. Renoir’s film, like Welles’s, is about modernity—its hero is an aviator, a kind of Lindbergh or Saint-Exupéry, who has achieved fame through the radio, the modern medium of its time, the medium that formed Welles’s attitude to sound. André Jurieu is a modern public figure, an avatar of a media-dominated society, of a new, shrinking world. His fatal flaw is that he can’t help speaking the truth, whereas everyone else lives in a ‘modern’ world in which words have become devalorized. Serge Daney scarcely mentions Bazin—instead, he sees the Cahiers through the lens of Jean Douchet, who (like Barthes) combined dandyism with a commitment to hermeneutics, to interpretation. In London, we dug back, down to ontology and phenomenology, back to Bazin. Bazin described Rules of the Game as a realist film, largely because of its use of location shooting and depth of field in the cinematography, which he saw as analogous to Greg Toland’s use of deep focus in Citizen Kane. Like Kane it was also a film maudit, butchered by its distributor, re-constructed and re-released under Bazin’s supervision ten years after it was made. 1941, when Kane came out, was also the year of Renoir’s first American film, Swamp Water. Renoir had been forced to leave France after the German invasion and had managed to get on a boat from Lisbon to New York. And 1941 was the year—if you will forgive the coincidence—in which Sternberg made Shanghai Gesture.
S, then, is for Sternberg, Shanghai Gesture and Surrealism. The Surrealists in Paris sent round a questionnaire to their members after viewing, or re-viewing, Shanghai Gesture. There is a scene in the film where Doctor Omar—‘Doctor of What?’ he is asked, and he replies ‘Doctor of Nothing’—where Doctor Omar (played by Victor Mature) gives Poppy, the heroine (played by Gene Tierney), a mysterious box, which is never opened. Perhaps I imagined this. In any case, in my dream, the Surrealists were asked what they thought was in the box. They imagined a host of strange, bizarre dream-like objects, in keeping with the mysterious and delirious world of Sternberg’s movie, set in a crazed bordello and gambling hell in pre-war Shanghai, run by the sinister Mother Gin Sling. My suggestion is much more mundane, but just as magical. I think that the box contained a pair of red-and-green glasses for watching three-dimensional films.
When I was thirteen years old I went to the Festival of Britain, a kind of World’s Fair which was held in London (in 1951) to celebrate the Hundredth Anniversary of the Great Exhibition of Victorian times, for which they built the Crystal Palace. At the Festival of Britain, among the other attractions, was the Telecinema, so
T is for Telecinema and Third Dimension. It is for Television, too, cinema’s domestic sibling, its rival which offers us, as Daney once complained, a ‘haemorrhaging of images’, lacking a true aesthetic and the power to change us as ‘subjects’, as human beings. The Telecinema was the first theatre specially built to project television onto a large screen—as you sat waiting for the films to come, you watched the rest of the audience as they were televised entering the theatre and ascending the escalator to their seats. The main programme consisted of specially made 3D films for which you had to put on polarizing glasses, with one lens red and the other green. There were two animation films in the programme, made by Norman McLaren, and a demonstration film of the London Zoo. For me, the great moment was when the giraffes stretched their necks out from the screen and high over the audience, as though you could stretch up towards them and touch them. The Telecinema was my first introduction to the idea of experimental film, the search for new possibilities—both animated abstraction, with the McLaren dance of cathode ray patterns, and technical experiment, with the Pathé film of the zoo.
T is also for Technology. When Lumière and Méliès made their first films, the audience went for the spectacle—to see what the new medium was like, to experience the technology of cinema itself. The cinema has constantly reconstructed itself through waves of technological innovation—sound, colour, wide-screen, 3D, Dolby, Imax, digital editing, new media. Experimental film-makers, on the other hand, have exploited its technical resources in their own subversive way, misusing (or travestying) them even, not to submit them to the law of narrative, but to develop new forms of film-making, to create new beginnings for the art of film.
U is for Underground Film—the name given to marginal film-making in the 1960s, spread across North America and Europe by the Film Co-op movement. Underground film-making was an attempt to get back to a kind of primitive innocence, to re-create the time of Lumière, to re-enter the unspoiled visual Paradise of film—unspoiled, that is, by the serpent of narrative. Notoriously, Andy Warhol just switched the camera on and shot whatever was in front of it until the reel ran out. In his film, Empire, he filmed the Empire State Building for eight hours, without a single movement of the camera or a single visible cut. Others films subverted the technical and material sub-structure of cinema—flicker films, films which showed the dust-particles and scratches that are part of every film’s destiny, films that blew up the image by re-filming it until the spectator became aware of the grains of silver embedded in the celluloid—whose tarnishing from light to dark still remains the essential physical precondition of cinema. These films were seen, of course, as perverse, aberrant, but they mark the moment when film became conscious of itself purely as film, when film artists dedicated themselves to revealing the concealed foundations of their art, exploring its neglected potential. Not innocent exactly—but certainly against the grain.
Strangely, Serge Daney neglected experimental film, perhaps because the Co-op movement never really flourished in France. In the 1970s I wrote a piece distinguishing two avant-gardes—one based on the Co-ops, the other an avant-garde within the feature-film format. Daney only recognized this second avant-garde, the cinema of Akerman, Duras, Garrel, Straub and Godard. He argued that experimental films, the films of the first avant-garde, defied critical interpretation, because they dealt directly with the primary processes, with pure signifiers, whereas avant-garde narrative was concerned not only with visual perception but also with meaning—‘elements of thought, of the signified’. In some ways, his distinction between these two types of film mirrors my own dichotomy in ‘The Two Avant-Gardes’, and yet it completely misses the subversive ‘conceptual’ dimension of the Co-op tradition, as opposed to the ‘perceptual’. Now we have reached the verge of what theorists have come to call ‘gaze theory’, the analysis of the cinematic ‘look’, the televisual ‘glance’. The camera’s look always has a meaning beyond the perceptual mapping of space. It relates to power, surveillance and gender, however pure it may seem at first. I could not help noticing that although Daney writes about the feminine in its relation to the voice (as in Godard’s films, for instance), his theory of the spectator’s gaze is ungendered.
V is for Voyeurism—the perversion of the look, of the visual, which lies at the heart of the cinema. One of the very first cinematic devices was the Keyhole mask. V is for Vertigo and Now Voyager. In her essay on ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Laura Mulvey traced the way in which voyeurism (or scopophilia) links together narrative and spectacle through the point-of-view shot, especially in Hitchcock’s films, as in Vertigo. The point-of-view shot aligns the three looks of the cinema—camera’s look, character’s look and spectator’s look—so that all three are directed at the same object of the gaze. Typically, Laura Mulvey argues, this object is gendered as female and that gaze is male, as it is in both Vertigo and Now Voyager. These two films are also ‘make-over’ films, in which the male hero recreates for his gaze the image of the woman he desires. In Cukor’s The Women, however, a film with an all-woman cast, the ‘looks’ in the dress salon are female, looks of rivalrous assessment rather than authority and power. In the fashion insert, the look can be gendered as female—scopophilia reflects a different economy of desire.
W is for Wavelength, Michael Snow’s great experimental film, the masterpiece of the disembodied look, of ‘pure perception’, made in 1967. In Snow’s own words, ‘The film is a continuous zoom which takes 45 minutes to go from its widest field to its smallest and final field. It was shot with a fixed camera from one end of an 80-foot loft, shooting the other end, a row of windows and the street. This, the setting, and the action which takes place there are cosmically equivalent. The room (and the zoom) are interrupted by four human events (including a death).’ In fact, the dead body, stretched out on the floor, soon falls visually out of the frame as the zoom inexorably advances, and is simply forgotten. The camera finally reaches its destination in a photograph of choppy waves pinned up on the far wall of the loft. It moves into this photographic space within a space, glides slowly forward over the surface of the water towards the horizon and then stops. In effect, Wavelength is one extended, concentrated, unrelenting gaze—the camera’s gaze reduced to its essence, mechanical and uninterested in event or narrative, simply observing and moving on. Narrative—or the possibility of narrative—is registered, discarded and forgotten. It is the narrative look that entails gender.
X is a difficult one. It is for experiment, but I have already covered that. It is for Roger Corman’s The Man With The X-Ray Eyes, but that would take us too far down a backwater. X stands for an unknown quantity—for the strange fascination that makes us remember a particular shot or a particular camera movement. It is what the early French theorists of silent film called photogénie, the photogenic—an effect of light and shadow, playing over significant forms, revealing and concealing something we don’t quite understand. Garbo’s face. It is an interruption of narrative by a moment when time freezes and we are fascinated by the image in front of us. Barthes tried to find a name for it—the symbolic, the third meaning, the punctum. Let’s call it X.
Y is for Les Yeux Sans Visage, Franju’s Eyes Without A Face, the look de-humanized. In another form, it is Vertov’s camera-eye, the camera that comes alive like a robot, stalks through the city, hides beneath the tracks to film the train roaring overhead, sails through the air to film the torrent below, hurls itself at the audience, filming the spectator, reversing the gaze, as in The Passenger, as Vertov had required in his idea of the kinok, the utopian idea of a communal cinema made by the public rather than by specialists, all filming each other, dissolving the look into reciprocity.
Z is the final frame of the zoom shot. Z is for Zorn’s Lemma, Hollis Frampton’s masterpiece, a film made by following a predetermined set of rules, based, axiomatically, on the significance of the number 24 as, coincidentally, both the number of letters in the Latin alphabet and the number of frames projected per second, using the statistical frequency of English words beginning with each letter to determine the film’s underlying structure. A cinematic algorithm, whose computational procedures ensured the solution of a filmic problem. And, finally, Z is for Zero—Zero for Conduct, zero visibility and Godard’s slogan, ‘Back to Zero’. As we enter the age of new media, the cinema is re-inventing itself. We need to see that re-invention in radical as well as mainstream terms, to try and re-imagine the cinema as it might have been and as, potentially, it still could be—an experimental art, constantly renewing itself, as a counter-cinema, as ‘cinema haunted by writing’. Back to zero. Begin again. A is for Avant-Garde.
1This paper was originally given as the Serge Daney memorial lecture at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, February 1998. Born in 1944, Daney began his film-theorist career as a teenager in the darkness of the cinémathèque in the rue d’Ulm: ‘I hated, in theatre, the social ritual, the assigning of seats in advance, the need to dress up, the parade of the bourgeoisie. In cinema—the permanent cinema—there is a black space that is fundamental, infinitely more mysterious’. He was a driving force within Cahiers du Cinéma throughout its many transmutations, from the early Hitchcocko–Hawksian years through the Maoist turn, the ‘savage application’ of Althusser and Lacan, the late seventies’ rediscovery of cinephilia; editing the journal from 73 to 81. During the eighties he produced searing analyses of postmodern TV in the pages of Libération; and excoriated the mediatized Gulf War. Daney described himself as a passeur, a smuggler, border-crosser, go-between; and—homage to the creative role of œdipal hatreds—a ciné-fils. In 91 he founded the review, Trafic. He died of Aids in June 92.