Archives For Histories of Film Theory

Sontag opens with reference to Plato’s cave. The shadows on the wall of the cave are a manufactured reality – manufactured by the prisoners chained to the cave wall. They have attributed the shadows meaning as the shadows are all they see. Humankind is confined in this way. Reality appears to us as the shadows appear to the prisoners. So what relationship does photography have with reality and what does this mean in relation to truth and the attribution of truth to things and experiences in the world?

“In teaching us a new visual code, photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe.” Sontag p3

Sontag says quite enthusiastically that photography gives us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads as an anthology of images. A photograph is an object. Movies and moving images flicker on and off but a printed photo can be kept and stored. The camera is the ideal arm of consciousness as it reaches and acquires reality and reality-memories.

‘Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.’ p4

‘Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.’ p6

Sontag brings up an important point re the presence of psychoanalytic influence when thinking about the photographic/cinematic image:

‘The camera doesn’t rape, or even possess, though it may presume, intrude, trespass, distort, exploit, and, at the farthest reach of metaphor, assassinate – all activities that, unlike the sexual push and shove, can be conducted from a distance, and with some detachment.” p13

There is a connection between looking and cruelty.

Context: to relate to the use of still images in my PhD practice – still frames amongst the moving image work.



Epstein’s essay: Freud ou le Nick-Carterianisme en psychologie” purports to refute psychoanalysis as a method for understanding the subconscious. The subconscious has a fundamentally elusive nature: motivations and associations are fundamentally elusive and un-graspable. He refers to Edgar Alan Poe’s ‘The Imp of the Perverse.” Epstein posits Lyrosohpy as a concept to describe the transformation of subjectivity in modernity. The modern world creates lapses in conscious attention which allows the subconscious to flood the conscious mind with emotion and revelatory analogy between what is in the world and what one perceives the world to be about.

“Beauty is a thing in itself, that is to say, in us. It can be projected on almost any object or person who, immediately, will become beautiful. Everything depends on the quality, the force of our subconscious..”

In this way love too is a projection and this theme – this structure – pervades much of Epstein’s film work. This is a kind of Kuleshov effect in which meaning is projected onto a subject via the contextualisation from the subjective point of view: the person is beautiful, because I am looking at the person and thinking beauty. Figures in Epstein’s films are mirrors that reflect and deflect desire.

Epstein’s conception of photogenie is equally reflective and deflective. It is allusive and ungraspable as the subconscious. It cannot be reverse engineered via creating logical connections between motivation and association as psychoanalysis attempts to do. Photogenie is resistant to a foundation in words as words are static. To describe beauty is to destroy beauty. A good approach to photogenie is a shotgun – scatter shot approach of description. Epstein’s direction is that of the nexus between the human mind and the world and the appearance of beauty and love.

In summary, psychoanalysis is ocular-centric. It seeks to explain the act of looking in terms of what is being looked at. Epstein’s thinking gives way to general phenomenological approaches that reconstitute the role of the body in visual perception. Epstein sees the camera, and by proxy the cinema, as an instrument to make visible the interior life of human beings that cannot be seen by the naked eye.

From A Temporal Perspective: Jean Epstein’s Writings on Technology and Subjectivity by Trond Lundemo

Epstein often describes the processes forming subjectivity in cinema as an alternative to psychoanalysis. Actors do not recognise themselves on the screen. Cinema counters our self impressions and reveals true identities. This is why cinema produces a split of the subject, as an on-going process of individuation. Already the simple technique of shooting in reverse motion disturbs our conception of the universe. Cinema allows us to look at things in a different way because it is not governed by the principles of human psychology and consciousness, but instead disturbs our conception of the universe as well as our image of ourselves. 


‘Sight or sound, pure cinema is a cinema that would like to dispense with words: the cinema, as the etymology already indicates, is essentially the painter, the narrator of mobility, of all mobility, of mobility alone, because it alone is photogenic… But the word constitutes a fixed form, a stable state, a stop, a crystallization of thought, an element of immobility.” Jean Epstein – Cinema Pur? 1946

At the heart of this thought is a contradiction and contradiction is always a useful tool for the theorising of art. The friction between ideas and perceptions allow for new imaginings. Photogenie strives for a shifting image-experience. Time is an essential ingredient. But the shifting is not simply what is shifting on screen. The shifting takes place in the mind of the viewer. The image-experience is relative to the shifting and waining perceptions and imagining of the viewer. The entertainment is not in the narratives themes and subtexts but rather in what the viewer brings to the situation. Therefore narrative is a problematic ingredient for cinema and moving image work. It must be handled with reservation – a last resort to being meaning to an artwork. Bacon’s figures – see Deleuze’s analysis summarised below –  reject narration in order that the physicality and flesh of the world is what is left.

Katie Kirkland provides an insightful unpacking of Coure Fidele and takes aim at Epstein’s own dismissiveness of his formal exploits. Epstein on Coure Fidele:

‘In Couer  Fidele the turns of sleight of hand of the fete foraine have very much unbalanced the way I would wish that the film be understood … If this abstract cinema enchants some, let them buy a kaleidoscope, a toy for a second childhood, in which  a very simple device can give a speed of rotation, regular and variable at will. As for me, I believe that the age of the cinema-kaleidoscope has passed.’

This notion of a ‘kaleidoscopic’ aesthetic however still has relevance in understanding the era and the thinking. The kaleidoscope relates to modernity. To resist and subvert conventional forms is to create a kaleidoscopic affect. To favour sensation over narrative logic or psychological realism is kaleidoscopic. The eruption of mobility, magnification, and plastic deformation in the fete forraine sequence is a victory for sensational affect – a conquering of the spectator as the spectator submits and is moved – and the image acts – force.

What is a kaleidoscope? A relationship of fragments – images – mosaic – objects – as created by a device which itself remains invisible. What matters here is not the properties of images/fragments  themselves but combination and movement. There is also a sense that a kaleidoscope is enjoyable as it somehow connects us with the uncanny / other – worldly. It is no accident that Epstein had such interest in fair grounds, circus’ and carnivals. There is a sense of the spectacle and a sense of an adventurous interaction with modern technology – gadgets, ferris wheels, roller coasters, halls of mirrors etc etc.


“For Epstein, love and aesthetic pleasure are both general sentiments that reside in subconscious memory, periodically erupting through the threshold of consciousness in search of an object.”

Irrational, unreflective, irresistible. Frightening.

As always Epstein is looking for a path of artistic advance for the cinema.

The essay film – something to do with the personal. A view; an experiment; a meditation.

It is not necessarily only reflective or self-conscious in style as Contempt (Godard) might be considered.

The American Heritage dictionary: “A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal views of the author.”

The essay tracks a persons thoughts as they follow lines of reasoning to undo a mental knot. It is also the medium by which the thinking takes place. It facilitates the reasoning. An alternative to Socratic dialogues for instance.

“Readers must feel included in a true conversation, allowed to follow the rough mental processes of contradiction and digression and yet aware of a formal shapeliness developing underneath.” (Lopate)

The definite qualities of the essay-film as according to Lopate:

1) must have words in the form of dialogue or text (the corollary would be that any visual medium – a political poster or an ad – could be taken as an essay)
2) Must represent a single voice – or take the appearance of a single voice.
3) The text must represent the author’s attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem.
4) The text must impart more than information. It must represent a strong personal point of view. There is a difference here between journalistic and essayistic.
5) The overall language of the text needs to be as eloquent and as interesting as possible. Lopate suggests a cultural standard to bare when reasoning in discourse.

” … a Markerian nostalgia for the escaping present, and a melancholy over the inherently receding reality of photographed images.”

This sense of time and awareness of the inadequacy of mechanical reproduction of time allows Marker to project an ‘historical understanding onto otherwise bland or neutral footage.”

In Sunless recollecting and rewriting an inextricably linked.

Sunless suggests some form of prophecy for a new age of communication, technology and globalisation – which to a large extent is true of Marker’s vision – though the personal, essayistic form inspired by such works seems never to have arrived.

A personal vision does not equate to a personal view.

The camera as a device for recording thoughts: it has a tendency to provide its own thoughts. That is, there are always unintended and accidental consequences of the recording and re-ordering of time and space. This is the foundation to the topic of cinema as a machine for thinking as a topic for discussion.

There is a hint in all this toward the matter of the autonomy of cinema and film form.

Wilhelm Worringer posits a spectrum for the impulse behind art – the extremities of which can be defined as an impulse towards empathy at one end and an impulse towards abstraction at the other.

The fundamental notion at the heart of Worringer’s thesis is that beauty derives from our sense of being able to identify with an object; empathy. This has clear relationships with phenomenology and is a starting point for further research. Worringer is looking to understand the reasons behind how and why a human being is driven or drawn towards a work of art. This will inevitably have to include psychology – the level of the individual – and zeitgeist – the level of the broader culture.

Worringer argues that representational art produces satisfaction from our objectified delight in the self, reflecting a confidence in the world as it is as in Renaissance art. By contrast, the urge to abstraction, as exemplified by Egyptian, Byzantine, primitive, or modern expressionist art, articulates a totally different response to the world: it expresses man s insecurity. Thus in historical periods of anxiety and uncertainty, man seeks to abstract objects from their unpredictable state and transform them into absolute, transcendental forms. Abstraction and Empathy also has a sociological dimension, in that the urge to create fixed, abstract, and geometric forms is a response to the modern experience of industrialization and the sense that individual identity is threatened by a hostile mass society.


Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style

the article opens with Kierkegaard:

I call these sketches Shadowgraphs, partly by the designation to remind you at once that they derive from the darker side of life, partly because like other shadowgraphs they are not directly visible. When I take a shadowgraph in my hand, it makes no impression on me, and gives me no clear conception of it. Only when I hold it up opposite the wall, and now look not directly at it, but at that which appears on the wall, am I able to see it. So also with the picture which does not become perceptible until I see through the external. This external is perhaps quite unobtrusive but not until I look through it, do I discover that inner picture which I desire to show you, an inner picture too delicately drawn to be outwardly visible, woven as it is of the tenderest moods of the soul. Kierkegaard, Either/Or

When we practice the auteur theory – which is to say simply that we summarise and critique an individual film based on its stylistic value as compared to other films of the same auteur – we look for the language of the author – are we really ‘rationalising leaden clinkers into golden nuggets’? My opinion: NO. The language of film is hidden beneath or better yet, encoded in, a films apparent ‘entertainment’ or ‘dramatic’ value. An auteur who is praised must have work worthy of praising – a masterpiece here and there. For William Friedkin we might cite The Exorcist, The French Connection or Kiler Joe. For Michael Mann you cannot go past Heat. Both of these auteur’s have films which were critically rejected during their time at the box office.

Take Miami Vice by Michael Mann for instance. The reaction to this film by and large by the critics was negative. To quote David and Margaret from At The Movies:

The real problem is that this is a nothing plot, we’ve seen it many times before, Mann’s inclusion of a couple of extended sex scenes that are not really so sexy is just a diversion.

Colin Farrell is developing into a deeply uninteresting actor, not that Mann’s screenplay gives any of the actors much opportunity for subtlety or depth.

There’s a lot of jargon. And the end result is that the plot, such as it is, verges on the incomprehensible.

Viewing Miami Vice however in reference to other texts – a more postmodern view – the film can be read as a masterpiece of style. Genre conventions are another viewpoint through which to analyse this film. Though Margaret describes this film as ‘unsexy’ I would have to disagree and assert that this is a romantic film first and foremost in which some action takes place. The final battle that draws us through to the end of the third act is predicated on vengeance for one lover and the rescue of another; duel couplings, just as in the romantic musical genre. Looking at this film through the filter of a Goddard-infused reading one can see the level of pop/fashion/media culture being coded into this film. It is plot-lite precisely to foreground fashion, fast cars, epic Caribbean skyscapes and rock music. The themes are universal: daring, vengeance, love, forbidden love, and eventually existential choices to not live happily ever after on part of Sonny (Colin Farrell).

This does not constitute a ‘see-it-or-you-don’t’ shortcut to scholarship, as Sarris’ critics would determine, but a reasonable A-iconoclastic look at what is described as the language of film; that is film form, convention and style and how these elements might relate to each other and imbue a sense of a human personality talking to us from the screen. We might ask this disembodied, coded voice ‘what do you see in relationships between people?’ or ‘how does one deal with injustice amongst the many?’, or ‘is there a place for honour and trust in contemporary society?’ This is not a shortcut to thinking but a love for film and style as it lights up the screen at 24 frames (I would hope). For structuralism and linguistics and the death of the author – these avenues of scholarship are fine, but taken in isolation can suck the life out of the most exciting form of human expression – that form that comes to us from innovation in technology, from the division of labor and the pursuit of an individual and collective landscape of dreams and desires.

Sarris hits on two interesting, dovetailing points: He says of the French critics that some had succumbed to a European-orientated (rationalist) pragmatism where intention was more nearly equal to talent in critical relevance (sounds familiar – the contemporary Australian film industry). He goes on to summarise that Truffaut had seen the writing on the wall: he and his colleagues had ‘discovered auteurs’ whilst their successors have ‘invented’ them.

This is an interesting lens through which to view the shift from the studio system to the more politically active, independent film making of the post-classical, 1970’s-on period. In the classical era the movies assumed that audiences were autonomous in their own right – that they did not need to be enlightened. Take one of John Ford’s westerns which assumes a level of respect and sentimentality for the formation of civilisation in the wilderness of the American frontier. Or perhaps a Lubitsch comedy in which it was famed that Lubitsch had an unspoken understanding with his audience and innuendo and the unseen canoodling behind closed doors was poetry. The auteur was found in the expression of style within the confines of a rigid, but practical, narrative form. The post-classical era sees auteur’s inventing themselves and what reigns here is not the value of the aesthetic expression as it erupts from a set of conventions and structures but political message and activist agenda – intention more nearly equal to talent. This immediately starts to evolve an ‘in-group’ as with any politically orientated movement – their successors had invented them.

Ultimately Bazin reasons for us with his charisma and gusto:

“How can one review an Anthony Mann western if it were not an expression of the genre’s conventions?”

An important structural element on La Jette’s narrative is the dialogue: ‘Later, he new he had seen a man die.’

This use of the word ‘later’ is a promise to the audience to deliver the significance of the event. At this point the audience has become absorbed into the dreamlike world of the main character and now awaits an emergence into conscious reality – an explanation. Being a mediation on time, memory and the present moment this emergence into conscious reality is always deconstructed, or underscored, by an uncertainty. Images and perceptions of the present moment cannot be trusted. Hence why the subjects upon whom time travel is imposed are all driven mad.

Somewhere in the thesis of this film lies the notion that the wounds of history, the apparent real-ness of history, exists for us only via our memory and only via our interpretation of the events that surround us in the present moment. We are hermeneutically hemmed in. This is another viewpoint from which to understand the source of madness for the test-subjects – when this compass – this structure of memories that keeps us orientated in the present – is ruptured and fragmented across the totality of time. Our ability to stabilise ourselves in the present is shattered and any sense of the empirical world starts to dissolve.