CINEMA METAPHYSICS: ALIVE AND DECEASED

Astoria auditorium, Mr Parker the projectionist arranged the coloured stage lighting, pink on the right and green on the left

Despite the morbid approach to the title of this short rumination, we will discover that the deceased can offer plenty of inspiration in thinking about cinema. Physically, cinema allows thousands of great lives to be relived onscreen, but looking at the metaphysics of it all, cinema is somehow able to share a literal time and space with those who have passed. Cinema exists but only in so far as the dead exist in the present. Cinema itself is not spiritual, it does not exist without our viewing, but once it is viewed, cinema is able to life a life hidden in the depths of our very own subconscious. However, the characters that we experience and that feel so real to us will be dead; they cease to exist from the moment they are conceptualised and put into a medium of fiction. But more importantly, the moving-image cannot breath, i.e. once an image is captured, the actual subject is no longer alive or present. This is what can be frustrating for audiences of the cinema: we are witnessing a theoretical death, as it pretends to be very much alive.

Another way to reach this conclusion is by basing one’s ideas on memories. We witness and remember a film much like we do our own memories. Firstly, the material of a film can be transcribed as the physical rendering of memories. The memories of the writer, director, or whoever one wishes to favour as auteur in the filmmaking process. Memories belong to the imaginary and cinema is one great big orgasm of imagination. Secondly, when reflecting on a film, we process it as a lived experience, in a similar way that we may re-process an important meeting that took place last week, or a date who never turned up. The parallels are so acute that our minds are fooled into thinking of the cinematic event as a real event. This is otherwise known more simply as one’s suspension of disbelief. But I am arguing beyond this, I argue that cinema becomes a construct of real memory, inseparable from the chaos of our own lives. You can think of it like this: if the cinema makes feel or act, then you are alive and the effect is real.

How is this connected to a notion of the deceased? One might argue that the deceased actually did live once upon a time, and so how come cinema can exist on equal terms of time and space? This is very true, but there is still something missing. The cinema has lived, but only its existence was shorter and confined to the present moment of occupying the cinema’s auditorium. It is a scattered life and not directly compatible with the timeline of a human life. Therefore, cinema is only able to exist in conjunction with our own existence for the duration of the film, unless we are to witness multiple viewings.

We are talking about the time and space occupied after the spectacle, the space occupied by our mind re-processing the cinematic event. The cinema deceased will live on in our memories can be remembered as we remember those we have known and perhaps loved. Even if we live within the cinema, it will remain mortal after every event. However, it is a great fortune, as we can revisit the deceased and dip back into the dark for another ninety minutes or so. It will always be our friend, even though it never did exist in the first place, it tricked you into thinking it did. It is like having a dream of your once beloved, only to wake up the next morning to a shattering reality that they are no longer there.

Note: I frequently use cinema to refer to film processes as well as the auditorium. This is because cinema can refer to the entire medium of film rather than be cut short by perspectives of a particular film. Cinema is the ontology of the movies. And any theory of spectatorship should be based on the place where that medium is best experienced: in the CINEMA!

For good measure, you can find this daring documentary of Michael Haneke’s work on YouTube:

 

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CINEMA THINKS – ALAIN BADIOU

France - "Vous aurez le dernier mot" - TV Set“There is something interesting in cinema because we cannot reduce it to a conceptual definition.”

The above quote from renowned contemporary philosopher Alain Badiou opens up a world of theoretical enquiry into cinema as an art form and where it might be heading. However, as always, targeting the specifics of this interesting ‘something’ is not an easy task. This article will break down Badiou’s thought on cinema and hopefully open a way for more exciting thought on the cinema and appreciation of such art works.

We begin by asking the interminable question “What is Cinema?” It is an everlasting question because there is no definite answer. If cinema is an art form, then why can’t it be conceptually defined like all other arts? If not defined, then what is the special ingredient? For example, poetry is an attempt to say what cannot be said, theatre is a battle to form an external relationship between human beings and an audience, and painting aims to create the visible from the invisible – these are the fundamental ideas that promote and invoke these arts. There will always be further ideas on such a quest, but it is clear that cinema holds no such distinction. I always like to argue that cinema is a collective of all these ideas and that’s what makes its individuality eternal, it is never shaped by a definition, and therefore there can be a positive infinity in cinema production.

However, as Badiou makes clear from my previous assumption, cinema itself is a very complex question and therefore cinema as an art must also be a very complex question. It is rather simple really: cinema is complex, so hence anything we wish to attribute to cinema (philosophy, art, psychology, archaeology etc.) will also become complex. A philosophy of the cinema is a complex idea; we can never really know what cinema is. Badiou even attempts to postulate cinema as the “history of complexification of itself.” These layers inherent to cinema form a unique relationship whereby the spectator falls under the spell, or inside the cinema according to Badiou, but without knowing its real signification. Cinema is essential in the collective existence of today’s world and yet it continues to be something that we have no firm notion off – certainly from a theoretical standpoint, but arguably by way of practice also. Is this not a very dangerous idea?

Badiou_Cinema

 

Whenever we are considering the thing of something, or the what is, we need to retrace our passage back to some custom of historical antiquity. Plato is a good denominator to begin with, especially for cinema. With philosophy we are on a search for truth in life, or a true life, something that is pure and in accordance with our entire make up. How does cinema impact this quest? Can cinema be true to life? These questions are inscribed into every film, and it often comes back down to the spectator’s ability to suspend their disbelief: to give themselves whole-heartedly over to the sequence of images and sounds on the screen. If they can do this then the images they witness are true, at least true to themselves. Even so, this it too general, we need to look beyond the spectator and take the films at face value. What makes a good film? How can we identify good film with art and philosophy?

If Plato were alive today, he would probably be feeling very ill. We cannot escape images today. The famous cave allegory was a false reality for Plato, but it is the founding movement of cinema: moving shadows cast themselves across the walls of the cave once backlit from a great beam of light. This was a conviction of truth: the composition is an illusion! Illusions cannot be so! Here is the answer: cinema does not claim to be such a false reality, cinema knows very well that it paints a grand composition of illusion, and its images are no substitute for contamination, they are didactic images that speak off new formations and new bonds of knowledge! In other words, cinema is an answer for finding the truth in irreality; cinema knows that it lies, but it is a lie of edification.

Cinema is alive and speaking to us. Cinema has possibility, it is an art of possibility perhaps, and this is why it must have a relationship to philosophy and vice versa. Because cinema is so alive, it is constantly in battle, a fight between art and non-art. It is here that Badiou can draw out his belief that “cinema thinks”. By way of this vision in which a contemporary world battles with art through film, we are able to distinguish the good films from the bad. If, permitting to Hegel also, art is something of the past and cinema takes on a contemporaneous position as the ‘impure art’, then through constructing a successful conflict of images one has created a good film. This conflict is within the images themselves as well as the audience because the images require contemplation and are often ‘vulgar’ or disruptive. Cinema is therefore not a peaceful art and furthermore, this aforementioned fight between art and non-art is allowed to erupt between its fences. We can then resolve, in line with Badiou’s claims, that the more impure the artwork/the film, the greater the present battle is within the image itself and the better the film!

MelancholiaWhile this is all very metaphysical and might seem dismissible to most audiences, Badiou has targeted the underlying causes for our connection with the image from a strong philosophical standpoint. The point of most significant is this totalisation of cinema: cinema as the non-essential but all-permitting feature of new possibilities and limitlessness. Cinema creates new evaluations and new participations in dialectics. For example, great music can be given a new education in films. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia features music from the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The music is played at different points throughout the film and at each instance is inscribing new meanings onto the image. There is battle with the image and the music is forced to engage in new directions. The range of possibility is astonishing. It is here that cinema takes a form of judgment on all the other arts.

Badiou is telling us to “go to the cave.” We must approach cinema as a means and become involved in the democratic dialectics of our modern education. If none of this speaks to your way of thinking, then you must focus on the idea of possibility: the search for possibility. Cinema makes the search possible.

 

Author: Charlie Bury

 

You can watch the full video that inspired this thought below.

SECRET LANGUAGE OF FILM

jean-claude-carriere

Most people have probably never heard of Jean-Claude Carriere, but he is the man behind over seventy-five ingenious screenplays and a long time collaborator with Luis Buñuel (they worked together on Buñuel’s late work from Belle de Jour to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie). Carriere says it himself, “If you want fame, don’t be a screenwriter.” Despite writing numerous great screenplays and stage-plays, he has also written a few novels and books on film. I want to bring attention to his book The Secret Language of Film. It is a fruitful read, rich in allegorical poetry and insight into the language of cinema and its audience. Carriere begins by telling us to keep our “eyes open” to cinema and what he has to say in his book.

Carriere raises all the key questions of film theory (ontology, aesthetics, critique etc.) yet he doesn’t dwell on them and offers invaluable insights passing most of his attention onto us, as the ever-important audience of this medium. He moves from our perceptions of the real into how we dissect time through the medium and finally how it cheats us and may end up cheating (or obscuring) history, as we know it. This may sound like a lot to take in at once, but Carriere is vigilant in his approach, giving visions into his own case studies and experiences as an avid cinemagoer and writer for the medium.

Carriere wrote the book in 1994, before the on-slaughter of digital cinema and proliferation of online media. But, he has his senses about him and talks a great deal about the attention span of audiences and audiences becoming desensitised to images, at which time television was the main culprit. Leading on from this, Carriere is clearly concerned with the over emphasis of the technical and technique; he points out that story is always more important. Of course, today this is a big debate, with stunning visuals at the forefront of cinema. For an independent filmmaker, the big question is commonly should I put more of my budget into camera so we can shoot with an Arri Alexa instead of a Canon C300? Or, should we put that extra expense into validity for the story, for example locations, cast or costume?

Another big question this raises though is whether modern audiences are actually more concerned with the visual scope, outwardly, than anything else. Put them in front of a grainy, 3 by 4 black and white movie and you will probably find your answer. Or, look to the recent Gravity that swept up awards this year for its visual beauty (of space), but which fooled many critics into thinking it had a script worth its weight.

On a more positive note, Carriere, the screenwriter that he is, fits in some top tips on the craft amidst his discussion about the language of film. After all, a film is initially the written word, a completely different language – say hello to the screenplay. Or, as Carriere duly discloses, swiftly say goodbye! A screenwriter should be aware that “what he is writing is fated to disappear, a necessary metamorphis awaits it.” This metamorphis is principal photography of course. “A screenplay is always the dream of a film,” in this case, producing the film is simply about making the best compromises one can make. In other words, choose the compromises wisely, as there will be plenty, and you should have a good film. I like to think of this in terms of the pure nature of filmmaking, that of copying what is real. You can’t expect reality to lend itself lightly to being contrived of its origin, thus, expect some ramifications during the process of trying to capture it.

One of my favourite lines in the book comes again, from this notion of bleaching the real. “Writing a story, or a screenplay means injecting order into disorder.” In other words, a screenplay is clearly structured whereas life is not; in most cases life is wondrously unpredictable. However, of course there needs to be some unforeseen drama in a screenplay, to cite Hitchcock, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” It isn’t often that in a film you will find long sequences of someone on the toilet, brushing their teeth, hanging up the washing, or going out for their groceries, unless the director has purposefully chosen an attempt to turn the ‘dull bits’ upside-down.

To gather this drama, Carriere suggests that the screenwriter be completely open to letting their imagination wonder, we are talking of the following extremes: “Imagine everything; he must kill his father, rape his mother, sell his sister…” and the list goes on. As screenwriters, we must welcome everything. Carriere talks of him and Luis Buñuel telling each other their dreams first thing in the morning, this session would be followed by a read of the daily papers for stories. At the end of the writing day they would split, Buñuel would go off for his cocktail and Carriere would meet him there half an hour later, in which time they would both have to come up with a story and pitch it to one another. No wonder the two came up with some charming ideas, the lesson here is don’t seclude yourself, interact with others, including the media.

Finally, I want to comment once more on the perception of the audience, in this case, the audience’s eye. Carriere raises an easily overlooked question, “is the eye truly supreme?” Cinema and its contingency of the real are wholly based on the fact that it is a visual medium, one that mechanically represents reality. It is placed there before our very own eyes, up on the big screen, but what is so special about it that the written word can’t convey? Is the written word more real? On this notion of seeing, we must not forget the power of what is not seen, a key device at the disposal of any director. This doesn’t necessarily have to be ambiguous signals (an example of the ambiguous would be in Casablanca when Rick and Isla may or may not have had sex during a three second dissolve to a shot of the airport tower at night and then back to Rick’s room), but it can, on the contrary, be very obvious and even barbaric. An example of the barbaric would be if I, as the director, just showed the face of my victim, as the murderer slowly goes about cutting her legs off with a chainsaw. I could hold this shot for as long I wanted, maybe five minutes or so to really show the extent of misery and trauma that my character is going through. But, what’s the point if everything is shown? Sadistic play is more fun when you can’t quite predict the root of worsening pain.

I have only touched on some of the theoretical offerings in this book. Though rather speculative, Carriere is certain to provide ample example and experience. You may also chuckle quite a lot.