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The Attractions of Cinema: Movie Love after the Sixties – Part Two

Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959)


The Autonomy of the Spectator

Faced with an excess of representation suggested by the color of Cary Grant’s socks, Film Comment jam session participator David Ehrenstein attempts an explanation: ‘For what’s at stake is the relative autonomy of the spectator on the one hand, and the actual process of his intellection of elements on the other.’ The latter is what Dudley Andrew calls, in phenomenological terms, ‘the experience of signification.’ The former concerns the kind of phenomenology that seeks to be adequate to an experience that lies on the ‘hither side of signification,’ somewhere beyond the text. Ehrenstein’s pointing to the spectator’s part in the creation of this excess presents it as the result of a projection, a particular way of looking. Christian Keathley refers to E.H. Gombrich’s investigation into the ‘beholder’s share’ in the psychology of pictorial representation in his classic Art and Illusion (1960), to qualify this projection as a form of recognition, the viewer recognizing in art things he or she has encountered in experience: ‘In this way, the viewer makes the art his or her own, participating not only in meaning or experience, but in production itself.’

It’s easy to see why Keathley would refer to Gombrich. The art historian’s conception of an active viewer who is able to recognize, classify and question or test the images that the artist has created, counters the characterization in psycho-semiotics of the spectator as a passive subject for ideological manipulation. This is why Gombrich’s book is an important touchstone for Bordwell’s cognitivist research: what Bordwell wants to study is the interplay between conventional schemas of (artistic) meaning-making on the one hand and their recognition/comprehension by a viewer whose process of understanding proceeds by inference-making and processing cues or suggestions on the other hand. The cognitivist project is often criticized for offering an overly rationalistic or mechanistic characterization of aesthetic experience. I think this is unfair. At the same time, in this case, although the cognitivist investigation into the ‘beholder’s share’ includes memory, creativity, emotion and imagination, I have no knowledge of a cognitivist inquiry into the psychological dynamics of cinephilia. This has to do, I think, with the basic cognitivist claim that an emotion, like ‘love,’ which is what we’re talking about here, necessarily involves a propositional attitude, a ‘belief’ directed at an object that is intentional: in the sense of, ‘I love this movie because…’ state your reason/belief. In the case of the cinephiliac moment as tackled by Ehrenstein, the cinephile doesn’t know why he loves Cary Grant’s socks; he has no belief or even intention towards them.  So if Keathley ties cinephilia to the viewer’s capacity for projecting, he must point out that this is a funny kind of projecting directed at something that isn’t triggered by anything in the work that can be said to belong to its schema of representation. So if we want to answer a basically silly question like “why socks?” we must turn to another, less rationalist approach towards love and desire.

A Hedonist Project

The beholder’s share as a particular way of looking (or reading) came to fascinate Roland Barthes when he moved away from the semiotic-scientific inspiration of his early work. As Craig Saper suggests in his book, Artificial Mythologies (1997), after a period of demythologizing culture as a participant of the structuralist milieu, Barthes became a mythmaker,an inventor of new critical forms. The myths that Barthes created were ‘artificial’ because they displayed a remaining awareness of the way the text is constituted but at the same time, as in Ricoeur, allows for a surplus of meaning that provides access to experience. I’ve described the mechanics of Barthes’ fetishistic way of looking as related to the inherent contingency of photography elsewhere, so I will only point out here that Barthes’ texts – made almost immediately available in English from The Pleasure of The Text (1975) onwards – were probably Gilbert Adair’s main inspiration for ‘noticing’ those darn socks or for his compatriot Roger Cardinal to write his Framework essay, “Pausing on Peripheral Detail” (1986). Sounding very much like late-period Barthes (including Barthes’ borrowing of Benjamin’s ‘collector’ figure for Camera Lucida), Cardinal writes: ‘What I notice, or elect to notice, is necessarily a function of my sensibility, so much so that a list of my favorite details will equate to an oblique mirror-image of myself, becoming more noticeably idiosyncratic the longer it extends… while any one of these collector’s items could figure in someone else’s inventory, the fact of their being grouped by me implies a characteristic angle of vision governed by my individual tastes and fetishes.’

In Camera Lucida (1981), Barthes had started from his individual tastes and fetishes in order to study photography, because the contingency at the heart of photography resists all attempts at conceptualization or systematic reduction. Only a heuristic principle starting from the ego – as Nietzsche suggested, the only thing that remains in a refuted system – can therefore offer a ‘way in.’ Despite the unavailability of any systematic approach, the object of Barthes’ inquiry is no less ambitious: guided by an ‘ontological desire,’ ‘I wanted to learn at all costs what Photography [with capital P] was “in itself.”’ But pretty quickly this epistemological drive lets itself be charmed and transformed by a physical attraction toward those elements that ‘prick,’ engendering what Sontag would call an ‘erotics’ and what the classicist Barthes refers to as a ‘hedonist project.’

The Mummy Returns

Before embarking upon the second part of his essay, however, Barthes feels the need to retract his offering of pleasure as a mediator towards an understanding of the essence of ‘Photography’. In this second part, ‘desire’ achieves a distinctly Bazinian flavor in the sense of a psychological obsession to reproduce the world. In his excellent essay in Dudley Andrew and Hervé Joubert-Laurencin’s recent collection, Opening Bazin: Postwar Film Theory and Its Afterlife (2011), Philip Rosen argues that, ‘like desire in psychoanalytic theory, the mummy complex and consequently the myth of total cinema pursue an impossibly perfect mental mirage, in the form of a duplication-in-identity of objective existents.’ Such an ‘impossibly perfect mental mirage’ is what Barthes refers to as an ‘eidolon’ (a spectral image) and what Sartre, in The Imaginary (1940), a study to which Camera Lucida was dedicated, called an ‘analogon.’ In the imaginary process, the anologon (either a real picture or photograph or an image conjured in the mind) takes on the sense of the object it represents. Sartre argues that we are not deluded by this, but at some level the photograph of my father ceases being an image and stands in for my absent father. This is because we tend to ascribe emotions and beliefs to these irreal objects as if they were real.

Sartre’s example is very close to Barthes’ own attitude towards an old photograph of his recently deceased mother and similarly fronts the importance of subjective affective response. He finds his mother in an old photograph that expresses her truth, in the sense that he experiences something of being in her presence. What he finds about the essence of ‘Photography’ through finding his mother, is that the medium’s referent is not optionally but necessarily real: the thing or person that has been there has been absolutely, irrefutably present and yet already deferred by time and distance. Although Barthes now considers the photograph in the light of its powers of authentication and rejects its possibilities for recalling the past (‘the effect it produces upon me is not to restore what has been but to attest that what I see has indeed existed’), he cannot repress the melancholy reality of him missing her being. Like desire in the psychoanalytic discourse, Rosen continues, ‘the mummy complex derives from a wish to sustain the existence and power of the subject. That is, artistic representation originates in a need to counter knowledge of the inevitable dissolution of the subject (death), by material preservation against decay associated with the passage of time.’

In his other recent book on Bazin’s legacy, What Cinema Is (2010), Dudley Andrew suggests that the fascination with cinema comes not from its magical conjuring up of presence but from its presentation of haunting absence. In this sense, the cinephile’s fascination with Cary Grant in North by Northwest or Bogart in The Big Sleep derives from the melancholy pleasure of seeing in a film certain actors whom we know are dead (in post-mortem of Bogart, Bazin realizes that what has always attracted him in the actor was his physical embodiment of both the immanence and imminence of death). Barthes’ ‘resistance’ to the cinema, a medium that fetishizes continuity over stillness, has become something of a truism.  But despite such cine-phobia he follows Bazin in observing that what has been has left in the film is a recorded trace that leads us on a search.

Jeux Interdits

This search, as in Proust, the model for Barthes’ ‘third form’ of writing, does not really have an object in the regular sense but is one for (lost) time. In the “In Focus” section of Cinema Journal, Jenna Ng proposes that cinephilia is what names this search: ‘If cinema is an enterprise for reality, then cinephilia is a proposition for time, with going to the movies its form of seeking’.  But perhaps this search for lost time does have a real object, and perhaps it is a return to innocence. The desire to lose yourself, is what Sontag identifies as the true desire for cinema. Ng is touched when she reads how Jean Douchet used to curl up into a fetal position when going to the movies, enjoying the bliss of ‘pre-birth innocence.’ And there is something distinctly child-like about the pleasures in a medium associated with magic, ghosts and enchantment, a child-like attachment psycho-semiotics set out to debunk. But there is also something else.

In the same “In Focus” section, Chris Darke suggests that ‘postwar cinephilia must be regarded as a generation’s response to the shock in childhood of the simultaneous experiences of war and cinema.’ Although Darke is thinking about occupied France and the Spanish Civil War, it is Peter Wollen who offers the most eloquent evidence for this proposition. He does this, fittingly, in another elegy, his memorial lecture for Serge Daney at the Rotterdam Film Festival in 1998. In his Barthesian “Alphabet of Cinema” composed for the occasion, the entry preceding the one on cinephilia is the account of a traumatic encounter with Bambi.Wollen narrates how, while driving down the road with friends in Santa Barbara, he suddenly noticed a forest fire that, although initially taken for ‘real,’ turns to be a projected image at a drive-in cinema. The forest fire from Bambi is a traumatic moment for Wollen because it reminds him of the Blitz (although the film came out after the threat of the invasion of Britain had passed). He credits Bambi with being the source of his cinephilia because, ‘the films we remember best from our childhood always seem somehow autobiographical, always seem to be about ourselves in an especially strong sense.’ Bambi was the first film he ever saw, the search for an initiatory experience of immediate, undiluted pleasure being a favorite undertaking in the game of second-phase cinephilia.

In The Remembered Film (2004), Victor Burgin also remembers the Blitz. He remembers his mother’s pale face during an air raid, ‘the gloom of the bomb shelter and the dark masses huddled around her.’ The memory is impossible because Burgin was still in the womb when the bombs fell on London; it is a fantasy with décor and ambiance derived from a film. It reveals two things: the imbrication of fictional (film) and ‘real’ memories, and the close connection of war and cinephilia. Burgin moves metonymically from this fictional memory of his mother in the bomb shelter to the real memory of his first movie-going experiences, becoming his mother’s regular companion at the movies as soon as he was beyond the ‘screaming-fit stage.’ Burgin then gives up his first movie memory:

A dark night, someone is walking down a narrow stream. I see only feet splashing through water, and broken reflections of light from somewhere ahead, where something mysterious and dreadful waits.

He calls this ‘giving up’ a betrayal in a double sense: because the memory is private and because he has presented as narrative that which escapes rationalization. He does his memory justice in one sense only: in leaving it so brief and self-sufficient that, ‘I might almost be describing a still image.’ In memory, as in the cinephiliac moment, time slows down, freezes into a pregnant pause and reveals the ‘stillness’ that Barthes found in photography.

Flashing the Film

As Jean Epstein was well aware, brevity is the soul of the cinephiliac moment,: ‘Intermittent paroxysms affect me the way needles do,’ he wrote in his famous essay on “Magnification” (1921), playing around with a mechanistic metaphor favored by the Surrealists (who inventively co-opted Lautréamont’s ‘beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella’); ‘Until now, I have never seen an entire minute of pure photogénie. Therefore, one must admit that the photogenic is like a spark that appears in fits and starts.’ Thinking along more historiographical lines, and about memory, Walter Benjamin established that ‘the past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.’ Benjamin here channels the Breton of Nadja, who wrote of ‘flashes of light that would make you see, really see.’ If we adopt the metaphor devised by Benjamin to characterize Surrealism, we could say that a discrete memory is like a snapshot.

In Myths and Memories (1986), his pastiche of Barthes and Georges Perec’s Je me souviens (the 1978 original, itself a variation on Joe Brainard’s I Remember from 1970, one of Paul Auster’s favorite texts), Gilbert Adair lists 400 memories – 400 ‘coups’, in the sense that they evoke a disordered life opposed against all moral and principle – the most elaborate of which takes four sentences to describe. Most of his memories of the cinema – the posters for How to Marry a Millionaire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the ‘curdled appearance of the Red Sea when parted by Charlton Heston’ in The Ten Commandments, recommending John Farrow’s Botany Bay to his grandmother and her friend, the color of Cary Grant’s socks in North by Northwest and, of course, inevitably, Walt Disney, Snow White rather than Bambi – are from childhood or early adolescence. If you look at the festive 700th issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, for which the editors invited filmmakers, artists and philosophers to describe their most haunting ‘emotion of cinema,’ you will find the same return to the psychology of the developing child.

These haunting emotional memories are moments of self-definition for these filmmakers, artists and philosophers. Perhaps they’re even misremembering them to make them fit their developed sense of self. In his essay on Manny Farber, Adrian Martin cites Noël Burch and two-thirds of the Film Comment round table, Raymond Durgnat and Jonathan Rosenbaum, on the creative effects of faulty recollection. Durgnat, for instance, defended Farber’s ‘impressionism’, his occasional ‘dysfunctional foreshortenings’ of description by allowing for an approach to ‘the film as an organic whole in an ongoing context.’ That ongoing context is produced through the relationship between cinephilia and writing. Part of the self-definition that shines through the discourse on the emotional moment of cinema produced for Cahiers’ Festschrift, has to do with the writer’s relationship to Cahiers itself. As Paul Willemen suggests, the film magazine embodied the social relationship of cinephilia by reproducing in professional writing what non-critics reproduced in their daily conversations. The social aspect of cinephilia is what accounts for the ‘uncanny’ overlaps in intensely personal, privileged moments: Gilbert Adair, Raymond Durgnat, Stuart Byron and James Naremore all being fascinated by the color of Cary Grant’s socks, or Jean-Luc Nancy and Italian filmmakers Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi all falling for Cyd Charisse’s legs in the “Dancing in the Dark” number from The Band Wagon. Criticism, for first-period Cahiers, was about trying to rationalize these epiphanic moments, but also, as Willemen suggests, about furthering the conversation by writing about them in a ‘pleasurable stylistic way,’ ‘as if cinephilia demands a gestural outlet in writing.’ In a crucial quote from Camera Lucida, Barthes begins to think about how writing in a ‘pleasurable stylistic way’ may be derived from the excess experienced: ‘However lightning-like it may be, the punctum has, more or less potentially, a power of expansion. This power is often metonymic.’

Home Cinema

Before I develop this, allow me one final instance of deferral.  There’s another thing that I want to take away from the association between cinephilia, memory and childhood. Amongst all those photographs in Camera Obscura that either ‘prick’ Barthes or fail to rouse his attention beyond a studied interest, there is one that anticipates the emotional turn of Part Two, that ‘touches’ him: Charles Clifford’s “Alhambra” (1854) – a picture of an old house with ‘crumbling Arab decoration.’ ‘It is quite simply there that I should like to live,’ Barthes confesses. Looking at this photograph it is as if he were certain of going there or of having been there – a certainty Freud reserves exclusively for the maternal body. For Barthes, the photo is literally heimlich, in the sense that it awakens the mother.

Without wanting to disclaim the productive association introduced by the Surrealists between photographic images and the realm of the spectral or the uncanny, I want to suggest that what the cinephile finds in the films that he or she loves has something of the Heimlich about it, is something of a home-coming. I can pretty objectively describe the aesthetic pleasure I derive from She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or Rio Bravo, but as description this is incomplete because it does not account for why I want to revisit these films time and again. As a critic, I go out on a limb when I say that I love these films because they are where I want to live.

What’s certain is that these films are where I’ve been before. Like Keathley and Wadia Richards, I am of the video and DVD generation and can revisit at leisure (‘rereading,’ Barthes suggests in S/Z, is precisely what ‘saves the text from repetition’). Rewinding, pausing, collecting frames, I can write in great detail about, say, the rhythm of John Wayne’s gestures and body movement when he pours Angie Dickinson a scotch in Rio Bravo as compared to a similar moment in Only Angels Have Wings when Cary Grant pours one for Jean Arthur. My memory of these scenes does not immediately come into the picture here. But then I’m discounting the fact that, long before I started rewinding and pausing, I probably first got to know these films on television, without necessarily having been aware of them, without necessarily having been aware of them as films. Cinephilia 2.0 is mostly offered in reference to the digital age, but I’m not so sure whether the cine-love our particular historical conjuncture isn’t still as much informed by television. Digital technologies of film consumption are all about agency, about looking for something. Memory and television are about surprise. They catch us off guard, forcing us to investigate: why this? If digital technologies allow us to reconsider, the more contingent media of television and memory produce the original hunch, an intuition.

Intuition versus Tuition

For Bergson, the most important philosopher of memory, intuition was an experience of sympathy ‘through which one is moved into the inner being of an object.’ This is a phenomenological twist on the post-Kantian understanding of the concept, perhaps best exemplified here by Emerson, who, in his 1841 essay on “Self-Reliance,” considers it a prerequisite for genius and true originality:

The magnetism which all original action exerts is explained when we inquire the reason of self-trust. Who is the Trustee? What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded? What is the nature and power of that science-baffling star, without parallax, without calculable elements, which shoots a ray of beauty even into trivial and impure actions, if the least mark of independence appear? The inquiry leads us to that source, at once the essence of genius, of virtue, and of life, which we call Spontaneity or Instinct. We denote this primary wisdom as Intuition, whilst all later teachings are tuitions.

When Christian Keathley cites Stanley Cavell on intuition in answer to the question of how one can proceed as a critic from the starting point of the cinephiliac moment, he cites him while, as so often, he is thinking about Emerson. While Cavell finds that it is certainly not wrong to call Emerson the philosopher of intuition, he is at the same a teacher of tuition: ‘I read him as teaching that the occurrence to us of intuition places a demands upon us, namely for tuition; call this wording, the willingness to subject oneself to words, to make oneself intelligible. (Tuition so conceived is what I understand criticism to be).’ An intuition producing a ‘wording’, say, a practice of writing is what Keathley proposes a cinephiliac history can offer in terms of method. Like Barthes, Keathley posits a ‘third form’ of criticism, that doesn’t entirely reject the achievements of semiotics, but ‘will be working to remobilize the first stage’s cinephilic spirit in the service of the third stage’s primary interests: film history and reception studies.’

Let me say that, as an academic working in at least one of the two latter fields, I fully support this project. But let me add that this triangulation is fraught with more problems than Keathley has us believe. This is what Wadia Richards’ book, Cinematic Flashes: Cinephilia and Classical Hollywood, makes abundantly clear. The five cinephiliac anecdotes Keathley presents as the product of his working toward a new type of criticism are inspiring because they manage to preserve the writers’ original intuition, and because they succeed in evoking, in ‘mimicking’ the sense of wonder that the Surrealists thought photography and cinema had restored to everyday life. Robert B. Ray calls this type of mimicking ‘simulation,’ citing anthropologist Michael Taussig’s goal for criticism: confronted with the mysterious qualities of art, it is criticism’s job to attempt to ‘penetrate the veil while retaining its hallucinatory quality.’

On the other hand, Keathley’s promise to preserve the achievements of second-period semiotic film studies has produced the compromise that of the five anecdotes only a minority are fetishistic in the sense of attributing the cinephiliac moment to a clearly evoked ‘I’. Wadia Richards starts her book with personal memories of Judy Garland in A Star is Born (‘I am always struck by Judy Garland’s discombobulated body’), but in none of the ‘histories’ (the change from ‘anecdote’ to ‘history’ is telling not only in light of her ambition for a Benjaminian materialist historiography) that follow does this ‘I’ figure prominently – there is no sense here of the punctum having forced the critic to ‘give herself up.’

In Keathley, the preserved ‘hallucinatory quality’ is the result of the writer’s storytelling skills and skillful handling of uncanny denouement, the uncanny being a prime characteristic not only of the anecdote and the cinephiliac moment but of movies in general. The ‘tuition’ that he has clearly received from Barthes is that the real question of a new kind of critical essay should not (only) be: What is it? What does it mean? It should (also) ask: ‘What can follow what I say? What can be engendered by the episode I am telling?’ The former is epistemological discourse supported by metaphor. The latter line of inquiry is what Barthes calls ‘metonymy’. Metonymy, interpreted as a desire to write, is what has been identified, by Paul Willemen and others, as one of the prime attributes of the true cinephile: annotating, reporting, cataloguing, bearing witness, sharing is what makes the pleasure of cinephilia productive. But metaphor is the dominant discursive support in Wadia Richards’ account. Or perhaps allegory is the more correct rhetorical figure. The cinephiliac moments she takes as her points of entry function as emblems for the historical period, the knowledge about which she proposes to transform.

Take the soundless gunshot in “Sonic Booms”, her chapter on the unstudied visceral-somatic impact and psychological confusion of the early sound period. The reader never gets the impression that this moment was produced by the author’s cinephilia, that it draws on any kind of desire. On the contrary, it seems retrofitted for the content it is supposed to emblematize, the first chapter in a transformed historiography of classical cinema that nevertheless adheres to pretty standard periodization. In this regard, Wadia Richards’ approach is closer to Molly Haskell and Andrew Sarris’ identification of moments from The Jazz Singer or Sunrise as allegories of their connection to the early sound period, than she is to Barthes or Benjamin who advocated a much more distracted perspective on history. The same is true of her other examples: the falling fur coat from Mitchell Leisen’s Easy Living (1937) seen as an emblem of the cultural, moral and economic transformations of the thirties (surely the coat belongs to the studium?), or Orson Welles’ erased signature in The Stranger (1946) deciphered as allegorizing unsteady regimes of authorship in the post-Cahiers era (the latter basically a Derridean ‘signature experiment’ inspired by the closing chapter of Ray’s book, The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy (1995), which Keathley clearly found irreconcilable with the auteurist underpinning of much of the cinephiliac discourse).

All this shouldn’t surprise us since Wadia Richards’ intention, formulated in the introduction, is to one-up Keathley’s triangulation by moving beyond cinephilia. Specifically what she sets out to sublimate is the ‘paralyzing nostalgic impasse of classical cinephilia.’ What she means is that classical cinephiles were content to merely reproduce the moment, whereas what she proposes is to expand upon it, not through metonymy, but by combining ‘the passionate stance of classical cinephilia with the critical rigor of subsequent film criticism.’ She doesn’t say what she means by critical rigor, nor which subsequent film criticism she has in mind (I imagine she means Keathley’s film history and reception studies). As a work of rigorous historical research her book is fine. But why haven’t those interested in the new cinephile écriture noticed that out of Keathley’s proposed strategies for cinephiliac criticism – metonymy, personal memory, and the uncanny – there is none she applies with any consistency? The only thing she takes from Ray’s proposed avant-garde-inspired methodology for film studies – supposedly the main inspiration behind her book – is the idea of the (hypermedia) node of information, capable of being opened into endlessly connecting lexicons; even more than Keathly she is keen on the cybernetic metaphor, ‘points of entry.’ What is missing is what Barthes refers to as the possibility of an ‘adventure,’ literally in the sense of something that ‘advenes’, that comes to you. In Cinematic Flashes everything seems preordained, academic business as usual, a labor of knowledge instead of writing, bringing us full circle to Barthes’ original disappointment in his own mythological project: ‘a mythological doxa has been created: denunciation, demystification (or demythification), has itself become discourse, stock of phrases, catechistic declaration.’

In this case, what has become doxa or discourse is Barthes’ own suggestion for experimental criticism. Now I’m not suggesting that this means there is no possible rapprochement between cinephiliac and academic criticism; Keathley’s book has shown that there is. And neither am I suggesting that ‘reproducing the moment’ or poeticizing one’s intuitions is the only possible project for cinephiliac criticism, let alone for film criticism in general. But if you’re going to play a game, you have to stick to the rules. Otherwise you end up with very little in terms of either pleasure or results, having turned cine-love into a mask or simulacrum of itself, another ghost, but this time one without a subject.