by Peter Wollen

Since the cinema was invented, theorists have raised the problem of its essence and embarked on the project of an ontology. Foremost among these, of course, was André Bazin, whose collected writings are published under the title Qu’est-ce que le cinéma? (four volumes, Paris 1958-62; part translated as What is Cinema?, two volumes, Berkeley 1967) – a collection in which the very first essay confronts the question of the ontology of the photographic image. This essay is illustrated by a photograph of the sacred shroud of Turin, an instance of double registration, and it contains numerous analogies, well-known by now, between photography and the moulding of a death-mask, the preservation of a fly in amber, mummification. For Bazin, photography – and by extension cinematography – was a natural process of registration, a process which excluded man and was thus, despite its advanced technology, pre-cultural in some sense or at least a-cultural. ‘All the arts are based on the presence of man; in photography alone do we enjoy his absence (nous jouissons de son absence). It acts upon us as a “natural” phenomenon, like a flower or a snowflake whose beauty cannot be divorced from its vegetable or telluric origins’ (vol I, p 15; this and subsequent references are to the French edition). Cinema was based on a natural automatism which cancelled the irreversibility of time, a rigorous determinism.

This line of argument led Bazin to assert that the ontology of the photographic image was inseparable from the ontology of its model, even that it was identical to it. By natural optical and photo-chemical processes, the being of the pro-filmic event (the objects within the camera’s field of vision) was transferred to the being of the film itself, the image sequence registered and subsequently projected. Bazin saw the destiny of cinema as the recreation of the world in its own direct image. But this potentiality of the cinema, the potentiality of an ‘integral realism’, could be put into effect no faster than the pace of technological development permitted. Technological progress was already marked – first, the invention of cinema itself, then the great milestone of sound – and Bazin looked forward to the generalisation of colour and the perfection of 3D. He would certainly have welcomed holography. At the same time, improvement of film-stock and lenses reduced the need for artificial light and made possible an increased depth of field in the image, corresponding, so Bazin thought, to the ubiquitous crispness of natural perception.

‘On the other hand, the cinema is a language’ (vol I, p 19). What did Bazin mean by this? The presence of language must signify, of course, the passage from nature to culture, the intervention of human agency, the currency of thought. Bazin speaks of the ‘language’ of cinema as though it was a necessary burden. It is as though the need for language was inflicted on the cinema by its technical inadequacy; it could not be dispensed with yet. On two different occasions, Bazin uses the metaphor of the ‘equilibrium-profile’ of a river (vol I, p 139). In the early stages of cinema, technical developments bring with them the development of means of expression, figures of language, which are then outmoded and rendered obsolete by new technical developments. Thus, the silent cinema saw the development of ‘Russian’ montage, the close-up, etc, fundamentally as means of compensating for the absence of sound. The assimilation of sound during the 1930s led eventually to a new situation, an equilibrium-profile, when these figures of language could be dispensed with. Indeed, in the context of other technological improvements – the return of the carbon arc without its hum, the blimped Mitchell with coated lens, high-speed panchromatic stock[2] – not only could these figures be dispensed with, but Bazin could envisage a cinema in which there would be an ‘effacement’ and ‘transparency’ of technique and the formal vocabulary associated with it. In this new phase, content would re-assert its primacy over form, and Bazin leaves us in no doubt that this dominance of content is proper and desirable, the suppression at last of a regrettable, though necessary, perversion.

‘Language wants to be overlooked.’ Siertsema’s phrase sums up Bazin’s vision of cinema, a cinema whose essence was elsewhere, in the pro-filmic event, and which, because of the automatism of photographic registration, could efface language and render it transparent much more successfully than any other medium. The first generation of great film-makers – the prophets of the Old Testament, as Bazin saw them – had been fated to be rhetoricians, not because they were committed to formalism or art for art’s sake, but because they could only compensate for a lack, above all the lack of sound, by adding (and Bazin is very clear that language is an addition or supplement). Yet even then, there were directors who anticipated the future – Flaherty, Murnau and von Stroheim are the names which Bazin cites most frequently – by reducing the formal and linguistic surplus as far as conditions would allow. In their work, ‘the absence of a sound-track (...) means something quite other than the silence of Caligari. (...) It is a frustration, not the foundation of a form of expression’ (vol II, p 38).

Bazin’s approach to the cinema ran up against two difficult problems, that of fiction and that of interiority – problems which the novel seemed much more advanced in solving than the cinema, and which explain why Bazin still looked to literature as an exemplary art. Indeed, Bazin saw one path towards the portrayal of interiority in the use of literary or quasi-literary discourse on the sound-track, as a complement to the bareness of the image. He also developed the idea that the close-up could reveal interiority – the old notion of the face as window on the soul. It is here, of course, that he displays his Catholic and personalist heritage most plainly, where his habitual naturalism gives way to an extreme idealism. It is worth noting too that Bazin allowed the validity of Cocteau’s Le sang d’un poète as a ‘documentary on the imagination’ (vol I, p 122); he died in 1958, before the decade of Last Year in Marienbad or Dog Star Man, but it is not impossible that he might have extended the concept of ‘integral reality’ to include interiority.

More curious was Bazin’s attempt to solve the problem of fiction. He was led to accept the need for a minimum of montage simply in order to produce the effect of unreality, yet not enough to threaten the basic realism of the film. He talks of a ‘fringe’ or ‘margin’ of illusion which is necessary to allow a flux and reflux between the imaginary and the real. It would betray the essence of the cinema to lose hold of the primacy of the real, but on the other hand too much reality would expose the artifice on which fiction must depend. In a phrase which must produce a shock of recognition in anyone who has read Freud’s paper on ‘Fetishism’ (Standard Edition vol 21), Bazin remarks that it is necessary for aesthetic fulfillment (‘plénitude esthétique’) that ‘we should believe in the reality of events, while knowing them to be faked’ (vol I, p 124 – Bazin’s emphases).

Bazin, as a critic and theorist, was a conservative. If I have dwelt on his views at some length, it is because the questions about which he writes also confront theorists with very different assumptions and conclusions. I am thinking of the problem of the relationship between an ontology of cinema – albeit perhaps a materialist ontology – and language or semiotic; the problem of illusion and anti-illusion; the historic problem of the impact of sound. It is on the first of these particularly that I want to concentrate – it was a problem central to Bazin’s whole system of thought, while other issues were seen by him as subsidiary or derivative. It is also a problem which, whether openly stated or not, underlies the theory and practice of every theorist and filmmaker. Bazin’s great merit was to make this manifest and concentrate his attention and characteristic subtlety of mind upon it.

First, ontology. The immediate point we must note is that the concern for ontology has clearly shifted from the mainstream, which Bazin represented, to the avant-garde. Shortly after winning the prize at Knokke in 1968, Michael Snow was asked by the editors of Cinim in England, ‘Why Wavelength?’ He replied:

‘Critical moment in my life and/or art. Light and sound waves. Limits of hear and see. (...) “A time monument.” A pun on the room-length zoom to the photo waves (sea), through the light waves and on the sound waves. Electricity. Ontology. “A definitive statement of pure film space and time. (...)” “A summary of my nervous system, religious inklings and aesthetic ideas”’ (Cinim, 3, 1969, p 3).

Various ideas emerge from this reply – the aspiration to pure cinema, in contrast to Bazin’s advocacy of an ‘impure’ cinema; the lingering idealism, which Snow expresses elsewhere by comparing his film to psycho-tropic drugs[3]; the characteristic post-Duchampian taste for puns. But it is on the word ‘Ontology’ that I want to concentrate attention. The theme is taken up by P. Adams Sitney in ‘Michael Snow’s Cinema’, Michael Snow/A Survey (Art Gallery of Ontario, 1970), p 83: ‘Snow has intuitively discovered an image, in almost every one of his films, capable of evoking the metaphysical notion of categories of being.’ He goes on to quote Ortega y Gasset on the crux of modernism as ‘the drive to give works of art the integrity of objects, and to liberate them from the burden of human mimesis.’ The irony must strike the reader familiar with Bazin’s work – it is mimesis itself which is now associated with the burdensome intervention of the ‘human’, the cultural, as the work of art is returned to the integral objecthood of nature, existing as pure being.

This line of thought, barely alluded to by Snow, toyed with by Sitney, who remains in the last resort wedded to a very traditional Romanticism, is taken up in a different context and elaborated more coherently by Regina Cornwell, writing on ‘Some Formalist Tendencies in the Current American Avant-garde Film’ in Studio International (184, n. 948, 1972, pp 110-14; see also Kansas Quarterly, 4, n. 2, 1972, pp 60-70). Cornwell also talks about ontology: ‘These works are concerned with the ontology, materials and processes of film itself.’ But Cornwell develops her position in the context of art history, rather than general aesthetics. She cites Greenberg – ‘It quickly emerged that the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique in the nature of its medium’; and further, ‘realistic, naturalistic art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; modernist art used art to call attention to art’ (‘Modernist Painting’, Arts Yearbook, 4, 1961, p 103). Her purpose, following Greenberg, is to relate the ontology of film as a concern to reflexive film, film about film, its own processes and structures. Film thus becomes an investigation and demonstration of its own properties – an epistemological and didactic enterprise. As such it is located within the history of Greenberg and post-Greenberg ‘modernism’.

A similar ‘modernist’ position is developed by Annette Michelson. I cite her ‘Paul Sharits and the Critique of Illusionism: An Introduction’, written to accompany new projection work by Sharits, exhibited at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (Projected Images, Walker Art Center, 1974, pp 22-5). Writing about ‘the best of recent current work’ in the American avant-garde, Michelson affirms that ‘the ontology of film is their’ collective concern’. She traces the origin of this concern back to Brakhage:

‘Brakhage’s insistence upon the materiality of the filmic support, the filmic filtering of light, his revision of sound-image relation, his subversion of the space in which narrative takes place, initiates the development of that detailed critique of illusionism which marks the passage from cinema to film.’

(Michelson is drawing here on a distinction made by Hollis Frampton in ‘For a metahistory of film: commonplace notes and hypotheses’ in the Special Film Issue of Artforum of September 1971, edited by Michelson herself – ‘From now on we will call our art simply: film.’) I should also add that Michelson goes on, in the next paragraph, to write about Olitski, thus recalling again the Greenbergian parallel to her own thought about modernism in film.

From ‘What is cinema?’ to ‘the ontology of film’: we have passed from an ontology basing itself on the possibility, inherent in the photo-chemical process, of reproducing natural objects and events without human intervention, to the conscious exploration of the full range of properties of the photo-chemical process, and other processes involved in film-making, in the interest of combatting, or at least setting up an alternative to, the cinema of reproduction or representation, mimesis or illusion. And this passage, this displacement of the notion of ‘ontology’ on to a quite different terrain, is set within the rift between modernism and traditionalism which marked all the arts during the first decades of this century, though it was in painting and music that this rift went deepest, in comparison to literature and cinema. So this displacement is also marked by a shift in the perspective of comparison between cinema and the other arts.

There are some further points which must be made. Both Cornwell and Michelson mention the ‘materials’ of film itself, the ‘materiality’ of the filmic support. Michelson relates this interest in ‘materiality’ (historically determined by the specific mode and relations of production within the independent film sector – the necessary interest of the artisan or craftsman in his materials and tools, asserted as an end in itself in the face of competition from large-scale capitalist industry) to the Ford model, dedicated to the mass production for profit of illusionist cinema. Thus the search for an ontology can itself be displaced from the field of idealism – Sitney’s metaphysical modes of being, evoked as theologically as anything is by Bazin – to the field of materialism. Indeed, this possibility has been taken up polemically by the film-maker and theorist, Peter Gidal, in his partisanship for ‘structural/materialist film’ against the backsliding of others into idealist illusionism and romanticism (see his ‘Definition and Theory of the Current Avant-garde: Materialist/Structuralist Film’, Studio International, 187, n. 963, 1974, pp 53-6 and ‘Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film’, Studio International, 190, n. 978, 1975, pp 189-96).

Michelson herself is well aware that by talking of ‘materiality’ in this way, she is necessarily entering another debate. As she puts it, there is ‘a larger crisis, international in scope, inter-disciplinary and transformal’ whose effects are felt not only in the American avant-garde but in the ‘post-Brechtian aesthetic of European... cinema’ (p 25). The attempt to build a ‘materialist' cinema has been the cornerstone of the post-1968 films of Jean-Luc Godard and the Dziga-Vertov group (Michelson too has written at length on Vertov) and others such as Jean-Marie Straub are also concerned with the materiality of film: ‘Art-house distributors haven’t yet understood that the cinema is a very material art, even a materialist art,’ Straub once said[4], talking about quality of projection, and one could find many such remarks, particularly on the subject of sound. Yet there is a chance of confusion here, because the sense of ‘materialism’ used by Godard, following Brecht, and the defenders of Godard or of Straub and Huillet, is somewhat different from the sense of materialism as used here by Straub himself, which is indeed closer to the concern with ‘materiality’ about which Michelson is writing. We sense this chance of confusion too in Gidal’s writings, where the two senses of materialism are often juxtaposed. In his films and theoretical work he has taken care to avoid any suggestion that materialism could be reduced simply to the representation or documenting, mapping, etc, of the material process or substance of film, or that representation could ever be entirely eliminated. His aim has been to produce films which are materialist precisely because they ‘present’ rather than reflexively ‘represent’ their own process or substance. The pro-filmic event is not film itself; the work is not an illustration or record of its own making, but is constructed in such a way that it must be perceived primarily as an end-product brought into being by procedures (bringing into focus, bringing into frame, etc) which have no extrinsic finality, which are means to no end other than that of producing a film as such. His aim is to construct an ‘anti-illusionist’ aesthetic for a medium which is ‘illusionist’ by nature (an anti-ontology, so to speak) and a materialism which can be interpreted as dialectical rather than mechanical. The representational content of the work – his own room, for instance, as in Room Film 1973 – is posited as a necessary but not significant residue. It is here, of course, that Gidal’s sense of materialism differs crucially from any post-Brechtian sense of materialism, which must be concerned with the significance of what is represented, itself located in the material world and in history.

Brecht saw his theatre as essentially materialist in its political content and in its psychological effect, its role in a struggle against an Aristotelian theatre based on empathy, projection and introjection. For Godard and the Dziga-Vertov group, Brecht was a great forerunner whose work they read in a specific context[5]: Althusser’s insistence on a materialist reading of Marx; Lacan’s critique of neo-Freudianism and ego-psychology; the journal Tel Quel and its development of a theory of the text, a semiotic based on the material character of the signifier and the practice of writing as a subversion of conventional codes, especially those of representation, and a ‘de-structuration’ of the conscious (ie self-conscious) subject in favour of a subject fissured and split by articulation with the order of the unconscious and his or her own body. Thus the somewhat simple Brechtian concept of materialism in the theatre was translated to the cinema in terms of a re-reading and re-formulation (re-writing) which presumed a more sophisticated conceptual apparatus, to the point of being arcane.

It is now that we must return to Bazin’s observation: ‘On the other hand, the cinema is a language.’ Or is it? The same period which has seen the shift in the concept of ontology discussed above, has also seen the startling development of a semiology, associated above all with the work of Christian Metz (see especially Language and Cinema, The Hague 1973). Metz’s principal achievement to date has been to establish that cinema is a multi-channel and multi-code system. These codes may have different types of status – there are those, like that of verbal language itself, which though components of the overall system of film, are nonetheless non-cinematic, in that they have an independent existence of their own, outside and frequently preceding the invention of the cinema. Alongside these are the specifically cinematic codes of camera movement, editing, etc. The non-cinematic codes, we should note, are at work in the pro-filmic event and are inscribed into the discourse of film by the process of photographic reproduction, itself an iconic code or code of analogy, based on recognition. (The non-cinematic codes may be modified or altered to some extent due to their inscription within the film-text: thus the gestural code acquires a specifically filmic ‘dialectal’ form, different from that of everyday life or the theatre.)

We can now re-approach the question of ‘modernism’ in film. There are two tendencies here. First, the muting or exclusion of the non-cinematic codes – those of music, verbal language, gesture, facial expression, narrative, etc. This is in line with the aim of developing a ‘pure’ cinema, in which principally (or only) the cinematic codes would be at work. Second, the reduction of these codes themselves to their material – optical, photo-chemical – substrate (‘material support’) to the exclusion of any semantic dimension other than reference-back to the material of the signifier itself, which thus becomes its own unique field of signification. This involves the negation of reproduction as the aim of the photographic process, because the fact of reproduction introduces necessarily an extrinsic signified – the event/object photographed/reproduced – or at least, if not a signified in the strict sense, a referent or denotatum. Put another way: light is no longer seen as the means by which the pro-filmic event is registered on film, but as the pro-filmic event itself, and at the same time part of the material process of film itself, as transmitted through the lens and indeed the strip of celluloid in the projector – so that the strip can be seen as the medium for the transmission (and absorption) of light, the basic raw material.

The most extended discussion of these tendencies, in relation to both the concept of ontology and that of language, is to be found in Paul Sharits:

‘When Bazin asks “What is cinema?” he answers by describing the interesting ways in which cinema has been used to tell stories, enlarge upon theatre, cinematise “human themes”. If we dispense with such non-filmic answers, do we have anything left? I believe that we can turn away from the cinema which began with Lumière (using cinema to create illusions of non-film movement), and which developed through Méliès, Griffith, Eisenstein, and so on, up to today’s Bergman, Fellini, etc, and we can ask a new set of questions which greatly expand the possibilities of the system’ (‘Words per Page’, Afterimage n. 4, Autumn 1972, pp 26-42).

This return of Sharits to Bazin’s ontological question, in order to answer it in a completely different sense, follows immediately after a discussion of the achievement of ‘objecthood’ in non-objective art, primarily through ‘intensification of materiality’ but through serial systems as well, characteristic of Sharits’s own films of course, also reminiscent here of Fried’s observations on seriality in the work of his favoured ‘Three American Painters’ – Noland, Stella, Olitski (‘Introduction,’ Three American Painters, Fogg Art Museum, 1965, pp 3-53). Indeed, this section of Sharits’s paper ends with an evocation of Stella as exemplar of ‘“self-reference”, through formal tautology’.

Sharits does not exclude iconic reference totally – though he has done so in individual pieces of work – because recording or registration is ‘a physical fact’ intrinsic to film, unlike this aspect of painting. Indeed, Sharits sees in the dual nature of film (recording process and optical/material process) a ‘problematic equivocality of film’s “being”’ which is ‘perhaps cinema’s most basic ontological issue’. Thus he comments on the problem posed by Landow’s Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. where both images/registrations of dirt particles appear and actual dirt particles on the particular film-strip being projected. Snow makes a very similar point when he compares his interest in Wavelength to that of Cézanne, in exploring the tension between ‘painterly’, two-dimensional surface and three-dimensional ‘space’, or effect of space, produced upon it (‘Letter’, op cit, p 5). This, too, is a milestone in the Greenberg-Fried view of art history.

When Sharits comes to language and linguistics (he posits a new field of ‘cinematics’, more or less equivalent to what is now known as semiology or semiotics of film) his main concern is to look for units below the level of the shot, corresponding therefore to phonemes rather than morphemes. His interest is in phonology rather than syntax – the division of the stream of air, the continuous ‘sound wave emanating from the mouth of a speaker’ into discrete units or modules. Hence he concentrates his attention on the frame rather than the shot – which, as he analyses it, is a distinct physical as well as linguistic unit. The problem which Sharits is touching on here is that of ‘double articulation’. Verbal language is articulated on two levels, one of which – the phonological – underlies the other. Semiologists are divided over the question of the number of articulations to be attributed to film and also over how, and if, they form a hierarchy. Sharits develops the idea that the most fruitful research procedure lies in making films which are indeed, in the strict sense of the word, experimental. Such films, made by ‘researchers’, would produce information about their own ‘linguistic’ (‘cinematic’) structure. Thus the self-referential film is a tool of inquiry into the problems of film language and film being, united at the level of the minimal unit.

It is hard to see here how language or semiotic can be differentiated from ontology except in the sense that vocal sound can be differentiated from language. Vocal sound – the production of sound waves through the action of various parts of the human body (vocal or speech organs) on a stream of air passing through from the lungs – is the material substrate of verbal language, without which language could not exist (perhaps one should add, or without an equivalent material substrate, as with American Sign Language or writing, which rely on bodily movement, a stream of ink, etc). Sounds clearly exist which do not form part of verbal language – grunts, sobs, coughs, moans – but which may nonetheless be expressive and fall within the field of semiology as paralinguistic phenomena. They form too a dimension of what Julia Kristeva, in La révolution du langage poétique, Paris 1974, calls the semiotic chora, the pre-linguistic, or pre-symbolic, means of expression which are not dependent on the thetic act by which a subject of discourse is created.

What interests Sharits is the way in which a protocol can be devised to structure this material substrate – a serial system or calculus, perhaps a random system – so that the structuring is no longer dependent on a higher level of organisation. Thus in Burroughs’ cut-up method, letters are no longer organised into words, words are no longer organised into sentences[6]. Similarly, frames need no longer be organised into shots or shots into sequences. Both sentences and sequences, in conventional writing or filmmaking, are organised in order to convey a determinate meaning. In other words the needs of reference and denotation govern the structuring of all the various levels downwards. This need in cinema, to capture a likeness of the world, can be dispensed with and consequently new structural protocols introduced. These need not lead to meaninglessness because a principle of ‘self-referentiality’ is introduced, so that film is about itself and its own structure. Film, because of its ‘duality of being’, can be both an autonomous object and also its own representation – thus ontology and semiology can coincide (Sharits, op cit, p 32).

In fact, Sharits wavers between two concepts of representation – first-order mimeticism = conventional iconic reference; second-order mimeticism = multiple mapping procedure, as in the Landow example mentioned above, or else a method of drawing attention to cinematic phenomena which are normally meant to be overlooked. Thus he cites Brakhage for his use of ‘“mistakes” (blurs, splices, flares, flash frames, frame lines, etc)’. This, in fact, functions not so much as a multiple mapping effect, but as what linguists, in the terminology of the Prague School (see Paul L. Garvin, ed: A Prague School Reader on Esthetics, Literary Structure, and Style, Georgetown 1964), have called ‘foregrounding’. The Landow film uses the film strip itself, as added to and altered by the process of projection (accumulation of dirt particles), as the pro-filmic object/event for another film. Brakhage is merely retaining – in the case of blurs and flash frames – elements of the film which would normally be discarded. He thus makes us aware of the material substrate by not removing instances which have no iconic reference and would hence normally be suppressed: in fact, he deliberately foregrounds them.

Cornwell makes a very similar point when, writing about Gehr’s use of grain (cf as well Sharits’s Axiomatic Granularity), she points out how normally we become conscious of grain only as a short-coming to be overlooked if possible, otherwise a distraction, as when a fiction film shot in 16 mm is blown up to 35 mm. She gives as another example the use of scratches in Sharits’s S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED, contrasted with the need to overlook scratches, if possible, during the projection of a conventional movie (‘Formalist Tendencies’, op cit, p 111). Sharits himself is explicit about the structural possibilities of what are normally considered flaws or errors, bungled actions. These are the points at which what was not intended reveals what it is possible to intend. Of course, whereas Sharits sees these flaws simply as the interruption of a lower-level system into the higher, they could also be interpreted as instances of symbolic displacement.

Brakhage himself is quite clear about one at least of the purposes of this type of foregrounding: ‘The splice, that black bar breaking two kinds of white, operating aesthetically as a kind of kickback or kick spectator out of escapist wrap-up or reminder (as are flares, scratches, etc in my films) of the artifice, the art’ (‘A Moving Picture Giving and Taking Book,’ Film Culture, 41, Summer 1966, pp 47-8). This passage, with its surprisingly Brechtian ring, couched though it is in a very different rhetoric from Brecht’s, reminds us of the de-mystificatory role that foregrounding can play, breaking processes of imaginary involvement. But at the same time it should also serve as a warning. In almost every other respect, Brakhage is clearly the polar opposite of Brecht. His conception of the artist, his world-view, is one of unmitigated idealism. For Brecht, of course, the point of the Verfremdung-effect was not simply to break the spectator’s involvement and empathy in order to draw attention to the artifice of art, ie, an art-centred model, but in order to demonstrate the workings of society, a reality obscured by habitual norms of perception, by habitual modes of identification with ‘human problems’. Nor indeed was this reality one accessible to the power of inner vision; it had to be approached and expounded scientifically. For Brecht, knowledge always took precedence over imagination.

There was no question then for Brecht of abandoning the whole realm of reference outside the play (or film – though only Kuhle Wampe, a marginal and collaborative work, exists to indicate the way Brecht might have thought the issues through in terms of cinema). He did not equate anti-illusionism with suppression of any signified except a tautological signified. Nor of course do the Godard/Dziga-Vertov group or Straub-Huillet. If there is something in common between ‘structural’ or ‘modernist’ film and the ‘post-Brechtian aesthetic’ of which Michelson writes, it consists neither of the movement toward ‘objecthood’ and exclusive self-referentiality, nor in the simple act of foregrounding the material substrate. This ‘post-Brechtian aesthetic’ is not postulated on the search for an ontology, albeit a materialist ontology. It has to be approached from the side of language, here dialectic.

Brecht’s objection to the traditional bourgeois theatre was that it provided a substitute for life – a simulated experience, in the realm of the imaginary, of the life of another person, or other people. In its stead, he actually wanted a representation – a picture, a diagram, a demonstration: he uses all these words[7] – to which the spectator remained external and through which he/she acquired knowledge about (not gained experience of) the society in which he/she, himself/herself lived (not the life of another/others). Brecht’s anti-illusionism then should be seen not as anti-representationalism (Brecht thought of himself as a ‘realist’) but, so to speak, as anti-substitutionism. A representation, however, was not simply a likeness or resemblance to the appearance of its object/referent; on the contrary, it represented its essence, precisely what did not appear at first sight. Thus a gap of space had to be opened up within the realm of perception – a gap whose significance Brecht attempted to pinpoint with his concept of ‘distanciation’.

It is here that the concept of ‘text’ must be introduced – a concept developed in the same intellectual milieu which, as noted, determined the reading of Brecht by Godard and others[8]. Brecht wanted to find a concept of ‘representation’ which would account for a passage from perception/recognition to knowledge/understanding, from the imaginary to the symbolic: a theatre of representation, mimesis even, but also a theatre of ideas. Moreover, one of the lessons to be learned from this didactic theatre, this theatre of ideas, arguments, judgements, was precisely that ideas cannot be divorced from their material substrate, that they have material determinations, that ‘social being determines thought’ as the classic formula (deriving from Marx’s Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy) puts it. Brecht, of course, was a militant materialist, in the political (Leninist) sense.

Ideas, therefore language: it is only with a symbolic (rather than iconic) system that concepts can be developed, that there can be contradiction and hence argument. Yet at the same time ideas which were not simply conveyed or communicated through signifiers which could be overlooked, which could be effectively de-materialised by the sovereign processes of thought. A work, therefore, which recognised the primacy of the signifier in the process of signification. This would not involve the reduction of the signifier purely to the material substrate, a semiotic of pure presentation, nor the mere interruption of a stream, a continuum of signifieds, by the de-mystificatory break, reminder or caesura of a signifier perceived as an interruption, a discontinuity within an over-riding continuity.

A text is structured primarily at the level of the signifier. It is the ordering of the signifiers which determines the production of the signifieds. Normally, moments in which the signifier interrupts discourse are perceived as lapses, errors, mistakes. We should be clear, however, that we are talking now not about ‘noise’, interruptions or destructions of the process of signification in itself, but of moments in which a mistaken signifier – a metathesis, the displacement of a phoneme – changes meaning, alters or negates the flow of signifieds, diverts, subverts, converts. Whereas Sharits is interested in the re-structuration of noise to provide second-order self-referential information, we are here talking about the production of new – unintended, unanticipated, unconsciously derived – signification from operations carried out on the signifiers. First-order signifiers remain, but they are no longer the sovereign product of the intentional act of a subject, a transcendental ego, the generator of thought which finds embodiment in language as an instrumental necessity for the communication and exchange of ideas between equivalent subjects, alternating as source and receiver.

There is a form of discourse which already corresponds to this concept of the text: poetry – in some sense of the term at least. Poetry has rules which govern the ordering of signifiers independent of the signified: metre, rhyme, etc. Traditionally these are seen as embellishments. Frequently this may be so. Another approach – that of the Russian Formalists, specifically Shklovsky and Jakobson – has been to see them as means by which language is deautomatised, its materials and principles of construction (devices) foregrounded, thus renovating our perception and giving the world, which is always in some sense the world of language, new density and freshness. Later Jakobson developed the same line of thought by postulating the poetic function of language as one of self-reference to the message itself[9]. Here, of course, we are on familiar territory, and it should not surprise us that both Sitney (‘The Idea of Morphology’, Film Culture, 53/54/55, Spring 1972, p 5) and Cornwell (‘Formalist Tendencies’, op cit, p 111) quote Shklovsky, transferring his remarks about literature so as to apply them to film.

However, the concept of text that I am developing here has a different implication. The formal devices of poetry (not purely formal of course, because they involve the sound or graphic material – the substance of expression as well as its form, as Hjelmslev would put it) may in fact produce meaning. These devices, and indeed what is often approached as style, are more than supplementary embellishments or even distanciation or self-referential or tautological devices. Style is a producer of meaning – this is the fundamental axiom of a materialist aesthetic. The problem is to develop the efficacy of style beyond that of spontaneous idiosyncrasy or a mere manner of writing, painting or filmmaking, fundamentally subordinate to the sovereignty of the signified. I am talking about style in the sense in which one would speak of the style, the ordering of signifiers, at work in the writing of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons or James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. (If I were writing in French, I would use the term ‘écriture’, following Roland Barthes.[10])

This concept of text does not exclude, indeed is constructed on, the need to produce beyond signifieds, meaning. It sees meaning, however, as a material and formal problem, the product of material and formal determinations rather than the intention of an ego cogitans, a thinking and conscious (ie self-conscious) subject. Indeed, the very concept of such a subject is dissolved by textual production in this sense, as Kristeva and others have repeatedly argued. This does not mean, of course, that the conscious subject of ideology is simply replaced by an automatism or by a random process. Rather, it transforms the thinker, or imaginer, or seer, into an agent who is working with and within language in order to make something which cannot be precisely pre-conceived, which must remain problematical and in a sense unfinished, interminable. This manufacture must not suppress its material substrate, the sensuous activity which is its process of production, but nor is that sensuous activity its own horizon.

From this point of view, the ‘modernist’ non-objective tradition in painting cannot be seen as the exclusive alternative to the bourgeois realism and representationalism which it has ousted. Michelson has pointed out, quite correctly, that both Godard and avant-garde American film-makers have developed a ‘critique of cinematic illusionism’ and, of course, these two critiques have much in common, but they also differ in certain crucial ways. Illusionism should not be confused with signification. The decisive revolution of twentieth-century art can be seen in the transformation of the concept, and use, of the sign rather than in the rejection of any signification except tautology, the closed circle of presence and self-reference. Anti-illusionism does not even necessarily imply anti-representationalism, which cannot be construed as illusionistic when it is no longer in the service of an alternative creation (the production of an imaginary substitute for the real world). In this respect, the ‘multiple mapping procedures’ described by Sharits are, like Brecht’s plagiarism or Kristeva’s ‘intertextuality’, important anti-illusionist procedures which can produce the transition from the imaginary to the symbolic in the spaces and overlaps of a palimpsest. In this way, the illusory immediacy of ‘reading’ is destroyed and replaced by a productive deciphering, which must move from level to level, within a volume – rather than following a surface which presents itself as the alterity of a depth, a meaning which lies elsewhere, in the ideal transaction/exchange between consciousnesses, rather than the material text.

To say, however, that the two anti-illusionist currents being discussed are in many respects separate, different from each other, does not mean that they may not be combined. The operations on the signifier which Godard envisages seem limited in the context of American avant-garde cinema – there is an absence of the figures which in ‘Structural Film’ (Film Culture Reader, New York 1970, p 327) Sitney describes as typical of the ‘structural’ film: fixed frame, flicker, loop printing, re-photography. (Though Godard does use orchestrated back and forth pans, single shots of very long duration, scratching on film, etc.[11]) On the other hand, the American avant-garde has tended to avoid Godard’s experiments in the use of verbal language on the soundtrack, till recently at least, and of course there is not nearly the same concern over signification, and its ideological or counter-ideological role. The most radical enterprise of the American avant-garde, as we have seen, has been the exploration of ‘voice’ rather than ‘language’, whereas Godard’s aim has been to build the elements of a new language, to express a new content. Though different, clearly these two aims can be related[12].

Finally, I want to return to my starting-point – Bazin. Bazin saw meaning as something transferred into the cinema by the material and hence automatic processes of photographic registration; fundamentally, meaning resided in the pro-filmic event and the aesthetic importance of film was that it could generalise, through the printing process, and make permanent, like a mummy, events and significations which would otherwise be local and lost. Thus his ontology transferred the burden of meaning outside the cinema, to the non-cinematic codes. The ‘language’ of film would virtually wither away as cinema possessed itself of the integral reality which was its mythic destiny. Language and ontology, essence, were in a kind of inverse relationship.

The modernist current, in complete contrast, has sought to expel the non-cinematic codes, leaving the residue called ‘film’. For Bazin, this would imply a complete abandonment of meaning, except the secondary meaning added by the rhetorician, now no longer a pretender, but a usurper. Yet ontology, as we have seen, is re-introduced – through the idea of the objecthood of the film itself, which is also its own signified, through the circular process of self-reflection, self-examination, self-investigation. Film is now directed not towards the ‘nature’ of the pro-filmic event, but towards the ‘nature’ of its own material substrate, which may indeed become its own pro-filmic event, through multiple mapping procedures, seen as ontologically inherent in the medium. Again, any heteronomous signification is proscribed.

However, anti-illusionism need not necessarily end up in this kind of tautology, an involution of the illusionist project itself. A reversal of the relations of dominance between non-cinematic and cinematic codes, between signified and signifier, can lead to the production of the film-text, rather than the film-representation or the film-object. Film-making can be a project of meaning with horizons beyond itself, in the general arena of ideology. At the same time, it can avoid the pitfalls of illusionism, of simply being a substitute for a world, parasitic on ideology, which it reproduces as reality. The imaginary must be de-realised; the material must be semioticised. We begin to see how the problem of materialism is inseparable from the problem of signification, that it begins with the problem of the material in and of signification, the way in which this material plays the dual role of substrate and signifier.

The cataclysmic events which changed the course of the arts in the first decades of this century were seen by many as a radical and irreversible break. In due course, many came to see modernism as simply a metamorphosis of a type of art fatally compromised by bourgeois ideology, reproduced and generated within the conditions laid down by the market or the state, increasingly active in the arts. Yet one senses surely that something was at stake in that heroic era: that the achievements of the cubists, the futurists, of the destruction of the classical system of perspective and harmony, the primacy of narrative and ‘realism’, were more than strategic regroupment. It would be paradoxical indeed if film, a form still in its infancy when these momentous shifts took place, could restore the sense of direction which the other arts often seem to have lost.


[1] This article was first presented at a symposium on film organised by Diacritics at Cornell University in April 1975.

[2] See Patrick Ogle: ‘Technological and Aesthetic Influences upon the Development of Deep Focus Cinematography in the United States’, Screen v 13 n. 1, Spring 1972, pp. 45-72.

[3] ‘My films are (to me) attempts to suggest the mind in a certain state or certain states of consciousness. They are drug relatives in that respect,’ Michael Snow: ‘Letter from Michael Snow to P. Adams Sitney and Jonas Mekas’, Film Culture 46, 1967, pp 4-5.

[4] Discussion between Jean-Marie Straub, Glauber Rocha, Miklós Jancsó and Pierre Clémenti, arranged by Simon Hartog and filmed in Rome, February 1970. Tape published under the title ‘The Industry and European New Cinema’ in Cinemantics n. 3, July 1970.

[5] For Godard’s ideas during the crucial period of the late 1960s, see Kinopraxis n. 0 (sic), published by Jack Flash, ‘who may be reached at 2533 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley,’ ‘under a rubric dating to May ’68,’ but, in fact, 1970. This broadside contains a collection of interviews given by Godard.

[6] See Brion Gysin: Brion Gysin Let the Mice in, Something Else Press, West Glover Vt 1973, and William Burroughs and Brion Gysin: The Exterminator, Auerhahn Press, 1960.

[7] For instance, Brecht talks about epic theatre as ‘picture of the world’ in the notes to Mahagonny, and of plays as ‘representations’ in the Short Organum.

[8] The concept of ‘text’ is developed especially in the writings of the Tel Quel group. See, for instance, Philippe Sollers: ‘Niveaux sémantiques d’um texte moderne’ in Théorie d’ensemble, Paris 1968, pp 317-25.

[9] See Victor Shklovsky, ‘Art as technique’ in Lemon and Reis, eds: Russian Formalist Criticism, Lincoln Nebr 1965, pp 5-57, and Roman Jakobson: ‘Concluding Statement: Linguistics and Poetics’ in Sebeok, ed: Style in Language, Cambridge Mass 1960, pp 350-77.

[10] Roland Barthes: Le degré zéro de l’écriture, Paris 1953, translated as Writing Degree Zero, London 1967. Barthes distinguishes between ‘style’ and ‘écriture’ or ‘writing’, seeing style as a blind force in comparison with a writing marked by intentionality.

[11] See Peter Wollen: ‘Counter Cinema: Vent d’Est’, Afterimage n. 4, Autumn 1972, pp 6-16, for a more detailed account of Godard’s later work.

[12] Among many signs of a possible convergence, I would like to mention the writing of Annette Michelson – the interest, for instance, in Vertov and Eisenstein which she shares with Godard and European theorists – and the stand taken by the magazine Afterimage. The relationship of the film avant-garde to politics is discussed by Chuck Kleinhans in ‘Reading and thinking about the avant-garde’, Jump Cut n. 6, March-April 1975, pp 21-5. For more detailed treatment, see my article ‘Two Avant-gardes’, in Studio International, 190, n. 978, 1975.

(Screen vol. 17, n. 1, March 1976, pp. 7–25)





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