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Film ist. A Primer for a Visual World

Tom Gunning

1. What is Cinema?...Film ist.

Film has an agonistic relation to theory; this goes beyond the usual opposition between theory and practice, or between words and images. It goes to the core of what cinema is, and the difficulty of defining it. We might say that cinema is by definition indefinable (except in the most inessential denotative manner). As Andre Bazin (or his editors who gave the title to his collection essays) understood, the task of film theory is to ask – continually – "What is cinema?" and allow for a continuous transformation in the answer. While the first generation of film theorists were often willing to assigne cinema´s identity to a single aspect (such as Eisenstein´s identification of cinema with montage, or Hugo Münsterberg´s understanding of film as the image of consciousness), any careful reading of these pioneers notes the way these seemingly narrow definitions begin to expand so that the laws of montage cohere with the laws of all representation, or consciousness absorbs the reality of landscapes as much as memory or imagination. In other words, film becomes a way of understanding consciousness or the laws of juxtaposition, rather than finding a deliminated meaning.

Thus if we continiously find theorists describing a special relation between film and other things (affinities as Siegfried Krakauer would call them) the common denominators of these affinities seem to be their elusive, ever-changing, unbounded qualities.

I initially read Deutsch´s title as an act of predication: "Film is..." followed by a succession of possible, non-exclusiv, definitions: an instrument; material; magic; conquest etc. However, he pointed out to me the power of the period following the "ist". The title is not an incomplete definition, but a complete reflexive statement: "Film is." One might see it circularly, following Gertrude Stein: "Film is Film is Film is Film". But "Film is." is better. Film cannot be defined, because its limitations are those of existence itself. The phrases which follow, I realized, are not intended as even possible definitions, nor even as sub-categories of film´s existence. Rather, each articulates a perception, a facet, of film´s continous metamorphosis, its display of the secret life of existence itself. Thus the succession of film´s affinities becomes multiple and transitory. No single term can occupy this space for long. Film has a profound affinity with the serial, formally, theoretically and historically. While there may be an end to film history, the theory of film will also be an ongoing story, always "to be continued..."

2. Word and Image: Making the point.

Film theory has generally been expressed in words, sentences, verbal argument and demonstration. While it is wrong to descry this, it doesn´t hurt to reflect on it. The best film theory has always, in fact, been a dialogue with images. For the theorists of the twenties, Eisenstein, Vertov, Kuleshov, Pudovkin and the filmmakers/writers of the 60´s and 70´s (Brackhage, Kubelka, Frampton, Godard, Pasolini et alia) theoretical definitions or discussions were part of a struggle with the films they were making. At key points in film history theorists have emerged whose writings showed clearly their attempts to come to terms with the film they were seeing (Vachel Lindsay and Münsterberg in the teens; Bazin in the post war era, Sitney in the seventies). Words allow a grasp on images, while images allow a release from words. This back and forth rhythm is essential and no aspect of it should be frozen as either being pure or absolute.

But words can also substitute for images and, rather than engage with their challenge, can evade their slippery nature with a self-sustained system into which no real film need ever enter. While such language games have certain monomaniacal fascination, and even a certain perverse power, this move even further from the films they are supposed to encompass and explain must cause concern. Film ist. may be thought of as the first film theory done entirely in film. Many great films have a theoretical dimension and one aspect of the Avant-Garde lies in its ability to provoke theoretical issues in viewers. But Film ist. maintains a direct (even if oppositional) relation to theory´s attempt at definition that gives it its title. While it redresses the balance of word to image in film theory by giving us many images and few words, it does not abdict its linguistic power. By reducing its use of language to a few propositions, Film ist. makes the relation of language to image that much clearer.

Each word of the 12 titles offered (so far) could offer a laconic definition of film. The title is followed by moving images which seem less to illustrate the concept named than to be triggered by the title. Thus we don´t simply see examples of (for instance) "Light and darkness", but we see this lexical entry become concrete, transform, run through a metamorphosis, become concrete, become abstract, change meaning. Each title section demonstrates both the power of naming an element of cinema and its inadequate nature. What we see here is not a demonstration of categorization, but the power of names to poit out, like an extended index finger, aspects of our visual experience of film and to thus transform how we see these images. The relation between words and images not only exceed any attempt at definition, it overturns definition in favor of an adventure in perception, film viewing as endless discovery.

3. The Lexicon and the Narrative

In the sixties, by dragging the cinema into the realm of semiology and the science of signs, Christian Metz seemed to move film theory out of an encounter with images and towards a self-contained system. But one must also observe his unflinching awareness of the difference between films and verbal language. A word forms part of the total language system; it has a place in a lexicon. No image plays such a systematic role: there is no system made up of all the images in the world into which each image can be placed in significant opposition to every other image. The image, especially the moving image, Metz claimed, is more like a sentence, than an element of a lexicon. Thus Metz understood the fundamental difference between the word and the film image.

But the inspiration filmmakers drew from language lay partly in the ability to make images seem to behave like elements of a language, to take on the freight of meaning and metaphor, to seem to point towards a single significance. The joy of this game lay in the fact that film images always outran the meaning they carried. Deutsch´s film demonstrates this beautifully. The titles seem to serve like lexicon entries and each of the bits of film he has assembled serve as visual synonyms of "light and darkness" or "movement and time". However, if the abstraction of time and motion ripples through a wings of a flying bird, the image also sheds the denotation with every physical excess it displays. Thus Deutsch´s film is always funny, fresh, surprising, rather than didactic. Even when dealing with the images from films designed for pedagogic purposes (as in most of the films in chapter 1-6), the constraining composition and the laboratory of demonstration seem themselves absurd rather than meaningful. Rather than serving like the small illustrations included in many lexicons to visualize a definition, these moving images twist the words into unforseen configurations. The words of the title remain a guiding thread, but the moving images create a twisting labyrinth.

Thus a tension is also set up between the succession of shots and the discontinuous succession of chapters. We understood we are to read these shots as if they were listed vertically, each one offering a new example or synonym. We are watching paradigms, not constructing syntagmas. This discontinuous list rubs against the linear way we usually watch film, searching for a succession of unfolding events, each one connecting with the next.

Film ist. resists this habit of reading and seems to be always beginning again, having us experience each shot as a new instance. Or do we? Inevitably a parasitic succession begins to assert itself as a phantom horizontal narrative begins to peek through these seemingly non-narrative lists. Especially in chapter 7 through 12, Deutsch begins to set successions of shots whose paradoxical relations both knit together and unravel a narrative logic. (This occurs especially with great wit in Chapter 10, in a section in which it seems everyone has received every one else´s mail, with consequences both laughable and tragic).

There would seem to be a principle in film, which we might relate to the principle of surface tension in physics, in which the energy and significance of one shot invariability transfer into adjacent shots. This prniciple forms the basis of the "Kuleshov Effect", which declared that every shot gains its meaning through juxtaposition. As if in a laboratory experiment, Film ist. plays with, demonstrates and subverts this principle turning it on and off. Not only do we see, especially in the second installment of the film (Chapter 7-12) the principle of free association at its surrealist height, but we also realize the power of seeing shots in isolation, wrenched from context, twitching like amputated limbs, displaying their unique features divorced from contextual meaning. Presenting discontinuous lists of images as well as a seemingly related succession of images, Film ist. creates a fantasy object: a dictionary not of words but of things, not of concepts but of mini-events. Like a dream book, Film ist. makes one imagine an archive that Jorge Borges might have assembled, or the book of the world that Mallarme sought to create.

4. The Archive of the Unconscious

At some point soon the artists and scholars of the twentieth first century will discover that the film archives of the world are not simply repositories of the world´s masterpieces of Cinematic Art, but also Aladdin caves of treasures unnamed and unnumbered. Only a few archives (and the Nederlands Filmmuseum which enabled parts of Deutsch´s film is primary among them) have realized the jewels they possess in the unknown, neglected, often even author-less, films they hold. These films (especially the instructional and scientific films Deutsch pillages in the chapters 1 through 6) are not great works of art, but rather mines containing moments of unbelievable beauty and grace, unnamable terror and uncanny revelations. Deutsch has gone through films whose intentional purposes often produce mind-numbing documents of instruction or indoctrination, and liberated moments of wonder or horror that exceed their purposes of demonstration.

Thus the chapters focusing on movement and time, materiality or the instant, all seem to drag from highly purposeful documents, unconscious relevations of physical life and the everyday process of our visual world. Divorced from context, these moment shiver nakedly befor us, their nudity amazing us with its purity or its embarrasing exposure. The camera is unflinching in observing either grace or violence and these chapter picture a world in which violence and grace seem to intertwine in everyday physical processes. Thus Deutsch´s Film produces a survey of what Walter Benjamin called the optical unconscious, all those visual events the human sense might register, but only the camera can actually image. The process of naming film´s affinities becomes a visual psychoanalysis of the medium.

The process of excerpting and slowing down, of isolation and pointing out, that occurs in this film, makes us pay attention to those moments in films we might ordinarily ignore in favor of an intentional message or concept, or a intriguing narrative. All the little twitches of film, the equivalents of the involuntary tics and parapraxes an analyst notices in a patient, are here displayed for any viewer to concentrate on and learn from. Viewing becomes a process of conscious discovery of that which has been relegated to the margin of our attention, and the unused reaches of our archives. Deutsch brings to light not only the forgotten moment, or aspect of a film, but films which have themselves been forgotten, even discarded.

I believe that in the twentieth first century we will finally learn how to understand the moving image, rediscovering the wonder of first audiences, but also gaining a broad field of reference in which all these diverse gestures, moments, actions, expressions, enigmatic objects and wavering illuminations will form, not a true lexicon, but a range of possibilities, a table of combinations, the stuff of a new art form of collage and montage. The surrealists evoked the dream process through the chance assembly of the objects and images which a new mass culture offered them as its discards. A new scholarship might spring up on this ever-widening ash heap of discarded images and visual amnesia. This ever-spreading overgrowth of images tends to blind us, rather than aid our sight. Deutsch´s film is more than the latest installment in the surrealist game. Rather than a verbal lexicon, it recalls a child´s spelling book, amply illustrated, a primer which will instruct us how again to see, cutting through the thicket of the mass of images with the penetration of a vision alert for what still is alive in film, teaching us the process of rediscovery that – film is. (To be continued...)