What I describe in this text as modern is the constellation of films that emerged during the seventies, but already showed preliminary signs of its appearance from the sixties. Common to these films is, in my understanding, their mutual interrupting of a previously dominant aesthetic system — an aesthetic system that I propose to call realism. I don’t have time to fully develop what I mean by realism so I would ask you to grant this term the following meaning: the system of conditions that constituted classic cinema from at least the end of the silent era. This rupture was not a form of destruction between classical and modern, but, rather, an interruption of the system of conditions; the art of realism was contrarily maintained. The moderns are not merely heirs of the classics, they are in fact the only heirs of classical art. For example, the naturalistic realism (itself a descendant of classicism), triumphant on all screens today, is undoubtedly loyal to the system, but betrays the art.
So, the real modern break is that which occurs with the academic version of realism but not with realistic art, which, instead, takes refuge in thought. How this balances can be summarised in five main points:
1. MODERN CINEMA IS DECLARATORY
Realism is a conclusive thought directed by the will to convince the viewer of an idea, more specifically, to instill a belief-effect (even if only for the duration of the film).
In modern cinema the challenge is not to convince viewers but to present a singular course of thinking in order to make them reflect upon their own position. Facing this declaratory thought, viewers are not captive but fixed to their own subjective capacity in the world — questioning each film in turn, they are encouraged to be critical of cinema itself.
2. THE GAZE OF THE SPECTATOR IS EMANCIPATED
But this egalitarian principle demands work from viewers in return: each encounter with a film requires viewers to accept their role halfway without expecting the film to seduce them and manipulate their gaze. This is certainly the greatest challenge of modern cinema, requiring from the viewer a profound change in their mental attitude; to distance itself from realism. Aesthetic pleasure here is not achieved through identification with the effects produced by emotional seduction but the effects of otherness that requires attention and concentration, memory and availability; unlearning everything current “entertainment” cinema and television employs; in the understanding that modern cinema must make do with a reduced audience — an audience that decide to be viewers. Therefore, modern cinema decisively abstains from effects that dominate the viewer’s gaze, allowing one the full enjoyment of one’s freedom.
Untying the gaze requires the abandonment of misleadingly emotive dramatic effects that are rife within the film industry since they are the habitual rags of ideological “messages.” If there is art in cinema it is not to be found there; we teach the modern ones to move beyond messages and sentimentality as such, in a bid for the viewer to engage in thought.
The manner in which modern films evade the significatory order, do not lend themselves to interpretation, and escape ideological explanation, is not a question of meaning but of subject that is made central to its relation with the viewer. (One understand by subject here as the Real of the film, which orients the narrative yet is not reducible to it.) Thus the viewer is less in a position to interpret what they encounter, or to confront themselves with another thought (since it is supposed that the viewer thinks what they feel).
In sum, thought in modern cinema can only be fully achieved in the conjunction of two viewpoints: that of the filmmaker, and of the viewer. Moderns therefore integrate the supposed-thought of viewers, his view as an exterior perspective — which actually is — within the cinematic process.
3. MODERN CINEMA IS REFLEXIVE
The position of the filmmaker presents itself as one among many possible positions. Its point of view itself is relativised, and does not claim any authority. Welles, Rossellini, and the Nouvelle Vague already undertook the ruin of identification with heroes. Moderns attack identification with the filmmaker: they must maintain a distance from themselves, in a reflexive posture where formal processes become apparent, and they will designate themselves as such, in opposition to the transparency of the realist form. The viewer can no longer indulge in illusions of a world that is forgetful of its artificiality; artifice here is constantly referred to and reminded of: it is a film standing before us, not a world that is to be seen. Following this example, the most significant abolishment of transparency is the dissociation of image and sound, where the synchronisation that enslaves sound with image employed by realism — the “natural” relation between images and sounds — is broken. Moderns hear sound for “himself,” and see image for “herself” in the will to arrange a film’s elements equally; opposing the realistic hierarchy of these elements dominated by character and speech. This gendered dynamic is also found in the relationship of cinema with other arts. While realism lived on in the idea that cinema is a synthesis of all arts (that is to say a total art, or a form of totalitarianism enslaving other arts for its ends), modern cinema merely accommodates other arts to work on an egalitarian principle (between cinema and other arts); a respectful autonomy that does not prohibit their interconnections. Thus, modern cinema most notably returns to theatre (going as far as to declare, as Manoel de Oliveira did: “making theatre and cinema is the same thing”): in a good number of modern films, theatre is precisely what permits detachment from realism, on the condition that theatre is not produced in the mode of adaptation. Modern cinema is essentially inspired by theatricality: when a text is heard, instead of dialogue; when an actor appears, instead of a character; when a scene is presented, instead of a world; when, finally, a viewer is convened, instead of a public.
4. MODERN CINEMA PRACTICES NEUTRALISATION
Drawing inspiration from theatre does not mean that cinema should imitate theatre: cinema borrows principles yet retains its own operations. There is one obvious example in the treatment of acting: moderns willingly practice, under Bresson’s parentage, the neutralisation of acting. The actor is effaced before the text, and simply becomes nothing more than a supporting figure for the text. Modern neutralisation, against any impression of naturalness, paradoxically stresses the artifice of acting by reducing it to an extreme.
The will of this neutralisation touches not only upon acting but also situations and tonalities. The neutrality of situations stems from the de-dramatisation proper to modern films: we are far from suspense, which is the focus of dramatic effects, pushing the viewer to anticipate action — suspense leads to a perpetual forward-rushing gaze, caught in the contradictory desire to both “know what follows” and delay the moment of climax, which we know full well signifies the end of the film (all of Hitchcock’s art obviously exploits this contradictory desire). More generally, time in realistic film, as structured by drama, consists of sequences that give the appearance of an imperious necessity, where chance itself is presented as a figure of fate: the passage of time is relentless, like images coursing through the reels of a film projector. Realistic film time is necessarily a chronology.
Modern cinema, however, seeks not so much this anticipation on the part of the viewer, but instead their recollection: the riddle is not downstream from the film (“what will happen?”), but upstream, and, more precisely, in the relation between the present instant and all those preceding it. Concentration and memory are constantly demanded of the viewer — this is why modern films are always confronted by crucial problems posed by duration, constrained by the exercise of memory, and also by time needed to “learn” the film (time that the filmmakers always spare). It is also the case that film duration, which is free of dramatic structures, no longer has “standards.” Time here is not concerned with restoring the impression of a continuous flow, instead it is built from successive blocks torn from actual time (the time of the take) in a cumulative logic: time is not linked together, it is amassed — the concept of connection is not applicable here, and repetition becomes a major rhythmic figure.
The tonalities are equally neutral, and are never given as they were, for example, in the genre system. They also require from the viewer a special effort: an active role: one must decide whether to laugh or cry, get excited or revolt. Emotions are thus subject to debate.
It is not about a “mixture of genres,” but of undecided tonality, something that is always left for us to discern. There is, therefore, a profound discomfort in modern cinema that imposes no agreed emotional schema.
5. MODERN CINEMA DEPOSES THE OBJECT
The neutralisation of actions, situations and tonalities integrate into a far broader strategy that attempts to circumvent representation, in order to return the rights to things in-themselves; consequently it implies that the viewer must sever from themselves their reign over the images and objects (that they themselves constitute) whilst maintaining the question of relation between things and ideas.
The object (represented) has long been an embarrassment of cinema: Hollywood types have clung to the trivialisation of the object through repetition (same histories, same types), and an abstraction of it by typification. The double operation of trivialisation and abstraction, which we see today in the work of neutralisation as reflexivity and modern theatricality, tends instead to prepare the object as a pure emblem — in cinematic terms — of an idea, and thus allows the staging of ideas in debate, by virtue of incarnation. It is in fact an operation that consists of the evacuation of the object’s meaning.
Welles and Rossellini, through very different ways, already proposed an understanding of the obscured ideas of things. After the Nouvelle Vague, the modern ones now continue this approach to things, fully aware that we do not have to seek adequacy between ideas and things, and that the object and the image are representations; which is to say, imaginary, and provide only a limited access to reality — consciousness of the fact that the real is unrepresentable.
Modernity therefore consists in the object deposed, under the sign of a meeting held between ideas and things, in the void that separates them. And it is better to address this void that reduces objects to insignificance. In modern cinema, this happens in various ways:
—radicalisation [l’extrémisation] of the documentary-effect, to include as such the fiction of reality fragmented, edited and isolated, or, rather, a fiction produced by the unique blend of these fragments released from their context; untied from their context; object suggests thing;
—exhaustion [l’épuisement] of the object by insistent durations of image (or sound): the time it takes to pass from the question “What does that represent/what does that mean?” to “What is it?”
—Accentuating ellipses determined by framing: the hidden appears as such instantly, as takes are not only long, but fixed. The reverse-shot is often refused. This “blocked gaze” draws attention to what remains hidden (which in realism would have been revealed long before): the offscreen, which is based on invisibility, and radical emptiness. Not of nothing, since the offscreen insists and weighs on the edges of the hidden, suggesting its invisible presence in various ways.
—Evacuation of the field, either by extreme proximity to objects or, contrarily, by extreme distance — or the opposite method, which is to proliferate objects, but the result is the same, to evacuate meaning, to void the object. Here we have two converged ways, the source of which, for the first, can be traced in Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu, and for the second in Welles and Ophuls.
—Finally, an enterprise that might be called the denaturalisation [dénaturalisation] of the object, both by heightening artificiality (as seen in theatricalisation) and by a systematic rupturing of natural relations, already begun by elliptical framing; one that refuses the mechanics of sequential causality, the systematic synchronism of image and sound, dramatic logic — even the logic of discourse.
Modernity in effect completes this long historical sequence where cinema was supposed to be constituted in discourse: of Eisenstein’s “interior monologue” [monologue intérieur], Vertov’s “cine-language” [ciné-langue], not to mention the implicit argumentation of realist filmmakers. It is not an issue for moderns to articulate meaning any more: modern cinema is no longer an attempt to resemble language. So, metaphorically, it is thus very necessary to understand the characterisation “declaratory” I attributed to modernity: modern declaration is not carried out in a linguistic mode, the ideas that it produces are ideas “in cinema,” and the organisation it makes is in fact not rhetorical.
This is also why moderns reconnect with montage, but in an entirely different conception from that of the Soviets, and that which followed Welles: modern montage is no longer discursive, or rhetorical; its coherency is no longer composed of sequences, but of conglomerates around a void. The collage technique, of drawing together objects without natural connections that can be embellished as a documentary-effect.
The discontinuity of modern montage, which produces voids, is opposed to the plenitude of realist editing, which fills voids. The montage diverted from its discursive function is no longer restricted to clashing images, and should be understood in a broader sense of composition, organisation and ordered sets [mathematics] where the meeting of images (montage in its technical sense) is one procedure among others. Modern montage-composition is a global and synthetical project.
Therefore, the modern concept of montage allows us to define retrospectively the art of cinema as an organisation of occurrences, of encounters. Perhaps this is the most important lesson of the moderns; who teach us how to perceive cinema as the art of cinema, beyond any specific aesthetic. This training of the gaze is possible because moderns reject a cinema of the object: in this sense, modern cinema can be understood as non-figurative—this will not be understood in the plastic sense (since it is not images that make cinema). One could just as well refer to it in another metaphor: atonal. Modernity highlights, in this deposition of the object, the operation: that which at once matters to thought but is not the object. Non-figurative art presents its operations, and non-figurative cinema presents itself as montage, i.e., as a composition of encounters.
Thus, if realist cinema incarnated ideas in things, and if neo-realism sought ideas through things, the poetics of modern cinema — which does not see plenitude but the void that exists between ideas and things, and between things themselves — divides things in order to elevate them to ideas.
One wonders whether the isolation of filmmakers against each other is not one of modernity’s difficulties. It is an objective of our association, L’Art du cinema, to try, at least among viewers, to compare their works and to demonstrate its consistency.1
On the future of modern cinema, one can advance a hypothesis: the balance of modernity will remain dependent on its relation with the classical, and the responsibility of the moderns lies in accordance to the attitudes they adopt toward the history of their art. Beyond the closure of the great realist system, modernity is reconstructed through negotiations with the old.
Thus, far beyond relationships located in style, there is, with certainty, a continuity of thought between Welles and Godard; in the rhythm made of their successive accumulations and cuts (the rhythm of our century); or between Rossellini and Straub-Huillet, and their meticulous attention to objects. We wanted to encourage some of these encounters with our programming, with each one of our sessions, showing a traditional film following a modern film. I hope that they will be for all a source of learning and emotion.
APPENDIX: AN EXAMPLE
|We know that the surest — and fastest — way to amaze ourselves is to stay fixed, always looking at the same object unperturbed. In a beautiful moment this object will show to us — miraculously — what has not yet been seen.2|
The starting point of Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Clouds to the Resistance, Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, 1979) is a montage of texts by Cesare Pavese, extracts of Dialogues with Leuco for the first part, and The Moon and the Bonfire for the second.
Theatricality, which is more noticeable in the first part, is primarily a result of the text, where language is more poetic than in the second, that is based more on romantic prose, and alternates with voice-over narration that is again taken from Pavese dialogues in its literality. This literality, however, maintains the text’s influence until the end; accentuated by the recto tono delivery now synonymous with Straub’s actors: a form of delivery that was inaugurated with Bresson and became a modernist characteristic, which was necessary for the simultaneous de-dramatisation and denaturalisation of acting, rather than an arbitrary fashion. We can clearly see here how theatricality does not necessarily consist of applying the “theatrical” (what one imagines to be theatrical acting) to cinema, but can be entirely compatible with the neutralisation of acting. We should note in this passage that this neutralisation is not uniform: without referring to an example by Godard, whom we would at least concede has had an impressive diversity in his direction of actors — but also in the case of Oliveira, as can be seen in the beautiful Abraham’s Valley (Vale Abraão, 1993) — the recto tono of Straub supports a great variety of acting, particularly in the various accents of Othon (1969), but also, here, in the differences between the delivery of the Dialogues and that of The Moon and the Bonfire. These are the differences that make the dialectic of the film between the symbolic myths and historical reality perceptible.
This dialectic functions equally in the striking difference between the principles used to frame the two parts: in the first, tight frames, which fix the viewer’s gaze forcefully, simultaneously teaches it to pay unusual attention. The most striking example is Oedipus and Tiresias’ dialogue (The Blind) filmed from behind the oxcart: the continuous take of both protagonists forces the viewer to refocus their attention, as if struck partially blind by the text, to notice: the noise of wheels that hint at the landscape; the ox-herding slave (central to both image and dialogue: the unspoken subject, one might believe); and finally the backs of Oedipus and Tiresias, whom we never see from the front in order to empathise with their blindness.
In the second part the frame widens and frees the gaze for exploration, just as the text and narration become elliptical, and open to the imagination. In the meantime humanity has learned to do without the gods, to use their freedom: no longer looking to be directed, they must learn to act freely, according to their own decisions.
The dialectic of the film is, however, not a simple binary of two parts — a whole network of connections is subtly established; such as the conversation on a mountain lane, for example, which seems to “rhyme” with the dialogue of the blind men in the arrangements of the characters, and the framing and movement that accompanies them. So, reflection seeks to rearticulate the whole in order to retrospectively find relationships established between parts and sequences. The fact that these sequences arise explicitly disjoined necessarily raises the question of their association and of their meaning upon regrouping: the question of montage is deliberately posed to the viewer’s thought (and it is clear that this is not a technical issue). This was already true for Rossellini in Paisà (1946) — for anyone not satisfied by watching a film “in sketches,” at least: the succession of differing episodes, which seem to have only a loose connection between them, requires close scrutiny in order to make sense.
“Meaning” here must be removed from ambiguity: in the case of Straub, as in that of Rossellini (a precursor of the present modernity), this term should not be taken in the sense of a discursive logic. The construction is not that of a demonstrative sequence, but instead an absence of association between sequences, an enigma, one that requires the mind, as Bazin said of Paisà, “to leap from one event to the other as one leaps from stone to stone in crossing a river.” The question here is not of naming relations, but rather of recognising cinematic ideas untranslatable to other media.
To describe the film as a path leading from the tyranny of gods to a resistant humanity does not convey the aim of the film completely, for it is equally the route for a gaze that shakes the barbarity of the imaginary in order to reach the free exercise of thought.