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III. Playing God: On the “Essence” of Cinema

In a society as fast-paced and demanding as ours, it’s no wonder that, given the opportunity to rewind, the average person would opt for a film pre-packaged with all those qualities the viewer knows will suffice to fulfill their expectations without demanding much “mental exertion” on their part: archetypal characters, traditional narrative structures, impressive special effects, maybe a few laughs. A good story, a good time. One might have read a good novel instead and been subjected to the same gist of artistic treatment, but the movie has the added bonus of passive viewing—compared to the arduous demand of reading—within a radically condensed span of time (roughly two hours or so). Indeed, there is a reason Aristotle’s Poetics has become standardized reading for many an aspiring filmmaker: today, cinema has become the equivalent of the “condensed visual novel.”

This is a gross underuse of a medium that, as we shall see, can offer us so much more.

To begin with, any art is most compelling (that is, most likely to emotionally impact the receiver of the art) if it prioritizes those potentialities that are unique to the particular form. In other words, if these potentialities are what come to the forefront in the artistic expression, insofar as they are the principal driving mechanisms by which the artist aims to achieve their goal(s).

This is the presupposition that drives the cinematic theories of avant-garde filmmakers Jean Epstein (1897-1953) and Germaine Dulac (1882-1942), both of whom are invaluable resources in the search for an “essence of cinema.”

That both of these theorists are avant-garde is key, because, as Dulac teaches us, the avant-garde filmmaker is characterized by their “in tune-ness” with this so-called “essence of cinema” in their work–a cinematic approach that dawned after all previous major forms (realism, narrative, psychological realism) had been exhausted. Dulac stresses the importance of the avant-garde scene, for the continued evolution of the cinema form is dependent upon its ongoing survival.

This may seem as if Dulac is interested in cinema’s evolution in and of itself—that is, for the hackneyed postmodern “art for art’s sake” case—but one mustn’t be fooled by the formal intellectualization of her language. Beneath all the technicalities, the reader senses an authentic desire to affect the viewer through a kind of crystallized beauty, which, in film, for Dulac can only be accomplished through the formation of a “visual poem made up of life instincts, playing with matter and the imponderable. A symphonic poem, where emotion bursts forth not in facts, not in actions, but in visual sonorities” (655). Such impassioned—almost sentimental—statements prove Dulac is completely on board with Epstein’s search for a cinema that “arouses an aesthetic emotion, a sense of infallible wonderment and pleasure” (257).

For both theorists, said search is characterized by the filmmaker’s quest to pierce through that elusive, truth-veiling something, which both of them term “the imponderable.” But what is the imponderable? The filmmaker is aspiring to unveil the truth about what?

This is a question that is not particular to the cinematic form and whose answer is virtually the same for all modes of artistic expression: truth about the nature of reality itself. This has been the role assigned to the artist since time immemorial, dating back to the tragedy plays of the Classical era. Even today, the cinema-goer is most contented when they can confidently say about a film that it “told it how it is” (with the bonus fantastical embellishments here and there, of course).

Following the premises of Dulac and Epstein, the question then becomes, “How is the filmmaker uniquely positioned to approach this task, and what are the artistic utilities at his or her disposal?” To the first question, both theorists would answer the same way: that the filmmaker is uniquely positioned insofar as they deal with—by the very nature of the medium—visual movement. This answer consequently explains Dulac’s emphasis for rhythm as the vital technique in fulfilling the artist’s expression. After all, the visual movement exists within a “frozen” space-time continuum (a kind of filmmaker’s “canvas”), and it is only by deriving a contrived cadence from this canvas that the filmmaker achieves personal expression; in other words, the filmmaker concerns themselves with the manipulation of time in order to achieve their creative expression.

Although Epstein’s “Photogénie and the Imponderable” (1935) is far less specific than Dulac’s “The Avant-Garde Filmmaker” in answering the second question, his text nevertheless proves to be a rich resource for a better understanding of this “filmmaker’s canvas,” this “frozen space-time continuum,” especially as it pertains to the viewer’s emotional needs—needs which, by the way, the viewer may be unaware of possessing. We may arrive at these affective ramifications using “Photogénie” in a rather indirect manner.

Epstein points out man’s “physiological inability to master the notion of space-time and to escape this atemporal section of the world, which we call the present” (254). He describes this eternal “atemporal section,” this present, as “psychological time,” as it is borne out of our “egocentric [that is, automatic, subconscious] habit” (255) of accepting this flow as an absolute in our lives—which is true. Despite Einstein’s illuminating truths which characterize space-time as a malleable fabric permeating the entirety of the universe, capable of being stretched, producing myriad ebbs and flows, we on Earth experience only one of these flows and have learned to accept it as an inherent aspect of what is in fact (as Einstein shows us) a very limiting perspective of physical reality.

Here I want to take what will feel like a digression, but I assure you, it’s not (please just bear with me for a second): I want to take a moment to consider the teachings of twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger.

According to Heidegger, people tend to stay out of touch with the sheer mystery of existence, the mystery he termed “das Sein,” meaning “Being.” One of the main culprits, he notes, is the rapidity of the modern world—always keeping us on the move, overwhelming us with work and information so that we’re virtually in a state of perpetual distraction from the mystery of being, unable to step back and see the strange in the familiar, the act of which, Heidegger admits, has its downside: fear, or “angst,” may take ahold of us as we realize the primordial chaos from which we come, and are in fact constantly in. In this way, we come face to face with the meaninglessness of all things.

Epstein alludes to this “angst” in his own—and more colorful—way: “Not without some anxiety, man finds himself before that chaos which he has covered up, denied, forgotten, or thought was tamed. Cinematography apprises him of a monster” (255).

The thing is, once the initial shock has passed, what follows is a kind of out-of-body, existentialist sensation which is nonetheless therapeutic in its own way. Epstein uses the example of watching footage of oneself from long ago: though we acknowledge the ontological link, this link feels disconcertedly severed by the fact that that former self no longer lives in psychological time–that is, in the present. Consequently, this gives us the impression of a phantom-like projection of ourselves that is simultaneously there and not there. But herein lies the secret of cinema’s unique “medicinal” capabilities.

Both Epstein and Dulac wrote about the rhythmic grace emanated by time-manipulated footage. Dulac mentions the “formation of crystals,” “the bursting of a bubble,” and the “evolutions of microbes,” (656) while Epstein points out how a plant “bends its stalk and turns its leaves toward the light,” as elegant as “the horse and rider in slow motion” (254-255). It is clear that, for both of these theorists (and I am completely on board with this), the key to freeing the viewer from the mentally draining chains of “psychological time,” which is keeping us from experiencing the wonder of “das Sein,” is by showing them the fragility of their cage, accomplished through cinema by its “trappings” of space-time, by absorbing it like a bubble and freezing it to produce crystal balls through which the viewer looks into the past and realizes the obvious anew: that our time here is short, and every instant is filled with boundless grace and beauty. By playing God, the filmmaker may thus bestow the viewer their moment of affective transcendence.

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The single cinephile in my (admittedly small) social group, I have never been inclined to suggest to my friends such “lofty” films as Tarkovsky’s, Bergman’s, or Antonioni’s—all of who play with time (or call attention to the strangeness of psychological time, especially through the use of long-shots [think Steve McQueen’s heart-wrenching eighty-six-second shot of Solomon’s quasi-lynch scene from 12 Years a Slave; however, in light of this example, I will also note that the “balance” between narrative and avant-garde was not touched on in this essay—all in good time]) and have, for me, produced that aforementioned affective transcendent effect. After all, as Dulac mentions on more than one occasion, the avant-garde “does not appeal to the mere pleasure of the crowd” (653).

But perhaps the fault lies with us, who understand cinema’s greatest power. Perhaps we ought to take a cue from Dulac, who wrote and lectured widely on film aesthetics, to be less apologetic about cinema’s “purer” dimensions. After all, academic institutions deem it worthwhile of students to learn the language of literature, visual arts, and music, in order for us to not only gain appreciation for the Arts, but to derive from them momentous personal value as well.

Why shouldn’t cinema be any different? Is it because, as the Seventh Art, it is still relatively new?

Consider last year’s “top-grossing films” list. These films are not bad, nor are their narratives  utterly irrelevant (something I, and both the theorists we have discussed, would disagree on), but there’s just so much to be gained by learning the cinematic language.

And so, I’ve changed my mind—watch Bergman, like, right now!

*  *  *

Below, a recommended list of more “purely cinematic” works, from which the budding cinephile may “branch” out on their own accord (in order of “difficulty,” 1 being “most challenging”):

  1. Breathless (1960), Jean-Luc Godard.
  2. The Revenant (2015), Alejandro González Iñárritu.
  3. Elephant (2003), Gus Van Sant.
  4. Come and See (1987), Elem Klimov.
  5. The Tree of Life (2011), Terrence Malick.
  6. Melancholia (2011), Lars Von Trier.
  7. Red Desert (1964), Michelangelo Antonioni.
  8. Persona (1966), Ingmar Bergman.
  9. Stalker (1979), Andrei Tarkovsky.
  10. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stanley Kubrick.

Quotes from: Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (First Ed., 2011).

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