Saturday, 19 September 2009

Thesis Work #3

The Electronic-image and the new "cinema of attractions" and sensations

At the point of Leone's death he was involved in preparatory work for his next project, a film about the Siege of Stalingrad. Given the intended scale of the film it would quite possibly have been the most expensive film ever made to that point, with some sources estimating its budget at $100 million. Coupled with the idea of a train whose cargo of cars morphed from 1960s to 1930s models before our eyes in Once Upon a Time in America, or the similar plunge into the depths through layers of the past with which Leone had at one time imagined opening the film, Leone thus might be positioned as an artist who would love to have worked with digital technologies. Had he lived a few years longer, he would perhaps have been the first Italian film-maker to use CGI effects, not Argento.

Had he used the new electronic image, Leone could again be positioned as a film-maker who partook of both movement-image and time-image in a distinctive way. While Deleuze is critical of television and other electronic images within Cinema 2, it has to be borne in mind that he was writing at a time when computer technologies were still in their relative infancy. Pixar, for instance, was not established until 1979, as the Graphics Group. Drawing a parallel with Deleuze's analysis of Bergson's dismissal of cinema, as one occuring at a point when it presented movement but not movement-image, we might say the electronic image's "strength" and "essence" were not established by the early 1980s. Just as the early "cinema of attractions" had not yet developed any sense of moving the camera or from one shot to another, primitive CGI were as yet capable of doing little but functioning as an attraction, a sign of future potentiality. Nor was the much-maligned MTV or music video type aesthetic, with its eclectic combination of contemporary (and initially principally analogue) image manipulation technologies and Soviet-inspired montage particularly influential at the time Deleuze was writing: MTV did not begin broadcasting until 1981. Here it is also worth noting that Argento has used the closely related television commercial form as an opportunity to experiment with new technologies and techniques which he has subsequently incorporated into his films; Leone also made commercials in the 1970s during the period when Once Upon a Time in America was in its extended pre-production.

While Ronald Bogue characterises the "television image" as "fundamentally a type of time-image" (2003: 195) it also needs to be acknowledged that contemporary digital technologies have given rise to new varieties of something closer to the movement-image: Contemporary special effects driven blockbusters could be construed as present a new version of the action-image. Kristin Thomson's (1999) criticisms of films such as Speed (Dir: Jan De Bont, 1994) and Armageddon (Dir: Michael Bay, 1996) and the response of Angela Ndalianis (2004) are exemplary here:

The focus on action and special effects [in Armageddon] result in a lack of depth with regard to character development and their motivation of "causal action" (14). [...] Thompson herself may see the film as a "failed" or "incorrect" attempt at classical form, but audiences recorded their belief in the film's "correctness" through their contribution to box office returns. Likewise, Speed "suffers," according to Thompson, because it "uses up too much narrative energy in the bus episode without leaving any dangling cause at the end" (26). The end of the film (in the train) is viewed as an isolated episode that lacks concrete connection (in a classical sense) with the cause-and-effect patterns of the rest of the film. In other words, the film ignores the pattern of classical storytelling that Thompson identifies and instead succumbs to spectacle and action that ride on minimal story causation. (

Recasting Thompson's neo-formalist analysis and Ndalianis "neo-baroque" response in Deleuzean terms, what we see here is a distinction between classical and modern action cinemas: Classical action cinemas, like the western, were based around the SAS' form. Clear situations provoked clear sensory motor responses, propelling the narrative along. Today's action cinemas, perhaps particularly within the science-fiction and fantasy genres, present spectacular images that characters do not know how to respond to. The issue is what to make of this inability to act. Comparing Bay's images to those of Rossellini, for instance, they would clearly appear to be lacking: The Hollywood director's protagonists and audience are not confronted by a same kind of "shock to thought". But if we consider these images as a contemporary version of the "cinema of attractions" we might view them more positively. The difficulty here is that Deleuze does not really address the cinema of attractions in Cinema 1 and 2. Instead he identifies only a "primitive" state of the cinema which featured movement only within the frame via the figures present within it, "where the image is in movement rather than being movement-image" (2005b: 26). When discussing the "montage of attractions" in Eisenstein he is also uncharacteristically hesitant, saying that "In our view the 'attractions' consist sometimes in theatrical or circus representations" (2005a: 37). As Deleuze was keen to identify the essential aspects of cinema that distinguish it from other artistic forms, we might assume a degree of wariness as far as such "attractions" are concerned. Today's attractions cannot completely be equated with their turn of the 20th century predecessors. As Tom Gunning contended (19??: ??), the likes of Star Wars (Dir: George Lucas, 1977) were about "tamed" "effects". Nevertheless, it is also notable how contemporary directors, such as John Carpenter, refer to a "rollercoaster" metaphor in explaining the dynamics of their films.i Likewise the spectacular special effects and stunts are there to be seen and to astonish the viewer. As such, they follow the exhibitionist logic of the cinema of attractions rather than the voyeuristic logic of the classical "cinema of narrative integration" or Deleuze's own movement-image. Precisely by being there to astonish, however, such effects may be unsatisfactory from a Deleuzean perspective. They would seem to determine the typical viewer's response more than genuinely provoking thought through the reverberations of the image itself:

Everyone knows that if an art necessarily imposed the shock or vibration, the world would have changed long ago, and men would have been thinking for a long time. So this pretension of the cinema, at last among the greatest pioneers, raises a smile today. They believed that cinema was capable of imposing a shock, and imposing it on the masses, the people [...] However they foresaw that cinema would encounter and was already encountering all the ambiguities of the other arts; that it would be overlaid with experimental abstractions, 'formalist antics' and commercial configurations of sex and blood. The shock would be confused, in bad cinema, with the figurative violence of represented instead of achieving that other violence of a movement-image developing its vibrations in a moving sequence which embeds itself within us." (2005b: 152)

Whereathe a good movement-image cinema presents a clear chain of action-images or sensory-motor situations, and the time-image the thought-provoking breakdown of this chain, the bad movement-image cinema breaks the chain without provoking thought. Moments of spectacle in themselves, as interruptions to the narrative, are largely unsatisfactory to Deleuze. He does however allow for an exception in the likes of Vincente Minnelli's musicals with their creation of "dream worlds" (2005b: 60). This is significant not only because of the (admittedly vague) comparisons that have been made between Minnelli's set pieces and those of Argento, "The Vincent Minnelli of Ultraviolence" as critic Kim Newman has termed him (1988: ??), but also for the Pasolinian reading that may then be drawn out. Pasolini, as we saw earlier, distinguished between a classical "cinema of prose" and a modern "cinema of poetry". While he recognised that there were poetic interruptions in the classical cinema, where the 'real' film and its possibilities broke through, he was also wary of their very separation from the rest of the film. Narrative and spectacle remained separate and distinct. In the modern cinema of poetry by contrast they are clearly intertwined: The camera consciousness of Bertolucci or Antonioni said something in itself, something that related to what they were saying about the contemporary world. Relating back to my discussions of Koven's analysis of the giallo and Martin-Smith's analysis of the western all'italiana, the point here is the distinction Argento, Leone and Questi's work within these filone compared to that of the majority of their contemporaries. Whereas Koven sees most giallo filmmakers as only attaining a (vernacular) cinema of poetry within their films' set-pieces, I am arguing that Argento and Questi's films are poetic in the more thoroughgoing sense identified by Pasolini himself. Whereas Martin-Smith sees spaghetti westerns like Corbucci's Django as presenting a succession of spectacular set-pieces as a SSS rather than a SAS' narrative, I am arguing that Leone's later westerns successfully integrate narrative and spectacle in a poetic manner. In each case, this poeticism is both what redeems their films in Deleuzean terms. It is also, by virtue of being a time-image trait occurring within generic movement-image forms, the thing that takes these directors work beyond Deleuze's movement-image / time-image binary in a pioneering way.


Anonymous said...

I must admit this is far too specific for me to comment on any individual points, but if these excerpts are taken verbatim from your thesis, I do have one general suggestion - I think you're writing might be a bit too "dense" and giving your points some room to breathe might make reading a bit easier (and should ultimately also help to strengthen your arguments). This is a flaw often found in PhD theses and an easy one to make and while it shouldn't matter much, it often does, since readability often influences grading at least on a subconscious level.
Someone once told me that the best way to approach a PhD is to ask oneself "How would Orwell have written this passage?" and as silly as it may sound, I found it to be good advice.

K H Brown said...

Thank you for your comments.

These are more representative of first draft work, where I'm concentrating on getting the ideas down more than their structure and flow.

I've actually tried to be more conscious of keeping my sentence lengths down, of using two shorter rather than one longer one.

The Orwell advice is good, but in my case I think part of the problem is that Orwell wouldn't have written about French theories that seem to often deliberately go out of their way to be difficult reading ;-)