New Ways of Seeing

The first time I saw the end of Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Eclisse I felt I had been caught off guard, disoriented.  The film ends with a string of desolate shots without any narrative progression, shown one after another.    For most of the film we had been following the drama of the central characters.  Suddenly, for the last seven minutes, the characters we have come to know have disappeared — and yet the film continues.  We see deserted streets, shadows, anonymous strangers.  Without the characters to ground us in story, the presence of the camera itself seems stronger.  We become aware of it as an apparatus, a seeing-device that acts as its own separate entity.  There is camera movement (panning, following a figure walking on a street) which suggests that something is about to be revealed; it seems Antonioni is trying to tell us something.  There are some wide, long takes from above that slowly pan around as if surveying the streets. Trees rustle in the wind.  A man in a suit rounds a corner.  A toddler looks up at his mother.  A close up of a man’s earlobe.  A stream of water flows into the gutter.   “Yes, what is it Antonioni?” I remember thinking, “What are you trying to show us?”  I was searching for meaning, for story.  A streetlamp burns brightly.  The music crescendos.  The film is over.  There is an elegance to this sequence that I cannot quite explain.


(a clip from the last seven minutes of L’Eclisse)

This Italian neo-realist film is a break from “classical” filmmaking, in which the director shapes chunks of reality into comprehensible segments.  Through continuous editing, the film takes on a coherent perspective that places it in relation to a world that is otherwise chaotic and absurd.  The perception of one’s life as a linear progression with a chain of cause and effect is reinforced through continuous editing.  People’s lives are invented as stories with a beginning, middle, and end.  A film that shows a continuity of action reaffirms our belief that there is a logical order to things in this world, that we are in control of our actions and can predict their outcomes.

Film theorists of the mid 20th century, such as Siegfried Kracauer, speak to the issues of living in a modern society where, as we’ve heard before, the question shifts from “how should one live?” to the more daunting and open-ended question of “how might one live?”  Kracauer says in a period when religion or ideology are not imposed upon the individual, people become fragmented beings, living in a weird abstractness.   Cinema can be a way to ground oneself, to make sense of things, in this new and orderless world.  In Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film,  he suggests to get rid of this uncomfortable state, we turn to cinema, as it is a way to reach the full potential of the immediacy of physical reality.  It’s about showing us what’s real, what’s tangible. He applauds film for its ability to reveal truths that go unseen in daily life.   Kracauer is not necessarily saying that cinema is life-affirming because it feeds us a logical order around which operate; rather, he values the way the camera can isolate objects and show them in ways previously unimaginable, bringing back life into them.

Deleuze speaks of smooth and striated spaces.  Smooth spaces allow for happenings that are more intuitive or spontaneous.  In contrast, striated spaces are those that limit, confine, and schematized.  Classical cinema can be described as striated because it is mapped, defined, coded — it uses a system of symbols that with pre-determined meanings.   The shots “speak” to one another, meaning they connect or associate with each other in a predictable way.  Cinema becomes smooth when meaning becomes unpredictable, when images take on associations that could not have been conceived of prior to their creation.  Deleuze does not say that modern cinema is necessarily defined by a lack of narrative.  Of modern cinema he writes “suppose a character finds himself in a situation, however ordinary or extraordinary, that’s beyond any possible action, or to which he can’t react […] when we find ourselves in those purely optical and aural situations, not only does action and thus narrative break down, but the nature of perceptions and affections changes, because they enter a completely different system from the sensory-motor system of “classical” cinema” (On The Movement-Image, 51).  

It is in this way that we come to appreciate existence in a new way that functions differently from the automatic responses embedded within the codes of society.  Deleuze espouses this type of “cinema of immanence” in which there are no preconceived notions or givens — everything happens as it unfolds. For me, this is embodied in L’Eclisse.  

 

J.C.K.

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Resources:

Kracauer, Siegfried.  Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality.  Princeton: Oxford University Press, 1960

Deleuze, Gille. On The Movement-Image,”  in Negotiation 1972-1990, trans. Martin Joughin and Barbara Habberjam. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 2000.

Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Felix. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. 1987

 

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One Response to “New Ways of Seeing”

  1. […] New Ways of Seeing « Immanent Terrain […]

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