Here’s a fragment from Chapter 3 of Ecologies of the Moving Image. This chapter covers cinema’s “geomorphism,” by which I mean the part of cinema’s world-making capacity, its becoming-world-ness, that presents us with an objectscape, a territory within which things happen and action occurs. This is in contrast to cinema’s “anthropomorphism” (a subset of “subjectomorphism”), which refers to the cinematic production and distribution of agency, the capacity to act (which is the film-world’s subjectscape). Between these two poles is the “biomorphic field,” the interactive liveliness within which subjectivation and objectivation are distinguished and separated from each other, moment to moment.
Chapter Three is the longest chapter in the book, featuring theoretical discussion as well as analysis of emblematic films by directors including John Ford (The Searchers), Alexander Dovzhenko (Earth), Pare Lorentz (The River), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Michelangelo Antonioni, Stan Brakhage, Jia Zhang-Ke, and Peter Greenaway. The excerpt below comes at the chapter’s end. One of the central conceits of the book is that film constitutes a journey into a film-world, a cinematic Zone, a world defined by the three dimensions mentioned (geomorphism, anthropomorphism, biomorphism), and that the film-experience is a specific viewer’s negotiation of the lures offered by a film to be drawn into that film’s film-world. The two films discussed below provide different variations of that journey into the Zone of cinema.
‘Burn But His Books’: Deconstructing the Gaze from Both Ends
Much has been written about the cinematic gaze: the ways in which it enframes a world for us, conditioning a certain way of looking at things and, henceforth, of treating them; the ways it revives an infantile, voyeuristic narcissism; even the ways it looks at us, monitoring our every movement so that we perform in the knowledge or suspicion that we ourselves are being watched (or so a more paranoid reading of certain film-theoretical texts might suggest). Whatever the gaze is, it is never one-way, for there is never a gaze without an object, which means, in a process-relational view, that where there is subjectivation, there is always objectivation. The gaze, mediated as it is, serves as medium for an exchange. If our gaze has too often been ‘imperial’ (as the next chapter will argue), deconstructing that gaze from one end alone is hardly possible. Eyes see, and are seen. Bodies present themselves, and are presented to. What the intervention of the cinematic apparatus does is to mediate the relationship such that certain capacities are heightened at one end while others are diminished. What happens at the other end depends both on the apparatus and on how it is used.
Austrian-Canadian director Peter Mettler’s Picture of Light (1994) is a film that plays out many of the themes this chapter has been concerned with. It is a journey, undertaken by rail and motor vehicle, to a place that is ‘elsewhere,’ far from the metropolitan center from which the voyagers set out (Toronto). The travelers’ goal is the goal of all cinema reduced to its bare essence: to capture light. Specifically, the film documents Mettler’s film crew’s expedition to film the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis, at a place where they are most visible and alive, in the vicinity of Churchill, Manitoba, the northernmost station on the rail line.
The film enacts what it posits: that the image is central to our world, and that it is also a phantom, a ‘material ghost’ as Perez would call it, and that the best we can hope for with cinema is to run after such a ghost. If film only captures sight and sound, how, then, can it capture cold, how can it capture the essence of the North? This perennial Canadian question is answered in three related ways in the film. The first is through time and speed, and primarily through a slowing down of both: the time that it takes the crew to arrive at its destination, to settle in and await the night when the lights will be at their peak, and a certain languor that drifts into the film, not unlike the snow that gradually fills a hotel room [at the Churchill Motel & Hotel, momentarily portrayed in the scene below] after a casually demonstrative rifle shot opens a hole in its thin wall. The second is through image: water dropping from the bottom of a stalled train vaporizes in mid-air; colour drains out of the image, the lens filling with fog from the coldness. And the third is through sound and voiceover. Sounds become muffled, as if heard through the thick hood of a parka or the sound of swimming underwater; or, at other times, the characters surrounded by snow, sounds are deadened, with no reflecting surfaces to echo them back with a sense of landscape. A self-reflexive, ruminative voiceover drifts into the soundtrack like thoughts separated by vast gaps of space, repeating themselves at times to make sure they have said what they thought they had said. When, finally, the Northern Lights are given full reign by the camera, they are shot at slow speed and optically printed to stretch time, and we are told that they are like thoughts swirling in our minds, and like ghosts dancing.
If Mettler’s film begins as a fairly conventional documentary and sets out to do something that filmmakers have tried to do from the beginnings of cinema –- to capture a picture of light -– Prospero’s Books begins at cinema’s other end, or its many ends, where it interfaces with its predecessors –- theatre, dance, painting, and, perhaps most originally, books -– and where it flows into its destined descendants in the world of convergent, digital new media. With its subject being Shakespeare’s last published play, a story often taken to summarize Shakespeare’s oeuvre and to simultaneously capture a moment at the inauguration of Transatlantic modernity -– written on the cusp of the European discovery and colonization of the New World and inspired, in part, by documented encounters between European explorers and New World ‘savages’ -– Prospero’s Books manages to situate itself at both ends of the modernity described earlier in this chapter [note: in a discussion of linear perspective]. I take this argument in part from Paula Willoquet-Maricondi, who presents Greenaway’s project in this film as a challenge to a triad of practices that “became fundamental to the establishment of modernity in the seventeenth century”: “the hegemonic role of vision, the rise of transcendental reason, and the concomitant Cartesian subject’s colonization and mastery of the world.”
This is a film, then, about power, and specifically about the power of vision, of art, of writing and language –- in a word, the power of mediation (which is the essence of Peirce’s thirdness). This power is the kind that brings things together, suturing one thing and another in their encounter, and that also sets them in relationship to each other, which has all too often meant in a relationship of uneven power, of stratification. To examine the film in light of this onto-political concern, I will highlight three of its central characteristics: its self-reflexivity, especially in relation to this power-embeddedness of the media that make it up; its processuality, performativity, and enactment, which is where it comes into full congruence with a process-relational ontological project; and its materiality, which places into question the traditions of separating mind from body, spirit from matter, art from nature, organism from mechanism, imagined from real –- all dualities that have become entrenched in the centuries that separate Shakespeare from us.
“Prospero’s power,” writes Willoquet-Maricondi, “is his ability to abstract; his most powerful tool of control is language –- specifically, written language, which introduces a sense of order and linearity to the world that replaces the cyclical rhythm of nature and the fluidity of the spoken word.” Prospero orders the world by summoning it into being and by imposing a structure onto it. His method for mastery of his world is separation from it. His books -– twenty-four of them, which the play only mentions (without providing a count of them) but which become the centerpiece of the film –- embody the knowledge that supplies his power over the island and its inhabitants: they document, quantify, measure, and classify the world, and in doing so they are the means for managing it. The books are library and archive, atlas and universal cartography.
The film, however, brings the books to life: their contents literally spill out of them, taking on a liveliness that far exceeds the literal text. “When the atlas is opened,” James Tweedie writes, “the maps bubble with pitch. Avalanches of hot, loose gravel and molten sand fall out of the book to scorch the library floor.” For Tweedie, the film “presents an extended meditation on the relationship between the mystical authority of the book and the hybridizing act of reading and writing.” As if to accentuate this open-endedness, the final scenes have Caliban –- who had earlier instructed Stephano and Trinculo, in their coup-plotting, to “Burn but his books,” for “without them He’s but a sot” -– surfacing to snatch the last two books out of the clutches of the water to which Prospero himself has decreed them. These two books, the folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays and a slimmer, separate book referred to as “Prospero’s unfinished The Tempest,” are, of course, the two that have actually survived, and their future, by implication, is being left in the hands of their readers.
The film, however, is excessive in nearly every way: scenographically, iconographically, acoustically, sensorially, referentially. It is, as Tweedie puts it, “carnal, hyperkinetic, hybrid, and all of Prospero’s worst fears realized before us.” In its baroqueness of vision, the film emulates the forms of knowledge that it satirizes, with their obsessive compulsion to ordering and taxonomic encyclopedism, but it pushes that emulation to a point of intensity where it begins to come apart under its own weight. Prospero, we must remember, is a magician, living in a time when magic was considered a science of the observation, interpretation, and manipulation of the correspondences between things -– people, animals, plants, medicines, gemstones, musical tones, elemental humors, and stars. In his project of successfully enrolling the island’s denizens to do his bidding, Prospero is both their overlord and manager, a successful natural magician who lives in harmony with those (like Ariel) that would harmonize, but who must rule over the unruly elements (such as Caliban and Sycorax) that would not.
The film is played like a grand masque, a spectacular courtly entertainment choreographed to please its patron (in this case, Prospero himself), featuring music and dance, elaborate stage design, architectural framing and costuming. In this the film, like Prospero’s own conjuring of the world of the island (and the masque within the original play, a kind of world within a world), is a demonstration of the ‘world-production’ that I have ascribed to all cinema. But in Greenaway’s hands the world thus produced is a visually sumptuous and highly referential, self-deconstructing text that uses high-definition graphics and computer technology to layer spoken and written text, film and graphic imagery, music and sound, dance-like choreography, dramatic action, and densely stylized, architecturally and videographically framed tableaux. It is a world of multiple framings, mirrors, layers, and correspondences, interweaving a thick textuality with an elemental materiality, by way of intercuts, overlaps, insets, script overlays, windowed screens, and a complex audio mix.
With its foregrounding of its own framedness –- its emphasis on colonnades, draperies, mirrors, and graphic video framing devices -– the film enacts what it aims to disassemble, which is the visual-textual ‘enframing’ of the world and the colonial staging of its imperial subjects, aestheticized, eroticized, and classified. Its antidote to this legacy is a “‘playful gaze’ of multiple reflections, superimpositions, and metaframings of images.” The film’s sets are largely static and dioramic, its camera movement dominated by still shots and long, slow tracking shots across tableaux vivants rich with architectural and art-historical allusion: “The bathhouse abuts an interior lifted from the Alhambra, Miranda’s bedroom is reached by descending the Arcoli Steps on the Capitoline, and Ferdinand wanders through a Breughel cornfield with pyramids in the background. The costume of the characters apes outfits from paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Antonello da Messian. Thus,” concludes Ryan Trimm “in progressing from one architectural or artistic allusion to the next, the film offers a spin on ‘moving pictures.’”
Greenaway here is deconstructing five hundred years of linear perspective, while retaining an epic, multilayered form of narrative at its center. But this is not a deconstruction that leaves us with nothing but a dematerialized textuality. In staging its central conflict, that between the magician and ruler, Prospero, and Caliban, his conquered slave, the film may seem to overly privilege Prospero by giving him (John Gielgud) all the vocal parts and thereby ventriloquizing the other characters. But the film is deeply, richly material, elemental, and carnal. It gives Caliban a presence that is visceral and transgressive. His body, Douglas Keesey writes,
exhibits grace under pressure, a lithe writhing and sinewy torment. The Saint Vitus’ dance Caliban performs under Prospero’s tortures, the choreography of jerks and spasms of one whose life has been made a hell on earth, offers physical evidence of blighted potential and an injured soul. Beyond this, the muscular uprising with which Caliban attempts to lift himself from this prison of a sewer rock, and the extravagant leaps and pirouettes he exhibits at the thought of freedom from Prospero, show a physical exuberance and a longing for liberty that are hard to mistake for mere lewdness and vagrancy.
Just as Caliban flaunts his nakedness through contortions and bodily taunts, half or completely naked bodies fill many of the images in the film (something that Greenaway was criticized for by many American critics). The four traditional elements — earth, water, fire, and air (or at least wind) — are everywhere in evidence. The very first image, one that returns at the end, is a series of drops of water seemingly splashing onto the screen. From the outset, as Tweedie’s description of the opening scenes makes clear, this elementality is central:
The long horizontal tracking shot that accompanies the opening credits surveys a group of figures with an allegorical relationship to water, the subject of Prospero’s first book. Noah, Moses in the bulrushes, Leda and the Swan, and Icarus all make cameo appearances as the visuals virtually exhaust the connotative capacity of the word water, made visible and audible in the rhythmic dripping that begins and ends the film. Add to this the visual pun on ‘making water’ as Ariel urinates and Prospero calls forth a storm, the toy galleon and countless other nautical references, the waves and waterfalls, the bathhouse supplied with ‘large, exotic shells and a basin and brushes, sponges and towels,’ and the visual images begin to reflect some of the complexity of the word.
Greenaway, well aware of film’s capacities as a “material ghost,” a refracted, dis- and re-assembled replica of the real things of the world, deconstructs not to leave us drifting in textual space but to leave us vibrating with the material thingness of what is there in front of us. To bring all this back to the topic of its geomorphism: where, in the end, does this film take place? Trimm, taking up Rodowick’s Deleuzianism, posits its space as an ‘any-space-whatever’ that is all indeterminate potential, an unplottable space of the cell and the soundstage, “a soundstage at once no place and everywhere in its possible transformations.” But this neglects to recognize that not every any-space is any any-space, at least not any-space-whatever. Prospero‘s Books takes place in a time-space of the cusp, an in-between space, a space of contact and encounter between textuality and performance, between Europe and its outside, between art and nature, cinema and the world. Prospero moves through the sets, from tableau to tableau, but without ever really arriving anywhere. This space is a layered space, its layers sometimes kept separate and sometimes overlapping or fused together: there is Prospero’s study, which is in a sense the center of things; there is a smattering of scenes in more or less distinct places –- the cornfield, the swamp, below the surface of the water, though all of these are distinctly stylized, sometimes in ironic miniature; and there are the books, which come to life across the other visual spaces, but also in the vocal layers of the film.
But most of all, there is the studio set, which functions as a large organic machine, an animated factory of bodies and mechanical parts, through which the camera moves in slow horizontal tracks. It is here, in the factory -– the central production site of modernity, but here in its double aspect as organic-mechanical construction site and as imagistic and imaginal production workshop, the center from which images are produced and disseminated -– that Prospero’s Books most literally takes place. Here is Jonathan Beller’s ‘cinematic mode of production,’ turned to the deconstructive ends of staging modernity’s own unraveling.
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In his mid-century classic The Machine in the Garden, American literary critic Leo Marx argued that Shakespeare’s Tempest, with its dialectical reconciliation of “America as hideous wilderness” and “America as paradise regained,” presented a kind of prologue to all American literature, a template for the hopeful vision of a “symbolic middle landscape” created through the improvement of nature by art and learning. Marx took Caliban to be a stand-in for the “untrammeled wildness or cannibalism at the heart of nature,” a view that has since been upended by a generation of postcolonial theorists. But if, as Marx’s interpretation might suggest, the apotheosis of Western cinematic visuality was to become the classical Western, with its redemptive journey toward a wilderness out of whose clutches Americans have forged a bright “city on the hill,” then one could argue that Prospero’s Books amounts to a deconstruction of the entire metaphysic of classical cinema. In the film’s final scene, Ariel, released by Prospero from his place in the latter’s artificial hierarchy, runs in delight until he jumps out of the frame, with only his two-dimensional silhouette remaining. Greenaway’s parting image can be taken to suggest that we ourselves can be freed from our own imaginal hierarchies and dualities –- freed, then, to imagine things altogether differently.
To fully grasp the shift indicated in a film like Prospero’s Books, it is necessary to appreciate the ways that classical narrative modes have evolved in recent years. Greenaway’s film is merely one example of a trend that has become undeniable -– a shift from a classical realist aesthetic, with its Bazinian assumption that film gives us access to the world, the film screen being in effect a window onto the world of the film, to what Eleftheria Thanouli convincingly argues should be called a “post-classical” cinema. Rooted in institutional and technological developments of the last forty years, post-classical cinema opts for a “hypermediated realism” for which the screen itself is a “windowed world,” no longer primarily a photographic space but a graphic space, which has substituted the “invisibility” and seamlessness of the classical film world with a more discontinuous and opaque visual surface that prioritizes the graphic and painterly qualities of the image. This is pursued through an array of strategies including fast cutting rates, the use of extreme lens lengths, close framings, free-ranging camera movements, spatial montages, and clustered images (such as the split-screens, back projections, and miniatures that are everpresent in Prospero’s Books). Post-classical cinema’s approach to time, as suggested by Deleuze’s writings on the time-image, is much more open, flexible, and non-linear than that of classical cinema. Its geomorphism, to put it in our terms, is no longer that of a world that is there for us, given as an objective reality (at least within the as-if framework of cinematic narrative). It has instead become a world of mediation, explicitly avowing its own practice in mediating a world that is always already mediated.
Few theorists would argue that a post-classical paradigm -– or a postmodern one, for those who prefer that term –- has replaced or overtaken the classical one. The latter is arguably still dominant, or, at best, has been fully incorporated into a more fluid model that features both classical and post-classical elements. The geomorphic implications of post-classical cinema, in any case, remain unclear and are likely to remain highly variable from one film to another. What post-classical methods point to, however, is what this chapter has been developing an argument for: that the given is never merely given, but is always produced. Its production, however, is complex and laborious, involving not only the crafting of representations about the world, but also the manifold productive labors — by many material-semiotic actors — by which worlds are crafted into affective and perceptual practice over time and through habit and action.
Like the world itself, cinema is given shape by embodied beings interacting in a more-than-human world. All of us -– anything that could be said to act –- participate in that interaction, in our own ways and our own times. This ‘all,’ as suggested by the Pan of the pantheists, and by the spirits and sprites of Prospero’s enchanted isle, is shaped into foregrounds and backgrounds for active beings like us because this is the way that action happens: I perceive or pursue an object, which is a figure against a background, an emergent clip carved out from a receding objectscape. It (or what it, in its next moment, has become) perceives and pursues me. The meeting of the perceivers and pursuers takes us into the world of the subjects, which, for humans, is the world of the anthropomorphed; but the general dynamism of that interperceptivity is broader and more expansive than that. These twin themes of cinema’s anthropomorphism and its biomorphism will be the themes, respectively, of the next two chapters.