I teach classes in criticism and history in an essentially film production department. These writings were prepared for students in a film history class. The classes met once a week for three hours only. A feature film was screened each week in class leaving only one hour for tuition. I thought the hour was best spent in dialogue with the students and I therefore wrote out a worksheet for them to take the place of lectures that were not possible because of scheduling constraints. The worksheets were prepared rapidly usually early in the morning before the nine am class. The writings that are presented here are a selection of these worksheets.

The worksheets were informed by the context in which they were offered and by the wider context of film studies. My students are given a vocational professional training in film production. The faculty is for the most part not academics but professional scriptwriters, directors, cinematographers coming from the industry. The centre of the programme is story and script. The students have a poor to non-existent film culture beyond what is offered on television and on the circuits in a provincial city in Florida whose film offerings are slight, repetitive and dominated by American films on general release.

It was important for me to try to expand the range of experience of films for students and in doing so to question the kinds of films that they were accustomed to as well as assumptions about the central importance of story and script. I tried to make connections between films on the basis of their forms and style rather than on the basis of common themes and stories that too often lead to cultural speculations about nationality, sexuality, ideology and identity, aspects secondary to understanding how a film works. In doing so, I did not adhere to an historical-chronological approach to film history and its thin narrative line of consequences, but rather to make associations between films irrespective of chronology or notions of development and succession. To see a relation between the mise en scène and editing of Eisenstein, Griffith, Godard, Ophuls, Kitano and Pasolini, would I believe help to make the past alive, productive and present and open up all films and their histories rather than relegating them to a dead and superseded past. My concern was not exactly to inform the students of the past as a matter of necessity and dutifulness but rather to resurrect the past as an opportunity and stimulation. The relevant areas of historical enquiry for me rested upon matters of shape, line, volume, movement, gesture, colour, sound, performance, not the sociological cultural concerns and theories that have tended to dominate film studies in English-speaking countries. I wanted to encourage students to become sensitive to the particularity of the films they were presented with and to begin to associate films with one another on these terms. Thus, not only did I present them with an achronological history freeing film from the constraints of a narrative of the past, but I avoided the generalisations of film theory which are often more reductive than they are illuminating. Fundamentally, the worksheets are critical exercises and appreciations of the forms and style of films, what is most fragile and precious about them.

I have attached, by way of preface, position papers related to proposals for new courses that are in the process of being instituted.


Film History

The standard approach to film history in writing and in teaching is essentially chronological with the cinema divided into periods of the type: Silent Cinema, Sound Cinema, The Modern Cinema. Each of these periods are then subdivided by considerations of stylistic issues, national boundaries, technical matters, industrial structures, cultural contexts, themes, directors, depending on the specific history being set out. Teaching film from this (dominant and standard) perspective requires a slightly different approach insofar as writing can be relatively exhaustive (and exhausting) while teaching film history is necessarily fragmented and highly selective. If historical writing tends toward the encyclopaedic and inclusive, teaching tends to be highly selective, leaving out more than it includes.

Despite the enormous difficulty conceptually of Gilles Deleuze’s two volume work on cinema (Cinema 1: the movement image and Cinema 2: the time image) and despite the fact that it is as much a philosophical work as it is an historical one, it provides a different historical perspective and organisation to the standard one that in part derives from the historical positions taken by André Bazin and developed in writing and in film by Jean-Luc Godard. I am not proposing that Deleuze, Bazin or Godard should be models for an approach to film history that we might consider, nevertheless, I think it would be very useful for what we might think of doing in our programme to take these historical approaches very seriously and try to use them selectively and eclectically.

Before I summarise these approaches, in general, I think, our film courses in film history need to interrogate notions and practices of film histories first of all, and second that we need to adopt an historical perspective(s) (a practice(s) of history) that would allow us to be more comprehensive than is usual in taught history classes by providing principles of unity that make it possible to productively connect as many films as possible over the entire history of the cinema.

What I want to propose in general terms is:

  1. A Film History I course which is about Film History rather than being a History of Film and in which various historical approaches to the cinema are considered, examined and interrogated.
  2. A Film History II course which is not a film history in the usual sense (chronology, subdivisions chronologically organised) but rather a series of possible historie(s), rather than a single history divided into subgroups. In effect, it would be the presentation of multiple histories with multiple unities that intersect with each other and one therefore that is not a narrative (linear), is not chronological (causative, developmental, merely cataloguing) and has no particular centre. This may seem, presented in this way, as hopelessly ambitious and disorderly, but I think, to the contrary, it will be the simplest way of proceeding and possibly the most exciting way to proceed.

Let me begin with Deleuze, Bazin, Godard.

Fundamentally, Deleuzian and Bazinian historical frameworks are philosophical. Bazin’s central concern with realism is informed by phenomenology, in particular a German-French phenomenology filtered through Jean-Paul Sartre. Deleuze’s central concern is with time almost exclusively informed by the ideas of Henri Bergson. Both of them, however, despite philosopnical differences, are concerned with the birth of the modern cinema and there is a tendency for both of them to see that modernity as chronological. It is chronological for Bazin because the essence of the cinema and of modernity rests for him with a certain phenomenological conceptualisation of realism which though present during the silent period (Stroheim, Murnau, Flaherty) essentially dates from the early 1940s (Bresson, Renoir, Welles). It is chronological for Deleuze because the shift from a classical cinema, where time is connected to action, to a modern cinema, where it is connected to the image, roughly corresponds to a time division equally marked at the early 1940s. But the framework for both of them is also achronological insofar as it has a philosophical base so that Deleuze’s time image cinema is evident in filmmakers prior to the 1940s and the realism that interests Bazin and is a sign for him of modernity is already present in the silent period. As a consequence links are made by both of these theorists/philosophers which connect films irrespective of chronology and technological or industrial changes.

Godard is a cinéaste and cinéphile rather than a philosophe. Each of his films are historical in the sense that they are informed by the entire history of the cinema and by many (most) of its films as well as by histories of literature, painting, theatre, music and also political and social events. Godard’s historical practices are essentially associative and citational. Thus every scene, indeed every image (and sound) is at the same time itself and associated with other images and other scenes in the cinema (if only we knew them all). Thus, every image is part of multiple relations: to other images within the film and to other images beyond it. Just as Godard’s films are not representational (every image though part of the film belongs to other contexts and unities from which they have been dissociated and taken) nor is his sense of film history representational since the history of cinema is not for him a narrative but rather a field of associations, citations and provocations. Just as he brings images together in his films that are remote in time and belong to non-contiguous spaces and heterogeneous materials (different films, paintings, novels, posters, animation) and just as these images have been taken out of the contexts and narratives where they once belonged, so too does the history of the cinema he proposes have a similar structure (or literally, destructure). The productive yield of this is twofold for Godard. One, images are freed to be able to associate (hence the films that constitute the past of the cinema are connected and reconnected and set in motion). And, two, these associations are provocative and energising because their juxtaposition and meeting as fragments enables you to see things and feel things in these images or series of images that you would not otherwise realise or perceive, hence, these juxtapositions both depend upon multiplicities and also foster them.

No history of the cinema has been as comprehensive as the historie(s) proposed by Godard and not only in his great work Histoire(s) du cinéma but in most if not all of his films within which the histories of the cinema and the presence of films and their images are simultaneously invoked and set in motion.

What follows is a brief summary of Film History I, II. I don’t envisage for either of these courses any practical component.

Film History I

This course should primarily centre on different histories of the cinema that is, different approaches to film history. What is important about the course is the general sense of an interrogation of the historical enterprise and though I am suggesting three areas of interrogation/examination these could be different than the ones that I am proposing and would depend on the state of the subject, who would be teaching, special interests, etc.

The three areas I would like to propose are:

  1. The classical historical (encyclopaedic) narrative: Cook, Nowell-Smith, Sadoul, Mitry.
  2. Philosophical/metaphysical, theoretical histories: Bazin, Kracauer, Deleuze.
  3. Modernist histories: Godard, Aumont, Rancière, Deleuze, Jousse.

Film History II

Let me relate two moments in my current film history class which has primarily concentrated on the silent period and is informed by a chronological structure.

I had been showing a number of films from the Soviet period: StrikeOktoberThe man with a movie camera. After these, I had planned to show Murnau’s The last laugh, to be followed by his Nosferatu. While I was watching the Vertov, I began to think of Marker’s Le tombeau d’Alexandre (The last bolshevik) for an obvious but also not so obvious reason. The obvious one was that Marker’s film about Medvedkin necessarily reflected on the conditions of film-making in the Soviet Union and aside from considering the situation of Medvedkin, it also spoke about Vertov, Eisenstein and also the writings of Isaac Babel who had worked both with Medvedkin and Eisenstein (Bezhin meadow). The less obvious reason(s) were that Marker’s films structurally recalled the Soviet period, both the film-making of Eisenstein (the circulation of associative clusters and the constancy of recurrence and return) and the film-making of Vertov (the interest in the interval, what lies between images). Thus, I felt compelled to break the chronological line that had been central to the course instead to go forward, to take a leap (to break the historical narrative I had been practicing) toward Marker’s film and that joined up Marker’s way of film-making with procedures in the past to which he related and thus to raise as a result issues about time (historical and narrative-diegetic) and principles of association of images and the association of distant times and thus above all, issues of montage.

The fact of this disruptive move beyond the confines of the narrative of film history that had been set for me and the students established a precedent. If you do it once, why not again. I then showed (dutifully, but enthusiastically) Murnau’s The last laugh and the same thing happened as with Vertov but as a result not simply of viewing the film but having to do with the direction of class discussion. Since Murnau is concerned with destabilising the certainty of what you see (objective and subjective views overlap, images are mediated by being shot through glass, in mirroring relations or by atmospheric mediations and tonal shifts in light), I began to realise that one way of seeing Murnau more clearly was to screen an Antonioni film and then because of the distortions that Murnau initiates, it would be equally productive to show them a Welles and perhaps above all, Welles’ Othello where the moving camera (as it does with Murnau) constructs a labyrinth and a sense of unreality scene rather than a realistic one often claimed for the shot sequence and shooting in depth (and does that not return one or bring one to Bazin?). After all, Bazin speaks of a realistic line that begins in the silent period and so we can take him back there and at the same time take Murnau ahead of himself to Welles which is where Bazin more appropriately began or started his ‘history’!

I would like to suggest taking a chance with these instances in the structuring of Film History II without necessarily institutionalising it. One of the great inheritances of the post-war cinema and of post war theoretical reflection was to deconstruct the forms that had developed in the cinema and to open films up by concentrating less on what was represented by them than on the means by which things were represented (or dissolved) in and in particular to search out places of incoherence, tears, discontinuities. Thus, while it would be impossible to link an Eisenstein with say a Sergio Leone on the basis of subject, temporality, historical context etc, it would be perfectly possible to link them in their dilation of time and on the disruptive function of close-ups. The post-war revolution in thought is also a revolution in historical thinking and the attentiveness to the ways of forming things has permitted us to rupture a linear historical narrative and at the same time to experience relations that would otherwise not be apparent or perceptible.

What I am suggesting therefore is a single semester film history which begins with a rough chronological framework and then deviates form it and does so with the same necessity and unavoidable force as occurred in my lessons because the framework of the chronological is too impoverishing (it does not really work), too much of a constraint (it prevents you from seeing), if you like it is too historically bound and to an epoch that belongs to the invention of great fictional representational narratives of the novel and of historical writing and to which the history of the cinema has been an heir while the cinema, at its best, has moved in quite another direction.

Our students, both production and cinema studies, confuse the contemporary with the modern, the contemporary being simply that which is now current and that for the most part, at least for the American cinema, is more in the past than ever was Sergei Eisenstein. I think a course such as this which does not consign the works of the cinema to the past (to be passed by, “that’s history”), but that instead finds a means to resurrect the past and its films by forming relations between films and fragments of them with other films of different times and places gives back to the students this historical past by suggesting a view of history that is neither illustrative, chronological, linear, representational, but instead is exemplary, associative, open and containing all manner of relations and the force and energy of these.


The course will focus on four areas:

  1. Early montage practices: Porter, Griffith, Eisenstein, Vertov, Kuleshov.
  2. Montage technologies: the changes in technologies of editing to include digital technology.
  3. Montage practices.
  4. Debates about montage.

The first two areas are self-evident; the other two require some explanation.

Montage practices

This will be a discussion of ‘types’ of montage: ‘classical’, associative and discursive. The discussion will centre on the work of various directors whose films can be roughly identified with these types: for the classical (Anthony Mann, Hitchcock, John Ford); for the associative (Eisenstein, Marker, Resnais, Godard); for the discursive (Godard, Straub, Pasolini).

Debates about montages

There are two central figures in the debates about montage: André Bazin and Sergei Eisenstein. The debates involve issues about representation, interpretation, reality, manipulation, intellectual content. And they also involve, in the case of Bazin and many of those who wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, a view of cinema in which editing except for the most descriptive of uses would be reduced in favour of techniques that would minimise the need to fragment time and space: the use of depth of field, CinemaScope, the favouring of shots of long duration, the favouring of the shot-sequence, privileging of camera movements and lens manipulations (the zoom, panning, tracking), that is, the privileging of the act of filming, and setting into scene (mise en scène) rather than an exclusive reliance on editing. The figures central to this debate and who were a point of reference (merited or not) included Welles, Renoir, Wyler, Rossellini.

The questions and issues raised went well beyond the period of the 1950s when they were argued and positions were taken. Certainly, they are in question in relation to the films of Cassavetes, Resnais, Rohmer, Fuller and later of Snow and Warhol, and they become especially pertinent with the films of Godard and his writings about editing in particular referring to Anthony Mann, Preminger, Mankiewicz and Ingmar Bergman. Whereas Bazin took the view that both the approach to montage by Eisenstein (associative, discursive) and that of the classical cinema (analytic) were in their different ways disruptions of the integrity of the real represented on the screen, Godard saw editing as a way of revealing realities hidden in images while at the same time having a view of reality less tied to notions of representation and duplication.

Film Theory

Almost all the undergraduate courses offered at UCF in Cinema Studies are survey courses. For example, higher level courses on Italian Film, or Black Cinema, or Genre are fundamentally survey courses even if their degree of generality is less than that for Cinema Survey. Overall, the programme is a series of survey courses (survey upon survey) and there is little carry over or integration between courses nor is there a sequencing of courses into a programme. Indeed, the programme is no more than this collection of discrete courses, almost unrelated one to the other and few if any of which pursue ideas or positions in depth. There is almost no relation between Italian Film and Black Cinema or Genre and French Cinema, or Documentary and German Cinema, and so on. I believe that we need to find points of intersection between courses and that these need to be clear and articulated enabling students to learn about the cinema in a more thorough and comprehensive way.

This paper is no more than a series of suggestions for our existing two courses in Film Theory, Film Theory I, II.

I don’t know precisely what is taught in these classes or how things are taught, but I am assuming that film theory as practised treats of various theoretical positions taken by the ‘classical’ film theorists whose names we all know (Bazin, Metz, Deleuze, Kracauer), are probably presented in some kind of chronological order, and are concerned with various theoretical or apparently theoretical issues (authorship, semiotics, structuralism).

I want to offer an alternative approach and one that more directly relates to other suggested courses and can usefully integrate theory and the practical work done by students.

What follows is admittedly sketchy and is presented for discussion only

Film Theory I

This course proposes the study of film theory as articulated by filmmakers (written, published, argued, stated). The theoretical propositions put forward by them have immediate relevance to their films and have a more general relevance to the cinema. What they propose is directly related to practical problems in making films.

The theories put forward by filmmakers represent different orders of relevance and concern. Here are some examples.

Some have invented new concepts: the encounter (Bresson, Rohmer), the interval (Vertov), intellectual montage (Eisenstein). Some have created new systems: language and the image (Eisenstein), the cinematograph (Bresson). Others have engaged directly with the relation of the image and the visible (Godard, Tarkovski, Brakhage, Frampton, Kubelka); some with the relation of the visible to reality (Pasolini, Rossellini, Grierson); some with the image and writing (Duras, Resnais, Astruc, Cocteau, Pasolini); some with spectacle and the audience (Hitchcock, Eisenstein, Fassbinder, Lang); some with ideology and social responsibilities (Grierson, Rossellini, Godard, Nicholas Ray, Rouch, Straub); still others with film and theatre (Rivette, Renoir, Bergman, Welles).

These are examples only. Other names could be suggested and other combinations and themes pursued. The important thing is to see film as a critical and theoretical practice and to regard filmmakers as practitioners of ideas about film and about the cinema in their filmmaking.

One of the reasons for instituting such a course is to get students to see the intimate connections between ideas about film and film practices especially important for students pursuing a production path, and equally important for those in cinema studies so that they might see ideas as specific to working in film and be aware that working on film is (or can be) a theoretical enterprise (certainly a critical one). These positions would be further strengthened by the practical component of this course.

Film Theory II

It is important for students to have a knowledge of the major theoretical traditions in the area of film. What I believe we should try to do in Film Theory II is to build upon the assumptions and approaches in Film Theory I while concentrating on those who have been considered important theorists of the cinema.

This would reverse things slightly. In Film Theory I students will have studied filmmakers as theorists centred on issues that are theoretical in nature (eg the visible and reality). What I would like to propose for Film Theory II are areas of film practice to which the major theorists in film have contributed, that is with filmmakers we have made theory pre-eminent while with theorists, we are making film practices pre-eminent.

For example, say we organise the course on theory in relation to distinct film practices: montage, mise en scène, the shot and the moving camera, sound, direction. These aspects of the cinema would be considered theoretically, that is, the manner in which they have been theorised. If we take montage as one of the units of the course, we might consider the ideas and writings of Bazin, Eisenstein, Metz; while for mise en scène, we might consider the writings of Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s, and Mitry, Aumont; for the shot and the moving camera we might engage with the writings of Mitry, Aumont, Deleuze, Zavattini; for sound with Chion, Eisenstein, Godard; for direction with Sarris, Truffaut, Bazin, Barthes, Bresson, Foucault.

The important point here is not the specific aspects we choose or the theorists we decide are most relevant to illuminate these aspects, but rather to engage in practice-based and film-based choices for our theoretical directions, concentrating on these rather than with systems of ideas in order to see how theoretical propositions have engaged with distinct filmic practices.


1. Mise en scène and la politique des auteurs, etc

Sound comes to the cinema at the end of the 1920s. Its immediate impact was to theatricalise films in the worst sense. Film became subject to the word, to the script, to dialogue that tended to immobilise camera and actors and immobilise the films Much of cinema in the early years of sound was a staging and recording of the script and literary works. Films were talkies. It was only with Lang, Welles and Renoir that there was a sound cinema.

As the coming of sound altered the cinema in a backward direction in relation to the fluidity of films of the 1920s, the theatre was changing in an opposite direction: stagecraft, movement of actors, gestures, lighting, physical expression, costuming, in short, the visual aspects of theatre became as important if not more so than the word in the staging of theatrical works. As the cinema became ‘theatricalised’ and subject to the word in the early 1930s, theatre was, in the same period, ‘cinematised’, moving closer than sound films did to the early history of the cinema before the introduction of sound.

The cinema of the 1930s, was constituted pre-eminently by films of story that depended for their sense on dialogue (as in the theatre) binding the audience, imaginatively, into dialogic exchanges between characters: the famous suturing by shot and counter-shot.

The radicalism of the theatre compared to the conservatism of the cinema in the early 1930s mirrored a situation from the first years of the cinema’s history. It was in this period that filmed theatre became particularly evident in the French cinema (Film d’art): the staging and essentially photographing on stage famous literary and classical works. Filmed theatre was in essence a caricature of the theatre: exaggerated gestures, an immobile camera, long takes, dull sets. It was theatre without sound.

The term mise en scène began to be used in France for new theatrical practices in the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth to denote a more ‘naturalist’, sensual, physical and visual theatre than the theatre preceding it. Interestingly, the great period and splendour of Italian lyric opera coincides with the new naturalism in the theatre and its visual emphasis on mise en scène (the works of Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti), a melodramatic theatre of spectacle with music.

This is the period of lyric opera that Luchino Visconti revived in Italy after 1945, restoring Italian lyric opera to the operatic repertoire (and whose forms he translated into his films). He injected into lyric opera a strong realistic and melodramatic sense and great attention to detail of setting and costume, performance, movement, colour and gesture rather than what had prevailed, that of singers woodenly standing before dull sets facing the audience. Visconti made music and voice dynamic by they dynamism and colour of his staging as he, at the same time, and almost single-handed, made ‘visual’ the ‘literary’ and text-based performances of Italian theatre.

It is not difficult to understand in this context the revolution in cinema marked by the works of Griffith and Eisenstein due to the fluidity, movement and energy of their films and the specifically cinematic and visual means of cinema that they developed. Griffith and Eisenstein brought the cinema from out of its (poor) theatrical imitations. Quite literally, they invented the cinema. Both initially had come from the theatre, Eisenstein from the avant-garde theatre of Proletkult and Meyerhold; Griffith from the excesses of popular melodrama.

The notion of mise en scène applied to the cinema has perhaps never lost its original theatrical reference to mean primarily the reciting of a text by actors on a stage to include their entrances and exits. When the term was revived by French film critics after the war, most vigorously by the critics belonging to the French Nouvelle vague and expressed in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma and Présence du cinéma, it was done so polemically (like the notion of the auteur to which was linked).

Mise en scène is nothing very specific. In general, it denotes a new attitude to the cinema opposed to the literary, and primarily montage/découpage, dialogue-based (classical) cinema of the 1930s that turned scripts into images, essentially a cinema of illustration. Mise en scène, as used by the Nouvelle vague critics referred to a specifically ‘cinematic’ and natural, realistic rendering of emotion and expression conveyed less by dialogue and the script, than by decor, performance, expression linked to the actor, to his movements and gestures, also to settings and the use of the camera and lighting.

What the French critics appreciated was a new conjunction between cinema with a radicalised theatre, hence their enthusiasm for Jean Cocteau and Sacha Guitry. The fact that they celebrated the American cinema was because in America that conjunction was most evident. Many of the directors they appreciated came directly from the new theatre of the 1930s in the United States, for example, theatrical figures like Orson Welles, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, Anthony Mann, Elia Kazan or the German and Austrian émigrés to the United States whose initial work in theatre in Europe was with the new theatre associated with Max Reinhardt, for example, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger. Jean Renoir, a crucial figure for the Nouvelle vague, had had links with French avant-garde theatre, notably with the work of André Antoine who had dusted off the concept of mise en scène.

While the sound cinema historically displaces the silent one, the French Nouvelle vague restores to the cinema its full history and in doing so restores the silent cinema to sound. Mise en scène, with its stress on visual and cinematic means is an instrument in that important restoration and resurrection of the past in the present. With the Nouvelle vague the whole of the cinema becomes modern.

The Cinémathèque of Henri Langlois was crucial in this regard. It was the Sorbonne of the Nouvelle vague. It was at the Cinémathèque that the history of the cinema could be seen and was seen and not in a particular order. Not only were films of different periods screened side by side, but such juxtapositions in programming were polemical: effectively, the films were all made thereby to be contemporary to each other.

Mise en scène was both an insistence on what might be called (though difficult to define) the ‘specificity of the cinema’ and a redefinition of the cinema as an art of bodies in ‘real’, ‘true’ settings to reveal the beauty of the world, of the real, of persons (the importance in the period, indeed the golden age, of the body and the outdoors, particularly in the American cinema of the western, film noir, and the musical and the privileging in fact and in criticism of these kinds of films and modes of film-making that preserved the integrity of this notion of the real by depth of field, CinemaScope, a moving camera, cranes, the zoom).

It was false to think that this kind of film-making was opposed to montage (an absurd idea, as Bazin acknowledged), because it was ‘whole’ and respectful of reality while montage was discontinous and fragmentary and thus disrespectful of the real. The opposition was not to montage as such but to certain practices of it where continuities seemed falsely created, at odds in the editing with the mise en scène. Godard, for example, originally an editor himself, saw montage as an instrument to bring out and highlight gestures and expression present in mise en scène, respecting it, not confounding it. For him there was no conflict between the two. The films of Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray and certainly, Orson Welles, testified to this and that Godard was at pains to demonstrate.

Let me reiterate: Ray, Welles, Kazan, Mann, Losey, Visconti, Preminger, Wilder, Lubitsch are primarily men of the theatre at a time in the 1930s when theatre, especially in America, was, along with painting, one of the most radical (politically and aesthetically) artistic pursuits as opposed to the a conservative, populist cinema. The theatre, to which these men belonged , was innovative and experimental in a direction of greater realism and of a visual sense, that is, it was like what the cinema would become when these young men began to interest themselves in film, precisely at the moment when the classical system and the studios that underpinned them began to crumble.

This is Jean-Luc Godard in an article in Cahiers du cinéma in 1957 on Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood:

If the cinema no longer existed, Nicholas Ray alone gives the impression of being capable of reinventing it, and what is more, of wanting to. While it is easy to imagine John Ford as an admiral, Robert Aldrich on Wall Street, Anthony Mann on the trail of Belliou la Fumée or Raoul Walsh as a latter-day Henry Morgan under Caribbean skies, it is difficult to see the director of Run for cover doing anything but make films. A Logan or a Tashlin, for instance, might make good in the theatre or music-hall, Preminger as a novelist, Brooks as a school teacher, Cukor in advertising – but not Nicholas Ray. Were the cinema suddenly cease to exist, most directors would in no way be at a loss; Nicholas Ray would. After seeing Johnny Guitar or Rebel without a cause, one cannot but feel that here is something which exists only in the cinema, which would be nothing in a novel, the stage, or anywhere else, but which becomes fantastically beautiful on the screen.

Nicholas Ray’s themes (betrayal, loyalty, fragility, violence) are primarily realised physically and visually, that is within the framework of what the Nouvelle Vague called mise en scène. In In a lonely place, Ray concentrates on the unbalanced, unstable relation between Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame with its temporary and precious momentary harmonies and joys (love). The path of that relation and the risk and explosiveness of it is conveyed by Ray in primarily three ways: one by capturing shifts in expression and gesture (from tenderness to jealousy, from ease to violence, from violence to remorse, for example, in the film, the bright chintzy atmosphere when Gloria Grahame visits the home of the wife of the policeman and then the darkness that overcomes her and the scene as she confesses her fear of Bogart, a close-up dimming the screen and blotting out bright surroundings) and by the composition of shots (the graphic clash of lines and movement, an architecture in movement and contrast, for example the horizontals at the beach picnic and the sense of calm and then suddenly a change of temper in Bogart and the screen as it is suddenly criss-crossed by verticals and chaotic, intense, restless movement and the wild, dangerous drive of Bogart that results in a violence that exhausts itself and is distended) and by the rhythm and contrasts of the editing (a sense of unfinished, unconcluded shots, fragmented and discontinous, of action only at its highest point, literally ‘caught’, or the play between the purely informational, ‘documentary’ scenes in the police station cut with the ‘fictional’ agitation elsewhere, the ‘documentary’ part, as if external to the ‘fictional’ part, nevertheless the instrument of its entrapment, squeezing it, crushing in and cornering Bogart until, literally, there is no more space). Johnny Guitar and Rebel without a cause are perfect examples of this sense of the exterior world pressing in on the characters resulting in a final and emotionally exhausting violence and realised primarily visually and architecturally.

It is these aspects of Ray’s films, closely related to improvisation in the acting and in the shooting (albeit improvisation in rehearsal then finally decided upon and set into the structure of the film) that accounts for their power, not the script or the dialogue. In his films, it is what you see and the way you see it not what is said that is crucial, for example, the nearly wordless destruction of the relation between the two lovers at the end In a lonely place in contrast to the wordiness and dullness of the setting and static acting taking place in the police station where the police captain reports on the real murderer (it is the enclosed and conflicting lines of the shots in the scene in the apartment and the way Bogart speaks and looks that is crucial whereas in the police station, where everything is squared and balanced, what matters is only what is said and the plainness of the surroundings and the directness of the shooting of it) or, as in On dangerous ground, the visual and physical constitution of the relation between Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan as they grope towards each other in a play by Ray on sight and blindness as objects are overturned and the enclosed space of the house forces them closer, not as in In a lonely place, from tenderness to violence, but rather a growing tenderness from out of violence, and of a fragility that is not only a quality of the characters but a quality of the films in which they find themselves and where everything, at every moment, is fragile, precious and at stake. And you can see it, literally sense it and smell it. It is the scent of the new cinema of mise en scène.

La politique des auteurs represented a position worked out by Nouvelle vague critics in the pages of the Cahiers du cinéma in the 1950s and 1960s. It was best articulated, perhaps, by François Truffaut. The position has been generally adhered to by the Cahiers du cinéma up until the present. It has been vulgarised and misunderstood by many, particularly by academics and critics like Andrew Sarris in the English-speaking world since La politique des auteurs was formulated in the 1950s until it has come to mean nothing much more than the privileging (obvious and banal) of the supposed pre-eminence of the film director in shaping a film. In these terms there is an auteur for every film leading to a situation where a master like Alfred Hitchcock can be equalised with a mediocrity like Martin Scorsese, all auteurs. From having been a critical category, it has become a commercial one, especially so in the English-speaking world where the intellectual substance and historical context of La politique des auteurs has been almost totally evacuated (along with mise en scène).

La politique des auteurs was not primarily about film directors (auteurs), but about films (oeuvres). It was a radical and ‘modernist’ position. The central aspects of the cinema historically as perceived by the Cahiers du cinéma critics and especially true for them of the American cinema, was the concern for story and significance. In this kind of cinema, film techniques and specifically cinematic means were subordinated to narrative and representational ends, that is, mise en scène was secondary to story, plot and the narrative. Representation included the representation of beauty that in Hollywood meant desirable feminine women, handsome strong men, a gorgeous sunset, a touching sentiment, or a harmonious composition.

Fundamentally, such films were illustrated stories constructed to be clear, immediately understood, and life-like, hence their stuctures, easily followed of causality and consequence and an emphasis on action to overcome difficulties and attain ends (success). Motivations were internal to characters (psychological) and life-like reality made effortlessly recognisable. All conflicts were well defined, well developed and resolved in a satisfying manner to make things as comprehensible as possible to an audience and therefore, whatever those ends may have been, secure and comforting and everything was pared down to essentials without any disturbing elaborate or extraneous (to the narrative) detail. These films were immensely ‘economic’. Construction was simplified, without nuance or distraction to help guarantee a strong (and instant) psychological identification. (This was true even for film noir with its apparent insecurities, but insecurities in films whose structures were secure unlike the use of film noir by Orson Welles in Touch of evil and The lady from Shanghai where the conventions are not so much an instrument than they are a subject criticised and broken apart and the film, by its construction, is disquieting).

The French critics were less interested in the stories told or the significances wrought than they were in the cinematic renderings of them (mise en scène). The appearance of these stories (or versions of them) in the films that the French critics came to make appeared not in their naturalist or narrative innocence but as parodies, citations, examples, fragments and traces of what in the narrative and representational cinema was kept intact, whole, unified, consistent and apparently realistic, that is, they the French films, it was not life-like stories that appeared but examples of story from the cinema and marked as such thus dividing the films as concrete entities from the represenations they presented, causing a gap and crisis between image and representation. In other words, these stories appeared as matters of style, of mise en scène. Their stories were not realistic but cinematic, evidence of a stylistic effort not an indication of a world. In the French films then images were as if exterior to the world that was pointed to or cited as opposed to creating a make-believe world into which an audience could happily enter and identify with and where the film and the reality it represented were made as if one and unified by the fact that the film was effaced by the stories and worlds it created.

Cahiers du cinéma criticism of American films, it appreciated, seldom concerned itself with the stories of these films, their characters, psychological motivation or thematic sense, but instead concentrated on qualities like movement, placement, the use of the camera, editing procedures, sound, lighting, performance, composition, aspects that these films tended to make invisible for the sake of the believability of their stories and that the French critics rendered and that had the effect of compromising believability. It is not difficult to see, in the circumstances, the critical and radical implications of authorship so conceived in terms of mise en scène. It was the (second?) birth of the cinema that revitalised the whole of it by changing the terms in which film might be thought. In doing so, it literally made the Lumières, Hitchcock and Godard all brothers in the house of the cinema, some on one floor, others on another.

The Cahiers critics valued in the American cinema its classical forms (clarity, transparency, lucidity, logic) but not its classical consequences (beauty, representation, significance). Hawks and Hitchcock were admired for their renderings, cinematically speaking, and not for what was rendered, representationally speaking. It was when the Cahiers critics recognised a cinematic film in these terms (by its mise en scène) that they declared that it was a film by an auteur particularly if the cinematicity was consistent over a body of work.

English-speaking and predominantly American criticism of film (with few but notable exceptions) has found its authors not in the forms of their films but in their sentiments (psychology), significance (meaning) and representational content (stories), in other words, that criticism has upheld and sustained a kind of film-making that is at best a poor reflection of a classicism that has since past and that the French critics appreciated and subverted, recognising (often with nostalgia) the pastness of a classicism that could no longer be sustained or revisited but that they ‘modernised’ by concentrating on the style of these films, how they were made.

What the French opened and moved forward, an English-speaking practice has closed down in a terrible reversion and especially in the university. It has led to cultural and contextual studies that crowd the pages of publishers catalogues where the wonder and specifities of film have been reduced to historical, theoretical or social-cultural categories (as ‘explanations’ that are at best sufficient only). These studies have been unable to respond to what is best and most interesting in the cinema and what is truly wonderful about it and thereby difficult to categorise: the truly new and different and often, thereby, the impossible, the unthinkable, and the unspeakable.

Academic studies have tended to be theoretical, exhaustive, and reductive. A great and more productive critical view and practice has been lost, rejected or forgotten (that of the Cahiers, for example) and with it what is valuable and inventive in the cinema and that guarantees its future, the future that la politique des auteursgave witness to, not in a merely nostalgic revival of the past (the classics) but in a resurrection of it by making it the subject of their critical awareness. Fundamentally, they gave classicism its due and in the same gesture brought it and all films into the modern.

Most American film in its current phase and most American, Australian and British academics and critics in their current practices have vulgarised that past denying the cinema hope or future beyond a commercial one and denying the study of film its complexity, mystery, artistry and creativity. Instead, what prevails is a celebration of banality and the conformity that belongs to it.

2. Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

The transparent

Most film images have an anecdotal reference (the story) and a visual one (the image). The film image refers to something else (a reality, a fiction) and, insofar as it is noticeable, it refers to itself, its shape, design, lighting, angle of view.

It had become a rule in the cinema after the advent of sound (1927), particularly in the American cinema, to create a transparent image, that is, an image whose primary function was to illustrate the anecdote, as if the image was no more than a clear glass or window through which you saw reality and surrounding that reality was a greater reality that the image at once assumed and masked. Thus, the anecdote effaced the image that constructed it, a making believe that the image was not there and in its stead was a world of persons, places, events, objects.

Such transparency was less marked in the cinema before the coming of sound then after it. Before sound, however important were events and action in the cinema, the lack of a voice forced filmmakers to make the image speak, to intrude itself, in order to make action and story comprehensible. This gave the cinema before sound an unreal quality that derived from the fact that however much transparency may have been desirable, its achievement was never completely possible. Thus you had a cinema whose images were expressive and present and insofar as that was so, the cinema before sound was not only less realistic, less transparent then the sound cinema that succeeded it, but more apparently ‘artistic’, more manipulated, more ‘image’, if you like. The less realistic was only disadvantageous if transparency and a resulting realism was considered an end for the cinema. It was a decided advantage, however, because it gave images a life of their own to a degree independent of what images might serve merely to illustrate and to represent.

The opaque

Imagine a scale of images that at one end are images of complete transparency (a window) and at the other end of complete opacity.

The transparent image in a narrative film does not stand alone but is linked in a continuum with other images where the key to the linkage between one image and the next is the action and drama represented and the logic inherent in such actions, one leading to the next. Transparency then assumes in a film a narrative logic of consequence and succession, of before and after, tied closely to actions that are being represented.

The opaque image is not an image in which you do not see, but an image that you cannot understand. It too belongs to a continuum or a series of images but their linkage is not apparent, at least not in terms of the action or objects represented. Between one image and the next there might be a substantial temporal or spatial gap and that gap might be so extreme that it is difficult and even impossible to find an accord or an association between images or a representational reference that might unify and connect them. Thus, in a situation of such extreme opacity, the image stands out as strongly and as forcefully as representation stands out in the image of transparency.

The permeable

Neither the transparent nor the opaque are absolutes – there are degrees and more or less to both of these positions.

In the late 1950s, a group of French critics, later to become filmmakers, who wrote for the French film magazineCahiers du cinéma, began to discover or emphasise ‘auteurs‘, ‘authors’ in the cinema in general and in the American cinema in particular. The American cinema was a cinema of transparency above all. To declare or notice authorship in American films was to notice something else than its transparency and its anecdotes. Authorship was the notification of marks on the film, of shaping and composing, of filming, framing, designing, putting into scene (mise en scène), and these marks, by constituting a presence in films, constituted a tear in the smoothness of its anecdotal surface, a flaw or crack in its window of transparency, a flaw that was not only a mark of authorship, but in being so, a mark of representing, of signifying, of enunciation.

Critically (and artistically) this was a revolution. It shifted a view of the cinema from being one of representations to being one of forms. The force and importance of Cahiers criticism and the critical tradition it helped to create, still current today, was in its attentiveness to form in its relation to representation and thus in the talking about film by Cahiers, it was that relation that was primarily spoken of. If other critics elsewhere spoke of stories, the Cahiers critics spoke of shots, of montage, of mise en scène. Effectively, Cahiers criticism dislodged the primacy of representation (transparency) by asserting the primacy of the cinema, the presence of film and its means, and not simply a means for creating a fictional world but also a means for reflecting on itself and relating to itself: to images rather than actions, to film rather than drama, to the drama of film rather than a drama of persons, to cinema not stories. This was the first time that conditions were met for a ‘true’ (véritable) history of the cinema.

This difference in perspective has had incalcuable consequences.

In 1957, Cahiers selected F W Murnau’s Sunrise as the greatest film ever made. This selection indicated that the film best exemplified the critical positions and hence film taste of the journal. Not a single critic of the journal could avoid speaking about Sunrise and thereby Murnau, and obsessively. If Hitchcock or Mitzoguchi or Jean Rouch or Griffith or Howard Hawks or Nicholas Ray were mentioned it was always in association with or comparison with Murnau and his Sunrise.

In general, in all of Murnau’s films, it is impossible not to be aware of the images he creates: the lighting effects, the dazzling movements of his camera, the sense of atmosphere and an unreal, phantasmagoric sense that however never strays too far from the concreteness of place, expressions, movement, objects, at once the very real and everyday on the one hand and the fantastic and impalpable on the other. It is as if, every object and action is charged with the unreality of imaginings, as if the world was impalpable by becoming an image of fantasy (of the characters, of the spectators), and in the case of his films, an image of desire, every description becoming erotic, charged, pulsating and hence unstable as if the film were the product of a madness or drunkenness or dream.

When his camera moves, for example in Sunrise, to follow a ride on the tram, it is also a journey in thought, sentiment, desire, release and of darkness into light, in effect a journey of the transformations of images, at once subjective and objective, the real and the projected, of light transfiguring objects (moonlight, lightening, lanterns, sunrise, sunset) and of objects casting light and shadows. The journey in the tram does not illustrate an idea but embodies it and the journey includes the physical movement of the tram, its positioning, the shift in light and a movement of the camera that at once records and is labyrinthine, bringing to light and making ambiguous and thereby unsettling.

It is impossible in this degree of unsettlement, transfiguration, shift between real and imagined, reality and its images, to be satisfied or secure in the anecdote for the anecdote includes the sensations of the image.

What is extraordinary about Murnau’s films and all the images that compose them is their contaminated, uncertain status. The atmosphere within which his characters move seem to invade them, permeate them, until the characters become that atmosphere and the atmosphere becomes them and together they both become the vibrations of light that bring them into being, carry them along and might extinguish them as light destroys Nosferatu and darkness descends on the Last Man in the hotel toilet and the islander in Tabu disappearing in the darkness and depths of the sea, and that flickers with darkness, with blackness, making insubstantial every solidity for Ansass in Sunrise. It is not simply an adventure that has been traversed in Sunrise, but a cosmogony.

The entire surface of Murnau’s images, in their least details, in every moment of their projection seems composed and shaped and expressive. The power of the image, not divorced from what is represented (neither illustrative and transparent nor abstract and opaque), speaks and tells in its own right, affects an audience as much as the marsh or the city lights affect Ansass. The film becomes a visual opera, an orchestration of settings and light, a piece made of mise en scène. It is an absolute of permeability: the image envelops the representation yet can never do without it and seems, when viewing, nearly perfect and therefore indescribable. There are no words adequate to Murnau as if while provoking criticism, it silences it, making every utterance as unstable and uncertain, as prone to disappearance, as his images of things are. Only comparisons, analogies are possible, but nothing direct. As light comes up in his films, as the sun rises, everything changes and as it goes down into dusk and darkness, everything changes as well, including the image whose substance is light, not merely an image ‘of’, neither opaque nor transparent, something else, luminous perhaps or translucent.

There is perhaps no more beautiful sunrise in the entire history of the cinema than the sunrise that concludes Murnau’s Nosferatu, except perhaps the dawn in Sunrise.

3. Sergei Eisenstein

The battleship Potemkin begins with a small incident. The crew of the battleship is dissatisfied with the beef they are fed. It is crawling with maggots (magnified in close-up). This beginning is not unlike the small beginning ofStrike where a worker’s micrometer is stolen.

In each film the initial incident is built into larger and larger units ending in the one case with the uprising of the battleship, joined by the town of Odessa, then supported by the entire Russian Black Sea fleet, while and in the other, the film ends with the revolt of the entire factory and the slaughter of the workers by the cossack cavalry.

The dilation or enlargement works in various ways.

In Potemkin, especially, it is an explosive effect, not one thing leading to another, but rather the fact that interior to an event are stresses and strains that over extend it as if a detail condenses many things. Pressures cause these to collide, to heat up, expand, swell, blow, energise, then suddenly to ignite (“Suddenly”…). Each image of the film is volatile, compressive…and unstable.

If, it can be said, that in the smallest detail (a maggot) resides a conflagration (a revolution), it can equally be said that the revolution, the grand event, encompasses the most banal and infinitesmal occurrences.

There are four immediately noticeable aspects to this compacting and condensing of forces and their absorption and envelopment.

The first is a disparity: maggots and revolution.

The second is a construction. The events are not exactly consequential, a logic of before and after, of succession, but rather assembled and the assemblage is made evident (not natural). What occurs may be necessary, but it is seldom logical.

The third is a binding. This is achieved by association. Associations can be distant in time and distant spatially. For example, Vakulinchuk, the leader of the mutiny on the Potemkin, is shot by an officer and becomes a detail that contains ‘everything’, like the maggots (he is put on display on the shore). Vakulinchuk is fished out of the sea and lovingly taken up into the arms of his shipmates. This act, later echoed during the slaughter on the Odessa Steps when the mother gathers her son who has been shot by the cossacks, resonates and creates other resonances, that of children to mothers, of children of the Revolution, of the 1905 revolt the child of a later Revolution (October 1917), and the sailors in their hammocks, like babies, like the baby in the pram on the steps, like Vakulinchuk lying in state. The townspeople on the Odessa Steps, including this mother, are running down the steps, helter skelter fleeing the ordered cadence of the cossacks also descending firing on them. The mother turns, finds her son, reverses direction, walks upwards against the flow of the others in flight (they halt) and against the cossacks (who also halt) and she appeals to them in a moment of silence, of reversal, of an arrest and stoppage. This act is not alone. It too echoes and resonates most dramatically with the soldiers on board the Potemkin arrayed in a firing line like the cossacks on the steps, their rifles poised, and who stop, and this time, do not fire, and the uprising proceeds, the soldiers join the sailors like the townspeople will join the ship.

The disparity of maggots and revolution belongs to an internal disparity, certainly a conflict, contained in every shot. From the beginning of the film, Eisenstein constructs series of shots along graphic lines and lines of movement. Ships, sailboats move horizontally left to right, right to left and sometimes are shot vertically downwards or vertically upwards and the same is true with the movement of crowds particuarly the case with the gathering of the townspeople around the bier of Vakulinchuk and then the scene on the steps. The directions are criss-crossed (as with hammocks and hammocks like the setting of plates on suspended tables and suspended tables like the imaginary sailors that will be executed by hanging and the hanging of Vakulinchuk on the rigging after he is shot and before his fall and the hanging of the pince-nez of the officer who is thrown overboard and the spectacles of the woman who is shot in the eye and the waving of a lorgnette on the steps by a woman in a veil) so that a downward movement is met by an upward one and boats sailing in one direction in one shot are sailing in an opposite direction in the successive one (during the gathering of the townspeople with provisions for the Potemkin).

Direction, stasis, calm, quiet and expectation are the constituents of the final scene of the fleet sailing against the Potemkin then joining it, releasing it and the Revolution further gathers dimension thereby as it does in the entire film and as the entire film and all its events (including their depiction) come together and coalesce, not a natural unity but a conscious one (“One for All and All for One”). Each of the five movements of the film repeat each other and return to one another at different (higher) levels of scale, of elaboration and extended inclusiveness. Thus, the first movement (like an orchestral partition) is one of calm and violence and each successive movement expounds this one, as defeat becomes victory, mourning turns to joy, suppression to response and anquish to deliverance. The structure is symphonic, carefully clustered and composed.

The fourth is a matter or correspondences. There is an apparent development and continuity in Eisenstein’s early films, but these continuities do not belong to a natural course of the action but rather to a correspondence between shots. The sequence at the Odessa Steps is one of the most dramatic and famous in The battleship Potemkin and possibly over the whole of Eisenstein’s work, but it is not exceptional in its structure compared to other sequences in that film and to other films as well.

The Odessa steps sequence has a number of features relating to the organisation of time and of space dependent on procedures of montage and the composition of shots. Many of the shots are repeated so that at various points of what appears to be a natural progression the progression is reversed as surely as the mother who (momentarily) halts the downward movement of the cossacks. The repetitions are interruptions (to action) but function as echoes of other actions, as amplifications and insistencies that thereby break with succession and any direct consequences of action.

Griffith’s parallel alternations are always chronological and essentially linear. Eisenstein’s parallelisms are seldom successive or chronological in this way and are not composed to the time of action (interior to the film) but by an abstract time of the film (exterior to it). Fragments (shots) are not joined to create a continuity nor do they refer to an interior unity of which the fragment is an essential part, but rather correspond to a need to demonstrate a relation or organise a significance.

It is interesting to speculate on the various ruptures or discontinuities engineered in Eisenstein’s films. Griffith makes unities of fragments. He joins shots in a manner to mask or efface the join and emphasise instead a natural progression. Eisenstein proceeds by breaks so that a repetition dilates time and resists progression while correspondences and associations create links beyond time and beyond a line of before and after. And they create relations of tempo, rhythm and rhyming independent of action and often, as in the case of the Odessa Steps, a marked distortion, an excess and over emphasis.

No shot in an Eisenstein film is ever complete because it reappears either analogically (babies in arms), or graphically (the clash of graphic lines), or in luminosity or by a contrast of beats and movements (the steps, the hammocks, descents, ascents). The incompleteness of every shot (just to be sure, the shot is often ruptured by a successive one, a close-up held too long, or a distant association suddenly evoked, or an action that has no logical precedent, or an action that is beyond the frame), its lack of finish, sustains it, like a held note or a memory that never completely fades, throughout the film, and when it is met again in an echo, it is never quite same. The echo does not conclude any shot, but reopens it, causes it to reverberate, a resurrection.

The reverberation by the fact of it is not only constructed and exterior to the action but exteriorises every shot as being at once within the diegetic boundaries of the film and going beyond it.

Every shot, sequence of shots, series of sequences and entire films have two directions. One is toward the reality it depicts and the other toward the composition and enunciation of that depiction. In a practice of transparency, the latter direction is masked to the point of effacement. When Eisenstein writes of conflicts within shots and exemplifies such conflicts in his film-making, they refer to this double direction, of an interior natural logic of representation and an exterior construction that makes use of the realities represented, presses upon them, extends them bringing them into a beyond of themselves addressed to us.

4. Samuel Fuller

Les jeunes cinéastes américains n’ont rien à dire, et Sam Fuller encore moins que les autres. Il a quelque chose à faire, et il le fait, naturellement, sans se forcer. Ce n’est pas un mince compliment: nous détestons les philosophes manqués qui font du cinéma malgré le cinéma et y répètent les découvertes des autres arts, ceux qui veulent exprimer un sujet digne d’intérêt par un certain style artistique. Si vous avez quelque chose à dire, dites-le, écrivez-le, prêchez si vous voulez, mais fichez-vous la paix.

Luc Moullet (Cahiers du cinéma n93 march 1959)

[The young American film-makers have nothing to say, and Sam Fuller, has less to say than the others. He has something to do and he does it, easily, effortlessly. This is no mean compliment: we detest unsuccessful philosophers who make cinema despite the cinema and repeat the achievements of the other arts wanting to express a worthy subject in an artistic way. If you have something to say, say it, write it, preach it if you like, but buzz off and leave us alone.]

Orson Welles, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, Elia Kazan, the new, young American film-makers of the 1940s and 1950s had come to the cinema from theatre that had been radicalised where visual values and ‘reality’ rather than the text and the word had become most important. This theatre was ‘open’, political and social, that is, it brought into it and on stage the immediate realities of the world off-stage, interrogating these elements rather than seeking to resolve them as if the world had entered the theatre.

The combination of a theatre of a radical, often disjunctive and excessive mise en scène with a political and social realism was not only disruptive of the established forms of theatre but exposed the theatre to the unfinished, unpredictable and not easily controlled aspects of what was beyond the stage or interior to a performance (real emotion). What could not be easily governed became principles of staging and of these two in particular need to be stressed: improvisation (an opening up to chance) and collage (different material from different sources – the real/the fictional, the felt/the false – set side by side often in relations of disaccord, imbalance, contradiction, inconsistency, contrast). It was not that this theatre was less ‘formal’ in its concerns than the theatre it was displacing, but rather that the nature of its forms was disruptive and thus rather than simply being assumed and then exercised, the fact that these forms (roughness, lack of finish, obscurity, disjunction) put forms themselves into focus and question, gave their work an experimental tentativeness and edginess.

It was these aspects of theatre that the young directors brought into the cinema and transformed it thereby. You have only to compare the balance, harmony and lucidity of Ford and Hawks against the explosiveness, disharmony, and lack of clarity and completeness in the films of Welles and Ray and also in the films of Anthony Mann and certainly in the work of John Cassavetes.

Samuel Fuller came to the cinema not from theatre with its cultural and literary resonances, but from a world that was more crude, more direct and less cultivated, the world of tabloid journalism and mass media sensationalism. Fuller worked in tabloid journalism from the age of 12 years old, eventually becoming a reporter, then a crime reporter.

What are the marks of this kind of journalism? It is a journalism of impact, sensation, explosiveness, emotion, exaggeration, lack of subtlety, untutored, without fineness, conservative and often reactionary. [The directors, I spoke about, coming from the theatre, came from a theatre that was left-wing, progressive, close to the American Communist Party; Fuller’s work is either militantly apolitical (“Don’t wave the flag at me”) or anti-Liberal, and extremely conservative (not in a pious family value way which seeks to return nostalgically to a non-existent cosy past, but something more coarse, harsh and vulgar and more existential without alibi either cultural, rationalist, ethical or religious)].

If you look at a tabloid newspaper and compare it to a ‘quality’ newspaper like the New York Times or theWashington Post, the immediate visible difference is the uniformity of type face and the balance of lay out in the quality press against the lack of uniformity and imbalance in the sensational press where headlines in extreme bold literally scream out and where the layout is geared to impact, extremism and shock (and often extreme opinions) and where positions rather than being argued are visually put, provocative and didactic rather than reasoned and open. Not only are these tabloid papers arranged visually for outrage and clash and even offense (typographical shifts and variety, an apparent lack of order and harmony) but there is no categorisation of material: faits divers with documents, news and advertising side by side, scandal and fact together. In the quality press, content is emphasised and the style of the paper relatively unobtrusive if not invisible (like classical film editing). In the tabloid press, the style is the content as if what is important is less the news than the image of it and its amplification.

The tabloid press, in crucial, but seemingly contradictory directions, can be linked with aspects characteristic of the ‘modern’ arts in literature, photography and painting. What began to appear in American literature in the early part of the twentieth century in the writings of Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, Booth Tarkington and especially John Dos Passos was a gritty realism that tended to break into the measured and enclosed fictional worlds of the nineteenth century novel (Henry James). With Norris in particular, there is a mix of styles and moods, from documentary to the grotesque while with Dos Passos, the ‘real’ as it enters his novels does so as part of a plurality of different discourses whose connections are obscure. This presence, often intrusive, of the document, of the real, is a new element in fiction and appears in it as if unfictionalised, ‘unfitting’, a jarring, discordant note and thus, to stretch a point historically, what is of moment is less the reality than the stylistic of it which becomes evident because it is a new element and because it jars, thus opening up the novel as an exercise in style primarily as if what you are reading is more a writing than it is a content, exactly the situation with the tabloid press.

Dos Passos (and the films of Welles) present differing views of the same often through distorting lenses or mirrors not unlike the dual strategy of cubism that brought into its collages bits and pieces from the real world but as stylistic and compositional elements, while in its paintings it superimposed different spatial views of the same object, multiplying and repeating the object, disintegrating it on the one hand and reconstructing it as these disunified fragments on the other. The multiple views and perspectives that resulted were more ‘true’ than any singular view, while the fact of this truth was uncomfortable, obscure and distorted, more ‘true’ perhaps and more real as well, but less realistic.

The tabloid press presents a hyperreality as if it is not reality that is its reference, but rather its its image and distortions and enlargements, the unnatural style of it. Fuller’s films and Forty guns in particular have precisely this quality of a reality so extreme that, like Pop Art or a cartoon, comes away from the screen and reality appears less as reality than as an image particularly because Fuller in his attempt to make more real uses techniques of shock, distortion and disruption that call attention not to what is represented but to their manner of presentation. At one and the same time Fuller’s films are intensely realistic but with an intensity and amplitude that unsettles its realism.

In Forty guns, Griff Bonell and his brothers Wes and Chico are out on a road in a desolate landscape stretched across the cinemascope surface of the screen with a dark cloud hovering over the landscape and their buggy. Griff is coming to Tombstone to arrest a man with Wes as his second gun back up. Chico is to be put on the stage to California. Into this landscape, literally cutting it in two and into this project, cutting that in two, is (first heard like a thunderous rumble then seen like a fairy tale vision) is Jessica Drummond on her white horse followed by her dragoons of forty riders all at a gallop. This explosive assault, as suddenly as it arrived, returns to calm (it is a repetitive pattern in the film of stretching things to breaking point than ending them inconclusively to come back to a period of unstable peace).

The three brothers then arrive in Tombstone. What follows is a bath scene that is strange, inventive, unfamiliar and comical. In a brief few moments later, Jessica Drummond’s crazed brother, Brocke comes to town, shoots the (blind) marshal and shoots up the town (disrupting the Bonells in their bath). The Bonells have not entered Tombstone, it seems, but bedlam, insanity, war where identifications are difficult, patterns difficult to discern, where no positions hold, where rational projects are made ambiguous and uncertain and often dangerous (marriage, love, order, security, trust, affection, family ties, vows).

Fuller seldom shoots a scene in medium shot that might allow for an orderly montage of more or less similar dimensions of counter shots and classically take an audience into a fiction and make it part of it (suturing). His scenes are primarily shot with a moving camera, tracks, pans, zooms (where the notion of a ‘shot’ becomes questionable and indefinable) in long takes varied with close ups, sometimes extreme especially in CinemaScope and reminiscent of the super westerns of Sergio Leone (unnatural, spatially disurptive close ups of eyes, hooves, boots) and long shots from a considerable distance which lesst function as establishing shots as they do elements in a spatial clash (long shots to close up, intense movement to calm, shots of long duration against short shots and then the reverse of these patterns).

This manner of shooting has a number of consequences. First, it helps create a permanent sensation of unease and explosiveness. Nothing you see is developed. Instead, it is disrupted and not only by acts of gratuitous and sudden violence (the shooting of the Marshal, of Wes at his wedding, the hanging of the sheriff, the sweeping past of Brocke when he gets out of prison tracked with an astonishing physically breathtaking shot), but by a clash of spaces, for example, in the final stand off between Griff and Brocke where the moving camera shifts to become at once excessively subjective and distant at the same time (the situation at the opening with the ride of the dragoons around Griff and his brothers) and the extreme close ups of Griff’s eyes, that distort space, extend time and refashion shapes. Second, it lends itself to one of Fuller’s favourite figurations involving off-screen space, the sense that outside any space is another that might suddenly, and almost always appears to disrupt whatever is or had been. Third, the variety and discordance between shots and scenes and the fact that they are amplified excessively results in the paradoxical overlay between a real so real that it becomes abnormal and infernal.

What was important to French critics about Fuller’s work is its stylistic extravagance combined with the obscurity, even absence of any obvious thematic other than a thematic related to that extravagance (disorientation, lack of identity, irrationality, insecurity, insanity) and the impossibility of imaginary, fictional identifications and that made of Fuller’s films a literal battleground of tones, colours, movements, shocks that resonated with some of the most important artistic aspects of modern painting (the exaggerations of Pop Art, the immediacy and violence of Abstract Expressionism) and the American novel (Dos Passos, Norman Mailer). As with Ray, Fuller’s achievements, however much one can link his work with the other arts, were specific to the means of the cinema and that he brought to an entirely new dimension of pure style, writing with images and his camera (but like a gun). Bang, bang.


About the Author

Sam Rohdie

About the Author

Sam Rohdie

Sam Rohdie (1939 – 2015) was Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Film at the University of Central Florida. He has held the Chair in Film Studies at The Queens University of Belfast and before that was Professor of Film Studies at Hong Kong Baptist University. He also held academic posts in universities in England, Ghana, Italy and the United States and was an original member of the Cinema Studies Program at La Trobe University, Melbourne. Sam was the editor of Screen in the United Kingdom from 1971 to 1974. His work was widely published in academic film journals and books. His books include Antonioni (1990), Rocco and His Brothers (1993),The Passion of Pier Paolo Pasolini (1996), Promised Lands: Cinema, Geography, Modernism (2001), Fellini Lexicon (2002), Montage (2006) and Film Modernism (2015).View all posts by Sam Rohdie →