The Structure of Complex Images

Robert B. Ray,
The Structure of Complex Images
Palgrave Macmillan, 2020
ISBN: 9783030406301
AU$178 (hb)
265 pp

This is a fascinating book. Although comprised of more or less discontinuous essays gathered from the past 20 years of Robert Ray’s work, it has a strongly coherent, novelistic character. It conjures a project with a Quest (to re-enchant film studies) and an Enemy (Screen-type theory), setbacks and breakthroughs, agonies and ecstasies. It’s captivating to read, even as I found things with which to quibble or disagree. It possesses wit, style and insight, and these are not things to sneer at. I will, however (spoiler alert!), have one major critical point to make about it.

If we adapted Hollis Frampton’s idea and figured that a book is about what appears most frequently in it, then I would say that The Structure of Complex Images (the title is a play on William Empson) is about, above all, teaching, education, the classroom. That’s Ray’s central site where the struggle takes place, and where the victories (by and large) happen. He attempts – and, it seems from the terrific samples of classroom work offered here, richly succeeds – to nudge his students off the deadly track of rote learning, second-hand concepts and tick-a-box applications of theory-platitudes to duly flattened film-texts.

In the process, Ray works back through recollections and summaries of his previous books: The Avant-Garde Finds Andy Hardy (1995), How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies (2001), and The ABCs of Classic Hollywood (2008). In the intellectual company of comrades including Gregory Ulmer and Christian Keathley, Ray commits himself to encouraging and enabling creative writing in his courses.

The goal, above all, is to get students not to work first from broad theories, concepts or contexts, but to notice particular things – moments, details, interactions, images – that grab, intrigue and stick with them, and to work outwards from there. Not science, but experimentation; not catechism, but novelty; not too-general history, but specific example or anecdote. Ludwig Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell (‘Americanism’ and all) are among the master-thinkers who light this path for Ray.

The Structure of Complex Images is a very repetitive book. I don’t mean that as a criticism; as for many of its most creative aspects, Ray provides a kind of reflexive key or internal justification for this. Names, quotes, major reference points come around again and again, in almost sing-song fashion; by the time I hit the third explication of Cavell’s “Capra Moment”, for instance, I was quite ready to have a moment of my own. But Ray anchors this obsessive repetition: as he affirms, it’s a sign that he cares, that some problems really do stay with him – just as they should stay with us, whatever our individual fixation-points.

“Memory theatre”, via Francis Yates, is an important concept for Ray (he appears not to have read Bill Routt’s great essay [] on the subject in this very journal, Screening the Past!); and indeed, one crucial part of the novelistic texture of The Structure of Complex Images is the type of interconnected history – the spiritual sense of “home” – that it weaves from diverse, even avowedly contradictory strands. This is a mirror of the process Ray sees at work (in one of the book’s most persuasive arguments) in the formation of the Nouvelle Vague in the pages of Cahiers du cinéma: an unruly but generative mix of elements drawn willy-nilly from impressionism, surrealism, and Sartrean existentialism.

For Ray, the central link to be woven is between his own debt to surrealism (as evident in the Andy Hardy book), and his discovery of the Movie tradition in the UK. (Movie‘s gradual “comeback” on the world stage of film studies deserves a cultural study all of its own.) What do these two traditions have in common? Their exhortation to look closely, to notice, to imaginatively expand and process filmic details … From surrealist “irrational enlargement” to fine-grain, close analysis, the leap is not too far, I agree, even if Ray is evidently (like the Cahiers Wave-surfers) cherry-picking here: he blithely ignores the fact that Movie has, throughout its history, been 100% in favour of things that Ray generally likes to play down, like over-arching themes in film and their interpretation. On the other hand, Movie already had in its loose ’60s cohort a certified surrealist: Raymond Durgnat.

Those kinds of fine detail are not in Ray’s novelistic purview here. He prefers synoptic sweeps in time, leaps of affinity across vast oceans, melodramatic oppositions and last-minute rescues that snatch a blaze of revelation from the smouldering ashes of a tired doxa (that’s what’s going on in his classroom). For Movie serves another, grander purpose in Ray’s overall plot schema: it can be positioned “versus” Screen in a War of the World-Views. He even subtitles this part of this book “The Great Divide in Film Studies”.

Hold on! Does it seem like I am about to defend Screen – and, in general, the legacy of High Theory in film culture – from a rearguard attack comprising an unholy alliance of irrational surrealists and remote-control-wielding textual empiricists? No, I am not. I myself – and the proof [] can again be found in the back pages of Screening the Past! – have polemically opposed Movie to Screen, over many pages, with the former winning the contest. Then again, that piece I wrote was originally from 1980 …

Time, history, narrative: these are strange beasts. Being set in the classroom gives The Structure of Complex Images an odd temporality. To rob from Bob Dylan, “time passes slowly” there. Each year, a new cohort of kids, and each time, the deprogramming must begin again, all over … So, long after the 1970s, Ray is still railing against MacCabe & Ms. Mulvey from Screen, and against that Heckell & Jeckell militant duo Comolli-Narboni from a 1969 editorial of Cahiers du cinéma – as if all that were still thick in the air, poisoning the minds of postgrads in 2020. [1] It’s part of the novelistic manner, part of Ray’s style, that he needs to conjure this sort of “slow cinema”. Time passes slowly, and one must keep waging battle, Eisenstein/Welles style, in the mud and in the mist, as everything grows entropic and sluggish, and we look for a blessed path out of this war …

The flipping-page time-montages in this text are striking: in passing, Ray evokes 20 years of his classes fighting to be free, or 30 interminable years of SCMS conferences under the same grey theory-cloud … but, mark it, he’s talking about a span of 52 years since that very precise date of rupture he gives more than once: 1968. And truly, a lot of water has flowed under the film studies bridge, in many spots, since ’68. Screen, for instance, has been through at least half a dozen major reorientations since then (and Cahiers even more); Ray presumably knows that like any of us in the field know it, but he may find it unnecessary to mention or process the fact. It would kind-of spoil the novel he is writing.

These days, Screen has much less to do with the Battalion of B’s that Ray cites (Bataille, Brecht, Bakhtin, Baudrillard, Barthes, Benjamin and Bourdieu) or even the Marauding M’s (MacCabe, Mulvey). OK, the “male gaze” coined fleetingly by the latter is still well and truly afoot and causing methodological problems in the culture at large; but the crushing “repressive classical narrative” wielded by the former is positively cited by nobody anymore that I am aware of. Stephen Heath hardly rates a mention in Screen today, while articles sympathetically re-evaluating V.F. Perkins, for god’s sake, have started to appear there! And indeed, the bridge-work between Screen and Movie began to knit itself decades ago: not only in university departments where representatives of the different ‘camps’ inevitably mingled and collaborated (Mulvey and Perkins worked together and were friends), but also via the writing and teaching of such an influential figure as Richard Dyer. I could go on and on.

Only once does Ray flash-forward to a world – no better, in his view – of queer theory, post-coloniality, urban cultural studies, and everything else that takes the place where the male gaze, suture and interpellation once used to thrive. Ray appears to disparage “leftism” in film studies – or, more exactly, he sees it as a posturing politics forced by the academic job market’s pressure to conform and play the trendiest game. He has a point there; we’ve all seen that in practice – just as we’ve all seen evidence of a lot of rote teaching and learning going on in the dreaded PowerPoint Age.

But our more-or-less shared habitus, as cinephiles, also includes print magazines and especially the Internet, with its vast regions of film-creative writing (and beyond-writing, Keathley-style), much of it outside academic walls, that Ray literally never mentions. It’s as if he can’t break out of the womb-like bubble of his own, novelistic creation, with the warm placenta of his own, lulling repetitions, and manage to see that, in fact, there are many people around today (and not just in dear old USA or its mirrored-bits in UK) with whom he could claim an affinity – even, god forbid, a parentage!

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of stirring material in The Structure of Complex Images worth our appreciation and applause: examples include the superb chapters on Fred Astaire and on the Abbas Kiarostami section of Tickets (2005), or the meditation on the camera’s automatism as one key to cinema’s hallucinatory magic. And there’s a candidness about it that’s disarming. When Ray boldly confesses the cinephile heresy that, one fine day and thanks to the malign influence of Stan the Man Cavell, he felt “absolved” of his failure to “learn anything from movies starring Anthony Quinn or Robert Mitchum or Ava Gardner”, I had to think: wow, this guy really did ‘lose it at the movies’!

But that’s what film books should, at least sometimes, be about: grappling with a sensibility that isn’t the mirror of one’s own. For that reason among many others, I recommend a close reading of The Structure of Complex Images.


[1] It’s a pity that Ray did not consult the re-translation of and commentary upon “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” provided by Daniel Fairfax in 2015 for the English edition of Jean-Louis Comolli’s Cinema Against Spectacle (Amsterdam University Press). For contra what Ray repeatedly asserts, the “first two words” of that piece are not “scientific criticism”, indeed those words appear nowhere at all in their text – this serious error in the original Screen translation mangled what Comolli & Narboni described as critique conséquente, which can be orderly, principled or systematic criticism, but it’s definitely not “scientific” in the sense closely associated, in that period, with Louis Althusser! Likewise, the point that the Cahiers duo make about André Bazin (and this is clearer in Fairfax’s rendition) is more complex than a simple dismissal or relegation of his work to the disdained, belles lettres pre-history of Theory; indeed, they respectfully hail him as the forerunner of close, detailed, material analysis. (By the way, just to be precise myself, I’m aware that while Comolli is indeed Jeckell [sic] in Godard’s Alphaville [1965], Heckell [ditto] is the no-less illustrious Jean-André Fieschi, who had departed from Cahiers for other adventures by August ’68.)

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is all posts by Adrian Martin →