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Approaching Present Infinity, Part 1

 | Essay |

  BY Devdutt Trivedi

Ritwik Ghatak, the Indian maverick film maker, described cinema as being, not a form, but a combination of forms. With a majority of films catering to a mass production logic, it becomes clear that the audience’s need for semblance starts and ends with the narrative. The form used in this case is literature with characters and situations forming the base of the scenario. The mediation of ‘cinema’ in the succession of events and situations through characters comes through the form of the novel which is combined with other forms, mainly music and theatre .Whereas music is used mainly on the soundtrack, theatre is used both stylization whether in the scenario or in the son-image combination.

Experimental cinema primarily substitutes literature with another form and therefore is known for its non-narrative qualities. Therefore literature is replaced with another form generally poetry to create a rhythmic (temporal) unfolding of space. The space is compressed, expanded or fragmented depending on function it serves in the film. However both literature and poetry are centered around the word. This causes a situation where cinema finds its seed in the word to eventually transcend it. At a cognitive level this process begins at cognizing an image and then re-cognizing it within the parameters of the word. This creates a circular process within the source text (the novel, literature) and its cognition by the viewer.

Approaching Infinity, First

However this process is not really a circular one as the viewer’s text is not the same as the original. The viewer has no way of verifying his conclusions with the source text. This is primarily because of the viewer’s own processes which are to do with imagination:

The question of using a text other than one centered around the word exaggerates the viewer’s imagination in explicit ways. This is evident from Brakhage’s flickers where the image and movement create a rhythm which can be ‘interpreted’ or experienced in any number of ways but can lead to a fairly similar imagination. These metaphysical movements create an imaginary text (philosophical and not literary) which is quite stable across different minds. This is because of its centering around the object. Conversely if this text is to be made much more subjective literature would mediate to make the imaginary text seem much more divergent and would therefore not be similar across imaginations.

The film using text, producing image and an imagined text uses a number of different tension patterns which spread  across the duration of the text ie. the space creates textures across the duration of film. Film approaches a  convergence which could be either a denouement, a resolution or a contrast in signification. These textures could be set up with the function of creating differences (construction of Bergsonian forces, dialectics etc.) or of showing a continuity in an unfolding (filming as opposed to construction) to document a world outside (as in the films of Lumiere) or imagine/ construct a world inside (as in the films of Melies).

Lumiere’s use of the ample camera distance and the judicious use of close ups creates a cinematographic system which aims at documenting nature.As nature does not have a temporality, Lumiere essentially focuses on the space. The function of film therefore is to provide an organic space without bounds to exist within the infinite realm of nature.

Melies on the other hand is much more interested in the human mind. He therefore explores the mind space through emphasizing fantasies and dreams. This space of the mind occupies the image and through editing (as well as sound,as used by his descendents:  the auteur directors) create a false temporality which accumulates heterogeneously across the duration of the work.

The case for a cinema of documenting nature disavows a historical culmination. As time doesn’t have a function as nature constantly unfolds without any fixed rhythm, the rhythm of the film itself grows in a mutually exclusive space. Much like Bombay film makers of the 70s are fascinated by the relationship between characters existing in wild nature and film as being man made, Lumiere’s cinema mediates spirit with the natural organic object (and not the manmade train). In the case of Arrival of Train at a Station in Ciotat (1895), the train exists within the landscape of nature much like cinema puts forth a case for creating a man made object in an organic whole. The Bengali film-maker Ritwik Ghatak would watch Lumiere’s first film and laugh at its irrelevance due to its blatant inorganic nature. According to Ghatak the film was a meditation on the role of the man-made as one machine mediated another machine. This reading is irrelevant as it does not address the nature as being the larger space within which material and nature mix.

Satyajit Ray takes this case forward in his début feature Pather Panchali (1955) where Apu and Durga watch the train passing by in the forest. Ray puts forth a case of Indians as being forest people coming to terms with modernity. The sequence starts with Apu and Durga in the field consisting of kaash phool. Ray juxtaposes the stray growths of flowers and trees with the man made electricity poles. The sky serves as a device for balancing the man made specific with the organic whole consisting of all its variable forms. The function of this sky is to include one and all in its temporal progression. The American film noir uses this balance of sky and object to show an endlessly secular landscape where the character and the landscape merge into objects, like hats, which serve as signifiers of climate and not class or tension, alcohol, which mediates an interiority and cars which make nature an interiority. Even when the noir-director engages with the exterior he is very aware of the ‘presence’ of the car which converts organic matter into man-made controllable matter.

A cinema consisting of an elaboration of false time can only have the function of providing collisions between the natural temporality of the object and the imposed temporality by the degree of falseness the time has. If one were to take a unit of film, one frame, then each frame would comprise of a collision between natural time and imposed time. Throughout the larger duration of the film this would result in a state of hyper collision that would result in one of the two elements becoming superior in determining the path taken by the film. For example, either the film shall be stripped of its documentary qualities (Sans Soleil, Chris Marker, 1983) or the film shall approach a state of pure realism by stripping its fictional qualities (L’Eclisse, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1962) or both (Satah Se Uthata Aadmi, Mani Kaul, 1980). These collisions and their result in a criss-cross between the two that create a new whole much like a scale of music in becoming, a raga, which organically involves a note outside it but retains its own sound since it relates to its ‘unique sound and unique silence’ which is a kind of characteristic base note. In film this note is the primary deterretorialized image-sound. In dhrupad, the musician changes his sa every time therefore an octave can comprise of eight sas varying in pitch, at the same time while playing ‘sa can be anywhere’ and this is transformed into the sa of the raga with the other notes in the scale. This methods of using sa point to the duration which prevents the becoming from being recognized and integrated, and instead makes it cognizable and disintegrated.

Ritwik Ghatak called cinema not a form, but a combination of forms. In the case of Immamura an approach to a text is done through filming and not through unfolding. By unfolding one would mean the qualities of scenario and mise en scene. Whereas Ghatak approaches form making within all its differences, an approach to filming does not take into account a process of exclusion and inclusion, but instead ‘documents a moment in the universe which shall never repeat.’

The curious point with both avante garde and narrative exercises in film is that the image itself comes from literature. In spite of the avante garde opposing the flow of the ideas in a novel, the image is not a free object but is within the logic of its limits, in particular limits set up by language. An image free of any limitation creates an infinite range within a text (because the image is a text) which therefore opposes its culmination at a point in space. Culmination is similarly referred to by Mani Kaul as ‘perspective’ with reference to composition, and ‘climaxing’ as collective sexual practice. It is possible to create images unrestricted in range by looking at texts other than those mediated/ dominated by language. This means that an image and its denotative word are related to each other in explicit ways. 

Bergson’s approach to matter in the film is the most significant one since the totality of matter is isolated by the diagesis of the frame and made into a representation. St. Augustine, Jansen and Pascal tried to create a space within the church that opposes the church to be occupied by Bresson. Bresson is the ideal Bergsonian and consequently Deleuzian director as the totality of the frame can be broken up into its material world without recognizing them as ‘bags’, ‘books’  or ‘clothes.’ This approach to isolating matter with its totality, according to Bergson leads to the functioning of the brain-muscle, which when removed makes all the matter surrounding the brain-matter absent due to lack of perception.  By opposing the becoming of space the film-maker emphasis duration and the especially the duration required for the Bergsonian idea of ‘indeterminate’ action until one confronts the end of perception following action. From this comes one of the most basis premises of cinema, that to engage in perception image a film must be static. At the same time static cinema often underlines ’laziness’ where the filmmaker appropriates stasis. 

The advent of television further pushed this impotency of the documentary as the texture of the image was sacrificed for the sake of becoming, best seen in Bergman’s terrible TV-works in the ‘70s. What emerged was a mixture of the form of documentary and the becoming-fiction which TV itself would later lap up in the form of the reality show. Following Bresson’s dictum of keeping the settings as ‘documentary’ as possible perhaps the most rarefied cinema is the one that looks to Bresson for confronting television with documentary and film. Two outstanding examples are Abbas Kiarostami’s Nema Ye Nazdik (Close Up,1990)  where Kiarostami makes actors reconstruct the before and after of the event: the fake-Makhmalbaf’s entry into the Akhakah household until the fake Makhmalbaf encounters the ‘real’ Makhmalbaf, and Mani Kaul’s Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (Arising From The Surface,1980) where the narrative conditions of the left wing poet Muktibodh’s texts are reduced until one is confronted with a deterretorialized documentary space in which the characters recite lines from the poet. In both these films the decentering of the film, an act through which the object in becoming is destroyed and yet approached (by moving ‘Towards A Cinematic Object’)  with the appropriation of shots occurring at regular intervals or completely randomly occurring sequences which are completely appropriated.

In Hitchcock’s Birds (1961), the birds attack Bodega Bay, we are never told why, at regular intervals of time. In Kaul’s Satah Se Uthata Aadmi, Ustad Z.F. Dagar’s Bilaskhani Todi intercuts at strange times always becoming, while the cars keep coming and going at fixes intervals of time and the presence of Gopi is consistently shattered to split his existence into subject-object and in the last shot render his presence unrecognizable.

Mise en scene can be defined as narrative chunks of film with close ups as inserts. Mise en scene uses the function of close-ups ie. spatial function to isolate the texture skin of actor within space. The two concerns here are mainly the narrative function of carrying forward a thread of people and to relate a space to a body. However this can be further made explicit by taking the actor as subject and then relating the actor to space with a number of different approaches. The approaches in this case shall consist of rhythms, objects and voice techniques which the actor shall employ to vary the texture of the film. In Antonioni’s masterpiece BlowUp (1966) one notices this role of the actor in all of its complexity. David Hemmings, who plays the nameless photographer, searching for his infinite object to be realized in the representational space, functions as mediating objects and human beings (also treated like objects to create a design). Antonioni gradually opens out his thick grid within the logic of events (narrative) and opens it out to a space of immateriality. The tennis match at the end with the mime actors is played out with the function of achieving this relationship between the actor and the object, except that the object this time is invisible. The actor defines the audiences relationship with materiality. Bresson differs from Antonioni in his ‘exhaustion’ of both the actor and the space. In this way he brings a male violence to the core by destroying a space. Mani Kaul differs from Bresson in his ability to not be violent with the space but to communicate to the audience (through the actor’s relationship with space) the functionality of violence.

The actor relates space to his body and relates his voice to the text. The relationship between voice and text prevents the viewer from linking body to text. What has been referred to as ‘body’ can be further be divided into the body as figuration in space and the the surface of the body i.e. skin. As a film may consist of a plethora of characters, the skin of these various characters mix to produce an organic mixing of different textures producing an effect of combination.

Cinema in essence is a succession of ideas, events by using light and mediated through exposing film with light. However a film is a single succession, it consists of one situation coming to its end point. Similarly one life consists of a number of events following one after the other. However, with the emphasis on the sensorial in modernity (emphasized by hyper-consumption of excess often defined as pleasure) a vacuum is created which creates a bored profane space (the obvious opposite of the sacral ‘pleasure’). This increases the transactional emphasis in human life with people participating in a kind of cultural exchange which Jean Luc Godard emphasized as ‘cultural credit card’. Godard was making a point in relation to the function of cinema as creating a relationship between the auteur film maker and his ‘exchange’ with the politically aware audience. Later on Godard would take this exchange to a micro level with video, describing the process of making video as ‘making babies’, by emphasizing only the in-point and the out-point cables in video, between which an image is realized and not created.