Preface: the (no)place of the close-up
It is a commonplace to rank the close-up, even the microscopic close-up, in a series of distances corresponding to what can be seen by the human eye. Yet there is another experience of the close-up which makes of it a paradigm of the experience of place in the cinema, a necessary component of any architectural understanding of film.
That experience is illustrated with singular economy in a film made by the English ‘pioneer’ and inventor, G. A. Smith, in the summer of 1900, called Grandma’s Reading Glass. The Warwick Trading Company’s catalogue for April 1901 described it thus:
Grandma is seen at work at her sewing-table, while her little grandson is playfully handling her reading-glass, focussing same on various objects, viz., a newspaper, his watch, the canary, grandma’s eye, and the kitten, which objects are shown in abnormal size on the screen when projected. The conception is to produce on the screen the various objects as they appeared to Willy while looking through the glass in their enormously enlarged form. The big print on the newspaper, the visible working of the mechanism of the watch, the fluttering of the canary in the cage, the blinking of grandma’s eye, and the inquisitive look of the kitten, is most amusing to behold. The novelty of the subject is sure to please every audience. (2)
What concerns the catalogue, the film, its audience and Willy (that’s me), is not at all the sense of the ‘near’, not at all the relation of the film image to what can be seen in the ordinary way by the human eye. Rather, “the novelty of the subject is sure to please everyone”: “objects are shown in abnormal size … enormously enlarged … most amusing to behold”. Mundane space (grandma at work, Willy at play) is transformed by the close-up into a series of fantastic disconnected vignettes.
And what Smith’s film shows, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space glosses for us (although, of course, Bachelard was not writing about the cinema).
The magnifying glass … conditions an entry into the world. Here the man with the magnifying glass is not an old man still trying to read his newspaper, in spite of eyes that are weary of looking. The man with the magnifying glass takes the world as though it were quite new to him. If he were to tell us of the discoveries he had made, he would furnish us with documents of pure phenomenology, in which discovery of the world, or entry into the world, would be more than just a worn-out word, more than a word that has become tarnished through over-frequent philosophical use …
The man with the magnifying glass – quite simply – bares the every-day world. He is a fresh eye before a new object. The botanist’s magnifying glass is youth recaptured. It gives him back the enlarging gaze of a child. (3)
The world is made new by the glass, by the close-up revealed through the glass, by the transformation of space, the discovery of the miniature. Commonsense notions like ‘near’ and ‘far’, ‘large’ and ‘small’ are set at defiance before ideas, equally commonplace but generally unrecognised, like Bachelard’s ‘miniature’ with its Tom Thumb experience of tiny enormity. A thousand violins fit into the palm of my hand. And, of course, Bachelard’s man with the magnifying glass is our man with the movie camera.
Why is it that we are told that cinema audiences (and/or exhibitors) reacted at first against the insertion of the close-up into the medium and long shot narratives they had been seeing? Better yet, why did they react against the close-up – and say it cheated them of a full experience – when they accepted the extreme long shot without a murmur? Surely if such a thing happened very much at all (and more and more it looks as though the reaction against closer shots was as much, or more, a critic’s reaction as it was a popular reaction), it was because narrative screen space was changed by the close-up, made to confront those who were trying to see it familiar, made suddenly fundamentally unsound. (4)
Today, after television and the computer screen have each further reinvented the face in successive acts, it is perhaps not possible to recapture the sense of unanchored space generated by such films as Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) or Sam Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949) but we may at least acknowledge the greater amount of work required for a spectator (or a critic) to construct a reasonable fictional space when portions of that space insist on floating up and squeezing down, out of all proportion to an established norm. In 1909, for example, one writer complained of the “total lack of uniformity” in a film which contained medium, long and extra-long shots (no real close-ups at all).
Now, here there was a total lack of uniformity, due entirely to a want of intelligence on the part of the producer and the photographer, and the effect on the minds of the people who saw this picture was extreme dissatisfaction … It is curious to reflect that in an hour’s entertainment of a moving picture theater, the visitor sees an infinite variation in the apparent sizes of things as shown by the moving picture. This is absurd. (5)
Absurd. So many different dimensions. Such constant adjustment, disproportion. The grievance is surely based upon an upset in the writer’s expectation of how story space should appear on the screen; not upon the field of vision one is liable to employ in everyday life, but upon a filmic convention, a narrative place, established within fourteen years of the Lumière Brothers’ showings at the Grand Café. Another, later article from the same publication, The Moving Picture World, says that figures closer than “the nine foot line”, where the top of the head is at the top of the screen and the feet are at the bottom, “assume unnecessarily large and, therefore, grotesque proportions”. (6) This was a regressive position even in 1911. Yet surely it is not without interest that the adjectives so hysterically employed by those who deplored variations in camera distance in narrative films are echo-identities of the “abnormal … amusing … novelty” to be found in Grandma’s Reading Glass, not so funny when it infects the place someone has mentally pre-established for satisfying and sensible and normal story-telling.
And these meretricious shots of varying distance are not even close-ups. What is happening here? Is it just dislocation and a consequent “total lack of uniformity”? Certainly that must be an important part of the experience. The spectator, once displaced to the cinema image, is displaced to the second degree as the size of the figures in the image shrink and expand out of control. The place of the film has become inconstant. But there is something else here. It is not the shrinking but the expansion that seems the real cause for anxiety. More distant shots are not nearly so “grotesque” as those that make the figures in them larger. Seeing closer is more upsetting than seeing further away.
Or at least some of the time. Thomas Bedding, one of those who was upset by getting too close in 1911, recognised the advantages of getting just close enough in 1909. At just the right distance, “you see what is passing in the minds of the actors and actresses”. (7) In the words of another critic, writing in 1912, “Is it not truly soul music? Can such impressions be created in any other way than on the screen?”. (8) Here (and not surprisingly, to me at any rate), what is seen at close range is what actually cannot ever be seen or shown, invisible at any range: thought and feeling.
Some of the most stunning passages in Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1: the Movement-Image (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986) are those about the affection-image: the close-up, the face, the affect, shadow, light and white, any-space-whatever, quality and power. (9) Deleuze, following Andre Bazin, says “the close-up is not an enlargement and, if it implies a change of dimension, this is an absolute change”. (10) The insertion of the close-up (by montage, by camera or figure movement) blurs the dimensions of all that surrounds it, making the spatial experience of the cinema neither one thing nor another – no longer uniform: now absurd, grotesque – hovering between absolutes. If I somehow recover a kind of simulacrum of ‘real space’ or ‘story space’ from such a sequence, it is at the cost of cinematic space and of the paradoxical space of the close-up, which reduces and enlarges simultaneously.
For the close-up sees small, but makes large. The close-up is a miniature: a collar in a drawer in A Woman of Paris (Charles Chaplin, 1923), old shoes reversed by a maid’s hand in Floating Clouds (Naruse Mikio, 1955). But the close-up is huge, as big as Babylon, like Alfred Hitchcock’s faces, all of them sculpted on Mount Rushmore: a twitching eye inflated beyond all bearing (Young And Innocent, 1937), a policeman’s glare from the monstrous universe of nightmare (I Confess, 1953).
Within the Intimacy or closeness of the close-up, then, lies immensity akin to the grandeur Vachel Lindsay thought belonged only to images of Splendor. (11) Immensity is certainly a key part of what Deleuze is evoking in his discussions of darkness, light and spirit, of the Expressionists, and of Josef von Sternberg, Dreyer and Robert Bresson. Apparently, the closer we get the more we are likely to dissolve into the image ourselves, rapt into communion within any-space-whatever, towed up by the sanctified glow of some extra-terrestrial craft. (12) But immensity, as Bachelard reminds us,
is within ourselves. It is attached to a sort of expansion of being that life curbs and caution arrests, but which starts again when we are alone. As soon as we become motionless, we are elsewhere; we are dreaming in a world that is immense. Indeed, immensity is the movement of motionless man. It is one of the dynamic characteristics of quiet daydreaming. (13)
Immensity, which Bachelard himself qualifies with the adjective “intimate” like a medium possessed by the spirit of the mad poet of Springfield, is a dimension of interior space, not an attribute of the world or what is seen. If immensity is achieved, at times, in the close-up, it happens in a sort of implosion (which may be why the experience of such shots can be associated with certain kinds of spiritual affects). The action stops, the image dissolves in light, movement becomes wholly internal. In such moments we are witness to the immense place inside the boundaries of our selves: the screen reflects.
But there is another experience of immensity, the property of perception-images, things seen far away. I am thinking of the sense of explosion in that extraordinary instant when the screen opens out to Cinemascope and we ride the wind in Joris Ivens’ Le Mistral (1966). Here it is all movement and change and we are beside ourselves, leaving the place, in transports, breaking through to the limitless outside. In this case, the screen shows.
And this is called a world, its figure changing all the time; and yet it lacks a pole of reference, a constant, or a scale. As if some primary degree of existence had been attached to a variation of proportions alone.
So this absence of proportions constitutes such a world. Not that it guarantees its new appearance or its changed face. An anxiety that’s not about resemblance – nor is it simply its doubt – is added to its aspect for just a moment. (14)
* * *
Some places on television
There is a certain kind of postmodern architecture which pokes holes in things, making Swiss cheese of Gruyere. The tension and release of walls and openings play chamber music variations on the symphonics of immensity expressed in skyscrapers or pyramids. In the cinema something similar used to occur in certain scenes of television dramas directed by Aaron Lipstadt. (15) In the background there would be a wall, often in muted brown and always slightly furred with shadow. But prominently in the wall would be a window, a startling, clear rectangle of colour and light. The colour created a kind of Zen space, or the space of Mallarmé’s azur – something beyond. Whatever action might be going on in front of this horizon would be caught up in its resonances, its sense of elsewhere, perhaps even of any-space-whatever, created by the window in the wall.
I have said that this type of setting recurs in Lipstadt’s work. Each time it is, on one level, the same, although each time it is certainly geographically a different location. This is, I think, emblematic of one of the principal experiences of place available in the cinema. Place, as I understand it, is usually thought of as something cut out of space, thus a specific location. Inevitably, perhaps, it has come to be understood phenomenologically, as a particular experience of space. Yi-Fu Tuan, a geographer whose well-known but idiosyncratic writings on such topics alternate insight with astigmatism, glosses the relation well:
‘Space’ is more abstract than ‘place’. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value. Architects talk about the spatial qualities of place; they can equally well speak of the locational (place) qualities of space. The ideas ‘space’ and ‘place’ require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space, and vice versa … (16)
Place is an organized world of meaning. (17)
In Yi-Fu Tuan’s sense Lindsay, Deleuze and Bachelard are all concerned to wrest ‘place’ from undefined space of one sort or another – or, in other terms, to still the moving picture, to cure the madness of cinema and thinking images. Naive critics of the close-up in early narratives were surely articulating very much the same inchoate desire. All of them organising worlds of meaning. And the articulation of space in films is, then, always something of an exercise in emplacement – not so much for how it ‘positions’ the spectator narratively or ideologically, but for how it is read as endowing the screen with graspable, still, meaning and value: ‘screen space’, ‘cinematic space’, ‘narrative space’, places of any-unity-whatever.
Another thing that I have made Lindsay, Deleuze and Bachelard suggest (and Tuan confirm) is that the place of the cinema, a result of experience, is tied to affect, to feeling – or, as I would prefer it, to sensing. The experience of place involves a particular quality of sensing in which a sense of intimacy, of being at home, mingles with a sense of immensity or disproportion. The theoreticians of place that I have read make all places affection-images. Indeed, I think they tend to overload the notion of place with big feelings and big meanings. The Melbourne architectural theoretician Greg Missingham for example, says that “for those for whom a space is a place, it will be imbued with rich memories, attached to significant episodes or narratives”. (18) Rich? Significant? Episodes? Influenced (rather alarmingly, I think) by the strong resonances of some places, they want to understand all places as momentous, which is simply not the case. Places are pretty ordinary too.
Missingham knows this perfectly well himself, for when he comes to make a pragmatic register or typology of places, he eschews feeling altogether and writes a simple, Really Useful, list.
An inhabitable volume – such as a room, house, or urban square … ‘place’ usually connotes a bounded area with a strong, figural gestalt, a space centred on some prominent feature, or some subsection of a city characterised by the dominant activities that ‘take place’ within it. A place is a place for somebody, typically for a number of people. (19)
There are three kinds of place in Missingham’s list: an enclosed place, a place that radiates out from one or more things, and a place made by figures in motion: bounded area, prominent feature(s), dominant activities.
Let me test this out on TV. When I watch The X Files I am very conscious of boundaries. Some of the places indeed exude “a strong, figural gestalt”, an instantly sensed design or structure: Mulder’s (former) office, which often seems to be all posters and things stuck on the walls, a characteristically confining and isolated space, always intruded on. His and Scully’s apartments are similarly recognisable by the layout of their rooms, and similarly seem to emphasise their walls – these walls in shadow and continued, rather than broken, by blank or blinded windows. Telephones and computer screens seem always at the peripheries of these places because they are so often placed so as to act as frames for the action (or lack of it) that they provoke. A combination of lens, lighting and distance often puts the characters right against whatever is behind them. But the most bounded areas of all are the dark places that Scully and now Dogget investigate with piercing flashlight beams, places explored in efforts to reveal their gestalten, shapes that never fully materialise. A lot of the tension of the program derives from the sense of bounded place and from the always unfulfilled promise of a master plan. In some ways, the show is all about exploring limits and discerning patterns – making themes from its peculiar place.
Consider how different the FBI offices in The X Files are from the place in which so much of the action of NYPD Blue takes place. The 15th Precinct squad room is a place made of features – of specific characters’ desks and their relation to one another (Sipowicz’s desk acting here as a kind of axis mundi, especially for Danny’s and John’s), and of featured portals to other places (the lieutenant’s office, the toilets, the interrogation rooms, upstairs, downstairs, the outside). Those sharp camera movements everyone used not to like tend to emphasise relations between fixed positions in the mise en scène. And, by analogy, the investigations undertaken by Andy and his colleagues are local affairs confined to particular instances, specific cases in which specific ’rounded’ characters play a much more prominent role than the revelation of hitherto hidden patterns. In this case too, a way of making a place through its prominent features, has been subsumed into the narration of the series.
At times the features defining the places in NYPD are the characters in those places (Sipowicz rather than his desk, for example), but never to the extent that this used to be true in Homicide. Places in Homicide were almost all made or made memorable by the actions of characters – by their rambling conversations extending from squad room to the car to the crime scene, their exits and entrances, by their characteristic tones and gestures. Pembleton, Bayliss and the rest moved through that bland office area, and through Baltimore itself, making a place in their actions, making a place even of the open space by the wire fence on the roof – a place for doing stuff in. The whiteboard was always being erased and rewritten, just as certain of their cases remained ongoing, always affecting their actions (not just for Bayliss, but for everyone on Giardello’s shift). What obsessed the detectives of Homicide was not the underlying pattern, nor yet the characters in the case, but simply what was done and how it was done: again the action.
Action places seem to be fairly common in the television I watch. I think they dominate Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, even West Wing and, especially, GvE. In the latter case, the camerawork continually pushes one’s sense of place right to the edges and surfaces of the television image, making place and image into one. The artificiality of GvE‘s partly camera-defined ‘televisual place’ serves as a reminder that the places I am trying to describe here are not the places so designated in the diegesis (not the places privileged by the narrative). Rather, the narrativised places like the offices I have mentioned are meant here as illustrations of the diegesis-as-place, of various ‘televisual places’ corresponding to the programs I have cited – the places of these programs. At the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that every television program must correspond to just one of the three types of place that Missingham lists. La Femme Nikita routinely made use of all three ways of articulating place. And, of course, the list may not be exhaustive.
One of Missingham’s types of place is defined by action, and this seems spontaneously to provoke the question of how far his triadic division is kin to the cinematic three-part divisions proposed by Vachel Lindsay and/or Gilles Deleuze. All three writers do agree on space defined by action as one of three principal sorts of space. There is also a curious affinity between Deleuze’s perception-image (“the thing and the perception of the thing are one and the same thing, one and the same image”) (20) and one’s intuitive visualisation of Missingham’s ‘prominent feature’ as a place which is a thing surrounded by nothing, an object in a void. As with Lindsay’s Splendor images, one is outside, distant – and witness to a display or spectacle.
And, yes, Missingham’s “bounded area” seems not too far removed from Lindsay’s Intimate Photoplay, also dependent upon walls and confinement in the first instance (“the Intimate Film has its photographic basis in the fact that any photoplay interior has a very small ground plan, and the cosiest of enclosing walls”) (21). The possibility of linking a sense of enclosure with the production of affect is an intriguing one, and perhaps some of the groundwork for such a linkage may be laid in Deleuze’s discussion of affect and entity, in which the singularity of the close-up, its being-for-itself – a quality which must in part depend upon its bounded nature – is seen as integral to its existence as affection-image. (22)
At the end of comparisons of this sort one is supposed to draw some kind of Meaningful Conclusion, but that is always where I come apart. I think it is interesting that three writers discussing space and place would have ended up dividing it all into three roughly, vaguely, similar chunks. I think that this probably has something to do with what we hold in common in our experience of space and thinking images, something which takes possession of us and makes us write in roughly, vaguely, similar ways. It is surely the same madness that accounts for our remarkable ability to communicate with one another most of the time so efficiently – and yet to leave all the important things unsaid.
* * *
Some places in (old-fashioned) film history
The value of a place – or architecturally-based revision of the cinema is just that: re-vision, seeing again. To this end I believe there is some benefit to be derived from looking back with Missingham’s tripartite scheme in mind and seeing what happens to our understanding of some of the cinematic past. Certain commonplace canonical assessments may be confirmed. The great screen comedians seem, quite predictably, to be action personalities (23) – especially Buster Keaton. Howard Hawks, as another instance, is surely by all measures still an action director: the sense of place in Hawks’ films is derived from the action which takes place within the frame (most memorably, perhaps, in Only Angels Have Wings , Rio Bravo  and Hatari! ). Hawks said that the appalling failure of Land Of The Pharaohs (1955) was because Bill Faulkner did not know how Egyptians spoke, but it might have come about because the film was a feature spectacle, utterly dependent upon the axes of the pyramids for its existence. Equally, the wretched Today We Live (1933, also with dialogue by Faulkner) is, until its climactic action sequence, a soppy string of bounded intimacies.
However, it is interesting that a director so strongly involved with linear movement as John Ford may also be described as one who structures films around axes. Indeed, it is often the trajectory of the journey itself which provides the most significant spatial orientation, the feature of the place. In Stagecoach (1939), The Long Voyage Home (1939), Wagonmaster (1950), among many others, the journey defines a place and everything moves around that line, which is, nonetheless, a line inscribed in space, not space described in action (which would be the ever-changing place created by journeying). If the journey is extended metaphorically, particularly if it is to include the temporal journeying of history, it might even be said that all Ford films create place as a function of such a central line. But in cases like Fort Apache (1948), The Last Hurrah (1958) and Seven Women (1966), a building may equally be seen to serve as a centring point, and characters do the same thing in The Informer (1935), The Fugitive (1947) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962). The Searchers (1956), Two Rode Together (1961) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) are surely not the only Ford films which combine the three types of prominent feature (trajectories, fixed points and characters), but they are the ones which come most readily to mind.
Place defined by significant punctuation in this way sometimes seems the least common method for the cinema, where it is certainly among the most common in architecture. Many of the filmic examples – Cabira (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914), Souls On The Road (Osani Kaoru, Murata Minoru, 1921), L’Argent (Marcel L’Herbier, 1928), Le Mystère Du Château De Dés (Man Ray, 1929), In The Wake Of The Bounty (Charles Chauvel, 1933) – are unsettling combinations of the primitive and the avant-garde. There is no easy equation between movie ‘spectaculars’ and this articulation of place either, in spite of what one might expect because of the points in common between it and Lindsay’s understanding of Splendor. If some of the Italian pepla epics, heirs to Cabira and its predecessors, do seem to belong to this group, by and large Hollywood blockbusters do not (and this includes Intolerance [D.W. Griffith, 1916] and the work of Cecil B. DeMille).
The commonest sort of cinematic place seems to be made of boundaries. Or, at least, the names of cineastes whose work emphasises walls, barriers, doors, thresholds and the like seem to spring almost unbidden to the mind. If Hawks = action and Ford = feature, we may expect Hitchcock = enclosure; and the equation is surely too obvious to warrant exposition here. But the description is equally applicable to Orson Welles’s particular exposition of place as bounded infinity, a mansion of echoes, made as much of hearing as of seeing.
In many ways Japanese cinema has been the cinema of architecture par excellence because of its reliance on rectilinear boundaries, particularly in interiors, as Noel Burch has summarised neatly in To The Distant Observer. (24) What Burch does not say is that inside/outside seems a pairing with particular resonance in Japanese culture, and that when one is inside, at home, one is much more certainly in private than in the Occident. This dichotomy enters into filmmaking and seems to have a structuring power which precedes that of genre. It does not matter what period or social stratum directors like Ozu Yasujiro, Naruse Mikio or Mizuguchi Kenji are working with, their films are almost always set, literally or metaphorically, inside, within the rectangled, bounded site of privacy – and this immediately presents the director with the problem of how to deal with this intrusion, how to articulate the place of privacy. This was Ernst Lubitsch’s structuring dilemma too. No wonder his films were of such interest to a certain generation of directors in Japan.
Ozu may be taken as typifying this aspect of Japanese cinema – not merely because his films tend to take place mostly indoors, but because of the respect they show for boundaries. Ozu’s filmic space is constructed out of thresholds: a certain distance is always maintained. The function of that distance, and of the particular duration which accompanies it, seems to be epistemological clarity: the space-time of contemplation. One must be neither too close nor too far away if one is to understand things as they are.
The sense of place is equally bounded in Naruse’s films, and thresholds are just as significant, but here the boundaries are constricting and the distance which is maintained frustrates our attempts to understand. Obliquely angled camera set-ups and characters who turn away are repeated features of a place where movable walls of paper seem always to be transforming one’s vision. Perspective shifts: the near becomes far and the far near. Here truth is uncertain – unknowable, because we can never get close enough – and only compassion remains.
* * *
Breaking and making places (spatial politics)
To make one’s place of boundaries, however, does not mean that – like Hitchcock and Welles, Ozu and Naruse – those boundaries need be absolute. Deleuze’ descriptions of the way some cineastes, including Erich von Stroheim and von Sternberg, have used the affection-image, stresses the dissolution of restraints and the blurring of hard lines. The bounded place can be expressed precisely through the way its limitations are transcended as, for example, Lipstadt does with those azur openings. In the Japanese cinema perhaps Mizuguchi best represents a transgression of boundaries that at the same time emphasies them. One recalls tracking through rooms with a sense of the violation of traditional space which this entails (Sisters of Gion, 1936) or of characters making places for themselves which clearly were not intended to be used in that way (Story Of The Last Chrysanthemum , My Love Is Burning ). In Mizuguchi’s films many of the most important things seem to be done in unbounded space or in set-ups which blur or efface the omnipresent framelines of Japanese interiors.
An intriguing alternative mode of transgressing boundaries can be found in the work of Cecil B. DeMille. DeMille’s films are about the bursting of boundaries. Objects (sometimes quite large ones) and characters break into interior areas and disrupt borders. One lovely large-scale example occurs in The Road To Yesterday (1925), when a locomotive noses its way into a sleeping car, but the same thing happens in miniature when the leg of Satan Synne writhes out from behind a room-dividing screen in The Affairs Of Anatol (1921) (25). Characters also cross temporal borders, often violently or as the result of violence, moving backwards into time. But almost always only two realms are connected when the cataclysmic rips into the everyday. The breaching action, which occurs in The Cheat (1915), Dynamite (1929) and This Day And Age (1933) as surely as it does in the more obvious instance of Samson And Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), works to transform one place into another. The outside smashes a way into the inside, and private space is metamorphosed into public space (for example, a bathroom).
In a DeMille film, space is profoundly historical; each location is the site of multiple layers of the past, the setting for an eternal return. Here the most obvious contrast is with D. W. Griffith’s evolutionary space, which gives equal weight to continuity and discontinuity. The differences between episode and episode of Intolerance, like the differences between Chinese and Caucasian in Broken Blossoms (1919), are just as important as what connects them. But for DeMille, historical discontinuities are superficial matters of costume and decor only (whence the overweening presence of such indices of appearance in his films). Character is constant. Although circumstances may change and, in changing alter the outcome, the same dramas are played out over and over again through the ages: time is not a line, but a circle.
Yet spatial discontinuity is one of the strongest experiences of a DeMille film, where everything seems to take place in gigantic marble boxes. The arrow that plays such an evocative metaphorical role in the early scenes of The Road To Yesterday joins shots which are remarkable for their abrupt edges. What similarity can be imagined between the fantastic interior of the dirigible in Madame Satan (1930) and the mundane world outside? There is no fluidity, no movement from point to point in the place made by DeMille: contemporary linear or geographic community is not possible. Each monad finds its connection along temporal, historical lines.
So the breaching of space assumes significance, for it is only through violence that contemporary community can be achieved. Different locations cannot be blended, they must be hurled into one another (different times are blended, commingled, within characters). Without doubt what is being depicted in the spatial violation of these films is rape, and without doubt it is being depicted positively, as De Sade might do it. Not however, rape as it might seem from the point of view of the rapist – which is perhaps what one would expect of a director with DeMille’s reputation – but rather as the victim is affected by it. The experience is of one’s house having been shattered, not of shattering the houses of others. The result of that experience in DeMille’s films seems to be an opportunity to live again, in some sense renewed, conscious of who and what one is. It is an experience of revelation, then, but also, and primarily, an experience of Power or Force the result of which is not freedom, but conquest or enslavement, submission to history, to character. (I think I am simply writing a gloss for The Road To Yesterday). This is, of course, why some people see DeMille’s cinema as fascist.
To use the word ‘fascist’ in a piece concerned with cinematic space is to evoke Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will (1934), equally a film about submission, but about the condition, not the action. DeMille’s submission consists finally in surrendering to the Force which breaches the walls. For Riefenstahl, the act of submission has already been made: her task is only to record its result. Thus it is Riefenstahl, not DeMille, who is the director of spectacle, grand tactician of the perception-image, the feature filmmaker. As he drops from the sky in Triumph Of The Will, Hitler is not intruding upon a scene nor is he transforming space. Rather he is appearing in places already prepared for him – by what has been built there, by the rituals which have been devised to be enacted there, by the cameras and the scripting which anticipate his movement and in these ways figure his presence even in his absence. He is not a conqueror, but a feature of the place, an architectural given.
The sense of the pre-made is crucial to the political intent of Triumph Of The Will, not merely an anecdotal incident in its production history. All of what we see has gone before us: our position as well as Hitler’s has been fabricated in advance. The will’s triumph is in the production of a thing, a super-place of super-anticipation, with all the security that both spatial and temporal wholeness implies. We are witness to the end of history, its apotheosis in pure form where action has no aim, no power of transformation, and thus no meaning. (HEL-lo WAL-ter!)
The true object of Riefenstahl’s camera is not Hitler, but the crowd: the crowd as thing, en masse. Vast squares of people moving in pre-ordained patterns, fitted to the unsurprising metre of marching music. The repeated shift from long shot (mass shot) to inserted close-up makes use of the human face, not as the expression of affect, but as a dome or globe exactly the same as the other monumental structures of Nuremberg: a definer of place. Here faces are never permitted to move into any-spaces-whatever. They never escape the mass shots around them, never escape the crowd, and neither do we. This film makes a place of the crowd, and being there is not unlike the being-in-the-crowd of a demonstration, group-singing or the military: that is, an experience of willing submission, where acting seems satisfied in willing and being willed. (HEL-lo SIGG-y!)
Yet it is possible to treat crowd-space and mass shots in a different way. Busby Berkeley, in a series of musicals made in the 1930s which are supposed to have been favourites of Hitler’s, made the place of the crowd a place of creation, power and control. The reason that all those people are smiling in Berkeley’s musical numbers is not because they have something to do, which is why they smile for Riefenstahl and Hitler, but because they are acting and there is no way to know what thing will result from their movement. In Berkeley, pure form reacquires an originary significance: it creates in space, making ripples that will break ultimately on an unknown shore. Berkeley’s crowd is constituted by its communal action: it does not derive from a centre, nor is it held in by walls. This place of the crowd is always discovering new places: its geometry folds out, keeps on tracking.
It is the place of the wind, where the music never ends. The result is a cinema of surprise, cut to collective syncopation, hinting at jazz. There are no landmarks here which have been made before. And if we search, we can no longer find ourselves in the picture, but only in the glittering veil of dust before the screen. Madness.
After the men with hammers pound the wall
And after the machine pushes the wall
And someone gestures
The wall is down.
And the dust that is us rises
Clouding our view.
Soon the door will be open
And soon all the people will pour out
And the dog and the horse and the bicycle
And something else too.
Something unsought, but probably dancing.
- Most of this article was originally written in a hurry in 1988 for an anthology that was never published. I am grateful to Fiona Villella and Adrian Martin for the opportunity to recast it for publication now. The visuals I have supplied are also material I have used before. This version is for Rolando Caputo, who was the first person to urge me to read Deleuze – and always Diane.
- Cited in Rachel Low and Roger Manvell, The History Of The British Film (1896-1906), George Allen & Unwin, London, 1948, p.76.
- Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press, Boston, 1969, p.155.
- I recommend the historical account of closer shots during this period in Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907-1915, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1990, p.87-102 and also Barry Salt’s quite different take on the matter in the second edition of his Film Style and Technology: History and Analysis, Starword, London, pp.88-93.
- “The Factor of Uniformity”, The Moving Picture World, 24 July 1909, cited in George C. Pratt, Spellbound In Darkness: A History of the Silent Film, Rev. Ed., New York Graphic Society, Greenwich CT, 1973, p.96.
- “Too Near the Camera”, The Moving Picture World, 25 March 1911, p.633, cited in Pratt, p.96. (Pratt’s citation may not be accurate.) The ‘nine foot line’ is defined as I have done it in Bowser, Transformation of Cinema, p. 94. However, it is discussed somewhat differently and in more detail in Salt, Film Style and Technology, pp.89-91.
- Thomas Bedding, [review of The Way Of Man], The Moving Picture World, 3 July 1909, p.11, cited in Bowser, Transformation of Cinema, p.94.
- [Review of Brutality], The Moving Picture World, 14 December 1912, p.1082, cited in Bowser, Transformation of Cinema, p.101.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: the Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1986, pp.87-102.
- Deleuze, Cinema 1, p.96.
- See Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (1922), Liveright, New York, 1970, pp.45-57, 125-140 (on Intimacy); pp.58-106, 141-178 (on Splendor); pp.36-44, 107-124 (on Action). I have dealt with the uncanny relation between Lindsay and Deleuze in “The Madness of Cinema and Thinking Images”, which is currently available at http://www.routt.net/bill/madness. That piece was originally the first part of this one.
- It is interesting that this is not what Lindsay thought about the Intimate Motion Picture. He gave it the colour blue precisely because it was not the proper medium for studying such intense emotions as “transcendent love . . . but rather the half relaxed or gently restrained moods of human creatures” (p.49). Emotional distance increased as apparent physical distance decreased, and vice-versa.
- Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, p.184.
- (1) Jean Louis Schefer, “Spectator”, The Enigmatic Body, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.118. I really should write this all again, writing Jean Louis Schefer through it.
- I know Lipstadt’s work primarily from the television series The Equalizer, which used to be consistently interesting in its handling of architectural space and place.
- Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: the Perspective of Experience, Edward Arnold, London, 1977, p.6.
- Tuan, Space and Place, p. 179.
- Greg Missingham, “Ariadne’s reinforcing rod: conjectures on place and architectural archetypes”, in Kim Dovey, Peter Downton and Missingham (ed), Place and Placemaking: Proceedings of the PAPER 85 Conference, The Association for People and Environments Research, np [sic], 1985, p.187.
- Missingham, “Ariadne’s rod”, p.187.
- Deleuze, Cinema 1, p.63.
- (1) Lindsay, p.47.
- Deleuze, Cinema 1, pp.95-101.
- But, on this point see Deleuze’ tour-de-force combination of Peirce and screen comedy under the tacit sign of Billy Wilder (Cinema 1, pp.198-200) as well as his discussion of Chaplin and Keaton (pp.169-177).
- Noel Burch, To The Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Scolar Press, London, 1979, pp.198-201.
- Michel Marmin calls this shot “le plus beau plan d’un cinéma religieux”, and he is right, of course (see Michel Mourlet, Cecil B. DeMille, Editions Seghers, Paris, 1968, p.55, or the “augmented and updated” and rather ugly reissue from Durante, 1997, p.175).