Film, Art, New Media

A salient characteristic of theoretical discourse in any field is its cyclical nature. Debates of one generation of theorists are mirrored in their time’s scholarship, then temporarily committed to oblivion, only to resurface with renewed, one would hope, vigor in the context of subsequent disciplinary interventions. Film and Media Studies has certainly not been exempt from this trend and such a cyclicality is particularly evident in the corner of the field that deals with the relationship of cinema to the other arts. Especially prominent in early film criticism (when intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic debated its relative standing as an art), such comparative, interdisciplinary assessment of the moving image was left by the wayside during a period of disciplinary maturation that was characterized by the onslaught of structuralism and psychoanalysis, while it has admittedly been undergoing a renaissance in the scholarly output of these past two decades. This might be attributable to the ‘ontological turn’ brought about by the advent of digital image technologies that has caused the same profound soul-searching in theoreticians and practitioners as that prevalent during the medium’s early days. If, as Rosalind Kraus has recently argued in redeploying Walter Benjamin’s poignant formulation, it is, “at the birth of a given social form or technological process that [its] utopian dimension is present and, furthermore, it is precisely at the moment of the obsolescence of that technology that it once more releases this dimension, like the gleam of a dying star,” (1) then ours might be as good a juncture as any to reassess the comparative standing of cinema in the system of the fine arts in the era of the so called “post-medium condition”.

The museum, as Angela Dalle Vacche and the contributors to the new multidisciplinary anthology Film, Art, New Media: Museum without Walls? remind us, has long been a privileged locus for staging aesthetic as well as material encounters between film and its older (and increasingly its newer) artistic counterparts. Indeed, film’s progressive institutionalization and, more recently, its extra-theatrical life have both been deeply intertwined with the history of modern museums and galleries. The situation has gotten to the point where, as Jonathan Romney has aptly observed, “you often needed to go to galleries to keep up with innovative filmmaking, and just as often wished that certain cinema films could find a gallery space to breathe in.” (2) Brigitte Peucker confirms this viewpoint in her preface to this collection, by referring to Peter Greenaway’s work as a “palimpsest-like layering of representational systems” (p. xii) that moves between media, with installations begetting films or vice-versa. Greenway is only the latest figure in a chain of theorist-practitioners that have conceived the boundaries between arts as flexible membranes whose porousness they have sought to explore in works that can be characterized as ‘virtual museums’: from Aby Warburg’s Atlas Mnenosyne to Chris Marker’s Immemory, the dream of exploding walls and stretching forms has been taken up again and again in endless permutations.

Immemory (Chris Marker, 1997)

The paradigm of the museum as “a database of images accessible anywhere and anytime” (p. 1) surely owes a lot to the André Malraux’s Museé Imaginaire, an eclectic conceptual construct that was to remain unfulfilled during the preeminent French intellectual’s lifetime, but which forms a poignant departure point for this anthology (outcome of an equally eclectic Symposium) and its exploration of “the new temple of cinephilia” (p. 2): the 21st century museum. Despite the somewhat arbitrary division into parts (five in all)  ̶  a sign of the very fruitful dialogue that the fifteen essays maintain even when not belonging to the same section  ̶  this ‘gathering’ of academics, curators and researchers from both sides of the cinema studies/art history nexus, covers a wide swath of geographical, aesthetic and historical territory while keeping the museum, as institution but also as conceptual trope, always in sight.

In the first of three contributions dealing with the early period of the medium, typified by a veritable explosion in visual culture of which cinema was but one parameter, Lynda Nead surveys the theme of the artist’s studio in early twentieth century art and film. She traces this dialectic between stillness and motion, antagonism and synergy, while paying particular attention to the artist’s body and the temporality of the creative act (Bergsonian durée) as it unfolds before the camera. The prime example in this respect is Clouzot’s Le Mystère Picasso, as “an aesthetic symbiosis of screen and painting” (p. 34), a template for the superimposition of artistries (pictorial and cinematic) and a reflection of the ephemerality of all art (although unmentioned here, all paintings made, or better yet ‘performed’ in the film, were subsequently destroyed). Dalle Vacche pursues a similar type of cross-pollination, only this time motivic rather than spatial, in her chapter on Cezanne and the Lumiére brothers. Cross-examining the realist strains within French painting with the openness to the contingency of real life manifested by early actualities, she traces the many parallels that exist in the treatment of the human form by pre-cinematic visual forms and in Cezanne’s painterly ‘experiments in vision’. It is in this exchange that “the natural, the mechanical and the real were quickly becoming intertwined and interchangeable” (p. 49). For Nell Andrew, one more component needs to be added for this dialectical (painting-cinema) process of development to become the triangular configuration par excellence of modernism in art: dance. Andrew thus outlines a different “pre-history of media mixing” (p. 58), equally grounded in the body and informed by the tension between the material and the immaterial, the figural and the abstract. The multiple depictions of Loie Fuller’s performances in constant flux on screen and canvas and the rapport of Akarova’s “living geometry” with the French cinematic Avant-Garde of the 1920s are perfect examples of allied artistic endeavors that aimed to “de-center the opticality and formal autonomy” (p. 74) of traditional art and construct new modes of engaged spectatorship.

In the section dedicated to ‘Film Theory,’ Dudley Andrew probes a triangle of a different sort: the one formed by Malraux, André Bazin and Walter Benjamin, centered around the former’s sole foray as a director, the 1945 (although filmed much earlier) adaption of his own work, Espoir. Andrew grounds in fact the affinities that Bazin had sensed between Malraux’s style and “the language of the screen” (p. 116), by sketching out the variety of theoretical and artistic models for politically-engaged art prevalent in France on the eve of WWII. Encounters between artists and thinkers or between arts, he argues, don’t have to be literal; they could rather be better captured by the term “rapprochement”: Bazin’s with Espoir but also with the new model of art history that Malraux was trying to promote; Benjamin’s with Malraux’s “sociology of art” (p. 124); and finally the rapprochement among all three in their recasting of ‘style’ as “a consistent manner of framing experience” (p. 130), as “creativity-within-tradition” (p. 131), the concept that also permeates the Musée Imaginaire. Socially-committed models of art that transcend specific media also proliferated in Soviet Russia, as John MacKay reminds the reader in his comparative assessment of Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda with the contemporaneous wave of Constructivism. Using both contextual and close formal analysis, MacKay detects the core of this dialogue in “the structurally objective deduction of forms mechanically reproducible and functional within Soviet reality” (p. 88), a deduction that challenges traditional notions of individual authorship and the idealization of artistic creation. Collective authorship is similarly exemplified by Victor Erice and Antonio López García’s Dream of Light (1992), which, for Simon Dixon, constitutes a multivalent, meta-filmic co-exploration of time and vision above and beyond a mere series of paintings and their documentation on film. Erice captures on celluloid the process through which “painting gives way to film” (p. 144), while simultaneously addressing cinema’s image-crisis in the digital age. For Dixon, the digital does not signify the abolition of the index, only its transmutation onto the temporal domain, where “representation has given way to generation” (p. 151) and the other becomes the same. But, does the new ontic regime of the digital fundamentally challenge our received conception of the moving image when it comes to its most salient feature, that of movement? That is the question that Trond Lundemo poses and whose origins he seeks in the opposing (though frequently confused) definitions of movement suggested by Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov’s montage theories. Eisenstein, strongly influenced by the foregoing art historical tradition, saw movement as inhering in the image itself, while Vertov famously located it in the interstice between frames  ̶  that same interstice that separates and unites artworks in both Warburg’s and Malraux’s virtual museums. Vertov’s faith in machinic perception and Eisenstein’s in Art History are revived and newly challenged in the present time of media convergence, where movement is simulated in binary code, where the random access aesthetic of the database has superseded the sequentiality of photograms in motion pictures.

Nevertheless, one cannot behave as if Art History has historically been a single, stable discipline that our digital present has finally outgrown. The polyphonic and pluridisciplinary nature of a history of art, broadly conceived, is the topic of Noa Steimatsky and Lara Pucci’s chapters in the relevant section. The former integrates perspectives from neurological research in a quite innovative revaluation of performance and mise-en-scène in Robert Bresson’s oeuvre along the lines of an autistic perception, defined not in the context of psychological disorder but as a modified way for one to relate to the world. The human face, language and the rapport of the animate with the inanimate world, all acquire a new meaning when considered from the viewpoint of an affective perception that exceeds the narrow boundaries of the audiovisual; a perception for which even things can be given a face, as Gilles Deleuze has formulated it. A different dimension of Art History is that dealing with the sociohistorical framework of individual works, artists and movements and it is precisely this aspect that Lara Pucci pursues in her ideological examination of the multi-media Fascist cultural movement of Strapaese and its representations of Italian regional landscapes. Pucci unpacks the ways that aesthetics and politics, domestic and international affairs and the construction of “cultural heritage” along the lines of a national identity are born out not just by architecture, design and painting in 1920s and 1930s Italy, but also in Alessandro Blasetti’s film Terra Madre (1931) and the discourse that surrounded it, as does all “mediated landscapes” (p. 189).

The penultimate part of the book focuses on more specific encounters between painters and filmmakers: Sally Shafto provides a close reading of the second of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s film essays dedicated to Cezanne. Her comparative method, bringing biographical perspectives and real locations to fore, is refreshing, but the overt reliance on the dated and partly inaccurate Joachim Gasquet biography and the frequent tangents (on, for instance, Empedocles and Hölderlin) detract from the otherwise sound textual analysis on Straub and Huillet’s “materialist approach” (p. 209). Susan Felleman’s contribution provides a welcome contrast in methodology, by looking not so much at the ways that Francis Bacon’s art has impacted filmmakers (although her commentaries on Kenneth Anger, David Lynch and recent video art are most astute), but at whether Bacon’s paintings can be said to align  ̶  in terms of affect, style and technique ̶  with “the cinematic” as it has evolved in the 20th and 21st centuries. For Felleman, “Bacon’s signature distortions […] are condensations of a cinematic (or serial) diachrony” (p. 223), they provide an analogue to montage and manifest a “deep synchronicity” (p. 235) with the ontology and the practice of film as a medium.

The four essays that cap off the anthology revolve around different interpretations and case studies on the long and multifarious life of cinema in the museum. Among the authors here are two practicing architects who add a nicely balanced theoretical and practical focus on spatial configurations and exhibition contexts. François Penz’s chapter derives from a series of studies on the experience of architectural space in the museum carried out for Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum. Among many pertinent questions, he investigates how specific spatial arrangements construct narratives for patrons, much like cinema engages different kinds of creative geographies, and how the use of new media can augment a museum experience by adding layers of narrative to an otherwise straight-forward visit. The case-in-point here is a critical dissection of the spatial rhetoric in Paris’ newest museum, the Musée du Quai Branly and its anthropological collections. Gavin Hogben similarly adopts a practical stance in surveying the recent ‘performative’ and ‘digital’ turns in museum studies. Indeed, the entrance of technology into the venerated space of the museum has caused an atrophy in the traditional interest in space as a static construct and a refocusing of curatorial attention on ‘flows’, ‘databases, ‘live-ness’ and ‘the virtual’. Hogben hints at (without fully considering) the potentially negative impact of the omnipotence of the digital: “just about everybody has become, in effect, a citizen-journalist or a drone-pilot assassin in waiting” (p. 314). Nonetheless, his diagnosis of the curatorial trends of “nomadism” (Banksy’s work being a prime example), festival-like programming and social arts dimension are quite original and accurately mirror the present predicament of an institution caught between the old notion of collecting and exhibiting, and the increasing emphasis on event over object and the ‘glo-cal’ over the “brick and mortar” models of yesteryear. This historical existence of the museum as place of power and as cultural arbiter is the topic of Ian Christie’s ‘archeological’ contribution, which departs from a chronological account of cinema’s institutionalization and museification on both sides of the Atlantic, to then deal with more recent exhibitions and installations that directly or indirectly incorporate the seventh art. This “sporadic history of filmmakers venturing into the gallery” (p. 247), which, however, tends to nowadays become the norm rather than the exception, is testament to a shift in the roles of both the museum (perhaps from a “memento mori” to a “memento vitae” [p. 251]) and of the filmmaker. Christie evokes here the example of Alexander Sokurov and his single-take Russian Ark (2002) and that is precisely the focus of Jeremy Szaniawski’s essay on the elegiac, historical and utopic dimensions of the museum, in this case the famed Hermitage, and its on-screen guises. Instead of a plain documentary approach of the space of the St Petersburg institution, Sokurov mounts “a temporal potpourri” (p. 259) about memory and national identity that ends up being “a sort of poetic evocation and analog to the museum” (p. 262). For Szaniawski, Sokurov does not so much rescue events of the past, as he “embalms them” (p. 267), mirroring the conservationist mission of the museum-as-ark but also of that other capacious container of memory and experience that is cinema itself.

The diversity of disciplinary, artistic, theoretical and geographical perspectives represented in this anthology is a testament to the fine balance between rigor and eclecticism that it manages to maintain throughout. Crucial concerns that recur like the body, affect, temporality and experience are deployed in contexts as varied as painterly modernism and neuro-aesthetics. While one regrets the absence of non-Western paradigms and of alternatives forms of moving image that museums increasingly incorporate (video games and mixed-media would be good examples in this respect), the authors do ultimately collectively achieve to de-familiarize and simultaneously reintroduce the reader to both the cinema and the museum, two institutions that, as Dalle Vacche points out by way of Merleau-Pontian phenomenology in her introduction, overt familiarity and “previous knowledge can prevent us from seeing in a new way” (p. 15).  Film, Art, New Media: Museum without Walls? can perhaps be best envisioned as being itself a series of galleries in a museum. After all, to evoke Merleau-Ponty one last time in a text speaking directly about Malraux’s imaginary museum, “[t]he unity of art does not exist in the museum alone. It exists in that single task which all artists are confronted with and which makes it so one day they will be comparable in the museum and such that their fires will answer one another in the night.” (3)

Angela Dalle Vacche (ed), Film, Art, New Media: Museum without Walls? (New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Endnotes

  1. Rosalind Krauss, A Voyage to the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition(London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), p. 41.
  2. Jonathan Romney, “(Dis)continuous Performance,” Off limits: 40, James Lingwood,  Gerrie van Noord and Marina Warner (eds), (London: Artangel, 2002), p. 34.
  3. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Indirect Language and the Voices of Silence, ”Signs (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press), p. 60.

About The Author

Dimitrios Latsis is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at the University of Iowa. He holds a BA in Film/Video from Columbia College Chicago and an MA in Cinema Studies from King's College London. His interests lie in the rapport of philosophical thought with film (especially phenomenology), of film with other arts and in visual perception. He is currently working on a dissertation concerning the role of natural landscape in American Cinema before WWII for which he has been awarded a CIC-Smithsonian predoctoral fellowship to the Smithonian Museum of American Art and the National Museum of American History. His work has been published in Refractory (U Melbourne), Intermedialités (U Montreal), The Irish Review and is forthcoming in October (MIT Press), Amerikastudien/American Studies and The British Journal of Phenomenology. He has presented work in numerous conferences in the fields of Film Studies (SCMS), American Studies (ASA) and Art History (CAA).