One of the doyens of French film studies, Jacques Aumont began as a critic at Cahiers du cinéma under editors Jean-Louis Comolli and Jean Narboni. After leaving Cahiers, he moved into academia, with his dissertation published as Montage Eisenstein in 1980. He has taught at the Université de Lyon-II, the Université de Paris-III, the École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, and as a visiting professor at several US universities. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, his work centred on the project of integrating reflection on the cinema into a broader tradition of artistic practice and aesthetic theory, with key works including L’Œil interminable (1989), The Image (1990) and À quoi pensent les films (1997). More recently, he has turned his attention to questions of contemporary image culture in the cinema, gallery art and other media formats, work which has notably yielded the polemical pamphlet Que-reste-til du cinéma? (2012), as well as Matière d’images, redux (2009), Limites de la fiction (2014) and Montage (2014).

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DF: In La Querelle des dispositifs (2012), Raymond Bellour defends the idea that the cinema is only what is projected in a movie-theatre. Your own position seems to be rather different.

JA: Yes, to a certain extent, but I don’t find it very interesting to keep on debating this topic. I have just about exhausted what I had to say about it in my little book Que reste-t-il du cinéma?, and I think it’s time to move on to other things, because it’s a purely nominalist quarrel. Is it cinema or not? That’s not the most important question. What’s important is the experience that people have with various formats, and the real question is knowing which one you’d rather defend.

DF: This is also Francesco Casetti’s position. He says that the cinema is the experience of a film, and not the material object, whether it is a “film” or something else.

JA: I didn’t say this clearly enough in my book, but this is what I think: what’s important is the experience. This is why, in my book on fiction, Limites de la fiction, I tried to express myself a little better: what counts is the experience of time, or more precisely, the experience of a gaze held in time. This means that the viewer is concentrated on something, they accept watching it, being in it for a certain period of time.

I can see how challenging this is when I observe my young students from the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris. None of them do this anymore, ever. Not a single one regularly goes to the cinema to watch films. They might go out to the movies with friends as a social occasion (which is also important) – but not to see a film. The experience of seeing a film doesn’t seem to interest them. Playing video games, strolling around a gallery, surfing the internet, these are also experiences, of course, but there is no constituted time. Everyone constitutes their own time, in an aleatory manner.

The regime that I would call cinemato-novelistic (if you will), in which we agree to be constrained by a work, to submit to its rhythm, is undergoing a process of social disappearance. It still exists, but it is no longer the majority experience – at least not among the young people I come into contact with. Once we have made this observation, should we still hang onto the branches of the old tree of the cinema? I don’t think this is the right answer. What we have to find out is: is there still the same precious experience that we had in the novelistic era, which consisted of reading a book or watching a film from start to finish, being inside the work end-to-end? Or is this outdated, and now we have a different experiential mode, which is essentially fragmentary, and whereby the filmic regime becomes a constraint that we try to shake off? This is the real question. Two or three years ago, when I wrote this little book in a state of rage, I was still trying to defend a definition of the cinema. But deep down, what counts is the experience.

DF: The question then is: can we have the same experience of a film when watching it on a laptop or a smartphone as we do in the cinema? This is what Bellour contests.

JA: I partly agree with Raymond on this point: it is a comparable experience, but it is not exactly the same experience. However, I am less of a purist than he is, and more pragmatic (or perhaps cynical). If I watch a film on the 140cm flat-screen TV in my living room, it’s not cinema, but it closely resembles it. It then becomes a question of the boundary between the cinematic and the non-cinematic. If we watch a film on a computer, with high-quality headphones, we can get close to a cinematic experience, but that’s all. On a smartphone it’s much harder due to the size of the image. The boundary is difficult to trace, like any boundary. This is why I think that we should stop with these quarrels over the dispositifs. It was good that we wrote these books, but I think that the question has been provisionally answered: no more nominalist quarreling, let’s focus on the experience and its variations.

DF: Let’s speak about the book Montage, which you wrote for Caboose in 2014. You said that it was a commissioned work. But montage is surely something that has been important in your work since the 1970s.

JA: It was a commissioned work (for Timothy Barnard, whom I should thank for his efforts as an independent publisher), but it allowed me to reflect anew on the topic, and discover a couple of little things that I knew but had never formulated. For instance, montage no longer really exists on the theoretical level. There are no more theories of montage today. Montage no longer exists as an aesthetic principle, but only as a practice. I would even say that the practice of montage has made progress (if this has any meaning – but it doesn’t, there is no progress in art). By this, I mean that a filmmaker today can do anything he wants on the level of editing. We have acquired an extraordinary freedom, which evidently did not previously exist in commercial cinema.

At the same time, I have the impression nowadays that everyone thinks: “We can do anything with editing. So there’s no problem, we don’t even have to think about it.” We have reached a state of generalised empiricism, which has more or less made abstract speculation disappear. The filmmaker is presently faced within an infinite, almost totally open, palette of possibilities. We can do what we want, extend the shots, shorten them, mix them up, modify them on certain points – and beyond that, we can experiment as much as we want. A good filmmaker who can concretely reflect on this will still find good solutions. It’s just that they will find these solutions either in their own experience, or in that of the past (taking one’s ideas from the masterpieces of the past is not reprehensible), but never in theory.

 

Writing this little book led me to discover this: I noticed that I was obliged to explain things which have now become purely historical, whether it is Bazin, Vertov, Eisenstein or even Godard.

DF: Would you say that this reflects a more general phenomenon: that artistic evolution in total has ceased?

JA: I am not sure I agree. In any case this formulation is too simple. I am convinced that evolution never ceases, even in the arts. What complicates our thinking, and our perception of history, is that terms like “art” (or cinema”) are defined in a floating manner, itself variable with time and ideologies. The widespread definition of art, today, has little in common with what it was a century ago (or a half-century ago).

Moreover, there are always possible formal inventions, even if they are minor. For example, in the cinema, take slow films, and more specifically, the very long, minimal shot where nothing happens. It is not new on a technical level, but it is new in the usage made of it by an entire (very informal) “school” of young auteurs.

Jacques Aumont interview

History Lessons (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1972)

DF: We’ve seen similar things before. In Geschichtsunterricht (History Lessons, 1972) by Straub/Huillet, for instance.

JA: It’s not quite the same. In History Lessons, during the drive through a Roman neighbourhood filmed from inside a car, the intention is that we see a lot. The ideal Straubian spectator is someone who does a lot of work. Compare this to the long-takes of Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos (2004): there is nothing to see, nothing to figure out, time passes, shapeless, empty, unstructured. This idea of time is not new, of course, it partly comes from video art, which practised these durational forms before the cinema did, but to transpose them to the universe of narrative cinema is a new sensation.

We can also find, even more clearly because it has entered the mainstream, visual and narrative forms taken from video games. A film as bad as Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014) is symptomatic. It’s a film for teenagers in which the characters die, but they don’t really die, they start over again, just like in video games – the filmmakers found a narrative pretext for this. You start the game over again, in a sense, and you figure out how to go further. Transposed into a film it is passably boring, because you see the same thing fifteen times – it’s just that the character proceeds a little further each time. Is this a new narrative form? Maybe it is, even if, in my view, it doesn’t have much of a future.

When it is said that art has stopped evolving, the thought is of an evolution “from within” which does not change the definition of the art in question. And yet, what is certain is that the cinema (as an art and as a medium) is changing, due, at least partly, to these contagions between different mediums. This is why I refuse to play the game of disputes about names. Even if the cinema is different to what it used to be, as long as it remains a form of condensed time, offered in a specific experiential mode, I recognise the cinema…

Jacques Aumont interview

Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman, 2014)

DF: In your book you say that there is an opposition between montage and the interactivity of video games. Is the difference that montage is made by the gesture of an auteur, a filmmaker, an artist, while in video games the assemblage of images is made by the players?

JA: Yes and no. Of course, if I was logical with myself, I would defend the idea that the time that a film proposes to me is entirely determined by the person or people who made the film: it is constructed once and for all and made to be felt as such – whereas time in the video game is largely dependent on the player.

But we still have to complicate things a little. Firstly, the video game is not that monolithic. It is something hybrid. Take a game like Assassin’s Creed: there are rather long passages that are filmic in nature. When a new mission is launched, there is a little storyline for about ten minutes. You could say that this is a moment outside of the game, but even in the pure gaming moments, there are leaps from one level to another which are very similar to montage (and which don’t always give the player the freedom to control time). I can’t say much more, because I am not a gamer and I am unfamiliar with video games. But it seems evident to me that the video game in the 2010s is like the cinema in the 1910s. It’s changing very quickly: the image is becoming more refined and mimetic, very similar to a photographic image, and the fictions are already very varied. There now exist very complex games, which require complex, contemplative decisions. I think it’s inevitable that there are more and more exchanges between cinema and video games. The cinema will remain the cinema as long we say it as an experience of a set time.

DF: There is something else that you very trenchantly claim in your book: our age is no longer theoretical. I was struck by this, because in a way it is true, but to hear it formulated like this is pretty astonishing.

JA: What I meant by this is that there is a tremendous wariness towards theory, in the sense that we understood it in the 1960s and 1970s. There were even a certain number of works that sought to demolish this conception of theory, instead offering micro-theories adapted to local problems – but no “big theories”, as Bordwell puts it.

Is this wariness towards “grand theory” an aspect of post-modernity? In principle, yes, in the definition Lyotard gave it: a loss of belief in the possibility of explaining an entire domain of knowledge by a single theory, an end to “grand narratives”. In a way, it’s actually healthy, because grand theory was accompanied by aspects of faith, which are always very harmful to thought. This doesn’t mean that there is no more reflection.

DF: Do you think that what you do is theory, or merely reflection?

JA: That depends on what you mean by theory. If you give a strong meaning to theory, that it is a constructed, coherent doctrine intended to explain a phenomenon, this is something that I’ve never done. I have done analysis, as have the majority of people, even if many prefer to consider themselves theorists because they think it’s more noble.

There have been very few film theorists. For me the paradigmatic theorist is Christian Metz, who worked on a deliberately scientific basis, using linguistics and semiology. There have been a few others, but not many. The well-known “film theorists” are not theorists in this sense. There are theoretical aspects in André Bazin, for example, but he was not entirely a theorist: he did not give much thought to the coherence of his doctrine, he did not have a very firm notional basis, he often used terms loosely. He had ideas, of course, and he even had essentially theoretical ideas, but he never constructed a theory. Even Eisenstein, who passes for an accomplished theorist, also had many fecund intuitions, but he never constructed a theory.

The problem with the idea of theory is that, beyond its possible coherence or consistency, you have to have a scientific intention, and this is very rare among thinkers who are usually either filmmakers or critics.

DF: You’ve been rather severe about Deleuze’s ideas on the cinema.

JA: I wouldn’t say that. He’s certainly a great philosopher. But his work on the cinema is only of interest with respect to his own philosophy, and I am distant from his vitalism. I had a fondness for phenomenology even before knowing it. I was a phenomenologist without being aware of it – and more Merleau-Ponty than Husserl, incidentally. I’m not claiming that I work in a perfectly coherent philosophical manner. I have always practised a “toolbox” technique, taking what I can use wherever I can find it.

DF: Does this serve to distance you from semiotics and structuralism, since they are often opposed to phenomenology?

JA: Structuralism is truly outdated today, and the two or three articles I wrote in this optic now strike me as rather weak (for example, an analysis of La Chinoise [Jean-Luc Godard, 1967], which is not wrong, but a little hollow). “Semiotics” is a broad term, which covers many possible approaches. I am, like everyone, remote from 1960s semiology, and even more remote from its 1970s semio-psychoanalytic variant, but (also like everyone), I am increasingly interested in Peirce. But let me repeat: I am not a theorist, I don’t have this ambition.

DF: There are also filmmaker-theorists.

JA: Yes, many of them. I wrote about some of them in my book Les Théories des cinéastes, and I even added a few for the second edition. But in such an enterprise, you can call someone who has a couple of ideas a theorist. By speaking a little provocatively of filmmaker-theorists, I wanted to underline that many had an abstract, conceptual reflection about their craft. There are very few who have wanted to construct true theories, and in general they didn’t reach their goals, as you can see with Eisenstein or Vertov. Pasolini came closest, I believe, because he leant on an existing doctrine which was Peircean semiotics, but even he did not quite reach the end of his intuitions to construct a true theory in form. Many filmmakers have done “theory”, but none have made “a theory” of the cinema. They have had abstract, conceptual intuitions, and this is very precious!

DF: Even this has become rarefied today.

JA: True. When I did the second edition, I wanted to find some contemporary filmmakers, but there weren’t many of them. Take Eugène Green, for example, whose films I like and who I admire as a writer. He has written on the cinema, bordering on philosophy, theory and poetics, and defending a rather precise and very compact conception of the cinema, close to that of Bresson. Outside of this exceptional case, I don’t see any people today who wish to express themselves theoretically. On the contrary, filmmakers have become aphasic, of the kind: “No, I have nothing to say” – including very intellectual people, like Albert Serra for example.

Jacques Aumont interview

In Vanda’s Room (Pedro Costa, 2000)

DF: A major exception is Pedro Costa, who thinks very deeply on the cinema, but –

JA: But he doesn’t give a written, rationalised form to his thinking.

DF: We can find this in interviews, but there is no synthetic text of his thought. This is the case with the majority of filmmaker-theorists, they theorise their cinema, rather than the cinema in general.

JA: This is inevitable: we can’t ask of them that they be anything other than themselves. A filmmaker is not expected to theorise their own practice, in the strong sense of the word “theory”. By contrast, it quite often happens that they have passionate ideas, and that they know how to express these ideas in a rational, communicable manner.

I think this is the case with Pedro Costa, who is such a unique filmmaker. Everything about him is remarkable, both in formal terms, and in the subjects he treats, with his choice of filming marginalised individuals and neglected places. His works translates a specific idea of the cinema, but I don’t think he has expressed this idea in words, at least from what I know of him.

DF: The end of your book on montage is very interesting, with this idea of “digitalisation”, that is, the idea that films are now made with fingers rather than hands.

JA: This was my reaction to the Anglomania that leads French people to speak of “digitalisation”. In French the word is numérisation. If you say “digitalisation” in French, that refers to the fingers. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

DF: Whereas in English the word has a double meaning: to do with computers and to do with fingers.

JA: Right. French doesn’t have this double meaning. When we speak of a “digital film”, it’s very troubling, because if you know the language, your mind turns to “fingers”. This is why we came up with the word numérique, which is more unambiguous. “Digital” in English comes from “digit”, which is coherent, but it’s not coherent in French. This comes back to my somewhat maniacal concern for clarity.

DF: It touches on something important: the evolution of the body’s relationship with the cinema.

JA: Yes. Before, we could “touch” time, but now we can’t. Celluloid editing had an intellectual side to it, of course, but also a manual side. I’ve done some editing on film, just enough to know that it demanded on the part of the editor a lot of memory and a lot of mental work. We had the snippets of film, hanging above the bin, and you had to perfectly remember the beginning and the end of each shot to know where they could be used.

Today, with digital editing, there is no longer this fantasy of time being handled or “touched”. If you want to recall a shot, it is immediately there. You have a much more tabular relationship with editing. The shots are all there, virtually, but also really. And all of a sudden, paradoxically, I would say that digital editing is almost less mental.

DF: It’s a wider phenomenon: we outsource our mental work to computers.

JA: There is no longer a simple relationship between film editing and digital editing. The most apparent common point is that it is still about making shots, that is units of framing and duration. But we are still in a transitional phase, where we continue old habits. Maybe in ten years time it will be less self-evident to produce temporal unites called shots. My friend Alain Bergala is much more radical than me. He thinks that the notion of the shot has already completely disappeared, that when you edit digitally you no longer have shots, but something else, which does not have a name. He claims that digital editing is radically different, and even that he can immediately tell if a film has been digitally edited or not.

As for me, I think that you can precisely imitate film editing with digital. But digital probably does give rise to ways of thinking that are not the same. I followed the post-production of a film recently, and what I noticed was less the changes in editing procedures as the changes in colour grading and sound mixing. With celluloid, colour grading was a totally distinct process, which the lab did. Today, you use the same software for both, such as Final Cut Pro. It’s very impressive: you change the colour in one corner of the image, you can produce very subtle nuances in an infinitely suppler way. I think it’s very probable that it is this – more than the “tabular” nature of digital editing – that will change the conception we have of a filmic unit, of a “shot”. But I don’t yet feel totally capable of conceptualising this difference.

DF: In your book, you differentiate the shot from the image.

JA: Yes, but this is an opposition on a different level. To be brief, this would be an almost ethical opposition. The filmic shot – in the sense that Bazin spoke of it – has a reponsibility to the world. The image only has a responsibility to the image. Again, this is something that struck me about my Beaux-Arts students. The idea that their work could have a responsibility to the world seemed absurd to them, or at least the vast majority of them. Some of them still think that they are showing the world, but they’re in the minority. The majority create images, but these images are immediately placed in a world of images – and these young people live in a world of images, in which the passages from image to image are easier and more accentuated, but the passage from image to world is less pertinent. And it is probable that this trend will continue, of course. You can imagine a situation where the reference to the world will become an improbable option, a distant possibility, not very interesting in and of itself. But I can’t yet imagine what the consequences would be.

DF: This has a link with Serge Daney’s notion of the visual, which is in opposition to the cinema.

JA: It’s the same kind of idea, although Daney died before the advent of digital, and barely knew the world of computers. He had a conception of this opposition which was even more ideological than mine. For Daney, the visual was almost evil. Today, nobody can hold such a position, it would have no influence. This is why I said that I struggle to imagine what images will be comprised of in twenty years time.

DF: I am very sceptical of the discourse around the death of cinema, or the death of montage, but if there is a death, then maybe it is the death of mise en scène, of the deliberately composed image, with a relationship between the figures, the set and the frame.

JA: Well, for the moment the practice still exists. Television series (even web series) still have mise en scène – perhaps it is even in these products that the idea of mise en scène has found its refuge. But what is true is that there is no more reflection on mise en scène. And the inventive filmmakers of today are rarely inventive in the domain of mise en sène (they are more focused on framing, or editing, or questions of slowness and speed, length and brevity).

DF: There are now Hollywood films bereft of mise en scène.

JA: Who are you thinking of?

Jacques Aumont interview

Boss of it All (Lars von Trier, 2006)

DF: Paul Greengrass, for example. In United 93 (2006) there is a camera that explores the profilmic space, but without any kind of aesthetic choice in the shots, or the relationship between the elements of the image.

JA: You could also think of Lars von Trier’s Direktoren for det hele (Boss of it All, 2006), where the parameters of each shot were calculated by a software program. These are cases, presently isolated and extreme, but which do indeed translate a loss of interest in what we call mise en scène. Perhaps this is what has disappeared, more than the shot…

What seems equally symptomatic to me is the rarity, today, of films in which you can feel the frame. I recently saw Benoît Jacquot’s Journal d’une femme de chambre (Diary of a Chambermaid, 2015), and I was horrified. There is not a single frame, each shot constantly has a slight zoom and a slight pan. I had the disagreeable sentiment that he never knew what he wanted to show, that he was constantly hesitating, and was giving himself every possibility without actually choosing any.

DF: This is also a common practice in Hollywood. Michael Bay does the same thing, the camera never stops moving.

JA: Of course, you can have camera movements for expressive reasons, as in De Palma (see Dressed to Kill [1980], for instance), with fluid, slow, precise movements. What bothers me are the vain, purposeless movements that give the impression of a haphazard shoot, where the camera is moving just because, technically, it’s now become very easy to move it.

DF: It’s also designed not to bore the spectator with a stable frame.

JA: You are probably right and this is doubtless the intention, but boredom is a blurry, variable notion. As for me, I get bored when the shots of a film are not composed, and appear made at random, and I also get bored by the monotony of filming without imagination.

DF: Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) by Godard is mentioned quite frequently in your book as an object of reference. One thing that is quite new in film practice is the use of images from the cinema’s past, of which Godard is a pioneer. Now this practice has become generalised.

JA: Godard profited from the technical progress of video, which enabled him to show copies of films in a more practical manner, but the use of found footage per se goes further back. It goes back, at the very least, to experimental and avant-garde filmmakers in the late 1950s, if not earlier.

Jacques Aumont interview

A Movie (Bruce Conner, 1958)

DF: There was Bruce Conner.

JA: Of course, his first film, A Movie (1958) is generally considered as the invention of cinematic collage. But Conner does transmutation: he completely changes the meaning of what he uses. Whereas Godard does veneration: his goal is to show the almost magical power of the image (and not just moving images, since he reproduces a lot of paintings).

DF: It’s more Godard’s montage method that is unique to him, rather than the use of found footage.

JA: It’s both. His goal, we mustn’t forget, is not to use found footage in order to do collage. His goal is to do film history (and to do history more generally). And yet, history is a discourse, and pursuing a discourse in images is not evident. It is a temptation that has returned from time to time, in filmmakers. Let us recall Eisenstein’s utopia of adapting Marx’s Capital as a film – a utopia that was recently resurrected by Alexander Kluge. But with Godard it is more sophisticated, since the discourse that he wants to have is not external to the cinema, but is the cinema, its history. There is thus a utilisation of old (or not so old) films, a very profound supposition that they contain their own history, and that montage will permit this latent content to emerge.

DF: Do you think that Adieu au langage (Goodbye to Language, 2014) represents something different?

JA: Yes and no. No, because narratively the film resembles Godard’s other “fiction” films since, let’s say, Notre Musique (2004). It is very complicated, almost incomprehensible, in terms of narrative, notably with a confusing repartition of the relations between actors and characters – but no more than Film socialisme (2011) and no more than Histoire(s). What is new, of course, is that he tackles 3D, and that he had the obvious but unexpected idea of playing on the fact that you need two images to render 3D as a single image.

DF: He was the first to treat these two images as truly independent.

JA: Indeed, I have never seen this before. The idea is so beautiful that it is astonishing that there wasn’t a video artist who thought of this earlier (unless there was and I am unaware of it).

Jacques Aumont interview

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, 2014)

DF: It’s good that it was Godard who did this, because it is inscribed in his earlier practice. For Godard, montage is the combination of two distinct visual elements, so you could say that his use of 3D is a form of Godardian montage.

JA: I was thinking exactly the same thing. Godard’s notion of montage can extend to this point. Right away, he could say that he has edited [monté] the left and right images. This would be a new extension of the meaning of the word “montage”. We could almost ask if there remains, in this new type of “montage”, something of the notion of montage-as-metaphor, or montage-as-relationship…

DF: You have been rather sceptical about the idea of 3D cinema.

JA: I still am. People have the right to do it, of course, but I don’t think it’s a very good idea. 3D, such as we see it in mainstream films, is rarely very interesting, and almost always used for poor, monotonous effects, aggressive effects. Even when Hitchcock used it (in Dial M for Murder [1954]), he was unable to do much with this excessively evident idea that 3D is made to “grab” the audience, by throwing objects at their heads, brandishing a knife in their direction, etc.

More radically, what bothers me with the 3D image is that there’s nothing behind it. It gives the idea of depth, but we can’t really move around it. If you just use it for minor effects of depth, it ends up producing an image that has less power than a 2D image, because it continuously reminds me that I can’t penetrate it.

DF: This is a big question, but are you a realist in the cinema? Is there a need for a certain realism in the cinema?

JA: Not necessarily. Realism is not more consubstantial with the cinema than with the image in general. For my part, I like seeing everything, including entirely synthetic films, in which there is nothing realistic whatsoever. In contrast, I believe that the majority of the time there even remains a minimal realist trait, through the reference to the real world. A film that had no reference to the world is quite rare (outside of abstract films, but even then).

I’m trying not to confound the question of realism (which is already a little confused because the term has had several usages in the history of fiction) with the question of the reference. There are fantasy films that construct imaginary worlds to house their fictions, like the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings films. In mainstream fantasy films, there is a lot of green-screen filming, and the result is an avowed fabrication, which can be very kitschy. But this certainly does not prevent a reference to our world, in an allegorical mode that is not bereft of effectiveness, and sometimes charm.

DF: Harry Potter is not the best example, because it comes from a book whose storyline is rather realist as far as the psychology of its characters is concerned.

JA: All the interesting examples come from books. In terms of recent output, a series that interests me is Hunger Games. It comes from a novel, and the novel is more interesting than the films (like Harry Potter). But I find that in these films there is the awareness of a constructed universe that would be a metaphor for the capitalist world. These films have a political, potentially very critical, pertinence (within the limits of a mainstream film). This is an old tradition of fantastic stories, since the work that founded the genre, Thomas More’s Utopia 500 years ago, which was already a critique of the contemporary world. A u-topia, a place that is nowhere, very often becomes a dystopia, a dark vision of the political reality contemporary to the work. Is this still realism? Not in the naturalistic sense, of course, but it remains a will to target the world such as it functions (or doesn’t function).

DF: You say in your book that the match-cut in a film is, in and of itself, an extraordinary phenomenon. It is extraordinary that the spectator can do a synthesis of these two images.

JA: We are so used to it that we forget the radical novelty that the montage of two moving images represented. What did the cinema invent? It invented the fact of giving movement to images. It invented the fact of giving duration to images (which is not the same thing). And then it invented montage, that is, the fact of putting two images one after another, and this designates something or signifies something. All these inventions were astonishing to their first viewers, but in the case of montage there is a cumulative effect. There were social practices where images succeeded each other, like the magic lantern. But they were fixed images, and this was not a purely visual succession (it was accompanied by an oral discourse). Whereas, in silent cinema, the spectator had to depend on visual resources to know what to do with the sequencing of a moving image with another moving image. In cultural terms, it is one of the greatest novelties ever invented.

Interviewed and translated from the French by Daniel Fairfax