Conversation with Gilbert Cabasso and Fabrice Revault d'Allonnes Cinema334 (December 18, 1985)
A hundred years of cinema. . . and only now does a philosopher have the idea of setting out concepts specific to cinema. What should we make of this blind spot of philosophical reflection?
It's true that philosophers haven't taken much notice of cinema, even though they go to cinemas. Yet it's an interesting coincidence that cinema appeared at the very time philosophy was trying to think motion. That might even explain why philosophy missed the importance of cinema: it was itself too involved in doing something analogous to what cinema wasdoing; it was trying to put motion into thought while cinema was putting it into images. The two projects developed independently before any encounter became possible. Yet cinema critics, the greatest critics anyway, became philosophers the moment they set out to formulate an aesthetics of cinema. They weren't trained as philosophers, but that's what they became. You see it already in Bazin.
How do you see the place of film criticism these days-what role should it play ?
Film criticism faces twin dangers: it shouldn't just describe films but nor should it apply to them concepts taken from outside film. The job of criticism is to form concepts that aren't of course "given" in films but nonetheless relate specifically to cinema, and to some specific genre of film, to some specific film or other. Concepts specific to cinema, but which can only be formed philosophically. They're not technical notions (like tracking, continuity, false continuity, 1depth or flatness offield, and so on), because technique only makes sense in relation to ends which it presupposes but doesn't explain.
It's these ends that constitute the concepts of cinema. Cinema sets out to produce self-movement in images, auto temporalization even: that's the key thing, and it's these two aspects I've tried to study. But what exactly does cinema thereby show us about space and time that the other arts don't show? A tracking shot and a pan give two very different spaces. A tracking shot sometimes even stops tracing out space and plunges into time in Visconti, for instance. I've tried to analyse the space of Kurosawa's and Mizoguchi's films: in one it's an encompassing, in the other, a world-line. They're very different: what happens along a worldline isn't the same as what happens within an encompassing. Technical details are subordinate to these overall finalities. And that's the difficulty: you have to have monographs on auteurs, but then these have to be grafted onto differentiations, specific determinations, and reorganisations of concepts that force you to reconsider cinema as a whole.
How can you exclude, from the problematic of body and thought that runs right through your reflection, psychoanalysis and its relation to cinema? Or linguistics for that matter. That is, "concepts taken from outside film"?
It's the same problem again. The concepts philosophy introduces to deal with cinema must be specific, must relate specifically to the cinema. You can, of course, link framing to castratioIl, or close-ups to partial objects, but I don't see what that tells us about cinema. It's questionable whether the notion of "the imaginary, " even, has any bearing on cinema; cinema produces reality. It's all very well psychoanalysing Dreyer, but here as elsewhere, it doesn't tell us much. It makes more sense to compare Dreyer and Kierkegaard; because already for Kierkegaard, the problem was to "make" a movement, and he thought only "choice" could do this: then cinema's proper object becomes a spiritual choice.
A comparative psychoanalysis of Kierkegaard and Dreyer won't help us with the philosophical-cinematic problem of how this spiritual dimension becomes the object of cinema. The problem returns in a very different form in Bresson, in Rohmer, and pervades their films, which aren't at all abstract but very moving, very engaging. It's the same with linguistics: it also provides only concepts applicable to cinema from outside, the "syntagm" for instance. But that immediately reduces the cinematic image to an utterance, and its essential characteristic, its motion, is left out of consideration. The narrative in cinema is like the imaginary: it's a very indirect product of motion and time, rather than the other way around. Cinema always narrates what the image's movements and times make it narrate. If l by a sensory-motor scheme, if it shows a character reacting to a situation, then you get a story. If the motion's governed, on the other hand, the sensory-motor scheme breaks down to leave disoriented and discordant movements, then you get other patterns, becomings rather than stories.
That's the whole importance, which you examine in your book, of neorealism. A crucial break, obviously connected with the war (RnsseUini and Visconti in Italy, Ray in America). And yet Ozu before the war and then Welles present one taking too historicist an approach. . .
Yes, if the major break comes at the end of the war, with neorealism, it's precise because neorealism registers the collapse of sensorimotor schemes: characters no longer "know" how to react to situations that are beyond them, too awful, or too beautiful, or insoluble...So a new type of character appears. But, more important, the possibility appears of temporalizing the cinematic image: pure time, little bit of time in its pure form, rather than motion. This cinematic revolution may have been foreshadowed in different contexts by Welles and, long before the war, by Ozu. In Welles there's a depth of time, coexisting layers of time, which the depth of field develops on a truly temporal scale. And if Ozu's famous still life are thoroughly cinematic, it's because they bring out the unchanging pattern of time in a world that's already lost its sensory-motor connections.
But what are the principles behind these changes? How can we assess them, aesthetically or otherwise? In short: on what basis can we assess films?
I think one particularly important principle is the biology of the brain, a microbiology. It's going through a complete transformation and coming up with extraordinary discoveries. It's not to psychoanalysis or linguistics but to the biology of the brain that we should look for principles, because it doesn't have the drawback, like the other two disciplines, of applying ready-made concepts. We can consider the brain as a relatively undifferentiated mass and ask what circuits, what kinds of circuit, the movement-image or time-image trace out, or invent because the circuits aren't there, to begin with.
Take Resnais's films, for example, a cinema of the brain, even though, once again, they can be very entertaining or very moving. The circuits into which Resnais's characters are drawn, the waves they ride, are cerebral circuits, brain waves. The whole of cinema can be assessed in terms of the cerebral circuits it establishes, simply because it's a moving image. Cerebral doesn't mean intellectual: the brain's emotive, impassioned too. . . You have to look at the richness, the complexity, the significance of these arrangements, these connections, disjunctions, circuits and short-circuits. Because of most cinematic production, with its arbitrary violence and feeble eroticism, reflects mental deficiency rather than any invention of new cerebral circuits. What happened with pop videos is pathetic: they could have become a really interesting new field of cinematic activity but were immediately taken over by organised mindlessness. Aesthetics can't be divorced from these complementary questions of cretinization and cerebralization. Creating new circuits in art means creating them in the brain too.
Cinema seems, on the face of it, more a part of civic life than does philosophy. How can we bridge that gap, what can we do about it?
That may not be right. I don't think people like the Straubs, for example, even considered as political filmmakers, fit any more easily than philosophers into "civic life." Any creative activity has a political aspect and significance. The problem is that such activity isn't very compatible with circuits of information and communication, ready-made circuits that are compromised from the outset. All forms of creativity, including any creativity that might be possible on television, here face a common enemy. Once again it's a cerebral matter: the brain's the hidden side of all circuits, and these can allow the most basic conditioned reflexes to prevail, as well as leaving room for more creative tracings, less "probable" links.
The brain's a spatiotemporal volume: it's up to art to trace through it the new paths open to us today. You might see continuities and false continuities as cinematic synapses-you get different links, and different circuits, in Godard and Resnais, for example. The overall importance or significance of cinema seems to me to depend on this sort of problem.