Death 24x a second

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This is the fourth of our Huston Film Lectures, a series of lectures given to students at the National University of Ireland’s Huston School of Film and Digital Media in Galway. The lecture series features leading film directors, writers, producers, cinematographers and academics. Laura Mulvey, the British film theorist and film-maker, who is currently professor of film and media studies at Birbeck, University of London, gives this fourth lecture. She analyses the relationship between stillness and the moving image in cinema, a strand of film theory that she’s studied in depth in her latest book “Death 24x a Second”. Laura Mulvey uses Rossellini’s film, “Journey to Italy”, to talk about the representation of time in film and how everyday technology, such as video and digital media, can change how we see movies.

Laura Mulvey: Because I am generally identified with the 1973 “Visual Pleasure” article I decided that I’d just place myself at the beginning of this talk and try and indicate in just a introductory paragraph how my thought is changing. And also this comes out a new work that I’ve been doing in a book that’s been published recently which is called “Death 24x a Second. Stillness and the moving image”. And that’s running behind the talk that I’m going to give today. And Rod asked me to bring in a movie that we both love very much and also I have written about in my book which is Robert Rossellini’s 1952 film Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia). So what I’ve done is try to kind of locate some of the things I’ve thinking about recently but also try to illustrate them more through talking and thinking about Journey to Italy.

Now I want to start with this question of shift in interest because when I first started to write about the cinema was 1972 to 1973. And at that time films were all watched in darkened rooms, projected at 24 frames a second or thereabouts and only people like you had access to flatbed editing tables that brought down the speed necessary for creating the illusion of natural movement that we associate with film. Now, as all we know today, the ways of consuming film have multiplied enormously and the regulation of its speed has been widely extended. In those days, in the seventies, I was concerned particularly with the eroticisation of the female figure, particularly Hollywood’s use of the female star. But now I’m more interested in the ways in which time is represented in the cinema and how that representation of the time can be discovered in the relation between movement and stillness, what happens when you use everyday technology to still film. So, between that then, the early seventies, and now, stands an absolutely obvious by now and everyday fact: that video and digital media have opened up new ways of seeing old movies. So this question of the relationship between how we see now and the past it is really running through my thoughts this afternoon.

This question of time and the crisis of temporality that’s overtaking the cinema became very acute not only to me, but to everybody in 1995, when cinema hit its centenary, when it actually celebrated its 100th birthday. At a moment like that, cinema to show its age, it seemed feel its age and around that time not only film theorists but anybody – journalists, ordinary people – everybody started to talk about the question of the death of cinema. Was cinema dying? Did cinema have a future? It was that kind of sudden aging, kind of crippling of the cinema that seemed to me that demand certain kind of thought, kind of return to the cinema itself. Also at the same time it was clear to conservationists and archivists that celluloid itself was not a stable medium and that decay was an inherent part of its physical makeup. The writer and film-maker Chris Petit says in his video “Negative Space”: ‘cinema is becoming increasingly about what is past, it becomes a mausoleum as much as a palace of dreams’. And all these things seem to come together, ageing the cinema, but at the same time, or two years subsequently after 1995, in 1997, old films began to be marketed on a digital format. And although we’d been seeing films in video, this seemed to be the beginning, the opening of a new era. So that resonance of ageing and death that was associated with the centenary of cinema coincided with the arrival of a new technology which seemed to create a divide between the old and the new: the old celluloid and the new digital and so on.

But, on the other hand, it also provided an opportunity to look back, the films shown on digital were an opportunity to look back to that before in the light of now. So the aesthetics of the past could begin to meet the aesthetics of the present and bring in, I would like to argue, new life to cinema and to its history. But this new life also completely transforms the way in which films are consumed and also, of course, to see the oldness in them through the new technology involves a detour out of celluloid into this new medium. But, at the same time, this return to the past through the cinema has enabled a new kind of spectatorship. So to return to and to repeat a specific film fragment involves a return and repetition that involves interrupting the flow of film. This involves delaying its progress. And what I became interested in, was the concept of delay, what happens when you delay a film that was actually devised and designed to flow on celluloid at 24 frames a second with the narrative line carrying you kind of inexorably from the beginning through to the end.

So to see cinema through delay is to discover ways of seeing and thinking about cinema that have always been there but, to some extent, been overlooked and come much more into visibility, or to me anyway. I just want to start off by showing…giving an example of the way I was thinking about delay in cinema and the relationship between the film as still frame and the still film as illusion of movement with certainly not something that emerges from our new technologies but it is something that filmmakers have thinking about for a very long time. Here we go back to 1928, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera, and in this particular sequence in the film it was very striking to me… it was a sequence I went back to over and over gain because it really does bring into question the basic paradox of cinema, that is out of a series of still frames. What is very revealing here is that, as you move into the editing room, which we’re going to in a moment, you shift from freeze frame, what is the first effect on the horse to the sense of the frame within the strip of film. And, as the editing starts, the stillness begins to come to life again (PLAYS SEQUENCE).

So my point really is quite simply that, although I knew this film very well, this particular sequence, which actually plays on the relationship between movement, stillness, the illusion of movement emerging out of the flow of frames, was something I hadn’t actually focused on before until the present new climate of thinking about the pause and the freeze frame that you could get through this detour into new technology.

Now I want to go on to Robert Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy) released in 1953, which is back to another moment of transition – when I say ‘another’ I mean similar perhaps to the moment of the late twenties – to a transitional moment in film history, a crisis of the cinema emerging out of the neorealism in Italy after the war and then kind of going on to the other new waves of the 1960s. But here what I’m interested in is not only Rossellini’s fascination with the relationship between the animate, the inanimate, the still, the moving, the living and the dead; but here perhaps more the way he uses, the way that he actually interrupts narrative, interrupts the flow of his movie in order to take us into a meditation, a process of thought on these various kinds of things that interested him and that I’ll go back to in a minute.

This film was made in Naples and in many ways it only could have been made in Naples. It reflects Rossellini’s fascination with the environments of the area and, particularly, with Pompeii, the city that was buried in the 78 or 79 volcano eruption that buried Herculaneum and Pompeii under a mass of lava. And Ingrid Bergman, who had been married to Rossellini and their marriage was actually coming to an end during the period of making the film, in a much later interview she said: ‘Rossellini adored Pompeii, he knew everything about it. He was only looking for a story into which he could put Pompeii and the museums and Naples and all that Naples stands for, which he was always fascinated with’. So these places that he chose were chosen before their associations with Rossellini’s idiosyncratic and eccentric commentary on the cinema; its reality, not so much its realism in this case, its reality, but also, this kind of uncanniness of the way in which it has an ability to preserve life.

Towards the end of the film there is a sequence that actually takes place in the excavations in Pompeii, when the film protagonists an English middle-class – well, more than middle-class, well-to-do, they drive around Naples in a Bentley – an English couple called Alex and Catherine Joyce -Joyce kind of significantly – played by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman. The story of how these two people came to be acting in the movie, I think, is in itself quite strange but we can perhaps talk more about that later, if there is time. Anyway, they are taken to witness an excavation in Pompeii and Rossellini was in touch with the works and was to be informed whenever anything spectacular was to be revealed. They used to pour plaster when they found a kind of empty space in the lava, the plaster would then go solid and they would gradually take away the exterior and find whatever it was that was hidden underneath. In this sequence, two figures are uncovered. This sequence has been seen as a kind of metaphor for the way in which the photographic and celluloid medium can actually capture a moment of life and then put it in suspended animation as an inanimate form, as it were, henceforth. Raymond Bellour, the French theorist, has said about this particular sequence: “there emerges the form of a couple, clasped in an embrace, as a picture appears in a developer. Thus a photograph is formed from the real itself”. And he suggests: “these plaster casts, formed by the imprint left by an original object, are, like photographs, indexical imprints of the outside original referent”.

Pompeii also, since the eighteenth century, had had an enormous fascination for intellectuals, artists, writers… particularly, perhaps, in the post-Enlightenment period. An historian that has written about this fascination with Pompeii has said: “ Pompeii was a locus for the literary and artistic uncanny for much of the nineteenth century. L’étrange, l’ inquiétant, das Umheimliche, the Uncanny: all found their natural place in stories that centered on the idea of history suspended, the dream come to life, the past restored to the present. The special characteristic for this retrospective vision was the unsettling merging of past and present”, that’s Anthony Vidler, writing on ‘the Uncanny’. I just wanted to say that this was 1952, it only just restarted the excavations after the war, it was the first wave of excavations since the war.

This idea of history suspended and the dream come to life, the past restored to the present; these images that were evoked by the excavated town may also be used to describe the cinema’s ability to confuse time. And as people and history recede into the past, the traces that they leave on the world mark their absence, the impossibility of regaining time, but also bear witness to the reality of that once-upon-a-time presence. So with the cinema the past is preserved in the full appearance of its reality, so in this Pompeii sequence, filmed in 1952, we have, not only Hollywood starts, but we also have the anonymous workmen as another layer of fossilised history superimposed on the fossilised remains excavated from the late 100AD. So those alive on the scene then are as fossilised on their screen image now as the plaster casts of the Pompeiian couple.

Now I want to go on and talk a bit more about the way in which Rossellini disrupts the idea of narrative drive with, what I think of, as narrative delay. So as I was just talking about the delay of stopping a film, as Vertov did in 1928, here I am thinking about the ways in which Rossellini is as it were delaying the natural drive ahead of the story. The film begins with the Joyces, George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman, driving that Bentley through the Italian countryside on their way to Italy and there’s a moment when the car, going along a country road, is halted and stopped by a little herd of cattle of buffalo that stops the progress of the Bentley. It seems to me that that’s a kind of image of that kind of bumping in to some kind of intractable object that is an image of what happens to the drive forward that’s there metaphorically represented by the forward drive of the Bentley as it’s stopped by the herd of cattle. And it also represents the way in which a rather complacent English couple are also kind of stopped in their tracks as it were by their encounter with Southern Italy and with Naples. So, within the fiction, the characters of Alex and Catherine Joyce, played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, create an opposition between two kinds of cinema. Catherine carves out a space for a pause, a stop, a space for reflection and a journey into the past, while Alex is impatient always to drive the action forward. So while Catherine allows the plot to wander, Alex is always trying to keep it on track, in an ordered sense of movement and event. So this divergent lines move along gender lines, with masculinity and its anxieties identified with a kind of conventional action-driven narrative and femininity with a space, a stop in cinema that would enable Rossellini’s space for reflection and the essay aspect of his film. And I did want to show George Sanders’s fantastic sequence to show the way that he’s always restless. This is just his restlessness with the siesta.

Anyway, that’s a kind of encapsulated, a kind of mini example of how Alex can’t keep still, he’s always restless and he’s trying to move, and how bumps into obstacles, which in this case is the unfortunate maid trying to have her siesta. It’s the next sequence where Ingrid Bergman talks about her memories, which is actually a retelling of the James Joyce story “The Dead”, which also brings in the theme of the ghost, the once-upon-a-time lover who is now dead, who kind of haunts their relationship and generates a huge jealousy in Alex, this kind of ghost that’s s haunting them.

So what I want to suggest here is that this growing distance between Alex and Catherine actually represents two possible ways in which narrative can develop. Alex is addicted, as it were, to the movement of narrative, to its drive forward and the film is constantly frustrating him. At one point it offers him the possibility of a flirtation and he goes off to Capri to follow a young woman whom he fancies but, once again, in this meandering plot, he loses out and Marie, the girl, quite simply rejects him and he has to go back. One can roughly adapt Gilles Deleuze’s movement-image and time-image, this sense of two divergent kinds of storytelling which, it seems to me, that long before Deleuze ever thought of it and, again, long before just like the Vertov did, Rossellini is kind of enacting these two different kinds of storytelling. But Deleuze did put a lot of emphasis on Rossellini’s films and particularly in this period as a moment when the cinema was in a crisis, the cinema of action and of movement was in a crisis. And D. N. Rodowick says “for Deleuze neorealism was a crisis in cinema, especially Rossellini’s films Germania, Anno Zero, Stromboli, Viaggio in Italia. Narrative situations appear where reality is represented as lacunary, as empty. Linear actions dissolve into chance, to strolls. Events occur where it is no longer possible to act or react. The linking of the motor-drive is no longer motivated by action. Space changes, becoming a disconnected or emptied space. Acts of seeing or hearing replace the linking of images through motor-actions; pure description replaces referential anchoring”. Sorry, that’s characteristically dense so, as I read it out, I felt there was a bit too much going there.

But put in simple terms, all he’s saying, is that in those Rossellini’s films that kind of drive of narrative that’s based around action and movement of narrative force generally driven by an action hero is coming to a halt, it’s stumbling and out of that some other kind of cinema is developing around kind of seeing in emptiness, in empty spaces. He particularly associated this with the neorealist dwelling on the ruins after the war. And I think the sense of dwelling on the past comes back also disassociated from the aftermath of the war and going into a much more abstract context here. And we see this as Catherine, Ingrid Bergman, becomes the kind of leader, the movie’s leader, a guide taking us into spaces which have nothing to do with the narrative and actually to do with Rossellini’s thoughts on representation and, I would argue, particularly on movement and stillness. Now we can have Ingrid in the Museo Archeologico. She is always going off on her little sightseeing expeditions. And here, going through the sequence, if you do pause on the statues you do get the sense of suspended motion that the style of… it’s Roman copies of Greek statues, all of which had this interest in capturing movement suspended, which, of course, takes one very immediately to the ideas of photography of Cartier-Bresson, the privileged moment or the decisive moment, so that’s the kind of connection there through Bazin’s interest in Rossellini as well.

After this journey into the Archaeological Museum, Catherine then takes the film – her relationship with Alex is deteriorating, they are going their separate ways – and she takes us from the Archaeological Museum into her tourist trips. And the next one is to Cumai, a very very ancient sacred site, which has been sacred throughout the centuries and, again, there’s a kind of guide who takes her thorough from pre-Greek times to early Christian times through to the landings of the British army in the last war. So you get this kind of lurid time here, which’s built like a palimpsest one on top of the other and also, as she walks through the shrine, he shouts and shows that there’s an echo that reverberates through, which once again, the walls make the sound reverberate with an other almost artificial life. But the final one, which is probably, to my mind, the most significant, is when they go to what’s called the little Vesuvius when she’s shown volcanic material and she says “oh, this was like 79”. Here what the camera is interested in is the way in which the volcanic activity brings the immaterial rock, the volcanic matter, into movement, which becomes like this kind of uncanny force as it were, the inanimate becoming animated. So there again you see a kind of metaphoric relationship to the way in which the inanimate celluloid gives the illusion of animation.

I think throughout the film Rossellini is constantly leading us back to the volcano and to its place in the culture of Naples. In addition to these kinds of aesthetic questions that I’ve been drawing attention to, he was also fascinated by the way that the presence of the volcano had given rise to all kinds of superstitions and cults. Not only semi-pagan Christian cults but going back to as long as cult has existed on the slopes of the volcano, in which it’s always essential to keep the spirit of the volcano quiescent, when it’d always tend to erupt. Rossellini was very interested in the main saint of Naples, San Gennaro, and in an interview in 1954 he said: “You must remember that Naples is the only place in the world where a miracle takes place on a fixed date, September 19th, the miracle of San Gennaro. And San Gennaro, look out, if the miracle doesn’t happen, he gets into trouble and dreadful things start to happen”. To my mind, what was so fascinating, was that the miracle of San Gennaro is that the blood, the preserved blood, liquifies in the miracle. So, in a sense, is the opposite of the activity of the volcano. Whereas the volcano has to keep solid, “unliquid” as it were, the blood liquifying seems to act as a charm or kind of sanctified moment against that. So what I am trying to emphasize here is that these elements in the movie and in Rossellini’s thoughts about the movie were not necessarily so vivid or important to me until I started to think about the way in which he was bringing up these questions kind of metaphorically about the nature of cinema, about its “magicalness” and also, at the same time, opening up a space to think about this out of poor George Sanders’s frustration with empty spaces in which the story doesn’t really drive ahead.

There are a lot of questions to which I haven’t really gone into now about performances and the way that Rossellini directed this movie. He consistently refused to direct Sanders and Bergman, didn’t help them, didn’t give them a script or didn’t really tell them what was really going on. So they never had any idea of what they were really doing. As a result, they were kind of thrown back on being themselves. So, to certain extent, you have these rather stilted performances of very very sophisticated Hollywood stars, who were consummate performers and absolute perfectionists, being thrown back, not really knowing what to do and kind of performing themselves performing. There’s this constant sense of the presence of the person coming through their attempts at performance. This gives the film a kind of edge of reality which is quite different from realism. Whereas realism is, in a sense, kind of coherent and convincing, this is the kind of edge of the presence of reality which comes from the unconvincingness of performance.

At the end of the film there’s a balance, a symmetry with the opening. Just as at the beginning the Bentley had driven along the country road and been stopped by the herd of buffalo, here at the end the Bentley is driving along through a little town and it encounters a religious procession. And in the press of the crowd, Alex and Catherine have to get out and, just as they get out, there is a cry of ‘Miracle!’ and all the people rush forward taking them apart. And as Alex finds Catherine, there is a perfect Hollywood ending. After all the irritation of the movie, they suddenly reconcile, they recognise their love for each other and there’s a kind of Hollywood embrace as an end. But Rossellini, in a sense, deals with them: that’s their end, that’s the end of their part of the story. But the camera, in a very very beautiful huge crane shot, swipes away and then follows the crowd as it drifts off home. And it ends with a little local band and then it ends. You have a tension between, as it were, the closure of the film, as it were, the story of the Hollywood stars, but also recognising even at the end that actually, as one might say, life goes on and reality drifts ahead.This is the kind of continuance of time, the presence of time, that’s always been associated with Rossellini’s cinema.

I just wanted to finish with a few points going back to my remarks at the beginning. To come back to the question of the way in which the contemporary 21st century spectator can now play with the temporality of film is a way of experiencing the relationship between movement, the forward-movement of the cinema, can actually echo the sensation of forward-movement of time. Which is not necessarily just our experience with the halting of time, the halting second, but also the presence of sequence in process, this kind of amorphous present tense that you experience when seeing time unfold which is always, when you watch a movie, a “now” which is always fading into a “then”. So quite apart from when you hold a moment still, like when Vertov gives us a freeze frame on the white horse as it canters through the streets of Moscow, giving us a sense of the “then-ness” which is associated with the photograph, but also, as the film unfolds, now is always moving into then. The question of time passing is always palpable and present and, in a sense, forces us to think of the relationship between “nows” and “thens”. So in some ways that initial stillness of the frame is always moving us forward into the succession of twenty four frames a second. So that that past moment is always coming into a now which then goes back to a then…sorry, this is kind of getting a bit confusing.

I am going to end with a tribute to Raymond Bellour, whom I’ve mentioned at the beginning, who wrote an essay quite a long time ago, I think it was in the 1970s, in which he comes up with the idea of a pensive spectator. It seems to me that that idea of a pensive spectator anticipated the kind of thoughtful reflection on the film image that’s now possible, a way that we can now see into the screen images and shift them, stretch them, delay them into thinking and reflecting on different dimensions of temporality. The oppositions that Raymond Bellour talks about, particularly between stillness and movement that are opposite but always fuse in the movement of celluloid, these attributes of film and photography are now producing new relations with each other and are enabling us to think about stillness and movement in a new kind of way. And so we could see how immobility, that still frame, can mutate into movement and can then merge again with narrativity and narrative time as another layer. Then we can come back agin to stillness and the reality of the index. So we get the sense that time is particularly different to the human mind to grasp and it always returns to us, in Raymond Bellour’s phrase, “rushed by death”.

This podcast was edited, and the transcript prepared, by Esther Gaytan Fuertes

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