Narratives Made From a Language of Images, Jamming, 29/07/2013

Yesterday afternoon, I read an essay by Martin Scorsese in the New York Review of Books, an essay more philosophically pregnant than most of the short works of many contemporary philosophers. It ended with another well-deserved and required plea from Martin to us to preserve every film that exists. The measurements of contemporary popularity don’t indicate what the truly noteworthy or historically relevant films really are. 

Martin Scorsese, starting his new career as a philosopher
of cinema.
The reasons why explore an idea that is becoming increasingly important to my long-term projects: memory’s ability to transform the present and affect the development of the future. Phil Sandifer’s work is, again, an important touchstone for me as well, dealing with the world-constitutive powers of memory through his framework more solidly based in cultural and media studies instead of straight philosophy. 

Scorsese takes the test case of Vertigo: a film that wasn’t very financially successful, that was dismissed as another crime thriller from a director well-known for catchy crime thrillers. Then over time, events conspire to pick up Vertigo for the work of genius it is: the French New Wave theorists latch onto Hitchcock and Vertigo as an auteur and his greatest masterpiece, bringing the analytical heft to pull it off. From there, priorities in sorting through the history of film radically change. A change in our memory transforms our current actions, and so changes how those in our future can remember us when we are their history.

At a different point, he discusses the nature of light in cinema, which strays too close to the worshipful attitude toward origins which I find suspicious. It’s one of the central ideas of my utopias project that romanticizing or carrying out daily life with the goal of recapturing the purity of a lost origin is a terrifyingly dangerous falsehood.

An equally profound idea in Scorsese’s essay is his discussion of what precisely cinema does, which he conceptualizes in terms of its language. It’s a narrative of images, assembled by cuts. A continuous flow of segments. Bergson wrote in 1907, in the last chapter of Creative Evolution, that cinema was an inferior media, a deceptive media, because it creates a false motion from still frames. Cinema for Bergson was another repetition of the flaws of Zeno’s paradoxes: understanding continuous motion for a succession of discrete still states. This is probably the most foolish thing Bergson thought, at least insofar as his idea had to do with what cinema achieved. Because in Matter and Memory, a book of 1896, Bergson conceived of events themselves in terms of images interacting with each other. And cinema truly is the interaction of images to assemble a continuous narrative experience. All of this rebuttal to Bergson’s dismissal of the cinema, and re-appropriating earlier elements of his philosophy for a more productive engagement with what cinema can do, you can find in Gilles Deleuze’s book Cinema I: The Movement-Image.

Cinema (and by this I include television, youtube video, and any other art where a camera films images, sound usual but optional, and assembles these images in a linear order) offers humanity radical powers to change how our narrative instincts and powers function, through the incredible flexibility of its simple construction. Assemble images in cuts. From this, we can define a whole new mode of history and memory (and possibly merge the two in a concept even more complex than what came before). And many other such modes after that. I don’t think we’ve even begun exploring the full depths of cinema’s potential to build new kinds of narrative, and I think a priority of philosophy of cinema should be creating the concepts by which we can interpret and create these narratives. 


  1. I wonder if Bergson's discomfort was in the easy parallel that could be drawn between his description of human experience and film -- e.g. he explains to a hip young colleague or admirer his central insight into experience only to be told, 'oh, you mean like a movie?'

    I can envision an interesting commentary on this that bounces between two epigraphs: Bergson saying movies are terrible and Godard's quote that is something like 'we look down at television, but we look up at the movies'. To your point about a philosophy of cinema, one could set out from there to move between Bergson's criticism and its implicit tension with his own thought and Godard's idealism, his notion of a transcendental (but profane, inane, childish) realm of experience that is captured through the sacrality of heightened art. One could then unpack both in terms of Histoire(s) du cinema, where Godard more or less posits Bergson's notion of image in time as the core of experience within his deconstruction of genre and technique, showing how the exact same images are reproduced again and again. The mystery at he heart of it all is I think the same: are my image-experiences unique? If so, how do you I know you -- if not, what makes me unique? Because the unreal aspect of cinema to my mind isn't the cut (which we can rescue via Bergson as metonym of experience) but rather the edit, the selection on the part of someone else. Seeing through Scorsese's eyes our own experiences.

    Didn't get a chance to read the Scorsese piece so I may be mangling this.

    1. Deleuze has a wonderful description of Bergson's cock-up on the nature of cinema. He says Bergson took a medium that was still nascent in its powers, which no one knew how to use for anything more complex than pointing a camera at a theatrical stage. And he understood this nascent, amateurish use of the medium as all that the medium was capable of. Bergson thought that cinema could only ever reproduce motion by facsimile, perpetuating the illusion that motion consisted of a string of discrete states, instead of motion's true nature as continuous. Bergson's early dismissal of a radical new art form ignored even the potential in his own earlier work for analyzing what cinema could do. I see it as one more sign that, as the 20th century began, even though the 1910s and 20s were the height of his popularity, Bergson was falling out of step.