Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 8, March 2001

 

 

Damian Sutton

Photography and Cinema from Birth to Death

 

 

 

Garrett Stewart

_Between Film and Screen: Modernism's Photo Synthesis_

(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999)

ISBN 0226774120 (pbk)

xi + 386 pp. (inc. illustrations)

 

First Things First

 

Let me start by saying that to review _Between Film and Screen: Modernism's

Photo Synthesis_ has been a very difficult thing for me to do. It says

something of a text that to review it has involved firstly an initial rush

to judgement; then a protracted period of doubt in any sustained criticism

(or even a sustained praise); and finally a feeling that, despite its flaws

and perhaps separate to its praiseworthy elements, Garrett Stewart's study

is undoubtedly a useful beginning to a discussion of the role of the

photographic image within the cinematographic.

 

Stewart's is a huge project. As an attempt to bring the concepts of

literary Modernism to the role of filmmaking and cinecriture made

accessible by cinema's own fixation with photography (as an element of its

creation, history, and ontology), the book both suffers and benefits from

exploring the gap in film theory that study of the photographic image

occupies. The photographic image is a subject often neglected, often

assumed, and often deeply under-appreciated by film theory and research.

That Stewart should take on such a task and still cover the amount of

cinema that he does, in such detail and with such eloquence, leaving few

gaps and approaching cinema in such a diverse fashion (from the role of the

photogram to the parity with literature) is testament to what can only be

described as an extraordinary dedication to the subtleties of film theory.

The study of cinema's relationship with photography *is* an ongoing one,

hardly challenged (maybe even invested with new impetus) by developments in

digital technologies; and yet despite years of cinema theory that made

small attempts to understand this relationship, _Between Film and Screen_

is still much of an opening gambit. But we cannot criticise it too much on

the basis of its novelty, and any criticisms based on a perceived naivety

are outweighed by its sheer necessity in being there. Make no mistake: as a

serious 'first-text' on this subject, the importance of this book cannot be

conceivably overvalued.

 

This however does not mean that the book does not have significant flaws,

and this review will attempt to bring these into the open. There are at

least two particular drawbacks to the book, one of which I'll admit is a

small, individual concern of mine (based on its role as a student text),

but another that does, I think, demonstrate a considerable gap in Stewart's

approach. It is worth noting, as above, that such flaws are the (perhaps

inevitable) problems of writing a 'first-text' in any subject, but I don't

think that they are the product of a naivety, but instead the pitfalls of

an impulse to bring an argument to the fore. In an attempt to 'put

something out there', some discussions have to be rationed, or even

jettisoned. More importantly, Stewart's approach is as much a proposition

of the cinematographic act, in its carefully woven and counter-woven

exegesis, as it is a finite examination of it.

 

So _Between Film and Screen_ should never be considered as an end-argument.

The debate begins here, rather than ends. Cinema still appears fascinated,

either explicitly or tacitly, with its own plastic reality in the

photogram, and continues to surround the photo-within-the-film (hereafter,

the 'inset' photograph) with cinematic tricks. Even as I write, 2000's

_Memento_ does just these things, and one cannot help but feel, watching

Guy Pearce poring over inscribed photographs, or the backwards projection

of the film's track by director Christopher Nolan, that Stewart might have

devoted a special chapter to it had it been distributed before his

publisher's deadline. To this end we await the book's revision.

 

Now I've written my alibi, what of the book?

 

It's worth noting that the length and depth of Stewart's 350 detailed pages

is fully justified by the size of the project that he undertakes. A simple

example is the range of films that Stewart uses to demonstrate either the

freeze-frame, or the inset photograph. The breadth of his knowledge of

Western filmmaking is clearly put to work here, and I can think of few

famous examples that he leaves out. But to try and catch Stewart out on his

textual scope (which was my first instinct) would be to miss the point. His

approach is not comprehensive to the extreme (such that might encourage

criticisms of buff-ery), but yet is wide enough to avoid the accusations of

eclecticism that dog film theory. Indeed, some of the theoreticians from

whom he draws have come under such a criticism in the past. It is therefore

only to his credit that Stewart's scope remains un-drawn to favourites and,

without being tessellated or inconsistent, remains open enough to allow for

new or undiscovered filmmaking to fit into his overall argument.

 

An immediate, but not crucial, drawback to _Between Film and Screen_ as a

text is Stewart's writing style. Garrett Stewart is clearly a scholar who

loves the English language in all its possibilities and subtleties, and his

argument is often sprinkled with delicate double-entendres, witty small

puns, and a joy in erudite argument. However, whilst this can be a joy also

to read, too often it can also be a pain. Stewart's knowledge and enjoyment

of language is clear, but unfortunately his argument sticks in a mire

because his use of that language is not. It was a key obstacle in reading

the book, and hence to understanding it. More than once, in the my own

context of spreading the word on interdisciplinary study in cinema and

photography, particularly at undergraduate level, I found myself

questioning the necessity of the book's linguistic complexity and density.

Because of this, Stewart's book takes a little while to show the clarity in

direction that it perhaps needs to demonstrate from the outset, and often

arguments seem only to repeat themselves as they go through ever more

daunting linguistic hoops. However, when Stewart at last opts to emphasise

his approach to cinema and photography in his first full chapter,

'Photo-gravure', he leaves the reader in no doubt, and they can begin to

consider the subject and direction of his argument:

 

'This book does not set itself the task of broadly aligning photographic

theory with film theory . . . It is, in short, not about cinema and

photography but about cinema *as* photography' (38)

 

This is Stewart's project -- to consider the cinematic image as photography

through the way in which it frames and phrases its own process, and how

Modernist filmmaking fully achieves this in the same way that Modernist

literature did for writing. True to a personal history in literary

criticism, Stewart's project becomes, over its remaining six chapters

('Motion's Negative Imprint', 'Frame of Reference', 'Deaths Seen', 'The

Photographic Regress of Science Fiction Film', 'Cinema's Victorian

Retrofit', and 'Modernism and the Flicker Effect'), an extensive

investigation of the fabula and syuzhet of cinema.

 

Not that each chapter maintains the same focus of theoretical examination

throughout, however. Instead Stewart switches between chapters in which

fabula and syuzhet take a cleverly alternating precedence. In this way,

'Motion's Negative Imprint', the first chapter to ostensibly deal with

fabula (the narrative cause-effect chain) turns out to be a dissertation on

the ways in which the freeze-frame often used at the end of narrative film

(suspended on the track and in time) leads us directly into a key argument

in film theory; that of the equation of film with life and immortality. It

thus begins for Stewart the discussion with Derrida, Cavell, and Barthes,

amongst others, that directs the overall argument of the book. In so doing,

a discussion of the fabula becomes that of the syuzhet, whilst in other

chapters, for example 'The Photographic Regress of Science Fiction Film',

an overt approach to the role of the sjuzhet ultimately leads to an

understanding of the narrative themes of sci-fi. This approach is

consolidated with a great deal of (perhaps necessary, considering the books

length) wit in 'Cinema's Victorian Retrofit', which continues Stewart's use

of punning subtitles, but also directs the reader back towards the birth of

cinema. Continuing a developing argument on the evanescence of the image in

the mind, as well as on the screen, what starts with an understanding of

Barthesian *affect* in 'Photo-gravure', later culminates in 'Cinema's

Victorian Retrofit' with difficult but entertaining questions that have

connected the entire argument from page to page: if audiences were already

aware of instantaneous photography and its capabilities in 1895 (seven

years after the first Kodak, at least twenty since split second exposures)

would they have been *that* shocked and impressed by the moving image?

 

More importantly: if they perceive no real flicker of images, would they

consider the evolution from photography to cinema in the same linear way

that we, in our technologically-minded hindsight so often do?

 

Finally, there is no clearer question in the book than: How does a

knowledge of photography, or of the photographic base of the film strip,

affect the understanding or making of cinema? (260)

 

Truth be told, Stewart never seems to agree on the linear progression in

development from the photograph to the modern cinema that orthodox film

studies has often proposed. His first and best illumination on this is an

early discussion of stereoscopy, spectacle, and Terence Malick's _Badlands_

in 'Photo-gravure', in which he ably demonstrates that stereoscopy, amongst

other parlour amusements, is the missing link between the flat photograph

and the translucent screen. Spectators do not, as has been previously

assumed in film studies, recognise the flickering images as photograms when

they watch cinema, but they do recognise the photographic spectacle, and

furthermore one that continues in time. For Stewart, heterogeneous and

public spectation is the true ancestor of cinema, not the monocular,

private experience of the photograph. (At this point, even so early on, the

subtlety of Stewart's analysis is demonstrated by a hint that the Deleuzian

time-image is evolved from the stereoscope -- something I only appreciated

on a second reading (54).)

 

In fact, in Stewart's eyes, cinema has more to do with the literature than

photography, given the development of narrative exegesis and above all

*narration*. Cinema does not lay bare its 'genetic scars' -- its history

and ontology -- with every frame, but instead, with an imperceptible track,

demonstrates with its image the '*present* genesis of cinema -- its

generativity' (268). There is a sense, throughout _Between Film and

Screen_, that Stewart feels 'generativity' is within cinema from 1895 and

never leaves. Coming to this in the final full chapter, Stewart's

description of the conditions of photography's early evolution, given his

predilection for Hollis Frampton and other Modernists, reads more like a

lament against photography's particular development toward cinema as a

narrative medium, a lament echoed throughout: 'Looking back on the forked

and reforked pathways of aesthetic and industrial evolution, cinema often

seems the one road that could never have failed to be taken.' (268-269)

 

The alternation in emphasis between fabula and syuzhet through these

chapters is a tactic Stewart employs to take us neatly to his conclusions

about the development of the practice and theory of cinema. The point of

this alternation, from fabula to syuzhet, is to finally demonstrate that it

is impossible to separate the fabula from the syuzhet, and that discussion

of one will inevitably lead on to the other. Just as the literary

Modernists, upon whom Stewart draws in 'Modernism and the Flicker Effect',

first exposed this mutual relationship of 'story told' and 'way of

telling', so it is for Stewart that Modernist filmmaking exposes the same

in cinema. Returning full circle to Hollis Frampton, a polymath

practitioner rather than a pure theorist, Stewart lays out in his final

chapter a rationale for cinema as text, in which the *medium* is not the

photogram and it's flickering track, but instead (in a more abstract sense)

its own self-referential textuality. It is this aspect of cinecriture, what

can perhaps be described as 'writerly film', that demonstrates this

textuality. It is most aptly put as being a 'vibration', or 'ripple effect'

that resonates the fact of spectating with the fact of narrating. In

Stewart's eyes this sense of vibration leads to layering, rather than

linear progression, of narrative in the Modernist film. This is best

exemplified by Stewart's return in the last chapter to Marker's _La Jetee_,

a film which (perhaps unsurprisingly) never seems to fully leave his

discussion throughout. Perhaps Stewart's idea is that all cinema, at least

all cinema since Modernism, possesses this vibration: that reflexive

cinema, in which the inset photograph as fabula (as in _La Jetee_) refers

to the filmmaking process; or in which the freeze-frame as syuzhet (as in

_Les 400 coups_) refers to narrative departure or coda. Modernist cinema is

simply a cinema that chooses to expose this aspect of its ontology.

Stewart's use of the term 'cinema', never really separating a formal

characteristic from the whole, seems to support this.

 

To bring us to this conclusion is not necessarily a bold step for Stewart.

It was, after all, in the cradle of the same revolutionary practice that

the plastic arts developed this open relationship between narrative and

monstration. It was, after all, Eisenstein (to whom Stewart turns, but on

whose film theory he spends far too little time, preferring instead

Munsterberg and Sobchack, for example) who brought into the open, with his

essays on dialectics, ideograms, and music, the complex relationship

between apparatus and story. We must ultimately ask whether or not

Stewart's book is as radical, or as insightful, or as dynamic, or even as

comprehensive as it first appears, if it spends so much time developing a

study of film theory simply to lead us to a conclusion that was clear from

the outset.

 

Undoubtedly, the breadth of Stewart's theoretical foundation in cinema is

exemplary, and none of the other chapters show this more eloquently than

'Frame of Reference', an extended dissertation on a broad sweep of film

philosophy as well as early branches of cognitive theory. Stewart cleverly

points to contradictions in Arnheim, who cannot seem to decide (for

Stewart) between the primacy of the 'perceptible and the perceptual' (121)

-- technological determinism and the perceived continuum of the moving

image. Sobchack and Munsterberg fare no better under Stewart's scrutiny,

but the true qualities of his dissemination of theory is better shown by

his many returns to Deleuze. These, I must confess, are bound to intrigue

me the most. Searching for the gist of Deleuze's _Cinema_ volumes, Stewart

turns to Bergson, whose _Creative Evolution_ was so influential to Deleuze.

It is as well that he might, for Deleuze's work is a real theoretical

touchstone for theories of the interdependence of apparatus and image.

Deleuze's work on Pasolini, which attacked Bergson's dismissal of the

cinema as an image of time (thereby punctuating Deleuze's _Cinema_ with

returns to cinecriture and perception), offers up the cinema as a

time-image through its reflexivity -- perception within the frame of

another perception. Unfortunately neither Pasolini, nor Deleuze's use of

him, get a mention.

 

Given the research interests of this reviewer, it is perhaps understandable

that Stewart's discussion of Deleuze and the time-image should bring us to

the key problem I have with the book. This does not centre on Arnheim,

Cavell, or even Deleuze, but all of them by extension: the key to it is

Barthes. Since we should make some detailed analysis of Stewart's approach

to the book, it seems appropriate to end by picking this up.

 

Throughout _Between Film and Screen_, and no less in the final chapters

than anywhere else, I'm drawn back to Stewart's rationale with regard to

photography: 'This book does not set itself the task of broadly aligning

photographic theory with film theory . . .'. I've finally decided, after

some thought, that it is Stewart's photography theory that is the

considerable gap in his approach. Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen, in a

1975 article for _Critical Inquiry_, bemoan the small arrogance that many

theorists (their argument is aimed at the mores of both film studies and

art history) have toward photography, and in particular the discussion of

photography's ontology:

 

'It is odd that modern critics who believe that the photographic process

should be the starting point for criticism have had very little to say

about what the process is, how it works, and what it does and doesn't

guarantee.' [1]

 

This (quite bitter) criticism is one that Stewart might well have taken

into account. One of the significant drawbacks in Stewart's study is its

assumption of photography, its properties, and its theory. Most notable in

this is the equation of the photograph with death.

 

Despite a claim to the contrary, the book is interwoven with the 'trope and

topos' of death in relation to the photograph that Stewart extrapolates

from Bazin, but significantly also from Barthes. But this is not the

substance of my criticism. Stewart acknowledges (rightly) that it is now

nearly impossible to deal with photography without also dealing with its

assumed connection with death. Also, the pervasive influence of Barthes,

particularly _Camera Lucida_, in film studies (both criticism and

production -- check out Lisa Cholodenko's 1998 film _High Art_) should not

directly be the subject of criticism of _Between Film and Screen_. However,

Stewart's adherence to Barthes's influence, and his unwillingness to look

beyond it, should. If Stewart is happy to take Arnheim, Sobchack, or even

Crary and Deleuze to task over cinema, then why not turn the same attention

to Barthes?

 

Stewart's use of Barthes is demonstrative of too simplistic an approach to

the photograph, and to take such a key text and not investigate it with the

vigour employed on other theory is, perhaps, wasteful. Although Bazin once

described the photograph as 'change mummified' [2] (the argument taken up

by Deleuze [3]), it is Barthes's 1980 text that is so central to the

equation of photography with death, and the development of an idea of the

affect of the photograph on the viewer. Stewart seems drawn, although

briefly, to the punctum, that catch-all of Barthes theory so often quoted

(and quoted back) by film studies. But few studies of _Camera Lucida_ fully

appreciate the direction that Barthes was taking in his unfinished final

work, and the focus is almost always on this particular motif. If Christian

Metz could so badly misread the punctum in his 'Photography and Fetish'

from 1984, should it not surprise us that other eminent scholars follow

suit? Whilst acknowledging the personal aspect of the punctum, Stewart

introduces it as if it were some arbitrary aspect of the photographic image

taken from the photograph by film's succession. This is to mis-read

Barthes, and to do so in relation to all photographs. The punctum is indeed

'an affect beyond the instrumentation of semiotics to encode' (141), but

its nature as such can only place it in the individual experience of the

viewer, deregulated from any film track. As such we might say that any

image, painting or photograph, could have a punctum, but here Barthes was

very clear. In a development often ignored by scholars, toward the end of

_Camera Lucida_ Barthes almost completely disowns the punctum, unhappy with

its singular affect. The photograph does indeed have a continuous affect,

perceptible by all and experienced by all through the individual punctum.

It is the *noeme* of photography that _Camera Lucida_ takes us to: the

affect for any and all viewers that the object of the photograph *was there

then*, the trace of which only chemical photography can provide, and which

produces the affect of the photograph that is felt individually. This is

the, somewhat anti-climactic, conclusion of Barthes's project: 'The *noeme*

of Photography is simple, banal; no depth: 'that has been.' [4]

 

Take away the meaning from the individual punctum, and you are left with

what Barthes called 'air', and a sense that the people were really there.

In a convergence with Bazin, whose work suffers from similar misreadings,

Barthes acknowledges the fact that an image of an object is also an image

of its duration, or sense of the passing of time, as well as time past. And

so we find that the foundation of the photography/death equation is not so

solid, and that, in fact, the photograph (as in films such as _Funny Face_,

or even _Austin Powers_) can be a wonderful expression of life joyfully

experienced. The assumptions of photography theory, so it would now seem,

are built on shifting ground. I could be accused of arguing over a trivial,

or inconsequential point, but to criticise Stewart for developing this

equation of photography and death, or even, as he notes, for being unable

to avoid it, is simply to expand on a demonstrative example. It may be a

drawback in a book that needed to be written, if only to begin the

discussion of cinema and photography with a degree of earnestness, but it

is a key drawback nonetheless. Stewart is not alone in this approach, and

perhaps should not be singled out from the cultural figureheads of Bazin,

Barthes, and Kracauer (amongst others), whose writings on photography have

propped such assumptions up, and to whom he inevitably turns. The

assumption, it would appear, is that the photograph is a part of cinema's

technological determinants, and to know the latter is to automatically know

the former. One theory of photography is as good as any, and only small

references to it are required. Upon this type of assumption is built the

thesis as a house of cards. However, in Stewart's defence we should not

discount the fact that there is precious little written on photography

theory. In comparison to the wealth of theory on cinema, we perhaps cannot

blame him for making the (seemingly routine) equation that since cinema

makes the still image move, cinema must automatically mean life, and

photography death: After all, to whom else can Stewart turn?

 

University of Glasgow, Scotland

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Snyder and Allen, 'Photography, Vision and Representation', p. 148.

 

2. Bazin, 'The Ontology of Photographic Image', p. 242.

 

3. Deleuze, _Cinema 1_, p. 24.

 

4. Barthes, _Camera Lucida_, p. 115.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Roland Barthes, _Camera Lucida_, trans. Richard Howard (London: Vintage,

1982); originally published as _La Chambre Claire_ (1980).

 

Andre Bazin, 'The Ontology of Photographic Image', in Alan Trachtenberg,

ed., _Classic Essays on Photography_ (Connecticut: Leete's Island Press,

1980), pp. 237-245; originally published in _What is Cinema_ (University of

California Press, 1967).

 

Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 1: The Movement-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and

Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

 

Christian Metz, 'Photography and Fetish', _October_, no. 34, Fall 1985, pp.

81-91.

 

Joel Snyder and Neil Walsh Allen, 'Photography, Vision and Representation',

_Critical Inquiry_, no. 2, Autumn 1975, pp. 143-169.

 

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001

 

Damian Sutton, 'Photography and Cinema from Birth to Death',

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 8, March 2001

<http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n8sutton>.

 

  

 

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