ISSN 1466-4615



David Sullivan

Noemata or No Matter?: Forcing Phenomenology into Film Theory




Allan Casebier

_Film and Phenomenology: Toward a Realist Theory of Cinematic Representation_

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991

ISBN 0521411327

165 pages


'The bare result is the corpse.' (Hegel, _Phenomenology of the Spirit_)


Let us begin with a body: that depicted in Durer's engraving _Knight, Death, and the Devil_. It is this image which Allan Casebier returns to again and again as he tries to bridge the chasm between the idealist/nominalist film critics, and the realist/phenomenological film philosophers. How the body of the knight is understood is the first crucial part of Casebier's grand, sometimes insightful, but largely overblown re-mapping of the territory of film philosophy. Though the author raises important, and often overlooked questions about the nature of film critique, his book suffers from a desire to repudiate all recent attempts to examine the way in which our looking at film is a function of societal influences and established codes which the viewer brings to the particular picture. It is with the knight's body that the book begins, and it is over the knight's body that the war of critical approaches is fought. The stager of this conflict is an author who is sure his side will emerge victorious, and he enlists Husserl as his aide de camp in the conflict. The knight, however -- that curious creation of black ink and cross-hatched shadows laid over white paper -- remains curiously unexamined and unknown: a corpse, rather than a creation.


But why start off this book about movies with an engraving? Because Husserl does in _Ideas_, when he discusses his theory of artistic representation. Casebier writes: 'A cornerstone of Husserl's realist account of artistic representation is the capacity of perceivers to *transcend* their perceptual acts in recognizing what an art object such as the Durer engraving depicts' (9). It is this capacity to see past the lines that the author evokes to discuss cinema; we don't remain tied down to the means of representation but move beyond them. In the case of the Durer engraving, the knight 'is not produced by the activity of the perceiver of the engraving' (9), but exists independently of him or her. In one sense this is obviously true, the engraving is not created by the perceiver's looking at it; yet in another sense, to see the lines is not to see the knight. For that to occur a correspondence must be found between the object and the subject. For Casebier, such correspondences are rooted in the *noema* and *noesis*. The *noemata* are the thoughts, perceptions and understanding which are the preconditions for seeing the knight at all, while the *noeses* indicate the ways in which the mind is constrained by the object under examination. These two activities work in consort when we apprehend the knight, which Casebier insists be grasped as a real, flesh and blood figure. He writes: 'In recognizing what is represented in the Durer, we pass through line, shape, size, and so forth to apprehend the knight who exists independently of the engraving' (13). Of course, it is the *idea* of the knight which exists independently of the engraving, but Casebier's repetition of the words 'flesh and blood' emphasize a nonsensical literality.


The slippage in terminology should already be apparent; in transferring Husserl's discussion of representation to film the peculiar qualities of the medium are ignored. It is as if movies were simply another means of representing the world -- a more advanced series of codes. Casebier wants to attack what he calls the 'idealist/nominalist' attitude towards film by examining an engraving which calls for a careful, contextual reading. He then insists on the necessity of a realist/phenomenological approach to apprehend that object. Yet the knight simply becomes a figure for this contest, and not the 'flesh and blood' personage Casebier so frequently refers to. Because he uses this figure to show ways in which we don't pay attention to the means of depiction, because he stresses our reading of the knight as a person, and because he then leaps to discussing what this knight represents for various viewers, the tactility of the medium, and the consciousness of its manipulation, is obscured. Casebier wants to close off the examination of the culturally defined parameters of looking at the means of depiction which Modernism brought to the fore, and wants to open up a universalist perspective.


Certainly, such a correction of the often overly Baroque and filigreed displays of intellectual prowess which all too often pass for insight these days is needed; yet Casebier swings so far in the other direction that his stance seems similarly close-minded and narrow.


For example, when discussing the 'Golden Age' of Japanese film making he rightly points out that critics have often used strictly formalist ideas wedded to political, class-conscious agendas, to critique the work. When Noel Burch, in _To the Distant Observer_, argues that Japanese cinema has been 'presentational', rather than 'representational', he is emphasizing that the films are valuable because they supposedly critique the very means they use. The formalist examination of the films of Ozu and others show the ways in which they question their own fictions, destabilize the viewer, and play off of Bunraku doll theatres and other performance mediums. This style, Burch claims, is an attack on western modes of representation which exposes the hidden ideologies at work. As Casebier says: 'The upshot is that in the West the processes that create illusion are concealed in ways that are made apparent to the spectator of Japanese art . . . the modes of representation . . . are ideologically charged' (84). In this reading of Burch's, the end of World War II is the beginning of the end of the 'Golden Age' since occupation, capitalism and 'democracy' now take over Japan. The subtle attack on the dominant codes of representation in the West are now dropped for a more 'exportable' product. Kurosawa, in Burch's view, is a master filmmaker who ends up producing 'degenerate expressions of capitalism via the use of techniques of bourgeois illusionism' (85-6). The picture Burch paints is of a complex and self-referential film period of experimentation and insight being followed by a flat and external referenced period of decline and decadence.


Casebier acknowledges Burch's many insights, but he carefully points out ways in which the schema, once created, leads the critic to harshly condemn one of the masters of modern Japanese cinema. By focusing only upon the means of representation Burch fails to see the nuanced ways in which in which film can comment on, critique, and even alter a society. Casebier writes: 'the emphasis that Burch, in _To the Distant Observer_, places upon formal characteristics of Kurosawa films is misguided. The rough-hewn geometry serves the end of intentional transcendence, not the aim to disrupt absorption in the diegesis' (88). In other words, Kurosawa is aiming at affecting the viewer, and he uses whatever means necessary to portray his message. At times he draws attention to the medium itself, but often his aim is altogether different. 'In apprehending what _The Seven Samurai_ depicts, critics utilize universals such as man, farmer, bandit, samurai, sword, fight, selection, space, time, and so forth to recognize the objects, events, and persons depicted. These universals are exemplified in the individual things we experience in the Kurosawa film' (35). This tendency to emphasize the universal is, however, Casebier's own Waterloo. Rather than providing a useful corrective to the excesses of post-structuralist film theory, Casebier wants to tear down or burn up what he sees as an elaborate set design supported on flimsy poles. Yet his own theory is similarly one-dimensional.


Instead of railing against the excesses of either camp, what's needed is a middle ground which recognizes that the idealist/realist dichotomy is not an either/or proposition, but a reflection of our own ambivalence about the universal and the particular, the abstract and the concrete, the image of the knight we receive and the apprehension of the black lines we see. Casebier's _Film and Phenomenology_ is not that book. It's distancing screen of philosophical verbiage, and its self-important pronouncements -- 'Though more sophisticated versions of realism that are critical of transparency accounts may be formulated, these have not been forthcoming -- until this work' (2) -- obscure the useful critique it levels at post-structuralism.


Casebier writes that 'contemporary film theory rest upon grounds that cannot support it' (7), yet the Husserlian model he advocates is similarly unsteady. Like the knight of Durer's engraving, caught between the whispers of death and the animal-like devil, it isn't a choice that needs to be made between their two approaches, but a path that need to be followed while keeping both of them talking -- hopefully to each other.


Cabrillo College, Aptos, California, USA




 David Sullivan

Noemata or No Matter?: Forcing Phenomenology into Film Theory

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 1 no. 3, July 1997



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1997




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