(ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 4 No. 10, April 2000



Didier Debaise

The Mechanisms of Thought

A Jamesian Point of View on Resnais




Haim Callev

_The Stream of Consciousness in the Films of Alain Resnais_

New York: McGruer Publishing, 1997

ISBN 965-90162-0-4

250 pp.


Resnais always described his work as research into the cinematographic representation of 'mechanisms of thought'. How can one film conscious states which by definition are not visible? Callev explores the consequences of such a research, starting with Resnais's proposition that: 'Film is for me an attempt still very rough and very primitive to approach the complexity of thought and its mechanism' (31). Callev's book, although analysing in a very precise way some of Resnais's films, is a theoretical analysis of what he calls a 'stream of consciousness' in the cinema of Resnais, and attempts to discern the cinematographic possibilities of an apprehension of such a reality. The book is entirely guided by this notion of a stream of consciousness, in which he sees a major stake in the cinema of Resnais; one could say that this cinema aims at an exploration of those streams of consciousness, making it a cinematographic principle in itself. This notion is more than just a matter of Resnais's films; it is a real organizing principle, a way to film, and a real cinematographic orientation. Callev shows how this organizing principle structures five of Resnais's films: _La Guerre est finie_, _Hiroshima mon amour_, _Je t'aime, je t'aime_, _Providence_, and _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_.


The book attemtps to describe which kind of mechanics and techniques Resnais uses and invents to make the experience of a stream of consciousness possible. In order to say that the notion of a stream of consciousness is a real cinematographic orientation, one would need to do some real research on cinematographic forms to show how it could be so. More than just showing these 'mechanisms of thought', Resnais tries to introduce us to the inside of those mechanisms *through cinema*. The purpose of this book seems to me to illustrate this passage to a possible experience of these mechanisms, of streams of consciousness. Callev's book follows, logically, this analysis: beginning with a description of what a stream of consciousness is, and how the cinema can apprehend such a reality, he then develops an analysis of the five films, and finally brings out, in a third part, and by way of conclusion, some elements, principles, present in films which allow the showing of streams of consciousness.


I can immediately say that Callev's book seems to perfectly fulfil the demands that it places on itself: simultaneously a theoretical analysis, truly original, about the importance of the stream of consciousness, and a detailed analysis of Resnais's films. He shows its concrete functionality, and succeeds in making the reader feel the associated cinematographic experience.


We quoted, at the beginning of this text, the phrase of Resnais according to which his cinema organises itself around the mechanisms of thought. Callev examines these mechanisms from the notion of a stream of consciousness, which he finds at the same time in literature, particularly in the work of Robert Humphrey, and in psychology, more particularly in William James. It is James who the first developed the notion of a stream of consciousness, in his _Principles of Psychology_, to express a collection of realities: affects, sensibility, memory, imagination, etc., prior to the consciousness, the representation, although really constitutive of the subject. It was a matter, for him, to place the consciousness into a wider process and therefore to give an increased importance to pre-consciousness experiences, preverbals, subrepresentatives, in the constitution and the orientation of the subject. Moreover, besides this exploration of this set of preconscious but determining realities, the notion of a stream of consciousness refers to a continuity, a general flux.


There is a stream because each faculty -- sensibility, imagination, memory, etc. -- forms with others a flux where consciousness is just one element. 'Memories, thoughts and feelings exist outside the primary consciousness, and further, that they appear to one, not as a chain, but as a stream, a flow' (20).


Resnais is effectively quite near to this non-hierarchical view of thought. His characters, and the situations in which they find themselves, are much determined by their past (see _Hiroshima mon amour_); by the way in which they apprehend their future (see _La Guerre est finie_); by the type of description that they can make of their own situation (see _Providence_), etc. Characters are determined by a collection of experiences which, as James described it, are preverbal and presubjective. There is no hierarchy in the experience, insofar as memory is working as much as the imagination or the 'real' situation. Therefore, characters form themselves in comparison to these experiences, to these fluxes of consciousness, notably by a memory of which they are like a contraction. Different elements of this stream -- memory, apprehension, etc. -- do not belong to a subject which, for example, would recollect a past situation, or who would try to think what would happen; these experiences where an individual decides, consciously, to cover some elements of his past, or to emit some hypothesis on his future are finally quite rare. What is more common is the involuntary emergence of such images or impressions, of such new alternatives, which envelop the individual -- constitute him. These belong to the realm of involuntary experiences, to a set of unconsciousness structurations, and not the contrary. Resnais agrees with James on this reversal of the psychological analysis; like him, he refuses to see consciousness as the end of a process or as a determining element of the experience. He puts consciousness in a general movement, where it might sometimes appear to hang back.


What is essential is that this set of experiences become the present of the character. Its past is not an ancient present and its future is not an upcoming present, but its past is what remains of ancient experiences, which constitutes the character now, and similarly the future is the set of possibilities opened by the situation, the way in which characters apprehend a consequence to the situation. Like in James, different faculties have an equal weight in the current constitution of subjects. All together, they form a 'stream of consciousness' which more deeply defines the character than the conscious description that they can make of their situation. Therefore, it is always a cross reference to the singularity of the character, to its idiosyncrasy, to the collection of situation which determined it.


It is a complete network of experiences which form the idiosyncrasy of the character: the way by which he is still animated by some obsessions, through which he sees the situation, through which he tends, immediately, towards an alternative and not another; 'the coexistence of past, present and future in the character's mind and their manifestation in every moment of experience; the coexistence of the factual and the imaginary and their equal weight in the mind' (22). Through this remark we are referred to a second characteristic of the cinema of Resnais in the apprehension of the streams of consciousness and that Callev analysis at length: the relation between mechanisms of thought, and the situation, or the state of fact -- the 'reality'.


It is always on the occasion of a present situation, of an action, of a speech, that the movement of the mechanisms of thought are shown. There is always what Callev calls an 'anchoring reality', a precise point in the situation which evokes or which opens the situation to something else. Moreover it is a cinematographic technique of Resnais which consists of making a correspondence, or more precisely to bifurcate a situation from something which is given; for example an object (the balcony in _Hiroshima mon amour_, passports photos in _La Guerre est finie_), to an other dimension (the balcony referring to a past experience of character).


But if the notion of a stream of consciousness refers to this set of preverbals, presubjectives, interiors realities, how is a cinematographic apprehension possible, as it organises itself from images and/or sounds. At the level of images, fluxes of consciousness are invisible, absent to the picture; and at the level of sounds it is impossible to make a narration of these states of consciousness. The whole question is, therefore, to know how this apprehension is possible; which kind of organization of pictures and sounds is necessary to make us feel the experience of a stream of consciousness, being clear that a direct and immediate apprehension by the image or by the sound is impossible. It is necessary at the level of the organization of cinematographic pictures that an apprehension of fluxes of consciousness are possible, that, beyond pictures, situation of characters, it is possible to *make* the experience of this non-visible part, of this interiority.


It is on this question that the stream of consciousness exceeds the simple cinematographic matter to become an orientation, an organisating principle in itself. Yet, remarks Callev, if the cinematographic medium has some advantages to show (with its own language) the interiority of consciousness, it has nevertheless two major difficulties: the first is the temporal character of cinematographic pictures, which refers to a linearity and 'the constant flux of images on the screen does not provide time for deciphering' (16). Comparing the problem by confronting it with literature, Callev remarks that 'in literary practices similar non linear structures create a less grave obstacle in comprehension, since the reading process is not irreversible' (16). Briefly, fluxes of consciousness don't participate to the irreversibility of images, and it is therefore a difficulty at the level of cinema to show these fluxes by the way time is used in the cinematographic medium.


The second difficulty is 'the inherent concrete nature of the cinematic image' (16). Pictures and sounds seem to reproduce, to depict 'reality', to imitate it. This concrete aspect of images makes it difficult to recreate the experience of a sphere as intimate, abstract, and invisible as consciousness. There is a resistance opposing itself to free associations, to the vague and fluctuant characteristics of mental pictures.


There is an inherent difficulty for the cinematographic practice to account for these fluxes of consciousness, something singular which implies methods and particular 'dispositifs' to show it. The stream of consciousness, although it can be apprehended in different ways, by literature, by science, etc., implies a technique, a mode of existence which is very different at the level of cinematographic space. It is, therefore, from 'the mode of existence of cinematographic pictures', with its limits and its singularity that we have to account for the experience of a stream of consciousness. The comparison with other artistic practices can not be continued because of the singularity of the cinematographic medium, completely oriented by time and movement.


Therefore, Callev gives a general definition of the stream of consciousness at the level of the cinematographic space:


'Stream of consciousness in film is the cinematic representation of mental processes occurring in the minds of fictional characters simultaneously with the external action, granting a penetration into their inner life' (23).


Among the techniques used by Resnais, one is the 'Flash of thought' which consists in introducing, in exterior action, some mental evocations. Resnais injects fragmentary pictures in the linearity of the action, of the situation as it is given, either from memory (particularly in _Hiroshima mon amour_) or from future action (particularly in _La Guerre est finie_). Sequences which are relative to these exterior actions are usually in a temporal and spatial unity. The illusion of apprehending a flux of consciousness arises from the fragmentary, chaotic, and enigmatic characteristic of these mental evocations which, from then on, differentiates itself from this continuity.


'It is particularly adaptable to the depiction, or suggestion, of the chaotic and elusive nature of thought' (26).


They introduce cuts in the continuity of the exterior action. These mental evocations, these 'flashes of thoughts', are noticeable as the film progresses by their repetitive form which duplicates the linearity of the action by an enigmatic dimension, by a virtuality. Talking about flashes of thought, Callev remarks that their 'repetitive patterns, their gradual evolution and the mechanism of their evocation, including their triggering by the anchoring 'reality' and their integration into it, are indispensable for the cinematic representation of stream of consciousness' (35-36).


The technique of the flash of thought, as it breaks the linearity but also shows something which is not directly perceptible, is a technique allowing the introduction of a different reality, just as present as the action and the situations. Throughout the progression of the film the spectator is introduced into this logic. Although flashes of thought are more often than not enigmatic, chaotic, and very close to the real functionality of thought itself, the spectator slowly seems to be introduced to the characters' logic. What flashes of thought actually enable is the creation of a relation between two coexisting kinds of reality, both effective: on the one hand, the characters' thought, with its characteristic chaos, the free associations it enables, and its non linearity; on the other hand, the situation, the 'reality', with its own different logic, its own kind of linearity, its own succession and irreversibility. These two modes of existence are very different: at a temporal level, one mode consists in succession, the other in reversibility and repetition; at a spatial level, one mode implies very delimitated spaces, the other can make different spaces coexist, bring distant spaces closer, etc.; at a logical level of organization, one mode is defined by the situation as a whole, the other is free, and can take shape according to its own rules. But both the 'reality' or the situation and 'the thought' or the stream of consciousness are real and constitutive. The imaginary is not something floating, unreal or 'for nothing'; it is something which is not shown but which is nevertheless essential and effective in any given situation. This is fundamental because it runs through all Resnais's films: memory, sensibility, and imagination are not added to the situation, to the present, to what is happening at present, but they are determining; the character is just as oriented by the situation as he is submitted to his own memory, which stays effective, really active, he is just as effective and submitted in an imaginary reality as he is in an 'objective' one. Using the technique of the 'flash of thought', which we can recognise in _Hiroshima mon amour_ and in _La Guerre est finie_, Resnais shows this double reality of action, he can continuously introduce in the situation the experience of streams of consciousness. 'Once the procedure of interrupting external continuity by mental images is established, it constitutes a parallel channel which remains open throughout the film' (98).


We are thus constantly in the presence of two channels of existence. Therefore, the analysis Callev undertakes aims at linking an external situation to the logic it produces, to what it refers to at the level of the character. Every single time it seems that the objects or the characters have two aspects, one which is actual, present, visible, and one which is virtual and invisible but which also is present. Every object, every event of ordinary life, every character, seems double: on the one hand, they are linked to the linearity of the action, of facts, of 'objective reality'; on the other hand, they refer to theses fluxes of consciousness with their own logics (an object can be linked to a souvenir or open a new possibility in the future).


It seems to me that the fact that Resnais doesn't film or edit every scene in the same way means that the 'mechanisms of thought' are shown in their own logic. This different showing of reality -- what seems chaotic to the spectator -- is an important characteristic of his cinema.


Besides, it would be an important mistake to film fluxes of consciousness as one would film the outside, the situation -- to pretend memory is just a kind of 'ancient present', a kind of reconstitution of the past (Resnais has continuously deconstructed this idea of reconstitution). The memory filmed by Resnais is not a present that is now past. None of the experiences of memory, in particular in _Hiroshima mon amour_, refer to an ancient present that Resnais would try to introduce in the actual present, or to reconstitute; but, in a very different way, the important thing is the heavy presence of the past, of the remembrance which always vanishes. The memory in Resnais's work is always active, it determines the characters, makes them unable to achieve certain actions, or urges them to achieve others. It is a constantly present memory, continuing its effects.


That's why Resnais refuses a linearity of memory which would make us live one of the character's past situations again -- such a reconstitution would be totally uninteresting. The essential thing is, on the contrary, everything that escapes, exceeds what is forgotten; the filtering the subject has operated and his own way of apprehending a situation. As the apprehension of the future does not imply that one will show what is going to happen but, on the contrary, the new set of possibilities that will arise with a given situation, subject, and precise point of perspective. As for example in 'La Guerre est finie', where continuous hypotheses about the future appear, where new possibilities are constantly offered by a given situation. By injecting mental pictures, Resnais's cinema constantly opens the given situation, the visible reality to a virtual reality, at once past and future, of memory and of imagination.


Nevertheless, Resnais goes beyond what one could call a 'psychologism' by opening these fluxes to new dimensions. The characters of _Hiroshima mon amour_, _La Guerre est finie_, and _L'Annee derniere a Marienbad_ are always grappling with events which determine their existence. Their memory, whether personal or collective, is stratified. The difficulty they experience while trying to express what happened to them is linked to the difficulty to know what actually happened, whether in Hiroshima, the war of Spain, etc. Their memory is individual and collective, linked to complex situations, making heterogeneous registers intervene. The events in which the characters are situated are not just added to their own individuality; on the contrary, they are inside, constitutive of these fluxes of consciousness. Therefore, Resnais's cinema is at the same time an attempt to account for the processes of thought, and a cinema of the event, of the difficulty to explain, to relate what has happened, even when these events are constitutive of the characters. Events, like memory or imagination, are not added to consciousness; altogether, they form a network that determines the character; he is just as much the event that has determined him as he is the way he feels or imagines a situation.


By the perspective (quite similar to James) of the 'stream of consciousness', Callev points out an extremely rich idea about Resnais's cinema. He shows how a cinematographic approach of this heavy, implicit, pre-subjective world of memory and of the 'mechanisms of thought' is possible, that it implies a set of singular techniques, of cinematographic inventions, which enable to experience it. The concept of a 'stream of consciousness', as I have said before, exceeds the simple matter of a film and becomes a real cinematographic orientation. From _La Guerre est finie_ to _Providence_, the problem always was to experience these 'streams of consciousness', to make the film in itself become a kind of 'mechanism of thought'. His book, although it is essential because of the point of view that it develops on Resnais's cinema, also opens up a set of more general questions on cinema itself.


It is important not to do a psychological analysis, as everything in these films actually goes beyond the notions of subject or of consciousness. The mechanisms of thought do not belong to a subject; and memory, when filmed, is not purely subjective or individual -- it is stratified, creating what Deleuze called Resnais's 'memory world'. [1] And in his book on Resnais, Callev successfully avoids the 'psychologism' that the notion of a stream of consciousness might imply.


Darwin College, University of Cambridge, England





1. Deleuze, _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_, p. 118; _Cinema 2: L'Image-temps_, p. 154.





Henri Bergson, _Matiere et memoire_ (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1990).


Gilles Deleuze, _Cinema 2: L'Image-temps_ (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1985). --- _Cinema 2: The Time-Image_, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: The Athlone Press, 1989).


Robert Humphrey, _Stream of Consciousnes in the Modern Novel_ (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1955).


William James, _The Principles of Psychology_ (New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1950).

--- _Essays in Radical Empiricism_ (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1996).


E. Souriau, _Les Differents modes d'existence_ (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1943).




Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2000


Didier Debaise, 'The Mechanisms of Thought: A Jamesian Point of View on Resnais', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 4 no. 10, April 2000 <>.





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