robbe-grillet on film: “reality… is problematic. we run up against it as against a wall of fog”

 


The history of cinema is still rather short, yet it is already characterized by discontinuities and reversals. The majority of contemporary films that now pass for masterpieces would have been rejected by Eisenstein and rightly so as altogether worthless, as the very negation of all art.

 

We should reread today the famous manifesto Eisenstein and Pudovkin wrote in the 1920s on the sound film. At a time when, in Moscow, a brand new American invention was being announced that would permit the actors on the screen to speak, this prophetic text warned vigorously and with extraordinary clarity of vision against the fatal abyss into which cinema was in danger of sliding: Since the illusion of realism would be considerably strengthened by giving the characters a voice, cinema could let itself be led down the cowardly path of glib superficiality (a temptation that never stops menacing us) and from then on, the better to please the multitudes, could remain content with an allegedly faithful reproduction of reality. It would thus surrender all claims to the creation of genuine artworks works in which that reality would be challenged by the very structures of the cinematic narrative.

 

Now, what Eisenstein demanded, with his customary vehemence, was that sound be used to create, on the contrary, new shocks: To the shocks between sequences created by montage (which links, according to relations of harmonic resonance or of opposition, the sequences to one another) should be added the shocks between the various elements of the sound track and still others between sounds and simultaneously projected images. As one may have expected, good Marxist-Leninist that he was, he called upon the sacrosanct "dialectic" in order to support this thesis.

 

But Communist ideology alas! could not save the Soviet cinema (which today is one of the worst in the world) from falling into the snares of glibness. In fact, good old "bourgeois realism" triumphed everywhere in the West as well as the East, where they simply rebaptized it "socialist." Eisenstein and his friends were rapidly subjected to the new universal norm: The montage of the visual sequences of their films (¡Que viva México! for example) was redone by the right-thinking bureaucracy, and all the sounds were made to follow obediently the recorded images.

 

Even in France, it was a theoretician of the extreme Left, André Bazin, who, merrily letting the dialectic go by the board, became the spokesman of illusionist realism, going so far as to write that the ideal film would entail no montage whatsoever, "since in the natural reality of the world there is no montage"! Thus, the numerous and fascinating forms of expression created in Russia and elsewhere during the silent era were summarily repudiated as if they were nothing but childish stammerings born of a merely rudimentary technique. Sound, wide screens, deep focus, color, long-duration reels all of these have allowed us to transform cinema today into a simple reproduction of the world, which, in the final analysis, is tantamount to forcing cinema as an art to disappear.

 

If today we want to restore its life, its former power, and its ability to give us veritable artworks, worthy of vying with fiction or painting of the modern era, then we must bring back to film work the ambitiousness and prominence that characterized it in the days of silent film. And so, as Eisenstein urges, we need to take advantage of every new technical invention, not in order to subject ourselves even further to the ideology of realism but, quite the opposite, to increase the possibilities of dialectical confrontation within film, thereby intensifying the "release of energy" that is just what such internal shocks and tensions allow for.

 

From this point of view, the alleged realism of contemporary commercial films, whether they be signed by Truffaut or by Altman, appears as a flawless totalitarian system, founded on hackneyed, stereotyped redundancy. The least detail in every shot, the connections between sequences, all the elements of the sound track, everything, absolutely everything must concur with the same sense and meaning, with a single sense and meaning, and with good old common sense. The immense potential richness that is concealed in this stuff of dreams these discontinuous, sonorous images must be utterly reduced, subjected to the laws of normative consciousness, to the status quo, so that, at any cost, meaning may be prevented from deviating, swarming, bifurcating, going off in several directions at once, or else getting completely lost. The technicians on the set or in the various recording studios are there precisely to see to it that no imperfections and divergences ever occur.

 

But what is the significance of this will-to-reduction? What it all means, in the final analysis, is that reality and a living reality at that is reduced to a reassuring, homogeneous, unilinear story line, a reconciled and compromised, entirely rational story line from which any disturbing roughness has been purged. Plainly put, realism is by no means the expression of the real, of what is real. But rather, the opposite. Reality is always ambiguous, uncertain, moving, enigmatic, and endlessly intersected by contradictory currents and ruptures. In a word, it is ”incomprehensible." Without a doubt, it is also unacceptable whereas the first and foremost function of realism is to make us accept reality. Realism, therefore, has a pressing obligation not only to make sense but to make one and only one sense, always the same, which it must buttress tirelessly with all the technical means, all the artifices and conventions, that can possibly serve its ends.

 

Thus, for example, prevailing film criticism may blame a certain detective film for lack of realism, ostensibly because the murderer’s motives are not clear enough, or because there are contradictions in the scenario, or because there remain lacunae in the causal chain of events. And yet, what do we actually know about nonfictional attempts to solve real crimes? Precisely that uncertainties at times essential ones always persist until the end, as do unsettling absences, "mistakes" in the protagonist’s behavior, useless and supernumerary characters, diverging proofs, a piece or two too many in the puzzle that the preliminary investigation in vain tries to complete.

 

Reality, then, is problematic. We run up against it as against a wall of fog. Meanwhile, our relation to the world becomes still more complicated because, at every moment, the world of realism presents itself to us as if it were familiar. We become so used to it that we hardly see it: It is our habitat, our cocoon. Yet, actually, we stumble against what’s real with a violence we never get used to a violence that no amount of previous experience can ever assuage so that reality remains for us irremediably foreign and strange. The German words heimlich and unheimlich, which both Freud and Heidegger have used, though in different but here overlapping contexts, give indeed an idea of this lived opposition fundamental because it is inescapable between the strange and the familiar. Both the psychoanalyst and the philosopher insist that the familiarity we think we have with the world is misleading (i.e., ideological, socialized). To acknowledge and explore (even to the point of anguish) the world’s strangeness constitutes the necessary starting point for creating a consciousness that is free. And one of the essential functions of art is precisely that it assumes this role of revealing the world to us. This explains why art does not attempt to make the world more bearable (which undoubtedly is what realism does), but less so: because its ultimate ambition is not to make us accept reality but to change it.

 

the iconic imagery of Last Year at Marienbad

 

It certainly does seem that cinema, simply by virtue of its signifying material, is a privileged instrument for this double adventure [of acknowledging and exploring the world’s strangeness]. In the first place, moving pictures possess two essential characteristics (which realism in vain tries to forget): They are in the present and they are discontinuous. This ineradicable presence of the cinematic image can be considered undeniably in opposition to the complex game of grammatical tenses that the classical novel has at its disposal: No photographic code exists to let us indicate that such-and-such a scene is taking place in a past tense be it preterit, perfect, or imperfect or in the future, and much less in the conditional. When I see an event unfolding on the screen, I perceive it as if it were in the process of happening: It is in the present indicative. But the continuity of this present-tense action becomes violently and unforeseeably interrupted each time there is a change of sequence, that is, each time the editing shears have cut the film in order to tack onto it (or replace part of it with) a different take. Between the last shot of sequence n and the first shot of sequence n+1, something has happened that has no duration in the film (i.e., whose filmic duration is nil); the camera has changed position and a gap of some duration has slipped into diegetic time.

 

Paradoxically, the conjunction of these leaps in space and in time allows the splices of traditional editing to move past the spectator’s eyes unnoticed. In fact, all it takes is the juxtaposition of two filmed gestures. Consider, for example, the foot of a person walking, shot twice at the same point in its cyclical movement but each time from a different angle. When these images are spliced together, the spectator remains unaware of the temporal and spatial leaps (as well as the film cement) occasioned by the change of angle. Thus, the definition accepted by all filmmaking schools: Correct splicing is the one the spectator doesn’t see! It is easy to judge how far we are at the opposite pole, in fact from the montage effects recommended and put into practice by Eisenstein.

 

Echoes of this academic definition of supposedly proper editing can be found at all levels of film production. Here let us briefly run over a few applications of this curious aesthetic. Good framing is the framing that the spectators will be unaware of; in other words, the one in which the borders of the frame play no role whatsoever. Good lighting: the one that seems the most "natural." Best camera position: the one with the least personality, the better to conceal the material origin of the shot. (Moreover, because the camera must disappear from view, mirrors become the bane of the camera operator’s existence.) The best actor is the one who is not perceived as an actor, but only as a character. Etcetera. A certain theoretician of the sound track has even gone so far as to write that "the best film music is the one which the spectator doesn’t hear."

 

All of this leads us to the following definition of realistic illusionism: The best film is the one whose narrative and plastic forms have the least existence and the least force, and in which only the diegesis the story that is being told is perceived by the public. Since, according to this view, the cinematic material is supposed to be perfectly transparent, the screen is nothing more than a window opened onto the world. But surely the window is opened only onto the world of realism and not the real world! only onto the world of hackneyed familiarity and not onto the strangeness of the world.

 

In all of this, there is a fraudulence more serious still than the pretension of opening a window upon reality, and this is the substitution, from the outset, of reality by its ideological simulation in other words, by realism, which after all is nothing other than the everlasting reproduction of the workings of the Balzacian novel. We know (I myself have said it a hundred times, but one must never pass up the opportunity of saying it again) that it was no accident that out of all the French novels of the past, it was Balzac’s works that academic criticism chose as the mode, forever and ever, of the true novel. The Balzac of Eugénie Grandet, Père Goriot, etcetera, incarnates, in fact, a very special moment in our history that very brief period that separates two revolutions (the 1830 revolution, which established the triumph of bourgeois ideas, and the proletarian revolt of 1848), a blessed period, one might say, unique in the annals of the bourgeoisie, when that class was happy and writers could embrace, in all good conscience, the values of society. Balzac never asked himself a single question about his own writing, any more than the social class to which he belonged ever questioned the legitimacy of its own power. To write a novel was then as "natural" and proper as possessing land or a factory.

 

Only a few years later (from 1848 on), this would no longer be true: Flaubert expresses brilliantly the loss of naiveté in the practice of writing. And a while earlier, in the age of Diderot, for instance, this was not true either: Note, in particular, the questioning of narrative in Jacques le fataliste. The Balzacian narrative (that is, bourgeois realism) would thus persist in the minds of the guardians of order as if it were a privileged form: It belongs to that all too brief paradise lost. And, quite naturally, when cinema learned to speak, it was the Balzacian model, as the absolute ideal of every narrative, that prevailed as well. Which explains why they wanted from the start to install in cinema a faultless continuity, a rigorous causality, and an unequivocal meaning everything, in short, that in the novel is implied by the use of the preterit tense: a guarantee of the coherence, truth, and stability of the world, and of the necessity of the laws that govern it.

 

It is difficult, as we have seen, to imagine a signifying material more poorly suited to such a task. For our academics, therefore, there was an urgent need to force this potentially too modernist medium to efface itself to the greatest possible degree: The present-tense image, the links of montage, the professional actors, the camera eye, a sound track independent of the visual sequences (produced separately, out of multiple, heterogeneous, simultaneous components, variously combined) all these things had first to be disguised, camouflaged as much as possible, as if they were so many shameful blemishes, in order to arrive at the well-known results.

 

But now it is our turn to go against this kind of system: first of all, to restore to its rightful place the fundamental need of every art that is, the need to allow the stuff and matter of the medium and the creative labor that has gone into the work to become visible without shame or disgrace. And should there be a need to work against, to fight against, the material conditions of the medium, let this be an open struggle, carried out before the public, not behind its back. And if it is possible to make a connection between film and the novel, let it be a connection with the modern novel (the nouveau roman, for example) and not with that Balzacian pseudo-literature of the twentieth century, which nobody in academic criticism at least would even dream of defending. And if it should be necessary to seek a resemblance with the world, let this be a resemblance with what is real that is, the universe of dreams, sexual fantasies, and nocturnal anxieties simultaneously confronted and produced by our unconscious and not with the factitious world of familiarity, the world of so-called conscious life, which is no more than the insipid, soothing product of our censors (ethics, reason, respect for the establishment).

 

The cinema screen is by no means the world, and it is even less a window open onto it; it is merely the place where filmic forms and substances confront one another, just as a painter’s canvas is a space in which pictorial forms and substances come face to face. And it is also the place where our narrative faculty is questioned by, and through, these forms and substances. Film is not an image of the world; like every work of art, it is, in a hesitant, an unreasonable, and a moving way, a questioning of the world. Similarly, the image of an actor on the screen constitutes neither a character of flesh and blood nor even the image of such a character; it is simply one of the functions involved in the totality of the film a function that calls into question (or even throws into crisis) the very notion of character.

 

The camera is another one of these functions the one that indicates the point of view, that is, the source of the images. In this way, it constitutes a narrative presence or rather one of the narrative presences in the film, because the characters and the editing itself can also fulfill this role at the same time. And the camera cannot be any more neutral than they can. All that it can do (yet this is a great deal) is play with the idea of neutrality: It is one of the poles at which objectivity and subjectivity collide. It is undoubtedly the primary place where this collision occurs. One could almost say that the camera, through its very functioning, denounces the snare of realism. It allows it to materialize, yet also exposes its two-faced character. For, on the one hand, it gives us a representation of the real world that leaves us with a strong sense of objectivity, while, on the other hand, it cannot help but direct its glance toward a chosen stretch of space and then, from the continuous fabric of the world, cut out a circumscribed fragment. The camera does not unveil reality; it imagines it. Selecting camera position and placing the frame are already two operations of the imagination.

 

Then comes montage, which exposes all over again the illusion of realism: Fragments and shots cut out of the continuum, endowed with a specific point of view, are now rearranged to form a new entirely new composition, revealing still more flagrantly the intervention of the creative spirit. The subjective objectivity of the camera (which is also capable of panoramic sweeps and dollies of varying complexity) combines with montage cuts to facilitate the juxtaposition of more or less distant moments in diegetic time as well as more or less distant shots taken from different angles. And this combination creates surprising effects and paradoxical, multidimensional, moving spaces that like the spaces of our dreams endlessly swerve, change course, and disappear.

 

Since the days of Freud, we have believed that what takes place in our dreams is infinitely more interesting (because it’s richer, less prearranged, more capable of revealing our relations with reality) than the gestures and words, the thoughts and settings, that constitute the reassuring fabric of our socialized life (the one that realism deals with). Thus, cinema so long as it can be yanked from its cushy yoke of realism, be it of the bourgeois or of the socialist variety will emerge as a privileged instrument for understanding contemporary man and no doubt for shaping the man of the future as well

Translated by Sophia S. Morgan, January 1982

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for a new cinema

by alain robbe-grillet  

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