Cinephile Philosophy

Oleg Aronson, Metakino. Moscow: Ad marginem, 2003.

Cinéma-1: L’image-mouvement (1983) and Cinéma-2: L’image-temps (1985), Gilles Deleuze’s two famous books on the cinema, are hallmarks in the history of film-theory: they display a shift of interest from thinking about the peculiarities of the medium to a much wider context.

For Deleuze, the main authors-directors of the history of the cinema do not think in notions, but in pictures. His writings on the cinema bestowed philosophical dignity on the field. That film-theory has gained a better reputation in institutions of education and culture all over the world during the last two or three decades is certainly not the merit of Deleuze alone, but his philosophical approach to the cinema had undoubtedly a share in this process.

In Russian intellectual culture, Metakino, a collection of seventeen essays by the Russian philosopher Oleg Aronson, most remarkably indicates this post-structuralist shift in film theory stemming from Deleuze. If one takes a look at the volumes of Iskusstvo kino, the most important medium for film analysis (, one can also trace the influence of Deleuze (especially in the contributions of Jurij Lejderman, already with Inspection Medhermeneutics one of the first importers of schizoanalysis into Russia).

Aronson marks his affinity to Deleuze not solely in the title Metakino, which he took from L’image-mouvement; he discusses some phenomena already chosen by Deleuze or applies his terminology (obraz-vospominanija/memory-image). Nevertheless, his thematic focus is somewhat different.

He does not so much analyse and recategorize film-history but regards cinema as a fact of our world, which modifies a change in our thinking of man and culture (cf. p. 8). The task as it is delineated in the preface of his book amounts to a philosophical double-bind: on the one hand cinema is considered as being a medium of its own kind, irreducible to language or philosophical thinking and therefore demanding a different examination. On the other, the genre he uses for the discussion of cinematographic peculiarities is philosophical essayism.

The double-bind, though, is not really puzzling, it is more of a rhetorical kind, for Aronson does not really succeed in establishing a new kind of discourse on the cinema. Moreover, his style does not differ substantially from more or less traditional philosophic writing. Considerable difficulties in understanding arise with the use of philosophical terminology in Russian translation, or, even more obviously, with numinous notions such as opyt, bytie, obraz etc. without explaining decidedly their specific sense, so that the reader has to undertake great efforts to establish their specific meaning in the context.

This kind of vagueness may be motivated by Aronson’s main goal: to write about the existential meaning of the cinema, for which signs do not yet exist (8). Or one should say, cannot exist, for “signs” as conventionalized semiotic phenomena do not interest Aronson at all; he is more concerned with the cinematographic “event,” comprehended as those phenomena in the cinema which are neither consciously reflected nor felt nor recognized.

The event opens up the space for the “other,” where nothing is clearly defined or readable (cf. p.9). The “other” as one of the most common notions in philosophy also remains unspecified, but one can suggest that the term designates another subject and his “opacity.” We are intrigued by other subjects and do not even know it: this is the case when we are not yet all too sure about ourselves, when our interpretative machinery does not run smoothly but stalls, or when we would not acknowledge our attachment to the other.

In accordance with this mistrust in words or definite notions, the four parts of the book have no verbal titles, instead they are marked by film-stills. So the reader is prompted to seek for the common ground of the essays in the four parts. The least difficult to comprehend is probably the third part, dealing with late Soviet cinema, especially discussing the cinepoetics of Aleksej German, Kira Muratova and Aleksandr Sokorov.

Speaking about this period of Soviet cinema in general, Aronson underlines its shabbiness. This is neither an evaluative nor an aesthetic judgement but a characterization which should distinguish late realistic film from the “heroic” period of the twenties and early thirties as well as from Stalinist film culture. The poor lighting-technique and the bad quality of the celluloid are not the cause for this aesthetic surface. It is Soviet reality as the basic subliminal foundation of any cultural production.

Soviet reality also conditioned a special form of collective reception around non-Soviet films: the Soviet people did not pay so much attention to the overt structure and message of the films, but were more interested in getting an idea of life beyond the Iron Curtain.

The selection and cuts of the Soviet censorship also significantly influenced their reception. Insofar as Aronson considers the cinema as consisting not only of positively given entities (films, studios, theatres, actors, institutions, the audience), but as a mode of living in which obvious and hidden factors of a culture interact, he indicates the unique influence of censorship on the collective attitudes of Soviet cineastes. Their cultural experience was not only influenced by the entities circulating in culture and ending in archives, it also evolved around “nothing” – around the gaps in the films caused by the censor.

One must note that there is a profound affinity between the basic formalistic notion of art and Aronson’s conviction that the cinematic “event” triggers in the spectator an opening up for the “new” and the “other.” Following Sklovskij’s notion of art as a mode of refreshing and reconfiguring our visionof the world and Eisenstein’s idea of the cinema as an attraction, Aronson applies formalist thinking most explicitly when writing on Kira Muratova’s films.

Aronson could have labelled them hyperrealistic, for Muratova confronts us with scenes we tend to overlook in everyday life. They are not “shocking,” they disturb our sense of comfort that relies on ascribing sense and meaning to the world. Death is just one “attraction” the spectator is forced to look at, others are senseless repetitions, an apparently clumsy shooting of scenes (in Poznavaj belyj svet/ Getting to Know Whole Wide World). For Aronson they function as lyrical devices for taking a non-ideological look on soviet life (217).

Despite the nearness of film to reality it cannot be a surrogate for “real-life-experience.” This becomes obvious when film tries to give an idea of intense feelings (joy, love, terror). In most cases this endeavour amounts to resorting to stereotypical, conventionalised modes of presentations. Another strategy is the rejection of any convention, but this often makes the reception of the film very difficult.

Apparently, Aleksej German has chosen the second strategy in My friend Ivan Lapshin and especially in Chrustalev, the car!. They are set in the time of Stalinist terror, but instead of employing iconic signs of the period (indicating the time), German builds a chaotic plot around private experience and memories, which do not claim for communicability. This would allow for the Russian spectator to feel the pain of vivisection of his ill, i.e. sovietized, body (cf. p. 223).

The seven essays in the first section of the book can be characterized as philosophical reaccentuations of classical topics and texts of film-theory: André Bazin, Béla Balász, Aleksandr Dovzhenko, Vsevolod Pudevkin, Dziga Vertov, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Western-hero.

In Bazin’s theory of the mise en scène, Aronson outlines the stress on the background as essential for the cardinal reality-effect of the cinema which would emerge apart from the importance ascribed to the more obvious foreground.

Aronson is also sympathetic to Balász’s idea that the cinema is closely linked to experience and perception, which are more fundamental than the acquisition of any language or any abstraction into signs. Thus cinema – and one must not forget that Balász elaborated his ideas in the period of silent-film – would be able to re-establish this immediate reaction to the world.

Dziga Vertov’s theory of the Kino-glaz was more radical, for it did away with the human perception. The mechanical properties of the Kino-eye should not fit the spectator’s eye, but the spectator himself should follow the camera, which shows him the “facts” his eye usually overlooks because of the impregnation of the human perception with traditional hierarchies and values.

Due to its technicality, cinema would be able to “educate” the new man of a communist society, which would not be based on “finite” doctrines, but on a “free” association of images and meanings. Other than Groys, Aronson is not so much interested in the intertwining of the aesthetical avant-garde with political strivings for a new society.

Instead he tries to conjoin Vertov’s conception of the cinema with Wittgenstein’s philosophy or the music of Anton Webern. The common denominator between them is mistrust for conventional codifications and for an all to superficial and rigid conception of man’s relation to the world.

In Dovzhenko’s almost unmoving close-ups of faces, Aronson regards a metaphysical laying bare the foundations of man; the close-ups would provide a better idea of man than the narrative structure of The Earth.

Similarly, the icon in the orthodox conception of the image is not a depiction of sensual phenomena, but of man’s noumenon. The link between the material base and the spiritual dimension of man in Dovzhenko’s films is the light in the faces of the actors, a light that does not come from above, but is a reflection of the earth.

Despite of Pudovkin’s difficulties with mapping the sound into his films (of the silent period as well of the sound period), he can be seen as a forerunner of modern cinema that works with the dimensions of time and sound and has become so familiar that it functions automatically in the spectator’s perception.

Quite a brilliant idea of Aronson is deployed in his essay on the body of the Western-hero. His loneliness and silence, his astonishing abilities in shooting and reacting, and the obstinate indestructibility of his body are not directly linked to mere conventions of genre or to traditional universal features of folk-tale-heroes, but are interpreted with regard to the basic ethical beliefs of the American immigrants.

The western-hero is thus nothing but the embodiment of the sublime moral law, which is not an empirical fact but a “supernatural,” awesome capacity of man’s rationality.

Aronson dwells on Pasolini’s thoughts on the kinemes (elements of reality depicted in film) when he discusses Pasolini’s death and its interpretation. Was his murder staged by Pasolini-director (as states G. Zigaina, outlining the death-motive in Pasolini’s oeuvre), is his violent death thus inherently related to his life-themes or was it mere contingency?

Aronson apparently rejects Zigiana’s view of Pasolini’s death by insisting on the idea of an “immanent biography” consisting of kinemes and not of definitive meanings (which “historical” biographies and also many autobiographies, produce).

Any death puts an end to this openness of expression and thus excites interpretation and definition, which is contrary to the very idea of an immanent biography. Its immanency lies in the fact that it manifests itself only in style and “articulation.” It is in no way internal to the subject of biography, but a combination of personal experience and historical “matter.”

Personal memory is not a permanent record of experience, but consists of kinemes so that these remembered fragments of reality dominate memory. These quite difficult, if not opaque ideas are fed by Aronson’s repeated reference to Deleuze’s film-theory and its employment of Bergson’s philosophy. If the reader is not familiar with it, sentences like “Memories are images which belong to the things” (99) will be bewildering.

As already indicated above, the second section revolves around the notion of presence and its pertinence to the cinema. Other than the theatre, where the spectators experience their personal presence hic et nunc at the play, in the cinema the spectators do not quite know where they are. Moreover, the subject of presence is not an individual one, but the presence of a “we“subject.The spectator-subject intermingles with the subjectivities projected on the film-screen.

Although the architectural design of the cinema-theatre copies theatre design (mostly there is a sort of stage, acurtain), the position of the spectator cannot be strictly modelled along the subject-object-world line as in classical theatre, where the viewed performance is a representation of the (outside)-world and insofar object to the spectator-subject.

In cinematic perception there is no distinct separation between the ontologically different worlds of reality and representation. This blurred distinction gets more obvious when there is a depiction of theatre within film; being absorbed by the life-likeness of the film, the movie-spectator then realizes that there is a similar boundary between him and the diegetic realm of the film but cannot delineate it easily.

The comparison of the theatre and the cinema leads to somewhat unexpected considerations. For example, the close-up in film is nothing more but a sort of theatralisation, the introduction of the theatre-stage into film (Aronson’s examples are the close-ups of faces in Bergman’s film, but what about conventionalized close-ups, which are part of every TV-detective film.)

The main idea for Aronson’s attention to the cinema is its closeness to reality – the elements of reality are the essential feature of this medium. But any film is more than just the trace of reality. In its production, “artificial” acts (selection, combination, montage) are inevitable (not only in “staged” film, in documentary film as well).

Therefore “reality” as the raw-material of film is superseded by the artificiality of film-production. Instead of original documentariness, one should rather speak of the “effect of documentary.”

In other words, documentariness is not an intrinsic feature of some films, but a pragmatic stance towards them. Because of this, the spectator will experience reality in staged films as well, although this reality is fictitious:

Aronson labels this experience “presence,” but distinguishes this presence from the conscious awareness of one’s subjectivity. Instead, this suggestive presence in cinematographic reality is comparable to our “presence” in everyday life-routine, where so many things are done automatically.

The effect of documentary that is essential for the blend with reality resides in the background of our notice, it comes to the fore when it is either stressed or when historical time causes a shift in our attention. What was once unnoticed by contemporaries, then strikes us as a significant feature of the past. Nowadays, when the language of films is highly conventionalized, exerting a reality-effect again would demand new forms of documentary film.

The essay on the close-up of faces in Ingmar Bergman’s films focuses on the possibilities of conveying mental affect neither by imitation nor by conventional interpretation of actorial behaviour. Faces have two totally different meanings in Bergman’s cinema. On one side, faces cannot stop playing, lying, they are the most significant parts of the body for social interaction; on the other, the close-ups of unmoved faces serve as a foil, as a scene on which the social lies are staged (154).

The close-up of the face (according to Deleuze, the close-up is the face) confronts the spectator with the affect and with the presence of the Other (person). In Persona, where there are two female faces very close to each other, the close-up indicates the intertwinedness of any “I” with another subject and indicates the secret of the face.

Aronson also offers a philosophical re-interpretation of Konstantin Stanislavsky’s influential theory of the work of the actor. Stanislavsky was practically preoccupied with the philosophical mind-body-problem, as he wanted to teach actors how to convey internal states of mind by means of the actor’s body. Thus the stage-boundary is transposed into the body of the actor.

Aronson’s point is similar to an old dispute in Russian orthodox theology. For Stanislavsky, as for Joseph of Volokolamsk, adequate external behaviour is of greater importance than “inner” uprightness. The actor has neither to feel into the role nor has he to exert behavioural cliché. Instead, he has to acquire a feeling of presence on the stage and to follow the events on the stage around him as well as his inner reactions to them.

He has to become a spectator who reacts very quickly without overacting (the stage in the theatre and the distance of the audience is a significant hindrance to the psycho-technical work; a close-up of the face is not possible in the theatre.)

With Telec/Taurus, a film on the dying Lenin, Aleksandr Sokurov is trying to counteract the death-routine in the cinema, where not only the depiction of losing life is conventionalised but where the medium itself – as is photography – is linked with death and transitoriness. Telec is a hyperdocumentary film, for evokes the presence of death generally, not only in the life of Lenin who had been mortified by innumerable depictions in Soviet iconography. With Telec, Lenin regains life, but not historical nor “humanised” life, he regains biological, bodily life.

The concluding essay of the collection is entitled Kant on the cinema:On the Overtaking of Thinking, and applies the central notions of the Critique of Judgement on the cinema. The “seventh art” is considered as transforming our notions of “language,” “art,” “freedom,” and even “love” (231).

The perception of films is a better example for the dynamic sublime as those presented by Kant: it manifests itself in the reaction of the spectators to films, which are to be considered as repetitions of the world, but are not identical to it. When watching a film, we are not so much individual subjects, but share our experience with other spectators.

The freedom of creating a rule for artistic production (which is essential in Kant’s definition of the genius) is hard to discern in the cinema. Aronson views it in a director like Griffith, who neither applied given artistic devices nor deliberately avoided them (as the auteurs). Instead, Griffith has set the standards for montage and, further, for a collective experience.

Aronson tries to interpret Kant’s notion of duty as “love” (in the sense of Levinas) on the basis of the importance of the other subject inherent in both duty and love. The link of this philosophical concept of ethics with cinema seems a bit far-fetched. Its line of argumentation might be indicated as follows: the cinema cannot but supply us with stereotypical images of love.

When perceiving already the slightest indicators of love in the cinema, we react automatically by amending our desires and wishes, yet the latter should not be conceived as personal or private feelings, but as emotions of the “other.” Aronson concludes, “We learn this [to endow the other with a privilege over me] in the cinema, when pictures are touching us, whose naivety and stereotypical character is overt, but precisely such pictures tell us how our perceiving and thinking works, what our odds are to become another, what chance there is to change, to experience the new” (262).

Given the adequacy of this cinephile estimation, one is tempted to ask whether such a social function of consumption (of cultural production) is valid only for the cinema: does it not also apply to other mass-media (be it popular music or literature, TV or video-games)? A certain specification or differentiation is lacking here (I suggest the uniqueness of the medium cinema could be examined in its link with the imaginary in Lacan’s sense and its anthropological value).

Aronson sees in the cinema an arrangement for reshaping subjectivity, for getting an idea of the co-presence of other subjects. Already this belief makes Metakino quite an original endeavour in the field of film theory, for it indeed insists on aspects of the cinema have not yet attracted much attention, notwithstanding the fact that the cinema is probably the medium which most easily transgresses cultural and linguistic borders.

On behalf of his belief in the “socio-esthetical” potential of the cinema, Aronson tries to delineate it in the most common and abstract kind of discourse, the discourse of philosophy. He has thus reaffirmed the cultural importance of the cinema, but maybe it would have been more adequate to choose a form of discourse which would be closer to the reality of the cinema.