‘The mind begins with the matter at hand – the incidental curve of a road or the accidental movement of a passing figure. As it perceives these it possesses them as images, as the stuff of which it composes its day dreams and night dreams, in the forms of its desires and despairs.'(Maya Deren)i
Maya Deren had this to say about her 1945 experimental short film Meshes of The Afternoon. In order to, cinematically, trigger a memory or a thought process, the image would need to possess certain qualities. Can cinema present such a possibility? Can cinema be poetic? To answer this question, we must first understand what is termed as the “open image”. This essay will explore in detail, the “open image”, as it is explained by various film theorists like Paul Schrader, Giles Deleuze and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and applying these to Michelangelo Antonioni‘s 1975 film, The Passenger.
The “image” includes all the things that are contained within a frame or a scene, including the sound components. The “open image” may use any of these elements. These open images can be ordinary images but they have the ability to produce a ‘virtual after image’. As Schrader puts it, ‘When the image stops, the viewer keeps going, moving deeper and deeper, one might say, into the image. This is the miracle of “sacred art”.’ The Passenger tells the story of the fictional David Locke, a television reporter in Africa, who assumes the identity of a dead stranger. Antonioni makes effective use of the open image to portray the film as an almost dream like sequence. Locke is on a mission to make a documentary about post-colonial Africa and seeks to interview the rebel fighters in the ongoing civil war. Frustrated with the inability to procure these interviews, he seizes the opportunity when his travel companion, Robertson appears to be dead in his hotel room. Locke, tired of his life, assumes this man’s identity in an attempt to start over. What follows is Locke’s inheritance of Robertson’s life and his problems, and the search for “Robertson” by Rachel Locke and her friend Martin who want to track down the last man who had been in contact with Locke. The film supposes a pre-existence of the events and surroundings. The opening scene is not introduced to us in a conventional sense; i.e it does not unfold before us in a manner that would help us, the viewer, understand the events occurring. We are not brought up to speed on these events and are in fact placed in the middle of it. And although it is the opening scene of the film, the viewer gets the sense that it is not the opening scene of David Locke’s story. This is done by the use of the long-tracking shot, a common feature of the open image. Another feature of the open image is termed by Paul Schrader as “stasis”, as part of the three characteristics of what he calls “transcendental style” in cinema. The first is the everyday banality that is represented on screen. The dull and ordinary activities that take place are shown in great detail and reveal much forethought on behalf of the character. Mundane events in David Locke’s everyday life are presented throughout the film. Even his dialogues seem deliberate and without any sense of urgency. This is true in spite of the fact that he is on the run. The second, is the “disparity” that exists between man and his environment. This usually culminates in a decisive action. Locke is on the constant hunt for his interviews with the rebels in order to complete his film and when one of these attempts prove to be fruitless, his frustration leads him to swap identities with Robertson in the hopes of starting a new life. The third characteristic of Schrader’s “transcendental style” is the “stasis” – a frozen view of life. However, the stasis does not resolve the foregoing disparity. It transcends it. It breaks the flow of the everyday banality by presenting something “other”. The aesthetic of the stasis is therefore paradoxical since movement is an imperative unit of cinema. The stasis shot is very close to the manner in which we view a film or a cinematic product. Our memory breaks down the real time movement into static images that we collect as evidence of having viewed the film. We put these images into a sequence and that becomes our memory, not only of the film we have seen, but of the experience we undergo of the film at that particular time. It is possible then, that the sequence of images are not always in order. The Passenger uses this technique at times, perhaps in an attempt to mirror our subconscious processes. The images on the screen are not always portrayed in a strict chronological order, causing a slight state of confusion and conceivably some form of alertness while trying to string the story together. The scene in which Locke builds a fire in what we can assume is the front yard of his house, his wife (Rachel Locke) runs out to ask him if he is “crazy”. This camera then shifts its position to the window of the same house, Rachel now standing at it, looking down at her front yard, the fire and Locke, both having disappeared. There is a sudden cut only in the image and not the audio, as you can hear the end of Locke’s sentence in the beginning of the new image. In this way, the camera movement mimics the fashion in which the images in our thoughts and even dreams overlap.
Deleuze, in his book entitled Cinema 2: The Time-image, states that the time-image is connotative rather than denotative. It implies meaning rather than represents it. It therefore injects the objects in the scene with meaning.
‘Objects and settings [milieux] take on an autonomous, material reality which gives them an importance in themselves. It is therefore essential that not only the viewer but the protagonists invest the settings and the object with their gaze, that they see and hear the things and the people, in order for action or passion to be born, erupting in a pre-existing daily life.’ii
As Locke examines his dead companion’s personal items like his passport, his gun, his clothes, the map, the brochure on which is scribbled the address of a locker, we realize that these are not simply objects that belong to someone. They are not only a physical representation of a man that is now dead, they indicate to Locke, the freedom that he longs for. These objects have existed long before Locke came across them. And in order to achieve freedom from his own existing life, he must be incorporated into the objects’ existence rather than incorporate them into his.
Pier Paolo Pasolini in his essay The Cinema of Poetry, explains that the intended recipient of a cinematic product – the viewer – is accustomed to visually read reality, i.e to keep up a dialogue with the reality which surrounds him and which is used as the environment of a collectivity which can be felt even in the pure and simple manifestation of its acts and habits. The environment expresses itself by the mediation of the images which compose it: the physiognomy of the passers-by, their gestures, their signs, their actions, silences, expressions, collective reactions. Objects can thus be said to have speech by their very presence.
De-dramatisation of events is another way in which objects are given importance, and arguably, a life of their own. An ordinary representation of events creates space for the intensification of images. The absence of any discernible human presence on screen, forces the audience to shift its gaze to the objects in the frame, since the sensory-motor link is broken. The audience stores these static images in their memory and return to them later at the time of recall.
‘The space of a sensory-motor situation is a setting which is already specified and presupposes an action which discloses it, or prompts a reaction which adapts to or modifies it. But a purely optical or sound situation becomes established in what we might call “any-space-whatever”, whether disconnected, or emptied.’iii
What Deleuze is referring to as “any-space-whatever”, is the spaces on screen that are not a representation of a particular place or geographical location. The desert in the opening scene is not a representation of the sahara in Africa. It could be any desert or a piece of dry land where Locke’s car happens to have broken down. The streets of Barcelona are not a representation of Barcelona in particular, they could be any street far away from Locke’s home, far enough for him to escape into. Even his passport is not a representation of his nationality, but simply a way for him to identify himself and subsequently, to change his identity. How is this kind of space established? Antonioni uses the long take or the fixed long shot that are typical components of an aesthetic of stasis. The static long shot frame and its duration give the cinematic image an openness in excess of its closed symbolism. It transcends the mere geographical boundaries thrust upon it and allows us to fill it with our own consciousness and our own meaning.
An important feature of Antonioni’s films is the “other” perspective. What we see on screen and perceive as an image is not simply the filmmaker’s point of view or the character’s point of view. It is a cross between the two and sometimes it even transcends the two and can be said to be infinite. The unresolved tension between the two viewpoints create an ambiguity, a space in which the image appears to originate from somewhere “other”. This “other” perspective is said to reside in the camera itself. The camera continues to record even after the people and any identifiable human consciousness have departed. The camera thus acts as surveillance, as the observer. It views things. In this way, it reiterates the fact that these spaces exist even without the presence of people and their representations. The desert has and always will exist whether or not it is inhabited by characters.
According to Deleuze, there is a new breed of signs – opsigns and sonsigns. These refer to very varied images. Sometimes everyday banality, sometimes exceptional or limit circumstances, but most of all, they are subjective images or memories of childhood or sound and visual dreams or fantasies where the character does not act without seeing himself acting. He thus becomes the actor and the viewer, all at once. There are two types of opsigns. The “constat” presents the viewer with a vision that has depth. The camera is kept at a distance and the image tends to be abstract. One of the last scenes in The Passenger is an example of this. The camera originates from David Locke’s room, showing the view outside through the bars of the window. The action that takes place outside is shown from a distance, leaving behind the action that takes place inside the room. Throughout the film, there are numerous examples of this “constat” that present the scene to us in the form of a report. The second type of “opsign” is the “instat”. These provide a close-up of the objects in the image and induce an involvement from the viewer as it does from the character. The passport, the brochure with the address of the locker on it, the letter from “Stephen” that is nailed to the door. It is not simply the objects, however, that feature in the “instat”. The conversation that Locke has with the girl towards the end of the film is shown in a close-up shot of the two sitting in bed.
The idle periods in The Passenger do not merely show the banalities of everyday life. They are the result of a preceding extraordinary event that presents itself to us in the form of a report, without really being explained. As Deleuze rightly puts it, ‘When everything has been said, when the main scene seems over, there is what comes afterwards…’iv While Schrader distinguishes between the banal and the extraordinary and claims that the disparity between the two leads to a decisive action, Japanese filmmaker Yasujirō Ozu suggests that there is no such thing as extraordinary. Everything, according to him, is ordinary and banal. Even death is not an extraordinary event, nor are the dead extraordinary people. They are in fact the subject of a natural forgetting. He points out that life is a series of ordinary activities.We disrupt the order of the series in our memories. Thus, by taking an ordinary event out of its place in the series and situating it next to another event, we might view either event as extraordinary simply by comparison. According to Ozu, life is simple and man never stops complicating it by ‘disturbing still water’. Antonioni’s treatment of death and other seemingly remarkable events are an example of Ozu’s belief. Both, David Robertson’s and David Locke’s deaths are portrayed as non-events. Locke’s assassination at the end of the film does not even occur on screen. While this assassination takes place behind the camera, we are presented with the abstract images in front of the camera, outside the window. It is only when the camera moves back in towards the room, do we see Locke lying on his bed. His death is confirmed only vaguely when his wife Rachel is asked if she recognizes him and she replies that she never knew him. The use of the past tense in the word “knew” is the only indicator of his death. This de-dramatisation is also evident in the scenes where David Locke is on the run after swapping identities. Robertson’s dealings with the rebels fighting the civil war, Locke’s near fugitive status, the intrigue of a mistaken identity are all, if taken out of their sequence of events, sensational and noteworthy. Antonioni’s depiction of them, however, borders on drab.
According to Pasolini in his essay The Cinema of Poetry, an entire world is expressed by means of significant images or ‘imsigns’ (image-signs). Every attempt at memorization is a series of im-signs that is primarily a cinema sequence. Thus, all dreams are a series of im-signs which have all the characteristics of the cinematic sequence – closeups, long shots, etc. He says,
‘…there is a whole complex world of significant images – formed as much of gestures and of all sorts of signs coming from the environment, as of memories or of dreams – which is proposed as the “instrumental” foundation of cinematic communication, and pre-figures it.’v
With the importance of the image, and more specifically the “open-image”, being established, can we now answer the question – Can cinema be poetic? Cinema is fundamentally oneiric by reason of the elementary character of its archetypes – habitual and consequently unconscious observation of environment, gestures, memory, dreams. Objects become symbols of the visual language. The dictionary of language is words, whereas the dictionary of cinema is images. A writer already has the words at his disposal and his work involves an esthetic manipulation of these words. A filmmaker on the other hand, needs to first invent his own cinematic dictionary before he can apply it to his work. He therefore has double the task of a writer. The linguistic and grammatical domain of the filmmaker is constituted by images which are always concrete. This is why cinema is an artistic and not philosophical language. It can be a parable but never a directly conceptual expression. Cinema has a metaphoric character due to its ability to express and to embody the dream.
‘With words, I can proceed with two different operations and thus end up either with a “poem” or with a “narrative”. With images, I can only – at least to date – create cinema…’vi
According to Pasolini, the “cinema of poetry” produces films of a double nature. The film that we receive normally is the “free-indirect subjective”. This viewpoint is relatively free because the filmmaker uses the viewpoint of whichever state of mind dominates the film – most often it is that of the lead character. The projection of his thoughts, when put on to the character of his film, allows him to experiment stylistically in a manner that would otherwise not be achieved. Behind such a consciousness, behind such a film, there is the other film, that the filmmaker had always intended to make even without the pretext of a character or a set of characters mirroring it. Antonioni’s The Passenger is the filmmaker’s depiction of how man is constantly trying to escape himself. Such an escape can be only temporary, according to the filmmaker, and this is depicted by the eventual death of David Locke. As Pasolini puts it,
‘The “cinema of poetry” is therefore in reality essentially based on the stylistic exercise as inspiration, which is, in the majority of cases, sincerely poetic.’vii
And where Antonioni’s film – The Passenger – is concerned, I am inclined to agree.
iAnna Powell, Deleuze, Altered States and Film, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007, p. 26
iiGilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galata, continuum, 2005, p.4
iiiDeleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-image, p.5
ivDeleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-image
vPier Paolo Pasolini, ‘The Cinema of Poetry’ in Bill Nichols (ed), Movies and Methods: Volume I, University of California Press, 1976
viPasolini, ‘The Cinema of Poetry’
viiPasolini, ‘The Cinema of Poetry’
Chaudhuri, Shohini and Howard Finn (2003), ‘The open image: poetic realism and the new Iranian cinema’. Screen, vol.44, no.1: pp. 38-57
Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time-image, translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galata, (continuum, 2005)
Pasolini, Pier Paolo, ‘The Cinema of Poetry’ in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods: Volume I, (University of California Press, 1976)