About Refractive Cinema: When Films Interrogate Films

By Timothy Corrigan

The following is an excerpt from Timothy Corrigan’s book The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker, forthcoming from Oxford University Press in August 2011. It is published here by permission.

Art about art-or better put, art through art–is a tradition as long as artistic and literary history itself, extending back through many centuries of literature and visual representation and forward into film history, from well before John Keats’s ode on an urn to well after Buster Keaton’s comedies about a film projectionist and cameraman.[i] Like its forerunners, film’s versions of this reflexivity both create and participate in their own aesthetic principles, overlapping their representations of other artistic and aesthetic experiences with their own cinematic processes and frequently reflecting those processes as a reflection on film itself. This particular kind of reflexivity commonly appears within narrative fiction films, such as Godard’s Contempt (1963) or Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), the first a darkly ironic story of cinematic adaptation weaving multi-layered issues about fidelity and the second a wry, bitter comedy about contemporary film production. As often, however, this tradition has eschewed narrative fiction and instead followed the practices of literary essays that address and evaluate art and literature as critical engagements outside rather than inside the aesthetic tropes and positions that are their subjects.[ii] Often these essay films encounter other artistic forms, as in Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini’s look at underground cartoonist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor (2003), where the artistic object, figure, or practice being documented becomes a vehicle to reflect on the film medium itself. Just as often, however, these films address films themselves, either by focusing on the figure of the filmmaker or some other dimension of the cinematic process, such as the history of cinema or a specific technology. In these reenactments of the cinematic, the best of these films about art and film do not simply describe or document filmic or other aesthetic practices but specifically engage them within an essayistic arena that abstracts the very activity of thinking as a cinematic process. These particular kinds of essay films are not, I would insist, simply films that incorporate metaphors of the cinematic as part of a narration about, for instance, human love and loss, but are films that enact and disperse the critical act of thinking cinematically itself.

Even a cursory list of these films is fairly overwhelming in the range and kinds of the topics they cover and how they represent them. Films that reflect on art, literature, or other artistic practices as oblique engagements with cinematic practice would include, to name only a few well-known examples: Resnais’s Van Gogh (1948), Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (1956), Peter Watkins’s Edvard Munch (1974), Welles’s Filming “Othello” (1978) and F for Fake (1975), Ruiz’s Hypothesis on a Stolen Painting  (1979), Francois Girard’s Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993), Sally Potter’s The Tango Lesson (1997), Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2003), and Banksy’s Exit through the Gift Shop (2010). Those films that engage in a more ostensibly direct relationship with another film or filmmaker include the traditional films about the making of a film, such as Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper’s account of the production of Apocalypse Now (1979) in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) or Burden of Dreams (1982), which documents the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982). More complex and essayistic versions of these films about films are not as common but are increasingly visible in contemporary film culture: Wender’s Tokyo-Ga (1985), Varda’s Jacquot de Nantes (2001), Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), Five Dedicated to Ozu (2004) and Ten on 10 (2004), Marker’s One Day in the Life of Andrei Arsenevich (1999), Lars Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions (2004), and Takeshi Kitano’s Glory to the Filmmaker (2007). This type of essay film might even occasionally aspire to theoretical debates as in Sophie Fiennes and Slavoj Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to the Cinema (2006) or Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema (1997-1998) with its emblematic motif that cinema is “a form that thinks and thought that forms.”

As an intensified version of those more wide-ranging films about art and literature, essay films about films distill, I want to argue, the fundamental inadequacy and triumph of the essayistic, asserting that, even in the experience of the essay film “as like” an aesthetic experience, its essential aim is anti-aesthetic, in a way that aims to return the film to the world and ideas about the world.[iii] Unlike reflexive narrative fiction films, these essay films depend on the force and pressure of a presumed public experience or, more precisely I think, a public circulation of experience that troubles and comments on the aesthetic experience and the subjectivity that articulates it. This does not mean that essay films about art and film necessitate a documentary style or format, as Potter’s Tango Lesson makes clear in its deft manner of fictionalizing and personalizing the director-protagonist’s relationship with the famed dancer Pablo Veron. Yet, even as partly or wholly fictionalized dramas, these films turn away from the structures of narrative and fictive identification and turn to questions of aesthetic value and judgment within other semantic contexts of public experience, such as economics, politics, technology, reception, or cultural and historical differences. Rather than mimic aesthetic terms and questions, they refract and deflect them. Rather than acting as artistic commentaries, what I will call refractive cinema reenacts art as open-ended criticism.[iv] If Marker’s films, notably his 1958 Letter from Siberia, stand out so monumentally in the early history of the essay film tradition and so broadly and intricately represent many of the strategies and subjects of this practice, his 1993 film The Last Bolshevick and its meditation on Russian filmmaker Aleksandr Medvedkin turns that essayistic look onto film itself where, as the commentator of that film notes, “my work is to question images.”

An enigmatic example of refractive cinema, Raoul Ruiz’s Hypothesis on a Stolen Painting (1978) concentrates and ironizes many of its terms. Presented like a somber, tongue-in-cheek parody of an essayistic precedent, the academic lecture, the film is an aesthetic puzzle, presented across a series of seven paintings by a nineteenth-century painter, Frederic Tonnerre—with only six of the paintings available since the fourth has hypothetically been stolen. As an exaggerated version of the dialogic structure of the essay, the film employs an insistent direct address that jars, redirects, irritates, and confuses. At times addressing the film’s spectator and at times testily in conversation with an unseen “Commentator,” a “Collector” acts as the focal point of a wandering and wryly tormented subjectivity, wandering through gloomy rooms and shabby passageways of a large mansion located off a Parisian street, discussing the paintings and elusive meanings they both offer and hide.

Across this quest and inquest, Hypothesis is about hermeneutics, about discovering a meaningful link between art and the world, and implicitly about film as a heuristic medium–all frustrated by a figurative aesthetic gap, the missing painting, that might provide a critical link in the investigation. The quest for the significance of the missing painting (which may or may not even have existed) as the missing link in a photogramatic series of paintings involves five registers of images within the film, each suggesting different analytical dimensions of film form: the paintings themselves as two-dimensional representations, the tableaux-vivants reenactments of the paintings by actors who give the images three-dimensional depth, the movement within those otherwise motionless reenactments as the actors change scenes or accidentally shift their positions, the movement of the camera frame around these representations, and finally, the stick figures that the Collector retrieves from his desk drawer to recreate abstract re-arrangements of the figure positions in the paintings. That the series of seven paintings approximates a series of film shots, scenes, or even photograms underlines the apparently reflexive relation between the subject of the film and the film itself, exacerbated and complicated further by the difficulty—for the collector, the commentator, and viewer—of finding continuity or connections to link this montage of painterly images.

The chief hermeneutical path here is visual or, more precisely, the effort to follow sight lines and lighting directions to discover explanatory links that bind the images as a movement of meaning. The film thus takes the form of an investigation into not simply the meaning and history of the paintings but into the mechanisms for understanding and judging these paintings, becoming a kind of debate and trial conducted by the Commentator and Collector with the film’s viewers who are situated as an aesthetic jury. Indicative is an early sequence of two scenes that begins when the Collector looks, with binoculars, through an open window at a tableaux vivant of the first painting in the garden below. Alongside the actors playing the mythical Acteon and Diane, what he sees is a third figure (there “simply to watch the watcher”) who holds a mirror reflecting the sun’s ray into a basement room. When Collector follows that ray, he discovers another tableaux vivant where two Templars from the Crusades play chess, a page “with a secret smile” sits in the foreground, and another crusader in the background who “interrupts” the scene of this second painting. The refracted ray of the sun directed from the garden through the window now becomes identified as the paradoxical second source of sunlight witnessed earlier in the painting, opposite the sunlight from another window and responsible for the “theatrical composition” of this new image and painting. The Commentator argues that the “the narrative element, the arrangement of objects, and even the object of the character’s point of view” are the way to understand the scene, but then claims that it may be the refraction of light as a movement resembling the curve of a crescent that holds the real meaning of the images and that connects this painting to the others: “Perhaps one may now venture the hypothesis of a group of paintings whose interconnection is ensured by a play of mirrors,” he says, whereby “one might see the painter’s oeuvre as a reflection on the art of reproduction.”  But even this interpretation becomes unsustainable for the Collector who retorts “Absolutely not! That is not the way to look at this painting. . . Or we shall become ensnared in the trap set for us.”

To avoid that heuristic trap means to continually suspend and refract the temptation of interpretive judgment. Both the Collector and Commentator pursue the lure of  numerous critical entryways, ranging from mathematical and narrative analyses of the images to allegorical and historical readings of myths, including references to a roman a clef published at the time. Yet, the continual movement across and through the staged images, alternately lost in chiaroscuro shades or redirected by specific highlighting, discovers only elusive lines of light, thinking, and meaning, refractive eye-line matches played out through a chain of mirrors, the curve of gestures, and an unresolved argument about images about images or images about the secrets of a world. As the Collector remarks about one scenario for which he offers an elegant reading about the gestures of “the characters slowly completing a circle”: “what we have here are really curves which form circles of unequal diameter if completed by imagination. And these circles may be classified roughly in three groups” forming spheres “which we can imagine as combined or not but which still evoke spheres” since “any movement effected by a human being leaves an imaginary trace comparable to a sphere.”

Both the composition and course of this film is then to refract and destabilize a point of view, within the framework of the cinematic movement, redirecting it outside itself towards a field demarcated as “scandal.” What specifically motivates the visual and hermeneutical movement of the film is, that is, a scandal which the film at times associates with, first, a “scandalous painting rejected by the Salon in 1887” and, second, through the analysis of the paintings, certain sexual missteps and hostilities in an aristocratic family, their connection with a secret society as ancient as the Crusades, and possibly that society’s murderous “Ceremony of the androgyny” whose figurehead is “Baphomet, an androgynous demon, the principle of non-definition.”[v] Indeed, more than those vague and wry speculations about the meaning of the paintings that drift through the Collector’s analyses (in fact collecting all those speculations), this fundamental principle of “non-definition” locates, like the missing painting, the central truth of this essayistic investigation as unlocatable. Here thinking through the aesthetic becomes not about establishing a definitive meaning or truth but about the ceremonial experience of non-definition as metaphorically figured in Baphomet, not about recognizing meaning but about recognizing a forum for thinking about meaning. “What a terrible revelation,” the Collector remarks, “The paintings did not allude, they showed. The paintings were The Ceremony.”

Viewers are positioned here as critical jurors of the paintings and by extensions of the scandal; in the end, however, these viewer-jurors are left only with gaps and a clutter of tableaux scattered through an abandoned mansion. In the last sequence, an exhausted collector sits meditating at his desk, doubting his own interpretive powers and reminding us that these are just some fragmentary “ideas” that the paintings have inspired. He returns to the fifth register of images (or in fact a sixth) in the film as he removes photos of the plastic stick figures from the desk drawer, and his own unsettled rhetoric identifies, perhaps, that elusive and self-annihilating flow which is thinking about art:  “All that these painting represent is the ceremony whose solemn expression signifies the mutual annihilation of the celebrants . . .  no, I don’t think so…And yet I know that something will be retained. The paintings are beginning to fade …. The paintings vanish, so that all that remains is the isolated gestures.” Or, as Ruiz notes about the larger play between hermeneutics and meaning, “Every time that a general theory . . .  is elaborated I have the impression that. . . there is a painting stolen, a part of the story or puzzle missing. The final explanation is no more than a conventional means of tying together all the paintings. It’s like the horizon: once you reach it, there is still the horizon” (Elsaessaer, “Raoul Ruiz’s L’Hypthesis du Tableau Vole”  254). As “the collector courteously shows us the door,” returning us to the opening shot of an empty Parisian side street lined with cars, the hermetic and hermeneutical investigations of the inside return to the vanishing points of the outside where essayistic thought eventually resides.

[i] Paisley Livingston has coined the term “nested art” to describe this widespread practice in various aesthetic realms.

[ii] During the first half of the twentieth century, films about art and artists, about painting or music, or even films about films normally become, for the most part, narrative commentaries, incorporating aesthetic figures into plots about individual encounters and development in order to supplement the original figure, text, or discourse as a primary referent. From biopics about artists to avant-garde blendings of different artistic experiences, the aesthetic tends to function mainly as a vehicle or background for subjective development, rather than as an experience that productively resists subjectivity.

[iii] I’m using this phrase “anti-aesthetic” in a much more specific way than the way it ranges through Hal Foster’s important collection The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodernism. However, just as the essayistic engages, for Lyotard and others, some of the fundamentals of postmodernism, my use of “anti-aesthetic” does overlap some of the arguments in Foster’s volume.

[iv] In a work that does bear on some of my argument here, John Mullarkey’s Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image employs the idea and figure of refraction in broadly philosophical and expansive way to discuss how all films “think” and in turn refract as many different kinds of critical engagments: “Cinematic thought or philosophy,” he writes, “is never about reflection . . . but about resistant refraction, a freedom that resists definitions of essence” (190).

[v] Inspired by the novelist and theorist, Pierre Klossowski, the film was originally intended to a documentary profile of Klossowski for French television and was influenced by Klossowski’s final novel La Baphomet.

Timothy Corrigan is Professor of Cinema Studies, English, and History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of New German Film and A Cinema without Walls and an editor of Critical Visions in Film Theory.

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