I recently finished Stanley Cavell’s 1971 book of film philosophy, “The World Viewed” (with a long addendum from 1979.)

The book is a mixed bag. Many of Cavell’s readings are thoughtful and sharp. On the other hand his take on one film I know well, “Rosemary’s Baby,” is so misguided as to be actually offensive. (He claims that the film is about Rosemary’s husband’s impotence rather than about Rosemary’s rape, and then muses on the exact nature of Rosemary’s sin, which he determines has something to do with the fact that “Rosemary does not allow her husband to penetrate her dreams, allow him to be her devil, and give him his due.” Which I suppose is a roundabout way of saying that her sin is that she was insufficiently accommodating and so her husband had to rape her, or let the devil do it for him. Cavell also seems to believe that the movie is about motherhood, when it’s rather clearly about pregnancy. His inability to tell the difference is of a piece with a consistent incapacity to imagine that somewhere, somehow, the audience for some movie or other might include women. In any case, when you are more misogynist than Roman Polanski, you are in serious trouble. )

Where was I?

Oh right.

So some downsides. But on the other hand there’s lots of interesting theoretical material. Cavell’s book is fascinated with the relationship between film and reality. For him, the most salient fact about film is the manner in which it technologically, automatically, produces a reproduction or an image of the world that is neither a reproduction nor an image. Film is the world itself, though a world from which we (the audience) are exiled; we can watch but not interfere. Cavell therefore sees film as directly confronting Western philosophical skepticism — the Cartesian fear that we’re trapped in our minds with no way to perceive or access reality — or, indeed, the fear that our minds are all there is, and there is no reality to access. The loss of objective reality is also the death of God, and in embodying that absence, film replaces religion.

A world complete without me which is present to me is the world of my immortality. This is an importance of film — and a danger. It takes my life as my haunting of the world, either because I left it unloved (the Flying Dutchman) or because I left unfinished business (Hamlet). So there is reason for me to want the camera to deny the coherence of the world, it’s coherence as past: to deny that the world is complete without me. But there is equal reason to want it affirmed that the world is coherent without me. That is essential to what I want of immortality: nature’s survival of me. It will mean that the present judgment upon me is not yet the last.

So for Cavell, the fact that what film shows is reality itself, not a representation of reality, is vital. He emphasizes this, for example, in his comparison of photography (which is linked for him to film) and painting.

Let us notice the specific sense in which photographs are of the world, of reality as a whole. You can always ask, pointing to an object in a photograph — a building say — what lies behind it, totally obscured by it. This only accidentally makes sense when asked of an object in a painting. You can always ask, of an area photographed, what lies adjacent to that area, beyond the frame. This generally makes no sense asked of a painting. You can ask these questions of objects in photographs because they have answers in reality. The world of a painting is not continuous with the world of its frame; at its frame, a world finds its limits. A painting is a world; a photograph is of the world. What happens in a photograph is that it comes to an end. A photograph is cropped, not necessarily by a paper cutter or by masking but by the camera itself. The camera crops it by predetermining the amount of view it will accept; cutting, masking, enlarging, predetermine the amount after the fact…. The camera, being finite, crops a portion from an indefinitely larger field; continuous portions of that field could be included in the photograph in fact taken; in principle it could all be taken. Hence objects in photographs that run past the edge do not feel cut; they are aimed at, shot, stopped live. When a photograph is cropped, the rest of the world is cut out. The implied presence of the rest of the world, and its explicit rejection, are as essential in the experience of a photograph as what it explicitly presents. A camera is an opening in a box: that is the best emblem of the fact that a camera holding on an object is holding the rest of the world away. The camera has been praised for extending the senses; it may, as the world goes, deserve more praise for confining them, leaving room for thought.

Cavell later, interestingly, suggests that abstract paintings are, in their cropping, more like photographs than like traditional paintings. His reasoning is that in abstract paintings the cropping, as in photographs, is arbitrary. The image is confined rather than finished, which is an acknowledgement of a broader reality.

As it happens, this is exactly my experience of Mondrian’s pantings. The blank grids arbitrarily cut off at the edges — whenever I look at his work I get this very creepy sensation that the image is not a frame but a window onto a infinite flat landscape of colors and lines and squares. The fact that the pattern is individualized — that you can see the mark of Mondrian’s hand, the wavering of the lines — makes it somehow more chilling. This isn’t just a computer-spawned iterating piece of graph paper; someone has created this and gone on creating it, past the edges of the canvas and on and on forever. It has the solidity of its imperfection and the conviction of its arbitrary limitation. The world is a endless field of markings created by an intelligence I don’t understand for a purpose that eludes me. As Cavell suggests of film, when I look at a Mondrian I am a ghost looking into a box.

The thing is though…I get this sense of a world without me far more strongly from looking at Mondrian than I do from looking at photographs or films. Indeed, some photographs can give you almost the opposite sensation:

That’s “Milk” by Jeff Wall from 1984 — and like Wall’s photos in general it’s rigorously, even ostentatiously, composed. The edge of the image cuts the wall off with such perpendicular precision that it seems impossible that it could extend beyond the frame; the bricks are so flawlessly horizontal, the wall so perfectly flat, that they seem unreal — a stage set. Even the erupting, splashing milk seems like a trick, a too neat mess against the too rigid pose of the seated man. The image doesn’t seem of the world. It seems like a world in itself, one with its own absolute boundaries and it own frozen logic. The brick, the milk, the man, the bit of the rest of the house that’s visible; this isn’t a segment of existence. This is the whole enchilada. The artist could almost have set out to deliberately parody Cavell. You want reality? Here. Talk to the wall.

Tarkovsky (who I discussed recently here) is less ironic and more elgaic, but “Solaris” also uses the screen’s boundary as a boundary. In this film, what’s outside the screen is not infinity, but nothing. If what you see in a given frame of “Solaris” is arbitrary, that’s not because the screen shows a segment of reality, but because it shows a segment of a mind. Cavell argues strongly that films are not dreams…but Tarkovsky in the sequence below argues even more forcefully that they can be.

This final segment of the film, where the camera pulls back and back, revealing that the idyllic country home is a projection, a construct in the middle of an ocean in the middle of fog in the middle of white seems to insist that film is not “the world itself”, except insofar as the world itself is inside us. If we are exiled from the world of “Solaris”, it’s because it’s an individual vision, not because it’s reality. And if Tarkovsky suggests that in part reality is individual vision, that our dreams contain us, then that insight seems directly opposed to Cavell’s notion of film’s ontology. Cavell says you can always ask what lies beyond the borders of a photograph (or a film); Tarkovsky responds that what’s beyond is a mist, a blank — the dream of nothing that’s the edge of your dream. Film for Tarkovsky isn’t a way to become insubstantial and so pass through the bars of the Western philosophical prison. Rather film (or at least “Solaris”) is a lyrical assertion that the same ghostly prison is waiting for us across time and across space. Wherever you go, there you aren’t.

Unless you’re Hiroshige and you go to Edo.

The image above is from Hiroshige’s 100 Views of Edo. To me, this print seems to do precisely what Cavell says traditional paintings (or presumably drawings) don’t. That is, even more definitively than the Mondrian, it insists that existence does not stop at its borders. That ass up there is attached to a horse. Indeed, the perspective here demands not only that you go broad, but that you go deep. The place from whence came the poop is as real as the horse head, though you can’t see either. The border here cuts a segment of the world both from what’s around it and what’s inside it. Hiroshige’s ontology crawls up into everywhere.

Cavell seems at some points to argue that hidden depths such as this aren’t really possible in painting; that they’re the exclusive purview of film.

In paintings and in the theater, clothes reveal a person’s character and his station, also his body and its attitudes. The clothes are the body, as the expression is the face. In movies, clothes conceal; hence they conceal something separate from them; the something is therefore empirically there to be unconcelaed. A woman in a movie is dressed (as she is, when she is, in reality), hence potentially undressed…. A nude is a fine enough thing in itslef, and no reason is required to explain nakedness…. But to be undressed is something else, and it does require a reason; in seeing a film of a desirable woman we are looking for a reason. When to this we join our ontological status — invisibility — it is inevitable that we should expect to find a reason, to be around when a reason and an occasion present themselves, no matter how consistently our expectancy is frustrated.

For Cavell, then, the prurient expectation/anticipation of a woman’s nudity is based upon the ontological reality of film and the invisibility of the viewer. These conditions are not present in painting nor in theater.

It’s a provocative insight (as it were) — the only difficulty being that it seems to fairly clearly be nonsense. I like the way that Cavell mentions theater quickly in that first sentence and then skips lightly past it, presumably so that he doesn’t have to deal with the fact that, if you follow his logic, he appears to be arguing that theater actors are physically incapable of taking off their clothes.

For that matter, even painting isn’t above the occasional tease.

That’s called “The Fur,” which I find it difficult to believe is not a double entendre. The reality of that painting is exactly what you’re thinking the reality of that painting is. If Cavell doesn’t want to look under there, that may have something to do with his subjective sense of modesty or his subjective preference, but it’s got fuck all to do with objective ontology.

Still, Cavell does have an interesting point, though not exactly the one he intends. Specifically, Cavell in the passage above is, it seems to me, blurring the line between ontology and narrative. The fact that there is nudity beneath the clothes and the fact that those of us with a prurient interest in the female body “expect” to see that nudity — that’s a desire for narrative payoff, or climax. Cavell in his book deals entirely with narrative film; perhaps for that reason, he fails to take into account the extent to which reality is not established solely by mechanical means (the film process), but also by the engine of sequence. The reality of (narrative) film from which we are excluded is a narrative reality; it is not just narrative because it is real, but real because it is narrative.

And that narrative, it seems to me, does not exist solely in film. The Rubens painting above — is the extrapolation in which the drapery falls less present because the model will never actually move? Or does her eternal, level gaze make her more real? A painting crops a moment from that moment’s past and present just as a photograph crops a space from the photograph’s surroundings. The narrative of the woman in the picture is not less real because we do not know what happened in the next instant. On the contrary, her reality and her story is validated by what is left out. We know she has a story precisely because we see only the moment Reubens captured, just as for Cavell we know film is a world because we see only the bit of it that the camera shows. By Cavell’s logic, painting — in cutting out more — is actually better at being film than film is.

Which brings us back to Hiroshige.

In showing us disparate scenes, and disparate moments, of Edo, Hiroshige surely makes it more actual, more solid, than it could be if the city served merely as the background for a story — or even perhaps than it would be if it were filmed. That ontological solidity comes about in large part precisely because Hiroshige’s Edo is not solid; it is not one thing. Instead, it is glimpses, perspectives — the sum total of an infinite number of individual views.

Nor are these views necessarily our views.

Who is seeing this? Even a modern day film would be hard-pressed to get that shot without special effects. What Hiroshige presents here is a God’s-eye view — but the fact that this is an impossible vision does not make it unreal. On the contrary, it suggests more definitively that Edo is real — that the infinite subjective views are not tied to human subjectivity. Hiroshige’s Edo is, in fact, more real than any view of Edo we could see by ourselves; the parts are not necessarily greater than the whole, but they suggest the whole more fully than any parts we can see. I am exiled from the real Edo…and it’s my exile that tells me that Edo is real. That’s why, perhaps, even God does not see the entire bird.

I think something similar is happening with Blaise Larmee’s “Magic Forest.”

I have to admit, I don’t love this piece. It seems to replicate the current contemporary art zeitgeist’s default feyness without much visual oomph of its own. The images remind me uncomfortably of those cute John Lennon characters that adorn children’s bibs or placemats, but blurred out so as to seem more profound.

But while I’m not so into the execution here, the concept is intriguing. Derik Badman gets at this in a recent post in which he discusses the ways in which Larmee works with and against abstraction:

The wonderful atmosphere of Larmee’s page is partially generated through this non-narrative descriptive place. The appellation of “magic” to the “forest” modulates my reading of the imagery. The images are in some way otherworldly. Their abstract qualities, for instance the ovoid shapes that appear in panels one, three, and six, are integrated into this conception of a place that is elsewhere, potentially unreal. Where the marks stray from clear representation, this unreality is introduced. In panel four a dark shape hovers next to the head of the rear deer(?), like some kind of specter. It could be just a compositional shape, but once I start reading, it takes on this other life.

As Derik says, the place shown here is “elsewhere, potentially unreal.” But I’d argue that it is also potentially real; the title “Magic Forest” could be seen as (gently) ironic. Each panel shows us a glimpse of a world, a cropped instant from…not Edo, obviously, but somewhere. These are scenes from a reality, and who’s to say it isn’t ours? In his discussion of modernist painting, Cavell quotes Wittgenstein, “Not how the world is, but that it is, is the Mystical.” Cavell then goes on to say, “however we may choose to parcel or not to parcel nature among ourselves, nature is held — we are held by it — only in common….It reasserts that, in whatever locale I find myslef, I am to locate myself.”

Whatever locale Blaise shows is shown only in glimpses. There’s nowhere you can stand to see all of reality; what you see of it is partial. The existence of objectivity is guaranteed by the fact that you only see it subjectively. Cavell — in his focus on the unified view of narrative film — sometimes forgets this. That’s why, I think, he can claim a special ontological status for movies and, almost by accident, for male viewers. Larmee knows better. There’s no one place from which to look at the forest. That’s how you know it’s there.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,