Half Light: Between Video & Cinema

[First published in Scan, Vol1, Australian Video Festival, Sydney, 1988 Notes.]

The desire inherent in research ushers from the seeker and, somehow suspended, doesn’t rest in the end it seeks but when the seeker and what is thought find each other in unity. St Augustine

Craven in memory, we seek the image’s reality. We stumble on the image of reality. Between the finite and the infinite… This infinity will end in metaphor attended by reality. You know the film can be made at the crossroads between metaphor and reality. Jean-Luc Godard in Scenario du film Passion

Only cinema, although born in the relative halflight of cafes, developed and established itself well away from daylight, admitted no light other than the one it gave off itself. Jean-Louis Comolli, “Notes on the New Spectator”

Better than any others, Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville have taught us what it means to think with images, sounds and other sensations that lie suspended between video and cinema. Since their first videographic ventures in the mid-seventies, they have unfolded a practice that is subsumed by neither film (the medium of cinema), nor video (the means of television).

Their first videos, Six fois deux. [Sur et sous la communication] (1976) and France/tour/detour/deux/enfants (1977-78), mark the transition (or point of no return) from an idea of writing with the camera to a notion of thinking with, against, over and under cinema. And this, as always, by any means possible.

These programs illuminate a world of collected interviews, documentary, and observation. This is video as extended television1. But more (and less) than that too. The first puts together six times two lessons on the impossibilities of communication, taught in the tough school of television. A bit of everything, as they say, lessons about things, thoughts on photography, analysis of work, instruction in words, conversations with people, assorted projections onto the everyday.

France/tour/detour/deux/enfants is more singular in its quasi-documentary pursuit of two school children. In this series we observe a growing sense of contrariety, a grating dialectic of the aural and visual material presented to the eye, to the ear, to the mind.

‘Despite evidence to the contrary’ a voice warns at one point, ‘the reporter is not asking real questions. Nor does the child give real answers. There are just changes in light.’ Godard has said elsewhere that his production company, Sonimage, is basically concerned with ‘throwing light on a situation to see it clearly’2.

Video is that most expedient means by which light can be collected together with sonic information. The manipulation and preservation of these intensities (closely akin to that process we might refer to as illumination) is also a materialist method of combining work, imagination and memory in a technological society.

Deposited in, and then drawn from a huge bank of electronic memory, such a practice reminds us of a more archaic notion, that cogitaire means to think or to collect ones thoughts. For in Latin the word cogo, means ‘I assemble’ or ‘I collect’3.

Much of Godard and Mieville’s readily available videowork has been made in the form of companion pieces to larger film projects. Scenario du film Passion (1982), Soft and Hard (1985), and Grandeur and Decadence (1986) are all somehow connected to the dawning of cinematic texts, Passion (1981), Je vous salue Marie (1983) and Detective (1984). More so than the others, Scenario demonstrates the essential function of video in elucidating and giving birth to a grand cinema of life and fiction. In viewing this tape, one witnesses the extraordinary genesis of a film, but not merely from the beginning of an idea to its culmination on the screen. Here we find a modification of the modernist contention that a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end, though, we are so often reminded, not necessarily in that order. Scenario works against chronological time, simultaneously drawing on material shot before, during and after the production of Passion. As Jean-Paul Fargier observes, Scenario ‘allows us to see live thought in the act of thinking itself . . . As at the dawn of creation. This is the dawn. This is video. Video is the name of the question that cinema asks when it discovers the infinite mobility of television.’4

It has been sad that to think is to speculate with images.5 Bellour speculates in relation to Thierry Kuntzel’s videos that ‘there are Images that bum’6. On yet another occasion, the Italian critic Giorgio Agamben noted that ‘the word thinking bears originally the meaning of anguish, of burning anxiety . . . The Latin verb pendere, from which the word is derived . . . means ‘to be suspended.’7 We could add to this here by noting that if there is an urgency in Godard and Mieville’s videowork, it lies in their ability to suspend sensible matter (images, sounds, etc) at that precise moment where one takes leave of a thought forever.

For this to be so, one must be able to see without words, to think without uttering a sound, to speak in a voice that was never written. It is no coincidence that Hitchcock, the cinema’s master of suspense, is also one of its greatest innovators. Each new technique that Hitchcock introduced to his repertoire further systemised his way of thinking the Cinema. Yet this ‘Enunciator’ is locked into ‘a principle of film as system and of desire as the logic of system’.8 One finds excess, but not the kind of excessive speculation and residue of pending thought that one finds in Godard and Mieville’s videowork.

The difference between Hitchcock and Godard/Mieville can be likened to the difference between cinema and video. One speaks, enunciates; the other takes leave of speech. In film and video, the image relates to the audience in a more absolute way than words, because words are the tools of the world of consciousness itself. Freud of The Ego and The Id says that ‘thinking in pictures . . . stands nearer to unconscious processes than does thinking in words’.9 At the cinema, one is surrounded by darkness, immersed in a theatre of myths, phantasies, transference, ecstacy, plunged in the desire to leave the everyday and to enter an imaginary dreamworld.

At the video monitor, the image opens out onto a half-lit space, no less a chamber of dreams, but of the kind where dreams are had in a semiconscious state. In the sixties Comolli overzealously complained that ‘misapprehension’ (i.e. malentendu) comes from the fact that modern cinema always has to pass through the dark (omission of the world, obliteration of art). What modern cinema needs is lighted theatres which, unlike darkness, neither absorb nor annihilate the clarity which comes from the screen, but on the contrary diffuse it, which bring both the film character and the spectator out of the shadows and set them face to face on an equal footing10. We need not go along with such suspicion of the modern cinema to be able to say that the mediums of film and video require different spatial and psychological viewing conditions. But more than this, Comolli’s challenge alerts us to a much more pressing fact to which Godard and Mieville return again and again.

If there are images that burn, it is because they emanate from the screen’s darkness and re-enter the action of the world, the invisible rendered visible.

To quote Comolli quoting Sternberg quoting Goethe, if video and cinema are to participate in and act upon life, we should ‘never tire of calling for more light’11

Endnotes

1. Six fois deux [Sure et sous la communication] was broadcast on French television in two parts, each comprising six 50minute sections; France/tour/detour/enfants consists of 12 half-hour programmes. 2. Cited in Colin McCabe, Godard: Images Sounds Politics, BFI, London, 1980, p140 3. St Augustine, Confessions, x, xi. 4. Jean-Paul Fargier, ‘The Hidden Side of the Moon’, in The Luminous Image, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1984, p43. 5. Giordano Bruno, 1591, cited in Ross Gibson in Edge to Edge, National Museum of Art, Osaka, 1988, p52. 6. Raymond Bellour, ‘The Burning Memory’, in The Luminous Image, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 1984, p130. 7. Giorgio Agamben, ‘The End of Thinking’ in Differentia, Vol1 No1, 1986, p57. 8. Raymond Bellour, ‘Hitchcock, the Enunciator’ in Camera Obscura 2, Fall 1977, p76. 9. Sigmund Freud, The Ego and The Id, Hogarth, London, 1974, p11. 10. Jean-Louis Comolli, ‘Notes on the New Spectator’ in Cahiers du Cinema 1960-1968: New Wave, New Cinema, Re-evaluating Hollywood, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1986, p214. 11. ibid, p214.