Although my academic training did not include film studies, which back in the 50s and 60s was not a normal component of humanities programs, I spent a good part of my last two decades at UCLA teaching French cinema, and over the final ten years, I taught more film courses than anything else. My nominal specialty, the nineteenth century, despite its importance in French and world literary history, had gone out of style, if only because students perceived that there was more life, or in cruder terms, that jobs were more plentiful, in post-colonial studies (I taught French-African films too), the once secondary field that essentially took over UCLA’s Department of French and Francophone Studies—now about to be swallowed up in a European Language Department.
I will resist the temptation to tell how this came about, save to thank Janet Bergstrom, the professor of film studies who initiated me into the field of French film and helped make the last decades of my career so enjoyable.
Film is particularly agreeable to teach. Unlike books, movies are shown on a screen that the class shares with the instructor. (In my last years of teaching, I used this model wherever possible even in teaching literature, projecting poems and short stories, and even pages of longer works, on a screen rather than referring students to books they often didn’t bring, or didn’t open to the right page.) As I attempted to explain in my essay on “The Screenic” (in Mimetic Theory and Film, Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), this is a sign of the genre’s unique universality.
The now-ubiquitous screen was the invention of the cinema. For the first time, humans had devised a way to model an entire universe of sharable experience, given that odors and tastes are not normally considered shareable. A film was a “total” artwork in a way that no other could be.
No doubt the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk was a meaningful concept for the 19th century, and theater as well as opera sought throughout the century to bring more and more of the world onto the stage, in contrast to classical theater of either the Shakespearean or the Racinian variety. But even with horses and boats and casts of hundreds, the stage itself made theater incapable of creating an ontologically other world. The stage was still an altar, a center of attention “beyond” and yet within the real world, a locus of transcendence whose status depended, in the beginning, on circumstance—fear of the violent potential of the object of desire—and subsequently, on convention. Whereas the cinema screen, as its documentary beginnings with the Lumière brothers attest, was a transcendental “window” that could display images of the real world in a separate universe of human representation, to which the spectator could react with no need to accommodate the trappings of convention. Even before sound, seeing “reality” on screen was a radically new experience, one that we have continued to enrich ever since the first showings in 1895. Much early cinema of course imitated theatrical conventions, but it had already learned by the 1910s, and then again with sound by the mid-30s, to try to make us forget these conventions rather than comfort us with them.
The screenic universe was the first full-fledged duplication of the ontological otherness of the scene of representation, the scenic world of human culture, the “vertical” dimension added to the “horizontality” of the appetitive-inhibitive animal universe, now freed by its technological independence from the artifacts of worldly framing. Dare we speculate that without cinema’s revelation of this radical otherness, the originary hypothesis would not have been conceived?
To the extent that the human has a minimal distinctive feature, it is scenicity, the fundamental constituent of both language and religion, the basis of our constant, exclusively human conversion of perception into a scene. Artworks foreground this operation by cutting off the scene from the life-world, as in the hypothetical originary event. Scenicity constantly defers our field of experience/perception of the world, allowing it to be intended, thought about, on a mental scene of representation. Our untutored affinity for the screenic confirms this fundamental human attribute.
Scenicity is more fundamental than either the signs of language or the worship of the sacred/transcendental, because it is the causal element in both, imposing on human experience the deferral of animal instinct that perceives the world “horizontally.” Show me a bunch of chimpanzees, or even bonobos, walking around watching portable screens, and I will feel obliged to revise the originary hypothesis. In L’être et le néant, Sartre defines the human pour-soi by nothing more than the néant that separates the self from its object, in contrast with the en-soi that, in its absence, is so to speak all stuck together, making deferral, and consequently signs and intentions, impossible.
Young people today do a lot more with their screens than was conceivable in the era when they remained passive appliances populated only by a limited selection of contents. The cinema was a public place, but even the home television set was still the passive recipient of externally chosen programming, and the multiplication of channels only made the desire to choose “one’s own” content all the more frustrating.
Today there is a screenic culture that corresponds to a desire to be both spectator and creator of one’s own spectacle. Zuckerberg has made billions from realizing that most people don’t want a web page to publish their “ideas,” for which a tweet is usually enough, but are very much attracted to a screen-page on which to inscribe the details of their lives, pictures of meals and trips, of daily trivia, a “permanent” record of what is precious to them, as opposed to “culturally significant” material before which they can only stand in awe. For the young, even Facebook is not enough, and they constantly immortalize, scenicize themselves on YouTube and Instagram and Snapchat….
As a technological novelty, the cinema originally tempted the filmmaker simply to point the camera at whatever caught his attention. The Lumière films are 50-second works of art, but aside from a few comic sequences such as the famous arroseur arrosé, the “stories” they tell are framed only perfunctorily as narratives. Even Méliès’ fairy tales, however much we admire their ingenuity and comic verve, are not truly predictive of modern cinema. But just before the first World War, less than twenty years after film’s 1895 debut, “full-length” films emerged, with length and dramatic plots analogous to those of today. Pastrone’s 1914 Cabiria, over two hours long and complete with Etna eruption, can be considered the archetypal Movie, which all the screenic developments since then have only enriched.
One demonstration of the persistent health of cinema and of the culture it exemplifies is that in the large majority of cases, the genre successfully fulfills the social vocation of art to lead its audience, in the terms of these Chronicles, from resentment to love. Films like Jane Wants a Boyfriend, discussed at length in Chronicle 612, choose their subject matter in such a way as to avoid the political dimension of the victimary. I believe this is done less in a calculated attempt to sell tickets to conservative viewers than from an intuition of the esthetic failure of politically motivated art. When Hollywood politics undercuts this intuition, the results are all too predictable—the resentfully anti-white Get Out is one recent example, not to speak of the political satires of Michael Moore. But such films are thankfully far less numerous than the political views of the Hollywood community would lead us to predict.
It is something of a consolation for aging to realize that Jane, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, and all the other movies I admire were not made with an audience of 77-year-olds in mind. However estranged the new digital generation may seem from those who experienced life before the Internet and the cell phone, indeed, before the very idea of personal computing and of digital computing itself, we can appreciate quite a few of the same films. The human cannot be explained by biology alone, but our desires are rooted in biology and the cultural artifacts that satisfy them are as well.
Stories are made of signs, and signs are demonstrations of transcendental communal unity. The simplest way of describing our participation in stories is that they allow us relief from the need to maintain our attention on the flickering panorama of everyday life, with its unfocused sources of attention-demanding phenomena, by focusing it on a scene designed in advance to be worthy of our attention. And the screenic, by creating a clear ontological separation between the scenic and the real, allows us for the first time to reproduce the experiential texture of the actions we attend to and scenicize for ourselves in the real world, in an alternate universe whose every detail is the responsibility of a human author. Given the complexity of cinema production, this person cannot be unambiguously identified as a single individual, but at least since the New Wave, we generally identify him with the director, whose title suggests—as in the days of the “studio system” was not always the case—that it is he who has the last word.
The Movie, as opposed to the lesser categories of short films, videos, and vlogs, has remained for over a century our dominant screenic source of esthetic satisfaction. Is this destined to change? I am skeptical about the esthetic possibilities of the nascent technology of Virtual Reality, given that the participant, free to observe in 360 degrees what is no longer a scene but a world, is no longer merely a spectator, but has become responsible for making “his own film.”
A human gesture or sound would not constitute a sign of language, as opposed to an animal signal, unless it were emitted within the néant that separates the scene from its spectators, the locus of presence which is necessarily bounded by absence. This is the demonstration, implicit in all the arts, but made explicit by the screen’s extraworldly doubling of the scene, that the scene of representation, as the basis of culture and humanity, is anterior to the signs of language, which it so to speak calls forth as the characteristically human response to the scenic world. The human begins in the space of deferred action between the spectators and the sacred object, a néant across which individual perception would lose itself without a shared communal sign to assure the perceivers that they all share the same perception of it.
At the origin, the scene was created out of worldly materials, whether or not, as in the scenario of the originary hypothesis, in the space between a group of hunters and their prey that they no longer knew instinctively how to divide up, but in any case, in a moment of common perception that turns back upon itself as not providing appropriate guidance for instinctive action. A paradoxical state, as Pavlov put it, but one in which the creatures are able to progress beyond the pathological frustration of the experimenter’s dogs by using it as a space of non-instinctual communication.
What the screenic shows us more clearly than all the altars and stages that preceded it is the transcendental dimension of this space, its ontological separation from the world of its participants—and as a consequence, its neutrality. Nothing is more terribly neutral than a blank screen, the white screen of the cinema still less so than the dormant electronic screen of a computer or cell phone, whose sacred content we await as if in an allegory of the birth of humanity.
What this suggests is that the tension our first human ancestors must have experienced in the first instant of deferral, between grasping for the object of the hunt and signing their renunciation, when the space separating them from the sacred central object was impenetrable, the object full of meaning, and the threat of violence omnipresent, the life-anxiety we have ever since mitigated by means of solemn rites and in daily life with artworks, has been for over a century allayed most successfully by the experience of watching a movie. Perhaps this is as close as we can come to an intuitive grasp of the originary scene of human culture.