Cinema, the spirit’s form

Cinema does not exist: it must be born or die. Now it is only a shadow in the limbs of the possible, a rag in the confusion among the accessories of the petticoat of the human mind. To come into existence it must find its place, its moment, its necessity in the future. It has not found its role yet and cannot obtain one within the actual form of our society: it has arrived prematurely in a world too old.

I am not a film “technician” but a “technician” of the essential, I would like to say essentially of the human spirit. From this point of view cinema constitutes an example of the strange imperfection of man’s powers. Applied science made an immense discovery then proved incapable of discovering the applications of its discovery – its specific object. Out of ignorance science has forced film to serve ridiculous ends. Like a child who invents dynamite and then eats it.

Unable to find cinema’s raison d’être until now man has not been able to gauge the importance of his invention.

To look into the obstacles which are opposed to the existence of cinema is precisely to put contemporary society, the modern spirit, and Western civilization on trial.

Cinema is exemplary when faced with the vanity of intellectuals who still believe that they are independent. This latest form of expression is, more markedly than any other, subject to the oppression of our social state.

Absolute dictatorship of capital: of onerous production, but an immediate source of profits, cinema is merely an industry (regime of competition and corporations) and as such the sole criteria to which it is subjected is the “benefits” that it can procure.

With nationalism come quotas and protectionism. With the hypocrisy of liberalism comes censure (so approved by most directors). With the imbecility of individualism comes the affected acting of actors, the megalomania of directors and the total absence of unity in their investigations. With the democratic spirit comes submission to the myth of the public, the excuse of all reactionary routines. Finally with imperialism come the fine roles of bludgeons to knock the masses senseless, the false rumour of patriotism and of the agent provocateur for the next war.

Slave to the economic regime, cinema like every other mode of expression by which the spirit finds itself having to make a sweet choice: freedom or death.

“Is cinema an art?” It is too obvious that this frequent and sinister question would have had to be answered unequivocally in the affirmative, so the cinema was miraculously and suddenly freed from all the material constraints which weigh upon it. Once again dedicated to death, helpless it was then handed over to the individual fantasies of men who have never understood that an actual artistic expression can only be justified if it responds to a specific need of the moment that it alone is able to satisfy. Handed over to the capitalist conception of art: disinterested (meaning useless) activity of the order of the day, and destined to serve as a distraction (after dinner) to elevate the mind (and consequently facilitate digestion) through the sense of the beautiful (?). And so cinema shares the same sad lot as poetry, painting and music.

More generally every intellectual attitude implied by our culture, our civilization, our beliefs and traditions is absolutely opposed to the existence of cinema (for example: the ravages of traditional psychology in most films). Clearly the cinema has nothing to do in this galley.

Since its invention until the present time all cinematic production amounts to nothing and comes to a dead-end. The only role of all this activity would seem to be to perfect and put the finishing touch on an instrument destined for a future use. Deprived of meaning and a raison d’être in the actual state of our society, fatally cinema will receive the life of the very becoming of the social state, which will succeed it.

All economic and social upheaval, every coming revolution could only realize, sooner or later, the synthesis of valuable tendencies that our past watches develop with regret. From this parallel revolution of human values in all domains a new culture must be born, another civilization based on a different system of knowledge.

Not having the space to demonstrate, I can only state that to the Marxist determinism of social evolution towards a communist state without class, family or religion corresponds an evolution of thought: to the degree that the dialectic mind will defeat mechanistic reason, the present scientific-religious phase will be succeeded by a phase of (non-idealist and non-materialistic) monistic thought. Anti-individualism and dialectic determinism will create a morality without responsibility, a new idea of man. The becoming of the spirit must realize the synthesis of discursive reason and the spirit of primitive participation. It is a good idea to first proceed with a dialectic reduction from religious fact to magical sociology and from the marvelous (alias “supernatural”) to the very nature of the human spirit.

Now, in this last investigation which is the very one that occupies us, cinema, due to its possibilities, has been forced to play an immense role.

By setting aside the discoveries, possible in the near future, of colour film and film in space (film-in-relief is a psychological error) which do not yet exist, we actually have at our disposal silent film on the one hand and talkies on the other: in other words mobile relations of forms, of surfaces of light and shadow and sound.

Furthermore, if the eye of the camera does not see lines in nature, we nevertheless have mobile relationships of lines and sounds thanks to animated films.

Cinegraphic vision is obtained by means of a succession of images that recreate movement with the illusion of life. For, in the most general sense, life is a rhythm, a succession, an alternation, a continual palpitation of being and non-being, of presence and absence, a pure breath in which the existence of inhalation follows the void of exhalation.

The vision of film is a rhythm, in other words a movement connected to absence, it constitutes the first condition that allows us to envisage the possible future of dialectic cinema, of cinema as a form of the spirit.

The evolution of forms of the spirit, the movement natural to the spirit, according to Hegel, is endowed with an indefinite perfectibility and can at the extreme aspire to an absolute solution because “the dialectic of nature is the same as that of our spirit.” The tree grows by syllogisms: the germination of the world is a growing plant. The idea only believes in finding its way in its negation like the Seed that Hegel defined thus: through the mediatory idea of exteriority, the basic structure of eternal cosmic becoming, the idea denies being itself to prove itself to itself in the form of nature.

Here is the sole but immense raison d’être of cinema: being the mediator between the spirit and nature, it can express in movement and in perceptible forms the becoming of the forms of the spirit. If man one day decides on this goal, cinema can become a means of expression of which the “invention” will be almost as important as those of language and writing, precisely the plastic language.

Thus cinema, as a means of research and experiences, will have become a mode of knowledge, an actual form of the spirit.

*  *  *

It is not only speculations on the nature of cinema that can give rise to conclusions, but also the mere watching of films which are, in our day, presented to the public.

It is necessary to note: why is cinema subjected to only the most insignificant and idiotic activities of the human mind like the novel or operetta? Why not choose as its goal, to the contrary, the highest expressions of the spirit, such as poetry and metaphysics in the particular sense that I use those two terms?

The answer is obvious: every intelligent attempt is rendered impossible by the economic constraints of our society.

But to the sole possibility all theory of such a use of cinema frequently raises this objection: the cow eye of the camera sees and registers the images in a crude and mechanical way, without choosing between them or capturing the qualities that the perception of the spirit grants them.

It is advisable to note especially that this reproach is not addressed to cinema proper but to photography. Nor does it apply to animated films. Photography is arbitrarily opposed to the “art of painting” with its harmonies and its pitiful spirit of decoration. In fact, this objection can only be usefully directed against the use of cinema for artistic and naturalistic ends that are of no real interest.

The truth is that the film-maker must choose his images not in nature but in a studio among the most diverse filmed tests, for it is obvious that the result of a shot, any shot, remains unpredictable.

Moreover, in film, the photography of an object as it is should only play a very limited role. In this role, the vision of the camera to which the human eye has become familiar for a long time now only serves to symbolize the impersonal, social, objective aspect of things to oppose it to the subjective vision of the film-maker. According to an alternating rhythm, the object appears as it is as seen through the lens, then as it is perceived by the human consciousness through the fog of states that transform it, the veil of tears or the synthetic light of inspiration, fear or charm.

Traditional psychology knew how to draw such effects from film: the faculty of attention illustrated by the angle of the shot and the close-ups – the associations of ideas by the dissolve – memory by superimpositions.

But only the psychology of states will make all possibilities of cinema destined for the visual representation of moving forms of the spirit.

The eye of the camera can become the eye of the spirit. For the movement of the spirit in relation to the movement of life, due to its variations of speed unknown to the senses and which allow consciousness to discover new rhythms.

Thanks to fast motion: the germination of a plant; the growth of a beard.

Thanks to slow motion: the movements of a dream; man flying; the flight of angels; the gestures of ghosts.

Thanks to the relativity of sizes on the screen: a dice or a cork advantageously replace the pyramids; a ball of cotton becomes a cloud in the sky.

Thanks to the deformations and games in space: the Himalayas in the bezel of a ring; a train circles a human head, the stagecoaches of the Far West and the swell of the sea on a sleeper’s pillow; a drama playing itself out in the black of a fingernail.

Thanks to the relativity of time and space on the screen allowing the juxtaposition of all images.

Also the eye of the camera can become the eye of the nightmare, the gaze of a sorcerer, the key to metamorphose and grasp the lyrical fact in its instantaneous becoming, the poetic metamorphosis in its essence: by means of a meticulous but simple technique (out-of-focus, dissolve and superimpositions), it can reproduce the mysterious paranoic transmutation that causes the mind to submit to the objects of which it suddenly discovers the secret hallucinatory horror; all the too lucid visions of delirium; the curtain that becomes a ghost; the crocodile that is drawn in the shape of a tree, becomes real, moves, then is reabsorbed back into the lines of wood, it remains a tree; the eye of the cloud, the faces of sky in the branches, the torn screaming fauna of the wind.

Lastly, when photography is unable to capture certain images of the spirit, across a very vast domain, then the role of animated film arises (alone or mixed with cinegraphic images). Perhaps even more than a humoristic value this mode of expression possesses a poetic value. It contains all the possibilities of moving lines and sounds.

The acoustic possibilities of cinema will appear when one has decided to investigate the specific role of sound subordinated to the unfurling of images: a great luminous cry, the modulations of the iridescence of water.

One cannot judge the cinema using a diction-of-cinema as none will be discovered.

Musical adaptations can only result in horribly artistic results. But, freed of music and language, cinema could bring together rhythms of movements and sounds (particularly those of primitive percussion instruments) capable of physiologically provoking collective states of exaltation, trances, etc.

*  *  *

The true role of the filmmaker should be, by means of these various techniques, to adapt the entire life of the spirit to the screen. From this point of view the forms of the spirit are of two kinds: on the one hand those that can be rendered directly perceptible under a visual and acoustic appearance, on the other hand, those that cannot.

In the first category belong par excellence phosphenes and dreams. In that case the filmmaker must confront the images that he is able to deep within himself and the various images that he projects onto the screen until the experience gives him the intuition of a closely approximate coincidence.

In an essay on Experimental Metaphysics [1] we have dealt with certain concept-limits, certain ecstatic intuitions that stand out in very particular states of consciousness and that are always indissolubly bound to the frenetic rhythm of the murmur of the blood and to the synchronous dance of geometric and coloured phosphenes. It would be of the greatest interest to know whether such states can be experimentally provoked by external projection, on a screen, in a dark hall, through this rhythm of visual images and sound. Such a spectacle, basically of the same nature as the magic ceremonies of primitive tribes, would allow experimental access to variations in states of consciousness.[2]

The projection of images of dreams or deliriums on the screen – outside of the services that it could provide Freudian psychoanalysis – would play a large role in the knowledge of primordial myths of humankind. Due to such objectified images subjected to the criteria of the collective disturbance that they would provoke, it might be possible to return to the deep sources of the spirit. It might be a means of research for the demonstration of the universality of the world of dreams, legends and mythologies. It might be a dream thrown into the subterranean abysses of man to reach the unknown gulf of geneses, to know the deep place where monsters and marvels lurk, matrix of African or Polynesian masks, Chinese dragons, demonic apparitions which haunted the Middle Ages, werewolves and vampires. In this way one could bring to the light of day the caverns of dazzling magic and the temples of sordid religions.

Certain processes, certain moving forms of the spirit cannot be directly reduced to visual or acoustic images. In such cases the filmmaker could however objectify them on the screen thanks to their Swedenborgian correspondences, or, according to phenomenological language, thanks to other images belonging to the same affective category. Here one must understand “affective category” in the sense of: principle of unity for the mind in different representations that affect it in the same manner; a generality that is not conceptual but felt; coloration, tonality common to certain representations that the subject immediately grasps as belonging to all those of the same category. Such a symbolism is the characteristic of primitive thought, but also of all poetic thought: everything is connected to everything else according to a network of mysterious forces of which man is, without knowing it most of the time, a centre of emission and reception. The knowledge of totemism (man bonds to the clan, the animal, the vegetable, the mineral) depends on such experiences.

Do these too brief indications give one a glimpse of what cinema could become if applied to the knowledge of man’s abysses, dialectical cinema, the cinema, form of the spirit?

*  *  *

Note: The only films that allow one not to regret the birth of film are scientific documentaries on:

1) The phenomena of crystallizations; the becoming of crystal;
2) The germination of a plant;
3) The metamorphoses of insects.

As well as the Soviet films intended for social and political propaganda.

If these films in their domains are valuable, is it not because they escape the material and spiritual obstacles that I mentioned and because they include the elements of what the cinema that I foresee should include?


Roger Gilbert-Lecomte
from Les Cahiers Jaunes, 
no. 4 (1933), spécial “Cinéma 33”
collected in Oeuvres complètes, I. Proses © Gallimard

[1] By Réné Daumal in Le Grand Jeu, no. 4

[2] It isn’t only a question of the genesis of the ciné-poem or cinemagic.
Above all it is an intervention that puts into play all the moral action of the twentieth century.
Logically, it will no doubt be necessary for the Soviet sun to dawn on that day.
Experimentally, I ask and I wait for Western Patronage to grant the means to realize.