23 November, 2005

The Premature Old Age of the Cinema

By Antonin Artaud

People have tried to make a fundamental distinction, a kind of division of qualities between two or three kinds of cinema.

On the one hand, there is dramatic cinema, in which chance, that is, the unforeseen, that is, poetry, is in principle suppressed. Not a single detail which does not originate from an absolutely conscious choice of the mind, which is not established with a view to a specific and certain result. The poetry, if poetry there be, is of an intellectual order; only secondarily does it draw on the particular resonance of the objects of perception at the moment they enter into contact with the cinema.

On the other hand, there is documentary cinema, the last refuge of the partisans of cinema at any cost. Here, a preponderant role is assigned to the machine and to the spontaneous and direct development of the aspects of reality. The poetry of things considered in their most innocent aspect, and as they relate to the external, is given full play.

I want, for once, to talk about cinema in itself, to study it in its organic functioning, and to see how it behaves at the moment it enters into contact with the real.


The lens which pierces to the center of objects creates its own world and it may be that the cinema takes the place of the human eye, that it thinks for the eye, that it screens the world for the eye, and that by this work of concerted and mechanical elimination it allows only the best to remain. The best - that is, that which is worth retaining, those shreds of appearance which float on the surface of memory and whose residue seems to be automatically filtered by the lens. The lens classifies and digests life, it offers the sensibility, the soul, a nourishment that is ready-made, and presents us with a world that is finished and sterile. Moreover, it is not certain that, of what is worth recording, it really lets through only the most significant and the best. For it must be noted that its vision of the world is fragmentary, that however valuable the melody it manages to create among objects may be, this melody is, as it were, a two-edged sword.

On the one hand, it is subject to the arbitrariness, the internal laws of the machine with the fixed eye; on the other, it is the result of a particular human will, a precise will which has an arbitrariness of its own.

What can be said under these conditions is that insofar as the cinema is left alone in the presence of objects it imposes an order on them, an order which the eye recognizes as valid and which corresponds to certain external habits of the memory and the mind. The question that arises here is whether or not this order would continue to be valid if the cinema tried to carry the experiment further and offer us not only certain rhythms of habitual life as the eye or ear recognizes them, but those darker, slow-motion encounters with all that is concealed beneath things, the images - crushed, trampled, slackened, or dense - of all that swarms in the lower depths of the mind.

Although the cinema does not need a language, some kind of convention in order to connect us with objects, it nevertheless does not take the place of life; these are broken pieces of objects, cutouts of views, unfinished puzzles of things which it binds together forever. And this, whatever anyone thinks, is very important, for we must realize that it is an incomplete world which the cinema presents, and from a single remote point; and it is very fortunate that this world is forever fixed in its incompleteness; for if by some miracle the objects this photographed, this stratified on the screen, could move, one dares not think of the figure of nothingness, the gap in the world of appearances which they would manage to create. I mean that the form of a film is final and without appeal, and although it allows a sifting and a choice of images before it presents them, it forbids the action of those images to change or to transcend itself. This is incontestable. And no one can claim that a human gesture is ever perfect, that there exists no possible improvement in its action, in its influence, in its communication. The world of the cinema is a world that is dead, illusory, and fragmented. Apart from the fact that it does not contain things, that it does not enter the center of life, that it retains only the epidermis of forms and then only what can be included in a very limited visual angle, it rules out all repetition, which is one of the major conditions of magical power, of the rending of sensibility. Life cannot be remade. Living waves, inscribed in a number of vibrations that is forever fixed, are waves that are henceforth dead. The world of the cinema is a closed world, without relation to existence. Its poetry exists not on the other side but on this side of images. By the time it collides with the mind, its dissociative force has been broken. There has been poetry, to be sure, around the lens, but before the filtering by the lens, the recording on film.

Besides, since the talking film, the elucidations of speech arrest the unconscious and spontaneous poetry of images; the illustration and completion of the meaning of an image by speech show the limitations of the cinema. The so-called mechanical magic of a constant drone of images has not survived the onslaught of speech, which has made this mechanical magic appear as the result of a purely physiological surprise attack on the senses. We have quickly tired of the accidental beauties of the cinema. To have one's nerves more or less pleasantly massaged by abrupt and unusual cavalcades of images whose sequence and whose mechanical appearance eluded the laws and even the structure of thought may have delighted a few aesthetes of the obscure and the unexpressed who were seeking these sensations systematically but without ever being sure that they would appear. These elements of chance and of the unexpressed were part of the dark and subtle enchantment which the cinema exerted over certain minds. All this, in addition to a few other, more precise qualities which we all went there to find.

We knew that the most characteristic and the most striking virtues of the cinema were always, or almost always, the result of chance, that is, a kind of mystery whose fatality we never managed to explain.

In this fatality there was a kind of organic emotion in which the objective and steady buzz of the projector blended, even as it contrasted, with the amusing appearance of images as precise as they were unexpected. I am not talking about alterations in rhythm imposed on the appearance of objects from the real world, but life passing at its own rhythm. I believe that the humor of the cinema arises partly from this security regarding a background rhythm on which are superimposed (in comic films) all the fantasies of a movement that is more or less irregular and vehement. For the rest, apart from that sort of rationalization of life, whose waves and patterns, such as they are, have been emptied of their fullness, their density, their range, their interior frequency, by the arbitrariness of the machine, the cinema remains a fragmentary and, as I have said, stratified and frozen, conquest of reality. All fantasies concerning the use of slow motion or speeded-up are applied only to a world of vibrations which is closed and which does not have the faculty of enriching or nourishing itself from its own resources; the idiot world of images trapped as if in birdlime in a myriad of retinas will never live up to the image that some persons have managed to form of it.

Therefore, the poetry which can be distilled from all this is only a poetry of contingency, the poetry of what might be, and it is not to the cinema that we must look to restore the Myths of man and of the life of today.

(1933)

© Copyright 2005 Synthome Productions

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