Halfway through Cinema and Experience, Miriam Bratu Hansen quotes László Moholy-Nagy’s comment: “It is not the person ignorant of writing but the one ignorant of photography who will be the illiterate of the future.” (p.134) Hansen’s book, with seventy pages of references, and only occasional comments on films themselves, could be seen from this particular angle as a work of illiteracy. As she gives an immensely detailed account of the filmic writings of Kracauer, Benjamin and Adorno, Hansen is clearly very familiar with the material, but this is a work made in the library rather than in the cinema auditorium, a sort of nine to five tome sitting on top of the numerous works read in a hushed environment.
Once we accept this we can also acknowledge that Hansen is a very safe pair of theoretical hands. This is evident not only in the work of the three writers she concentrates on and whose German language she shares; it is also clearly present in the numerous parenthetical asides, leaving us in no doubt that she knows the modern theoretical field. This is evident when she makes certain parenthetical remarks: “(to invoke Roland Barthes)” (p.107), “(later famously analysed by Lacan)” (p.51) “(as synthesised by Gustave Le Bon)” (p.49). Yet the book is most alive when acknowledging the cinematically speculative and offering a context that can help give credence to ideas that might seem too vague in their original form. Walter Benjamin is the brilliantly suggestive thinker, here, and Hansen for all her own concreteness, shows great feeling for Benjamin’s flighty thoughts. When Benjamin insists on the aura in all things and not only certain things (as the Theosophists claimed) Hansen says “against an ontological use of aura, Benjamin emphasises its unstable, metamorphic, and relational character, that is, its dependence on particular constellations and acts of reading and interpretation.” (p.119)
Now, aura is a key notion in Benjamin’s work, and though not easy to grasp as an explicable concept, has immense usefulness for cinema. Benjamin of course utilises it centrally in “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility”. Here he notes that cinema is without aura because it lacks an original: unlike the painting or sculpture there is no source work that possesses the aura that is then diluted by reproductions. Benjamin’s argument, and Hansen’s commentary, is very subtly worked through, but as Gilberto Perez suggests in The Material Ghost, “the photographic image has its own kind of aura – the aura of the remnant, of a relic – stemming from the uniqueness, the original particularity, not of the picture but of the referent.” (1) How, we might ask, do filmmakers give an aura to a medium that ostensibly does not possess it?
Hansen instead tries to explain the term as best she can, borrowing from Greek, Latin and German to help her along the way. There is the Belehnung “or endowment of the natural object, with ‘the ability to look back at us’” from the German. Referring to the Ancients, she notes, that “true to the etymological connotation of the word aura (Greek and Latin for “breath, “breeze”, a subtle, fleeting waft of air, and atmospheric substance”), “one need only cursorily recall the biblical and mystical connotations of breath and breathing to understand that this mode of perception involves surrender to the object as other.” (p. 114) However, Benjamin’s idea, out of Novalis, that auratic experience is the expectation that the gaze will be returned, “perceptibility is an attentiveness” (p.110), is especially interesting.
On occasion, and especially in this context of an object’s capacity to look back at us, Benjamin’s term resembles Dutoit and Bersani’s idea in Forms of Being where, talking about Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1999), they say: “what the spectator may think of as the passive object of his seeing is actually looking at him.” (2) Dutoit and Bersani make no mention of Benjamin, and there is perhaps no reason why they should, because the type of image they see in Malick’s work they find through Malick’s work, and it is as though, reading Benjamin’s thoughts on earlier cinema (he died in 1940), we can see he possessed intuitions about films that had yet to be made. It is not exactly the thinker’s fault if he is so ahead of his time that the examples he seeks have yet to be created. Hansen’s focus on the bibliographic over the cinematic, however, means that the sort of films that would make sense of many of Benjamin’s insights (Antonioni’s, Tarkovsky’s, and indeed Malick’s) are ignored. When Benjamin says “the unique appearance of a distance, no matter how close it may be” (p.114), it could make us think of Antonioni’s images that, no matter how close the filmmaker gets to them, remain opaque and oblique. Yet Hansen relies again on the word: “another lineage of the idea of distance as a constitutive condition of art (that is, autonomous art) connects the fate of aura in the artwork essay with the problematic of aesthetic semblance (Schein) and beauty’s relation to truth, which had preoccupied Benjamin in his early work” (p.115), and then links it to remarks by Georg Simmel. This approach has its uses, but perhaps will have those who were looking for a book on cinema leafing through the trade description act.
Hansen, after all, has the examples to hand if she wanted to access them (the book was published in 2012, not long after her own death) but chooses generally not to do so. When Benjamin talks of the stage versus the screen actor in “The Work of Art…” – saying: “the camera that presents the performance of the film actor to the public need not respect the performance as an integral whole” (3) – we might think of how many modern films try to give back some of that integrity to the performance. Directors like Haneke, von Trier and Godard in different ways allow the performance to generate a sense of presence beyond the immediacy of narrative cinema. Haneke might say “I’m very technical: I tell my actors, you come in, you sit down, you pick up a coffee, you look here, you say the line. We try it with the cameras rolling, and if it doesn’t work, we adjust it until it does. It’s very simple.” (4) But there are numerous scenes in his films where the action is done to completion as it would be in the theatre. Think of the scene where Georges takes a couple of sleeping pills in Caché (Hidden, 2005), or Anne goes to the bathroom in Amour (2012). This is a performance integrity missing from Eisenstein, for example – a filmmaker entirely in keeping with Benjamin’s claim that “the sequence of positional views which the editor composes from the material supplied him constitutes the completed film.” (5) Von Trier, however, talking of Idioterna (The Idiots, 1998), says; “the actors had been to drama school and had been taught that here was a story, and that a story needed to be told…” Von Trier, though wanted them “just to exist and react in certain situations.” (6) Godard, meanwhile, would happily break the fourth wall, forcing the viewer to acknowledge what Benjamin observed: “the audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera.” (7)
Hansen concerns herself much more with definition than application; yet many of the ambiguities in Benjamin’s work can be teased out with hindsight. She fulfils admiringly what Roy Grundmann in a review in Cineaste sees as the purpose of such a book: “writing theory should never be less than writing the history of theory.” (8) But why be so confined? When Benjamin looks at the problem of the crowd and the presence of the flâneur in ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, how can we not think of a series of early sixties films that appear to address this very question, from Cleo de 5 à 7 (Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda, 1962) to La notte (The Night, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961), Tystnadet (The Silence, Ingmar Bergman, 1963)to Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962)? Benjamin writes:
there was the pedestrian who would let himself be jostled by the crowd, but there was also the flâneur who demanded elbow room and was unwilling to forgo the life of a gentleman of leisure. Let the many attend to their daily affairs; the man of leisure can indulge in the perambulations of the flaneur only if as such he is already out of place. (9)
Of course all four examples we offer concern women rather than men, but the basic point holds: these are people going against the swarm. Many of Benjamin’s remarks in the essay help us comprehend the city as a quiet threat to thought just as it can equally produce insights. Compared to a village stroll, the city threatens and thrills simultaneously, and though of course there were films even in Benjamin’s time that possessed an aspect of this quality (from the city symphony films to Sunrise), the sixties directors were tapping into Benjaminian concerns.
It is through Benjamin that one can find Antonioni’s Marxism, as the writer sees alienated labour as being consistent with alienated human interaction. “Marx had good reason to stress the great fluidity of the connection between segments in manual labour. This connection appears to the factory worker on an assembly line in an independent, objectified form.” (10) Around Antonioni’s heroines in La notte, L’eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962) and Il deserto rosso (The Red Desert, 1964) is the labour of the worker at one remove from the work that they do, and at the centre of the films are women who feel this alienation emotionally through the luxury of their leisure: yet it is leisure as ennui and despair, of identity so loose that it creates the opportunity for Antonioni to muse over the gap between subject and object most obviously expressed in the framing that often dwarfs the person in the shot against architectural enormity, but also evident in the indeterminate relationship with objects apparent at the beginning of The Eclipse, where the central character toys absent-mindedly with things in the apartment.
Alongside the notion of the aura and the flâneur, a third idea of immense importance for comprehending cinema comes through in Benjamin’s insight concerning what he calls the “optical unconscious”. Again, a difficult term, with Hansen saying, “we should bear in mind that the optical unconscious is obviously not a philosophical concept but rather an experimental metaphor and, like all complex tropes, has multiple and shifting meanings.” Hansen adds, however, that it “broadly refers to the idea that the [photographic] apparatus is able to capture, store and release aspects of reality previously inaccessible to the human eye.” If the film image lacks the aura of the original object, it nevertheless possesses the faculty of scrutiny. This would seem, though, to take at least two very different forms. On the one hand it can be a product of science, a tool that can show us images that had previously remained beyond our perceptual possibilities, most famously whether a horse’s four legs are off the ground at the same time: proven by Muybridge in his experiment Horse in Motion. On the other it becomes a term close to Proust or Barthes: it touches on involuntary memory and the accidental. It hints at the way film can access memories, and the way in which it can contingently capture more than the categorical content of the image. “The optical unconscious thus as much refers to the psychic projection and involuntary memory triggered in the beholder as it assumes something encrypted in the image that nobody was aware of at the time of exposure. […] In other words, the technological disjunction between storage and release entails an unconscious element at two levels: the (fixed) moment of inscription and the (variable) time of reception.” (all p. 156)
How does this work in much modern cinema? It is where the cinematic form asks of the viewer not simply narrational memory, but even more ontological memory – our memory of the world and not only in the film. Of course there is no clear line between the two: we understand various aspects of the narrative because of our relationship with the wider world. When the villain beats a child we don’t need reaction shots and plaintive music to tell us this is surely wrong, even if we may be given both. But when a film pans very slowly across a landscape (Stalker [Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979] or Zerkalo [Mirror, Tarkovsky, 1975]), or the camera travels through a city space (Geschichtsunterricht [History Lessons, Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, 1972]) these aren’t only, or even, narrative establishing shots, they are also meditative spaces which allow us access to memories or sensations that aren’t narrowly focused on the story’s demands. They are invitations to think about the images shown, and this needn’t lead us to leave the film behind for a reverie on our own childhood, but it will give us the opportunity to think within the image structure about thoughts and feelings closer to our own. Where Eisenstein and Riefenstahl for very different ends wanted to possess the minds of their viewers, numerous post-war filmmakers have given us much of our psychic freedom back. Tarkovsky reckoned: “an artist is only justified in his work when it is crucial to his way of life: not some incidental side-line, but the one mode for his reproductive ‘I’.” (11) Too many films might function off what Raul Ruiz calls “evidentia narrativa” (in his Benjamin-rich book, Poetics of Cinema), but others are closer to “evidentia memoria”. Out of the Tarkovskian and Ruizian approach comes emotional and intellectual directness, and in turn the viewer can find their own ‘I’. Perhaps it is the difference between being force-fed a madeleine and finding by eating it in your own good time the generation of freer thoughts, however surprising. The first insists on an involuntary action; the second, voluntary action that allows us to access the involuntariness of memory and sensation.
If Benjamin is finally the most important of the three thinkers in Hansen’s book, it is partly because his ideas have the most resonant application. Adorno never seemed preoccupied with film, and didn’t take it too seriously. “If it is impossible to speak of Adorno’s reflections on film aesthetics independently of his analysis of the social, economic, and ideological functions of film within the culture industry, these reflections are also inseparable from his philosophy of modern art. The very question of film aesthetics – which for Adorno is not least the question of whether there could be an aesthetic of film at all – is articulated in terms of standards developed in and by the most advanced autonomous art, especially music.” (p. 208) Whereas Benjamin saw a spiritual, psychological and potentially emotionally complex purpose for cinema, Adorno thought that film needed to escape ready representation. “The heart of the problem that Adorno confronts for a film aesthetics appears to be that the photographic basis of the moving image privileges the representational object over aesthetically autonomous procedures.” (p. 220)
Adorno’s remark can be found in a critique of Kracauer’s Theory of Film. Kracauer thought that vital to the significance of cinema was the discovery of the beauties of everyday life: the representational object Adorno scorns. Yet while for Kracauer this allows for an art that brings the everyday to the crowd, for Adorno “the refusal of artistic intervention is itself just another aesthetic principle of stylisation.” (p. 221) Is this not exactly what we find in Andy Warhol’s films of the sixties? The realism of a sleeping body or of a fixed gaze on the Empire State Building does not, to adopt Kracauer’s words, lead to the “redemption of reality”, it makes us all the more aware of the camera and our presence in front of the image.
Reading Hansen on these three thinkers, Benjamin’s richness is manifest, as we, like Hansen, try to make sense of thoughts as if half-uttered through the limits of a prescient mind confronting the future of which he would not be a part. Though Hansen’s book possesses no speculative dimension of its own, it respects and acknowledges the importance of Benjamin. After reading it we want to return to this slippery genius much more than to Kracauer and Adorno. It makes sense that we in the future want to understand so keenly this figure from the past, to connect with a thinker that, according to Hannah Arendt, was one of “those few who ventured out into the most exposed positions of the time and paid the full price of isolation […] as the precursors of a new age.” (12) Benjamin is a writer we perhaps literally have to meet half-way, taking advantage of the hindsight artworks have given us to make sense of a man gropingly ahead of his time. Hansen’s book helps us make this journey.
Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno, Miriam Bratu Hansen (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011).
- Gilberto Perez, The Material Ghost (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), p. 33.
- Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit, Forms of Being (London, BFI, 2004), p. 144.
- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (London, Fontana, 1992), p. 222.
- Dennis Lim, “Words of Love From a Severe Director”, New York Times, May 25, 2012
- Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (London, Fontana, 1992), p. 222.
- Stig Bjorkman (ed.), Trier on Von Trier (London, Faber and Faber, 2003), p. 212.
- Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 222.
- Roy Grundmann, Cineaste, vol. 49 no. 3, pp. 75-76.
- Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 169.
- Ibid., p. 171.
- Andrei Tarkovsky, Sculpting in Time (London, Faber and Faber, 1989), p. 189.
- Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 42.