The merits of Saige Walton’s Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement lie in the parallels between baroque thinking and phenomenology. Here the baroque is a transhistorical pattern of using interlocking framing systems that blur the line between art and environment, art and viewer.1 This is made manifest in artworks that grow out into the building, buildings that unfurl out into the environment, entangling a viewer within the suggested composition, creating a series of literal and perceptual frames that envelope the observer and draw out a heightened response. Phenomenology highlights the subjective reversibility of sensibility, chiasm, the flow caused by the reversibility of our embodied relationship with the world.2 As one hand holds the other, it both feels the other hand, senses it, and in reciprocation is sensed by it in return, so to our greater body and its relationship with the broader flesh of the world. As we experience, so too are we experienced. For Walton, “The difference between Merleau-Ponty’s ‘flesh’ and the baroque is that the latter figures ontological reversibility in aesthetic terms.” (p. 58) As the baroque folds us into the work, so to does phenomenology describe how our flesh is folded into the flesh of the world.3

Within these broad lines, Walton marks out a body of baroque flesh, a corpus of baroque cinema. Phenomenology is a totalising concept, applicable to all films. Given that we are already, inevitably entangled, the question for Walton is whether flesh is baroque, whether it self-reflexively depicts this reversibility. Unlike previous writers on cinema and phenomenology who attended to pre-reflexive cinema, Walton concentrates on a baroque cinema that “self-consciously gestures towards the (technological) body that enables its film and its history to come into being” so that it can reflect upon its own perceptions and expressions” and evoke passion and feeling. (p. 59) Our perspective, our position overtly becomes part of the overarching composition or situation of the film. Walton takes the genre of the baroque and the methodology of phenomenology and reverses them, producing a baroque methodology and a phenomenological genre. This is most lucidly explained in her connection of Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), whose composition posits the viewer as the subject of the painting – the object of the painted figures’ gaze, with Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995) and Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005). The films’ respective use of streamed POV footage or HD surveillance footage, indistinguishable from their larger aesthetic, conflates personal, apparatus and audience vision, folding us into the greater framework of the respective films. Over the next three chapters, Walton develops her baroque flesh: as reflections on emotional passion (Trouble Every Day [Claire Denis 2001]), the passage between literal and figural appreciation (Marie Antoinette [Sofia Coppola 2006] and Sherlock Jr. [Buster Keaton, 1924]), and touch as mediator of surface and depth (Tarnation [Jonathon Caouette, 2003]).

Cinema’s Baroque Flesh book review

Las Meninas (Diego Velázquez, ca. 1656)

There are irritating elements to Walton’s book. Phenomenology is an approach grounded in the body’s subjective experience of the world, yet Walton writes and cites as if it is objective fact. Similarly, the book is clotted by lit review; her recurring structure of thirty odd pages of reverence followed by ten pages of film analysis is an ungainly structure, especially in repetition. Further, Walton avoids films and filmmakers invested in baroque aesthetics, whether the Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, 1967) or Eugène Green’s adaptation of baroque theory and theatricality to the screen, while her central film Trouble Every Day lacks the self-reflexivity required of her baroque flesh.

This could be reversed. The films surprise and one of the pleasures of the Cinema’s Baroque Flesh lies in the seriousness with which the history of art is taken; it is not a reference point but a considered continuum. The strength of the book lies in its sensible linking of the chiasm of phenomenology to the chiasmus of baroque aesthetics, thinking through the decorative interplay of objectivity and subjectivity, concrete and abstract, literal and figural. The book historicises self-reflexivity, the reflexivity of the flesh; rather than just seen through the limiting lens of modernism and distancing, it becomes palpable rhetoric.

Saige Walton, Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement (Film Culture in Transition) (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016).

 

Endnotes

 

  1. Walton is predominately informed by the works of Gilles Deleuze, Omar Calabrese, Umberto Eco, and most importantly Angela Ndalianis, another phenomenologist interested in the contemporary appearance of the baroque. For these theorists, the baroque is not so much a historical style, but a recurring aesthetic pattern that reappears in different iterations in times marked by transformation and visuality. See Omar Calabrese, Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 5, 11, 26; Gilles Deleuze, The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque Trans. Tom Conley (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993, p. 121; and Angela Ndalianis, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), pp. 18-23).
  2. Walton draws principally on the existential phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but also the applied phenomenology of Vivian Sobchack, Ndalianis, Jennifer Barker and Laura Marks.
  3. This draws on Deleuze’s concept of the fold, whose kink unites two separate sides: interiority and exteriority. See Deleuze, op. cit., pp. 3,4 29.

About The Author

John Edmond is an academic and curator. He is the Director of the Queensland Film Festival and an Associate Curator (film) at UQ Art Museum. Edmond is the author of a forthcoming monograph on Ken Russell’s Altered States, and co-editor of two volumes on the works of Valérie Massadian, and Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani.

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