This paper was given at the Special Effects/Special Affects: Technologies of the Screen symposium held at the University of Melbourne, 25/3/2000.

* * *

I would like to preface this paper by noting how my thinking has been influenced by Lorraine Mortimer’s work on Edgar Morin and also her article “The Grim Enchantment of It’s a Wonderful Life”, in which she discusses the idea of a “knowing enchantment” that is neither “dumb” nor “cynical”.(1)

Of Capra’s film she argues: “The depth of the film inheres in the fact that the magic of human connection lives alongside. disappointment and dissatisfaction. This “magic” does not eradicate the abrasions of existence. Nor, however, do the irritations and injustices of life banish that magic. The complexity of the film, its performance of the fact that many things can be true simultaneously, surpasses reductive redemptive scenarios.”(2)

* * *

In this paper I wish to focus on several issues that intersect in numerous ways; the first being that there is a relation between film and life, by which I mean there is a relation between our experiences and how we make sense of the world, and our engagement with the cinema. Douglas Sirk observes that the cinema “is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death and love”.(3) It is the stuff of our lives and in that sense it will always be of significance. Fassbinder, after seeing Sirk’s All that Heaven Allows (1955) says, “small town America is the last place in the world I want to go”.(4) What is it about the cinema and our interactions that can arouse such feelings? Another point of interest which, in actuality, cannot be separated from the first, is to explore the ways in which the cinema can offer us, simultaneously, “grounds for desperation” and also grounds for hope.(5) What I am specifically interested in, is how, even when the narrative of a film appears “hopeless”, our experience can still be joyous and engaging. Here, I am thinking of the identification and participation we experience in the enchantment of human connection found in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). However, we also need to think about how a film such as Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), which involves a narrative that is defined by tragedy, compromise and betrayal, can still offer us a “hopeful” and sensual experience through its lyrical sound track, languid contemplation of the natural world, the tempo of its editing, and its rich use of colour. The best I can attempt to do is to gesture towards some of these issues and to suggest that in much of the earlier humanist and impressionist traditions of film theory and criticism these relations and experiences were of central concern.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty speaks of how our process and definition of “critical thought” has neglected the “evidence of things”. This eclipsing functions like a “mechanism of denial”. In our “passion” for inclusive knowledge and our disregard for the phenomenal world we no longer grant a film, or thing, an independent identity. In Paths Towards a Clearing, the anthropologist and poet, Michael Jackson says that the orderly structures and systems we create are, in fact, “illusory word-worlds” which grant us respite from the unstructured and random nature of our experiences; but in being disengaged from the “stream of life”, their “objectivity becomes a synonym for estrangement and neutrality a euphemism for indifference.”(6) In creating “fictions” that have no relation to lived experience and phenomenon, we, in effect, colonise the objective world by denying its peculiar existence and the experience of our interactions with it and within it. The philosopher, Gillian Rose speaks of the “unbridgeable distance between thought or language and concrete being”.(7) Driven by the desire to find an “absolute” theory, or, more currently, in a process which disavows the specificity of any given text, disenchanted “intellectuals” relieve this gap by confining their research purely to “thought” at the expense of “concrete being” and “experience”. There will always be a gap between thought, action and being, but it is not immutable. The way we think may have dire consequences in relation to how we act. In creating fictions that have no genuine relation to the “earthly” phenomenon and the aesthetic artefacts they describe or analyse, we reduce the richness of human communication and participation to a singular, impoverished, one-way channel.

So much contemporary theory has approached the cinema as if it is static and never changing. This tactical approach not only places the cinema within an artificial environment, but it steals its movements, its beauty, its vitality and life. Unable to deal with the ineffable and contradictory nature of human beings, films and our world, these paradigms function like atomising processes which rationalise and divide the relations between film, spectator and society, whilst also abstracting these relations from their larger environment and denying any form of creative agency. Film has an identity in and of itself which travels and changes through space and time. We can never do justice to the complexity of film’s aural, visual, sensual, kinetic medium; but in acknowledging it as meaningful, we grant it the attention and respect that it warrants. The catch is that we need to do this while knowing that in the flux and flow of our interactions we can never fully grasp the whole.

Back at the beginning of the century Georg Simmel was warning us about the alienation of modern “man” who “reacts with his head instead of his heart.”(8) Simmel says that the “calculative exactness of practical life which the money economy has brought about corresponds to the ideal of the natural sciences: to transform the world into an arithmetic problem.”(9) It is as if the very alienation modern humanity had earlier given anxious voice to has now become a defeated, yet conscious, performative model with which to confront the world. Of course “heart” felt reactions and attention to the “evidence of things” will never give us complete answers to all our questions. Yet, if we wish to do justice to the complexity and ambiguity of “things” we must take an approach which acknowledges ideological, sociological and economic elements, whilst also attempting to be true to what is seen, heard and felt.(10)

In those strange and exciting days just before the end of the 19th century, Maxim Gorky first visits Aumont’s and sees the Lumière’s moving picture machine. There he finds a strangely familiar yet “terrifying”, “eternal” world of “curses and ghosts”.(11) He believes he has entered the “Kingdom of Shadows” but “all this moves, teems with life” and then “vanishes somewhere beyond”.(12) He says it seems like “Merlin” has played a vicious trick and “bewitched” the world before him.(13) Louis Delluc, Jean Epstein and other early French Film Impressionists found in the cinema the phenomenon of photogénie. For these earlier theorists living in the modern era, the cinema had the poetic and magical power to grant life and soul to nature, human beings and things, to “achieve a dazzling incarnation”.(14)

The Hungarian screen-writer and film theorist, Béla Balázs, also thought that the cinema could again re-enchant our lives. He believed that it could contest the alienation felt by humanity in the face of abstraction brought about by modern, technological civilisation. Fully aware of the human capacity for mutual and participatory activity, Balázs saw in the cinema a pictorial language that would again unite humanity. In its moving pictures he believed he had found a kind of language that would return to us a universality that the invention of the printing press and loss of oral culture had helped to destroy, apparently forever. The cinema would return to us vitality, emotions and intensity because it would again allow us to engage with the expressiveness of human beings. Through the human face, movement and gesture, we could find an “aboriginal mother-tongue of the human race”.(15) In his immense enthusiasm for the cinema, Balázs was misguided in his assumption that the cinema could fulfill the wish for a universal language, but he was right in noting how “universally” we identify, respond and empathise with the faces of human beings-with expressions of laughter and tears. Balázs highlighted that extraordinary way we experience the cinema as a form of participation.(16) What the cinema seemed to again reveal to us was something crucial about the way we “inhabit the earth”; human reality is semi-imaginary and subjectivity has an immense fluidity of limits. In the cinema, as Mortimer notes, we “live in a state of double consciousness, participating and sceptical.”(17) We participate in its drama; we experience it as genuine; we feel that it is “real” even though we know it is not.

The “Kingdom of Shadows”, the “promised land”, resurrection, mystery and animism-so many of these early writings suggest that the nature of the cinema is mythic, magical and archaic. These earlier critics, theorists and writers all attempt to illuminate their experience of the cinema and describe its ability to return to the phenomenal world the “charm” that the disintegration of ancient beliefs and traditions, and the evolution of modern civilisation has drained from it. However, what they also articulate through their attention to the text and the whole experience is the participatory relations and connections that the process of the cinema-its vibrant and resonant “flow of life”-seems to again make apparent. (18)

Edgar Morin also sees in the cinema the possibility of countering abstraction and alienation through its capacity to re-enchant the world. (19) Morin approaches the cinema as a “complex phenomenon” addressing it as a mass medium and a sociological phenomenon.(20) However, he refuses to simply reduce the whole experience to the consumption and production of merchandise, industry and ideology; rather, he brings to his investigation something which so much contemporary theory has devalued and screened out of its analysis. To his research he brings back the human imagination, whilst also treating film as, phenomenologically, worthy of respect. Although a technological invention, the cinema appeared like a reaction to the artificial, abstract and dehumanising experience of modern civilisation because “it contested the technical-humanizing, populating, the technical world with the presence of voices, music and images.”(21) But more than this, what the cinema seems to reveal is our relations and connections with our fellow humans, with things and with the world. In refusing a hierarchy between human beings and things and through its ability to capture and highlight-to make ordinary everyday things seem luminous-the cinema again ignites an apparent analogy between human beings and the world. For those of us who find the cinema enchanting, it is as if the illusion it creates is intimately entwined with the real, mythic and imaginary ways in which we, as human beings, participate in life. (22)

Morin understands the “imaginary” as that immaterial, almost hallucinatory realm within which all human relations exist and function. For Morin, there is the physically real and the imaginary; yet these two realms are impulsively drawn to each other, with the result that they encounter each other in a semi-imaginary realm. It is in his theory of the “projection-identification” complex that we find the suggestion that the relation we have with characters and things, with the filmic world, is a functioning process, a dialectic between the imaginary and the real.(23) Morin argues that fantasy, wish and anxiety are all a part of how we relate to each other; as well as all our physical, cultural and social experiences.(24)

Projection is a fundamental human process, but so is identification, where instead of projecting ourselves onto the world, we literally absorb the world into ourselves. These two polymorphic processes function as a complex relation of reciprocal transference. Morin believes that “it is the misery of need” that has constituted “projection-identification”, “the mean and anonymous life that wants to enlarge itself to the dimensions of life in the movies. the imaginary life of the screen is a product of this genuine need”. (25) But even if we lived a rich and fulfilled life we would still want the intense and resonant engagement that the cinema grants us. What Morin implies is that our experience of abstraction and alienation in an escalating, technological civilisation gives rise to a “need” which is born of the residue of our sense of loss of existence as an experience of participation and communion.

Existence as a participatory activity, as analogous with the world, flowing and moving between the prosaic and poetic, between the sacred and profane-this kind of existence seems to be forever lost to us. Our only solace for isolation and anonymity appears as the championed triumph of “individuality” as the ultimate form of self-fulfillment. Unable to find affectivity in our insular lives, the cinema feels like a return to participation. The intensity and luminosity that it imbues in human beings, experiences and things, releases us to freely pour out our tears, joys-our souls-upon the screen; yet, we also absorb its universe into ours for “projection-identification” is at its heart, but it is also at the heart of everyday life.

At this point it would be simple to do what much contemporary film theory does and apply an ideological paradigm to demystify the appeal of the stereotypical nature of much mass culture. However, although we need to identify and investigate these ideological processes, they are incapable of explaining what it is about human beings and the cinema that allows for this kind of experience. Nor would we have investigated the appeal of so many films which refuse simple stereotypes and whose surfaces are contradictory. There is nothing new about the concept of human reality as semi-imaginary, as a fluid process blending and shifting between ‘the real” and a fantasy realm and always tempered by anxieties, fears, boredom, by love and ecstasy; however what we have lost is our participating consciousness through which we find affectivity in life. Having lost it in life we project and identify with it on the screen where everyday things seem to glow, where everyone’s a winner, where romance is tender, where love is true and death heroic. In the cinema we find an experience which, sometimes strange, sometimes familiar and heightened, connects with our “real” lives and our dreams. In films we find the things we hope for envisioned in utopian images celebrating love, fertility, intensity and community: we also find the things we most fear like violence, death and uncertainty. These are all concerns which the anonymity of our current experience of existence no longer allows us to publicly express and experience. In the darkened environment of the cinema, immobile in our seats, eyes fixes upon the enlarged screen, images moving before us, people, things, voices and music-alone, but surrounded by others-it is as though our private dreams and fantasies have seeped out on the screen. But, paradoxically, they were already there swooning and shimmering, and dancing before us.

I want to briefly turn to Clifford Geertz’s work on rituals as I think it can help to illuminate some of the ways in which the cinema allows, encourages, or enacts this kind of engagement. Geertz argues that the ritual is a realm of “imaginative realization” that displays a dimension of social existence that is sometimes “unsettling” or “difficult” to address within the realms of “everyday life and social interaction”.(26) He argues that what the ritual does is what “Lear and Crime and Punishment” do for people of “other temperaments and other conventions”; “it catches up.themes.and, ordering them into an encompassing structure, presents them in such a way as to throw into relief a particular view of their essential nature. It puts a construction on them, makes them, to those historically positioned to appreciate the construction, meaningful-visible, tangible, graspable-‘real’, in an ideational sense. An image, fiction, a model, a metaphor”, what the ritual does is “display them”.(27) Obviously, the cinema does not have the “universal” appeal of rituals, nor their religious potency; however, it is also a realm of “imaginative realization”. Our interactions with the cinema exist on numerous levels including the literal, the experiential, the metaphorical and the symbolic. We live in a world where our existence is often a bland and restless one but we yearn for ecstatic intensity and poetic lyricism. We want to face death boldly, to challenge fact, to feel an exhilaration in the mere fact of life but we do not always want these experiences to be “really” real. What representational cinema does is make “visible” and “tangible” the tragedies, miseries, joys and hope of our fragile, transitory yet corporeal existence by granting them form, structure, meaning and resonance within a sometimes heightened and exhilarating environment.

However, we also need to think about the ways in which we experience and make sense of the world. Here, we need to consider Tom Gunning’s work on “the cinema of attractions”, particularly when he argues that narrative is intrinsically linked with the spectacle of display. (28) Gunning argues that what the “cinema of attraction” reveals about earlier spectators has less to do with any notion of naiveté then revealing a “lack” which both Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer term the “fragmentation of modern experience.” (29) Gunning comments that even with the introduction of editing and more complex narratives the “aesthetic of attraction” can still “be sensed in periodic doses of non-narrative spectacle.” (30) However, our engagement with this sensory expression is not just emblematic of our current experience of the loss of engaged participation; rather it tells us something that is intrinsic to our being. What Gunning’s discussion highlights is that even in narrative, representational cinema we do not simply respond to narrative logic and realism. We engage with and make sense of film through our sensory experiences.

In Profane Mythology: The Savage Mind of the Cinema, Yvette Biró echoes Kracauer’s thesis that the cinema has the capacity to “redeem” physical reality. (31) Biró argues that the cinema can make mundane human activities and the misery of everyday existence appear “charged with the emotional content of ceremonies.” (32) The title of her book illuminates her argument that the cinema’s power lies in its “seductive sensuality.” (33) The cinema’s “mind” is “savage” in the same sense that our minds are “savage”. Flowers and people, light, dance, music, violence and blood”-we respond to the visceral, the kinetic and the sensual in a physical, emotional and knowledgeable way. Heightened sensory expression focuses and concentrates experience into a form of communication and participation. Logical verbal cognition is only one part of how we make meaning. The childlike or archaic forms of cognition such as the non-verbal, the primitive and sensory are just as crucial to how we make sense of the world. (34) The colour of the sky, the sounds and movements of dance and song, the glow of fire-light on a human face-we yearn for poetic, visceral and sensual experiences and they are integral to the way in which we make sense of ourselves and our world.


  1. Lorraine Mortimer, “The Grim Enchantment of It’s a Wonderful Life”, 40. This quotation is taken from the longer version of this article. A shorter version can be found in The Massachusetts Review 36:4, Winter 1995-6, 656-86. Also see Lorraine Mortimer, “We are the Dance: Cinema, Death and the Imaginary in the Thought of Edgar Morin” in The Complex Thought of Edgar Morin ed. Alfonso Montuori, Hampton Press, New Jersey (Forthcoming).
  2. Mortimer, “The Grim Enchantment”, 40.
  3. Douglas Sirk quoted by Rainer Werner Fassbinder in “Fassbinder on Sirk”, Film Comment No. 6, November/December 1975, 22.
  4. Fassbinder, 22.
  5. Fassbinder, 23.
  6. Michael Jackson, Paths Towards a Clearing: Radical Empiricism and the Ethnographic Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1989, 4.
  7. Gillian Rose, Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life Schocken, New York, 1995, 125.
  8. Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) in The Sociology of Georg Simmel ed. Kurt H. Wolff, Free Press, New York, 1950. 410.
  9. Simmel, 412.
  10. Here, we need to rconsider Susan Sontag’s insightful essay, “Against Interpretation” [1964] in A Susan Sontag Reader Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1982, 95-104.
  11. Maxim Gorky, “A Review of the Lumière Program”, trans. Leda Swan in Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1983, 408. Originally printed in the Nizhegorodski Iistok, newspaper, July 4, 1896.
  12. Gorky, 407.
  13. Gorky, 408.
  14. Jean Epstein, “On Certain Characteristics of Photogénie”, in “Boujour Cinema and Other Writings” (1921-1930) trans. Tom Milne. Afterimage 10, 1981, 23.
  15. Béla Balázs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art trans. Edith Bone, Dover Publication, New York, 1970, 42.
  16. For example, see Balázs’ discussion of Romeo and Juliet in Theory of the Film 48.
  17. Mortimer, “We are the Dance”, 14.
  18. For further discussion see, Thomas Elsaesser, “Film Studies in Search of the Object”, Film Criticism, 17:2-3, Winter/Spring, 1993, 41.
  19. Although trained in sociology, Morin’s work ranges across a diverse field including the cinema, communications theory, transdisciplinary studies and complex systems. See J. L. Roland Bélanger, “Translator’s Introduction” to Edgar Morin, Method: Towards a Study of Hamankind, Volume. 1, The Nature of Nature Peter Lang, New York, 1993, xiii.
  20. See Mortimer “We are the Dance”, 14.
  21. Mortimer, “We are the Dance”, 12.
  22. Mortimer notes that Morin’s interest is repeatedly drawn to “the modernity of our century and the archaism of our minds. Homo sapiens/faber/demens [is] a ‘producer of fantasms, myths, ideologies, magic'”. See “We are the Dance”, 14.
  23. Edgar Morin, The Stars, trans. Richard Howard, Grove Press, New York, 1960, 18. Originally published as Les Stars Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1957.
  24. Edgar Morin, Le Cinéma ou l’homme imaginaire: Essai d’anthropologie socilogique Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1985, 210. Originally published in 1956 with the subtitle Essai d’anthropologie. Translated and quoted by Mortimer, “We are the Dance”, 14.
  25. Morin, The Stars, 98.
  26. Clifford Geertz, “Deep Play: A Description of the Balinese Cockfight”, Play: Its Role in Development and Evolution eds. Jerome S. Bruner, Alison Jolly and Kathy Sylva, Basic Books, New York, 1976, 671.
  27. Geertz, 671.
  28. See Tom Gunning, “Now You See It, Now You Don’t”: The Temporality of the Cinema of Attraction”, The Velvet Light Trap No. 32, Fall 1993, 3-12; also see Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction, Early Film, Its Spectators and the Avant-Garde”, Wide Angle 8:3-4, 1986 63-70, and Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)Credulous Spectator”, in Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, ed. Linda Williams, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1994, 114-133.
  29. Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment”, 126-9.
  30. Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment”, 123.
  31. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality Oxford University Press, London, Oxford and New York, 1960. See in particularly Kracauer’s “Film in Our Time”, 285-309.
  32. Yvette Biró, Profane Mythology: The Savage Mind of the Cinema trans. Imre Goldstein, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1982. 80.
  33. Biró, vii.
  34. Biró, 13.

About The Author

Gabrielle Murray is a Senior Lecturer in the Cinema & Media Studies program at La Trobe University in Australia. Her research areas include screen violence, phenomenology, film and philosophy, and æsthetics. She is the author of This Wounded Cinema, This Wounded Life: Violence and Utopia in the Films of Sam Peckinpah, and has contributed chapters to the anthologies The Cinema of Australia and New Zealand and Super/Heroes.

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