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What is the 21st Century?: All the Images

"When I started making movies, there were 'movies' movies. Now 'movies' seems to be commercials, music videos, images off the Internet, there's all this imagery now."

Leos Carax


Every movie's got an aspect of mise-en-scene and an aspect of mise-en-abyme. I don't mean the literary definition of the mise-en-abyme (which André Gide repurposed from heraldry in the 1920s), whose facile application leads to discussions of structure or plotting, dream sequences, "framing stories," or, if you’re lucky, pictorial effects. No, let's get down to the most basic idea behind recursion, free of any negative connotations: small elements are related to larger ones. Right now, we’re finding ourselves thinking more and more about how a film reflects on the history of images.

Take Inglourious Basterds, for example. The images of Nazis it presents us are in some ways offensive.  I don't think that sort of shock would've existed 50 years ago, when the war was much closer – or during the war itself. Really, the Nazis of Inglourious Basterds have a lot more in common with This Land is Mine, To Be or Not to Be or Hangmen Also Die than with, for example, Downfall or Schindler’s List. So why are we offended by Tarantino and not Renoir, Lubitsch or Lang, whose Nazis are equally removed from history? Because while the war is further, its images are much closer. Atrocity is a Google search away. Cinema gives us images, and because "image" can encompass almost anything (like a sound, which might be a door creaking or a singing voice), all images are equal: we have to put movie images alongside photojournalism, paintings, the image of sculpture in the gallery, musical notation and the image of text on the print page. And also alongside the history of cinema. The corrective and the contradictory are useless; they're all just (merely and fair) images. A big mess, like celluloid unspooling onto the floor. The need to engage with this aspect is increasingly relevant. It's inescapable.

Mise-en-abyme seems to describe the phenomenon of, say, Leos Carax better than mise-en-scene. He’s a drowning man, gasping for air while being swept away by a current, all these goddamn images. If from the dawn of sound to the 1960s, cinema was haunted by literature, now it’s haunted by itself. The Ghost of Movies Past keeps us up at night.

Over the course of a century, cinema engulfed culture. By being able to be the equal of anything, it made everything itself. It was as good as painting, and now we can say Manet is cinema and that when José Luis Guerín, in In the City of Sylvia, composes a shot to resemble "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère," he's not referencing painting but drawing on cinema, the same way painters used to copy the compositions of masters to guide them in their work. This wasn't true in 1910; it took Bresson to make it so. The more elements cinema eats up, the more it rewrites its history. It's because cinema has consumed music that I can think that, though Scott Walker is not a director and his albums are certainly albums and not movies sans images, that The Drift is cinema. Now, because I can trace a line from Caravaggio's The Cardsharps to Owning Mahowny, I can also see the link between Helmut Käutner and Gustave Caillebotte and I can say with certainity that the paintings of Frank Auerbach have as much do with cinema as the movies of Alan Rudolph. In Auerbach's pictures we can see impressions of the history of painting, Auerbach's own experiences and the act of painting itself – he's as much the mise-en-abyme filmmaker as Leos Carax.

There are those that work despite or against the existing world of images, whether by looking for a new image when so many old and accepted ones already exist or by actively creating images that run in opposition to history (Terence Davies, Michael Mann, Abbas Kiarostami,  Claire Denis, Jonathan Glazer, Clint Eastwood, Richard Kwietnowski, Johnnie To, Aleksandr Sokurov, Hal Hartley, etc.), or through it, finding new meanings or uses for traditions that already exist, whether in cinema or art or photography or television (Olivier Assayas, Takashi Miike, James Lee, Richard Kelly, Jean-Claude Brisseau, Pedro Costa, Tony Scott, John Woo, Neil Marshall, Richard Linklater, Abel Ferrara, David Mackenzie in Spread, Nicolas Klotz in Heartbeat Detector, etc.). But then there are those that do both (Brian De Palma, Alan Rudolph, James Gray, Steven Soderbergh, Arnaud Desplechin, Jean-Pierre Limosin, etc.), more often out of genius than indecision, and maybe the standout amongst them is Paul Verhoeven.

For instance, we can take the last shot of Black Book. The Verhoeven, like all of his movies, is agnostic: it affirms nothing except the need to doubt. The last image in Black Book affirms the history most would rather not think about. It goes against the images cinema's provided us with so far, but in order to go against something, it needs that history. This is related in a way to the effect of Inglourious Basterds, which is troubling because it excises the history most movies about the subject would like you to remember. Hitler without a Holocaust is just a buffoon. The two stills at the top of this post exist together in culture. Fighting these images in the present – you might as well try and block out the Sun. The image on the left: people and their history. The second image: people removed history become just characters. Violence stripped of context becomes just violence. Inglourious Basterds, that great big snipe hunt, is a war movie without a war, just people talking and then killing each other.

The problem of the image isn't gonna go away; if cinema's to survive, it has to get worse.  Now more than ever, I think, it's possible to equate cinema with music, in the sense that, in a world where everything makes a noise, where there are all of these sounds that surround us and that may hold significance in our lives (this may be someone's voice or even the noise of your car's engine, which becomes as familiar as a voice until you can tell its mood), it's a plain old song that can sometimes overtake you. The more noise, the more extraordinary music seems to be, and the same thing happens to cinema in a world where everything produces an image.

Further: Ryland Walker Knight's catalog of convergences and Frank Auerbach: Working After the Masters on YouTube.


What is the 21st Century? is the column where Ignatiy Vishnevetsky tries to find an answer to the titular question.

Thanks for such a really interesting post, I.V. You’ve given the discussion a whole new dimension. What’s been mainly missing in it up until now, at least for me, is historical placement of some kind—not only historical placement of Inglorious Basterds but historical placement of the discussions about it and what has provoked them. I think you’ve made a valuable start.
sigh Do you miss the historical narrative of art? Perhaps violence, stripped of context, will become useless and will be only found in art.
Violence depends of the context, sure and an artistic vision can bring it to an high level ( ex I write a document about caillebotte homosexuality and my point de vue very crude and underground was not accepted,visual violence not politically correct:). So I made another version focusing at the beginning on my own artistic vision beginning with a panoramic on a nude male posterieur standing in front of a maroco imperial door and focusing suddenly on the title, la peau de FES , writing directly on the skin (I m also a painter), it was a real mise en abyme and I don t change anything else but the result is very different: it is no more a documentary but a personal vision, art film dealing with my art and my family as did Caillebotte in its time Its my own contempory vision mixing old and new in the same reflexion
Jonathan, Thanks. I should say that this post is really a combination of two texts, one of which deals specifically with Inglourious Basterds and is very long (I only pulled about two paragraphs from it). I’m hoping to post it some time later, maybe when the movie comes out on DVD, maybe earlier. I think the film is moral, and that issue has been sort of evaded, largely because most people (including myself) like it. It’s a complicated movie, and I think a film shouldn’t have to be divisive for us to discuss its implications. Its relationship with history (or, really, histories) and its place within it (or them) is by no means simple. Robert, “Perhaps violence, stripped of context, will become useless and will be only found in art.” We can only hope. fentenervanvlissingen, I don’t think the context matters so much, nor does it have to be brought to a “high level.” In fact, I think it’s usually best not to. That’s part of what’s interesting about Inglourious Basterds — the violence is there, but it’s also abrupt, crude and seemingly pointless in its cruelty. And it’s nothing compared to the dialogue in the film, which is the real focus. If in a normal war movie, the danger is in a battle, here the danger exists in people talking and the violence only arrives when it’s inevitable. And, as I said, I think every movie has this aspect you’re talking about in regard to your Caillebotte film. Caillebotte himself is a fascinating figure, and especially in regards to cinema because of his “reversal” of history – a painter who drew on photography, whereas cinema can be said to be “photography drawing on painting.”
Robert, Let me also add that the “historical narrative of art” hasn’t disappeared, but you can’t expect to see history when you’re standing it.
I really enjoyed reading this, the term mise-en-abyme is new to me. Thanks for the facinating post.
I just found this. I find it difficult to take an interpreation of cinema too far when the conversation revolves mainly around our response to the image, because the most important element of cinema to me is not the image, but time. A single image repeating itself in sometimes subtle and sometimes dramatic variations at a rate of speed that is (not taking into account the pause button) beyond our control. This is more akin to the way we experience life I think, than a painting or a piece of text, which we can choose to pause and reflect over in a very conscious manner. This also I think supports your idea that music and cinema share something uniquely their own. Once you pause it, it stops being what it was and becomes something else. Cinema doesn’t exist without context. Cinema is context. That said, I think it’s funny that we would say cinema and music is more alike now than in the past, considering how our relationship to music is changing so dramatically from how we related to it in the past. Some would say, our valuation of it is depreciating, as we load up our iPods with thousands and thousands of songs. Do we give any one song the opportunity to sit and reside in us, when we blast back and forth between different artists, albums, and playlists? Perhaps that is back to the original quote you started off with. Just thoughts. Great piece. Thanks for writing it.
Thanks Ignatiy; you should publish that longer article on Basterds. But can you elaborate on some of your provocations when you start to confidently lump anything under “cinema”? Don’t disagree, but don’t totally understand; if I’m cinema and you’re cinema—and in the 21st century it looks like we both are—then why use the word? And I know you’re someone who likes to classify. For example— “now we can say Manet is cinema and that when José Luis Guerín, in In the City of Sylvia, composes a shot to resemble “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” he’s not referencing painting but drawing on cinema, the same way painters used to copy the compositions of masters to guide them in their work. This wasn’t true in 1910; it took Bresson to make it so." I’m lost. First, Guerin is definitely drawing on cinema, but why does that mean he isn’t referencing painting when, as you say, he’s copied a painting? Second, In 1910 plenty of directors were remaking other directors’ films (shot-by-shot remakes of Voyage to the Moon) much like young artists copying the elders. So much so there were copyright problems. Third, Bresson made what so and how? Bresson made cinema self-reflexive? Certainly Bresson scavenged through traditions and cherry-picked what he needed (that great shot of the uprooted potato in L’Argent, for example, is taken straight from Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful?). But so did everyone. I’m not sure what you’re saying beyond that cinema absorbs a lot of traditions. But a totally white canvas, even 100 years ago, would still contain a whole tradition of whiteness. If that’s the case, I think I’m more interested, as you are, in the evidence. What is the last shot of Black Book again? What’s your link between Caravaggio and Owning Mahony? Why is The Drift cinema? (I agree it is, so this is as much a question for myself). And what exactly is “the problem of the image”? I enjoy the references, but if you don’t explain them, Michael Mann and Claire Denis and Leos Carax will still be my iterations of Michael Mann and Claire Denis and Leos Carax instead of yours, and I’m not sure how much mine have to do with each other besides a lot of tactile sniff-and-smell.
BK, It’s because the relationships to both have changed that I think they’re more alike now. No surprise the iPods play video. I think music still has power — maybe more power, because it no longer holds a special place in the day (you no longer have to get home and put on a record) and yet it retains its power. Same with cinema, I think: it’s when a person watches ten minutes of a movie on a tiny screen on the train, the same way they’d crack open a book, that we can say that cinema’ll survive. DP, A few possible answers: 1. Bresson doesn’t bring self-reflexivity. What he does is complete the relationship between cinema and figurative painting. After him, it’s easy to think of painting and cinema as being related to each other. 2. The last shot ( of Black Book shows the main character and her family walking into the walled compound of their kibbutz, outside of which is a sign explaining that the kibbutz was built with the money of Holocaust victims. There is barbed wire everywhere. On the guard towers are soldiers with rifles. It’s October 1956 — the Suez Crisis. 3. “The Cardsharps” depicts three men: a man playing cards, the man cheating him, and the older man advising the card player (an accomplice of the cheater). The figures are arranged in such a way that the activities of all three men can be seen clearly, as can the expressions on their faces: the cheater and the one being cheated both have innocent expressions on their faces, and the young man being cheated looks downright pleased. Owning Mahowny depicts the relationship between a compulsive gambler and a casino manager, and how both of them get involved in embezzling money from a bank to fund their habits: the gambler’s of gambling, the manager’s of taking the gambler’s money. 4. I think Scott Walker thinks, for lack of a better term, like an “auteur” more than a composer. The Drift may consist of music, but the arrangement of its elements and the way they’ve been chosen and controlled is closer in design to films, film production and film editing. It is, in short, music which draws less on compositional traditions than on the traditions of directing and cinematography (but Walker has always admitted his obsession with movies).
4a. Anything made within the traditions of cinema is cinema, but not all cinema comes from within cinema’s traditions.
Thanks for these gracious footnotes, Ignatiy. That shot of Black Book came right back and I probably should have looked up the rest. Would still like to take that Walker note further into the “how” but that would be material alone for another post. I still wonder about Bresson. There’s definitely a relationship to figurative art without question, though it’s also what moves in his frame (that hand that bursts open across the screen in L’Argent) against the stillness that’s moving. But why wouldn’t, say, early sound films that recreated paintings (Billy Blitzer) as moving tableaux, or Eisenstein or Bauer or Paris Qui Dort or Griffith’s close-up freezes or Renoir’s impressionism all have as equally a profound relationship with space? Just to name silent film examples. Dreyer was openly working under the influence of Whistler and Hammershoi from the start. If anyone completes the relationship, I’d say Rivette, but that’s just me. No need to think that the well has been completely depleted (not sure that’s what you’re saying). How’s Loony Toons Back in Action?
That “with space” should read “with figurative painting,” obv.
No problem — I think Walker merits as a post all by himself. Someday. As for Bresson: yes, it’s true that there’s a lot relating back to painting in the films you mentioned, but what’s important to remember is that all of these people, including Dreyer, thought of film as a dramatic medium, that the moving image was “theatre + photography” or “theatre + painting.” To Bresson, it was an inherently expressive medium. It seemed to him like a sort of painting to which other people kept adding theatre for some reason. Rivette — Rivette certainly has a very strong relationship with painting, definitely with post-war figurative painting (as Serge Daney argues very eloquently at the beginning of Claire Denis’ Jacques Rivette: The Night Watchman). And I don’t mean that Bresson completed the relationship fully — he merely made it strong enough to make it obvious regarding the rest of cinema. His films are not painting — they’re very definitely films. But in a way, I feel like he rewrote the film history that had preceded him. As for Back in Action — it’s a masterpiece. So, let me add something: before I dare to write on Scott Walker, I’ll write on the museum sequence from that film.
I think I understand, though I’m still a bit beguiled by that original line— ““now we can say Manet is cinema and that when José Luis Guerín, in In the City of Sylvia, composes a shot to resemble "A Bar at the Folies-Bergère,” he’s not referencing painting but drawing on cinema, the same way painters used to copy the compositions of masters to guide them in their work. This wasn’t true in 1910; it took Bresson to make it so.” Manet’s definitely cinema (Godard makes that case in Histoire(s)), but you’re saying that Guerin’s retake is “cinema” (whether or not it’s referencing painting) because it’s inherently expressive in ways the painting is not? That makes sense to me, but I’m not sure that’s what you’re saying. Eisenstein and Vertov and Pudovkin and Kuleshov (have you seen Hitchcock demonstrating the Kuleshov effect on TV? all were pretty explicit that cinema should have little relationship to theater, though painting’s another matter (Eisenstein saw it closer to animation and Vertov to photography—that a fair reduction?). Again, I’d say Bauer (only seen a couple) quite possibly beats Bresson, though I’m not sure chronology matters in face of what these guys achieved, and they conceived the relationship differently anyway. Have you read Nathaniel Dorsky’s little tome Devotional Cinema? Dorsky certainly knows about playing off elements in the cutting to give them meaning, but he argues that the central thing is to have pictures that don’t need to stand for anything but themselves, that are, as you say, inherently expressive. The filmmakers he cites, I think, include Rossellini, Ford, Ozu, Minnelli and maybe Hitchcock, among others. Where does Buster Keaton lie in all this?
Also Dreyer’s film criticism is worth getting ahold of. That tie to theater is obviously there, but you get passages like Dreyer talking about how for the burning of the witch in Day of Wrath he used horizontal tracking shots to set up horizontal lines of movement that would be upset by the vertical intrusion of the toppled stake. Who thinks like that besides Dorsky? Will look up Loony Toons, and thanks for the tip.
Mostly a tangent: I think the second Pirates movie does a lot of the same things that LT:Back in Action does, and better. Or, there’s maybe even more there. Or, I have more fun with sea monsters and myths and language games and conceptual animation; also, space plays a bigger part. At any rate, I, for one, have more fun with the Pirates movies. But I think I’m alone in this allegiance (in our little niche).
DP, I think Bauer, like Griffith, developed his conception of cinema around the idea of an impossible theatre — a theatre of total control. But there is painting in Bauer and Griffith, as there is theatre in Bresson. As in Keaton — Keaton can be painting, especially his saintly face. But, ultimately, cinema consumes all of these things. It rewrites its own history with every thing it swallows. I think it’s with Bresson that it really connects framing an image with figurative painting, the same way other directors make the connection to sculpture or television or video games or literature obvious. One way or another, everything becomes cinema. So what I mean is that, because Bresson makes the connection so tangible, while others might have drawn on painting, those that come after him draw on painting because it is already part of the history of cinema. I haven’t read Dorsky’s book, but I’ve heard of it, and always been a bit intrigued. I’ll check it out. RWK, You’re not alone in liking the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie, but I still prefer Back in Action. I think they do very different things, and, for all of Johnny Depp running around tied to a spit or the endless back and forths and puns, I prefer Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny running around a cartoon France full of Jerry Lewis posters.
“So what I mean is that, because Bresson makes the connection so tangible, while others might have drawn on painting, those that come after him draw on painting because it is already part of the history of cinema.” That’s a lofty claim, but an interesting one. I wish we lived in a world where cinema was never the same after Bresson. Thanks, Ignatiy, for explaining it for me.
The main difference, as I see it, is Back in Action is more pop-culture oriented in its wild splay of inheritances, and less about language. But they’re definitely both about a certain reaction to film, and animation, and cartoon existence at this moment—and all their respective flights are damned exhausting! My hurdle with Back in Action is probably those “real” leads, Jenna Elfman and Brendan Fraiser, who I don’t dislike, but don’t like a terrible ton. Or, I don’t like them as much as Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy or Keira Knightley’s cheekbones. (Heh, yeah, I will cop to the fact that Orlando and Keira are just as hollow, or paint-by-numbers, as Daffy and Bugs, tho prettier.)
what is so offending about Nazis in Basterds? Tarantino doesn’t make convictions or political statements, he makes genre films. tables have certainly turned since seventy years ago and crying over this kind of matter while Israelis continue onlslaught of Palestinians, that is what is really offending.

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