The Filmic Experience

by Brian Bergen-Aurand


The Myths of Blind Cinema

Imagine film, or more precisely, the filmic experience in relation to three figures: Gyges, Butades, and Medusa (in contrast to Polyphemus). These three figures, or more precisely, the relations among these three figures raise for us the possibility of addressing the flimic experience in terms of a man seeing without being seen, a woman tracing the shadow of her departing lover, and a woman transformed into a visage that can only be viewed in reflection. Imagine the filmic experience through these three figures of the play between seeing and not seeing, the tension between photographia (“light writing”) and skiagraphia (“shadow writing”), and the movement among reflection, memory, mourning, desire, and embodiment, and all the relations they mark, and the experience begins to open to the image of a fourth figure–that of Justitia, the feminine figure of blind justice–the traces of which always already haunt these other imagined relations.

In The World Viewed, Stanley Cavell reflects on the ontology of film by asking after the magic of cinematic reproduction:

How do movies reproduce the world magically? Not by literally presenting us with the world, but by permitting us to view it unseen. This is not a wish for power over creation (as Pygmalion’s was), but a wish not to need power, not to have to bear its burdens. It is, in this sense, the reverse of the myth of Faust. And the wish for invisibility is old enough. Gods have profited from it, and Plato tells it in Book II of the Republic as the myth of the ring of Gyges. In viewing films, the sense of invisibility is an expression of modern privacy or anonymity. It is as though the world’s projection explains our forms of unknownness and of our inability to know. The explanation is not so much that the world is passing us by, as that we are displaced from our natural habitation within it, placed at a distance from it. The screen overcomes our fixed experiences; it makes displacement appear as our natural condition.

While Plato’s myth of the cave warns about the falsity or incompleteness of the shadows we see, the myth of Gyges reminds us that in the cinematic experience, we remain unseen–power and knowledge are not at stake here. Gyges is not Faust either. Rather, the filmic experience displaces us, alters our position, interrupts our habitation, habits, and habitus. Gyges, of course, is a grave robber who seduces a woman and murders a man in their own home. Rather than a question of ontology or epistemology at the origin, the filmic experience opens with questions of ethics.

Writing about shadows, the origin of painting, and the myth of Butades, Hagi Kenaan imagines how the image of this woman between eros and thanatos, between desire and death opens the field of the aesthetic…to ethics:

Perhaps, it is not at all “the ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry” that echoes in Butades’s story, but the reverberation of the very depth of an intimacy which is intrinsic to the relationship of philosophy and poesis, thinking and seeing, truth and visuality?

The key to deciphering Pliny’s images thus lies in our ability to see that the crux of this image isn’t the visual product or object made by Butades as much as it is the actual making of the painting (in Pliny’s tale it is, in fact, only the father who is preoccupied with art as a product). What’s at stake here is, in other words, the specificity of the new gesture called “painting”: Butades’s act, the disposition and orientation it presupposes, the response and responsibility it embodies…. The focus of Pliny’s myth is a form of response to the world…. [A response to the world that] takes place at the crossroad of desire and the experience of loss….

Her act is not an attempt to replace absence with a new form of presence but, on the contrary, it reflects an attempt to create a new place for her self in between the opposite poles of absence and presence…. The act of the Corinthian maid is neither a something nor a nothing. It is, to use Vladimir Jankelvitch, a presque rien. And it is in this location of infinitesimality that painting originates. This is where the field of the aesthetic opens up.

The field of the aesthetic opens up…but to what? It opens to questions of the encounter, to questions of response and responsibility, to questions of ethics between love and loss. Butades’s gesture opens the aesthetic to responsibility through a displacement. Her lover visits her at her home to deliver the news of his departure, and his visit displaces her from her habits and calls her to perform this significant almost-nothing. Here, Butades is not engaged in representing but in remembering and responding.

Finally, in the epilogue to Theory of Film, Siegfried Kracauer draws us further in to/and out of questions of the aesthetic, ethical, and embodied aspects of the cinematic experience:

The moral of the myth [of Medusa and Perseus] is, of course, that we do not, and cannot see actual horrors because they paralyze us with blinding fear; and that we shall know what they look like only by watching images of them which reproduce their true appearance. These images have nothing in common with the artist’s imaginative rendering of an unseen dread but are in the nature of mirror reflections. Now of all the existing media the cinema alone holds up a mirror to nature. Hence our dependence on it for the reflection of happenings which would petrify us were we to encounter them in real life. The film screen is Athena’s polished shield.

The mirror reflections of horror are an end in themselves. As such they beckon the spectator to take them in and thus incorporate into his memory the real face of things too dreadful to be beheld in reality. In experiencing the rows of calves’ heads or the litter of tortured human bodies in the films made of the Nazi concentration camps, we redeem horror from its invisibility behind the veils of panic and imagination. And this experience is liberating in as much as it removes a most powerful taboo. Perhaps Perseus’ greatest achievement was not to cut off Medusa’s head but to overcome his fears and look at its reflection in the shield. And was it not precisely this feat which permitted him to behead the monster?

The film screen is female god’s polished shield. The filmic experience, by not showing us directly, allows us to look at the visage of the woman who must remain unseen. The filmic experience does not represent or reveal as much as it begins in blindness, in not seeing, in displacing our vision.

Imagining the filmic experience through the relations between the figures of Gyges, Butades, and Medusa opens the relation between ethics and aesthetics to questions of gender and sexuality, hospitality and homelessness, and blindness and insight. Antonin Artaud once wrote that cinema is “a collision (incision?) enacted on the eye.” Perhaps he was right to describe the filmic experience in terms of the blinding at the origin of the cinema.


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