‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Thoughts: Time Travel and Cinema 1

[Scattered, though. Pulling my thoughts together for a lecture I have to give at the BFI next Monday. Read these posts, and you can avoid shelling out the £6 they're charging for a ticket! Also you don't have to look at my beardy mouth opening and shutting as I say these things ...]

Movies embody 'time' materially and formally: they show the unfolding of events in motion across time, such that it's not possible to talk about their movement without acknowledging the extent to which time is the key axis of their visualities. We might want to invoke the contrast between ‘static pictures’, like Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, and moving pictures like Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. I suppose this seems straightforward enough. But of course as soon as we do tyhat, we find ourselves wanting to blur the distinction by pointing to images that imply or suggest movement, like Turner’s Rain Steam and Speed (1844)

or the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge from the later century—

of perhaps Monet’s haystacks, painted at different times of day and (if exhibited together) marking a procession of light effects through dawn or dusk. This makes a kind of sense, since motion pictures themselves are nothing more than a string of Muybridge static images—which is to say, they only imply or suggest movement, rather than actually embodying it; our own eyes’ persistence of vision does the rest. This in turn suggests that the temporality of movies is based on a kind of misallignment with the time we actually live. As to whether this latter is a successsion of distinct temporal quanta, linked together by a sort of existential persistence of perception, or a seamless plenum, is a hard metaphysical question beyond the scope of these ponderings. But I’m wondering about a different perspective on this matter. [I don't want to bog down with lots of specific Deleuzian minutiae, but this is by way of me trying to think outside the conceptual frame of Deleuze's Cinema books.]

Take paintings, for starters. It seems to me that they register the passage of time in their material form, just as a spool of film or sequence of digital data does. It’s just that they do so on a much, much longer timescale—a suprahuman scale, in fact. This kind of thing:

These cracks are one iteration the semiotic of time, signifiers of time's passage. We read them that way. These pictures move, over the longue durée, not in terms of limbs flailing and smiles widening, but in terms of the picture itself shifting, darkening, cracking and complexifying its texture.

The parallel with cinema is less vulgarly textual (although faded colour prints, crackles and blotches and so on record this mode of temporal passage) as it is formal in other ways. The most obvious case here is 'black and white'. When Spielberg shoots Schindler's List in B&W he's doing so in order to code 'historicity' into every shot of the movie. We could say: this is a pretty facile strategy (and Spielberg is of course far from the only director to do this kind of thing): films actually made in the 1940s were (mostly) shot in black and white; by shooting this 1990s film in black and white the process apes the decades in which it is set. The problem here, I suppose, is that Spielberg doesn't wholly inhabit this logic: shoot in small format rather than widescreen, shoot with grainier film, copy the stagier framing and editing strategies of 1940s cinema. But that's deliberate: the black-and-whiteness of the film is a kind of temporalising code. That this is true is made manifest by the 'girl in the red coat' sequence, where the colour cuts across our suspension of temporal disbelief. The otherwise unnamed girl is us, is modernity itself; the heritage that Nazism tried to eradicate; a fact echoed in the movie's (in colour) coda, when actual Schindlerjuden survivors place rocks on Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. Colour here equates with: our present, the film's futurity. Time travel happens on the level of form.

This connects with ideas of pastiche, of course. It's possible to 'frame' Georges Méliès (as Scorsese does in his rather dull Hugo, 2011) in a modern day movie that restages the past. But it is also possible to inhabit the idiom of Méliès, as this notable Smashing Pumpkins video does:

Colour here is the least of it: directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris use a colour palate that recalls the colourized early movie prints; but they do more with the jerky frame-rate and mannered acting and staging than with mere 'black and white'-ness ever could. I like especially that the song's title and repeating lyric stresses a romantic intensity of 'nowness'.

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