The Sticking Place

Film as a Subversive Art


This is a book about the subversion of existing values, institutions, mores, and taboos – East and West, Left and Right – by the potentially most powerful art of the century. It is a book that trafficks in scepticism towards all received wisdom (including its own), towards eternal truths, rules of art, ‘natural’ and man-made laws, indeed whatever may be considered holy. It is an attempt to preserve for a fleeting moment in time – the life of this book – the works and achievements of the subversives of film.

Subversion in cinema starts when the theatre darkens and the screen lights up. For the cinema is a place of magic where psychological and environmental factors combine to create an openness to wonder and suggestion, an unlocking of the unconscious. It is a shrine at which modern rituals rooted in atavistic memories and subconscious desires are acted out in darkness and seclusion from the outer world.

The power of the image, our fear of it, the thrill that pulls us toward it, is real. Short of closing one’s eyes – in cinema, a difficult and unprecedented act – there is no defence against it.

When Lumière‘s immortal train first pulled into that station in 1895, moving directly towards the camera, the audience shrieked. It did so again when Buñuel sliced a woman’s eyeball with a razor, when Clouzot quite literally made the dead return, when Hitchcock committed sudden murder in a shower, Franju killed animals before its eyes. The audience fainted during films of operations, vomited during birth sequences, rose in spontaneous enthusiasm at propaganda films, wept while the heroine died protractedly from leukemia, shouted with delicious anxiety during Cinerama’s rollercoaster ride, and even felt twinges of concern at being exposed to screen cholera. In the light of these manifest responses, why assume that the countless other fantasies dreamt in silence in the cinemas of the world during the last seventy years – fantasies of lust, violence, ambition, perversion, crime and romantic love – were any less powerful?

‘It is at the movies that the only absolutely modern mystery is celebrated’, said André Breton. It is appropriate that it was a surrealist who so well expressed the curious combination of technology and metaphysics that is cinema; for modern science’s realization of a continuum from the rational to the irrational relates directly to the very nature of the film-viewing process. This entails a darkened theatre, greater openness to suggestion, the semi-hypnotic trance of the viewer, the surfacing of deeper desires and anxieties, and the inhibition of reasoned response in favour of ‘gut-level’ reaction. Far from representing a defeat in man’s struggle toward consciousness, the acceptance of this inevitable duality (the flowing into each other of rationalism and irrationality) is itself a step toward the future.


The mechanics of the film-viewing process have been discussed by Mauerhofer, Kracauer, Stephenson-Debrix and others, though a comprehensive analysis remains to be undertaken. The viewer enters the theatre willingly, if not eagerly, ready for surrender, (and deeply dissatisfied later if the film is ‘bad’ and the illusion does not ‘work’). The film experience requires total darkness; the viewer must not be distracted from the bright rectangle from which huge shapes impinge on him. Unlike the low-pressure television experience (during which the viewer remains aware of room environment and other people, aided by appropriately named ‘breaks’), the film experience is total, isolating, hallucinatory. The viewer ‘forgets’ where or who he is and is offended by stray light, street or audience noises which destroy the anticipated, accepted illusion.

As soon as the lights are lowered, the huge rectangle of the screen – previously noted without interest – becomes the viewer’s total universe. What transpires here in bursts of light and darkness is accepted as life; the images reach out to him; he enters them.

The many mysteries of film begin at this moment; the acceptance of a flat surface as three-dimensional, of sudden action-, scale- or set-changes as ordinary, of a border de- limiting this fraudulent universe as normal, of black-and-white as reality. The spectator, Rudolf Arnheim points out, experiences no shock at finding a world in which depth perception has been altered, sizes and distances flattened and the sky is the same colour as the human face.

But the mysteries are only beginning. The very darkness enveloping the viewer is more complete than he realizes; for the essence of cinema is not light, but a secret compact between light and darkness. Half of all the time at the movies is spent by the transfixed victims of this technological art in complete darkness. There is no image on the screen at all. In the course of a single second, forty-eight periods of darkness follow forty-eight periods of light.

During this same infinitesimal period, every image is shown to the audience twice; and as a still photograph; for the film comes to a dead stop in the projector forty-eight times in the course of a single second. Given the retina’s inability to adjust quickly to differences in brightness, an illusion of movement is created by this rapid, stop-start series projection of still photographs, each slightly different from the one before.

Thus, during half the time spent at the movies, the viewer sees no picture at all; and at no time is there any movement. Without the viewer’s physiological and psychological complicity, the cinema could not exist.

The ‘illusion’ of film – so platitudinously invoked by journalists – is thus revealed as a far more intricate web of deception, involving the very technology of the film process and the nature of its victim’s perceptions. Could it be precisely during the periods of total darkness – 45 out of every 90 minutes of film we see – that our voracious subconscious, newly nourished by yet another provocative image, ‘absorbs’ the work’s deeper meaning and sets off chains of associations?

It is in this alien environment that the viewer willingly permits himself to be invaded by strong images, created and manipulated by a director-magician who entirely controls his vision. True, all vision, even undirected, is dynamic, and reflects, as Arnheim emphasizes, an invasion of the organism by external forces which upset the balance of the nervous system. But while in daily life the viewer can shift his focus of attention as he wishes (without losing a sense of continuity regarding his surroundings), in cinema his attention is ‘riveted’ on a pre-ordained succession of images, whose nature, tempo, sequence, and duration have been carefully constructed for maximum impact by a third party.

Removed from the real world, isolated even from fellow-viewers, the spectator falls to dream and reverie in the womb-like darkness of the theatre. Flooded by images, his unconscious is freed from customary constraints and his rational faculties are inhibited.

daliandvogelStephenson and Debrix point out that except for seeing and hearing, body and other senses are at rest in the cinema, thus allowing imagination, stimulated by the filmmaker’s emotionally charged, expressly-selected material, to exert deeper and more lasting influence. Mauerhofer refers to the viewer’s voluntary passivity and uncritical receptivity; and Kracauer emphasizes the dialectical wavering between self-absorption (leading the viewer away from the image, into personal associations triggered by it) and self-abandonment (the movement toward the image). Perhaps the state of the viewer (as Mauerhofer, the psychologist, and Breton, the surrealist, both agree) is closest to that between waking and sleeping, in which he abandons the rationality of daily life while not yet completely surrendering to his unconscious.

And the image is powerful; he cannot turn from it. For man, perhaps in response to an atavistic memory of fear or child-like joy, cannot resist the attraction of movement (when he enters a room or cinema, his eyes are inevitably drawn to the moving shapes). He cannot ‘resist’ the shocking changes caused by editing, the sudden intrusions of shapes into the frame, the cascading bursts of images flashing by at a rate faster than life, the sensuous power of the close-up looming over him. It is so much easier to turn from the action in a live play. Here the spectator has accepted its unreality (just as he accepted the film’s ‘reality’) and since he knows it cannot ‘reach out’ and attack him. he never flinches from stage as he does from screen violence. In both cases, the murdered man rises to be killed another time; but cinema is ‘closer’ to the viewer – strange tribute to the faculties of a brain more affected by two-dimensional reflections on flat canvas than by live actors performing in three-dimensional space.

And it is a tribute to the power of visuals as such. For in man’s evolution, images antedate words and thought, thus reaching deeper, older, more basic layers of the self. Man begins with what he sees, progressing to visual representations of reality. Their transmutation into art does not seem to diminish the image’ impact. As holy today as in man’s pre-history, the image is accepted as if it were life, reality, truth. It is accepted on a feeling – rather than mind-level. Significantly, it is only if the ‘suspension of disbelief’ is broken by dissatisfaction with a given film that the viewer emerges from his hypnotized state.

And yet, however ‘authentic’ the image, it remains a distortion of life. Not only does it lack depth or density, the space-time continuum, or the non-selectivity of reality, but it emphasizes certain aspects to the exclusion of others by isolating them within a fixed frame in a constantly evolving concatenation of blacks and whites, objects and ground. This magical invocation of concrete images that seemingly reflect reality while actually distorting it, sets up additional tension between film and spectator; it increases his sense of dislocation and disquiet and permits further inroads into his ever more vulnerable subconscious.

It is the powerful impact of these brightly-lit images moving in black space and artificial time, their affinity to trance and the subconscious, and their ability to influence masses and jump boundaries, that has forever made the cinema an appropriate target of the repressive forces in society – censors, traditionalists, the state. While the result has often been its inability openly to project fundamental human experiences or insights, neither repression nor fear seem able to stem an accelerating, world-wide trend towards a more liberated cinema, one in which all previously forbidden subjects are boldly explored. This evolution from taboo into freedom is the subject of this book.

© The Estate of Amos Vogel
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders