In its seizure, the image nauseates. From the void calm of the opening title, the image leaps into motion. It stutters and spits, the lens-eye in a rhythmical frenzy tracks back and forth over the minutiae of movement. It is sending pulses of affect to the audience, who begin to rock in their chairs, along to the broken robotic eroticism before them, their bodies infected by the replication of the broken movement. It is here we are inaugurated into a new pathology of the audiovisual. It is a disease that lies dormant within the fundamental constitution of the image-body that in a blink rears its spasmodic head. The cineseizure is both the mechanism of this convulsing cinema, and the method for its interpretation.
The three films included in Martin Arnold: The Cineseizure (1989–98) are an intervention of sorts into the moving image. Through the use of an optical printer, Martin Arnold has captured a prototypical Hollywood scene in its constituent parts – still by still – so wielding the power to reconstitute its fluidity or instability as he wishes. The first film, Piéce Touchée (1989) begins with a woman sitting in an armchair, reading a newspaper. At first the image seems static. But in time, through the tingling movement of her fingers, we see that the frames are being switched in quick succession, barely perceptibly. Throughout the film, the movement gains momentum until, carousel-like, Arnold is flipping the image side to side and upside down. The 15-minute film is assembled from an 18-second clip from The Human Jungle (Newman, 1954), transforming the otherwise banal scene into a convulsive, futile passage. In these moments Arnold deconstructs the moving image, yet simultaneously allows for its emphatic reconstruction. It is a study in visual pathology, the “normal” healthy image as fluid, continuous and unitary is reinstalled into our visual memory, as the moving image proper.
The unvoiced hiss energy radiates from one to the other. Caught in a sado-stroboscopic embrace, the lovers judder toward each other, each smile and breath cruelly repeated; we wait, frustratingly on the verge of the kiss that refuses to materialize. And when it finally does occur, its robotic eroticism fails to excite. It is an intimacy of impotence, manipulated by Arnold himself. In the wheeze of Garland’s smile, and the menacing hiss of Rooney’s descent into the frame, their eyes flutter in seizure, rolling back into their empty heads as if to escape the endless gyration they are locked into. Here, their blinking seems to reveal the cinematic heartbeat; each glimmer of the eyelid figures the 24 frames in halted movement.
In his theory of film Siegfried Kracauer suggested that the prime function of cinema is to reveal and record physical reality, for cinema functions as an “ectomnemonic device” – a displaced and mechanical locus of memory (Kracauer in Lippit 2). In the context of Arnold’s films, we might address the archeological nature of the moving image, for in his shaking and jarring of Hollywood scenes, Arnold releases its implicit prescriptivism, its insidious ideology; Deleuze writes that visual images are “archaeologies of the present” (Deleuze 243) – suggesting that memory has a complex temporality that is both past and instantaneous.
Cinema therefore delivers a virtually immediate memory of everyday life, “…a kind of mechanical nostalgia of the mundane, a mnemic texture to the flow of everyday life…” (Lippit 2). The cinematic, through its ability to reflect the images of the everyday, is able to blur the line between interior and exterior, for it contains instants of memory that transcend the optical divide. Kracauer writes that in our contemporary moment “…the flood of photos sweeps away the dams of memory. The assault of this mass of images is so powerful, that it threatens to destroy the potentially existing awareness of crucial traits” (Kracauer 58). Our overexposure to our own likeness realigns the relation between memory and the image, smoothing over the seams of composition and illusion, (re)presenting them to the viewing eyes as reflections, rather than as constructions. In this context, is it possible to unfurl and amplify, both visually and phonologically, these unconscious inscriptions of a moving image? And how might this formally take place?
As we watch a film, the continuous act of recognition in which we are involved is like a strip of memory, unrolling beneath the images of the film itself, to form the invisible under layer of implicit double exposure. (Maya Deren)
Deren’s suggestion quoted above points toward the two crucial factors in the relation between cinema and memory. Firstly, that in the act of watching we recognize the conventions that are in place: it is an act of recalling of cinema’s narrative content through the constellations of social relations proposed within. Secondly, it requires recognition of its formal structures – that it moves forward, fluidly, continuously, that it will not undo its own illusion by a boom in shot or a reflection of the cameraman. It is in the disturbance of these conventions that their embedded character within our perceptual expectation is revealed. The ‘original’ versions of Arnold’s scenes are archetypal: the wife awaiting her husband, tapping her fingers in anticipation of his return. Or the kiss – the lovers gazing toward each other, moving their faces closer as the music swells in recognition of the climatic intimacy. Hollywood cinema, in particular, consistently reproduces these scenes in slight variation, and so they take on a prescriptivism that radiates from the screen to the viewer.
In seizure, our expectation is revealed. The hollow figures within point toward a ‘double’ exposure, for we are haunted by their missing normality; Arnold chooses a scene of comfortable domestic familiarity, yet the figures jerk and rut before us, stripped of any illusion of subjectivity, and expose the dark side of Hollywood’s prescriptivism. The figures are seized in a possessive sense by Arnold’s manipulation and in a physical sense by the tectonic rumbling of the image, and so they point toward the social conventions implicitly and explicitly inscribed within. And in the case of The Cineseizure it produces an inescapable sexuality.
James Leo Cahill explicitly makes the link between the cinematic seizure and sex, for the inane rutting of the figures neurotically reminds us of sexual rhythms. Cahill finds that classical writers such as Aristotle, Hippocrates and Democritus made easy association of the two; in On Sleep And Walking, Aristotle linked sleep and sexual intercourse with epilepsy, and Hippocrates described sexual intercourse as “a slight epileptic attack” (Cahill 4). Especially in Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998), Arnold’s manipulations reveal a disturbing oedipal complex beneath the seemingly normal gestures, as the son kisses his mother’s cheek, her slowed expression suggests a deep pleasure, yet slightly mournful. Here, they are seized by slow motion, possessed by the slowed editing, caught in a stretched attack of craving and desire. The mother’s half-blinking eyes showing her physical gratification at their closeness, Andy’s otherwise ‘innocent’ hand on her arm is slowed to reveal the tender movements of his fingers, his grip pulling at her clothing: it is a scene of drugged, lolling eroticism that is both revealed yet also enforced by Arnold himself.
Deleuze argues that “the visual image shows the structure of society, its situation, its places, and functions, the attitudes and roles, the actions and reactions of individuals, in short the form and the contents” (Deleuze 225). But it does not just show them; it is a feedback loop that escalates through each reemanation, prescribing its ideological narrative on the viewer while at once reinscribing it within the image; the wife awaiting her husband shows an idealized relation between genders, it casts a social context that is presented as a reflection of ‘life,’ yet in turn asks for that life to be true of the citizen/viewer. It is in response to this radiation of the ‘norm’ that Arnold calls Hollywood “the cinema of exclusion, reduction and denial, a cinema of repression. There is always something behind that which is being represented, which was not represented” (Arnold in Lippit 2). Arnold’s work builds a topography of popular culture and its unconscious “its counterpoint in madness” (Lippit 5).
It does seem that through Arnold’s formal approach, the implicit normative phantasms are aired, for we gain insight into the micro economies of gestures that are perceived on a different register. The optical printer devotes a forensic attention to gesture; each tiny movement becomes explosively significant. Yet is this an uncovering of the cinematic unconscious, as Lippit suggests? Walter Benjamin wrote that films do indeed invoke traces of our unconscious, for they allow a “telescoping of the past through the present” (Benjamin in Coles 9). The past haunts the present image with an atemporality that is based on a recognition, which cannot be situated within a certain time and space. Instead, it is perhaps as Derrida suggests, “historical, but not dated” (Derrida in Cahill 9). True, the manipulation of the image reveals a certain perception of the image-memory, recognition, realization, perhaps it does free “a message that is in conflict with what is actually being said, that wants to be expressed” (Arnold in Macdonald 11). Yet it seems that Arnold’s method creates an inescapably analytic stance precisely because of the optical printer’s fine-grained reading of the moving image, and by reversing cinema’s usual reception, for it “[sustains] the demand for what is withheld, unjustly repressed, or made invisible and silent by normative conventions of narrative cinema” (Cahill 10). But is this a revealing of an unconscious, or merely a more analytical reading of the image enabled by breaking it down?
It is true that in Arnold’s manipulations, a darker side to the image emerges, sliding out over the Hollywood gloss and reminding us of its violent “double exposure,” yet what we are watching is nothing more than repetitions overloaded with variations of sexuality, violence, and melancholy. It is a kind of live edit of Freudian analysis – that behind every stir is a sexual drive, behind every blink a suppressed oedipal desire.
In the second part of The Cineseizure, in a scene from To Kill a Mockingbird (Mulligan, 1962), Jem is telling his sister to “hurry up” eating her dinner, so that they can leave the table to play. The parents, sitting side by side, watch. Except it does not go so smoothly. In twelve minutes, the two children can barely leave their chairs, caught in an epileptic fit of dizzying proportions. What is clever about Arnold’s manipulation is that he leaves the “base” scene just visible; he does not distort the cinematic rhythm so much as we fail to recognize its origin. Instead, we are haunted by our own expectation, nauseatingly disturbed by the rattling attack of the seized door, the repetitive kick of the boy’s sneer, the menacing thrusts of the father figure, whose movement seems to be mirrored by the flinches of the wife beside – for we know how it should be. Among many things, the manipulation reveals the cinematic gaze as a bodily practice that has become inscribed physically within us.
Cahill, James Leo. The Cineseizure. Vienna: ARGE Index. 2006. Print.
Coles, Alex. The Optic of Walter Benjamin. London, Black Dog Publishing, 1999. Print.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time Image. London, Continuum Publishing, 1985. Print.
Kracauer, Siegfried. “Photography.” The Mass Ornament. Ed. Thomas Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1995. Print.
Lippit, Akira M. “Martin Arnold’s Memory Machine.” Afterimage, The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism 24.6 (1997). Web. 20 April 2011.
Macdonald, Scott. Interview with Martin Arnold. A Critical Cinema III: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998. 347–62. Print.