Toward a Meta-Reality of the Cinema

Pavle Levi

My starting premise will be straightforward, if somewhat unorthodox. In the wake of the invention of the cinematograph it became increasingly obvious that the mankind's ancient "dream of cinema" entailed more than just a desire for its technological realization. After all the optical, mechanical, and chemical technology came together, making possible the film-machine, this dream revealed itself as having all along existed against the background of the reality of "total" cinema. Cinema, in a sense, began to resemble a meta-language of reality.

What follows are some notes around a few key episodes from this still relatively under-explored realm of film history.

the primal scene

To begin with, the notion of the "meta-reality of the cinema" describes the conceptual logic behind a variety of Dadaist and Surrealist optical toys and vision-machines. Raoul Hausmann, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Marcel Jean, Marcel Mariën, and others, excelled in inventing extraordinary but entirely impracticable apparatuses (see picture). The purpose of these gratuitous and impossible contraptions, often artisanal in appearance, was not only to suggest novel forms of seeing, but also to expose the whole of reality as always already utterly dependent upon the mechanized technologies of vision.

By combining diverse technological and scientific fantasies with the mythos of pre-filmic innocence these optical toys emerged as peculiar extensions of the human sight and body, authorized, as it were, by the simple but profound fact that reality itself is proto-cinematic in the first degree. In Rosalind Krauss's words, these avant-garde inventions "seem to compose the paradigm for an idea of mechanical seeing—a notion… of an automatist motor turning over within the very field of the visual." 1

As the mechanization of seeing took place, the "optical unconscious" also announced its existence. 2 Using techniques such as magnification (the close-up), accelerated motion, and slow motion, the cinematograph deepened one's perception of reality by making visible the unconscious life of the spatio-temporal continuum. As Stephen Heath argues, with the advent of the cinematograph reality seems to have retroactively established itself as "a primal scene of cinema (a history that is always there before the meanings of its films and as their ultimate return)." 3 An apt illustration of this dynamic is found in plate 2 of Max Ernst's 100 Headless Woman. In this collage, the primal scene—a child's fantasy of origin—is posited as an anxiety-inducing tableaux of his/her parent's potential intercourse. The mise-en-scène of fantasy (image on the left) is conceived by the artist as a screen; this screen conceals the original scene which makes its existence possible in the first place: the moment of literally staging being, of striking a pose for the legitimizing eye of the camera (image on the right, appropriated from a newspaper).

Once they have been joined together, the two images are no longer semantically separable. Between the found picture of a photographic session and Ernst's seam-less collage, created through repression and enrichment of the original content of the former, the unconscious currents of space and time have emerged. What is more, this spatio-temporal unconscious does not—and could not--exist "on its own": it is constituted in the exact moment of its explication. In other words, there is no optical unconscious prior to its discovery by the camera's subjectivizing gaze. The optical unconscious invariably comes with a perspective "attached" to it.


Initial attempts at systematically utilizing the powerful meta-potential of the cinema took place in the highly energized context of the 1910s and 1920s Soviet revolutionary and post-revolutionary avant-garde. As is well known, filmmakers and theorists such as Lev Kuleshov, Sergei Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, and Vsevolod Pudovkin made seminal contributions to the development of film language in general and of montage in particular. What interests us here is the character of the broader conceptual context within which their rich film activity was taking place. It is the context of a widespread campaign for general "cinefication" of Soviet art and life. 4

Some aspects of this campaign were already under way in the pre-revolutionary Russian theatre. "As early as 1899," Yuri Tsivian points out, "Stanislavsky was nurturing the idea of a new stage form that he jokingly called the `cinematograph' [sinematograf]. In the vocabulary of the Moscow Art Theatre the word `cinematograph' developed as the designation for a show that presented the audience with a sequence of fragmented excerpts instead of a single action." 5 In the 1910s, the rising popularity of Delsartean physiognomy and Dalcrozean "eurhythmics" (rhythmic gymnastics) resulted in the development of what Mikhail Yampolsky termed "the new anthropology of the actor." 6 The search for ways to increase the director's control over actors' movements and gestures (a search inspired by the principles of science, the achievements of technology, and the lessons of musicology), led Segei Volkonsky, Vladimir Gardin, and, eventually, Kuleshov himself, to theorize and practically engage the cinema as an instrument regulating the rhythms of the human body. "Anna Lee" (Anna Zaitseva-Selivanova) even proposed a fascinating theory (situated by Yampolsky, with much precision, at the tail end of the pre-montagist era of Russian cinema) according to which the cranking mechanism of the camera would function as a corporeal "metronome" of sorts. During the act of filming, Anna Lee argued, the sound of the working camera would "rhythmicize" the body of the actor situated in front of the lens. 7

One of the best known post-Revolutionary experiments indebted to the spirit of general "cinefication" of art and life was carried out by the members of Lev Kuleshov's Film Workshop. Faced with a severe shortage of film stock, Kuleshov and collaborators enacted their (now legendary) "films without film": theatrical performances staged as if for the eye of the camera, structurally organized according to the various principles of shot succession, or montage. 8 Around the same time, the "Blue Blouse" theatrical collective developed a technique known as the "kino review" or "living film": they incorporated stroboscopic light designs--the "flicker effect" associated with film projection—into some of their agit-performances. 9 In the realm of the visual arts, Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitzky, and many others, similarly found inspiration in the possibilities suggested by the young medium of cinema. Malevich even produced an incomplete script for a (never-realized) Suprematist film, Art and the Problem of Architecture. Lissitzky's prouns, too, sought to extend the basic geometrical elements of Suprematism into the multi-perspectival, three-dimensional space. His About Two Squares, a children's Suprematist tale created in 1920, is a "bioscopic book" designed as a sequence of six abstract visual constructions. "The Film of El's Life" is, on the other hand, the title of Lissitzky's written autobiographical sketch in which the artist declares: "My eyes--Lenses and eye-pieces, precision instruments and reflex cameras, cinematographs which magnify or hold split seconds, Roentgen and X, Y, Z rays have all combined to place in my forehead 20, 2,000, 200,000 very sharp, polished searching eyes." 10

Aspiration toward a radical symbiosis of the human being and the film-machine, common among the Soviet Futurists and Constructivists, reached its peak in the work of Dziga Vertov. His Kino-Eye (Film-Eye) method posited the workings of the camera and the techniques of montage as superior complements of the human faculty of sight and, therefore, as the foremost epistemological tools available to the modern, socialist subject. In the words of Annette Michelson: "The evolution of his [Vertov's] work renders insistently concrete, as in a series of kinetic icons, that philosophic phantasm of the reflexive consciousness: the eye seeing, apprehending itself as it constitutes the world's visibility: the eye transformed by the revolutionary project into an agent of critical production." 11

In the spirit of Marxist understanding of reality as always, inevitably, a social reality, and of the human agent as a being of praxis—actively involved in perceiving/deciphering and changing/constructing this reality--Vertov put filmmaking in the service of the "communist decoding of reality." This desire to directly impact the world through a "montage way of seeing" is not to be misunderstood as merely an instance of Revolutionary "romanticism" or "idealism." For, Vertov developed his ideas about the role of the filmmaker in the master project of building the Soviet society by following a scientifically and mathematically inspired line of thinking. At the origin of his cinematic pursuit of truth and knowledge is the presupposition of montage as no less than a structuring principle of reality itself. While a filmmaker relies on the tools of editing to articulate a specific set of relations among the chosen (filmed) "facts," the reality at large is already underwritten by an innumerable set of possible montage-patterns. "To find amid all these mutual reactions, these mutual attractions and repulsions of shots, the most expedient `itinerary' for the eye of the viewer, to reduce this multitude of `intervals' (the movements between shots) to a simple visual equation, a visual formula expressing the basic theme of the film-object in the best way: such is the most important and difficult task of the author-editor." 12

The notion of the "interval"—to some extent indebted to the unhinging of space and time made possible by Einstein's theory or relativity--is particularly important to note here. As the marker of contact, of a momentary interaction between two or more visual and auditory "movements" (stimuli, or "facts"), the "interval" condenses the essence of Vertov's thoroughly dynamic understanding of the world as characterized by an incessant process of structuration (a "permanent structural revolution," one might say). However, as Michelson points out, the "theory of intervals" also enacts "a displacement of the principle of montage, which now governs not only the editing of all the visual parameters of the film text, but becomes the operative compositional principle invoked at every level or stage of the labor process. ... Montage is a process now expanded well beyond the work at the editing table, no longer restricted to the composition of the image (or later to the soundtrack), but now governs all stages or parameters of production. Vertov's theorization of montage is, like that of Eisenstein, aimed toward the construction of a totalizing structural principle." 13

In Vertov's own elaboration:

"By editing, artistic cinema usually means the splicing together of individual filmed scenes according to a scenario, worked out to a greater or lesser extent by the director.
The kinoks attribute a completely different significance to editing and regard it as the organization of the visible world.

The kinoks distinguish among:

  1. Editing during observation--orienting the unaided eye at any place, any time.
  2. Editing after observation--mentally organizing what has been seen, according to characteristic features.
  3. Editing during filming--orienting the aided eye of the movie camera in the place inspected in step 1.
    Adjusting for the somewhat changed conditions of filming.
  4. Editing after filming--roughly organizing the footage according to characteristic features. Looking for the montage fragments that are lacking.
  5. Gauging by sight (hunting for montage fragments)--instantaneous orienting in any visual environment so as to capture the essential link shots. Exceptional attentiveness.
    A military rule: gauging by sight, speed, attack.
  6. The final edit--revealing minor, concealed themes together with the major ones. Reorganizing all the footage into the best sequence. Bringing out the core of the film-object. Coordinating similar elements, and finally, numerically calculating the montage groupings." 14

the surplus of technology

"Life. The film studio. And the movie camera at its socialist post." 15 This is how Vertov concluded his 1929 proposal for The Man with a Movie Camera, the film that would be widely celebrated as his masterpiece. In the 1930s, in his well-known essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin offered a peculiar theoretical extension of the same premise. In section XI of the essay, Benjamin speculates on the exact place and the role of film technology in what he posits as the meta-cinematic reality. "The shooting of a film, especially of a sound film," writes Benjamin, "affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting machinery, staff assistants, etc.—unless his eye were on a line parallel with the lens." In the process of shooting a film, Benjamin continues, "the mechanical equipment has penetrated so deeply into reality" that the "pure," "equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid [a `blue flower'] in the land of technology." 16

Not only is reality here understood as a form of cinema; from the outset it is also imagined as a technologically grounded reality—an infinite sound-stage (a studio set) upon which the film of reality is continuously being shot! This, in turn, allows Benjamin to allegorize the "equipment-free" state of existence—a natural, unmediated experience of the world--as predicated upon the alignment of one's (subjective) perspective with the eye of the camera. It is only then that the looking subject can occupy the ground zero of what is exposed as, in fact, a delusion of pure reality. It is as if our lives take place in a reality that is really a technological spectacle of shooting an infinite film in which we are the central protagonists. Furthermore, it would seem that an ontological awareness of things being thus was only made possible with the invention of the cinematograph, through the practice of filmmaking to which it gave rise. Cinematography re-defined reality as the register of "The making of…," the unfolding of the ultimate "film without film."

the code

The cinematographic apparatus may be said to have made visible for the first time a set of dynamic relations that have all along constituted the "diagrammatic" structure underlying the human subject's (psycho-physiological) interaction with the world. Still, this "cinematic design" of reality could be accessed only indirectly, obliquely. The invention of the cinematograph was, then, a radical event that both opened and shut the door toward universal knowledge. It marked an encounter with the Cinema as an ineffable metalanguage. 17 In the early 1950s, Isidore Isou, the leader of the Letterist movement, aptly described this re-conceptualization of living reality brought about by the cinema's technological normativization and subsequent ubiquity: "Even if nothing was any longer on the screen, and a man was to be seen walking between the rows [of theatre seats], his walk, as such, would be meaningless if it did not express an attitude toward a universe saturated with reproductions. In the eyes of the savages who never attended a screening, this walk would represent an entirely ordinary action. In the eyes of those expecting to witness a film presentation, it would acquire the significance of a sacrilege. The living being that would appear instead of the usual recorded images, would be enclosed in the aura of an entire mass of reproductions that commonly emanate from the screen." 18

Cinema, the inaccessible metalanguage of reality. This is also one of the central postulates of Pier Paolo Pasolini's film theory, especially emphasized in his final writings from the early 1970s. Having already posited (in the mid-1960s) cinema as "the written language of reality" and reality itself as "an infinite long take," Pasolini drew a key distinction between the Cinema--understood as an eliding totality of reality expressing "itself with itself"--and the multitude of specific films (texts) in which this totality is given concrete but, ultimately, always partial and, therefore, incomplete forms. 19 Pushing this distinction to its limit in some of his last theoretical texts, Pasolini developed an entirely non-figural, relational understanding of the Cinema: it constitutes the "rhythmeme," the "abstract and spiritual" spatio-temporal code of reality, which the cinematographic practice translates into the audio-visual, film language. 20 Placing at the center of his analysis the elementary (hypothetical) situation of "a Woman looking at a Plain," the poet and filmmaker claimed: "If I were a computer I could make a chart—in which the spatial relationships are indicated by little squares and the temporal relationships are indicated by lines—in which it would be possible to represent graphically the entire gamut of the semantic and expressive possibilities of the narrative relationship of that Woman with that Plain." 21

As the diagrammatic "code" of reality, the Cinema, according to Pasolini, ciphers both

a) our psycho-physiological experiences of reality—for instance, one's natural perception of "a woman looking at a plain"; and

b) the cinematographic capture of reality—its appearance in a series of distinct film shots.

Furthermore, in both cases the spatio-temporal relations contained in the cinematic code are transcribed into one and the same language of audio-visual representation. The difference between the two resides for Pasolini in the fact that human perceptual and sensorial experiences of the world (a. above) foreground the relational indeterminacy of the Cinema (the lack of directional precision associated with its diagrammatic nature), whereas the cinematographic capture of reality (b. above) eliminates all ambiguity from the audio-visual language. In films, editing "splices" (cuts) most commonly intervene to distribute cinematic relations into those that are included and those that are excluded, the present (presented) and the absent (excluded) spatio-temporal entities.

the tracking shot of history

A rare example of film practice systematically derived from an understanding of the Cinema as, indeed, a "rhythmeme"—as an abstract spatio-temporal code translated into a multitude of concrete audio-visual inscriptions on the strip of film—is found in the directorial method of the Hungarian Marxist filmmaker Miklós Jancsó. Throughout the late 1960s and the early 1970s, in a manner unique in film history, Jancsó composed his trademark complicated sequence-shots, not according to the imperatives of action/content they were supposed to depict, but according to the (initially) "content-less" patterns of camera movement, determined and rehearsed before any specific action has been "assigned" to them. Having attended the filming of his Electra, My Love, Gideon Bachmann instructively summarized Jancsó's directorial approach: "[B]y the time he shoots, the work of making the film has already been practically finished. Putting it on film and sticking it together is only a requirement of the commercial need to get it seen." 22 According to Bachmann, "[t]he actual preparations for the day's kep [Hungarian term for "extremely long take"] begin with the laying of the track. There is always a track, sometimes 60 or 70 feet long, curving in and out of the buildings, like a children's train set. But considering the complexities and acrobatics which the camera performs along its lines, these are remarkably simple, sometimes forming half an ellipse or the form of two `J's, joined at the top and standing on each other, or just half or three-quarters of a slightly squashed circle." 23 Rehearsals would begin early in the day:

"It can take a whole morning, and sometimes a whole day, often leaving just enough time before the light goes out to shoot the take. The best description I can think of that might resemble the movements being rehearsed is a fish tank full of water, enormously enlarged to include the entire set with actors, camera, tracks and crew, with the camera representing a delectable lady-fish aimlessly gliding about in her three-dimensional realm, pursued by every living thing in sight. For despite the fact that ostensibly it is she, the camera, that observes what surrounds her and moves to do so, in reality every movement is being planned for her and every action exists only for her approval. Thus order is reversed: it is reality which is set in motion by deft manipulation in order to be at the right place at the right time. As soon as she has passed them, actors jump up, throw off a costume or don another, run ahead of her along her planned path, and crouch down again ready for another fleeting close-up. … That is why the line of the track can be relatively simple: the major part of the movement is orchestrated for the camera in a ballet of calculated fabrication." 24

During the shooting of a Miklós Jancsó film it is, then, the actors who follow the elaborate tracking choreography performed by the camera, not the other way around. The camera does not simply "cover" the action; rather, the protagonists' actions provide the content that is fitted into the a priori patterned movements of the filming apparatus. The tracks along which the camera is moving outline, as if in a diagram, a non-determinate dynamic structure: Cinema as a relational Master Code. The "second degree" procedure of filming actual diegetic actions fleshes out this abstract matrix, giving it a variety of particular audio-visual forms. In films intent on exploring the history of class struggle (the fundamental theme of Jancsó's cinema, from The Round Up, to The Red and the White, to The Red Psalm, to Electra, My Love), this approach gives rise to a sense of History as inherently and unavoidably dialectical. The human subject's mandate is to accept it as such, and to participate in it. In other words, Jancsó does not use the camera to interpret history dialectically—to detect, in different epochs and socio-economic constellations, examples of an ongoing struggle between classes, between the oppressor and the oppressed. Instead, he creates filmed testimonies to his conviction that History, much like the Cinema, is an always already dialectical but, initially, also an empty Structure. The actual praxis of human history is, in turn, not unlike the practice of filmmaking: the particular manner in which the abstract cinematic Code is actualized in individual films (giving rise to distinct filmic enunciations), is analogous to the manner in which the dialectical Structure of History is brought to life by the human protagonists' concrete socio-political actions, undertaken amidst the specific circumstances of their existence.

Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), p.53.
See Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1967).
Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), p.224.
I rely here on James Goodwin's book Eisenstein, Cinema, and History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp.31-32.
Yuri Tsivian, "Early Russian cinema: some observations," Inside the Film Factory, eds. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (London: Routledge, 1991), p.9.
Mikhail Yampolsky, "Kuleshov's experiments and the new anthropology of the actor," Inside the Film Factory, pp.31-50.
See Kuleshov On Film: Writings of Lev Kuleshov, ed. Ronald Levaco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), p.10.
For an informative overview of the activities of the Blue Blouse theater group see: František Deák, "Blue Blouse (1923-1928)," The Drama Review: TDR v.17, n.1 (March 1973).
El Lissitzky, "The Film of El's Life," in El Lissitzky: Life, Letters, Texts, ed. Sophie Lissitzky-Kuppers (Greenwich, Connecticut: New York Graphic Society, Ltd, 1968), p.325.
Annette Michelson, "Introduction," Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), p.xix.
Dziga Vertov, "From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye," Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, p.91.
Annette Michelson, "Wings of Hypothesis: On Montage and the Theory of the Interval," in Montage and Modern Life: 1919-1942, ed. Matthew Teitelbaum (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), pp.71-72.
Vertov, "From Kino-Eye to Radio-Eye," pp.72-73.
Vertov, "The Man with a Movie Camera (A Visual Symphony)," Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, p.289.
Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," pp.232-233.
Here it is useful to evoke Andrew Cutrofello's explication of Jacques Lacan's claim that "there is no meta-language": "To formalize a language would be to translate its terms into a set of fixed symbols and to specify a finite number of axioms that would govern the production of sentences in language. Such a formalized language would itself be a matheme—that is, a discourse that could serve as the repository of a mathesis universalis. … To say that there is no such thing as a metalanguage is to say that the task of constructing such a universal discourse could never be completed. At a minimum, Lacan suggests, it would always be necessary to motivate the metalanguage through some other discourse. Thus the attempt to translate everything into a formal discourse is subject to either of two possible failures: on the one hand, the translation is completed, with the result that the symbols become hermetically inscrutable; on the other hand, one retains a discourse that can motivate the symbols, in which case the translation is never completed." See Andrew Curtofello, "The Ontological Status of Lacan's Mathematical paradigms," in Reading Seminar XX, eds. Suzanne Barnard and Bruce Fink (Albany: State University of New York Press; 2002), p.142.
Jean-Isidore Isou, "Estetika filma," Filmske sveske v.5 n.1 (Jan-March 1973), p.29.
See: "The Written Language of Reality," "Observations on the Sequence Shot," and "Res Sunt Nomina," all included in: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism (Washington, DC: New Academic Publishing; 2005).
Pasolini, "The Theory of Splices," Heretical Empiricism, pp.284-285.
Pasolini, "The Theory of Splices," p.287.
Gideon Bachmann, "Jancsó Plain," Sight & Sound 43 (Autumn 1974), p.217.
Ibid, p.220.
Ibid., italics added.