As a latecomer to the languages of art, film language is in many ways the most complex. It is visual as dance and painting are; it can tell stories as the novel can; like the theater it often involves actors. At the same time most feature films are composed of photographs of real objects (film theorists call this “pro-filmic reality”) and hence become in some sense documents of the time in which they were made. The film theorist Christian Metz has argued that a complete theory of cinema should include sociology, the history of culture, and a knowledge of aesthetics and psychology in addition to competence in the conventions of filmmaking.
All of these concerns intersect in the problem of film’s ability to produce a fictional model of the world—its mimetic quality. Cognitive psychology now tells us that we perceive the real world through “frames of representation” made up of our previous experience, our acculturation within a given sociohistorical context, and our learned strategies for dealing with unfamiliar information or situations. Thus “objective reality” will appear different to people of different cultures, classes, and historical moments. The spectator’s ability to “read” a feature film depends, additionally, upon a familiarity with intertextual frames: a knowledge of film language at its present point of development, of film genres perhaps, an appreciation for a given director’s previous work, an understanding of the narrative conventions of fiction films.
The most subtle film directors have always taken issue with the mimetic aspect of film, and some of the best of them have exploited to the fullest the paradox of cinema: at the same time that it has a photographic relation to reality, film is a discourse, sometimes a personal vision, but in any case never more than a version of the reality of which it purports to be the representation. Narrative films which call attention to their status as texts tend to subvert the spectator’s impression of the reliability and authority of the film narrator, and thus constitute cinematic contributions to what the French writer Nathalie Sarraute has called the “age of suspicion.”
Representation, which gives back to society an image of itself, is of course one of the oldest functions of art. Like the religious ritual with which it has often been associated, art reinforces a structure of beliefs that defines and limits the possibilities of identity in an otherwise chaotic and random universe. From the earliest drawings of stone age cave dwellers to today’s computerized special effects in film, the mimetic impulse has been one of the great forces in human society.
Some of the Greek myths surrounding artistic production have to do with the skill of the artist in making his representation lifelike. The artist whose work comes to life resembles a god. Pygmalion the sculptor created a woman so lifelike that she descended from her pedestal and became his wife; Orpheus the singer so charmed the rulers of the Underworld with his song that he was permitted to bring his wife Eurydice back from the dead (he lost her again when he turned and looked at her). The French critic Andre Bazin argued that film was capable of fulfilling the ancient dream of an art that was so true to life it could barely be distinguished from the real thing (today he would be writing about holography).
The recent philosophical discourse on representation has taken an interesting turn in the writings of Michel Foucault and Harold Bloom. Foucault has shown that at any given moment in history a society functions within a mental set (he calls it an “episteme,” from the Greek word for knowledge) that affects personal as well as political life, the artistic as well as the economic sphere. It is no accident, he argues, that Renaissance perspective in painting coincided with monarchic government in Europe. Both are organized forms that depend on strict hierarchy: in Renaissance painting, all the lines of the canvas are organized to be viewed from a single point: that of the spectator, who is therefore the “reified” subject.
Bloom has argued that there is a constant tension between the artist’s own inspiration and the work of his or her predecessors, what he calls the “anxiety of influence.” This is as true for the artist who professes “realism,” as it is for the artist who creates abstract art or who tries to express inner states of mind. All artists work within the inherited traditions of culture and must wrest originality from a dialogue with their precursors.
The next two chapters concern themselves with two films that problematize the issue of represenation. The first, on Ettore Scola’s La Nuit de Varennes, uses a Foucauldian perspective to discuss the way that film explores different types of storytelling. On the surface, the film is a fictionalized account of the flight of Louis XVI from Paris in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Scola makes this event into a parable for the epistemic shift that accompanied, as well as caused, the Revolution. The decline of hierarchy and authority consummated in Louis’s fall was accompanied by similar shifts in the social concept of the self and in the conventions of storytelling. Scola casts his argument in both literary and cinematic terms and shows how all these issues are interrelated. On the one hand, he includes three famous writers among his characters, each of whom exemplifies a mode of storytelling; and on the other hand, the film uses visual quotes from the history of perspective painting and from protocinematic devices such as the peepshow to demonstrate the changed status of the subject in relation to the “authoritative” text. The three writers who appear as protagonists play out the shift from the officially sanctioned art of the court to popular art. Ultimately, the filmmaker Ettore Scola makes his case for film as the heir to literature in modern times.
The second chapter takes a more Bloomian approach and focuses on François Truffaut’s anguished questioning of his cinematic muse in La Chambre verte (The Green Room). Truffaut’s concerns are shown to include both the aesthetic value of cinematic representation—its ability to reproduce life despite the unavoidable fact of death—and the place of his own work in relation to his predecessor and mentor, Jean Cocteau. La Chambre verte is Truffaut’s own eloquent statement about the value of film art as a mode of representation, and his homage to Cocteau.