The intertext constitutes meaning as the work involved in seeking it.1
By the combination of two “depictables” is achieved the representation of something that is graphically undepictable […].
But this is -- montage!
Yes. It is exactly what we do in the cinema […].2
[T]he film essay enables the filmmaker to make the “invisible” world of thoughts and ideas visible on the screen. Unlike the documentary film that presents facts and information, the essay film produces complex thought—reflections that are not necessarily bound to reality, but can also be contradictory, irrational, and fantastic.3
We [film critics and scholars] can now “write” using the very materials that constitute our object of study: moving images and sounds. But doing this demands re-thinking conventional critical forms. Lots of experimenting must be done [...].4
What has always interested me most in film studies is the exploration of what Gérard Genette called “transtextuality,” that is to say, the range of ways in which one film may be brought into relation, whether manifest or hidden, with other films.5 Sometimes this interest has alighted on matters of cultural influence and film authorship.6 But, often, my work has addressed the recognition of cinematic interconnectedness, within the specific fields of transtextuality that Genette called “hypertextuality” and “intertextuality.”7 The latter is also the term that Russian writer Mikhail Iampolski used for his complex explorations of sometimes unlikely, or “anomalous,” figurative connections between films in his 1998 book The Memory of Tiresias.8
Intertextuality” as Iampolski sees it is an especially helpful concept in working through the many conscious and unconscious processes by which “sources” — other texts or films — are used by filmmakers, as well as the intricacies of the chains of associations that come to produce the energy and force of individual films for spectators.9 As Helen Grace writes of his work,
[intertextuality] understands the relation between the text and its precursor less in a hierarchical sense and more as an exchange, which adds to both text and source and so it breaks out of the logic of “original versus copy,” which has dominated much of the discussion of this problem […].10
As Iampolski himself puts it, “the intertextual field of certain texts can be composed of ‘sources’ that were actually written after them.”
By inserting the “source” of a cinematic figure into a film as its subtext, the intertext can also function as a generative mechanism. This also implies a new approach to cinematic language, one distinct from traditional semiotic analysis, which normally limits its reading of a figure to the confines of a given film (or group of films).11
Iampolski wasn’t writing about literal forms of “insertion,” of course, but about a process of intertextually motivated reading.12 At the time his book was published, experiments with digital forms of textuality, or with academic audiovisual “quotation,” were still in their relative infancy. But a decade and a half later, in an age of increasing digital and multimedia scholarship, indeed, of “expanded film studies,”13 how better to explore filmic connections and ‘insertions’ of different kinds than to take Iampolski at his word, and experiment with working them through generatively and practically, in this way?
The above video essay was my first attempt at a scholarly kind of “mash up.”14 I wanted to examine the obvious and obscure connections between the two films from which it extracts in ways that were both striking and, hopefully, more precisely illuminating with regard to their form as films than comparisons performed purely in a non-audiovisual format might be.
The form finally taken by my True likeness video, however, was inspired by a written text: Brigitte Peucker's 2010 essay “Games Haneke Plays: Reality and Performance.”15 I had been researching the representation of filmmaking and acting in Michael Haneke’s 2000 film Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys (original title: Code inconnu: Récit incomplet de divers voyages). Peucker's essay opens by setting out, very powerfully, some thoughts on those topics that coincided with my own and others’ starting point on this film:16
Time and again Code Unknown presents us with sequences that promote confusion between the diegetic reality of the film and a performance within it, sequences that promote the spectators' uncertainty about the status of the image. [...]
In moving between illusion and diegetic truth, Code Unknown provokes in its spectator an uncertainty that is decidedly disturbing: its ludic dimension crosses over into sadistic tricking. But then the film's compelling images catch us up again - at least until we play the spectator game of assembling its narrative fragments, until we try to decipher the film's governing code. This code too remains unknowable.17
Peucker argues that this unknowability begins with the little girl's charade at the beginning of Haneke's film. Later in her chapter, though, she introduces her highly original argument that, at least in some of the above concerns, Haneke's film “borrows” from Michael Powell's 1960 film Peeping Tom. For her, this is especially the case with regard to Code Unknown's “French New Wave-story.” This story, one of a number of the multi-protagonist strands in Haneke's film, features Juliette Binoche as Anne, an actress with a live-in partner, Georges (Thierry Neuvic), a war photojournalist who takes hidden camera shots of metro passengers (in a likely echo of Walker Evans' “Many Are Called” project).18 Peucker writes,
In Powell's film, the central character's sadomasochistic project is to capture on film the quintessential image of (female) fear, “the true expression” of fear, as you will recall, this is what the psychopath — or director — wants from Anne [in Code Unknown].19
In addition to the above comparison, by pointing out a few other plot similarities between Code Unknown and Powell's film and by referring to what she regards as the “detached, cold [and cruel] tone” of them both,20 Peucker compellingly (and at length) argues that “Peeping Tom looms large” in Haneke's work as a whole. She adds that Powell's film functions as “more than a gloss on Haneke's films, serving as a possible source both for their mini-narratives of child abuse and for a modernist fascination with self-reflexivity and form.”21
When I started exploring digitised footage from both films in a video editor, not only was I easily able to find some more audiovisual evidence for Peucker’s brilliant observations about what Peeping Tom specifically “lends” Code Unknown, but I could also see that these observations themselves could be taken quite a lot further. Working through the idea of Peucker's “gloss” (a kind of “invisible note in the margin” of Haneke's films), it struck me that Peeping Tom could also be deployed audiovisually, as a cypher-machine through which one might perform a “cryptanalysis” of the enigmatic, and incompletely told, Code Unknown. Given that Peeping Tom's screenplay was itself written by wartime cryptographer Leo Marks, this would, of course, be a classic Hanekian funny game.
It would hopefully be an unnecessary tautology to re-summarise in writing everything that True Likeness already presents in sounds and images about the connections it generates between the two films. But, after I made this video I did write up the following observations:22
The experience of making this mash up ultimately led me to disagree strongly with one element in Peucker's argument: that Peeping Tom has a “detached, cold [and cruel] tone” to match its cold and cruel narrative events. Being exposed so much to the remarkable musical score of Powell's film — by working through it — as well as to its highly expressive visual design, revealed to me, at least, a deeply elegiac, although certainly also self-reflexive film that does succeed in mourning the otherwise irreversible effects (in its plot) of parental sins being visited on children. Juxtaposing, or overlaying, some of the expressive sensibility of Powell's film with Code Unknown's cooler, more “documentary,” aesthetic may work to supplement our experience of Haneke's film with a hitherto deliberately incomplete affect. This would be a provocative audiovisual accompaniment, indeed, for the later film's own stories of often weeping, frightened, bewildered, and inadequately recognised child and adult characters.
With their precise juxtapositions of film material, which unfold in real space and time, video essays, or assemblages, like the one above, can introduce us to the “unconscious optics” of particular instances of intertextuality.23 Clearly, as I noted, one of the elements that True Likeness’s sequential montage can show more precisely than other formats is the uncanny resemblance of the blocking in certain sequences of the two films. Indeed, the video montage allows us not just to know this, but also to experience it, powerfully, sensually, in part through its affectively charged morphing aesthetic. It is this aspect, I believe, that comprises much of the new knowledge discovered through and articulated in my research. My video doesn’t just illustrate Brigitte Peucker’s argument about Peeping Tom and Code Unknown, or my additions to it: it expands upon these, and then goes on to present new, phenomenological, as well epistemological, evidence for the connections between these two films.
This potential for new kinds of research discoveries through audiovisual film studies forms has led me to continue with my videographic explorations of intertextuality. But, since True Likeness, I have opted to use simultaneous rather than sequential forms of montage. This move wasn’t especially thought through in advance; it was born more of a curiosity to see what might be possible in intertextual film studies with picture-in-picture and multiple-screen effects in the non-linear editing programmes I was using. But I had already started to research split-screen forms in contemporary film.24 And in some other work, I had also begun to think through this second form of montage from the point of view of its scholarly and affective potential.25
Below are embedded the four, multiple-screen, comparative film studies videos I have produced to date, together with some notes about their aims. Please watch each video before reading the texts that follow them.
Partly an experiment in the potential brevity of videographic intertextual comparison, ImPersona26 transposes, or “transfuses,” fleeting instances of a similar gesture in two Swedish films: Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966) and Låt den rätte komma in (English: “Let the Right One In,” Tomas Alfredson, 2008). It mutes the soundtrack of the first of the two sequences taken from Alfredson’s film, but otherwise uses all the sequences’ original elements in a scaled down form (including timespan and use of full screen) to present not only evidence for, but also an experience of this tiny similarity. The video thus turns on a performance of just one of the intricate chains of associations that have produced the energy and force of Alfredson’s film,27 and also — through the temporal effect of “afterwardsness”28 — of Bergman’s film, also.29
Garden of Forking Paths? is a synchronous study of an extant film scene from the silent and sound versions of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail.30 In playing the two versions of the sequence together the video affords its viewers an opportunity to scan for all kinds of subtle and unsubtle correspondences as well as differences between the two films. The equal sized screens offer the potential for a comparative form of what Christian Keathley, following Wolfgang Schivelbusch (writing about the advent of train travel), refers to as “panoramic perception,” the capacity to “perceive the discrete, as it rolls past the window indiscriminately,” and “the synthetic philosophy of the glance.”31 The video is much more of an assemblage than an essay, but even in the obvious aesthetic choices it makes (using the audio track of the sound version, emphasizing the different lengths of the sequences by blacking out, in due course, the “unnecessary” screen), it seems to have provoked an uncanny effect in its audiences. One commenter described watching it as “spooky.”32 The video certainly enacts and enables the experience of a creeping recognition of imperfect doubling, an uncanny disjuncture between its two screens.
Like True Likeness, this video builds on observations made by others (here, director Todd Haynes himself) about the filmic connections being explored, in this case, those of All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, 1955) and its “pastiche” Far From Heaven (Haynes, 2002) in order to work through Richard Dyer’s understanding of pastiche in relation to affect. With the potential for so many richly patterned elements to become evident through their graphic, live comparison, this video hoped to provide moving evidence both of the intelligence of Haynes’s pastiche, as well as of its precision and the intense care taken in it. With its own stylistic choices, the video also aimed to facilitate a direct experience of the two films’ mutually “enfolding–unfolding” aesthetics.34
This video, first published in a study of railways and the cinema, emerged as part of a project to look back at my childhood cinephilia from my present-day film scholarly perspective.35 The Railway Children (Lionel Jeffries, 1970) was a film I ardently and repeatedly watched on television as a child, and I have seen and loved it countless times since. I had certainly watched it long before I remember seeing L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de la Ciotat (Lumière Bros., 1895). I noticed the resemblance between the two films only when watching Jeffries' film again recently. But when I explored this, I was struck by the extent of the resonance, and by the uncanniness of the later film's pastiche of the earlier one: Bernard Cribbins' Perks revivifies, down to his moustache, the La Ciotat station porter; an identical luggage trolley lurks in the background; the beshawled woman looks like she stepped off the earlier train, except that she's in Technicolor.
I began to figure, to fantasize, that the uncanniness of The Railway Children's penultimate sequence was not only set off by its graphic and musical evocation of the uncertainty of young Bobbie (Jenny Agutter) about quite why she was standing by the rail track, but also by its palpable haunting by the Lumières’ originary scene, with its powerful, ghostly, urtext of a much more bustling railway platform just after the arrival of cinema. As Thomas Elsaesser writes in his remarkable essay on railway traumas “One Train May Be Hiding Another,”
Neither distant nor near, history has become a kind of perpetual action replay, a ghost-dance of the undead. Like a moving train, it seems to pass ours, possibly in the opposite direction, with human beings facing us through brightly lit carriage windows.36
My latest comparative film study38 also involves a moment of recognition through a return to another personally charged film, indeed to two personally charged films: Vertigo, a favourite Hitchcock film, and Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980) which I remember seeing in the cinema with my family three years before I was told that the father who had raised me was not my biological parent. I hadn’t really been aware of any specific aesthetic resemblance between the two films. But they were already connected for me: I had written about both of them at Anagnorisis, one of my research blogs in which, for probably obvious personal, as well as academic, reasons, I had set out to explore the cultural theme and scene of dramatic moments of recognition or personal discovery, moments that Hitchcock and Kershner’s films share.39 I became aware of the deeper similarities and inverted echoes only recently, after seeing thumbnail images from the chosen sequences juxtaposed in my video editor project library. And — yes — the exploration that followed prompted some dizzying moments of recognition. In order to showcase this discovery to best effect, I opted again for equally sized, horizontally arranged, split screens, but I altered or muted most of the audio track from Vertigo — until the final sting. More importantly, I also slowed the Vertigo sequence — from its original duration of 1:28.5 to 2:35.8 — in order to create the particular synchronous flow that I felt worked best for this, at times very striking, comparison.
Like True Likeness and possibly some of the other works above, this last video, then, may raise for some of its viewers the same issues about “authorial manipulation” that are common to debates about highly melodramatic or, even, documentary films. These may cause particular difficulties in the context of scholarly work, especially given the partly personal motivation of at least some of my videos, as I’ve acknowledged. These questions may not flag up significantly new limitations for these scholarly forms, however. Videographic film studies do seem to work, it seems to me, in exactly same “intersubjective” zone as that of written film analysis and criticism. As Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton argue of this zone, “we are immersed in the film as the critic sees it, hence brought to share a deeply involved perspective.” 40 Like written essays, video essays also attempt to “stir our recall” of a film moment or sequence — that is, like writing, they can’t just replay these neutrally either.41 In scholarly settings, even the simplest sequence selection and certainly the simplest montage are forms of argument, whether or not further aesthetic effects are introduced. But, unlike written essays, video essays usually do confront us with some kind of replay of actual film sequences; they do thus have to stand or fall on the cogency of their audiovisual evidence. This, of course, can be one of their distinct advantages. As Christian Keathley writes of Matt Zoller Seitz’s illuminating use of split screens in his essays on the influences on the films of Wes Anderson,
While describing […] Truffaut’s influence on Anderson might be reasonably convincing if well written, viewing clips from the two films simultaneously makes the critical insight about influence much more persuasive.42
All the videos embedded above frame similar kinds of phenomenological possibility. They each enable their viewers to experience for themselves linear or synchronous moving image and sound juxtapositions in real time. As well as an exposure to audiovisual argumentation (involving selection of evidence, montage and mise en scene, titling, sound editing and other creative effects), they offer an active viewing process, one of live co-research, or participant observation. Unlike written texts, they don't have to remove themselves from film-specific forms of meaning production to have their knowledge effects on us. And we can feel, as well as know about, the comparisons these videos enact.
The active aspects of this medium are especially in evidence in the split-screen or “synchronous” studies above. As Donald G. Perrin writes, in a 1969 study of multiple image communication,
In sequential montage the meaning of each new image is determined by the context of what has gone before. In its temporal aspects, sequential montage is analogous to verbal language, where several elements in series determine the total meaning. Simultaneous images interact upon each other at the same time, and this is of significant value in making comparisons and relationships. […] The immediacy of this kind of communication allows the viewer to process larger amounts of information in a very short time. […] For visual comparisons it seems axiomatic that simultaneous images are more effective than sequentially presented images.43
[…] when our eyes move across a richly textured surface, occasionally pausing but not really focusing, making us wonder what we are actually seeing, they are functioning like organs of touch.50
Such sensuous methodologies seem to me to be eminently suited to the epistemology and hermeneutics of cinematic intertextuality, of déjà-viewing. As Adrian Martin has written, these can involve “powerfully psychic and somatic” acts of reminiscence or recognition which involve “forgetting, distortion, and refashioning — in other words, everything that the unconscious brings to the ‘creative act’ or the creative process of filmmaking,” and of film spectatorship, too.51
Déjà-Viewing? Videographic Experiments in Intertextual Film Studies by Catherine Grant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.