Moving Pictures

An Introduction to Literature, Criticism and Theory - Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle 2016

Moving Pictures

What do movies tell us about literature? Over recent decades cinema has increasingly come to be incorporated into university literature courses and literature professors have been pronouncing on films, as well as on novels, poems and plays. But what do we learn about literature when we watch and talk about film? And what do we learn about moving pictures when we study literature? We are all familiar (if not bored to tears) with talk of ’the film of the book’ and even ’the book of the film’, with discussion of how the film version is or is not faithful to the ’original’ book version, of whether the film is as good as the book or vice versa. We want to get away from such talk: to put it simply, the film of the book is a film, it is not a book. We need a different vocabulary and different critical perspectives. Film is, nevertheless, inextricably tied in with the study of literature. Thinking about film provides innovative ways of thinking about literature, and vice versa. While the study of one informs, stimulates and provokes the study of the other, however, we do not want to suggest that the specificity of literature can or should be done away with. Our purpose in this chapter is, above all, to elucidate and explore the nature of the literary through thinking about film.

William Wordsworth’s great nineteenth-century autobiographical epic, The Prelude, may not seem like the most movie-friendly literary text (although YouTube does have numerous offerings — variously edifying, intriguing, surreal and funny — in the Wordsworthiana department). Nevertheless, in talking about moving pictures, we would like to focus on this poem. First published after the poet’s death in 1850, The Prelude was written and revised between 1798 and 1839. Wordsworth began writing it, in other words, almost a hundred years before the first film (shown by the Lumière brothers in 1895). Not only has The Prelude not been turned into a movie, then, but it would be unreasonable to expect Wordsworth to be interested in the technologies of film production. Except for the fact that the word ’cinema’ derives from the Greek kinema, ’motion’, and that such precursors of the cinema as the panorama, the ’eidophusikon’ and the ’diorama’ were invented and became popular during Wordsworth’s lifetime, the idea might seem quite deranged. But, as we hope to make clear, things are not as simple as this. In particular, we want to suggest that The Prelude is composed or organized around a series of ’stills’, moments taken from the moving picture of the poet’s own mind, the cinema of his life. Wordsworth’s poem is often regarded as the first great autobiographical narrative in English, an account of ’the growth of a poet’s mind’ that — in the 1805 version — stretches over 13 books and roughly nine thousand lines of blank verse. Vital to an understanding and appreciation of The Prelude are Wordsworth’s ’spots of time’, which are concerned with the effects of childhood memories on later life.

At a key moment in Book 11 of The Prelude, Wordsworth arrests the movement of his narrative, to speculate on its workings:

There are in our existence spots of time,

Which with distinct preeminence retain

A renovating virtue, whence, depressed

By false opinion and contentious thought,

Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight

In trivial occupations and the round

Of ordinary intercourse, our minds

Are nourished and invisibly repaired…

Life with me,

As far as memory can look back, is full

Of this beneficent influence.

(The Prelude 1805, Book 11: 257—78)

There are certain memories, especially from early childhood, which stay with us, and have a capacity to renew, to ’nourish’ and ’invisibly repair’ our minds. ’As far as memory can look back’: Wordsworth presents his autobiography and indeed his life in visual terms, and evokes these ’spots of time’ as a kind of montage of moving pictures. ’Spots of time’ are intensely visual and emphatically moving. They are arresting and affecting, moving in their stillness.

Wordsworth’s ’spots of time’ can be related to moving pictures in at least three ways. First of all, a spot of time is mobile, a matter of motion, a shifting scene. Second, it entails a moving or agitation of the mind and feelings. (The word ’emotion’, we may recall, is from the Latin mov¯ere, to stir up, to create motion.)

Finally, in a way that is not only or not simply anachronistic, we might suggest that a spot of time resembles a movie or movie clip in terms of its apparently closed-off or framed quality (it’s a ’spot’), and in terms more generally of what it allows us to think about the nature and experience of time itself. Above all perhaps, Wordsworth’s ’spots of time’ prefigure modern cinema in terms of what Gilles Deleuze calls ’the time-image’ (Deleuze 1989). We will try to elucidate this idea in greater detail shortly.

Wordsworth famously declares in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800) that poetry ’takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (Wordsworth 1984, 611), suggesting that it involves at once a stilling and a revision or re-gathering of what has been moving. The phrase ’spots of time’ likewise suggests something paradoxical, a strange fixing of time in place, as place. What, we may ask, is the ’time’ of a ’spot of time’? In order to start thinking about this we need to reckon with the ways in which Wordsworth exploits the sheer slipperiness of poetic language. Even the brief ’spots of time’ passage quoted a moment ago was written and revised over a period of years. In the earliest version, in 1799, the spots of time are said to have ’a fructifying virtue’, a little later ’a vivifying virtue’, and in a third version ’a renovating virtue’ (see The Prelude, 428, n. 2). For all their apparent stillness or tranquillity, these ’spots of time’ are in motion, pictured in unstable, altering, moving language.

Let us zoom in on one of these ’spots of time’, namely the passage in which Wordsworth recalls the experience, as a young boy, of stealing ravens’ eggs:

Nor less in springtime, when on southern banks

The shining sun had from her knot of leaves

335 Decoyed the primrose flower, and when the vales

And woods were warm, was I a plunderer then

In the high places, on the lonesome peaks,

Where’er among the mountains and the winds

The mother-bird had built her lodge. Though mean

340 My object and inglorious, yet the end

Was not ignoble. Oh, when I have hung

Above the raven’s nest, by knots of grass

Or half-inch fissures in the slippery rock

But ill sustained, and almost, as it seemed,

345 Suspended by the blast which blew amain,

Shouldering the naked crag, oh, at that time

While on the perilous ridge I hung alone,

With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind

Blow through my ears; the sky seemed not a sky

350 Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!

The mind of man is framed even like a breath

And harmony of music…

(The Prelude 1805, Book 1: 333—52)

This ’spot of time’ apparently ends with the words ’with what motion moved the clouds!’ We have quoted the words that follow on from it in order to draw attention to the remarkable, often unfathomable breaks that characteristically splice together Wordsworth’s poetry. Having concluded his moving picture of this spot of time, the poet starts a new verse-paragraph, now in a quite different tone and place: ’The mind of man is framed even like a breath / And harmony of music’. But the boy Wordsworth is literally left hanging, clinging to the tiny fissures in the rock and seeming to be held in place largely by the wind itself. With the extraordinary editing of this moment, with this singular cliffhanger, we are offered a fitting example of what Paul de Man calls Wordsworth’s ’sheer language’ (de Man 1984, 92). ’Sheer language’ means language alone, working by itself, in the sense that our access — and indeed Wordsworth’s access — to these memories of stealing ravens’ eggs is in and through language. But we might also hear in ’sheer language’ the sense of something precipitous, vertiginously headlong. The blank on the page immediately following ’with what motion moved the clouds!’ figures a sort of abyss.

Wordsworth chooses to stop the spot, leaves himself (a portrait of the poet as a young thief) on a perilous ridge, just about hanging on by ’knots of grass / Or half-inch fissures in the slippery rock’. ’Oh, when I have hung / Above’: which way up is he? What is the point of view? This last question actually enfolds three questions, each of them as relevant to film as to literary studies: (1) What is the point of view in a literal sense? From what position or angle is this being seen? (2) What is the narrative point of view? Who is seeing it and who is describing it, and from what perspective or perspectives? (3) What is the temporal perspective? How are issues of past, present and future involved here? From what position in time is this ’spot of time’ to be viewed? One of the most important differences between literary narrative and film narrative is that, with the former, the reader is almost always presented with a knowledge of what is going on in the thoughts and feelings of a specific narrator or character. With literary narrative you get ’inside information’ as to what is going on in the mind and body of a character. This is particularly the case when the story is told by a so-called omniscient or (perhaps more accurately) telepathic narrator. More generally, however, a fictional exposure of ’secret’ interiority is at the very heart of literature and there is something strange and magical about this — about the idea of being able to read the mind of the author, a narrator or character. This interiority is fundamentally alien to film: the ’eye of the camera’ is doomed to the visible. The only way that film can provide ’inside information’ is through strategies or techniques from literature (the ’telling’ voice-over, in particular).

Being John Malkovich (dir. Spike Jonze, 1999) is a witty, at moments hilarious movie that ironically acknowledges and foregrounds these limits. The film involves the discovery and exploitation of a ’portal’ through which people are able to enter the head of the ’real-life’ actor and have the chance of ’being John Malkovich’. One of the most memorable scenes is when Malkovich himself insists on going through the portal and finds himself (as it were) in a dreamlike restaurant-cum-nightclub surrounded by other John Malkovichs. At a table where a couple of John Malkovichs are dining, he looks over the restaurant menu and sees that it consists entirely of dishes called ’Malkovich’. Everywhere he is confronted by a proliferation of John Malkovichs, all of them saying (or singing) over and over again the single word ’Malkovich’, ’Malkovich’, ’Malkovich’. In this cinematic hall of mirrors everyone is the same, the name says it all, and interiority is rendered comically non-existent. This intriguingly literary ambition — to open up and inhabit the inside of a character’s world, thoughts and feelings — is also evident in Jonze’s more recent movie Her (2013). For all its compelling formal and thematic originality (a man falling in love with his computer operating system, aka ’Samantha’), Her is in a sense simply a filmic realization of the literary scenario in which we can hear and share what characters are thinking and feeling (the intimacies — poignant, funny and absurd, by turn — generated by the quirky cinematic soliloquy of man and machine).

Wordsworth’s account of stealing ravens’ eggs allows us a particularly intimate sense of the poet’s interior world. While Being John Malkovich seems at once to celebrate and ridicule the mad narcissism of a stammering ’Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich’, Wordsworth’s poetry offers us a rather different experience of what Keats called the ’egotistical sublime’ (Keats 1958, 1:387). As William Hazlitt once remarked: Wordsworth ’sees nothing but himself and the universe … His egotism is in some respects a madness’ (Hazlitt 1930—34, 5:163). This conception of Wordsworth corresponds, perhaps rather unnervingly, to how Hugo Münsterberg described the impact of cinema in his 1916 book, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study: ’[T]he massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness’ (Münsterberg 1916, 220; quoted in Armstrong 1998, 240). We might be tempted to think of Wordsworth’s account of stealing ravens’ eggs as profoundly ego-centred: what else would you expect from that self-regarding genre known as autobiography? But we would argue that the poem also goes far beyond this obsession with self. Besides the strange and disorienting ambiguity of the literal ’point of view’ of the ’plunderer’ (above or below the sky, upside down or right way up?), for example, there are the temporal disjunctions of the scene. This ’spot of time’ is both ’at that time’ (l.346), in the past, and at the same time it is in this strange ’here and now’ of sheer language, being written or being read, still. It is also, crucially, a moving picture that entails an intimate sense of the unknowable and incalculable. It involves a logic of unforeseeable becoming: ’spots of time’ work ’invisibly’, we are told, and go on working, work on, in the future. The scene shifts inwardly, from the present perfect tense (’when I have hung’ [l.341]) to the simple past (’I hung’). The place of the present ’I’, the ’I’ that recollects, speaks or writes, gives way to an image of alien suspension, an ’I’ blown through with ’strange utterance’, lost to an alien sky: ’With what strange utterance did the loud dry wind / Blow through my ears; the sky seemed not a sky / Of earth, and with what motion moved the clouds!’

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is also a masterpiece of suspense. In the opening sequence the protagonist Scottie (James Stewart) is seen hanging on for dear life to the ripped guttering of a San Francisco rooftop as a police officer, having tried to help him, plummets to his death. As Susan White puts it: ’[W]e never see (or hear about) Scottie’s rescue — in a sense [he] remains hanging over the edge of the precipice throughout the film’ (White 1991, 911). Something similar happens in The Prelude: in a sense the boy trying to steal ravens’ eggs remains hanging there throughout the rest of that epic poem. The moment in Vertigo is, we might say, weirdly Wordsworthian. On the one hand it is difficult not to project (the word is as much cinematic as psychoanalytic) back on to the past, on to literary works of the pre-film era, critical ideas and perspectives generated by film. On the other, it is striking how many of our current ways of thinking were in fact already quite firmly established in the nineteenth century.

Had he still been living when cinema began, Wordsworth would have been at once fascinated and appalled. With its intimations of cinematicity, however, The Prelude also suggests that he would not have been entirely surprised either. Wordsworth’s poem communicates the power of ocularcentrism, of what he calls ’The state … / In which the eye was master of the heart’ — the eye being, for him, ’The most despotic of our senses’ (Book 11: 170—3). The quasi-hypnotic, despotic draw of twenty-first-century ’visual culture’ (dazing and glazing our eyes with screens of all kinds, from cinema and TV to computer and phone) was, we might say, already in play in Wordsworth’s day. Thus the poet reminisces, for example, about ’Still craving combinations of new forms, / New pleasure, wider empire for the sight’ (Book 11: 191—2). And while, in his amazing account of life in London (in Book 7), he conveys a moral disapproval of such newfangled visual pleasures as panoramas and ’mimic sights that ape / The absolute presence of reality’ (Book 7: 248—9), his own depiction of the city and its inhabitants is achieved through a series of moving pictures. In this way he evokes London as ’the quick dance / Of colours, lights and forms, the Babel din, / The endless stream of men and moving things’ (Book 7: 156—8). And in one of the most memorable encounters anywhere in his poetry, Wordsworth picks out — or feels uncannily picked out by — a blind beggar ’amid the moving pageant’ (Book 7: 610). The ’spectacle’ at the centre of this ’moving pageant’ is reproduced and interiorized in turn as a moving picture, a kind of monstrous mill in Wordsworth’s mind: ’My mind did at this spectacle turn round / As with the might of waters … / … I looked, / As if admonished from another world’ (ll.616—23).

In another ’spot of time’ in The Prelude, Wordsworth recalls when, aged five, he is out riding with a servant (or ’guide’) called James. He becomes separated from him and stumbles on alone, down to a valley where ’in former times / A murderer had been hung in iron chains’ (Book 11: 288—9). Nearby he comes across the eerie graffiti of ’fresh and visible’ letters scored in the turf where ’Some unknown hand had carved the murderer’s name’ (l.293). He quickly quits this ’spot’, ’reascending the bare common’ (ll.301—2), approaching ’A naked pool that lay beneath the hills’ (l.303) overlooked by a summit with a stone beacon on top. Closer at hand, he sees a windblown girl bearing a pitcher on her head. And, all of a sudden, he is halted at this sight:

It was, in truth,

An ordinary sight, but I should need

Colours and words that are unknown to man

To paint the visionary dreariness

Which, while I looked all round for my lost guide,

Did at that time invest the naked pool,

The beacon on the lonely eminence,

The woman, and her garments vexed and tossed

By the strong wind. (Book 11: 307—15)

Wordsworth writes of painting with colours and words that are unknown (not yet, perhaps never to be, invented), as if it were a matter of something fixed, the landscape painting of a visionary dreariness (in effect, a seeing of seeing, a vision of visionariness); and yet, as with the earlier passage we encountered (’with what motion moved the clouds!’), it is at the same time explicitly a question of a moving picture (the girl’s ’garments vexed and tossed / By the strong wind’). Wordsworth’s ’spots of time’ are concerned with senses of movement that have yet to be captured in colours or words.

In this respect his writing offers a singular twist to the classic tradition of ut pictura poesis, in which painting and poetry are regarded as ’sister arts’, painting being seen as a kind of mute poetry and poetry a speaking picture. In his Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783), Hugh Blair echoes this tradition when he argues that ’a true poet makes us imagine that we see [the object or natural landscape] before our eyes; he catches the distinguishing features; he gives it the colours of life and reality; he places it in such a light that a painter could copy it after him’ (Blair 1842, 549). Wordsworth’s concern is rather with the sense of an impossible word-painting, with a sense of the impossibility of ekphrasis (a verbal representation of the visual). He is moved by a vision he can neither paint nor describe, that is not yet realized or realizable. In this way we might suggest that Wordsworth’s spots of time are concerned with that sense of ’moving’ evoked in the ’Intimations’ ode, where the child is described as ’Moving about in worlds not realized’. They are (about) moving pictures, visions in process, still to be realized, as well as sights that move, disturb, exhilarate, stir the emotions.

Finally, our attempt to explore the moving pictures of Wordsworth’s ’spots of time’ might helpfully be illuminated by brief discussion of the work of the philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925—95). Deleuze has provided perhaps the most provocative account of cinema in recent decades. His books Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Deleuze 1986) and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Deleuze 1989) are complex and challenging, in particular because he argues that cinema alters the very nature of thinking, writing and philosophy. Elaborating on the work of Henri Bergson, Deleuze contends that the universe becomes ’a cinema in itself, a metacinema’ (Deleuze 1986, 59). With cinema, Deleuze argues, we see ’seeing’. It is no longer a question of ’point of view’, of someone’s (a character’s or a director’s) point of view. The eye of the camera is not an ’I’. As Claire Colebrook glosses it: ’What makes the machine-like movement of the cinema so important is that the camera can “see” or “perceive” without imposing concepts. The camera does not organise images from a fixed point but itself moves across movements’ (Colebrook 2002, 32). Related to this is what Deleuze calls the ’time-image’, that is to say the way in which cinema presents us with a thinking or experience of time cut off from any straightforward succession of past-present-future.

The time-image is not an image of something, it is what comes about with the effects of ’false continuity and irrational cuts’ (Deleuze 1989, xi), for example with a certain disjunctiveness of seeing and hearing. Such disjunctiveness is evident from the very start of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as we are presented with the spiralling graphics and seeing of seeing in Kim Novak’s eye, Bernard Herrmann’s madly melodramatic, ’irrational’ soundtrack accompanying us into the opening realization of vertigo in the image of Scottie hanging from the rooftop. The opening of Vertigo illustrates the distinctiveness of the cinematic image which, according to Deleuze, involves ’a dissociation of the visual and the sound’ (Deleuze 1989, 256). And although it is a poem, something like this vertiginous ’dissociation’ might be read back into Wordsworth’s juxtaposition of the unearthly sky and moving motion of the clouds and the ’strange utterance’ of ’the loud dry wind’ as his younger self clings to the ’slippery rock’ in The Prelude.

Deleuze’s work engages with new kinds of thinking, writing and becoming. His books on cinema, along with his writings on literary texts, challenge us with the question: how should we think, read and write about literature after cinema, or with what we have learnt from cinema in mind? And, indeed, what new kinds of literary writing might be envisaged? Leo Tolstoy appears to have foreseen such questions when he commented in 1908, a year before he died and almost 20 years before the first talkies:

[Cinema] will make a revolution in our life — in the life of writers … We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary … This swift change of scene, this blending of emotion and experience — it is much better than the heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is its greatness. (Tolstoy, quoted in Murphet and Rainford 2003, 1)

As Colin MacCabe remarks, in an essay entitled ’On Impurity: the Dialectics of Cinema and Literature’, ’it is impossible to give a serious account of any twentieth-century writer [or, we might add, any twenty-first-century writer] without reference to cinema’ (MacCabe 2003, 16). This is the case not only with such cinematically self-conscious writers as John Dos Passos, Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie, but also with writers such as Virginia Woolf, James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. In an interview entitled ’The Brain Is the Screen’ (1986), Deleuze uses cinema to make some illuminating remarks about works of art in general. He offers a compelling vision of the nature of literary works, the future of moving pictures and ’new emotions’:

A work of art always entails the creation of new spaces and times (it’s not a question of recounting a story in a well-determined space and time; rather, it is the rhythms, the lighting, and the space-times themselves that must become the true characters). A work should bring forth the problems and questions that concern us rather than provide answers. A work of art is a new syntax, one that is much more important than vocabulary and that excavates a foreign language in language. Syntax in cinema amounts to the linkages and relinkages of images, but also to the relation between sound and the visual image. If one had to define culture, one could say that it [consists in] perceiving that works of art are much more concrete, moving, and funny than commercial products. In creative works there is a multiplication of emotion, a liberation of emotion, and even the invention of new emotions. This distinguishes creative works from the prefabricated emotions of commerce. (Deleuze 2000, 370)

If it is impossible to read modern and contemporary literature without engaging with questions of cinema, it is also the case that we can no longer read Wordsworth without doing so through the kinds of thinking that cinema makes possible. At the same time, it is part of the cryptic and enduring power of Wordsworth’s poetry, and of his ’spots of time’ in particular, that they can continue to give us new ways of thinking about emotions, liberating and inventing in moving pictures.

Further reading

For three particularly helpful essay collections, see Murphet and Rainford, eds, Literature and Visual Technologies: Writing After Cinema (2003); Cartmell and Whelehan, eds, The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen (2007); and Buchanan, ed., The Writer on Film: Screening Literary Authorship (2013). For three valuable studies especially concerned with cinema and Modernist literature, see Susan McCabe’s Cinematic Modernism: Modernist Poetry and Film (2005), Laura Marcus’s The Tenth Muse: Writing About Cinema in the Modernist Period (2007) and David Trotter’s Cinema and Modernism (2007). In similar frame, see David Seed’s rich and thought-provoking Cinematic Fictions: The Impact of the Cinema on the American Novel up to the Second World War (2009); and, with a British and Irish focus, Laura Marcus’s excellent essay, ’Cinematic and Televisual Fictions’ (2016), ranging from Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh to Tom McCarthy and Ali Smith. For two critical works that, like the present chapter, are concerned with thinking about literature in relation to the history and prehistory of cinema, see Bill Readings’s ’Milton at the Movies’ (in Readings and Schaber 1993) and Grahame Smith’s Dickens and the Dream of Cinema (2003). Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 2: The Time-Image (1989) is a fascinating and profound study, though certainly not easy on a first encounter. Claire Colebrook’s introductory book, Gilles Deleuze (2002), is a lucid and helpful guide to this difficult but important thinker. For a recent collection of essays more specifically focusing on Deleuze and the literary, see Buchanan and Marks (2000). For three studies specifically concerned with cinema and time, see Philip Rosen’s Change Mummified (2001), Mary Ann Doane’s The Emergence of Cinematic Time (2002) and Laura Mulvey’s Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (2006). On the power of the eye and vision, see (so to speak) Martin Jay’s monumental The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (1993), and, more generally in relation to textuality, the fine range of essays collected in Vision and Textuality (eds Melville and Readings, 1995). For excellent accounts of the long-standing literary critical tradition of interest in the interaction of word and image, see Mitchell, ’Iconology’ (1986) and ’Picture Theory’ (1994), Krieger, ’Ekphrasis’ (1992), Heffernan, ’Museum of Words’ (1993), and Cheeke (2008 and 2016). Eugenie Brinkema’s The Forms of the Affects (2014) offers a compelling and highly original account of reading film and film theory in the wake of the ’affective turn’. Finally, for a fine account of Romanticism and visuality, see Sophie Thomas’s book of that title (2008).