From Method Acting to Method Viewing

When Hervé Guibert asked Deleuze if he cried in the cinema, the philosopher replied, “you can cry because it’s too beautiful or too intense”, and continued with a question, “How could you not cry at Griffith’s Broken Blossoms?” Broken Blossoms could be read as a slightly disappointing example to choose given that it is in many respects a typical Hollywood melodrama intended to provoke tears in the spectator. But of course we wouldn’t want to second-guess Deleuze and there are many other ‘beautiful and intense’ aspects to that film that may have moved him to tears, from the quality of light to the hundreds of other barely-registered perceptions that make up a cinematic experience. Tony Mckibbin in his superb essay Invoking Tears: Cinema and the Lachrymose [www.tonymckibbin.com] makes the distinction between films that invoke tears and those that provoke them, films that experiment with affective possibilities and indeterminate emotional pathways and those that set the viewer on a single impoverished and pre-determined ’emotional journey’. Many believe that classical Hollywood films are defined by this engineering of emotions but this is like dismissing a great songwriter for releasing something that’s too melodic, despite the singular timbre of the voice and instruments and the poetic lyrics of the song. A cinephile is likely to be moved to tears by any one of thousands of classical Hollywood films without it having anything to do with the bankrupt emotions offered by the narrative. In this respect cinephilia is a peculiar kind of resistance to the System through the paradox of over-investment. If you devote enough time to the cinema the slightest aberration, the unexpected fluttering of a leaf in the breeze is likely to dismantle your faculties. You don’t perceive what the System determines you to (the studium according to Barthes) but you perceive everything else, everything the System considers redundant (the punctum in every image). True cinephilia is not the drug of preference for nerds but a way of experimenting with perception, thought and the self, and therefore resists Power or what is sometimes called ‘the Program’:

“I have proposed to call “the program” the dominant state of representation as it becomes more and more unified and powerful. The term intends both to extend and to elaborate the notion previously called by Serge Daney the visual (“le visuel”) as a very pregnant form of figuration which translates into visible elements the economical power through its various means of statement. The word “program” seemed appropriate as it refers simultaneously to television, computers, and politics. It’s meant to designate how, through narrative-based spectacular shows, the interests of the dominant and multinational economical order are combining in synthesized artifacts elements originally provided by propaganda, advertising, showbiz, and how it reshapes previous forms (painting, novel, theatre, cinema). The other name of “the program” is Hollywood, if it’s admitted that this word designates an aesthetic form, which intends to become the only mode of representation and narration worldwide. This form can be worked out anywhere, and is meant for everywhere.” [Jean-Michel Frodon]
As Foucault wrote (in his introduction to Anti-Oedipus), we are at war with “the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us’. Because we internalise the schemas of power, we must engage in guerilla warfare against ourselves. Perhaps the negative image of an a-political “maniacal, unreasoning cinephilia” (in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s words) needs overhauling. A certain cinephilia may well be a major weapon in this guerilla warfare. Often, in McKibbin’s words, “it is an inner movement in the character that allows consequently for an inner movement in the viewer”, and this inner movement, this construction of a new thought, is precisely what the Program seeks to forestall.

As Serge Daney said, the cinephile knows that his subjectivity will be called into question anew with each cinematic experience, “there’s a wavering of all your certainties, you no longer know who you are, where you are or what you know.” To attain this level of cinephilia can be a long and hazardous journey. The common perception is that you’re saying no to reality and to life, turning your back on your family to become a cine-son (ciné-fils in Daney’s French-language pun). The following apologia from self-proclaimed cinephile Peter Wollen does little to challenge the common perception:
“By ‘cinephilia’ I mean an obsessive infatuation with film, to the point of letting it dominate your life. To Serge Daney, looking back, cinephilia seemed a ‘sickness’, a malady which became a duty, almost a religious duty, a form of clandestine self-immolation in the darkness, a voluntary exclusion from social life. At the same time, a sickness that brought immense pleasure, moments which, much later, you recognized had changed your life. I see it differently, not as a sickness, but as the symptom of a desire to remain within the child’s view of the world, always outside, always fascinated by a mysterious parental drama, always seeking to master one’s anxiety by compulsive repetition. Much more than just another leisure activity.”
Only a former contributor to Screen could reduce what’s at stake in the cinephilic experience to a sordid little Oedipal drama! This masturbatory implication haunts the world of cinephilia, as does the belief that zombification is imminent: ‘go out and get some fresh air!’ But, in Deleuze’s words, “What the enemies of cinema criticized it for (like Georges Duhamel, ‘I can no longer think what I want, the moving images are substituted for my own thoughts’), is just what Artaud makes into the dark glory and profundity of cinema?”
In Deleuze’s view the cinema can give rise to a spiritual automaton, a thinking machine but one that must be nurtured lest it become the puppet of power and totalitarian forces: “cerebral creation or deficiency of the cerebellum?” This is the crucial question for cinephilia. Is an obsession with film an enslavement to an industry and to the clichéd images it peddles, or can it become a technology of the self that can give rise to genuine thinking, to new affects and to a resistance to Power?

If cinephilia is not to be a blind affirmation of every new cinematic product on the market, ala the ass in Nietzsche who says yes to everything and doesn’t know how to say no, there must be a method. In a recent interview with Cahiérs du Cinéma to publicise his magnificent book La Querelle des Dispositifs, Raymond Bellour spoke of a “hyper-disciplined cinephile spectator”. This discipline seems essential to the ethics demanded by Foucault as a pre-requisite to struggle against the Program. There is a world of difference between uncritically watching films 24/7 and a cinephilia that also (and necessarily) involves reading and thinking. “A film is inseparable not only from the history of cinema as a whole, but also from the history of what has been written on cinema…there is no beginning, there is no end. We always begin in the middle of something. And we only create in the middle by extending lines that already exist in a new direction or branching off from them” (Deleuze). Creative cinephilia is what has led to some of the finest writing that exists, from Deleuze and Daney to today’s Killer B’s of French criticism: Bellour, Bergala and Brenez.

In The Great Accelerator, the latest book of his to be translated, Paul Virilio quotes Dom Notker Wolf, “there is no more space to wait in, no more space in which to desire the infinite.” A cinephile (Daney in this case) might offer a constructive response, “we will have this world, but we will inhabit it at last. That’s the essence of my cinephilia: we will inhabit it at last, and it will be the world, never society. From society, only horrible things are to be expected.” Cinephilia might well be one of the final strategies to inhabit the world through ‘desiring the infinite”.
To have watched, attentively, thousands of films, creates a unique kind of human. A new relationship is established between self and world and between perception and memory – and ensuring that these are productive relationships is the task of the discipline, the technology of the self, involved in any worthwhile cinephilia.

Bellour contrasts the Gallery installation experience – the wandering gallery-goer subject to distractions and always on the verge of a fatal loss of attention – with that of the cinema spectator – the disciplined nature of an immobile and highly-attentive viewing situation: somnambulism versus hypnosis. This hypnotic potential of cinema allows the experience, to speak in Kantian terms, to take us beyond understanding and reason in ways that can serve as both a support to Daney’s preference for a mode of habitation that circumvents the demands of society, and a response to Virilio’s concerns for disappearing space. Cinephilic space is more like a plane of experimentation, enabling us to explore a-categorical syntheses in other spaces and other times, neither wholly internal nor external, constructing a plane of ‘immanence’ prior to the self and the world, approaching the infinite, even in its absence: a technology of the self that is like a third force, alongside the practices of filmmaking and of film theory/criticism, inventing new arrangements through the encounter of perception, memory and the Archive. In the cinema, perception and memory combine in such a way as to facilitate “a floating yet precise attention, when the reactions accumulate as so many emotional shocks to your memory suddenly giving rise to psychic events which alone give you the desire to write” (Bellour). The goal is not Oedipal, as Wollen thinks, but the infinite Plane of Immanence, a selective (missionary?) Arkivism saving the best of civilisation for future generations. This is why film viewing must be accompanied by criticism and research and
what must be affirmed in the archive is what has give rise to change, transformation and difference “considered as an infinitely diverse in-finity.: [Between the Said and the Seen: Deleuze-Guattari’s Pragmatics of the Order-Word
Bruce McClure]

This notion of ‘sheltering’ the best of cinema was a concern behind the Movie Mutations project of a decade ago. What was so moving about Bellour’s contribution to that project was this concern for civilisation, expressed through a love for Manoel de Oliveira and everything he represents for culture and for cinema’s contribution to the development of civilisation. Again Classical Hollywood cinema was a focus for the Arkivist approach. As Bellour reflected: “the studio period…has to be the only moment when the US was a civilised country, when it could still affirm itself, despite all of its ideological weight, as one country among others, before becoming insufferably the law for all others.”
There are, of course several strands of Arkivist cinema today, most explicitly on view in Sokurov’s Russian Ark. In terms of American cinema, I see Wes Anderson as perhaps leading the way in this direction (to begin with, think of the ‘I saved Latin’ theme in Rushmore). This point-of-view on the Archive has nothing to do with Postmodernism which, like the braying ass of Zarathustra, said yes to everything, including all the debris man has created.
Cinephilic selection involves a relation to oneself, a guerilla war on oneself by way of a point-of-view on the Archive.

I am reminded of Deleuze’s lecture on Method Acting, in particular on Lee Strasberg’s obsession with accessing affective memory and the trauma that often ensued for his actors. Strasberg’s highly disciplined approach (even though it involved varying degrees of consciousness on the actors’ behalves) to the Method required a two stage approach:
First stage, absorbing the givens of the situation (Deleuze likens this to Bergson’s vegetative life).
Second stage, explosive violence (animal life).  The viewer watches the method actor soak up the atmosphere, then react in an explosive manner, the method itself remaining imperceptible. The goal of Strasberg’s affective memory exercises was to reach the kernel of an analogous past experience and to reactivate this personally lived emotion through a character’s passage from absorbing sponge to explosive animal.

It seems to me that there are parallels between this characterisation of Strasberg’s Method and what’s at play in the cinephilic viewing experience, including the semi-conscious aspects. If there can be a method to cinephilic film viewing it might be something like this:  absorbing the perceptive givens of the film being watched but finding a myriad of analogous perceptions, affects and ideas not only in one’s personal memory but in one’s viewpoint on the archive: there is an accumulation as the viewing proceeds, each new connection forming an affective rhizomatics periodically reaching nodes that break apart and overwhelm the spectator. Then, as Deleuze said, you reach the impersonal plane of immanence: “Emotion does not say “I”… you are beside yourself.”