Monday 23 May 2011

On Figural Analysis in Film Studies

Video essay about У самого синего моря/U samogo sinyego morya/By the Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet, 1936). Featuring commentary by Nicole Brenez, author of Abel Ferrara (University of Illinois Press, 2007) and De la figure en général et du corps en particulier (De Boeck, 1998), professor of cinema studies at Université Paris I and programmer at the Cinémathèque Française. Video essay produced by Kevin B. Lee.
At the very least, I believe this is a good, poetic way of grasping part of the art of cinema: as an art of constantly shifting figuration. Not just on the level of bringing bodies and people into being, but also animals, objects, imaginary apparitions - in fact an entire material and virtual world. […]
     For [Nicole] Brenez as for [Gilles] Deleuze, a critical and theoretical approach of this sort marks a significant departure from classical mise en scène analysis. The venerable tool of découpage - shot-by-shot breakdown - depends upon the theatrical and dramatic unity of the filmic scene, which in turn rests upon the most cherished principle of mise en scène analysis: "bodies in space", the pro-filmic reality of bodies dwelling and moving within a space defined by a set or a landscape. Deleuze asserts, to the contrary, that "the cinema is not a theatre", and that its bodies are composed "from granules, which are granules of time". This is, in a sense, analysis in two dimensions rather than the usual three; and if there is still "depth" to a movie, it will need to be a new, differently defined kind of depth.
     Figural analysis, thus, is granular or atomic, a true "frame by frame" analysis which takes its model and inspiration from the fine-grain materiality and action of experimental cinema; it is less concerned with lenses and depth of field than with the mobile arrangment, displacement and pulsation of screen particles. Shot divisions, even scenes or sequences are less pertinent for this work than analytic "ensembles", slices of text and texture that demonstrate the economy and logic of a film's ceaseless transformation of its elements. And everything to do with character, performance and actorly presence in cinema will have to be rethought from the vantage point of this ghostly, mobile flickering of the celluloid grain as it helps to form and deform the figure of the human being on screen. [Adrian Martin, 'The body has no head: corporeal figuration in Aldrich', Screening the Past, June 30, 2000]
As Bill Routt reminds us in his admirable article on the figural in film, figural analysis is a form of hermeneutics involving the historical relation between signs and events, between the text's present condition of meaning and its capacity to draw on and summon forth the past through the power of signs. The figural opens up the historicity of the film text so that the event's past is also its 'coming to presence'. Reading the figural is to read the past in the present; to read with the 'pastness' of the text as a prefiguring of something beyond what the text says in its normative, denotative mode of signification. All texts have figures, since all texts have a past, or at least point to a past as the very materiality of their signification.
     The task of figural analysis is not limited to describing figures in film texts. Rather, it concerns the mapping of an abstract machine: a machine for writing in images, composed of various historically defined elements drawn synthetically into particular arrangements and assemblages that make film happen in the way that it does. Here I am not referring to 'context', but to a genealogical tracing of the lineages and interconnectivities between older and more recent image technologies, and their hybrid formations through time. Any given film or media text will exhibit interconnections with pre-existing modes (even if those modes have been pronounced obsolete), which define and control the potential that the film undertakes to make happen. In silent film we might trace the transformation from a theatrical to a film mode of appearance, where the former is prefigured in the latter and vice versa, for instance in the coincidence of stage and film gestures in Lillian Gish's performance in Way Down East. Here we see the emergence of a new kind of film sense vibrating in the uneasy conjunction of different techniques.
     At stake here is the proliferation of a technological apparatus for the production of images, and the power arrangements that make them appear historically. The technological apparatus is not all of a piece, but is constantly riven with the effects of an outside that produces transformational change. The image machine lives on, not because of any over-riding structure that it possesses, but through the contingent interconnections that are activated in particular image-productions. This is why it is necessary to attend carefully to films themselves, to the detailing of their mode of appearance and its relation to ideational content as a particular moment in the image machine's transformational history. [Warwick Mules, 'The Figural as Interface in Film and the New Media: D. N. Rodowick's Reading the Figural', Film-Philosophy, Vol. 7, December 2003 Hyperlinks added by FSFF]

Today, Film Studies For Free presents a luscious list of links to online explorations or examples of figural analysis deployed in the service of film studies. It is an eclectic, but almost certainly not yet an exhaustive list. So, if you know of further good items, please leave a comment below.

It particularly figures, if you will forgive FSFF's characteristically lame pun, the online work of French film scholar and cinephile activist Nicole Brenez, alongside that of Adrian Martin, the latter an anglophone champion of Brenez's many, increasingly influential, contributions to our international field. But there are lots of other inflections of the figural represented below, too, as per FSFF's usual pluralist linkage-leanings.

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