The following text was originally published in a special edition of Les Cahiers Jaunes dedicated to film theory [Les Cahiers Jaunes no. 4 (1933), spécial “Cinéma 33”]. Its author, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte (1907-1943), founded, together with his close-friend René Daumal, the short-lived but highly influential group known as Le Grand Jeu, The Great Game. Though written more than 80 years ago, in light of the economic demands on film which have only increased during the intervening years, Gilbert-Lecomte’s biting critique seems just as relevant today as it was before colour film had even become commonplace.
This translation is from a selection of Gilbert-Lecomte’s writings entitled The Book is a Ghost: Thoughts and Paroxysms for Going Beyond (Solar Luxuriance, 2015) which can be ordered directly from the publisher.
The Alchemy of the Eye
Cinema, form of the mind
by Roger Gilbert-Lecomte
translated by Michael Tweed
Cinema does not exist: it shall be born or die. Now it is only a shadow in the limbs of the possible, a rag among the scattered accessories of the petticoat of the human mind. To come into existence it must find its place, its moment, its necessity in the future. It has not found its role yet and cannot obtain one within the actual form of our society: it has arrived prematurely in a world too old.
I am not a film “technician” but a “technician” of the essential, I would like to say essentially of the human mind. From this point of view cinema constitutes an example of the strange imperfection of man’s powers. Applied science made an immense discovery then proved incapable of discovering the applications of its discovery – its specific object. Out of ignorance science has forced film to serve ridiculous ends. Like a child who invents dynamite and then eats it.
Unable to find cinema’s raison d’être, until now man has not been able to gauge the importance of his invention.
To look into the obstacles opposing the existence of cinema is precisely to put contemporary society, the modern mind, and Western civilization on trial.
Cinema is exemplary when faced with the vanity of intellectuals who still believe themselves to be independent. This latest form of expression is, more markedly than any other, subject to the oppression of our social state.
Absolute dictatorship of capital: of onerous production, but an immediate source of profits, cinema is merely an industry (regime of competition and corporations) and as such the sole criteria used to judge it is the “benefits” that it can procure.
With nationalism come quotas and protectionism. With the hypocrisy of liberalism comes censure (so approved by most directors). With the imbecility of individualism come the affected acting of actors, the megalomania of directors and the total absence of unity in their investigations. With the democratic spirit comes submission to the myth of the public, the excuse of all reactionary routines. Finally with imperialism come the lovely roles of the thug to knock the masses senseless, of the spreader of the lie of patriotism and of the agent provocateur for the next war.
Slave to the economic regime, cinema like every other mode of expression by which the spirit finds itself needing to make a sweet choice: freedom or death.
“Is cinema an art?” It is quite obvious that this frequent and sinister question would have to be answered unequivocally in the affirmative, that is if cinema was miraculously and suddenly freed from all the material constraints that weigh upon it. But again doomed to die, helpless it would be handed over to the individual fantasies of people who have never understood that an actual artistic expression can only be justified if it responds to a specific need of the moment that it alone is able to satisfy. Handed over to the capitalist conception of art, cinema merely becomes a disinterested (meaning useless) form of play, and destined to serve as a distraction (after dinner) to elevate the mind (and consequently facilitate digestion) through the sense of beauty (?). And so cinema would share the same sad lot as poetry, painting and music.
More generally every intellectual attitude implied by our culture, our civilization, our beliefs and traditions is absolutely opposed to the existence of cinema (for example: the ravages of traditional psychology in most films). Clearly cinema has nothing to do in this slave galley.
Since its invention until the present time all cinematic production has come to naught and reached a dead-end. The only purpose for all this activity would seem to be to perfect and put the finishing touches on an instrument destined for some future use. Deprived of meaning and purpose in the actual state of our present society, inevitably cinema will precede and embody the very essence of the social landscape of the future.
All economic and social upheaval, every coming revolution will only realize, sooner or later, the synthesis of valid trends that our bygone era watches develop with regret. From this parallel revolution of human values in all domains a new culture must be born, another civilization based on a different system of knowledge.
Not having the space to demonstrate, I can only state that to the Marxist determinism of social evolution towards a communist state without class, family or religion corresponds an evolution of thought: to the degree that the dialectic mind will defeat mechanistic reason, the present scientific-religious phase will be succeeded by a phase of (non-idealist and non-materialistic) monistic thought. Anti-individualism and dialectical determinism will create a morality without responsibility, a new idea of man. The evolution of the human mind must achieve the synthesis of discursive reason and primitive participatory thinking.1 It is a good idea to first proceed with a dialectical reduction from the religious act to magical sociology and from the marvelous (i.e. “supernatural”) to the very nature of the human mind.
Now, in this last investigation which is the very one that occupies us, cinema, due to its potential, has been forced to play a broad role.
By setting aside the discoveries, possible in the near future, of colour film and of film in space (film-in-relief is a psychological error) which do not yet exist, we actually have at our disposal silent film on the one hand and talkies on the other: in other words mobile relations of forms, of surfaces of light and shadow and sound.
Furthermore, if the eye of the camera does not see lines in nature, we nevertheless have mobile relationships of lines and sounds thanks to animated films.
Cinegraphic vision is obtained by means of a succession of images that recreate movement with the illusion of life. For, in the most general sense, life is a rhythm, a succession, an alternation, a continual palpitation of being and non-being, of presence and absence, a pure breath in which the existence of inhalation follows the void of exhalation.
The vision of film is a rhythm, in other words a movement connected to absence; it constitutes the first condition that allows us to envisage the possible future of dialectical cinema, of cinema as a form of the mind.
The evolution of mind-forms, the movement natural to the mind, according to Hegel, is endowed with an indefinite perfectibility and can at the extreme aspire to an absolute solution because “the dialectic of nature is the same as that of our mind.” The tree grows by syllogisms: the germination of the world is a growing plant. The idea only develops by encountering itself in its negation like the Seed that Hegel defined thus: through the mediatory idea of exteriority, the basic fabric of eternal cosmic becoming, the idea denies being itself in order to affirm itself in the form of nature.
Here is the sole but immense raison d’être of cinema: being the mediator between mind and nature, it can express in movement and perceptible forms the evolving of the forms of the mind. If one day man decides on this goal, cinema can become a means of expression of which the “invention” will be almost as important as those of language and writing, specifically plastic language.
Thus cinema, as a means of research and experiences, will have become a mode of knowledge, an actual form of the mind.
The truth is that the filmmaker must choose his images not in nature, but in a studio among the most diverse test shots, for it is obvious that the result of a shot, any shot, remains unpredictable.
Moreover, in film, the photography of an object as it is should only play a very limited role. In this role, the vision of the camera, to which the human eye has become familiar for a long time now, only serves to symbolize the impersonal, social, objective aspect of things in opposition to the subjective vision of the filmmaker. According to an alternating rhythm, the object appears as it is seen through the lens, then as it is perceived by the human consciousness through the fog of states that transform it, the veil of tears or the synthetic light of inspiration, fear or charm.
Traditional psychology has been able to draw a few effects from film: the faculty of attention illustrated by the shot’s angle and close-ups – the associations of ideas by the dissolve – memory by superimposing images.
But only the psychology of states will be able to make use of all the possibilities of the cinema destined for the visual representation of moving forms of the mind.
The eye of the camera can become the mind’s eye. For the movement of the mind in relation to the movement of life, due to its variations of speed until then unknown to the senses and which allow consciousness to discover new rhythms.
Due to time lapse: the germination of a plant; the growth of a beard.
Due to slow motion: the movements of a dream; a flying man; the flight of angels; the gestures of ghosts.
Due to the relativity of sizes on the screen: a dice or a cork adventitiously replaces the pyramids; a ball of cotton becomes a cloud in the sky.
Due to the deformations and plays in space: the Himalayas in the bezel of a ring; a train circles a human head, the stagecoaches of the Far West and the swell of the sea on a sleeper’s pillow; a drama playing itself out in a black fingernail.
Due to the relativity of time and space on the screen allowing the juxtaposition of all images.
Also the eye of the camera can become the eye of the nightmare, the gaze of a sorcerer, the key to metamorphosis and grasping the lyrical act in its instantaneous becoming, the poetic metamorphosis in its essence: by means of a meticulous but simple technique (out-of-focus, dissolve and superimpositions), it can reproduce the mysterious paranoic transmutation that causes the mind to submit to the objects, upon suddenly discovering their secret hallucinatory horror; all the too lucid visions of delirium; the curtain that becomes a ghost; the crocodile that is drawn in the shape of a tree, becomes real, moves, then is reabsorbed back into the pattern of the wood, and remains a tree; the eye of the cloud, the sky’s faces in the branches, the tormented screaming wildlife of the wind.
Lastly, when photography is unable to capture certain mental images, across a very broad domain, then the role of animated film arises (alone or mixed with cinegraphic images). Perhaps even more than a humoristic value this mode of expression possesses a poetic value. It contains all the possibilities of moving lines and sounds.
* * *
It is not only speculations on the nature of cinema that can give rise to these conclusions, but also the mere watching of the films which are, these days, presented to the public.
It is necessary to note: why is cinema subjected to only the most insignificant and idiotic activities of the human mind like the novel or operetta? Why not instead choose as its aim the highest expressions of the mind, such as poetry and metaphysics in the particular sense that I use these two terms?
The answer is obvious: every intelligent attempt is rendered impossible by the economic constraints of our society.
But to the sole, entirely theoretical possibility of such a use of cinema the following objection is frequently raised: the camera’s cow eye sees and registers images in a crude and mechanical way, without choosing between them or capturing the qualities that the mind’s perception grants them.
It is advisable to particularly note that this reproach is not addressed to cinema proper but to photography. Nor does it apply to animated films. Photography is arbitrarily opposed to the “art of painting” with its harmonies and its pitiful spirit of decoration. In fact, this objection can only be usefully directed against the use of cinema for artistic and naturalistic ends that are of no real interest.
The acoustic possibilities of cinema will appear when one has decided to investigate the specific role of sound subordinated to the unfurling of images: a great luminous cry, the modulations of the iridescence of water.
One cannot judge the cinema using a diction-of-cinema as none will be discovered.
Musical adaptations can only result in horribly artistic results. But, freed of music and language, cinema could bring together rhythms of movements and sounds (particularly those of primitive percussion instruments) capable of physiologically provoking collective states of exaltation, trances, etc.
* * *
The true role of the filmmaker should be, by means of these various techniques, to adapt one’s entire mental life to the screen. From this point of view, mind-forms are of two kinds: on the one hand those that can be rendered directly perceptible as a visual and acoustic appearance, on the other hand, those that cannot.
In the first category belong, above all, phosphenes2 and dreams. In this case the filmmaker must compare the images that he draws from deep within himself with the various images that he projects onto the screen until the experience gives him the intuition of a closely approximate coincidence.
In an essay on Experimental Metaphysics3 we have dealt with certain concept-limits, certain ecstatic intuitions that stand out in very particular states of consciousness and that are always indissolubly bound to the frenetic rhythm of the murmur of the blood and to the synchronous dance of geometric and coloured phosphenes. It would be of the greatest interest to know whether such states can be experimentally provoked by external projection, on a screen, in a dark hall, through a rhythm of visual images and sound. Such a spectacle, basically equivalent to the magic ceremonies of primitive tribes, would allow experimental access to variations in states of consciousness.4
The projection of images from dreams or deliriums onto the screen – outside of the services that it could provide Freudian psychoanalysis – could play an important role in the understanding of the primordial myths of humankind. Due to such objectified images being subjected to the criteria of the collective disturbance that they would provoke, it might be possible to return to the depths of the mind, its very source. It could be a means of research for the demonstration of the universality of the world of dreams, legends and mythologies. It could be a dream thrown into the subterranean abysses of man to reach the unknown gulf of geneses, to fathom the deep place where monsters and marvels lurk, matrix of African or Polynesian masks, Chinese dragons, the demonic apparitions that haunted the Middle Ages, werewolves and vampires. In this way one could bring into the light of day the caverns of dazzling magic and the temples of sordid religions.
Certain processes, certain moving forms of the mind cannot be directly reduced to visual or acoustic images. In such cases the filmmaker could however objectify them on the screen thanks to their Swedenborgian correspondences, or, according to phenomenological language, thanks to other images belonging to the same affective category. Here one must understand “affective category” in the sense of: principle of unity for the mind in different representations that affect it in the same manner; a generality that is not conceptual but felt; coloration, tonality common to certain representations that the subject immediately grasps as belonging to all those of the same category. Such a symbolism is characteristic of primitive thought, but also of all poetic thought: everything is connected to everything else according to a network of mysterious forces of which man is, though usually unaware of it, a center of emission and reception. The knowledge of totemism (man bonds to the clan, the animal, the vegetable, the mineral) depends on such experiences.
Do these too brief indications give one a glimpse of what cinema could become if applied to the knowledge of man’s abysses: dialectical cinema; the cinema, a form of the mind?
Note: The only films that allow one not to regret the birth of film: scientific documentaries on:
1) The phenomena of crystallizations; the growth of crystal;
2) The germination of a plant;
3) The metamorphoses of insects.
As well as the Soviet films intended for social and political propaganda.
If these films in their domains are valuable, is it not because they escape the material and spiritual obstacles that I mentioned and because they include the elements of what the cinema that I foresee should include?
* * *
Reference: L’Alchimie de l’oeil: Le cinéma, forme de l’esprit, has been included in Roger Gilbert-Lecomte’s Oeuvres complètes, tome I: Proses (© 1974 Gallimard), and again in the anthology Le Grand Jeu et le Cinéma, (ed. Alain and Odette Virmaux, © 1996 Éditions Paris Expérimental).
The text in the original French can be read online, here.
1 “Primitive participatory thinking” is a reference to the thought of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, particularly his notion of “mystical participation”, which according to Carl Jung, “denotes a peculiar kind of psychological connection with objects, and consists in the fact that the subject cannot clearly distinguish himself from the object but is bound to it by a direct relationship which amounts to partial identity.” [translator]
2According to the OED: “A subjective sensation of light produced by mechanical stimulation of the retina (as by pressure on the eyeball) or by electrical stimulation of various parts of the visual pathway.” [tr.]
3By Réné Daumal in Le Grand Jeu, no. 4. An English translation can be found in The Theory of the Great Game (Atlas Press, forthcoming June 2015). [tr.]
4This isn’t only a question in regard to the genesis of the CINÉ-POEM or CINEMAGIC.
Above all it is an intervention that puts into play all the moral action of the twentieth century.
Logically, it will no doubt be necessary for the Soviet sun to dawn on that day.
Experimentally, I ask and I wait for Western Patronage to grant the means to realize this. [RGL]