light | image | illusion
light | image | illusion

Living Mirrors: Deutsch's Cinematic Monadology

Tom Gunning

      Before it became the dominant teller of stories in the modern era, cinema served as the mirror of the world, placing distant lands in their great and extensive variety within the reach of a new worldwide audience. For cinema’s first decade actuality films, films showing both the spectacular and the everyday from all areas of the world, made up the largest proportion of film production. These films were neglected by traditional film historians who assumed film by its nature to be primarily a narrative form. More scandalously, until recently historians of documentary also ignored such films, assuming documentary filmmaking began in the 1920’s with Nanook of the North. Although the vast majority of these actuality films, like most of our perishable film heritage, have turned to dust, thousands of them still exist, for the most part languishing on the shelves of film archives. Although the practice of actuality filmmaking became more marginal as fiction film became dominant, its imagery remained vital, if neglected by most scholars.
      Recent work by activist archives such as the Nederlands Filmmuseum or the restoration films by the British Film Institute and the National Fairground Archives of the re-discovered Mitchell and Kenyon should alert both film and social historians of the richness contained in these neglected treasure troves. But the full appreciation of these films, I feel, also depends on filmmakers, artists who penetrate into these images, discovering not only facts, but mysteries, not only evidence, but unforgettable images. As filmmaker’s like Ken Jacobs and Hollis Frampton a generation ago cued scholars like myself into the richness of early fiction films, more recently filmmakers like Ernie Gehr, Pieter Delpeut, Yervant Gianakian / Angela Ricci Luchi and Gustav Deutsch have reworked actuality material in ways that not only use it as raw material for their own works but truly dissect and uncover their hidden secrets and uncanny revelations. Welt Spiegel Kino does more than marvel at these forgotten images of a now distant actuality. Its structure stitches images together in a texture of impossible fantasy, a vision of an infinite cinema, as new images seem to bleed through the surface of other images, creating a contradictory sense of surface and depth, like two mirrors placed at acute angles to each other.
      Initial film exhibitions were predominantly urban phenomenon, an amusement addressed to the masses, and cinema’s first and most popular subjects often included the city street, the urban crowd. Thus early cinema often staged a strange mirroring, city crowds entering into city theaters to see on the screen - city crowds on city streets. Thus cinema posed an uncanny reflection of the urban crowd, a sort of mise en abyme, as crowds encountered themselves on the screen. Sometimes the mirroring was literal, since cinema owners frequently shot films in front of their theaters that would later be shown inside to the same people who had gathered to be filmed (this was likely true of the Viennese and the Portuguese films, episodes 1 and 3 of Deutsch’s film). But given film’s international distribution (something present from its origins) film audiences also saw crowds from other nations and cultures. Whether, as some socialists claimed at the time, this would lead to a new sense of common brotherhood, or simply to a spectacle of exotic otherness, cannot be absolutely determined, since both receptions were possible.
    Perhaps the most overwhelming experience of early urban street films lies in their seeming inexhaustibility. The film frame seems stuffed to overflowing, with multiple mobile points of interest; the spectator’s eye must roam constantly to grasp it all. As I described the factory gate films produced by the Mitchell and Kenyon company: “a firm quadrangle encloses, but cannot contain, a world of unpredictable vitality and motion. From the background, from the sides, sometimes from the foreground, the masses surge into view, barely pausing for us to get a vivid image of them before they move out of sight. One never knows where to look… where the center of interest might appear, as our attention migrates from this face to that gesture, from this gruff old man’s brusque swing of an arm to a glimpse of a face we think we could love”. Deutsch intervenes on this complex material, however, as if responding to the fantasy of pursuing these fugitive figures, fixing attention upon them until they become characters. Like many filmmakers working with material from early cinema (such as Ernie Gehr’s Eureka), Deutsch slows down the footage, allowing us to glimpse the transient events a bit longer. Then like the gesture of enlargement through re-photography that Ken Jacobs used in his epochal reworking of Biograph’s 1903 Tom Tom the Piper’s Son, Deutsch’s optical enlargements isolate and seem to penetrate the space of the image, focusing on a single figure. With a dissolve this figure merges with another figure that resembles the first, but presumably taken from different film. A new sequence thus becomes embedded into the master shot of street life outside a movie theater, like a nested narrative, focalized in this figure now become character.
       This isolation and enlargement leading to a new sequence snakes through all three episodes, creating a bizarre narrativization of the image. A bit like the camera movement that moves over an aerial view of the city of Phoenix, and then penetrates through the window into the hotel room where Marion Crane is having her tryst in the opening of Hitchcock’s Psycho, Deutsch seems to single out these figures in order to reveal their individual story. As familiar as this centering camera movement is to us from narrative films, here it involves a number of contradictions. The device of penetration and dissolve (which is later closed by a symmetrical dissolve and optical pull back, returning us to the long shot of the street scene) seems to detour us from the uncentered aleatory space of the actuality street scene into a focused scenography of a character-driven fiction film. Does this mean Deutsch surrenders the mysterious open space of early actuality cinema to the more conventional focus of narrative film? No, because these apparent back-stories contain false bottoms. The embedded footage does not truly bring us into a conventional story, but rather into another series of actuality images or into a brief open-ended fragment from an early fictional film (like the mischievous boys playing pranks in one sequence), We can read them as images coming from the life of the figure we have focused on (images of his or her future or past, as a soldier, a circus strong man, a traditional dancer, or as a worker in a canning factory), but they hardly supply the suspenseful unfolding of a dramatic situation - such as we are immersed in as we penetrate Marion Crane’s hotel room in Psycho. With each dissolve we fall from one mysterious image into another series of mysterious images. This illusory exit into a labyrinth parallels the contradictory sense of surface and depth these embedded images give us. As the film image enlarges, we do not actually seem to draw nearer to it, but rather the magnified surface of the image becomes more abstract, the image threatening to resolve itself into the swarm of film grain rather than a navigable space of figure and ground. Thus at the moment that the film seems to move into the pathway of story we are confronted as well with its ineluctable materiality.
      At one point in each of the episodes the enlargement focuses not on a human figure, but on a poster announcing the film playing within the theater, and the images that follow present a fragment of a fictional film. The images from Fritz Lang’s Siegfried, are easily identifiable, and although I cannot identify the other films, their images seems to match the titles on the posters (the black hooded criminals paired with Die Schwarze Kappe in the Viennese Kino, or the images of what seems to be an agrarian revolt correspond with the film José do Telhado showing at the theater at Porto. At a few points in the film a second layer of rift in the images opens - as when the eye of dragon Fafnir struck by Siegfried’s sword dissolves to the eye of an effigy in a traditional Asian dragon dance, or when a close-up of a stamp bearing the image of Franz Joseph dissolve into documentary offstage of the Austrian emperor. Here we realize the possibility of infinite regress, as each image could open unto another series.
      Welt Spiegel Kino reflects on the illusory interplay of surface and depth, of succession and narrative, in cinema. Images give way to other images; images are filled and emptied of meaning. The structuring of these moving and transforming images is based on our recognition of similarities and our expectations of narrative. This film knits these relations together constantly, in a way that emphasizes both our thirst for meaning and the arbitrary nature of the desire. The film makes sense to us, but slowly this sense itself seems to dissolve into seemingly endless play of similarity and reflection, recognition and enigma. Walter Benjamin in a fascinating but obscure passage referred to the “dream house of the collective”, the theaters and panoramas, as “houses without windows”. Using this strange terminology he seems to reference Leibniz’ description of the elements of reality, which he termed monads. The monad, Leibniz claimed, has “no window through which anything could come in or go out”. Rather than communicating with an outside, these monads relate through reflecting each other, each one containing the whole of the universe, functioning, as Leibniz put it, as “living mirrors”. Deutsch’s film presents a cinematic Monadology, revealing the cinema as a play of reflections that stretch across modern life, a living mirror of a new world.



Culture 2000 Programme of the EUMinistry of Cultural Heritage, HungaryNational Cultural Fund, Hungary

The project is realised with the support of the Programme Culture 2000 of the European Union;
the National Cultural Fund, Hungary (H); the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Hungary (H); the Goethe-Institut, Athens; The British Council, Athens; Austrian Airlines, Athens; the Highlights Magazine; the Athener Zeitung; the Austrian Embassy in Athens and from the side of Austria, the Art section of the Austrian Federal Chancellery and the Federal Ministry for Foreign Affairs.