Screening Bloodlust and Staging Psychosis


                Jean-Luc Godard

There’s a sequence in French fillmaker Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiniers (The Riflemen, France, 1963) which argues that the power of the camera to confront audiences with moving images has a decidedly dark side.[1] A young country boy has joined the army because he’s been promised the right to pillage and brutalize at will in the name of king and country. On leave one night, he goes to the cinema, where the first two features are obviously reminiscent of Lumière actualités, including one that re-creates Arrivée d’un train. Sure enough, the boy flinches when the train pulls into the station. Ultimately, Godard suggests in Les Carabiniers that the willingness to believe the obscene inducements of army recruiters can’t be far removed from the inability to distinguish appearance from reality—a problem exacerbated, no doubt, by the habit of moviegoing.

The next item on Godard’s reconstructed cinema program applies the same metaphorical logic to the ideas—and images—of sex and voyeurism. As a woman on screen disrobes, exits the frame, returns, and enters her bath, the boy cranes up and slides from side to side in an effort to see the forbidden image of her body. Godard thus gives us to understand that the character’s inability to distinguish his lust for the truly obscene—killing and raping with official impunity—goes hand in hand with his impulse to possess a desirable object (the “real” woman) by possessing its image (the woman onscreen). It is symptomatic, then, of his larger confusion of appearance and reality—both cause and effect, perhaps, of an insatiable voyeurism—and his response to the image on the screen identifies him as both mindless consumer and despoiler not only of the image that arouses him but of everything (or so Godard again implies) that stands for something (Figure R2.2).


                   Jane Campion

Or consider Australian director Jane Campion’s The Piano (Austrailia/New Zealand/France, 1993), which takes place among Victorian colonists in the wilds of New Zealand.[2] The film is made from a staunchly feminist point of view, and being about Victorian sensibilities, it’s very much about repressed sexuality. In particular, it explores the ambivalence of male responses to the feminine, both real and imagined—attitudes of desire and fear which tend to become confused in the fevered masculine imagination.

In one episode, the white colonists put on a series of skits at the local church, including a theatrically ambitious rendering of Bluebeard, a well-known folktale about serial wife murder. The native aborigines in the audience are certainly offended by the very concept of spousal butchery, but Campion also makes it clear that they don’t comprehend the idea of representing such a psychotic impulse by means of staged images. On a very elementary—indeed, “primitive”—level, representation in Western art is designed to vent feelings that are otherwise repressed. In this case, those feelings obviously involve an attitude toward women that is, at bottom, sadistic (Figure R2.3 [3]).

The sequences in Les Carabiniers and The Piano testify both to the enduring importance of images from cultural history (whether from turn-of-the-century cinema or from the much older trove of Western folklore) and to the power of images to inspire emotional responses. Campion reminds us that this is particularly true of images that we are for some reason compelled to dramatize (or “act out”), and Godard suggests that the greatest power of images resides in the combination of the photograph and the drama (even when the “drama” is merely a brief actualité).

Little Mythologies of the Movies; or, Patents to Protect and Histories to Hide

We’re still left, however, with one deceptively simple question: Did audiences really flinch when the train rolled from the background to the foreground of the screen during the first showings of Arrivée d’un train? According to the Boston Herald, when Edison’s Elevated Railway, 23rd Street, New York was first screened in Boston, in May 1896, the view was “so realistic as to give those in front seats at start.” The New York Mail and Express reported that, alarmed by the sudden approach of Biograph’s Empire State Express during an October 1896 show, “two ladies in one of the boxes on the left hand side . . ., just where the flyer vanishes from view, screamed and nearly fainted as it came apparently rushing upon them.”[4] The Russian writer Maxim Gorky saw Arrivée d’un train when he ventured into “the kingdom of the shadows” to see a cinématographe program in June 1896. He rhapsodized over a similar experience:

Suddenly there is a click, everything vanishes, and a railway train appears on the screen. It darts like an arrow straight towards you—watch out! It seems as though it is about to rush into the darkness where you are sitting and reduce you to a mangled sack of skin . . . and destroy this hall and this building, so full of wine, women, music, and vice, and turn it into fragments and dust.[5]

True, Gorky also warned prospective moviegoers that upon seeing L'Arroseur arrosé, “you think the spray is going to hit you too and instinctively shrink back.”[6] Finally, even Campion’s parable of Bluebeard and aboriginal spectators—in which the heads of the actresses symbolizing female victims protrude through slits cut in a backdrop—seems to have a prototype among the anecdotes told by the first moviemakers: English inventor William Friese-Greene liked to tell the story of a woman who, during the projection of one of his film scenes, poked at the image of a girl’s face on the screen because the illusion was simply too astounding to be an illusion; surely a real girl’s eyes were looking through holes cut in the screen.

“The point,” says British critic-historian Michael Chanan,

isn’t whether [Friese-Greene’s] story is true—nor whether so many stories about the early days of cinema are true. Although we ought to get straight about the facts . . ., what we really ought to be doing is trying to understand them as mythology. Because as a mythology, they reveal crucial subjective aspects of early film culture.[7]


                   Roland Barthes

If we want both to adopt this position and to resolve this issue, we need a working definition of mythology. Let’s adapt one from the French critic-philosopher Roland Barthes, who holds that we can identify little “mythologies” like our anecdotes about audience reactions to the first moving pictures because they express themselves as tautology or aphorism.[8] “One takes refuge in tautology,” charges Barthes, “when one is at a loss for an explanation,” and although the inventor of the moving-picture apparatus, the technician with proprietary rights to the magic, has recourse to an educational explanation, he often declines to share it with the confounded moviegoer. Why? Perhaps because he sees no reason to relinquish the status of magician. Implying by their refusal that they were forced to resort to “the magical” as an explanation, the pioneers of the cinema, contends Barthes, took “refuge behind the argument of authority: thus do parents at the end of their tether reply to the child who keeps on asking for explanations: ‘because that’s how it is,’ or even better: ‘just because, that’s all’.[9]

Aphorism: “The Counter-Explanation”

Likewise, resorting to aphorism—to concealing a troublesome truth within one that’s easier to digest—is the recourse of the motion-picture pioneer in his role of an inventor with patents to protect and histories of invention and production to conceal. According to Barthes, falling back on aphorisms is “bourgeois” behavior, not only because it reflects the profit motive but because it promotes the maxim that satisfies the most people over the truth that confounds or disturbs too many of them. When, for example, the pioneer/capitalist promotes the vitascope as “The Greatest Electrical Novelty in the World” or the cinématographe as “The Greatest Attraction of the Century,” he is relying on “bourgeois aphorisms”—

a second-order language which bears on objects already prepared. . . . Here the statement is no longer directed towards a world to be made; it must overlay one which is already made, bury the traces of this production under a self-evident appearance of eternity: it is a counter-explanation. . . . The foundation of the bourgeois statement of fact is common sense—that is, truth when it stops on the arbitrary order of him who speaks it.[10]


            William Friese-Greene

The Aphoristic Career of William Friese-Greene

  Which brings us back to the curious story of William Friese-Greene. Friese-Greene filed a patent in June 1889 for a camera that took a series of photographs on a roll of perforated film designed to move intermittently behind a shutter. Unfortunately, the rate of ten frames per second was too slow to create a satisfactory illusion of movement. Between 1889 and 1921, Friese-Greene took out another 77 British patents for a variety of products, including stereoscopic and color film, but because he lacked the technical knowledge needed to complete any of these projects, none of them achieved any commercial success.

Today, however, a plaque on the house in Brighton where Friese-Greene lived and worked commemorates his achievement: “It was here the inventor of cinematography, William Friese-Greene (1855-1921), carried out his original experiments which led to a world-wide industry” (see Figure R2.4). There’s a similar testament on his gravestone in London, which identifies him as “The Inventor of Kinematography”: “His genius,” reads the inscription, “bestowed upon humanity the boon of commercial kinematography, of which he was the first inventor and patentee (June 21st 1883, No. 10,131)” (see Figure R2.4). A 1948 biography claiming that Friese-Greene was the forgotten inventor of the cinema soon became a movie, The Magic Box, which was the British film industry’s principal contribution to the Festival of Britain, a patriotic celebration held in the summer of 1951. In an early scene, set in 1897, Friese-Greene’s assistant escorts two young ladies to a showing of Lumière films and afterward assures them that “Mr. Friese-Greene” was responsible for the exciting new invention. He then gives them a tour of the inventor’s laboratory, where we’re told that Friese-Greene’s first motion-picture camera came to naught only because the death of his wife sapped him of his passion and energy (see Figure R2.5 [11]).

We know, of course, that Friese-Greene was a marginal figure in the history of motion-picture technology. We know, too, that the Lumière brothers not only gave the most influential demonstration of projected films with the most practical machine for taking and showing them, but also established the making and presenting of moving images as an international enterprise. In Great Britain, however, Friese-Greene’s place in the history of these events seems to have been aggrandized—at least among some custodians of English cultural heritage—by an elaborate compilation of bourgeois aphorisms: in response to collective curiosity about an Englishman’s contributions to the development of the cinema, an answer is given which satisfies common sense (after all, Friese-Greene filed a patent in 1889, six years before the Lumières) and which stops—which declines to reveal the truth by resolving the apparent contradictions in the story—on the order of those who are committed to that answer.

Fortunately, says Barthes, the problem of mythologies and bourgeois aphorisms need not be serious—at least not to anyone who’s interested in the true “meaning” of the experience that’s actually shared by the pioneer and the primitive audience: “The essential point in all this is that the form does not suppress the meaning: it only impoverishes it, it puts it at a distance, it holds it at one’s disposal.”[12] The mythology and the aphorism, in other words, are harmless if we remain committed to recovering the facts. Indeed, they may perform a service: they may prompt us to enrich our understanding precisely because we know that it has historically been “impoverished” and may in fact be moved to find out why.

Observing the Spontaneities

Let’s approach the same set of issues from another perspective. We would not be far off in deducing that Louis Lumière felt the need to give his brief views of reality a compositional coherence not unlike that which the edge of the canvas can provide a painting. Perhaps he was thinking about both photography and painting when he told French film historian Georges Sadoul that “what always preoccupied me . . . was the framing of my subjects.”[13] In any case, he was talking about a matter of “style,” and matters of style are subtle matters; they’re best appreciated when, as in an art gallery, the spectator’s eye is free to linger over and respond to visual design. Moreover, Lumière’s audiences were composed of the least experienced moviegoers of all time: to them, a minute or so no doubt seemed like even less time in which to condition the eye to aesthetic pleasures than it does to us. We must assume, therefore, that they responded—at least upon first viewing—to something in the subject matter of these little films. That something was probably related to a basic facet of their novel form: movement. Likewise, those audiences were probably quite impressed by the ability of an art form and its technology to be so “truthful” to “reality.”

Let’s say, for example, that Lumière’s first audiences did in fact flinch at the onrush of a train from background to foreground. If so, suggests English filmmaker-critic Dai Vaughan, we should remember that, to them, “the particular combination of visual signals present in that film had had no previous existence other than as signifying a real train pulling into a real station.”[14] To them, in other words, there had previously existed no such thing as a “lifelike depiction” of a train pulling into a station: until they had first experienced it in a darkened theater, such a thing had no existence separate from the real-life experience of watching a train pull into a station. Images had never before been able to accomplish what Lumière’s moving images could accomplish.

The Unpredictable Emerges from the Background; or, Freeing Reality from the “Drudgeries of Metaphor”

See the moving picture


More instructive than Arrivée d’un train, says Vaughan, is Barque sortant du port (Boat Leaving the Harbor, 1895), a painterly view of three men as they row a boat, frame right to frame left, around a jetty toward open water. On the jetty, which juts out from the right of the frame, two women are busy with a couple of restless children. It’s been observed that the film should have been called “Boat Trying to Leave the Harbor” because the three men are caught in a sudden swell that turns them around and appears to take control of the boat. The touch is perhaps quite subtle, but the film ends just as one of the women, apparently perceiving that the men are genuinely in some trouble, turns her attention away from the children and toward the boat (Figure R2.6).

Vaughan stresses two points about the responses of early audiences to films like Arrivée d’un train and Barque sortant du port:

  1. They were “startled not so much by the phenomenon of the moving photograph . . . as by its ability to portray spontaneities of which the theater was not capable.”[15]
  2. While they accepted the movement of photographed people because they conformed to the model of characters moving about upon the stage, they had no experience with the movement of inanimate phenomena that could not be contained and manipulated on the stage.

Barque sortant du port, however, seems to go beyond even the moviemaker’s ability to exploit these appealing features of his material and tools. The central human figures (the men in the boat) are explicitly caught up in the unpredictable and uncontrollable conditions of an inanimate phenomenon—the billowing sea, whose processes, governed by laws beyond human control, seem to introduce something “spontaneous” into the world that the cameraman had planned to capture. The response of the woman on the jetty—which is likewise spontaneous—could not be a better clue to this “theme” had it been designed as such. “The unpredictable,” says Vaughan, “has not only emerged from the background to occupy the greater portion of the frame; it has also taken sway over the principals.”[16]

Lumière’s audience, therefore, was privileged to have an experience that no other art form had previously been able to give it so directly: it witnesses “an invasion of the spontaneous into the human arts.” That experience, therefore, should have expressed a direct challenge

to the whole idea of controlled, willed, obedient [artistic] communication. And conversely, since the idea of communication had in the past been inseparable from the assumption of [the artist’s] willed control, this invasion must have seemed a veritable doubling back of the world into its own imagery, a denial of the order of a coded system.[17]

We’re told that upon seeing Barque sortant du port, spectators poked the screen to make sure that it wasn’t really the glass wall of a big water-filled tank. But remember that Barque sortant du port, like Arrivée d’un train, was shown on a program with several other items. In order to take seriously such stories about audience responses to these films, we must suppose that the same spectators suspected the same screen of also concealing a railway station, a factory, a suburban garden, and so forth. If we reject this idea (as we must), then we need to look elsewhere for the moral contained in the anecdotal story about audience response. Vaughan suggests that the “moral” of the Barque sortant du port story is that the simple story-like experience prompted the first audiences to question the power of conventional representative art to express the power and unpredictability of such phenomena as the sea and the experience of men who seek to master it. The movies, in other words, represented a sea quite different from the sea that could be represented by literature or painting: the movies, says Vaughan, depicted “a sea liberated from the laboriousness of painted highlights and the drudgeries of metaphor.”[18]

[1] See esp. Ian Cameron, “Les Carabiniers,” in The Films of Jean-Luc Godard, ed. Cameron (New York: Praeger, 1969), pp. 40-53. See also Marianne Kaletzky, “Enfeebling Fables: Weak Allegories in Les Carabiniers and The Silence,” Bright Lights Film Journal 82 (2013), at (accessed June 2, 2016); and Stephen Goddard, “(Falling into) the Space between the Screen and the Audience,” Double Dialogues 7 (Winter 2007), at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[2] See Jaime Bihlmeyer, “Bluebeard in Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’: A Study in Intertextuality as an Enunciation of FEMININITY in Mainstream Movies,” International Journal of the Humanities 8:7 (2010), pp. 183-90; Harvey Greenberg, “The Piano,” Film Quarterly 47 (Spring 1994), pp. 46-50; Cyndy Hendershot, “(Re) Visioning the Gothic: Jane Campion’s The Piano,” Literature/Film Quarterly 26:2 (1998), pp. 97-108; and Feona Atwood, “Weird Lullaby: Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano,’” Feminist Review 58 (Spring 1998), pp. 85-101.

[3] For Figure R2.3: Mary Chapman, “‘Living Pictures’: Women and Tableaux Vivants in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and Culture,” Wide Angle 18:3 (1996), pp. 22-52.

[4] Both quotes are from Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 118, 152, 155.

[5] Quoted by Ian Christie, The Last Machine: Early Cinema and the Birth of the Modern World (London: British Film Institute, 1994), p. 15. To read Gorky’s essay, go to “Maxim Gorky: The Lumière Cinematograph (Extracts)," in The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Cinema in Documents 1896-1939, ed. Richard Taylor and Ian Christie (1988; rpt. New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 25-26 at (accessed June 2, 2016).

[6] Quoted by Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1960), p. 31.

[7] The Dream That Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 15.

[8] See “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, ed. and trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pp. 107-59.

[9] “Myth Today,” p. 153.

[10] “Myth Today,” pp. 154-55.

[11] The faulty biography is Ray Allister, Friese-Greene: Close-Up of an Inventor (1948; rpt. New York: Arno Press, 1972). For a more reliable account of Friese-Greene’s activities and accomplishments, see Peter Domankiewicz and Stephen Herbert, “William Friese Greene,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 2, 2016). Consulted for Figure R2.5: Sarah Easen, “Film and the Festival of Britain 1951” (British Universities Film & Video Council, 2002), at (accessed June 28, 2011).

[12] “Myth Today,” p. 118.

[13] Quoted by Miriam Rosen, “Lumière, Louis,” in World Film Directors. Volume I. 1890-1945, ed. John Wakeman (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), p. 703.

[14] “Let There Be Lumière,” Sight and Sound 50 (Spring 1981), pp. 126-127. On the mythology of Arrivée d’un train, see Martin Loiperdinger and Bernd Elzer, “Lumière’s Arrival of the Train: Cinema’s Founding Myth,” The Moving Image 4:1 (2004), pp. 89-118.

[15] “Let There Be Lumière,” p. 127.

[16] “Let There Be Lumière,” p. 127.

[17] “Let There Be Lumière,” p. 127.

[18] “Let There Be Lumière,” p. 127. For a reflection on Barque sortant du port and the sensation of an event captured in time by the motion-picture camera, see Damian Sutton, Photography, Cinema: The Crystal Image of Time (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2009), pp. 79-85, at (accessed June 2, 2016).

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