Intertitles—or, more accurately, expository intertitles—are textual inserts that foreground narration by providing introductory or explanatory information. On the one hand, the advent of intertitles enabled producers to take over from exhibitors the prerogative of organizing their films in meaningful ways: intertitles rendered lecturers more or less obsolete and, more importantly, freed producers from relying on the audience’s familiarity with a film’s subject matter.


                            Roland Barthes

Applying the Principle of Vraisemblence; or, Appreciating the Difference between Reality and Unreality

  At the same time, however, intertitles reinforced the presentation of fictional episodes as autonomous components of a spectacle. Interestingly, early Pathé catalogues placed “vues historiques,” or “historical scenes,” which reconstructed events from the past, and actualités, which catpured events in the present, in the same category—thereby implying not only a continuum of past and present “realities” but a distinction between “historical” dramatization and other types of “fictional” or “imaginary” dramatization. What was the rationale for this difference? The issue was raised by a contemporary debate about the application of the principle of vraisemblence—verisimilitude—to the art of photography and is addressed in the following passage by the French critic Roland Barthes, who is writing in 1964:

The type of consciousness the photograph involves is indeed truly unprecedented, since it establishes not a consciousness of the being-there of the thing (which any copy could provoke) but an awareness of its having-been-there. What we have is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority, the photograph being an illogical conjunction between the here-now and the there-then. It is thus at [this] level . . . that the real unreality of the photograph can be fully understood: its unreality is that of the here-now, for the photograph is never experienced as illusion, is in no way a presence (claims to the magical character of the photographic image must be deflated); its reality is that of the having-been-there, for in every photograph there is the always stupefying evidence of this is how it was, giving us, by a precious miracle, a reality from which we are sheltered.[1]

In this respect, applying the norm of vraisemblence means appreciating the difference between the reality and unreality apprehended in the photograph. In addition, because it’s anchored in the reality of the having-been-there, the photograph does not inspire the spectator to “project” upon it his own images or ideas (hence the dependence of psychological tests on drawings instead of photographs). “If these remarks are at all correct,” continues Barthes,

the photograph must be related to a pure spectatorial consciousness and not to the more projective, more “magical” fictional consciousness on which film by and large depends. This would lend authority to the view that the distinction between film and photograph is not a simple difference of degree but a radical opposition. Film can no longer be seen as animated photographs: the having-been-there gives way before a being-there of the thing. . . .[2]

When viewing a film, in other words, the spectator, inspired by the imagery on the screen, is likely to “project” his own images and ideas, and when these two levels of consciousness become “conflated,” the capacity to apply the norm of vraisemblence may be compromised.


                            André Bazin

André Bazin and the Psychological Realism of Photography

  In fact, any component of the cinematic presentation that inspires “projection” on the spectator’s part jeopardizes the diagnostic judgment of vraisemblence—which is, of course, the sort of judgment that enables us to make rational and practical distinctions. In this sense, it only makes matters worse that the cinema shares certain critical traits with the theater—traits which, in their effort to legitimize the motion picture, Charles Pathé and other producers sought to emphasize in the period between 1907 and World War I.

The French film critic André Bazin tacitly rejects the distinction made by Barthes. Bazin, for example, insisted that the cinema is grounded in the psychological realism of photography, which must be radically distinguished from other forms of “picture-making,” such as painting: “Originality in photography as distinct from originality in painting,” declared Bazin,

lies in the essentially objective character of photography. For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. For the first time, an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man. . . . All the arts are based on the presence of man; only photography derives an advantage from his absence. Photography affects us like a phenomenon in nature, like a flower or a snowflake whose vegetable or earthly origins are an inseparable part of their beauty.[3]

Moreover, the special link between the photographed image and the image that it represents has a profound effect on the way in which we believe in the photographed image:

The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making. In spite of any objections our critical spirit may offer, we are forced to accept as real the existence of the object reproduced, actually re-presented, set before us, that is to say, in time and space. Photography enjoys a certain advantage in virtue of this transference of reality from the thing to its reproduction.[4]


             Kendall L. Walton

“Photographs Look Like What They Are: Photographs”

  For American aesthetician Kendall L. Walton, this depth of belief would perhaps be reasonable if we accepted it as a certain form of illusion: “Even photographic motion pictures in ‘living color,’” he contends, “are manifestly mere projections on a flat surface and easily distinguished from ‘reality.’” No matter how much we’re inclined to believe in them, we must understand our belief as a certain type of illusion, albeit perhaps an extremely intense one: “Photographs look like what they are: photographs,” and not like the things they represent. If, however, we accept this proposition—namely, that “our experience of a photograph approach[es] that of having an illusion more closely than our experiences of painting do”—then we would have to admit that “theater comes as close or closer to providing genuine illusions than film does. . . . There are real flesh-and-blood persons on stage, and they look more like the people portrayed than do plays of light and dark on a flat screen.”[5] (Bazin declines to accept this proposition because theater, unlike photography, does not reproduce “mechanically” the realism of the imagery that it represents.)

“A Difference in Kind between Painting and Photography”

  For his own part, Walton is willing to say that

photography is an aid to vision. . . . [W]e can . . . see into the past. We see long deceased ancestors when we look at dusty snapshots of them. . . . Photographs are transparent. We see the world through them.

I must warn against watering down this suggestion. . . . I am not saying that the person looking at the dusty photograph has the impression of seeing his ancestors—in fact, he doesn’t have the impression of seeing them “in the flesh,” with the unaided eye. I am not saying that photography supplements vision by helping us to discover things that we can’t discover by seeing. . . . Nor is my point that what we see—photographs—are duplicates or doubles or reproductions of objects, or substitutes or surrogates for them. My claim is that we see, quite literally, our dead relatives themselves when we look at photographs of them. . . .

One may pay no attention to photographic images themselves, concentrating on the things photographed. But even if one does attend especially to the photographic image, one may at the same time be seeing, and attending to, the objects photographed.

Seeing is often a way of finding out about the world. . . . We can’t expect to acquire any particularly important information by looking at photographs which we have studied many times before. But we can see our loved ones again, and that is important to us.

What about paintings? They are not transparent. We do not see Henry VIII when we look at his portrait; we see only a representation of him. There is a sharp break, a difference of kind, between painting and photography.[6]


                     The “Surgeon's Photo”

           of the “Loch Ness Monster,” 1934

Images and Fictional Projections

  These images that we actually see, however, are “fictional”—projections, perhaps not much different from the sort of projections that Barthes has in mind. If, for example, we see a photograph of the Loch Ness monster and do in fact believe that the creature exists, “then we speak comfortably of seeing it”—the monster—“when we look at the photograph.” If we’re then informed that the picture is a hoax and the monster-like object merely a model once used to make a movie about the monster, “we change our tune: what we see when we look at the photograph is not the monster but the model” (see Figure R6.11).[7] (Note that our belief in the monster hasn’t necessarily been altered and that the two objects of our seeing—the monster and the model—may continue to inhabit the same level of reality for us.)

Now consider the complications that arise when we’re asked to view something that we believe to be fictional:

What about viewers of the movie (which, let us assume, was a straightforward work of fiction)? They may speak of seeing the monster, even if they don’t believe for a moment that there is such a beast. It is fictional that they see it; they actually see, with photographic assistance, the model used in the making of the film. . . .

Even when one looks at photographs that are not straightforward works of fiction, it can be fictional that one sees. On seeing a photograph of a long-forgotten family reunion, I might remark that Aunt Mabel is grimacing. She is not grimacing now, of course; perhaps she is long deceased. My use of the present tense suggests that it is fictional that she is grimacing (now). And it is fictional that I see her grimacing. . . . Fictionally one is in the presence of what one sees.[8]


        In the Presence of Sex and Violence:

      Irreversible, Gaspar Noé, France, 2002

On occasion, we take such conditions of dealing with the world seriously. Witness the gravity with which we worry about our responses to graphic images of sex and violence. What we’re worried about is twofold: the fictions that such images may prompt us to project and the possibility that we’re vulnerable, in the presence of our own fictions, to the confusion of these fictions with the realities on to which they’re projected. When we agree to look, we agree to make ourselves vulnerable to our own penchant for fictionalizing; and fictionally, after all, we are in the presence of one in the same way that we’re in the presence of another.

In another time and place, the inability to distinguish fictions might be characterized as an inability to apply the norm of vraisemblence. If the ability to apply the norm of vraisemblence is regarded as an underlying condition of the ability to make sound judgments, then the same conditions of dealing with the world will be taken seriously. Moreover, among French aestheticians, social philosophers, and motion-picture producers in the first decade of the century, the cinema was doubly a cause for concern: it contained qualities of both photography and theater, both of which were potential sources of powerful fictions. There was apparently some concern that the power of the cinema to re-create “reality” in terms of spectacular images would be an inspiration to project fictions capable of overwhelming the measured judgments needed to apply the norm of vraisemblence. In other words, what Barthes calls “the evidence of this is how it was” might prove too “stupefying.”

This problem was deemed especially acute in the cinematic treatment of “historical scenes”: if their subject matter existed on a continuum with that of actualités, then it was reasonable to worry that they could inspire fictions that appeared to occupy the realm of the actualité. At the very least, encouraging such fictions was bad pedagogical practice. History should never be treated lightly, and, ironically, being faithful to historical representation meant taking the responsibility for signifying the mode of representation as specifically “artful”—aesthetically engineered to be, as it were, less stupefying.

See the moving picture


               “Passage de la Mer Rouge”:

         La Vie de Moïse, Pathé-Frères, 1905

The Intertitle and the “Indexical Link”

  Which brings us back to intertitles and the role that they played, along with autonomous tableaux, in transforming the mode of representing “historical scenes” from the “narrative” and “realistic” into the spectacular. Consider, for example, the representational system used in Pathé’s La Vie de Moïse (Life of Moses, 1905), in which each of six autonomous tableaux is introduced by an intertitle (“Moses Saved from the River,” “The Burning Bush,” and so forth). With one exception, each tableau is rendered against a painted-flat backdrop, in long shot from a waist-level camera. Each “episode” constitutes a sort of Bible lesson, the film suggesting an educational tool of the sort advocated by contemporary pedagogues who favored an interplay of visual imagery and verbal captions.[9]

In this model, there exists between the image (the dramatized spectacle onscreen) and its referent (the event about which a certain prior knowledge on the part of the audience could be assumed) what Richard Abel calls an “indexical link,”[10] and it’s clearly the purpose of the intertitle to strengthen the indexical link. This it does not do in any integrative way, but rather by declaring and denoting, thus underscoring the importance of the distinctions—including the difference between identity and mere similarity of image and referent—that can and ought to be made by the spectator, who’s being reminded to apply the norm of vraisemblence. In so doing, it aids in countering the potentially stupefying realism to which cinematic representation was, in some quarters, deemed liable.

[1] “Rhetoric of the Image,” in Image/Music/Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), p. 44. Barthes’ theory of “mythologies” is applied to the promotion of anecdotes about the “magic” of the early cinema in Reading 2.2.

[2] “Rhetoric of the Image,” p. 45.

[3] “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” in What Is Cinema?, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1967), p. 13. Bazin’s theory of photography and realistic film images is discussed in Reading 3.5 and Figure R3.19.

[4] “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” pp. 13-14.

[5] “Transparent Pictures,” in Aesthetics: A Reader in Philosophy of the Arts, ed. David Goldblatt and Lee B. Brown (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997), p. 96.

[6] “Transparent Pictures,” pp. 97-99.

[7] “Transparent Pictures,” p. 99.

[8] “Transparent Pictures,” pp. 99-100.

[9] See Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914, rev. ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 163, 96; David J. Shepherd, “Prolonging ‘The Life of Moses’: Spectacle and Story in the Early Cinema,” in Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond, ed. Shepherd (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), pp. 11-38.

[10] The Ciné Goes to Town, p. 92.

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