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An essay on film as art (I)

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In memory of Ingmar Bergman.

Part I: Traditional definitions

Traditional definitions of art, as portrayed in contemporary discourse, take artworks to be characterised by a single type of property. According to Thomas Adajian,

the standard candidates are representational properties, expressive properties and formal properties. So there are representational or mimetic definitions, expressive definitions, and formalist definitions, which hold that artworks are characterised by their possession of, respectively, representational, expressive and formal properties. (Adajian, ‘The Definition of Art’, p.2)

Each of these characteristics can apply to film. In fact, film often combines them simultaneously. However, traditional definitions do not necessarily apply to film in the same respect as they would to traditional art forms. Film frequently employs a complex interrelation of form, visual and aural, to convey expressive and representational elements. This is difficult for traditional, monistic definitions of art to account for. To explore the representational, expressivist and formalist properties which film exhibits we may turn to the specific example of Persona and Cries and Whispers, directed by Ingmar Bergman and shot by Sven Nykvist.

Representational properties

personaIn the opening sequence of Persona we are presented with a montage of starkly black and white images including an erect penis, a nail being driven through a hand, a sheep being slaughtered, several images of what appear to be corpses and finally a young boy reaching out to a blurred image of a female face. These are representational in several respects. Firstly, the events in the film’s narrative are echoed in the images on screen – the erect penis relating directly to Alma’s retelling of her orgy experience, the young boy reaching toward the face representing Alma’s hatred of and emotional disconnection towards her son. This is clearly self-reflective representation: an opening sequence which may be seen as a montage of metaphors for the themes about to be explored in the rest of the film. Secondly, this sequence represents the nature of subjective mental phenomena, particularly dreams. The disjointed, symbolic nature of the images coupled with their presentation in contrasting black and white lends an intensely oneiric quality to the sequence. The blurred faces to which the boy reaches out are a striking metaphor for Alma’s guilt concerning her feelings towards her son. The images of this sequence can be understood as from directly inside Alma’s mind. In fact, Bergman conceived of the blurring of the faces as he lay sick with pneumonia, and might well be presenting a representation of his own subjective and hallucinatory experiences. This is entirely plausible, particularly given the strong parallels between this sequence and those of archetypal surrealist cinema (Un Chien Andalou and Le Sang d’un Poète are both called to mind). Bergman also interrogates the nature of representation itself: the status of the image and the status of the filmic medium. Included in the montage are images of movie reels, projectors and broken film footage. The film presents a representation of itself breaking, another reflexive turn that refers to the internal states of the protagonists.

Cries and whispersHowever, Bergman’s most potent representational technique is to be found in Cries and Whispers, whose colour palette is made almost exclusively from shades of red, black and white. These colours and the images they form are even more important to the narrative than dialogue. Bergman writes “all my films can be thought in terms of black and white, except for Cries and Whispers. In the screenplay, I say that I have thought of the color red as the interior of the soul.” (Bergman, Images: My Life In Film, p.90). Red dominates almost every interior scene, regardless of setting. It represents both the nature of the soul and of the womb. White predominates in the dress of the bedroom and external scenes, representing sexual repression. Finally, black is the dress of characters when playing formal, institutionalised roles, and of all men. Black is the colour of socio-cultural repression, deeply associated with Christianity for Bergman. Cries and Whispers portrays a cinematic space belonging to a Lacanian pre-linguistic and pre-symbolic realm (Blackwell, Gender and Representation in the Films of Ingmar Bergman, p.191). What Bergman and Nykvist have done is subvert the process (to be explored in greater depth presently) by which we come to recognise abstract concepts such as red, white and black, in order to expand the understanding of ‘the nature of the soul’ and ‘the human condition’. The knowledge that red represents the interior of the soul in Cries and Whispers is not a priori. However, we do approach the film with the knowledge of redness, which connects all instances of red in the film and in our particular memories. In each scene, red provides the backdrop both for the literal action of the characters, and the metaphorical interplay of socio-cultural and sexual repressions (black and white). The whole structure of the film points us to red as the soul, and we come to make this association for ourselves. Much as we associate the redness of the manor’s carpets, curtains, Karin’s blood, with the idea of red, we come to associate it with the idea of the soul tormented by oppositional forces. Once this is achieved, whether during the film or upon repeated viewing, the meaning of the film is more readily apparent. The images in themselves are sufficiently powerful to afford an aesthetic experience, but the height of our perception only reaches its peak upon recognising these representational connections. Understanding redness as the interior of the soul is fundamental to both the narrative and conceptual structure of Cries and Whispers.

Expressive properties

Cries and whispers2Cries and Whispers is also a deeply expressive film, both in content and structure. Agnes’ bodily pain is at the heart of the narrative, and the performances of her suffering prior to death are amongst the most harrowing expressions of pain in any work of art. This physical suffering is employed to express both the unrelenting quality of pain (alleviated neither by chemical nor spiritual medicine) and as a counterpoint to the emotional agony of Agnes’ sisters, for whom she is martyred. The anguish of Karin is expressed climactically in her disturbing self-mutilation, a violent means of escaping intercourse with her institutional and dissociative husband. This scene is all the more distressing upon repeated viewing, as one reads the preceding frigid, formal and empty dining scene as a metaphor for the act Karin seeks to escape. Cries and Whispers is equally expressive of Bergman’s own views on the nature of phenomenal experience. The film follows a fluid, non-linear, associative narrative which employs vignettes and somnambulistic movements; subjective flashbacks explore the emotional worlds of each character. It is never clear what is real, what is dream, or what is fantasy. None of these accounts are privileged in the film. Bergman clearly aligns himself with the posture that fantasies, dreams and ‘real’ experiences are of equal importance to the human psyche.

Formal properties

Of the formal qualities in film, we have already discussed colour, performance and narrative structure; but film clearly manifests visual and aural forms. Cries and Whispers is a title borrowed from music critic Yngve Flycht’s description of Mozart’s twenty-first piano concerto (incidentally, a piece of music made famous in the twentieth century by its inclusion in a film of Bo Widerberg, a detractor of Bergman’s). This title represents the mix of aural forms in the film. Within the narrative, whispers are uttered in moments of tenderness, love and compassion; cries peal in moments of pain, impotency and suffocation. The juxtaposition of these sounds expresses the stresses caused by such conflicting emotions (and repressive forces that generate them). Whispers also perform a stylistic role, signifying the beginning of another oneiric passage in accompaniment to highly expressive shots of the protagonists’ faces. Sounds other than those of the human voice are conspicuously absent in Cries and Whispers, but their capacity to arouse aesthetic sensibility is all the more devastating for it. Music itself appears very sparingly, but is the most potent expressive force in the film, excepting the eponymous cries and whispers. Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor has a life-affirming effect in the tender, white scenes of Agnes. Bach’s Sarabande movement, in contrast, solicits an overwhelming eruption of catharsis in accompaniment to the silent images of Maria and Karin’s commensuration. The only other sounds in Cries and Whispers are ethereal chimes that lull one into a dreamlike state during the opening credits, and a cacophony of ticking clocks in the opening montage (an elegant and forthright declaration of Agnes’ mortality). As proposed at the beginning of this discussion, film exhibits a broad array of formalist qualities which are interrelated in a way which makes them sometimes inextricable from their expressivist and representational dimensions.

In any case, these properties are not individually sufficient conditions to define an artwork. A map is representative, a human face expressive; a piece of furniture displays formal qualities: these are not necessarily artworks. Most films do simultaneously exhibit these properties, though to varying degrees: so these could be jointly sufficient conditions. But they are not individually necessary, by virtue of the monistic nature of the traditional definition. Something can be an artwork without being representational, expressive, or formal. Instead, we might turn to contemporary definitions of art (aesthetic and institutional).

Continued in parts II & III


Persona, Dir. & Writ. Ingmar Bergman, Star. Bibi Andersson & Liv Ullman, Svensk Filmindustri, Sweden, 1966  //  Cries and Whispers, Dir. & Writ. Ingmar Bergman, Star. Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin & Liv Ullman, Cinematograph AB, Sweden, 1973  //  due credit to Marco Lanzagorta, whose essay on C&W strongly informed this piece
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