Vincent Grenier
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"An Instant of Representation in a film by Vincent Grenier",
Weinbren, Graham and Christine Noll Brinckmann.

Millenium Film Journal, pp. 273-78. Nos. 7/8/9, Fall / Winter, 1980 / 81, NYC.


In watching a film, we accept without question the idea that the image is inseverably connected to a real event. The mechanisms of cinematic recording and projection link our experience of the screen with this past even so securely that it was possible at one time for film theorists to suggest that the experience was equivalent to a perception of the event itself. We tend to accept, in other words, that film is essentially a documentation of the real. Is this a valid presupposition?

More recently theorists have referred to the relevant events as the “pro-filmic,” an expression that is somewhat infelicitous in its implication that the occurrence of the event is a consequence of the still-to-be-produced film. The events that those present at the time of filming witness, events that may be cluttered by lights, microphones, dollies, technicians, hardly have an unsubstantial existence: they are not ontologically dependent on a future celluloid strip. This absurdity becomes more pronounced when the term is applied to other types of film discourse, such as the documentary.

But the issues are more complicated than this. For even if it is accepted that the film view in some sense experiences “events,” one can still ask whether the events experienced are actually those recorded by the camera. It is clear that, at least for the conventional narrative cinema, not only does the final film obscure many of the details of its production, but the film itself has many qualities that the events filmed lack. A man and a woman talk to each other on the screen; in the studio they do not. The hero in the film loses a limb and falls a great distance, but the events on the sound stage are quite different. Thus there is a justification for the concept of the pro-filmic, in its very implication that the facts perceived by the viewer as underlying the film are not a part of a past “reality.” The events we experience as behind the cinematic image were never in front of the camera.

A question arises, therefore, as to whether the idea of a pro-filmic sequence fundamentally informs the epistemology of a film viewer. Since the events are known to be possibly non-existent, is it not possible for the apparent link to reality to be broken for the viewer, without this interfering seriously with the experience? One way of beginning to answer this is to examine the relationship between the illusionary aspect of the cinematic and its representational aspect. We will argue, using a particular film as a paradigm, that a film image’s illusion of space is independent of its representing a section of reality. It is possible for the screen to be perceived as recessive but not depictive of anything. It can maintain its spatiality while lo9sing its connection with the world.

At each moment we know that the world we experience in the cinema is one we must construct for ourselves from elements constituted by the fluctuations of a beam of light arrested by its impact with a reflective surface. What becomes of our knowledge of these material facts? We might think of the rectangle of the cinema frame as divorced from imagistic complications, taking the beam of light as simply a multi-colored illusion of the screen surface, so that the projector becomes no more than a sophisticated display lamp. To actually see projected film in this way requires some effort, and is often almost impossible. One of the great strengths of the medium is the difficulty a viewer has in denying the illusionary space that seems to open out behind the screen. In some circumstances, it can be managed, however, and we can think of perceptual attitudes towards the film images as being limited by two poles: on the one hand, there is the attitude that involves seeing only the ‘pro-filmic’ events; on the other the attitude that remains within the bare material facts of the medium.

Vincent Grenier’s film, Interieur Interiors (To A.K.), both addresses and makes explicit another possibility—it creates a cinematic space that remains separate from representation, severed from the pro-filmic but nevertheless presenting an illusion of space. It is a film that hovers between conceiving the interrupted projection beam as an image, i.e., an object that requires the viewer to construct of its elements an imagined depiction, and conceiving it as a non-image, a mere illumination of the surface on which if falls. The gap between these extremes is posed by Grenier’s film as the raw data of cinema, the interval in which structural aspects of the medium’s depiction of space are revealed.

Twice in the film there occur moments that are decisively representational, each clearly alluding to a photographed event and in so doing, instantaneously fixing the image in a world familiar to the viewer. Otherwise the images are indeterminate, demanding to be read in three-dimensional space (and this seems characteristic, even necessary, of cinema), but refusing to be frozen in an unambiguous, particular spatiality. Our discussion will turn around the first of these moments. Before this first moment of representation, Interieur Interiors establishes a strategy of denying to the viewer the possibility of determining the spatial layout of the various images, so that at each pointer there are alternative perceptual interpretations available. Graphically, a single composition of the frame characterizes the whole film, but Grenier uses a range of techniques to prevent the viewer from seeing the two-dimensional composition of the image. It is in three vertical parts, a middle section about three ties as wide as each of the narrow sections that flank it. The edges of the three sections are marked in different ways during the film, with some consistency maintained by the fact that when one edge section is distinguished from the middle section by a line, the other boundary tens to be the meeting point of two different shades. In proportions, the image could be a flag, but perceiving it as such is undercut repeatedly—to such an extent that this undercutting might be seen as the filmmaker’s main concern.

In the opening image, the planar symmetry of the frame is challenged by a textural difference of the sections. Whereas the left and middle parts apparently consist of exactly the same material (a light, grainy shade of grey), the right hand section could be formed of pure light. And whereas the left and middle sections seem to form a single surface, separated only by a sharp black line that could be marked on that surface, the right hand section is neither separated from it nor joined to it, but seems to define a distinct region. If the latter is seen as representing a plane at all—and the symmetricality of the image suggests this—its location will be either closer to the screen than the rest of the image, or further away. And the viewer can adopt either alternative, but not both simultaneously. Furthermore, the positioning of the right hand section in this imaginary space also affects the position of the larger middle surface, so that the illusionary volume of the entire image can be understood in a number of ways.

There is also a third option opened up by the quality of the light in the right hand section, its absence of greyness or graininess. Instead of construing it as part of an architectural space contained by the image as a unit, the viewer can also see it as light from the projector illuminating a section of the screen without transferring an image to it. Seeing only a part of the frame in this way, however, has an odd effect on the rest of it—the grey surface now seems, paradoxically, behind the partially illuminated screen, the frame as a whole forming a preposterous mixture of real and illusionary space. Only the grey area is, on this reading, depictive—it differs very little in physical properties from the lighter area, but radically in perceptual qualities.

If we are describing a few seconds of film in some detail, it is to highlight the two properties of cinema that are the focal points of this paper—firstly, that an illusionistic voluminousness is by and large inescapable, even when it does not apply to the whole image, and secondly, that the illusion can be maintained without reference to any events or states outside the space and time of the film’s projection.

This quality of illusion without representation remains highly relevant through Interieur Interiors. The specific spatiality, however, is radically transformed again and again. In the next section, this is accomplished by the introduction of a kind of shadow play in the right hand section only, a series of motions which immediately refines this part of the frame into a plane parallel to the screen, obliterating the possibility of its appearing as pure light. The shadow, which is cast by a human figure, is truncated by the border of the right hand section—it never falls in to the middle section, and its motion therefore ensures that we see it as behind the grey plane. What was a stripe of light has now become fixed in space and materialized, and the whole frame demands to be read as contained by a single architectural structure. But this does not mean that it has become representational, for it remains a set of shaded planes in a non-referential realm.

One striking aspect of Interieur Interiors is that each specification of a spatial reading has a short perceptual life. If it is not renewed and reinforced, the viewer soon loses it and is confronted again by an indeterminate space which can be changed almost at will. Grenier relies on two kinds of factors to achieve these temporary specifications: motion, which is itself unambiguous if in a direction parallel to the screen and which automatically defines a recession; and the insertion of a recognizable element. When the two factors appear together, even for a moment, the cinematic space is transformed into one of representation.

Immediately before the first occurrence of this phenomenon, the image has become especially indeterminate, passing through a number of changes and allowing a range of perceptual options to the view, all of them recessive but not quite pictorial. It can be at one moment the inside surface of a box or room, at the next an oblique flag-like configuration of three receding parallel planes.

But at the exact moment where the architectural connotations might give way, disappearing completely from perceptual memory leaving only an over-symmetrical, colorless rectangle on the surface of the screen (it is significant that this is a possibility that hovers close by, phenomenologically, much of the time, but it is never attained), a human hand intrudes. It seizes the black line dividing the left and middles sections, transforming it particularizing it into a cord dangling in front of what has now clotted into a single plane, a background wall.

It is a female hand, seen in close-up and photographed so as to emphasize the precise details of skin texture—details that appear overwhelmingly real and sensually rich after one has been weaned of visual multiformity and has accustomed oneself to empty expanses of grey and light planes. The hand also appears generously solid and sculptural, against the flatness of the earlier shadows. In addition to the shock of its photographic veridicality, one is jolted by its size and the sudden recognition of the scale of the other parts of what is now a scene. It has become very intimate, a section of the corner of a bedroom. After the hand has been withdrawn—it is present for only a moment0—the cord keeps swinging, as if in evidence of the representation, insisting on the reading’s being held.

The pulling of the cord brings in another level of realism—that of causality. Simultaneously with the jerking pull, the right hand section of the screen darkens, as if the light that illuminated it had come from a bedroom lamp switched off by the pulling of the cord. This, of course, reinforces the reading of the frame as containing a picture of an architectural space in which changes in one area can have an effect on other regions and vice versa.

When the cord stops swinging, one is left with an image that corresponds to the opening one, although it now differs in two ways. For one thing, the section that was brightest is now completely dark, so much so as to suggest absence of light rather than the color black. As in the opening images, there is the sense of its not belonging to the film frame at all, since it seems to consist of totally different material, or, more precisely, of no material. Although the match in width of the two flanking sections suggests that the three stripes be integrated into one configuration, the perceptual evidence points towards a truncation of the screen—as if the projector beam had shrunk and simply stopped on the right.

For another thing, the image differs from the opening one in that it is the culmination of a series of perceptual experiences. A line has been subjected to several transformations—first a series of spatial reinterpretations, then a referential securing—and one might expect it to retain a trace of the sequence it had gone through. The image as a whole, one could suppose, should now have a tendency toward referentiality, especially because this is what we normally expect of film. But it quickly reverts to a non-referentional configuration of planes and lines, still illusionistic in volume, but again ambiguous and non-particular.

The tendency to revert to this phenomenological condition is a primary motif, and the rapidity of its re-establishment is again unexpected after the second representational moment, when a human hand moves across, disappearing behind a panel and gain redesignating the layout of the pictorial space. This second instance of depiction reconfirms the observation that the illusion of recession of screen space is conceptually prior to its connection to a pro-filmic source, prior, that is, to its being recognized as a photographed segment of reality. Only in the moments of representation are we forced into a specific interpretation of the image, but even without the specificity, we must perceive the frame as containing an illusion of space, ambiguous but nevertheless voluminous.

The impact and power of Interier Interiors, then, is its fluidity in raising these somewhat difficult issues connected with the phenomenology of film. Although they may sound dry, abstract, and wholly cerebral when described in the film the different properties inherent to cinematic space are presented with an intensity and humor that make them seem natural, entirely suitable as the subject of an art-work. It is an achievement to include philosophical issues in a work in such a way that they are immediately revealed to the viewer, without all aesthetic qualities being washed away; and this is what Grenier so elegantly accomplishes in this film, not only including such issues in a fine work, but giving them a central position.  


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