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Contenu du troisième panneau (masqué)

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"Much surrealist poetry instantly brings to mind the art of film, since both are above all concerned with the changing moment, with the metamorphosis of the instant."

The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism - Mary Ann Caws

Discuss and analyse the ways in which Surrealist poetry and Surrealist film correspond


Both film and poetry played an integral role in the beginnings of the surrealist movement and the development of surrealist practice. As Fotiade (9) and countless other critics such as Knopf mention, ‘During World War I – a decade before founding surrealism – André Breton and Jacques Vaché would hop from cinema to cinema, watching random segment of one film before switching to a new one’ (16). Breton  stated to ‘have never known anything more magnetizing’ [his emphasis] (73) than this experience, (the use of an adjective relating to the semantic field of electricity and therefore ‘shock’ is noteworthy for it’s connotations of the Surrealist subject’s experience of the objet trouvé or the Marvellous). He argues that their activities would leave him ‘charged for a few days’ (73) and that what they found and valued most in the cinema was, ‘its power to distort… uniting waking and sleeping’ (73-4).

Surrealism was ‘born in poetry… poetry being the aim and rationale that united all art forms’ (Tate 252). The fact that Breton included a poem comprised of random newspaper headlines in the first Surrealist manifesto to demonstrate a prototypical method of surrealist expression is exemplary of the surrealists’ revere for the medium. Breton and Éluard later suggested that it ‘reigns over idols of all sorts and realist illusions: it enthusiastically embraces the ambiguity between the language of “truth” and that of “creation”’ (258). Film also embraces the empirical communication of visual fact whilst simultaneously undermining this; Breton and Éluard’s reference to the language of religious texts I take to mean the filmic world’s non-conformance to the laws of physics and nature, such as Méliès’ optical tricks used as early as 1896 in The Vanishing Lady. As Barthes succinctly notes, the photograph (as well as the cinema, I would argue), is ‘a temporal hallucination: so to speak, a modest, shared hallucination (on the one hand “it is not there,” on the other “but it has indeed been”): a mad image, chafed by reality’ (‘Camera Lucida’ 115). This ambiguity and the collapsing of binaries such as presence and absence is something I shall return to due to their relevance to Surrealist theory and practice. 

The similarities of Surrealist film and poetry can easily be analysed on a structural or formal level. Artists working in both media looked to subvert conventions of form in order to highlight their arbitrariness. Some of the shape poems in proto-surrealist Apollinaire’s Calligrammes were revolutionary in their break from the formulaic structures that typically governed 19th century Western poetry, namely that of lyrical

style and the Romantic sonnet. Whilst such a generalisation must be approached

with caution, as there were obviously poets in that era that subverted traditional

poetic forms, when we consider 19th century poetry as a whole, it appears far more

structurally homogenous relative to 20th century poetry considered en masse.

Apollinaire’s conviction in the need to suspend literary conventions in order to

differentiate his work from previous movements can be seen in his

statement that ‘surprise is the greatest new resort of poetry. It is by surprise,

and by the importance that it accords to surprise, that the new spirit

distinguishes itself from all the artistic and literaty movements that have

preceded it’ (‘L'Esprit’ 387).

Il Pleut is a good example of experimentation with form that dialectically produces

meaning greater than the sum of the poem’s component parts through the play of the

text’s structure and words. On a structural level, the poem is oppressive with it’s

resemblances to the iron bars of a prison; much like a rainy day is restrictive of ones

freedom to do certain activities. This allusion to imprisonment is furthered in the last

line, where he describes rain as ‘fetters falling that bind you’ (‘Calligrammes’ 101).

Despite his omission of punctuation, the poem’s metre is stilted through the

alienating experience of reading vertically. Apollinaire’s organisation of the poem


means that we follow the lines like we follow

a drop of rain as it hits a pane of glass

and slowly meanders down it. This slowing

of tempo allows the reader to reflect on

the poet’s highly resonant lines; ‘listen to it

rain where regret and distain weep an

ancient music’ (101). I would argue that the

melancholic experience of reading this

poem is heightened by the poet’s structural

organisation. The poem’s ambiguity and

form means that a more active role is required

of the reader. Balakian argues that in

Calligrammes, the ‘role of the interpreter will be

transferred to the reader or spectator, who

loses his passive task of absorbing and feeling

the message of the artists’ (93); the latter being

characteristic of the position of the reader of 19th century

lyrical poetry.

Experimentation with cinematic form was a main focus for many Surrealist

filmmakers. Conventional narrative cinematic form, Metz argues, was solidified

predominantly by Griffith’s works between 1910-5, his ‘role to define and to

stabilize—we would say, to codify—the function of these different procedures in

relation to the filmic narrative, and thereby unify them up to a certain point in a

coherent “syntax”’ (‘Semiotics of Cinema’ 67). Much like Apollinaire’s wilful

deconstruction of the poetic syntax the reader has come accustomed to through past

experience, Duchamp's Anémic Cinéma (1926) surprises the viewer, according to

Apollinaire, distinguishing itself from previous cinematic endeavours through it’s lack

‘Il Pleut’ Calligrammes (1918)


and illusion of depth of field. It breaks from the prevalence of medium-focus shots at

head height characteristic of early cinema, which Comolli argues, ‘restored the

spatial relationships which corresponded to “normal vision”… They therefore played

their role in the production of the impression of reality’ (433).

When we consider that ‘depth of field’s debt to perspective serves to “center” the

viewer, fixing him in a point of illusory coherence’ (Bordwell 160), Anémic Cinéma’s

effect on the viewer can be understood as its antithesis. Early filmic “coherence”

consisted of the expectation of the alternation of images with extreme depth (the

footage) and depthlessness (intertitles). Duchamp’s inverts this by showing discs

containing embossed lettering casting shadows as they move (creating an intertitle

with a sense of depth). He juxtaposes these shots with discs containing spirals

whose patterns give the illusion of depth whilst the discs’ surface is flatter than the

ones with lettering, (a “depthless” image). Much like Apollinaire’s calligrammes,

Anémic Cinéma’s message can only fully be understood when considering the

dialectic of form (ie Duchamp’s illusionary depth) and meaning (the nonsensical

sentences and the title). Both require a far more active viewer than that needed to

comprehend previous works of their respective media. Only with this active

comprehension can Duchamp’s work be fully understood as a critique of the medium

itself; ‘cinema is anaemic because it all takes place in the mind of the viewer through

automatic responses, as that viewer is duped into believing that the successive still

images move, that their flatness is really depth, that they bear a relationship to their

titles’ (Sitney 24).

Foucault also notes something about calligrammes which is shared in Duchamp’s

film; ‘The calligram aspires playfully to efface the oldest oppositions of our

alphabetical civilisation: to show and to name; to shape and to say; to reproduce and

to articulate; to imitate and to signify; to look and to read’ (21). Similarly, Anémic

Cinéma is at the same time visual and literary, forcing the reader to both look and


read simultaneously. Its images are not privileged over its titles or even

distinguishable ontologically, as Sitney (23) notes. Surrealist art and theory often

attempts to create a world devoid of opposition. Breton demands, in his introduction

to Contes Bizarres by Achim von Aarnim, that ‘The Self be treated in the same way

as the object, that a formal restriction be invoked against the “I am”’ (qtd. in Cawes

78) and speaks of a future union of the states of dream and reality, ‘into a kind of

absolute reality, a surreality’ [his emphasis] (‘Manifestos’ 14).

As well as their structural relation, Surrealist poetry and cinema share similarities on

the semantic level. Surrealist poetry, Breton’s in particular, is highly imaginative and

not particularly descriptive. He argues that metaphor has ‘the ability to dazzle the

mind’ (‘Ascendant Sign’ 106) and employs this technique to create fantastical

imagery. In Full Margin, metaphors like, ‘the breathless dawn engraves its reindeer

on the windowpane’ (93) or ‘the chimneys erupt calling for a resolution nearer to

tenderness’ (97), stretches the use of language to disorienting heights. Breton,

speaking of the freedom of language, ascertained that it allows for ‘extraordinary

lucidity… I have had occasion to use surreally words whose meaning I have

forgotten’ [his emphasis] (‘Manifestoes’ 34). These metaphors create ambiguity,

allowing for the liberation of the reader’s imagination; failure to do so ‘is to betray all

sense of absolute justice within oneself’ (‘Manifestoes’ 4-5).

Breton’s deployment of metaphors, sometimes on top of each other, is exemplified in

Knot of Mirrors;

‘The beautiful windows in shirts

The beautiful windows their fire hair in the black night

The beautiful windows cries of alarm and of kisses’

The fluidity of the poet’s image seems to be descriptive of almost nothing

experienced in reality but infinitely suggestive and imaginative, much like the images

we find whilst dreaming, ‘a mode which is anterior to the mirror stage, to the


formation of the self, and therefore founded on a permeability, a fusion of the interior

with the exterior’ (Baudry 182). Cawes’ describes the of the physical laws governing

the dream-like, pre-Oedipal world of Breton’s poetry, a place where ‘for the poet, as

for the child, distance has no meaning. All perception becomes presence’ (81).

Breton’s imagery and automatic methods attempted to uncover latent meaning from

the Lacanian Real of early childhood, ‘that which resists representation, what is premirror,

pre-imaginary, pre-symbolic – what cannot be symbolized – what loses it’s

"reality" once it is symbolized (made conscious) through language’ (Loos). His

ambiguous and suggestive language closely resembles some techniques used in

Man Ray’s early films. The shots filmed with a gelatine filter in L'Étoile de Mer (1928)

limit the actors’ expressivity and invite the spectator to actively create meaning under

the Law of Closure, (to borrow a term from Gestalt psychology). It could be argued

that they semiotically represent a signifier divorced from its initial signified. Barthes’

designation of a third element of signification, the sign, in Myth Today is useful for

explaining this visual effect’s similarities to Breton’s disorienting use of metaphor and

ambiguousness. Barthes argues that in perceiving, ‘what we grasp is not at all one

term after the other, but the correlation which unites them’ (113). He suggests that an

‘empty signifier’ like a black pebble can be given meaning, ‘If I weigh it with a definite

signified, (a death sentence, for instance, in an anonymous vote), it will become a

sign’ (113).

The opposite, reductive process, where the signified is severed and leaves only the

signifier, can be seen in Breton’s interest in automatism and his occasional stretching

of a word’s semantic meaning beyond rationality, ‘considered in the theoretical

infinity of its representations’ (Caillois 269). It is similarly represented in elements of

L'Étoile de Mer previously mentioned as well as in the blurred footage of objects in

motion interspersed throughout Emak Bakia (1926). A good example occurs in the

film’s penultimate sequence which has no established depth of field. A rotating shirt630023038

collar is shown, distorted by a camera lens. This almost mesmerising object subtly

transforms into a reflection of itself and then seems to expand to assume the shape

of a window reflected in the filmed surface. The images echo Baudry’s description of

the enjoyment shared by watching a film and dreaming, a ‘kind of satisfaction which

we knew at the beginning of our psychical life when perception and representation

could not be differentiated, when the different systems were confused, that is, when

the system of Consciousness-Perception had not differentiated itself’ (Baudry 180).

The shots mentioned, as well as Man Ray’s Rayographs in Emak Bakia and Le

Retour à la Raison (1928), seem to negate meaning of the Symbolic or Imaginary

order and are conveyed through a ‘cinematographic apparatus (that) brings about a

state of artificial regression’ (Baudry 184). As well as Breton’s imagery owing

something to a child-like state, Barthes finds his medium, (specifically contemporary

and not classical poetry), to be a ‘regressive semiolgical state… It tries to transform

the sign back into meaning: its ideal, ultimately, would be to reach not the meaning of

words, but the meaning of things themselves’ (‘Myth Today’ 133). Seemingly, the

progressive structures of Surrealist cinema and poetry are in opposition to, and yet

concurrently experienced alongside, the regressive nature of their meaning and


Nonsensical imagery is another element common to Surrealist approaches to both

art forms. Riffaterre references the first line of Text 27 in Breton’s Poisson Soluble,

‘Once upon a time there was a turkey on a dike’ (139). The subject and the object’s

relation is either oblique or non-existent, requiring the reader to re-interrogate the line

and reflect on the poem, much like Magritte’s jarring statement written on his

artworks, La Trahison des Images and Les Deux Mystères, invite introspection

through the statement’s perceived incongruence with its corresponding image. ‘The

poem’s significance lies in its very semantic emptiness, in the lessons surrealists

meant to teach by their automatic writing – that beneath the words there is nothing


but more words’ (Riffaterre 141).

Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, ‘a statement of faith in irrational imagery as more

promising than rational imagery’ (‘Surrealism and Film,’ Matthews 90), actively

embraces nonsensical cinematic perspective and images. The image of the sexually

driven male in the film dragging grand pianos, donkey corpses and clergymen has

been analysed critically along countless ideological, religious and psychoanalytic

lines of argument, (the same statement could be said more generally of the film

itself). That the critical discourse around this particular scene has offered up such

disparate explanations for its meaning further suggests that Surrealist images can be

classified as empty signifiers, where the creation of the sign, (meaning in its entirety),

can only be achieved through the utilization of the spectator’s imagination. In this

way, Breton argues, the Surrealist subject, spectator or creator, ‘relives with glowing

excitement the best part of its childhood’ (‘Manifestoes’ 41).

Un Chien Andalou is exemplary of a Surrealist text that serves to highlight and

undermine binaries found in nature, culture and the self. In the opening sequence,

the formalistic match of the shots of the cloud and the moon and the eye and the

knife is both aesthetically pleasing and physically revulsive at the same time;

‘everything conspires to disorient the audience and undermine confidence in their

ability to handle the material this movie assembles’ (‘Surrealism and Film,’ Matthews

89). Even more elementary oppositions, such as inside and outside, are collapsed by

Buñuel’s distortion of cinematic continuity, (ie the door that leads the woman out from

her bedroom and directly onto the beach or the man’s double being shot in the

bedroom but falling to the ground in a forest).

The scene with the stand-off with the double represents the most interesting

overcoming of a binary contradiction in Surrealist art, that of the subject and the

object, the perceiver and the viewer. The smartly dressed man’s face is obscured


through blocking which delays this reveal considerably, (though if the intertitle is to

be believed, we have known this six years before). The first man’s reaction to his

smartly dressed counterpart is unstable and not really reactionary to the actions of

his double. His reaction is reminiscient to that experienced when viewing or reading

some Surrealist works, through the unnerving suggestion of the marvellous or the

viewers simultaneous passivity and activity. Barthes notes that the photographic

image ‘represents that very subtle moment where, to tell the truth, I am neither

subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then

experience a micro-version of death’ (‘Camera Lucida 14).

Surrealist poetry distorts pronouns to create a similar effect, highlighting the fluidity

between subject and object. In Soupault’s Le Nageur, he writes that;

‘…and without regret I continue into sleep

in the eyes of mirrors and the laughter of the wind

I recognize an unknown man who is I

I no longer move.’ (qtd. in ‘Towards the Poetics…’ Matthews 184)

Whilst it is plausible that the unknown man is his reflection, Surrealist interpretation

caters for all manners of plausibility such as the speaker seeing his double. The

poem refuses to fix the reader in a tangible space, disorienting the reader much like

the effect of the eradication of shot-counter-shot in Man Ray’s early work or Anémic

Cinéma’s play with cinematic representation. It is possible that the speaker is in two

places at once and literally looks at himself, defying the empirical opposition of

presence and absence. Teige’s argument corroborates with this reading, ‘Surrealism

goes beyond this duality. Without refusing either the reality or the primacy of the

external world, it equally recognises a reality and an efficacy in the mental

representations which result from them. It destroys the wall separating dream and

reality, subject and object, representation from the real and imaginary representation

from real perception.’ (279)

Surrealist film and poetry share more traits than most parallel movements in both


media. Their subversion of forms conventional at the time, coupled with their extreme

ambiguity and aversion to symbolism flatter the audience with the assumption of a

more active position. This active spectatorship, coupled with the cinema’s regressive

apparatus or existence of pre-Oedipal imagery in both media creates the unease that

many feel when viewing Surrealist texts. In the way that the Surrealist fascination

with the fixed explosive comes from its arresting of motion in time, Surrealist art and

poetry’s contradictions is in some ways what creates its allure.

Word Count: 2025

Works Cited

Apollinaire, Guillaume. Calligrammes. Trans. Anne Hyde Greet. Los Angeles:

University of California, 1918. Print

Appollinaire, Guillaume. “L'Esprit nouveau et les poètes.” Mercure de France

130.491 (1918): 385-96. Print

Balakian, Anna. Surrealism: The Road to the Absolute. Chicago: University of

Chicago press, 1959. Print

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Vintage, 1980.

Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. London:

Vintage, 1972. 109-59. Print

Baudry, Jean-Louis. “The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the

Impression of Reality in Cinema.” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and

Marshall Cohen. Trans. Jean Andrews and Bernard Augst. New York: Oxford

University Press, 2009. 171-87. PDF

Bordwell, David. The History of Film Style. Cambridge: Harvard University Press,

  1. 1997. Print

Breton, André and Paul Éluard. “Notes on Poetry.” The Surrealism Reader: An

Anthology. Ed. Dawn Ades. Trans. Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson.

London: Tate Publishing, 2015. 257-62. Print

Breton, André. “As In a Wood.” The Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on

the Cinema. Ed. Paul Hammond. San Francisco: City Lights, 1978. 72-77. PDF

Breton, André. “Ascendant Sign.” Free Rein. Trans. Michel Parmentier and

Jacqueline d'Amboise. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1953. 104-7. PDF

Breton, Andre. Knot of Mirrors. 13 February 2016

<>. Web


Breton, André. “Manifesto of Surrealism (1924).” Manifestoes of Surrealism. Trans.

Helen R. Lane and Richard Seaver. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969.

1-49. Print

Breton, Andre. Selected Works. Trans. Kenneth White. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd.,

  1. 1948. Print

Caillois, Roger. “Specification of Poetry.” The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology. Ed.

Dawb Ades. Trans. Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson. London: Tate

Publishing, 2015. 267-70. Print

Cawes, Mary Anne. The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism. Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 1970. Print

Comolli, Jean-Louis. “Technique and Ideology: Camera, Perspective, Depth of Field

[Parts 3 and 4].” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: a Film Theory Reader. Ed. Philip

Rosen. Trans. Diana Matias. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. 421-43.


Fotiade, Romona. “From Ready-mades to Moving Image: The Visual poetics of

Surrealist Cinema.” The Unsilvered Screen: Surrealism on Film. Ed. Graeme Harper

& Rob Stone. London: Wallflower Press, 2007. 9 - 23. Print

Foucault, Michel. This is not a Pipe. Trans. James Harkness. Los Angeles: University

of California Press, 1973. Print

Knopf, Robert. The Theater and Cinema of Buster Keaton. Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 1961. Print

Loos, Amanda. Symbolic, Real, Imaginary. 2002. 10 February 2016

<>. Web

Matthews, J. H. Surrealism and Film. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1971.


Mattthews, J. H. Towards the Poetics of Surrealism. New York: Syracuse University

Press, 1976. Print

Metz, Christian. “Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema.” Film Theory and

Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press,

  1. 1974. 65-71. PDF

Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of Poetry. London: Methuen, 1978. Print

Sitney, P. Adams. Modernist Montage: The Obscurity of Vision in Cinema and

Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1990. PDF

Tate. “The Tasks of Art And Poetry.” The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology. Ed.

Dawn Ades. London: Tate Publishing, 2015. 252. Print

Teige, Karel. “On Surrealist Semiology.” The Surrealism Reader: An Anthology. Ed.

Dawn Ades. Trans. Krzysztof Fijalkowski and Michael Richardson. London: Tate

Publishing, 2015. 296-300. Print



Contenu du troisième panneau


Film as Poetry

Claudia Kappenberg

“My film is to other films as poetry is to other forms of literature.”1

Maya Deren’s body of work builds on poetry and the poetic image as an approach to filmmaking. Not surprisingly, many of the essays and interviews included in this issue of the International Journal of Screendance reference poetry as constituent elements in Deren’s films. Andrew James’s essay, for example, makes a strong case for the importance of poetry in Deren’s transdisciplinary approach, and Sarah Keller complements this through an analysis of the poetic and metaphorical qualities of Deren’s films. In addition, the newly translated interview with Austrian-Argentinian filmmaker Narcisa Hirsch pays heed to the kinship between poetic sensibility and film, as do Hirsch’s own films such as Rumi (1999), titled after the Persian poet Jelaluddin Rumi (1207 – 1273). Poetry within cinematic practice permeated the film discourses of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s. But what exactly is this relation between poetry and film, this likeness, equivalence or correlation? What does the “poetic” stand for in Deren’s work and how come that it can be mapped onto filmmaking? Should we read her

work like we might read poetry?

In an essay on Deren’s Modernist poetics, Renata Jackson reviews the roots of Deren’s interest in poetry, referring to the French Symbolists and the American Imagist school, including Ezra Pound, and to other poets such as T.S. Eliot, whilst identifying poetry’s ability “to synthesize emotional content with form” as the central concern.2 Furthermore, Jackson points to Pound’s definition of an “image” published 1913 in the journal Poetry, as direct inspiration for Deren. Pound described an image as “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,”3 and Deren reformulates this in Anagram as overarching concept for the logic of form: “A work of art is

an emotional and intellectual complex whose logic is the whole form.”4 Pound made numerous attempts at defining the poetic image and the particular formulation referred to by Deren exceeds what the Imagists themselves had articulated. Dating from 1913 Pound’s notion suggests that an image actualizes unconscious material and emerges through insight.

None of Pound’s subsequent attempts seemed to clarify any further what he meant or how exactly he conceived the relation between image and language, although a later statement from his Vorticist phase is intriguing: “The image is itself the speech …the word beyond formulated language.”5 Here the ‘word’ is used metaphorically, to suggest a complex that happens outside of language. On the other hand, Pound always advocated clarity and exactitude, and effective writing, and it was perhaps a combination of both these aspects which inspired Deren to borrow Pound’s “intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time” for her concept of film. Deren was not at all interested in improvisation or stream of consciousness as an approach to making work; instead, she combined a precision and carefully constructed film form with the capacity of the image to directly affect the viewer.

As will be discussed further below, Deren’s aesthetics builds on a visual poetics and an economy of form, and brings this together with a depersonalization of movement and a stylization of gestures. The constructive elements constitute a basis for a film form that, according to Deren, differentiates itself from documentary on one hand and literary film on the other. This aesthetic also combines with an ethics and provides the artist with the opportunity as well as the obligation to create a reality on screen according to her own vision, a mythical reality that transcends individual experience and the everyday.6

In more general terms, the difficulty in defining the poetic image complicates the theorization of the filmic image in that an actual image may correlate with a poetic image that is mainly created through words. This is particularly evident in the case of metaphors, as 3

discussed by Noël Carroll in his essay on visual metaphors.7 Carroll argues that there might

be some metaphors that could be described as predominantly visual, but that many of them

also mobilize linguistic concepts or knowledge which inform the visual material. Equally,

metaphors which may appear verbal often activate a personal image repertoire, a communal

history of images, or other non-verbal features. He writes: “In expanding the insights offered

to us by verbal metaphors we depend upon more than linguistic knowledge. And this is also

the case with visual metaphors.”8 Given this fluidity between verbal and visual metaphors,

there is an argument that all visual art is metaphorical, but as Carroll argues, this might be

stretching the notion of the metaphorical a bit too far.9 However, the proximity between the

visual and the verbal in metaphorical elements, as well as the capacity of images per se to

summon linguistic material, can account for a conceptualization of film as language, and

much of film theory builds on this thesis. For example, in an essay entitled “Film and the

Radical Aspiration” from 1979 and again in an essay entitled “Poetics and Savage Thought”

from 2001, Annette Michelson proposes that film is comparable to language in that it

operates like the paradigmatic and the syntagmatic modes in language, following linguist

Roman Jakobson’s theorization of those terms.10 Michelson claims that Deren’s notions of

horizontal and vertical film form should be read in those terms, as a “cinematic grammar”,

and this could be a way of understanding Deren’s frequent referencing of the poetic.11 This

theorization replicates however a tension that can already be found in Deren’s own writing in

that Deren endeavoured to develop and theorize a specific visual logic for film. In view of

my following discussion and correlation between Deren and Deleuze, I will propose a

different theorization of cinematic form and the poetic and argue that Deren embraced poetic

structures—but not for their likeness to, or interaction with, linguistic material. I will argue

that for Deren, the poetic is instead a means to construct a cinematic visuality, to develop a

means of communication that is different to language.


In Magic is New, Deren explains:

I came to understand the difference between contriving an image to illustrate a

verbal idea and starting with an image which contains within itself such a

complex of ideas that hundred of words would be required to describe it. This

is the central problem of thinking in cinematic terms, for our tendency is to

think in verbal terms.12

To illustrate her point she uses the sentence, “She felt frightened and alone,” arguing that a

filmic illustration of “fright” and “alone” would never come close to the impact of the verbal

statement. She then describes an image from At Land, where a small figure stands in the

corner of a large room in which the furniture is covered by dust covers, to suggest that this

works as a visual statement and that its complexity could not be readily translated into

words.13 In this passage Deren asserts emphatically that there is a cinematic form in which

complexity is built through images and according to a visual logic. She does however fall

back on quantity, using the expression “hundreds of words,” whilst attempting to formulate

something of a qualitative difference between language and image. This expression is a

slippage in the context of her argument for a visual logic that is distinct from a verbal logic

and suggests a certain struggle in articulating exactly what the cinematic form might be, a

point that will be explored in more detail further along. However, this creative logic, Deren

argues, should emerge from the actual mechanics and materiality of film, a statement which

reflects her interest in securing a specificity of film as a distinct art form.14 As Renata

Jackson argues in her detailed review of Anagram, Deren systematically explored what film

could do that other media could not, searching for a specific “filmic integrity and logic.”15

Arguing strongly against a wholesale reproduction in film of other art forms, in particular

literary forms and painting, Deren writes:


Just as the verbal logics of a poem are composed of the relationships

established through syntax, assonance, rhyme and other such verbal methods,

so in film there are processes of filmic relationships which derive from the

instrument and the elements of its manipulation.16

Technical possibilities afforded by the camera, different lenses, film stock, and the editing,

give the filmmaker the means to constitute unique creative possibilities. Deren’s pursuit of

medium specificity, on the other hand, does not stop her from also endorsing poetic methods;

as Jackson remarks, she “is in fact implying, that a filmic adaptation of the methods of poetry

is the only proper means of creating film art.”17 This suggests that, according to Deren, the

poetic is not an operation specific to language but a compositional methodology for visual

forms such as cinema.

One particular aspect of the poetic is, for Deren, the “economy of statement,” an

approach to composition which she also borrows for her cinematic aesthetics. Writing in

Anagram about an economy of statement in Cocteau’s film Sang d’un Poète (Blood of a

Poet), she credits Cocteau for successfully deploying skills he developed as a poet.18 With

economy of statement Deren means the deployment of a minimal number of elements to

greater effect, whereby the final meaning or outcome is different or greater than the sum of

its parts.19 Besides the economy of statement, Deren deploys a strategy of depersonalization

and stylization, both of which are discussed by Erin Brannigan in her book DanceFilm (2011).

Brannigan notes that in dance-based films “corporeal performance is one filmic movement

amongst many … spreading out across people and things,” thereby “releasing figures from

the demands of storytelling, allowing them to become part of a transference of movement

across bodies and to resonate in moments that are freed in space and time.”20 For Deren, this

very particular choreographic strategy stems from her interest in ritual and in the social and

political dimension of her art. Rather than exploring individual experience, Deren


choreographs the actor or mover as part of a dramatic whole, thus, as Brannigan argues,

“sacrificing individuation.”21 Discussing this technique through the example of the doubling

of Rita Christiani and Maya Deren in Ritual in Transfigured Time, Brannigan proposes that

Deren uses dance quintessentially for an “orchestration of sequences where a movement

phrase or quality moves across frames, edits, cuts, bodies, and spaces, making the body of the

film a choreographed whole.”22 The dance serves a visual poetics and is a means of

organization in time and space. It releases the protagonists from their role in a concrete,

narrative thread and allows them to inhabit a situation for its own sake. It also binds different

filmic elements together, within an image and across different scenes, to invoke what Deren

called a “compelling continuity of duration,” a choreographic film form that appears to be

informed by Deren’s interest in Bergson’s notion of an indivisible experience.23 The use of

stylization in Deren’s films serves very much the same purpose as depersonalization: that is,

to create a dramatic, formalized whole out of the constituent parts. As Brannigan points out,

Deren perceives the movement of film itself as “stylized” and proceeds by treating movement

in the same way.24 Natural movement is taken from the everyday, formalized, and

depersonalized to form a careful choreography of shapes and rhythms.

The significance of the poetic in Deren’s oeuvre comes to the fore in her often quoted

contribution to the symposium on “Poetry and The Film,” which took place at Cinema 16 in

New York in 1953. At the symposium, Arthur Miller, Dylan Thomas, Parker Tyler, and

Maya Deren discussed, together with Willard Maas, the relation between poetry and film. In

the transcript, Deren is given the floor after Taylor and addresses the question, “What is

poetry?”, in order to help clarify the terms of the debate. She argues that such a definition is

useful so that audiences know what to expect when they come to see a film. Deren says: “If

you are watching for what happens, you might not get the point of some of the retardations

because [the retardations] are concerned with how it happens.” 25 The term “retardations”


here refers to phases in a film where a dramatic action is interrupted by an exploration of

particular aspects of a moment, such as its qualities or emotional content. Deren continues:

Poetry, to my mind, is an approach to experience, in the sense that a poet is looking at the same experience that the dramatist may be looking at. It comes out differently because they are looking at it from a different point of view and because they are concerned with different elements of it.26

She explains further, in the often cited passage, that:

the poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a “vertical” investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its quality and its depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or

what it means. A poem, to my mind, creates visible or auditory forms of something that is invisible, which is a feeling, or the emotion, or the metaphysical content of the movement. Now it also may include action, but its attack is what I would call the “vertical” attack, and this may be a little bit

clearer if you will contrast it to what I would call the “horizontal” attack of the drama, which is concerned with the development, let’s say, within a very small situation from feeling to feeling.27

Deren elaborates that a horizontal development of a story might be combined with, or interrupted by, a vertical investigation of a particular moment, and emphasizes that all kinds of combinations of these two dynamics are conceivable. She proposes that monologues, establishing shots and dream sequences are all part of the vertical dimension, as are entire short films—such as her own work—and are comparable to lyric poems. As an example she cites a film by Willard Maas, Image in the Snow (1952), and describes the visuals as the horizontal drive and the parallel poetic commentary as constituting the vertical element. In other words, the relations between the horizontal and the vertical are complementary and function between images or across image and text.

As is evident from the transcript of the symposium, Deren receives only negative and derisory comments from the other speakers and the discussion contributes little to the ideas or terms that she proposes. One comment from Arthur Miller does warrant attention, however; he comments on Deren’s proposition that a dramatic action is interrupted by emotional moments. Arguing against what could appear to be a binary opposition between drama on one side and emotion on the other, Miller insists that emotions are wedded to the action and inseparable from a dramatic structure.28

A couple of thoughts emerge from this exchange: Miller’s comment subsumes a clear binary, but as Erin Brannigan points out in her discussion of Deren’s terminology, the relation between the two modes is much more complex than that, particularly with regards to Deren’s own films.29 If one scrutinizes the different examples that Deren gives at the symposium, Deren’s theory could be read as a way of thinking about the relationship between film and the poetic that is flexible and offers endless possibilities to the filmmaker. She gives the example of a Shakespearean soliloquy which literally disrupts a dramatic plot, alongside the example of Maas’s film, in which the horizontal and the vertical concur so that the visual and the sound complement each other. Most importantly, however, Deren says that she is thinking of poetry not so much as a verbal form but “as a way of structuring in any one of a number of mediums, and (I think) that it is also possible to make the dramatic structure in any one, and that it is also possible to combine them.”30 This comment significantly deviates from her usual emphasis on medium specificity, proposing instead that the poetic can be used in any medium. This sounds much more like a post-medium approach, whereby the vertical and horizontal are conceived as methodologies which are independent of the medium and constitute two different but complimentary modes of making and perceiving art in general.

It is also worth considering that Arthur Miller’s critique of Deren’s proposition may have been triggered by the specific terms that Deren deployed to make her point. When she says that a poem or vertical film form gives rise to an emotion, it is difficult to separate this conceptually from narrative or dramatic action, as the emotional is in general considered to be part of narrative, linguistic constructs. This association explains Miller’s insistence that the emotional is wedded to action. Deren may, however, have been using the term in a different and less literal way, as something more akin to a register of personal intensity, sensation, and embodied experience—a register that is generally known as affect in contemporary cultural theory and philosophy and is considered to be a pre-linguistic state. To explore this possibility, it will be useful to expand on the notion of affect, even if it is not possible in the context of this essay to review the various histories and complexities of affect theory in current discourses. A brief detour via Brian Massumi’s writing in his essay The Autonomy of Affect may serve to indicate what is explored through this term. In this essay, Massumi argues for a clear differentiation between emotion and affect, or intensity, in that

they “follow different logics and pertain to different orders.”31 To define emotion, he writes:

An emotion is a subjective content, the socio-linguistic fixing of the quality of an experience which is from that point onward defined as personal. Emotion is qualified intensity, the conventional, consensual point of insertion of intensity into semantically and semiotically formed progression, into narrativizable action-reaction circuits, into function and meaning. It is intensity owned and


By comparison, affect is unqualified and therefore difficult to grasp. Massumi circumscribes affect as an intensity or:

a state of suspense, potentially a disruption. It is like a temporal sink, a hole in time, as we conceive of it and narrativize it. It is not exactly passivity, because 10

it is filled with motion, vibratory motion, resonance. And it is not yet activity, because the motion is not of the kind that can be directed (if only symbolically) towards practical ends in a world of constituted objects and aims (if only on screen).33

This description of affect as a suspended state and resonance chimes with Deren’s notion of the vertical as a disruption of narrative progression and investigation of a moment. Deren’s concept of the vertical also correlates with Massumi’s argument that affect is of a different order to language. And even though Massumi writes that language dampens these intensities, he concedes that “linguistic expression can resonate with and amplify intensity,” which could conceivably include poetry or the voiceover in a film like Maas’ Image in the Snow.34 A key point is that affect does not support or facilitate linear processes or narratives.

Deren’s relatively brief statement at the Symposium and her writings, be that

Anagram or her diverse lecture notes and published essays, leave room for speculation as to

what exactly she meant with the emotional and whether she considered it as a quality of an

experience that is identifiable and recognizable by the spectator, or whether she referred to a

more pre-linguistic realm of sensation and intensities, like affect. The fact that she did speak

of the emotional and that she did not seek other possible terms does however differentiate her

concept of horizontal and vertical film form from Deleuze’s film theory of movement-image

and time-image, with which it is so often compared. Deleuze develops the notion of the

affection image in Cinema1, and it underpins much of his writing in Cinema 2. However,

current literature on Deren does not debate this particular aspect and considers Deren and

Deleuze’s theories to be similar with equivalent terms. Renata Jackson, for example, argues

that Deren and Deleuze make comparable distinctions when they differentiate between

“vertical” and “horizontal”, or, as in Deleuze’s case, between “movement-image” and “time-

Image”.35 Jackson emphasizes that both feature a binary construct of spatiality and causality


on one hand and an emphasis on time and experience on the other. As she points out this

structure is derived from a shared interest in the philosophy of Henri Bergson, who argued

for a separation of space and time and developed a notion of experience-that-cannot-beanalyzed

or compartmentalized (as we would do with space) but is rather indivisible (like

time or duration).36 As Jackson maintains, Bergson’s concept of experience underpins both

Deren’s and Deleuze’s film theories, and both advocate a film form and a spectatorship that

is different from that of narrative cinema. Deren, however, struggles to get away from the

traditional description of experience as emotion and to push it towards something more

specific to visual logic and vertical cinema, as is evident in her statement at the Symposium.

One can therefore point to both similarities and differences between Deren’s and Deleuze’s

film theories, though the difference is potentially a difference by degree. Arguably the

inconclusive aspect in Deren’s work is eventually theorized through the notion of an

embodied spectatorship, which Deleuze puts forward as part of his writing on the timeimage;

a review of some of his writing will serve to to further illucidate this interlinking

between their various concepts.

Deleuze published his writing on film in France in 1985. It divides twentieth-century

cinema into two kinds and two historical phases: a classic cinema of movement-images with

a narrative structure dominated by action across space and time, and a modern cinema of

time-images in which a continuity of actions and dramatic development has been

subordinated to an investigation of time per se. As mentioned above, the first category of

movement-images is generally equated with Deren’s horizontal film form, while the second

category of time-images is aligned with Deren’s the vertical film. Deleuze describes the

second category or time-image through fragmentation of linearity, a shattering of causality,

and an exploration of disjunctions and extended time frames. According to Deleuze, this

modern cinema demonstrates a “whole temporal panorama,” the extent of which is tied to a


notion of cinema that is independent of language and of traditional narrative.37 Deleuze

therefore begins Cinema 2 with a review of the historical debate on film as language and

aligns himself with those film theorists who critique early twentieth-century cinema for its

close association with theatre and narrative and for becoming narrative itself. In this kind of

cinema films were little stories and an image was the equivalent of an utterance, a construct

by which the visual language was conflated with verbal communication.38 Maya Deren

expresses a similar view in Anagram when she argues that it might have been better if the

film industry had never engaged with writers or with literary scripts, and had continued with

the development of silent films which “emphasized visual elements and even sometimes, as

in the comedies of Buster Keaton, displayed a remarkable, intuitive grasp of filmic form.”39

Interested in freeing film from an assumed affinity with narrative, Deleuze distances himself

from semiologists, who want to read cinematic images in linguistic terms. He therefore

critiques Christian Metz, who posits that the verbal effectively conditions the visual; Metz

contends that narration constitutes the “underlying linguistic determinants from which it

flows into the image in the shape of an evident given.“40 In this model the narrative informs

the filmic sequences. By contrast Deleuze offers a model by which “narration is only a

consequence of the visible [apparent] images themselves and their direct combinations—it is

never a given.”41 Deleuze argues that the image cannot be assimilated to an utterance, or be

replaced by utterance, and that film should be considered as “non-language material.”42 More

specifically, Deleuze talks about the movement of the image as that which resists assimilation

into narratives and linguistic units, as an excess that defies a linguistic forming of

resemblance and representation.

Deleuze argues that due to this attachment to narrative, the movement-image of the

early twentieth century is a clichéd representation of objects, in which the viewer perceives

what he wants to see.43 Drawing again on the writing of philosopher Henri Bergson, Deleuze


points out that we never perceive a thing in its entirety, but rather through sensory-motor

schemata. A cinema that is based on sensory-motor images is therefore limited in the kind of

spectatorship it invites.44 In the cinema prevalent in the early 1900s, the spectator would have

been entertained and not challenged, indulged with clichés rather than, according to Deleuze,

confronted with “real images.”45 Again Maya Deren makes a similar point in Anagram, when

she reflects on the process of adapting literature to film. She argues that a representation of

characters and their feelings leads to “symptom-actions” or a cinematic “shorthand,” that

supposedly demonstrates such and such a feeling:

As we watch the screen we continually “understand” this gesture to stand for

this state of mind, or that grimace to represent that emotion. Although the

emotional impact derives not from what we see, but from the verbal complex

that the image represents, the facility with which we bridge the gap and

achieve this transcription deceives us, and we imagine that we enjoy a visual


Deren argues that this shorthand does not make use of the real potential of cinema, which

resides in the realm of visual experience (as distinct from other art forms such as theatre and

literature, which are driven by dramatic, narrative threads). Deleuze proposes that a shift or

reversal in the priorities of the film image took place when the classic sensory-motor image

was replaced by a pure optical and sound image that subordinated movement to time.

Deleuze references René Clair’s film Entr’acte from 1924 as one of the earlier films in this

cinematic shift, along with Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) and some of Buster Keaton’s

burlesque scenes. According to Deleuze, however, the new time-image is only fully realized

in the 1940s in the work of Orson Wells, Fellini, Renoir, Antonioni, Ozu, and others. Deleuze

writes of this new image that “the sound as well as the visual elements of the [new] image

enter into internal relations which means that the whole image has to be ‘read’, no less than


seen, readable as well as visible.”47 Referring to Godard’s formula, “It isn’t blood, it’s some

red,” he argues that internal elements and relations in the image dominate over any

representation of external objects.48 This concern with internal relations within the image is

also discussed in Cinema 1, where Deleuze first refers to Godard’s formula as part of a

discussion on colour and its capacity to affect the image itself and all that is within it.49 He

reflects on the power of color to absorb characters, objects, and entire scenes, describing

colour itself as affect, as a “virtual conjunction of all the objects which it picks up.”50 The

capacity of elements to affect and to bear the impact of other elements extends to the relation

between image and spectator. More than, or perhaps instead of, a symbolic value of objects,

this kind of image offers a play of affects—a register of changing intensities—and addresses

the spectator in the same way, implicating him/her as another resonant body. As formulated

in Cinema 2, the new time-image “brings out the thing in itself, literally, in its excess of

horror or beauty, in its radical or justifiable character, because it no longer has to be


Deleuze’s insistence of film as non-language material is significant for a comparison

between Deren and Deleuze, and the proximity between their respective theorizations

supports a reading of Deren’s film form as visual logic and not as “cinematic grammar” as

Michelson proposes. Bringing Deleuze into the debate on Deren also shifts her more firmly

into a tradition of filmmakers from the early twentieth century who turned to cinema for its

possibilities in visual composition. At that time, many visual artists turned to film as a new

medium even though it was not yet established as a means to making art.52 The DADA artists,

for example, saw the particular subversive potential of film as a means to critique a bourgeois

modernity which was considered morally corrupt for allowing the unprecedented

destructiveness of WW1.53 Artist Francis Picabia, who scripted the first ideas for the film

Entr’acte, belonged to this group and shared this attitude, even though he left DADA in 1921


to developed his own Instantanist project. In a review of avant-garde film practices, Chris

Townsend argues that the narrative structure of conventional film mirrored too closely the

regulated temporality of industrial production and labor, and both Picabia and Clair were

fighting against this imposition on the modern subject.54 To work against these constraints

and to allow for a broader spectrum of experience, the artists pushed the medium of film

towards something that was relational, in a sense of being part of a live event, despite the

inevitable mechanized regularity of film, its linearity, and the relative indifference of

attending audiences. Townsend writes: “Like Duchamp, Picabia has a theory of ‘kinematics’

well before he is involved in the production of a film; indeed it is a theory whose temporal

dynamics would largely prohibit realization within a film that functioned as a self-contained


In 1924, Picabia and the composer Eric Satie were invited to create an evening ballet

for the Ballet Suédois, and they asked the filmmaker René Clair to direct a film for the

interlude of the performance. Much like the DADA artists, Clair had been very critical of the

theatrical, narrative conventions that were popular with the bourgeoisie at the time. He wrote

in his Reflections on the Cinema, that “Cinema should not be restricted to representation. It

can create…. Thanks to … rhythm, the cinema can become a new force which, abandoning

the logic of facts and the reality of objects, will engender a series of visions hitherto unknown

and unconceivable.”56 This statement by Clair gives a sense of what was at stake and explains

the fascination for a cinema that exceeded narrative conventions. The film Entr’acte consists

of a fast and confusing collage of images and scenes that are devoid of narrative and intended

to touch the audience by audio-visual means. The film takes place across a series of Parisian

locations such as rooftops, streets, a fairground, and the countryside, and plays mischievously

with the spectator’s expectations as well as their moral codes: a number of shots turn into

actual shots directed at the viewer executed by a canon or a rifle, while a boxing glove directs


a punch at the audience; the film includes a close-up from below on a dancer in a tutu who is

later revealed to be a bearded man; a funeral hearse is drawn by a camel; the funeral

procession begins in slow motion and turns into a chase. In the first half of the film, the fast

editing between seemingly unrelated shots created a sense of dissolution, while the second

part emphasizes perpetual motion. In the 1920s this sort of cinematic composition would

have suggested freedom—creatively, socially, and politically. Entr’acte was arguably a new

vista of what an image could do and what it would consist of in cinematic terms. Conceived

in the context of a ballet performance, Entr’acte combined images much like a choreographer

would have composed moving bodies, relying on visuality and rhythm to create an

experience for the audience.

This interest in rethinking movement and time was not confined to film, but occurred

simultaneously in dance-based practices of the time. In her review of dance of the early

twentieth century, Erin Brannigan argues that dance as cultural endeavor and commentator on

a technologically advancing society would have been a force that anticipated cinema’s

dissolution of forms.57 A wider exchange of ideas and cross-fertilization between dance and

film would also have informed a work such as Entr’acte, which was more “open” than what

was otherwise seen on screen at the time. In fact, just a few years prior to making Entr’acte

Clair had acted in an avant-garde dance project, Le Lys de la Vie, effectively a choreography

for film from 1921 directed by Loïe Fuller. As Anne Cooper Albright argues in her book on

Fuller, Clair’s own film and rhythmic composition in Entr’acte can be regarded as part of the

legacy of Fuller’s experiments with movement and light.58 Loïe Fuller, and René Clair,

together with Isadora Duncan, Man Ray, Duchamp, and others, must be considered as the

pioneers of what we now call screendance. They form a timeline for the first half of the

twentieth century that leads eventually to the work of Maya Deren. The timeline traces a


shared concern with non-linguistic material which addresses an embodied spectator and

works through sensation and visual logic.

Deleuze only commented on very few films of the 1920s avant-garde and never

referred to later experimental films such as Deren’s, but he made a number of poignant

comments on Entr’acte which can be used to build a Deleuzian reading of Deren’s work. For

example, identifying different kinds of time-images, Deleuze argues that European cinema

was generally interested in an “automatic subjectivity,” an exploration of phenomena such as

hypnosis, hallucination, nightmare, and dreams.59 According to Deleuze, Clair’s Entr’acte is

an example of this kind of work and consists of “unstable [sets] of floating memories, images

of a past in general which move past at dizzying speed, as if time were achieving a profound

freedom…. Dissolves and superimpositions arrive with a vengeance.”60 Deleuze describes

these images as “malleable sheets of the past,” which are part of a circularity in which each

image is significant only as part of a chain of images.61 In Clair’s Entr’acte, each image

becomes “actualized” through the following image, which, according to Deleuze, “itself

plays the role of virtual image being actualized in a third, and so on to infinity.”62 In other

words, individual images do not conserve their status or significance and their task is to give

way to the next image.

This analysis can be used to describe a dynamic that is at work in Deren’s films. The

concept of a dream image or “the diffuse condition of a dust of actual sensation,” and the

“perpetual unhinging which ‘looks like’ dream, but [takes place] between objects that remain

concrete” sounds like Meshes of the Afternoon with its sequences of images in which one

gives way to the next.63 The party scene in Ritual in Transfigured Time has the quality of one

image giving way to the next, enforced by the actual gestures and looks, which underline this

ongoing flow across images. At Land also “looks like” a dream, due to the imaginary use of

space and time in the film, whilst not containing the narrative one would expect in a classic


dream, and I will return to this film further below. A Deleuzian reading of Deren’s work

speaks to the visuality of her practice and reads it through the actual film form, rather than

through other frames of reference. This is worth considering given that Deren argued time

and again against the interpretation of her films and those of her contemporaries through, for

example, an exploration of the artist’s biography or a Freudian supposition of a symbolic

value of objects. Deren therefore dismissed any association of her work with the symbolic

iconography and methodologies of surrealist work. The association made here between her

work and Entr’acte is not to be confused with discourses that invoke surrealist practices;

Entr’acte was not a surrealist project, despite its date of production, and Deleuze’s reading of

Entr’acte further confirms a very different artistic framework. Arguing against many of the

ubiquitous critical discourses, Deren writes in New Directions in Film Art: “Unless there is a

very good reason why an artist would substitute one thing for another, it might be good to

believe that the thing you see, or read, is exactly the thing the artist has intended.”64

Deren may have used different terms in her writing compared to those deployed by

Deleuze, but the intentions that come across in the writing, as well as in the actual work, are

often very close. Deren’s work anticipates a Deleuzian insistence on the internal relations

within an image and a reading of the image through affect. A depersonalization and

stylization of gesture in a film like Ritual in Transfigured Time compares in visual dynamic

and purpose to, for example, the use of color in Agnes Varda’s films La Pointe Courte and Le

Bonheur, where a combination of black and white or a complementary use of colors affects

and absorbs characters and objects.65 This cinema of colors in Varda, Minelli, and Antonioni

is what Deleuze terms the affection-image; it does not represent or refer to any particular

thing, but constitutes a quality and an affective force. Taking the face as affective surface and

as blueprint for what occurs more broadly within and across the image, Deleuze writes: “The

affection-image, for its part, is abstracted from the spatio-temporal co-ordinates which would


relate it to a state of things, and abstracts the face from the person to which it belongs in a

state of things.”66 A process of abstraction is key to this visual operation, a process which is

already evident in Deren’s screen choreographies through her treatment of movement and of

the moving image.

In her endeavor to advance film as an art form, Deren not only needed to theorize a

new aesthetics, but also to educate her audiences and critics how to see these films. In

Anagram, Deren addresses the problem of viewing habits, writing that audiences might well

expect to understand film in the way they understand theatre: “It would be impossible to

understand or appreciate a filmic film if we brought to it all the critical and visual habits

which we may have developed, to advantage, in reference to the other art forms.”67 In

addition, she argues, film may appear familiar given that it looks more or less like the world

we know. To address viewing habits cinema needed to disrupt this pattern and initiate other

modes of affection. Disruptions can, for example, be instigated through a failure of

recognition, or a disturbance of memory, a viewing experience which, according to Deleuze,

is proper to the pure optical-sound image. Deleuze draws on Bergson in his reflection on the

significance of failure, arguing that “attentive recognition informs us to a much greater

degree when it fails than when it succeeds.”68 Although Deren does not talk about invoking

the failure of recognition one could claim that her films break with the logic of time, space,

and action in a way that implicates the viewer in an unfamiliar experience. The work

demands of the viewer to let go of expected frames of reference and parameters. Offering a

reading of one of her own films, Deren writes:

At Land strives for the elimination of literary-dramatic lines and tries to

discover, instead, a purely cinematic coherence and integrity. It presents a

relativistic universe—one in which the locations change constantly and

distances are contracted or extended; in which the individual goes towards


something only to discover upon her arrival that it is now something entirely

different; and in which the problem of that individual, as the sole continuous

element, is to relate herself to a fluid, apparently incoherent universe. It is in a

sense a mythological voyage of the twentieth century.69

An experience of apparent incoherence may successfully frustrate attempts to relate what is

on screen to what is known and familiar. An unexpected flow of images would form an

alternative poetics of sensation according to a cinematic coherence, whereby strategies such

as an ambivalent use of space and time form a continuity that is neither here nor there,

running neither forwards nor backwards.

It is possible to read a film like At Land through Deleuze’s time-image as

demonstrated here but this might be taking Deren’s ideas further than she had envisaged

herself. The description of the film as mythological voyage within the same passage suggests

a metaphorical framework that correlates the film with a quest of some sort and which relates

to Deren’s wider interests in ritual, magic, and topics like the nature of change. Alison Butler

also notes a tension in At Land between a somewhat “classic quest-narrative” and a

more abstracted use of space and time, pointing out how a single moving body provides an

overarching continuity across the film’s duration, effectively constituting a return towards

classic narratives film structures within Deren’s body of work.70 Butler also comments on this

ambivalence with regards to Meshes arguing that the film allows for a Deleuzian reading of

some of its elements even though the protagonist carries a more conventional, dramatic

function. She argues that “In Deleuzian terms, the coexistence of ‘incompossible’

temporalities in Meshes unleashes the ‘powers of the false’ and shifts the film into the regime

of the time-image {…].”71 The ‘powers of the false’ is a Deleuzian term for the

cinematographic power to create in a way that is neither true nor false, but liberated from

chronologies and able to create its own logic.72 This compares with Deren’s interest in the


movie camera as instrument for the creation of time, and as a mean to visualize intensities.

Deren is however not categorical in her approach and cinematic logic, sometimes

foregrounding the body as physical presence and continuity, or embracing the metaphorical

as, for example, in the doubling of Rita Christiani and Maya Deren in Ritual in Transfigured

Time, whereby the different actresses appear to stand for woman as such. One could cite

numerous other examples of metaphorical configurations in Deren’s work such as in Study in

Choreography for Camera (1945), where a metaphor is created through an alliance between

the turning head of the dancer, Talley Beatty, and a sculptural head of the Bodhisattva figure

behind him. The metaphorical tenor of Study and Deren’s other films is discussed in detail by

Sarah Keller in an essay published elsewhere in this issue of the International Journal of

Screendance. Referencing earlier writing on Deren by P. Adams Sitney, Keller reads much of

Deren’s work in metaphorical terms, which makes sense of the cinematic ideas but shifts

Deren back into a literary-poetic tradition.73 By comparison, Deleuze rejects metaphorical

readings of, for example, hallucinatory films and dreams such as Entr’acte, writing: “These

are not metaphors, but a becoming which can by right continue to infinity.”74 As discussed

earlier, metaphors tend to combine and mobilize both visual repertoires and verbal concepts,

thereby functioning rather differently from the purely visual logic that Deleuze advocates

with the notion of the time-image. Deren’s work appears to hover somewhere between a

poetic literary tradition and a new cinematic logic, using a metaphorical approach but

pushing it to explore what a new medium could do for a new age and relativistic universe.

Techniques such as depersonalization and stylization demonstrate her intention to produce

abstractions and visual intensities, disassociating herself from the logic of narrative cinema;

but films such as At Land do not go as far as absorbing the character into the image.

Erin Brannigan is concerned with, and tries to dispel, the supposed polarity that Deren

is said to have instituted with her two different modes of filmic form.75 However,


Brannigan’s own reading of Entr’acte, in which she only considers the short interludes of the

ballerina as the vertical moments within an otherwise horizontal film, enacts a polarity that

appears to go against Deren’s own intentions. While the scene with the ballerina literally

inserts verticality through the camera angle and the performed movement, thereby disrupting

a flow of images, Brannigan’s reading does not seem to do justice to the complexity of the

vertical as invoked by Deren.76 Instead, it is possible to attribute large parts of Entr’acte to

vertical film structure, in line with Deleuze’s reading of Entr’acte in the context of his debate

on the time-image. At least the whole of the first part could be considered as an extended

vertical film form. Given also the interplay between a theory and the material we assign to it

this more generous reading of Entr’acte produces a more generous conception of vertical film

form that, I would argue, is in line with Deren’s own concerns, ambitions, and explorations.

The second part of Entr’acte, with its vertiginous race through Parisian streets and dynamic

camera angles, is perhaps more ambivalent as to its place within this debate. Clair’s own

writing points to an association with the visual logic of kinesthetic cinema. Clair was

fascinated by the early chase films of Mack Sennet and expressly “wanted to restore film to

what it was at the outset.”77 The second part of Entr’acte could therefore be regarded as a

homage to the earlier chase films that used the moving image to touch the spectator through

visual means, akin to vertical film form. However, the chase could be considered as a

relatively coherent montage of images into a dramatic whole, particularly from today’s point

of view when audiences are very much accustomed to fast paced sequences and cinematic

rides through different kinds of spaces. The montage style of editing of the chase could

therefore identify the second part as horizontal film form. What Entr’acte also demonstrates

is that the vertical and the horizontal mode are not sharply delineated and allow room for

interpretation. As Butler argues, the same applies to Deleuze’s movement-image and timeimage

in that the differences are not absolute and constitute “interpenetrating tendencies.” 78


This essay has discussed some facets of Deren’s and Deleuze’s terminologies to

ascertain more precisely what the similarities and the differences are between the two. It is

apparent that there is a common ground in Bergson’s theorization of time and space as well

as a shared interest in a radical film form that functions according to its own logic and that

does not need a recourse to language. On the other hand, in working with the metaphorical,

Deren’s own work does not quite let go of linguistic traditions, and her theorization struggles

to find an equally new language to match what she is exploring visually in her films.

Nevertheless, Deren’s writing predates Deleuze’s publications on cinema by over thirty years

and her films anticipated many subsequent developments. In order to determine more

precisely the role that Deren played in the development of experimental film form, one could

use the notion of the “recurrence” to say something about the dynamics at play in this

timeline. I am drawing here on an argument at the beginning of Cinema 2 where Deleuze

writes: “It is never at the beginning that something new, a new art, is able to reveal its

essence; what it was from the outset it can reveal only after a detour in its evolution.”79

Deleuze writes this with reference to early American and European cinema at the turn of the

nineteenth century and the following couple of decades. As he argues, a possibility of pure

movement had been noted at the outset of moving image technologies but filmmakers lost

track of this discovery in the turn to theatricality. Furthermore, early cinema developed in

different directions at the same time and there was no overarching sense of a cinematic

specificity. However, during the 1920s a new interest in pure movement and the actual image

became evident within avant-garde projects, as discussed above, and a cinematic specificity

was established in the ‘40s and onwards. It could be argued that Deleuze’s hypothesis of a

detour in the evolution of a new art form such as film can also be applied to the development

of film theory, and explain potential delays in the formation and recognition of new ideas and

concepts. Accordingly, his own theory of the movement-image and the time-image could be


regarded as a deferred realization of the potential of Maya Deren’s horizontal and vertical

film form and of its particular visual logic. It will be fitting then to end this discussion with

Deren’s own words, which encapsulate the marvelous promise of cinema as well as the

seismic shift from language to image that she dared to undertake:

It was like finally finding the glove that fits. When I was writing poetry, I had,

constantly to transcribe my essentially visual images—always movements,

incidents, events—into verbal form. In motion picture, I no longer had to do

translate. Fortunately, this is the way my mind works, and I could move

directly from my imagination onto film.80


Over the last few years several essays have been published which include a

comparison of Deren’s concept of vertical and horizontal film form with Deleuze’s

theory of movement-image and time-image; for example, Annette Michelson’s and

Renata Jackson’s essays in Maya Deren and The American Avant-garde (2001) and

Erin Brannigan’s discussion of Deren’s work in Dancefilm (2011). Given the tentative

nature of their comparison this essay will undertake a more systematic review of the

relation between film and language which underpins Deren’s and Deleuze’s

terminologies and further investigate both similarities and differences between them.

The intention is to further clarify Deren’s legacy within experimental film and

interdisciplinary discourses.



Melvyn Bragg, The Value of Culture, BBC Radio4, tvoc 03 Jan 13: Mass Culture,

Brannigan, Erin. DanceFilm, Choreography and the Moving Image. Oxford: Oxford

University Press, 2011.

Butler Alison, “’Motor-driven metaphysics,’: movement, time and action in the films of

Maya Deren,” Screen (2207 48 (1): 1-23.

Carroll, Noel. “Visual Metaphor.” In Aspects of Metaphor, edited by Jaakko Hintikka, AH

Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1994. 189-218.

Clair, René. Reflections on Cinema. London: William Kimber and Co., 1953.

Cooper Albright, Ann. Traces of Light: Absence and Presence in the Work of Loïe Fuller.

Middleton, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. London: The Athlone Press, 1989.

____. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. London: Athlone Press, 1992.

Deren, Maya. An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film. In Maya Deren and the

American Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nichols, 267-322. Berkeley: Univ. of

California Press, 2001.

____. “Magic is New.” In Essential Deren, Collected writings on film by Maya Deren, edited

by Bruce R McPherson, Kingston, New York: McPherson & Company 2005. 197 -


____. “New Directions in Film Art. ”In Essential Deren, Collected writings on film by Maya

Deren, edited by Bruce R McPherson. Kingston, New York: McPherson & Company,

  1. 2005. 207 – 219.

____. “From Poetry to Film.” In The Legend of Maya Deren, A Documentary Biography and

Collected Works, Vol I, Part 2, edited by VéVé A. Clark, Millicent Hodson and


Catrina Neiman, New York City: Anthology Film Archives/ Film Culture, 1988. 57-


____. “Creative Cutting.” In The Legend of Maya Deren, A Documentary Biography and

Collected Works, Vol I, Part 2, edited by VéVé A. Clark, Millicent Hodson and

Catrina Neiman, New York City: Anthology Film Archives/ Film Culture, 1988. 616

– 622.

Harmer, J.B. Victory in Limbo: Imagism 1908 – 1917. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1975.

Jackson, Renata. “The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren,” in Maya Deren and the American

Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nichols, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of

California Press, 2001.47 – 76.

Keller, Sarah. “Pas de deux for Dancer and Camera in Maya Deren’s Films,” International

Journal of Screendance, Summer 2013. Page tbc

Massumi, Brian. “The Autonomy of Affect.” In Deleuze: A Critical Reader, edited by Paul

Patton, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers 1996. 217 – 239.

Michelson, Annette. “Film and the Radical Aspiration,” in Film Theory and Criticism, 2nd ed.,

edited by Gerald Mast and Marshall Cohen, 617 – 35. New York: Oxford University

Press, 1979.

------------------------- “Poetics and Savage Thought,” in Maya Deren and the American

Avant-Garde, edited by Bill Nichols, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of

California Press, 2001. 21 – 45.

Turvey, Malcolm. “DADA, Entr’acte and Paris Qui Dort,” in The Filming of Modern Life,

European Avant-garde film of the 1920s, edited by Malcolm Turvey, London and

Massachusetts and London, MIT Press, 2011.77 – 104.

Townsend, Chris. “The Last Hope of Intuition: Francis Picabia, Erik Satie and Rene Clair’s

Intermedial Project Relâche.” Nottingham French Studies 50, no. 3 (Autumn 2011):


41 - 64.

Walley, Jonathan. “Identity Crisis: Experimental Film and Artistic Expansion.” October 137

(Summer 2011): 23-50.


A Study In Choreography For Camera (1945). Dir. Maya Deren. 2 mins. USA.

At Land (1944). Dir. Maya Deren. 15 mins, 16mm. USA.

Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946). Dir. Maya Deren. 14 mins. USA.

Meshes Of The Afternoon (1943). Dir. Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid. 14 mins, 16mm.

Music by Teiji Ito added 1959.

Rumi (1999). Dir. Narcisa Hirsch. 28 mins, 16 mm and video. Argentina.

Image in the Snow (1952). Dir. Willard Maas. 29min. US.

Entr’acte (1924). Dir. René Clair. 22min. France.

Le Lys De La Vie (1921) Dir. Loïe Fuller. 15min, France.

Un Chien Andalou (1929). Dir. Luis Buñuel. 17min. France.

La Pointe Courte (1954). Dir. Agnes Varda. 86min. France.

Le Bonheur (1965). Dir. Agnes Varda. 94min. France.

1 Deren, “New Directions in Film Art,” 207.

2 Jackson, “The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren,” 60.

3 Harmer, Victory in Limbo, 165.

4 Jackson, “The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren,” 60, and Maya Deren, Anagram, 25.

5 Harmer, Victory in Limbo, 166.

6 Deren, Anagram, 17, 24, 52.


7 Carroll, “Visual Metaphor,” 189-218.

8 Ibid., 204.

9 Ibid., 206.

10 Michelson, “Film and the Radical Aspiration,” 632. Michelson also explores this subject

in her essay “Poetics and Savage Thought,” in Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde,

  1. 26. Again she maps the duality of linguistic structure onto film, interpreting Deren’s visual

poetics as a metaphor in linguistic terms.


Michelson, “Poetics and Savage Thought,” 22.

12 Deren, “Magic is New,” 205.

13 Ibid., 205.

14 For an extensive discussion of the politics involved in establishing a new art form see

Jonathan Walley, “Identity Crisis,” 23-50.

15 Deren, Anagram, 48.

16 Ibid., 48.

17 Jackson, “The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren,” 64.

18 Deren, Anagram, 51.

19 Ibid., 24, 51.

20 Brannigan, DanceFilm, 113.

21 Ibid., 115.

22 Ibid., 114.

23 Deren, “Creative Cutting,” 618, 619.

24 Brannigan, Dancefim, 120.

25 “Poetry and The Film,” 173.

26 Ibid., 173, 174.

27 Ibid., 174.


28 Miller, “Poetry and the Film,” 186.

29 Brannigan, DanceFilm, 107, 108.

30 Ibid., 185.

31 Massumi, “The Autonomy of Affect,” 221.

32 Ibid., 221.

33 Ibid., 220.

34 Ibid., 219.


Jackson, “The Modernist Poetics of Maya Deren,” 66.

36 Ibid.

37 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 55.

38 Ibid., 25. See also an interview with David Putnam, the British film producer, who argues

that early film escaped language because it was silent. For his discussion of early film see

Bragg, The Value of Culture,

39 Deren, Anagram, 39.

40 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 26.

41 Ibid., 26.

42 Ibid., 27-29.

43 Ibid., 20.

44 Ibid., 20.

45 Ibid., 21.

46 Deren, Anagram, 40.

47 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 22.

48 Ibid., 22.

49 Deleuze, Cinema 1, 118.

50 Ibid., 118.


51 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 20.

52 As Deleuze points out, the possibility of film to display actual movement did not

correspond to the current remit of Art, “since Art seemed to uphold the claims of a higher

synthesis of movement, and to remain linked to the poses and forms that science had rejected.”

(Cinema 1, 6) Film, it seemed, was too realistic, too closely mirroring the flux of the

everyday to be considered Art in the traditional sense. Some early film clips by the Lumière

brothers and later chase films by Mack Sennett had shown the capacity of cinema to be pure

movement, but these films were considered amusement for the proletariat akin to fairground

rides and roller coasters, not more.

53 As Malcom Turvey explains in his discussion of avant-garde films, the anarchistic and

nihilistic tone was directed against the rationalism of an Enlightenment-style modernity,

which appeared to be nothing but a veneer for a derailed society. This notion of a “derailed

society” serves not only as metaphor for a historical condition but also suggests a visuality

and dynamic which characterizes projects such as Entr’acte. See “DADA, Entr’acte and Paris

Qui Dort,” 78, 79.

54 Townsend, “The Last Hope of Intuition,” 45.

55 Ibid., 45.

56 Clair, Reflections on Cinema, 61.

57 Brannigan, 21.

58 Cooper Albright, Traces of Light, 200.

59 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 55.

60 Ibid., 55.

61 Ibid., 56. The notion of the dream here is confusing; we conventionally use “dream” in a

sense of a dreamy narrative or in terms of a surrealist representation of the unconscious.

Malcom Turvey uses the notion of dream in his essay on Entr’acte in this narrative sense and


therefore argues that Entr’acte is not a dream because it lacks narratives, agents, and goals.

He therefore takes issue with Deleuze, but this appears to be caused by a different

understanding of the notion of dream. It could be argued that Deleuzian notion of dream

describes a hallucinatory and disjunctive episode, which lacks precisely the coherence that

Turvey associates with dream.

62 Ibid., 56.

63 Ibid., 56, 58.

64 Deren, “New Directions in Film Art,” 209.

65 Deleuze, Cinema 1, 118.

66 Ibid., 97.

67 Deren, Anagram, 42.

68 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 54.

69 Deren, “Magic is New,” 205.

70 Butler, “Motor-driven Metaphysics,” 10, 11.

71 Ibid., 9.

72 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 143, 145.

73 Sarah Keller, Pas de deux for Dancer and Camera, page numbers tbc.

74 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 57.

75 Brannigan, 106, 107.

76 Ibid., 109.

77 Clair, Reflections on Cinema, 60.

78 Butler, “Motor-driven metaphysics,” 6.

79 Deleuze, Cinema 2, 43.

80 “From Poetry to Film”, The Legend of Maya Deren, 57.






Film Poems 4: Messages - Programme Notes. Copyright remains authors or as stated.

With thanks - To all the film makers and/or their representatives, to Sarah Wood who gave me the opportunity

to see the programme projected for the first time at LUX OPEN, to Rose Cupit, Peter Cross, and Gary Thomas

at the Arts Council of England, to Christophe Bouchon at Light Cone in Paris, to Mike Sperlinger and Ben Cook

at LUX, to Anne Wade and Janet McBain at the Scottish Screen Archive and all the venues (and projectionists),

especially Shira Macleod from Riverside Studios (and Arnolfini) and Alan Smith from Phoenix Leicester who were

both early supporters, and to all the audiences. To Michael W Russell and Jean Clair for the paragraphs from

their works quoted in these programme notes. To everyone at Arnolfini - I look forward to your reopening. To

Gareth Evans.

Details of the earlier programmes Film Poems, Film Poems 2 Moments Histories Feelings and Film Poems 3 can

be found at

Programme notes design - Jeanette Sutton.

Eriskay a Poem of Remote Lives appears courtesy of Scottish Screen Archive. Anemic Cinema appears courtesy

of Light Cone, Paris.

The programme notes double as issue 12 of Poem Film Film Poem, September 2003. Poem Film Film Poem is held by

the bfi National Library, London tel 020 7255 1444 and the Poetry Library, London tel 020 7921 0943


Working on An Office Worker Thinks of Their Love, and Home, and earlier on For You, reflected an interest in

text and image. As a version for screening began to emerge, I started to think if this new work might fit in to one

of the Film Poems programmes. Talking of text and image with Guy Sherwin resulted in an evening at his house

with him projecting two 8mm letters from a friend now living in New Zealand. One of these works, printed by Guy

from 8mm to 16mm appears in this programme. Two of the works appeared in earlier Film Poems programmes.

Anemic Cinema had been mentioned by William C Wees in his article (available on LUX website) for the first Film

Poems programme.

Seeing the programme, preparing it for touring, and reading the essay and notes which later came in, thoughts

came to the fore, of how films could be letters, essays, records and poems or a combination of these and more.

Writing on work of this kind is hard to come by, and part of the process on putting the programmes together has

been producing programme notes. I hope for those interested (the programmes can stand alone) these notes

open up ways of thinking, and also ways of writing, that might be appropriate for the work.

I’ve started on a new work so maybe there will be a further programme, but it will have to find its own place. The

works are on 16mm which can be a delicate format, sometimes needing a slight adjustment between films. The

works themselves have often been shown in cinemas but also galleries, halls, clubs, studios, homes and where

groups have come together to watch them. Perhaps sometimes glimpsed first as stills. Not always cinema on

the big screen, but a kind of chamber cinema, sometimes with discussion. I hope wherever you see them you

find the works, and Film Poems 4: Messages of interest.

Peter Todd

PLEASE NOTE. Eriskay - A Poem of Remote Lives, Colour Poems, Kokoro is for Heart all have sound.

Otherwise, the works are mute.


Infinite Eyes: Thoughts on ‘Film Poems 4: Messages’ by Gareth Evans.

“There has never been a great film unless it was created in the spirit of the experimental film maker”.

Len Lye

Message n. 1. a communication, usually brief, from one person or group to another; 2. an implicit meaning or moral, as in

a work of art; 3. a formal communiqué; 4. an inspired communication of a prophet or religious leader; 5. a mission, errand;

  1. 6. ‘get the message’: informal, to understand what is meant; 7. vb. to send as a message, to signal (a plan) etc. (C13: from

Old French, from Vulgar Latin, something sent).

It is said that once, upon a time even (as if the moment was a hill from where one looked out across unfolding landscapes of

event), among the olive groves, as the light failed, they killed the messenger for the news they carried.

These notes are being written as the after-effects of a car bomb, which destroyed a significant part of the UN compound in

Baghdad, killing more than a dozen people and trapping the UN special co-ordinator (who subsequently also passed away),

are being reported around the world. First, there was the radio broadcast of a press conference on landmine clearance; the

star-beamed picture in regular transmission.

Then, switch-sudden…

Eye’s food snatched, image gone, sound wrenched into a rictus of collapse.

‘What endures will pass’. Róbert Gál

There is the silence that comes in contrast to such acts, rubble settling onto lungs trying to fill a voice with enough air.

Swelling breath into clenched shouts, gasps for aid.

Later, there are messages, communiqués: ‘we swear by the milk of our mothers that we shall make the days of the

occupiers as black as their faces’.

Pictures and language, the dark lyricism of a certain form of opposition. There is an image in the words, and words fail

alongside such images. And more, what does ‘kill’ mean; what does ‘injure’ signify? How do we describe a life seeping over

broken walls into boiling sand?

And what does ‘film poem’ mean? How does one write about the fragile aesthetic of certain clusters of light, the wrought

delicacy of artisans working to convey truths about our passage through the trees and streets and countries, when such

actions fill the stomach with acid, choke the chest like rising drown-water?

We might lose language like sometimes we lose keys. Do we then learn it again, newly wise to its vulnerability? Or do we

leave it where it fell and revert to other gestures of communication, to beacon fires, simple hand gestures, the marking of

bark or path-sides? What if such a rupture happens before we feel the merits of the tongue? What if we are children growing

steadily into being and the speaking time, only to find ourselves severed from articulation by something that is the opposite

of creative order, of speech?


The first message was long-held and fundamental. It built things. It was local and international and beyond all maps. It

named the visible and the not seen.

Maya: a people of outstanding achievements. Their language also. They are called their language, or is it the reverse? We

all are, surely. English. Inuit. Swedish. People and phrase. Arabic. Maya: Hindu goddess of illusion. The personification of

the power of Maya, a regarding of the material world of the senses as illusory. Celluloid incarnate.

Sherwin and his daughter are in the world. That could be message enough. Should be, even. Witnesses to phenomena,

they voyage together through everyday wonder. She, a fresh, unique configuration of cells and mind, is new to it all but her

coded, secret axis, the coral of her instinction, shimmering in marine light, knows to turn on this motion into language. Into

speaking the world out loud. But she is not quite there, the rise of that hill lies still ahead, and so the film is silent.

‘Silence is quiet. Listening’. Róbert Gál

Language is inscribed but not uttered. The hand is a tongue. Both are agents of purpose. When does naming reduce

the possibility of things and when does it enlarge them? Maya is on the cusp of becoming. Literally on the threshold.

Sweeping through the rich harvest of the seen world, her eyes, like benign scythes, search the crops for understanding, for

nourishment. Might we still see like her, as she brings her body into its relation to landscapes and evidence, as she


articulates self through knowing what is not-self? Sherwin paces calmly in her shadow as she totters, then stands into first

wisdoms. What do they see?

The white book, pages blank as a beginning? Leaf-dapple literacies, shadow ink of high, bright mornings… a leaf this way

up becomes its tree when turned. Perspective is all, the geometry of seeing is an early lesson. Draw it. The tree blurs to a

smudge. Why can’t you see the wind? You can see it in the leaves. You can see through it, to the other side of the wind, to

the silence there. Light in trees, like words in books, like water on its shoal-glistening course. Leaf boat linkages. The logic

here is one of associative enquiry - felt, perceptual, experiental bridges to the next territory. We are in the shared Zen of

unfettered senses here. Primary faiths renewing themselves with each falling season. Our hand, like our tongue, in the flow

of the day. Making the lasting shapes from which all else breeds. Pebbles are round because the water makes them swell.

And so it goes… from sand circle to playground roundabout, time in tree rings to celluloid spooling.

Relaxed negotiations between surface and essence, camera and light. A manifesto of light, like a desert hermit dizzy with

visions of pure gleam. ‘Look, the sun’s coming with us’… Repeat to fade and then intercut with the life-forming new.

‘What has no shadow has no strength to live’. César Vallejo

‘Why is the shadow of the stick longer than the stick?’

We see, we name, we draw to confirm the thing. Trees etched, in glass the lace lines are. This is daily, local seeing. It is all

around us, the streaming coat things wear. Their varnish. What to do with ‘all this useless beauty’?

Spell the name to be sure of it. M-a-y-a. In our language this means ‘she is’. I am… Write it with insect, in window’s sweat,

on stone. She is learning otherness and tracing the edge of herself through immersion. ‘A child can’t wake up when it’s

in a picture’. Dream, then… The child is growing, testing things and their present tense while learning, at the same time,

time. Watching the clock secreted inside a flower or the sky as it reveals the pulsing absolute of being. Finding the signs

and legends of it in all the daily business.

Sherwin like some time-gone missionaire, some explorer then, bringing it all back home from just around the corner of the

eye. He sees it, she sees it, we see it. ‘Why don’t our looks mix when they meet?’

Sending it down the telegraph wires in mist. A Noah for the future, saving all the creatures, the ancient birds, the window

cat. But it’s all alive, even the things that do not stumble, trundle, run.

Anim -al, -ation, -ism.

Sherwin like some peacetime cryptographer, decoding the found visible. Presenting the mystery in a way that does not

defuse it. This is the centre of it all. Consciousness and its kaleidoscopic tread.

Writing fingers, typing fingers, handling fingers, hand.

It is as always, about paying attention. Brilliance of the wall-top broken glass. ‘Are there toys in prison for children?’ If this

world, this life is a cell, then at least its playthings are numerous, are immanent. And, as we know from all the tales, take it

all away and still, the prisoner has their cloud-tipped view.

‘Aeroplanes take the blueness out of the sky, don’t they?’

Are we near the end then? Is it all done with (incinerator) smoke and mirrors? Is it all empty volumes, a TV’s screen

dissolving? No. The message is old as fossil. We are not creatures sealed alone in lost rock, sedimented by time. We are

the shadow in the sun, the unfixed figures seen against the hill. A man and his child in the (still) springtime of the planet,

hand to hand and simply are. ‘It’s the people in the dream who make the dream happen.’


Who are these messages to? Who from? Were they left by chance? In hope or in despair? Messages not in bottles, but

canisters and cartridges (bottles in spirit) or neatly archived transcripts to the future. Are they flags or warnings,

aide-memoires or manifesto scripts? And value, who says which might be important, which faint human trace demands we


Werner Kissling looked. Took a boat to the islands. To the far rim, to the outer places. Where the light was both older and

fresher. The people stand up to watch it come (their arms shade the sun from their eyes)... Their shadows lie like blankets

gently on the sand and grass, stirring slightly in the breeze. They straighten from their bending, their backs shaped like

marks of question. And the question, why this life, what is it? These remote lives… He found them dwelling close to things,

within their shadows and not split from them. Close to fish and heath, wool and weave. In time both gone and yet to come,


in some slow aftermath of complex collapse. Lives on earth. From it. They live in its brick, stir in its heat, are coloured by

  1. it. They draw its lichen to dye wool. Lives of matter but not prosaic; lives threaded with poetry. They sing their making

into being. 10 songs of making…They chant together while drifting, nomadic Kissling, on the run and yearning, there with

youthful postcard longing, watches.

And it takes this ‘alien’, this border-crosser, to give to Film its first, fine Gaelic reels. To bring the old tongue to the new

system. To climb the hill, to climb it in a morning in the ’30s (still here, archive-dusted off) and flash a mirror-message into

sea’s full sun, ‘these people and this place, they happened. They survived. They made it through’.

Those who are gone are not gone are they gone no their light is in the morning, mid and evening air and in cinema’s shared,

quite reeling mind…


There is a different mind for islands. Margaret Tait had such a mind. Clearly in the ocean, she values local detailing. The

etched trajectory, the fecund spill. Things verdantly over-lapping. She was the light-teller of daily tales. The peace makar

who did not ignore the conflicts (born 11.11.18, how could she be anything but doubly aware?) There’s another daughter

here too, keeping Sherwin’s from lonely, her own, as well as she herself, offspring of colour (not just a spectrum but a

borderless philosophy of being) and forever returning to its arbours and walks. Reading all the scripts, from signage grabs

to nature’s text, from boats, leaves, soil, rock, war. Incensed she might be, but loud and over-stated no. Working on the

interstitial, intertitled, overlooked, what other response can there be than the wonderful ‘Aha!’

Her eye’s magpie retrieval, keeping all, in time.


‘They told me that the truth of the universe was inscribed into our very bones. That the human skeleton was itself a hieroglyph.

That everything we had ever known on earth was shown to us in the first days after death. That our experience of the world was

desired by the cosmos and needed by it for its own renewal’.

Saul Bellow, from ‘Something to Remember Me By’ (Collected Stories).

A man sits by the night window. Darkness buckles the pane. Old light arrives at his eyes from the constellated stars, the

original messages coded as pictures to be read from all corners, in all times, by all cultures and minds. The interpretation

of the message might change, chinese-whispered through the centuries, millennia, but the picture itself pours ceaselessly

through the unending corridors of night, in the auditoria of the head. Old light of films seen long after the star/scene has

passed. And Stan, late Brakhage (it is said that the pigments, based on coal tar dyes, he used for much of his career,

caused his cancer) who only wanted to leave a ‘snail’s trail in the moonlight’, what of him? What message from him now of

this film made behind closed lids (light passed through skin), in the fine flesh pools? Only fair to give him back his words…

‘This is a hand-painted film whose emotionally referential shapes and colors are interwoven with words (in English) from the

‘First Hymn to the Night’ by the late 18th Century mystic poet Friedrich Philippe von Hardenberg, whose pen name was

Novalis. The pieces of text I’ve used are as follows: ‘the universally gladdening light ... As inmost soul ... it is breathed by

stars ... by stone ... by suckling plant ... multiform beast ... and by (you). I turn aside to Holy Night ... I seek to blend with

ashes. Night opens in us ... infinite eyes ... blessed love.’

Hand-painting. Painting his hand, his passage, onto film. Like stained glass. Like polished rock. It flows and tells.


Finally, it is all desire. Desire transcribed into light. Light as desire itself, without words or language needed. The films are

desire paths, the chosen routes, the maker’s beaten tracks. They turn cinema in on itself (anemic they are not) to find the

other way that it can be. The way it can tell the older, deeper stories. Of growing. Of being a child (the main motif, the newlyminted

seeing once again) in other islands, on the planet’s flip-side, but sailing in the same (and different) sea. ‘This is New

Zealand’; ‘I like sheep’; ‘The woolshed’; ‘The sheep runs’… This is what happens. The looking, the naming, while the sea

writes its own elegy again and again on the shore.

The message is translated. It is (the word root, ‘brought across’) carried by light. It is the body’s sound, and place’s sound,

and the sound of things ordered into shadows on the wall. It is guttural and dug out of the heart’s pit. ‘Kokoro’ is for Heart’…

It is beyond ink language and mind language. It is what is spoken in fire-circles, in staving off dark and welcoming it in. We

hear it in ‘the throat singing of the first peoples’ and we will hear it again at the last instance. It is the language of the delta,

of merger and yield, of the moment of passing into larger orders; the moment of gifting. Of offering.

The message is human and a wing. A leaf and a shelter. It is generous and calm. It is necessary. It heals wounds and repairs

the damaged world. We read it and can go on. We read it and can go on.

Gareth Evans is a writer and independent film programmer. He also edits the film journal ‘Vertigo’



Eriskay - A Poem of Remote Lives.

Dir. Werner Kissling. GBS. 1935. 18 mins. Sound.

“As an essay, or adjunct, or illustration for Kissling’s studies it would act as a powerful aide-memoire, as well as

informing and entertaining those who know virtually nothing about the Western Isles and her people. and the lack

of artifice, its placing of so little between lens and the viewer, give it, almost by accident, a tremendous power -

with the odd flicker of amazement each time it is seen: a flicker caused by the sharp profile of a face, or the clear

and direct look of a person probably long-dead, straight into the camera and our lives today. But they were not

seeing us, or their future audiences. They were seeing an unknown, elegant, wealthy enquirer, from a far away

country of whom they knew virtually nothing.”

Michael W. Russell. from A Viewing of the Film in A Poem of Remote Lives The Enigma of Werner Kissling

1895 - 1988.


Dir. Guy Sherwin. 16mm film. 1981-3. 35mins. b/w. Silent.

On Messages.

It is twenty years since my film Messages was completed and first shown. The child who was the inspiration for

the film, my daughter Maya, is now 24 and about to return to England from a village in southern Japan where

she has been teaching English. One of the central themes of Messages is language and its acquisition, and in

fact Maya grew up to be very interested in language. An early indication of this can be seen in the film, in the

concentration and intensity she gives to writing her name she draws the letter Y as if it were the extended branch

of a tree. Once we were walking along a country lane and came to a point where the lane divided. ‘Is that a Y?’

Maya asked. I explained as best I could that yes it looked like one but wasn’t, because lanes aren’t letters. It

seems that through such a process we find out which things go into which compartments in our developing

understanding of the world.

Messages was made in part at the London Film-Makers Co-operative using laboratory equipment which I’d

become familiar with, having worked there in the mid seventies. The dominant theory to come out of the LFMC

at the time was ‘structural materialism’, a movement which asserted film’s physical and material properties over

the tendency for film to make illusions. In giving Maya her name we hadn’t realised that ‘maya’ actually means

‘illusion’ in Hindi and is an important concept which refers to the illusion that is the material world. Maya wrote

her name again and again on odds scraps of paper. I collected them and they became part of the film. Maya’s

very first word was ‘la’ , by which she meant ‘light’ - she would say it while pointing at the lights in the kitchen.

I kept a book and wrote down her first words and the questions that she asked. They were captivating,

and almost impossible to answer: ‘why can’t you see the wind?’ or ‘how can people live in a wire?’ (on

answering the telephone). My film is silent, and doesn’t attempt to answer her questions, but at least is an

acknowledgement of her sense of discovery of the world.

A question that one might ask (as an adult) of any film is: why do images hold such fascination? It didn’t occur to


me then, but making the film Messages was perhaps my response to Maya’s fascination with the world through

my own fascination with the image; for images can hold something of the wonder of seeing the world as if for

the first time.

The way that the images work in Messages is through oblique connection and association. There is no arrow

of time in the film (and no message), rather a set of thoughts and reflections around a cluster of themes. The

advantage of such uncertainty is that it opens an expanse of time, within the overall span of the film, for one’s

own thoughts and associations.

Last year I was invited to show Messages at a festival screening in Fukuoka City Public Library, not far from

the village where Maya teaches. For this unique screening Maya stood beside the screen and spoke the

English subtitles in Japanese - thereby translating into her newly acquired language the very same questions

she had asked as a young child. Afterwards, the organisers of the screening told us that it had had once been

common practice in Japan, during the period of silent cinema, for a ‘benshi’ to stand beside the screen and help

communicate the meaning of the film to the audience, as Maya had done.

Guy Sherwin. August. 2003.

Anemic Cinema.

Dir. Marcel Duchamp. FR. 1926. 7 mins. Silent.

“The title, an anagram, immediately reveals the basic principle of the film: to make an object “turn” on itself,

an object that might be a figure or a phrase, turning in space which was no longer the naturalist space of the

disc’s revolutions. but the purely mental space of both optical illusion and wordplay. On the screen we see

figures of apertures - snail-like spirals, helices, Fibonacci curves - and there too are extensions of the corkscrew

whose shadow is cast on the surface of Tu m’ and of the bicycle wheel “screwed” into space. These figures

alternate with Spoonerisms whose typographic arrangement, outwardly duplicating their own structure, is circular.

Anagrams and metagrams are to discourse what the spiral is to the figure; glyphs and graphs alike coil and

unwind about themselves within a space that has no reality.

A new stage of abstraction has now been reached. the domain of that immaterial, though still sensory, space

of the stereoscopic or anaglyphic photograph is abolished, replaced by the purely conceptual space, without

thickness or depth, of optical and linguistic games. It is, rather, the space which makes these games possible.

This is the space so well described by Michel Foucault, in his discussion of Raymond Roussel’s as “tropological”;

a flat space in which words and figures rotate indefinitely, with neither end nor beginning, a space wholly subject

to the infinitely glittering effect of meaning, in the definite absence of all meaning.”

Jean Clair, from Opticeries - in October no 5, Summer 1978.

Colour Poems.

Dir. Margaret Tait. GBS. 1974. 12 mins.

“Well, yes, I do remember the young men going off to fight in Spain”.

The first words of Colour Poems give the impression of joining a conversation in mid flow. Throwing the tragedies

of war into an intensely personal perspective, this beginning sets the tone for Colour Poems, Margaret Tait’s

elegy in nine parts to her homeland of Orkney. She conceived the film as ‘nine short linked films’, each signalled

with her trademark titles. The structure of the whole is created from a chain of associations through word and

image that relates the wider political world to one closer to home. Tait’s first words are about the suffering of

war, a sharp contrast to the accompanying lyricism in an image of leaves on a tree shifting in the wind. The

marching boots of war veterans become the ‘Old Boots’, a still-life image of wellingtons worn for gardening. The

association has shifted from war to allusions of the land; of farming, growing crops, home. ‘Terra Firma’.

Tait’s voice is felt as an insistent presence throughout the film. In the marks of drawings scratched directly into

the film emulsion or words chalked into the picture, she speaks with a quiet urgency which underscores the


shifts of mood and image. The allusions to war and particularly to North Sea oil and Scottish independence are

strongly placed but Tait does not make her message polemic. Her point is a much subtler one. Her images reflect

the political as she finds it in the personal realm of her surroundings, over the radio, in the boots of marching

war veterans, ploughed earth, quarries, litter. When this is placed against the pattern of the natural world she

represents by images of waves, changing seasons, meadows, it strikes a note of disquiet at how these natural

resources are being mined, depleted, for their commercial value. A warning perhaps.

Lucy Reynolds. September. 2003.

An Office Worker Thinks of Their Love, and Home.

Dir. Peter Todd. GB. 2003. 3 mins. Silent.

Camera Susi Arnott. Editor. Anthea Kennedy.

In 1999 I curated and made a piece for a group exhibition featuring contributions from 15 artists of their response

to the experience or idea of ‘Lunch Hour’ (which had also been a theme of some earlier writings). This had taken

place for one day at home. The piece I’d made was a short silent 16mm film. It had been filmed in my lunch hour

with Susi Arnott on camera who I had worked with on the earlier film To Red. Essentially it was shots of places I

around where I work in the west end of London. After ‘Lunch Hour’ I continued to look at the film every now and

then. Even earlier that time in the day had been the subject of several short stories I had written. As an artist

who is also an office worker it had been, and remains, an important period of the day. Sometimes for shopping

or errands, other times for working (my own), day dreaming, doing nothing, reading or a combination of these.

I came to decide to shoot some new footage so that the unique work for ‘Lunch Hour’ would become a new

work. 100’ lengths on a clockwork Bolex camera. Perhaps three of four were shot in total. Then editing with

Anthea Kennedy over a period of months, often in the evenings, when we were both free, and the film emerged

at the beginning of 2003.

Peter Todd. August. 2003.

First Hymn to the Night - Novalis.

Dir. Stan Brakhage. USA. 1994. 4 mins. Silent.

Film Letter from New Zealand: Boy. Travels with Stick.

Dir. Gordon Brounker. NZ. 1988. 3 mins. Silent.

My tour guide for the day was admittedly rather young but as I followed him with my camera I caught sight of a

rich backwater; the charming, rural NZ environment in which he seemed to flourish. He knew the same nursery

rhymes as I’d learnt in England but had neither shoes nor socks; the landscape was kind. Much further down the

track and for me a long way from home, he tossed me a glimpse of a lovely, simple childhood in a land of milk


and honey. He spoke very little and the tours’ highlights were humble but I was sold and I seemed to recognise

something of the flavour.

Gordon Brouncker. August. 2003.

Kokoro is For Heart.

Dir. Philip Hoffman. CA. 1999. 7 mins. Sound.

Screen-play by Philip Hoffman and Gerry Shikatani. Camera and Editing: Philip Hoffman. Sound Composition

and Performance: Gerry Shikatani. Spoken text in English, Japanese and French.

KOKORO IS FOR HEART is a collaboration with Canadian-Japanese sound poet Gerry Shikatani. Gerry works

with sound the way a sculptor models clay, quickly and carefully, feeling each phrase with the body and the

breath. It calls to mind the breath of the Bolex, the rhythm created through shooting rather than through

editing. We walked over to the gravel pit one day, down the road, and filmed KOKORO IS FOR HEART. Gerry’s

gestures sometimes coinciding with the lens, sometimes out of the picture... a stone... a feather, his script\poems

floating like big ships in a puddle. The irregular yet rhythmical sound of the camera’s inner workings, echoes

Gerry’s phrasing and re-phrasing.

When I got the footage back from the lab I was disappointed because of the periodic flipping of the image. After

screening the footage several times I realised that the malfunctioning camera echoed Gerry Shikatani’s rhythmic

sound and body gestures. The flipping images of the gravel pit and its surround rendered the filmed-nature,

unnatural ....questions surface: what is nature? what is natural??

BACKGROUND: Kokoro is for Heart grew out of a film/performance called Opening Series. In this on-going




OPENING SERIES: “I wanted to find a way of working with images that would allow them the possibility to

move more freely, to change position with each and every screening so that over time, through their range of

juxtapositions, and ensuing meanings, I might come to know them as a sibling, a friend, or a lover.”

All the footage that Gerry Shikatani and I shot at the gravel pit was step printed on an optical printer 2:1 & 3:1.

The films were screened many times and in many different orders, by way of the OPENING SERIES performance

process. Eventually, the film found a fixed order & became KOKORO IS FOR HEART.

Philip Hoffman. August. 2003


Bibliography and Websites

Clair, Jean, Opticeries, October, No. 5 Summer 1978.

Evans, Gareth, Considerations on Peter Todd’s An Office Worker Thinks of Their Love, and Home, Vertigo,

Vol 2 No 5 Summer 2003.

Russell, Michael W., A Poem of Remote Lives, Glasgow Neil Wilson Publishing, 1997.

Swanson, Gillian, Messages; a film by Guy Sherwin in The Undercut Reader, edited by Danino, Nina and Maziere,

Michael, London: Wallflower Press, 2003, pp. 69-71.

Stan Brakhage.

Guy Sherwin.

Margaret Tait.

Guy Sherwin, Margaret Tait, Peter Todd.