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The Mud on Napoleon’s Boots: the Adventitious Detail In Film and Fiction

ISSUE:  Spring 1976

WHAT do we mean when we speak of the adventitious in narrative art? If the term implies, as it certainly seems to, an occurrence in the narrative that presents itself without apparent design, a narrative event determined by nothing so much as chance, then strictly speaking the term is not applicable to any of the events in works of fiction as we have known them. The cause of every event in any given work of art can always be traced back to a single source—the artist himself. And yet, in spite of this, I think (and no doubt many would concur) the arts of our own time—the modern novel and the cinema in particular— require the use of this term, adventitious, and require it with a special urgency that was not felt in the past.

When I use the term adventitious to describe something that happens in a narrative event, I am referring either to the postures or gestures of a character or an object that neither signify nor connect with anything else in the narrative context beyond their own phenomenal appearances. The adventitious detail usually takes the form of an accident, the causes of which are not readily apparent, an accident that is seemingly without a narrative function and cannot be easily related to any pattern of artistic inevitability. It is, of course, a relative term and depends for its effect primarily on our sense of its opposite, that is, our sense of the necessary and the inevitable as we have experienced them, not only in life, but, even more crucially, in the traditional practices of narrative fiction.

Everywhere in the works of James Joyce, for instance, from Dubliners through Finnegans Wake, we confront the attempt to resolve the dramatic incompatibility between an object’s adventitious appearance as part of a chaotic and senseless material flux and its meaningful depths, between the opaque surface of things and their symbolic value. Sometimes a union is achieved between these two, sometimes not. Most often, however, the adventitious and the artistically necessary exist side by side within the same work. As a result, we often find critics speaking of two Joyces: a “traditional” Joyce, a “neo-classical” temperament with bottomless capacities for transforming senseless contingencies into patterns of artistic consistency, and a “radical,” “revolutionary” Joyce with correspondences in Dada, Pop Art, etc. , and an amused affinity for the adventitious in all its plasmic indeterminacy.

It is this second Joyce, I think, that probably best explains the modernity of a book like Ulysses— where the use of adventitious detail attains its fullest expression—and our sense as we read it that no matter how deftly we relate accident to symbol, fact to value, welter to form, there will always remain a large and vibrant residue of fortuitous detail within the artistic design that cannot be fully explained by it, that strains the limits of this design, that makes the book, as it were, seem to spill over at its seams; that provides its unique texture of clutter, congestion, trivia, and the kind of concentrated employment of inexplicable waste energy that we get here:

Striding past Finn’s hotel, Cashel Boyle O’Connor Fitzmaurice Tisdall Farrell stared through a fierce eyeglass across the carriages at the head of Mr. E. M. Solomons in the window of the Austro-Hungarian viceconsulate. Deep in Leinster street, by Trinity’s postern, a loyal king’s man, Hornblower, touched his tallyho cap. As the glossy horses pranced by Merrion square Master Patrick Aloysius Dignam, waiting, saw salutes being given to the gent with the topper and raised also his new black cap with fingers greased by porksteak paper. His collar too sprang up. The viceroy, on his way to inaugurate the Mirus bazaar in aid of funds for Mercer’s hospital, drove with his following towards Lower Mount street. He passed a blind stripling opposite Broadbent’s. In Lower Mount street a pedestrian in a brown macintosh, eating dry bread, passed swiftly and unscathed across the viceroy’s path. At the Royal Canal bridge, from his hoarding, Mr. Eugene Stratton, his blub lips agrin, bade all comers welcome to Pembroke township. At Haddington road corner two sanded women halted themselves, an umbrella and a bag in which eleven cockles rolled to view with wonder the lord mayor and lady mayoress without his golden chain. On Northumberland and Landsdowne roads His Excellency acknowledged punctually salutes from rare male walkers, the salute of two small schoolboys at the garden gate of the house said to have been admired by the late queen when visiting the Irish capital with her husband, the prince consort, in 1849, and the salute of Almidano Artifoni’s sturdy trousers swallowed by a closing door.

The tone and the manner of the entire passage are those of the court stenographer mechanically reproducing a gross and cluttered body of information, both the purposeful and the utterly useless, with attributions of equal value attached to each: that is to say, that this tone and manner reduce everything to the level of the adventitious.

The observed details and expository fact, trailing their subjects in appositional phrasing, are exact, scrupulous, and amusingly irrelevant: Digman’s fingers “greased by porksteak paper”; the man in the macintosh (surely the most intentionally superfluous character in fiction) “eating dry bread”; the lord mayor “without his golden chain;” and the salute of the two school boys “at the garden gate of the house said to have been admired by the late queen when visiting the Irish capital,” etc. , etc. The postures and gestures of the characters themselves are equally inept and inapposite (even certain appropriate gestures, like the Hornblower’s salute, become meaningless, swallowed up as they are by the stream of overt stupidities): the fierce face of the eccentric Farrell staring off in the “wrong” direction; the gratuitous salute of Dignam’s collar; Eugene Stratton’s poster smile (a picture of a man, a mute, motionless strictly visual gag: the grinning nonhuman fits naturally without dissonance into the catalog of the mechanized human); and the contemptuous banality of the fadeout—Artofoni’s behind “swallowed” by a closing door.

None of these gestures and notations, to say the very least, is ever brought into a functional relationship with the major characters or the central situations of the novel. Nor does the description present any hint of interior depths behind the visible phenomena: the postures and gestures here are not symbolic. Nor do they have more than a tangential acquaintance with Joyce’s mythopoeic schema. Homer’s passing reference to the “Wandering Rocks” in The Odysseyhardly illuminates the variety and density of this swarm-life. They are self-reflexive happenings and in their utter banality reflect Joyce’s lifelong preoccupation with the visible reality as an amusing and charming void (“un bellissimo niente,” as he called it in later life), and if they constitute a part of any pattern of artistic recurrence, they do so by linking with the other postures, gestures, and notations of a similar nature that are found everywhere throughout Ulysses.

These effects are not only gratuitous and self-reflexive; they are also “wrong” and “strange”: “wrong” because they are inappropriate to the requirements of the situation in which they occur, and “strange” because, in a strict sense, their full significance can never properly be determined. Each gesture is rendered at the precise instant in which the carriage passes the character and at no other instant either before or after. In this manner, the gesture assumes the character of a strict and almost meaningless present with a supposititious past and an undetermined future; for it is only when the isolated gesture takes its place in the arch, as it were, of a continuous activity, in the “before” and the “after” of a temporal continuum, that its sense and purpose begin to emerge.

Joyce never renders visible behavior, animate or inanimate, continuously. Instead, he renders this behavior in a modern and photographic manner; that is, as a discontinuous series of visualized fragments. Sentence by sentence, literally one per character, each figure presents himself in the form of a verbal snapshot—framed typographically by a capital letter at one side and a period at the other—with the continuity and totality of his actions reduced to a single, off-guarded, and absurd moment, a single phase frozen fast by the literary analogue of the stop-motion camera.

I do not suppose that the peculiar effect of this procedure should surprise anyone. For the past 70 years the modern consciousness has been continually exposed to and thus shaped by endless examples of camera journalism in the newspapers and magazines that direct attention to the stop-motion gesture, that teach us how to recognize and ultimately expect human behavior to present itself in these fragmentary and interdeterminate forms. In fact, it can be said with a certain wry justice that the vague, inept, often absurd expressions on the photographed faces of countless dignitaries and celebrities have even helped us to generate an active taste for these visual forms; for this sort of snapshot tells us pretty much what we want to know. We are eager—all too eager perhaps—to give the photo the skeptical and ironic response that it seems to ask of us—and this skepticism and irony, as everyone knows, constitute a large part of precisely what is meant by “thinking in a modern manner.”

And in a way reminiscent of the newspaper photo, Joyce also uses the adventitious detail for cynical and humorous purpose. In the above passage, the fragmented postures and gestures are, in effect, so many classic sight gags, subdued variants of the pratfall and the pie-in-the-face in which the various expressions of the human body are teased, mocked, and exploited to make us laugh. The stop-motion technique results in a jerky rigidity of human gesture which in itself becomes a precise exemplum of Bergson’s famous formula for the comic effect: the imposition of mechanical fixity upon human flexibility (which Joyce emphasizes linguistically as well as visually, by virtually repeating the same syntactic formula for each sentence). “The laughable element,” argued Bergson, “consists of a certain mechanical elasticity just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and the living pliableness of a human being.” And Bergson, goes on to provide concrete descriptive illustrations of this formula that are in their visual elements similar to Joyce’s frozen figures.

Both Joyce and Bergson, however, find even more intriguing correspondences in the pantomime of the American silent film comedian who often, for comic effect, would engineer his arms and legs into hard-line, sharp-angled, machine-like shapes. I am thinking particularly of Keaton, whose body geometry was compared by James Agee to “an automatic gearshift.” This was Machine-Age humor, and all three— novelist, philosopher, and silent clown—helped to shape a moment in the cultural history of the modern sensibility by creating viable comic images of human assimilation into a mechanized and technocratic landscape.

Perhaps one way to summarize the nature of the adventitious in Joyce’s descriptions would be to say that Joyce treats the peripheral aspects of human behavior as if they were central. And by using this term, peripheral, I am actually alluding to the remark of the German dramatist, Friedrich Hebbel, who, when he used it, was responding to a tendency in the new writing that he disliked: “The peripheral blooms everywhere; the mud on Napoleon’s boots at the moment of the hero’s abdication is as painstakingly portrayed as the spiritual conflict in his face.” Often in Joyce’s visual treatments, then, the humanly circumstantial and peripheral take precedence over the humanly necessary and central with the consequent diminishment of human grace, dignity, and purposefulness.

Other modern writers use the adventitious detail in a similar manner—for we may say with Hebbel that the peripheral “blooms everywhere”—but often with purposes different from Joyce’s. Ernest Hemingway, for example, does not use it to attain comic effects, but rather to attain effects that are serious, anguished, and nihilistic:

They shot the six cabinet ministers at half-past six in the morning against the wall of a hospital. There were pools of water in the courtyard. There were wet dead leaves on the paving of the courtyard. It rained hard. All the shutters of the hospital were nailed shut. One of the ministers was sick with typhoid. Two soldiers carried him downstairs and out into the rain. They tried to hold him up against the wall but he sat down in a puddle of water. The other five stood very quietly against the wall. Finally the officer told the soldiers it was no good trying to make him stand up. When they fired the first volley he was sitting down in the water with his head on his knees.

The passage from Hemingway’s early work (In Our Time,1925) is a remarkable example of his famous statement of esthetic purpose in which the writer’s problem (and his art) is to discover “what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced,” and to separate those things and that emotion from the emotion and the things which you did not feel, but “were supposed to feel and had been taught to feel.”

The power and the freshness, then, of young Hemingway’s artistry—and particularly here in his war vignette—derives from a disparity between what a reader had read, heard, and imagined about a given event, and the author’s description of it which would present “the actual things” and “what you truly felt”: it was the disparity between what the average reader’expected and what Hemingway would actually give him.

One kind of reader, for example, might conceive of war— and even a military execution—in terms of army romance (Hemingway, after all, was debunking an older generation’s idealization of war). This reader would expect examples of martial etiquette, flourish, precision, and ritual. But Hemingway’s description gives him none of these things: there are no threatening drums, no flags, no files of soldiers marching in double-column lock-step, no blindfolds profferred and then denied. Hemingway’s scene is quietly soggy, graceless, and disorderly; the soldiers fumble with the sick man while the others stand quietly against the wall.

Another kind of reader, on the other hand, might demand the violent and horrifying aspects of war, which is to say, he might want a different kind of romance: screams, pleas for mercy, maimed and bloody heads and limbs. But the vignette gives him none of these things either. Hemingway’s vision is more terrible than any scene of exaggerated violence because it is more ordinary. He creates an atmosphere of quietude, empty spaces, and a thoroughly prosaic kind of listlessness (the pools of water, wet dead leaves, the men standing quietly). His selection of detail suggests a final and almost unbearable nullity: the material particularities of the setting, represented by certain sparsely adorned and often repeated substantives, are united by common qualities of flatness, blankness, and stillness; “wet dead leaves,” “pools of water”; the three references to the “wall,” and the pointed notation of the “shutters,” “nailed shut” (with almost immediate associations of a coffin); and the “five” who stand “very quietly against the wall.”

Joyce’s objects evoke sorrow and melancholy because they are often seen under the aspect of temporal decay, in medias res, some time before the final stages of dissolution. Hemingway’s depictions of violent death, however, evoke a despair that is beyond melancholy and sorrow. His objects have virtually achieved the final and absolute phase of their decline beyond which they can no longer go or be; they are at the “wall” precisely, dead ends, corpses.

Hemingway’s choice of detail here derives from an attitude of detachment and massive impassivity. The vision which describes the scene effects a neutrality which, in turn, tells us that the describer is determined not to be interested by anything that he sees, that the distance between the seer and the seen is immense. We are describing, of course, the effects of a camera’s vision, and Hemingway is one of our eminent cinematographic artists not simply because he makes you see, but because he makes you see in a special way—the camera’s way, which means that he makes you see everything—the peripheral and the central, the adventitious and the necessary—with an equal proportion of emphasis and therefore on the same plane of value. The dead leaves, the waiting men, the pools of water, the sick minister, the nailed shutters are all described in the same flat, even tone, each observed with an equality of disinterest, and each embodied in sentences of similar length and syntactic arrangement.

But perhaps the most powerful effect of Hemingway’s illusion of passive visions—and the master stroke that also distinguishes him from so many of his imitators—is the depiction of the sick man. Here the describer quietly and flatly observes that this man “sat down” in a puddle of water, I find this notation unforgettable and convincing because Hemingway makes us see something that we do not expect, that goes against all our notions of what actually is supposed to happen during violent death. This man makes the “wrong” gesture in extactly the same way as Joyce’s characters in the “Wandering Rocks” all make the “wrong” gesture, a gesture that seems perfectly irrelevant to the situation in which it occurs. One sits down to write a letter, or one sits down to butter a slice of toast, but one does not sit down to die,

The less fastidious and more conventional imagination would demand that the sick man “keel over” or “crumple” or “collapse,” etc. These, however, are the more intense and flagrant expressions that derive from a mental set which conceives of violent death in the time-honored manner—as terrible and violent. And precisely because Hemingway knows the time-honored manner, knows, that is, what everyone knows, he rejects this knowledge and presents the scene only in terms of what the eyes exactly see at the moment they are being used; for it is with the eyes alone that you discover “what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced.” The sick man’s gesture is fresh and powerful precisely because it is so banal, anticlimactic, and thoroughly adventitious in relation to our normal (and false) expectations,

This effect is exactly like all of those newspaper photos of wartime violence and disaster where the victim always seems to have the “wrong” look on his face: boredom, blankness, irritation, surprise, confusion—momentary appearances fixed forever by the camera and nothing at all like the ones we expect. After World War II, the Italian film makers cultivated exactly this sort of adventitious and often anti-dramatic gesture precisely for dramatic purposes and made it the trademark of the film movement known as “neo-realism.” It was, for example, Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini who became the true heirs of Hemingway when they incorporated the unstaged indeterminacy and camera neutrality of the newsreel technique into works of film fiction. I remember in particular how Rossellini presented one of the great moments in Open City (1945) when the woman played by Anna Magnani is shot down in the street from a moving truck. In the midst of a sequence of high, almost operatic passion (she is running after her lover who has been arrested by the Gestapo and is being carried off in the truck) the gunshot is abrupt and dull, and in the middle distance, the body of the woman in a dark dress drops quickly to the pavement looking for an unforgettable instant like a black lump, an indeterminate heap against the over-exposed, high-contrast whiteness of the street and surrounding walls. The look of this gesture in its sudden gracelessness, amorphousness, and adventitious inappropriateness is, in principle, exactly analogous to Hemingway’s verbal depiction of the sick man. Both effects, literary and cinematic, are typical of a modern visual style that employs the adventitious detail to separate phenomenal appearances from preconceived mental categories and expectations, to create the illusion of chaos and indeterminacy, and to use this as a dramatic device.

It is Jean-Paul Sartre who takes this use of the adventitious to its logical extremity in the following passage from Nausea, 1938:

When the patronne goes shopping her cousin replaces her at the bar, His name is Adolphe, I began looking at him as I sat down and I have kept on because I cannot turn my head. He is in shirtsleeves, with purple suspenders; he has rolled the sleeves of his shirt above the elbows. The suspenders can hardly be seen against the blue shirt, they are all obliterated, buried in the blue, but it is false humility; in fact, they will not let themselves be forgotten, they annoy me by their sheeplike stubbornness, as if, starting to become purple, they have stopped somewhere along the way without giving up their pretentions. You feel like saying, “All right, becomepurple and let’s hear no more about it. ’ But now, they stay in suspense, stubborn in their defeat. Sometimes the blue which surrounds them slips over and covers them completely; I stay an instant without seeing them. But it is merely a passing wave, soon the blue pales in places and I see the small island of hesitant purple reappear, grow larger, rejoin and reconstitute the suspenders. Cousin Adolphe has no eyes: his swollen, retracted eyelids open only on a little of the whites. He smiles sleepily; from time to time he snorts, yelps and writhes feebly, like a dreaming dog.

His blue cotton shirt stands out joyfully against a chocolate-coloured wall. That too brings on the Nausea. The Nausea is not inside me: I feel it out there in the wall, in the suspenders, everywhere around me. It makes itself one with the cafe, I am the one who is within it.

Unlike the descriptions in Joyce and Hemingway, this is a description only in the normal sense; strictly speaking, there are no descriptions in Nausea. There are only attempts to describe projects and prospect uses for description that never accomplish their ends. Each description eventually becomes an agitated meditation on its own impossibility.

Here the narrator attempts to describe Adolphe’s purple suspenders (while Adolphe himself is quite peripheral to them) at the moment that they seem to nestle against the fold of the blue shirt. He starts with the color and never really progresses much beyond it; for the “purple” seems slowly to side off into now one thing and now into another, seems forever slipping off beyond its name (i. e. , “purple”). What Roquentin is beginning to learn here is Sartre’s sense of the infinitive form of all existence, the absolute nature of people and things as a condition of adventitious Becomings, a continual to-be-there. All of Sartre’s sensuous depictions attempt to dramatize objects via this condition as a kind of liquid erosion, a spreading in place, a slow crawl towards futurity, neither “here” nor “there,” for both “here” and “there” are mental fictions imposed upon something that is always about-to-be; purple-but-not-purple; blue-but-not-blue-and-yet-not-purple. “They stay in suspense,” says Roquentin, and “suspense” is the key word for all of Sartre’s depictions. Suspense represents the dramatic form of the imminent, of a Becoming, and the existence of the suspenders, like all aspects of existence—including Adolphe and the narrator himself—is rendered in this form.

The pre-Sartrean novelist, culminating in the first wave of literary modernism, presents the adventitious detail apart from, but within a pattern of, formal and cosmic necessity; Joyce and Hemingway both confront the adventitious as a single crucial part of a total vision of reality that is composed of many parts. In Joyce, for instance, the surface world of chance and accident often appears within a larger perspective of eternally returning patterns of human experience. In Hemingway, the hero characteristically creates and preserves a stoic’s code which then helps to anesthetize the self to withstand intrusions from the surrounding void.

But for Sartre—and for many contemporary (i. e. , post-Joycean) novelists—the adventitious is necessity, and all other aspects of reality are illusions which fade upon confrontation with the adventitious. Adventitiousness, or as Sartre puts it, “contingency,” represents the ultimate reality (“The essential thing is contingency,” says Sartre’s hero. “It is the absolute. .” ). And Sartre’s great early work, Nausea, not only embodies that ultimate reality in its descriptions and narrative procedures, but that reality is also what Nausea is about: more precisely, Nausea is about one man’s, Roquentin’s, attempt to dramatize, define, and understand the nature of the adventitious as represented in the narrative action by people, landscape, and things—especially things.

Sartre, unlike Joyce, seeks to describe things, not apart from, but toithin process, as evolving aspects of a universal temporal continuum, Joyce often suggests this continuum by placing his objects in adventitious and dilapidated positions while the objects themselves are presented as permanent and solid, their forms and outlines clearly delineated. For Sartre, permanence and solidity are illusions, false attributions to the object of a necessary being, a self-containment and sufficiency apart from all other objects which it does not actually have. The objects in Nausea are characteristically described without reference to form or outline, but almost solely in terms of color, taste, and smell, the most ephemeral, impermanent, and subjective of the senses, for these are the best qualities to represent dramatically the state of suspense, the shifting ambiguities of an object as a thing that is about-to-be. The effect of these color-taste-and-smell descriptions is to provide the sensuous surface of all Sartre’s objects with a viscous, yet nervous texture, like plasma, heavy and trembling, as if he were trying to represent objects through the activation of their molecular composition.

If the visual effects in Nausea remind us of camera effects— and I think in large measure that they do—they are camera effects of a very special sort. Throughout all of Nausea we can find countless examples of cinematographic perspective (angles of partial vision far more dramatic and extreme than the relatively straightforward encounter in the passage above). Yet due to the idiosyncratic nature of Sartre’s plasmic descriptions, which represents Roquentin’s attempts to be “objective” about what he sees, these effects remind us of camera practices of the most atypical and subjective kind; the sensuous and visual forms in this novel are most like those moments in film where the director blurs the lens of the camera to indicate drunkenness, dizziness, mental aberrations, and other subjective distortions of reality. And Sartre’s visual forms are actually “distortions” of this kind, always making us less aware of what is seen than of who is seeing and how he sees. Sartre, of course, knows this, and Roquentin ultimately comes to know it too, comes to know finally that colors, smells, and tastes are mental constructs, imaginings like form and outline, vain and self-deceiving hypocrisies on the part of the beholder. (“Colors, tastes, smells,” he learns, “were never real, never truly themselves and nothing but themselves.” )

But if Roquentin’s attempts to describe are doomed to futility and feverish subjectivity, why, then, are they ever made at all? Because even though the narrator himself knows that they are illusory, he does not wish, as Robbe-Grillet has argued, to avoid “yielding” himself to them: “The important thing in his eyes, is, in fact, to yield to it (a suspect intimacy with the world) as much as possible, in order to arrive at self-awareness.” Sartre’s descriptions, then, actually present the growth of Roquentin’s awareness of his own becoming, of his own existence. The delineation of objects, as provisional, approximate, and ineffectual as they must be, reveal again and again (as in the last paragraph) Roquentin’s fundamental awareness that these objects have a life apart from him, are living that life: exist. And because he knows this, he comes to the conviction that he also has a life apart from them, is living that life, also exists, and that whatever adventitious process defines their existence also defines his own: “Existence everywhere, infinitely, in excess forever and everywhere; existence—which is limited only by existence.”

Nausea is perhaps Sartre’s most fateful and influential novel—if not his most characteristic, for he never wrote another one quite like it—and one of the seminal works of French modernism. Nausea not only brings the adventitious to a center of philosophical concern, but out of this concern establishes the subsoil from which grows a whole range of novelists—Simon, Butor, Robbe-Grillet, Le Clezio—whose primary concern is to examine the life of the phenomenal world, a world of things, as it exists apart from a mind charged with thought, that is, apart from all human influence and manipulation.

Recent trends in French fiction, then, represent the somewhat exacerbated culmination of tendencies not only apparent in Sartre but already apparent in the fiction of the first quarter of this century, These literary tendencies reflect, however, only one part of a generalized cultural effort that has increasingly sought to remove man from his privileged position in a world of things and to merge the humanly central with the materially peripheral. In this effort, then, man enters “democratically” into a world of things, and both man and thing occupy an equal position under the overriding rubric of “existence,”

This equalizing process is readily observable not only in the action painting of Jackson Pollack and in the “concrete music” of John Cage but, most significantly, in the cinema. In the last 25 years, film makers as diverse as Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Luc Godard, and Robert Altman have all revealed a marked preference for “off-center” and asymmetrical framing in which the human figure is often pushed to the edge of the visual field. Antonioni in particular—developing tendencies already implicit in the work of De Sica and Rossellini (especially in the latter’s Voyage in Italy,1953)—has made the “decentralized” camera set-up the virtual (and much imitated) hallmark of his compositional method: at the center, a vast and inanimate setting, precise and thrumming (e. g. , a chalkwhite and ash grey sweep of boulders against a heavy metal sea, a London park matted in pea soup green) while off to the side a human figure, small and impassive. In Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), method becomes matter as a young photographer attempts to solve (or create?) a mystery by “decentralizing” a photograph, cropping the human figures out of the frame, and through progressive enlargements, drawing a “peripheral” detail (a handheld gun) to the center, Here the necessary (the human) and the adventitious (the thing) exchange places and the human becomes adjunct to the thing.

In a similar manner, it was André Bazin who insisted that the edges of the motion picture screen never were to be thought of as delimiting boundary lines but rather as provisional markers, and that what the screen showed us was to be understood as “part of something prolonged indefinitely into the universe.” Bazin’s vision of a “centrifugal screen” was fully realized some 15 years ago in the emergence of the French “New Wave,” and particularly in the films of Godard and Francois Truffaut, and in the documentary films of Chris Marker and Jean Rouch (the latter a full time member—the former only part-time—of the movement that came to be known as cinéma vérité).

These film makers used the frame of the camera to create a loose, open, seemingly “uncomposed” visual field in which the action would slide amorphously throughout the different planes of each composition. Abrupt and peripatetic camera movements would often insure the exchange of “peripheral” details at the edges of the frame with “central” details in the middle (an effect facilitated by prominent use of a “shaky” hand-held camera in which “bits” of reality would shift in and off the edges of the frame). The particular assumptions of the cinéma vérité group were that the camera must synchronize its movements to the everchanging movements of existence itself, and that the camera must at least create the illusion that it did not know where to find its subject until existence itself provided the opportunity. Thus, the camera must either wait for the subject to reveal itself or must tentatively roam the visual field in search of it.

This approach to reality was best epitomized (and satirized) in one revealing and amusing moment from Truffaut’s otherwise negligible film, Stolen Kisses (1968). Here the lovers leave the frame of the camera and presumably retire into the bedroom. The camera begins to look for them, climbing over the stairs, across the landing, though the open door of the bedroom, past the discarded clothing of the lovers, only to stop short at—an empty bed. Where are the lovers? The camera has made a “mistake” and slowly—shamefacedly— back tracks past the objects, withdraws from the room and continues its search. The discarded clothing and the empty bed, however, are witty and expressive signatures, while by comparison, the lovers themselves seem rather inconsequential. Truffaut’s camera tells us—and perhaps unwittingly—that the adventitious and the necessary are really indistinguishable, that the search and the subject are really the same.


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