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Table of Contents
Sergei Eisenstein’s three-ring circus of dialectical time
The given of time in Andrey Tarkovsky’s "The Sacrifice"
A certain suicidal tendency of cinema: Leos Carax’s "Boy Meets Girl"
Interrupted time and bearing witness in Abbas Kiarostami’s "Through the Olive Trees"
THE CHRONOTOPIC IMAGINATION: ABERRANT TIMES AND FIGURES IN CINEMA
THOMAS CARL ODDE
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Thomas Carl Odde
This dissertation took form with the assistance of numerous facilitators who invited me to
pursue its investigations to the furthest possible extent. My dissertation committee, chaired by
Maureen Turim, has graciously lent its time and input to help bring this dissertation to fruition.
With great patience and energy, Tom Conley has significantly galvanized every step of my
academic work. From Cinemas of the Real and New Wave Cinemas, classes at the University of
Minnesota that introduced the pleasure of studying film, to my work in Italy on Alessandro
Blasetti, his continuing support and influence guides this dissertation. In their courses and
comments, Nora Alter and Scott Nygren challenged my thinking and provided invaluable
emendations. I would also like to thank John P. Leavey, Jr., an occasional committee member,
for his attentive discussion with me on several theorists present in this dissertation. Always a
provocative teacher and editor, Robert Ray's influence affects the pages that follow. Finally, and
most importantly, Maureen Turim has displayed boundless patience and provided insightful
comments. Without her guidance, this dissertation would not have been completed.
At the University of Florida, my fellow graduate students facilitated many of the
arguments that follow. Frederick Young, Afshin Hafizi, Sedika Mojadidi, Denise Cummings,
Tom Cohen, Mary Wiles, Alan Wright, Derek Merrill, Matthew Levin, Brian Meredith, Tracy
Cox and Michael Laffey offered perspicacity and abundant energy. In Minneapolis, Sam Pitmon,
Troy Blomquist, Randy Phernetton, Adam Schrag, and David Koontz have contributed their
thoughts and support. In New York, Shawn Green, Jim Gladman, and Jeff Cashdollar offered
the artist's perspective.
Last, my family proved invaluable and inspirational in this endeavor. A fellow academic,
David Odde helped me to anticipate the many hurdles and challenges that come with writing a
dissertation. Elizabeth, Thomas, and Catherine always remained interested in my work. Most of
all, I thank my parents, Raymond and Emilie, for their generous and continuing support, both
moral and financial, of my work. Although he passed away before I could defend this
dissertation, my father's presence inhabits every word and sentenced contained herein.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M EN T S ..................................................................................... 3
1 IN T R O D U C T IO N .............................................................................................................. 8
2 SERGEI EISENSTEIN'S THREE-RING CIRCUS OF DIALECTICAL TIME. ................ 24
3 THE GIVEN OF TIME IN ANDREY TARKOVSKY'S THE SACRIFICE .......................53
4 A CERTAIN SUICIDAL TENDENCY OF CINEMA: LEOS CARAX' S BOY MEETS
G IR L ................................................................................................................ ....... .. 9 2
5 INTERRUPTED TIME AND BEARING WITNESS IN ABBAS KIAROSTAMI'S
THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES .... ................................................... 131
6 C O N C L U S IO N ............................................................................................................. ... 16 2
R E F E R E N C E L IS T ............................................................................................................. ... 17 0
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E TCH ............................................... .............................................. 178
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
THE CHRONOTOPIC IMAGINATION: ABERRANT TIMES AND FIGURES IN
Thomas Carl Odde
Chair: Maureen Turim
Major Department: English
This dissertation explores two important aspects of filmic discourse, the representation of
time and the body as read through gesture. Drawing on the Russian literary theorist Mikhail
Bakhtin's notion of the chronotope, or the time-space continuum expressed in literature, it
imports Bakhtin's underappreciated idea to analyze and theorize filmic articulations of time.
While temporal presence underpins the cinematic image, many filmmakers experiment with
temporalities that challenge realist representational strategies. Inventive in their practices, these
filmmakers fashion a chronotopic imagination that invites viewers to re-think our own present
condition. They seek creative engagements with our past and present, while opening avenues for
thinking the future. Equally important, they ask viewers to consider the body as figure of an
aberrant time. By creating often unusual and unexpected gestures or bodily dispositions,
filmmakers drawn to the chronotopic imagination invest bodies with time. Rather than evincing
narrative health and agency, the body instead suffers from time itself. Through close readings of
images and sequences, analysis carefully studies how films achieve novel depictions of time and
Chapters focus on four important filmmakers-Sergei Eisenstein, Andrey Tarkovsky, Leos
Carax, and Abbas Kiarostami-and how they fabricate their respective chronotopes. At first
glance, these four filmmakers appear to share little in common stylistically and thematically;
they also emerge in different historical contexts. Yet despite these differences, all four develop
their distinctive chronotopes by placing emphasis upon unusual gestures including acrobatics,
fainting spells, levitations, suicide, stammerings, and failed actions. Through gesture, the body
tends to occupy a hiatus separating past, present, and future moments in time. Never present,
gesture often entails a process of becoming, in which bodily states and temporal moments are
about to be, but are not yet. In such instances, the chronotopic imagination offers creative
responses to two important questions for the analysis and theorization of visual culture-what
could be and what can a body do.
We measure and order time with our fictions; but time seems, in reality, to be ever more
diverse and less and less subject to any uniform sense of measurement. (Kermode 63)
From its inception, cinema among all the arts possessed a unique relationship with time.
Capturing a slice of life and time, the camera rescued reality "from its proper corruption" (Bazin
1: 14) by giving eternal life to its phantom double, embodied in and as an image.1 Due to its
automatic nature, which recorded 16 frames per second, and later 24, the camera astonished its
initial viewers with an uncanny spatial and temporal duplicate of the world. By tricking human
perception, mechanically reproduced movements provided a gauge for measuring a
homogeneous time oriented around a stable presence. The camera recorded time as it was, a
former present now turned past in the viewing context. The unprecedented realism and temporal
uniformity of the earliest films would galvanize classical cinema and its heirs.2
Despite possessing a tendency toward realism, historically cinema as an art of time has
also constructed many varying, often paradoxical, temporalities that appear to complicate
representations grounded in the ostensive presence of the image. Such films possess the ability
to reveal a "temporal unconscious," to paraphrase Walter Benjamin.3 Filmmakers who
experiment with time establish a tension between the mimetic power of the camera and their own
inventively constructed temporalities. In this sense, experimental films undo the grip the image
necessarily has on the present by interrogating possibilities that non-linear temporalities may
1 Although Bazin discusses photography, which he also compares to mummification and fingerprinting, cinema as
an art of time enhances this "rescue mission."
2 Even though the apparatus itself grounds the image in presence, filmmakers such as Andy Warhol and Michael
Snow employ extremely long takes that undermine temporal uniformity. Their films often attest to how subjectivity
infuses temporal expression.
3 Of a filmic unconscious, Benjamin's famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"
avers, "The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses" (690).
hold. By orchestrating poetic interplays of past and future or of indeterminate, floating times,
filmmakers creatively manipulate time to erode the presence recorded by the camera.
When individual films orient representation around such heterogeneous temporalities, they
test the manner in which we perceive and experience time, or are thought to by philosophy and
psychology. Cinema thus directly engages our times) by fabricating unusual and discontinuous
temporalities that invite creative intervention by film readers. To explain these "unruly" times as
they appear in a given film, viewers must not only compare filmic representation to their own
experiences; they must also discern and evaluate correspondences that representation and time
hold with other films, especially mainstream films. When confronted by non-linear
temporalities, viewers shuttle back and forth between noting deviations from conventional
representations of time and resourcefully producing theories to interpret those deviations. This
shuttling movement asks readers to account for and develop new yardsticks for measuring time.
By artfully engaging with our past and present through the study of films, the act of reading
opens avenues for thinking the future.
If, as Frank Kermode proposes, we invent fictions to give shape to our experience of time,
then what happens when calculated measurement and order run up against an unruly, diverse,
and heterogeneous time? What tropes do filmmakers invoke to express this unusual time that
challenges conventional representation? Equally important, what sort of fictions do we as
viewers and theorists of film deploy to explain aberrant times and movements? What types of
figures or tropes best express this adventure with an insubordinate time? In other words, within
the context elaborated here, what perspectives can cinema open onto time and how does cinema
express those perspectives?
Let me suggest that Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the "chronotope," or the "time-space"
continuum articulated in literature, promises a highly compelling avenue to approach the
questions cited above. Although his analyses concentrate on language and literature, and their
respective sociohistorical dimensions, Bakhtin proves equally relevant to thinking about cinema.
As Robert Stam's Subversive Pleasures shows, the importation of key Bakhtinian ideas including
dialogism, intertextuality, heteroglossia, and the carnivalesque into cultural studies can revitalize
not only our understanding of Bakhtin, but can also successfully "migrate" into discourse about
film. Inspired by Bakhtin's own literary "border crossings," the interdisciplinary tack of Stam's
book suggests that "the encounter of Bakhtin with film might be viewed as virtually inevitable"
(17). The openness of film theory to draw upon concepts from other disciplines, such as
Lacanian psychoanalysis, Marxist critique, and Sausurrean linguistics, invites similar productive
encounters with Bakhtin. This study does not seek to repeat Stam's gesture, the thorough
evaluation of Bakhtin's generative concepts in light of cinema and visual culture, but rather
plucks one of Bakhtin's central ideas and pursues it as an exegetical tool to analyze temporal
articulation in film.4
In The Dialogic Imagination, Bakhtin employs the literary chronotope to discern shifts in
representations of space and time that occur within the novel. Arguing that the artistic
chronotope is a "formally constitutive category of literature" (84), Bakhtin asserts:
In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one
carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes
artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of
time, plot and history. This intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the
artistic chronotope. (84)
4 Stam's introduction takes brief notice of the chronotope. He returns to it but once to focus on space in films noir.
Fusing space and time, a given literary chronotope characterizes the distinctive "world" occupied
by its characters. By deploying the chronotope as concept, the reader recognizes the discursive
patterns framed by artistic use of consistent spatial and temporal "indicators." For Bakhtin, the
value of this notion results from the imbrication of historical circumstance and generic
convention that infuse literary production. Together, world history and literary history mutually
determine mutations present in the novel, and Bakhtin takes great care to analyze the chronotopic
imagination and its indicators as they appear in individual works.
Bakhtin focuses on roughly two millennia of literary production, yet the chronotope figures
as a concept equally productive for film analysis and theory. In fact, as Stam argues, the
Seems in some ways even more appropriate to film than literature, for whereas literature
plays itself out within a virtual, lexical space, the cinematic chronotope is literal, splayed
out concretely across a screen with specific dimensions and unfolding in literal time
(usually 24 frames a second), quite apart from the fictive time/space specific films might
The "literal time" mentioned by Stam pertains to the realist articulations discussed above, in
which movement, space and time closely resemble their counterparts in reality. Yet against this
backdrop one can detect the experimentation with fictive time/spaces that test the ostensive
literality of time manufactured by the filmic apparatus. By challenging the realist chronotope,
filmmakers bid viewers to apply Bakhtin's idea to account for unusual or heterogeneous
expressions of space and time.
Although the filmic representation of space, or the "tope" in chronotope, constitutes a
fascinating approach to cinema, the focus here primarily rests on the "chrono" or time element
present in films.5 Without in any way disparaging the spatial component of Bakhtin's notion, my
5 Michael V. Montgomery's Carnivals and Commonplaces underscores how the spatial side of Bakhtin's notion
proves useful for re-reading topoi as they are articulated in Hollywood and New American cinema.
analysis foregrounds a poetics of time developed by key filmmakers. If this choice necessitates
the privileging of time over space, it does so to take note where time "thickens, takes on flesh" in
the film form. The congealing of time in the image proves paramount for denoting not only
fundamental shifts in film history, but also for spurring broader considerations of culture. The
unique chronotopes elaborated throughout this study spur reflection on the intersection where
history, visual culture and the manner in which we experience and think time meet. In this
regard, the task of examining the chronotopic imagination in filmmaking may be understood as
an (un)timely intervention, whereby analysis opens unexplored paths to think our present
To fabricate an unruly time, directors no doubt rely upon an array of technical aspects of
filmmaking. Through techniques including editing, camera work, lighting, sound and image
juxtapositions, and framing, to name a few, their fictive constructs attest to a diverse time.
Equally important, filmmakers utilize gesture and bodily movement to give flesh to their fictions.
The body offers a unique viewpoint onto the chronotopes fashioned by filmmakers, and, by way
of wordplay, constitute chronotropes, or "time figures." By inventing such figures that move to
the beat of an aberrant time, experimental directors stamp bodies with impressions of time.
Rather than simply occupying or traversing space through measured movements, as realist
cinema would dictate, the body exhibits unusual characteristics or symptoms in their respective
films. An avatar of time, the body enters a nexus of figurations that ask viewers to re-think
notions of agency, health, vitality, and desire.
Challenging our assumptions of mainstream cinema, and its heroes who actively push the
plot forward and evince a physical and mental health, such figures often appear either stricken by
time or expressive of a poetic health surpassing conventional representations of strength and
vitality. Subject to fainting spells, acrobatic movements, non-synchronized encounters, Freudian
failed actions and stammerings, the cinematic body as trope undergoes a tremendous
reconfiguration when it encounters time. It displays where represented time loses its uniformity
and where experimental filmmaking subsequently embarks on poetic investigations into aberrant
times. By remaining attentive to the imbrication of these two tracks-heterogeneous times
measured or figured by aberrant movements and gestures-one can investigate the body as
figure of time.
The connection between aberrant times and unconventional movements challenges
classical cinematic representation, which anchors images to stable temporal articulations and
predictable actions. This difference animates Deleuze's discussion of classical cinema in
Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and modern cinema in Cinema 2: The Time-Image. To trace
the gap separating the movement-image from the time-image, Deleuze invokes Hamlet's famous
line, "Time is out of joint: Hamlet's words signify that time is no longer subordinated to
movement, but rather movement to time" (Cinema 2 xi). For Deleuze, the pre-World War II
cinema of the movement-image exhibits rationalized movements and a concomitant
homogeneous, calculable time. It finds an exemplary structure in what Deleuze terms the action-
image. In his reading of classical cinema, Deleuze contends that this structure, both narrative
and filmic, of situation-action-new situation motivates the pre-World War II period. Mainstream
film develops the narrative context that forces the hero to respond with an action, which installs a
new state of affairs. The pattern then repeats until closure occurs.
Deleuze stresses how this organization of images depends upon a sensory-motor schema
characteristic of movement-images generally and action-images specifically. The hero perceives
a state of affairs that forces him or her to act accordingly. This model also presupposes that
viewers identify with the protagonist. We say to ourselves, "given the situation, the hero has no
choice but to respond this way, just as I hypothetically would." In this structure, perception and
movement, action and reaction, stimulus and response enter clearly defined relationships that
determine filmic articulation. A sense of realism inheres because time appears measured by
conventional, and often predictable, sets of movements occurring on screen, in editing, and in
camerawork. Perception of crisis logically extends into the next shot, the responsive action that
moves the narrative forward.
With the emergence of Italian Neo-realism and later the French New Wave, Deleuze finds
reason to contour a new type of response to crisis and a new type of character. Rather than
meeting and managing the obstacle head-on, a la John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939) or Bruce
Willis in Die Hard (1988), characters become overwhelmed by what they see: "This is a cinema
of the seer and no longer of the agent" (Deleuze Cinema 2 2). With films such as Roberto
Rossellini's Viaggio in Italia (1953) and Luchino Visconti's Senso (1953) "it is now that the
identification is actually inverted: the character has become a kind of viewer" (Cinema 2 3), so
that "the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear
what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action. He records rather than reacts"
(Cinema 2 3).
Such a rupture possesses significant consequences for the cinematic expression of time and
movement. Deleuze rightly points out that a new image, the time-image, does not derive directly
from a shifted perception of crisis. Characters may feel helpless by what they see or may be
temporarily incapacitated, as action-images often convey. Rather, the attenuation of perception
capable of being turned into action primes the nascent image. When perception cannot extend
into action, time itself inhabits the image. Characters, and viewers with them, do not see a
situation they should react to, but rather they witness time unfolding in the image. Images do not
link up with one another in clear, logical progressions derived from the sensory-motor schema.
As a result of this reversal, movements often appear as paradoxical and aberrant. An out-of-joint
time produces gestures that translate its unruliness, in contrast to the homogeneous movements
that subordinates time to calculated measure. With the emergence of the time-image, filmmakers
fabricate chronot(r)opes galvanized by unconventional "heroes," whose actions bear witness to a
short circuiting of the sensory-motor schema.
From the outset of his cinema books, Deleuze acknowledges a debt to Bergson's notion of
duration, in which the continuity of time defies reduction to spatialized segments measured in
homogeneous movements. For Deleuze, one must not confuse Being with being-present and
understand that "the present is not; rather, it is pure becoming, always outside itself. It is not, but
it acts. Its proper element is not being but the active or useful" (Bergsonism 55). Through the
time-image, thought encounters implications and foldings of disparate times that always sidestep
the so-called presence of the image. Experimentation with time in cinema entails the production
of becoming that cannot be reduced to uniform units of measurement. Becomings arise
precisely in fissures of the sensory-motor schema and are discerned in chronot(r)opes, in aberrant
temporalities that undermine presence, and in gestures that appear "acted upon" by time.
Equally important to his readings of cinema, I would argue, is the figure of Spinoza, the
"prince of philosophers." Taking his cue from Spinoza's Ethics, Deleuze's entire oeuvre is
haunted by the following dilemma: "We do not even know what a body can do" (Spinoza 17-18).
The body often seems to be at the service of a conscious will and thus remains subordinated to
thought. Deleuze not only seeks to recuperate the body and place it on equal footing with the
soul. He also seizes upon a parallelism between the body and thought that deflates the putative
split separating them:
In short, the model of the body, according to Spinoza, does not imply any devaluation of
thought in relation to extension, but, much more important, a devaluation of consciousness
in relation to thought: a discovery of the unconscious, of an unconscious of thought just as
profound as the unknown of the body. (Spinoza 18-19)
One should keep in mind that neither Spinoza nor Deleuze consider the body as terra incognita, a
region one needs to explore, come to grips with and therefore "colonize." Discovery takes place
in inventive practices that produce a profound re-thinking of the body. Such procedures de-
territorialize bodies in order to unlock forces that resist their subjection to control and predictable
articulation. This unknown of the body is precisely what the time-image, which is an image of
thought as well, puts us in contact with.
Whereas the action-image presents a sensory-motor schema that generally renders
expected response patterns, the time-image moves through unfamiliar bodily states and
dispositions. The body fashioned by the time-image displays, to shift the terms a bit, a shift from
"kinetic" action, underscored by speed and energy, to "kinematic" realization (Virilio, Open Sky
27). Paul Virilio stresses that visual technologies, especially film, have forced us to re-think the
properties, drawn from Newtonian physics and thermodynamics, which characterize the body.
Occasioned by photography, later cinema and more recently technologies that amplify
simultaneity, the kinematic body for Virilio figures movement as a disposition of time. Rather
than traversing a given spatial extensity, this body synthesizes and conducts varying
temporalities. Living the present as intensity and potentiality, the body and its gestures question
motion and rest, energy and leverage-in other words "kinetic" movement-as useful ways of
understanding the body. If the arrow of time wavers in its course, this swerve or declension
finds embodiment in kinematic actions, symptomatic gestures and bodily states.6
Because they appear as unconventional or unexpected, these states do not simply represent
the obverse or negative outcome of an image of action and thought gone awry. Rather, unusual
bodily states such as fainting spells and impediments such as stammering possess a positive
dimension. They function as chronotropes or figures of an aberrant time that require inventive
interpretations of the body, movement, and time in the cinema. Filmmakers therefore not only
test the limits and capacities of the body, they also explore the unknown regions and
potentialities of the body, or "what a body can do," when it enters into relation with time.
In light of their experimental chronot(r)opes, the films discussed in subsequent chapters
constitute a "minor" cinema in relation to mainstream filmmaking.7 By contrast "major" cinema
strives to organize spatiotemporal articulations around a dominant chronotope. Inspired by
Fordist and Taylorist principles, the studio system of the 1930s to 1950s stands as a hallmark of
cinema as an industrial art able to organize movement, gesture, and time within a realist
framework. Efficiency of movement, narration and spatiotemporal articulations greatly informed
classical Hollywood filmmaking practices and translated the movements seen on screen.8
6 In the realm of sport, the kinematic body enters into new relations with force, energy and leverage to re-define
kinetic motion. Deleuze notes, "All the new sports-surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding-take the form of entering
into an existing wave. There's no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting-into-orbit" ("Mediators"
121). Along similar lines, R.L. Rutsky envisions Keanu Reeves as an avatar of a kinematic "hero": "Indeed, while
in most action films, movement serves as demonstration of the hero/star's power and control, Keanu's action films
often involve his being carried along by the movement, surfing it, at times even losing himself in it" (192).
I use the term minor in a Deleuzian sense, which seeks to avoid connotations of "lesser" or "minority" and instead
stresses how minoritarian artists, such as Kafka, invoke becoming and fabulation as inventive principles of
8 In their working methods, production houses organized clear and narratively determined movements. The
continuity system ensured a regulation of filmic time. As Janet Staiger notes, by 1911 studios placed great emphasis
on the continuity script that "provides a precheck of the quality of spatial, temporal and causal continuity and
vraisemblance" (150). By the time Hollywood wound up banking on studio realism, it already had established
procedures for efficiently regulating filmic spatiotemporal articulations.
Movement, and its expression in (and of) space and time, entailed a process of elimination
necessary to maximize profit. Jean-Frangois Lyotard argues, "Writing with
movements-cinematography-is thus conceived and practiced as an incessant organizing of
movements following the rules of representation for spatial localization," so that "the so-called
impression of reality is a real repression of orders" ("Acinema" 170). By repression of orders,
Lyotard means the elimination of heterogeneous, non-recoverable movements, those elements
that accidentally intrude on Hollywood's finished product.9 Classical Hollywood gained its
prestige and profitability precisely because the organization of production and signification
ensured a return on its investment. Temporal stability, rationalized by studios through
techniques ranging from synchronization to continuity editing to acting style, produced a
uniform and normalizing chronotope.10
The organization of movement, time and signification in classical Hollywood cinema
constitutes the dominant chronotope in film history. It has affected, positively or negatively,
nearly every filmmaking practice since. Within Hollywood filmmaking, the post-war period and
waning of the studio system marked little change. Today, the rationalization of time through
gesture and movement predominates in most mainstream filmmaking. The integration of music
videos, associative montage sequences, and "commercial configurations of sex and blood"
(Deleuze Cinema 2 157) has certainly modified the dominant chronotope, yet these factors
9 Roberta Pearson notes that the consolidation of verisimilar codes of acting entailed such a repression of useless
movements: "Not only were aspiring actors told to 'rest long enough in a gesture', they were urged to avoid
excessive movement, which might detract from attitude-striking" (25). In a similar vein, Johannes Riis sees the
pause in early sound film acting as crucial to narrative and emotional articulation. The pause "enabled the audience
to detect subtle forms of expression," so that "while pausing, the actor prepared the audience for a new intention"
(6). The separation of gesture into discrete and coherent components assures a comprehensibility of psychological
and physiological states.
10 Michel Chion emphasizes synchronization's role in establishing film as art and as bound to a uniform time: "We
are indebted to synchronous sound for having made cinema an art of time," so that "filmic time was no longer a
flexible value, more or less transposable depending on the rhythm of projection. Time henceforth had a fixed value"
nevertheless attest to a pernicious repression of orders. Such elements found in contemporary
mainstream cinema have tended to reassert and reinvest movement and time in a calculated
scheme made for profit.
Galvanizing the studies undertaken here, "minor" films offer alternative, and quite
frequently paradoxical, times and movements that appear heterogeneous when compared to those
of dominant cinema. By focusing on individual films by Sergei Eisenstein, Andrey Tarkovsky,
Leos Carax, and Abbas Kiarostami, the reader can discern the wealth of creative and
heterogeneous temporalities cinema can produce. Along these lines, the theoretically astute
Tarkovsky contends in his book Sculpting in Time, "I see it as my own professional task, then, to
create my own, distinctive flow of time" (120-21). His quote intriguingly suggests that
filmmaking possesses a liberating force when the temporalities it fashions appear as "distinctive"
and heterogeneous rather than rationalized and mastered. Each distinctive temporal flux
animates idiosyncratic bodily gestures and movements that warrant close study. Inventive in
their practice, minor films inspire the reader to call upon a diversity of theoretical sources and
develop his or her own tactical explorations. Thus, this work engages in its own experimentation
with thinking time and the body as trope.
Spurred by Bakhtin, my theory of the filmic chronot(r)ope draws on concepts and
metaphors found in a variety of disciplines: philosophy (Deleuze, Lyotard, Michel Foucault, and
Jacques Derrida); fiction (Maurice Blanchot); language studies (Marc Shell); psychoanalysis
(Jacques Lacan and Catherine Clement); the writings of filmmakers themselves (especially
Eisenstein and Tarkovsky); and media studies (authors like Michel Chion and Mary Ann Doane
figure greatly). With these thinkers in mind, I theorize their different, though often related,
concepts within the context of filmic temporality and gesture. Each theoretical intervention
inflects Bakhtin's analyses, and thus opens new perspective on his notion of the chronot(r)ope.
Similarly, reading gesture and movement through time affords the opportunity to reconsider
other readings of bodily tropes in cinema.
This dissertation draws upon several "postmodern," for lack of a better word, theories of
time to make its case for an avant-garde chronotopic imagination present in cinema. Rather than
making the films serve merely as examples of these theories, and thus blunting their force as
experiments with time, one can seek to place theory and film practice within a dialogue that
moves between movement, gesture and time. One can map theoretical shifts and mutations
through the novel tropes that theorists employ. In this regard, it is worth recalling the task set
forth by Dudley Andrew for film theory. This endeavor "today consists primarily in thinking
through, elaborating, and critiquing the key metaphors by which we seek to understand (and
control) the cinema complex" (12). Although the "today" he spoke of occurred twenty years
ago, the imperative still remains highly relevant. Film theory can chart its own history and
production through the metaphors it utilizes, which in turn galvanize new considerations of the
To facilitate the study of how theorists creatively employ tropes for time, the reading
method found in Eric Alliez's Capital Times: Tales of the Conquest of Time proves instructive.11
In his foreword to that book, Deleuze argues that Alliez "speaks about various conducts of time"
("Foreword" xi), so that "we will pass from one conduct to another, in different milieus and
epochs, which relate the time of history with the thought of time. In short, multiple conducts of
time, each of which reunites several strides" ("Foreword" xii). By invoking the conduct,
1 Alliez was a student of Deleuze, whose philosophy, especially Cinema 2, greatly informs Capital Times. Alliez
continues the filmic resonance with Deleuze when the author states, "Our task is to be situated at the point of time's
bifurcation in order to let it roll" (2). Fashioning his own "time-image," Alliez attempts to consider how a wild
temporality, characteristic of capitalism, has historically affected subjectivity and movements of thought.
Deleuze means that Alliez's re-reading of philosophy passes through certain dispositions or
orientations of thinking animated by time, and not simply that time and thinking run through a
conduit or duct. Theory and time possess a special relationship, as one can think time through
the novel gestures it produces. Every fork in the road that history develops, the emergence of a
new chronotope, must be matched by a concomitant theoretical "gait" equal to its task.
Analysis therefore proves productive when it traces the intersection of filmmaking and
theory, where gesture traverses the space simultaneously separating and joining them. Because
films express their respective chronotopes through a variety of filmic articulations, my readings
of individual films also remain attentive to formal considerations. In addition to filmic
chronotropes, techniques including editing, camera work, repetition and asynchrony form
privileged sites where one can map the interplay of times and reconsiderations of the body.
The four films studied-Eisenstein's Potemkin (1925), Leos Carax's Boy Meets Girl
(1984), Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice (1986) and Abbas Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees
(1994)-serve as nodal points that crystallize these varying theoretical departures and
expressions of the cinematic chronot(r)ope. Though these films differ in style, subject matter
and country of origin (Russia, France, Sweden and Iran, respectively), all of them share
important insights on the relation between film, gesture and time. They experiment with forms
of time that challenge the rhetorical and stylistic traits of dominant or "major" cinema. Even
though their inventive practices generate new chronotopes, they retain a specificity that requires
careful elaboration. No chronotope exists in a vacuum, but rather draws its strength from other
sources. Each film enters into a dialogue with the chronotopes that preceded them, and in doing
so projects toward future filmic and theoretical interventions.
Chapter 2 examines Eisenstein's theoretical and filmic "moves" through the figure of the
acrobat. Arguing that Eisenstein adopts Hegelian dialectics to ground his distinctive chronotope,
the chapter focuses on a paradox inherent in Eisenstein's position. On the one hand, the time of
"sublation" or Aufhebung can never be apprehended as present, because it always passes behind
our backs. On the other hand, in moments of ecstasy and pathos, acrobatic movement
nonetheless translates dialectical effects. To achieve this translation or synthesis of dialectical
time, Eisenstein finds inspiration in Taylorist rationalization of movement. A strict bodily
regimen, seen in Eisenstein's theoretical tropes, directorial practices and films, ensures that the
viewer properly senses dialectical movement.
Chapter 3 begins its discussion of Andrey Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice by studying
Tarkovsky's readings of Eisenstein's writings and films. At odds with Eisenstein's over-reliance
on literary figures to explain time, Tarkovsky underscores cinematic time, in relation to the other
arts, as a distinctive rhythm or flow. With this difference in mind, I argue that Tarkovsky's final
film develops its chronotope through a disparity between two fundamental flows, that of the
spiritual and the material. This disparity finds expression in fainting spells or syncopes that
afflict the protagonist, Alexander. To restore world order by reuniting these two flows,
Alexander makes himself a gift of time.
Chapter 4 focuses on Leos Carax's first feature Boy Meets Girl and how it produces
"events" that challenge any uniform sense of time. Carax's chronotope entails a sidestepping of
presence manifested by bodies unable to be present (to) themselves or to others. Through
sound/image relationships, primarily asynchrony, and gesture, it also challenges the coherence of
an identity always split apart by time. Through these articulations, voices and images float away
from any meaningful and stable body; narrative encounters and bodily movement lack any
synchronization. As a result, the film develops a virtual space where encounters, such as that
suggested by the title, take place or "occur."
Chapter 5 looks at Abbas Kiarostami's Rostamabad trilogy, primarily its last film Through
the Olive Trees, to explore the relation between film and testimony. I argue that Kiarostami
develops a chronotope that blurs distinctions between film and reality, past and present, event
and the capacity of cinema to reconstruct it. An attempt to resuscitate the past, Kiarostami's film
emphasizes how stammering, a verbal gesture, and failed actions tend to undermine truthful
testimony while also expressing a chronotope galvanized by repetition and failure. According to
the logic of the film, making past and present jibe coherently ends in failure, and it is
paradoxically this failure that allows Kiarostami to testify to a traumatic past.
Finally, the conclusion reinforces the commonality shared by Eisenstein, Tarkovsky,
Carax, and Kiarostami, despite their respective differences. It lays stress upon how gesture
occupies hiatuses occurring between times, a site where time may fork and the body may become
different. Attempts (often failed) of synchronizing bodies and times percolate throughout the
films studied and attest to radical disjunctions between temporal modes. To this end, all four
filmmakers galvanize their works through repetitions of the hiatus and non-synchrony to invent
new bodily dispositions and unruly times. By fashioning aberrant times and gestures, they offer
creative responses to two important questions for the analysis and theorization of visual culture--
what could be and what can a body do.
SERGEI EISENSTEIN'S THREE-RING CIRCUS OF DIALECTICAL TIME
Arse over heels! ... Soon we will have to learn to fly, to swim in the ether. (Virilio, Open
For the first time in the course of history and the existence of humanity, a social system
began to be ahead of the creators of artistic works in the solution of these problems [of
difference and unity]. Here in our country the builders of real life outstripped the creators
of artistic values, and before the artists of our country and epoch stands an unprecedented
task-not to be above their time, not ahead of it, for neither is impossible here-but to be
on a level with and worthy of their time, their epoch, their people. (Eisenstein, Nature 376)
The introduction contoured two seemingly competing or contradictory trends in visual
representation and culture. Attempts to control and rationalize movement in order to capitalize
(on) time, as in Fordism and Taylorism, encounters failures to achieve such mastery.
Characteristic of a minor cinema, bodies and gestures appear uncontrollable and instead invoke
aberrant times, of which they are symptoms. This split no doubt ensues from ideological
tensions present in modernity, in which the standardization of life and time began to
predominate. Although these two trends appear to be at odds, within the dialectical framework
grounding Sergei Eisenstein's theories of cinema a synthesis occurs. Informed by revolutionary
thought and practice, Eisenstein's cinema and writings accord a positive aspect to both rational
and irrational movements. Rather than merely being the negative obverse of mastered
movement, heterogeneous gaits and gestures evince a dialectical force. By harnessing this force,
the artist converts ostensibly unruly forms and movements, glimpsed through montage
articulation and expressed by the pathos it creates, into a dialectical totality.
Forged from the interaction of homogeneous and heterogeneous movements, the
Eisensteinian chronotope conveys a revolutionary impetus inspired by Hegelian dialectics. Its
central trope is the acrobat or trapeze artist, who moves head over heels to synthesize dialectical
time. The task of this chapter is thus to map S.M. Eisenstein's dialectical theories of filmic time
through the figure of the acrobat. I do not intend to provide an exhaustive overview of
Eisenstein's concepts, but instead wish to re-examine them through the tropes for temporality
that vitalize their inventive considerations of film and time. I shall argue that the acrobat as
figure historically and theoretically facilitates a novel relation to filmic temporality. To grasp the
theoretical underpinnings of this chronotope, I work through Eisenstein's films and writings,
with greater emphasis placed on the latter than the former. In other words, as tool for analysis
the acrobat slides and somersaults between these two aspects and creates an avenue for thinking
Eisensteinian time; the acrobat performs as cipher through which one can trace the close relation
between theory and practice.
Acrobatic movement possesses a unique position within film history. The backward
tumbles by characters in Trip to the Moon (1902) by Georges Melies accentuate the special
effects and abrupt shifts inspired by magical transformation. Roughly two decades later the
burlesque of Charlie Chaplin evinces the encounter of resistant bodies with the inevitable forces
of mechanization and industrial capitalism. Chaplin's tramp in Modem Times (1936)
experiences the rationalized routine of assembly-line labor, which bullies the body into
performing predictably timed movements. Compelled to resist the machinic calculation and
standardization of gesture, Charlot's burlesque passes through series of acrobatic postures. In
such moments, Chaplin's humanism couples with the comedic to engage politically with the
stultifying effects of Fordist capitalism.
The acrobat predominates as figure in Eisenstein's own poetics and gives shape to his
politics of art. From Melies, Eisenstein borrows the acrobatic expression of shock as crucial
component of montage. In Melies "time is above all extraordinary, elastic, producing
unpredictable effects" (Doane, Emergence 136), and Eisenstein sensed that acrobatic movement
could translate unpredictability, which would nevertheless remain within a dialectical
framework. Like his contemporary Chaplin, he connects gesture to the forces of rationalized
movement and channels this relationship toward a politics, albeit with quite different aims.12
Committed to a revolutionary project, Eisenstein invokes an aberrant or perverse filmic time that
challenges an image of rationalized temporality, yet also paradoxically relies upon rationalized
gestures to accomplish his aims. The acrobat therefore performs a contortionist act as he or she
leaps to synthesize this rationalized dialectical time, while also occupying aberrant between-
times from which the dialectic gathers its force. By experiencing the affect and shock created by
chronot(r)opic movement, the viewer comprehends the dialectical nature of reality.
The viewer becomes transformed into an acrobat through Eisensteinian montage and
movement, which turn technique into viewer perception. In this sense, the acrobat functions
more than simply a theoretical and filmic chronotrope or figure of time. Because Eisenstein
charges his images and movements with shock, the viewer experiences a jolt to the extent that
"pathos is what forces the viewer to jump out of his seat" (Eisenstein, Nature 27). This
disposition, a tumbling viewer thrust "beside" himself or herself, marks an aberrant, ecstatic
time. It nevertheless ensures that dialectical timing, which converts aberrant time into dialectical
significance, can occur.
I would like to begin by contextualizing Eisenstein's theoretical chronotrope within media
studies, an area in which Eisenstein's concepts are accorded a privileged position. For roughly
fifty years, two competing, and perhaps diametrically opposed, theories galvanized film and
media theory-film as realism and film as discourse. Today this debate may appear "worn past
the nub," as any anthology of film theory, such as Film Theory and Criticism, or film studies
12 When recalling his childhood interest in the circus and music hall entertainments, Eisenstein placed Chaplin and
French comedians within this tradition that developed the basic principles of montage (Film Form 12).
primers, such as Aesthetics of Film, position realism and Eisenstein as key opposing trends. If I
repeat this perhaps worn-out critical gesture, I do so to stress that these trends do share one
important and at times overlooked trait. Whereas many theorists set Bazin and Eisenstein in
opposition, I see one crucial correspondence. Despite their vast differences, both respond
negatively to Hollywood's establishment of homogeneous times by creating novel theoretical
dispositions. Comparing their respective theoretical "moves" will illuminate Eisenstein's
chronotope, dialectical time, and chronotrope, acrobatic movement. Yet this correspondence
needs elaboration and modification within the oppositional framework that nonetheless does
exist between Eisenstein and Bazin.
The unequalled mimetic powers of cinema facilitated the realism position, with Andre
Bazin providing its most provocative voice. Grounding realism in ontology, Bazin argued that
mechanically produced images hold a close relationship with reality, because "for the first time
an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man" (1: 13).
The strength of photography and cinema resides not in drawing from other established plastic
arts, but from their unique and unprecedented automatic ability to "lay bare the realities" (1: 15).
Hence, mechanical reproduction possesses a revelatory force that can expose our vision to the
"love" inherent in reality.
For Eisenstein events are dialectically determined, and they are neither neutral nor
revelatory by nature. Thus film must present a dialectically motivated interpretation of a given
event. Juxtaposed fragments placed within a filmic discourse provide the means to determine the
dialectically produced idea. In addition, because dialectical reality proceeds through contraries
(thesis and antithesis meet to fashion a synthesis, which in turn creates a new thesis), Eisenstein
sensed that juxtaposition must entail a collision of fragments. Of the organic unity produced by
juxtaposition, he stresses:
And it is also remarkable that the jump at each point-is not simply a sudden jump to
another mood, to another rhythm, to another event, but each time it is a transition to a
distinct opposite. Not contrastive, but opposite, for each time it gives the image of that
same theme from the opposite point of view and at the same time unavoidably grows out
of it. (Nature 14)
In addition to these competing theories of cinema, both Bazin and Eisenstein developed
concomitant theoretical figures. Bazin invoked an impressive array of metaphors that helped
readers understand his theories of cinematic realism. To conceptualize photographic realism,
Bazin set forth a poetics of static figures, such as the death mask, fingerprint and mummified
remains that adequately suggest the photographic freezing of time. These metaphors fashion a
sense of the momentary, and yet eternal, power of still images. But what of cinematic, and not
simply photographic, realism and its particular "flow of time"?
For his study of Italian Neo-Realism Bazin invented a new disposition, one that captured a
temporality bound to the fragmentary, accidental, and everyday. Reading a film like Roberto
Rossellini's Paisa (1946) becomes a perilous exercise and entails an unsteady gait. To grasp the
narrative structure of that film, Bazin contends, "The mind has to leap from one event to the
other as one leaps from stone to stone in crossing a river. It may happen that one's foot hesitates
between two rocks, or that one misses one's footing and slips" (2: 35). Through a weakly
motivated narrative, Rossellini's film opens gaps for unexpected moments, as opposed to the
tight control of the frame, editing and movement Bazin saw in Soviet montage and German
Expressionism.13 One questions the haphazard linking of events, and hesitantly leaping from one
shot to the next provides the proper "conduct." Only a highly limber reading and theorization
13 See Bazin's essay "Evolution of the Language of Cinema" in volume 1 of What Is Cinema? for his take on these
can grasp Italy's emergent realist movement. These (present) times appear novel and aberrant,
precisely because they lack the earmarks of Hollywood modes of storytelling, signification and
Bazin sensed something utterly novel, a new filmic chronotope, with Neo-Realist cinema,
namely that in opposition to classical Hollywood, the filmic present did not emerge from
narratively motivated and logical connections. Rather, an ephemeral present reflected post-war
Italy's disconnected and fragmentary reality. In Paisa, violence unexpectedly erupts, as in
Harriet's learning of Lupo's death, which strikes her "like a stray bullet" (2: 36); inversely, a
drawn-out present captures the quotidian, as the encounter between U.S. military clergymen and
Franciscan monks do in the fifth episode.
In addition to such narrative moments, editing translates post-war Italy's fragmentary
reality. To emphasize the gaps inherent in Rossellini's editing and decoupage, Bazin returns to
the figure of stones:
The assemblage of the film must never add anything to the existing reality. If it is part of
the meaning of the film as with Rossellini, it is because the empty gaps, the white spaces,
the parts of the event that we are not given, are themselves of a concrete nature: stones
which are missing from the building. (2: 66)
Bazin again grounds his assertion in Rossellini's ability to capture adequately an ephemeral
reality. He also distinguishes Rossellini's editing from that of Hollywood. Whereas ellipsis in
Hollywood films is an "effect of style, in Rossellini's films it is a lacuna of reality, or rather in
the knowledge we have of it, which is by its nature limited" (2: 66). Rossellini constructs a
realist space and time, replete with absence and lacunae, whereas the building blocks of the
Hollywood house cannot be without missing stones.14 Due to tight, character-driven plots, its
reality is always complete, leaving no questions unanswered.
Bazin's faith in the revelatory powers of cinema would no doubt have struck Eisenstein as
misguided. "Reality" is dialectically determined. Eisenstein simultaneously sought to translate
the new post-revolutionary reality and energize a domestic and international audience around the
ideals of Communism. Such a desire entailed producing movements through editing and
figurations capable of fusing dialectical ideas and reality. In contrast to Bazin's stone skipper,
who must partly rely upon chance to cross the river, the acrobat eliminates, as much as possible,
the risks of miscalculation, of stumbling and falling. His or her movements are not subject to the
whims of reality; rather they evince a determinable historical and theoretical trajectory.
Eisenstein's chronotrope, the trapeze or acrobat, involves an aporetic and troubling logic.
On the one hand, in his films and writings Eisenstein performs a well-timed exercise to the
measure of a dialectical reality; yet on the other, he makes a leap over what would be the chain
of represented and rationalized moments. Operating in the between-times of rationalized
temporal uniformity, this paradoxical gesture embodies a central heterogeneity that must be
managed or dialectically converted. To help orient us in this aporetic thinking of Eisenstein's
gesture, a trip to the circus proves useful.
With Enough Simplicity for Every Wise Man (1923), Eisenstein's film career began at the
circus. By staging the play as a three-ring circus and including in it a short film, his first, titled
"Glubov's Diary," Eisenstein mapped a dialectical theater. On the one hand, and speaking
figuratively, the three-ringed cycle of the dialectic informed and determined Eisenstein's overall
14 Bazin applies a similar figure in his study of the great French realist filmmaker Jean Renoir. He notes how
Renoir's style often catches off guard viewers accustomed to tight plot construction and characterization: "The most
immediately noticeable paradox in Renoir's style, and the one which almost always trips up the public, is his
apparent casualness toward the very elements of the cinema which the public takes most seriously: the scenario and
the action" (emphasis added) (qtd. in Younger, par.4).
avant-garde project; on the other hand, "Glubov's Diary" employed metamorphic forms to
satirize bourgeois life, and hopefully to change the spectator, "who is altered by emotional and
even physiological 'shocks'" (Nesbet 156) achieved through editing. These two tendencies
appear to be at odds-a highly regulated and systematized dialectical timing must pass through
potentially abrupt and aberrant movements that create the "shock."
Eisenstein envisions both an economy of time, a dialectical filmic time that works best
when timed perfectly with the Taylorist scientist's watch. Yet something about this ordered
timeliness bestows an irrational gait to Eisenstein's thought. His writings, teachings and films--
though I don't necessarily mean to conflate all three--mark an unsteady pace caught between
dialectically ordered movements and timed performances, and a between-time whose power
Eisenstein must paradoxically conjure and dispel in the same instant.
I will introduce briefly Hegel's dialectic, then move to Eisenstein's curious application of
it and its pertinence to thinking the theoretical chronotope. For Hegel, dialectical movement, the
dialectic itself, is never present for consciousness, and instead operates "behind its back." Hegel
writes, "But it is just this necessity itself, or the origination of the new object, that presents itself
to consciousness without its understanding how this happens, which proceeds for us, as it were,
behind the back of consciousness" (56). Yet this movement can be known or present to
knowledge, so that one can consider the Phenomenology of Spirit as charting:
The path of the soul traversing the series of its own formations as the way stations
prescribed to it by its own nature; the soul moves through these way-stations, purifies
itself, and thereby raises itself to the level of spirit when, through the complete experience
of itself, it reaches the knowledge of what it is within itself. (Hegel qtd. in Hyppolite 11)
These way-stations can never be present without a little bit of the past throwing that present
moment off kilter. The soul knows itself and its movement only in an image containing both
past and present, and not simply in the apprehension of presents passing. Without a recollection
of what it was inserted into the present, the soul could gain no "perspective" on itself and its
realization. This model of temporality presupposes dialectical way stations, pauses that
recognize difference within the steady and uninterrupted flow of nowss." In turn, the hiatuses or
breaks within the continuum of time will prime the Aufhebung that determines history and
It is noteworthy that Hegel adds the apparently necessary "purification" of the soul that
burns away its unwanted elements. The movement of Spirit, which culminates in absolute
knowledge, consists of consciousness casting off what always appears as foreign:
In pressing forward to its true existence, consciousness will arrive at a point at which it
gets rid of its semblance of being burdened with something alien, with what is only for it,
and some sort of "other," at a point where appearance becomes identical with essence, so
that its exposition will coincide at just this point with the authentic Science of Spirit. And
finally, when consciousness itself grasps this its own essence, it will signify the nature of
absolute knowledge itself. (Hegel 56-57)
The "outside intruder" fools consciousness because the latter mistakes its "true existence" and
essence for what appears for it. When consciousness overcomes mistaking the insider for
outsider it will complete its journey to absolute knowledge.
The purifying movement possesses a temporal dimension as well. Whether absolute
knowledge could ever be evinced in a present moment remains unlikely. Knowledge moves
toward grasping its own essence, but that actual moment where appearance and essence match
up constitutes a theoretical moment. At this juncture, my concern resides in dialectical
movement itself, and not its final destination. By momentarily unhinging the present the
movement of the soul rests just long enough to cast off the inessential, or the material leftovers
15 Perhaps in contrast to Hegelian metaphorics, which figures the way-station as avenue to think the dialectical
pause, Deleuze invokes a radically different highway metaphor. To sidestep the dialectical pit stop, Deleuze stresses
the universal variation characteristic of images that dialectical thought cannot sublate. In The Movement-Image, he
quotes Bergson, who argues that every image is "a road by which pass, in every direction, the modifications
propagated throughout the immensity of the universe" (58).
that obstinately cling to it. Thus, within the course of an unfolding uniform and homogeneous
time, the arrest occurring at the way-station allows a leap to a "greater dimension" in its own
self-realization. Hegel's raising to spirit occurs minus the burden of impure elements and, as I
will demonstrate below, it greatly informs Eisenstein's theory and practice of montage.
Despite Marx's revision of Hegel's dialectic-whether it actually or logically subverted
the latter remains too broad a topic here-Eisenstein often invokes Lenin's reading of Hegel in
relation to his filmmaking. He justifies his Hegelianism, over Marxism, by recourse to a time-
lag between thought and artmaking, as if filmmaking were waiting for its assimilation into (a
Marxist, or Hegelian?) dialectical history! Eisenstein's sense of timing involves a culmination in
Spirit, rather than a Marxist dialectical materialism. The director contends:
Marx turns this postulate [Hegel's a-priority of the idea] head over heels in the question of
the understanding of real actuality. However, if we consider our works of art, we do in fact
have a condition that almost looks like the Hegelian formula, because the idea-satiation of
the author, his subjection to prejudice by the idea, must determine actually the whole
course of the art-work. (Film Form 127)
This passage is curious for three reasons-it invokes acrobatics (Hegel turned "head over heels"
by Marx) to grasp the Hegelian character of Eisenstein's filmmaking; it distorts, to some extent,
Hegel's philosophy; it invokes a seemingly non-revolutionary, non-Marxist sense of (materialist)
The characterization of the artist/philosopher as prey to the "prejudice by the idea" flies in
the face of Hegel and his heirs, however perverse they may be in regard to their master. For
instance, Jean Hyppolite notes, "Commentators have been struck by this characteristic tack of
Hegel's phenomenology: to describe rather than to construct, to present the spontaneous
development of an experience as it offers itself to consciousness and in the way it offers itself'
(10). With great rigor Hegel endlessly affirmed the scientific nature of the Phenomenology of
Spirit, and not its "subjection to prejudice." As Hegel saw it, his exposition of dialectical
movement was precisely that-a description of dialectical assimilations that tend toward relief
Eisenstein invites critique not only from Hegelians but also from other Marxist artists and
theorists, justified by Eisenstein's belief that a Marxist artist's time has not yet come. Here, too,
a paradoxical logic inhabits Eisenstein's thought, for the simple reason that a revolutionary
materialist timing has been thrown out of joint. To the filmmaker and theorist's detriment, Marx
has not equaled Hegel's pace. The filmmaker's goal, like Hamlet's, will be to set time right, to
bring both gaits into synchrony, as this chapter's epigraph suggests. In this sense, the artist
always has the "too-late blues," subject to tagging along (with Hegel), yet lagging behind (with
Marx). A fully realized Marxist critique is not yet, but rather waits for its proper time.16
Eisenstein's rather odd application of Hegelian principles resides in positing that the
dialectical movement occurs not in any one present image (how could it be represented, and thus
known?), nor even in the opposition between two images (juxtaposition merely manifests effects
of the dialectical process). Rather, the film takes on truly dialectical proportions only in the
interval between images, or what Eisenstein calls the "pathetic" or "ecstatic." The jump does not
occur in the represented filmic present, in any given shot, but in the between-two located in
spatio-temporal articulations.17 The movement of images, thought and time congeal in the arrest
and wait for each other to raise the banner of Revolution.
Yet montage assures that the leap works properly by sequencing (some might say
narrativizing) dialectical effects. As if we were always reading Eisenstein through a rear-view
16 In Specters of Marx, Derrida demonstrates that political economy must think democracy in terms of the event,
which entails a time "not yet" and always to come: "At stake here is the very concept of democracy as concept of a
promise," which "is why we always propose to speak of a democracy to come, not a future democracy in the future
1 As Leo Charney astutely notes of Eisensteinian montage, "No one shot [. .] is fully present to itself at any one
mirror, our chance to grasp the dialectic falls to montage, which makes us mistakenly perceive
dialectical effects as dialectical causes. Eisenstein's dialectical filmic timing doesn't result from
edited conflicts, but the law these opposition impose make it appear so. Applying a helpful
distinction employed by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's negative reading of Hegel, in which she
opposes the "narrative timing of das Aufheben-the effort of sublation" to the "graphic Time of
Aufhebung, the accomplished sublation" (112), I argue that interval and editing accomplish this
double task. In the terms utilized here, the interval performs a "timing" of relief mediated by
dialectical law. In turn, montage ensures that the Aufhebung is grasped as determining Time. In
other words, editing converts timing, which Spivak also associates with the bodily, into a
dialectical Time related to the concept. Yet the interval's logic forms the regulating and internal
principle, which allows timing to occur at all.
In "The Structure of the Film Form" Eisenstein weds his Hegelianism to direct discussion
of the film form to argue, "We can say that a pathetic structure is one that compels us, echoing
its movement, to re-live the moments of culmination and substantiation that are the canon of all
dialectical processes" (Film Form 173). If we re-live such moments, it is not by witnessing their
representation, which would simply portray the effects of dialectical movement. Instead, the
pathetic structure produces an (temporal) ecstatic shock that spurs dialectical thinking.
Despite his avowed interest in Pavlov, a strange Freudianism galvanizes Eisenstein's
understanding of cinematic time. Freud realized that psychoanalytic treatment must proceed not
in accurately re-creating the conditions and circumstances surrounding an event, whether
imaginary or real, but in resuscitating the affect produced by the event. The re-living of
dialectical time does not occur in the faithful and precise representation of historical events;
rather, it resides in the cinematic restaging of the pathetic as means of gaining access to
mediation. When Otto Karl Werckmeister criticizes Eisenstein for betraying historical actuality,
he inadvertently approaches the filmmaker's dialectical orientation-"In reality the Potemkin
sailors refused to shell Odessa with live ordinance and merely fired blanks" (emphasis added)
(45), whereas the film battleship Potemkin launches a barrage of missiles.
For Eisenstein, dialectical history fires (temporal) blank shots, but not as if no historical
event ever occurred. Instead, the dialectic motor of history fires temporal blanks that the artist
must make explode in the realm of the pathetic. The pathos-inspired film, when regulated
properly, sets timing in motion, and the viewer becomes animated as if a marionette. As Dana
Polan aptly remarks, "Affect was the key to the unity of reality and industry; affect, if properly
used, could bring the spectator into consonance with the 'beat' of reality" (45). Here, the
consonant stride means re-living the affect in order to experience Hegelian relieving as animated
by dialectical timing; the filmic re-creation, Eisenstein hopes, will retroactively galvanize the
viewer into reading timing as produced by Time, and thus into gaining, figuratively, an
ambulation in accordance with the dialectic.
In this sense, Eisenstein complicates the relationship between Hegel's dialectic thought
and bodily affect set forth by Steven Shaviro in The Cinematic Body. He posits that
Hegelianism tends to "subordinate experience" to "references and significations" (27), so that the
body and affect only serve to articulate dialectical movement as a movement of knowledge:
The Hegelian and structuralist equation suppresses the body. It ignores or abstracts away
from the primordial forms of raw sensation: affect, excitation, stimulation and repression,
pleasure and pain, shock and habit. It posits instead a discarnate eye and ear whose data
are immediately objectified in the form of self-conscious awareness or positive
Eisenstein seeks to reinstate bodily affect and sensation within this dialectical structure, giving
flesh to the moment of sublation. Stimulated by the effects of montage, viewers experience
affect and shock as both structuring principles and by-products of dialectical movement. Rather
than standing in opposition to self-conscious knowledge, the jolt of film viewing is precisely
what brings dialectical timing into accord with dialectical "sense," its meaning and sensible
One sees the after-effects of dialectical movement and history in series of efficiently timed
poses or gestures, which assure that viewers retroactively understand Time as timing. Inspired
by Lenin's slogan "Let us take the storm of the Revolution in Soviet Russia, unite it to the pulse
of American life and do our work like a chronometer!" (qtd. in Wollen 27), Eisenstein highly
regarded efficient means of signification and movement. Good timing informs his reading of
revolutionary artmaking, and he recommends a pragmatic, if somewhat sadistic, teaching style:
The instructor's task is only, by a well-timed dexterous shove, to push the collective in the
direction of "normal" and "fruitful" difficulties [...]. That is how they teach you to fly in
the circus. The trapeze is mercilessly held back, or the pupil finds a fist instead of a
helping hand if his timing is false. Not great harm if he falls once or twice outside the
safety net onto the chairs around the arena. Next time-he won't make that mistake.
(emphasis added) (Eisenstein, Film Form 91)
Eisenstein knows the art of proper timing, whereas the student/trapeze must learn it. He or she
must perfect, down to a micro-level, the movements necessary to present the given subject
economically. Even activities like flying, which would seem to free one from the gravitational
constraints of coordinated movement, appear caught in the grip, the revolutionary clenched fist,
of Eisenstein's rigorous pedagogical and artmaking methods.18
As Peter Wollen notes, Russian avant-gardes shared a proclivity for contemporary
movements like Frederick Taylor's scientific management and Futurism. With the former,
scientifically measured movement allowed for "an enormous saving of time" by "eliminating
unnecessary motions" (Taylor 24) performed by the worker; with the latter, physical movement
18 Trapeze and acrobatic acts always contain the element of danger brought forth by failed timings and
synchronizations. Eisenstein clearly seeks a fluidity and facility of performance that sidesteps possible failure.
replaced a verism of psychological interiority. In the figure of Meyerhold, Wollen asserts,
Eisenstein would gravitate toward thinking theater and film through the body. Attacking
Stanislavsky's acting methods, Meyerhold felt, "The key to success as an actor lay in rigorous
physical training" (Wollen 27) and that in Futurism he found a weapon, rooted in the circus and
its "two trends, towards pantomime and towards acrobatics" (27). Wollen's historical and
theoretical take focuses on the development of Eisenstein's aesthetics. His interest in acrobatic
training exemplifies the director's borrowings from contemporary avant-gardes, so that
Eisenstein failed to develop an adequately original Marxist aesthetic.
For Wollen, in Eisenstein "there was a purely formal and abstract concept of the Hegelian
dialectic, mechanically applied and eventually degenerating into an empty stereotype" (70).
Though taking a cue from Wollen, my analysis repositions the acrobatic gesture within a vibrant
and paradoxical dialectical timing. I do not see Eisenstein's dialectical thinking as having come
up short, but rather as necessarily incorporating the timed acrobatic dynamic pose within a
greater temporal logic.
One can see a direct lineage starting with these theatrical influences-motivated by the
actors' constrained, trained and timed poses-and ending with Eisenstein's films, to the point
indeed where in Ivan the Terrible (1944) actors "complained that, because he required them to
turn themselves into the exact shapes he held in his own mind, Eisenstein's approach to directing
caused them not just mental, but physical agony" (Nesbet 174). Timing of the gesture motivates
both facets, so that closely controlled movements in space occasion a temporal uniformity. The
well-timed and well-posed gesture stands at a dialectically rational limit; the body's trained
posture embodies a regulated image of thought (a "fruitful difficulty"), one that directly
systematizes its movements.
Despite the significance Eisenstein accords to the timed and controlled gesture, he also
emphasizes its place within a larger dialectical scheme. Editing, music, mise-en-scene and
differing camera set-ups must work in concert with gesture. To render pathos, it is not enough
for characters merely to adopt ecstatic poses: "The simplest 'prototype' of similar imitative
behavior will be, of course, a figure behaving ecstatically on the screen, that is, a character seized
by pathos, a character who in one sense or other is 'beside himself" (Eisenstein, Nature 28).
The filmmaker must move beyond this simple "prototype" by rendering the pathetic in camera
angles and decoupage. For instance, on the interplay of camera and Ivan's gestures, Eisenstein
underscores what happens when this interplay departs from a coordinated framework of
Mentally fixing, as it were, a "card index" of the suitable angles for Ivan, the shooting
must pass strictly through these camera setups, quickly slipping by and not falling into
those "danger zones" where the figure departs from the plastic canon once established for
the film. (Nature 281)
All filmic elements congeal around an idee fixe, carefully constructed to render ecstasy. Without
this control, the film runs the risk of "falling into those danger zones," the ephemeral and
accidental moments valorized by Bazin in his reading of Rossellini.
Having finished shooting, Eisenstein then edited image and sound according to the scene's
rhythm. In turn, this rhythm affects Eisenstein's own disposition towards the image, and his
behavior and mood become animated by the tenor of the sequence. Writing about audiovisual
editing, Eisenstein confesses:
For no montage can be constructed if there is no inner "melody" according to which it is
composed! This melody is often so strong that sometimes the whole rhythm of one's
behavior is predetermined on days when one is editing scenes according to the sound. For
example, I remember very clearly the "wilting" rhythm in which I carried out all my
everyday activities on the days when editing "Mist" and "Mourning for Vakulinchuk" (in
Potemkin ):--in contrast to the days when "The Odessa Steps" was being edited:
Then everything flew head over heels, my gait was precise, relations with my
domestics-stem, and conversation-sharp and abrupt. (Nature 333)
No doubt Eisenstein hoped viewers would imitate his own demeanor, passing from the "wilting"
rhythm and affect characteristic of the "Mourning for Vakulinchuk" sequence to the explosive,
"head over heels" posture elicited by "The Odessa Steps." The work of mourning primes
viewers for the moment when they can "jump up in their seats," that is, when they can directly
sense and thus mimic pathos as dialectical principle.
To accomplish this effect on the viewer, Eisenstein emphasizes the necessity of a regulated
gait, whether "wilting," "precise" or "ecstatic." In this regard, Jacques Aumont's analysis of
Eisenstein's montage notes the importance of a controlled pacing. Aumont writes, "Eisenstein is
the one who knows-who knows how, when, and at what pace to make it known to the spectator.
He is one step ahead of the spectator, just far enough to ensure that he is calling the shots" (141).
In this formulation, the "knowing" Eisenstein certainly resonates with the Lacanian Other, or
"subject supposed to know." I would stress, though, that here a game of "follow the leader"
appears at stake. To make dialectical movement accessible to viewers, the avant-garde director
must take the lead and scout ahead. The filmmaker's a-priority of the idea must gain the
viewer's proper interpretation and conceptualization retroactively.
As components of rendering pathos, the physical agony noted by Nesbet, the avoidance of
filmic "danger zones," and Eisenstein's demeanor in editing constitute the necessary price to be
paid for dialectical timing. Efficiently figuring the concept, the painful hieratic pose develops a
"picture-thinking" in synchrony with Revolutionary aims and timing. As embodiments of the
overall Idea, static shapes constitute "way stations" along the road of thought and political
action. We are not yet at the ec-static moment in Eisensteinian thinking, its fundamentally
dialectical character. Nonetheless, the breaking down of acrobatics into coordinated movement
and timed postures plays a significant part. As renderings of dialectical thought, they visually
display its oppositional effects and ensure that the dialectic will arrive in a timely fashion.
Yet, for Eisenstein movement possesses the ability to transmute figures in ecstatic and
explosive arrangements. Here, Eisenstein establishes a fundamentally hieroglyphic quality to
these transformative moments, so that he once "dreamed of a theater 'of such emotional
saturation that the wrath of a man would be expressed in a backward somersault of a trapeze'"
(Film Form 174). Rather than verbally suggesting meaning, the backward flip acrobatically and
efficiently translates the feeling of "wrath."19 As a rebus, the head-over-heels tumble evokes the
metamorphic power not only of physical gesture to translate the verbal, but also of editing, where
the static pose suddenly, and as if instantaneously, gives way to inversions and reversions.
Gesture possesses the possibility of transforming the senses in synaesthetic arrangements; it also
figures as one component in a greater scheme of edited conversions.
These verbal/visual interplays or conjunctions form the early basis for Eisenstein's
understanding of editing and the filmic. For him, film as art begins with editing, which other
hieroglyphic art forms legitimate in his argument. Tracing a genealogy of edited forms in art
history, Eisenstein returns to the hieroglyph in Japanese poetry and finds a precursor to cinema:
The point is that the copulation (perhaps we better say combination) of two hieroglyphs of
the simplest series is to be regarded not as their sum, but as their product, i.e., as a value of
another dimension, another degree; each, separately, corresponds to an object, to a fact, but
their combination corresponds to a concept. From separate hieroglyphs has been
fused-the ideogram. By the combination of the two "depictables" is achieved the
representation of something that is graphically undepictable. (Film Form 29-30)
Each hieroglyph represents a fact, neutral in meaning and affective force. Yet when coupled
with another equally neutral fact, a process of multiplication or squaring, instead of addition,
19 Eisenstein revives the cinema of Melies, who similarly emphasized a hieroglyphics at work in hieratic poses.
Hieroglyphic bodies not only deflate realist representation, which is underpinned by three-dimensional space, but
also place gesture within a network of transformative poses. I thank Tom Conley for pointing out this connection.
pushes their combination toward a whole. That is, from combination the dialectical whole
emerges as totality irreducible to the combined sum.
Despite this basic and reasoned dialectical reading set forth by Eisenstein, one immediately
detects a fear. Why does Eisenstein replace "copulation" with "combination," thus avoiding the
necessary sexual connotations? Without discussing this passage directly, Nesbet nonetheless
finds that Eisenstein playfully affirms and denies an arranged sexual encounter in order to affirm
a monstrous coupling. Obeying the logic of a phrase on the order of "it goes without saying," the
director, by swerving away from copulation, nonetheless posits "at the heart of intellectual
thought, a scandalous, blasphemous, or perhaps pornographic image: this was the basic rule of
Eisenstein's essays, films, and lectures" (Nesbet 151).
Working in this vein, Nesbet discovers a fundamental heterogeneity in Eisenstein's own
fascinations. On his trip to Mexico, he becomes interested in bullfighting: "The matador and the
bull meet, pierce each other, transform themselves into a complex package where actor and
object, life and death, can no longer be extricated neatly one from the other" (Nesbet 172). For
Nesbet, one can find such "complex packages" in biographical-his sketches, fetishes, etc.-and
filmic material. They contest any reading of Eisenstein as a filmmaker lacking ambiguity. They
also tend to "scandalize" any attempt to see Eisenstein as totalizing all movements under a
Nesbet grasps the transformative, perverse side to Eisenstein's films, writings, and
personal history. Yet it needs to be stressed that Eisensteinian montage, in theory and in
practice, exploits potentially subversive figures toward a non-bodily image or Idea rather than
20 Along with Nesbet, Ian Christie emphasizes the 1930s as means of re-evaluating Eisenstein's career: "Western
scholarly opinion has largely adopted a consensus on the radical 'early' and mystical 'late' periods, corresponding
roughly to the 1920s and the 1940s, separated by little more than a traumatic chasm occupying the 1930s"
("Eisenstein" 184). Christie and Nesbet seek to fill in the "traumatic chasm" by noting Eisenstein's productivity in
writing, sketching and traveling in the '30s.
combining scandalous images without subordination to dialectical thought. Amidst complex
knots of intermingled forms, the extricated Idea nonetheless asserts a greater identity in the end.
Rather than subverting dialectical thought and its seeming totalizing character, the forms
perform, in a necessary movement, a dialectical conversion.
As a point of comparison, one can look at Eisenstein's contemporary, Antonin Artaud,
who conjured a seemingly similar materiality of bodies-also characterized by postures, shapes
and so on-for hieroglyphic inscription. Yet in Artaud's work, materiality glides into the
uncanny, unleashing a figurability beyond the control of montage's subordination. Of a body's
glyphic theatrics, Artaud writes to Gide:
The movements, the attitudes, the bodies of the characters will be composed or
decomposed like hieroglyphics. This language will pass from one sense organ to another,
establishing analogies and unforeseen associations among series of objects, series of
sounds, series of intonations. (qtd. in Derrida and Thevenin 85)
At once hieratic and mutable, the body for Artaud can transform itself into other modes of
writing and produce other legibilities. Endlessly fluctuating between states (solid object, verbal
and pre-verbal glyph), the bodies and their parts lose themselves in metamorphoses of forms and
writing.21 Eisenstein's interest in a hieroglyphic synaesthetic production certainly mirrors
Artaud's, but with some key and necessary distinctions.
Whereas Artaud hopes to explore "unforeseen associations" of language and thought
through hieroglyphic compositions, Eisenstein closely regulates and determines his filmic
constructions. For Artaud, the (sexualized) combinatorial process creates an intermingling of
bodies and parts that tend to metamorphose into other forms. Eisenstein's erotics, mediated by
ecstatic moments, ultimately fit within a controlled, dialectical framework. Playing strange
21 Peggy Phalen's "Performing Talking Cures: Artaud's Voice" concentrates on the unified, yet formless and
mutating, body in Artaud's theater. Drawing upon Deleuze and Guattari, she suggests that the Artaudian "body
without organs" invites a "different way to think about both the present tense and theater's faith in presence" (234).
games of dialectical "twister," his films must nonetheless safeguard altered shapes from
congealing in meaningful and stable positions.
For this reason, montage disentangles figures and maintains their propriety under a
dialectical thinking, however eroticized it may be. Through the juxtaposition of shots and bodily
postures, montage creates ideograms that relieve the hieroglyph of its physical components. At
the expense of graphic elements (or "depictables"), the conceptual order subsumes its material, if
only to repeat the central motif in Eisenstein-the Russian revolution. Material parts must
ostensibly solidify their proper form only at the level of the concept; their "value" lies in
"another (conceptual) dimension," one that stands above their status as objects. Dialectical
montage reigns in "other" possible relations that fashion unforeseen, unforced meanings.
Nevertheless, converting the acrobatic figure's volatility--its effect and affect of shock--is
necessary for a dialectical cinema. Eisenstein's fascination with the chronotrope's metamorphic
and metaphoric potential extends to numerous tropes that translate the transformative,
dialectically relieving power at work in cinema. Eisenstein connects pathos to changes in
The moment of culmination is understood here in the sense of those points in a process
through which water passes at the moment of becoming steam, ice-water, castiron-steel.
This is that same being beside oneself, going out of state, a move from quality to quality,
ecstasy. And if water, steam, ice, and steel could psychologically register their own
feelings at these critical moments-moments of achieving the leap, they would say they
are speaking with pathos, that they are in ecstasy. (Nature 35-36)
The ecstatic moment entails a becoming-other or becoming-different that temporarily sidesteps
dialectical conversion. Yet shifts in qualities gravitate toward an Aufhebung, which functions as
a "spirit in the sky," so to speak.
The explosive potential of hieroglyphic figurations retains a sublating function that tends
to culminate in Spirit. To this relieving end, Eisenstein sets forth a rather curious analogy for
montage, that of the internal combustion engine, which alters liquid into gas:
If montage is to be compared with something, then a phalanx of montage pieces, of shots,
should be compared to the series of explosions of an internal combustion engine, driving
forward its automobile or tractor; for, similarly, the dynamics of montage serve as
impulses driving forward the total film. (Film Form 38)
Industry and nature wed to sublate materiality, with spirit or air as the final station, in Hegel's
terms, of all solids and liquids. One can add that oil and gasoline dynamically spark montage
and lubricate its combinations, endowing the film with its vitality. The analogy of film and
engine works in the following syllogistic manner: the shot compares to a liquid molecule
(Eisenstein asserts, "The shot is a montage cell [or molecule])" (Film Form 53); the proper
juxtaposition of separate shots ensures the molecular transformation, or heating, of liquid into
gas; the film takes on its total character when the filmmaker gauges the proper temperature and
relieves the liquid state.22 And this engine cycles.
Operating through explosive combinations running on a principle of "clean" signification
and totalization, the "total film" assures that the shot passes (on) and is relieved of its liquidity by
becoming gas, and the concept stands above all these fervent firings, hearings and mutations.
Interested in Hegelian cycling and repetitions that totalize, traced by Hegel's "airy" tropes,
Derrida stresses the dialectical movement that passes through organic life to relieve itself in
spirit: "In coming back to itself in the heat, in producing itself as self-repetition, spirit raises
itself, relieves itself, and like gas or effluvium holds itself in sublime suspension above the
natural fermentation" (Glas 235). In his study of Hegel, Derrida attempts to escape a pernicious
22 In "A Rape of the Eye," Tom Conley discerns how Bufiuel's metamorphic forms and segmentations of shots entail
a non-totalizing aspect: "Far from a Hegelian dynamic or an Eisenstein type of montage, Bufiuel's segmentacion
embraces forms that swarm, as might a colony of bees or a mass of worms-vermin-and that give rise to a
vermiculatedd' whole" (203).
logic he sees in his philosophical predecessor. Like Marx, he focuses on the materiality that
ostensibly must be subsumed during thought and history's repetitive march toward absolute
knowledge. For Derrida, thinking the material leftovers of Hegel's dialectical movement allows
him to avoid its totalizing assimilation of thought.
If I include Derrida's reading, I do so not to continue his critique of Hegel. Instead,
Derrida's insights support my assertion that Eisenstein owes much to the German philosopher.
By aligning himself with a Hegelianism, Eisenstein's art of montage necessarily renders its
materials to spirit. How do Eisenstein's films accomplish this raising or heating? One can
discern the sublating movement in its narrative, figurative and formal articulations.
Gilles Deleuze's analysis of Eisensteinian montage takes as its principle the passage or
leap from the "organic" to the "pathetic." Spirals and squares animate his reading, in which the
dialectical process prompts a leap to higher levels of the spiral. Deleuze writes, "The organic
was the bow, the collection of bows; but the pathetic is both the string and the arrow, the change
in quality and the sudden upsurge of the new quality, its squaring, its raising to the power of
two" (Cinema 1 35). In his brief analysis of Ivan the Terrible, Deleuze finds one such "bow,"
one "end in the twist of the spiral," and the subsequent beginning of a new stage. "This
dialectical composition may be seen [...] in particular with the two caesuras which correspond to
Ivan's moment of doubt-first, when he examines his conscience beside his wife's coffin, and
then when he pleads with the monk" (Cinema 1 34). For Deleuze, the figure of the bow primes
the leap to another dimension. Yet instead of retrieving dialectical articulation from the film
form itself, Deleuze finds "dialectical composition" in characterization ("Ivan's moment of
doubt") and narrative (Ivan "pleads with the monk"). The bow does not operate, in Deleuze's
example, as dialectical catalyst. Rather, its function is determined retroactively within the logic
of narrative build-up and shift in Ivan's behavior.
To detect the acrobatic chronotrope, in its narrative and formal articulations, I would like
to focus briefly on Potemkin. At first glance, and similar to Ivan, Eisenstein's second film has a
narrative that moves through "bows and arrows." A dialectical ensemble catalyzes Potemkin, in
which the martyred sailor, Vakulinchuk, taken to land and mourned by the Odessa townsfolk,
presents a raising of the one for (and to) the many. After the Odessa steps massacre, the film
relieves the previous two moments, the death of Vakulinchuk and of Odessa citizens, through the
famous rising of the lion (three shots that juxtapose a reposed lion, a partly standing lion and
finally a lion on all fours). Though Deleuze does not pursue this line of investigation in his
reading of Ivan, one can assume that the second moment constitutes a leaving behind of the
corpse, a relieving of the body into spirit, which repeats at another level later in the film. The
burial scene, the site of an interring, allows passage to another level and traces out another ring
in the filmic cycle or spiral.
The transmutation from solid to liquid to gaseous, in the Eisensteinian three-stroke or -ring
system, hinges upon a heating that sublates dead bodies. As the third and final ring of dialectical
repetition, spirit constitutes the culmination of historical and organic life, making sure to leave
nothing behind. According to Derrida, the dialectic only sublates by entombing the remaining
corpse: "The spirit extricates itself from the corpse's decomposition, sets itself free from that
decomposition, and rises, thanks to burial. Spirit is the relieving repetition" (Glas 44). Though
spirit gains its force as movement through the decomposing body, nothing smells odd. Rather,
thanks to a proper burial, spirit extricates and "purifies" itself from its leftovers, whether as flesh
or as odor. An array of such funereal figures litters Eisenstein's cinema, and the filmic work of
mourning ensures that such leftover bodies will attain, and make possible, a greater value "in
Consider how the famous Odessa Steps scene develops pathos through acrobatic
movements while preparing for a sublated violence. This extensive scene contains 158 shots
edited over a 6:45-minute span, yet the opening 14 shots, it appears, determine the others:
movement, camerawork, diagonal patterns and emphasis on the body's limbs motivate an
acrobatics within shots and in Eisenstein's editing. By displaying the transformative powers
cinema possesses, the sequence subjects bodies to torsions and unusual dispositions that evince
dialectical movement. Strained to their limits, bodies undergo a carefully managed and regulated
aggression attained through cinematic means.
The scene begins with the intertitle "Suddenly!" followed by, in very rapid succession,
four shots of a woman violently recoiling her head. Close-ups underscore this forceful reaction,
as if a rifle shot snapped her head backward. Curiously, this gesture appears to be the effect of a
violent assault that ends the scene. In rapid succession (over three close-ups), a sword-wielding
soldier viciously attacks the camera. As if wrapped in a temporal fold, the viewer becomes
transformed retroactively into the helpless victim that begins the sequence. To underscore this
paradoxical temporal shift, close-ups and soft focus eliminate clear spatial demarcations, as if a
violent history passed between any images, as well as between screen and viewer, regardless of
their temporal sequencing.
After the four brief close-ups, a medium shot follows, in which a legless man moves from
the frame's upper left to lower right. As the shot continues, a parasol, its tip aimed directly at the
viewer, approaches and consumes the screen. This moment resonates not only with the assault
on viewers discussed above, but also with the final shot of the film, in which the battleship's
prow plunges toward viewers. Tips of swords, parasols and later the surging Potemkin coupled
with low-angle close-ups of the face stress aggression directed toward an upper body that will
turn head over heels in the next series of shots.
Shot 6 picks up temporally where shot 5 left off. To establish continuity Eisenstein again
shows the legless man, this time entering from the top of the frame, descending downward,
pausing to perform a 360-degree turn, and then resuming his descent. Shot 7, a deep-focus long
shot taken from the top of the steps, places a dark statue in foreground and the fleeing masses in
the background. With the torso only visible, the statue's right arm extends horizontally with its
palm turned upward. A symbol of Tsarist Russia, the statue appears to sanction the massacre by
gesture. Yet it also figures the sequence's slow progression down the body, from tips and heads
in shots 1 through 5 to torsos in shots 6 and 7.
By contrast, shot 8, medium in length, displays the legs and feet of frantic Odessans
running from upper left to lower right. A woman, initially seated, gets up and contrasts the
previous trajectory by fleeing from upper right to lower left. A long shot from the bottom of the
steps follows, depicting on a massive scale the event's frenzy and chaos. It also spatially
opposes the previous long shot, in which the motionless statue stared down upon the victims,
forming another bookend internal to the sequence. By underscoring the lower half or the totality
of the body, these three shots prime the acrobatics that will ensue.
Shot 10 shows in medium close-up only knees, which begin to fall from upper right to
lower left, contrasting the upper left to lower right diagonal of the steps. Shot from above, shot
11 reverses the previous perspective as another man falls u_ the stairs as his knees buckle. A
sharp downward tilt underscores the discontinuity, which violates the 180-degree rule, in relation
to shot 10. A medium close-up, shot 12 resumes where shot 10 left off. But discontinuity
prevails again with the figure's knees now collapsing from left to right, as opposed to right to
left. Finally, shot 13 repeats, in a sort of "instant replay," the previous movement, this time in
Throughout the opening shots of "Odessa Steps" Eisenstein accentuates, from a variety of
angles and diagonal movements, acrobatics as chronotrope. He does so, in part, to oppose their
movements to those of their oppressors. Later in the scene, Eisenstein emphasizes the soldiers'
legs and their mechanical cadence. This controlled pace contrasts not only with the chaos of
bodies hurtling down the stairs, but also with the (legless) statue/torso. Figuratively, the soldiers
carry out the dirty (foot)work endorsed by the head as State. The statue's outstretched arm will
find its reverse corollary in victims, particularly the mother of a slain child, who supplicates to
the faceless Cossacks.
In shots 5 and 6, the legless man, who will later be doubled by another legless man with
crutches, figuratively witnesses his detached legs cave in later, in shots 8, 10, 11 and 12. Legs
depart from "whole" figures to perform in fragmented acrobatics of twisting, turning, falling,
buckling and so on. The differing angles, sudden downward tilt and discontinuous editing, as in
the transition from shot 10 to 11, underline the performative gestures of those victimized by the
The fragmented body parts prime a reassembly in three shots that juxtapose a statue of a
lion reposing, then rising to its feet and finally standing on all fours. These three shots function
to sublate the Odessa Steps slaughter by reversing the downward trajectory of violence. The
upward movement of the lion, achieved through editing, inspires thoughts of a "raised
consciousness" and ensures a proper burial for the Odessa victims. As such, the transition
recuperates totality and regulates the meaning of the Odessa Steps sequence. It re-appropriates
the previous fragments, the acrobatic movement of legs and hands, into a whole. In this sense, it
constitutes, if only temporarily, a "way station" within dialectical movement. Charney sums up
this movement by invoking terms similar to those employed here:
As Eisenstein indicated, the sign that began in a moment of originary inscription does not
simply spin off into the future but is reevoked in a specifically configured later moment
that (re)appropriates it. This moment regulates wandering drift as it forms a way station on
the road to political change. (137-38)
I tend to agree with Charney's assessment that the future recovers and regulates, thus totalizing,
the past sign. His emphasis on drift as chronotrope of/for Modernism, which he then applies to
Eisenstein, signals where acrobatics, witnessed in fragmented gestures, "floats" in the ether
above a Hegelian dialectical drama.
Despite the regulating and sublating function the rising lion enacts, this "acrobatic" figure
ultimately forms a moment of pathos. Thrown out of itself, each position clearly expresses
ecstasy. In this sense, the transformed lion stands as a Janus-like figure. One face turns toward
the Odessa Steps massacre and relieves, or raises, its fragmentary, downward spiral of violence.
The other face forms yet another moment of ecstasy to be recuperated later, when jubilantly
raised fists and cries of "Brothers!" ensue from the Potemkin seamen:
Over the heads of the battleship's commanders, over the heads of the tsar's admirals of the
fleet, finally over the heads of the censors of bourgeois countries surges the fraternal
"hurrah" of the film as a whole, just as within the picture the feeling of fraternity flies from
the mutinying battleship over the sea to the shore. (Eisenstein, Nature 13)
The raised voices, anticipated by the rising lions, determine the basic elements of meaning,
revolution and fraternity, but in another dimension, hovering "over the heads" of the actors of
Raised to the level of spirit floating above history, the film resonates with the Hegelian
principles discussed throughout this chapter. Along similar lines, Werckmeister's central
critique of Eisenstein resides in the director's fundamental Hegelianism: "(Potemkin) is a
'victoriously drawn picture of defeat', an interpretive presentation of [. .] the 'tendency' of
history, that vindicates temporary failure as a sacrifice on the advance to final victory" (45). One
can add that a successful sacrifice must end with a proper burial to assure dialectical repetition as
relief and history as Spirit's timed movement. The timed-out movements of montage and
narrative sequencing spread an overly determined temporality across Eisenstein's films. Timed
to the beat of the dialectical, edited compositions guarantee that the dialectical film form
converts its material. Yet the affect lodged within the dialectical core of the interval obeys a
different logic. Never present, the ecstatic interstice nonetheless logically regulates Eisenstein's
filmic time, its relief into Spirit.
Inhabitants of the film/time circle have produced as many dispositions as time allots. For
Eisenstein, inventing a novel thought-image entails a radical gesture, because film gives time to
be thought. The trapeze artist's glyphic function evinces dialectical inversions and reversions; it
glides and somersaults to the rhythm of a revolutionary reality. Through the trapeze's
simultaneously well-timed and aberrant movements, Eisenstein summons a differentiating force
that recovers history in dialectically timed poses. The next chapter will test the theories and
films of Andrei Tarkovsky in light of an equally provocative vital force of time and body. Issues
of agency and history, concerns that underpin Eisenstein's chronot(r)ope, will re-emerge in
Tarkovsky, who foregrounds, like his Russian predecessor, body and gesture as an (un)timely
THE GIVEN OF TIME IN ANDREY TARKOVSKY' S THE SACRIFICE
I am convinced that Time is reversible. At any rate it does not go in a straight line.
(Tarkovsky, Time 122)
The second chapter traced Sergei Eisenstein's avant-garde theories of cinema in relation to
the acrobatic somersaults that serve to determine and define them. As a cinematic figure, the
acrobatic gesture bears witness to a provocative dialectical chronotope. Ambling between theory
and practice, Eisenstein's figure marks a revolutionary moment in history, not to mention in film
theory and film history. It attests to the socially and politically transformative powers that filmic
time and gesture possess equally; it also provides coordinates for mapping Eisenstein's complex
theorizations of a dialectical cinema. Through his writings and films, Eisenstein hoped that
cinema, based in dialectical theory, could not only spur an alternative filmmaking practice but
also change the quality of our world. Committed to a revolutionary politics, the acrobatic figure
marks classical cinema as one of its most vital forces. In other words, acrobatic gesture
foregrounds the body as site of political agency. This body can modify our world, and its health
and vigor evince the power of the dialectic to shape history.
Like his Russian predecessor, Andrey Tarkovsky placed tremendous faith in gesture. His
last film, The Sacrifice (1986), exhibits a profound concern for what Tarkovsky perceives as
human sickness. A physician of culture, and not its patient, Tarkovsky treats physical maladies
as symptomatic of a more profound spiritual and ethical illness.23 Tarkovsky's diagnosis: the
loss of spiritual values has condemned the world to suffering constant technological threats that
range from Chernobyl to nuclear catastrophe. Thus, Tarkovsky's gesture of sacrifice differs
23 Illness pervades Tarkovsky's work, but I argue, following Deleuze's reading of writers, that the director figures as
filmmaker-cum-physician: "The writer as such is not a patient but rather a physician, the physician of himself and of
the world. The world is the set of symptoms whose illness merges with man" (Essays 3).
considerably from the Eisensteinian acrobat. Whereas Eisenstein places all gestural movement
and its temporal articulations within a dialectical structure that aims toward a future, and thus
derives agency from dialectics, in The Sacrifice Tarkovsky emphasizes the sacred, redemptive
power of gesture to heal the world.
Although Tarkovsky's characters often suffer debilitating fits and afflictions that rob the
body of its capacity to act, action still possesses the power to transform. However, Tarkovsky's
notion of agency does not follow mainstream filmmaking convention or that envisioned by
Eisenstein's revolutionary politics. Instead of the hero imposing a decisive change, as implied
by Deleuze's action-image, the Tarkovskian protagonist suffers and fears events that overwhelm
him. When he does act, he does so symbolically, invoking a "higher" power that conventional
heroes do not possess. In The Sacrifice, this power is represented as a gift; only by performing
an act of self-sacrifice can the body restore world order.
The narrative develops around a family gathering, celebrating the father's (Alexander's)
birthday. As the day unfolds inside the isolated country house, we soon learn that nuclear
catastrophe is imminent. A loud rush of fighter jets is heard overhead, an occasionally garbled
television message crackles a dire announcement, and a sudden loss of electricity intervenes.
Brief cutaways to panic-stricken victims fleeing through scattered debris give clues that a third
world war is happening. To ward off the terrible event, Alexander performs two redemptive
acts. First, after his friend and soothsayer Otto claims that making love to Maria, a servant and
so-called witch, will save "everything," Alexander heeds his male companion's suggestion.
With trepidation, he pays her a visit and engages in an awkward coupling. Second, Alexander
prays to God and vows to sacrifice everything that binds him to the world, including his power to
When the disaster has been averted--though it is unclear whether it even began--Alexander
makes good on his promise. He sets the family home ablaze and renounces speaking, only to be
shuttled away by ambulance in front of a distraught family. The film ends ambiguously as
Alexander's son, Little Man, returns to the tree the father and son had planted together. Tending
to the sapling, Little Man, mute throughout the film, finally speaks: "In the beginning was the
Word? Why is that, Papa?" By emphasizing child and tree, the final shot nonetheless achieves
closure by echoing the credit sequence, which showed Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi, in
such a way that the blessed infant and blossoming tree are at the center of its focus.
Between beginning and end, the body evinces strange dispositions, as in Alexander's
daughter, Marta, in slow motion chasing chickens through the house, his wife Adelaide's
hysterical breakdown, Otto's fainting spell, and Little Man's nosebleed and muteness. In
addition to and often through the characters' unconventional actions, the film form often
develops an uncannily oneiric quality. Verdant landscapes intermingle with sepia-toned
versions, and black-and-white images emerge seemingly from nowhere. Each type of image
implies a distinct mode of reality, yet the film complicates any clear reading. Viewers are left
wondering whether this is a recollection, a dream, or a figment of a character's imagination. In
which tense do these images occur? How do the unusual gestures relate to these indefinite
Temporal modes and narrative actions are linked ambiguously in The Sacrifice.24 Maya
Turovskaya quite astutely points out that conventional narratives often employ flashbacks and
fantasies to justify a character's decision in the present. Tarkovsky significantly alters this mode
24 Michael Dempsey associates this ambiguity in The Sacrifice with "trance films," in its use of "slow, dreamlike
pacing created with large, static tableaux, stately camera movements, and an extensive use of classical music" (13).
of narration and its use of time by vaguely linking subjectivity as source of action. Turovskaya
In this [Tarkovsky's] chronotope the past always exists on an equal footing with the
present; the world of the imagination coexists with the real world. It would not be an
exaggeration to say that there are as real and as present as the elements of the actual plot.
Here Turovskaya employs the concept of chronotope as narrative function, rather than directly
linking it to gesture. She differentiates the "equal footing" of past and present, imagination and
real world, from cause-and-effect buildups that use the past to explain the present and a
character's subjectivity to justify his or her decisions.
Other commentators and Tarkovsky himself tend to read, quite rightly, Alexander's actions
as spiritually symbolic, rather than those of a conventional protagonist. As a teacher and essayist
wracked with metaphysical doubt and melancholy, Alexander lacks the clear decisiveness and
stable identity of mainstream film heroes. He is a man of many words and few deeds. In his
own mind, weakness muddles his thoughts, because initially he cannot even imagine an
appropriate response to our dreadful condition and instead wallows in self-doubt. In this regard,
Alexander figures as a typical Tarkovskian protagonist, like Stalker or Andrei in Nostalghia
(1983). All three seek spiritual solutions to the overpowering forces that render them physically
and spiritually frail.
Reflecting on the weak characters populating his films, Tarkovsky wonders, "Why are
plots in which people win by far the most common, in literature, theater and film?" (Time 290).
Tarkovsky answers his own question to open new narrative possibilities: "Stories of failure could
well be a fruitful new departure in art" (Time 290). In citing the promising advantage of failure,
of actions undertaken by the hero-as-feeble, Tarkovsky invites speculation on Alexander's own
status as powerless. In contrast to the conventional hero who drives the narrative forward,
Alexander suffers from a lack that suspends any and all narrative motion.
Deriving their readings from Tarkovsky himself, and thus problematically reinstating
auteurist analysis, many commentators have attempted to explain the unexpected behavior of
Tarkovsky's characters, such as Alexander. Lacking narrative significance, a group of
paratactically positioned fainting spells, nosebleeds, hysterical fits and his final sacrifice figure
such moments. Prompted by Little Man's (Alexander's temporarily mute son) sudden
nosebleed, a trait shared by numerous Tarkovsky characters, Vida Johnson and Graham Petrie
contend, "The repetition of unusual physical characteristics or actions from film to film leads us
to consider other 'meanings'" (219), those presumably not bound to narrative convention.
In a similar vein, and apropos of the "heroes" in the filmmaker's last three films, Stalker
(1979), Nostalghia, and The Sacrifice, Mark Le Fanu sees conventional agency questioned by
Tarkovsky: "But in 'late' Tarkovsky we are met with something that can only be described as an
elevation of powerlessness, a hostility to conventional action, a quietism" (96). Irreducible to
realist representation and lacking narrative impact, powerlessness figures as one possible "other
Johnson and Petrie propose yet another meaning, bound to Tarkovsky's interest in
Characters fall, stumble, and trip a great deal, usually as a prelude to some form of self-
discovery, spiritual enlightenment, or change of circumstances; the fall may also imply that
they need to learn the humility that most of them initially lack. (219)
For Johnson and Petrie, like many others, the unusual bodily attitude-stammering, falling,
stumbling, tripping--points to a spiritual sickness inhabiting the body.25 As Hippocrates argued,
25 It's worth noting here that stammering rarely appears in cinema, but like falling down, Turovskaya treats it as a
spiritual impediment. She asserts that in Mirror, "Stuttering [exists] not only as a physical handicap, but as the
the epileptic fit constitutes a sacred malady (Virilio, Aesthetics 30). This illness finds its source
not in somatic or mental causes, but rather in the person's lack of proper moral strength. To
follow this reading, when Alexander and Otto suffer black-outs, it is clear that they figure the
body as deficient in spiritual matters.26
The body thus exhibits spiritual weakness, and not simply physical or mental
powerlessness. Without contesting the validity of these interpretations, the view observes that
the body also evinces a unique relationship with time. By means of gesture, it expresses the
connection Tarkovsky makes between spirituality and temporal disjunction, what the director
believes to be the source of contemporary illness. For Tarkovsky, the body's disposition,
marked as an effect of time, both manifests our current condition, as well as significantly alters
our times. The body thus functions simultaneously as symptom of our plight and agent of
Alexander's body and mind are so precariously at the edge of despair that he suffers from
time itself. In his case, fainting spells for Catherine Clement symptomatically mark when time
becomes excessive, or too much for a body unable to withstand its pressure: "Then it is a
sickness that, unlike somatic sicknesses, is caught at every moment. Each time it is a new attack,
a new bout. A bout of what, may I ask? questions the doctor. A bout of time" (101). For
Clement, philosophers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, despite their obvious differences, invent
expression of a dumbness of the spirit, a wound to the individual's inner life" that art can "cure" (80). Curiously,
stuttering will reappear in my analysis of Abbas Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees, but not as a "dumbness" of
spirit cured by the artist, but rather as symptom of trauma and its unique relationship with time.
26 Le Fanu echoes this prevalent interpretation: "The piercing gaze of the cinema is not, primarily, in Tarkovsky's
work, the search for psychological truth, so much as a search for what he terms 'spirituality'. He seeks out the
evidence, in the human, of the divine" (52).
"ruses" and tactical relationships to time that ward off this metaphysical illness.27 They imply a
philosophical health, but one not bound to possessing physical or mental wellbeing; rather, a
more profound vigor, bound to dispositions of time, animates their writings.
If Tarkovsky was drawn to Hamlet, and staged a production of the play, one can conjecture
that the prince's own malady, "the time is out of joint," resonated with Tarkovsky's own views.
When interviewed about Shakespeare's character, Tarkovsky asserted, "Hamlet took his revenge,
as we know, in order to set right a time that was 'out of joint'. It would be nearer the truth to say
he did so in order to embody the idea of self-sacrifice" (Time 378). As an act of love and of
faith, Hamlet's gesture of self-sacrifice doesn't linger in the foggy recesses of a time long past.
It still possesses urgency today, because for Tarkovsky (our) time is still out of joint. Today, the
threat of nuclear disaster forms one relevant symptom of this dislocation, and Hamlet points the
way to re-thinking self-sacrifice as ethical act.
Tarkovsky further discusses Hamlet's act to address our current predicament, arguing, "It
is obvious to everyone that man's material aggrandizement has not been synchronous with
spiritual progress" (Sculpting 234). Thematically, synchronizing materiality and spirituality
constitutes the motivating force behind The Sacrifice, and one can locate Tarkovsky's
chronotope in the tension between both worlds. This chronotope is expressed primarily in the
actions of the protagonist, Alexander, who acutely senses both facets.
On the one hand, he is afflicted with "time sickness," the non-synchronization of worlds,
which instills in him a sense of duty and responsibility.28 As opposed to Eisenstein's vigorous
2 Like Clement, Deleuze notes that "what separates them [Nietzsche and Kierkegaard] is considerable, evident and
well-known" (Difference 5), yet both philosophers orient thought toward a "p....i.. _'." of philosophy, recognized in
their treatment of illness as problem of and for thought.
28 Suffering time-sickness motivates other Tarkovsky films, most notably Nostalghia, which Tarkovsky made in
Italy before going into permanent exile. Peter Green notes that Nostalghia's "hero," a Russian temporarily exiled in
Italy, is "sick at heart" and "dies of his illness far from home: nostalgia as a sickness for another place, another time,
athletics, this bodily attitude exhibits a (temporal) weakness or suffering, glimpsed in the
characters' often unusual postures-sudden collapses, hysterical attacks, brief moments of
levitation, and the protagonist's final act, the sacrifice of his worldly possessions and power to
speak. On the other hand, Alexander seeks to perform a restorative gesture that will
miraculously re-align time. Like Hamlet, Alexander thus makes a gift of himself in order to
"correct" our disjunctive time.
Central to the argument of this chapter is the hypothesis that The Sacrifice fashions an
aberrant chronotope characterized by materialism and spiritualism as distinctive flows of time.
From Tarkovsky's perspective, these separate flows of time must be synchronized, or at
minimum be brought into rhythmic harmony. Aligning these two temporal flows necessitates
novel gestures and bodily attitudes, so that the Tarkovskian chronotope animates a tension
between body as stricken by time and body as redemptive force. Unlike the classical movements
organized and justified by the dictates of plot or in Eisenstein's case, revolutionary
transformation, these gestures demonstrate rather unusual symptoms. They attest to a temporal
sickness indicative of Tarkovsky's unique sense of time. If one must heal a strangely afflicted
body and world, then the "cure" must hit directly at the cause of this unique illness, time itself.
The filmmaker's own theoretical writings reveal as much. They define the traits of what I
would like to call Tarkovsky's "chronotopic imagination." To discern its contours it is useful to
bring in other texts, most notably Clement's Syncope and Jacques Derrida's Given Time, to
elaborate the director's relationship of gesture to temporality. The immediate goal will be to
outline Tarkovsky's theories of filmic time, which will in turn provide the basis for discussing
another state, so severe as to amount to a disease-a sickness unto death" (111). For Tarkovsky, the exilic
experience involves not simply a spatial displacement, but also a temporal one ("another time"). In his second-to-
last film, Tarkovsky juxtaposes different times that profoundly haunt Andrei.
The Sacrifice. At the same time, Tarkovsky's criticisms of Eisenstein prove useful in
differentiating two directors who, despite encountering very similar institutional difficulties
while working in the Soviet Union, fashioned two of the most intriguing (theoretical)
chronotopes in film theory.29
Tarkovsky produced a fairly homogeneous theory of cinema, published in English as
Sculpting in Time, the title of which says much about his chronotopic concerns. A collection of
insights compiled over many years with Olga Surkova, the book charts the director's ideas about
cinema as art and possessive of a unique relationship with time. While Sculpting in Time offers
compelling interpretations for many of his films, one must also explore other possible readings
that complicate Tarkovsky's own take. In other words, taking Tarkovsky "at his word," as final
arbiter of his work, proves problematic.
My analysis seeks to avoid several potential traps as it carefully skips, like Bazin's figure
discussed in the previous chapter, across the stones set forth by and in Tarkovsky's interventions.
For one, relying heavily upon Tarkovsky forecloses other possible readings that may lend new
perspectives to his films. Second, basing one's approach on a direct correspondence between a
filmmaker's theories and films can only reinforce an uninformed appreciation of the auteurist
myth. Third, Tarkovsky's writing does not prove germane for the textual and theoretical reading
undertaken here. As Johnson and Petrie note, Tarkovsky's ideas tend to center upon Romantic,
and at times mystical, notions of art and of the artist, a stance that does not prove amenable to
deconstructive, psychoanalytic and semiotic approaches to Tarkovsky (31-32). Nonetheless,
Tarkovsky himself formulates a novel conception of cinematic time, one that differs from
29 Both filmmakers encountered tremendous institutional obstacles placed by Soviet authorities. The limited number
of films made by Tarkovsky, seven features in twenty-four years, attested to Goskino's snail-paced bureaucracy.
Despite this shared experience, significant differences between the two Russians must be discerned, and these
crucial disparities pertain to both directors' sense of time and gesture.
Eisenstein's, and gesture, which oddly shares much with his Russian predecessor. Listening to
his voice proves instructive.
The last chapter framed its analysis of Eisenstein via his profound influence on media
theory. Before the emergence of journals like Screen and their emphasis on structuralist,
feminist and Marxist understandings of film, Eisenstein's notion of film as construction vied
with Bazin's theory of film as realism for theoretical preeminence. I sought to place Eisenstein's
ideas on film within this context, while at the same time stressing his unique reading of time.
Tarkovsky's writings intriguingly represent a continuation of the Eisenstein/Bazin debate, with
Tarkovsky's own distaste for Eisenstein's theories and films often propelling Tarkovsky's
concepts forward. Although an apparent theoretical throwback, Tarkovsky frequently returns to
Eisenstein, and implicitly Bazin, to ground his insights. Apparently, Eisenstein's
conceptualization of film and time die hard, so to speak.30 Thus, it is more than useful to weave
together Tarkovsky's concepts with his reading of Eisenstein, especially when it pertains to time.
Tarkovsky often addressed Eisenstein's own theories and films to differentiate his
approach to cinema. By and large, Tarkovsky views Eisenstein negatively, especially when he
takes to task the "literariness" he finds permeating the latter's cinema and theorizations. Echoing
other critiques of Eisenstein, particularly Bazin's, Tarkovsky chastises Eisenstein for having
done away with the image's inherent ambiguity for the sake of fashioning literary concepts.31
30 Robert Ray argues that Eisenstein's lasting influence derives from the director's ability to frame discussion of his
films through his theories: "Eisenstein's sensational films enhanced the prestige of his theoretical positions, which
quickly triumphed over the alternative proposed by the French Impressionists and Surrealists" (3).
31 Noel Burch notes that Eisenstein's aspiration to a prosaic universal language, achieved through intellectual
montage, ironically attained its opposite: "All the great film-makers were deeply preoccupied with this problem in
the late 1920s, but each time an attempt was made to create this 'language' that would function as prose, the result
was, paradoxically, a complete 'poetic' abstraction" (60-61).
Eisenstein makes thought into a despot: it leaves no "air," nothing of that unspoken
elusiveness which is perhaps the most captivating quality of all art, and which makes it
possible for an individual to relate to a film. I want to make films which carry no
oratorical, propagandist speech, but are the occasion for a deeply intimate experience.
This critique hinges on the belief that Eisenstein subordinates the expressive powers of cinema to
the (literary) idea. In Eisenstein's rarefied film art, montage saps the image of life, the potential
"deeply intimate experience," and thus severely restricts audience interaction.
At the expense of ambiguity or elusiveness, Eisenstein codifies "intellectual formulae,"
which justify in advance every shot and edit. As a result, the viewer becomes a mere decipherer
of Eisenstein's "puzzles and riddles" explained in "word for word solutions" (Sculpting 118).
This critique does not stem from an inherent dislike of "intellectualism," of which Tarkovsky
ironically was often accused, but rather from the concept dictating, through literary means, filmic
representation and editing. For Tarkovsky, cinema draws its resources from life and "personal
experience," which each audience member effectively connects to what he or she sees, rather
than literary ideas and figures.
To distance himself from Eisenstein and his ostensive literariness, Tarkovsky avows an
intense aversion to discussing his own films in terms of "symbols" and stable meanings. When
asked by an interviewer, "Is there symbolism in Mirror?" Tarkovsky explains unequivocally of
his fourth feature:
No! The images themselves are like symbols, but unlike accepted symbols they cannot be
deciphered. The image is like a clot of life, and even the author may not be able to work
out what it means, let alone the audience. (Time 369)
Tarkovsky punctuates his response by stating, "The fewer the symbols the better! Symbolism is
a sign of decadence" (Time 369). The decadence Tarkovsky associates with symbolism connects
strongly with Eisenstein's over-determination of meaning.32 As Roland Barthes famously
argued, "the Eisensteinian meaning overwhelms ambiguity" (45).
No doubt Eisenstein functions as a straw man within Tarkovsky's theoretical framework.
Tarkovsky follows suit of other critiques of Eisenstein, most notably Bazin's, which position
Eisenstein's cinema as resolutely unambiguous. Yet I would also argue that a more profound
difference, that of time, distinguishes the two directors' thinking of film. A mixture of Bazin's
belief in the fundamental ambiguity of images with Tarkovsky's notion of cinema as creating
aberrant time, felt in the temporal "pressure" of each shot, points to the core of Tarkovsky's
criticisms of Eisenstein.
For Eisenstein, Hegelian dialectics governs the articulation of shots, which in turn must be
synthesized or converted by and to the Idea. If ambiguity is lacking, it is because dialectical
time, though often aberrant in any specific instance, nonetheless totalizes in the end. By
rendering the dialectic, montage unambiguously assures that a proper totalization occurs and
regulates its dialectical effects. Temporal articulation is determined in advance. For Tarkovsky,
this subordination of time to the Hegelian concept plays into Eisenstein's inability to recognize
the distinct status of film as artwork. Tarkovsky felt Eisenstein mistakenly found the basis for
filmmaking in other art forms, most notably haiku, hieroglyphics and literature, that fashion a
third concept out of its raw material. By doing so, Eisenstein thus ignored the sheer novelty of
cinema introduced at the Lumiere's Grand Cafe screening: "For the first time in the history of the
arts, in the history of culture, man found the means to take an impression of time" (Tarkovsky,
Sculpting 62). Whereas the writer employs words or the painter dabs paints, the filmmaker
32 As many commentators have noted, historical context provides reason why Tarkovsky discouraged symbolic
readings of his films. Ian Christie emphasizes Tarkovsky's "experiences working in Soviet cinema that fuelled
Tarkovsky's intense hostility to any interpretation of his films, at least in the sense of revealing a hidden meaning"
("Introduction" xvii). Turovskaya argues similarly that one can attribute Tarkovsky's "dislike of the term
'metaphor'" to its "hackneyed use of 'heroic' metaphor in Stalinist cinema" (78).
expresses himself or herself in blocks of time recorded by the camera. Hence, to create his or her
art, the director must render distinctly different temporal blocks, the raw material, into a sculpted
Tarkovsky explains this process of sculpting in time:
So the filmmaker, from a "lump of time" made up of an enormous, solid cluster of living
facts, cuts off and discards whatever he does not need, leaving only what is to be an
element of the finished film, what will prove to be integral to the cinematic image.
At first glance, this summary appears rather naive and simple.33 Tarkovsky merely draws from
Bazin's idea of the "fact-image" (the image presents a "cluster of living facts") and then couples
it to a rudimentary definition of editing (the filmmaker "discards whatever he does not need").
Yet the "facticity" of the image does not derive from its ontological correspondence with its
model, as Bazin argued. Bazin contended that with photographic reproduction, its very
automatism creates the condition for ontological mimesis. The photograph "shares, by the very
process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model"
(1: 14). For Tarkovsky the factual nature of images develops from time itself: the camera
records the fact that time flows through the image. The challenge for the filmmaker thus resides
in joining separate temporal fluxes. Tarkovsky's summarizes his role this way: "I see it as my
professional task, then, to create my own, distinctive flow of time" (Sculpting 120-21).
Time flows differently in any filmic image, so that "the cinema has to be free to pick out
and join up facts taken from a 'lump of time' of any width or length" (Sculpting 65). When you
record a space shuttle launch, a family picnic and a baseball game, for instance, time flows in
varying "widths" and "lengths" in each. In the first, technological history and a narrative of
33 Tom Conley has pointed out to me the Tarkovsky's formulation entails an elision of the additive quality of
sculpting, as in adding daubs of clay, and instead problematically focuses on the subtractive nature of sculpting the
medium of film.
progress inhabit the image. Though the actual shuttle launch may be brief, its interest develops
from the image drawing on a deep reservoir of the past (the space race, cold war politics,
previous failed missions, and so on). A family picnic also contains great "depth," since other
recollections and a family's unique history imbue each image with significance.34 A baseball
game, with its slow pacing and between-inning interruptions, displays a greater "width" of time.
In other words, each event possesses its own chronotope. It draws its resources from distinctive
flows of time, ranging from important historical events to intensely personal moments, from life
at its most mundane to life lived in its sacred aspects.
In Tarkovsky, the pressure of time that "runs through" shots, as well as sequences, often
assumes an ambiguous shape. If a film like Mirror (1975) is called "poetic," this is due to the
multifarious modes of reality, from history to the most private, from width to depth, that
temporal rhythm can affect. Turovskaya explains, "The unusual quality of Mirror lies in its
juxtaposition of time scales that are normally subject to different yardsticks of measurement"
(67). Historical time seen in newsreels imbricates with the time of the family, its history, and
synthesizing or syncopating the two pressures provides the unique structure organizing Mirror.
Turovskaya's term "juxtaposition of time scales" misleads somewhat, because the term
juxtaposition invokes Eisensteinian montage. One might say each individual flow (history,
memory, dream, for instance) carries its own force, its own temporal timbre. Despite the
dissimilar nature of these separate reality states and their concomitant temporal pressures, editing
makes them resonate.
34 Of course, the width and depth will necessarily resonate differently for each viewer. Take the case of home
movies. When you are an outsider looking in on another family's videos or vacation photos, they often seem
hopelessly boring and tedious because they have too much width, the same thing over and over, whereas for the
"insider" they possess significant depth and evoke strong memories.
Tarkovsky's films resolutely avoid employing conventional cues that distinguish these
different modes or "time scales" of reality. Eschewing special effects and distortions of the
image to represent dreams, as one may find in Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945), Tarkovsky hints
at his method: "Dreams on the screen are made up of exactly these same observed, natural forms
of life" (Sculpting 71).35 In Tarkovsky's cinema, dreams resemble objective reality, as do
characters' fantasies, reminisces, and flashbacks. As a result, at stake is not the viewer
wondering if this sequence is a dream or reality, actual or virtual. Rather, the pertinent question
is, how does time flow in this shot, and how does it connect with other temporal currents,
whether imaginary or real?
With this notion of sculpting temporal blocks, of creating distinctive flows of time,
Tarkovsky's critique of Eisenstein reaches its crux. Even if Eisenstein's images are
unambiguous and confusedly based in other art forms, his greatest mistake is in subordinating
blocks or currents of time to the concept. On what he sees as a failure of the well-known ice
battle sequence in Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938), Tarkovsky claims: "There is an
inevitable contradiction between the frame itself, devoid of specific time-process, and the
precipitate style of editing, which is arbitrary and superficial because it bears no relation to any
time within the shots" (Sculpting 120). Time cannot flow in the frame because the concept,
determined or illustrated by editing, maintains only an "arbitrary" relationship with time. The
rapidity of cuts invariably forecloses any distinctive internal flow of time within the frame; shots
merely serve as exemplars of a unifying, conceptual time-flow. All tributaries of time feed into
one great river of Time, the dialectical whole.
35 Tarkovsky underlines how Hollywood's representation of dreams most often relies on predictability: "All too
often dreams are made into a collection of old-fashioned filmic tricks, and cease to be a phenomenon of life"
To dissociate his theory from that of Eisenstein, Tarkovsky argues that temporal flow
within the image constitutes the unique status of cinema within the arts: "The dominant, all-
powerful factor of the image is rhythm, expressing the course of time within the frame"
(Sculpting 113). Each shot contains its own temporal "pressure" that neither conceptual montage
nor narrative economy can limit. The justification for expressing rhythm within the shot must
come from elsewhere. Without resorting to a Romantic definition of the artwork, in which art
aspires to attain the sublime, identifying what precisely constitutes this "elsewhere" proves
To help readers grasp what he means by pressure, and its fundamentally excessive
character, Tarkovsky asks a quite simple question, "How does time make itself felt in a shot?"
His answer betrays a complexity of thought:
It becomes tangible when you sense something significant, truthful, going beyond the
events on the screen; when you realize, quite consciously, that what you see in the frame is
not limited to its visual depiction, but is a pointer to something stretching out beyond the
frame and to infinity; a pointer to life. (Sculpting 117-18)
The pressure of time exceeds temporality being reduced to the representational capacity of
cinema, the "visual depiction" located within the frame. As a flowing entity, time passes through
but more importantly outside the frame; it strays from narrative action and realist representation,
not to mention dialectical montage, toward "infinity."
At first glance, Tarkovsky's emphasis on the temporal rhythm within the shot, and
rhythmic extension beyond the shot, ultimately towards "infinity," seems like a critique of
montage. Certainly, Tarkovsky's predilection for filming in long takes might parallel, and thus
reinforce, the validity of this position. Yet Tarkovsky situates editing under the greater force of
rhythm, the poetic interplay of temporal currents bearing varying widths and lengths. In this
sense, editing appears as a by-product of rhythm, rather than its generator:
Although the assembly of the shots is responsible for the structure of a film, it does not, as
is generally assumed, create its rhythm. The distinctive time running through the shots
makes the rhythm of the picture; and rhythm is determined not by the length of the edited
pieces, but by the pressure of the time that runs through them. (Sculpting 117)
In creating a "distinctive flow of time," or a distinct chronotope, editing plays an important role,
but it must be based in amplifying and resonating the temporal rhythm within a shot and between
shots. The opposition between long take and editing is only "superficial," because rhythm forms
the primary temporal articulation in cinema.36
For Tarkovsky, Eisensteinian rhythm retains a predictability that glides between all aspects
of his work: theory, writing, filming and editing. A cipher of this predictability, the acrobat
moves with ease between each factor, producing a homogeneous, if not tightly fitting,
correspondence between theory and filmic practice. But is the same true for Tarkovsky?
Despite formulating a clear definition of filmmaking as sculpting of time, several questions nag
his theories, not because they lack clear elaboration, but rather due to their uneasy articulation
within the films themselves. How can a filmmaker foresee or plan exactly a temporal rhythm?
When does a shot surge toward a different time-scale? Equally important, questions of audience
reception trouble Tarkovsky. How would viewers ever notice, if at all, an image pulsating with a
"distinctive flow of time"? Even though long takes and mobile camera, hallmarks of Bazinian
realism, give the viewer greater hermeneutic leeway, what can guarantee we apprehend properly
the temporal effects Tarkovsky seeks?37
36 Without elaborating how he reaches this conclusion, Deleuze nonetheless points out that for Tarkovsky the
shot/montage alternative is "only a superficial appearance, because the force or pressure of time goes outside the
limits of the shot, and montage itself works and lives in time" (Cinema 2 42). Montage does not, from a position
external to time, determine temporal pressure, but rather results from it.
37 In his writings, Tarkovsky often cites viewer's responses, both positive and negative, to his films. Clearly Mirror
did not take hold with all viewers. One respondent felt, "Anyhow, I think your film's a blank shot. It certainly
didn't reach the audience, which is all that matters" (Sculpting 8).
Tarkovsky's use of objects in The Sacrifice provides one crucial clue to answering these
questions. Consider the glass pitcher of milk that inexplicably jumps from the armoire or the
wine glasses that suddenly begin clinking together. Lacking direct realist explanations for their
motivation, objects appear to move by a pulsating force. As if touched by an unseen ghost, these
vibrating movements constitute remarkably oneiric moments. To heighten the suddenness of
these happenings, Tarkovsky either places them within an extreme long take or immediately
adjacent to one; in addition, their unexpectedness appears all the more dream-like because
actors' movements are kept to a minimum.
Yet these exceptional moments do not derive entirely from an inexplicable narrative
source. As in other Tarkovsky movies, they do have causes, in this case the rumbling sounds of
fighter jets from off. Yet that conventional cause is severely attenuated, or only understood
retroactively. As such, these moments appear oneiric precisely because they cannot be explained
immediately by narrative or realist readings. Green reads this recurrent aspect of Tarkovsky's
cinema through what he terms the "principle of accountability to natural law" (116), or a realist
explanation that could clarify all events. Yet because these moments appear initially so uncanny,
all realist readings will encounter a fundamental ambiguity.
Wine glasses suddenly clink against each other, but natural law retroactively determines
that the fighter planes cause this phenomenon. But why do these warplanes growl over an
extremely isolated estate? Only later do we learn of the impending nuclear holocaust--hence the
patrolling fighters heard from off--but that war only presents itself in black-and-white images,
themselves effects of war and ostensibly Alexander's imagination, and garbled television
messages. The film ambiguously marks these images either as "reality" or in Alexander's (or his
son, Little Man's) head.38 Thus an infinite regression of meaning occurs, and the last term that
could possibly explain the preceding ones is unstable in itself. In other words, an effect explains
an effect explains an effect, and so on.
Part of Tarkovsky's ambiguity thus derives from unusual occurrences tenuously explained
by "natural law," but that determination inevitably requires yet another so-called natural law to
become meaningful. Because these moments have deeply attenuated causes, one cannot
understand them entirely as otherworldly (as if caused by ghosts, for instance), as purely
symbolic (the spilt milk is a metaphor) or as subjective ("it's all just a dream"). Nor can an
immediate realist-inspired explanation elucidate the uncertainty produced by the unexpected
Occupying a "neither here nor there" status, I would argue that these exceptional moments
attest to a schism introduced by the pressure of a disordered time. Temporal pressure introduces
into representation something uncannily other, something unruly. By unruliness, I mean that by
standards of realism, Tarkovsky's chronotope scatters its effects in unpredictability. In this
regard, Turovskaya correctly emphasizes time's heterogeneity in Tarkovsky: "In all Tarkovsky's
work, this 'individual stream of time' is something which pulsates, moves not smoothly but in
jerks, in explosions of meaning, however hard the director insisted upon the amorphousness and
simplicity of his images" (100). As "pulsating" force that progresses not uniformly but rather in
"jerks," time sends objects and people into convulsive states and movements. The pressure of
time both exceeds and undermines any coherent meaningful narrative or realist function
applicable to objects and bodies.
38 Green argues for retaining this tension between father's dream and son's dream as productive reading of The
Sacrifice: "Is the film Alexander's dream of his son, or Little Man's dream of his father; vision of the past or of the
future?" (135). This quandary invites, somewhat justifiably, his conclusion: "Perhaps Tarkovsky's black vision is
but the unhappy dream of a child. Tarkovsky allows us to view the world from both end of the telescope" (135), or
from multiple perspectives.
Like the unexpected movements of objects, the body similarly forms a privileged site
where time's pressure makes itself directly felt and legible. In other words, bodies and
movements appear prey to an indiscernible or attenuated "cause," read neither entirely as somatic
nor as psychological. The pressure of time throws the world off kilter. From out of nowhere, it
makes objects pulsate and bodies suffer unusual afflictions. The body acts as indicator of
temporal rhythm within the shot, while repeated gestures connect broader segments. Gesture
figures prominently when the pressure has become "too much," when one shot or temporal block
is on the verge of passing into another. Tarkovsky thus invites viewers to read movement,
objects and gesture not as narratively or conceptually determined, in a dialectical sense, but
rather as symptoms of time.
Clement's notion of syncope offers a fruitful approach to discerning the relationship
between temporal pressure and its unusual symptoms. In Syncope, Clement works through
syncope, or the fainting spell that interrupts physical time, in order to reconsider several fields of
knowledge. The term resonates in each, and from their consonance Clement draws productive
parallels and correspondences between syncopation in music, poetry, Eastern and Western
philosophy, dance, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Through these uncanny intersections, she
invites readers to reconsider gesture as temporally and rhythmically determined.
Clement employs syncope to disrupt clear notions of "physical time," or the steady,
mastered time upon which Western philosophy depends. In its sudden fits and unusual rhythms,
as in the emphasis on the downbeat in music or elision of syllables in poetry, syncope questions
the ability of philosophical discourse to master time through a rationalized rhythm.39 It marks
39 Clement sees Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, no doubt drawing on his "Nietzsche Contra Wagner," as foregrounding
music as syncope within their philosophies: "With music, it is discontinuity they search for, and hatred of the
subject's imprisonment in a system of thought. It is a syncope of thought. Poor dialectic!" (83).
what philosophy can never meaningfully and temporally recuperate: "Hegelian dialectic is
caused by a depressive spasm: logical movement goes forward by jolts, haunted by the syncopes
that are always possible and that would perhaps halt the logic of history" (62). Syncope always
implies a chronotope that reason, especially Hegelian dialectics, can never totalize or rationalize.
As such, syncope denotes an aberrant time that escapes reduction to physical time, historical
narratives of progress, or the Hegelian logic underpinning philosophical time.40
From a purely theoretical and primarily psychoanalytic standpoint, Briony Fer engagingly
applies Clement's notion to film. Analyzing the encounter between psychoanalysis and hysteria,
most notably their conjunction in Charcot's photographs, Fer posits that syncope marks where
the symbolic (in a Lacanian sense) fails to "hold in place the screen of the image, and as such it
is always in danger of 'losing' time" (77).41 Here, the Symbolic as syntagmatic chain that orders
time isn't so much foreclosed; rather, syncope makes syntax comes off its hinges, deranges it,
and severely endangers the ordered, mastered time of succession. For Fer, following Clement's
lead, falling victim to syncope provides impetus to question philosophical mastery of time.
In artworks, syncope manifests itself in gestures tied to the temporally unexpected: "The
entire art of syncope consists in preparing surprises; and when technique is abandoned, the
40 Drawing upon Holderlin, Clement's primary target here is Hegel, the great philosopher of rendering all events and
times dialectically: "There is chiaroscuro in dialectical mastery. There is no doubt about it: mastering time is the
goal of the dialectic" (80).
41 Working from Charcot's photos, several feminist writers re-visit psychoanalysis and power through the female
hysterical gesture. Janet Beizer, Felicia McCarren and Rae Beth Gordon form the most compelling readings, with
Gordon especially emphasizing cinema and hysteria. For a psychoanalytically oriented reading of male hysteria and
cinema through disaster, see Lynne Kirby's "Male Hysteria and Early Cinema."
42 Arguing for a politics of syncope, Clement affirms similarly of the arrested gaze, "What is necessary is to seize
the moment," so as "to stop the film at a particular image and to blow up the negative. Blow Up. To linger in the
moment of syncope" (117). In citing Antonioni's film, Clement points to the fact that the film still and photography
retain a special relationship with time, representation, and gesture that undermines science's reliance on succession,
of building a coherent narrative, as ground for knowledge. See also Lyotard's The Inhuman, especially the chapter
"Time Today" on Charcot's photographs as instantiating an ontologicall essay on time" (134).
fainting fit occurs when one least expects it; it is an accident; and no one can foretell the day or
the time" (Clement 14). Fainting spells, accidents, the unanticipated embody the effects of
something akin to Tarkovskian temporal pressure. In other words, the too-much of time moves
in jerks and spasms, fashioning unpredictable gestures. In turn, The Sacrifice will establish its
unique rhythm by "preparing surprises" and eroding the stability of "presence."
Early in the film, two syncopic moments overwhelm the body. Fainting spells overcome
Alexander and Otto, the town postman and friend of Alexander. Even though Otto's swoon
occurs after Alexander's, I would like to focus on Otto's collapse initially. His role is minor
compared to Alexander's, the "hero" who suffers a more profound sickness. At this stage, both
share the same symptom, syncopes brought forth by time, but Alexander will ultimately pass
through greater (temporal) ordeals to attain his sacred, redemptive aligning of time.
The film presents Otto as an eccentric, a "holy fool," an attribute given to him that will
partly explain his attack. When meeting Alexander in the first scene, Otto tells his interlocutor
that he has been waiting his whole life, "a long wait for something real, something important,"
but that he also gets "silly notions." Otto then mentions Nietzsche's dwarf, "the one who made
Zarathustra faint," and connects it to a somewhat confused synopsis of the Nietzschean eternal
return. By bringing up Nietzsche's Zarathustra, Otto prepares viewers not only for his and
Alexander's fainting spells, but also Tarkovsky's attempts to treat the duo as doppelgangers.
Throughout the film Alexander and Otto are framed together in close-up, often through a
reflection, which doubles the pair. Similarly, when Otto tries to convince Alexander to visit the
servant witch Maria, a drowsy Alexander confusedly repeats the soothsayer's dialogue.
Giving gifts and making sacrifices also motivates both characters. The birthday festivities
commence when Otto arrives with his gift, an authentic map of Europe from the 1600s.
Touching upon the film's thematics, Otto claims it's a "sacrifice," and that "every gift involves a
sacrifice." The postman proceeds to tell Victor and Adelaide, who are quite impressed with his
gift, that in his spare time he's a "collector. I collect incidents, things that are unexplainable but
true." When asked for specifics, Otto describes one of his prized items, a photograph of a
mother and son, who had died in World War II. Years later the mother had moved away, "far
from her memories," and visited a photographic portrait studio. Upon receiving the print, the
mother was shocked by the developed image: it contained both her and her dead son, who was
eighteen in the picture, but eerily she was her current age.
After providing his captive audience the anecdote's strange payoff, Otto slowly turns
around and then suddenly, violently collapses into a heap. Hesitating for several seconds,
Adelaide and Victor approach Otto. The next shot, in close-up, shows Otto's face with eyes
closed, as if he were dead. As Victor checks his pulse, Otto opens his eyes. Adelaide asks, "Are
you ill?" Otto responds, "No, nothing is wrong." Crawling to a chair, Otto props himself up by
stabilizing his weight against its seat. Holding his pocket watch to his ear, Otto explains his
malady: "It was only an evil angel passing by, who saw fit to touch me." Perplexed, Victor asks
if he's playing a joke, to which Otto replies, "There's nothing to joke about here."
Given Otto's eccentricities, one wonders whether his fall is in fact a stunt or "joke," an
exclamation point added to his rather unbelievable story. At the same time, Otto's explanation,
that an angel touched him, remains unconvincing to its listeners. Whether read as a joke or an
otherworldly encounter, the law of accountability appears stretched toward its limit, the
miraculous. For this reason, Johnson and Petrie argue, "Otto is a deliberately enigmatic figure,
whose sudden epileptic fall is very different from the stumbling that in other films precedes
spiritual illumination" (174). Johnson and Petrie are correct in pointing out that Otto will not
attain spiritual illumination, which they argue for in Alexander's case. I will test that conclusion
in my analysis of Alexander's fall below, but for now Otto remains a crucial, if secondary,
character. While Otto's foibles certainly mark him as an enigmatic figure, his episode functions
to highlight the irrationality of temporal pressure.
Otto's story and black-out provide a foil to Victor, a doctor who no doubt will seek
scientific causes for them. By checking Otto's pulse, Victor naturally investigates a somatic
source for the fall. Despite affirming the contrary, Otto will in fact make a joke when he listens
to his watch, resuscitating the classic Marx brothers' line, "Either this man is dead or my watch
has stopped."43 Both jokes illuminate how reason (represented by Victor) remains unable to
understand nonsense or the irrational; instead, reason seeks scientific, commonsensical causes.
Victor attributes the fall to Otto's idiosyncratic personality, whereas Otto suspects something
else-that physical time stopped suddenly and he was caught somewhere between rationalized
moments, measured in ticks and tocks, in regular heartbeats (the conventional and medical
definition of chronotrope) felt in Otto's pulse.
Otto's strange avocation similarly emphasizes how time and image cannot always be
reduced to commonsensical interpretations, and therefore his hobby implies a division or
disjunction between legible and visible discursive formations. When it comes to time, reason
will only get you so far, but Otto's photograph possesses the uncanny power to overlay
distinctive times, that of the (present) mother and (past) son. The photographic image's inherent
ability to capture instantaneously the present encounters its other, the forgotten or repressed past
43 It is worth noting Otto's status as family outsider, whose so-called prank upsets social order. Clement
underscores this mocking aspect of syncope: "The swoon is a weapon in the social game; it is an evasion, a
mockery," and connects this weapon to "the same world that will produce psychoanalysis: a vaudevillian universe in
which the joke of fainting will at least be taken seriously" (91).
having returned unexpectedly.44 This miraculous imbrication of times comes with a price.
When these two separate times congeal in the photograph, Otto suffers his syncope. His body
senses a temporal schism or pressure, achieved by the supernatural ability of photography to link
living and dead. Like the soldier, he too returns from the dead (Clement notes that syncope
resembles death), from a temporal nowhere.45
Reviving Otto's encounter with an evil angel, the opening shots of The Sacrifice establish
the body as symptomatically marked by the pressure of time; they also introduce Alexander as
powerless in terms of spirituality and action. An unconventional hero, Alexander and his
weaknesses prime viewers for the "too much" of temporal pressure that exerts itself upon him.
Early in the movie, Otto asks him, "Say, how is your relation to God?" Alexander replies, "Non-
existent, I'm afraid." Otto then proceeds to give viewers expository information about
Alexander, who "lectures for the students at the university" and writes essays, but his mood is
also "gloomy," and Otto suggests to Alexander, "You shouldn't grieve so much. You shouldn't
yearn so for something. You shouldn't be waiting like that."
Although slightly baffled by the awkward shift from friendly chitchat to metaphysical talk,
Alexander strongly disagrees with Otto's assessment. Nonetheless, Otto's assertion that
Alexander suffers melancholia soon hits home with Alexander. Moments later Alexander begins
to analyze his, and humanity's, own symptoms. Because technology and power have become
instruments of fear, "We have acquired a dreadful disharmony, an imbalance if you will,
44 Of Otto's inexplicable photo, its uncanny sense of capturing the otherworldly, Jim Leach argues, "This
unexplained phenomenon suggests that even the indexicality of photography, deriving from a technological base
which it shares with cinema, cannot exclude the irrational world which are has traditionally explored" (209).
45 Otto's photo is not any old one, because through the mother's presence it invokes the suffering and mourning
occasioned by war. Which war? Otto never gives a clue, but one would presume World War II. For the mother, her
already dead son returns from the front too late and only in an image. For Otto, who will soon learn of the
impending catastrophe, he collapses too early, figuratively suffering its effects before it even occurs.
between our material and spiritual development." Alexander then claims it's too late to find a
solution and that he is weary of words. A long monologue ensues and leads to self-analysis: "At
last I know what Hamlet meant. He was fed up with windbags. If only someone could stop
talking and do something instead. Or at least try to."
During Alexander's monologue, filmed in long take, Little Man exits the frame without his
father noticing. Initially lost in his thoughts, Alexander discovers he is alone and intently scans
his surroundings for the boy. From off we hear the patter of footsteps gathering steam, and Little
Man suddenly jumps on Alexander's back. Visibly shaken, Alexander drops to one knee; the
camera cuts to the son, blood trickling down from his nose to his shirt. Returning to Alexander,
a medium long shot shows him reaching an arm forward in obvious distress. While looking
straight ahead and with his jaw slackened, Alexander awkwardly grasps for a nearby tree. He
turns to land on his back, as if in slow motion, accompanied by his voice-over: "Dear God,
what's wrong with me?" and finally collapses.
The camera abruptly cuts to a black-and-white image of a courtyard strewn with debris; we
hear a shepherd's call and thunder from off as the camera pans downward to display a wrecked
car, a wooden chair, and water coursing through a small stream. The shot ends on a windowpane
that reflects a city seemingly untouched by disaster. As the pan finishes its downward
movement, we see ostensible blood spatter then two long drips of running toward the top of the
frame. A fade out ends the sequence, and the next shot displays Alexander leafing through a
book of medieval paintings. Alexander notes that the paintings possess "such wisdom and
spirituality" and are "like a prayer. And all this has been lost. We can't even pray any longer."
He then tells his family how happy he is, because he received a telegram from his acting friends,
his fellow "Richardians" and "Idiotists," a reference to his acting Shakespeare (oddly Richard
III, not Hamlet) and Dostoevsky.
By placing Alexander's monologue at the beginning of the sequence and the citation of
religious paintings at its end, Tarkovsky no doubt emphasizes the disparity between materialism
and spirituality. Alexander initially bears witness to his own powerlessness, then finds it
reconfirmed in Victor's gift, the book of paintings/prayers that attest to the fact that "we can't
even pray any longer." Dialogue and image thus provide convenient bookends for the sequence,
but viewers must wonder, what happens in the middle? Why is there no mention of Alexander's
black out when he returns home, and in fact throughout the rest of the film? Where does
Alexander go during his episode? Why do black-and-white images follow his collapse? Why
does non-diegetic sound, the shepherd's call, suddenly intrude on the film?
Before addressing Alexander's metaphysical "plight," I wish to focus on the these last two
issues, the black-and-white images of disaster and the sounds heard from off screen. With only
minimal certainty can one attribute Alexander's fall to the "law of accountability," with Little
Man's playful attack as its cause. Yet the cut to catastrophe's effects is fundamentally
"irrational," because it lacks any narrative or chronological motivation. The shift from
Alexander keeling over to an apocalyptic vision, set off from the preceding shots by its lack of
color, complicates any clear linkage or signification. The edit fashions a sliding effect, in which
rational connections are "in danger of losing time," as Fer's reading of syncope posits.
Sandwiched between two "presents," Alexander's collapse and his scrutiny of the paintings, the
image of disaster constitutes what Deleuze terms an irrational cut, spatially and temporally
In his engaging study of Deleuze's Cinema books, David Rodowick describes the irrational
cut this way:
The interval no longer forms part of the image or sequence as the ending of one or the
beginning of the other. Nor can other divisions-for example, sound in relation to
image-be considered as continuous or extendable one into the other. The interval
becomes an autonomous value. (Time-Machine 13-14)
Opposed to continuity editing or Eisensteinian montage, in which association and collision are
built upon rational (dialectical) edits, the interstice disrupts stable temporal articulation. Instead
of establishing coherent linkages, such as before and after or cause and effect, the irrational cut
retains a temporal autonomy from other images. It marks the pressure of time as moving in jerks
and spasms; it floats between times, where time gets lost or comes off its hinges, as Hamlet
Similarly, sound plays a crucial role in developing the interaction of distinct temporal
flows. One cannot diegetically locate the shepherd's call, which seems to waver between times.
From where, and more importantly when, do these sounds emanate? Claiming provocatively
that the idea of Tarkovsky making a silent film is "inconceivable," Michel Chion identifies the
shepherd's call as "acousmatic," or lacking any diegetic source: "We may define it as neither
inside nor outside the image" (129). In turn, Chion argues that acousmatic sounds and their so-
called presence "are more like invocations," an aspect that "is fairly typical of sound in
Tarkovsky's feature films: it calls to another dimension, it has gone elsewhere, disengaged from
the present" (123-24). The acousmatic call destabilizes the imagetrack and its ability to maintain
control over a coherent temporality.46 As such, the acousmatic marks a temporal schism between
sound and image, the pressure of time having undermined the stable correspondence. (Leos
46 The acousmatic overlays the film's most ambiguous images. Not long after Alexander's prayer, a black-and-
white image shows water dripping inside a house, a figure common in many Tarkovsky's films. We hear it again in
one of the film's most oneiric moments, as Alexander ambles through a landscape of snow and mud. Both images
hover inconclusively somewhere between recollection, fantasy projection, or dream.
Carax, as the next chapter shows, will use sound and image disjunctions to complicate similarly
Despite the indefinite nature of the cut, the film nonetheless invites reading its unruliness
as closely tied to Alexander's subjectivity. Coupled with a challenge to rational time, syncope
contests the stability of a coherent, active subject. Clement's project brilliantly underscores
syncope as (feminist) trope that underlines the interdependence of rationalized time and healthy
body in philosophy and artistic representation. Thought generally models movement upon
notions of health as the easy translation of ideas. In this sense, agency implies a healthy body
and clear-minded subject to precipitate change. In Eisenstein's case, dialectical agency relies on
a body "in shape," able to undergo history's tremendous torsions and acrobatically fit enough to
alter positively historical time. Eisenstein's emphasis on training the body can only underscore
this necessity. Similarly, in Taylorism the consultant incessantly clicks his or her stopwatch to
gauge a body's productivity; finally, classical Hollywood envisions action, or Deleuze's action-
image, as master of narrative events.47 What happens when the body fails to control time, and
instead suffers its unruliness?
Clement begins with a description of syncope and a question pertinent to this study:
Suddenly, time falters. First, the head spins, overcome with a slight vertigo. It is nothing;
but then the spinning goes wild, the ears start to ring, the earth gives way and disappears,
one sinks back, goes away .. Where does one go? (1)
Where does Alexander go, when pressure makes time "falter," and thus overwhelms Tarkovsky's
hero? In what time does Alexander exist? Does he dream this image of disaster, with the dream-
like association of Little Man dripping blood from his chin and the dark liquid sliding down glass
47 Deleuze underscores that writing (and one can conjecture filmmaking) must refigure the athletic body as force:
"All writing involves an athleticism, but far from reconciling literature with sports or turning writing into an
Olympic event, this athleticism is exercised in flight and in the breakdown of the organic body-an athlete in bed"
(Essays 2). An athlete in bed or one undergoing "breakdowns" reinstates a different sort of power or health that
preoccupies the artist.
as our cue?48 Is this what Alexander mistakenly believes will be his last dying thought? An
imagining (or memory) of what will be, tentatively, a future disaster? Or simply a cutaway to
another location, another present, in which nuclear catastrophe is now actually unfolding?
Given that Tarkovsky's law of accountability often retroactively explains events, and thus
turns the temporarily irrational into the rational, Alexander's study of the medieval paintings
appears even more curious. Apparently he suffered no somatic affliction, and instead briefly
dropped out of time, the represented chain of presents that precede and follow. His body thus
occupies the interval, with no linkages that can establish what happened and where Alexander
In any event, Alexander appears to have lost time and lost himself as lucid subject,
suffering the syncope as "an absence of the self' or a "cerebral eclipse" (1). Soon after his spell,
Alexander will articulate his fear of this absence. His daughter Marta remembers his acting
Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, and how on stage he once dropped a tray, "and your eyes were full
of tears." Marta's recollection of Alexander's flub suggests something akin to the
psychoanalytic notion of failed action, in which unconscious sources, and not strictly somatic
ones, temporarily impair physical movement. Alexander claims he had something in his eye, but
he then promptly shifts the discussion to reflect on his dislike of acting.
Alexander asserts that he gave up his nascent career because he felt playing others
embarrassed him, "But worst of all I was ashamed of being honest onstage. It was a critic who
48 In his intelligent study of childhood and Mirror, Alan Wright notes the special place Tarkovsky accords to
children. Drawing on Virilio's notion of picnolepsy, a notion similar to that of Clement's syncope, he avers, "The
child absorbs the affective potency of such violent temporal disturbances and acts as a conduit or conductor for their
energies. To this end, cinema grants the child the role of emissary in the passage from memory to image" (65).
49 To explain such irrational cuts and events, several commentators place them as components of Alexander's
dream. Even though they argue for a distinctly Tarkovskian ambiguity, their readings create confusion by
attributing this so-called dream to varying starting points. One must still explain Alexander's miraculous recovery,
and thus move backward in time, perhaps to the opening credits, to make the dream argument work.
first saw that." Alexander notes how an actor's "identity dissolves in his roles. I didn't want my
ego dissolved. There was something in it that struck me as sinful, something feminine and
weak." Imitating Shakespeare's or Dostoevsky's characters entails the actor becoming other,
which Alexander sees as symptom of weakness. Like his fainting spell, Alexander's clumsiness
on stage attests not to the embarrassment of having spoiled the fourth wall, but rather to an
overpowering sense of loss, of a figurative "identity theft."
The pair time loss/ego loss forms the two coordinates for thinking Alexander's syncope.
To drop out of time means to drop out of oneself, a disposition that possesses two effects, like
two sides of the same coin. On the one hand, his fainting spell can only reinforce Alexander's
repeatedly stated overwhelming sense of powerlessness in the face of materialism's victory. The
ego loss associated with syncope therefore forms one test on his road to recovering spirituality,
or at least aligning the spiritual "flow" with that of the material. On the other hand, syncope
disrupts the ordinary time that has perniciously trapped us in the material. Reason, science and
power capitalize on ordinary time, and syncope presents a potential escape route. Despite
constituting an ordeal for Alexander, syncope allows him to wage his battle, to paraphrase
Nietzsche, against (our) time and hopefully for a time to come.
Ironically, ego loss evinces syncope's greatest strength, something akin to Parsifal's
paradox: "You shall be healed by the sword that smote you." Even though it implies the
disruption of the subject's identity, syncope provides the tools to re-think time, power and
agency.50 To achieve this reconsideration, to work against "action" as health, Clement suggests
50 Following Clement, one could argue that social definitions of health reside in action, which syncope contest at its
most fundamental level. Clement associates the "man of action" with mediocrity, so that "the society we live in
today is deeply, firmly situated under the sign of this mediocrity; it leaves no room for syncope to break out, it acts
and wants everyone to act" i22",\i Alexander is clearly plagued by questions of action, but his status as
unconventional hero, subject to syncopes, makes him an exceptional hero. One must liberate agency from action,
which tends to repress syncope as ethical gesture.
several "strategies of syncope.""51 One such tactic emphasizes weakness conceived not as
"lacking strength," the healthy body necessary for mastering time, but rather as a site of ruses
and refusals. She states, "The world in which I have lived until now idolizes power and force,
muscle and health, vigor and lucidity. Syncope opens onto a universe of weakness and tricks; it
leads to new rebellions" (20).
The world Clement lived in clearly resonates with Alexander's fictional world. Alexander
sees power as devastating a "natural order," so that humankind "has constantly violated Nature.
The result is a civilization built on force, power, fear, dependence. All our 'technical progress'
has only provided us with comfort, a sort of standard, and instruments of violence for keeping
power." All this power instills a profound dread in Alexander, so he prays, "Just let me be rid of
this deadly sickening, animal fear!" To rid civilization of its fear and force, Alexander will
harness a syncopic tactical power and perform one such "rebellion" or "trick." Prayer will not
work, and instead Alexander, buying Otto's pitch, will offer a sacrifice, his sexual encounter
with the witch Maria. Like the fainting spell in which the subject experiences ego loss and drops
from physical time, this sacred gesture will contest rationalized time. In fact, it will capitalize on
temporal pressure, and its aberrant nature, as redemptive power. Due to the preponderance of
irrational cuts, unusual gestures and sudden shifts in time, this quite complex scene must be
described in detail.
Before setting out for Maria's, Alexander is baffled by Otto's proposed solution to
sidestepping catastrophe. Otto makes the case that Maria is a witch, and argues more
unbelievably, "You must lie with her. And if you only wish for one thing at that moment-that
51 In The Practice of Everyday Life Michel de Certeau differentiates strategies, which normalize and regulate space
and the body, and tactics, which open space and the body to creative and plural deviations from strategic operations.
Given her stress on syncope as ruse, I think Clement means the syncope possesses a tactical, differentiating force.
See especially the third chapter on "making do."
all this will be over-then it will be! There'll be not more of it!" Alexander then responds, "But
that's madness, Otto!" and wonders whether his interlocutor is "still having me on with your
Nietzschean pranks?" Without further questioning Otto's ostensibly irrational reasoning,
Alexander puts on his jacket, grabs his revolver and sneaks out of his home.
His arrival at Maria's is equally strange. When the clock sounds three o'clock, an agitated
Alexander implores, "We won't have time." Kneeling beside Maria, he begs her to "save me.
Save us all!" When Alexander puts his head in her lap, Maria notes Alexander's confusion and
offers to take him home. Yet seconds later Alexander affirms his seriousness when, in a medium
close-up, he retrieves the handgun and puts it to his head, stating emphatically, "Don't kill us!"
Though reluctantly compliant, Maria nonetheless undresses Alexander, punctuating each action
with a consoling tone, "I know. It concerns your home. I know her, she is wicked. Don't be
afraid, not of anything, you poor, poor man." All of a sudden, a medium long shot displays the
horizontal couple levitating and rotating. Maria comforts Alexander: "There, there. There's
nothing to fear," as we hear the soft roar of fighters and the shepherd's call from off. "Nothing
will happen to you here." As the camera slowly tracks back from pair, Alexander cries, while
Maria comforts him. They rise in mid air, and the camera stops its movement.
The film then repeats the black-and-white images of disaster witnessed earlier, in which
several people were seen fleeing. As the camera pans downward, the shepherd's call resumes
and an awkward verbal exchange ensues. Maria says, "There, there," only to be interrupted by
Alexander's emphatic pleas, "No! No!" Maria asks, "What is it?" Alex stutters, "I c-c-c-can't."
Here it is noteworthy that Maria repeats words ("there, there" and "poor, poor") and more
importantly Alexander stumbles both physically at the outset of the scene when he keels over on
the bicycle and verbally by stammering the word "can't." As Marc Shell notes, Hamlet connects
speech and gesture to limping:
[Hamlet] requests of the players: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you,
trippingly on the tongue." The meaning of the term tripping has an internal dialectic that
relates to walking and talking. On the one hand, it means "stumbling," "erring." Thus,
one might speak of a tripper as "someone or something that causes stumbling," often with
reference to the mouth or tongue. (171)
Although Tarkovsky does not make explicit reference to Hamlet as a "tripper," one can
conjecture that the director correlates Shakesperean physical and verbal syncopes with
suspensions of time. In this light Alexander's bicycle accident and stammerings do not simply
hinder or delay something from happening in time; rather, they function positively and form
crucial components of a bodily disposition that expresses a disjunctive time.52
The pan downward and interrupted by Maria and Alexander's repetitions ends on Little
Man sleeping on the pane of glass, an extension of the shot seen after Alexander's initial
syncope. Next we see a black-and-white shot of Alexander on his back and what we believe to
be, through dress and hairstyle, Adelaide with her back facing us. A zoom brings us closer to the
woman, slowly turning toward us, and we realize that the woman is in fact Maria. In reddish
tint, the next shot shows Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi, the painting seen in the credits, now
with Maria reflected at its center. Despite the spatial shift to Alexander's home, where the
painting hangs, Maria's voice continues, "It'll soon be over." In a slow motion shot, we see
Alexander's daughter Marta, inexplicably naked and shooing chickens through the house.53 A
tracking movement left reveals Adelaide and follows her to reveal Alexander lying on the sofa,
52 Chapter 5 focuses its analysis in part on stammering and failed actions in Kiarostami's cinema. Kiarostami
situates the stutter within the context of testimony and the re-creation of disastrous events.
53 Clement notes that the technique of slow motion resonates with syncope. Slow motion "stretches out time" and
"dives into all syncopes and makes them manifest" (16). Vlada Petric connects Tarkovsky's extensive use of slow-
motion, which constitute the "core" of his oneiric images, to Pudovkin's filmic definition, as a "close-up of time."
with normal color having returned. The rest of the scene will suggest that everything is back to
normal, as if the disaster had in fact been averted. A call to Alexander's editor confirms that the
world keeps, and has kept, on turning regularly. Alexander will then make good on his promise
to God by performing his sacrifice. Despite Alexander's strange behavior, the film nonetheless
achieves a great degree of closure. After the ambulance carts away Alexander, Little Man
revisits the tree that opened the film.
We should wonder, to which sacrifice does the title refer? Alexander's prayer and its
subsequent sacrifice? Or Alexander's sexual encounter with Maria, which directly precedes the
return to normalcy? The first possible solution rests on reading the film as cyclical, the turns and
returns caused by narrative and thematic closure supporting its validity. His sacrifice would thus
be a consequence (or deed) brought forth by his words, the prayer to God, and can be determined
within a coherent, linear temporality of before (praying) and after (torching the home).
Alexander's actions convert religious faith (prayer) into a sacred act, thereby escaping the
"prevarication he abhors" (Green 133). In turn, all this occurs within an ordered time. The
sacred act restores world order by realigning spiritual and material flows.
The spiritual reading of Alexander's gesture foregrounds the beginning and end as
producing closure. In fact, to gain hermeneutic currency it must bypass the middle portions--the
images of disaster, the irrational cuts, the fainting spells that animate the film. Despite their
interest in Tarkovsky's unconventional aspects, commentators bound to this interpretation
invoke a predictable structure. The film starts with a conflict--Alexander's powerlessness, his
obsession with words-and ends with resolution, Alexander's sacrifice. Along the way,
syncopes merely point to tests of his resolve, and therefore are understood retroactively through
the hero's final, albeit strange, triumph. At the same time, both the beginning and ending are
shot in long takes. Although the long take by nature possesses no privileged relationship to
temporal pressure, these two shots are the most temporally "stable." By their narrative position,
they occur before disaster and after disaster, which has nevertheless been averted in a
But the sexual pact with Maria complicates this reading. The "after disaster," which never
occurred, makes sense within the context of this scene. Green points out the paradoxical nature
of the encounter: "Is this an intermediate answer to his prayers, the response to his vow, or is it
an alternative to sacrifice?" (133). Green concludes, "There can be no room for doubt in
Alexander's mind" (133), because his final sacrificial act performs the action complementing his
words. However symbolic Alexander's sacrifice may be, it still presupposes a lucid subject ("no
room for doubt"). Yet the trouble occurs in the middle. Placing the sacrifice, the restoration of a
natural order, on the shoulders of Maria entails temporal disjunctions and ego loss that
characterized Alexander's earlier fainting spell. Forming the inverse side of Alexander's illness,
the bout of time, this syncope will constitute a temporal ruse.
Like the earlier sequence with Alexander's syncope, this scene sandwiches the black-and-
white images and odd gesture between two presents, Alexander's decision to visit Maria and his
"return" to reality. Yet several elements of this scene leave viewers understandably perplexed.
Why does the sleeping Little Man find himself surrounded by images of disaster? Is this
sequence his dream, as Le Fanu proposes as one possible reading? Why does Maria inexplicably
replace Adelaide?54 Are we privy to what Alexander wishes for, at the moment when orgasm
and thought instantaneously combine to fulfill saving the world? Is this yet another piece for
Otto's collection, or simply one of his Nietzschean "pranks"? Equally important, where does
54 Given Maria's belief that Adelaide is "wicked," and perhaps that Alexander has paid the servant a visit to escape a
dead-end marriage, is this conceivably Maria's fantasy?
Alexander go when he reaches orgasm? When does this event occur? Let me suggest that
Alexander's encounter with Maria performs a sacrifice, rather than "an alternative" to it, as
Green suggests. He offers himself as a gift to realign time, to make the perverted natural order
healthy once again.
In its ambiguous cuts and gestures, the scene enacts the structure of the gift elaborated in
Derrida's Given Time. It's worth remembering that Alexander's ordeal occurs during his
birthday, and his family and friends offer him several presents, including the Seventeenth
Century map, book of paintings, and a miniature of the family home. Signs of love and social
bonds, these gifts circulate within a restricted economy regulated by exchange.55 Any gift must
be reciprocated, but what sort of gift does Alexander offer in return?
Playing with the word "present," Derrida stresses that the restricted economy of giving
entails a conventional notion of time. Both giver and receiver must recognize the exchange
within a context of determinable presence. Yet he also wonders, "But is not the gift, if there is
any, also that which interrupts economy? That which, in suspending economic calculation, no
longer gives rise to exchange?" (Given Time 7). In other words, can one think of giving as
invoking a general economy, as opposed to a restricted economy based on exchange within
calculable presents? A general economy radicalizes the homogeneous time of giving: "For there
to be gift, not only must the donor or donee not perceive or receive the gift as such, have no
consciousness of it, no memory, no recognition; he or she must also forget it right away" (Given
Time 16). Consciousness, memory, and recognition of the gift by giver and/or receiver enter into
55 Both Clement and Derrida both avow a debt to Bataille, the writer who placed "obscenity" at the heart of
systematic philosophies. Identifying restricted economy with Fordism and general economy with sacrifice, or an
excessive giving without promise of return, Bataille intriguingly asserts, "The victim of the sacrifice cannot be
consumed in the same way as a motor uses fuel" (56). The resonance of this quote with Eisenstein's metaphorics of
the combustion image shows where dialectical thought encounters the gift of time, or what displaces its temporal
a restricted economy oriented around presence. For Derrida, thinking the gift involves a
troubling paradox: the gift eludes presence in time, yet it "is not nothing" (Given Time 17).
To return to Alexander's coupling with Maria, the moment of levitation enacts a
suspension of time, the paradoxical "instant" of the gift. Like his earlier fainting spell,
Alexander goes "nowhere" in time, but this time he turns syncope into the gesture of giving
(time). As a donor, when he returns to physical time he will have no memory of his sacred act,
and instead will consciously, "with no room for doubt," present another sacrifice. The gift
occurring within a general economy, recognized by nobody, will find its double in real time, the
famous long take capturing the blaze. Yet these two events differ in kind. The latter enters a
restricted economy, which means it occurs within time and presents narrative closure, whereas
the former disrupts and suspends time, "happening" outside of physical time. The act of
copulation performs "a vacation of the soul, a gift of time [emphasis added]: ego orgasm
deserves a detour through syncope, taken by abandoning for a lightning moment men's law of
doing. Only after this should one do" (Clement 229). If to one critic Mirror was a "blank shot,"
and therefore failed miserably as a mainstream film, we might say the same of The Sacrifice.
Alexander's gift fashions a blank shot in time, a suspension or rhythmic hesitation, yet in a
lightning moment outside of time reconfigures our time.
Syncope as gesture, though suffered when temporal pressure proves too much, exists in a
between time, where it carries out its restorative labor. A rhythmic downbeat within the chain of
successive presents, it paves the way for Alexander to "do," to fulfill his sacred promise to God.
The film thus points to the paradox of Hamlet's (and Alexander's) dilemma. To set right the
cursed time, the schism introduced between pressures, one cannot do it in time. Rather, Hamlet
and Alexander must make themselves gifts of time, sidestepping presence, while performing an
act that "is not nothing." The film thus gives us two sacred acts: a virtual, impossible giving of
time followed by its actual counterpart that participates in time, in "men's law of doing."
Embodied by the syncopation of these two gestures, one remembered and one forgotten,
Tarkovsky's chronotope presents a "vacation of the soul."
Being between times and physical states entails a process of becoming, in which the
subject loses himself or herself. Through syncopic gesture, the body goes on vacation between
presents, and one can never know in advance who or what will emerge after the sojourn. In
Eisenstein, the trapeze's movement traverses a dialectical space and time by occupying a
temporal hiatus. He or she couples a tumbling vitality that enacts a transformation of states, or
rings on a dialectical spiral, with a static, "temporary" retreat that opens possibilities of historical
agency. In Tarkovsky, Hamlet and Alexander constitute figures who trip, physically and
verbally, in and out of time to restore temporal order. To do so, the body must similarly engage
in a becoming by occupying a hiatus, the paradoxical moment when one can "give" time. In
Carax, as the next chapter will demonstrate, becoming will test the coherence and stability of
subjects, who too experience a vacation from themselves and time. Gesture translates a
becoming different, which invokes a re-thinking of the body and desire, or what a body can do.
A CERTAIN SUICIDAL TENDENCY OF CINEMA: LEOS CARAX' S BOY MEETS GIRL
When time or duration forms the medium inhabited, it follows that worthwhile
communication between characters can only be formed virtually, as when they pass close
by one another in time in a manner comparable to comets and planets in space. (Daly and
One of the most troubling aspects of Leos Carax's Boy Meets Girl is the unexpected
intrusion of dozens of very brief black, soundless images peppering the film. These blank or
black images produce two interrelated effects. On one hand, any narrative momentum stalls as
one link in the cause-and-effect chain becomes unhinged, however short-lived. The blank image
asks viewers to start anew, and seemingly at random, their engagement with narrative causality,
while disrupting the viewer's processes of maintaining imaginary involvement with the film. It
resuscitates avant-garde techniques from fifty years earlier. As a Brechtian distancing device,
the uninvited black image opens new avenues for exploring the relationships between image,
continuity, causality, and viewer identification. Similarly, it invokes and internalizes Surrealist
procedures of moviegoing, such as entering the theater during the middle of the picture and
leaving twenty minutes later or screening the image through spread fingers, as Man Ray did. In
both cases, viewers experience disruptions and disorientations, which negate the realist strategies
purported by cinema.
Equally important, the spectator suffers temporary black outs or syncopes, as if he or she
were experiencing a state of drowsiness or narcolepsy. Carax's technique marks a spectatorial
disposition paradoxically at odds and in keeping with those developed by Eisenstein and
Tarkovsky. In Eisenstein, viewers experience the pathetic through affective juxtapositions, and
figuratively speaking he or she should feel a sudden jolt brought forth by dialectical movement.
The ecstatic moment always "occurs" outside of temporal apperception or between determinable
moments, yet the acrobatic figure embodies the shock while regulating its sublation into spirit, as
the second chapter argued. For Tarkovsky, aberrant temporal rhythms are expressed in fainting
spells and levitations. Viewers do not sense syncope as such, but rather experience the
disorienting effects and temporal articulations it fashions. When the symbolic loses hold of the
image, Tarkovsky makes the images deranged, because they are subject to distinctive flows of
Through the blank image, the viewer senses a temporal absence issuing from elsewhere,
beyond representation. In this regard, Carax's film makes syncope a spectatorial disposition, a
viewing chronotrope in which we experience the gaps separating past and present or present and
future. At any given moment, the viewer suddenly "comes to" and must test and re-test what
preceded the blackout and what follows. Every subsequent image and sound becomes a splash
of water to the face; often before we've dried the moisture, another brief "episode" occurs and
restarts the process.
In Eisenstein, Tarkovsky, and Carax, respectively, the temporary loss of self or eclipse of
the ego animates the theoretical and filmic body. When one returns from this "fading" of the
subject, something is different. After undergoing the ecstatic instance that throws one outside
oneself, one senses the dialectic has accomplished one more turn in its course; after suffering
syncope, the body experiences the reunification of two distinctive temporal flows; after emerging
from a black out, the subject must recalibrate movement and time, must reorient his or her body
to the next sequence of images. Despite possessing many differences and consequences, all three
instances foreground becoming as a poetic corporeal trope for characters. At the same time,
viewers experience, to some degree, a becoming themselves. They constantly "come to" as
something other, outside of the procedures of continuity associated with mainstream cinema.
The ecstatic, syncope and black out mark the terrain of the between or middle, the "moment"
when something just was and is about to be. In addition, these figures map the instance when
self becomes other, suffered in a seizure of time.
Becoming forms the central bodily disposition in Carax's cinema, particularly in Boy
Meets Girl. It affects all bodies on screen, as well as all relationships between characters. Yet
becoming, in its filmic articulations, in Carax must be distinguished from that in Eisenstein and
Tarkovsky. Despite their obvious stylistic and theoretical differences, both Eisenstein and
Tarkovsky explore the body as entity able to withstand tremendous forces, whether dialectical or
spiritual. Stressed and strained to their limits, bodily postures evince a time in need of proper
regulation. Becoming goes hand in hand with new bodily calibrations, in which the bodies
synchronize with a new reality. They coordinate their movements to align disjunctive worlds
characteristic of each director's respective chronotope. For Eisenstein, acrobatic movement both
synchronizes and synthesizes or converts dialectical timing into a sublated Time; in Tarkovsky,
syncope functions as symptom of a time out of joint, yet it also provides the basis for re-aligning
material and spiritual temporalities. Separated by time and ideological positions, Eisenstein,
Tarkovsky, and Carax essay the inherent difficulty of synchronizing bodies and timess. All
three filmmakers emphasize the hiatus as suspension of and in time brought forth by gesture.
As the epigraph for this chapter suggests, because time wavers in its aberrancy, Carax's
cinema establishes virtual encounters or becoming as his central chronotopic articulation.
Characters "pass by" each other rather than synchronizing their movements or coherently
communicating face to face. This failure to connect derives from two aspects of Carax's cinema.
On the one hand, characters may meet, as the title suggests, by occupying the same place, but
they reside in separate times. On the other hand, they share the same time, but remain in
separate spaces. Like comets in space, bodies flirt with one another, but they cannot synchronize
their gestures and movements.
A trait of modernist cinema, the reshaping of the body around virtuality defies
conventional characterization and definitions of the body's anticipated actions and reactions.
This reconfiguration calls into question the action-image that determines dominant cinema.
During the Hollywood studio era, Deleuze finds the proliferation of action-images, in which a
stimulus/response pattern develops narrative action. He terms this schema the sensorimotorr
image," in which gestures and character habits motivate predictable responses. The Western
genre perhaps best exemplifies this structure. Often driven by a sense of justice, the protagonist
reacts to unjust acts he sees and responds, to his way of thinking, accordingly. At the duel, for
instance, another character draws a gun, and this act stimulates the hero to respond in kind.
Thus the action-image, which for Deleuze galvanizes pre-World War II mainstream
filmmaking and its global dominance, "inspires a cinema of behaviour behaviourismm), since
behaviour is an action which passes from one situation to another, which responds to a situation
in order to try to modify it or set up a new situation" (Cinema 1 155). With clearly defined
character traits and anticipated behaviors that establish identification, the hero actualizes a given
reaction to what he or she sees, usually expected by the cause-and-effect buildup of the narrative.
The hero also synchronizes gesture and movement to gain an upper hand on the world he or she
inhabits: "The hero only acts because he is the first to see, and only triumphs because he imposes
on action the interval or the second's delay which allows him to see everything" (Cinema 1 70).
For Deleuze, this sensorimotor schema shifts radically in post-war film. The coherent,
actualized responses associated with the action-image give way to an array of indeterminate
motivations, "floating actions" and situations that overwhelm any response. This new type of
image derives from virtual bodily dispositions, in which the strong connection between action
and reaction is severely compromised. As a result, the time-image inserts an indefinite
temporality into characters' movements and gestures. David Rodowick nicely summarizes
When organized by series, the body becomes an undecidable figure, hesitating between the
virtuality of the past and the indeterminacy of the future. Rather than a locus of unfolding
actions, the body becomes a read surface where disparate temporal perspectives overlap
and conflict without being resolvable in a sensorimotor situation. (Time-Machine 154)
Through the image and gesture's "undecidability," Boy Meets Girl reconsiders the body by
detouring through an indeterminate temporality that evades any present or actualized reaction,
the prime coordinates of the action-image.
"Undecidable figures" adopt unusual postures. Catatonic and zombie states, hieratic poses,
the repeated suicide that ends the film all dispense with coordinated sensorimotor responses and
inflect images with "disparate temporal perspectives." Decisions of characters cannot be placed
firmly within mainstream narrative coding resulting from a cause-effect build-up that logically
explains their behavior. By compromising the stable bodies associated with the action-image,
the film inaugurates a different type of subjectivity, in which flows course in novel directions,
both spatially and temporally. These protean movements chart how desire can suffuse
spatiotemporal articulations without necessarily being grounded in a homogeneous body.56
Boy Meets Girl fabricates an anonymous subjectivity through its sound/image
articulations. Fractured voices lend indeterminacy to any body, as if every sound maintained a
sense of anonymity of time and place; delusional statements reflect a concern with unstable
identities and often conflate or confuse contradictory positions; hauntings and phantasms channel
56 Daly and Dowd discover an Artaudian impulse in Carax, in which "humans are ventriloquist's dummies,
automata, pinned under the weight of cliche and regulated movement" (71). To counteract movement measured by
calculation and normalization, Carax pushes "poetic language to the threshold of sense and bodies into mannerist or
burlesque postures and attitudes. Alex/Lavant, or novel ways of inflecting language and of folding the body" (71).
desire toward an incorporeal virtuality, emblematic of the encounter, instead of a corporeal goal
desired by characters.
Through gaps between sight and sound-achieved through asynchrony, free indirect
discourse and repetition--characters' words wander away from bodies and project themselves
between times, in dead or indefinite times. Viewers begin to wonder from where and when do
voices and images emerge, as they drift away from the stable and coherent bodies associated
with realism. Once ungrounded from a firm space and time, voices and language-and the
discontinuities they create with the imagetrack-essay a novel relation to subjectivity. In other
words, the film asks us to consider how chronotopic expression affects our understanding of the
body and the character as subject.
The unstable signifier invites the reader to write in the spatiotemporal fissures opened by
sound/image disjunctions. My analysis seeks to install itself in these gaps, while it also attempts
to outline the logic at work in the film. Focus is placed on four aspects that render an
indeterminate description of time: 1) verbal exchanges between characters through indirect,
technological means (telephone and apartment intercom) and through direct, face-to-face
communication; 2) repetition of speech; 3) the many superimpositions interspersed throughout
the film; 4) the tracking/pan shot that ends the film. I will then connect these verbal and visual
facets to the virtual encounters and anonymous subjectivities that characterize the film.
One can discern three types of encounters in the film. First, the narrative proves a letdown
be remaining sparse and unmotivated even by modernist standards. Like Michelangelo
Antonioni's L'avventura (1960), a slow-moving film devoid of "adventure," the title ironically
announces exactly what the story won't be, a formulaic version of "boy meets girl." Second, the
title does meet our expectation by producing a series of filmic encounters. Characters meet one
another in a virtual space achieved through editing, parallelism and superimposition. Third,
sound and image often fashion discontinuities, or encounters that disrupt the first two levels. My
interest lies in this third aspect, but I will provide a brief survey of the first two levels.
The narrative often functions by omission, recalling Jean-Luc Godard's story-telling
predilection. Commenting on Luchino Visconti's Senso (1953), and how it cut exactly when he
wanted to see more, Godard jokingly states, "If I were ever to film the life of Christ, I would film
the scenes which are left out of the Bible" (222). Intervals, "dead times," waiting and
artificially produced chance encounters create a loosely woven narrative structure. The film
introduces characters who never take on any narrative importance; the quotidian becomes
painstakingly captured in long takes; wearisome conversations replace motivated dialogue;
deadlier still, hieratic poses hold for long periods. The eventual "payoff," the actual rendezvous
between "boy" and "girl" that occurs rather late in the film, hardly possesses conventional
Catching up in space and time determines narrative exchanges, both verbal and visual. The
numerous tracking shots work similarly, as the camera tries to catch up to and meet characters.
When Alex covertly delivers several records and a note to his ex-girlfriend Florence, whose
ostensibly present-tense dialogue with her lover inhabits the soundtrack, the camera temporarily
leaves Alex and rapidly tracks through the apartment corridors. Only a minute later does the
camera re-encounter Alex, and the conversation, at the door.
The catch-up logic of the tracking shot finds itself doubled in dialogue. Bernard longs for
the days when he waited for Mireille to catch up and equal his love; Alex explains that he needed
to do the same with Florence; and Alex recounts a dream, in which he read his own
autobiography that ended with his death. Much like Zeno's paradox of Achilles and the tortoise,
any narrative rendezvous happens too quickly or too slowly. All the filmic and narrative
relationships participate in "out of synch" encounters, which further questions whether a meeting
of separate times (or speeds) can ever take place in one subsuming time.
Nonetheless, through a series of chance meetings mediated by several other characters, the
boy, Alex, does meet the girl, Mireille. Three "virtual" meetings-achieved through sound,
superimposition and a photograph-prime the final "actual" rendezvous. Their first encounter
occurs randomly, as Alex happens upon Bernard, Mireille's boyfriend, relaying a message to her
through the apartment intercom. Alex follows Bernard to a cafe, where he picks up an invitation
accidentally dropped by the latter. The invitation concerns a party "celebrating the tenth
anniversary of Stan's death," and it is there that Alex physically contacts Mireille.
Through editing, superimposition and parallelisms, the film produces virtual encounters
before the actual narrative linking takes place. When Alex walks along the Seine and listens by
headphones to his own soundtrack, which we hear, the camera tracks with him. While crossing a
bridge, he comes across a young man staring at the river below. A woman enters the frame and
embraces her partner. The film cuts to a medium long shot with the couple on the right and Alex
watching them intently on the left. As if they were standing on a record turntable, the pair spins
around mechanically and fluidly. Oddly, Alex throws some coins at their feet, apparently
mistaking a private moment for a public performance. Yet this synchronization of bodily
movements and music prepares viewers for the first visual encounter between Alex and Mireille.
After leaving behind the couple, Alex continues his goalless journey. A medium shot from
behind Alex tracks with him, and he moves with mechanically exact precision, as if on a
conveyor belt. With eyes closed and arms outstretched before his torso, Alex finally catches up
with Mireille, whose superimposed feet briefly overlay Alex's outstretched arms and hands. A
second momentary superimposition occurs, and a third time occasions a dissolve back to Mireille
practicing dance steps in synch with the music. The sequence ends when the song finishes, and
Mireille flops on the bed in repose. The next shot parallels the previous by displaying Alex in
exactly the same resting position.
When Alex extends his arms in front of him while walking, he adopts the posture of the
zombie or sleepwalker. Instead of moving the narrative forward, he appears to be an emanation
gliding through space. This gesture recalls neo-realist cinema, especially that of Visconti, in
which "it is as if the action floats in the situation, rather than bringing it to a conclusion or
strengthening it" (Deleuze, Cinema 2 4). Narratively weak actions create textual situations and
bring forth filmic encounters. The ethereal bodily disposition figures gesture as site of virtual
exchange between characters.
To reinforce this encounter as virtual, music connects separate spaces, and perhaps distinct
times. As Michel Chion notes, "Music is cinema's passe-muraille (between walls), capable of
instantly communicating with the other elements of the action," so that "out of time and out of
space, music communicates with all times and spaces of a film, even as it leaves them to their
separate and distinct existences" (81). Through her dancing feet, Mireille engages a filmic
passe-muraille, or to pun a "passe-mireille," to connect both characters.
Though Carax has expressed a significant debt to silent filmmaking, Boy Meets Girl also
galvanizes, in this instance, music to correspond to visual parallelism.57 On the one hand, music
achieves a linearization of time (we hear the entire song, from beginning to end) to maintain
continuity of duration. On the other hand, the superimpositions create communication between
5 On Carax's debt to silent American filmmaking, Jonathan Rosenbaum notes of his films: "What they seem to owe
to the silent American cinema, above all, is the raw sense of physicality," which exhibits "a cinema of untrammeled
gesture and acrobatic exertions" (23). As noted in chapter two, Eisenstein admired Chaplin's acrobatic energy,
which informed his own use of gesture, albeit for different ends. Carax and Eisenstein share a proclivity for circus
entertainment and acrobatics that figure bodies occupying in-between states and always primed for metamorphoses.