Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Being and Singularity

Reading Courtney’s entry led me to this post because it made me realize what an excellent example Renée Jeanne Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) would be to discuss the particular combination of symbolic, iconic and indexical signs that we find in the cinema. So here goes.


In iconic terms, we can speak about Falconetti’s resemblance to the historical figure she is playing. (Just as we would discuss resemblance when looking at drawings or paintings of the historical figure, like in the two images above.) We can also speak more broadly about the role the actress is asked to play: a young woman who finds herself brutalized by a series of paternal authority figures. Here too we can speak of iconicity. Falconetti, the actress, can be said both to resemble Joan of Arc and also resemble how a woman might appear under such extreme conditions of duress.

What about the symbolic elements? In symbolic terms, we might speak about Dreyer’s intense use of the close-up and how it is like and unlike the conventions of the close-up of the period. (How it both replicates and modifies the convention of the cinematic close-up, first introduced in the 1910s.) We could also speak about various Western notions/beliefs about the significance of the human face, including the oft-repeated claim that the eyes are the “window to the soul.” More abstractly, we could also speak of the way Dreyer uses the juxtaposition of shots in order to stimulate certain emotions and ideas. (Of course, most of the examples here are also iconic, but this demonstrates the difficulty of separating the iconic from symbolic elements of the cinematographic sign.)

Along with these signs though, we would also need to consider – in the cinema – the status of the image as an index. For what we see when we watch Dreyer’s film, is the thirty-six year old actress Falconetti at a specific moment of her life; a moment which repeats every time we re-watch this film. And this image of Falconetti is not a likeness or a written testimony: it is a document of the actress that she herself has left behind. (We can speak of Dreyer’s greatness as a director and Rudolph Maté’s talents as a cinematographer but without Falconetti there would literally be no image – not this image anyway – because it only exists as such because the actress Falconetti herself existed. She is not a figment of the director or cameraman’s imagination.)

And it is this aspect of the film that Dreyer, in fact, exults in, because his goal is not for us to forget Falconetti in order to see Joan of Arc but to have us perceive both at one and the same time: to see their relation to one another. Falconetti is not made transparent so that we can focus only on the legendary woman and the fictional recreation of a historical event. We are made to attend to the actor’s very materiality, her status as a physical entity. This is what makes Dreyer’s film not only a great retelling of the Joan of Arc story but also “a documentary of the human face.” In order to see Joan of Arc we must attend, at the same time, to the actress Falconetti in all her singularity.

This is what cinema allows us to celebrate: the singularity of every being, who may resemble other beings (or be made to resemble other beings) but who is, finally, absolutely singular. Literature, as an art consisting largely of symbolic signs, and painting, as an art consisting of iconic signs, are excellent mediums to address the general and the universal. Cinema can speak to these dimensions as well but it does so through the specific and the particular. Every filmmaker who can be said to foreground the indexical properties of the medium can be said to ask the viewer to attend to this specificity and particularity: the uniqueness and singularity of this person or thing, the uniqueness and singularity of this moment in time – forever preserved on a strip of film.


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