Cinema by other means
reviewed by Greg DeCuir
Cinema by other means by Pavle Levi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 224 pg. $24.99.
The cover image of the book Cinema by other means written by Pavle Levi (Stanford University) is derived from an original illustration by the surrealist Marko Ristic for the “written film” Crustaceans on the Chest (1930) by fellow surrealist Aleksandar Vuco. This immediately announces the book’s highlight on the rich tradition of Yugoslav avant-gardism in all of its forms—a tradition that has been in sore need of English-language critical exploration. Levi’s work fills this gap while theorizing a form of cinematic activity that diverges from the traditional material basis of cinema. Cinema by other means investigates diverse and radical avant-garde practices “around cinema,” which often subvert the form while simultaneously driving it into new spheres of habitation.
The cineaste and film theorist Branko Vucicevic is one of the first people mentioned in Levi’s acknowledgements section. He is in fact a key link to this scholarship, not only because of his edited collections on early 20th century avant-garde film but also because of his book Paper Movies (1998), which is an attempt to chart certain forms of this “cinema by other means.” Vucicevic began writing progressive film criticism in the 1950s and helped to open the doors for what would constitute a new generation of Yugoslav cineastes (under the moniker “Novi Film”/New Film), many of whom he later collaborated with, such as Dusan Makavejev and Zelimir Zilnik. Levi gives a sensitive nod to this elder statesman for his “spirited guidance” and also for the pioneering nature of his film writing, to which we will soon return.
Levi’s book is composed of six chapters along with a preamble. The opening page of the preamble features an illustration of the Latham Loop along with a brief narrative concerning the device’s inception and practical use in creating a “curvature of space” (p. xi) that allows filmstrips to pass through a projector freely and unharmed. This opening narrative evidences a concern with technology that threads through the book as something of a structuring motif, which can be further symbolized by the Latham Loop as the very structuring device that enables (pre-digital) cinema. Levi writes that “the Latham Loop stands for the inseparability of idea and matter, practice and theory” (p. xii). So begins this very materialist meditation on the early and mid-20th century avant-garde. The remainder of the preamble sketches out the content of the following six chapters.
The first chapter, “Film, or the Vibrancy of Matter,” delivers an exposition on early European avant-gardists like Man Ray and Ljubomir Micic (the leader of Zenithism and founder/editor of the journal Zenit) and their efforts to “explicate a “corporeal-libidinal” dimension of the film machine through a series of both cinematographic and non-cinematographic interventions” (p. xiii). These “non-cinematographic interventions” are often exemplified by the written word, in the form of essays, poems, and short stories of various types. Levi’s postulation immediately provokes a question that haunts the remainder of the book, not unlike the “friendly “ghost in the machine” that he says characterizes the Latham Loop: Is cinema by other means cinema at all, or are we dealing with something else altogether? In the preamble Levi points out that some critics may say that his theoretical approach is “insufficiently differentiated” (which sounds like a blind peer review comment he may have received). This is a fair—if simple and schematic—concern worth pondering, as methodological ones often are.
One is reminded of Shakespeare’s famous line: “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” That is, of course, assuming the “rose” remains in its material form, as a natural element so to speak. What is cinema that does not contain the material elements of cinema? Or, as Annette Michelson wrote, quoted by Levi at the opening of Chapter 2,
“When is a film not a film? And when is a film a movie? And, as they say, ‘What is cinema?’”
Again, concerns very much worth pondering—though this conundrum approaches the fallacy of classification rather than clarification, as Northrop Frye would put it, and Levi is more interested in the latter (and rightly so).
From the de-materialization of cinematic activity by way of the written (and visual) surrealist gesture, we progress to the re-materialization of the apparatus. This is where Levi theorizes the concept of cinema by other means with examples of assemblages, photo-collages, paintings, and other works by such artists as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Max Ernst, and many more. Levi identifies the assemblage The Frenzied Marble (1930) by Vuco and Dusan Matic as
“a good example of what I wish to call ‘cinema by other means’: the practice of positing cinema as a system of relations directly inspired by the workings of the film apparatus, but evoked through the material and technological properties of the originally nonfilmic media” (p. 27).
The Frenzied Marble is a wood panel in three sections or frames, each one affixed with random gimcracks such as a fishing spool, straw, photographic cutouts, and a slingshot. Levi posits the idea that this assemblage approaches the cinematic with its abstract sequencing of three-dimensional images that evoke a filmstrip (with the fishing spool even resembling a film reel). Of course, The Frenzied Marble is so random that it can function as something of an inkblot into which one can project just about any sort of meaning. The possibility remains that the work is conceived to resist or run away from meaning. That being said, there is a charged element of motion latent in the assemblage (and granted, Vuco and Matic made explicit their interest in cinema on numerous occasions). To qualify his theoretical notion Levi writes that he is not interested in the large corpus of avant-garde art inspired by the cinema but rather the obverse. He calls this an alternative cine-history, which it would be. The only issue here is that this investigative principle is not always followed in the book. The line separating the supposed fields of inquiry is indeed very thin.
As another example, Levi positions Repérages (1974), a photographic book of “future films” by Alain Resnais, as part of this alternative cine-history. This is potentially problematic in light of the fact that Resnais is a celebrated figure with a central position in classical cinema canons (though his work is often shaded by avant-garde tendencies). Furthermore, is photography cinema by other means? If so, then it seems we must also account for the lengthy histories of photo-novels [open endotes in new window] and graphic novels within this paradigm.
Should painting or drawing (in a classical, rather than avant-garde, sense) be seen as cinema by other means (perhaps cinema avant la lettre)? Werner Herzog, with his documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), has reminded us of the fact that during the Old Stone Age, Paleolithic artists were practicing cinema by other means with their advanced wall paintings. There has often been a link between painting and cinema, in both theoretical and practical terms, which deserves even more space in the study. In Levi’s discussion of Georges Bataille’s automatic drawing, which the artist called “informe” (formless), an opportunity presents itself to connect to the Yugoslav artist Mica Popovic and his significant association with the informe school of draughtsmanship, which he carried over into the style of his debut feature film, The Man from the Oak Forest (1964). This would perhaps be considered painting by other means. Popovic shuttled between the two artistic media for the better part of a decade. When he made his feature film Tough Guys (1968) he supplemented it with cinematic “adaptation” painting featuring characters from the film. Is this cinema by other means or simply avant-garde art inspired by the cinema—a cinema that is originally inspired by yet another form of avant-garde art that may or may not be cinematic in its aspirations?
If everything is cinema then nothing is cinema. Levi introduces the avant-gardist Tomislav Gotovac as a key figure in the Yugoslav art world of the 1960s and 1970s. Gotovac was a lifelong cinephile and a cross-disciplinary artist who worked in performance, visual art, film, and other modes of expression. Two of Gotovac’s more famous proclamations were “it’s all a movie” and “as soon as I open my eyes in the morning, I see film” (p. 124). However, what is rarely explored in Gotovac’s defining statements is whether this film he saw when he opened his eyes every morning was simply natural life all around him or rather the memories of all the films he has ever seen that were carried around in his mind, ready to be projected upon reality like an imaginary screening. Or did Gotovac literally see the celluloid filmstrip everywhere as a material signification of the object of his cine-desire? The general cinefication of life also dictates that the cinema as we know it ceases to exist, if it is all a film anyway. In this sense, cinema by other means does not lead to cinema as an end result but rather the total absence of cinema. It is a zero-sum game.
Levi takes a rather deep turn into theorizing the collapsing borders between reality and imagination as fueled by cinema. Focusing attention on virtual reality would be useful here, in addition to the collapsing border between video games and contemporary cinema. Ironically enough, for a book with technology as a through-line, Levi pays very little concern to modern electronic devices as enablers and signifiers of cinema by other means. Rather he looks to the past towards systems and processes that already find themselves in the storage bins of history. Present also is a general irony with regards to critical thought concerning avant-garde cinema, which is often very conservative towards the canon and focused on past masters as some sort of golden ideal that is frozen in time and cannot be surpassed. However, Levi should not be faulted completely for such a disposition, as he works towards creating a new canon rather than simply perpetuating the old one. Still, one wonders what signifies cinema by other means in the 21st century? Who are its current practitioners and what are they stretching the boundaries of the medium towards?
In the preamble Levi writes that
“sometimes to theorize the cinema is also to practice the cinema 'by other means'” (p. xv).
This idea begs to be doggedly pursued in the chapter “Written Films,” particularly with regards to the critical writing of Jean-Luc Godard, to whom Levi gives due diligence in chapter 6. Is film criticism cinema by other means (more than sometimes)? After all, Godard forwarded the proposition that the difference between writing about films and directing films was quantitative rather than qualitative. The very term “auteur,” as championed by Godard and his Cahiers du cinéma colleagues, can be seen as an idealistic attempt to wed the writerly to the art of cinema. Levi does discuss film scenarios, both classical and avant-garde. But are the former only “a stage in the process of filmmaking” (p. 46), and therefore not works of art with transformative potential in their own right? Do unproduced screenplays qualify as “written films”? On this question Levi seems to tend towards the affirmative when he likens unrealized scenarios to the “cinematic form par excellence” (p. 73). Unfortunately, this idea is not explored beyond his calling it an eccentric theoretical position. Levi notes that the chapter “Written Films” is inspired by Vucicevic’s book Paper Movies—though it is not dealt with in any significant way as a resource. The idea in this chapter is rather to bring to life various avant-garde journals, poems, and scenarios, which Levi does an excellent job of, particularly through the use of vivid reproductions.
The last chapter is the only one in the book that seems superfluous and digressive. Levi devotes almost the entire chapter to Godard, particularly his political films of the 1970s and his late masterwork Notre musique (2004). The organizing theme is montage, along with a re-theorizing of the notion of suture. This final chapter reads as if the limits had been reached in elaborating on a radical cinema by other means, and we must now revert to classical theoretical models to ground the subject in a tradition of quality. Perhaps this could have been shortened to a postscript and tied more conclusively to the book’s central aim.
Levi ultimately presents an exposition of Godard’s cinema, which feels like well-trod ground. During his discussion of montage (stitches and crevices) he devotes a few short passages to the découpage of comic strips, which Godard felt were years ahead of the découpage of cinema. Included in this is an examination of the use of the gutter (the spaces between comic strip panels) as something of a Vertovian interval—a crevice that must be traversed in order to activate the movement that characterizes the cinematic. This brief foray presents a perfect opportunity to discuss comics and graphic novels as paper movies and to theorize the implications of the gutter on cinema by other means.
In this same chapter Levi considers Godard’s engaged politics in connection with his art. This frame of analysis hints at a missing link in the book, namely the politics of avant-gardists and the resulting effects on their art (and lives). It is common knowledge that many early avant-gardists were drawn to socialist thought and action, and in the Yugoslav situation it was no different. Taking Aleksandar Vuco as an example, after the war of liberation he was recognized as an outstanding communist and became something like a party functionary. In fact, he was appointed the head of the Committee for Cinematography, which meant that he was in charge of the nascent Yugoslav film industry. Perhaps this appointment can be seen to vindicate (if also tame) his early efforts at a cinema by other means. Where he was once a progressive and experimental artist, Vuco would ultimately advocate a conservative and dogmatic cinema that adhered to the pattern of Soviet socialist realism and reinforced the hegemonic structures of power in society. It would be interesting to see if there are similar stories regarding the interplay between politics and film practice—and not just in the Socialist Yugoslav context.
This book review has done more than its fair share of critiquing points of varying significance. Now I would like to devote some space to saying what the book does well, which is plenty. As already mentioned, and most important, this book rewrites the canon of avant-garde art and artists, introducing the reader to such interesting figures as Bosko Tokin (often called Serbia’s first film critic, and a pioneering avant-garde artist), Monny de Boully (poet and scenarist), Mihovil Pansini (initiator and theorist of “antifilm’), Nikola Djuric (filmmaker, archivist), and others. It appears—at least to these eyes—that while Levi’s book is interesting as a theoretical contemplation, it is perhaps even more interesting and valuable as a historical survey.
Despite the intricate motions that are spun in this book, the chapters flow very smoothly and are not impenetrable. Levi extrapolates the essence of his concepts in a manner that is easy to absorb and ponder. He has produced an extremely well-written text and it is a pleasure to see proficient copy editing at a time when many publishers are so casual as to allow mistakes to sneak into their products on page one. The book’s layout is also excellent, with wonderful and rare visual figures and reproductions that populate each chapter, making for more than a few revelatory finds. This also extends to the inclusion of color plates at the end of the book that leap to life with energy and flair. Cinema by other means is a first-class job from cover to cover.
On a practical level, in terms of research material, Levi unearths and translates some very crucial texts from the history of Yugoslav film and avant-gardism. This makes the book extremely useful and quite unique. In the final tally the book takes the shape of a history of 20th century international avant-garde interdisciplinary practices, written in an insightful and vibrant manner. They say that great works are endlessly repeatable and endlessly enjoyable. Cinema by other means satisfies those criteria.
2. For a widely-read study of comic strips see Understanding comics: The invisible art by Scott McCloud (Tundra Publishing, 1993).
3. For an interesting film on this subject see Medusa’s Raft (1980), directed by Karpo Godina and written by Vucicevic.
4. Vuco’s collaborator Dusan Matic was appointed the first director of the Academy of Theater Art in 1948, and shortly after became the dean of the reorganized Academy of Theater and Film Art in 1953.
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