Department of French, Hispanic, and Italian Studies
The University of British Columbia
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This is a draft: please do not cite without author's permission


A revised version of this essay (with full footnotes) can be found in Gilles Deleuze, philosophe du cinéma / Gilles Deleuze, philosopher of cinema. Ed. D. N. Rodowick. Iris 23 (Spring 1997): 37-52.

Apologies for the fact that no footnotes are available in this web version.

Whatever Happened to Neorealism? Bazin, Deleuze, and Tarkovsky's Long Take


The most pressing problem [is] that of the relations between cinema and language. (Deleuze, Cinema 2 25)

The question of "reality" in the cinema is usually deferred in favor of examinations of the inevitable cultural constructedness of cinematic images and narrative, a constructedness usually understood in terms of linguistic and psychoanalytic models. However, to understand the cinema in terms of a language, and, with Lacanian psychoanalysis, in terms of the symbolic, is to miss the specificity of cinema which I see as its ontological subversion and refusal of codes that are forever taken for granted in such analyses. Gilles Deleuze's analysis of the cinematic experience stresses this ontological decoding, and suggests that we should see the cinema as allowing an inhabitation of the real, and thinking about film as enabling a realization of this mode of being. Moreover, this cinematic ontology is not some fantastic flight from the historical, but is rather to be understood and revealed through the history of film and in determinate historical situations. Indeed, as I show in a reading of the climactic scene in Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, such an inhabitation is an exposure to the social rather than the demarcation and territorialization effected by the conventional "documentary real." If the latter produces the subjugation of the real to the subject, and of the subject to the real, the former process opens up to the real in all its ambiguity.

This paper is one part of a broader investigation into various modes of cinematic realism that follow on from neorealism. This investigation is more or less structured along the lines suggested by Deleuze's two books on the cinema, but my intention is to consider Deleuzian theory not simply as some radically new break from the film-theoretical tradition, but rather as a re-reading and revitalization of the historic enterprise of film criticism. In other words, I consider Deleuze very much within the film-theoretical tradition, and in particular, I see him as returning to the problematic of film's reality and ontology generated by André Bazin. Thus I investigate some resonances between Deleuze and Bazin's understanding of film form, and their analyses of time and the real in the cinema, particularly in their shared affinity for the long take.

image from The Sacrifice


To link Deleuze and Bazin in this way might appear an eminently quixotic preoccupation. Indeed, the differences between the two seem great, especially in so far as Deleuze is usually taken to be an abstract high theorist par excellence, while Bazin has conventionally been banished to the category of the pre-theoretical. Moreover, this contrast is illuminated also in their different modes of writing, with the former producing a systematic (over)comprehensive two volume work on the cinema, while the latter's work is for the most part fragmentary, almost journalistic, based in reviews. Until recently at least, one would be tempted to say that their most relevant shared characteristic was an equal marginalization from standard film-theoretical discussion, with Bazin regarded as passé and Deleuze as "so piquantly tangential to other cinematic theories" (Reader 102). And yet it is precisely this shared marginality that is a key to the ways in which Bazin is central to Deleuze's reformulation of film theory. For in his opposition to semiological analyses of film--to the "avatars of the signifier" (Cinema 2 137)--Deleuze returns to a Bazinian notion of film history and a Bazinian conception of the ontology of the cinematic image.

Deleuze's most obvious debt to Bazin has to be his use of the latter's historical approach as the structuring principle for Cinema 1 and 2. Deleuze follows Bazin in outlining a formal history of tendencies inherent in the very idea of cinema, rather than concentrating upon a phenomenological portrait of the experience of film viewing, or indeed upon a contextual history of the cinematic apparatus and its embeddedness in social relations. Deleuze structures his work as a history of the cinematic image along the lines of a conception of "total cinema" as overdetermining myth--most simply as a shift from movement-image to time-image, but also encompassing numerous other diversions and bifurcations in the practice of film expression.

Moreover, in this formal history, Deleuze assigns the same importance to Welles and neorealism as does Bazin, and for both neorealism functions as the hinge or turning point structuring and revealing the process of this film history. For both, Welles "marks more or less the beginning of a new period" (Bazin, What is Cinema? vol. 1, 37), notable for its use of the shot in depth, consolidated by neorealism and its use of the long take: "Welles seems to have been the first to have opened this breach, where neo-realism and the new wave were to be introduced with completely different methods" (Cinema 2 143). At the same time, both return to film-makers of the 1920s and 1930s (such as Renoir and Stroheim) to "rediscover" an embedded (if lost) tradition of silent cinema that militated against the montage effect of the "action-image," combatting the sense of an inevitable progression from Griffith to Hollywood. Indeed, as if to confirm this reliance on a similar structuring principle, Deleuze opens Cinema 2 with a discussion of Bazin's formal analysis of neorealism as constituting a new cinematic image; Bazin's theory of neorealism is the break between Deleuze's two volumes.

In their shared concern for the history of the image, Deleuze and Bazin choose to see the relation between viewer and filmic image as neither primarily social nor psychic, thus circumventing debates over "spectator" or "audience" theory. Each equally offers an anti-representational analysis of the cinema--and this is the importance of their stress upon the ontological--in that the cinema viewer is maintained as part of an immanent functional (and corporeal) effect of the film's unfolding through time; the cinema is before it means or signifies. For both Deleuze and Bazin, the specificity of the cinema remains its unfolding of the image in the real time that becomes the lived time of thought and the body. This is in contrast to gaze theory, for example, for which the pictures might as well never be moving, and which prefers to accentuate distanciation and, paradigmatically, the distance between spectator and the screen. Though Bazin and Deleuze acknowledge the existence of this distanciation, which they argue is accentuated through montage techniques, they see it as a transcendent imposition, opposing the "essential being" of the movies. As a result of this shared position on the nature of cinema, the long take acquires its importance for both theorists.

Despite these convergences between Deleuze and Bazin, there are, of course, still considerable differences between the two, most obviously in their discursive traditions. Though Deleuze engages fully with film theory and criticism, this is very much in the service of a distinct philosophical project. Moreover, Deleuze does at times take issue with Bazin, if only to dispute the latter's emphases such as his upholding "the primacy of the reality-function" in depth of field (Cinema 2 299 n. 16). In stressing continuities I am returning Deleuze's work to the problematic generated by Bazin, while acknowledging the fact that Deleuze is in no sense "returning" to Bazin. Rather, he uses Bazinian positions and structures as a basis from which to open up a new problematic in the wake of a disillusionment with the semiological project, which he thus side-steps. Still, I feel that this is a productive affinity, and that, especially given the incomprehension or mistrust Deleuze's work on film has generated among many film scholars, such a re-contextualization of his positions furthers their use in the concrete discussion of actual film texts. To demonstrate this, I will now turn to a reading of Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice.

image from The Sacrifice


While the long take can be treated as a general stylistic possibility--and I would like to emphasize its function in general film practice and theory--my discussion here centers around the particular: "the long take" in Tarkovsky, by which I refer to the unforgettable long take which comprises the climactic scene in his last film, The Sacrifice (1986), a take of over six minutes' duration. This scene depicts the central character of the film destroying his own house, as family and friends attempt to restrain him until he is finally taken away in an ambulance.

The events of The Sacrifice are fairly simple. It is set in the environs of a country house on a remote island in Sweden, on the day of and the morning after the birthday of the central character, Alexander. Other characters include Alexander's wife, daughter and small son, his wife's lover, and his friend, a postman. The atmosphere from the start is stifling and the tone melancholy, such that Alexander seeks solace from the bickering and emotional turmoil within the house by talking to his young son, "little man," who is mute, recovering form a throat operation. Language is thus clearly staged as the site of conflict, yet the resolution proposed initially--Alexander's taking up the pedagogic position of speaking subject to the mute son--proves merely an impossible calm before the storm, as during the evening appear signs of imminent national catastrophe, perhaps even nuclear war. Jets fly above the house, shattering the outward signs of domestic normality, the TV broadcasts ominous warnings until the electricity fails, and Alexander's wife becomes hysterical until silenced against her will by the medical sedation administered by her lover, a doctor.

That night Alexander escapes from the house, and in a sexual and mystical experience involving a woman whom he understands to be an Icelandic witch, he seems to learn that to prevent the catastrophe he must sacrifice all he has and commit himself also to a vow of silence. In the morning all is calm once again (as if everything had perhaps been a hallucination), until Alexander fulfils his material side of the spiritual bargain by burning down the house. It is this sacrificial scene that the long take encompasses, as Alexander watches the burning house, is pursued by his unbelieving family and friends, tries to appeal to the Icelandic witch, and is taken away by ambulance.

The take is in long and medium-long shot and begins focussed upon Alexander, who is sitting in the water of the marshy field facing his burning house, which is in the background. He then moves toward the foreground and the right, where he is joined by the group consisting of his family and the postman, who have been in the far distance on the right. Running from them, in front of the house, he moves toward the "witch," who is revealed to have been standing out of frame on the left-hand side. The posse of family members comes to take him from her, to guide him to the far right where the expansion in camera movement reveals an ambulance. After once avoiding his imprisonment in the ambulance, he is at last bundled into the vehicle, and the ambulance moves across the boggy ground, toward the house, now burning more fiercely than ever, before turning back toward the foreground near the witch, looping from left to right in the foreground, finally to disappear in the center rear, passing the house. Meanwhile the witch runs across from the left, picks up her bicycle, and exits on the right toward the foreground. The take ends as Alexander's wife runs towards the house, where Alexander had been sitting at the start of the take, collapses, and is joined by the rest of the party as the house finally disintegrates.

Various circumstances mark this sequence's particularity: its duration, its mode of camera movement and its central importance to this, the last and perhaps most significant of Tarkovsky's films. In the annals of film lore and gossip, however, this take is perhaps most famous because it had to be taken twice: the first time, the take was set up, the house set on fire, and the actors went through all the motions before anyone realized that the camera (the only one being used) had jammed. As the film depended upon this take, to lose it was a disaster, and after brief consultation, Tarkovsky decided to rebuild the now destroyed house, and filmed the sequence all over again, at a major cost of time and material resources.

This course of events was captured by the cameras of a Swedish documentary team that was recording the making of The Sacrifice. This documentary, chronicling the last few months of Tarkovsky's life, spends a great deal of time on the making of The Sacrifice and, further, uses this long take to emphasize its depiction of Tarkovsky as resolute and determined in the face of all disaster, whether it be technical misfortune or terminal cancer. Thus the documentary shows first the process of setting up the take, then the first, failed, filming itself, which continues until the camera team finally realizes that everything has gone wrong. This section ends as Tarkovsky curses the crew, with everything apparently lost. Finally, the documentary also incorporates the final take--the one that succeeded, and that made its way into the completed film--from the dual perspective of both the "backstage" presentation and clips from the finished film itself.

The purpose in looking at these three versions of the same take at such length--that is, the documentary coverage of both the failed and the successful take and the film coverage of the successful take--is to generate some questions about the "realism" of alternative modes of film-making associated with documentary realism on the one hand and what I would like to term "mystical realism" on the other. Through a comparison of these two styles, these two competing claims on the real, I will further discuss the ontology of the real in Bazin and Deleuze.

image from The Sacrifice


To explain "mystical realism," and as a point of entry into the aesthetics and philosophy of the real, let us consider the fates of both neorealism and the Bazinian criticism so heavily associated with that movement. As with many such artistic "movements," Italian neorealism was something of a contingent collection of film-makers united more through accidents of geography and history than through any explicit ideological or formal program. Moreover, many of the techniques that mark neorealism as distinctive were forced by circumstance rather than resulting from a coherent methodological sense, most obviously the use of exterior rather than studio locations. As a result, it is scarcely surprising that the movement was over almost as soon as it was announced to have begun, and that the excesses of Fellini, the intellectualism of Antonioni, or the lavishness of later Visconti soon replaced the pared down tone of The Bicycle Thief or Umberto D.

Without necessarily positing any causal relation, the withering of neorealism can perhaps be compared to the fate of Bazinian theories of realism in the twenty years from the late sixties to the late eighties. With Christian Metz and the first wave of linguistically-based semiotic film criticism, it became almost ritualistic to denounce the naiveté with which Bazin had claimed to find in The Bicycle Thief the paradoxical non-discovery of "no more cinema." As Phil Rosen put it in 1989, "Since the 1960s . . . Bazin-bashing has become fashionable in film-theoretical discussion" (8). Thus even Jacques Aumont in his magnanimous survey gently reprimands Bazin (and his evaluation of neorealism) in stating that "Bazin's enthusiasm for this 'new' film form pushed him to an excessive stance" (114). In contrast to this current, I suggest that not only does Bazinian theory still stand up to examination, but also that neorealism and its legacy need further investigation.

The essentials of Bazinian realism for my purposes are exemplified in his argument that:

Italian neorealism contrasts with previous forms of film realism in its stripping away of all expressionism and in particular in the total absence of the effects of montage... [it] tends to give back to the cinema a sense of the ambiguity of reality. (What is Cinema? Vol. 1, 37)

Even in this brief quotation, it is clear that Bazin's sense of realism is not the naive positivism with which he has been accredited. For the absence of montage (or rather, its effects) reveals the real in its ambiguity, rather than as any self-evidently given datum of experience. Realism, for Bazin, is the means by which the cinema becomes more open, if anything more uncertain and challenging, rather than suggesting a straightforward foreclosure or denial of cinematic effect or political and ethical subjectivity. Neorealism, for Bazin, does not naively give us access to a given real, but rather returns to the cinema a sense of its own, ambiguous reality. Film therefore no longer merely signifies the real; it is allowed to become the real.

Moreover, Bazin's most famous phrase has all too often been mangled through truncation to suggest that in declaring that there could be "no more cinema" he believed in some unproblematic withering of the cinematic apparatus. In fact, Bazin argued that The Bicycle Thief constructed "the perfect aesthetic illusion of reality [in which] there is no more cinema" (What is Cinema? Vol. 2, 60; my emphasis). As Rosen points out, Bazin's concern is with the ontological status of the image, and its implications for subjectivity. This is not a question of direct reference between the image and the real, but a concern with indexical correspondence and "respect for the spatial unity of an event at the moment when to split it up would be to change it from something real into something imaginary" (What is Cinema? Vol. 1, 50). This spatial unity could be disturbed through the use of montage dependent on motivated psychological action, an overcoding which conjures up the unambiguous subjectivity of the individual agent, illegitimately produced exterior to the image itself. Here Bazin's respect for the ontology of the image is close to Deleuze and Félix Guattari's critique of transcendence as a product of illegitimate use of the syntheses of the unconscious (in Anti-Oedipus 75 and passim.) Thus it is no surprise that in this respect Bazin's criticisms are very similar to Deleuze's comments on the action-image, though the latter also makes clear reference to this form of montage as a variation on the Marxian circuit of capital: both S-A-S' and A-S-A' have to be seen as variations on M-C-M'.

Although Bazin criticized psychological or dramatic montage, he did not doctrinairely contrast montage per se with the long take, as is evident in his comment, for example, that "Hitchcock's Rope could just as well have been cut in the classic way" (What is Cinema? Vol. 1, 50). Similarly, it is a mistake to oppose Bazin to Eisenstein, and not merely because of the high regard in which the former held the latter. For example, both envisage a spectatorial position that is active, dynamic and multiple, rather than overdetermined through complicity with the individualizing and passive tendencies of classic realism. That the polarization between Bazin and Eisenstein is a false dichotomy can be seen especially in reading Bazin's "An Aesthetic of Reality: Neorealism" (What is Cinema? vol. 2, 16-40). More here than in some of his later formulations of film history, Bazin wishes to claim a lineage for realism descending from the Soviet avant-garde, in order to delineate a tradition that explicitly links realism to both aesthetic and political revolution. Indeed, he begins the essay by suggesting a comparison between Rossellini's Paisan and Potemkin. He argues that it was "their search for realism that characterized the Russian films of Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovjenko as revolutionary both in art and politics" (16).

Although this is a "search for" rather than achievement of realism, this suggestion clearly expands what Bazin later terms the "realist spectrum" (30). Now, this resemblance to Eisenstein is unstable and temporary even within "An Aesthetic of Reality"--though at no point does Bazin lose his admiration for Potemkin. Elsewhere, he differentiates neorealism from the Soviets not only formally (in terms of the use of montage) but also because of the lack of symbolism in the Italian films. However, throughout his work Bazin has an ambiguous, rather than merely negative or oppositional, relation to Eisenstein. Moreover, the difference between the two can be mapped better in political terms (if not the terms of "left" and "right") than as a matter of different relations to a cinematic project.

Bazin's move to concentrate upon neorealism rather than upon Eisenstein, then, can be understood in terms of a differing conception of the political, and upon Bazin's understanding of the nature of the real as ambiguous and radically open. In the wake of fascism, the mobilization of the masses along the lines of Eisenstein's project becomes increasingly suspect: such a task involves a form of political closure, neglecting "the ontological ambiguity of reality" (What is Cinema? vol. 2, 68). As Deleuze would also point out (in line too with Siegfried Kracauer's analysis), the fascist challenge to the idea of a revolutionary cinema consists in the demonstration that it "gave cinema as its object not the masses become subject but the masses subjected" (Cinema 2 216). A fascist cinema extrapolates a subject illegitimately, and as such is an instrument of subjugation rather than liberation. Therefore neorealism becomes crucial because its presentation of the real's "ontological ambiguity" also gives allows the real a political ambiguity. Of De Sica's films, Bazin comments that their ambiguities "have been used by the Christian Democrats and by the Communists. So much the better: a true parable should have something for everyone" (What is Cinema? vol. 2, 70). Of course, this statement then raises the question as to whether a "true parable" should have something for the fascists? Deleuze also highlights the problem implicit in the attempt to "ground" a non-fascist art, and suggests instead that the work of a political cinema is as a constant reminder that "the people are missing" (Cinema 2 216).

At the level of the real, we can see that, as Raymond Williams suggests, "there are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses" (300). If film and cultural studies have generally been preoccupied with these "ways of seeing," Bazin and Deleuze suggest that cinema may prompt an investigation into different "ways of being," premised upon the ontological immanence that deterritorializes such linguistic categorizations. This is why I argue for an archaeology of the real and, to answer briefly the question posed by my title, suggest the following four places as a non-exhaustive and preliminary list of where to look for whatever happened to the mode of film sensibility briefly and unstably crystallized in neorealism: faux-naïf realism (for example Warhol); cynical realism (typified by Altman); magical realism (some of the cinema from the Third World or the Eastern Bloc, such as Guerra's Eréndira or Jodorowsky's Santa Sangre); and mystical realism (Tarkovsky). I would point out that for all but magical realism the use of the long take is central.

Faux-naïf realism takes neorealism's formal apparatus to its logical ends, producing only the flat surface of the real to suggest that mass reproduction is immediacy, rather than continual mediation. Cynical realism begins to open up spaces within the real, documenting the violent impositions of gender categories or hierarchies of political power, while cynically presenting itself at a loss to evade such inevitabilities. On the other hand, the politically-motivated magical realism, operating in the fissure between the breakdown of Western identity constructions and the always delayed emergence of a postcolonial riposte, produces a "history-with-holes" (Jameson 149) to construct lines of flight or escape. Finally, mystical realism presents a more apocalyptic view in which the real is both site of redemption and, necessarily, a locus of denial.

Clearly this is over-schematic, and one could trace the careers of still other directors across and between these categories--Wenders comes to mind, for example. Essentially, however, I am following both Bazin and Deleuze here in their assertion that neorealism really does mark a significant break in cinematic history. But while Deleuze sees this break in terms of the history of the image--a move from the movement-image, more specifically the action-image, to the time-image (Cinema 1 205-215)--I am recasting it more along the lines of Bazin, whose realism is an always ambiguous political response to an ontological condition. It is the ambiguity of the real--and the fact that it is neither unproblematically given nor simply impossible--that is also signalled by the use of a seemingly contradictory phrase such as "mystical realism." This ambiguity prefigures a community that is still in the process of constitution--and thus demonstrates the political stakes in the theorization and occupation of the real--rather than invoking a subjectivity that is apparently already constituted by the film as in the Eisenstinian project. In as much as Bazinian or Deleuzian realism thus acknowledges absence or lack, it is as critique, as their theories measure the distance between the immanent anti-representation of the cinematic real and its symbolic re-casting in political program or language. Ironically, then, this is a distance that must always remain assumed or unacknowledged in semiological readings, which remain content to avow the impossibility of the real.

image from The Sacrifice


Let us now cut back to Tarkovsky, and the documentary footage of the long take, first looking at the unsuccessful first version of this final long take--the documentary version, the only one available. An analysis of the means by which the "documentary real" is produced will enable an insight into the contrasting means by which Tarkovsky's realism functions, as Bazin and Deleuze understand it. This documentary form demands that the spectator assume the unobtrusiveness of the camera: it portrays how events unfolded and, in so far as the documentary records an "event," a historical singularity, what it records only happened once, in the manner and order depicted. The "verity" of the record is attested to by the non-repetition of the sequence itself. This is achieved primarily at the dual level of content and (retrospectively in this case) spectatorial knowledge of the content. From the banal fact that we catch Tarkovsky saying "motherfucker"--an unguarded exclamation that we assume he would not repeat at other times--to the fact that we discover that the other camera, which we assumed to be running, has broken down (graphically relaying to us that there is no other document of this activity), the narrative argues that this is an unmediated version of the real.

In large part, it is precisely the obtrusiveness of the other means of filmic mediation that permits the unobtrusiveness of the always unseen documentary camera. There is a double bind here, in the sense that there are two sites of contradiction, from both of which the documentary profits, but both of which enable intervention into the apparently seamless realism it portrays. First we note a similarity between fiction and documentary: in that the fictionalizing project is shown to be fallible, we understand that the realistic project is similarly prone to the technical vicissitudes of an uncertain real. As the documentary exposes the general process of mechanical reproduction, portraying the director and crew in unmediated contact with an event now seemingly past reproduction, we sense it is a matter of luck that we caught a glimpse--necessarily behind the scenes--of what was really going on.

The second part of this double bind is that in so far as we see that the fictional project has failed, we also know that the documentary project has succeeded, and in this sense the latter establishes itself as not equal but superior, immune from the problems that affected Tarkovsky's film. In Colin MacCabe's terms, the documentary, while ostensibly parasitic (it is titled The Genius, The Man, The Legend Andrei Tarkovsky), appropriates Tarkovsky's film (among other discourses--also the interview with his sister, for example) to become a dominant discourse of the classic realist text in its move to "anneal, to make whole, through denying its own status" as film production by positing The Sacrifice's breakdown as a contradiction only documentary can resolve (55).

And yet, as in any backstage musical, the impression of the real forced by the apparently Brechtian logic of distanciation is itself produced as heavily as, if now disguised more effectively than, the fictional that serves as lure to our epistemophilia. This is clearly only pseudo-distanciation. On the level of content, we never see the workings of the documentary production or hear an interviewer's voice. More importantly (at least in terms of Bazinian notions of montage), the documentary also works to achieve this effect in formal terms. Here, specifically, we can see the use of dramatic montage to construct even the most pivotal moment of apparent technical breakdown. This is the moment at which fictional and real logics appear to coincide, as the blockage performs the reverse indexicality of real disturbance leading to fictional lacuna, of the fictional take not taking place. For the first moment at which the documentary portrays trouble in the take for The Sacrifice concerns a problem that arises with the special effects, a problem that we will later understand to have signified or stood in for the larger breakdown, which is unseen, and which will remain by definition invisible (the unshot take itself). This technical problem surfaces when Tarkovsky is seen calling for fire in "The tree." There is then a cut to a hand operating a switch obsessively on and off. On the soundtrack, someone says "shit." Back to Tarkovsky, calling: "The car." Zoom in to the car itself, manifestly not on fire. Cross cut to a closer shot of the hand operating the switch, and we now see that the switch is labelled "car." Back to Tarkovsky.

Thus standard parallel editing motivates and is motivated by the double narrative of the apparent logic of direction and the metanarrative of directorial breakdown: the camera obscures its technical deficiencies technically. Editing after the fact produces the effect of our coming to understand what must have been the case previously ("so that's what it was") as, for example, the first shot of the hand and switch comes to refer to the breakdown on the level of effects, which comes to refer to the larger, unrepresentable, breakdown. This understanding, this "truth" of what is represented (and representable), is then constructed outside the film itself, by its fragmentation through montage. This truth, or rather the coming-to-understanding that purports to reveal this truth, is projected back onto the figure of Tarkovsky, who comes to stand in both for the makers of the documentary (who, by reconstructing his presumed subjectivity erase their own presence) and for the spectator, who is to identify with Tarkovsky as foiled director. Thus, as Deleuze puts it, the documentary produces "an ideal of truth... dependent on cinematic fiction itself" (Cinema 2 149).

Now, in comparing the documentary and the finished film of The Sacrifice, I don't want merely to propose some relativism of the real, to demonstrate the constructions inherent in the documentary form. Rather, I would like to suggest the positive implications of Bazinian theory and Tarkovskian practice. As MacCabe suggests, the move from classic realism "could be characterized as the introduction of time (history) into the very area of representation so that it is included within it" (65). Tarkovsky himself says of classic realism and the Institutional Mode of Representation:

Film took a wrong turn.... The worst of it was not... the reduction of cinema to mere illustration: far worse was the failure to exploit artistically the one precious potential of the cinema: the possibility of printing on celluloid the actuality of time. (63)

We can see the reduction in terms of time effected by the documentary footage. Its account of the final take is almost half the length of Tarkovsky's finished version, even though its montage effect would seem to fill the same amount of time more effectively and more fully, as it has appropriated further discourses from which to constitute its realist master narrative. Whereas the documentary mediates between actors, director, camera personnel and (finally) the finished film itself, this is part of a dramatic logic which entails the curtailment--in Tarkovsky's terms, the "loss" (83)--of time. However, the documentary, fundamentally, would still subject the real to the loss of time even if its footage lasted twice or ten times as long as it in fact does--and this is for the same reason as Rope similarly effaces time, as much as it eschews montage. The contrast between the documentary real and Tarkovsky's realism lies in the fact that the documentary subordinates the image and the time of the image to a subjectivity extrapolated and produced exterior to and transcendent to the real it purportedly portrays. Thus image and spectator are produced (in mutual presupposition) as bounded, territorialized entities that each "know their place." Recognition ("so that's what it was") serves to bind and fix a real that can no longer (or only resistantly) be seen as ambiguous.

Tarkovsky's final version of the take, by contrast, works to restore the actuality of the time passed as a means to return to the image its own reality, and constructs or entices a subjectivity that would inhabit that reality directly. As in Deleuze's understanding of the shot in depth, we can see that this take produces a deterritorialization of the time-image. In viewing the film we inhabit both the eternal present of the film time--the direct mapping of one time onto another--and the virtual space of the past, of memory. Deleuze sees the shot in depth as instituting each of the spatial planes of the shot as "sheets of past" which enter into mutual relations, allowing the representation of a non-chronological time (Cinema 2 107-109). Though this take is not strictly a shot in depth (as it has nothing in the near foreground), it clearly establishes different planes, associated with Alexander, the house, the family, the witch or the ambulance, only to destabilize all these positions through the incessant movement that characterizes the take throughout its six minutes' duration. Tarkovsky produces a fluid series of encounters, near encounters and operations of capture, though even the success of this capture produces only an ethereal stability, and it is perhaps not clear who is the subject or the object of the capture, especially given the erratic motion of the ambulance once Alexander is inside. Alexander's hallucination (if that is what the previous night had been--the question becomes irrelevant) becomes general or, better, the reality of Alexander's hallucination is generalized according to a social (il)logic that scatters and dissolves the previous mournful familialism. The only plane to remain inviolate is that of the house, which sets up a system of both attraction and repulsion: an absolute pole which produces the mad movement between the other planes, which become so many moveable poles with their own, weaker, attractions and repulsions. For the burning house--the "sacrifice"--represents a time out of joint, a potential future which has been consigned back to the past, now no longer imaginable or speakable.


To return, finally, to a comparison between Tarkovsky and neorealism, I suggest that we should see each as attempting a mode of "occupying" the real that is a turn away from the impositions of classical "realist" drama. This is not the realism of plot or the psychological extrapolation that produces a distanciated subjectivity. As Deleuze suggests, neorealism introduces a logic of the "encounter" (Cinema 2 1), which is also a suffusion of the new spaces available to the camera in its new exterior mobility: from studio set and montage to location shooting and the long shot, as Bazin observed. Clearly, this form of suffusion and inhabitation of space is effected by Alexander's drift through the space in front of the burning house. As this takes place, and in Kracauer's terms, neorealism does not unveil the real so much as redeem it, through a new conception of the banal, and of the everyday.

Just as The Sacrifice (and Tarkovsky's work in general) excavates the divine within the banal and the everyday--this is what I term its "mystical realism" and is here evident in the way Alexander and the film go beyond the petty familial arguments or the rituals of the unhappy birthday party--so neorealism increasingly sees the extraordinary within what Hollywood might characterize as the boring. As Zavattini puts it in "A Thesis on Neo-Realism":

There is no doubt that our first, and most superficial, reaction to daily existence is boredom....

The most important characteristic of neo-realism, i.e. its essential innovation, is, for me, the discovery that [the] need to use a story was just an unconscious means of masking human defeat in the face of reality; imagination, in its own manner of functioning, merely superimposes death schemes onto living events and situations. (qtd. Overbey 67)

Deleuze foregrounds this sense of neorealism, which for him constitutes the essential divide between the prewar cinema of the movement-image and the postwar time-image. Neorealism is an attempt to open up the spaces which had been territorialized by plot and by narrative. In opposition to the "death schemes" of closure premised upon action, neorealism offers "a dispersive and lacunary reality... a series of fragmentary, chopped up encounters" (Cinema 1 212). Thus, for example, Rome, Open City is as much concerned with the obsessive movement through the apartment buildings and streets of the occupied and hierarchized city under occupation as with the plot which, as Liehm observes, is essentially "of limited interest" (63). As I have suggested, neorealism thus generated diverse ways of investigating and inhabiting this lacunary real, allowing cinematic possibilities that were also to be realized, in different contexts, by other realisms, from Warhol or Altman to Jodorowsky or Tarkovsky.

On the other hand, the documentary on Tarkovsky manifests a false realism. In Deleuzian terms, it obeys a logic of sedentary striation, in which time follows a teleology. In such striated space the points to which one travels dominate the time spent travelling, and events must be structured into the logic of an authorized narrative, rather than existing in and for themselves. In Tarkovsky's long take, however, the sacrifice initiates a nomad wandering, the "modern voyage" (Deleuze Cinema 1 208) in and through a material, smooth time. Although Alexander moves between determinate poles--the witch and the family--he evades them until the final capture by the ambulance, which itself is then caught up in a similar movement. All the characters indeed are moved to a similar experience of time and space, as are we as spectators, through the camera moving through two axes simultaneously such that a precise situation of point of view is impossible. The spectator is thus equally captured by this logic of the modern voyage.

Indeed, to designate the experience of watching the take as spectatorship is inadequate, at least in the ways in which film theory has commonly defined that term. Rather than entering into a relation of distance and synchronicity established between viewing subject and screen (understood in terms of fetishism, disavowal and so on), what opens up is an "optical unconscious" or what Michael Taussig, reading Walter Benjamin, terms "contact-sensuosity... opening up new possibilities for exploring reality" (23) in which the bodily sensation of time is prioritized over its narrative disjunctive coding. In watching this take, we experience a spatial and temporal unity, but one that is indeterminate, ungrounded: an inhabitation of the real beyond language and its disfiguring synchronicity, an inhabitation further symbolized by Alexander's own vow of silence even as he exposes himself fully and sacrificially to the social. Or, if this is going too far, we could say that this is an intimation of the real that, in MacCabe's terms, demonstrates the fictiveness of any--documentary or otherwise--pretence to its adequate representation. Perhaps, finally, this Bazinian use of the long take demonstrates that a cinema structured and understood like a language will always evade realism, and that what we need is a cinema in which images are what they are: as Tarkovsky argues, "not a sign, not a symbol of something else" (154).


works cited

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University of British Columbia

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last updated December 9, 2004