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Beyond the Surface: Cinema’s Baroque Flesh by Saige Walton

Trouble Every Day

Trouble Every Day

A Book Review by Jeremy Carr.

Through the course of Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement (Amsterdam University Press, 2016), author Saige Walton promotes several fascinating concepts. The originating contention is that cinema is a medium ideally suited to sensory manipulation and expansion, an evolving process linking the interface of human perception, interaction, and reaction with diverse aesthetic antecedents in the worlds of poetry, sculpture, photography, and painting. As it is described, Walton’s study seeks to combine “media archaeological work with art history, phenomenology, and film studies.” Where the book falters, however, is in the overwhelming, at times burdensome context within which this phenomenon is detailed.

It is also stated that Walton, “pursues previously unexplored connections between film, the baroque, and the body, opening up new avenues of embodied film theory that can make room for structure, signification, and thought, as well as the aesthetics of sensation.” In this pursuit, the scope of her exploration is staggering, and her acuity into the philosophical and artistic precursors of this subject’s manifestation is actually more impressive than her relation of that subject to film itself. But what began as a dissertation in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne often betrays its obligatory origins, reading in spots like an overwrought case for a student’s intelligence and their capacity for correlative validation. This book is certainly written to impress, with an abundance of citations and a wide-ranging frame of reference, but that collection of names and earlier reports does little to forward the underlying thesis as it pertains to cinema. It is, to be sure, an intriguing starting point, but there is so much taken from preexisting work on the broad subjects of the baroque and phenomenology that it’s hard to discern where many of those “new avenues” begin, and where they subsequently lead.

PrintThe second citation in Walton’s introduction refers to Gilles Deleuze, who “argues that the baroque is best understood as a restless trans-historic ‘operative function, a trait. It endlessly produces folds.’” (11) That much Walton aptly conveys – this is a complex, multi-format experience. She advances her line of thought most empathically through the writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who was “predominantly concerned with modernist art and with the impressionist paintings of Cezanne in particular” (12). Sharing Cezanne’s penchant for “the sensible properties of objects,” Merleau-Ponty was fascinated by the artist’s “ability to ‘portray the world, to change it completely into spectacle, to make visible how the world touches us’” (12). One can see how such a sensation would pertain to cinema, and one would assume, then, that that would be the crux, if not the clear majority, of the manuscript to follow.

It’s not. Instead, there is an oftentimes impenetrable wealth of quotations and allusions to other writers and their respective work. In a matter of less than ten pages, Walton inserts: “as Elizabeth Grosz points out…,” (13) “According to phenomenological film scholar Vivian Sobchack…,” (13), “the work of film and new media theorist Laura U. Marks…,” (14) “it is useful for us to turn briefly to critics such as M.C. Dillon…,” (15) “As Timothy Hampton remarks…,” (19) “Angela Ndalianis expertly elucidates…,” (20) “Stephen Calloway… illustrates…,” (21) and so on. And this all within the introduction. Of course, having prior scholarship to help substantiate the primary analysis is a plus; it’s essential and appreciated, especially in critical overview section. But it quickly becomes undesirable to scour this established work to find the heart of what is original. There are so many quotes from Merleau-Ponty in Cinema’s Baroque Flesh that one wonders if there is anything from his one “sustained essay on cinema” (46) not included here. Furthermore, take any random page, say 53, and there are no less than ten citations just on that one page alone, and such frequency isn’t rare. There are also multiple quotes of someone quoting someone else – “quoting Jean de La Taille on the French baroque, Maravall maintains…” (100) – and when Walton writes, “By contrast, my model of a baroque cinema of the senses indicates ‘the mind is necessarily embodied and the sense themselves mindful’, ‘that a focus on perceptual life is not a matter of losing our minds but of coming to our senses,’” (105) and those quotes are from David Howes’ Empire of the Senses, how much is really her model?

This is not to say these references aren’t always relevant. Several are illuminating and substantive, as are Walton’s analogous examples from assorted art forms. Her analysis of “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa of Avila,” Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s meticulous, tactile sculpture (1647-1652) is a good example (93), as is her breakdown of Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas” (1656), with its “frontal looks” and its suggestive “‘power to look back’” (as Christopher Braider states, 33). And how does this apply to cinema? Early on, Walton makes her case for the filmic application of phenomenology by citing scholar Vivian Sobchack (who also “draws on Merleau-Ponty”): “In having sense (perception) and making sense (expression), cinema is a medium that ‘quite concretely returns us, as viewers and theorists, to our senses.’” (13) Similarly, Laura U. Marks has operated in this field before, with books like The Skin of Film, where she argues for cinema, “as a medium of sensuous contact wherein meaning is filtered through a sense of material presence as much as it is through intellectual or narrative signification” (14).

With this foundation, as Walton gets down to the cinematic function of such content, a passage like what follows points the way (albeit incorporating another quote from Sobchack):

As with our own embodied existence in the world, film is a viewing, sensing, and experiencing subject as well as being visible and sensible for others. With the ‘camera its perceptive organ, the projector its expressive organ, the screen its discrete and material occupation of worldly space,’ the film’s body can be considered a lived body. (50)

And yet, it’s not until page 55 that Walton finally launches into a systematic discussion of a specific film, in this case Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), which with its emphasis on vision is appropriate and resounding. Walton’s selection of Caché (Michael Haneke, 2005) likewise proves to be an exceptional specimen through which she can relate her ideas. By way of both films, she argues (with more citations), “a baroque ‘way of seeing’ manifests itself in film through perceptual flux and through a self-reflexive gesturing towards the viewer, towards the medium, and towards what Sobchack calls the ‘film body’” (29). Even more enticing and ripe for such application is the inclusion of “body genres” like horror, melodrama, and pornography (106). The vivid passages in which Walton discusses Claire Denis’ vampiric Trouble Every Day (2001) are effective and illustrative (122) – “…the vision of the film’s body stays close to the murder to show us the cruel orality of Coré biting at and pulling flesh from her lover’s face and then feeding from his chin.…Pleasure and pain combine in a baroque paroxysm of death and desire” – while at the opposite end of the tonal and formal spectrum, her look at the “baroque luxury” of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) is also perceptive and descriptive.

Strange Days

Strange Days

Nevertheless, these exceptional articles of film analysis are continually thwarted by further citations and a repeated recap of prior arguments. Already by page 51, Walton is starting sentences with, “As I detailed in the introduction….” (51) She continually restates what was written just pages before: “Drawing on Sobchack and others, I have been arguing…,” (61) “As I have also demonstrated…,” (75) “In this chapter I have established…,” (77) “…as I have considered…” (181). If all of this had been clearer from the start, less muddled by the book’s extensive contextual framework, so many reminders would be unnecessary. It shouldn’t take so much reiteration to reestablish and reaffirm these arguments, which are, as noted, sound and stimulating in their own right.

Promising extracts like this – discerning, thought-provoking, and eloquently expressed – along with the aforementioned portions of actual film scrutiny, indicate what Walton has to offer:

Baroque flesh prompts us to feel that we are spatially immersed “in” deeply emotive states: we reel back “in” horror or “in” disgust; we find ourselves absorbed ‘in’ the beauty or the melancholy of images and sounds; and we experience ourselves as being “in” an ecstatic state, residing as “here” off-screen and “there” on-screen. (82)

It’s perhaps because of such quality that reading Cinema’s Baroque Flesh can be so frustrating. The material is right there, but then comes: “Before I examine Marie Antoinette in detail, we need to re-visit the historic frameworks that catalysed the baroque as a surface-driven aesthetic” (146). Must we? Already anxious about this apparent diversion, these concerns are redoubled four pages later:

Begun in 1669 under the reign of Louis XIV, the reconstruction of Versailles as the French royal residence and the official seat of government was incredibly expensive taking decades and considerable manpower. (150)

By this point, the interest has come and gone. Additionally, and this tendency is by no means unique to Walton or Cinema’s Baroque Flesh specifically, the sort of strained interpretative survey commonly seen in academia threatens to push the study beyond reason. See, for example, the mention of Peeping Tom (1960; incidentally, a great film to connect with Walton’s thesis). The excerpt alludes to Michael Powell’s film by noting, “its opening image of an arrow piercing a target that is followed by an extreme close-up of a human eye. Combined, these images function as an emblem for the film’s central preoccupation with voyeurism, with psychic and physical wounding, and with painful modes of vision” (56). Had this truly been a calculated series of images, the combination would indeed be potent. But as it is, the arrow imagery is simply a pre-credit logo holdover from the days of Powell and Emeric Pressburger, when they worked under the collaborative heading of The Archers. It’s the same sort of arrow and target that introduced many of their films, and it has no more relevance to the shots following those pictures than it does here.

When Cinema’s Baroque Flesh reaches its conclusion, around page 229, it does so, not surprisingly, with a Merleau-Ponty quote. Following a surprisingly brief five pages of closing deliberation (after all, what is left to be restated?), Walton includes nearly 19 pages of notes and a bibliography, in smaller font, crossing from page 255 to 269. Then, in one last revealing inclusion, there is the filmography, which by comparison is back to a larger font and doesn’t even comprise a whole page. This surely says something about the book’s inequitable balance of pre-existing textual sources and concrete filmic examples, and this is supposed to a book about cinema. A lecturer in Screen Studies at the University of South Australia, Saige Walton has written an undeniably detailed study, containing a laudable amount of insight and, despite the above quibbles, passages of vital, enthusiastic thought. In the end, though, it’s simply too arduous to sift through the supplemental material to get to these moments of excellence. There are many times when Cinema’s Baroque Flesh reads like several books in one. It just never fully achieves the one it promises.

Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI/Notebook, Cinema Retro, Vague Visages, Cut Print Film, The Moving Image, Diabolique Magazine, and Fandor.

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