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Excerpted from:
Two Forms of Cinematic Modernism:
Notes Towards a Pragmatic Aesthetic

....When we look for modernism in the movies, we find not one but at least two forms of expression embodying two different views of experience. I shall call one idealist and the other pragmatic.

Visionary forms of possession

The idealist tradition takes its name from the importance it attaches to mental events—beginning with acts of seeing. Hitchcock's post-war work is only the most extended illustration of the importance of looking and being looked at in this kind of filmmaking. In the most important scenes in Psycho, Rear Window, North by Northwest and Vertigo, characters interact with the world almost entirely in terms of acts of seeing and being seen. To say the obvious, visionary events matter so much in these films because they are not merely optical. Vision in the optical sense is a way of representing vision in the imaginative. Seeing is a metaphor for thinking deeply, feeling intensely, or entering into an especially intimate relationship with something. Over and over again in these films (and especially their endings), acts of seeing are used to represent states of spiritual, emotional, or intellectual insight or communion.

Hitchcock employs a three-shot sequence in his American work that illustrates the almost inveterate translation from the one form of vision to the other. The first shot in the sequence generally shows a silent character looking at something; the second shows what the character sees; and the third returns to the character to show him or her thinking, feeling, wondering about, or otherwise reacting to what he has just seen. I call it the “Look-See-Think or Feel” sequence, and it is one of the basic building blocks of idealist film syntax. My first set of illustrations presents two examples from Psycho.

The power of the gaze

Vision is incredibly powerful in these works. We see that most clearly in thriller and mystery films, where the act of seeing something is endowed with ominous, negative powers. In Silence of the Lambs, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, or Blue Velvet, vision becomes a form of spiritual predation or imaginative control. Even in art films like The Trial or 2001, to be watched by Hal (or someone else) is to be controlled by the power of the gaze. To be seen, especially when one is unaware of it, is to risk being “possessed” by the seer or having your identity altered.

Notwithstanding his reputation as the inventor of the slasher genre, in Hitchcock's work acts of seeing are more hazardous to his characters' health than knives—especially if the character is seen in a private or unguarded moment. Glances are predatory. They steal your soul. In Psycho, Marion Crane is threatened by everyone who looks intently at her when she doesn't expect to be looked at—by her boss, by the state trooper who spies her sleeping in her car, by the used car salesman, by Norman Bates (whose spying on her through a hole in the wall is tantamount to sexually violating her), and ultimately by the viewer, whose looking at her in her most private moments might be said to collaborate with Norman in doing her in.

Indeed, one strand in the plot of films of this sort involves the requirement that the main character get power back by seizing control of the gaze. If he would be successful, the character must move from being secretly looked at by others, to putting him or herself in a position to look at them. In Hitchcock's work, Roger Thornhill, threatened by being seen by unseen adversaries, triumphs over them by finally being able to spy on them while remaining unseen. Marion Crane has her privacy violated by Norman Bates' gaze, but her narrative alter ego, her sister Lila, regains control by bringing her own (and the viewer's) gaze to bear on Norman's inner sanctum.

Visionary community

Visionary relationships are not necessarily threatening, however. As my second group of illustrations, two sequences from Casablanca, demonstrates, visionary relationships may be socially integrative and emotionally supportive. I have reproduced two sequences: in the first, Viktor, Berger, Strasser, Renault, Ilsa, and Sam are knitted together in a cross-stitched mesh of silent glances shortly after Viktor and Ilsa arrive at Rick's place; in the second, Rick intervenes to have Jan win at roulette, and Jan's wife, the croupier, Renault, and Carl the waiter briefly form a visionary society of shared feelings and reactions. The acts of looking in these two scenes are clearly quite different in emotional import from those in thrillers or mysteries. One of the signs of the difference is that in threatening works (2001, Psycho, North by Northwest), glances tend to be unreciprocated, while in socially supportive works (like Casablanca) they tend to be reciprocated. That is to say, while in Hitchcock vision is almost always a one-way street—a gun shot fired by a more powerful character at a weaker one—in Curtiz glances allow movement in both directions—more like the back and forth exchanges in a tennis match between equals. They weave the characters into a fabric of interdependent and mutually reinforcing relationships. Rather than being threatened, the characters accrue power and their actions accrue resonance by being imaginatively enlarged. In Casablanca, no one is ever really alone. Everyone is part of a visionary community. It is as if the figures were immersed up to their eyeballs in a pond, so that the smallest thought or feeling instantly sends ripples to every other character, whose answering ripple radiates back to the initial character. (However, it should be noted that even in Casablanca socially integrative glances are occasionally interrupted by predatory ones. As my illustrations indicate, Ilsa, Viktor, Sam, Berger's, or other characters' mutually supportive glances are intercut with Renault or Strasser's more threatening looks and reactions.)

Unmediated expression

It is not hard to understand the appeal of visionary conceptions of experience. These works offer their characters a stunning access of power (and allow viewers vicariously to participate in it). Characters can rise above the limitations of space and time—the space and time required for two people actually to interact with one another physically, socially, and verbally—and communicate more or less telepathically. In Casablanca figures project their thoughts into each others' consciousnesses with the speed of a glance. They turn themselves into radio antennas, transmitting and receiving ideas and emotions at the speed of light. Hitchcock's characters thrillingly function as disembodied eyeballs—zipping lethal or supportive laser beam looks across vast reaches of space, zapping their adversaries or making connections with their allies.

These films figure an almost unimaginable dream of expressive ease and power. Because visionary expression is unmediated, it has a purity and clarity that actual spoken words, tones of voice, gestures, and movements never can. Characters' expressions of themselves are freed from the corruptions of personality, the indirections of ulteriority, and the confusions of imperfect self-awareness. Characters and viewers not only have access to each others' hearts and minds with an intimacy that social interactions never provide, but express themselves to each other (and to a viewer) with a purity that is never attainable in verbal or physical interaction.

Looks speak more clearly in these films than speech ever could. In North by Northwest Roger Thornhill is able to read the intentions and plans of the people in the house on top of Mount Rushmore merely by looking at them through a window for a few minutes; in Rear Window L. B. Jeffries is able to see into the secret recesses of his neighbors' lives by staring across the courtyard at them; in Casablanca characters plumb the depths of each others' souls with a glance. No verbal or physical language could be spoken or understood this clearly and rapidly, or at such distances. Words, tones of voice, and bodily expressions can never function this perfectly, especially between figures who otherwise know so little about each other and are so different from each other. Only a disembodied, mental language can constitute such an ideal medium of exchange.

Visionary effects speak what words cannot

In idealist works, stylistic effects frequently pick up the expressive burden that words and social interactions don't carry. The final scene of Casablanca (reproduced in my third set of illustrations) demonstrates the extent to which stylistic effects do not illustrate the dialogue and social interactions, but substitute for it. As Rick, Ilsa, and Viktor say their farewells on the tarmac, the style tells the story much more vividly, powerfully, and completely than the rather banal lines of dialogue do. Rick, Ilsa, and Lazlo are largely exonerated from having to do or say anything, while a dazzling display of stylistic effects “speaks” for them. The social expressiveness of the scene is minimized: Ilsa, Rick, and Lazlo stand almost completely still; their costumes are nondescript; their facial expressions are almost blank; and their verbal exchanges are minimal. Meanwhile, the moment is overflowing with stylistic expressiveness: a rapid succession of tight close-ups, high-key lighting, brisk editing rhythms, emotionally charged musical orchestrations, rhetorical camera movements (dollying and panning movements), and a few dramatic sound effects (the sound of the propellers and the beeping of Strasser's automobile horn). The expressiveness of the music, sound effects, and images is far greater than anything the characters say or do.

This doubleness—the diminishment of the social realm and enhancement of the imaginative—is crucial to the effect of idealist works. The viewer is plunged into a world of stylistically intense, nonverbal, nonphysical expression. No lines of dialogue could possibly communicate this intensely, this rapidly, this perfectly. Through these stylistic effects, it is as if we are watching Rick, Ilsa, and Viktor communicating mind to mind, heart to heart, soul to soul, as if consciousness could be transfused—thoughts and feelings unproblematically poured from one character's mind into another's—and into the viewer's mind. The effect is as exciting to watch as it is for the characters to live. Ilsa and the others wear their hearts on their sleeves in the form of the words and stylistic effects that bring them to us. It is as if viewers were granted emotional and mental X-ray vision, able to see deep into their souls and minds, able to watch streams of awareness flowing between them, currents of feeling surging from one to the other. It is as near as narrative film can come to putting pure states of consciousness on screen.

Moving the world into the mind

Since characters interact with their surroundings and with each other at important dramatic moments almost entirely in this imaginative way, idealist works implicitly downplay practical action and social expression. In the key scenes of idealist films, characters need to do or say or otherwise physically express almost nothing. They need only think, feel, and “see.” Hitchcock's characters are never more alive than when they are functioning in this visionary way. They live in their imaginations, their feelings, and their thoughts much more vividly than in their words or actions, which is why the scenes involving their social interactions are perfunctory and boring in comparison with those in which they are “seeing.”

The understanding of both experience and identity subtly shift. These films implicitly tell us that experience is inside us. They imply that the most important way to encounter reality is to think about it, feel it, commune with it, understand it. One's relation to experience becomes mental. Characters' chief expressions of themselves and their relationships with each other are mental. They are defined almost completely in terms of their internal states—their ideas, moods, wishes, dreams, intentions, and goals. They are their states of subjectivity. To feel something, to know something, to intend something is to be it in these films. In a visionary universe, to have good intentions is to be spared the difficulty of having to translate them into complex social expressions. Eventfulness moves inward, out of the world and into the mind. Subjectivity is these works' subject.

These films endorse Isabel Archer's ideal that you are your consciousness. (“I don't know if I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary, a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one.”) That is why, although the equivalents of Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond (i.e. characters who are masters of non-visionary forms of expression) may appear in the course of these narratives, they are invariably “placed” in limiting ways. Another way to put it is to say that even though idealist works may use their plots to criticize characters' attempts to live their ideals (by punishing them in one way or another—as Isabel herself is narratively punished by James), their styles implicitly endorse their characters' attempts to escape the prison house of language, history, and social interaction (just as James' verbal style endorses Isabel's imaginative style). In Casablanca, although Ilsa may ultimately be denied her romantic merging with Rick by the demands of the narrative, the visual style endorses her romantic ideal more energetically than the plot denies her its consummation.

Silence, secrets, solipsism

One consequence of this devaluation of external expressions and actions is the social marginalization of the characters. Thrillers and mysteries present the most extreme illustration of the phenomenon. Hitchcock's films, for example, repeatedly imagine his characters' most meaningful and intense experiences as taking place when they are silent and alone: L. B. Jeffries sitting alone looking through his camera lens, Lila Crane prowling through the Bates mansion, Roger Thornhill looking into the windows of the mansion on Mount Rushmore, Scotty Ferguson pursuing Judy/Madeline off in the distance. In fact, one might say that the real “horror” in Hitchcock's work has less to do with physical danger, than with the horrifying isolation of his characters. Each of his figures serves a life sentence in solitary confinement, locked in an individual cell of incommunicable private consciousness. Their most important feelings and experiences can almost never be spoken or shared. Even Casablanca, a film overflowing with crowds of characters, without a single scene in which a character is ever physically alone, imagines its characters to be wrapped in incommunicable states of private subjectivity. At every point in the film, the most important experiences and understandings of the main characters are and must remain secret and unexpressed. Ilsa and Rick keep their past relationship and their private meetings at Rick's place secret from Viktor; Rick keeps his continuing love for Ilsa and his ultimate plan for her departure secret from her; Viktor keeps his suspicions about both of them to himself. As in nineteenth-century melodrama (from which this form of cinematic modernism descends), the deepest truths are unspeakable.

A contradiction

Given the realistic narrative conventions of American film, there is an artistic contradiction at the heart of the visionary project. As much as filmmakers like Hitchcock and Curtiz are committed to the presentation of states of subjectivity, they must do it within the accepted forms of realistic, story-telling, narrative presentation. The result is that virtually all mainstream American films (which are almost entirely all part of the idealist tradition) make a metaphoric move in which putatively objective narrative events (social interactions, lines of dialogue, actions) are employed to represent subjective states. The narrative magicians who make these works must pull subjective rabbits out of objective hats. It's not an easy trick to perform—and many films don't quite manage it. They fail in their attempt to use external events and actions to evoke internal states. Shelley could simply hail his skylark; he didn't have to come up with lines of dialogue for it to speak or actions for it to act out. It is not at all uncommon to find films like Apocalypse Now or The Shining uneasily see-sawing back and forth between social and imaginative forms of presentation—awkwardly alternating between scenes that are intended to represent states of consciousness, and scenes of social interaction that are meant to keep the narrative moving along.

Hitchcock's work frequently shows signs of a complete schism between the two forms of expression. Because of his commitment to conventional narrative forms, he can't altogether avoid having his characters engage in a certain number of practical social and verbal interactions, but it is clear that he is unable to bring anything like the same degree of interest and inventiveness to those scenes that he does to his depictions of subjectivity. As an illustration, virtually all of the scenes in Psycho in which characters interact socially at any length are mind-numbingly dull and uninspired, even—as the film's final psychiatric explanation illustrates—to the point of being embarrassing.

The most common way realistic narratives redirect the viewers attention away from external events and back toward states of consciousness is simply to have characters say their thoughts and feelings. Films like Hannah and Her Sisters, Marty, The Bachelor Party, From Here to Eternity, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tomorrow, and Come Back Little Sheba may seem different from works like Psycho, Casablanca, Citizen Kane, and 2001 insofar as they have minimal recourse to any of the specific forms of stylistic heightening that I have focused on as transmitters of subjectivity (emotionally freighted silent looks, exchanges of glances, key-lighted close-ups, rapid cutting, emotionally charged musical orchestrations), but they make up for the absence of visionary stylistics by having characters insistently and repeatedly state (or otherwise indicate) what they are thinking and feeling. Their key scenes consist of characters' extended verbal presentations of their wishes, dreams, thoughts, goals, motivations, intentions, and beliefs. Almost all of their important dialogue passages consist of statements of subjectivity (“I/you/he/she/they÷ want/think/believe/feel/know that÷ etc.”). The verbal expressions in these films perform exactly the same function as the looks, visions, and stylistic effects in the other sort of film.

It should not be surprising that, like the visual effects in the more obviously visionary films, the verbal expressions in these works provide direct and unmediated access to characters' consciousnesses. Characters' words function as more or less pure displays of subjectivity—as if a figure simply, unproblematically is the thoughts and feelings he expresses. That may not sound remarkable, but I would note that it is almost never the case with verbal expressions in novels, short stories, plays, or life—where in the first place, meanings, thoughts, and feelings almost never exist in a pure state, and in the second, words almost never provide unproblematic access to them. Words in Pinter, Shakespeare, and Chekhov are never free from the obliquity, ulteriority, and imperfection of all other human expressions of meaning.

Another way films committed to realistic narrative forms present states of consciousness is simply through actions and events. When Lila Crane prowls around the Bates mansion, she doesn't need to say anything for us to follow her feelings virtually second by second. When Rick shoots Strasser, his action speaks his thoughts and feelings as clearly as words would. A Schwarzenegger or Steven Segal film doesn't need to use tight close-ups or expressive lighting to allow a viewer to follow the main character's every flicker of feeling. Consciousness is written on the screen in capital letters with every lunge or juke.

Inner weather

In short, whether it is brought into existence by means of looks and visions, heightened visual effects, musical orchestrations, close-ups of faces, lines of dialogue, or mere action, the true subject of these works is thoughts and feelings. The defining event is the presentation of states of consciousness in their characters and the cultivation of empathetic states of consciousness in their viewers.

The driving scene in Psycho (reproduced in my fourth set of frame enlargements) provides an unusually clear illustration of how idealist film transforms putatively realistic events into expressions of consciousness. The nominal events are as follows: Early in the film, Marion Crane steals money from the real estate office in which she works and flees in her car to rendezvous with her lover. On the final leg of her flight, she drives throughout one entire day and on into the night. As it gets darker, it starts to rain. The storm intensifies and her windshield gets increasingly harder to see through. She blinks and winces as the headlights of oncoming cars glare into her eyes. By the end of the scene, it is late at night, and Marion, lost and uncertain where she can go to get out of the storm, turns off on a side road and pulls into the parking lot of the Bates Motel. It would be an unimaginative viewer, however, who did not realize that the worldly events are not really the point of the scene. As even a student in Film 101 realizes, Hitchcock systematically and comprehensively transforms the driving, the rain, and the night into representations of subjectivity. The storminess figures a storm of feeling within Marion. The buildup of external disturbance communicates a crescendo of emotional disturbance. The scene is less about geographical disorientation than imaginative lostness, less about outer than inner weather. (Hitchcock makes us so accustomed to the inveterately metaphorical presentation that we don't bat an eye when the storm suddenly subsides after Marion arrives at the Bates Motel. When she is calm, by definition the world is calm.)

In strong idealist works (of which Hitchcock's films are virtuosic examples) virtually every action and event is inflected to carry imaginative meanings that redirect our attention away from the physical surfaces of life and into depths of consciousness. Films in the idealist line make this particular metaphoric move repeatedly. Under the guise of presenting the world, they give us the mind.

Dream films

The most general manifestation of this process is the symbolic mode of presentation that most American art films employ. Virtually every visual and acoustic event in works otherwise as different from one another as Citizen Kane, The Trial, Vertigo, North by Northwest, 2001, Heaven's Gate, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, and Pulp Fiction functions quasi-allegorically. Almost nothing is merely its poor, paltry, realistic self. Every experience is shifted one notch to the side in order to bear a larger, more imaginatively resonant meaning. Take the opening of Citizen Kane for instance. Even the most naive viewer knows that the lugubrious music on the soundtrack, the languorous camera movements and dissolves, the shadowy lighting, the chain link fence, the “No Trespassing” sign, the dilapidated grounds, the lonely mansion, the dying words of the man in the bed all function metaphorically. Welles is not presenting a real fence or sign or mansion, but images of desolation, wastage, loss, isolation, loneliness, self-destruction.

The symbolic technique imparts the dream-like quality to many of the best known works in the American cinematic tradition. Objects and events are relentlessly abstracted: in Psycho everything from the storm Marion Crane drives through, to the Bates mansion (which does not function as a real house at all, but as an imaginative repository of middle-class taboos and repressions connected with smothering mother-love, incest, homosexuality, masturbation, insanity, and murder), to small details like Lila's discovery of a recording of Beethoven's “Eroica” Symphony, which Hitchcock can count on his viewers treating not as a real object (in which case it would be meaningless), but as a symbolic one (having some punning connection with “eroticism.”)

So highly esteemed is the symbolic method in American art film that it is frequently treated as being synonymous with cinematic seriousness. It is taken for granted that this is what “important” or “artistic” films do. Symbolic methods are valued because they offer a stunning enlargement of meaningfulness. The imaginative enrichments that the Romantic poets felt they had to confine to the realm of reverie and vision are imagined to be present in everyday life. They move off the page and into the world.

Symbolic modes of presentation also flatter us because they affirm the importance of individual consciousness. These films imagine a universe sympathetic with and responsive to our feelings—as if the pathetic fallacy were no longer a fallacy. The universe resonates to Charles Foster Kane's pulse beat. When Marion Crane is upset, it storms. When Rick, Viktor, and Ilsa are emotionally revved, airplane propellers rev up; when they are anxious, Strasser's horn beeps; when Ilsa's heart pounds, cannons fire.

The merging of perspectives

The process I am describing is a double one: Works within the visionary/ideal/symbolic tradition (the most complete designation of the branch of cinematic modernism I am describing) don't merely shift their characters into distinctively imaginative ways of processing experience, they shift their viewers along with them. Viewers enter into the same visionary relation to experience that the characters in these films enter into. These films not only depict meditative states; they use music, silences, and close-ups of faces and objects to evoke corresponding meditative states in the viewer. When characters see the world in a visionary way, the viewer enters into a visionary relationship with what is on screen. When a character thinks or feels, the viewer thinks or feels along with him or her in the cinematic equivalent of mental telepathy. Marion Crane ponders stealing an envelope full of money, worries about getting caught by her boss, or wonders what is in the house on the hill; the viewer ponders, worries, or wonders along with her. When Lila Crane entertains imaginative or emotional understandings of objects and events, the viewer does. We become mind readers moving through a world of mind reading characters. When Ilsa feels something, the viewer feels similar emotions along with her. When the characters in Casablanca mind-read or jump through space in a room, the viewer does with them.

The most obvious illustration of the blending of imaginative points of view that I am describing is the so-called identification process by which the main characters in these works become mental and emotional surrogates for the viewer. Identification is fostered by two devices in idealist films. The first is optical: point-of-view photographic and editing conventions encourage the viewer to “see through the eyes of” the characters and, to some extent, to experience things the same way they do. The second is psychological: the personalities of the characters are kept fairly bland and nonspecific in order to facilitate empathy. Characters' identities are kept loose and baggy enough so that almost any viewer can easily to slip into their skins. (Any prickly particularity or spiky strangeness might create a rub or a catch that would prevent frictionless emotional inhabitation.)

Consider Psycho's Lila Crane. Because her character is so generic, nothing gets in the way of a viewer “becoming” her—so that as she prowls through the Bates mansion the viewer goes step by step with her, not only optically seeing through her eyes (so that when she jumps at her reflection in the mirror, we jump with her), but seeing things in the same way she does. She attempts to decipher the meanings hidden in the objects in the Bates bedroom and nursery; we attempt to decipher them along with her. She is puzzled by certain objects; we are puzzled. She experiences insights; we experience them along with her, experiencing things in the same abstractly metaphoric way she does.

American vision

These films positively insist that the viewer and major characters move from optically seeing someone or something to visionarily “seeing” its imaginative significance. The work of art and life is to dive beneath the surface, to convert matter into spirit. Merely to see something (in the optical sense) is to be in a superficial and almost always deluded relationship with it; to understand it, we must “see” it. For both characters and viewers, vision must be translated into Vision; perception must become perception. The process of converting sight into insight is enacted over and over again by characters in visionary works. What is the plot of Psycho, after all, but the efforts of various figures—Marion, Arbogast, Sam, and Lila, one after the other—to pressure objects and events at the Bates Motel and mansion to yield their “deep” meaning, their “visionary” significance? And what is Hitchcock's style but a parallel effort to entice the viewer to collaborate in pressuring reality in the same way? Hitchcock's mystifications tease both characters and viewers into looking beneath the surfaces of life, encouraging them to move from the physical to the metaphysical.

The move is necessary because, in this understanding of life, material appearances are trivial or misleading, while imaginative depths are profound and revealing. Surfaces betray; social and physical expressions are always, at least potentially, unreliable. Truth is not a property of accidental, worldly phenomena, but an essence somewhere beyond the phenomenal universe. It resides in a realm of pure thought and feeling somewhere outside the impure world of objects and social expressions.

Films in the visionary/ideal/symbolic tradition enact one of the master narratives of American art—what Melville's Ahab called “pierce[ing] through the mask.” The makers of these films (and the viewers who participate in these films' quests) take their place in a long line of deep divers in American culture—extending from Edwards, Hawthorne, and Melville to the Lowell, Barthelme, and Pynchon more recently. The world is a repository of spiritual and emotional meanings that must be decoded. The actual perceptual world is meaningless or chaotic until we penetrate its mysteries. The symbolic/allegorical style of these films is based on the belief in the possibility of a sacramental, restorative vision. Character and viewer alike are offered the prospect of seeing beneath the random, causal surfaces of life into a realm of coherence and meaningfulness.

With its Puritan origins, it should not be surprising that pain is usually associated with this effort. One must suffer to redeem reality. The conversion of sight into insight requires self-sacrifice and purgation. The effort involved in piercing through the mask is the plot of all of Hitchcock's late films. Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and Psycho each begin by having characters (L. B. Jeffries, Roger Thornhill, Scotty Ferguson, Arbogast, Lila Crane) and viewers see things which they can't understand. Vision (in the optical sense) is abundantly and easily available from the start, while vision (in the imaginative sense) is baffled. Only after extensive narrative work is performed and suffering undergone is the long-deferred imaginative breakthrough granted.

I would go one step further and argue that the conversion process enacted by Hitchcock's detectives or Welles' reporter—the ferreting out of secrets and the discovering of hidden imaginative significances—has become the model for American film criticism itself. Essential truth is located within or behind accidental, phenomenal reality. The critic's job is to dive beneath the surface, to find the sermon in the stone, to move from the profane to the sacred. As much as the viewers of these films and the characters in them, the critic explicating them pursues a sacramental vision.

The loss of the world

It is only because of the pervasiveness of these forms of understanding that we overlook their cost. Such expansions of our powers do not occur without corresponding shrinkages. The visionary/ideal/symbolic tradition figures at least five related losses.

The loss of sensory and bodily reality

Where one's identity is so largely imaginative, life becomes an out-of-body experience. Insofar as characters in these works look their relationships into being, read each others' minds and project their thoughts and desires more or less telepathically, they might as well be brains in vats communicating by video monitor. Their identities and interactions are almost entirely dephysicalized. Like Marion Crane driving down the road in Psycho, they go up into a steam of thought and feeling. Casablanca's Ilsa and Viktor and Psycho's Marion and Lila do not really have physical identities. Can anyone even remember how they move, hold their bodies, or gesture? They have realized Emerson's dream of becoming “transparent eyeballs,” but in the process (as he says in “Emancipation in the British West Indies”), their “skin and bones [have become so] transparent [they let the] “stars shine through.”

That is the explanation for one of the most paradoxical aspects of Hitchcock's work: the fact that notwithstanding all of the apparent physical intrusiveness in his films (the stalking, attacking, slashing, and killing), there is almost no sensation of manual contact between his characters. Where possession is so profoundly visionary, actual grabbing, touching, and holding are unnecessary. When the world is carried up into the mind, its physicality and tangibility—the heft and rub and pinch of experience—are diminished. Where experience is made equivalent to states of consciousness and feeling, materiality is bled out of it. Reality is de-realized. We feel that, even before we understand it, from the aloofness and detachment of Hitchcock's cushiony camerawork. It puts the viewer at precisely the same distance from physical reality that his characters themselves maintain. It frictionlessly glides somewhere just above the real world, unsullied by it, hermetically sealed off from contract with it, declining to dirty its hands by messily engaging itself with it.

These films are machines for abstraction. Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Psycho, 2001, and Blade Runner give us events, objects, and actions swollen with imaginative significance, at the cost of an inevitable attenuation in their concreteness. The spacemen in 2001 go on an imaginative journey, not a realistic one. Kane's sled is a symbol of a lost childhood, not a physical object you could get splinters from. The house in Psycho is not a material building, but a series of nested, ever more private imaginative spaces. Psycho's imaginative enrichments are worldly impoverishments. (Contrast Marion Crane's meals with the meal Antonio and Bruno eat in De Sica's Bicycle Thieves to appreciate the pervasiveness of Hitchcock's derealizations.) Where depths are so emphasized, surfaces are invariably diminished in importance. Where life is treated as a repository of secrets, its outside becomes something we merely reach through.

The loss of time

The loss of the body is paralleled by the loss of time. We see this most obviously in the speed with which relationships between characters are established. Because their identities are “ideal,” characters can attain virtually instant intimacy on the basis of shared intentions, feelings, and ideas (or become instant enemies on the basis of similarly abstract differences). Because identities are mental, relationships can take place in fast forward. Marion Crane sits down with Norman Bates and unburdens herself of her most private feelings five minutes after they meet. He does the same to her. Arbogast introduces himself to Sam and Lila and is their friend and partner seconds later. Berger pledges his life to Lazlo on the basis of a glance. Where heart speaks directly to heart and soul to soul, the time-bound awkwardness and pudency of non-visionary relations are left behind.

The viewer does the same thing the characters do. The meaning of people, places, and things in these films can be read by a member of the audience more or less instantaneously. Knowledge can be this quick (for both characters and viewers) because it is an abstract, intellectual event. It takes place in a glance, at a distance, intellectually—the way we learn a fact or recognize a sound or a color. This recognition knowledge is a special and very limited kind of knowledge. It is knowledge defined as insight rather than acquaintance—as “knowing something” rather than “getting to know it.” Familiarity, extended, nuanced contact with the subject would actually get in the way of this sort of quick knowledge.

The difference between insight and acquaintance is the difference between “having a thought” and “thinking.” Thought, insight, visionary knowledge is about attaining a truth: Rosebud is an unfillable loss; Norman Bates is his own mother; X is Y. Thinking, in contrast, is a way of functioning imaginatively in time, an ongoing, continuing way of being in the world, a mode of alertness, sensitivity, and engagement that can't have an end-point. In their commitment to unearthing secrets, clues, and revelations, visionary works define knowledge as a goal rather than a process. As a character or a viewer, you suddenly “see” or “know” or “feel” something—or you don't. The ends of Hitchcock's movies—in which the main character and the viewer are served up a series of explanations that account for more or less everything—succinctly illustrate the stasis of the acts of atemporal “seeing” that occur time after time in visionary works.

The visual and acoustic style of visionary works implicitly minimizes the temporality of experience. The Strauss on the soundtrack of 2001, the kick-lighting in Blade Runner, the elevated and depressed camera angles in Citizen Kane, the outsized sets and short lenses in The Trial offer summary, shorthand ways of knowing. They push the pause button on the ebb and flow of lived experience. The viewer is told how to feel about some aspect of the character or his situation once and for all. We “get” these truths (about Joseph K's insignificance, Kane's megalomania, the comical courtliness of the spaceships' docking), the way we get the punch-line of a joke; we don't live into them the way we live with a friend, a Beethoven symphony, or a George Eliot novel.

Such a vision of truth final, complete, and absolute may represent a gain for eternity, but it is a definite loss for life. Do we really want to live in a world in which truth is something that can be seen like a piece of furniture or known like a basketball score? Do we really want art that imagines experience to stand still like a painting, when it is so obviously on the move like a piece of music? As William James asks in “A World of Pure Experience,” why do we expect truth to be “a static relation out of time when it practically seems so much a function of our active life?” Outside the movies, it takes time to learn things or have meaningful experiences. It takes time for relationships to develop. It takes time for meanings to be made. The time is not something you can just factor out without changing the experience itself.

The loss of uniqueness

States of consciousness are impersonal, because thoughts and feelings (at least in the shorthand terms in which these films render them) are generic. Inner states inevitably lack the variety of expressions. There are no fat intentions or thin intentions, no embarrassed or glib visions, no hesitant or assertive abstractions. Visionary forms of presentation lack the idiosyncrasy of individual expressions. Our visions are more or less alike; it's the nonvisionary aspects of our lives (our personalities, bodies, gestures, facial expressions, tones of voice) that make us different. In this respect, a person's ideas, theories, goals, motives, and philosophies are the least personal (and least unique) things about him.

The absence of expressive particularity, idiosyncrasy, and individuality in idealist film includes the props, costumes, and events. In the initial romantic rendezvous between Marion and Sam in Psycho, nothing is particularized or unique. The hotel room might be any hotel room; the uneaten lunch might be any uneaten lunch; the beep of a car horn outside the window might be the beep of any car horn. Even the lover's quarrel is generic. The words and tones are generic. The lunch-time rendezvous is generic. One might reply that the hotel scene is a relatively unimportant one (and that hotel rooms are pretty generic anyway), but the deindividualized nature of experience is just as striking in subsequent scenes in Psycho: when Marion packs her suitcase and flees with the money in her car; when she is stopped by the policeman; when she flees in the storm; when Norman Bates spies on her in her room; when he attacks her in the shower; when Arbogast offers his services to Sam and Lila as a detective; when he cross-examines Norman about whether Marion stayed at the motel; when he sneaks into the Bates mansion; when Sam stalls Norman; when Lila prowls through the mansion—it could really be anyone absconding with any cash, any guilty motorist stopped by a policeman, any anxious driver, any voyeur spying on any woman, any psycho killer, any private detective, anyone searching for clues, etc. , etc., etc.. Anyone or no one. There are no individuals in Psycho. There are only generic events, generic responses, generic interactions.

It is not just external events and actions that are made generic; personal experience itself is depersonalized by idealist works. The uniqueness and individuality of characters' internal states is denied. When one or another character looks up at the Bates mansion from the motel, into Norman Bates' office, around Marion's motel room, or at objects in Mrs. Bates' bedroom, there is nothing to distinguish one act of looking, thinking, feeling, or knowing from another—absolutely no difference between Marion's looks, thoughts, and feelings and Arbogast's, Lila's, and Sam's. There is just the generic visionary act.

Actors are cattle in this expressive universe. You wheel them in, position them, light them in certain ways, photograph them from several different angles, lay in some music on the soundtrack, and the job is done: generic mental states replace unique personal expressions. As John Cassavetes said to me about mainstream film in general: “There's no behavior.” The acting in most idealist/visionary works is as schematic and generalized as a Kuleshov experiment. Every gesture, facial expression, and tone of voice is generic. A pantomimed “indication” of an emotion, an abstract “look” (made meaningful by the mood music that underpins it or the narrative events that precede and follow it) takes the place of a distinctive personal expression. A statement of thoughts or feelings substitutes for the presentation of something too personally unique to be reduced to an impersonal idea.

The impersonality of the characters' existences is driven home by their narrative interchangeability in idealist film. In Psycho, for example, as one figure after another is bumped off or given a new narrative assignment, the next one steps in to take over the previous one's duties. Lila can frictionlessly fill in for Marion and Sam for Arbogast because they are more or less indistinguishable links in a substitutional chain—generic narrative placeholders in clothes. There's not even any difference between the men and the women in this respect. At this level of abstraction, gender differences disappear. Everyman has become so generalized that he is no longer identifiably a man.

Far from being a failure or oversight on Hitchcock's part, it seems clear that the omission of what Cassavetes called behavior was deliberate. As his entire oeuvre testifies, Hitchcock was not interested in expressive uniqueness, but cultural, emotional, and psychological archetypes—general, abstract, imaginative relationships and dependencies. His films are not about what makes us different and irreplaceable (our unique personalities and forms of expression) but what links us with everyone else (our dreams, dreads, desires, and fears).

Schematic understandings run throughout idealist film. Look at works otherwise as different from each other as Citizen Kane, Sabrina, 2001, The Graduate, Star Wars, Thelma and Louise, and Apocalypse Now. The experiences in them have the phenomenological thinness (and ontological generality) of an allegory or a dream. They aren't depictions of individuals but types. The characters and situations are abstract markers for general imaginative positions. Nothing in them is unique or unprecedented. In fact, like all mass culture expressions, these films would risk illegibility if their characters and situations departed too far from types. To reach the largest possible audience, they deliberately attempt to give us everyone's experience in general (which means they give us no one's in particular).

The loss of otherness

In downplaying expressive uniqueness, idealist expression suppresses otherness. The loss is a significant one, particularly if we understand “otherness” in its deepest meaning—not merely connoting exposure to specific sexual, racial, or cultural differences, but exposure to alien consciousness in any form. Otherness in this sense offers the opportunity to know in new ways, to see and hear with new eyes and ears, to feel new emotions, to be granted new powers, to participate in new forms of sensitivity and awareness. Because of their generic understandings, idealist works look in the other direction—toward an all-encompassing sameness of point of view, feeling, and idea.

Although it's often said that the “identification” process (which these works heavily rely on) encourages the viewer to “become” one of the characters, in fact the opposite is closer to what actually takes place: The viewer forces the character or characters to become him. Rather than inhabiting a different consciousness, the viewer makes the character over in his own image. It's an almost inevitable side-effect of the nature of idealist expression. Because characters are kept expressively somewhat nonspecific, they function as Rorschach ink blots for a viewer to project his thoughts and feelings onto, empty receptacles for a viewer to pour his feelings into. Rather than being forced out of himself, crashing up against the brick wall of an alien consciousness, the viewer colors the slightly blank character in with own personal emotional and intellectual meanings.

In fact, it is precisely because these characters (and the actors who play them) are expressively nonspecific and open-ended that most viewers are so comfortable with them. The vagueness allows each viewer to feel that the character is him or her. Expressive individuality and personal particularity would only get in the way of instant intimacy. If the character were someone, it couldn't be everyone. Precisely because the visions in idealist film represent the point of view of no one in particular, they can become the point of view of anyone in general. The seer is able to drop into what is seen because no unique individual is doing the seeing. Idealist art is committed to a fundamentally easy and relaxed relationship between the viewer and what is viewed. But where the chasm between self and others is bridged so easily, so rapidly, so painlessly, genuine otherness disappears. No real learning or discovery takes place.

Being replaces doing

Idealist/visionary works foster a fundamentally contemplative relationship to experience. Individuals exist to think and feel, to read thoughts and feelings in others, and to allow their own thoughts and feelings to be read. Experience becomes an intellectual event. Idealist film comes very close to the values of the late-18th century British cult of sensibility where your sentiments and intentions matter far more than anything you may or may not say or do. Feeling and thinking substitute for doing—a point which is almost comically illustrated in Casablanca by the narrative importance given to Ilsa's imaginative relationship with Rick as compared with the cursory treatment of Viktor Lazlo's life and work. Notwithstanding Rick's remarks in the final scene about how “the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” the entire film is devoted to proving the opposite point: that what Rick and Ilsa feel for each other is more important than anything Viktor Lazlo does to save the world. (Even what Rick and Renault feel in the final scene is clearly more important than anything they or anyone else may do as a result of it.)

Since, as I already pointed out, knowledge in these works is a form of insight rather than acquaintance, it is easy for knowing to become a passive event. Knowing isn't a way of moving through experience, but a set of facts to be discovered. Truth is out there to be perceived, separate from yourself; it is recognized, not made. Meaning is revealed to you; it is not something you create. Again Hitchcock's work illustrates the point. The character is a reader of texts whose meanings exist independently of him. The texts can be cryptic or obvious, and one can be a better or worse reader of them, but one is still only a reader. The conception of truth in these works is “spectatorial” (to employ Dewey's term).

Watch ten minutes of Citizen Kane, Psycho, 2001, or Blade Runner with this in mind and the point will be clear: In both the optical and imaginative senses, characters exist to see and be seen, and objects and events (a recluse's dying words, a spooky house on a hill, a mysterious Monolith on the moon) exist to be seen into. Because idealist works prefer mental and imaginative relationships over physical interactions with experience, experience becomes something you have rather than do. It is about seeing things a certain way, feeling a certain way, adjusting your angle of vision—not about actually interacting with (and therefore affecting the meaning of) persons, places, and things. Knowledge is an intellectual phenomenon, a series of thoughts and feelings, not a course of practical actions and events. Truth becomes something outside yourself that can be known, rather than a relationship between you and the world. You don't interact with the world in ways that potentially change it and you; you realize, understand, appreciate, feel what it already and unalterably is. You don't make realities in this world (children, families, personal relationships, works of art), you discover truths that would have been there even if you had never come along.

Idealist/visionary works cultivate spectatorial relations to experience in their viewers as much as they reward them in their characters. When Lila Crane walks through the Bates Mansion, the reporter searches for information in Citizen Kane, or the astronauts try to understand the Monolith in 2001, the characters' relationship to experience in these films is indistinguishable from the viewers' relationship to the experiences of them. These works depict contemplative stances in their characters and cultivate them in their viewers. As the entire preceding discussion is intended to demonstrate, however, when experience is taken up into the mind, we may gain our souls but lose the world.

Embracing the world

There is an alternative expressive tradition within American film, though, because it is a minority position, it is far less familiar. I shall call it pragmatic modernism due to its affinity with the philosophical writing of Ralph Waldo Emerson, F. C. S. Schiller, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and John Dewey. The differences between the pragmatic and the visionary/idealist/symbolic positions could not be more striking. In the idealist tradition, reality is elsewhere—underneath or beyond the world of practical experience and ordinary life—in an abstract, disembodied realm of feelings, thoughts, and insights. The goal is to leave the fluxional expressive surfaces of life behind and make contact with a clarifying mental realm.

The pragmatic artist declines to make that move. He says that however mutable or turbulent they may be, there are only surfaces, and that our job is (to adapt Emerson's metaphor) to skate on them. For the pragmatic artist, in William James' paraphrase of Chauncy Wright's formulation, “behind the bare phenomenal facts÷ there is nothing.” To put it in terms of the Isabel/Merle dialogue I earlier alluded to: In the pragmatic tradition, we are not our invisible intentions (what we aspire to be, want to be, or feel ourselves to be), but our actual expressions. We are not our deep ideas and insights, but our superficial appearances (what we express ourselves as, what we actually do). What shows is all there is. The pragmatic artist is committed to a profound superficiality—in effect agreeing with Oscar Wilde that it's only superficial people who do not judge by appearances.

The pragmatic work calls us back into relation with the complexities of action and expression in the world. The consequence is a shift in the conception of what it is to be in the world—or, to put it more precisely, a shift from understanding experience in terms of states of being to understanding it in terms of acts of doing. Idealist/visionary works ask characters and viewers to see and be; pragmatic works insist that they perform their being. Visionary filmmaking is Platonic. It values insight (depicting it in the characters and cultivating it in the viewer); the pragmatic artist insists on the priority of performance (what William James calls “practice”). The pragmatic work tells us that it is not sufficient to encounter the world optically and possess it imaginatively; we must negotiate it, interact with it physically, socially, verbally. The pragmatic work tells us that the world exists not to be seen into, not to be “known” mentally but, as Dewey put it, to be “undergone.” Experience is not equated with states of being, but acts of doing.

Skating the surfaces of life

But the best way to define a form of filmmaking so opposed to states of abstraction is not abstractly but by example. Although the pragmatic aesthetic finds its finest flowering in the work of a number of post-war American independent filmmakers, it is not confined to American examples. Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is a particularly useful starting point because it lends itself to comparison with Casablanca.

While Curtiz insistently moves inward, putting his characters' thoughts and feelings on display, Renoir holds his viewers on the outside. The Rules of the Game keeps us in the realm of behavior, studying impenetrable (and frequently inscrutable) surfaces. Characters in Casablanca are transparent; their words and their film's stylistic effects let us sink a mine shaft into a subterranean core of consciousnesses. Figures in The Rules of the Game are opaque; we can't see into their hearts or read their minds. Intentions, good or bad, are everything in Casablanca; they are irrelevant in The Rules of the Game. As a line of dialogue tells us, “Everyone has good intentions [raisons].” Robert, Octave, Jurieu, and Christine won't be reduced to their motives, goals, or ideals, because consciousness for Renoir can never be disentangled from the forms in which it is embodied. For Renoir, we are not our internal states, but all of the things that express them: our behavior, tones of voice, facial expressions, gestures, movements, manners, and styles of expression. To say the obvious, it is not that Renoir's characters don't have ideas or feelings, but that the pragmatic film refuses to uncouple them from the practical expressive acts in which they manifest themselves. You can't get to consciousness without going through expressions and, to a large extent, remaining within them. Forms matter. Unexpressed, silent, private consciousness (the staple of idealist film) is a fiction.

Idealist film traces experience back to states of subjectivity for the same reason many people go through life trying to figure out other people's motives and intentions. By reducing the complexity of expressions to the simplicity of intentions, we clarify what is obscure and unify what is diverse. Subjectivity represents the possibility of transcendental, resolving understanding—a way of knowing sprung free from the contingencies of history, culture, and gender, and the obliquity of manners and personality. It offers a foundation for understanding that leaves behind the compromises and mixed motives of actual human expression. (How complex and changing facial expressions and tones of voice can be; how much simpler are intentions signaled by lighting effects or mood music orchestrations.) But like all foundational understandings, idealist understanding depreciates the surface experiences it underpins. When life is defined in terms of consciousness, the parts of it that will not be reduced to feelings, intentions, and ideas are downplayed.

Meaning is largely decoupled from practical forms of expression in idealist works. Our understanding of Rick's, Viktor's, Ilsa's, or Sam's words and glances is not deeply affected by the nuances of their delivery of their lines or how they walk, move, or gesture. In contrast, Christine, Jurieu, Robert, and Octave can never be dissolved back into their abstract statements and sentiments. Their expressions are mediated. Their content is contained. Everything these characters are is inflected by their individual body types and ways of moving (compare Robert's with Octave's), ways of dressing, vocal tones and speech rhythms (compare Christine's with Genevieve's with Lisette's), facial expressions, and mannerisms (compare Marceau's with Jurieu's). Their being is inseparable from its doing. Renoir's films are celebrations of expressive particularity, uniqueness, and idiosyncrasy, not merely to give variety to the delivery of the lines, but because in his conception of life these expressive differences make all the difference.

It's not an accident that when we remember films like 2001, Blade Runner, or Apocalypse Now, we remember a series of disembodied visions, images, or lines of dialogue, while when we remember a film like A Woman Under the Influence, we recall a thousand sensory details: the different shapes of the children's bodies in their swim suits; the touching way little Maria walks up the stairs or Mabel hops across the lawn on one foot; Dr. Zepp's greasy, owlish appearance; the difference between Nick's vocal tones and timbres (his orders from headquarters talking at people) and Mabel's entirely more hesitant and vulnerable tones. For Renoir, Cassavetes, and all pragmatic filmmakers, what you are is not separable from your body, your behavior, your pacing, your timing, your tones of voice.

Truth in spaces, times, and bodies

Visionary film is committed to leaving such “personal” differences behind in order to ascend into a heaven of superpersonal knowledge. Take Hitchcock as an illustration. Although truth in his work is almost always presented as one person's vision (usually the main character's optical and psychological point of view), the imaginative goal is ultimately to rise above the limitation of the character's merely personal view to attain an ideal view in which personal differences disappear and the point of view of the main character, the director, and the viewer merges into an objectively verifiable truth. When Lila Crane finds out the truth about Norman Bates; when Jeff finds out the truth about his neighbors; when Scotty finds out the truth about Madeline; when a viewer finds out the truth about Rosebud; when the astronauts find out whatever they do in 2001—what is discovered is imagined to be out there to be found. Knowledge is independent of the knower. Truth transcends the trower; the thought does not need a thinker.

For the pragmatic filmmaker there can be no view from nowhere, no understanding that is not understood. All truth is conditional. Expressive and perspectival differences can never be factored out. All knowledge is based in particular ways of knowing. It is partial and contingent. Truth can never be separated from the ways it is bought into existence—in this case, the emotional colorations of different characters' personalities. As for a portrait painter or a choreographer, for Renoir or Cassavetes, there can be no truth outside of the specific bodies, faces, costumes, manners, and personal styles that express it. Personally unexpressed truth—objective, superpersonal truth—is a meaningless concept.


Both the magisteriality and authoritativeness of Hitchcock's camerawork and the quest structure of his work clearly figure the possibility of final, absolute, unitary understanding. The camera positioning, framing, lighting, and editing represent the viewpoint of an ideal observer capable of seeing and hearing everything that matters in the best possible way (though in order to increase suspense he may, of course, withhold a necessary piece of information or encourage a misunderstanding that temporarily misleads the viewer or the main character). The style and narrative structure lead inexorably to a revelation of a final truth.

The pragmatic aesthetic rejects such essentialist concepts: of an “ideal” or “correct” view; of a final truth; of a unitary understanding. In William James' term, its world is pluralistic. There are a variety of paths through experience. While essentialist work is implicitly single-minded and intolerant of variety, pragmatic work is multiple-minded, believing experience is too complex to be reducible to any one view or interpretation. Films like The Rules of the Game, Cassavetes' Faces and A Woman Under the Influence, and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky are committed to honoring as many different relations to experience, as many different personal perspectives as possible—none necessarily superior to any other. There is always a “right” place to look and a “best” way to understand things in Hitchcock, but in A Woman Under the Influence, the spaghetti breakfast, the whistling on the bed, the homecoming gathering around the table, and the standing on the sofa scenes force the viewer to hold four, five, six, or more, different (and conflicting) viewpoints in mind at once, each of which is equally valid and important. There is no right (or wrong) way to speak or act, no best way to think or feel, no ideal knowledge to attain. The Rules of the Game, A Woman Under the Influence, Faces, and Mikey and Nicky don't aspire to rise above the partiality and diversity of personal points of view, but to maximize their importance. The goal is not to leave differences behind, but to give them full play—to appreciate as many alternative points of view and ways of being as possible. That is why actors (and characters) in these works are encouraged not only to look, act, and sound as different as possible from other characters, but as different as possible from themselves at other moments.

There are four specific stylistic differences between The Rules of the Game and Casablanca that contribute to these different understandings of experience. The general heading they all fall under is that pragmatic film jettisons point-of-view photography and the subjectivity editing convention to employ photographic techniques that resemble documentary filmmaking.

1. The ninety-degree turn: Insofar as idealist film is committed to making the character's thoughts and emotions the subject of the shot, the actor's face is turned either directly toward the camera to provide maximum visibility or directly away from it to allow the viewer, as it were, to see through the character's eyes. We look directly at Jack Nicholson's face and into Meryl Streep's eyes (unless we look through them, as if we were the character). Pragmatic works don't make faces so prominent. They frequently introduce a ninety-degree or larger angle between the direction the character is facing and the direction the camera faces. The character turns inward to interact with his group, more often than not sitting, standing, moving at an angle to the camera position.

In idealist film, the character plays “to” the camera and “for” the viewer; in the pragmatic film the character functions more or less independently of the camera position, playing to, for, and with the characters around him. The effect is radically to change the cinematic experience: The viewer isn't inside the characters' heads, sharing their perspectives, looking out through their eyes, but off to one side of them, looking at them, at a certain critical distance from them. The viewer is not in the scene living it, but outside it, overhearing it. The world exists not as a series of feelings to be shared and minds to be inhabited, but as a collection of bodies, voices, movements, and actions to be experienced. Merging becomes impossible; multiple views must be maintained.

Rather than conflating the perspective of the viewer and the character, a chasm separating the points-of-view of the characters from that of the viewer opens. The single view of the visionary work gives way to the genuinely plural views of the pragmatic. “Our” view is no longer privileged, no longer the only right or best view. Other views become possible—but inaccessible, impenetrable, unknowable ones. The character's point of view is no longer open to the viewer, but is turned away, invisible, hidden. A mysterious imaginative space inhabited by the character is created. Rather than being on the inside looking out, the viewer is positioned outside of private, inward turned events. It's the difference between a gathering of us's and a gathering of them's. We can know idealist characters and experiences the way we know ourselves and our own experiences. We are inside them the way we are inside ourselves. The most we can know pragmatic characters is the way we know someone else. We eavesdrop on a world that exists and moves independently of us, a world that won't open itself to us, a world that in fact veils itself from us, and resists knowing. A world of subjectivities gives way to a world of objects. The mystery of genuine “otherness” is born.

2. A preference for medium and long shots over close-ups: The most important dramatic moments in films of consciousness are almost always presented in terms of an extended series of medium shots and close-ups that focus in on characters' eyes and facial expressions. Although The Rules of the Game doesn't eliminate close-ups, it generally employs long or medium distance photography so that a figure's face and eyes do not command such an inordinate amount of attention. Characters' identities expand beyond their facial expressions; they become their entire bodies, movements, and gestures. As D.H. Lawrence and Walt Whitman were not the first to understand, the definition of the soul changes when your spirit is not confined to your mind but includes your fingers and feet, actions and gestures. The soul has a body.

A second effect of favoring medium and long shots over close-ups is that characters are not conceived as being essentially separate from one another (as imaginative identities necessarily are), but are understood to bring themselves into fullest existence in their interactions with others. Even scenes in The Rules of the Game which employ medium and tight shots of a central figure, like the one in which Christine greets Jurieu, almost always have other characters visible in the background or on the sides of the frame (or are intercut with reaction shots of other characters). Identity is relational.

3. The use of “open” frame spaces and “loose” forms of narrative presentation: As is the case in virtually all Hollywood film, the style of Casablanca and Psycho more or less continuously dictate the viewer's interpretation of every shot. He is told what to look at, why he is seeing it, and given plenty of time to figure things out. The Rules of the Game situates the viewer in a perceptual space in which there is much more to see and take in, less direction on where to look, and less definiteness about what it all means. Locations, backstories, and situations are not clearly “established.” Important characters are not necessarily centrally positioned or key-lighted, but are allowed to move around within the frame space—or even out of it. Rather than tersely cutting from important point to point and person to person, the camera more loosely roves around the set, noticing events and groups of characters in different areas, not hesitating to take in various bits of background and foreground business that might not be strictly relevant to the main action. Experiences are to some extent unanalyzed. They are not cut into bite-sized pieces (in the form of close-ups) and prepared for easy consumption (with editorializing stylistic glosses), but are kept fairly whole and unprocessed (with fill-lighting, medium and long shots, group interactions, and nontendentious narrative placement). Experience is served up a slightly raw or uncooked state. Rather than having his eye directed, his focus clarified, and his interpretation narrowed, the viewer is left a little to his own devices—at least a little free to decide where to look around in the frame, what to pay attention to, and what to think about it.

The pragmatic work is semantically loose-jointed. It imagines a universe in which objects, events, characters, and utterances have a more relaxed, less determined relation to meaning than in the visionary work—not only less tightly tied to any one meaning, but potentially linked to different and perhaps contradictory meanings at the same time. It allows for the possibility of there being different understandings of the same experience. Because it treats experience as being semantically a little random or casual, it holds it more lightly than the other kind of film. This goes against the grain of our habitual ways of understanding. We want definiteness and definitiveness. Semantic overdetermination is usually taken to be an artistic virtue. Isn't it, after all, the greatness of Citizen Kane, that virtually everything in it—every shot, prop, camera angle, line of dialogue—emphatically means something—something even the lowliest freshman can be trained to take in at a glance? Films like 2001, Apocalypse Now, Blade Runner, Full Metal Jacket, Pulp Fiction, and Fargo create worlds of intense and pervasive meaningfulness.

Even putting aside the ways such semantic overdetermination pushes viewers around, denying interpretive room to breathe, it's worth pondering how much of experience is left out when it is made so semantically coherent: its casualness and adventitiousness; its repetitions, digressions, and dead ends; its loopiness, eccentricity, strangeness, and sheer unknowability. To borrow one of Robert Frost's metaphors, if experience is a tent swaying in the breeze, the essentialism of art film hammers in the pegs and pulls the guy wires so taut that it removes the interesting wrinkles and wiggle. It takes the play out of life. The pragmatic artist loosens the chains of causality and frustrates or delays understanding in order to allow a little life (or what James in Some Problems of Philosophy calls “novelty”) back in.

4. Perceptions replace conceptions: The idealist film subtly encourages a movement from perceptions to conceptions, while the pragmatic film holds the viewer more firmly (if somewhat bewilderingly) in the realm of the senses. The viewer is denied an optical or imaginative “guide” through the film, a personal surrogate to walk us through the experience, direct our vision, and assist in our interpretation (either in the form of a character whose point of view we can identify with or a director, cameraman, or editor who will clearly establish where we are in scene after scene, show us where to look, and suggest what it all means). The result is that we must drift a little at sea through the visual space, letting our eyes and minds rove, continuously adjusting our feelings and beliefs, changing our minds as we go along. Especially given the mutability and complexity of the sensory surface in most pragmatic works, the viewer is forced to remain on the qui vive, surfing the leading edge of a breaking perceptual wave, staying perceptually on the move, without being able to put down an enduring conceptual anchor.

Due to their fairly intellectual mode of presentation, shots in Psycho, Casablanca, and other idealist works encourage the viewer to translate them into general psychological points and narrative meanings. The orderliness of the visual spaces and the clear, conceptual organization of the sequences of shots repeatedly emphasize the presence of an underlying abstract logic. The effect is to create a powerful impression of meaning undergirding the perceptual surface. The viewer is ever so slightly abstracted from what is seen to consider why it is being shown and what it means. These films induce a distance between the viewer and what is being presented. They convey the feeling of being about an experience rather than giving the sensation of actually having the experience.

The pragmatic film takes away the aboutness. To watch The Rules of the Game is to be put in the position of uncertainly responding to a shifting, unpredictable sequence of events not obviously underpinned by an abstract, unifying logic. To watch Cassavetes' work is to be tossed head-first into an almost overwhelmingly raw, unassimilated experience. These works emphatically deny intellectual distance and control over the experiences presented. To view them is less to learn about a group of characters and situations than to have something resembling the kind of experiences we would have if we were actually thrown into similar situations with similar figures. A fundamental perceptual shift takes place: undergoing must (at least temporarily) replace understanding. Living in space and time must take the place of knowing outside of space and time; states of abstraction must give way to acts of perception. In a word, thinking must give way to experiencing.

Life without intentions

Two films by Mike Leigh can throw additional light on pragmatic understandings of experience. Bleak Moments dramatizes the relationship of a young woman, Sylvia, with two young men: Norman is a gawky, taciturn lodger who rents a room in her house; Peter is a somewhat older and relatively more poised professional who lives in her neighborhood. It is clear that both men are as hungry for companionship and possible romance as Sylvia is, but what separates Bleak Moments from idealist cinematic presentations is that, beyond establishing the three characters' shared desire for companionship, Leigh provides almost nothing in the way of access to their motives and intentions. Sylvia's, Norman's, and Peter's thoughts, goals, plans, and desires are neither verbalized, translated into dramatically pointed looks, nor summarized in mood music or lighting effects.

A later Leigh work, Meantime, does something similar in terms of another threesome—this time a triangle involving the relationship of Mark and Colin, two brothers from a lower-class background, and their middle-class Aunt Barbara. As in the other film, Leigh establishes a few general dramatic tensions and inequalities: It is clear that the brothers are in a competitive relation with each other; and that the aunt feels sorry for one of them (Colin) and wants to help him and to encourage him to break free from the other brother's (Mark's) influence. But beyond these basic tensions, the film denies access to Mark's, Colin's, and Barbara's thoughts, feelings, and desires.

The basic intellectual insights that idealist film trades in are simply unavailable, which means that from scene to scene, the viewer is left guessing about the direction a personal interaction may take, what a character will say or do next, and, above all, what precisely a character intends by what he or she says or does at a particular moment. For viewers accustomed to Hollywood's luxurious displays of subjectivity, the experience can be frustrating, bewildering, or downright maddening. The experience is a little like being an outside guest at a large family gathering where there is lots of hidden history and unspoken emotional agendas. Clarifying, resolving, “deep” understandings are unavailable; all there is are shifting, complex surfaces. Answers to important questions are simply unavailable: Specifically, in Bleak Moments: Is Norman romantically interested in Sylvia? Is Sylvia offering herself to Norman? Is she offering herself to Peter, or teasing and mocking him? In Meantime: Is Mark out to help Colin be independent or trying to keep him under his thumb? Does Barbara have Colin's interests at heart or her own? Are she and Mark acting selfishly or altruistically? These are the fundamental issues the films raise, but none of them is answered even at the end.

These questions are not answered, not because Leigh is withholding information, but because they are fundamentally not answerable. The reason that we aren't told what Sylvia, Peter, Norman, Barbara, Mark, or Colin really “want” from each other, what they “mean” when they say something, or what their fundamental “intentions” are at a given moment is that they themselves don't and can't know. Even the actors playing them, or Leigh, who wrote, directed, and edited their performances would be able to answer these questions. As potential lovers getting to know each other, Sylvia, Peter, and Norman themselves really can't understand their relative positions or know what they want from each other—or whether they want anything at all. Given their situation, such a concept of “knowing” or “intending” is meaningless. The very idea of such wants and understandings is absurd. These characters don't have basic “motives” or “goals.” They don't have “plans” for their relationship. They don't have “visions” of what they “desire” or “need.” They don't have secret “wishes” or “ideals” that would clarify things if only we knew them. There is no realm of deep “feelings” or unexpressed “intentions” to get to. There is no substructure of essential “thoughts,” “feelings,” and “ideas” that can resolve and simplify the genuine vagueness, open-endedness, and unformulatedness of these interactions—and if there were, these scenes would not be worth bothering with. Sylvia and Peter feel their way toward or away from a romantic relationship step by step, and if we are to appreciate the intricacy, sadness, and beauty of their emotional dance it can only be in the same step-by-step way. Colin, Mark, and Barbara play a chess game in which they can never see beyond the current move, and the viewer must learn to function in the same move-by-move way.

The mystery of the visible

That should make it clear that when I argue that Hitchcock and Curtiz (and other idealist filmmakers) provide access to depths—characters' fundamental points of view, feelings, thoughts, and intentions—and that Renoir, Leigh, Cassavetes, May, and other pragmatic filmmakers deny access to them, I don't mean that the pragmatic artist is merely keeping such information from the viewer. Idealist/visionary artists frequently withhold information about motives and intentions in order to grab a viewer's attention or stoke up the dramatic intensity of a scene in a way that creates an effect superficially similar to what the pragmatic artist does. But the difference is that, even though they may be temporarily hidden from view, the intentions and motives are still there and eventually revealed. The pragmatic denial is more fundamental. It is a denial that life is organized (and comprehensible) in terms of essential states of consciousness, a denial that surface expressions are traceable back to simpler, underpinning thoughts and feelings.

The mysteries in pragmatic works are real, while those in Hitchcock's and Welles' work, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Mamet's House of Games, or DePalma's Dressed to Kill are fake. The mystifications in these films can ultimately be cleared up. (We might as well be in a Sherlock Holmes story.) The mysteries in pragmatic films never can. There is nothing to resolve, no secret to uncover, no answer for the next scene to reveal. The mysteries in pragmatic films are not tricks introduced to hold our interest or tease us—but are unavoidable side-effects of the genuine complexity of the events and characters. They aren't something added to a situation; they are just how things are.

Leigh's Norman may seem superficially similar to Hitchcock's; Leigh's Sylvia may seem superficially similar to Hitchcock's Marion. Both sets of characters are fairly secretive, private, and shy. Both seem fairly mysterious. But the difference is that in Hitchcock the reason for the secretiveness is that the character has a secret (concealed thoughts, desires, or actions)—which is to say there is not any real mystery at all, since once either's thoughts and fears are revealed, the mystery disappears. The mystery in Renoir's, Leigh's, and Cassavetes' worlds is not premised on a secret. It is not in the depths but on the surface; not in the realm of the invisible, but the visible.

Another way to think of it is to notice that Hitchcock generally generates mystery by giving his characters two identities—a public and a private one, nested inside one another like Chinese dolls. Although the discrepancy between them creates whatever mystery there may appear to be, there is actually no mystery in either identity by itself. Each one is perfectly coherent, consistent, and intelligible; the gap between them is the only source of mystification. Leigh's characters have only one self. There is no secret identity behind or beneath the surface one. The mystery is in the self that shows—which is a much more complex situation. It's the same mystery we find in Chekhov's or Faulkner's most interesting characters. Or in the title characters in Cassavetes' Husbands (who even if we asked them couldn't tell us what they really want or feel at any one moment). Or in Cosmo Vitelli in Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, who himself doesn't understand his own emotional needs and desires, let alone indicate to a viewer what they are. There is no possible resolution of the mystery in these films.

New forms of knowledge

If these works don't simply drive viewers out of the movie theater, demanding their money back, the result is to induce a state of attentiveness distinctively different from what the visionary film cultivates. Since it is impossible to dive beneath the multivalent, shifting expressive surface to a realm of clarifying thoughts and stable intentions, the viewer cannot coast above a scene, but is put on the edge of his seat, noticing, listening, pondering, wondering, speculating, and responding—watching flickers of emotion in faces, and ebbs and flows of gestural energy, listening to semidemiquavers in voices—following the second by second evolution of a complex interaction—without the prospect of an ultimate clarification. Viewers must learn to function without road maps. They must get used to worlds with a degree of unresolvable uncertainty. There is no summarizing, deep truth to take away from the experience; there is only the experience itself. The “deep” meaning is the process of having experiences that are not traceable back to deep meanings.

In this situation what counts as knowledge changes. Because we cannot ground our readings of scenes in abstract understandings, we must abandon generalities and accept particulars. We must give up the ideal of thinking as an event in which we leave behind the contingencies of temporal and spatial knowledge, and embrace a sense of thinking that is spatially and temporally engaged and sensorily on the move. We must change our understanding of understanding. To understand the experiences the pragmatic work presents—as to understand a great jazz performance—is not to leave the perceptual events behind in order to reach a realm of intellectual abstraction and visionary clarity, but to plunge into the sensory experience, synchronizing our rhythms with its flow, sensitizing ourselves to its attributes. Pragmatic works teach us to think in space and time, not outside of them. The search for the essences of epistemology must be replaced by a willingness to function within the flowing movements of history. The viewing experience becomes less like searching for the solution to a puzzle, in order to “find out” something, than a process of living within an unusually stimulating and demanding set of experiences. There is no resolving truth and no end point to be attained in these films. There is only a shifting course of events to be negotiated. Our inveterate cultural and intellectual quest for product must be replaced by a willingness to remain in process. Truth as vision in Plato's sense is replaced by truth as conversation in Richard Rorty's and Daniel Dennett's sense.

Characters beyond character

The idealist film is committed to an essentialist conception not only of expression but of personal identity. Apparent vagaries of behavior and expression are harmonized by being traced back to a central, unifying center of selfhood. In fact, the simplicity of its characters is one of the things that makes Hollywood film (the most extended body of idealist cinematic work) so satisfying to most viewers. However diverse its fundamental expressions, personal identity in these works is ultimately revealed to be essentially simple, static, and unitary. At the muddy bottom of the food chain, in the simplest of action pictures, the Die Hards and Rockys, the characters are more or less completely defined by a few practical goals (e.g. capturing the terrorists) and personal characteristics (e.g. rugged sex appeal). In slightly more sophisticated works like Citizen Kane and North by Northwest, selfhood is only slightly more complex. Figures like Charles Foster Kane and Roger Thornhill assume different personae depending on whom they are with, are shackled with mistaken identities, and have identities that are kept secret and not revealed to other characters or the viewer for much of their works, but the character is ultimately revealed to have a dominant identity that unifies the apparent diversity. That is to say, although the character may display apparently contradictory characteristics in the course of the film, the differences are ultimately harmonized in a deeper understanding: Ilsa's shift from sentimentality to toughness and Rick's shift from cynicism to commitment are revealed to be unitary reflections of their earlier romantic relationship; Kane's kaleidoscopic succession of moods (charm, buoyancy, swagger, braggadocio, acquisitiveness, nastiness, superciliousness, megalomania, rage, despair, loneliness) is resolved by being seen as the expression of a single, unfilled emotional void. The initial heterogeneous understandings are ultimately unified by a subsuming, final understanding. The character in effect stands still—more or less consistently being, acting, and uttering an unchanging essence through-out the film, while the viewer digs deeper and deeper toward the Rosebud that explains it all. What William James ironically wrote in “Pragmatism and Humanism” about the idealist world-view might describe the idealist psychological conception of character: “We live upon the stormy surface; but with this our anchor holds, for it grapples rocky bottom.”

The pragmatic filmmaker does not understand personal identity this way. He does not believe that our identities are organized around a central essence, quality, intention, or goal. He is not convinced that the heterogeneity of our experiences and expressions necessarily reflects a central unity, and to pretend it does is to tell a lie about them. Compare any of Cassavetes' most interesting figures with Norman Bates, Roger Thornhill, or Scotty Ferguson for a crash course on the difference. Though Norman (the most complex of the three) temporarily eludes understanding, he is ultimately revealed to be quite simple. As the psychological explanation that concludes Psycho emphasizes, the apparent diversity of his previous expressions is ultimately unified under the rubric of his “mother complex.” There is no comparable explanatory key to the main characters in Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, or Opening Night. As the title of one of his films suggests, Cassavetes' protagonists function less as a definable bundle of attributes than as tuning forks resonating within shifting force fields of “influences.” The self as a fixture is dissolved; its boundaries are made permeable; it bleeds into others and lets others bleed into it. In fact, substantives like “selfhood” are themselves too static and bounded to capture the mercuriality of these figures' streaming identities. Chet, Jeannie, Mabel, and Myrtle are less nouns than verbs, less entities than energies, less sets of characteristics than shifting capacities of responsiveness.

To live through the shifts of beats and tonal flickers in the dancing scene in Faces (in which Richard and Freddy vie for Jeannie's affections, and in a matter of minutes Freddy goes from being flirtatious and romantic to hostile and abusive), or the tonal swoops, imaginative pirouettes, and social adjustments of relationship in the smashed wrist-watch scene in Mikey and Nicky, or the tumultuous, continuously morphing emotional reconfigurations in the scene between Nicky and his wife is to find an exhilarating dramatic analogue to the ideal that Whitman articulated in Democratic Vistas—of “variety and freedom÷ . [and] full play for human nature to expand itself in numberless and even conflicting directions.” It is important to emphasize, however, that Whitman's (and the pragmatist's) understanding of the meaning of “variety and freedom” is different from the understanding of those terms most common today. Our era favors an external definition (construing “variety” in terms of racial or sexual diversity, and “freedom” in terms of social, political, and economic possibility) but, as Whitman's own poetry demonstrates, the most glorious manifestation of “full play for human nature to expand itself” is the power of individual consciousness to elude containment or prediction. The forms of freedom (or enslavement) presented in A Woman Under the Influence, Faces, or Mikey and Nicky are not political, sociological, or ideological, but imaginative and emotional—freedom not as a position to be attained and held, but as a capacity of movement that leaves all fixed positions behind, including the position we customarily call “character.”

Self-creating expression

Identity becomes mercurial, watery, flame-like. Rather than being nailed down to an underpinning, enduring state of subjectivity, identity is allowed to reconfigure itself in a shifting series of movements and counter-movements. The self can reform itself as it goes along, turning on itself to critique itself, altering its tones as it moves through experience. Characters can change their minds, break their own patterns, and swerve away from their own past tones, moods, styles. They can present a sequence of behaviors that won't necessarily snap into focus. They can be surprising—or mysterious (with real mystery, not mystification introduced to stoke up the suspense).

It is important to absorb the difference between the pragmatic appreciation of character as not being reducible to “character” and the critical praise lavished on Norman Bates and other Hollywood depictions because of the alleged complexity of their having “multiple personalities.” Norman seems complex because he combines personal styles and characteristics that are usually kept separate (maleness and femaleness; adulthood and childlikeness; heterosexuality and homosexuality; nurturing and threatening behavior; cleanliness and butchery; cunning and timidity). But, as that list indicates, he is still constructed out of formulas for selfhood. Norman's dramatic cross-dressing actually affirms his dependence on conventional categories of selfhood. (What else are qualities like maleness and femaleness, heterosexuality and homosexuality, adulthood and childlikeness but paint-by-numbers conceptions of personality?) Norman is the product of a recipe that combines ingredients that are usually not mixed together, but a recipe nonetheless. Compare him with Mabel Longhetti. Mabel is not a quick-change artist who jumps from one received style or tone to another, but a true creative artist of her identity, free from indebtedness to all prefabricated roles, tones, relationships. To watch Mabel, Chet, Jeannnie, Myrtle, Seymour, and Sarah Lawson (or Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky) is to watch identities and interactions with others that are exhilaratingly, even a little scarily, undefined.

The pragmatic understanding of identity is genuinely non-foundational. There is no Mabel—no stable core of subjectivity—underneath or prior to her particular expressions of herself. There is no “self,” no pre-defined bundle of subjectivity separate from and underpinning its shifting manifestations. Consciousness does not precede expression. As William James argued in “Does Consciousness Exist?”—in this understanding of experience, consciousness does not exist as an anterior, defining state. There is only expression—mutating, unpredictable, and endlessly creative expression. The most interesting pragmatic characters are genuinely open-ended. Their identities are never formulated, never finished, ever in process, which is why the best way to describe these figures is to replace our ordinary conception of selfhood as a state of being with an appreciation of identity as the tracks left behind by a continuously adjusted path of doing.

Acting up on screen

It should not be surprising that pragmatic works encourage a different kind of acting from essentialist movies. Traditional American film acting, having developed hand in glove with the idealist forms of presentation favored by Hollywood film, asks the actor to base his character on an originating, controlling subjective state. The actor works from the inside out—adding accents, manners, and gestures almost as an afterthought and as secondary to the creation of the deeper reality. The character's states of feeling and awareness comprise an invisible underpinning for all of his surface expressions, and the actor's job in performance is to stay in touch with this essential center of consciousness. The outcome, at its best, is the inwardness and intensity of the classic Method acting of Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and James Dean.

Because it is grounded in states of individual consciousness, this acting is inevitably individualistic. Whatever their other strengths, the major American film actors—from Dean, Clift, and Brando in the past, to Jack Nicholson, Robert DeNiro, Harvey Keitel, Meryl Streep, Christopher Walken, Crispen Glover, and Nicholas Cage more recently—perform their work essentially alone. No matter how many others are present on camera with them, they are seldom genuinely responsive to anyone else. Jack Nicholson steals every scene he is in, controlling the beats, mugging, clowning, doing “star” turns. Harvey Keitel's dialogue passages are delivered as if they were monologues. Christopher Walken, Nicholas Cage, and Crispin Glover communicate the effect of being tuned into their own private frequencies no one else can hear, wrestling personal demons. These figures are among the greatest living American actors, and they do lots of interesting things, but it is telling that they do them more or less on their own—by themselves and to themselves, reaching into their own private reservoirs of feeling and knowledge.

Pragmatic acting goes in the opposite direction. Since it imagines selfhood not in terms of the creation and maintenance of states of private subjectivity, but as a flowing, dynamic process of responsiveness, it says that rather than burrowing ever deeper into himself, the actor's job is to reach ever more outward to others. While Method acting creates isolated (and frequently noncommunicating) packets of inviolable selfhood, the pragmatist says that, like Mabel Longhetti, Chet, Jeannie, or Sarah, we share our selves with others and create ourselves in negotiation with them. The goal is to look, listen, and respond freely and openly to those around you. Identity is not the result of maintaining the integrity of a deep private self; but is created, adjusted, and recreated in social interaction. Creativity is not the product of a deep inward consistency, but of nimble, flexible responsiveness. We renegotiate our identities with every beat of every interaction. We bring ourselves into fullest and richest being in our relationships with others. To act is to interact.

Experiential swerves and interruptions

What is true of personal identity in nonfoundational works is true of all aspects of experience: It is opened-up. The pragmatist does not believe experience can be mapped in terms of progress along a unidirectional narrative path. The classic screenwriting formula that “a narrative is a character with a goal, confronted with an obstacle” is a recipe for an essentialist film only. In the pragmatic view, the reduction of life to goals and obstacles, plans and frustrations is a hopeless reduction of the actual complexity of lived experience. Idealist works unify experience by suggesting that characters can pursue a more or less monotonic narrative trajectory through it; pragmatic works celebrate the diversity and heterogeneity of experience by allowing continuous narrative switch-backs, side-tracks, and divagations.

I am speaking metaphorically, of course, but in fact many visionary and pragmatic films actually present experience in terms of similar spatial metaphors. Experience in Psycho, Rear Window, and North by Northwest is generally mapped in straight lines, while experience in Mikey and Nicky, The Rules of the Game, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and De Sica's Bicycle Thief (another classic of pragmatic understanding) zigzags not only imaginatively, but spatially. With a dreamlike consistency, Hitchcock's work defines life in terms of straight-ahead movements through space. Like Marion Crane driving in the rain or Arbogast and Lila making their way up the steps of the Bates mansion, the main characters (and the camera) relentlessly move forward—optically and imaginatively pressuring and forcing encounters with whatever is in front of them. The clear implication is that we understand the world by striking, probing, pushing until we break through the delusive surface and reach a secret inner truth (which, in Hitchcock's work, is often figured as the interior room in a house or an underground plot or cellar). In contrast, the Renoir, Cassavetes, May, and De Sica films suggest that there is no inside, no underneath, no beyond to get to, and no secret to uncover. There is no hidden basement of the imagination to work our way down into, but only delightful, dismaying, distracting surfaces to negotiate—frequently figured in these works as a maze of passages, hallways, or streets angling off in every direction.

At the same time, even pragmatic filmmakers recognize that the visionary impulse makes a powerful appeal to our imaginations. As James might have put it, we want points of anchorage that will resolve the turbulence and turbidness of surface expressions. No matter how much experience teaches us otherwise, we want to believe in the possibility of secrets and discoveries that will ultimately clarify the opacity of experience. Pragmatic works often include characters on essentialist quests—figures who attempt to maintain fixed trajectories through experience, who search for resolving, “deep” insights and visionary unifications of the randomness and sprawl of experience—even as the films simultaneously frustrate their designs for living. Jurieu, Cosmo, Mikey, and Antonio attempt to take express-trains to get from point A to B without having to make annoying stops en route, but Renoir, Cassavetes, May, and De Sica narratively derail their progress over and over again. Even as these characters attempt to pursue serious, goal-oriented missions, their films spin them out along weird, semi-comic narrative curlicues and tangents—exposing them to fascinating distractions, tantalizingly leading them down emotional blind alleys, forcing unexpected reversals of course, and bizarre circlings that as often as not land them back were they started. While Hitchcock narratively rewards Lila's, Roger's, Scotty's, and L. B. Jeffries' single-minded purposefulness, Renoir, De Sica, Cassavetes, and May give Jurieu, Antonio, Cosmo, and Mikey an education in eccentricity and excursiveness.

The spatial differences between the two kinds of films are echoed by the temporal differences. The essentialist narrative is almost always organized around a problem-solving structure in which earlier scenes ask questions or pose problems which subsequent scenes then answer or resolve. Time is teleological: earlier events inexorably lead to later ones and progressively build on them. The narrative is pointed: it is organized as a series of ever more dramatically resonant confrontations, climaxes, and resolutions. The pragmatic work breaks away from the tradition of the “well made” narrative temporally as much as it does spatially. It educates its characters and viewers to the limits of cause-and-effect understandings of experience. It may allow time to pass and nothing apparently to happen. Characters may “get nowhere” (from the perspective of the essentialist narrative) for entire scenes or may even seem to go backward in terms of their narrative progress. The narrative may be punctuated by a series delays, hesitations, and pauses. Antonio goes off to a fortune teller and has to stand in line and listen to other fortunes being told; he follows a man into a soup kitchen and, before he can have a conversation with him, has to wait while he gets a shave and is forced to sit through part of a church service.

John Lennon wrote that life is what happens when you are making other plans, and as Bicycle Thief dazzlingly demonstrates, everything that makes life most fascinating is the result of unexpected glances and movements at a physical right-angle to where we thought we were headed, at an imaginative angle to our intentions, goals, and focuses. When Lila works her way into an upstairs bedroom in the Bates mansion, she is getting ever closer to the truth; when Antonio does the same thing, he is only pursuing one more dead end. There is nothing under the bed, no secret to be revealed. He encounters nothing but distractions, diversions, interruptions, and otherness that won't yield to the pressure of his own needs and desires. The difference is the difference between thinking of life as a series of problems to be solved or as experiences to be undergone. In James' useful term, teleology gives way to process-orientation.

Narrative pluralism

While the essentialist film tends to be centripetal, accumulative, and progressive—spiraling inward from unimportant characters to important ones, from the unknown to the known, progressing from the partial to the complete view, from a provisional understanding to a final one, ever more tightly and revealingly focusing on a central figure, event, or object (be it Rosebud, a Monolith, a bell tower, or a mysterious house on a hill), the pragmatic film tends to be centrifugal, sequential, and digressive—moving away from past positions, abandoning previously gained ground, spinning off in new directions. Its law is not ever-tighter focus, but ever-expanding circulation.

The films I have mentioned by Renoir, De Sica, May, and Cassavetes create the impression that the narrative contains a host of alternative narratives embedded within it. When Antonio goes into the police station, when the vehicle announcing when the soccer game zooms by, when the young lovers kiss in the background, or when the woman across the courtyard from the bedroom closes the shutters, we are allowed to glimpse bits and pieces of other stories that, although they don't quite make it into the main story, seem just as likely prospects for development. It is as if at any moment, in any scene, the film could go off in a whole other direction with other characters. The narrative road is constantly forking with roads taken and not taken (the literal metaphor for the characters' encounters with experience in both Bicycle Thieves and Mikey and Nicky).

Given the plurality of stories, perspectives, truths available in this stylistic universe, the only thing to do is to keep circulating. No one view can ever be complete or final. One remembers William James' evocative appropriation of George Eliot's metaphor of life as a process of swimming through a dark, muddy ocean in The Meaning of Truth:

The fundamental fact about our experience is that it is a process of change. For the “trower” at any moment, truth, like the visible area round a man walking in a fog, or what George Eliot calls “the wall of dark seen by small fishes' eyes that pierce a span in the wide Ocean,” is an objective field which the next moment enlarges and of which it is the critic, and which then either suffers alteration of is continued unchanged÷. Owing to the fact that all experience is a process, no point of view can ever be the last one. Every one is insufficient and off its balance and responsible to later points of view than itself.

Living in a loose universe

In essentialist films, the plot and the characters' goals function as a kind of map to keep viewers and characters on the right interpretive road. They keep us informed about what to pay attention to, and limit what it may mean. They indicate how far we and they have come on our journey and suggest how far there is to go before the narrative destination will be reached. The pragmatic film denies the viewer such a straight and narrow path through experience. In its emotional and intellectual zigzags, it resembles the mosaic universe described by James in “A World of Pure Experience:”

In actual mosaics the pieces are held together by their bedding, for which bedding the Substances, transcendental Egos, or Absolutes of other philosophies may be taken to stand. In radical empiricism there is no bedding; it is as if the pieces clung together by their edges, the transitions between them forming their cement.

James tells us about a mosaic universe; these films put us in it. They show us what it looks and feels like to live in a world in which individual experiences do not take their shape from a narrative “bedding”—a larger, controlling structure of meaning which limits our interpretation of them. Characters and scenes are free to reflect their own individual tendencies, to go off on their own narrative tangents. The pragmatic narrative imagines a somewhat loose universe, with room for inconsistent, unique, and mutable expressions. Its allegiance is to honoring the impulse rather than maintaining the system.

Partial, provisional truths

The implication is that life is lived minute by minute in the present, and not from the perspective of eternity, and that if we would apprehend its truths, we must become present-minded and learn to live in the present. There is something unavoidably incomplete about the effect of pragmatic style. Less than eventuating in a final, conclusive understanding, it is given to opening up possibilities. Less than leaving you with certainties at its end, it is given to removing whatever certainties may appear to have existed at its start. Even the small insights that emerge in the course of a pragmatic work are subject to be corrected by a subsequent change of perspective. To employ one of James' characteristic formulations, pragmatic truths are typically of the form: “this, but not quite÷,” “this, but a little more÷,” “this, but then÷.” Pragmatic knowledge is on the move and in process—continually emerging, decaying, and being reformulated. It doesn't stand still the way thoughts, symbols, lighting effects, mood music orchestrations, and essential character traits do.

Nontotalized style

The preceding should suggest why pragmatic films avoid generalized stylistic effects like mood music, atmospheric lighting, symbolic props, or editorializing camera angles, framings, or blockings. Since they reject totalizing understandings of experience, pragmatic works decline to employ totalizing stylistic devices. Pragmatic knowledge is tentative, provisional, and multiple. It doesn't stand still or yield to summary treatment in the form of symbols, lighting effects, tendentious framings, or mood music. It dares to be more personal and less absolute than visionary insights. That is why no one would ever confuse a single scene in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with one in Citizen Kane. The Welles film parades one stylistic summary after another while the Cassavetes work avoids virtually any generalized visual or acoustic metaphors, symbols, or stylistic glosses of the experiences it presents. In James' metaphor, Cassavetes' viewer is asked to negotiate the individual pieces of an experiential “mosaic”—pieces which somehow hold together, somehow are joined and coherent, somehow connect one to the other and form a whole—without an underpinning, summarizing, abstract, stylistic “bedding.”

Yet it is important to emphasize that pragmatic works don't entirely eliminate overarching narrative systems of causality and purposefulness. The swatches in the crazy quilt do hang together. The sequences of experiences in Mikey and Nicky and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie are not haphazard or random. Narrative structure in pragmatic works functions the way chromatic structure does in jazz performance—as something to play with and against, as something not to be ignored but mastered. The actors, characters, and creators of pragmatic works move a little independently of the narrative throughline without entirely leaving it behind—like a ballerina who inserts grace notes or dances slightly against the musical structure she is immersed in—swerving away from the plot, sidetracking it, temporarily putting it on hold, yet still in a necessary relation to it. Much of the interest of films like Faces and Mikey and Nicky, in fact, resides in the ways both the filmmakers and their characters energetically “bounce off” of the narrative and emotional throughlines that to some extent limit their movements. The pragmatic artist tells us that it is in such a situation of limited constraint that true creativity becomes possible.

Postmodern variations

That should suggest a fundamental difference between the pragmatic aesthetic and the postmodern. The rootlessness, present-mindedness, freedom from historical encumbrance, cultivated superficiality, and overall “looseness” of the postmodern stance may make it seem identical to the pragmatic position, but the differences are crucial. Films like Mikey and Nicky, Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie demonstrate that the pragmatic position involves complexly negotiating the influences that surround us, not merely reclining into them and gliding along with them. While the postmodern position is slack and relaxed, the pragmatic is tense and muscular. While the post-modern position involves passivity and acceptance, the pragmatic requires power, strength, mastery—on the part of both the artist making the work and the main characters in it (who frequently function as artistic alter egos). For the pragmatist, anything that is not mastery is misery. As Emerson and William James never tired of repeating (and as the performances of figures like Mabel Longhetti and Chet in Cassavetes' work demonstrate), the pragmatic stance involves unceasing expressive work—the labor of making meanings in a world in which past compositions are constantly decomposing and new meaning-making meets with unending resistance. The postmodern position represents an entirely easier, more playful, and less serious stylistic surfboard ride. The postmodernist goes with the flow, while the pragmatist tacks and trims and sails upon and against it, turning its very resistance into a countervailing form of power.

It is equally important to emphasize the chasm separating the pragmatic position from the skepticism and suspension of value judgments implicit in postmodern understandings. In the open-endedness and sprawl of their narratives, in their rejection of monotonic paths through experience and their relish of different angles of vision, pragmatic artists are not arguing (in the postmodernist vein) that there are no truths, but that there are many. The pragmatist rejects truth to give us truths—unitary truth replaced by plural truths; present truth leaving past truth behind; your truth compared with my truth; but that is entirely different from jettisoning the concept of truth altogether or relativizing it to the point that value judgment becomes impossible. If the pragmatist is convinced that no truth can be final, and that no one perspective can be definitive, the point is not to suspend judgment and make everything equal, but to enrich and complicate value judgment so that it will be better informed. The point of pragmatic circulation through many different perspectives is that the exposure to many can inform the understanding of each. To enter into the kaleidoscopic perspectivism of Faces and the relentless multiple-mindedness of A Woman Under the Influence is not to be set adrift in a world where everyone and every point of view is equally acceptable, but rather to be put in a better position to judge whether (as William James puts it in “Pragmatism and Humanism”) the “flux÷rises or falls in value” as a result of each characters' transformation of it. We can all the more clearly perceive Dr. Zepp's and Nick's and Richard's and Maria's individual limitations because we have had the opportunity to circulate through so many different ways of being and knowing, each of which has been respected and honored it itself. In fact, it is only when the pieces of the experiential mosaic are really allowed to assume their own independent inclinations, are allowed to be completely and utterly themselves, that we can fairly assess the true value of each piece.

An art of the ordinary

A common objection to many of the works I have singled out for praise is that they are raw, rough, unpolished, or downright ugly. Because they deny themselves stylistic clarifications, Cassavetes' and May's works emphatically lack the visual and acoustic gorgeousness of Welles' or Kubrick's. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie has none of the “beauty shots,” luxurious musical orchestrations, or symbolic sets and props that Citizen Kane employs. Cassavetes' characters and settings don't lend themselves to metaphorical summarization. Their uniqueness (bodies, faces, and voices are particularized; locations are not generic) defies generalization; their physicality (doors stick and objects scrape, clothing doesn't always fit; interactions are not chiefly mental) resists metaphoric derealization. While visionary filmmakers project characters and viewers into a realm of conceptual clarity and stylistic purity disconnected from the mess and clutter of the world that exists outside of the movie theater, pragmatic artists offer truths that emphatically do not rise above spatial particularities and temporal contingencies.

The beauties in most of the classics of American idealist film—from Sternberg and Welles to Hitchcock, Kubrick, Spielberg, and Lynch—are fundamentally unworldly. They originate in the human imagination and have their ultimate form of expression in stylistic arrangements unique to works of art: in effects of light and sound, in narrative parallelisms and contrasts, in virtuosities of formal presentation. The beauties in Renoir's, Leigh's, Cassavetes', and May's work, in contrast, are practical. They represent acts of awareness, responsiveness, and social expression that it is actually possible to live. The pragmatic artist sees the world, not the work of art, as the place where the most important and valuable meanings are and must be made. Rather than establishing a special, enchanted realm of imaginative transformations somewhere beyond ordinary experience, pragmatic art lets the forms and energies of everyday life reach into the work, and those of the work reach into the world.

Every visual and acoustic sublimity in Citizen Kane, The Trial, Vertigo, Rear Window, 2001, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, or LA Confidential tells us how uninterested these directors are in the struggles, strivings, and undergoings of ordinary, nonvisionary life as it is lived outside the movie theater. Whatever their other merits, these works are world-denying, world-renouncing, world-fleeing. The pragmatic artist argues that we do not have to rise above the mess, mutability, and mundanity of everyday life to be profoundly and meaningfully creative. Renoir's, Leigh's, Cassavetes', and May's characters participate in the glorious dream that animates all pragmatic art and philosophy: the faith that our supreme acts of creativity do not have to be relegated to a “world elsewhere” of imagination (or artistic style), but that we can be artists of everyday life—expressing ourselves in our everyday personalities, words, gestures, and interactions with others.

The pragmatic work returns us to the ideal of artistic “realization” that Emerson invoked at the end of “Experience” when he wrote that “the true romance which the world seeks to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.” Though this vision of an art of the ordinary represents an admittedly minority position, it is a current energizing the great tradition of American expression—from Emerson and Hawthorne, to Eakins, Sargent, Henry and William James, and Dewey in this century (where it finds its most extended expression in Art as Experience). The following passage from Emerson's “Art” must stand for all:

Beauty must come back to the useful arts and the distinction between the fine and useful arts be forgotten. If history were truly told, if life were nobly spent, it would no longer be easy or possible to distinguish the one from the other. In nature, all is useful, all is beautiful.÷ Art has not yet come to its maturity. . . if it is not practical and moral.÷ There is higher work for art than the arts.÷ Nothing less than the creation of man and nature is its end.

What would it mean to take this passage seriously—not as a figure of speech or an imaginative extravagance, but as a practical program of action? What would it mean for art to have not the creation of works, but the “creation of man” as its purpose? Pragmatic filmmakers show us one possible answer.

Knowledge that won't formulate

My final point is that the pragmatic way of knowing is not one more system of knowledge, but in fact a rejection of all systems. The heart of the pragmatic understanding is that lived experience overflows all forms of understanding—including the forms these works themselves offer. The pragmatic artist accepts the fact that experience leaks out of all intellectual and stylistic containers. That is why it would completely misunderstand my argument to interpret it as implying that filmmakers can simply shift from “idealist” forms of expression to “pragmatic” ones—as if there were such a thing as a “pragmatic form” that filmmakers could merely pour their stories into. The pragmatic stance does not provide a recipe to cook up art to order (say, one in which “rough,” “partial,” “personal,” or “physical” forms of expression are substituted for “smooth,” “totalized,” “absolute,” or “spiritual” forms of expression). The pragmatic stance is the rejection of all recipes and received forms. It is less a formulated style than evidence of a stylistic breakdown. Pragmatic style is what is left by the failure of style to suffice. The pragmatic style is what happens when the artist is sensitive enough to see that his own formulas will not quite formulate—when he accepts stylistic failure and allows himself to fail over and over again. Pragmatic knowledge is less an alternative to visionary/ideal/essential forms of knowledge, than it is the final waking up from the dream of such forms. Pragmatic films critique all conceptual stances, all fixed understandings, all efforts to possess experience abstractly. They indicate the insufficiency of all attempts to control and contain experience—even their own. That is why, in the most profound sense, they ultimately bring us back to life.

Dirty truth

It's no wonder most viewers and critics have not embraced pragmatic forms of knowledge. The pragmatic viewing experience is far more demanding than the experience of idealist work. Visionary film gives us quick, summary, shorthand truth; pragmatic film offers slow, scrawly truth-in-motion. Visionary work gives us smooth, streamlined, clean knowledge; pragmatic film gives us lumpy, rough, dirty knowledge. Visionary work offers the prospect of deep, insightful, essential understanding, while pragmatic film offers mazes of superficial, multivalent, hazy expressions. The pragmatic display of energy in motion tests both a viewer's powers to keep up with it and a critic's powers to describe it. After many years of evolution, our brains have become much better at grappling with things than movements, and most criticism has unfortunately internalized essentialist understandings of life and art, with the result that it is not very good at dealing with the ways pragmatic works make meanings. We are much better at describing works that offer us metaphoric or symbolic images than ones that expand our powers of response; we are much more attentive to stances than movements, and more interested in systems of relationship and identity, than in surging, shifting flows of energy. To this neoclassical understanding of art, masterworks like Mikey and Nicky and Faces merely seem disorganized or confusing.

Critical difficulty

Living as we do in the shadow of Plato, accustomed to contemplative knowledge, pragmatic knowledge doesn't look like knowledge at all to most viewers. It looks like randomness or sprawl. In fact, it is precisely the brilliance of pragmatic works' nonabstracted, nonintellectualized presentation of experience, their replacement of states of thought with acts of perception, their devotion to “broken” and “incomplete” forms of knowledge that most viewers and reviewers mistake for sloppiness or disorganization. Where the experiences so clearly won't be fit into old forms of meaning, there may seem to be no meaning at all. In comparison with the virtuousic stylistic accomplishments of Citizen Kane and 2001, works like Faces and Mikey and Nicky look like a mess to the average viewer.

Needless to say, this entire essay is premised on the belief that it is possible to come to the opposite conclusion. If we properly understand them, pragmatic films may make us realize how life-denying the unworldly beauties of Citizen Kane and 2001 are. They may remind us that when you leave out the imperfection, the partialness, and the tentativeness of truth, you've left out a lot of life. You have eliminated most of what makes us human. From the pragmatic side of the divide, the inhuman perfection of the stylistic arrangements of idealist works is a sign not of life but death.

It is undeniable that the work of pragmatic filmmakers has yet to be given its critical due. Even beyond the reasons I have already cited, there is clearly something about pragmatic modernism that camouflages its artistic importance (even as it seems that there is something about idealist modernism that makes it appear artistically valuable beyond its intrinsic merits). Perhaps it comes down to something as simple as the prosaicness of pragmatic characters and narratives. Maybe it's deep within us to want art that is more elegant, more otherworldly, more imaginatively rich than life. Once we have defined art as being above and beyond the travails of ordinary experience, pragmatic narratives just don't seem grand enough to be great art. Pragmatic films, almost without exception, are stories of ordinary wives and husbands and children living in middle-class homes in suburban neighborhoods, shopping in the malls, or holding nine-to-five jobs. But of course my entire argument is that the ordinariness of their forms and understandings is, in fact, what makes these films most extraordinary. Pragmatic films imagine art not to be set in a special place, and artists not to be special figures. They imagine ordinary people, at least potentially, as being artists of their own lives. They imagine the average man or woman on the street as having experiences that almost pass understanding and defy artistic expression.

The deepest lesson these works teach us is that the supreme creative possibilities of life can be realized by figures like us in a world like the one we live in. But they also tell us that to rise to that challenge we must let go of old ways of knowing and be willing to accept intellectual clutter and emotional mess in our transactions with reality. We must brave an adventure of insecurity.....

—Excerpted from “Two Forms of Cinematic Modernism: Notes Towards a Pragmatic Aesthetic,” in Townsend Ludington (ed.), A Modern Mosaic: Essays on American Modernism, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

To read more of Ray Carney's thoughts on aesthetics, click on any of the other essays in this section, any of the discussions of Mike Leigh's work in the Mike Leigh section, or any of the pieces in Carney on Culture or The Independent Vision.

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