The picture—is it there or not? (1)
The modality of the visible in Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo’s Twisted Realism
The projection room of a cinema. Two towering 35-millimeter projectors frame the view. Through the projection window can be seen a rather small auditorium with seats for about 80 people. The predominant colour is red: red textile covers the walls, and a red curtain hides the screen. The cinema is modestly lit. The light in the projection room itself is already dimmed to a minimum. Every now and then we see someone entering through the open door at the bottom right in front of the curtain. People are wearing coats or jackets, and their eyes scan the room for empty seats.
The protagonists have set up a camera on a tripod in the projection room. It stands in the foreground of the image, one step behind the left-hand projector on which the first reel of film is already mounted. The camera is facing the same direction as the projector, and a blinking red light suggests that it is already recording. The projection window dimly reflects the room: the projectors, the camera on the tripod, and also the off-screen figures of the projectionist and the two protagonists. The presence of the camera on the tripod restricts the already limited space even more, but the projectionist seems to move about casually and undisturbed. He briefly enters the frame and touches the film in the projector. This might have been a staged gesture. At any rate, the projector is set and the show is about to start.
Serge Daney once said of the cinema that it only exists to make visible “what has already been seen once—well seen, poorly seen, not seen.”(2) The first part of the sentence seems to allude to archival images, evokes a certain nostalgia, but the second part is obviously referring to something else. Although the context of the quote is a discussion of the a posteriori use of film images from Nazi concentration camps, it seems to me that Daney’s thought aims not so much at how to proceed with archives, nor at the popular tendency to treat cinema as a whole as a “visual memory.” The notion that the images we see in the cinema have already been seen once is less concerned with connotations of loss and fragmentation, and more with introducing a second gaze, which then faces the paradox that seeing can also be not-seeing, or unseeing. This paradox isn’t about a crisis of the archive or of memory, but belongs to the modality of the visible, out of which seeing emerges—and which the cinema enacts in a particular way.
Daney’s thoughts belong to a phenomenology of the cinema, a phenomenology that understands cinema first and foremost as a product of the visible, and not as a matter of the eye, and that consequently understands the “seeing” that occurs in the cinema not primarily as a confrontation of gazes, but as an encounter with the visible. How else are we to understand that a possible modality of seeing is a not-seeing, as Daney’s specifications “well seen, poorly seen, not seen” expressly allow for? In this essay, I suggest that Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo’s video Twisted Realism is cinema that renders visible how cinema renders visible that which has already been seen.
Now the projectionist enters the frame and positions himself a few feet in front of the camera, between the two projectors. He reaches his arm up above his head while simultaneously bending down so as to keep the screen in view. The lights in the cinema fade and the curtain goes up. The projectionist administers a few probing touches to the looping film in the zigzag of cogs, winches, and slits, and then starts the projector. The rhythmical hum of the machine; the rustling sound of film stock running through the projector. In the light chute in front of the lens we see the markers on the leader flip by as flimsy flashes, and then finally, when all goes black for three seconds, the projectionist switches on the projection lamp.
The introduction of not-seeing or unseeing into seeing shifts the accent of the re-seeing that occurs in the cinema: away from a succession of private gazes locatable in space and time that have seen something, to a latency of the visible, which in no way guarantees that what is visible will also be seen (or will have been seen). The camera, too, is subject to this latency, as it constitutes its own “seeing” in a complex interplay of seeing, not-seeing, and not-being-seen. Of which the first rule says that the camera—that which sees—may not become visible, and that therefore no one must be allowed to look into it. The camera, thus, is the medusa of a film.
This in practice often laborious and stilted dance before a gaze that allows itself to be denied circles around the phenomenological finding that seeing and being visible are not separable. Just as only that which is visible can be seen (and can also be not-seen, overlooked, etc.), only that which is itself visible can see. “The visible can thus fill me and occupy me only because I who see it do not see it from the depths of nothingness, but from the midst of itself; I the seer am also visible,” writes Maurice Merleau-Ponty in ‘The Visible and the Invisible’.(3) “It is as though our vision were formed in the heart of the visible, or as though there were between it and us an intimacy as close as between the sea and the strand [. . .] What there is then [. . . is] something to which we could not be closer than by palpating it with our look, things we could not dream of seeing ‘all naked’ because the gaze itself envelops them, clothes them with its own flesh.”(4) It may well be that in the terms of this metaphor, the gaze that came into the world through film provides a “foreign flesh” or a “dead skin” with which we henceforth envelop things, and which thence also results in the common association that film entertains a close relationship with death: a dead gaze that shows us revenants. But when films really do produce this doubt in the presence of the visible and in its contemporaneity with me, they can only do so on the basis of a visibility that in a certain sense has already prepared me for the fact that what I see has no unambiguous and exhaustive relationship to reality; that it is possible now to see things that have already been seen by an earlier gaze, and that what is for me invisible may possibly be seen by a second gaze. Because it exhibits the basic conditions of seeing in a particular way, Daney calls cinema—which “can only make visible what has already been seen once”—an “art of the present”: “present of memory,” “present of evocation.”(Daney 90)
The sound of film stock running through the projector in the dark. A close-up of the projection window, which seems to reflect one side of the projector, currently not in use. The construction of winches, lenses, and bars is dimly recognizable. The shadow of an arm becomes visible: the projectionist’s, who is about to mount the next reel.
What we see in the cinema is surrounded by a not-seeing on at least two counts: first, seeing constantly poses the question of the prehistory of its visibility, for example the question if what we are now seeing has been overlooked until now, if possibly even the present gaze, meaning mine, could have seen it before. Or the question if that which we now see was at all intended for our gaze, or if it was even possibly tailored exactly to our gaze, if the images that we see already knew about our gaze before we clothed them with it. Second—considering the image frame, the section, and beyond that the image and sound editing: a field of vision furrowed by cuts and omissions and simultaneously joined and therefore opened up— the film poses the question of what we, while we are seeing, at the same time are not seeing. For it is the same gaze that sees and doesn’t see.
In terms of cinema as a “present of evocation,” Daney says in lapidary fashion, “When it doesn’t take place, it doesn’t take place.”(Daney 90) And “lapidary” here literally means that the sentence gives in to gravity, because it evokes the effort that it means to make a film, to make it good, to find the right images within the visible and also appropriate means to deal with the invisible; and finally also the other side of the encounter: that someone has to find their way to the cinema in order to, with their gaze, activate the possible images out of their latency. Since it is possible that cinema does not take place, it is worth looking at it closely when it does take place.
Phenomenological interpretations have a tendency to eliminate the temporality of an experience. Daney, however, recalls a specific time when people sat in the cinema and looked upon what they saw on the screen as present, because it showed them “the landscapes we were living in.”(Daney 90) Film, then, as contemporary, not as revenant. Daney also refers explicitly to the phase of cinema that Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo evoke in Twisted Realism: postwar Italian cinema, which “over the course of fifteen years showed us the architectural reconstruction of a country, passing from the ruins to the first slabs of concrete, and then to the ugliness of contemporary postmodernism.”(Daney 90) And when he later dates the end of this cinema experience as a collective experience people believed in, Daney refers again to postwar Italian cinema by imagining what kind of visibility “a historical fiction film, Vukovar: Open City,” would achieve in his Today (at the time of the Balkan Wars).(5) Daney is convinced that such a film would never leave the festival circuit, because the broader public is too much occupied with patching together their own “films” from television images.
The associative reference to Rossellini’s Rome, Open City leads to the type of cinema experience that Pier Paolo Pasolini believed in when he made Mamma Roma. In his journal he once described an experience he had had with Rome, Open City in the movie theater “Nuovo” in Rome.(6) The short text is set rhythmically to Pasolini’s “heartbeat,” which begins when he sees the dirty poster of Anna Magnani outside the theater, and which later skips a beat when the first images come: “intermittence du coeur.” It seems to me that this gap, in which the observer fisicamente è altro, that is to say, is bodily affected by an Other, corresponds to the divide through which a non-seeing inscribes itself into a seeing—a blind spot, or possibly an off-screen position from which we are seen in the process of seeing. Only after this latent loss of self does the observer take up the “threads” again to see “the cobblestones, the telegraph wires, the scrofulous walls, the traces of Nazi occupation”—the “epic landscape of Neo-Realism.” I imagine that Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo’s work on Twisted Realism began with this literary reference to a possible beginning of Mamma Roma. When Pasolini made this film fifteen years later, he saw himself before a “new life” on the outskirts of Rome which appears to have been already named after the cinema: Neo-Realism.
When I saw Twisted Realism for the first and then for the second time, there were few words in my head. Instead, I had the clear image of a horizontal line, which at first I couldn’t explain. This line doesn’t exist in the video in this form, which means that I didn’t see it, or that it is the after-image of something I didn’t see. I would like to suggest that this not-seeing must have been a seeing, and not only because this line now existed in my head, but also because I interpret it to be exactly what Twisted Realism makes visible: that which escapes us when we see, and which in the economy of seeing balances an imagined Having with an unavoidable Loss.(7) One sees this line, which one doesn’t see, on countless occasions during the video: it is the edge of the image that separates screen and off-screen, visible and invisible; it is the frame that sets off a “Moviola” screen from the archival surroundings in which it is recorded; it is the edge of the projection window in the cinema and in the same frame again the edge of the image that is projected onto the screen, which is recorded behind our eyes. It is also the edge of the eaves of the Tuscolano apartment blocks delineated against the sky (and here it starts to sway from time to time), and it shapes a grid on the steel fences that secure/barricade the entrances to these apartment blocks. The same line, I would like to suggest, runs quite visibly about three meters high around the headquarters of Medusa, the media conglomerate that belongs to the Berlusconi empire and which has set itself the task of rendering Italian cinema history visible once more and at the same time of monopolizing it. I probably saw this line on a wall-size portrait of Pasolini, where it runs vertically through his nose and intimates a door that is not immediately recognizable, and it is probably also the line along which, as I’ve been told, Pasolini’s directorial assistant Carlo di Carlo was cut out of a set photo from Mamma Roma, which now hangs in a prominent place in the Cineteca di Bologna and shows only PPP (and Di Carlo’s hand). Most similar to the after-image in my head is probably the line which in Twisted Realism separates the image from the black frame that contains the subtitles, and it is also of course the line separating the sound and image tracks on a filmstrip.
The joining of sound and image tracks constitutes one of the many lines that make a film presentation possible, and thus, typically, shall not be seen. We see it again and again in Twisted Realism. Faced with a soundtrack that one can see, one again gets a sense of that complex interplay of seeing and not-seeing, showing and hiding, to which film, as we know it, is indebted. Strictly considered, Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo are doing something very simple (and not for the first time in their work): They hold up this gaze, to which sound and image tracks represent a region of the visible separated by an invisible line, and they work with the images that emerge from each of these tracks. On the one hand, by doing so they are merely following business as usual, for during the entire production process of a film, sound and image typically remain separate and are worked on separately; only at the very end are they placed side by side in order to simulate a unity. On the other hand, however, they compose both tracks in such a way that they seem to run off their tracks and thereby on a phenomenolgical level consistently dismantle the unity which in the video they technically form. But what we have here is not a more or less common way of dissolving linear time through asynchronicity or developing image and sound in eloquent contradictions. What is special about the dismantled montage in Twisted Realism is that it keeps both sound and image in sight, so that the seen and evoked images refer to similar or adjacent parts of a whole, but never directly to each other, at least not in the form that the laws of synchronicity would dictate. As a cinematic experience, one comes away from this art with the astonishing impression of seeing two films in one; they appear to have been made out of the same material, but are in large part imaginary, or, more precisely, are made out of what one doesn’t see.
In order to free not-seeing from the connotations of loss and failure, one must be clear about the fact that there also exists and has always existed a not-seeing that corresponds to a desire: a desire for something that is not yet see-able, but whose failure to materialize can call into being a concrete demand. A vision, a plan, or perhaps something very different. This hungry seeing, which is prepared to see what it does not see, was in Pasolini’s view blinded by the INA-Casa apartment blocks constructed in the 1950s.(8) The “new life” in vertical order forced a petit bourgeois compromise on the still aimless, unseeing desire of the subproletariat, worn out by the war. Deracination, alienation, isolation as direct results of the state’s housing policy were already themes in Pasolini’s novel ‘Vita Violenta’, his poetry collection ‘Le ceneri di Gramsci’ and his prose sketches in ‘Ali dagli occhi azzuri’, which led to the screenplay for Mamma Roma. The drama of Mamma Roma and her son Ettore pivots once more around self-betrayal and self-denial in the service of a petit bourgeois ideal, which was conveyed not least through new architecture and new spaces, and which had vanished at the end of the day. Thus, it is much more than just a comparative image when Twisted Realism starts off again and again from these architectures of the new life, for here again we find the line, the horizon, at which something becomes visible and something else, at the same time, invisible.
For Pasolini, film and cinema were unavoidable, for he saw in the structure of a film script a desirous not-seeing at work. In ‘Heretical Empiricism’ (9) he described the screenplay as “a structure that wants to be another structure,” as a text that wants to be a film, and that is therefore reliant on the “complicity” of the reader: “The author of a screenplay asks his addressee for a particular collaboration, namely that of lending the text a ‘visual’ completeness which it does not have, but at which it hints.”(10) This sentence is quoted once in Twisted Realism, embedded in a text that is read to us continuously, and by a “reader” who is absorbed the whole time in a screenplay. This screenplay, which is read to us while we are seeing another film, constitutes in Twisted Realism the latent but at the same time “pregnant” not-seeing, as we could say using a term from Merleau-Ponty (and which could also have come from Pasolini). The screenplay, the voice, introduces a desire between the images we see and the images that we don’t see, for which each of us has to find his or her own images.
In one of the few moments in Twisted Realism in which sound and image are synchronous, we see this “off-voice,” Giuseppe Cederna, reading for half a minute. We see him, how he enjoys his text and promises the same thing that the fence in Mamma Roma promises the young Ettore, when he hawks his first stolen goods on the black market: “You can come anytime, you’ll always find me here in my spot. I’ve already made countless people rich!” And then we see how the reader laughs, how he laughs at the character whose voice he evokes, and how he tries at the same time to suppress this laughter, so as not to ruin the take. This laughter makes for one of the most beautiful and most desirable moments of Twisted Realism, and I couldn’t say exactly why.
The letters FINE in the center of the white screen. On the bright background one notices a flimsy fuzz of scratches and dots, the abrasion of the film print nearing its end. Then the screen goes dark and, while the light in the theatre gradually returns, the red curtains start to close in on the screen from both sides. When the screen is entirely hidden, the theatre is fully lit. The little red light on the camera is still blinking. From the bottom of the projection window, the silhouettes of people become visible now, the audience rising from their seats and leaving the theatre. A spectator turns his head toward the projection room. First we see only his forehead, but then he stretches in order to get a full view of the projection room, and we see his entire face. It seems that he motions to someone to also take a peek, to someone who is still sitting and not in view. Something has caught his attention.
Translated from German by Donna Stonecipher.
Published in Argos Magazine No. 5 , 2012, on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Raphaël Cuomo und Maria Iorio: Twisted Realism’ at Argos Centre for Art and Media, Brussels, 2012.
All images are from Twisted Realism (Raphaël Cuomo and Maria Iorio, 2012).
1- Carlo di Carlo (Pier Paolo Pasolini’s assistant director on Mamma Roma and other films) in conversation with Maria Iorio and Raphaël Cuomo in Twisted Realism (2012).
2 – Serge Daney in conversation with Serge Toubiana, in: Serge Daney, Postcards from the Cinema (New York, 2007), p. 90 (“Daney” in subsequent mentions.) – Translator’s note: In this edition the French “pas vu” is translated as “unseen”.
3 – Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston, Illinois, 1968), p. 113.
4 – Ibid., pp. 130–31.
5 – Daney 91. Earlier in this conversation Daney marked this “epoch” even more precisely with references to Rossellini and Pasolini and reclaimed it as “his time”: “Sometimes I tell myself that my lifetime, my own timing of myself, and that of cinema, fit each other pretty well: it took thirty years to turn a certain page from Rossellini to the death of Pasolini.” (Daney 50)
6 – The note is in the form of a poem and was originally published in, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Dal Diario (1945–47) (Caltanissetta 1954). Parts of this journal entry are also quoted in Twisted Realism.
7 – This sentence is the echo of a thought of Georges Didi-Huberman’s, from his Ce que nous voyons, ce qui nous regard (Paris, 1991), a phenomenological investigation into seeing that entered more strongly into my own thinking than quotations could support. The original quote of the sentence here is: “The familiar experience with seeing will likely cause us to expect a possession: when we see, we usually have the impression of receiving something. But the modality of the visible becomes inevitable—and that means tied to a question of being—when seeing means that one feels how something constantly withdraws, or in other words: when seeing means losing.” (translated from the German edition, Was wir sehen, blickt uns an (Munich, 1999), pp. 16–17.)
8 – The INA-Casa Plan was a reconstruction program implemented by law in Italy in 1948 under the auspices of the state insurance company INA. After just ten years, the plan had managed to construct more than 110,000 apartments in Rome alone, apartments intended for the hundreds of thousands of country folk, shattered by the war, who were flooding into the cities; or for the middle class for whom life in the city had become too crowded. The aesthetic, social, and ideological aspects of this high-speed modernization belong to the background of Pasolini’s work in the 1950s and 1960s, and also of Twisted Realism.
9 – Heretical Empiricism (Washington, D.C., 2005)
10 – Ibid., p. 189