Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenological Approach to Films

Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote only one essay on film, yet his phenomenological approach informs problems of perception central to film. Taken up by some theorists as a welcome counterbalance to Marxist and psychoanalytic theories that tend to consider the film as text, a phenomenological approach provides a methodology for thinking through the perceptual experience of viewing (cf. Sobchack 1991: xvi). In a lecture given in 1945 at llnstitut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, titled The Film and the New Psychology (1964), Merleau-Ponty turns to film as evidence that perception is linked to bodily comportment rather than either unmediated sensation or cognition. By interrogating the “historical crisis” encountered by psychology, a crisis initially addressed by Edmund Husserl and Henri Bergson that revolved around a Cartesian split between materialism and idealism, matter and thought, Merleau- Ponty explains that in classical psychology the visual field was considered to “be a sum or mosaic of sensations”, each sensation corresponding to “the local retinal stimulus” on which it was dependent. The relationship between the elements of the visual field was accounted for by a cognitive construction, a unity provided by the representative faculty (1964:48-9). Cinema, which was developing at the time of this crisis, directly challenged such mind-body dualism and thus had to be taken into account.

Elaborating on his corporeal phenomenology as a lifelong project, Merleau-Ponty sought to overcome the dualism of materialism and idealism, mind and body, through  the embodied subjects corporeal intentionality, one that allows for encountering a world that is there through the mediation of an individuals horizon, which is shaped by subjective experience. We can encounter the world only as situated and embodied beings. Whereas a critic such as Gilles Deleuze sees phenomenology as ultimately not succeeding in accounting for corporeality since in the end it relies on a constructed, or “prehensive” consciousness rather than material flows, theorists such as Vivian Sobchack understand this return to reflection as precisely what allows us to access the film experience (cf. Sobchack 1991: 3; Deleuze 1986: 57). Ultimately, Merleau-Ponty did not equate the camera eye with the phenomenal body, yet in concluding that film is art when it does not simply refer to established meaning, but rather shows it as it emerges, he reveals the experience of embodying film.

Merleau-Ponty took film to be an “ambiguous ally” (Deleuze 1986: 57); in the few instances in the Phenomenology of Perception (1962) where Merleau-Ponty does address film it is in order to show how film differs from natural perception. Yet, in his essay, Merleau-Ponty wants to elaborate on how film is “peculiarly suited to make manifest the union of mind and body, mind and world, and the expression of one in the other” (1964: 58). This ambiguity is evident in his descriptions of the horizon and the gestalt, both of which provide the contextual field for perceptual understanding. Natural perception does not rely merely on either the empirical registration of sensation by the eye or a calculation or cognitive interpretation of what is perceived. Rather, we see according to gestalts – to see something is to “plunge oneself into it” – and this object appears from within a “system in which one [object] cannot show itself without concealing others”. This means that other objects become the horizon against which the specific object appears (1962: 67-8). Hence, we see according to systems sedimented through our participation in a world. We see people and trees against a background, and not the background or interval emerging between figures and objects. Things and people leap OLit at us, taking shape as we try to make sense of the world that stands before us. This is the logic of perception: “To see is to enter a universe of beings which display themselves, and they would not do this if they could not be hidden behind each other or behind me…. to look at an object is to inhabit it, and from this habitation to grasp all things in terms of the aspect which they present to it” {ibid.: 68). Film draws on this fundamental aspect of perception. Not only does film rely on the figure against a background – when we watch a film we do not just see colours and movement, we see people, buildings and places – but the film itself has a particular meaning that takes shape through its temporal flow, a meaning that could never be reduced to mere facts or ideas. Providing its own gestalt, a “film is not thought; it is perceived” (1964: 58).

As a temporal gestalt the meaning of one shot depends on the preceding shots. In “normal vision” I look at something and it is disclosed as that thing, the horizon guaranteeing the identity of the object. In a film, however, the camera might move in on an object for a close-up shot. In this case we “remember that we are being shown the ashtray or an actor s hand, we do not actually identify it. This is because the screen has no horizons” (1962: 68). Nevertheless, just as a melody, which is also a temporal gestalt, is not a sum of notes but emerges in the temporal flow of the whole piece – a whole that can be transposed into different keys without losing its meaning – so too does a film exist as a whole. Even if only a few notes of a melody are changed, the entire piece is affected. Similarly, one film scene can shed light on how to understand or take meaning from the film in its entirety. If our perception depends not on the sum of parts but rather on our perception of the whole, then the meaning of the film as temporal gestalt depends on the entire films rhythm.

While film might in some ways parallel human vision, it cannot be equated with it. As Sobchack argues, it is after all not a human body, but rather a technological apparatus with its own intentionality, its own film body (1991: 243). Merleau-Ponty explains that the reduced and flat surface of the film screen does not allow for the experience of depth provided in human perception. We do not objectively calculate that the man in the distance walks away from us because he becomes smaller but, rather, as he moves away, he gradually slips from the hold of our gaze. This experience of depth “is born beneath my gaze because the latter tries to see something” (1962: 260-62); it provides the anchor for the visual field.

If we perceive according to the whole that appeals to our senses in a total way, then clearly, for Merleau-Ponty, a film does provide a system that allows us to distinguish between signs and what they signify, “between what is sensed and what is judged” (1964: 50). Phenomenologically, Merleau-Ponty argues that our perception of movement is intentionally situated within a world. It is not a matter of cognitively assessing a situation, but of being anchored within a field of relations. This is an insight that film can exploit. In Merleau-Ponty s example, sitting in a railway carriage in the station playing cards with his companions, he looks up to see the adjacent train pull away from the station. When, however, his gaze is fixed on someone or some activity taking place in the nearby carriage, then it appears to him that it is his own train that is pulling away from the station. He concludes that it is not that we cognitively assess what is actually happening; rather, the experience is derived from the “way we settle ourselves in the world and the position our bodies assume in it” (ibid.: 52). The camera lens can similarly be situated to suggest movement of either its gaze or that which it observes. This corporeal relation to the world is one that precedes and supports our cognitive assessments and makes them possible. It is because we are embodied that we are even able to engage with the world, to perceive it and hence to think about it.

Yet, if we do not make judgement about the sensory data that impinge on our vision, then how are we able to recognize an object from one situation to the next? For Merleau-Ponty, this recognition must depend on the constancy of our perception of that object despite, for example, varying lighting levels. We do not calculate that the dark-blue book hidden in evening shadow must be the same light-blue book I left there in full daylight, which would logically account for the contrasting colours. Instead, I see the book in different lighting levels because I see within a field and against a horizon. I do not need to make judgements because I see the thing itself. The world “organizes itself in front of me” (ibid.: 51).

Accordingly, in experiments where one looks through a pinhole at a screen, the field is unanchored. So, for example, a black box well lit and a white box faintly lit can appear as the same grey unless a piece of white paper is introduced into the black box  and one of black into the white. In those cases, the fields appear and the differences between the colours with them (1962: 308). When I first enter a darkened cinema, leaving behind the bright lights of the lobby, my body tries to anchor itself in this new lighting level. I am initially aware of the screen as a light that flickers with the montage of shots, often providing inadequate light to search out a seat. But after a moment my eyes begin to adjust to this new lighting level, allowing me to find my way. As my body further adjusts, the screen recedes as light and becomes instead the world I inhabit, the relations among things, and my body reasserts itself according to this new level of the film. In natural vision, “objects and lighting form a system which tends towards a certain constancy and a certain level of stability” (1964: 51). This constancy is the conservative aspect of phenomenological vision that relies on an established logic of perception, without which it would not be possible to make sense of that perceived, and which provides a constancy from one lighting level to the next. Yet film vision, which cannot rely on the horizon and an anchoring in a field, can take advantage of this potential to disrupt the cinematographic syntax and attempt to account for that which is left out, for alternate perceptions, for requiring that we think about that which we perceive. Merleau-Ponty explains how we make sense of the world, but does not fully explore the implications of this phenomenal aspect of the body for disjuncture: for that which does not appear within the logic of a system. For the problem with the organization of a field is that all sense-data form a system, a certain logic that we come to corporeally understand. This logic “assigns to each object its determinate features in virtue of those of the rest, and which cancel out’ as unreal all stray data; it is entirely sustained by the certainty of the world” (1962: 313). Since perception gives the world to me as a system, I make assumptions about the world according to the systems that have already been given, according to a world that precedes me, that is given by others. Yet this is where film can either confirm constancy, the logic of the dominant perceptive level – the tendency in Hollywood cinema – or it can challenge it, breaking the logic, allowing stray data to come into view.

This constancy that belongs to the logic of perception is further supported by sensual synaesthesia. Film relies on vision and sound: only two of the five senses. Yet, since our senses, which cannot be collapsed into one another, nevertheless intertwine, overlap and come together in the synergic system of being in the world, one can see the hardness of ice, and hear the brittleness of glass as it breaks. This makes sense if we understand the senses as opening existentially on the world: to perceive is to grasp the unified structure of the thing, its “unique way of being which speaks to all my senses at once” (1964: 50). Film might generally not provide for the experiences of smell, taste or touch, yet these senses can be evoked and spoken to in the film experience simply in the ways they evoke the smells and tastes of a sumptuous meal in Gabriel Axel‘s Babettesgcestebud (Babettes Feast; 1987), or even Julie’s “hearing of blue” in Krzysztof Kieslowski‘s Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three colours: blue; 1993) (Coates 2002: 48). As Merleau-Ponty writes, “When I say that I see a sound, I mean that I echo the vibration of the sound with my whole sensory being” (1962: 234). Thus, when a film is dubbed, it is not merely “the discrepancy between word and image”  that comes to the fore, but one has the impression that a whole other conversation is taking place “over there” The dubbed text does not have an “auditory existence”. Similarly, when the sound breaks down, faces become thickened and frozen and lose their lively appearance. In short, “[f]or the spectator, the gestures and words are not subsumed under some ideal significance, the words take up the gesture and the gesture the words, and they inter-communicate through the medium of my body” (ibid.: 234-5). For the film to work as a field of relations, then, as a level into which we enter that shapes and adjusts the ways we perceive, the parts of the film cannot add up to its sum; they must provide a total temporal gestalt. There must be a bond between sound and image.

For this reason, there is no sharp divide between our interior emotions or feelings and our outward expression of them. We do not show signs of fear that must then be cognitively interpreted by someone else. Rather, we embody fear and this fear is perceived by others precisely because it is a way of behaving, of comporting ourselves, our gestures; it is visible in our bearing. Importantly for Merleau-Ponty, our emotional world is not one of an interior psyche cut off from the world. Referring to the French philosopher Paul Janet, he understands emotion as a “disorganizing reaction which comes into play whenever we are stuck” (1964: 53). Emotions are responses to our engagement in a world and to our relations with others. They vary the ways we relate to others, the ways we comport ourselves with them. For this reason we cannot understand emotions in terms of signs of love or anger providing an indication of an interior psychic fact; rather, “we have to say that others are directly manifest to us as comportment” (ibid.).4 This is also why we cannot truly understand love from an examination of our own interior feelings since the essence of love emerges in our relations of love, our relations with others. Even as the film moves beyond the “blurs, smudges and superfluous matter” of our everyday reality to provide the precision of a carefully wrought reflection, it is because we are perceiving beings who have learnt through our corporeal experiences to understand the logics of perception – the way shadows fall when the light shines in this way, the way things are lined up one behind the other as they recede in depth – that we are able to perceptually comprehend what the film presents. And what a film presents is anger, and dizziness: an emotional world. We apprehend the inside’s relation to the outside through our perception of the ways the characters comport themselves, and this is indeed how we perceive in the world: “A film like a thing appeals to our power tacitly to decipher the world or men and to coexist with them” (ibid.: 58).

For Merleau-Ponty, films, like phenomenological and existential philosophy, are an “attempt to make us see the bond between subject and world, between subject and others, rather than to explain it” (ibid.). Merleau-Ponty does not hesitate to establish links between film, artworks and philosophy as showing how meaning emerges, is created, rather than merely explaining or describing already established ideas. The film employs a particular cinematographic language, a syntax that is part of the meaning of the gesture of the film as a whole. Just as I do not read or interpret anger in someone’s contorted face – I see and experience an angry person – so too I experience more than representation in a film: through an ensemble of music, dialogue and images it reveals meanings that could be reduced to neither cognitive  explanation nor a replication of reality. Film can allow us to feel palpably, as the embodied beings we are, the sentiments it explores. For this reason, all parts of the film – for example dialogue, music and shots – should work not towards translating these emotions but towards giving them an existence in our own bodies. In fact, film as art does not replicate or represent reality; rather, in creating, it brings new meanings into being.

In short, film that is art, like phenomenology, cultivates perception. We learn to see the world differently according, for example, to Kieslowski s cinematographic vision. The colour blue takes on a new vibrancy and reverberates with corporeal meaning in the film of that name; for a colour can only be fully explored and experienced corporeally even as the word “blue” itself becomes saturated with emotions and feelings that accompany and overlap the designating function of the word. Blue takes on an ontological function establishing a level or field of relations as the background of the film (Merleau-Ponty 1968: 217). We enter into the level of blue. As Merleau-Ponty explains in the Phenomenology of Perception, our bodies have this enormous capacity to move into new situations and to take them up. Just as we shift into a new lighting situation to which our eyes adjust, so too do we move into the level of a film. Our eyes become accustomed to a certain way of seeing, a certain way of hearing; indeed, our perceptions themselves under the guidance of an expert cinematographer and director are further shaped. Thomas Riedelsheimer‘s Touch the Sound 2006), a documentary about deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, rhythms its viewers into a world of sound. One enters into the aural level that it provides and one s hearing actually becomes more acute. While watching this film in class, my students became aware of the ambient sounds in the room: tapping on keyboards; breathing; the rustling of paper. This effect lasts for a while after viewing.

Yet this phenomenological body that Merleau-Ponty so carefully describes as one that moves into and takes up the world is not unproblematic. While film for Merleau- Ponty had the potential to reveal the bond between subject and world, for a thinker such as Deleuze, this is precisely the problem with phenomenology. Deleuze identifies the phenomenological body with the sensory-motor schemata that he associates with cliches. These schemata allow our bodies to respond, to turn away “when it is too unpleasant”, to prompt “resignation when it is terrible”, and assimilation “when it is too beautiful” (Deleuze 1989: 20). In other words, perception is shaped by a world created by others, and it is tied to interest. Merleau-Ponty recognized that we shut out stray data and perceive according to a gestalt. Nevertheless, for Deleuze, via Bergson, this gestalt is tied to our “economic interests”, our “ideological beliefs” and our “psychological demands”: in other words, cliches. Since perception is the attempt to make sense of what is there and this making sense is reliant on sedimented perceptual structures, then the trick for film is, as Deleuze puts it, to “jam or break” the schemata allowing for the pure optical-sound-image, an image beyond metaphor, marked by its excess that defies all justification {ibid.). In post-war European cinema, Deleuze sees certain directors as shattering these schemata from the inside, severing the ties between perception and action: “Some characters, caught in certain pure optical and sound situations, find themselves condemned to wander about or go off on a trip” {ibid.: 41-2).

For Merleau-Ponty, in his challenge to mind-body dualism, the problem is one of mediating between the purely empirical realm of sensation and the representational world of idealism; but the problem, as Deleuze understands it, is “how is it possible to explain that movements, all of a sudden, produce an image – as in perception – or that the image produces a movement – as in voluntary action?” Materialism wished “to reconstitute the order of consciousness with pure material movements”, and idealism “the order of the universe with pure images in consciousness” (Deleuze 1986: 56). Cinema provides evidence of a movement-image effectively collapsing any artificial boundary. He comes to this conclusion drawing on Bergson, who sought to move beyond the dualisms established by classical psychology and, drawing critically on the emerging quantum physics, understood the umovement-image and flowingmatter to be “strictly the same thing” {ibid.: 58-60); in this understanding, “IMAGE = MOVEMENT”, which is “entirely made up of light”. For Merleau-Ponty, however, light remains that which illuminates, but when light is captured in film, in his account, in the film image of someone descending into a cellar, lamp in hand, the light does not appear as “an immaterial entity exploring the darkness and picking out objects”, remaining discreetly in the background so that it can “lead our gaze instead of arresting it”. Rather, it appears as a solid object on the screens surface (1962: 309-10). This example of light leading our gaze and illuminating parallels Deleuze s understanding of consciousness for Merleau-Ponty, which is, he argues, still squarely situated within the philosophical tradition that placed “light on the side of spirit and made consciousness a beam of light which drew things out of their native darkness” (Deleuze 1986: 60). The only difference for phenomenology is that the light is not internal but rather external, with consciousness providing a beam of light that illuminates what is there {ibid). Dorothea Olkowski takes this critique even further: Merleau-Ponty ultimately resists a philosophy of difference because he still relies upon a “classical dynamical system” which unifies and does not allow for the excluded middle (2007: 217). It should be noted, however, that in Merleau-Ponty’s later writings he comes closer to Deleuze s understanding of sensation and affect as belonging not to subjectivity but rather to a desubjectified field offerees, material flows that are not bound to the intentional subject.

Rather than seeing the conscious and reflexive aspect of phenomenological description as a negative, for Sobchack it is in reflection “that experience is given formal significance, is spoken and written”. She finds in phenomenology an approach to filmtheory that addresses the pre-reflective experience fundamental to film, an experiencethat is “neither verbal nor literary”. In fact, a film is in itself “an expression of experience by experience”, in other words, a phenomenological reduction. In reflecting on this experience, what is found in film is this “original power” to signify (1991:4). Sobchackis interested in the way that film provides a reversibility or chiasmus between perception and expression; it draws on the wild being or corporeal experience that precedes signification, and reflection. Indeed, a film has itself a kind of wild being that precedesits dissection into the language of critical and theoretical analyses. There is, Sobchacknotes, a kind of cinematic language, but this language is grounded in the structures of pre-reflective corporeal existence shared by “filmmaker, film and spectator” {ibid.: 5). Just as Merleau-Ponty is critical of a philosophical tradition that presupposes the body in its cognitive assessments, Sobchacks concern is that “film theory has presupposed the act of viewing”, taking the film itself as an object that is viewed rather than as a viewing subject with which we corporeally engage. Moreover, in the visible expression of its perception, film makes visible the intrasubjective exchange “between the perception of the camera and the expression of the projector”, both as “viewing subjects and as visible objects” {ibid.: 19-23). As Merleau-Ponty puts it: “the world is what we see and,… nonetheless, we must learn to see it – first in the sense that we must match this vision with knowledge, take possession of it, say what we and what seeing are, act therefore as if we knew nothing about it, as if we still had everything to learn” (1968: 4). As incarnate beings, human beings can see the world, but it is as human beings that they have the particular ability to see with their “own eyes”, as viewing subjects, since it requires a “reflexive and reflective consciousness” (Sobchack 1991: 54). It is this “reflexive and reflective consciousness of vision” with its “reversible structure” that allows for the possibility of the film experience {ibid.).

Marks draws on Merleau-Ponty’s insights into the mimetic body: the body that moves into its world taking it up through compassionate involvement rather than through abstraction or domination in her analysis of intercultural cinema (2000:141). Critical both of Merleau-Ponty’s desire for contact with “wild-being”, the sensual embodied being not yet colonized by cognitive structures, as well as Bergsons dismissal of the habitual, Marks herself is interested in the ways that the sensual body is also the habitual body, the ways in which culture is corporeally inscribed in the very ways we perceive. If perception is, as Bergson argues, subtractive, or, for Merleau-Ponty, has its own logic, then for Marks, perception, which is also shaped by trauma, can be a minefield of that which is to be avoided as well as a multi-sensory experience that arises out of our personal and collective histories. Drawing on Merleau-Ponty s insights into synaesthesia, Marks explores how certain images are thick with other sensual experiences, experiences that will differ depending on the sedimented and habitual body we bring to them. The magnolia flowers filmed in Shani Mootoo s Her Sweetness Lingers (1994) remind Marks of “how they feel and how they smell, and the buzzing of insects reminds [her] of the heat of summer”, calling up associations from her ancestral Alabama (2000: 148). In intercultural cinema, then, certain objects can be laden with the traces of corporeal memories, suddenly evoked through a visual or auditory perception. Smell is perhaps the most elusive to intentional memory and yet is suddenly evoked for Marks by the images of the magnolias. For Merleau-Ponty our perceptions are temporally sedimented; shaped through past perceptions, they gear us towards the world allowingus to grasp what is there, to encounter what is new – we learn how to perceive.

For Marks, haptic vision is particularly important to intercultural cinema since it disallows the dominating aspects of optical vision that rely on a separation of the viewer from that which is viewed. For those living in diaspora, or exile, cut off from a past often both painful and sweet, sensual reminders that belong to the phenomenal body can also elide the objectification that too often accompanies optical vision. Instead, haptic vision brings vision close to the body by drawing on its multi-sensorial possibilities. Images that are not accessible as such to vision require of the viewer that she rely on other senses such as touch in order to perceive, that is, to make some kind of corporeal sense of the image {ibid.: 154). Just as touch needs movement in order to  explore its object, so too does haptic vision tend to move over the surfaces of objects, focusing on texture more than form, thereby avoiding focus; it tends “to graze” rather than “to gaze” (ibid.: 162). In contrast to the “representational power of the image” privileged by optical perception, haptic vision “privileges the material presence of the image”; hence haptic images are often so ‘”thin and uncliched” that the viewer must draw on her own sensual “memory and imagination to complete them” (ibid.: 163). Haptic images demand contemplation rather than a narrative; optical visuality assumes that the image is complete in itself. In this way, haptic cinema encourages the viewer to enter into a bodily relationship with the image (ibid.: 162-3). Haptic images invite the viewer to see as if for “the first time” in a process of gradual discovery rather than immediate knowledge (ibid.: 178). For this reason they encourage intersubjective relations, demanding of the viewer that she draw closer to the other even as the impossibility of knowing the other is inherently acknowledged.

Merleau-Ponty’s insights into the phenomenal body reveal the logic of vision, and thus how embodied subjects experience film. In his challenge to mind-body dualism, he shows how our most abstract thinking is anchored in embodied perception. We think because we are embodied, and because our bodies have their own logic, their own ways of interpreting and moving into the world that are not processed through cognitive representation. Film, as he intuits, shows precisely how ideas are taken up corporeally in the film itself, and in the ways viewers experience and respond corporeally. This is not a world of interiority, but rather one of comportment.

Source: FILM, THEORY AND PHILOSOPHY The Key Thinkers Edited by Felicity Colman, McGill Queens University Press


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