Poetic Cinema and the Spirit of the Gift in the Films of Pabst, Parajanov, Kubrick and Ruiz
Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, NL, 2021
178 pp. Trade, $100
Dr. Laleen Jayamanne’s Poetic Cinema and The Spirit of the Gift in the Films of Pabst, Parajanov, Kubrick and Ruiz takes an unusual approach, at least within film studies, in the analysis of four stylistically different filmmakers. The “spirit of the gift” in the title refers not only to what films offer the receptive viewer, but what films want or expect to elicit as a response from the viewer. Jayamanne takes the phrase “spirit of the gift” from anthropology; it refers to an offering that “imposes an intangible idea of the gift as an obligation to reciprocate it.” Jayamanne argues that certain films put the viewer in “a mode of reception that may be animated by the cognitive imagination.” It is this imaginative and synesthetic participation, the reciprocity of what is offered to the senses by the surface of a film, that Jayamanne focuses on in films by G.W. Pabst, Sergei Parajanov, Stanley Kubrick and Raul Ruiz. The idea is compelling, but the book would have benefited from illustrations to demonstrate how light, movement, color, micro-gestures, allegorical imagery, fragmentation, ornamentation, and abstraction produce cognitive effects and imaginative participation. Jayamanne makes up for this lack with vivid descriptions of scenes and their sensory effects.
Each chapter focuses on a selected film from each director and are presented chronologically from Pabst to Ruiz. But there are pairings the author makes in the directors’ subjects and aesthetic approaches. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929) is paired with Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) for a focus on movements and gestures by the main female characters who, in both plots, must negotiate the gaze of men. Louise Brooks, who plays Lulu in Pandora’s Box, was not a trained actor, but rather a dancer. Brook’s micro-gestures and dance-like movements in the silent film is played against the static (and voyeuristic) presence of Lulu’s male patrons. Jayamanne argues that cinema sensation has synesthetic effects. “Lulu is a creature of light emitting particles of energy and wavelike motion movements.” Nicole Kidman, in Eyes Wide Shut, as directed by Kubrick, slows down her speech and movements when she is being seduced by a stranger at a party and then shifts to sharp, quick gesticulations when confronting her husband’s double-standard of jealousy. Color in the set and lighting also reinforces these rhythmic shifts in movement and speech. Movement, shape, and color arrive on the eyes as abstract flickers of light that then produce a cognitive response in the viewer. But in the attempt to decipher the image, to give it recognition and meaning in the narrative, the imagination is also engaged. Here lies “the gift.” This hidden, other dimension of a potential film that is outside the plot.
Jayamanne approaches her film criticism using a Ruizian idea that in film “the image is prior to the narrative and gives rise to it.” The image, as a “magnetic force” within a film narrative may reveal something “poetic, mysterious, unforgettable” that is outside the main concerns of the plot. The two other directors, Parjanov and Ruiz, are paired for the poetic style in their allegorical narratives and in their aesthetic of ornamentation, abstraction, and fragmentation. Parajanov’s films draw inspiration from Armenian and Georgian folk traditions, as well as imagery from Eastern Orthodox and Islamic religious ritual and Sufi poetry. Jayamanne discusses The Color of Pomegrantes and Ashik Kerib, two films about “poet troubadours and their modes of perception.” They are sensually rich, but nearly plotless films that bypass the need for analytical cognitive processing in the viewer – there is no narrative context for the images to be interpreted. The sequence of ritualistic tableaus and episodes are “complex formal poetic temporal elaborations of sound and image” that ask for a more intuitive and sensually awake mode of reception.
“Parajanov’s cinema trains our senses to perceive synaesthetically (a replete gift), which in turn enables a mode of cognition and ideation receptive to ‘a-signifying particles’, ‘subtle energies’ and impulses of the body and its subcortical (unconscious) operations too.”
“Allegorical ornamentation” also figures into Parajanov’s films. Jayamanne describes ornamentation as “an essential component of nature and biology at an infinitesimal scale.” Parajanov’s allegorical tableaus fill flattened spaces with displays of humans, animals, and elemental forces. Ruiz, whose film Klimt is discussed in the last chapter, is also a director who uses ornamentation in tableaus as well as in the fragmentation and decomposition of his narratives; in this case, the story of the Viennese painter’s inner creative turmoil. Ruiz is interested in a cinema that contains a multiplicity of other hidden films that tantalize in the imaginative engagement of a viewer. For both Ruiz and Parajanov, two very different filmmakers, the “allegorizing medium” of cinema can “drain the image of its denotative meaning and prepare it to be infused with new semantic and aesthetic values, new connotations.”
Jayamanne elucidates her central theme of “the spirit of the gift” in the reception of films by drawing on ideas of the Sufi scholar Henri Corbin. Corbin read into certain strands of Sufi mysticism a dimension of the awakened cognitive imagination he called the imaginal. The imaginal is a neologism invented by Corbin to express a Sufi idea of “a world suspended as in a mirror” -– a real yet immaterial dimension that reflects the material world. This seems to describe the viewer in a dark room entranced by illusory images, Plato’s cave. But the imaginal refers to another dimension entirely; one that can only be accessed using imagination as “an organ of cognition.”
“…a sensitivity to rhythm and light are what matters most in being open to the kinesthetic register of the imaginal world, more immaterial than the purely sensory and less immaterial than the purely intellectually abstract, it would appear to be a paradoxical vision of an immaterial materiality.”
Poetic Cinema and The Spirit of the Gift in the Films of Pabst, Parajanov, Kubrick and Ruiz presents stimulating directions for the study of cinema, and not just for the study of past auteurs. Digital cinema technology offers creators enormous control over every image pixel and sound wave, but maybe we are just beginning to understand what this power of manipulating perceptual signs means for the imaginative participation of the viewer.