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The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film

by Brigitte Peucker
Stanford University Press (Cultural Memory in the Present), Stanford, CA, 2007
272 pp. Trade, $65; paper, $24.95
ISBN: 0-8047-5431-6; ISBN: 0808754306.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens
University of Leuven


Brigitte Peucker’s essay on "intermediality" in cinema is an important contribution to film studies, more precisely to that branch that focuses on the production of meaning by and embodied spectator, a sector occupying a strategic crossroad position between cognitive and phenomenological approaches that have been completing the modernist and postmodernist readings inspired by psychoanalysis and formalist semiotics.

"Intermediality" is defined by Brigitte Peucker is a highly stimulating and complex way, which exceeds by far the mechanical combination of sound and vision. Peucker stresses instead both the more general blurring of time and space, of 2D and 3D, of literature and painting, of writing and cinema, as well as the spectatorial effects of this type of intermediality (one of the most thought-provoking hypotheses of this study is that intermediality is exactly the place where these effects most easily and most directly occur). As far as the internal description of the phenomenon is concerned, Peucker’s book gives a key role to the notion of "tableau", which she borrows and rereads form the 18th Century bourgeois drama and its fostering of decisive meanings in frozen moments. This encounter of different medialities —for the "tableau" bridges the gap between 2D painting and 3D narrative— is then provocatively broadened by the author into a wide range of intermedial techniques and features in film that all tend to elicit specific (and bodily) reactions. As far as these reactions are concerned, The Material Image does much more than just give a description of the specific feelings and emotions as triggered by these textual manipulations, but elaborates on these reactions in order to construct a theory of the collapse at the boundaries between the fictional and the real, between the work and world. On the one hand, Peucker scrutinizes how the ontological difference between the fictional world on screen and the real world of the signs the fiction is referring to is being questioned. On the other hand, she also interrogates the vanishing of the comparable distinction between the "unreality" of the film and the "reality" of the spectator’s body.

One of the great merits of Peucker’s book is that it avoids any reduction of intermediality and its implications for the study of embodied spectatorship to one single grand narrative or master theory (these narratives and theories are present in the book, which discusses Lacan, Zizek, Bazin and Kracauer, for instance, often in a very illuminating way, but they are never present to the extent that they replace the author’s personal thinking). Elegantly combining elements and insights from very different disciplinary and linguistic traditions, The Material Image uses as its main references a number of broad cultural frameworks that allow for a very supple and open interpretation of close-read movies (the book is divided in nine chapters which are all devoted to one or a very limited set of pictures). Besides the notion of "tableau" (Diderot) and its variant the "tableau vivant", both linked here to the more encompassing and richly illustrated genre of the melodrama, Peucker cleverly reuses Michael Fried’s global antinomy of absorption versus realism, emphasizing of course the tendency towards the transgression of the fourth wall and the realist inclusion of the spectator into the fictional world. Peucker’s demonstration illustrates very convincingly the extreme usefulness of this approach, even outside the field in which it had been originally theorized. One may regret however that the author leaves aside the whole line of thinking on the cinema of attraction, which could have established a dialogue with a more directly cinematographic approach of spectatorship.

Second major advantages of The Material Image are the exceptional qualities of Peucker’s close readings. The author is not only able to produce clear and original interpretations of very different movies (from Martin Scorsese to Wim Wenders, from Peter Greenaway to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, not to forget Stanley Kubrick and Tobe Hooper, of course), but on Hitchcock and Haneke she succeeds in offering but an excellent overview of the relevant literature and many interesting new observations that illustration the very strength of the chosen viewpoint. And that Peucker is developing and discussing her ideas without falling into the trap of easy abstractions and fashionable jargon is also a feature that will also be appreciated by more than one student and scholar.

In short, great writing and great reading, whose impact should not remain confined to the sole field of film studies, but considered very carefully by all those who, in literary theory for instance, want to better understand why and how texts matter.



Updated 1st May 2007

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