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Unspeakable Images

Carlos Losilla


Recently, the image has taken over what we used to call talking or writing about cinema: now images endlessly appear, they are projected, people compose essays with images … The role once played, years ago, by the gaze has now been translated to another fetish – and with this consequent transformation, it sometimes risks becoming a mere formula. Two doubts plague me when I am faced with this phenomenon to which I, myself, have also contributed: the potential underestimation of the analytical/critical text, as a result of this hegemony of the image; and what this dominance of the icon might mean in relation to a certain conception of cinema.


To explore these questions, I will start with one of my favourite images. In Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), Lt. McPherson (Dana Andrews) falls asleep in front of a portrait of Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney), presumed murdered, whose image prompts a growing obsession. McPherson is sitting in a chair. First, the camera approaches his head as it tilts to his shoulder. The camera then moves, without a cut, to a position further back, framing the portrait in the shot as well as the sleeper. Immediately this occurs, in the following shot, Laura enters the room. So why that camera movement? Does it compress a period of time? How long has McPherson been asleep? Is it the equivalent of an ellipsis? It is clear – at least to me – that what is marked is not simply a shift in space, but also a shift in time



Yet, it is equally true that that image has not changed, except for the amount of space covered. How to explain this placing side-by-side of images that do not exist? Because the most important thing here is what is invisible. But nothing hidden, nothing resembling the spiritual, nothing that could be identified with a certain metaphysics of cinema; rather, these are images which are snatched away, images that Preminger prefers not to offer up for our vision, except as poetic evocations. This gesture includes – or could include – the forbidden images of Laura that stir only in McPherson’s mind. There is no possible representation for these images: they do not exist, but they nonetheless take a central role in our vision of this moment. That cinema we describe as modern can give them a certain visibility, but so-called classical cinema hides them behind other images – without, however, losing any of their crucial importance. For their manifestation would give an overly physical nature to the cinematic image.


I could cite dozens of such moments that have burned into my memory – to the extent that, sometimes, these nonexistent images surface in my mind, taking traits that depend solely on my imagination. How often have we remembered shots or even scenes that – when we re-watch the film – we discover are just not there? The strategy could also be justified on the grounds of over-explicitness, i.e., self-censorship: to present such images would be obscene, even aberrant, and not only in a sexual sense. In fact, I am talking about this, and about the off-screen – but also about a kind of off-diegesis, something that happens beyond the represented world, in the imagination of each spectator, confronted with these images that steal away our vision. Cinema, therefore, as a non-image built on the basis of an image seen or suggested, so that this invisible field might not so much find figurative form, as become something like a chaos of forms.


In Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock staged the possibility of providing images for the fantasy that haunts Scottie (James Stewart), as he kisses Judy while remembering Madeleine (both of them Kim Novak). The camera moves around them, the lights go out, and another set appears, located somewhere else in some other time, beyond where he once held the woman he loved in his arms. It is not a flashback; we are simultaneously here and there, in this era and the previous era. These are the images that perhaps we would evoke for ourselves, if Hitchcock did not draw them from the shadows. In À bout de souffle (1960), Jean-Luc Godard exposes and caricatures this tendency of the ‘classical film’ to hide things: in the car that Michel Poiccard (Jean-Paul Belmondo) drives, the camera shoots Patricia (Jean Seberg) at a sharp angle, seen in short bursts, such that we contemplate her silhouette as it hurls through different time periods, capturing our gaze. In Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), the monologue by Alma (Bibi Andersson) is heard twice, once with her own image, and again with the image of Elizabeth Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who listens in her muteness, in order to make evident what we do not usually see within classical narration: both shot and reverse shot, at the same time, in their full length. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’eclisse (1962), the camera loses itself at the end, shooting the empty spaces where, before, the lovers strolled – in what constitutes a demonstration of what there is beyond the conclusion of a story.


Godard, Bergman, Antonioni: the non-image is turned into an image – or, at least, the film tries to give form to the avatar of this possibility. Is it a matter, then, of moving around an absent image, an image upon which every film turns? How does the face of the Other look when he is being spoken to? What goes on with the person who does not appear in the intervals of a dual action that is meant to convey simultaneity? What happens during the fragments of time we are not given to see? What occurs in the transition from one shot to the next that can produce, for instance, a miracle like in Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955)? I am talking about shot/reverse shot, parallel montage, ellipsis – elements of cinematic language sanctioned since practically its earliest days. But I am also referencing rhetorical figures that have no name, because not the slightest trace of their figurative existence is present on the screen.


So how, within analytic discourse, can we explain this absence of images by using images? Would not the task be, rather, to sculpt laboriously, through words, the impossible description of something possible but, in every sense, unspeakable? I believe that this is one of the great questions – and, at the same time, one of the most disquieting challenges – facing our contemporary discourse on cinema.



This is the sixth in a series titled ‘Interventions’, which appears in Spanish in Transit. It forms part of the presentation the author will give in November 2013 at Goethe University’s Film, Media and Theatre Studies conference on “The Audiovisual Essay”.


from Issue 4: Walks


© Original Spanish text Carlos Losilla April 2013.
English translation Adrian Martin and LOLA August 2013.

Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.