In Defence of the Image: Structuralist Film and Brice Dellsperger’s Cinema of Re-enchantment

by Pil and Galia Kollectiv

Rooted in a deep platonic suspicion towards the image, structuralist film theory held firmly to an iconoclastic conviction that it is the role of art to denounce the very act of signification. The act of splitting reality into a ‘no longer present’ object and a representation of that object is, according to structuralist theory, equal to the economic division of labour that distances the commodity from the process of its production through circulation and exchange. Following a shift of interest from industrial manufacturing to the operations of the creative industry, many neo-Marxists, from Adorno to Debord, saw films as a new battlefield for the souls of passive spectators who fell under the illusory spell of the moving image. The very fact of the movement of images in succession fast enough to trick the mind into seeing motion was looked on with suspicion. Clement Greenberg famously separated the avant-garde from popular culture on the basis of a self critique; but this mistrust of the inherently false operation of cinema has been shared by avant garde film makers and mainstream cinema. From The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari to Inception, this wariness towards the image has become one of cinema’s central narratives. The experience of leaving the cinema in a state of a kind of ironic skepticism that can never translate into action has become a common one: viewers want to share the narrative of revolt against and liberation from the image but are unable to do so because this narrative is constructed for them on the screen. This can perhaps explain reports of depressed viewers forming support groups after watching Avatar.

Peter Gidal’s retrospective manifesto “Theory and Definition of Structural/ Materialist Film”, published in the BFI’s Structural Film Anthology in 1976, envisions a clear and important place for art’s political agency and it is not surprising that his ideas remain influential for many contemporary artists working with film. In this text Gidal summarizes some of the key concepts of structuralist film. Structuralist film makers, he writes, set out to reject the illusionary nature of film, particularly in relation to cinematic space, narrative and characterization. Whereas other types of film construct a false three-dimensional space in which action takes place, structuralist film observes the flatness of the screen and the space of projection. Film is the combined term to describe a process of production: it is a camera, celluloid, projected light and a screen, perhaps also a splicer, scissors and tape. What film is not, or should be defined by, is its content. The story-arch and the development of dramatic situations are simply distractions from this simple material truth. These devices also prevent film from being autonomous or developing its own unique nature and subordinate it to other forms of art, mostly literature and theatre. For Gidal, in this sense much like Greenberg’s idea of painting, the only appropriate subject of cinema is cinema itself and films should be seen as documentation of a technological process of image production rather than as representing a story external to them. It is in this space that opens between the production of a film and the emerging image of that production, of the film attesting to its moment of creation, that lies the strong political potential for Gidal. Opening up a dialectical possibility of resisting the tyranny of the image, structuralist film does not allow the image to cover up the traces of the material conditions of its making: “The film produces certain relations between segments, between what the camera is aimed at and the way that 'image' is presented. The dialectic of the film is established in that space of tension between materialist flatness, grain, light, movement, and the supposed reality that is represented. Consequently a continual attempt to destroy the illusion is necessary”.[1]

Crucially, Gidal insists on averting formalism. Avoiding all story to show an empty strip of celluloid running through the machine is no better than focusing on the content or style of a particular film and applying a preset or given critical deconstruction to it: “'Empty screen' is no less significatory than 'carefree happy smile'”.[2] Even if form is the content of a structuralist film, it should not be turned into a new fetishistic style, of the kind seen, for example, in recent digital effects designed to imitate the look of scratched film and torn sprockets. However, despite this anti-formalism, Gidal suffers from the same problem that Jacques Rancière identifies in the Greenbergian analysis of autonomous painting. In The Future of the Image, Rancière describes the attempt to get away from content and story through abstraction as futile. Whenever painting succeeds in fulfilling Greenberg’s condition of rejecting illusion in favour of a pure demonstration of the flatness of the medium, it ends up also telling the story of this purity, of being nothing but paint on canvas, and it is in representing this story that such art fails to leave representation behind. In Rancière’s words: “The art of painting is the specific realization of nothing but the possibilities contained in the very materiality of coloured matter and its support. But this realization must take the form of self-demonstration. The same surface must perform a dual task: it must only be itself and it must be the demonstration of the fact that it is only itself”.[3] By asking the filmmaker to make present the production process of which the film as an outcome, Gidal seems to turn this dual task into a positive feature of structuralist film, but the contradiction remains, since the second task refutes the former.

The aim of this self-critical operation for Gidal is to shake the viewer out of the absorption required by the narratives of what he calls ‘dominant’ cinema, where the “mechanism of identification demands a passive audience, a passive mental posture in the face of a life unlived, a series of representations, a phantasy identified with for the sake of 90 minutes' illusion”.[4] Here, again, Rancière’s critique is relevant. In “The Emancipated Spectator”, he argues against the tradition that sees theatre, and the spectacle of cinema as its continuation, as an arena of passive spectatorship, which needs to be contested through aggressive disruptions form the avant garde onwards. Instead, he claims that the experience of watching a play, or a film, calls “for spectators who are active interpreters, who render their own translation, who appropriate the story for themselves, and who ultimately make their own story out of it”.[5] It is this capacity for critical viewing, infinitely refracted through YouTube appropriations, that structuralist cinema both ignores and precludes: the way in which ersatz video artists recut, remix and upload the debris of ‘dominant’ cinema and television goes beyond both Gidal’s requirement of an active, critical viewing and Rancière’s demand for owning the story through translation and interpretation. Gidal’s dialectical theory proclaims the need to destabilise temporal relations between production and viewing. ‘Dominant’ film relies on strong causal links between a before (production on set) and an after (the act of watching the movie in a theatre) of filming, but also between the subjectivity and knowledge of the omniscient author (director, cinematographer and in some cases producer) and the weakness and the blindness of the viewer. Structuralist film, therefore, aims to collapse the two into one, to make the gap between production and spectating as narrow as possible by making available to the viewer the image of the film being produced. A cinematic space outside of production and outside of spectatorship is unimaginable here. Yet this space has come to dominate the experience of film in recent years. Home viewing systems, from VHS to DVD to pay per view to online streaming, have fractured the façade of the illusionary space on a screen which is now down-sized, contained and controlled by a domestic environment. Film has become a window on a screen, not a window into another universe and so the viewer is never fully absorbed in the cinematic image that always has to compete against others. The panicky response from Hollywood to hold on to illusory cinematic space through 3D effects is unconvincing and the continual fragmentation of film into compressed small morsels of visual information is inevitable. Temporally, too films are now subjected to endless repetition and permutation. The correct order in which a series of internet memes was published, is unimportant: each element in a series is autonomous yet is still informed and in turn informs others.

This opposition between making the production process present and being absorbed in a narrative through passive identification collapses most clearly in Brice Dellsperger’s remakes of Hollywood films. Through casting transsexual performers in multiple roles, his reworkings of scenes from films like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut never let the viewer be lulled into passive complacency. One is always aware that the film is a construct: if the facial tattoos on Nicole Kidman’s stand in weren’t distracting enough, the crude digital replication that allows the same actor to play Tom Cruise’s part, a brothel owner and a young prostitute, as well as a roomful of hooded cult members, is certain to keep the audience aware of the process through which the video was made. Nevertheless, and despite the winks and nudges of the performer mincing out of character, strangely moving moments emerge, often more convincing than the filmic ones they are mimicking. The screentest dialogue from Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia is all the more heartbreaking for being doubled and ripped out of its original context, the movie actresses painful attempt at self-reinvention somehow heightened by the fact that the actress playing the actress playing the actress is also a man playing a woman, himself trying to pass as something we know he is not.

It is because of this reinvestment of the hollowed out, broken image with sentimental content that Dellspreger’s films are effective weapons in combating the Platonic hatred of the image shared by both Hollywood and structuralism. Kubrick’s characters, for example, inhabit a world where subjectivities are constructed through tired theatrical performances. Social and romantic relationships are nihilistically presented as an endless dance of such dishonest performances brought to a climax in the ritualistic mask ceremony at the end of the film. Subjectivities, just like characters, are simply faded images of long forgotten originals. But, perversely, when the grandeur of Kubrick’s theatrical space is replaced with cheap materials and props and badly rendered virtual space, this supposedly inauthentic and compromised world obtains a kind of realism. The critique that wants to expose the deception at the heart of construction of narrative and characters becomes, in Dellspreger’s work, a strong narrative in its own right. What comes to the fore in these re-enacted interpretations and replaces the story of characters is the story of the film itself, the way a film always produces an external frame outside of the screen as a commodity in circulation, a cultural idea or even a memory of its viewing. Gidal objects to the authorship latent in ‘dominant’ film and suggests that structuralist film avoids hinting at an omniscient persona for the artist: “Even if Peter Gidal films dark rooms what does it say about me except what it says about itself…”? [6] But what Dellspreger’s work demonstrates is that from the critique of images a new kind of authorship emerges – the voice of the author who establishes his own mastery through a deliberate rejection of the notion of mastery with the coyness of the reluctant leader. Having been thoroughly disenchanted with the visual products of the culture industry by theorists and philosophers, by artists and by Hollywood itself, perhaps what we need is this kind of re-enchantment, with images, with structuralist film, even. The birth of the reader may not bring about the death of the author envisioned by Roland Barthes, but since the external vantage point from which Gidal asks us to look at the production of moving images turns out to be itself a mirage, perhaps the best way to look at cinema is from the inside out.

[1] Gidal, Peter, “Theory and Definition of Structural/ Materialist Film”, Structural Film Anthology, London: BFi, 1976, available at: [accessed 13.11.10]

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rancière, Jacques, “Painting in the Text”, The Future of the Image, London: Verso, 2007, p. 71.

[4] Gidal, Peter, Ibid.

[5] Rancière, Jacques, “The Emancipated Spectator”, ArtForum, March, 2007, available at:;col1 [accessed 14.11.10]

[6] Gidal, Peter, Ibid.