Faith in the Time-Image: Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century and Malick’s The Thin Red Line as Examples of Contemplative Cinema
by Shaun Terry
André Bazin and Gilles Deleuze addressed a kind of shift (or, perhaps, growth) in the semiotics of cinema. They each suggest that a new form of cinema emerged after WWII by which the symbols and the arrangement of those symbols were different from those of the cinema that had preceded this new form. However, Bazin and Deleuze differ some, especially in where they put their emphases. For Bazin, the syntax (or arrangement) of film—the ways by which films are conceived of and shot, the editing process, the intended relationship of the spectator to the medium—becomes central to the shift, whereas for Deleuze, the signs, themselves—the images and sounds—come to represent a different kind of cinema from that from before.
First off, we should clarify that Bazin seems to be taking a structuralist view on how cinema works: cinema is a language and a system defined by the differences between elements within it. What Bazin is proposing, then, is that the language has changed. What is of interest is that the signifiers that we might normally think of—purely images and sounds—are not only what Bazin seems to be getting at. Instead, what Bazin seems to be suggesting is that, in addition to the content-values of the images and sounds, the syntax of cinema has also changed. Instead of Classic Hollywood symbolism overlaid on Classic Hollywood continuity editing techniques, Bazin seems to suggest that a new mode by which symbols are rearranged and the means by which these symbols are presented to us take on different forms. In fact, Bazin seems to have lost faith in the abilities of the old codes, or he at least seems to prefer the new form of cinema. Bazin locates a new presentation of cinema such that the images and sounds that are presented to us can be interpreted in wholly new ways.
Deleuze assists Bazin in defining what this cinema can be. On p. 2 of Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Deleuze says, “What defines neo-realism is this build-up of purely optical situations… which are fundamentally distinct from the sensory-motor situations of the action-image in the old realism.” Deleuze sees Italian neo-realist films and French New Wave films, in particular, as embodying the shift that he identifies. For Deleuze, part of the shift is in how optical signs, opsigns, are treated as spectacles in themselves, whereas, in older cinema, the focus is on action and clear narrative storytelling. The “sensory-motor” driving force in what he refers to as the “action-image” facilitates the older form of cinema that relies on the development of a clear plot with a clear message, leading the spectator along.
For Bazin, those films that “put their faith in reality” take a bold leap into a cinema that he finds more useful. To try to understand what this means, we can think of some of the similarities between Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century. Bazin praises that cinema that could come across as anti-Eisensteinian in the sense that its intentions may not be immediately clear on the surface. If Eisensteinian films are those that are unrelenting in their blatant intentionality, Bazin’s subtler, more complex cinema obfuscates its intentions to the point that they are not always completely clear.
Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century opens with a thirty-second shot pointed directly upward as trees sway in the wind before the film cuts to a simultaneously banal and slightly bizarre interview of what appears to be a Thai military surgeon. After a brief interlude by which the image on the screen is of what appears to be another Thai soldier, the next couple minutes are nothing more than a medium close-up of the Thai soldier being interviewed, mostly staring directly into the camera, answering a random assortment of questions.
Malick’s film opens in a similar manner: within seconds of the opening of the film, the camera is focused on trees in a jungle. The scene cuts from one slow-moving shot staring up into the highest strata of the trees to the next such shot. Instead of a work-related interview, the audio track is occupied by the thoughts in someone’s head: questions about the nature of nature.
In Weerasethakul’s film, there seems to be an intentionality to the slow pace of the opening sequence, to the near-motionless in it. Perhaps the pace is doing part of the work in the film. If one considers the role of rurality and Buddhism, particularly in the first half of the film, and contrasts that part of the film to the more capitalistic, faster-paced second half, the function of this pacing seems clearer. In the case of Malick’s film, the slower pace of much of the film seems to simultaneously juxtapose itself with, and contextualize, the battle that is taking place, i.e. we are not separate from nature and conflict is not separate from nature. The open-endedness of the constant philosophical questionings of the film seem to mirror the open-endedness of the film and its subject matter.
Later in Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century, we come to a scene in which a woman attempts to heal someone by adjusting their chakras. As she performs her work on the young man, the camera slowly pans around the table to another woman. She stares into the camera as the camera pulls back from the table. Her gaze follows the camera as the room’s symbols emerge: alcoholic beverages populate the table at which the people sit; in the corner of the room are plastic bodily appendages, overhung by odd red-and-white pipes; two male doctors sit on one side of the table; and a file cabinet and worktable line one side of the plain, austere, industrial-looking room.
The scene is odd in its imagery and in the reflexiveness implied by the woman’s staring into the camera. The layered composition in the scene may serve as an example of one aspect that Bazin had in mind. It is easy to see that the spectator has several choices in terms of where to look in this scene and how exactly to be affected. Each of these images seems to tell its own story, a point that Deleuze would likely agree to.
This is consistent with Deleuze’s conception of the “time-image,” the post-WWII form of cinema by which images and sounds create a mood that affects the spectator. Through their gaze, the spectator imbues meaning into these symbols, allowing film to tell stories through familiarities in the kinds of symbols embodied in our daily lives’ objects. For Bazin, it is the emphasis on reality that he is concerned with. Bazin sees the relative autonomy of images in post-WWII cinema as giving the spectator a different relationship to film: the spectator plays a freer and more active role in the discovery of the meaning of film.