Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Tableaux and "Time Shapes"

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

Tableaux and "Time Shapes"

Article excerpt



Around 1978, what is generally considered the main event of seventies avant-garde cinema - structural film's displacement by a new form of politically engaged, theoretically informed narrative film - seems to have reached a high point.1 A series of important films made between 1977 and 1979 brought the avant- garde's increasing interest in narrative and politics (and the politics of narrative) across a threshold of visibility: Riddles of the Sphinx (Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, 1977), Invisible Adversaries (VALIE EXPORT, 1977), Blackbird Descending - Tense Alignment (Malcolm Le Grice, 1977), Light Reading (Lis Rhodes, 1978), Argument (Anthony McCall and Andrew Tyndall, 1978), Sigmund Freud's Dora (McCall, Tyndall, Claire Pajaczkowska, and Jane Weinstock, 1979), and Journeys From Berlin/1971 (Yvonne Rainer, 1979).2

By the mid-seventies, structural film's proscription of narrative, indeed of any form of reference other than self-reference, was increasingly seen as exhausted, and ill-fit to address pressing political concerns. It was time to move on. The new avant-garde narrative films resonated more with continental film theory, which were similarly centered on narrative and politics, than with modernism's ideals of medium specificity and artistic autonomy.

It is easy to see a major historical break here. Perhaps too easy. The "battle" between narrative and non-narrative, in which the former appeared to have gotten the upper hand by around 1978, played out on screen and on paper - recall, for instance, Le Grice and P. Adams Sitney's infamous 1977 debate on "narrative illusion vs. structural realism."3 In this essay, however, I will trace a line of continuity between structural film and the narrative films that followed, considering a specific compositional strategy they share.

Limitations of space require me to be more suggestive than conclusive, but my hope is to sharpen the rather blunt instrument of the "narrative vs. non- narrative" antimony that has at least implicitly shaped much of the discourse on this period. While this distinction (muddied as it often was in this context) was important, what really seems to have been at stake around 1978 was the formation of new frameworks for representing time and making meaning in cinema. The principle of composition I consider here is one facet of this much larger picture.


The compositional approach I have in mind is a variation of the tableau. 4 Normally associated with more conventional narrative artworks, a tableau is a static image of a moment in time, a frozen instant that nonetheless implies temporality by suggesting both the events that have led up to it and those that might follow. Though it is a narrative device, emblematizing a state of affairs within a story, it also disrupts narrative, halting time to create a visual spectacle. Thus, a tableau is at least semi-independent of the larger narrative, a free-standing visual "object."

This broad conception of the tableau will get some nuancing. For now, though, it suggests the formal qualities I want to highlight, and some of their larger implications. Applying the term to the avant-garde narrative films of the late 1970s, I am thinking of scenes that possess several interrelated formal traits. For one, they are often comprised of a single shot, producing a sense of spatiotemporal unity and thus implying that the scene is something like an autonomous object in the film's overall architecture. For instance, the long central section of Riddles of the Sphinx is made up of 13 scenes, each consisting of a single panning shot of the main character engaged in some aspect of her daily life. Scott MacDonald likens these shots/scenes to a series of complete short films, which aptly characterizes the way temporal and causal linkages between the scenes are minimized by their composition.5

The sense that such tableau scenes are formally autonomous is often heightened by the overall scenic construction of the films in which they appear. …

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