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about the author

Gregory Zinman is a PhD candidate in the department of Cinema Studies at New York University, where he is currently writing his dissertation, "Handmade: Cinema in the Artisanal Mode." His essay on Walther Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger, and the birth of abstract cinema
will be published in the forthcoming New History of German Cinema. He also writes DVD reviews for the Washington Post, and is a new media curatorial consultant to the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Review

Daniel Barnett’s Movement as Meaning in Experimental Film

Gregory Zinman

Filmmaker and teacher Daniel Barnett’s new book is an attempt to provide a fresh look at the relat ion between cinema and language. Through the intentionally broad heuristic of “movement as meaning,” or the idea that motion stirs the brain towards knowledge, Barnett’s argument straddles analytic philosophy, film theory, and linguistics in a discursive manner that yields fewer productive insights as it progresses.

Barnett organizes the book in three sections. The first, “Modes of Perception and Modes of Expression,” seeks to find parallels between meaning in narrative language and various forms of image-making, from painting to photography and finally to film. He finds similarities between experimental film and poetry, arguing that the ellipses inherent to montage act as metaphors or similes in film. In the introduction, the author announces his approach as differing from the writings of Saussure and Metz, and instead looks to Eisenstein’s theories of montage—with the caveat that the author’s take “is a good deal more radical” than the pioneering Russian’s. Barnett relates his central thesis in a manner seemingly spoiling for a fight: “the best description of cinema is that of an articulated image stream and the best description of language is simply the meaningful articulation of elements within an overarching structure.” Barnett also stresses his comparative study as resting on a method that “must pinpoint, then penetrate, the essence of any medium if we’re to understand what possible referential relationships that medium has to offer.” (13) To that end, he develops what he refers to as “a dialectic of the surface and the screen,” in which narrative film offers a Bazinian window onto a world that stretches beyond the surface of the screen, while experimental cinema operates on the screen’s surface, in a “grammar free” self-referential play of imagery that foregrounds celluloid’s material substrate as the site of meaning. (18) This relocation of cinematic meaning to the surface of the screen creates a self-aware viewer, though this mindset must be taught or acquired. For Barnett, the surface of the screen is analogous to consciousness itself, where movement is taken as the thinking operation of the filmmaker.

As for pinpointing how meaning is made in experimental cinema, Barnett claims the fundamental criterion is whether a film “moves” the spectator. “It moves me,” (41) most often understood as an emotional response, for Barnett functions as a baggy metaphor for anything that has spurred the viewer’s mind to make meaning. What Barnett’s analysis leaves out is whether some meanings are more important than others, or an answer to whether it is possible to articulate a set of cinematic properties of experimental film that generate specific meanings.

Part II, “Dynamic and Syntactic Universals,” expands Barnett’s comparative project and attempts, at least initially, to imagine cinema’s temporality in musical terms. Barnett claims that the pictorial qualities of cinema will eventually supersede its narrative aspects. As cinema continues to develop, he argues, “we have to expect that paradigms more native to the essence of the medium will dominate.”  (57) These paradigms, he says, will call for filmmakers and viewers “to learn to think without words,” as is the case with many types of music. Barnett refers to the “Taj Mahals of time-based media”— Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage, Kurt Kren, Saul Levine, and Jonas Mekas—who rely on cinematic structure to articulate meaning without words, before positing that all communication is comprised of interval, context, and repetition. (61)

Barnett, himself an experimental filmmaker with a structural bent, is on firmer ground when relating his own experiences as a filmmaker, editor, and viewer. His cogent formal analyses of Levine’s Raps and Chants I (1981), which uses careful lighting and framing to relate the acid trip experience of its interview subject, or his own experimentation with editing camera flares in The Ogre (1970) point to ways that films can provide “a different direction for the mind to move with the picture.”  (100) Indeed, Barnett has a knack for recognizing and articulating the use-value of even the most difficult filmic texts. Describing the perceptual effects of Tony Conrad’s landmark The Flicker (1966), which rapidly alternates patters of purely white and black frames, he writes:

...these hallucinated color fields are barely reminiscent of our normal experience for a blue or a green. They are, in fact, a fare more pure experience; pure because it is new, unbidden, unlearned, and empty of content in some more fundamental way. The objectless-ness of these hallucinations is accentuated by the fact that they have no edges—they are the experience of pure color in an unreal and unstable space. (90)

Part III of the book, “The Moving Target,” begins with the question of how binary computer code—conceived as a kind of digital writing—will alter the conditions of moving image viewing and making. Rather than pursue this line of inquiry, however, Barnett spends the majority of this section adumbrating “the vectorscape of the digital mediasphere,” a concept encompassing, among other elements, new media’s collapse of barriers to artistic production, the repetition of ideas via digital memes, and the burgeoning post-human condition. New media, according to Barnett, is a technological iteration of humanity’s need to create and adapt new languages, just as analog filmmakers created narrative and formal conventions via the manipulation of celluloid. He finishes the chapter by offering a series of observations on the minimal unit of digital pictorial information, the pixel, and how it can be infinitely shaped by the manipulation of its underlying datum.

The latest in Rodopi’s series on Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Movement as Meaning is not so much a film studies book as it is a book for philosophy scholars interested in exploring the ways in which film can perform thought. To that end, one might expect Barnett to engage with the theories of Gilles Deleuze, who, more so than perhaps any other scholar, has worked to frame cinema as a new kind of thinking machine. Similarly, one might expect that Barnett would draw on examples of films by his contemporaries in which the relation of written and spoken language to film are their central concerns, as in Hollis Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma (1970) or Peter Rose’s Secondary Currents (1982). Both films are listed in the book’s rich filmography, which is full of unnecessarily marginalized and forgotten filmmakers who nevertheless go largely unexplored in the main text. Furthermore, for a book ostensibly concerned with language, Movement as Meaning would have benefited from closer proofreading—the volume is riddled with absent question marks and commas, and entire paragraphs are repeated.

Barnett’s writing is a curious mix of neologisms, theoretical ruminations on the nature of language and the limits of language as a metaphor for the communicative functions of other media, and engaging first-person accounts of his own experiences as a filmmaker and viewer. Split up into small, numbered subheadings, however, his argument is fragmented to the point where the flow of ideas is sacrificed for erratic bounding from notion to notion; indeed, Barnett characterizes his own work as “maundering.” For example, while he repeatedly claims that the third section of the book will deal with cinema’s digital future, he does not analyze, or even cite, a single digital moving image work.

What’s more, Barnett’s hopscotch sensibility vacillates between musing on the relation of language to cinema and interrogating cinema as a meaning-making machine. One digression finds him considering Wittengenstein’s theory of the impossibility of a constructing a private language. Barnett concludes that filmmaking, if not a private language, is at least something akin to a dialect. His puzzling over the nature of cinematic meaning leads him to the not particularly revelatory conclusion that filmmakers have personal style.

Finally, it is unclear whether Barnett is unwilling to engage with—or is simply unaware of—the various developments in film theory over the last thirty years. His meditations on language and cinema are questions that were worked out much more thoroughly by the semiotic film theory of Christian Metz and Jean-Louis Baudry, among others. Save for a passing reference to the former, Barnett does not engage this corpus, or the voluminous critiques of language/cinema comparisons that followed. Similarly, many of his conjectures regarding the material nature of cinema were the subject of intense debates surrounding structural filmmaking, theory, and analysis in the 1970s, and yet there is no acknowledgement of the films or writings Malcolm LeGrice, Peter Gidal, or David James. And if Barnett is familiar with Nöel Carroll and David Rodowick’s more recent interrogations of cinema as a medium, he is staying mum, offering instead the outmoded argument that “what makes it cinema is the machine it uses.” (4) Such a stance raises the question of how cinema will be understood as the mechanics of moving-image making become increasingly digital. Will images not continue to move and make meaning, regardless of the apparatus used in their making and exhibition?