- "Henri Bergson Talks to Us About Cinema," by Michel Georges-Michel from Le Journal, February 20, 1914
In this 1914 interview, which has never before appeared in English, Henri Bergson clarifi es his position on cinema, reiterating the key points of his famous critical comparison between cinema and practical understanding while suggesting new avenues of thought by considering cinema in the context of developments in the fi ne arts. Bergson sees our practical, everyday understanding of the world as a series of snapshots set into motion according to a regular, abstract time—an operation mimicked by the cinematograph's synthesis of movement from a strip of still frames. Our practical understanding breaks continuous reality into segments and produces privileged forms with which to analyze it. Although it cannot, like intuition, grasp reality in its fl ow, survival and science depend on this practical understanding.
In Creative Evolution, Bergson uses the cinematograph as an analogy in order to illustrate the limits of practical understanding; the cinematograph and practical understanding both treat space as immobile sections and time as a succession of regular, abstract instants.1 Practical understanding ignores the unity of space and fails to grasp time as concrete duration. Bergson's engagement with the cinematograph is therefore rhetorical. In his writing it illustrates the structure of practical understanding and its relationship to reality.
In the interview, Bergson reiterates this comparison between the cinematograph and practical understanding. The cinematograph presents reality as a series of snapshots that have been recomposed into movement, just as geometry, the key expression of understanding, shows a circumference as a series of points that compose a circle. This principle allows Bergson's colleague to use moving images to [End Page 79] isolate the phases of cellular division for his students. Each stage is a privileged form, or a special film frame culled from a series of frames.
Bergson's consideration of painting and photography in the interview might suggest something else. He claims that when painters tried to achieve the mimetic precision of photographs, their canvases lost any sense of life, and this sense of life was restored to painting only when subjective impressions of movement were introduced, subjective impressions of the kind "found on screen." Here, the cinematograph's ability to recompose movement becomes the basis for a comparison with a stage in art history. According to Bergson's line of thought, the plastic arts had to recover from the influence of photography by synthesizing movement, leading to effects akin to the cinematographic images. Creative Evolution compares cinematographic technology to practical understanding. Here the cinematographic image, the product of that technology, is compared to subjective experience. Had Bergson pursued this line, he might have arrived at a different conception of the relations between cinema and time.
Despite Bergson's interest in cinematographic images, the interview shows that his relation to the new art of cinema was marginal and lagged behind his times. For Bergson, the cinematograph, like all new technologies and scientific developments, gives occasion for thought, but the philosopher declines to participate in film production. Bergson's reluctance to pose for a movie studio project contrasts with Hugo Münsterberg's roughly contemporaneous enthusiasm for appearing in a Paramount movie magazine.2
An even clearer indication of Bergson's lack of interest in the cinema, as opposed to the cinematograph as an apparatus, can be read in his claim not to have seen a fiction film ("scenes at the cinematograph") by 1914. Bergson neither appears in movies nor goes to them. By the time of the interview, fiction and narrative had become major commercial forms in the cinema, yet Bergson limits their importance to a remark on acting.
The rhetoric of life that Bergson uses in the interview also corresponds to the initial public fascination with the cinematograph as a technical novelty; in other words, it dates his engagement with the movies. Consistent with the rest of his work, Bergson equates movement with life and at the end of the article notes the joy that will be produced by watching contemporary movements in the future. This rhetoric matches that of journalistic reports of the very first cinematograph exhibitions...