Hunter Vaughan. Columbia University Press: 2013. Paper, 264 pages. $29.50.
In Where Film Meets Philosophy: Godard, Resnais, and Experiments in Cinematic Thinking, Hunter Vaughan blends phenomenology and semiotics to explore cinema’s ability to confront conventional modes of thought. Through the theories of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Gilles Deleuze, Vaughan compares the films of Jean-Luc Godard, which assess the audio visual illusion of empirical observation or objectivity, with the films of Alain Resnais, in which the sound-image creates inventive depictions of individual experience or subjectivity. Both filmmakers, Vaughan claims, overturn conventional practices and challenge philosophical traditions to alter understandings of the self, the world, and the relationship between the two. Using Godard’s Vivre sa cie (1962), Contempt (1963), and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) and Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and The War is Over (1966), Vaughan proposes a phenomenological film semiotics which connects two dissimilar methodologies to the parallel achievements of two seemingly incompatible artists.
Vaughan says that Resnais’s codification of the speech-image relationship is constructed around the recollection of memories in Hiroshima, mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad. Resnais’s technique in these two films is to oppose two modes of speech-image codification: one “in which the words and images complement each other” and one “in which the images and the words are in conflict [and thus] rupture…the unanchored flux that is essential to film’s moving image” (114). Resnais is experimenting with the “simultaneity” of sound in Hiroshima, mon amour and the ways it intermingles objective and subjective perspectives that challenge conventions of how memory is represented in film. For example, the female character nicknamed “Nevers” as the “speaking subject,” recounts her past in present tense, and the speech-image codification (which also signals psychological stability) begins to unravel. The illusion that image is naturally connected to the words being spoken is dispelled: “her interior is made exterior, and the representation is caught between aural subjectivity and visual objectivity” (124). Nevers remarks that “looking closely at things is something that has to be learned” (DVD, Criterion Collection, 2003). The point that words and images do not always align is obvious, however, and Vaughan’s analysis of this film, if sometimes instructive (offering a view not only of the French New Wave but of possible trajectories of future cinematic expression), is rhetorically overblown. [End Page 52]
Last Year at Marienbad, directed by Resnais, further deconstructs classical codes of signification by rejecting the conventional dualism of subject-object relationships, argues Vaughan. The film concerns the struggle between two people over a memory of something that may or may not have happened. Resnais shows how a visual reality thus emerges from words, Vaughan aptly comparing this film to a refracting crystal with multilayered flashes between speech act and mental image, while acknowledging the psychoanalytic possibilities in themes of fantasy and desire. Vaughan then cites Resnais’s insistence that the work is “a reflective experiment in film form,” one that explores collective memory and the suspense of a possible shared past, raising questions about character formation and cinematic convention: who has control of the sound-image logic within the film and who appropriates its agency? A sound-bridge of laughter carries one character from the collective imagination back into the present or, as Resnais referred to it, “a universal present” in which temporalities collide.
Vaughan describes Godard as both embracing and exposing the code of objectivity as a myth, “to reveal the formal conventions beneath it and—as does Resnais—then to offer an alternative to it” (177). For example, Godard’s Vivre sa cie challenges traditional modes of film expression while also maintaining “a certain classical aesthetic” (55). The claim that everything theses two directors are doing somehow challenges this or that tradition is an airy refrain throughout the book, but Vaughan insists that this work about a Parisian shop girl who becomes a prostitute is Godard’s eulogy for classical cinema and a “network of representations meant to isolate the camera as the sole...