THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS REPETITION: THOUGHTS ON GERTRUDE STEIN AND CINEMA

This entry was posted on August 2nd, 2018

By Claudia Siefen

Some were certainly following and were certain that the one they were then following was one working and was one bringing out of himself then something. Some were certainly following and were certain that the one they were then following was one bringing out of himself then something that was coming to be a heavy thing, a solid thing and a complete thing.

(In Picasso; 1905)

I think, given her century and its modernist sensibilities, Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) sought a less normative understanding of emotions than what was implied in her theories. Also, a less narrative approach to theater, as her plays and poems show. How would this have been with cinema, which she so successfully refused? For example, in her avoidance of early models of identification, -something she pleasurably shared with Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater and its techniques of alienation- “Art” -as Walter Benjamin later expressed in 1939- “does not exist in the production of empathy but in the realm of astonishment.” I think this statement makes it clear that, on one hand, Brecht’s rejection of empathy does not mean rejecting emotion per se, and because of this, that Stein also worked on “awakening” voice-roles for certain emotions in stage for her projects. It was a critical attitude within a relaxed emotion.

As we know, Stein wrote two scripts explicitly for film: A Movie (1920) and Film. Deux Sœurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Sœurs (Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters; 1929). Often considered among Stein’s plays, these two scripts are notably different from her other dramatic work. Less convoluted in plot, noticeably lacking in dialogue, and more visual, these scripts provide the most tangible link between Stein’s dramatic work and cinema. Despite Stein’s assertion in her lecture “Plays and what they are” (lecture given in New York City, October 30th , 1934) that she never went to the cinema, the screenplays demonstrate not only her interest in the art form, but also her knowledge of different film movements, specifically the avant-garde cinema of Paris at that time. Whereas her first film script, A Movie, imitates the slapstick technique and gag structure of silent film comedy, her second script, Film. Deux Sœurs Qui Ne Sont Pas Sœurs questions the relationship between reality and representation on the big screen.

You know who you are because you and others remember something about you but you are not essential if you do anything. I am because my little dog knows me but I am creatively speaking because the little dog knows that you are you and because you realize that he knows it, that’s what destroys creation. That’s what matters.

(In Tender Buttons / Objects; 1915)

Stein seemed to pay special attention to physiological conditions, but why was this difficult to accept at the time? Her poetics (oh, how I would like to talk about “her cinema” and also write about it!) explored the dynamics of theater: the rattling and boarding, the side stage, the floor drawings, the first movements and steps, and also the silence -and the cold breeze-. Stein’s interest here was and remains a different one, a purely linguistic one, with a somewhat different goal: she strived for loose emotional connection, something akin to the experience of dreaming. In cinema, we allow ourselves this important emotional component of thinking all the time. Stein’s poetics, less programmatic than Brecht’s, seems to me central to the question of whether plays allow the audience (or even the actors) not only to acquire new insights, but also to experience them.

Stein’s use of physiological conditions must be considered here in the context of William James’ definition of emotion. James writes in his work about physical changes resulting from direct perceptions, combined with the exciting fact that our feelings are subject to the same changes. This is what we call “emotion”. James’ theory identifies “emotion” with auto-sensation or a kind of second order of “sensational” experience -sensational in sense of the origin of the word-. The problem with theater, at least in Stein’s initial formulation, is that this auto-sensation (the feeling of physical changes), which participates in the action on a stage (oh, if only I could write about action on a screen!) and in the development and action of the play is equally difficult to achieve. Experiencing these emotions means feeling your own feelings at the same time as experiencing the actions. The tempo is set. And that creates nervousness. Even the curtain (or the blank screen?) gives you an idea that you won’t have the same speed as the event you’ll see there soon. Anticipation is a disturbing element with Stein.

I like a view but I like to sit with my back turned to it.

(In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas; 1933)

Yes, if language has to be like a stream in which one thought flows into another, and one word into another, in a monotonous flow of time, does it not need to have neither a beginning nor an end, but only a continued presence? Isn’t the image-for-image of cinema or the act-for-act of stage the continued presence on the screen? My kingdom for a white handkerchief:

Spoken
In English
Always spoken
Between them
Why do you say yesterday especially.
Why do you say by special appointment is it a
mistake is it a great mistake. This I know. What are and beside all there is a desire for white handkerchiefs.
You shall have it.

(In He Said It. Monologue; 1915)