Le filmeur

by Lorena Cancela

Body = mind

In Greek civilisation, the citizen had to take care of body as well as mind (1). According to Plato, Socrates says in Laws: “Those who worship the gods through dance are also the best in combat.” I will not dwell on Greek culture (Western people know a little about it; at least in my country, Argentina, there are manuals that explain the Ancient Greek origins of Western History), but I will take this idea of “harmony” (2) from the Greeks, the unit of body and mind, to see if and how it works in films and in certain contemporary trends. .

Let’s start with the films called “classics”. In general, in this type of cinema the hero’s actions are an expression of his thoughts: the man can control the body. This idea of body-as-unit has appeared in the stories of these films and the way that viewers have interacted with them. The hero usually wins by his co-ordination of mind and body. Even the post-classical hero (3), with a hyperbolic body and a striking physical force capable of traversing a whole country under a storm of wind and snow in The Day After Tomorrow (Roland Emmerich, 2004), is no stranger here.

This concept of the hero is in close relation to the Stanislavsky method of acting and the interpretation made of this in America by Lee Strasberg is that the actor is inseparable from his character. The actor and the character should be merged to the point of being the same (4). For example, those anecdotes of actors who transform physically to gain or lose many kilos and then have to go to a psychologist to remove the role from their personalities. This concept applies to all characters: good, bad, cute, crazy or monstrous. In Looking for Richard III (Al Pacino, 1996) one of the actors explains that the physical deformity of the sinister Ricardo is a projection of his ill-fated soul, as if there is a secret communication between the body and mind of the character.

Even directors with radically different aesthetics and different concepts of the actor and the body, such as Robert Bresson, have worked implicitly or unconsciously with this idea of unity. In Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) the donkey is a character “personified” (5) to the point that the viewer cannot help but identify with him. It is true that Bresson, by placing an animal as the protagonist of the story, created some distance in leading us to reflect on the conditions of submission and domination, cruelty to the weaker (be it man or animal), love and the loss of love. But it is equally true that the donkey is a unit, a kind of anti-hero, and we suffer with him.

Body and mind …

The current that clearly broke with this idea of unity was commonly called “modernism.” Unlike classical heroes, modern heroes are victims of their own disconnection between body and mind. Even the nostalgic air of their behaviour may well be associated with the idea of desire for unity. Their erratic behaviour and the random components that dominate their actions are associated with that. In the wonderful final chapter of The Movement Image, Gilles Deleuze notes that a hinge between the cinema of movement and the cinema of time is Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1955): Recall that in this, Jeffries (J. Stewart) is bedridden and can only “move” his brain..

In many films by several modern directors, the characters are prisoners of their dreams, fantasies or mental projections. Antonioni is a perfect representative of this trend: the end of Zabriskie Point (1970) remains a dilemma. Who owns the final image of the exploding house? Is it a memory of the protagonist? Is it her hallucination? Is it a dream or a fantasy?

Currently, some directors work with this idea of decoupling. Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2004) shows that her characters are physically in one place but their bodies are in another. This is most visible in the female character: Charlotte is so disconnected from her own body that not only can she not sleep, but she also hits her toe when she doesn’t calculate the distance between the bed and the hallway. She sustains an injury, but the audience only becomes aware of this a few scenes later: The female protagonist has a swollen foot for a large part of the film but she only notices it when her relationship with Bob begins to transform her.

Today, other kinds of films work with this idea of disconnection between body and mind in a slightly more radical way. Through the mediation of a technological device, or a substance, several films are about minds being disconnected from their bodies. In some cases, these minds have autonomous bodies. Hence, these films are sometimes called mind games. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) is good example, but earlier films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) and then Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010) also put the idea on the table that the mind can survive alone.

Mind without body

I’m no expert on Eastern cultures, but in recent years I have read some texts on Buddhism and Hinduism, and I want to call to attention some of their ideas. One of them is that the mind (here conceived as the soul) has no owner in the sense that through reincarnation it can migrate to another body. The Tibetan Book of the Dead (the Bardo Thodol) argues that when the body dies the soul separates from it and go through different transient states until it finds another body in which it can be reincarnated.

This idea is present in Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999). Here we are not only in front of a false narrator (a device that other filmmakers, from Hitchcock to Scorsese, have used) but the idea that what we see on screen is death (a beautiful madness that only cinema or dreams can make us experience). The conflict in this film, which was to be replicated in The Others (Amenábar, 2001), is not the truth or falseness of the story but the fact that we think that ”the living” are dead. This film is not about nostalgia for the loss of unity but for the loss of body.

The body in pieces

In recent years, films and series have appeared which do not connect to the Greek or Buddhist paradigms. Neither can be understood as nostalgia for lost unity or of body. These are films that I would tentatively call “the body in pieces”. This idea exists through popular cinema and art cinema, Asian cinema, and Hollywood blockbusters.

What do we see in these films? There are mutilations, pieces or fragments of living or dead bodies that have an autonomous existence. We are not viewing harmonic bodies or minds, or seeing connected or disconnected bodies. We are dealing with pieces of bodies that “speak” for themselves. This is particularly evident in the abundance of television series about criminal or medical investigations, but horror films also implement this idea.

In Saw (I, II, III, a thousand) the body is the sum of its pieces. It is, in some cases, an obstacle to overcome, a place to resolve dilemmas and something that can be physically dismembered by the influence of a perverse mind, as if the body is a territory to conquer, in this case, in the worst way. The same could be said of Japanese movies such as Audition (Miike Takashi, 199), presumably influenced by anime and gore films.

But art films also use this symbol of the piece, the fragment. In the documentary Vies (2000) the prestigious documentary filmmaker Alain Cavalier framed a close-up of a human eye about to undergo an operation to remove a cataract. This is not done because it will create suspense around the eye, as in suspense films that focus on objects which will be significant to the plot, but because the approach invites the viewer to enter into some intimacy with the eye.

Pieces of bodies that talk, fragments of bodies that resolve cases and mutilated bodies are a part of contemporary cinema and culture. But compare these lyrics from two pop songs that are about 10 years apart: “Your body is a wonderland” by John Mayer and “I want to see your … your peacock peacock kkkk” by Katy Perry. The contemporary body is definitely in bits.


(1) For Plato, the body and soul were separate entities: Before the birth of the body, the soul lived in the topos uranus– After death it went to Elisha if the man had been good, or was reincarnated in “lower” animals, if he had been bad.

(2) Nietzsche says in The Birth of Tragedy that the projection of Greek harmony in architecture, sculpture, and plays was to cover what underlay it: the origin of a people closely associated to Dionysus, the god of orgy and madness.

(3) Richard Maltby argues that since the late ’70s we have faced Post-Hollywood classicism. The characteristics of this period are films in which heroes are physically strong, stories are simple, and a music video aesthetic prevails.

(4) Stanislavsky, Constantin (1994) La construcción del personaje. Buenos Aires, Alianza.

(5) In Making Meaning: Inference and Interpretation and Rhetoric in the Cinema Bordwell refers to “personification” as an identification of the spectator to the actor’s body even if it is a projection on the screen.