The Persistence of Vision

By Peter Sainsbury

piano-teacher-michael-haneke.jpgThe Piano Teacher, 2001

On the need for a visionary cinema


Addressing the idea of “the Persistence of Vision” seems a risky undertaking. On one hand, the phrase describes the optical illusion that makes cinema possible. On the other, it is used to suggest some kind of ideal, referring to a director’s vision, like a special and particular way of seeing, and perhaps a passion for articulating something of importance in particular ways. As such it leans dangerously toward the statement of belief, the declaration of principle, even the artistic manifesto.

But is there something important about this ‘persistent vision’ as a value, over and above the illusory behaviour of the eye? I am not going to accept the complacent idea that a director’s vision is of necessity important, just because a director is a director. Some visions are more important than others. Vision and persistence are not enough if and when they fall short of the visionary. Indeed, I intend to define and defend the visionary as a necessary, if pretentious ideal.

I shall try to do this by reference to three recent films. I’ll start with The Piano Teacher (dir. Michael Haneke). Here, we find a contradictory heroine, a woman whose psychology takes her to both the heights of sophisticated artistic achievement and to the depths of vindictiveness and self-abasement, one who dominates others expertly yet who becomes a hapless victim. She is a near middle-aged woman who sleeps beside her mother, fakes menstruation by drawing blood with a razor blade and experiences sex, up to the point where she makes the dreadful mistake of revealing her secret compulsions, only by vicarious means. She is a woman who is both sympathetic and not, who finds no redemption but loses everything, destroyed by the vulnerability that leaves her open to male sexual revenge. To witness her journey is to learn of the frightening destructiveness of desire.

And desire is the important term here, because desire springs from that which we do not know about ourselves. This makes the realm of desire a privileged terrain when it comes to visionary creative work. The visionary filmmaker, it seems to me, is obsessed with that which lies beyond, or somewhere other than in, the familiar appearance of things. Psychological realism is simply inadequate to portray the chaotic, contradictory and essentially secret, even invisible, machinations of desire and therefore of much human behaviour. The way the heroine of Haneke’s film acts is both literal and symbolic. She is rooted in a terrible personal dilemma, while her story is suggestive of the entire, fateful fear and vengeance that perverse desire can arouse. She is a tragic figure in a world where the tragedy of blind narcissism has replaced the tragedy of blind fate.

My second example is David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, included because it throws into sharp relief the role of playfulness in visionary filmmaking. Lynch is perhaps the most obviously ‘visionary’ of contemporary filmmakers. His work sits in an essentially bizarre terrain, where conventional social behaviour and logical cause & effect are displaced, to facilitate an investigation of human identity. So, in Mulholland Drive, one character both possesses, and is possessed by, another. Lynch places his characters in the dream factory itself, and plays with filmic conventions and notions of performance, while constructing elaborate jokes around the suspension of disbelief. Nor is he afraid of moving from high seriousness to pure kitsch, or of spinning yarns that turn out to be red herrings. He can be provocatively bewildering as well as delightfully funny.

What he works with is a complex rearrangement of aural and visual signs and meanings. Watching his films, we witness a concerted deployment of much that is magical in cinema. Like Lewis Carroll, his subject is imagination itself. His work is visionary because it demands that we reconsider, or see in a transforming new light, something about ourselves and the world we inhabit that we would otherwise take for granted. This something, this measure of everyday certainty, Lynch reveals to be fragile, transitory, and paradoxical. His logic undermines common sense, certainty and the predictable. Such are the dynamics of desire and identity. Those who love Lynch’s work find in it the dark playfulness that illuminates confusion.

Meanwhile, Raoul Peck’s Lumumba, is for me a visionary film because it enlightens the political universe we inhabit in a direct and magically honest way. It tells the story of an obscure man who became the first head of state of the newly decolonised Belgian Congo in the 1960s, and how he was subsequently deceived, betrayed and murdered. This is a story of mythic proportions and with mythic dimensions. The poles of national idealism and international cynicism it portrays go a long way to defining the ‘Realpolitik’ of the modern age. The tensions between the private man and the public figure, between hope and despair, between ally and enemy, between third world and developed world are all lucidly illustrated by means of an understated but confident visual style and a dynamic narrative construction. Lumumba enlightens a whole moral universe within 100 minutes of persistent vision.

last-orders-fred-schepisi.jpgLast Orders, 2001

It would be a mistake, though, to define this film within the parameters of the political drama without recognising what it has in common with both of the previous films; that is, desire. Desire gives rise to the world of fantasy and in Lumumba what is at stake is not only the desire to be politically free but also the fantasy of the self-determining, self-knowing, and self-redeeming body politic. The mythic story in play here is the story of the aspirant idealist individual – and nation – as victims of the warring gods, in this case the gods of avarice and hegemony represented by the USA and the Soviet Union, locked into a murderous rivalry for the hearts, minds and resources of the world. And as we know from classical example, victims of the gods are victims of their own naivety, flaws and destiny. Above all, they are victims of their own desire, their craving for that which is, and always will be, elusive.

That said, these films could, in certain ways, not be more different. One is a relentless character study, one a fascinating conjuring trick and one a political parable. However, the visionary is not an exclusive category but an inclusive one; and I believe these films help define visionary film-making through a number of other elements they have in common.

They appear to come together, like some kind of immaculate conception on the screen before one’s eyes. Fully realised, it is as if they were never scripted and could exist only in the medium of cinema. They are entirely different from the novel, stage play and television in terms of the dialectic and the dynamic that they set up between screen and audience. They have liberated themselves from the limitations of following actors around a set to catch a meaning largely and predominantly determined by dialogue.

Painstakingly constructed to seduce an audience into a set of curiosities, concerns and expectations, they play that audiences’ sensibilities along in all sorts of risky ways until the dramatic imperatives established are paid off, only in the final images. Despite their enlarging of cinematic vocabulary and syntax, they are adept at building catharsis. They have a powerful sense of narrative integrity and, wherever they lie between the modern and post-modern, they do not fail to deliver time-honoured dramatic satisfactions.

Also, like all good seducers, they do not attempt to explain themselves, being largely devoid of narrative exposition and of any attempt to explain character motivation outside of what the character does. They take the risk of demanding that you come to them rather than choose the safer path by trying to make themselves clear in immediately accessible terms. Each of them leaves you with a sense of discovery.

Finally, although set in specific and recognisable times, places and circumstances, they use a highly sophisticated audio-visual language to take us into previously unfamiliar worlds and states of consciousness, and they burn themselves into the mind like the most vivid and enduring dreams. They avail themselves of metaphor, symbol, allegory and myth as well as more literal story-telling strategies.

But most importantly, they invent each for themselves, the necessary dialectic between narrative content and visual form. Herein chiefly lies their success and, I believe a critical attribute of visionary filmmaking. Rather than relying on any pervasive orthodoxy of craft in their conception, design or execution, visionary movies always have the capacity to surprise us.

They exploit a central truth of the modern world; a difficult truth because it leads not only to a kind of moral relativism but also to a kind of personal relativism that can be deeply uncomfortable. Simply put, it says that there is no universal formula or matrix guaranteeing harmonious relationships at any level of human society. It says that this is true of sexual, political, economic and cultural relations. Visionary movies as I am trying to define them also spring from this truth (it is more than a truth: it is a human condition). They take their inspiration from a conception of a surrounding reality that is by definition problematic, uncertain and constantly waiting to be reinvented.

mulholland-drive-david-lynch.jpgMulholland Drive, 2001

It is from this demand that reality be re-defined from moment to moment that visionary movies legitimise their ceaseless reinvention of the dialectic mentioned. They use the uniquely multi-faceted qualities of cinema to construct realities in which this difficult truth, and its complex implications, can be explored. Essentially, they are revelatory.

A cinema antagonistic to this truth is one trading on belief in a knowable human nature and a stable social reality. It dramatises lived experience as dependent upon a reliable relationship between cause and effect; and it endorses a common-sense perception of the world. Its paradigm is the story in which men and women make correct, albeit deliciously romantic, choices and decisions about each other, leading to the promise of ongoing harmonious sexual and emotional relations. It believes in romantic love as a kind of magic wand. It has no truck whatsoever with the messy and unpredictable perversities of desire. It is, in a word, pragmatic.

Here are three examples of such a cinema, all, as it happens, built on stories set in contemporary England. What do these films, directed by people with very different cultural backgrounds, have in common, and why do they exemplify the pragmatic?

About a Boy is a neatly constructed tale about a self-serving cad who is converted to gregariousness and generosity by the emotional demands of a young boy. A happy ending is had by all and a comforting perspective on human nature is simply endorsed.

Fred Schepsi’s Last Orders, meanwhile, is a more complex affair in so far as its narrative moves back and forth between present time and past moments (an endless flow of expositional back-story) as it elucidates the relationships between a group of aging friends, one of whom has recently died. This would not matter if the exposition aspired to unearth some sub-text in these relationships that might disclose a surprising truth about them. What it does, in fact, is simply to confirm clichéd values of friendship and loyalty while acknowledging the emotional strains of life’s travails. It is of course affectionate, sincere and very professionally executed, but it is also very dull.

Bend it Like Beckham is a familiar if effective comedy that trades on the unlikely – in this case, an Indian English girl wanting to succeed as a soccer player – and is calculated to milk the juice out of the sentimental and amusing “contretemps” that her determination, family pressures, cultural differences and a touch of sexual rivalry provide. Again, we are invited to feel good about life, as all the difficulties every one has are rather laboriously resolved.

The deep pragmatism of these plots, it seems to me, rests on their exploitation of tritely conceived emotional journeys, all more or less predictable. They’re trite because they have the narrowest possible implications, depending only on the vindication of the individual character. They lie smugly within a simplistic conception of identity, defining and commodifying the emotional content of the psyche, closing down its potential and its problems. They carefully observe emotional boundaries that ensure against the disturbing, the paradoxical and the not immediately comprehensible. They work for gratification rather than reflection and within the literal and familiar rather than the symbolic and surprising.

What is true of these films as narratives is also true of them as sign systems. All are extremely conservative in their use of what ‘the persistence of vision’ offers by way of potential to redefine, re-envisage or re-invent what constitutes the real world. In fact, they ensure the triumph of the ‘taken for granted’. The experience of watching a pragmatic film is to feel that the tools of cinema have been commandeered and enslaved by something that’s come before they were applied, something that demands rigorous obedience and forbids all but the most minor show of independence. This ‘something’ is, of course, the script. Pragmatic movies have been all but fully designed in advance of filming by their writers. Pragmatic filmmaking devotes itself to constructing the illusion that what has been written can also be seen. It has no further justification or purpose.

patrice-lumumba-raoul-peck.jpgPatrice Lumumba in 1961

What struck me forcibly in watching these films was the similarity to the experience of watching television. There was that same conformism, that same reliance on formulae and the predictable, that same safe and essentially depressing emotional range and that same mono-vocal control over the means of representation, endemic to a medium designed primarily to bring audiences to advertisers. To a great extent, it seems, the ability of the cinema to survive and even prosper over what was once seen as the terminal danger of competition from television, has entailed the colonisation of cinema by many of television’s imperatives.

I can see that I am writing my way into a problem here. The films I’m sticking up for may be described as ‘marginal’. At the same time, those I’m disparaging must be deemed successful in so far as success means reaching wider audiences and earning more money. And yet, it is hardly ‘elitist’ to hope that what one sees in the cinema, leaving aside those products of the American cultural empire that dominate the box office around the world, should not be like staying home and watching TV.

In other words, I don’t believe it can be considered wrong, except in the most orthodox and conservative of film industries, to allow that some filmmakers can and should be concerned with the use value of the cultural objects they produce before their exchange value. For if the ideal movie is both visionary and popular, brilliantly enough conceived and executed to accrue a substantial exchange value as well as possessing appreciable use value (maybe Mulholland Drive came close here) it’s very unlikely such a film will be made within a cultural context and industry structure that radically discourages visionary qualities.

What is being argued here is not some simple opposition between the high and low brow, or some antiquated assertion of elitist over popular culture; rather, that a film industry that does not have space or even much respect for the visionary will not produce internationally recognised movies of any lasting value. I would further suggest that a film industry that institutionalises pragmatism will not enjoy the rewards, one-dimensional as they are, that a pragmatic approach can bring, except very occasionally and almost by accident.

It is not the case that the directors of the films from England lacked vision. On the contrary, a coherent sense of purpose is strongly evident in all three, although the measured skills of Last Orders are a long way from the naïve constructs of Bend it Like Beckham. My reservations have to do with the need to insist on a distinction between vision and the visionary. I believe that a more or less pragmatic vision can apply only to what is there, needing to be said and done more or less in the same ways as before. The visionary, however, is what is required to make discoveries. A film culture that is radically skewed in favour of that which needs to be done over that which might be discovered is one deprived of a mature sensibility. It is one in which the languages of cinema are only minimally understood and deployed, one in which only a limited class of things can be said. It is one in which neither pragmatically successful entertainment nor visionary revelation will occur. Only the unremarkable will survive and the industry will not flourish.


Peter Sainsbury was formerly head of the BFI production board and currently works in Australian film production for Eidolon Pty Ltd. This text is condensed and extracted from a longer paper given first as an address to the Australian Screen Directors’ conference in September 2002 and subsequently printed in the documents accompanying the 2003 Rotterdam Film Festival Film Parliament, at which Sainsbury seconded the motion that “this house believes current policies regarding film production in Europe are in danger of permanently smothering the emergence of a potentially ‘visionary’ cinema”.