"Discourse on Cinema" by Giorgio de Chirico (1943).
Keywords: De Chirico, cinema, film theory, metaphysical art, theater.
This didactic essay on the art of cinema, presented here for the first time in English translation, (1) was written by the modern Italian painter, writer, and theater designer Giorgio de Chirico (18881978) and published in the 25 May 1943 issue of the Italian film periodical Cinema. It was conceived as a companion article to the artist's earlier "Discourse on the Theatrical Performance" ("Discorso sullo spettacolo teatrale"), published seven months prior in the popular national weekly, L'illustrazione italiana. (2) Though at the time of the article's writing, de Chirico had not yet had any involvement in filmmaking, and would make only a marginal contribution, more as a critic than a practitioner, to cinema over the remainder over his career, (3) he offers rich insight into the medial differences of theater and cinema, and mounts a theory of filmic practice keyed to his view of film's medium specificity.
Following a brief polemic against the empty pretensions of modern intellectual discourse, (4) the artist begins by assessing the relative merits of the theatrical and cinematographic performance. Repeating in part the argument he had mounted in his earlier essay on the art of theater, he maintains that the raison d'etre of theater and cinema is the same, and consists in the opportunity each medium affords man to momentarily escape his everyday reality and vicariously live a life more riveting than his own. While he regards both art forms as vital means of fulfilling man's natural need for fantasy and the unreal, he grants theater a metaphysical significance he denies to film for reasons owing to essential differences in the media. He argues that the physicality of theater--or the fact of its being "materially existent"--gives it a heightened capacity to affect the viewer magically; the bodily presence of live actors onstage, who pretend to be other than they are, renders the constructed world of the theater at once "imaginary and unreal" yet "concrete and close." He argues further that the metaphysical impression evoked by this theatrical paradox is augmented by the medium's physical limitations; the spatio-temporal restrictions of the stage cause events to unfold at an accelerated pace, so that they appear "very intense, very concentrated, and therefore almost more real" than the occurrences of real life. Cinema, on the other hand, lacks the metaphysical power of theater due to the immateriality of the medium, which does not utilize flesh and blood actors, but merely their images. The physical absence of the actor in film renders it a "theater of visions or ghosts," which does not evoke the sense of metaphysicality necessary to detach the spectator from his own life and person, as occurs in the theater proper; rather, the spectator is merely distracted there from through the provocation of sentiment.
Having established his preference for theater over cinema on metaphysical grounds, he proceeds in the remainder of the essay to advance a prescriptive theory of film. He stipulates that a good film should exploit cinema's unique capacity for movement and for transcending the physical limits of space and time; that it should develop narrative action through a sequence of images that advance the plot in a logical and realistic manner without any leaps or gaps, and without recourse to filmic "gimmicks" or effects that would compromise the clarity and luminosity of the medium; that it should avoid staging period subjects in natural settings to ensure the believability of the enacted scene; and that it should reflect the national character and natural resources of the country of its production. He concludes the article with an insistence, omnipresent in his writings since his 1919 "return to the craft," (5) upon the necessity of artistic quality over against the modernist preoccupation with ideas.
In this article, I will say what I expect from cinema, what I want it to give me, and what it generally should be. I certainly won't make use of all the useless and meaningless words with which texts that discuss art, its phenomena and substitutes are peppered nowadays. I won't try to make my article as obscure as possible and turn it into a sheer demonstration of my own intelligence. In my opinion, it is necessary when writing on a subject to resort to the old, now unfashionable habit, of saying something that is truly worth being said about a given topic, and which has an incontestable relationship to the subject in question. I want to be new and original, in other words, not be in a continual and desperate search for bizarre intellectual digressions. Rather, I want to clearly express my ideas and, above all, I want to have some ideas to express. In short, as you can see, I want to do things that are easier said than done, and which, for that reason, are not appreciated by the intellectuals of today. After all, in their own way, intellectuals want to be original. And I know, though hearsay, that in the past, intellectuals were serious people, who worked a lot and wanted to know and be able to do more and more, whereas the original and modern intellectuals of today have chosen the opposite path--that is, they have chosen not to work at all, if possible, and to know and be able to do less and less.
In short, to each his own, yet you cannot deny that this state of affairs is quite new, though it has already been going on for too long. Indeed, it is a new, original, and even paradoxical thing to see how intellectuals are really the most frivolous, most uneducated, and even ignorant men in the whole world. But one must admit that they have a certain capacity to put their lives in order and live well, since their only aim is to amuse themselves, entertain themselves, and, while doing nothing tiring, to pass for intelligent, respectable, serious people, and to create respectable circumstances for themselves despite their little love of hard work. As you can see, each chooses the way of being original that best suits him.
I have already published an article on theater in which I spoke of performance and its metaphysical significance in our lives. I want to clarify in this article that the theatrical performance does not have the same meaning or produce in us the same effects as the cinematographic performance; I will also seek to state with clarity this time what significance the theater has for us. When we intend to go to the theater, we prepare for the event; we dress ourselves with more care than usual, seeking to give our person the best possible appearance, as if something new were to happen in our lives, as if we hoped it would undergo a major and pleasant change.
Naively, men believe that we seek to look elegant to make a good impression in the theater boxes and foyers, and to make people admire us. Even if some elegant men and women do have this secret thought, the real reason and real origin of this special attention we pay to our dress and our appearance when going to the theater are much more complex.
These concerns and this attention for our person develop in us a feeling similar to what we experience during great holidays, during those days that differ in some way from our usual existence and during which we unconsciously await a good surprise.
All these preparations induce a special state in our spirit that aids our entry into the unreal and magical world the theater offers us. The performance in theater, naturally when it is well executed, satisfies our desire for the fantastic, for make-believe, and the unreal; it gives us the same emotion that toys and fairytales induce in children. Fundamentally, the real purpose of the play, and moreover the cinema, is to give us the opportunity to briefly escape from reality. It is especially this faculty in particular--the essence of the theatrical and cinematographic world--that explains the fascination the theater and the cinema hold for us. But the atmosphere of the theater is totally different from that of the cinema, and this is proven by the fact that we do not prepare at all to go to the cinema, but go as we are, simply and spontaneously.
When man goes to the theater, he hopes, consciously or unconsciously, to escape from his real life, to detach himself from his own personality, in short, to abandon, for an evening, his usual, everyday existence. The feeling encapsulating these hopes is described by man as: wanting to enjoy oneself.
When the spectator watches a good play, he feels transplanted into an imaginary and unreal world but one that is simultaneously concrete and close.
A truly successfully play shows the spectator things that grip him, that absorb him completely and take him out of his personal existence and make him forget it. Man is suddenly transported into another atmosphere; for a few hours he lives a wholly different life, a life that is sad or cheerful, heroic, sentimental, or fantastic, but above all, a life that is very intense, very concentrated, and therefore almost more real than his own life, where everything drags on and where emotions and events generally follow one another quite slowly.
The choice of theater trend does not play a decisive role in the success of the performance; what matters is to give the performance theatrical realism, or to be clearer, that phenomenon that removes the spectator from his own reality. We should undoubtedly look for the success of cinema in the possibility it offers men, for an evening, to live a brighter, more interesting life than their own, which is usually the grey, mediocre, and boring life to which the majority of men are unfortunately condemned.
The great metaphysical meaning the theatrical performance has in our lives, the cinematographic performance has to a much lesser extent. In watching a film, men are distracted rather than detached from their own life and person. The emotion cinema induces in men is of a sentimental and sensual rather than metaphysical order.
There are certainly reasons why the cinema lacks metaphysics and I believe that, above all, what suppresses metaphysical emotion in cinema is the fact that live actors do not appear in a film, but rather their images, which are visions or ghosts of actors and not the actors themselves, while in the theater, the actors, by acting onstage, become--due to the mere fact that they are onstage and completely separated from us--unreal beings, as it were, even though they are alive.
It is interesting to observe that while metaphysical emotion does not exist in film because it is not live actors but their images who enact the performance, it exists in abundance in painting, which also deals with people not of flesh and bone, but visions and images. This is due to the fact that in painting, the image and the vision are created by the talent of an artist, whereas in film, they are created in a totally mechanical manner. In theater, we find ourselves before a world that is magical and unreal, but at the same time clear and concrete--a world that is altogether materially existent and very specifically theatrical. In cinema, however, we find ourselves before photographs of a world, in front of images that follow one another onscreen. This a priori admission of our reason of having to deal only with visions or images in a film removes all that is metaphysical from the cinema.
The performance (and I am speaking naturally of the great performances: of operas, ballets, pantomimes, tragedies, and classic comedies, and not of little dramas and comedies)--the theatrical performance, I mean to say--has, in spite of every appearance, a greater possibility than the cinematographic performance to affect us magically, and I say this despite all the appearances to the contrary. The reason for this lies in the fact that the theater has at its disposal a very limited space, a space that is limited to the stage. In such a limited space, all events unfold, all changes are brought about, all these important and decisive things happen with extraordinary speed. It is precisely this limitation of space and time, a limitation that reduces these two phenomena to the minimum of their expression, and renders them almost non-existent, that makes life onstage so exciting, so intense, to the point of making it appear like a concentrated essence of life. Theater, thanks to its lack of physical and material possibilities, has great metaphysical power.
Cinema's real resource and true domain are movement and its ability to move in an instant from one end of the earth to the other, and to let us see images of everything and everyone. It is these possibilities, wholly unique to cinema, that must be exploited and upon which, in my view, all film should be based. The film must only develop by means of action; dialogues should be brief and recited clearly, and must never impede the action. Dialogue may serve, accompany, and in short, support the action, but not replace the sequence of images. A film is a tale told by images, not words. The subject naturally has importance in film, but as everywhere else, it is the realization or the execution of the film that determines its success.
Just as in literature, where the ideas and the subject--bound up in rich expression, a beautiful language, and a favorable form of phrasing--constitute the value of a literary text, so, also, in film, its language and natural form of expression, which are its images, must be as material as they are spiritual in order to comprise a good film.
It is clear that to make a story into a film, you must replace the sequence of words with a sequence of images. It is a job that requires special ability and knowledge; we must therefore entrust it to skilled specialists who know their profession thoroughly.
The images that constitute the film must follow in harmonious continuity, without leaps and interruptions, in a logical course of action. Illogical leaps and abrupt interruptions give the film all that disconnectedness and confusion I have seen so many times at the cinema. There should not be any gaps in the clarity of a film's subject, gaps that the viewer inevitably fills with his own imagination. It must neither be the case that the spectator has the vague impression that the main steps in the story were not sufficiently developed, or translated in the images at all.
The plot of the film must be explained quickly and in a clear and evident manner, without neglecting anything that would contribute to the logical flow of actions, which must be linked to one another, so that an action never seems illogical in relation to the action that preceded it.
Given that the cinema is a theater of ghosts, and that everything on screen is nothing but a vision, the course of action should be perfectly realistic, evident, and logical. The plot must develop as naturally and simply as possible; the feelings and actions of the characters must approximate, as much as possible, the way that men commonly feel and act. These contrasts gathered on screen, these contrasts of characters that do not exist for us materially, but which express real feelings, these contrasts allow us to feel the distressing emotion of the drama or serve to augment the humor of the comic scene.
The first condition of a good film is an interesting subject, which must be treated clearly through movement and action. It is not a trick once discovered by an "inspired" director, and then endlessly repeated by his younger colleagues, that makes a film a masterpiece. Even a good gimmick must be limited to just one film and not be continuously repeated in a long series of films, as, for example, we have had occasion to see after the first film by Rene Clair. (6) For years, we have seen the "gimmick" of Rene Clair and other voguish directors, appearing, usually very out of place, in almost all of the world's film production. For years, we have seen in films people going up or coming down a staircase, or rather, we have seen their legs descending or climbing up the stairs, and we have been made to see this so "exciting" and "significant" moment at length and from all angles. You could see these famous legs from the front, from behind, and in profile, and even foreshortened. In films where the main characters were fabulous industrialists, we were made to admire offices of incredible luxury, where a large number of doors opened up all at once to reveal on the threshold a corresponding number of stenographers, whose part was reduced to closing the doors abruptly, just as they had opened. The stenographers were sometimes replaced by secretaries, well-groomed and well-dressed young men wearing American glasses. This great innovation (I am thinking of the stenographers replaced by secretaries) was probably the greatest that the imagination of second-rate directors could supply in the wake of their desperate efforts to compete in inspiration with their teachers and famous colleagues.
In terms of "gimmicks," we have seen, and still do see, horses running very fast. One sees first the whole horse racing, then only the head, then the legs in motion and the tail fluttering, and then again the entire horse, and then only its head, and so on. These scenes are shown to us with great insistence and for a long time.
The same thing is repeated with carriages drawn by horses, and which go and go to the countryside without ever ceasing. Images of the car, of the horses that pull it, of the road on which the car goes and of the land that surrounds it, repeat and repeat without end. The scene of the carriage whose wheels never stop turning is a legacy left to us by the movie The Congress Dances. (7) Let us also remember the monologues of desperate heroines or love scenes seen reflected in the water, which are often filmed opposite, or on the other hand appear upside down, with the head down and the legs up. Remember, too, all those "artistic" close-ups, those scenes that take place in near complete darkness that renders them invisible.
The darkness in many parts of a film is a trick especially abused by directors with intellectual pretensions. I want to say and repeat that darkness must absolutely be rejected in all films and that every detail of the cinematographic scene must always be clear and visible. Naturally, when it comes to night scenes, or to scenes that take place in locations with dim lighting, a certain darkening is essential, but this darkening must always last as little as possible, and must never be such as to prevent one from seeing what happens on screen; instead, the aforesaid directors insist on complete and infinitely prolonged darkness. All this and many other things of the same kind, far from embellishing a film, do nothing but make it pretentious and stupid.
In cinema, one must avoid treating in the same way, in terms of scenarios, the historical film and films set in our own time. The latter can be shot in real landscapes, although nature in film--that is, photographed nature--loses much of its beauty due to the immense enlargement of the space that results from the photography. On film, nature is even more diminished in terms of interest and beauty than in photographs because photographed nature in a certain way approximates by virtue of immobility--that is, the absence of physical movement--the idealized depiction of nature seen in painting, drawing, or engraving: instead, filmed nature departs from this idealization because of physical movement: leaves, grasses, plants blowing in the wind, waves chasing after one another or falling on the shore, coursing steams, wandering clouds, etc. In landscapes filmed from life, particularities disappear; the subtleties of light appear to be very scant and the colors are completely missing, or worse yet, when it comes to color film, they are totally distorted. While the interiors of houses improve in photography, the photographed landscape loses its beauty: despite this disadvantage, a film on a modern subject can be shot in real nature on the condition that great care is taken with regards to the clarity and proper execution of the photographs and any search for "artistic effects" be avoided, since they typically obtain the opposite result.
Well and simply photographed landscapes are advantageously completed in our minds, from our instinctive knowledge of natural values and from our recollections of real details. In films on historical subjects, the question presents itself differently. In historical films, when you see actors in costume depicting characters from centuries past, who are in the midst of a real landscape, the scene immediately takes on a false appearance; the sky, the earth, the trees, the sea, the mountains do not bind with the characters in costume, and, as nature being true becomes false, it makes the characters reflexively seem false as well; this feeling is accentuated when the wind moves the leaves of the trees, ripples the waters, lifts the waves of the sea, or makes the clouds wander in the sky; one then has the impression that at the time evoked by the characters' costumes, the leaves of the trees, the sea waves, the clouds in the sky could not possibly have moved in that way. We have this impression, since we only know past ages through paintings, drawings, and engravings--that is, through an idealized depiction of nature or, at least, a depiction changed by the fact that it's painted or drawn. Nature depicted in a painting lives and vibrates in an absolutely different way than it does in reality.
Of cinema, in choosing subjects and realizing a film, one must first of all respect and utilize the qualities and natural resources of the country and the nation in which it is produced. In this way, the film, being a strictly and characteristically national production, must not depart or escape from the spirit and character of the country that produces it. Directors must always bear this rule in mind. As soon as you try to imitate the films produced by other countries and borrow their character, the film immediately appears ridiculous, artificial, and caricatured. In short, I want to say that every country must absolutely be limited to making films that correspond to its spirit, to its intrinsic qualities, to its character, and to its particular resources. This truth should not be forgotten even for a moment by filmmakers and producers. We leave from the point of view that every nation should use its opportunities, exploit its advantages and conceal its imperfections, and in transporting this viewpoint to the creation of the film, you can be sure that even if the film, for other reasons, was not an excellent success, it would however neither be ridiculous nor truly stupid.
It should also be pointed out that often, especially in countries where the film industry is still at the beginning, one has the impression that those who are responsible for the direction and the production of the film, the choice of subjects, etc., are lacking in the craft.
To be a director it is necessary, as in everything else, as in all professions, to know well the craft that you exercise. Given that in countries where film production is still very young, there are very few specialists and the rest of the people who work in cinema must be trained gradually and progressively acquire the necessary experience and knowledge, I believe the best thing that remains to be done in this case is to not want to do overly difficult things, but to want to do the easy things well.
Today, both in art and its derivatives, one will notice precisely a lack of will and attention to good execution. As long as this state of affairs persists, nothing good will come of it. Creating and producing you can do anything, so long as it is done well, since it is in doing well--that is, in quality--that the interest and value of every artistic creation and production resides, in theater and cinema as much as in art.
Interest and value don't originate at all from what one does, that is, from the subject or the particulars of the subject. Talent the success in fulfilling pre-established tasks--must be earned, and the greatest enemy of good talent is the search for effects and recourse to facility and tricks. I will say to those who work in cinema the same thing that I have already said to those who work in theater: cure the disease that corrodes our century, namely, the hunt for ideas and the mania for intelligence; remember the old French proverb which says: he who chases after wit catches shtpidity.
Seek above all the quality of good execution and always think not of what to do, but how to do it.
(1) Permission to publish was generously granted by the Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico.
(2) This earlier essay, which appeared in L'illustrazione italiana on October 25, 1942, was later reprinted under the title "II teatro spettacolo" in the artist's 1945 volume, Commedia dell'arte moderna. For an English translation of that essay with prefatory comments relevant to the present one, see Greeley 1-10.
(3) In 1952, de Chirico contributed set designs to Antonio Leonviola's film The Bridge of Sighs (II ponte dei sospiri), and subsequently offered critical remarks on Italian film in his 1954 article "The Nation's Interests and the Venice Film Festival" ("Gli interessi della Nazione e il Festival del cinema," published 10 October in Il Giornale d'Italia) and in various interviews of the late 1950s, 60s, and 70s. As Silvia Tusi has thus remarked, his participation in the cinema was always more theoretical than practical (282).
(4) On de Chirico's anti-modernist polemic, see Greeley 3.
(5) In February 1919, de Chirico had an epiphanic encounter with an unnamed work by Titian in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, whereupon it was revealed to him that great painting was a function not of imagery, but technique. As of that point, his modus operandi shifted from one of mystic revelation to one of painterly execution, causing him to abandon the early "metaphysical" style on which he had built his reputation. For the artist's account of his epiphany at the Galleria Borghese, see de Chirico, Memorie, 120. For his resultant manifesto marking his return to classicism, see de Chirico,"Il ritorno".
(6) By Clair's "first film," de Chirico is likely referring to the director's experimental second film and acclaimed cinematic masterpiece, Entr'acte (Intermission), which premiered at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees on 4 December 1924, just weeks after the premiere of Clair's first film, Paris qui dort/The Crazy Ray. On the trick photography famously employed in Entr'acte, see kuenzli 4-6, Elder 185-202.
(7) De Chirico alludes here to the famous sequence in Eric Charell's 1931 operetta, Der Kongress tanzt, wherein the heroine Christel (Lilian Harvey) is driven in an open carriage from her Vienna glove shop to a country chateau prepared for her by the besotted Czar Alexander I (Willy Fritsch).
de Chirico, Giorgio. "Discorso sul cinematografo". Cinemai 64 (25 Maggio 1943): 295-97. Print.
--. "Discorso sullo spettacolo teatrale". L'illustrazione italiana (1942): 447 49. Print.
--. "Il ritorno al mestiere". Valori plastici 11-12 (1919): 15-19. Print.
--. Memorie della mia vita. Milano: Bompiani, 2008. Print.
Elder, R. Bruce. Surrealism and the Cinematic Effect. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2013. Print.
Greeley, Anne. "Giorgio de Chirico/Isabella Far, 'Theater Performance' (1942/45)." California Italian Studies 6.2 (2016): 1-15. Print.
Kuenzli, Rudolph (ed.). Dada and Surrealist Film. Cambridge: The MIT P, 1996. Print.
Tusi, Silvia. "The Discreet Charm of Metaphysics: The Writings of Giorgio de Chirico in the Cinema of Luis Bunuel." Metafisica. Quaderni della Fondazione Giorgio e Isa de Chirico 7/8 (2008): 280-92. Print.
Indiana Wesleyan University
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