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The Semblance of Materiality

Review of Brigitte Peucker, The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film (Cultural Memory in the Present), (Stanford: Stanford UP 2007), 272 pp. ISBN-10: 0804754314 [ISBN-13: 978-0804754316].

Daniel Reynolds

Brigitte Peucker, The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film, cover image
Other Voices, 4.1 Aesthetic Violence
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If the origins of cinema lie in the technological foundations of photography, can the real be far behind? Proponents of the artistic promise of film have always had to contend with prejudice against the medium’s reliance on the real, its apparent recording of given images, much as photography itself has had to do. Indeed, the contention that film is always indebted in some way to the real has become axiomatic in film theory, based primarily on cinema’s derivation from photography.1 If Pierre Bourdieu is right about photography’s dubious artistic status, then how can film escape the charge of mediocrity if it is derivative of a “middle-brow art”?2

Of course, one way to rebut the contentions of film’s skeptics is to argue that neither film nor photography participates in the mere recording of reality. This line of argument has its own respectable genealogy, ranging from André Bazin to Stephen Prince.3 This, however, is not Brigitte Peucker’s concern. Rather than try to rescue the art of film from the clutches of the real, Peucker’s project instead offers a refreshing exploration of how film figures the real, specifically how it constructs “the semblance of materiality” (159). She dispenses with the high modernist suspicion of realism as less aesthetically sophisticated, and instead takes film seriously as an art form that constructs its own formal paradigms in relation to the real, even as it derives from and refers to other media. For Peucker, reality is not the other of art, but rather that which allows for complex, dynamic and mutli-layered representations.

Before highlighting some of the ways in which Peucker explores film’s appropriation of reality for artistic purposes, it is important to point out some of the ideological and philosophical debates with which Peucker’s analysis of “art and the real” does not engage, at least not in any in-depth manner. Readers drawn to the title’s invocation of materiality might expect an analysis more heavily inflected by Marxist considerations of film as a form of production that participates in some fashion in a project either to advance or resist its own commodification. While it is true that Peucker draws on some seminal theoreticians of Marxian critical theory—most notably Siegfried Kracauer and Frederick Jameson—Peucker’s text only occasionally concerns itself with film’s ability to resist commodification. Neither does Peucker’s interest in reality engage in a semiotic or ontological exploration of film. As she makes clear in her introduction, she is not exploring film’s ability to make truth claims about lived experience. For example, she does not discuss at any great length the ways in which documentary cinema claims to offer non-fictional portrayals of historical moments in opposition to fictional feature films. Peucker’s analysis implicitly relies upon a post-structuralist assertion that the film’s viewer can never access a reality referred to through images that, after all, are always representations.

Instead, Peucker’s contribution to cinema studies offers a fruitful analysis of the reality effects that moving images can produce. In her introduction, she draws attention to the vast array of strategies film has for figuring the real and giving viewers the sensation of observing reality. Film’s access to a well-stocked representational arsenal stems in no small part from its indebtedness to prior visual art forms, most notably painting, photography, and theater. In other words, by revaluing film’s ‘derivative’ genealogy, Peucker makes a virtue out a vice, effectively countering critics who have discounted the medium’s aesthetic value on the basis of its alleged dependence on given reality.

Despite the distribution of the book’s nine chapters among three parts, there are two main strains that run though Peucker’s analysis of “materiality” in film. The most prominent strain consists of an inquiry into film’s construction of images that appear to possess their own materiality, even as they mask their ephemerality as light momentarily projected onto a screen. Film appears to us as a reality that we observe, not a representation that we help construct. This phenomenological approach is closely related to a second strain of analysis, one that recurs more intermittently but with equal urgency: film’s ability to portray and affect bodies. The spectator, drawn in by variously intense representations of body, participates in the illusion of reality both psychologically and bodily. Part one of the volume, “Art and Embodiment,” incorporates both the strains of analysis. Part two, “Illusions of the Real,” emphasizes the former phenomenolocial concern, while part three, “Art and Embodied Spectatorship,” emphasizes the latter attention to bodies.

Peucker begins her exploration of embodiment in cinema in her first chapter, devoted to the 1993 adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Martin Scorsese’s film draws her attention because of its painterly technique, evidenced in his color-drenched fade-outs, saturated hues, and editing that she finds reminiscent of brush strokes. It is not just any kind of painting that Scorsese’s film evokes: Peucker contends that The Age of Innocence stages a series of tableaux vivants evocative of familiar portraits. Scorsese’s references to portraiture thus exemplify cinema’s potential for intermediality, its ability allude to other genres of (visual) representation. The combination of movement (or its illusion in cinema) and sound, intensified through the aesthetics of intermediality and stagings of bodies in various tableaux vivants, constitute for Peucker this film’s “materiality,” which one might understand here as a kind of intensity of illusion, or a density of representation achieved through intermedial references.

The subsequent three chapters elaborate the notion of tableau vivant first articulated in Chapter One. Peucker elucidates the manner in which both Peter Greenaway and Wim Wenders refer to Dutch Realist painter Jan Vermeer, particularly in their appreciation of Vermeer’s ability to render light. But Peucker does not want to claim that Greenaway or Wenders try to produce mere illusions of reality by mimicking Vermeer. Rather, she argues for the way they both “animate the paintings to which they allude; at no time do they draw upon the possibilities of tableau vivant to halt the action of film. Instead, they ‘make real’: they introduce the body (of the actor) into representation” (47). Film’s intermedial play with tableau vivant momentarily fuse the representation of character with the representation of the actor, a collapse of representational levels that works in the service of referring to an already familiar yet distinct image that exists outside the diegesis of the film. The materiality here is not so much the illusion of reality as it is a density of representation.

As fascinating as Peucker’s reading of tableau vivant is, one wonders if she does not overstate the case on occasion. Missing from her analysis is a contextualization of the kind of cultural capital that makes such readings possible. Does not a particular film’s ability to refer meaningfully to other works of art depend largely on the spectator’s familiarity with the repertoire evoked? What appears underdeveloped at times in The Material Image is a cultural analysis that would investigate some of the ideological dimensions of film’s materiality. What cultural capital is required to appreciate intermedial allusions? Who is included in or excluded from such films’ representational strategies? One surmises that Peucker avoids these ideological questions lest they detract from the aesthetic questions her volume poses.

A case in point is the extreme case of staging bodies, now as trionfi rather than tableau vivant, that Peucker identifies in the body-art of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi-era cinema. This chapter most clearly exemplifies the hesitancy with which Peucker approaches ideological questions in her analysis of representation. While she summarizes the long-standing debates concerning the fascist nature of Riefenstahl’s oeuvre, including an obligatory nod to Susan Sontag’s “Fascinating Fascism”, she does so in order to dispense with such issues rather than to develop them. In a nod to critics who have seen in Riefenstahl an inveterate fascist obsessed with control over the body, Peucker quickly separates her (post-)structural analysis of cinematic aesthetics from ideological concerns:

We will not linger over the ideology that Riefenstahl brings to her photographic work [...].4 Our subject continues to be the significance of tableau moments in Riefenstahl’s artistic practice, and we take up here its specifically photographic element, suggesting that we must also read the tableau moment in Riefenstahl’s work in light of a tendency to play off a specifically photographic arrestation against film’s flow of images” (64).

The dichotomy that Peucker insists on between ideological and aesthetic analysis has its shortcomings. As she turns to the work of Hitchcock and the Austrian Michael Haneke, a discussion of the ideological problems in their portrayals of violence would be a welcome addition to her deft readings of their materiality. To be sure, one does find attention to ideology in her reading of Fassbinder’s “In a Year of Seven Moons”, so one need not doubt Peucker’s capacity in this regard. Moreover, much is gained by Peucker’s more narrow focus on the aesthetic. It is liberating to delve into the representational aspects of Riefenstahl’s cinema unfettered by the ponderous ideological considerations of fascism, none of which is negated by Peucker’s reading.

The film of Alfred Hitchock bridges the first and second parts of The Material Image as Peucker offers a two-chapter consideration of the “Scene of Art” in Hitchcock’s film. By now the reader is well-acquainted with Peucker’s approach to the intermediality of cinema, in which she engages wittily and convincingly in her appreciative reading of Hitchcock. Peucker’s enthusiasm for the horror genre is contagious, and her writing is at its best in this chapter. Turning from Hitchock to Kubrick and Fassbinder, her analysis explores a wide array of cinematic techniques for rupturing the illusion of the cinematic world and intruding onto the reality of the spectator. These techniques include movement in and out of frame, including the “fourth wall” that demarcates the boundary between the audience/camera and the scene, and aural innovations (especially in Fassbinder). Remember, Peucker is not arguing for a capacity for referentiality here, but rather for a momentary collapse between the real and the imaginary. The result is not that film speaks about reality, but rather that film interrupts, subsumes, invades reality.

The final section of the book returns to the question of embodiment, now focusing on the body of the spectator. While Peucker does insist, at least implicitly, on a dichotomy between aesthetic and ideological questions, she cannot be accused of insisting on a high-modernist dichotomy between “high” and “low” art in film; more accurately, she takes up that distinction in order to subvert it. She speaks with as much persuasive engagement about such gory classics as Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Romero’s Day of the Dead, to name but a few examples from the genre, as she does about Hitchcock’s more restrained Psycho or Rope, or about Haneke’s less accessible “modernist melodramas”. Her mode of analysis draws variously on psychoanalytic, phenomenological and feminist approaches to cinema. The work of David Bordwell and Linda Williams, both of whom explore the affective and sensory participation of spectators, appears especially foundational for Peucker’s analysis5

Most of the essays in Peucker’s work have been previously published as articles, but their collection into a single volume results in a coherent and engaging contribution to the study of cinema. Peucker combines her eclectic taste in film and visual culture with a wide-ranging theoretical array, but in the end it is her fascination with the semblance of the real that dominates the volume. Peucker does not so much break new theoretical ground as she persuasively links the wide-ranging literature about cinema’s reality effects that have been previously formulated by others. She has a keen sense for the intertextual capacity of film, its references to other works of visual and literary culture. The Material Image does not rehearse tired debates concerning film as art or entertainment; indeed, it is the self-evident capacity of cinema to be both without detracting from either that make this volume a persuasive assessment of the most influential medium of the twentieth century.

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1. For a fascinating discussion of cinema’s early development from photography and other technologies, see Sabina Hake, German National Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2002) 9-21. While Hake’s text focuses on the canon of German film, her discussion of the medium’s early years is quite broad. An excellent discussion of film’s derivation from photography is also available in David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film History. An Introduction (New York: McGraw Hill, 2002) 1-25.

2. Bourdieu, Pierre. Photography: A Middle-Brow Art. 1965. Trans. Shaun Witeside. Stanford: Standford U.P., 1990.

3. André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” 1945, in Film Theory and Criticism, 6th ed., Leo Braudy and Marshal Cohen (New York: Oxford U.P. 2004) 166-170. Stephen Prince, “True Lies: Perception Realism, Digital Images, and Film Theory”, also in Film Theory and Criticism, 6th ed., Leo Braudy and Marshal Cohen (New York: Oxford U.P. 2004) 270-288.

4. The reference here is to Riefenstahl’s photo essay, The Last of the Nuba (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), which highlights the aesthetics of the masculine body as celebrated during the wrestling contests held by various Nuba tribes. The publication of this volume was the occasion for Susan Sontag’s famous condemnation of Riefenstahl’s incorrigibly fascist aesthetics, “Fascinating Fascism” in Under the Sign of Saturn (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1991) 78-108.

5. Linda Williams. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). David Bordwell, Making Meaning. Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Harvard Film Studies. Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1989.

About the Reviewer:

Daniel Reynolds is an associate professor in the German Department at Grinnell College, where he is also the current director of the Center for the Humanities. His research concentrates on the evolving defintions relationship between historiography and narrative fiction. He has published articles in the fields of post-colonial studies, Holocaust studies, and contemporary German literature. He teaches courses at Grinnell on German literary modernism and postmodernism, East German literature, German cinema, and German culture since reunification. He is a member of the Modern Language Association, the German Studies Association, and the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association.

Citation Styles:

MLA Style Citation:
Reynolds, Daniel. "Daniel Reynolds, The Semblance of Materiality: Review of Brigitte Peucker, The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film (Cultural Memory of the Present)" Other Voices 4.1 March 2010. January 19, 2018 ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/hbivens/index.php›.

Chicago Style Citation:
Daniel Reynolds, The Semblance of Materiality: Review of Brigitte Peucker, The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film (Cultural Memory of the Present). Other Voices 4, no. 1 (2010), ‹http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/hbivens/index.php› (accessed January 19, 2018)

APA Style Citation:
Reynolds, Daniel. (2010, March). The Semblance of Materiality: Review of Brigitte Peucker, The Material Image: Art and the Real in Film (Cultural Memory of the Present). Other Voices, 4.1. Retrieved January 19, 2018, from http://www.othervoices.org/4.1/hbivens/index.php


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