Film and the Uncanny

by Lesley Stern

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I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a travelling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own refection in the looking-glass on the open door.
Sigmund Freud

In this passage from his 1919 essay ‘The Uncanny’ Freud gives us a marvellously suggestive and supremely cinematic image.1 He presents us with a scene conceptualized as a frame within a frame. His perception involves movement, he is jolted, subjected to a shock. We might almost say that the movement involves transference, it is a movement between — between the viewer and the image. And it takes place on a train, that mode of transport so beloved of early cinema and so implicated — as writers like Gunning and Kirby have pointed out — in the generation of uncanny sensations.2 When I use the term ‘the uncanny’ in this paper it is largely, though not entirely, in the Freudian sense.

We do not have to look very far for examples of the uncanny in cinema (figures of doubling and dismemberment, for instance, abound), but beyond isolated examples it might be the case that the fascination that cinema, as an aesthetic phenomenon, exerts (and this is as true today as with the very earliest projections of moving images, though perhaps in somewhat different ways) is intimately implicated in uncanny procedures.

Cinema, as we know it, systematically plays upon a slide between the familiar and the unfamiliar (the unheimlich). On the one hand there is a drive to depiction, to the representational familiar; and on the other there is a rendering strange through movement, through cinematic temporality. The cinema gives us the experience of time, but in temporalizing it plays all the time on a series of indeterminacies: here/there, appearance/disappearance, life/death, past/future … The cinema taps our imagination, our unconscious, to produce a sensory affect of dissonance at the very moment of identity.

a gesture expands into gymnastics, rage is expressed through a somersault

There is a cinematic moment — a moving image — that haunts me. Again and again this image returns and I find it always surprising. It is a moment from Blade Runner: Deckard, holding his gun in front of him with both hands, moves through Sebastian’s gloomy warehouse peopled with dolls and mannequins and automata. A terrible mechanical cackling fills the air, emanating from one of the wound-up little men who rocks back and forth. Pris is there in the shadows, waxen-faced, absolutely immobile, behind a gauze veil.

Even though we know she lives and breathes, now — in this macabre museum — she seems like a waxwork figure; and even though in close up we see her eyes momentarily move, following Deckard, it is hard to say whether those eyes are real or artificial. Deckard stops in front of her, nudges her veil with his gun. It wafts away. We see their faces, she immobile and staring straight ahead, he scrutinizing, trying to detect the slightest movement.

Suddenly, in close up, she lunges at him; he is propelled through the air cutting through the deep space of the shot, disappearing into the background. Quick cut to the reverse angle so that we are situated behind him. Pris is in the distance. Almost on the cut she begins somersaulting towards us — at great speed, her somersaults twisting into back flips, and before we know it she is in close up landing on Deckard’s shoulders, her legs clamping vice-like around his head. They fight, she runs off in a kind of slow lope like an athlete moving in towards the high jump. In long shot she turns and somersaults frenziedly towards us/Deckard. Her body flies, up close, in fragments. He shoots before impact. She dies.

Pris, like a human missile, comes somersaulting straight towards us. One moment she is immobile (in a room full of mechanical and artificial toys she appears to be a wax doll); the next moment she is galvanized into life, her body moving at the speed of light. The force of her somersault charges the air; reconfiguring space and time, her bodily momentum is transmitted and experienced in the auditorium as bodily sensation. My stomach lurches.

I can’t quite put my finger on the feeling it evokes, though there is a phrase of Epstein‘s that resonates: “On the line of communication the static of unexpected feelings interrupts us” (Charney, 287).

I think, therefore I was. The future ‘I’ is shed as ‘I’ past; the present is merely this instantaneous and perpetual sloughing. The present is merely an encounter. The cinema is the only art capable of depicting this present as it is. Epstein 3

Remember, this astonishing somersault is not the first somersault that we have seen in Blade Runner. Perhaps part of its force derives from the fact that it is a repetition, albeit a repeat with difference. When Pris brings Roy Batters to visit J.S. Sebastian in the ruined warehouse where he lives with his mechanical toys — miniature and life-size — Sebastian asks them to show him something, to show, in effect, what it is that replicants can do.

We’re not computers Sebastian, we’re physical’, says Roy. Pris rises and walks in a studied way, as though in a theatrical space, over to Sebastian: ‘I think, Sebastian, therefore I am,’ she enunciates slowly, seriously, with only a tinge of irony. Standing behind Sebastian she poses by draping her arms about his neck. ‘Very good Pris,’ says Batty, ‘now show him why.’ She steps back, there is a momentary pause as her body, almost immobile, gathers momentum and then moves gracefully into a somersault; or rather, into a reverse somersault — a back flip. There is a cut to legs slicing through the frame and then her head appears in close up as she flips into a standing position again.

It is breathtaking the way this human body is suddenly charged, propelled by an apparently mysterious momentum into a virtuoso defiance of gravity. And it all happens so swiftly, this transformation of a body in space and time, that my bodily response lags behind. It’s like what happens when you are in a lift and suddenly without warning it drops — instantaneously the movement of the lift is in you. There is a lurching in the pit of your stomach. But something more happens when you witness the somersault — as the figure becomes again ordinary, returning to an upright position the momentum remains in your body as a charge, a whoosh, a sense of exhilaration — the effect persists, the fear and exhilaration, the frisson.

Pris’s performance is not a demonstration of the fact that the replicants have physical properties (are embodied) like human beings, nor is it a demonstration that replicants can think like humans; rather it is an acting out of a philosophical precept, a refutation of the metaphysical postulate, an instanciation of the thoughtful body or the bodily ego. In that somersault percept and precept are tumbled. We might also say that it is an instanciation of the cinematic body. That is to say, it is a body that simultaneously moves (through human agency) and is moved (mechanically, through cinematic means). It moves through space and time; space and time are reconfigured by the movement.

An objection might be raised at this point: that the effect of the somersault simply derives from cinema’s mimetic ability to capture the immediacy of human presence and to transmit the force of human movement. The observation that it happens before our eyes, in the present is an observation grounded in a notion of presence as guarantor of veracity.

Now of course if we subscribe to a modern, or shall we say Bergsonian, view of time we can simply refute the notion of there ever being some simple present that is absolute and of the moment. But the appeal of presence is strong. Many theatre theorists for instance (even those not interested in psychological drama), argue that in live performance it is the present tense (a time and space shared by audience and performer) that ensures an immediate and powerful transmission of feelings and ideas.

But cinema has the capacity, through its particular means of ordering time and space, to not merely represent time but to embody a modern temporality, a modern experience of time (passing). We can trace this modern articulation to Bergson whose philosophy is clearly echoed in Epstein:

The present is an uneasy convention. In the flow of time it is an exception to time. It eludes the chronometer. You look at your watch; strictly speaking the present is no longer there; and strictly speaking it is there again, and always will be from one midnight to the next. I think, therefore I was.4

Pris’s performance is not a demonstration of presence. It is an assertion that subjectivity, history, memory (manufactured or not) are lived through the body; but simultaneously it is an enactment of the momentariness of the body.

It is in the nexus between the declaration “I think, Sebastian, therefore I am” and the cinematic performance of the somersault that the uncanny can be located.

This sequence of Blade Runner clearly depicts an uncanny scenario. But more than this, it enacts the uncanny, insinuates a kinesthetic connection. There is something extraordinarily exhilarating, uplifting, in the sheer bodily momentum that transforms the space and time. But there is also something that arouses dread, something that is analogous to disembodiment. I feel like Adelgunda in Hoffmann’s ‘Automata’: “as if her inner being and all her thoughts and ideas were turned out from her, and were hovering, bodiless, outside of her”. 5

Those moments when Deckard scrutinizes Pris are exceedingly unnerving. Even though we know that she is not a doll like the others in the room, her immobility is uncanny. Or perhaps the uncanniness can be located in the doubling effect: in scrutinizing Pris (in the face of indeterminacy) Deckard faces himself and his own past and future. We might say there is a kind of mirroring — a very cinematic mirroring, invoking the screen space not as a reflective surface, but rather as a space for the staging of a drama of life and death, a drama that in the cinema is staged as a tension between mobility and immobility, appearance and disappearance. (There are no literal mirrors involved in Blade Runner but some other films concerned with the uncanny — such as The Student of Prague and The Tales of Hoffmann — do utilize mirrors in a notably cinematic way).

In the doubling operation of the Deckard/Pris encounter the uncanny effect is partly achieved through the way in which the viewer is enticed into the game of self-doubling, enticed into a dread-ful recognition, so that “he [sic] is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own. In other words there is a doubling, dividing and interchanging of the self”.

It is not exactly that we make a choice to identify with either Pris or Deckard as characters (though we may and of course at various points are likely to identify with either one or other or both), but rather that we are drawn into the situation of indeterminacy, of the passing present, the instability and fragility of presence, the discontinuity of the body.

Sometimes, as you dash into the foyer of an hotel, a double or triple play of mirrors offers you a strange and unexpected meeting with yourself. At first you do not recognize yourself. In the same way, the film image captures an astonishing descriptive geometry of gestures.
Epstein 6

At first you do not recognize yourself. It is not that you come to life in either Deckard or Pris, nor that you simply identify with the profilmic gesture or movement. Rather, the connective effect is forged in the way in which the profilmic is articulated by a cinematic rendering of time and space — and simultaneously rendered lifeless in ‘an astonishing descriptive geometry’. At this stage — in the scrutinizing — the really uncanny force of the doubling is prefigured. It is when the immobility is sundered, when the fight breaks out, when Pris somersaults for the second time, this time turning her body into a mobile weapon, that a truly uncanny atmosphere is generated.

Replicants, like humans, can move and be moved. One moment you’re here, the next you’re gone. And sometimes the cinema can deliver to us knowledge that we can only apprehend in the moment of watching as sensory affect, but it is knowledge that is set somersaulting — in the body first and then reverberating through time and space. Feelings of horror, feelings of exhilaration. And often they mesh in the cinema — quite uncannily — as nowhere else I know:

only the mobile … aspects of things, beings, and souls can be photogenic. Epstein 7

If the somersault is photogenic it is so because of the way it moves and is moved. Which is also where its uncanny potential can be located. The somersault, in so far as it interrupts the narrative flow (not as a tableau, however, rather as a stylized excess of movement, a flurry or flurring of the body and of the cinematic frame) seems to assert its presentness very strongly. Yet it gives us a body that, in its very presence, passes away.

Leo Charney, in discussing photogénie writes that Epstein, in elaborating the concept “suggests that rapid movement through space and time creates an environment of flux, ephemerality, and dis-placement that found its home in cinema” (286). He goes on: “the object on screen differs from what it was before; the new context makes it a new object, even if it can be traced referentially to the concrete object that existed in front of the camera. Photogénie embodies repetition, yet the repetition is ineffably different. In mechanical reproduction’s reproduction of the physical universe, something new emerges” (288). Charney’s discussion of Epstein is situated within an exploration of the category of the moment as deployed by a range of writers (including Walter Pater, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger) concerned with modernity’s ephemerality. In trying to grasp the moment these writers describe a “split between sensation, which feels the moment in the moment, and cognition, which recognizes the moment only after the moment” (279).

The image penetrates into the screen, carrying the spectator into depths he has never experienced … the image perceived three-dimensionally (it is a most spectacular effect) as if ‘tumbling’ from the screen into the auditorium. Eisenstein 8

Buster Keaton, in Sherlock Junior, falls asleep whilst projecting a movie. In the projection booth a superimposition occurs. As he sits there sleeping a ghostly ‘double’ steps away from his body — he is suddenly two bodies, or doubly ghosted. The double (or is it? The moving body might in fact be the original and the sleeping figure might in fact be the double …) walks out of the projection booth, down the aisle of the theatre and up into the diegetic world of the screen. In this famous, enchanting, and uncanny sequence Buster engages in a variety of on-screen adventures or dramatized misunderstandings, until he is eventually ejected. It seems as though he flies out from the screen, his bouncing body violently propelled, via a series of prat falls, in all directions.

But there is an uncanny moment that occurs in the transition between screen world and auditorium. Look carefully, watch how he falls. You almost don’t notice, and yet it notices you — a haunting gestural movement. In this film of endless doubling, this film that plays so ingeniously on a series of indeterminacies — not least between the real and not-real, here and there, now and then, still and moving, body and ghost — the transition between screen and auditorium is effected by means of a perfect somersault. As he tumbles out Buster, in this silent movie seems to say, “I think therefore I somersault”.


Lesley Stern is a senior lecturer in the School of Theatre and Film Studies, UNSW. She is the author of The Scorsese Connection (British Film Institute and Indiana University Press, 1995). This extract is taken from a paper presented at the Chicago Film Seminar in November 1997. For a fuller exploration of this theme, see Lesley Stern on Film and the Uncanny in a special issue of Paradoxa, vol 3, #3-4, 1997.
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Notes and References

1. Freud, Sigmund. “The ‘uncanny'” Art and Literature. Trans. James Strachey. (Comp & ed Angela Richards, 1919) London: Penguin, 1985. Thanks to Jodi Brooks for drawing my attention to the cinematic quality of Freud’s ‘self-reflection’ in the railway compartment.

2. Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the Incredulous Spectator.” Reprinted from Art and Text 34 (1989): 31-45. Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film. ed. with introd. by Linda Williams. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1994; “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-garde.” Reprinted From: Wide Angle Vol 8, No. 3/4, Fall 1986. Early Cinema: Space — Frame — Narrative. ed. Thomas Elsaesser. London: British Film Institute, 1990. 56-62; “‘Primitive’ Cinema: A Frame-up? or the Trick’s on Us.” Cinema Journal28.2 (1989): 3-13; “The Whole Town’s Gawking: Early Cinema and the Visual Experience of Modernity.” Yale Journal of Criticism 7.2 (1994): 189-201 and Kirby, Lynne. Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema. Duke UP, 1997.

3. Epstein, Jean. “Bonjour Cinema and Other Writings.” trans Tom Milne. Afterimage 10: p 32.

4. Hoffmann. The Best Tales of Hoffmann. ed. and introd. E.F. Bleiler. Dover. New York, 1967.

5. Epstein, Jean. “Bonjour Cinema and Other Writings.” p 18

6. Charney, Leo. “In a Moment: Film and the Philosophy of Modernity.” Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life. Ed. . Berkeley: U of California P, 1995. p 287.

7. Eisenstein, Sergei. “Montage of Attractions.” Film Sense. Ed and trans Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970 (1923). 230-33; “Through Theatre to Cinema.” Film Form. Ed and trans Jay Leyda. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970 (1934). 3-17.

Eisenstein Rediscovered
This links to several Deckard images, but at the bottom of the page, see Pris tumble!

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