Found Footage Films and the Optical Unconscious
by Ethan Spigland
For Walter Benjamin, the camera grants us access to a new realm of consciousness. Benjamin calls this new domain made visible by photography and film the “optical unconscious.” The technologies of mechanical reproduction explode shards of reality from the quotidian stream of images, and lay them out for critical inspection. These synthetic realities can then be analyzed and assembled “according to a new law.” This new politically informed vision grants us agency in a reified world—a world we can no longer perceive through our natural senses. For Benjamin, writing in the 1930s, the optical unconscious involves the photographing and filming of our estranged environment. However, more recently, media-makers have begun to explore a photographic unconscious of the second order. Training their cameras on the archive of filmed and photographed images, these practitioners perform a critique of the culture industry and a dismantling of the Spectacle.
Between 1989 and 1998 Viennese experimental filmmaker Martin Arnold made an extraordinary trilogy of films: Piece Touchée (1989), Passage a l’Acte (1993), and Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998). All three appropriate found footage from black-and-white melodramas made in Hollywood between the 1930s and 1960s. Using an optical printer to re-film scenes from these movies one frame at a time, Arnold repeats actions, slows them down, and plays them backwards and forwards like a DJ scratching a record. In Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy, he turns his attention to the Andy Hardy series (1937-58). Starring Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy, they’re set in the fictional town of Carvel, Louis B. Mayer’s idealized vision of a moral and patriotic America. Arnold’s sources are the three Andy Hardy movies that featured Judy Garland as girl-next-door Betsy Booth alongside Rooney.
Behind the banal veneer of the films, Arnold uncovers a realm of primal impulses. Andy clasps Mom’s shoulders from behind and kisses her on the cheek in the kitchen. Slowed down and looped, the scene becomes blatantly sexual. Brutally interrupting this erotic interlude, Dad slaps Andy, ordering him to shut up. The repeated slap takes on violent proportions. Betsy struggles to sing a plaintive song, but garbled sounds emerge from her throat. Eventually we make out a word (“Alone”), then a line (“Alone on a night that was meant for love”). Mom twitches with anger and lust as Andy walks out of her bedroom to join Betsy. Andy attempts to enter the parlor dressed in tuxedo, top hat and cane. Over and over again, we see the door open and Betsy’s arms rise in anticipation and longing. He finally makes his entrance, and a robotic mating dance ensues. Andy strokes his cane in masturbatory fashion, then spins around in slow motion, showing off his outfit. The film ends in a protracted kiss, as they hiss and snarl in embarrassed amusement.
Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy is a fascinating example of what the optical unconscious can reveal, applied here, not to our alienated world, but to a piece of Hollywood kitsch. Arnold has stated that Hollywood is all about repression: “the cinema of Hollywood is a cinema of exclusion, reduction and denial, a cinema of repression.” Hinting at disturbing forces at work within this family, the film makes violence visible in the sacred space of the American home and brings the repressed aspects of the film to the surface.
Ransacking Hollywood’s storehouse of images, Arnold creates a fascinating archive of gestures. According to Giorgio Agamben, the gesture is a particular type of action that is not about acting or making, but instead about enduring. It’s not a means to a particular end, but rather, what he calls a “pure means.” He takes the example of dance, which displays movement for its own sake. Dance reveals the medium of the gesture itself—a pure means without end. What the gesture opens is our own “being-in-a-medium,” our own ethical and political dimension. The gesture, as such, becomes visible as pure gesture. The potential power of cinema is that it can lead images back to the pure gesture—back to agency and possibility.
For Agamben, the image is a kind of force field that holds together two contradictory forces. The first reifies the gesture, fixing it into the static image or cliché. The second preserves the dynamic force of the gesture, linking it to a constantly changing whole. The challenge is to liberate the dynamic force of the gesture from the spell of the frozen image.
By repeating and suspending gestures, Arnold dismantles a Hollywood product that emphasizes narrative efficiency, spatiotemporal continuity, and closure. In his films, crossing a room or opening a door becomes an ordeal comparable to Job’s. When Garland attempts to sing “Alone,” it becomes genuinely moving, redeeming the kitschy and maudlin aspects of the song and film. Her solitude, her inability to articulate her feelings becomes profound. At the same time, she expresses a powerful longing.
Benjamin believed that the 19th century Parisian arcades were material replicas of the unconscious wishes of the dreaming collective. He wrote: “What cannot be forgotten reappears in dreams. These dreams are flashes from the unresolved past, flashes that illuminate moments previously lived in confusion and doubt. They provide a revelation of our unfulfilled desires.” Hollywood movies are phantasmagoric commodities, but they too enfold unfulfilled dreams. Filmmakers working with found footage tap into this lost potential, this gestural reserve.
Like Proust’s conception of involuntary memory, the optical unconscious does not just re-actualize a lost prior vision—it makes us see images that we have never seen before. Applied to the cinematic archive, the optical unconscious engenders a politically informed re-vision of History. This suggests a strategy of repetition and difference, of the eternal return according to Deleuze’s reading of Nietzsche: the notion that that which returns is always the new.