Cinematic Transcendence From a Synaesthetic Perspective

(A Review of Michael Snow's Wavelength & David Rimmer's Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper)

Kenneth Hemmerick

Originally published in Lonergan Review Number 6 - Canada's Film Century: Traditions, Transitions, Transcendence

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Cinematic Transcendence

Cinematic transcendence describes a shift in the consciousness of the film viewer. This shift is an expansion of perception, knowing and understanding. A clear example of transcendence, or a shift in consciousness, can be seen in Wittgenstein's well-known example of the Duck-Rabbit figure shown below:

Wittgenstein's Duck-Rabbit

As John Gilmour states in Picturing the World, a spontaneous shift of aspect yields a new perceptual whole; thus the figure may be seen first as a rabbit and then as a duck with no process of interference intervening. This difference of perception occurs without change of line since the same line may take on either aspect.35

The duck/rabbit or rabbit/duck paradox enables the viewer with a line of consciousness which brings into focus one's internal perceptual process. Once the paradox is known, the shift between the co-existing images is easier to negotiate. The viewer experiences a transcendence in the understanding of ambiguity and of one's own decision-making process. Through this sense of enlarged inner self-awareness, the viewer develops deeper understanding of the "exterior" world and its diverse manifestations.

In the same way, cinematic transcendence allows the viewer to shift between his/her inner world and the outer world of experience. Through this process, the viewer becomes aware of what it is that he/she is aware of; and, by extension, of what he/she is not aware of. For example, in watching a film, the viewer may be so absorbed into the film that his/her own self-awareness of "it is I who is watching the film" is lost in, or hidden, behind the film's absorption. At the other end of the spectrum, the viewer, knowing the "watcher-as-self' in the film experience, can critically perceive the film with questions concerning content, meaning, form and structure, etc.

These states of awareness are not static. The viewer's consciousness freely flows in and out of the awareness of self or of the other. The viewer may or may not experience the flux between these two states of consciousness. However, it is this movement from the known to the unknown that adds depth and meaning to that which is being experienced.

Another way to understand cinematic transcendence, analogously, may be suggested by the functional differences in the brain's hemispheres to achieve a heightened state of being aware of what/who one is aware of. Jeremy Campbell in Grammatical Man provides a list of terms used by psychologists who, over many years, have grouped definitions of left brain and right brain styles of knowing.36

Left BrainRight Brain

Transcendence in cinema gives the viewer insight into exterior and interior experience, enabling the realization of perceptual layers or shells between left and right brain modes of knowing - enabling awareness of the psychological circuitry as the viewer shifts from rabbit to duck or duck to rabbit. This transcendence, or shift in self-knowing, is encouraged visually, musically/sonically or through the synergetic combination of the two.

I believe, however, the combination of visual and aural events to produce a transcendental experience has deep roots in human perception which can be described in terms of modes of hearing/listening and seeing/watching. This combination can also be described in terms of synaesthesia or poly-modal sense perception.

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© 2006 Kenneth Hemmerick