Daniel Morgan On Form

Daniel Morgan

I’ve been trying to develop a way of thinking about film, and other audiovisual media, in which form is both necessary and primary.

The first point seems relatively uncontroversial: to the extent that we take in, perceive, or sense something we do so by means of its formal arrangement. This is true when we look at a tree, and we apprehend its shape as a coherent object, and when we look at an image of that tree. It’s the second point that turns out to be more difficult. To take form to be primary means allowing that how we respond to, understand, or interpret an image is, first and foremost, determined by how that image is organized.

My interest in the primacy of form is partly due to the way theories of cinema have tried to avoid it. Seeing uncertainty with form, they aim to find fixed points that can be used to secure the way images are understood. From the look of the camera to film’s photographic base to theories of affect: so many theoretical models work by locating the ultimate grounds for understanding cinema outside the formal organization of specific images. They seek, in a sense, grounds that will provide in advance the terms of an answer to how images work—and this, I think, results in our being trapped by the constraints of theories, guided by a picture that confines our understanding of what an element of cinema can or ought to do. So part of this project, then, is diagnostic: why does this desire for fixed points exist? And, conversely, why does the absence of such certain ground lead to a belief that all constraints are absent (a rhetoric of liberation especially popular in the transition from photochemical to digital cinema)?

But my main interest is to think more about what it means to take form to have primacy, and why that might be an advantage in thinking through problems of film theory (as well as style and aesthetics). In a recent essay, I looked at the intersections between camera movements and the logic of point of view, arguing that claims that we are with the camera as it moves through the (fictional) world on-screen miss the dynamics, both formal and otherwise, that camera movements actually establish.[1] Paying attention to the form expressed in different kinds of camera movements, by contrast, provides the flexibility to account for how they create meanings, generate responses, establish spatial contours, and so on. The point of view we inhabit, I argue, is one that is expressed by the form of that image. It’s a way of making an argument, and of seeing films, that lacks the security that film theories often pursue. And that’s a good thing. My wager is that taking form as primary allows for us to be guided by the way that films themselves explore and work through various possibilities—not just formal but thematic and philosophical—and to construct an approach that can explain the dynamics of these experiments.

[1] “Where Are We?: Camera Movements and the Problem of Point of View.” New Review of Film and Television Studies (forthcoming 2016).

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Daniel Morgan is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. He is the author of Late Godard and the Possibilities of Cinema (University of California Press, 2012).