Peter Watkins and the Monoform in Contemporary Media by German A. Duarte (Faculty member, Free University of Bozen-Bolzano, Italy)

The debate about of the ways of dynamizing space and spatializing time was crucial in the early days of cinematography. During this fascinating period, a small group of pioneer filmmakers, the so-called Brighton School, demonstrated that the creation of meaning through the nascent cinematic image is an experimental act and that, consequently, only a pure empirical approach would allow for the use of this new technology as a narrative instrument.

At a certain point, magical and fateful, this empiric approach, which did not pretend to impose any convention or cinematographic grammar, laid bare the main characteristic of the cinematic image: a highly fragmented space can be perceived as a homogenous space. The fragmentation of sequences and their subsequent serialization, imposed by the linearity of the medium itself, ended up overcoming and, mysteriously, perfectly simulating the continuous flux of a human’s natural perception of reality. Thus, the feeling of being faced with an ‘objective representation’, derived from the very nature of the photographic image and decisively strengthened by its temporal extension through the cinematographic camera, remained intact after the process of fragmentation exerted through editing, which is the true essence of cinema. During the first decade of the 1900s, editing attempted to create an equilibrium between the respect of the simulation of the continuous flux of natural human perception (the ‘objective representation’) and the development of a narrative dimension imposing the fragmentation of this flux.

The respect for the ‘objective representation’ was achieved by the development of the 180-degree rule that was rapidly systematized and through which fragments of sequences acquired continuity. This rule transformed editing into an ‘invisible art’ able to serialize heterogeneous spatio-temporal fragments, which, in turn, are perceived by the viewer as homogenous continuous fluxes of images. One might imagine that the perception of the narrative sequence as an ‘objective representation’ is inversely proportional to the number of fragments that compose it. Nonetheless, highly rhythmic editing, which in a successive phase were accompanied by a continuous soundtrack, somehow increased the perception of spatio-temporal continuity. At the same time, by fragmenting the sequences in their temporal extension, editing increased the forces of attraction, collisions, and almost semiotic explosions able to generate intense emotions in the viewer. These attractions, in turn, would represent the vector that links the viewer to the series of images. And this link sets in motion the complex mechanism of creation of meaning through moving images. However, as a result, during the first phase of cinematography, known as the cinema of attractions, the search for pathos seemed to take precedence over the creation of both the narrative structure and the creation of meaning. Cinematography establishes indeed an empathetic relationship with the beholder by means of the attractions that emerge from the homogenization of spatio-temporal fragments. Therefore, the fragmentation of sequences results in a sensorimotor activity that allows the identification between the viewer and the reconstructed space of the diegesis.

Pathos, which for the Greeks represented an irrational force that is opposed to logos (the word, the reasoning) and regulates the human psyche, is an appeal to the viewer’s emotions. This appeal creates an intense relationship between the viewer and the diegesis. According to Eisenstein, pathos forces the spectator ‘to go out of himself’, it ‘sends’ the viewer into ecstasy, which literarily means ‘“standing out of oneself,” which is to say, “going out of himself,” or “departing from his ordinary condition.”’ Consequently, in the audiovisual field, pathos represents the primary and fundamental instrument that, by exerting the alienation/estrangement (Entfremdung) of the viewer, forces him/her to succumb to the narrative. By means of pathos the viewer yields to the mechanism of the production of meaning, a mechanism that is completely flexible because it does not establish a fixed relation between the signifier and the signified. It would be possible to affirm that in the field of moving images, conversely to other means of expression, pathos is not primarily generated by the diegesis; it does not derive from the plot nor from the pathetic dimension of acting. Instead, it is intrinsic to the narrative act; it emerges from the need to homogenize the space, from the simple cut. In fact, before the viewer succumbs to the plot, he/she must be already estranged, alienated from his/her natural space.

Although during the first stage of the formalist approach to cinema the mechanism of the creation of meaning based on the search for pathos was extensively studied, especially by Soviet scholars headed by Kuleshov, Eisenstein and Pudovkin, at a later stage the same formalist approach distanced itself from pathos and focused rather on the erroneous theorization of an hypothetical cinematographic grammar, that is, a well-structured mechanism, almost a langue. This process was differently experienced in America. There, after the migration of the cinematographic production to California and the development of Hollywood, truly factory of social imaginary of the whole last century, the passage from a narrative form based on the pure generation of emotions to a standardized form concentrated mainly on the development of a story did not take the complex path of the semiotic analysis.

In America, during the consolidation stage of editing as the ‘invisible art’, and the development of cinematography as a full-fledged narrative instrument, there appeared some ‘guidelines’ to develop what James A. Taylor called a ‘photoplay mind’. The notion of the ‘photoplay mind’ determines not only a way of structuring the narrative, but also a kind of standardizing of the creative process. In fact, the photoplay mind was supposed to generate for the cinematographic author (Photoplay Author) the power of discrimination with respect to highly pathetic and narrative events and, subsequently, the power to transform these into narrative unities, that is, into pure cinematic actions that weave the plot. The concept of the ‘photoplay mind’ adapts to cinematography Aristotle’s thoughts on the creation of the narrative unity. However, to adapt Aristotle’s Ars Poetica to the cinematographic image also meant to increase the generation of attractions and the improvement of tricks at the expense of the viewer. Consider, for instance, that the creation of ellipses, which, as noted by Aristotle, underpin the narrative unity, in cinematic images imposes the development of a mechanism of illusion able to accentuate the viewer’s estrangement. To give just one example, since cinematic image only knows the present tense, in the diegesis, the temporal declensions are exclusively obtained by visual effects that deceive the viewer and place him into the illusion that an actual image is a past tense (flashback) or a future tense (flashforward).

The standardization of these effects marked a period of transitional cinema, characterized by the passage from a cinema of attractions to a classical cinema and, above all, the birth of the Monoform. Indeed, the Monoform emerged when the cinema of attractions (or the cinema of estrangement), on the one hand, mechanized and standardized its form to allow action to unfold in a homogenous space and, on the other hand, started to pursue a temporal continuity that shapes the narrative progression. It is in between these two phases, during this breaking phase, that cinematography was fully placed into the sphere of storytelling. And it was also at that point that the search for attractions was seemingly placed into a secondary plane. Another of the consequences of this breaking phase was the appearance of a well-defined way of structuring the narrative space by means of a linear construction apparently ruled by a cinematographic grammar.

It is not a coincidence that Peter Watkins identifies the roots of the Monoform in D.W. Griffith’s oeuvre, mainly in The Birth of a Nation (1915). In fact, the figure of Griffith embodies both the development of Hollywood as the universal industry of the social imaginary and the achievement of a narrative gamut that, at a certain point, started to be mass-produced just like other industrialized products. Even though some important contributions have demonstrated that Griffith was not the inventor of some narrative procedures that are traditionally credited to him, since the early 1910s, some narrative structures have been known as Griffith’s effects. Consider, for instance, the ‘Switchback’ and the ‘Sustained suspense’, or, in our current jargon, the cross-cutting and the last-minute rescue, also known as the Griffith last-minute rescue. These narrative procedures have encouraged the increase of the fragmentation of the sequences with the aim of accelerating the narrative composition, which, at the same time, became progressively repetitive, predictable and, as posited by Peter Watkins, naturally closed to the participation of the audience.

Watkins’ concept of the Monoform is to be identified with the accelerated and standardized form of the audiovisual narrative that was elaborated during the period of transitional cinema. Its current appearance is the fragmented modular structure that displays the recursive ‘densely packed and rapidly edited barrage of images and sounds.’ In addition, the Monoform also denotes a whole, a process, and after the Second World War it became a hegemonic force and maybe the true essence of the hegemony of Hollywood. This hegemonic force established the Monoform not only as a solid convention to respect, but, being the Monoform, the soul of the cultural industry, the industry itself displaced alternative narrative forms for the sake of ‘professionalism’.

Due to a natural phenomenon of remediation, and being the hegemonic way of conceiving the narrative structure in the audiovisual field, the Monoform rapidly spread to other media and found an especially highly fertile terrain in television, where it reached its maximal apogee through the vertiginous speed of image consumption. As noted by Guy Debord, the spectacle does not represent ‘a set of images, but it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.’ Peter Watkins’ precious contribution to highlighting the complex social phenomenon of the Monoform goes further by theorizing that this social relation between people is mediated by a linear standardized form based on the incessant alienation of the viewer, a product of the original approach to the cinematographic narrative act. Watkins’ analysis of the Monoform denounces, through a clear and concrete understanding of the concept, our one-dimensional condition, this latter already theorized by Herbert Marcuse as the culmination of the fundamental series of studies initiated by Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Horkheimer-Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. These same studies also coined the term cultural industry and highlighted, as the central totalitarian character within advanced industrial societies, the force of homogenization, standardization and reification of every cultural expression. Watkins’ theory of the Monoform, as well as his cinematographic oeuvre, converge with Marcuse’s theory in denouncing the paralysis of criticism. Both views converge especially in highlighting that the highest degree of totalitarianism is the paralysis of criticism, a paralysis obtained by psychologically excluding the citizen from a discussion about the form through which human expression and social information are mainly transmitted. They also converge in denouncing that our social system, based on the industry of entertainment, displays a totalitarian force able to determine human skills and attitudes to the point of influencing or determining individual needs and personal desires. Watkins’ understanding of the Monoform encapsulates therefore the crucial problem of the decrease of the critical faculty, which, as noted by Franco Berardi, ‘presupposes a particular structuring of the message: the sequentiality of writing, the slowness of reading, and the possibility of judging in sequence the truth or falsity of statements.’ This means that the critical faculty decreases within the society whose form of relation is based on the Monoform. This form of relation replaces critical thinking with a mythological thinking, thus making the distinction between truth and falsity not only irrelevant, but impossible.

The phenomenon of the Monoform must be urgently discussed in our society, a society that has adopted and accepted as a form of communication texts of little more than a hundred characters. But, above all, the calling into question of the Monoform is urgently needed in a society that has demonstrated that the search for pathos that characterized the first approach to film narratives has become, in the mass media world of the late twentieth century, a real, social and collective pathology.

The concept of the Monoform must be discussed even if it implies an extraordinary effort because it must be discussed by human beings whose primal impression of the world was elaborated and generated by a machine, by a television based on the mono-linear narrative form. It must be openly discussed by human beings who learned to talk with the television and not with an affective exchange of the maternal language. And it must be urgently discussed because the speed and invasiveness of the process of remediation of the Monoform in our current media context is surely having a deep effect on our cognition. Calling into question the Monoform would represent an important first step to beginning a social analysis and discussion. In fact, as posited by Watkins, there are some narrative forms, even some declensions of the Monoform, that might enable alternative narrative structures. The fundamental and, at the same time, encouraging side of Watkins’ conception of the Monoform is to recognize society as a complex entity that eschews technological determinism. Watkins’ view does not yield to the idea that the message of the audiovisual medium is a packaged linear one-dimensional narrative form. However, to know this, it is urgently necessary to begin an open social discussion about the narrative form. In this discussion, the content, as it was for McLuhan, should necessarily be moved to a secondary plane.


© Peter Watkins 2018