The Viewer's Dialectic, page 2
by Tomás Gutierrez Alea
translated by Julia Lesage

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 18-21
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005


There are some films which you can usually see on TV which mature spectators may feel uncomfortable with and find meaningless because they cannot coherently relate the films to the complex images of the world which they have formed during their life. Such people may well ask, "What does this have to do with reality?” To which a child might answer with another question, “Well, isn't it just a movie?” The questions stay in pure air, of course. It would be a hard task to explain to a child how, for mature people, the sphere of reality is constantly articulated in more detail in one's mind, and how some things are left behind. It happens in such a way that an adult's image of the world comes to be very different from what a child can imagine.

Mature adults keep separating out more or less apparent layers of reality, so that they draw closer and closer to its essence. They discriminate and valorize reality's distinct aspects as a consequence of human understanding, which becomes more and more profound about reality itself. That's why a mature person probably feels dissatisfied confronting some movies. But it's also why the child's question doesn't allow for a quick, superficial response.

Certainly a film is one thing and reality is another. We can't forget that those are the rules of the game. Of course, film and reality are not — cannot be — completely divorced from each other. A film forms part of reality. Like all works which people inscribe in art, film is a manifestation of social consciousness and also constitutes a reflection of reality.

In relation to cinema, one circumstance of its production can be deceptive. The signs which cinematic language employs are no more than images of separate aspects of reality itself. It's not just a question of colors, lines, sounds, textures and forms, but also of objects, persons, situations, gestures, and ways of speaking. In this way, freed from their habitual connotations and daily use, they are charged with a new significance within the context of the fiction. Film thus captures images of isolated aspects of reality. It's not a simple, mechanical copy. It does not capture reality itself, in all its breadth and depth.

But cinema can reach a higher degree of profundity and generalization, because of the possibility of finding new relations among those images of isolated aspects. Those aspects thus take on new meaning, a meaning not completely alien to them, yet one that can be more profound and more revealing. Film can relate aspects of reality to other aspects and produce surprises or kinds of associations which in daily reality were diluted and opaque because of their high degree of complexity and because people were saturated with seeing such things in their daily life. Thus we find the potential for a revealing operation, destined to raise the level of film's complexity and richness but which is a potential still in growth. It is a potential specific to film, because we're talking about a film language which is nourished by reality and reflects it on the basis of images of objects which are offered up to sight and sound, as if we were dealing with a huge ordering and selecting mirror. Such a way of looking at reality through fiction offers spectators the possibility of appreciating, enjoying, and understanding reality better.

But that should not confuse us. Cinematic realism, in its present capacity, cannot capture reality just like it is" (which becomes only "just like it appears to be"). Rather it does have the capacity to reveal, through associations and through relating diverse aspects pulled out from daily reality — that is to say, through creating a "new reality." In this way, it can reveal deeper, more essential layers of reality itself. It can do it in a way that lets us establish a difference between that objective reality which the world offers us — life in its broadest sense — and the image of reality which cinema offers us within the narrow frame of the screen. One would be genuine reality; the other, fiction.

Now I'd like to elaborate how the cinematic spectacle offers viewers an image of reality which belongs to the sphere of fiction, the imaginary, and the unreal. In this sense, it stands in relative opposition to the very reality within which it is inserted. Clearly, the sphere of the real, in its broadest sense, includes social life and all cultural manifestations. It also encompasses the sphere of fiction, of spectacle — as cultural objects. But, to be rigorous, it's really a question of two diverse spheres, each with its own peculiarities, describable not just as two aspects of reality, but also as two moments in the process of approximating reality's essence. Spectacle thus can be conceived as mediation in the process of penetrating into reality. The moment of the spectacle corresponds to the moment of abstraction in the process of understanding.

The artistic spectacle becomes inserted into the sphere of everyday reality (the sphere of what is continuously stable and relatively calm) as an extraordinary moment, as a rupture. It's opposed to daily life as an unreality, an other-reality, insofar as it moves and relates to the spectator on an ideal plane. (In this being ideal — strange as opposed to the daily or the normative — it expresses its unusual and extraordinary character. It's not that spectacle is opposed to the typical, but rather it can incarnate the typical in that it is a selective process which exacerbates relevant — signifying — traits from reality.)

We can't say, however, that cinema is an extension of (daily) reality but rather is always an extension of (the artists' and the viewers') subjective reality to the degree that it objectifies people's ideological and emotional process. Cinema can draw viewers closer to reality without giving up its condition of unreality, fiction, and other-reality. This happens when and if it lays down a bridge to reality so that viewers can return laden with experiences and stimulation. All the experiences, information, and liveliness which viewers gain on the basis of this relation may remain just on that level — one which may be more or less active in term of reflection, the sensory level.

But film can also initiate in viewers, once they've stopped being viewers and are facing that other aspect of reality (the viewers' own life, their daily reality), a series of thinking processes, reasonings, judgments, ideas and thus a better comprehension of reality itself and a more adequate way of conducting themselves, of acting practically. The spectator's response which follows the moment of the spectacle is an effect of the spectacle.(4)

The most socially productive spectacle surely cannot be one which limits itself to a more or less precise ("honest," servile) reflection of reality just as reality offers itself in its immediacy. That would do no more than duplicate the image we already have of reality. It'd be redundant, a kind of summing up lacking meaning. We could hardly tell that it was a spectacle. The spectacle proper (that is, the one that manifests itself through what we call fiction) asserts itself as a moment of rupture and as a kind of strong emotion in the midst of daily reality, and in this sense opposed to it and negating it. We must establish very clearly what this negation of reality ought to consist of so that it becomes socially productive.

There's a story of a painter, a Chinese painter for all we know, who once painted a beautiful landscape in which you could see mountains, rivers, trees. They were executed with so much elegance, so congruent with the imagination which dictated them, that all a viewer needed was to hear the birds' songs and feel the wind pass between the trees to complete the illusion of standing in front of a real landscape and not a picture. The painter, once finished, stood there contemplating the landscape which had sprung from his head and hands. He was in such ecstasy that he began to walk toward the picture and feel completely surrounded by the landscape. He walked among the trees, followed the course of the river, and withdrew more and more in the mountains until he disappeared toward the horizon.

A great exit for an artist probably. But similar experiences of aesthetic ecstasy for any viewers ought to be conditioned so that the viewers do not lose their way back, and so that they can return to reality spiritually enriched and stimulated to live better in it. For that reason, whatever the landscape of the Chinese painter offers with all of its mysterious charm, it represents the absolute negation of reality and thus (maintaining ourselves on the plane of metaphor) death or insanity.

A spectacle which exercises this kind of fascination for the spectator can be characterized as a "metaphysical negation" of reality. That is, it's a negation which tries to abolish reality through the act of evading it. Of course, that would not be the most socially productive kind of spectacle.

But for a long time, that's been the ideal of spectacle for a class which is essentially hypocritical and impotent, but which has been capable of inventing the most sophisticated mechanisms for justifying itself. It tries to hide from itself the most profound levels of reality which it cannot — or does not — want to change. But that's not the case in a society which is constructing itself on a new basis, which proposes to eliminate all vestiges of human exploitation, which demands all its members' active participation and thus each person's developing a social conscience. Here metaphysical negation, which tries to abolish reality through an act of negation, is precisely opposed to dialectical negation, which aims to transform reality through revolutionary practice. As Engels said,

"To negate, in dialectics, doesn't consist just of calmly and smoothly saying, 'No,' in saying that a thing doesn't exist, or in capriciously destroying it."

Further on he says,

"Every class of things has, therefore, its own particular mode of being negated, in such a way that it engenders a process of development. And the same occurs with ideas and concepts." (Anti-Dühring)

In this way, a spectacle which is socially productive will be that which negates daily reality (the false values crystallized in daily or ordinary thought) and at the same time feels the premises of its own negation. That is, it negates being a substitute for reality or an object of contemplation. It can't just offer itself as a simple way out or consolation for a burdened spectator. Rather it must aid the viewers' return from the other reality — the one which pushed them momentarily to relate themselves to the spectacle, to distract themselves, to play. They should not return complacent, tranquil, empty, worn out, and inert. Rather the viewer should be stimulated and armed for practical action. This means spectacle must constitute a factor in the development, through enjoyment, of the spectators' consciousness. In doing that, it moves them to stop being simple, passive (contemplative) spectators in the face of reality.


1. Patricio Guzman in notes he wrote before making BATTLE OF CHILE, said at that time — the months preceding the fascist coup — he'd never have made a fictional film with actors reciting a text, because reality itself, which was developing before their very eyes, was changing tremendously. At those moments of social convulsion, reality lost its "daily" character, and everything which happened was "extraordinary," new, unique. The dynamics of the change, the tendencies of that development, the very essence of it, were manifested most directly and clearly in moments of relative quiet. For that reason, it captured our attention, and in that sense we can say it is spectacular. Surely the most effective thing at that time was to try to capture those moments in their purest state: documentary. Leave for re-elaboration elements from those moments in which reality seems to be proceeding without any apparent alteration or change. Then fiction becomes a fit instrument for penetrating into reality's essence.

2. This famous code demanded, amongst other things, that film ought to

"shape characters, develop an ideal and inculcate just principles, by using attractive incidents and offering to the spectators' admiration fine examples of good conduct."

Independently of any discrepancy from "ideal" and "just" principles which this revealing document was trying to promote, it is interesting for us to see how it resorts to the most puerile mechanism — posing that spectators admire "fine examples of good conduct". Without a doubt, that mechanism best hides reactionary attitudes, because it only aims at creating an idealized image complacent about reality.

3. In the thesis about artistic and literary culture contained in the Platform and Program of the Cuban Communist Party, we can read,

"Socialist society demands an art and literature which, at the same time that it provides aesthetic enjoyment, contributes to raising the whole people's cultural level. It ought to create a climate which is extremely creative, which impels art and literature's progress as the legitimate aspiration of working people. Art and literature will promote the highest human values, enrich our people's lives, and participate actively in forming the communist person."

4. Certainly TV has brought into homes the most spectacular images of reality; for example, I think about the middle class U.S. viewer drinking beer while seeing on television how the Saigon chief of police opened a hole in a prisoner's head in full public view; all of that was presented in color. Already the representation of those moments has to adjust itself to new circumstances. But the most important thing is that an act is so potent, so unusual, so bloodthirsty, once it's presented as spectacle — that is to say once it is offered up to the spectator's contemplation  — it's found to have notably reduced potency as a generator of a consequent reaction on the practical plane. Probably, surprise would make viewers jump from their chairs, but following that, they'd go to the refrigerator to open up another beer, which would make them sleep tranquilly. After all, those deeds have passed little by little into the plane of everydayness. What would we have to do to move this viewer? It's not enough that the spectacle be real — and that it might be happening at the very moment that one looks at it — so as to generate a productive reaction in the spectator. For that it will be necessary, possibly, to acquire more sophisticated mechanisms.