I have been thinking about what Peter Wollen was saying about thrills, speed and cinema.
You will recall, if you read what I wrote previously, that Wollen describes the psychoanalytical compound of excitement and desire that is evoked by the experience of speed. In the original expression of the theory, by Balint, this applies specifically to the thrills of fair ground rides. For Balint, the thrill associated with speed is a form of auto-eroticism…there’s a surprise!
But, as Wollen shows, it can apply equally to the cinema image. A notion of speed is intrinsic to film – 24 frames a second – and the formal arrangement of storytelling in cinema has tended to foreground the sense of speed attaching to narrative progression. Wollen uses the example of Hitchcock’s profound expertise in relation to suspense in the thriller genre to make his case.
I consider Peter Wollen to be one of the most significant figures in the intellectual history of Britain in the last 50 years. Probably, up there with John Berger and Stuart Hall for a start. No one has heard of Wollen because he is a film-maker, not a literary or cultural theorist. Wollen is probably less well known than his former partner, Laura Mulvey, who is famous for revealing the implicit and gendered meanings that attach to the formal arrangements of film…
I first came across Peter Wollen’s name when I discovered, aged about 20, his Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. I read it when I was about 24 (1982) and the book was already 14 years old! Like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), it revealed a whole new way of looking at the world. Berger examined a number of aspects of modern image culture, including art and advertising. Peter Wollen was writing specifically about films.
You shouldn’t take all this theory of granted. Unless someone points out the different interpretations and meanings that attach to images; you just take them at face value, whatever that means. I guess that is what we are trying to find out.
Anyway, back to what I was thinking about what Wollen had to say about speed and cinema. The obvious point is that it is not necessary to be moving at speed for the psychoanalytical association between danger, anxiety, excitement and desire to work. We can literally be transported – by railway trains or moving pictures – but we sit still. In general, the narrative speed of cinema has accelerated over time. One of the characteristics of old films is how slow they seem to young people.
So, it follows that there must be a category of images that are fast because they look speedy. This might be to do with what they show, how they are painted , or how they are framed. Think of Lartigue’s photographs and of things stepping beyond the frame. That always looks fast.
Making images seem fast is a crucial skill in visual communication.