[(essay date 2010) In the following essay, Lombardo seeks to demonstrate the “performative power” of film—“the type of action that works of art can develop in the mind of the receiver”—by examining portions of two Bresson films, A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002).]
There must be an influx of performative power from the linguistic transactions involved in the act of reading into the realms of knowledge, politics, and history. Literature must be in some ways a cause and not merely an effect, if the study of literature is to be other than the relatively trivial study of one of the epiphenomena of society, part of the technological assimilation or assertion of mastery over all features of human life which is called the human sciences.(Miller 1987: 5)
The power of causing some effects on human lives and minds that J. Hillis Miller suggests in The Ethics of Reading (1987) as the performative action of literature can also be ascribed to art in general and indeed to film, as the inheritor of many characteristics of the 19th century novel, which has often served as the object of contemporary literary theory focused on performativity. Unlike theatre, where the bodies and voices of actors are present in the flesh, cinema1 is based on the one-way communication that Raymond Williams identified in Culture and Society (1958) and in many essays, and that since the 1950’s has been seen as typical of radio, television, and, we should now add, of all the most contemporary forms of technology. Hence, the virtual dimension of the screen is somewhat similar to the written text, exactly because of the fundamental absence of the human body.
I would say that, much more than in theatrical performances, the spectators of films are submitted to a high degree of simulation, a complex mental activity that is quite different from the naïve identification with the lives and stories of the represented characters.2 As in the reading of the novel, the spectators deal with something as abstract as words, but, because of the power of images, they face something, so to speak, “larger than life”: the audio-visual nature of the medium is intimately connected with the possibility of stimulating the spectators’ senses, emotions and intelligence both in relationship with what is narrated, even if in a fragmented way, and with the medium itself. Simulation consists in the spectators’ response to all these stimuli. In the darkness, in front of the big screen, space and sound overcome the usual dimensions of everyday human exchanges.3 There is no doubt that the performative power of film can be extremely strong, even in an age in which we are so used to images that they have lost the dazzling effect of their first impact.4
The critic André Bazin, the founder of Les Cahiers du cinéma, was concerned with the question of the impact upon the spectator: the realism that he was looking for in films has nothing to do...