The film image is an alienated reflection—an imitation of life perilously similar to the original. The man who has lost his reflection may experience terror when he observes it living its own life. The doubling of an image is a propagation that diminishes it, and the man who sees his own doppelgänger has a weaker sense of his own identity than the man who does not. The same may be said of the society that scrutinizes itself on the cinema screen: it views the lost image of itself with near-anthropological dispassion.
And yet the doubling of reality effected by film is also Utopian in nature—literally so, for it creates an ideal and impossible ‘no-place’ from which the self is able to perceive itself and yet remain alive. Many legends associate the vision of the double with the imminence of death. This is because the man who sees his own double has occupied the position of God, and sees himself
There is a sense in which the film actor is akin to a corpse. As we sit in the darkness we follow the patterns of the stars that stand for dead heroes. The star actor differs from the traditional actor of theatre inasmuch as he or she appears to be at home in a world of the dead, to be able to live without access to the mirror of an audience. As we stare at film actors through a two-way mirror, ourselves unobserved, the fact of their breathing somehow fails to cloud the glass. As in Hoffmann’s The Story of the Lost Reflection, the star actor is the object of our stares because of the ontological peculiarity that enables him to live without his reflection. The difference between the star actor and
The doubling of reality by film is essentially uncanny or other-worldly. Even colour film cannot quench the resultant sense of mystery: as Morin points out, if monochrome film presents the world as a shadow, colour films display its reflection. The two types of film are the night-time and day-time aspects of the world of the double. The potentially supernatural nature of the detachable shadow or reflection was adumbrated at the start of the nineteenth century by Chamisso and Hoffmann in the stories of Peter Schlemihl, the man who lost his shadow, and of the lost reflection, respectively. Interestingly enough, the chronological succession of these two stories—Hoffmann’s tale of the lost reflection is later than Chamisso’s work, to which it alludes—prefigures the historical development of the cinema itself, in which monochrome comes before colour. As I have said, many legends hold that one sees one’s double from a position on the brink of death. (May there not be some relation between the darkness of the illusionist theatre and the nineteenth-century fear of being buried alive?) In adopting the theme of the double, the writers of the fin-de-siècle were responding to a suspicion that industrial processes had brought humanity very near its own end. The end, however, could also be a self-transcendence. Benjamin, for instance, was to envisage cinema as the first-fruits of a non-auratic art, in which the fact of mechanical reproduction precludes the monopolization of the art-object, the false creation of scarcity to perpetuate competition and inequality. There is a terrible irony in the actual elitism of the film industry, which withdraws prints from circulation (Psycho, Vertigo, the films of Chaplin) to enhance their value. At present, there is less democratic access to the great masterpieces of cinema than there is to those of any other art form.
Film in a very real sense holds up the mirror to nature: the tracking camera is the mirror on the road beloved of Renaissance aesthetics. Events viewed in a mirror have for the imagination the status of the subjunctive tense. This is why David Thomson terms cinema the art of the subjunctive and remarks with great acuity that ‘the movies do not deal in proof but in mingled precision and speculation’. ‘Speculation’ is the keyword referring one back to the image of the mirror. For the mirror is the simultaneous abode of both realism and fantasy: realistic works are said to ‘mirror nature’, as does the camera when it takes an exact imprint of the impact of light, whilst fantastic art is deemed to ‘invert’ reality—and yet inversion is also a property of the mirror. That is why every cinematic image is a fusion of the real and the fantastic, and why even documentary cannot escape being art. The events that both are and are not are to be classified as ‘subjunctive’. The fact of their mirroring in the camera-eye at the moment of their birth serves to indicate their non-identity with themselves: their self-alienation. As film, reality becomes its own metaphor, displacement or trope: it alone reveals the extent to which reality yearns for another world that is not itself.