The feeling of strangeness that overcomes the actor before the camera, as Pirandello describes it, is basically of the same kind as the estrangement felt before one’s own image in the mirror. But now the reflected image has become separable, transportable. And where is it transported? Before the public.

Walter Benjamin

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 as the Other sees him. The emergence of the art-form that renders it possible for men to observe themselves is part of the fin-de-siècle experience of the Death of God, whose viewpoint is usurped by mankind. For film is the only art-form capable—through photography and editing—of placing a man face to face with himself: he may be his own on-screen spectator (he plays more than one part within the same frame), or he may be off-screen, observing his alienated self from the darkness of the tomb, failing to recognize it as himself, just as one fails to perceive one’s own intonations in the tape-recorded voice others claim is one’s own. It was hardly an accident that the technology of film was synthesized from a random assembly of divergent inventions at the turn of the century: the literature of the fin-de-siècle is aswarm with mirrors and doubles. (The Double had appeared earlier in the nineteenth century as an obsessive motif in the work of the Romantics, but not until the turn of the century did it achieve common currency and thus become an episteme of the ideology of the period, migrating into related forms, such as the detective story, along trails previously blazed by Poe.) The obsession with the image of the Double was largely the fruit of mass production and industrialization: large numbers of identical objects were appearing on the market, thus confounding the traditional view of the uniqueness of the individual object; mirrors were becoming a common feature of the home. The new technological forces generated their own art: film, with its uncanny ability to reproduce the signs of behaviour in isolation from their context, thereby stripping them of their signification. If in some countries it is still customary to describe the screening of a film as a seance, this surely reflects the degree to which the form is steeped in the ideology of nineteenth-century spiritualism: both film and the spiritualist materialize the dead (the medium is the massage). The celluloid is like flat and divisible ectoplasm. The theme is taken up again in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s film Camera Buff, in which the sight of a man’s mother in a home movie partly compensates him for her loss. This is part of the Utopian aspect of film: its poignant documentations of the features of lost time tend even to subvert the fictions in which its protagonists are imprisoned: the fiction dissolves to release a parade of faces. The vision of the dead is both horrific and Utopian: the experience of film involves a mysterious equivocation between this terror and the sense of a Utopia in which the divisions between life and death are effaced. Yet even the Utopia is ambiguous: the person we see on screen may be long since dead, but the living ghost of the screen image hinders the real ghost from making its visitations. All the characters of a film may be dead before we see them.

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 player of supporting roles is the same as Metz’s distinction between the cinematic and the filmic.

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.

In the centralizing societies characteristic of the modern era it is possible to discern connections between objects and phenomena virtually anywhere: the connections are ciphers of their future dovetailing, just as the contours of the great land masses indicate the past fact of continental drift. A traditional Marxist might term these connections ‘reflections’ of superstructure and base. The metaphorical and divided nature of almost everything testifies to the inauthenticity of those things and forges links in the chains of an increasingly all-engulfing system—a hall of mirrors. An object that submits to being photographed—that exists at the stage of history in which photography is practised—shows itself to be a metaphor for itself: to be alienable. If for the Surrealists it is possible to compare anything to anything else, this is because a mysterious ship is roping all objects together and towing them away into the unknown. Thus surrealism is the true modern realism. As the net of the system closes (though never quite closing enough to engulf everything), it becomes increasingly difficult to prise apart the imminent totality and isolate its separate manageable components. For the object has ceased to be manageable or to occupy one place: mass-produced, it is its own ghost. For the writer, this pressure of the totality renders problematic the boundary of the sentence and the paragraph. Proust wished his novel to be printed without paragraphs, and Kafka’s late pages are stifling blocks of homogenized print. The growing desire to totalize reality gave birth first to the Gesamtkunstwerk and then to cinema. A film has no paragraphs: it impels one forward as relentlessly as the first fifty pages of Beckett’s Molloy. The lack of paragraphs or visible internal subdivisions (one does not see the twenty-four frames per second) compromises both the habit of filming novels, in which such divisions are present, and the Brechtian practice of inserting artificial punctuation marks, such as captions. As reflections criss-cross within society, as the arts mingle within the Gesamtkunstwerk—the familiar compound ghost of each and every art—all objects and people become metaphorical. One can ‘identify’ with another person in a film (where theoretically the palpable fact of visual difference ought to inhibit identification) because one is already other than oneself, like the mass-produced articles of the society one lives in. In the camera obscura, the cinema, the darkness of the negative is a revelation of the actual darkness of what the world sees as light.