Thoughts On: Witch's Cradle - Imagery


Witch's Cradle - Imagery

Thoughts On: Witch's Cradle

Another experimental film by Maya Deren, but this time in collaboration with Marcel Duchamp.

I don't much like this film. It's overwhelmed with empty images that don't build into anything resembling a story, a point or a narrative. In saying such, I see no purpose behind this picture, I see nothing to be zoomed in on and picked apart. This may be for lack of trying, however, it's hard to delve into the details of something that doesn't capture your imagination or attention very well. Nonetheless, this is a very interesting film to me, not on the basis of it as a story, or even as a film, but much rather as a movie poignantly depicting a technique: the use of imagery. This film, much like Meshes Of The Afternoon, has a precise concentration on imagery in an attempt to translate a story by essentially creating its own language that we inherently understand. But, this is something we'll get onto in a moment. As said, the imagery in this film is overwhelming - and Meshes Of The Afternoon is probably the best film to use as to comparatively explain why. Deren, in this picture, attaches with great succinctness, all imagery to a character. This somewhat reduces or transforms the abstract quotient of the film--and is a very important thing to do for an audience. With abstraction in art you are essentially telling a mystery, something not much different from the likes of...


The key to telling a great mystery is in the information you divulge. A great mystery slowly gives you tiny details of a case, it uses character as a vessel to take you on a journey of gradual discovery. However, to keep you interested, mystery writers have to inject twists, turns and silent revelations into their narratives (Twists, Turns & Silent Revolutions is now going to be my new band name). To keep readers/viewers riveted, a good mystery has you on the edge of your seat by simply having you want more - but only because you've had a taste of something good. It's a bit like Pokemon - insert slogan. Using imagery to varying degrees of abstractness follows the same principal. You start very ambiguous, but with intriguing images such as...

... and from there you build, you imply a backstory, a movement or growth of character that you can attach to and use to comment on the film. In Meshes Of The Afternoon we see The Woman chasing the cloaked figure, constantly finding herself lost until the end where she is implied to have drowned. There is a progression here, an A to B, and the images given to us in between (everything from the key to the flower to the knife) are there as clues of the mystery, the mystery of why these abstract images are being shown to us and what they mean. This, in my opinion, is the fundamental reason why you'd appeal to abstract imagery to tell a story. It adds ambiguity and so opens up the planes of meaning. In other words, by having a non-concrete plot or narrative, you are engaging the viewer in an artistic, introspective and philosophical game. The game is to not just give the film meaning, but to take all of your implied points of meaning and articulate what they say as a whole. In this sense, we see experimental film as well as abstract and or surreal cinema as an attempt to entertain - an attempt to entertain in the same respect a mystery would. For this reason, I find the film at hand, Witch's Cradle, both an intriguing attempt to test the boundaries of cinema, but also a caution as to where I'd want to go. Its faults lie in the lack of movement, the fact that there is no announced or compelling progression of events, just a lot of things going on with string under the loose theme of traps/games. It's then this kind of film that moves toward the realm of splatter paintings for me - it's an approach to art I find no sense, interest or joy in.

However, I don't want to focus on why I don't much like this film, instead try to articulate what it best teaches - to anyone who doesn't really get it, and doesn't really want to. This kind of film is hard to criticise beyond saying 'it doesn't interest me much'. But, it's also this kind of films that can easily be defended by saying 'you just don't get it'. This creates a vacuum whereby the only means to an end is to agree that the two opposing opinions disagree. Why do they disagree though? Why do some people say they get it and why do some people not? I see the answer in the inherent purpose of imagery. As touched on, imagery is an artistic attempt to simultaneously create, teach and communicate in a new language. This means that films such as this, Meshes Of The Afternoon and Eraserhead, are like a Spanish speaking teacher trying to teach an English speaking class how to create new Spanish words for the translation dictionary they're going to create. The same can be said for almost all abstract or untraditional form of art (new kind of art we're not exposed to often or used to). But, to clarify on the point of imagery and language, films don't talk to us primarily in words. Let's take a famous example of classical Hollywood cinema with this:

Hitchcock, without stuttering, tells us that Marion is running away with the money because of her feelings for Sam - her boyfriend. This is cinematic language, this is using imagery to communicate a story or point. However...

... what is Lynch saying with this? It's not as simple as Marion undressed, stressed, wanting to escape town with the motive of being with her boyfriend. The Lady In The Radiator is an abstract dream of Henry's, one connected his girlfriend, his drifting sexual thoughts and desires, the baby he's been left with and the 'In Heaven' song. With Eraserhead, unlike Psycho, we then get a network of images that work together at unclear distances across the narrative. So, whilst Psycho talks in direct, simple sentences, "Marion wants to leave town with her boyfriend. Having taken thousands of dollars under good trust, she is now undressing, bags packed", Eraserhead talks in circles, tangentially, fingers poised and waving...

What this says about cinema is that there's two approaches to 'talking', to translating to your audience a story through images. There's the direct way and the abstract way. Few films sit on either end of the spectrum, but somewhere in between. However, with Witch's Cradle, Eraserhead and films alike, we get pretty close to the extremes of abstraction. In doing such, we are experiencing the impossible Spanish class touch on before. But, what is probably the most fascinating thing about cinema is that with successful abstract or surreal films we understand the class - we come away with a complete book of personal translations. Having said that, it's important to recognise that Eraserhead and Meshes Of The Afternoon are clearly not too far cut from Witch's Cradle. Nonetheless, Witch's Cradle is the kind of film that is abstract, but to the extent people (I for example) might not get like they would the others. So, again, we're sucked into the vacuum; I don't like the film, but maybe I just don't get it. The question also arises again: why must the two opposing opinions be polar to the point of agreeing to disagree? It comes down to communication. With Eraserhead as my absurd Spanish teacher, I can come away from class with a book of translations I feel comfortable with. With Witch's Cradle... I got nothing worth bragging about.

Now, I understand that all that I've just said is pretty redundant and circuitous because I've kind of explained why the imagery doesn't work for me already. However, I mean to pick up on a larger paradigm of films we get and films we don't get. The reasoning behind us not getting certain films is down to miscommunication. Beyond why or how this happens, I think there is something much more macro and micro-cosmically universal going on. By this, I mean, through something as conceptually banal as 'imagery', we see an existentially intimate and vast relationship between people and the world around them.

These images focus on string as a webbing that possibly trap a woman or couple. In such, I see the presentation of an image, of imagery, as the use of a physical presence to communicate an intangible being. We see the string as an attempt to talk about the intangible concept of the couple, their relationship, feelings and so on. (Though, I'm not too confident in this analysis of the film). Nonetheless, imagery is all about using the world around us to communicate how we (characters) perceive things. It's with this definition that we can see all the better the difference between Psycho and Eraserhead...

With Marion looking at the money we are seeing the intangible concept of her feelings articulating themselves - it's emoting/behaving/acting that tells us the story here. With Henry stood before The Lady In The Radiator, it's not enough that he seems scared, that The Lady seems sweet, that the actors underneath the characters are portraying emotions. Their physical presence isn't doing much of the talking - instead it's the film around them:

The same attempt is being made in Witch's Cradle - the attempt to communicate internal ideas of the characters through external and physical objects...

What inhibits this expression or communication between myself and this film just as it may you and Eraserhead (any abstract film you don't get) is the fact something is malfunctioning along this line of communication. It's either me, the image, or the character on the other end. What myself assuming that the film, the characters or imagery,  are at fault says is that the filmmakers have failed to prove to me that they or they're characters exist. I know, existential, but let me clarify. The whole point of using physical things to talk about intangible ones is that the intangible ones can't speak for themselves. We'll hold onto the idea of Marion in Psycho to delve deeper:

Yes, this is a direct example of an expression of character, but, on a fundamental level isn't. We're being told of Marion's plans to run here - we're being told of her imagination. However, her imagination isn't physically telling us that its going to use this human body to take this paper and run away so that the brain it's attached to continues to pump out the good drugs: love, happiness, comfort. Such is obvious; we're not telepathic. Instead, humans are built to read facial expression and body language. And so, it's the image above that quite literally has the capacity to speak up to or more than 1000s of words. It's the physical presence of Janet Leigh as the middle-man that connects the lines between Marion Crane's imagination and ours. What's interesting is what this says about these images:

Deren, Duchamp and Lynch are in the business of employing new telephone operators to connect lines.

Instead of using actors, they use flowers, knives, string... weird, foetus things. It's the artistic exploration of imagery that is the human endeavour to better communicate. It can be in French, Latin, Spanish, on paper with words, on stone with hieroglyphs or on screens with emojis, but people constantly strive to say things in ways that better communicate their hidden internals - their mind hidden behind their eyes - to the internals trapped in other people.

And it's here where we come upon the crux of what imagery is. Abstract, simple, somewhere in between, all imagery is the endeavour to best say that we are alive, that we exist, that there is something going on in here. Imagery in film is just the attempt to speak in a unique language that hopefully communicates succinctly who we are and who characters are. Keeping this is mind, we have the tools to better tackle the concept in application. What's more, to the stand-still vacuum presented by you saying "I don't understand this film and I don't really want to" and someone else retorting, "You just don't get it", you can now just reply: "I just don't think the film exists". Sure, there's still an agreement on a disagreement to be had, but also a pretentious segue into a debate on the existential tangents of imagery. And if that keeps people talking, well, that's kind of the point, what we all seem to want: to keep yammering on about ourselves.

To find out why Witch's Cradle is apart of the Legacy Series, check out:

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