Watching Martin Scorsese’s impeccable Goodfellas, we are privy to the world of the mob through the character of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). He’s our way into, and through, the film. He never lets go of us and we never let go of him. He is a site of safety amidst the casual violence of Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro. Even when Henry gets violent — pounding a man’s face with the butt of his gun — we are not put off. On the contrary, we feel he’s justified — the man he beats sexually assaulted his girlfriend. So like Lorraine Bracco in the film, we don’t shun Henry — we embrace him.
Most Hollywood films work through this mode of identification. They give us a character — someone safe, someone we like, someone we trust — and then throw us into the mayhem. We identify with someone in the film, as if the film were a representation of real action and this character was our tour guide.
It sounds almost obvious, doesn’t it? Of course a film is a representation; of course we identify with a character. What else could happen? But identification is just one mode, one architecture, of the cinematic experience. There is real life; there is the camera that records; there is the projector and screen that plays it back.
Here, then, is a different mode. Rather than the film representing reality, it becomes an event in and of itself. So we don’t identify with a character in the film; we don’t move through action per se. Rather, we confront — and are confronted by — a visual event, namely, the film. The action then moves from an elsewhere that the camera captures and puts on the screen to the screen itself. The screen shifts from being a way to see what’s elsewhere to being the thing we’re viewing, that we’re confronting. Instead of mediating reality and viewer, the film becomes an immediate experience.
Think of Cassavetes’ Faces. We never identify with a character; we can barely understand what the fuck they’re saying. In some sense, very little happens — it is not an action packed film. The story, such as it is, is achingly banal. But, holy moly, the action is non-stop. The film moves relentlessly and at near infinite speed — not in real space but in affective space. The mood — of the characters, of the film — shifts at a maddening, delirious clip.
We don’t identify with anyone in Faces: we confront, and are confronted, by the film, by its relentlessly shifting affective terrain. (The face, for Cassavetes is a screen, always already playing the flux of affective resonance that is a life.) The film does not seek to confirm who we are and what we know. On the contrary, it is a different kind of event, an event of difference, an affective teem. We come to it and it comes to us and together we move somewhere new. As Henri Bergson might say, the film endures — it is itself a constitution of time and not just a record of another time.
Of course, the line between identification and confrontation is not so neat. Consider Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant in which we intimately follow the titular character, played by Harvey Keitel, through debauchery to quasi-redemption.
The film no doubt entails a certain narrative trajectory, a recording of action through real space rather than a purely cinematic event at the site — as it were — of the screen. And, in some sense, we identify with Keitel, even if he’s grotesque and morally questionable at best.
But watch the scene above. If it were purely informational, that is, just trying to move us through the action, the scene would be shorter and to the point. But it lingers just a bit longer than it presumably needs — she has trouble opening the door; it stays a bit longer on him rubbing his neck; she can’t find her lighter; she re-fixes the pipe for him.
This is all to say, the film confronts us with the possibility, and impossibility, of identification. Within its filming of action, it drifts with affective flow, with a certain insistence: the action is all on the screen, right there — not somewhere else. At this point, it is no longer a recording but an event in and of itself.