Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 11, 2018
Eyal Peretz The Off-Screen: An Investigation of the Cinematic Frame Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017. 272 pp.; 17 ills. Hardcover $65.00 (9781503600720)

Eyal Peretz’s premise is that framed artworks, which include paintings, photographs, cinema, and theater, imply an out-of-frame or off-screen space. This is not the literal exterior surrounding the enframed work—the gallery wall on which a painting hangs, the rafters above the stage, the space beyond the bounds of the movie screen—but the world the artwork creates but does not happen to include within its frame. This off-screen or out-of-frame space is part of the artwork inasmuch as the artwork suggests a complete world of which it chooses to show only part. But this space is also “not” part of the artwork because it is excluded by the frame: “It is only because the painting is framed, in the sense of being cut out or separated from any specific surrounding, that it can create its own fictional realm, a realm in which a visible inside and an invisible outside, one that comes with the painting, wherever it moves, are copresent. It is this invisible outside belonging to the fictional realm that I shall designate as the dimension of the ‘off’” (5).

Peretz further claims that this “off” is “haunting”—and that it haunts not only what is in the frame, on the stage, or on the screen, but the perceiver of the artwork as well. This is putting it mildly, in fact. The “off” is not merely anxiety producing, or a perplexing philosophical abstraction; in Peretz’s hands, the “off” threatens the very identity of the perceiver of an enframed artwork, confronting her with a negation of that identity, of orientation in time or space, of knowledge, of meaning. Indeed, Peretz’s idea of haunting takes on connotations of the ghostly, the otherworldly, the divine, the terrifying, and the cosmic. A representative passage is this one on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972): “the dimension of the ‘off’ carries with it a disidentifying disturbance, for its decontextualizing power takes away any orientation and directionality, any meaning and identity that we might have, depriving us of our name, making us lose our world, and inflicting upon us an empty call” (41–42). One begins to think of “the upside down” in Stranger Things (2016– ), or “the further” in Insidious (2010, 2013, 2015). (More on this analogy to horror and fantasy fiction shortly, but for now I will just signal the “imaginative” and phantasmagorical quality of Peretz’s off-screen dimension.)

It is quite a claim, and one of which Peretz is awfully enamored, as he makes it again and again with little variation across the book, and across paintings by Rembrandt and Pieter Bruegel the Elder, plays by Shakespeare and Beckett, and films by Griffith, Chaplin, Tarkovsky, Howard Hawks, and Quentin Tarantino, among others. Given the scope of Peretz’s argument, and the terrifying power he attributes to the “off,” one begins to wonder: Considering the prevalence of framed images in our everyday lives, how do we survive psychologically when every one of these haunts us with so many fearsome notions: nothingness, placelessness, meaninglessness, and disorientation on a nearly cosmic level? Any framed image, it seems, entails these threats; that we nevertheless enjoy looking at such images is a fact on which Peretz remains silent. His is not the first theory of psychically threatening images; feminist theory in the psychoanalytic mode (à la Laura Mulvey) claimed that any image of a woman triggered castration anxiety in the male viewer, and textual analysts like Raymond Bellour and Thierry Kuntzel hinted at terror lurking beneath the surface of Hollywood cinema. But unlike these theorists, Peretz offers no explanation for our apparent ability to happily consume framed images even as those images threaten us.

Indeed, it is not clear what, if anything, constrains Peretz’s theoretical model or the interpretations it underwrites, which is another way of saying that the “off,” and the interplay between the “off” and the images in the frame, becomes a blunt instrument. Take Peretz’s interpretation of Bruegel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (ca. 1555; likely not actually by Bruegel but “in the style of”); what, in that painting, cannot ultimately be reduced to signifying the “off”? A shepherd, pausing in the midst of his work, looks into the distance—at the “off”; a bird is perched on a branch—ready to fly into the “off”; a sailing ship is in the harbor—having sailed the seas of the “off”; a farmer with a plow, who can both cut (crops) and herd (animals), “decontextualizes” flora and fauna from their normal place in the natural world and thus invokes the “off.” And so on.

The utility Peretz attributes to his concept does not stop at interpreting elements within an image. It is also mobilized to define genres—and genre itself—the medium of film, and, still further, the fundamental condition of modern art. Of an early sequence in Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Peretz, following one of the main characters through a series of rooms across a series of edits (a scene characteristic of Griffith’s distinct style of staging and cutting), writes: “Miss Jenkins becomes the focus of attention through two cinematic procedures: through a cut that isolates her from a larger whole and through being marked as a character who exits existing frames and enters new ones. As such, she is subject to a pattern of transitions between frames, in between which are cuts. What is this pattern, if not the way we can describe the medium of film itself?” (65). With this, the nature of the film medium is settled—unsurprisingly, it is all about the “off.” No objections to an editing-based ontology of cinema—Bazin’s for instance—are entertained. The “off” entails a “cut” (a favorite noun and verb of Peretz); film is fundamentally about cutting; voilà—the “off” is the fundamental condition of film.

A similar series of fast moves allows Peretz to assert that identifying and distinguishing among film genres—horror, romantic comedy, film noir—is a matter of understanding how a given film manages the relationship between on-screen events and the “off.” An analysis of Hawks’s Monkey Business (1952) lingers on the opening credit sequence, in which Cary Grant, as Dr. Barnaby Fulton, repeatedly opens the front door of his house only to be interrupted by an off-screen voice admonishing, “Not yet, Cary.” Each time, Grant recedes into the house and closes the door, and a segment of the opening credits rolls. Peretz begins his analysis by imbuing the Fulton’s front door, dappled with the shadows of off-screen trees, with all the mystery and menace we have come to expect from the “off.” He argues, in typically reductive fashion, that the image is the key to unlocking the question of genre: “Genre refers to the modality in which the relation to and interpretation of the off-screen dictate the progression of on-screen events. To see a film as ‘generic’ . . .  fundamentally means seeing it not only according to events on-screen but in the light of the relations between on-screen events and enigmatic opacity [sic] of the off-screen. Thus, if Cary Grant appears out of the enigma of the off-screen as the closed door opens, we can imagine various ways—that is, various genres—that will dictate the logic according to which what we see will progress. He may be a romantic hero, in which case he will hold the key to someone’s romantic happiness. Alternately, he may be a dark mystery man, harboring evil plans” (178).

Peretz’s description of the scene is inaccurate; he gets the timing of the opening credit music and the fade-in on the first image (the Fulton’s front door) wrong, even though it is the basis for his characterization of the scene as disturbingly enigmatic. But it is probably pointless to be empirical here, given how unfettered and free form Peretz’s interpretations are. The larger objection to make to this passage, and so many others like it in this book, is that it substitutes the blunt instrument of the “off” for a commonplace—that because narratives are time bound they by definition pose questions (or “enigmas” if you like) and lead to revelations. It is hard to see what retreading this process as a dialectic between on-screen events and the “off” contributes to our understanding of generic narratives.

Another way of putting this is to say that the book’s own theoretical framework is so accommodating and malleable that, ironically, nothing falls outside of its purview.  Phrasing the issue this way brings me to another remarkable facet of the book: Peretz’s rhetorical strategies. These are mainly literary conceit, punning, and word association, equivocation, and some awfully bold but not clearly warranted interpretive leaps. “All artists are escape artists,” Peretz announces on the first page. This lays the foundation for the “off,” into which artists seek to “escape.” It also sets the stage for one of Peretz’s main rhetorical moves—making strained analogies via a sort of associational hopscotching, seizing on any connotation of a word that might link it to the idea of the “off” (this is why “cut” is such a handy word for him). Because the opening image of Monkey Business—the closed door facing the camera—is so ubiquitous in film, it reminds us, according to Peretz, of other films. This he redescribes as an “echo,” which he then re-redescribes as “ghostly,” which returns us to the notion of the “off” as “haunting” the image. Peretz plays in this semantic field, but the rules of the game are never clear, and whatever they are, the whole thing feels too easy.

Perhaps this is why fear—indeed, real terror—is so central to Peretz’s concept of the “off.” At times, The Off-Screen reads like an H. P. Lovecraft tale. Every character (even Charlie Chaplin and Barnaby Fulton), every object (including a leaf blowing across the screen in Solaris), every event (such as a comically addled-looking Cary Grant in coke-bottle glasses bossed around by an off-screen voice) is magnified into a portent of a terrifying dimension just out of view, haunting humankind’s cinematic dreams. Lovecraft’s own account of his preferred type of horror tale could almost as easily describe the “off”: “A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”1

Lovecraft’s atmosphere of dread was intended to imbue the horror story with a kind of gravitas, lending it intellectual seriousness that merely gruesome stories lacked. That Peretz seems so eager to endow the “off” with a similar sense of “portentousness” might help explain his characterization of it in terms that reach almost Cthulhian proportions, even in a slapstick comedy. The Off-Screen practically brims over with the sense of its own importance. The terror of the “off,” its awesome magnitude and identity-annihilating power, lends the book a feeling of great philosophical and political urgency.

Of course, Lovecraft wrote fiction.

1. H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” in At the Mountains of Madness: The Definitive Edition (New York: Modern Library, 2005), 107.

Jonathan Walley
Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Cinema, Denison University

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