To Mock a Killingbird:
Martin Arnold's Passage à l'Acte and the Dissymmetries of Cultural Exchange
Although film remakes and cinematic adaptations have occurred consistently since the inception of the medium, it seems contemporary cinema is experiencing an unprecedented wave of remake productions. Along with the big-budget, blockbuster franchise film, the remake has become a regular component of popular cinema. Particularly notable within this cycle is the Hollywood adaptation of films from other national cinemas. Traditionally, Hollywood has initiated much of this transnational textual migration and benefited significantly from it. As these texts travel across national and cultural borders, and are subsequently revised by Hollywood, numerous formal, economic, and ideological transactions occur. These changes are neither a-cultural nor impartial, and I believe cross-national adaptations can be analyzed in order to gain a better understanding of contemporary cultural dynamics. The work of Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Martin Arnold, specifically his 1992 film Passage à l'Acte, illuminates greater issues related to the adaptation of cinematic works across national and cultural boundaries. In Arnold's Passage à l'Acte, one sees a mode of cultural exchange which reverses the Hollywood practice of cultural domination and calls attention to contemporary concerns about filmic representational strategies and legacies. By reworking footage from a Hollywood film, namely To Kill a Mockingbird , Arnold invokes notions of intertextuality while rendering insights into the film that he chose to transform. Additionally, his film makes use of critical strategies found throughout the avant-garde. However, Passage à l'Acte must be situated within a culturally specific tradition, and in this light, his work indicates the extent to which texts can migrate and function differently within different cultural contexts.
Martin Arnold began making experimental films in the mid-1980s, having studied international avant-garde as well as Hollywood films under legendary Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka. Arnold first gained recognition for his 1989 film Pièce Touchée, winning numerous awards at international film festivals and garnering the acclaim of several eminent film scholars. The film takes a small section of the 1954 film, The Human Jungle, and subjects it to extreme rhythmic manipulations. In optical printing, Arnold duplicates frames of the original film and plays them backward and forward in tiny increments. This creates a continuous rocking motion on and off the screen, and frequent explosions in composition.
His second film, Passage à l'Acte, made in 1992, works in a similar manner. The film takes as its source material a brief moment from the 1962 Hollywood film To Kill a Mockingbird. As is well known, To Kill a Mockingbird was an adaptation of the novel by Harper Lee, published in 1960. In many ways, To Kill a Mockingbird serves as a prominent touchstone for book-to-film adaptations. For example, it is a traditional assignment in high-school English classes to compare and contrast the book and the film. It will suffice to say here that the film is a fairly straightforward and faithful rendering of the written text. It obeys all the conventional Hollywood narrative strategies of the era. Evenly balanced compositions run together according to traditional rules of continuity editing. Character motivation provides the causal drive to the succession of images, dialogue, scenes, and sequences. It also bears mention that the film, as well as the novel, worked within a specific cultural and historical context. At that time, racial politics remained a prominent and contentious issue within American society. Although advances had been made in civil rights laws, such as the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1960, racial bigotry and institutionalized prejudice against African Americans remained a pressing issue. Thus, the racial consciousness and liberalism of the novel, and the film, resonated with the optimistic aspirations of the nation. The novel was immensely popular, winning the 1960 Pulitzer Prize, which helped lead to the speedy Hollywood adaptation. The film was extremely popular and received significant critical acclaim, earning three Oscars at the 1962 Academy Awards, and it remains a cherished film classic from that era.
Passage à l'Acte is something quite different. It is comprised entirely of a short segment from To Kill a Mockingbird, and extends what was originally mere seconds into a short film over ten minutes in length. The excerpted scene depicts the Finch family gathered around the breakfast table as the children prepare for the first school day of the year. Within its original context in To Kill a Mockingbird, this scene is hardly notable and does not bear a significant relationship to the primary drive of that film's plot. Martin Arnold takes this scene and, similarly to his work in Pièce Touchée, subjects it to extreme duplications and rhythmic manipulations via procedures of optical printing. The precisely sequenced duplication of frames creates numerous repetitions and reversals in movement, producing jarring visual excitement. Arnold subjects the soundtrack to similar repetitions, creating beats and rhythms that explode off the screen. However, even within this realm of formal experimentation, it is difficult, if not impossible, to escape the fact that one is watching some transformed version of To Kill a Mockingbird, as this film is literally comprised of the other.
In this direct referentiality, Passage à l'Acte clarifies notions of intertextuality, defined by Gérard Genette in the book Palipsests as "a relationship of copresence between two texts," or "the actual presence of one text within another." This seems an apt description of Passage à l'Acte, as one is asked to read the original film, the film currently playing, and the relationship between the two. As theories of transtextuality/intertextuality have contributed to the study of cinematic remakes and other adaptations, such overtly intertextual works as Arnold's help foreground the material foundation of these theories. Genette describes five different modes of transtextuality, of which the notions of "hypertextuality" and "metatextuality" seem the most applicable in this instance. The hypertextual model describes how certain texts, or hypertexts, refer to previous works, or hypotexts, in such a way that the latter are transformed to some degree. Within these terms, To Kill a Mockingbird provides the dominant hypotext for Passage à l'Acte, which functions overtly as a hypertext. Arnold's formal process of minute repetition serves to separate his film from its source, and provides the means for the viewer to negotiate their relationship. This transformative process also illuminates the metatextual function of Passage à l'Acte, where metatextuality refers to those functions by which the hypertext engages in a critical commentary on the hypotext.
In terms of its critical stance, Passage à l'Acte treats To Kill a Mockingbird in both general and specific terms. First, Passage à l'Acte functions as a kind of filmic synecdoche of the prior film by excising a select moment within it and turning this into an internally complete unit. Arnold's particular method of optical printing compounds this shift toward generalization. By manipulating To Kill a Mockingbird at the fundamental level of its progression of frames and sounds, Arnold indicates the degree to which this particular film stands in for an entire formal and institutional practice of a particular era and culture. That is, Arnold transforms To Kill a Mockingbird into a representative of post-classical narrative film strategies, which become the object of his analysis. The repetitions and reversals in the flow of images emphasize certain actions and gestures in such a way as to implicate and disrupt otherwise invisible formal strategies, products of the Hollywood cultural apparatus. Suspending the metonymic chain established in To Kill a Mockingbird, these repetitions reveal the alterity within the frames and defer their sequentially constructed meanings.
The disruption of the soundtrack also radically alters the functions of the original film. Similar to a hip-hop DJ, Arnold samples the original audio and creates a new orchestration through minute segmentation and repetition. Beats, such as a door slamming or the dropping of a fork, take on a new aesthetic prominence. At times, the audio composition takes precedence over the images altogether, as the film plays upon syllables and incidental noises as independent elements. The segmentation and repetition at the audio level transforms the dialogue into largely unintelligible barks and yelps, sounds of no greater meaning than any other. Arnold thus eliminates the power of language to direct the narrative and lend the images causal motivation. This places even greater emphasis on the image as a site of meaning and contributes to the generalized register of the film's metatextual critique.
Within this generalized register, Passage à l'Acte appears to analyze the implicit sexual politics of To Kill a Mockingbird, and suggests that these are embedded within the very mise-en-scène of the film. The framing strategically circumscribes a portrait of a nuclear family eating a morning meal. The woman on the right of the screen, a neighbor in the original film, is now easily viewed as the wife and mother in this familial unit. Her immobility and silence testify to the passivity of female characters within traditional Hollywood narratives. Gregory Peck becomes a demonic father, whose verbal and gestural commands speak to a greater masculine authority. In this register, the scenario describes the indoctrination of the young male and female into the traditional gender roles assumed by the parents. Peck orders the young boy to obey, the young boy in turn commands the young girl, who in turn supplicates to the masculine authority and inherits her mother's passivity. Thus the film delineates a certain chain of command within the nuclear family, as an otherwise unremarkable product of the post-classical Hollywood representational paradigm.
Moving in from this generalized register to examine the specific relationship between the two films reveals a complex and ironic textual confluence. Passage à l'Acte strategically excises all the racial issues which had presumably been at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird. Arnold's film relegates Calpurnia, the Finch family's African American nanny, to a mere half-shape on the right hand side of the screen. Indeed, her role as moral authority in the original novel, already diminished in the film adaptation, is now fully negated. The moment from To Kill a Mockingbird which comprises Passage à l'Acte has no bearing on the previous film's major narrative conflict, the accusation and trial of Tom Robinson, which functions to singularly articulate the original film's liberal ideology and message of tolerance. Although the film analyzes and critiques the politics of representation within To Kill a Mockingbird, this critique is entirely manifested in gender and generational constructions within a White social frame. In this way, Passage à l'Acte may implicate the racial hierarchy within the liberal ideology of the former film, by construing the racial issues as a "backdrop" to its real motivation, the indoctrination of the young female into a strict gender hierarchy. Passage à l'Acte reveals the extent to which the young girl, Scout, finds herself at the mercy of the male figures in her life. Just as Scout learns, from her father, invaluable lessons about the injustices of racial bigotry, so too must she conform to sexist social norms. This analysis is a far cry from readings of To Kill a Mockingbird that emphasize the representation of Scout as an empowered and thoughtful female character. Further, this indicates how the earlier film mobilized gender stereotypes and hierarchies within its greater, racially liberal representational strategy. Through emphasizing gender inequality, Passage à l'Acte threatens to reify the notion that race and gender hierarchies are constructed in isolation of one another, or at least plays ambivalently with these divisions through its elision of the racial component. Nevertheless, this significant retroactive revision of the previous text indicates some of the critical powers and risks of overt intertextuality.
The intertextual copresence and metatextual commentary one finds in Passage à l'Acte seems inherent to found footage films more generally, as this practice overtly addresses issues of referentiality by situating previous film footage in new contexts. In his extensive study of the genre, Recycled Images, William C. Wees distinguishes three categories of found footage films. The compilation film reworks old images in such a way as to comment on the subject of the images, but not on the "representational nature of the images themselves." The collage film, on the other hand, actively interrogates the nature of representation itself through sophisticated use of montage. Such classics as Bruce Connor's A Movie and more recent work by Craig Baldwin typify this approach. Wees defines appropriation works as those that reference previous films in the postmodern idiom of pastiche, where references do not demand any recognition of the source nor do they engage in deconstructive strategies. Passage à l'Acte thus appears most aligned with the collage film in its critical examination of representational practices. However, it substantially extends the deconstructive grammar available to found footage films. Arnold reveals how substantive and critical difference can be asserted without resorting to juxtapositions made in editing. His film maintains the exact same set of images as they existed in the original film. Additionally, each frame of the original maintains its relation with the frames around it, however much their rate and directional flow have changed. It is precisely at the level of the frame that Arnold's film articulates its critique of To Kill a Mockingbird, and by extension, post-classical Hollywood.
Arnold's evasion of intellectual montage and use of frame-level disruptions can be traced to the metric films of Austrian experimental filmmaker Peter Kubelka. In both theory and practice, Kubelka worked to move beyond Eisenstein and declared that meaning in cinema occurred not between shots, but between frames. To this end, Kubelka's metric films engaged in amazingly complex editing patterns of minutely segmented pieces of footage, culminating in the 1958 film Arnulf Rainer, comprised entirely of juxtaposed white and black leader, white noise and silence. His films were meant to illustrate the essential properties of the film medium, as projections of light and dark operating at a certain speed, where movement itself is an illusion of the apparatus. Kubelka, along with several other contemporaries, initiated a long tradition of structural film within Austria, as well as internationally.
Thus, the films and formal strategies of Peter Kubelka provide an additional intertextual axis along which to read Passage à l'Acte. In this way, Martin Arnold's film should not be understood merely as another example of the deconstruction of Hollywood by the international avant-garde, but as a culturally specific resistant reading of a popular text and international institution. The use of Kubelkan metric structures speaks to a regionally and historically specific filmmaking tradition, which Arnold inherits and deploys to new ends. For, while Peter Kubelka sought to illustrate fundamental principles of the film medium, an endeavor within the ahistoric and apolitical objectives of high modernism, Arnold uses these tactics toward the aggressive analysis of a historically and internationally dominant cultural practice. In this way, Arnold invigorates the strategies of Peter Kubelka with the power of ideological and cultural critique, similar if not equal to the critical powers of Eisenstein's dialectical montage. Additionally, one must note that Peter Kubelka's films were made in roughly the same period as To Kill a Mockingbird. Thus, Arnold's combination of the Kubelka's technical strategies with the actual material of To Kill a Mockingbird can be viewed as an attempt to synthesize two seemingly opposed, though historically synchronous, filmmaking traditions. Arnold's is an attempt to reenvision the course of international film, as it were, combining the popular and the unusual, the mainstream and the marginal. In this light, the constant repetition in Arnold's film calls attention to the very act of reviewing old films. In their obsessive reviewing of classic footage, they are in some ways about the very act of negotiating film history and the incommensurate practices found therein.
Looking at Arnold's films with regard to their cultural specificity also provides an insight into the limits of their critical powers, specifically his effacement of the racial issues in To Kill a Mockingbird. In an interview, Arnold said of this omission "I wouldn't want to play around with that material." This statement at once indicates his playful attitude toward the filmmaking process and acknowledges his fear of the possibility of improperly configuring culturally delicate material. It is a matter of inappropriate appropriation. In this light, the racial issues and the specific form of their treatment in To Kill a Mockingbird can be seen as nationally specific to the United States, however much Hollywood functions as an international cinematic institution and representational paradigm. Thus, Arnold's evasion of the racial issues in the previous text indicate his own specific cultural frame, inasmuch as he is unable or unwilling to address that which is genuinely foreign. Yet, it would be untrue to say that there is nothing left of African American culture in Passage à l'Acte. Although the visual track of the film does not acknowledge racial difference, the soundtrack mobilizes tropes of hip-hop music, which at the time the film was made was largely associated with African American culture. By 1992, hip-hop had gained widespread popular appeal within the United States as well as internationally, and so began transversing traditional racially constructed cultural boundaries. Thus, one might say that the racial issues of To Kill a Mockingbird are modified and displaced from the image track to the audio. Further, this displacement speaks to a move toward an internationalized idiom of African American popular culture, thus providing Arnold with a highly mitigated point of access to nationally specific racial politics. In this way, Arnold's film breaches divisions between the nationally specific and the internationally comprehensible, even where these fissures indicate the cultural specificity of his work.
Arnold's modes of production, distribution, and exhibition contribute to the idea that his films represent culturally specific re-workings of popular texts. By his own account, Arnold works in a strictly artisanal manner. However, Arnold regularly receives economic and institutional support from the Austrian Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts, as part of their general support for non-commercial films of "innovative quality." Additionally, Arnold co-founded Sixpack Film in 1991 with several other Austrian filmmakers. This group serves as a coherent mechanism aimed at promoting, distributing, and exhibiting Austrian avant-garde films and other works in concert with governmental institutions. This does not imply that Arnold's films are purely the products of the Austrian state and their cultural agenda, but instead, should indicate how his personal artistic vision serves to represent a greater cultural imperative. Indeed, this synthesis of government financing and institutional support with the artistic vision of the solitary artist sounds strikingly similar to what Thomas Elsaesser has called a "cultural mode of production." In this way, Sixpack Film has been instrumental in formulating a distinctly "Austrian avant-garde," through organizing retrospectives and touring exhibitions of films by a number of Austrian filmmakers from a range of time periods. What seems striking in Arnold's case is that this cultural mode of production, within the tradition it formulates, functions in direct and critical appraisal of Hollywood, specifically through a disruption of the formal tendencies instituted by that institution. Additionally, as Arnold's films proliferate through culture via international experimental film festivals, venues that have long been sites of formal and cultural opposition to Hollywood, they continue to be defined by their marginality. In this case, Arnold's work is re-internationalized, though in a substantially different circuit than the international market of commercial theaters. In a way, To Kill a Mockingbird continues to circulate through international film culture and win awards, but it now reveals a complex process of cultural revision, displacement, and exchange.
Passage à l'Acte thus has critical appeal and relevance beyond the confines of the select audience of experimental films, traceable in several ways. One should view the overt intertextuality in Arnold's films not just as a practice neatly aligned with theory, but as indicating new and compelling explorations of the suspension of the photographic signifier, of the relative weight and historical power of images. Notably, Passage à l'Acte was made amidst the advent of digital photography, the circulation of the George Holliday tape of the Rodney King beating, and the first Gulf War; in other words, a period defined by new questions as to the meaning and political weight of images. As the crisis of representation that these events invoke has been in no way resolved, films such as Arnold's mark prescient and necessary investigations into the genealogy of image-making practices. Additionally, Arnold's film illuminates processes of cinematic adaptation, specifically in regard to those formal and institutional procedures by which texts migrate through and across cultural spaces. As Hollywood remakes of so-called "foreign" films appear to occur regularly, rapidly, and with great formal similarity, such as in the case of the two Insomnia films [1997, 2002] or Abre los Ojos and Vanilla Sky [1997, 2001], films like Passage à l'Acte might serve in the general charting of alternative textual movements. Although Hollywood ceaselessly transforms the works of other, marginal cinemas into globally popular texts, we should not neglect resistant and culturally specific practices, such as Arnold's, as we analyze the greater processes of adaptation. In this regard, Passage à l'Acte usefully indicates some of the dissymmetries of cultural exchange and expands the possibilities for critical cinematic intertextuality.