The Art of Affect in Film

On “Spencer,” “Inherent Vice,” the films of Sofia Coppola, John Cassavetes — and more! — with pervasive, if unstated, reference to Gilles Deleuze and how filmic affect distinguishes itself from the affect of characters and the mechanics of story, becoming a material (albeit invisible) in its own right.

Daniel Coffeen
Reading the Way of Things


Art Is the Art of Affect

Art is precisely the art of affect and not, as is sometimes believed, the art of representation. Art is not beholden to the real because art is itself real. As a friend of mine wrote ages ago, “The life recorded is the life doubly lived.” That is to say, painting, photography, film, sculpture, essay, novel: they’re certainly real—and with the acute power to transform people, no less.

Now, photography and cinema — as distinct from painting, theater, and the other arts— seemingly complicate this. After all, they record the world rather than create it. This is a critical distinction for while film shares much with painting, sculpture, and literature, it is radically different in that it introduces this incredibly strange element: recording—the mechanistic reproduction of the world. (Photography differs from the printing press in that the printing press doesn’t write the book, even while it dramatically altered the form of written words.)

But while recording is essential to filmmaking, it is just as paint is essential to painting and words to writers. There is an important distinction between recording and creating but neither is closer to the real. This act of recording does not introduce an aesthetic criterion of fidelity or proximity to the real. Rather, these photographic ghosts of the so-called real are a material of art.

Andy Warhol’s eight-hour recording of the Empire State Building is an act of cinema—a creation of images, not a report of the real.

The distinction between recording and creating is complicated by the fact that cinema is not solely recording but is the constructing of images—even if this construction is premised on the act of recording. Warhol’s eight-hour recording of the Empire State Building is a cinematic creation, not a reporting of the real. The distinction is all the more tenuous as every recording — even, or even particularly, surveillance cameras — is enmeshed in a system of meaning that, to some degree, necessarily determines the sense of its images. The recorded image will never have been neutral.

No, cinema — or any image, really — is not primarily an act of representation. It’s an act creation. What does it create? Events. Images may describe the world but they primarily move people — to action, to understanding, to laughter, to tears. Film forges affect.

What is Affect?

I don’t want to get too involved in a discussion here of what affect is and how it operates. It’s a complicated subject that I’ve written and talked about quite a bit. So here’s what I said about it two years ago if you’re interested. But if you want to skip to the good parts, I’ll say this in the name of pith: affect is the invisible state of things—the moods, if you will, that flood life. Affect may be invisible but it is nonetheless a texture palpated as lived experience. It is a material, albeit invisible, that saturates the world.

For instance, you walk in a bar and it feels a bit funny so you leave. What is that funny feeling? How do you determine it? That is affect. And it is perceived by means that supersede our well-known five senses. Unfortunately, affect is a neglected field of knowledge because our reigning knowledge system is predicated on measurable quantification—and affect, alas, is known through, and as, lived qualitative experience, not as a measurable number.

(This is why “science” ignores affect—there’s no way to measure it. And so this science, and popular discourse, assumes that affect is therefore subjective. But affect is not solely subjective but is of the object (hence “objective”). Just go to a movie theater and hear most of the room laughing at the same time: the film is funny. Affect does not solely occur “in” individuals but is a communicative layer of all life connecting individuals to the film. But that’s a subject for another essay.)

A talk I gave on affect. Be warned: it’s a bit dense.

The Affect of Film Is Not the Affect of Characters

To be clear, when I talk about the film’s affect, I am doing precisely that — talking about the affect of the film. I am not talking about the affect displayed by characters in the film. That is, a character may be sad but the film, at that juncture, may or may not be. This should be obvious. Comedies, for instance, often have people crying as we viewers laugh. (Anyone for Stanley Cavell’s “Must We Mean What We Say?” or, for that matter, JL Austin’s How To Do Things With Words among any other number of texts that flesh out the distinction and intertwining of content and action, description and performance?) Just watch this montage of crying scenes and see how the variation in filmic affect varies wildly even though someone is crying in each.

The crying of characters is clearly not the crying of the film.

Filmic affect, then, is distinct from the affect of characters. When Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s face fills the frame of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, we are no longer seeing the face of a character or even of a particular person. Her face, in this close up, becomes the film itself—filmic affect rather than character affect.

In Dreyer’s close-up, Falconetti’s face transcends the human, becoming filmic affect.

This is not just the recording of an actress playing a character. In close up, Falconetti’s face takes leave of her human individuality to become the pure expression of affect. It is a texture and event that is no longer tethered to any single person—not even to Falconetti or, for that matter, to Joan of Arc—but nonetheless finds expression as that face. When Dreyer zooms in, he rids these faces of their individuality so that they are no longer such and such a person. Rather, they become an affective force that at once traverses and transcends the personal, and even the human, experience.

Much of the time, at least in “Hollywood,” films rely on the affect of its characters to do the work of moving the world. When Bella is sad, we feel her sadness. And yet there is clearly an affect in Twilight that exceeds the affect of its characters. Catherine Hardwicke conspicuously crafts a pervasive mood—a combination of cinematography, rhythm of editing, costumes, and acting that creates something different from story and character.

Or consider the rom-com. If I were to watch, say, Bridget Jones’s Diary solely for its characters and story, I’d be annoyed, at best. At some point, I’d want to yell at Bridget: “Stop! Find contentment in yourself!” And then I’d scream: “Really? Colin Firth? What an outrageous bore! Can’t you see that Hugh Grant is so much cooler?” I’d be driven mad with the inane assumptions the film makes about sex, gender, romance, and friendship. And yet the film is charming (and, yes, so is Renée Zellweger). (Yes, this goes against the most common mode of critique that cancels movies— and books—for what they say, ignoring how they say it.)

What I’ve come to realize about rom-coms is that they just want to make you feel good. It’s not a complicated good. It’s not interesting and, most of the time, the good feeling doesn’t persist for very long. These films most often don’t want to alter the fundamental structures of knowledge, of film, of identity, of life—which is what I tend to want from the films I watch. But there is something to be said for films that just want you to feel good.

This is all to say, film is not the reporting of the real. It’s the art of affect.

“Spencer’s” Singular Affect

Pablo Larraín’s Spencer—like Jackie, even if Spencer is more unabashedly sumptuoushits one note and sustains it for the whole film. There are no crescendos or, for that matter, decrescendos. There are no great conflicts—at least none that the film introduces. There are of course inherited conflicts and storylines—marital affairs, modern mores, royal family stuffiness. But in the course of the film there are no real fights, no revelations of information, no shifts in character or circumstance, no reporting. This is not a film about Lady Di.

Which makes it a bit unusual for Hollywood which clings stubbornly to action, story, and character. Hollywood films tend to focus on the subject matter—Super heroes to save the world! Political intrigue! A love story! These films might as well be poorly drafted storybooks. (A notable exception are some charged action films, such as the Bourne trilogy, that are adrenaline drenched even as they tell a story.)

Fortunately, Larraín’s two films are not the dreaded biopics Hollywood is so fond of these days in which studios dazzle us with the mimicry of actor and sets but whose films are bereft of even the slightest whiff of internal life or cinematic grace. Hollywood’s biopics are referential and expositional, through and through — and are hence dead on arrival, reporting what we already know.

In his films, Larraín removes action nearly all together while making character and story constitutive of a single driving affect—an emotional texture, a tone, that runs throughout taking up everything in its path from costumes to framing to rhythm to soundtrack. While posing as stories of famous women, Larraín has created two films in which story and character serve the real focus of the film—singular moods.

No doubt, Larraín relies on the inherited stories of Diana and Jackie, thereby liberating him from having to tell a story. Even Spencer’s establishing shots are not expositional as much as they are continuous with the film’s singular affect. But the real stories of these women are irrelevant; we don’t need to know who Princess Di or Jackie Kennedy were. By leading with affect, Larraín has the luxury of making historical “facts” beside the point. What matters is the mood of the film, not its veracity.

Veracity is an external assessment: does this film match what really happened? This is an odd criterion for any art. Filmic affect, on the other hand, emerges as an interplay of elements, streaming from the inside out, as it were. If veracity is ruler measuring a film, affect is an at once internal and external glow, saturating and inflecting experience.

From Dreyer to Cassavetes to Sofia Coppola

Larraín does not tell stories; he proffers moods. This is not novel. There is in fact a distinctive history of affective filmmaking. Just think of Dreyer’s legendary film from 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Even while Dreyer had the setting built in its entirety, we see very little of it: Dreyer did what he did to inform and drive the the transformation of the human face into filmic affect. (In his admittedly obtuse cinema books, the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, refers to the close up as the affecting-image). “Spencer” lives in a direct line with Dreyer’s film.

Whereas Larraín forges a singular affect, Cassavetes operates with careening affect.

Cassavetes, too, privileged affect over story. But whereas Cassavetes reveled in the play of affect—its liquidity, its ability to careen and disorient everyone from character to actor to director to the audience to the film itself—Larraín knows no such careening. On the contrary, everything in his films is tightly controlled, impeccably orchestrated, to deliver one single note from beginning to end. There are no swings and only the slightest of undulations, some minor pleats within the overall fabric as Diana gets a glimmer of respite here and there. But, in the end, Larraín delivers sumptuous angst and nothing but.

Sofia Coppola does something similar in her films: she delivers a singular mood from beginning to end as story serves affect rather than the other way around. Coppola, like Larraín, is a crafter of moods, not a storyteller. And they don’t create a smattering of moods, as Cassavetes proffers, but rather meticulously forge a single sustained mood.

Coppola does tell stories but the stories are, finally, secondary. Tell someone the plot of Lost in Translation and see how far you get. This young woman is in Japan, alienated from her husband. She meets an American actor. They hang out together. I mean, it’s not that compelling a tale. No, what drives that film is its mood of glittering melancholy. Or take Somewhere, my favorite Coppola film: an American movie star spends time with his daughter at Chateau Marmont while feeling alienated. This is all to say, Coppola creates moods more than she creates characters or stories.

Of course, story and character are not opposed to affect. Affect is unavoidable as everything—everything—is affected. Everything is mooded; there is no affective neutrality (although there is affective banality). The question is the role affect plays in the filmic experience. The Coen Brothers weave character, story, and affect together into complex films brimming with rich characters and complex plots and always—always—with a conspicuous mood of misanthropic farce. But they can pitch a story as they flesh out fantastic characters; the mood is there and is essential but story, character, dialogue will always be in the forefront.

For Larraín, Sofia Coppola, and John Cassavetes affect takes precedence. Characters are colors of affect while story and cuts are painterly strokes— Cassavetes, the Jackson Pollock of filmic affect; Sofia Coppola, Klimt; and Larraín, Rothko, perhaps.

For Cassavetes, characters are painterly drips of affect careening and colliding.
Sofia Coppola is the Gustave Klimt of cinema—decorative romantic drama.
Larraín is the Mark Rothko of film—one meditative mood, even if Larraín is more angst riddled.

How to Watch PT Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”

PT Anderson’s film of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice inevitably confounds viewers who’ve been trained to watch films for story and character (and who haven’t read any Pynchon). This film belies such viewer expectations, leading instead with affect — a mood (mood and affect are not quite the same thing but I don’t want to be too pedantic) of cool, sexy, beautiful, languorous sumptuousness.

Just look at this opening scene of the film. While playing the role of exposition, revelation is kept to this sliver of ocean, severed by bungalows, traversed by playing kids, and narrated as a stoney dream. The film does not show us ocean, kids playing, and bungalows while explaining the plot. Rather, the ocean, kids playing, bungalows, and voice over are strokes of affect, elements that when mixed just so blend to become this filmic affect, this mooded experience.

The opening of “Inherent Vice” belies exposition, leading with affect rather than reporting.

The film offers a story of mind boggling complexity with characters who are saturated in themselves. And yet if you watch the film for its story, you’ll be stymied and, most likely, annoyed (especially if you’ve never read any Thomas Pynchon). The characters are fantastic but they’re all fanciful, impossibly odd—not the stuff of Hollywood “drama.” The art of Inherent Vice is not its story, characters, or dialogue: it’s the creation of the most exquisite, decadent, generous mood—stony, hazy, luscious, erotic, light, playful, indulgent, sumptuous.

I like to watch Inherent Vice over the course of a day—tuning in, tuning out, going about my business, then visiting with it. It makes for a luxurious day, basking in this mood—this mood that I want all my art and friends and relationships to perform. I don’t as much watch the film as live with it. It’s akin to mood lighting or buying flowers. Only Inherent Vice is more potent, getting into the blood where it breeds delight.

I like to imagine PT Anderson pitching the film by selling the mood he’s after. Of course, filmmakers use what they call mood boards as part of the pitch — a collage of found images that convey the look of the film. And, in this look, affect is necessarily present. But affect is tricky. It exceeds faces, objects, and colors while permeating them all. Working with affect is the art — knowing how to maintain it, nudge it, shift it through set design, cinematography, editing, dialogue.

So I love to picture PT Anderson creating a multimedia piece of sounds, faces, smells, textures as he excitedly declares, “Don’t you see?” “But what’s the story, Paul?” asks the studio exec, “What’s it about?” To which PTA replies, “I’m making a mood here!” For that is the true art of cinema: the forging of affect.