A few years ago, while walking the spectacular Larapinta Trail across the arid lands of Central Australia, I paused on top of a ridge to take a photo of a clump of spinifex grass framed against the patches of purple, pink, red, yellow and olive in the expansive desert below. When I looked at the photo, in an uncanny moment the breeze brushed the top of the ridge and the spinifex shuddered into life: I had inadvertently flipped the camera to video. Fascinated by this moment of unexpected animation, I watched this clip repeatedly, trying to understand why this moment, as the wind stirred the spinifex into movement, gripped me so profoundly. This revelatory moment evoked the ‘shudder of [an] idea’ (Grant, 2014) that grass could hold a key to enigmatic dimensions of cinematic experience. Following Catherine Grant’s conceptual invitation to explore unformed seeds, the stirring of an amorphous curiosity, and encouraged by Christian Keathley’s advice to follow an intuition (Keathley, 2005: 144-5), I began to look for how cineastes use grass as a condensed cinematic figure: how it can be deployed to open up energetic registers across a shot that act like a shortcut into sensuous, embodied experience and cinematic intensity.
Once you start looking for grass in cinema, you find it everywhere. Cinematic grasses are much more than just landscape or location. Grass is made up of multiple fine blades, stems and seed-heads, and each blade can move independently in conflicting directions and rhythms, as it manifests the erratic energy of wind, generating haptic vectors of movement inside the frame. These multi-stranded fibres can absorb, reflect, fracture and disperse light across the screen in constantly fluctuating patterns, producing complex intermeshing and contradictory tactile densities and layers of kinetic rhythm. These multiplanar images can immerse the viewer in the sheer pleasure of a decentred kinetic delirium.
Cinematic grass has the potential to break up and animate the visual field to produce what Roger Cardinal calls ‘the phenomenal density [of] a surface which is […] detailed all over, like a mosaic, available to the gaze as an even field of rippling potency and plenitude’ (Cardinal, 1986: 125-6). For Cardinal, this provokes ‘a kind of euphoric, unfocused swoon’ (125). Grass can produce a rapturous encounter for any cinematographer engaged in the adventure of perception, an instrument for riffing on cinematic movement and energy. Grass opens a shot to improvisation on a tactile, luminescent, pulsating world of fibrous ripples, surges, flickers, shimmers and beats. The fibrous nature of grass also plays out aurally, as grass can rustle, swish and bristle, evoking aural environments that vibrate with tactile proximity and density.
Christian Keathley traces a long cinematic fascination with the movement of wind in the trees (Keathley, 2005). He evokes this legacy to support his argument that panoramic perception and an attunement to peripheral detail are essential elements of cinephilia, as it is in these details that the ‘unheralded ripple of physical existence’ breaks through (30). By reframing the argument to focus on the wind in the grass, the audiovisual essay both engages with and contests Keathley’s emphasis on the importance of peripheral detail in cinephilia. The kind of panoramic scanning of an image for peripheral detail, that Keathley privileges, cannot address the way filmmakers work with the ‘phenomenal density’ of grass and the kinds of experience generated by this ‘ surface […] detailed all over’ (Cardinal, op. cit; italics mine). To understand the fascination with cinematic grass, we need to follow Siegfried Kracauer’s injunction to explore ideas ‘no longer on high-ways […] but on paths that wind through the thicket of things […] through the thicket of material life from which they emerge and in which they are embedded (Kracauer, 1997: 309; 48). We need to follow this path literally. Grass brings us down to earth.
Writing of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, Jennifer Barker describes ‘a gust of wind sweeping across a field of grass (and trees) as ‘an act of breath-taking in which we both take in and are taken in by something larger’ (Barker, 2009: 150). This breath is a breathing into materiality. Barker cites Peter Král on Tarkovsky: ‘the director's vision literally breathes life into the material mass of objects, awakens life in them and shows us their secret existence, or their hidden essence’ (152). Other scholars have explored the way the breathing body of the spectator synchronises with the ‘body’ of the film that comes to life in the temporality of a shot. The audiovisual essay explores the capacity of grass to register a breath of wind that adds another layer, another breathing body, to this interweaving of the material temporalities of breath and body.
Kracauer writes that film does not just reproduce the material world but brings the material world into play. He says film ‘keep[s] touching the earth’, hooking into the physiological layers of the spectator: ‘it communicates less as a whole with consciousness than in a fragmentary manner with the corporeal-material layers’ (Hansen, 461-2). Weaving through the ‘material thicket’ of cinematic grass opens a broader understanding of this corporeal-materiality as a vector for ‘vitality affects’ in cinema (Stern, 1985: 54), revealing that our experience of cinema and of ourselves as spectators is made up of energetic, fibrous encounters with this multi-stranded, composite materiality.
In the audiovisual essay, each of the source films works with grass as an aesthetic principle. Each works with duration and the slow immersion of the viewer into a grassy world, entraining us gradually into a fibrous mode of viewing. Eschewing the upbeat pace of many remix works, which Kevin B. Lee describes as a key characteristic of videographic criticism aligned with emerging digital cultures, the video has some of the austerity of slow cinema. The aim of the audiovisual essay is to draw the viewer into a material engagement with grass in every frame: to produce, through a sustained embodied engagement with this haptic dimension, a viewer with ‘fibrous eyes’.
Temporality has been a challenge here. A cinephiliac passion for mise-en-scène can be a powerful attachment to the way a scene plays out in duration and the temptation, in the video, has been to allow the scenes to play out mostly in their original duration, to reproduce the gradual inculcation of a fibrous mode of viewing. The temporality of these meticulously choreographed scenes, as conceived by the films’ directors, cinematographers and editors, is pivotal to how the scenes use grass to build the maximum affective resonance in a scene. In the original scenes, the grass oscillates between functioning as a dramatic, narrative ‘figure’ and sliding into pure material intensity. Editing the video has required a parallel oscillation between rhythmic immersion in and conceptual distancing from the original cinephiliac attachment: to hone the edit to minimise the narrative impulse and crystallise the argument, while also allowing the clips space to breathe and flow. I have used titles to try to strike this balance and keep the viewer coming back to the materiality of the grass.
This way of working to encourage a material mode of viewing bumps up against our almost irresistible search for narrative. Furthermore, when viewers know the source clips intimately, the clips inevitably carry some of the narrative weight from the original film and this can be a brake on the kind of viewing the video tries to produce. Even without viewers having prior knowledge of the source film, interpretation comes into play in the desire to ‘read’ the video within prevailing frameworks for cultural analysis. The focus on ‘vibrant matter’, as opposed to the human-centric narrative, echoes some of the concerns of new materialism and eco-criticism, and some viewers may want to see these connections elaborated. The proposal of ‘fibrous eyes’ could raise questions about how this mode of looking differs from other types of looking and how it might differ among the range of clips in the video. A theoretically-oriented viewer may want more detailed explication of the ideas than the use of titles as experiential prompts allows. While acknowledging these limitations in the video, I have resisted the temptation to pin the argument down in these more familiar ways. The form of the video is a proposition in itself: it demands that viewers let go of this desire for interpretation and allow themselves to be immersed in the material flow. Behind this strategy is a meta-question – whether this relinquishing is possible at all – but this question needs to be formulated not in the abstract but by concrete material experience: testing it in situ.
In many attempts to use titles to frame the video as a set of complex arguments, the linguistically-framed propositions repeatedly pulled attention (and the eye) away from the grass into a less material mode of thinking and viewing. Rethinking the work as a phenomenological work, in this version I have reduced titles to suggestive prompts that aim to draw the viewer, experientially, into an understanding of fibrous aesthetic experience, in a fully embodied way. Through cumulative impact, the video aims to draw viewers into a sensory-affective experience that engenders, experientially, an understanding of the pervasive cinematic obsession with grass: that grass is indeed a privileged instrument of cinematic rapture.
A note on the selection of clips: Clips from many other films could have been included in this video. Earlier drafts included segments from Days of Heaven, Pather Panchali, Paisà, The Grass Seed and All About Lily Chou-Chou, and many other iconic scenes were considered. The selection eventually included in the video is not intended to be representative: apart from a preference for cinema from outside the North Atlantic sphere, clips are included because they work rhythmically and conceptually in this particular montage, and because they foreground grass to induce a kind of fibrous looking.
Thank you to Catherine Grant and Adrian Martin for generous and productive discussions and advice during the making of this work.
Barker, Jennifer. 2009. The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience. London: University of California Press.
Cardinal, Roger. 1986. ‘Pausing Over Peripheral Detail’. Framework: Jan 1.
Grant, Catherine. 2014. ‘The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking.’ ANIKI: Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image, 1 (1). pp. 49-62.
Hansen, Miriam 1993. ‘“With Skin and Hair”: Kracauer’s Theory of Film, Marseille 1940’, Critical Inquiry 19 (Spring), 437-469.
Keathley, Christian. 2005. Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Kracauer, Siegfried. 1997. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton, N.J.: PrincetonUniversity Press.
Král, Peter. 1995. ‘Tarkovsky, or the Burning House’, part 1. Slavic and East European Performance 15, no. 3: 51-57.
Rutherford, Anne. ‘Affect and Material Contagion in Harakiri’, Cine-Files 10, 2016. http://www.thecine-files.com/rutherford2016/
Stern, Daniel. 1985. The Interpersonal World of the Infant: a View from Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology. New York: Basic Books.
 Keathley here cites Manny Farber, Negative Space, New York: DaCapo Press, 1998: 17.
Anne Rutherford is an Adjunct Associate Professor in Cinema Studies at Western Sydney University. She is the author of ‘What Makes a Film Tick?’: Cinematic Affect, Materiality and Mimetic Innervation (Peter Lang, 2011) and numerous articles on cinematic affect, embodiment and materiality, mise en scène, film sound, intermediality, Indigenous cinema and documentary. Her recent work has explored affective dimensions of film sound in the work of Kobayashi Masaki and Takemitsu Toru, montage and performativity in the multimedia installation work of William Kentridge, the performative role of the cinematic body, ‘animate thought’ in the ethnographic photographs of Donald Thomson and their aesthetic legacy in Ten Canoes, and cultural politics and aesthetics in the films of Ivan Sen. She has also made several short films.