Saige Walton. Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016; 233 pages. ISBN 9789089649515.

Reviewed by Mackenzie Leadston, Ohio State University.

Since the publication of Vivian Sobchack’s The Address of the Eye (1992), more recent works have advanced Sobchack’s early description of film-phenomenology through further engagement either with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy or divergences into other tangential theories that help describe the relationship between spectator and film. This includes investigations of haptic cinema (see Marks, 2000 and Barker, 2009), as well as more recent considerations of the intersections of phenomenology and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze (see Vaughan, 2013 and Chamarette, 2012). Saige Walton’s Cinema’s Baroque Flesh: Film, Phenomenology and the Art of Entanglement (2016) sits somewhere between these two trends, both offering a phenomenological examination of surface, texture, and touch in film experience similar to haptic cinema while also putting phenomenology into dialogue with other prominent figures such as Deleuze. However, as the title may suggest, Walton’s true and unique contribution to conversations surrounding film-phenomenology is the addition of the concept of baroque flesh.

Indeed, the baroque and baroque flesh is Walton’s central point of investigation. Walton describes the current scholarship around baroque cinema as centring on the purely visual aspects of the film, namely the spectacular. However, such discussions lack a sense of cohesion in their definition. Walton offers instead a consideration of films that “feel baroque.” (21, emphasis in original) To do so, she introduces baroque flesh, the primary concept of the book. Baroque flesh describes cinema’s reversibility, or doubled sensations, that entails an intertwining with the spectator. This embodied experience is highly sensuous and emotive. Essential to baroque flesh are other vital notions that appear in the text such as the medium’s self-reflexivity and the expressive role of analogy, which are explored at different points in the book.

Each chapter follows roughly the same structure. Walton begins with a theoretical introduction to the scholarship in use. She focuses primarily on the work of Merleau-Ponty, though each chapter includes several other prominent theories of either phenomenology or baroque art, with too many interventions to name (Gilles Deleuze and his concept of “the fold” and the work of Meike Bal are frequent citations). The introductions are then followed by an analysis of varying aspects of baroque art, tied subsequently with theoretical considerations of the baroque’s link to cinema and concluding with brief close readings of the film or films. The chapters are quite theoretically dense, and though they give an excellent overview and review of the current debates in studies of the baroque, this greatly reduces the attention given to the “cinema” of cinema’s baroque flesh. Although such denseness risks being overly complicated, Walton clearly articulates and incorporates each theorist and new definition into her larger argument and conception of baroque flesh.

Given the richness of these chapters, any meaningful examination can only remain on the surface, as each introduces several new terms and new theoretical engagements. However, it will still be useful to describe Walton’s project in each chapter briefly, as they all build to a broader and more cohesive definition of baroque flesh in cinema. The first chapter introduces the importance of reversibility to a phenomenology of baroque cinema. Walton considers reversibility, or a doubled relationship between spectator and work, to be the very linchpin of baroque aesthetic. The baroque is self-reflexive, and as such, gestures both towards the viewer and the medium itself. While the doubled relationship between film and viewer is often essential to film-phenomenology, Walton supposes that the baroque is even more salient in its doubled address through its tradition of “facing effects.” Such facing effects are critical to the baroque senses of cinema, in which the baroque flesh induces sensation. In the first chapter she centres on the sense of baroque vision by first examining the Diego Velázquez painting Las Meninas, which “gives the impression that the viewer inhabits the same space” as the subjects of the painting, creating an “embodied continuum” between work and viewer. (36) Walton compares the position of spectator and work in the films Strange Days and Caché to the embodied baroque vision in the painting, arguing that the self-reflexive nature of both baroque painting and film is best considered as the doubled relationship (or reversibility) of the flesh described by Merleau-Ponty. Both films put forward a shared vision (or, plurality of vision) between the film and the spectator in part through their self-reflexive meditation on the role of the viewer in film and the intertwining of spectator and cinema. There is an ambiguity of who is looking in the films (Strange Days uses multiple point-of-view shots without clear origin while Caché contains a series of tapes whose origins are unknown). As such, the sense of vision becomes correlative, a term borrowed from Meike Bal which highlights the entangled role of viewer and viewed in which both mutually produce meaning.

The second chapter expands on the first through its discussion of cinema as a co-extensive space, referring to how the cinema breaches filmic borders and material surfaces through the senses. Borrowing from Merleau-Ponty, Walton describes this cinematic co-extensive space as akin to the baroque typology of the knot, insisting that the senses are inseparable from the lived body and the world. It is through the baroque that such “inter-sensory knotting” leads to the body’s experience of the film’s sensuality and induction of feeling in the spectator. To further navigate the sensuality and “knotting” of baroque flesh, Walton engages with works of the bel composto to emphasize the fluidity of borders between media and senses.  The chapter concludes with a reading of the film Trouble Every Day as tied to a history of baroque flesh and cinema as passion, and, namely, a cruelty that is expressed through the baroque.

The third chapter incorporates semiotics into the study of the baroque flesh, considering the exchange between the spectator and the film not only as an experience of the senses but one of signification. It is in this chapter that Walton picks up the importance of analogy to a baroque cinematic flesh through a staging of “texturology” and the intertwining of inner and outward surfaces that give rise to particular sensuous experiences. She relates analogy in the cinematic baroque flesh to historic baroque poetics through the two’s merging of the figurative and the literal in its expression to the viewer. The necessity of the viewer to experience such signification relates to Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of the chiasm and, again, the reversibility of the flesh. The baroque flesh expresses meaning outwardly through its surface and its depth (literal and figurative). Walton invokes first Sofia Coppola’s Marie-Antoinette to usefully examine the film past its common interpretation of historical inaccuracy and over-indulgence to consider the film’s “surface attachments” as functioning as an analogy for luxury and expressing an “inner substance” within its “surface appearance.” (146) The chapter concludes with a delightful turn towards “baroque tickles” in the work of Buster Keaton before a shift to cine-mimesis that is further explored in the final chapter.

The fourth and final chapter builds off of previous scholarly work on haptic cinema (particularly the work of Laura Marks) to advance the study of the texture of baroque films. While the “eye” or look has been central to both phenomenology and the baroque, touch as sensation is of equal importance, as both the baroque and phenomenology are more than simply a visual encounter. As such, Walton explores the tactical doubling of baroque cinema, engaging both with baroque cabinets and chambers of wonder and the film Tarnation, discussing the body’s engagement with the surface of the film rather than its narrative. In this chapter, Walton ties together previous threads of thought, further stressing the significance of self-reflexivity in the body’s tactical engagement with cinema, as well as the importance of analogy to baroque flesh, as she considers analogy to be “incarnational” and “embodied” rather than a merely visual experience. (224)

Walton’s introduction of baroque flesh as a concept in cinema is commendable and a welcome addition to the growing possibilities of how phenomenology can add to film studies, even if the work itself is not necessarily “doing” film-phenomenology. Walton lays the essential theoretical groundwork so that others may pick up on baroque flesh and develop it further within cinema and media studies by focussing more on its application within film itself. Because the book is primarily a theoretical discussion about the baroque, it is perhaps most immediately useful for those in art history or baroque studies and not for readers with a more general interest in cinema studies. This is primarily because the films in her analysis functions more as examples than as the prime source of defining the baroque in cinema. Indeed, the close readings of films are a small part of Walton’s actual study. There is no central theme to the chosen films, as the filmography transcends national, linguistic and historical boundaries. Despite the lack of attention to the films themselves, this more comprehensive range of works allows the book to serve more as a primer for how to apply the concept of baroque flesh in cinema and does open the term to be more applicable moving forward.


Additional References

Jennifer M. Barker, The Tactile Eye: Touch and the Cinematic Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Jenny Chamarette, Phenomenology and the Future of Film: Rethinking Subjectivity beyond French Cinema (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000).

Vivian Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992).

Hunter Vaughan, Where Film Meets Philosophy: Godard, Resnais, and Experiments in Cinematic Thinking (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).