Dreams Rise in the Darkness: The White Magic of Cinema


Eine DuBarry von Heute, Alexander Korda, 1926

by David B. Clarke 

The cinema has never shone except by pure seduction, by the pure vibrancy of non-sense – a hot shimmering that is all the more beautiful from having come from the cold.

– Baudrillard (1990a, 96) 

1.      Réalité Vérité

 Until a difference exists, how can an excess founded on that difference exist?

– De Quincey (1890, 240)

‘More human than human’ is our motto.

– Tyrell in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982)

Despite the once widespread misapprehension that Baudrillard somehow celebrated simulation and rejoiced in the spectacle – when his sole purpose, as Butler (1999) puts it, was with the defence of the real – cinema occupies something of an exceptional position in Baudrillard’s thought. ‘I like the cinema. Of all the spectacles it’s even the only one I do like’ (Baudrillard 1993a, 29). Although he assiduously avoided the kind of detailed engagement with cinema undertaken by, say, Deleuze (1986; 1989), cinematic references lie scattered across Baudrillard’s entire corpus. This situation carries a number of consequences. First, Baudrillard’s preference for suggestive, fragmentary cinematic allusions has tended to mean that film theory has had relatively little sustained engagement with Baudrillard. One can almost count on the fingers of one hand the number of films that have invited Baudrillardian readings, whilst Deleuze is invoked everywhere (this is observed neutrally, comparatively; not judgementally). Second, Baudrillard’s complex appreciation of cinema has itself received rather scant attention, although the overall configuration of Baudrillard’s oeuvre provides some clear guidelines when it comes to considering Baudrillard and film. Third, and following from these two points, what Baudrillard’s thought might offer for film theory remains significantly underdeveloped. In this paper, I provide a brief contextual commentary on the first issue, and then begin to develop a kind of retrospective reconstruction of Baudrillard’s conception of cinema. This is undertaken in order to demonstrate that a more sophisticated appreciation of Baudrillard’s thought on simulation and its relation to seduction carries significant, untapped potential for film theory. It is in his remarks on photography that the distinctiveness of Baudrillard’s conception of the image becomes most apparent, yet this understanding is also central to Baudrillard’s conception of cinema.

Film is, undoubtedly, more important to Baudrillard than is often acknowledged. If the reverse proposition is also true, however, there has been relatively limited engagement to date. Whilst some have, loosely speaking, started from the cinematic nature of Baudrillard’s writings and moved inwards towards the screen – for example, Denzin’s (1991) reading of Baudrillard’s America as a means of approaching Wenders’ (1984) Paris, Texas – initial engagements with Baudrillard within film studies tended to proceed in the opposite direction, detecting the exemplification or allegorisation of Baudrillardian concepts in particular films. Bruno’s (1987) seminal analysis of Ridley Scott’s (1982) Blade Runner – which mobilised Baudrillard as one of a host of representatives of postmodernism, yet rested heavily on the apparent incarnation of Baudrillard’s account of simulacra in the shape of the film’s Replicants – was amongst the first to suggest the potential of Baudrillard’s work for analysing film. Interestingly, however, the psychoanalytic resonances of Blade Runner were woven into a synthetic analysis that divorced Baudrillard’s particular conception of  simulation from its broader conceptual field – a field avowedly incompatible with psychoanalysis. It is undoubtedly true that Blade Runner lends itself to psychoanalytic readings (Penley 1991; Silverman 1991). As Botting (1999) astutely observes, Replicants still have navels! Nonetheless, Doel and Clarke (1997) moved towards an alternative reading of Blade Runner, deploying Baudrillard’s (1993b, 39) distinction between the ‘deferred death’ of (slave) labour and the ‘immediate death’ of sacrifice – implicitly appealing to Baudrillard’s claim to have developed an understanding beyond psychoanalysis, whilst simultaneously diminishing the significance afforded to Baudrillard’s then widespread association with the postmodern.

Blade Runner, Warner Bros., 1982

A considerable portion of the debate around Blade Runner focused on the absence of any guarantor of reality in the wake of its technological simulation. When the Blade Runner, Deckard, confronts the experimental Replicant, Rachel, her confidence in her own reality is seen to rely on her memories – but, as she soon becomes painfully aware, these have been implanted by her maker, Tyrell, and cannot attest to her authenticity as a human being. The suggestion, brought out in the 1992 Director’s Cut, that Deckard is also a Replicant, reinforces the pervasiveness of the indistinction between the real and the simulated: once reality can be perfectly simulated, its meaning as such is evacuated, abolished by the excess of reality. For where there are no grounds for taking so-called representations as inferior to the things they purportedly re-present, reality and that which feigns it lose their distinction: the quondam ‘representation’ becomes ‘its own pure simulacrum’ (Baudrillard 1994, 6). The fact that the Voigt-Kampff test, employed diegetically to police the distinction between Replicant and Human, proceeds by falsification – not by guaranteeing the definitively Human, but by progressively confirming whatever has not yet been proven not to be Human – suspends determination in the realm of the undecidable. The Replicants, ‘by becoming real, have driven reality from reality, leaving us in a hyper-reality devoid of meaning’ (Baudrillard, 2001, 134).

Baudrillard (2004, n.p.) notes that ‘there have been other films that treat the growing indistinction between the real and the virtual: The Truman Show, Minority Report, or even Mulholland Drive, the masterpiece of David Lynch’. However, given its supposed construction around Baudrillard’s ideas – and opening diegetic homage to Baudrillard – the Wachowski brothers’ (1999) The Matrix and its sequels rapidly became the touchstone for Baudrillardian cinematic commentary (Constable 2006, 2009; Merrin 2003, 2005). As with Blade Runner’s simulated life, the virtual reality of the matrix short-circuits the distinction between the real and the imaginary – except that here, ‘the set-up is cruder and does not truly evoke the problem’, as Baudrillard (2004, n.p.) remarked after a sustained period of restrained silence: ‘The actors are in the matrix, that is, in the digitized system of things; or, they are radically outside it, such as in Zion, the city of resistors’.

The most embarrassing part of the film is that the new problem posed by simulation is confused with its classical, Platonic treatment. This is a serious flaw. The radical illusion of the world is a problem faced by all great cultures, which they have solved through art and symbolization. What we have invented, in order to support this suffering, is a simulated real, which henceforth supplants the real and is its final solution, a virtual universe from which everything dangerous and negative has been expelled. And The Matrix is undeniably part of that. Everything belonging to the order of dream, utopia and phantasm is given expression, ‘realized’. […] The Matrix is surely the kind of film about the matrix that the matrix would have been able to produce. (ibid.)

The Matrix, Warner Bros., 1999

This neatly encapsulates the distinctions at play in Baudrillard’s conceptual universe. The invocation of the symbolic as one form of response to the enigma of the world, and an alternative response, founded on the ‘forced realization of the world’ (Baudrillard 1993a, 45) – on ‘the immense process of the destruction of appearances’ (Baudrillard 1994, 160) –, highlights the most significant counterposed elements of Baudrillard’s thought. As Baudrillard (1988: 79) himself has suggested, these elements take the form of a ‘double spiral … swerving towards a sphere of the sign, the simulacrum and simulation, a spiral of the reversibility of all signs in the shadow of seduction’. This möbius topology dictates the structure of the remainder of the present paper.


2.      Double Negative

[A]s soon as we make doubles [dédoublons], the imaginary appears in person.

– Deleuze (2004, 172)

There is nothing that is not as though lost between indefatigable mirrors.

– Borges (1998, 192)

It is surprising that one of Baudrillard’s most sustained filmic engagements – with Henrik Galeen’s (1926) The Student of Prague – went for so long without receiving detailed critical appraisal: a point made by Gilloch (2009), who finally provides such an assessment (see also Doel and Clarke, 1999). The film’s plot concerns a pact with the Devil, the hapless party to which, Balduin, witnesses the Devil peeling his ‘specular image from the mirror as though it were an etching or a sheet of carbon paper’ (Baudrillard 1998, 187). His image is subsequently made flesh and put into circulation, where it proceeds to stalk Balduin, ultimately delivering fatal consequences. ‘As the good image it is, it remains attached to its model; but, as the bad image it has become, it now accompanies him not only when he chances to pass by mirrors, but in life itself, wherever he goes’ (ibid.). Inevitably, like all doppelgängers, ‘From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death’ (Freud SE XVII, 235). In the dénouement of the story, a violent confrontation results in Balduin firing a pistol shot at his double in front of the selfsame mirror from which his image was first detached.

Naturally, the mirror is smashed and the double, become again the phantasm it once was, vanishes into thin air. But … it is he who is dying. … In his death throes … he grasps at one of the fragments of the mirror scattered about the floor and realizes that he can see himself again’. (Baudrillard 1998, 188)

Baudrillard’s invocation of the film, in the concluding pages of The Consumer Society, is deployed to quite specific purpose: to postulate the transition to a world that lies in the wake of the paroxysm wrought by the terrible labour of sciamachy.

The Student of Prague, Henrik Galeen, 1926

Insofar as it is governed by the logic of commodity exchange – the Faustian bargain earns Balduin a fabulous sum of gold – ‘The Student of Prague is a remarkable illustration of the processes of alienation’ (ibid. 190). The film effectively dramatises the fact that ‘There is a part of us which gets away from us in this process, but we do not get away from it’ (ibid. 189). The situation is precisely homologous to the méconnaissance of the subject in the mirror phase, insofar as the appearance of the image in the mirror does not leave being intact: ‘If we choose being, the subject disappears, it eludes us, it falls into non-meaning. If we choose meaning, the meaning survives only deprived of that part of non-meaning that is, strictly speaking, that which constitutes in the realization of the subject, the unconscious’ (Lacan 1979, 211–2). Baudrillard’s point, however, is that the classical form of alienation, played out in Marx’s Capital as well as in The Student of Prague, is over, having lost itself in reversal: ‘there is no longer any soul, no shadow, no double, and no image in the specular sense. There is no longer any contradiction within being, or any problematic of being and appearance’ (Baudrillard, 1998, 191).

The vain attempt to destroy the negative, to have done with deceptive appearances in the name of dependable reality, succumbs to that ‘kind of fatal reversibility’ to which all such attempts at irreversibility are susceptible: ‘the more they go towards universality, towards their total limits, there is a kind of reversal which they themselves produce, and which destroys their own objective’ (Baudrillard 1993a, 91). This liminal process results in the implosion of the distinction between being and appearance, knowledge and belief, episteme and doxa, reality and imaginary – culminating in their extermination, their abolition as terms. In its wake, ‘all things stand ultimately for nothing but themselves – there is no division between things that mean and things that are meant’, as Bauman (1993, 36) puts it. ‘It is just by linguistic inertia that we still talk of signifiers, bereaved of signifieds, as signifiers; of signs which stand but for themselves, as ‘appearances’’ (ibid.). Indeed, the world of simulation operates on the basis that ‘signs are exchanged against each other rather than against the real’ – ‘on condition that they are no longer exchanged against the real’ (Baudrillard 1993b, 7).

The significance of the mirror in The Student of Prague is redoubled in The Mirror of Production (Baudrillard 1975). Baudrillard’s title is almost pleonastic: the mirror is – or is (mis)construed as being – synonymous with production, the original sense of which ‘is not in fact that of material manufacture; rather, it means to render visible, to cause to appear and to be made to appear: pro-ducere’ (Baudrillard 1987a, 21). Insofar as they are ‘condemned to the servile fate of resemblance’ (Baudrillard 1996, 149), mirrors slavishly give back a faithful reflection. They yoke appearances to the burden of re-presentation, bearing witness ‘to the world with a naïve resemblance and a touching fidelity’ (Baudrillard 1987b, 14). They are the ‘the watchdogs of appearance’ (Baudrillard 1990a, 105). The mirror accords to production qua principle, and, ‘through this … mirror of production, the human species comes to consciousness [la prise de conscience] in the imaginary’ (Baudrillard 1975, 19). Despite Marx’s naturalisation of its terms of reference, production is, in fact, ‘a simulation model bound to code all human material and every contingency of desire and exchange in terms of value, finality’, and equivalence (ibid.). The imaginary, ‘through which an objective world emerges and through which man recognizes himself objectively’, is overcoded by ‘this scheme of production which is assigned to him as the ultimate dimension of value and meaning’ (ibid.). Such are the terms of ‘the identity that man dons with his own eyes’ on gazing into the mirror whose sole purpose is to bring into alignment the ‘discourse of production and the discourse of representation’ (ibid. 20). So it is that, in proposing that, from ‘now on political economy is the real for us … and therefore the imaginary, since … the two formerly distinct categories have fused and drifted together’, Baudrillard (1993b, 31), should speak of the systemic ‘necessity of resurrecting and dramatising political economy in the form of a movie script, to screen out the threat of symbolic destruction’ (ibid. 32). (1) Needless to say, Baudrillard envisions this as a disaster movie, referring to ‘the kind of crisis, the perpetual simulacrum of a crisis, we are dealing with today’ (ibid. 32). And despite having been written in the 1970s, the sentiment holds as true as ever. Nevertheless, this account would seem to involve a decidedly cool assessment of cinema. This is, moreover, a verdict that Baudrillard has delivered repeatedly.

Films today, Baudrillard (2005b, 125) contends, have become ‘merely the visible allegory of a cinematic form that has taken over everything – social and political life, the landscape, war, etc. – the form of life totally scripted for the screen’. Cinema has, therefore, been lost in its generalised dispersal and cross-contamination with the real. ‘Reality is disappearing at the hands of cinema and cinema is disappearing at the hands of reality, a lethal transfusion in which each loses its specificity’ (ibid.). This is especially evident in ‘the anticipation of reality by images, the precession of images and media in relation to events’ (Baudrillard 1987b, 19); in the extent to which images ‘invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction’ (ibid. 13). Reality itself, Baudrillard (1993b, 73) proposes, has come to be defined as ‘that of which it is possible to provide an equivalent reproduction’, because the ‘modern revolution in the order of production (of reality, of meaning)’ forces the world onto a trajectory that is governed ‘by … the anticipation of its reproduction’ (Baudrillard 1987b, 13). Hence the ‘strange precession’ (ibid. 21) of the film before the real event, exemplified by the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster at Harrisburg, which occurred immediately after the release of The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979). ‘It is only a further step … to reverse our logical order and see The China Syndrome as the real event and Harrisburg as its simulacrum’, as Baudrillard (1987b, 19) sardonically remarks. Likewise, rehearsing the analysis that would subsequently lead to the controversy over Baudrillard’s (1995) take on the Gulf War, Baudrillard (1987b, 17) maintains that ‘‘in itself’ the Vietnam war never happened’, whilst Frances Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) was ‘the completion of that incomplete war, its apotheosis’. ‘If the Americans (apparently) lost the other, they have certainly won this one. Apocalypse Now is a global victory’ (ibid. 18). Parenthetically, this is surprisingly close to Easthope’s (1988) remarks on Coppola’s film.

So, to sum up, ‘Irreality no longer belongs to the dream or the phantasm, to a beyond or a hidden interiority, but to the hallucinatory resemblance of the real to itself’ (Baudrillard 1993b, 72). Such is the strange materialisation of the indetermination of the real and the imaginary. It has, of course, always been the case that ‘reality is the effect of the sign’ (Baudrillard 1987b, 47). Reality, as Freud hypothesised, was inaugurated on the basis of a ‘reciprocity between the world and ourselves’ (Baudrillard 1998, 188). The modern attempt to eradicate flighty and deceptive appearances – ‘All meaningful discourse seeks to end appearances’ (Baudrillard 1990a, 54) – rested on the principle that ‘a sign could be exchanged for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange’ (Baudrillard 1994, 5). Reality was nothing without the mirror that made it the reality of the image. Likewise, the referent proceeds directly from the structure of the sign:

Through this mirage of the referent, which is nothing but the phantom of what the sign itself represses during its operation, the sign attempts to mislead: it permits itself to appear as totality, to efface the traces of its abstract transcendence, and parades about as the reality principle of meaning (Baudrillard 1981, 162).

Apocalypse Now, United Artists, 1979

Yet the destruction of appearances under the aegis of production inexorably rebounds in ‘the immense process of the destruction of meaning’ (Baudrillard 1994, 160–161). As Baudrillard (2005c, 92) avers, ‘we are still iconoclasts: we destroy images by overloading them with signification; we kill images with meaning’. Consequently, the image no longer belongs to the privileged realm of ‘dreaming or the imaginary’ (Baudrillard 1987b, 28).

[S]omething more than that … is peculiar to modern media images: if they fascinate us so much it is not because they are the sites of the production of meaning and representation – this would not be new – it is on the contrary because they are sites of the disappearance of meaning and representation, sites in which we are caught quite apart from any judgement of reality, thus sites of a fatal strategy of denegation of the real and of the reality principle (ibid. 29).

The redundancy of the reality principle gives rise to an unprincipled reality: a ‘world of radical fetishism, linked to the de-signification and limitless operation of the real’ (Baudrillard 2005a, 72). As ever – and this is the point at which Baudrillard’s account of cinema is itself diverted – it is ‘seduction which draw[s] us beyond the reality principle’ (Baudrillard 1988, 58).

3. The White Magic of the Cinema (2)

Dreams rise in the darkness and catch fire from the mirage of moving light. What happens on the screen isn’t quite real; it leaves open a vague cloudy space for the poor, for dreams and the dead.

– Céline (1988, 184)

The film is insane. It portrays events as they actually happen, instead of maintaining the dignity usually accorded them such that they can continue to take place. (3)

– Kracauer (1995, 304)

‘One should distrust the humility of mirrors’, Baudrillard (1990a, 105) cautions:

The humble servants of appearances, they can reflect only the objects that face them, without being able to conceal themselves. … But their faithfulness is specious, for they are waiting for someone to catch himself in their reflection. One does not easily forget their sidelong gaze. They recognize you, and when they surprise you when you least expect it, your time has come.

‘Such is the seducer’s strategy’, Baudrillard (ibid.) adds. Seduction – from ‘seducere: to take aside, to divert from one’s path’ (Baudrillard 1990a, 22) – serves to ‘definitively shatter the specularity of the sign’ (Baudrillard 1988, 58). For despite the realism of signs and images, despite our naïve confidence in their ability to conform to the real and to stand in for the real, their destiny lies elsewhere. Unbeholden to the reality principle, the sign regales in its clandestine capacity ‘to oppose another scene to the real one, to pass to the other side of the mirror’ (Baudrillard 1997a, 12). Such is the principle of seduction. By virtue of its character, ‘Seduction is not that which is opposed to production. It is that which seduces production’ (ibid.). Baudrillard has used Woody Allen’s (1983) Zelig to illustrate its character.

Zelig […] is launched on an adventure of total seduction, in an involuntary strategy of global seduction: he begins to resemble everything which approaches him, everything which surrounds him. Nor is this the mimetic violence of defiance or parody, it is the nonviolence of seduction. To begin to resemble the other, to take on their appearance, is to seduce them, since it is to make them enter the realm of metamorphosis despite themselves. (Baudrillard 1987b, 15)

This, Baudrillard proposes, is directly comparable with animal mimicry:

animals are never conformist, they are seductive, they always appear to result from a metamorphosis. Precisely because they are not individuals, they pose the enigma of their resemblance. If an animal knows how to conform, it is not to its own being … but to appearances in the world. This is what Zelig does too … he is incapable of functional adaptation to contexts, which is true conformism, our conformism, but able to seduce by the play of resemblances’ (ibid. 15–16).

Zelig, Orion Pictures, 1983 

Likewise, it is the very conformity of signs and images to reality that seduces the real, anticipating it and appropriating it to their own ends. ‘It is precisely when it appears most truthful, most faithful and most in conformity to reality that the image is most diabolical’ (Baudrillard 1987b, 13).

The real ‘can be uncovered only if appearances have been swept away – and therefore carries forever the mark of the broom’ (Bauman 1993, 36). The real cannot but be beholden to the sign. The sign, however, is subversive in its complicity, remaining ineluctably antagonistic to the real. Just as the reality principle assumes the conformity of the sign and the real, the sign is dedicated to their irreconcilability: ‘in this situation what we have is the sign alone; and it is the power which is proper to the sign itself, it is the pure strategy of the sign itself that governs the appearance of things’ (Baudrillard 1987b, 47). True to form, appearances belong to the realm of illusion. Yet this ‘‘illusion’ is not simply irreality or non-reality’ (ibid. 45):

rather, it is, in the literal sense of the word (il-ludere in Latin), a play upon reality or a mis en jeu of the real. It is, to say it one more time, the issuing of a challenge to the ‘real’ – the attempt to put the real, quite simply, on the spot (ibid. 45–6).

Thus, ‘illusion is not the opposite of reality, but another more subtle reality which enwraps the former kind in the sign of its disappearance’ (Baudrillard 1999, 131). It is in terms of this challenge to the real that Baudrillard (1990a, 95) locates the power of the cinema: ‘at the heart of the cinematic myth lies seduction’.

‘The power of signs lies in their appearance and disappearance’, writes Baudrillard (1990a, 94). Appearance and disappearance apodictically belong to a world of illusion. They are reversible events of the kind forcibly exiled from a world forged in the image of the reality principle. Nor is appearance opposed to disappearance: they are the dual manifestation of the same reversible form. Unlike the irreversible finality of death, ‘What has disappeared has every chance of reappearing’ (Baudrillard 1990b, 92): ‘what dies is annihilated in linear time, but what disappears passes into a state of constellation. It becomes an event in a cycle that may bring it back many times’. It is precisely this subtle play of appearance and disappearance that is lost, however, in a situation where ‘images have passed over into things’ (Baudrillard 1997a, 12). Increasingly, the image ‘can no longer transcend reality, transfigure it, nor dream it, because it has become its own virtual reality’ (ibid.). Strictly speaking, it is no longer an image. By virtue of its high-definition resolution, it has come too close to reality, and this effects its disappearance as image. ‘In this space, where everything is meant to be seen … we realise that there is nothing left to see. It becomes a mirror of flatness, of nothingness, that reflects the disappearance of the other’ (Baudrillard 2003, 13). There is no openness to the other; no vague, cloudy space that might prove hospitable to otherness. Indeed, the basic misconception lies in a failure to recognise that ‘There is a haziness about the real’ (Baudrillard 2005c, 98). One thinks of Woody Allen’s (1997) Deconstructing Harry. Not only is ‘Reality itself is not in focus’, but the ‘bringing into focus of the world would be … an adjustment to models of representation’ (Baudrillard 2005c, 99). Divorced from illusion, ‘Most current images reflect only the misery and violence of the human condition. Yet that misery and violence affects us the less for being over-signified’ (ibid. 92). Such are the consequences of the technical perfection of the image:

‘Unable to render the real in its radical self-evidence, in its literalness, in its original version, it presents only the dubbed version, subtitled with meanings. As a consequence, the image is itself given over to disavowal’. (Baudrillard 1999, 148–9)

This disavowal ensures that the ‘‘realistic’ image does not capture what is, but what should not be – death and misery; it captures that which … ought not to exist’ (Baudrillard 2005c, 93). Fortunately, however, the image’s power to capture what is, to challenge the world to exist, and to connect with the radical illusion of the world, cannot be so easily vanquished: ‘the image’s only destiny is to be an image’ (Baudrillard 1999, 134).

The image attains its power by subtracting dimensions from the world.

To conceive an image in the pure state, we have to come back to a radically self-evident fact: it is a two-dimensional universe that has its entire perfection in itself and is in no way inferior to the threedimensional universe of the real and representation, the uncompleted phase of that universe. … [I]t is the one dimension fewer that constitutes its specific charm, its genius. … [E]verything that is added to the image, the better to approximate to the real and representation, is a violence that destroys it as parallel universe. (Baudrillard 2005c, 98).

Deconstructing Harry, Fine Line Pictures, 1997

Hence Baudrillard’s stated preference for photography over cinema, the origins of which lay in the attempt to add movement to photography, to realise an ‘animated photography’ (Clarke and Doel 2007). For Baudrillard (1999, 130), ‘the photographic image is the purest, because it does not simulate time or movement and keeps to the most rigorous unrealism’. Correspondingly, ‘All other forms of image (cinema, video, computergenerated etc.) are merely attenuated forms of the pure image’. (4) The distinctiveness of the photograph is dependent largely on its subtraction of time.

Every photographed object is merely the trace left behind by the disappearance of all the rest … which merely leaves the illusion of a particular object shining forth, the image of which then becomes an impenetrable enigma. (ibid. 131)

The power of the image thus lies in its intensity, and ‘The degree of intensity of the image matches the degree of its denial of the real, its invention of another scene’ (ibid. 130). It reaches its maximal intensity in the photograph.

In contrast, cinema, for Baudrillard (1997a, 8), has evolved to the point where this power of illusion has been definitively lost:

What can one say about the cinema, if not that now – almost at the end of its evolution, of its technical progress, from silent movies to talkies, colour, high technology and special effects – its capacity for illusion, in the radical sense of the word, has vanished?

This is, viewed from the other direction, the same process as the implosion of the real and the imaginary – here accomplished by the disillusion of the image, ‘the extermination of the real by its double’ (ibid. 9).

Yet this also provides the key to Baudrillard’s intense affection for the cinema.

‘cinema too can recover th[e] specific quality of the image – which is both complicit with, and apparently foreign to, narration – having its own static intensity, though fired with all the energy of movement, crystallizing a whole course of events in a still image by a principle of condensation that runs counter to the principle of high dilution and dispersion of all our current images. In Godard, for example. (Baudrillard 1999, 134–5)

Not a still image, ‘still an image – that means not only a screen and a visual form but a myth, something that belongs to the sphere of the double, the phantasm, the mirror, the dream’ (Baudrillard 1987b, 25). For Baudrillard (2002, 30), the world as it is seduces: it is bathed in ‘the white light of the image’.

Piece originally published at Film-Philosophy | Creative Commons License  

About the Author:

David B. Clarke is Professor of Human Geography at Swansea University. His research interests currently fall into three areas of contemporary human geography, Geographies of the Consumer Society; Media Geographies – filmic geographies and cinematic space and pre-cinematic visual technologies; and Social Theory and Space – particularly the contributions of Jean Baudrillard and Zygmunt Bauman and their implications for spatial thought.


Agamben, Giorgio (2002 [1995]) ‘Difference and Repetition: On GuyDebord’s Films’ (trans. Brian Holmes) in Guy Debord and theSituationist International: Texts and Documents. Ed. T. McDonough, Cambridge: MIT Press, 313–319.

Baudrillard, Jean (1975 [1973]) The Mirror of Production (trans. Mark Poster). St. Louis: Telos.

Baudrillard, Jean (1981 [1972]) For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (trans. Charles Levin). St. Louis: Telos.

Baudrillard, Jean (1987a [1977]) Forget Foucault/Forget Baudrillard (trans. Philip Beitchman, Nicole Dufresne, Lee Hildreth, and Mark Plizzotti) New York: Semiotext(e).

Baudrillard, Jean (1987b) The Evil Demon of Images (trans. Paul Patton and Paul Foss). Sydney: Power Institute Publications.

Baudrillard, Jean (1988 [1987]) The Ecstasy of Communication (trans. Bernard Schutze and Caroline Schutze). New York: Semiotext(e).

Baudrillard, Jean (1990a [1979]) Seduction (trans. Brian Singer). London: Macmillan.

Baudrillard, Jean (1990b [1987]) Cool Memories (trans. Chris Turner).London: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean (1993a) Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. Ed. Mike Gane. London: Routledge, 29–35.

Baudrillard, Jean (1993b [1976]) Symbolic Exchange and Death (trans. Iain Hamilton Grant). London: Sage.

Baudrillard, Jean (1994 [1981]) Simulacra and Simulation (trans. Sheila Faria Glaser). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Baudrillard, Jean (1995 [1991]) The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (trans. Paul Patton). Sydney: Power Publications.

Baudrillard, Jean (1996 [1995]) The Perfect Crime (trans. Chris Turner). London: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean (1997a) ‘Objects, images and the possibilities of aesthetic illusion’ in Jean Baudrillard: Art and Artefact. Ed. Nicholas Zurbrugg. London: Sage, 7–27.

Baudrillard, Jean (1997b [1995]) Fragments: Cool Memories III, 1990–1995 (trans. Emily Agar) London: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean (1998 [1970]) The Consumer Society (trans. Chris Turner). London: Sage.

Baudrillard, Jean (1999) Within the Horizon of the Object: Photographies, 1985–1998. Ed. Peter Weibel. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz.

Baudrillard, Jean (2001 [1987]) ‘Barbara Kruger’ (trans. Joachim Neugroschel) in The Uncollected Baudrillard. Ed. Gary Genosko. Sage: London, 134–137.

Baudrillard, Jean (2002) The Spirit of Terrorism (trans. Chris Turner). London: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean (2003 [2001]) ‘Dust breeding’ (trans. François Debrix). Quaderns d’Arquitectura i Urbanisme, n. 236: 13–15.

Baudrillard, Jean (2004 [2003]) ‘The Matrix Decoded: Le Nouvel Observateur interview with Jean Baudrillard’ (trans. Gary Genosko and Adam Bryx). International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, v.1, n.2., Accessed 21 July 2009.

Baudrillard, Jean (2005a [2004]) ‘The murder of the sign’ in The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (trans. Chris Turner). Oxford: Berg, 67– 73.

Baudrillard, Jean (2005b [2004]) ‘Virtuality and events’ in The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (trans. Chris Turner). Oxford: Berg, 117 137.

Baudrillard, Jean (2005c [2004]) ‘The violence done to the image’ in The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact (trans. Chris Turner). Oxford: Berg, 91–104.

Baudrillard, Jean (2009) ‘On disappearance’ (trans. Chris Turner) in Jean Baudrillard: Fatal Theories. Eds. David B. Clarke, Marcus A. Doel,William Merrin and Richard G Smith. London: Routledge, 24–29.

Bauman, Zygmunt (1993) ‘The sweet scent of decomposition’ in Forget Baudrillard? Eds. Chris Rojek and Bryan S. Turner. London: Routledge, 22–46.

Botting, Fred (1999) Sex, Machines and Navels: Fiction, Fantasy and History in the Future Present. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Borges, Jorges Luis (1998 [1949]) ‘The immortal’ in Jorges Luis Borges: Collected Fictions (trans. Andrew Hurley). London: Penguin, 183–195.

Bruno, Giuliana (1987) ‘Ramble city: postmodernism and Blade Runner’. October, v. 41: 61–74.

Butler, Rex (1999) Jean Baudrillard: the Defence of the Real. London: Sage. Céline, Louis-Ferdinand (1988 [1932]) Journey to the End of the Night (trans. Ralph Manheim). London: Calder.

Clarke, David B. (2007) ‘The City of the Future revisited or, the lost world of Patrick Keiller’ Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, v. 32 n. 1: 29–45

Clarke, David B. and Doel, Marcus A. (2007) ‘Shooting space, tracking time: the city from animated photography to vernacular relativity’. Cultural Geographies, v. 14 n. 4: 589–609.

Constable, Catherine (2009) Adapting Philosophy: Jean Baudrillard and ‘The Matrix Trilogy’. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Constable, Catherine (2006) ‘Baudrillard reloaded: interrelating philosophy and film via The Matrix Trilogy’. Screen, v. 47, n. 2, 233–249.

Deleuze, Gilles (1986 [1983]) Cinema 1: The Movement-image (trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam). Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles (1989 [1985]) Cinema 2: The Time-image (trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta). Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles (2004 [1973]) ‘How do we recognize structuralism?’ in Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953–1974 (trans. Michael Taormina). New York: Semiotext(e), 170–192.

Denzin, Norman K. (1991) ‘Paris, Texas and Baudrillard in America’. Theory, Culture and Society, v. 8, n. 2: 121–134.

De Quincey, Thomas (1890) ‘The logic of political economy’ in The Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey: Volume IX, Political Economy and Politics. Ed. David Masson Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 118–294.

Doel, Marcus A. and Clarke, David B. (1997) ‘From ramble city to the screening of the eye: Blade Runner, death and symbolic exchange’ in The Cinematic City. Ed. David B. Clarke. London: Routledge, 140– 167.

Doel, Marcus A. and Clarke, David B. (1999) ‘Dark panopticon. Or, attack of the killer tomatoes’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. v. 17 n. 4: 427–450.

Easthope, Anthony (1988) ‘Realism and its subversion: Hollywood and Vietnam’ in Tell Me Lies about Vietnam. Eds. Alf Louvre and Jeffrey Walsh. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 3049.

Freud, Sigmund (1953–1974 [1919]) ‘The uncanny’ in The Standard Edition of the Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XVII. Ed. James Strachey. London: Tavistock, 219–252.

Gilloch, Graeme (2009) ‘Mirror, mirror: The Student of Prague in Baudrillard, Kracauer and Kittler’ in Jean Baudrillard: Fatal Theories. Eds. David B. Clarke, Marcus A. Doel, William Merrin and Richard G. Smith. London: Routledge, 105–117.

Kracauer, Siegfried (1995 [1927]) ‘The little shopgirls go to the movies’ in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (trans. Thomas Y. Levin). Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 291–304.

Lacan, Jacques (1979 [1973]) ‘The subject and the Other: alienation’ in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis (trans. Alan Sheridan).Harmondsworth: Penguin, 203–215.

Lippitt, Akira Mizuta (2007) ‘The only other apparatus of film (a few fantasies about différance, démontage, and revision in experimental film and video)’ in Derrida, Deleuze, Psychoanalysis. Ed. Gabriele Schwab. New York: Columbia University Press, 171–191.

Merrin, William (2003) ‘‘Did you ever eat Tasty Wheat?’ Baudrillard and The Matrix’. Scope,. Accessed 21 July 2009.

Merrin, William (2005) Baudrillard and the Media. Cambridge: Polity.

Penley, Constance (1991) ‘Time travel, primal scene, critical dystopia,’ in Close Encounters: Film, Feminism, and Science Fiction. Ed. Constance Penley, Elisabeth Lyon, Lynn Spigel and Janet Bergstrom. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 63–80.

Silverman, Kaja (1991) ‘Back to the future’. Camera Obscura, v. 27: 108–133.


Allen, Woody (1983) Zelig. USA.

Allen, Woody (1997) Deconstructing Harry. USA.

Bridges, James (1979) The China Syndrome. USA.

Coppola, Frances Ford (1979) Apocalypse Now. USA.

Galeen, Henrik (1926) Der Student von Prag [The Student of Prague]. Germany.

Korda, Alexander (1926) Eine DuBarry von heute [A Modern DuBarry]. Germany.

Lynch, David (2001) Mulholland Dr. USA.

Scott, Ridley (1982) Blade Runner. USA.

Spielberg, Steven (2002) Minority Report. USA.

Wachowski Brothers (1999) The Matrix. USA.

Weir, Peter (1998) The Truman Show. USA.

Wenders, Wim (1984) Paris, Texas. USA.


(1) The context should disarm simplistic ‘It’s only a movie’ interpretations of this formulation. For a discussion in relation to Freud’s concept of secondary revision – ‘It’s only a dream’ – see Lippitt (2007). Baudrillard (1994, 40) repeats the same observation with respect to ‘the energy crisis and the ecological mis-en-scène,’ concluding that ‘it is the social itself that, in contemporary discourse, is organized along the lines of a disaster-movie script’.
(2) Baudrillard (2002, 29).
(3) Though incidental to present purposes, Kracauer is referring to Eine DuBarry von heute (Alexander Korda, 1926).
(4) Despite the ostensible antipathy to time in such statements, the qualities of Baudrillard’s ‘pure image’ are at least in some respects redolent of Deleuze’s (1989) time-image. The tension between, on the one hand, the element of simulation associated with cinematographic technologies responsible for adding movement to the photographic image and, on the other hand, those elements of cinema that Baudrillard likes (simplifying to the extreme, those that relate to the Open; with all that this entails in Deleuze’s analysis of the cinema of the time-image) might usefully be considered in relation to Agamben’s (2002) discussion of difference and repetition in the cinema of Guy Debord (see also Clarke 2007). Though space prohibits further consideration here, Baudrillard’s emphasis on disappearance may prove of most significance to the distinctiveness of his position (Baudrillard 2009).