Intermediality and movement in Loving Vincent
Theories on medium specificity are concerned with the inherent difference in different media, whereas theories on intermediality highlight the ways in which different media relate to one another. The two terms can therefore be seen as oppositional, but are also closely interwoven. Gaudreault and Marion makes this point in a statement saying that “[…]it is through intermediality, through a concern with the intermedial, that a medium is understood”. In this short essay, I intend to visualise the concept of intermediality through the 2016 film Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobeila and Hugh Welchman), and to show that intermediality and media specificity are two sides of the same coin.
In a broad sense, the literature scholar Irena Rajewsky defines intermediality as that which takes place between different media. She goes on to differentiate between three subcategories. The first subcategory, media transpositions, describes how one media product moves into another medium and becomes the source of it. As an example she uses film adaptations from literature. Here, the book that is adapted is not present materially. This category is production-oriented and focuses on the transformation of one medium into another. In the second subcategory, media combinations, the second medium is not only present indirectly as a source, but is represented materially, together with the first. A filmed opera concert would be an example of this. There, both the opera concert and the film are present. In the third category, intermedial reference, only one medium is present again.
However, this medium references another medium, either “a specific, individual work produced in another medium or […] a specific medial subsystem." An example of this would be most parts of the film The Mill and the Cross (Lech Majewski, 2011). This film, a sort of live-action recreation of a painting by the Flemish artist Bruegel, references both a specific painting as well as the medium subsystem of painting (in its compositions etc.). The artwork itself is physically absent, except for one scene where it is filmed in a museum. Elaborating on this, Rajewsky discusses what she calls the “as if” character of intermedial reference. In referencing a medial subsystem, the intermedial relation is symbolical: the medium referenced is not present, only imitated. Using film concepts such as zooming or dissolve in literature would be an example of this, where one medium (literature) acts as if it is another medium (film).
Much of this discussion is made relevant in the 2016 film Loving Vincent, a film about the mysterious death of the celebrated artist Vincent van Gogh. The film is made up of 65 000 hand painted oil canvases, and has therefore made history as the first ever oil painted film. The paintings are made to resemble the post-impressionistic style of van Gogh, and brought to life through the use of motion capture, which means that real actors have acted the scenes that have then been used as a kind of reference for the oil paintings. Instead of just imitating van Gogh’s paintings and style, the painting process was imitated. Casted by resemblance with people in van Gogh’s paintings, it seems that the team behind the film wanted to recreate the “physical” world of van Gogh, in order to translate it into van Gogh’s vision of the world. Thus, there are three media involved: film, painting and digital technology.
The film can be seen as an adaptation of an oeuvre of paintings. But are the paintings themselves present or do they only function as a source? This depends on which paintings one refers to. Van Gogh’s original paintings are not materially present in the film; they are never filmed. The relation between the original paintings and the film can therefore be seen as a kind of media transposition. The 65,000 new oil paintings made for the film are present in their materiality, however, which also makes media combination seem like a fitting term to describe the intermedial relations in the film. Additionally, there is an as-if character to the film even though more than one medium is present in the film, which disqualifies it from being defined as an intermedial reference: the oil paintings are juxtaposed in a way as if to make it look like the film is painted before our eyes, with rough brushstrokes. The movement of the paintbrush is translated into the movement of the (digital) reel.
The impressionists marked a departure from realism and didn’t seek photographic perfection in their paintings, but instead sought to depict passing everyday moments. As has been pointed out by Sebastian Lindvall in his recent text about the film, the post-impressionist van Gogh recognised his paintings’ materiality: lines are blurred, brushstrokes rough and paint is used in thick layers so that the physique of the canvas and the paint becomes evident to the spectator. In his aim to capture a single moment, the paintings often bear a sense of movement. Just think of van Gogh’s starry sky or the sense of dizziness in his self-portrait. (This sense of movement ties into Rajewsky’s idea of the as-if character of intermedial reference – it seems van Gogh painted as if his paintings could move. Cinema was not invented until after his death, however, so it would not be accurate to talk of an intermedial reference to cinema, but it makes for an illustrating thought.)
It is easy to see that the sense of movement in van Gogh’s painting made them so attractive for a project like Loving Vincent. But is it necessary to make the paintings move literally? Can movement only be realised through the medium of film? One might argue that it’s an odd homage to a painter opposed to photographic realism. The film appears to believe in its intermediality – it is more or less a celebration of media combinations – while at the same time recognising that movement is medium specific to cinema, in accordance with both Carroll and Clair. As Clair famously states: “If there is an aesthetic of the cinema… it can be summarized in one word: movement”. To discuss the film in terms of media specificity is not un-problematic, however, the most obvious point being that media specificity theorists believe as a rule that different media should be separated from each other in order to attain the best result. On the other hand, the intermedial aspect can also be called into question: the digital technology in the film namely opens up for a discussion about the nature of the different media combined in the film.
As Lev Manovich convincingly discusses in his text “What is Digital Cinema?” cinema has long wanted to distance itself from traces of its production, which has led to the belief that cinema is mainly concerned with capturing reality rather than shaping it. Manovich argues that this is a misconception. First of all, the forerunners to the Cinematograph – the Zootrope, Phenakistoscope and the like – relied on hand-drawn images, rather than photographic imagery, which ties animation back to the roots of cinema. Second, seen from an indexical point of view, Manovich argues that the line between photographic realism and special effects or animation is blurred in the age of digital cinema since everything is reduced to pixels. “Cinema can no longer be clearly distinguished from animation. It is no longer an indexical media technology but, rather, a subgenre to painting”. In this case, Rajewsky’s division between different media can be called into question. If all film in the age of digital cinema is a “subgenre to painting”, is the combination film and painting really an intermedial combination? Or is everything in the digital age intertwined when converted to pixels so that intermediality in film becomes less relevant to examine?
This opens up for discussion that I do not have the possibility to engage with in the scope of this short essay. I have, however, tried to discuss and problematises certain aspects of the concept of intermediality in relation to the film Loving Vincent. In applying Rajewsky’s theory on the film, it is without doubt intermedial in its combination of film, painting and digital technology. Intermediality in film – at least media combinations – might nevertheless need a re-examination in the age of digital cinema, as Manovich reminds us. In the film’s desire to bring literal movement to paintings that in themselves only convey movement figuratively, there is also a recognition of film’s status as the most suitable medium to convey movement, which ties into ideas articulated by Clair and Carroll. This discussion illustrates that the concepts media specificity and intermediality are two sides of the same coin.
Carroll, Noël. The Philosophy of Moving Pictures. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008.
Clair, René. Réflexion faite. Notes pour servir à l’historie de l’art cinématographique de 1920 à 1950. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1951.
Gaurdeault, André and Philippe Marion. “The Cinema as a Model for the Genealogy of Media”. Convergence 8, issue 4 (2002): 12-18.
Lindvall, Sebastian. ”Tecknarens kontrakt”. FLM 10 (autumn 2017): 22-29.
Manovich, Lev. “What is Digital Cinema?”. In Critical Visions in Film Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Timothy Corrigan, Patricia White and Meta Mazaj. Boston/New York: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2011, 1060-1068.
O’Falt, Chris.”’Loving Vincent’: How 125 Artists and 65,000 Paintings Made the World’s First Oil-Painted Movie”. Indiewire. Controlled 4/1 2018.
Rajewsky, Irina O. “Intermediality, Intertextuality, and Remediation: A Literary Perspective on Intermediality”. Intermédialités 6, (2005): 43–64.