Date of Publishing:
February 23, 2022

Cinematic Dizziness and Vertigo with Philippe-Alain-Michaud

Philippe-Alain Michaud, Karoline Feyertag, Ruth Anderwald, Leonhard Grond.
in the framework of the podcast On Certain Groundlessness

Philippe-Alain Michaud is film curator at the Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre Pompidou, Professor at ERG, (Ecole de Recherche Graphique) Brussels and Visiting Professor at the Rijksakademie, Amsterdam, since 2008. He is the author of Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion (Zone Books, 2002 and Macula 2012), Le peuple des images (Desclée de Brouwer, 2004), Sur le film (Macula, 2016) and has written extensively on the relations between film and visual arts. He has curated a number of exhibitions among: Comme le rêve le dessin (Musée du Louvre/Centre Pompidou, 2004), Nuits électriques (Musée, de la photographie, Moscou and Laboral (Gijon, Spain) 2007, Tapis volants (Villa Medici, Rome and Les Abattoirs, Toulouse) 2010, Images sans fin, Brancusi photographie, film (Centre Pompidou, 2012, with Clément Cheroux and Quentin Bajac), Beat Generation (Centre Pompidou, 2016, with Rani Singh and Jean-Jacques Lebel).

Karoline Feyertag (KF) — Perhaps we could already start with the notion of "dizziness". In French, I always find it a bit difficult to translate. How do you understand it?

Philippe-Alain Michaud (PAM) I think it's "vertige" as a kind of vertigo, whereas there's perhaps a hint of euphoria in dizziness, as I see it. But there are different connotations in English than in French, because in "dizziness" - and maybe because of my occupation with the cinema - I also hear "dazzle". This effect in cinema is very much used by experimental filmmakers who have worked with flicker film, like Paul Sharits, who works frame by frame. There is a whole series of films by Sharits made from monochromous frames that he shoots one by one. When projected, it produces this flickering effect, a kind of dazzling effect, which creates a destabilization of our perception of colours. In Sharits' flicker images, we no longer know what colour we are looking at because, in fact, there are only juxtapositions of monochrome images, of monochrome colour shots, but due to the speed of the projection, and the rapid alternation of differently coloured shots, chromatic fusions occur, and we see colours that are not on the film. Flicker films were also known to cause epileptic fits…

There is also another film by Tony Conrad simply called "The Flicker"; a film that lasts about thirty minutes. It's composed of black and translucent frames; no colours are used. This piece creates a kind of crescendo, starting from a slow alternation of black and transparent frames towards a very fast alternation. In the beginning, there is a very long introductory shot, probably ironic, in which epileptics are advised not to watch the film.

Sharits' film was said to be a porn film, even if totally abstract, because it had a structure that went towards this kind of orgasm, where the images alternate in an increasingly speedy way at first and then slowly, back to inertia.

This question of alternating images and dizziness makes me think of Franz Kafka's word to Felice Bauer in a letter in 1912, where he told her:

"Only I am trembling all over ['nur zittere ich überall'], the way the light made the screen tremble ['zum Zittern brachte'] in the earliest days of cinematography, if you remember that." [1]

When he talks about cinema in his texts, Kafka often refers to the very mechanical experience of the passing of images. When he says, "I tremble and my trembling resembles that of the first cinema images", he is referring to the shutter that opens and closes to let the images appear. At that time, in 1912, images ran at the speed of 16 frames per second, i.e. at the threshold at which we can still see the shutter open and close – with the velocity that came in use later, 24 frames per second, we can no longer perceive the shutter, but at 16 frames its movement is still perceptible. That's why Paul [Sharits] projects some of his films at 16 frames per second so that we can have this perception of the shutter closing and opening. At that speed, we have the impression of seeing the bodies floating slightly, like apnoea in a liquid atmosphere. [2] There you have it, dizziness for me is linked to this thought of the shutter.

Elsewhere Kafka says to Max Brod: "I don't like cinema very much, films are iron shutters." In fact, he compares films to the iron curtains that are pulled down in front of shops when they close. This iron shutter is also the shutter's closing us off. In this way, cinema prevents us from seeing, as he explicitly says: "The cinema prevents us from seeing reality". So perhaps the shutter to him is the sign that cinema hides as much as it shows.

For Kafka, the closing and opening of the shutter are, in fact, the fundamental experience of film that conditions the projection of images. And that disappears in digital projections. Maybe dizziness changes or disappears with the digital experience. I believe that the digital creates vitrified images, that there is no more dizziness in digital moving images because of the disappearance of the shutter.

If we look at the history of analogue cinema, of cinema projected from the film, perhaps we can take the question of vertigo as a red thread. There is a film by Max Ophüls, that I like very much, which was shot in 1932, if I remember correctly, called "Le Plaisir", still pleasure, always a question of pleasure and vertigo – Max Ophüls is very interested in the question of physical pleasure, all his films revolve around the question of love in its charnel dimension. So, "Le Plaisir" is a film about a brothel. The first sequence of the film is absolutely magnificent. It's a sort of long travelling establishing shot around the house, the brothel, which will be the location of his film, and there is a big party in this brothel. A man appears and walks in an extremely mechanical way. He enters the ballroom and starts dancing, but like a puppet, like an automaton, he has an entirely frozen face – bizarre, like an insect that obeys sensory-motor movements and no affect; there is no pathos. He dances in this slightly crazy way in the dance hall before collapsing. To that situation, a doctor is called from somewhere else in the brothel, who comes down and tears off the man's mask, which depicts a young man with vigorously painted features, very excessive make-up and a drawn moustache. The doctor tears off this mask and reveals an old man who can't stop himself from coming back to dance and who puts on a young man's face to show up and dance. I wonder if Ophüls' film was conditioned by the question of vertigo which can perhaps be located at the technical origin of the filmed experience.

We can tell the history of cinema in this way, starting from the question of vertigo. Earlier, Murnau's first film, "Phantom", tells the story of a poor failed poet who is run over by the carriage of a young woman, the wealthy young heiress of the town. He gets hit and passes out on the pavement. When he wakes up, he sees this princess leaning over him, falls madly in love with her, and pursues her by running through the small German town where the film is set. Béla Balázs in "The Invisible Man", Der unsichtbare Mensch, speaks magnificently of the phantom, of the character played by the actor called Alfred Abel, and he says – I'm quoting this little passage from Balázs, which I find magnificent, to you:

"In Fantôme, Alfred Abel wanders around a lot, alone, through the streets. But nowhere else in the film is it so clear that he is a lost person, blinded, at loss, drowned in dreamy intoxication and about to throw himself into the abyss. In the scenes where he is not alone, we can still think that the danger comes from others and could perhaps spare him. But when he is alone, his walk shows that the danger is within himself. He carries an inner wound and staggers as if he had been shot. In the hero's walk, the very gesture of his destiny is expressed." [3]

It's absolutely sublime of Balázs to recognize that this staggering step of Alfred Abel, this dizziness, that in fact, is silent film – perhaps more silent film than sound film, since Ophüls' film is not even a sound film. Made in 1932, it still owns the rhetoric of the silent picture with sound added to the image. Perhaps vertigo is linked to the experience of silent pictures. As a matter of fact, sound has brought the medium film in line with the 24-frame-per-second screening time; that is to say, the appearance of the sound film marks the moment when the shutter, the flutter of the shutter in front of the film, disappears. Then, it can no longer be perceived. Perhaps it was with talking pictures, with the sound, we might argue, that the dizziness disappeared from cinema. But that's not quite true because there is another example I would like to talk about, that of Mizoguchi Kenji.

In "Ugetsu mongatari", he presents two absolutely magnificent shots: these shots introduce vertigo into our perception of the images. The first is a sequence in which a pottery maker, a craftsman creating magnificent pottery, is invited by a rich aristocrat to her manor. She has bought some pottery from the market; she wants to bring him in, to lure him to her manor. In fact, this aristocrat is a demon, and the manor has long since disappeared. It has become a kind of hallucination in which the craftsman is taken under the spell of the demon that transformed into a very seductive woman. In a sequence, we see him completely entranced as if drugged by the demon as he bathes with her in a fountain. They're naked in a natural hot spring. In this long sequence shot – the camera zooms into the water flowing from the spring, follows the stream, and, at one point, there's a kind of imperceptible fade out. Under the stream, a meadow comes into view, and at that point, there's a striking zoom out. We discover a very wide shot of the meadow, in which the potter and the demon are seen together running on the meadow. Without a break, Mizoguchi takes us and his characters from the hot spring to the meadow, connecting two scenes in the same shot. It's a magical shot, impossible – well, only possible because there's this cross-fade between the water and the meadow, but it introduces both the character, the potter who is completely dizzy, and the perception we have of the film, which is dizzying.

The second shot, in the end, is symmetrical: the potter returns to his village where he has lived with his wife and son, and he discovers his house was destroyed. His son and his wife have disappeared. The house is burnt down. He goes around the house, and when he enters the house again, it is intact, and his wife is there with his child sleeping. This shot is a sequence shot; we don't see the break; it's a kind of going back in time, and there too is a kind of temporal vertigo. His wife is preparing food for the potter; he is exhausted by his journey and falls asleep. At that moment, his wife puts his things away, folds them, kisses his child and disappears. So it was a pure hallucination, and when he wakes up, his child is there, asleep, but his wife is gone. And his house, which was looted by bands of robbers, is in ruins. Then he goes back to work. When he starts making pottery again, his wife's voice is there, whispering to him she is always there as a spirit.

The last shot of the film, to me every time I see it, makes me cry. There is a Buddhist altar, and the little boy brings a bowl of rice, an offering that he puts on the altar, and at that moment, there is a kind of very low instrumental sound, like a very deep rumble, and the camera goes upward in a panoramic shot. It goes up as if cinema is a power of mystery, and so it ends.

In my opinion, all three shots are very beautiful visual meditations on vertigo. In the end, there is this very deep trumpet sound; apart from that, the film consists strictly of visual effects. Possibly vertigo has more to do with the visible than the audible.

Ruth Anderwald (RA) — I would maybe like to go back to the Kafka quote on cinema and shutter connected to the feeling of being dizzy. Because to see means to be in the world and with the world, open-eyed – but to be dizzy, your vision changes, and you start to feel detached from the world as also described by Kafka. So, what does this moment of blindness do – maybe in connection to the shutter in the apparatus of the projector, where there is a moment of blindness that enables us to see a moving image?

PAM — I'm not sure that seeing is necessarily connected to being in the world. For example, in front of Sharits' flicker film, if you close your eyes, you still see the colours coming through your eyelids. And at that moment, you see that there is a connection between the sensitive perception of images, the images of the world, of reality, to put it simply, and the mental images - there is no break between the one and the other. It makes me think of another example that has to do with vertigo and the experience of psychotropic drugs, a film by Bruce Conner.

In fact, when you talked to me about dizziness, you wanted me to talk about the exhibition "Beat", about the Beat generation.[4] In this exhibition, we presented a film by Bruce Conner, who was a filmmaker, sculptor, and photographer from the West Coast of the U.S., and active from the end of the fifties until the end of the eighties. When beginning, in the late fifties, he made a film called "Looking for Mushrooms", which was a film about peyote – that was the period, it was in the middle of the Cold War, and Bruce Conner was going back and forth between San Francisco and Mexico.

Actually, Mexico was a place where he could escape the atomic peril. There's a kind of opposition in Conner's work between the mushroom cloud and the psychedelic mushroom – as if the psychedelic mushroom was a way of warding off the atomic peril. So you'll find this reference to hallucinogenic mushrooms in "Looking for mushrooms", and you'll find it in another film called "Crossroads", which was the name of the nuclear testing programme carried out by the American army on the Bikini Islands in the early fifties.

Bruce Conner had recovered images – I don't know how he did it – but he had recovered images of the atomic explosions on the Bikini Islands from the U.S. Army, which he reassembled with music by Terry Riley; a piece of repetitive, floating music that is associated with the psychedelic scene of the sixties. So, there's this terrifying image of the explosions on the Bikini Islands combined with music that refers to psychedelic culture, and this creates a paradoxical and simultaneously ironic tension in Bruce Conner's film, between mushroom clouds and psychedelic mushrooms.

What he did in "Crossroads," he also did in "Looking for Mushrooms"; a film that was initially made to last about four minutes, made with shots filmed in San Francisco and Mexico and edited with music, this time a Beatles song, more like rock music. Later, in the early 1980s, at the end of his artistic career, he made another version of the film, much longer, 14 minutes long, with extremely slowed-down shots, and he added music by Terry Riley. What stands out – the 1950s version is not available, I think – but the restored version, which was the version that Bruce Conner wanted, with these extremely slowed down shots, is the opposite of a flicker film.

A flicker film accelerates, and this material is very, very slowed down and refers to the experience of reality that can be made under the influence of psychotropic drugs with hallucinogenic mushrooms. Suddenly, we see that there is no longer any distinction between the mental image and the sensory image, and we see things for themselves, seemingly, through the experience of psychotropic drugs. After a few minutes of watching, the film becomes absolutely bewitching, and you have the impression of seeing things themselves appear outside their contextualization, outside their relationship to other elements of the world—a bit like the experiences Henri Michaux described in his texts on mescaline. In fact, we find this experience of vertigo, of dizziness, through the inverse means of flicker, and on the contrary, through an extreme slowing down of the images.

KF — Concerning the Beat generation, you quote in the catalogue of the exhibition "Beat Generation" William S. Burroughs who says: "Words can prevent what I call a 'non-body experience,' it is time to think of leaving our bodies behind." [5] There is a kind of tension between this "non-body experience" and the experience of dizziness or the effect of hallucinogenic drugs. How do you perceive it? I mean, the relationship between Burroughs' mention of non-body experience, no longer thinking with words, by words, but, as he says, thinking in "association blocks." Because it seems to me to be a profoundly corporeal experience, what you have just described, for example, phenomena of flicker, either accelerated or slowed down.

PAM — Yes, a non-body experience is a bodily experience. The beat writers have sought this experience with the use of drugs but perhaps also in Tantric Buddhism; drugs would be a quick way but not the most effective way, even if it is the most practical.

I think another thing develops in the work of Burroughs, and then Brion Gysin too, which is the work on the grid, on permutations. It's a work of logic, also a work on non-body experience, but perhaps a more complex and austere work than taking drugs, which also leads to this setting aside of subjectivity in the production of works. But there's something else; it's not Gysin's poems that are interesting for this question of vertigo; it's the dream machine, a machine related to flicker. In fact, Gysin had an ecstatic experience in a bus that drove him in the south of France, going to Marseille, if I remember correctly, and in the window, he saw the alternations between the shadow of the trees and the light of the sun on the road, which produced this fluttering effect between darkness and light and induced a sort of vertiginous experience – it's a bit like his road to Damascus, the bus between Aix and Marseille. At that time, he worked with Ian Sommerville, a mathematician, on the dream machine, built with a record player—well, with very cobbled-together means—on which he placed a perforated paper tube behind which a light bulb appeared. The contemplation of this machine in motion allows us to experience hallucinatory effects. And here, too, you can watch the machine with your eyes closed, like the flicker films, and it blurs the boundaries between the sensory image and the actual perception of the viewer. In all these hallucinatory phenomena, there is indeed a non-body experience. But non-body experiences can undoubtedly also be formal, not only material.

KF — In light of the notion of dizziness, one might even think that the beatniks were inventors of different ways to expose themselves to dizziness.

PAM — Yes, in fact, there's a very childish side to the beat generation; they tried drugs, everything, like all kids, there's this side. After a while, a certain seriousness sets in because they become addicted. Actually, I think dizziness is also linked to youth - to euphoria, to a kind of vitality, and probably after youth, it disappears. After his early work, Burroughs becomes rather sad.


KF — I would like to come back to the four examples – you sent four film examples prior to our conversation. In the first one by Max Ophüls and the second one by Murnau, you relate to the fading sequences. Was this also linked to your observation of the shutter?

PAM — I was asked to think about dizziness, and I chose films; it took me a while to find them. Finally, I chose Ophüls, Murnau, Mizoguchi, and Hitchcock's "The Rope" – because I think, just like Mizoguchi, Hitchcock uses the same process in order to link sequences: the invisible fade out. I think the rope is related to vertigo because actually when you climb up and down a rope, you can become vertiginous from seeing the abyss below. In Hitchcock's film, the rope is used both to strangle the young victim at the beginning of the film, and then he is put in a trunk on which they are going to set up a table and make his father, mother, and fiancée dine on the boy's corpse, a sort of cannibal and monstrous feast. Here the rope is both the instrument of the murder and the line that keeps the film in tension, from beginning to end, and we are suspended on this rope. Perhaps that's how Hitchcock, in a very perverse way, manages to produce his vertigo effect.

Vertigo is an enormous subject in Hitchcock; he even made a film called "Vertigo"; the vertigo of "Vertigo" – with this character who can't get on a chair without feeling like falling. At the end of the film, when Kim Novak seems to fall into the well from the tower she has climbed, Hitchcock shows what vertigo is, and for this purpose, he combines a zoom in and a tracking shot. This produces an elastic space for the spectator and causes this effect of vertigo that gives the film its title. But, coming back, I think that "The Rope" is a very intimate film, which takes place in a huis clos and is also crossed by this question of vertigo. Probably Hitchcock is one of the directors who should be perceived from that point of view.

Leonhard Grond — I wondered what kind of films of contemporary artists come into your mind when talking about dizziness or "le vertige" as we have been speaking a lot about the beat generation and Paul Sharits and others?

PAM: I don't think there are many. As I was saying, for me, dizziness is related to the experience of screening analogue film, so there's not much of that anymore. Maybe Tacita Dean, but I don't think she has anything to do with dizziness. Joachim Koester maybe, or Ben Russell with his film installation, Badlands, in which a girl on LSD is filmed through a rotating glass plate; he was really working with that issue.

RA — Merci beaucoup, Philippe-Alain !


[1] Hanns Zischler, Kafka Goes to the Movies, transl. by Susan Gillespie. Chicago, 2003.

[2] The central idea was to create a metaphor of the basic intermittency mechanism of cinema: the shutter. If one slows down a projector, one observes a "flicker"; this flickering reveals the rotating shutter activity of the system. Instead of slowing down a projector, one can metaphorically suggest the frame-by-frame structure of film (which is what necessitates a shutter blade mechanism) by differentiating each frame of the film by radical shifts in value or hue; this metaphor was a guiding principle in my work in the 1960's, in my so-called "color flicker films". Excerpt from a letter from the Paul Sharits papers, Burchfield-Penny Art Center Archive, Buffalo, New York.

[3] Béla Balázs, Early Film Theory: Visible Man and The Spirit of Film, ed. by Erica Carter, transl. by Rodney Livingstone. New York/Oxford: 2010.

[4] „Beat Generation“ – exhibition at Centre Pompidou, Paris, 22 Jun - 3 Oct 2016,

[5] Burroughs 1966 quoted in Michaud, "Odds and Ends," in Catalogue of the exhibition "Beat Generation", 52.