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An Alphabet of Cinema

I am going to begin at the beginning, with A. Perhaps with the collaborative film A & B in Ontario that Joyce Wieland made with Hollis Frampton, and completed after his death—in which each film-maker in turn shot a segment of their own for the other to respond to, like a game of tag, or a cinematic dialogue? No,

A is going to be for Aristotle. This may seem a strange choice, but I believe that Aristotle can be seen, convincingly enough, as the first theorist of film. Certainly he was the first theorist of narrative and, in his Poetics, written or recorded in the fourth century bc, he wrote about tragic drama as an art-form that had six components—plot, character, dialogue or screenplay (counting both as content, or signifieds—what Aristotle called ‘thought’—and as form, or signifiers, what Aristotle called ‘diction’), music and spectacle. These are also, of course, the basic constituents of the cinema and so it becomes relatively simple to transpose Aristotle’s theory of tragic drama into a theory of film. Aristotle’s approach was marked by his own experience of life, the social and political context in which he lived. His father was a court physician, serving the King of Macedon (Philip, the father of Alexander the Great) and, all his life, Aristotle was inevitably involved with Macedonian politics. He served as tutor for a while to the young Alexander, before he became king, and he remained on close terms with the authorities after the Macedonians went on to conquer Greece itself.

An Alphabet of Cinema
Peter Wollen, An Alphabet of Cinema, NLR 12, November–December 2001

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