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Cellular Features: Microcinematography and

Film Theory
Hannah Landecker

Word is getting out that microbes are the greatest actors in the world. Next year we
will ask them for autographs.
—André Bazin, “Science Film: Accidental Beauty,” 19471

Something pullulates below the surface of early theories of film. Cellular


tissue, says Walter Benjamin, is “more native to the camera than the at-
mospheric landscape or the soulful portrait.”2 Sergey Eisenstein’s writings
theorize the shot as a “montage cell,” which is no mere static element; just
as cells divide to “form a phenomenon of another order, the organism or
embryo,” so shots form montage.3 In other work, the living cell and the film
cell seem to merge: “Hundreds of little fragments of exposed film are there
in front of the author . . . . The [artist] will work patiently at juxtaposing,
overlapping, paralleling, and opposing all these living cells.”4 From Jean Ep-
stein’s book Magnification to Béla Balázs’s notion of the close-up, one can
read what seems a fanciful metaphorical connection between seeing life at
a microscopic level and seeing through a camera: “We skim over the teeming
substance of life. The camera has uncovered that cell-life of the vital issues
in which all great events are ultimately conceived; for the greatest landslide

I would like to thank the staff at the Archives of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, and Hans-Jörg
Rheinberger and the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science for their assistance during the
research for this paper, as well as Peter Geimer and Christopher Kelty for their comments. All
translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own.
1. André Bazin, “Science Film: Accidental Beauty,” in Science Is Fiction: The Films of Jean
Painlevé, trans. Jeanine Herman, ed. Andy Masaki Bellows, Marina McDougall, and Brigitte Berg
(Cambridge, Mass., 2000), p. 145; hereafter abbreviated “SF.”
2. Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” Selected Writings, trans. Rodney
Livingstone et al., ed. Michael W. Jennings et al., 4 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., 1999), 2:512.
3. Sergey Eisenstein, “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram,” Film Form: Essays in
Film Theory, trans. and ed. Jay Leyda (1949; New York, 1977), p. 37.
4. Emile Vuillermoz, “Before the Screen: Aesthetic,” trans. Richard Abel, in French Film Theory
and Criticism, trans. Abel et al., ed. Abel, 2 vols. (Princeton, N.J., 1988), 1:226.

Critical Inquiry 31 (Summer 2005)


! 2005 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/05/3104-0004$10.00. All rights reserved.

903
904 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
is only the aggregate of the movements of single particles.”5 The shot, then,
is a cell; the montage, an organism formed by cell division; and filmmaking,
embryogenesis. Film is “a sort of microscope” that enlarges and frames the
field of view differently than the eye alone.6 Such metaphors convey the
camera’s abilities to focus in on places and things that the unaided eye would
not or could not naturally see and thus its ability to get at, again meta-
phorically, the elemental things that subtend larger phenomena. Micro-
scopes and cells are common enough; their abstract invocation seems
unremarkable. But what then accounts for the frequency of these references
in early twentieth-century writing on the medium of film? These references
may also be read much more literally. In the early twentieth century, life sci-
entists were using microcinematography and time-lapse techniques to make
films of embryogenesis and the cell life of the vital tissues. Sometimes the
cinematographer actually was a surgeon, film was functioning through a mi-
croscope, tissue was an event, the screen was teeming, the celluloid cell did
divide to become a whole organism, the close-up was magnification of many
thousand times. What relation might these films have to the metaphorical
presence of microscope and cell in early critical writings on cinema?
In Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, Siegfried Kracauer
suggests that the specificity of the cinematic subject may be related to the
origins of film in scientific practice.
In its preoccupation with the small the cinema is comparable to science.
Like science, it breaks down material phenomena in tiny particles,
thereby sensitizing us to the tremendous energies accumulated in the
microscopic configurations of matter. These analogies may well be re-
lated to the nature of film. It is quite possible indeed that the construc-
tion of the film image from shots of minute phases of movement favors
the reverse tendency toward decomposing given wholes. Is it really sur-
prising that a medium so greatly indebted to nineteenth-century con-
cern for science should show characteristics inherent in the scientific
approach?7
5. Béla Balázs, Theory of the Film: Character and Growth of a New Art, trans. Edith Bone (New
York, 1953), p. 55.
6. Germaine Dulac, “The Essence of the Cinema: The Visual Idea,” trans. Robert Lamberton, in
The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York, 1978), p.
39.
7. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (1960; Princeton, N.J.,
1997), p. 50; hereafter abbreviated TF.

H a n n a h L a n d e c k e r is assistant professor of anthropology at Rice


University. She is currently completing a manuscript about the manipulation of
life in vitro entitled Technologies of Living Substance: Cells and Biotechnology in the
Twentieth Century. Her email is hll@rice.edu
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 905
This comparison of cinematic and scientific procedures might look like
an attempt to claim and privilege some sense of scientific objectivity for the
camera’s ability to access physical reality, part of the “naı̈ve realism” Kra-
cauer has previously been accused of displaying in Theory of Film.8 However,
this positing of a kinship of science and cinema, out of which grows the very
ability to draw an analogy between the two, is not framed in terms of the
camera’s privileged ability to access the truth, some unmediated or mini-
mally mediated access to physical reality. For Kracauer, the camera affords
access not to any physical reality whatsoever but to a “reality of another
dimension” (TF, p. 53), a phrase Kracauer takes from Epstein. There was
no requirement that one be a scientist, or even a realist, to appreciate these
new sights or think about their cinematic character.
What Kracauer’s analogy between scientific and cinematic procedures
points to is that his and others’ analogies and metaphors are not based on
comparisons of film and scientific objects, that is, artistic film and molecule,
but are comparisons within the same medium—of artistic film and scien-
tific film. The original energy of this comparison comes not from putting
film on one side of the metaphor and the abstract concept of cells or par-
ticles on the other but from looking at actual moving images of cells, at the
living cell made visible by film. Kracauer, Epstein, and other theorists were
looking at the physiological reality of another dimension made accessible
by biological films.
Cinema in early twentieth-century biology consisted of experiments on
film in a doubled sense of the phrase. As Jean Painlevé recognized, “it would
never have occurred to the pioneers of cinema to dissociate research on film
from research by means of film.”9 For both scientists and film theorists, ex-
periments in perceiving life with technical manipulations of space, time,
light, and framing generated new ideas of what film was or could be—thus
the possibility of such easy slippage from film cell to living cell. Early mi-
crocinematographic films simultaneously used the film camera to investi-
gate the properties of living things and used these life science experiments
to investigate the properties of the new medium of cinema, particularly its
temporal characteristics.
Kracauer reflects on how film provides access to “the concept of life as
such” or “life as a powerful entity,” an idea concretely related to the success
of early biological film (TF, p. 169).10 Time-lapse microcinematography,
8. Quoted in Miriam Bratu Hansen, introduction to Theory of Film, p. ix. Hansen also takes
issue with this criticism.
9. Jean Painlevé, “Scientific Film,” in Science Is Fiction, p. 162.
10. One may assume here that Kracauer had in mind a notion of life not very far from that
elaborated by Foucault because although Theory of Film was published in 1960, some years before
Les Mots et les choses, Kracauer accompanies his discussion of “life as such” with the slightly wistful
statement that “it would be tempting to try to follow the evolution of this concept, say, from the
906 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
through magnification and acceleration, was generative simultaneously of
theories of life and theories of film. These technical forms of filmic power
could not come from the moving image of the cell in and by itself, no matter
its novelty or beauty, but were inextricably bound to a perception of the
living, moving cell on screen as a more profound manifestation of life than
those phenomena visible without cinematography. For both biologists and
cultural observers, these films were experiments in seeing and perceiving
life, not just living things, but that which was understood and narrated as
the fundament of life. These films seemed to get at not just the things con-
stituting all life but at the previously imperceptible processes of their au-
tonomous lives.
One reason that this film-to-film comparison between biological and
artistic examples of early cinema remains unrecognized by contemporary
readers of film theory is simply that we don’t know very much about bio-
logical film of the early twentieth century. Paradoxically, this may have
arisen in part from the attention paid to origin stories of cinema in the
physiological work of Étienne-Jules Marey. We have done much thinking
about the analytics of movement produced by Marey within a scientific
framework of chronophotography, but little about the later syntheses of
movement within a scientific framework of cinematography. The assump-
tion of a radical bifurcation of scientific imaging of movement and enter-
tainment cinema appears explicable via Marey’s avowed disinterest in
reproducing movement as the eye would normally perceive it.11 With some
important exceptions, such as the work of Lisa Cartwright, we know little
about scientific cinematography after Marey’s death in 1904 and thus have
few resources to work with, especially in comparison to the depth of schol-
arship on other early film.12
time of the Romantics via Nietzsche and Bergson up to our days, but such a study goes beyond the
scope of the present book, being a large-scale proposition in its own right” (TF, p. 169).
11. See Marta Braun, Picturing Time: The Work of Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) (Chicago,
1992), pp. 150–51.
12. Cartwright has done much to unsettle the usual origin story; as she has demonstrated with
her detailed analysis of physiological, microscopic, and X-ray cinema, scientists did not stop
making films, and film pioneers such as Auguste Lumière did not stop being biologists. See Lisa
Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine’s Visual Culture (Minneapolis, 1995). Thierry
Lefebvre has shown the flourishing of the popular science film in the factories and catalogs of the
early film production companies such as Gaumont and Eclair between 1911 and 1914. See Thierry
Lefebvre, “The Scientia Production (1911–1914), Scientific Popularization through Pictures,”
Griffithiana 16 (May 1993): 137–55. Oliver Gaycken has expanded this historical focus on popular
science film in “‘A Drama Unites Them in a Fight to the Death’: Some Remarks on the Flourishing
of a Cinema of Scientific Vernacularization in France, 1909–1914,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio,
and Television 22 (Aug. 2002): 353–74. The work of “hybrid” scientist/filmmaker Jean Painlevé has
recently been documented in Science Is Fiction. On the general subject of early nonfiction film, see
the special issue of 1895, “Images du réel: La Non-Fiction en France (1890–1930),” ed. Lefebvre
(Summer 1995). For a discussion of early nature film, see Gregg Mitman, Reel Nature: America’s
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 907
I contend that scientific films are important to the genealogy of critical
attempts to define the film medium. This is not a story of impact, of things
moving out of the laboratory and landing in society, but of a dense set of
interconnected works dealing with life, time, and film, connections that
have become obscured only by our own contemporary demarcations be-
tween science and the humanities and between film studies and the history
of science. There are some hopeful signs that these boundaries are becoming
less distinct. By interpreting these films as one more type of novel attraction
among others available in the early years of cinematography, Tom Gunning
has facilitated the conceptualization of scientific experimental films and
works of science popularization as part and parcel of early film.13 Yuri Tsi-
vian accordingly sees science as “part of the cinematic text,” of early film.
Furthermore, Tsivian argues, these early microscopic and X-ray films were
incorporated into criticism and film making. Their representation of the
normally unseen—the very small and the interior of the body—generated
a concept of “penetrating vision” that was reappropriated metaphorically
into techniques such as the dissolve by “writers and directors biased toward
artistic experiment.”14 Thus, as Mary Ann Doane has shown, the relation-
ship of science and cinema lies not just in the surviving physical objects we
retrospectively categorize as science film but in overlapping concepts and
technical practices of seeing the physical world, including the important
problem of the representability of time.15
What follows is a consideration of the teeming presence of the cell in
early film and film theory as a key part of a simultaneously scientific and
cinematic problem of seeing life—the representation by film of life as such.
It is difficult to operate the word and concept life with any precision, so I
would like to ground it in the specifics of the time-lapse microcinematog-
raphy of two scientists, Jean Comandon and Alexis Carrel. They were prac-
titioners of both biology and filmmaking, and their laboratories were
intensely generative of ideas and practices for examining and exhibiting life
and movement, including texts, procedures, images, theories, and films.

Romance with Wildlife on Film (Cambridge, Mass., 1999). The work of Scott Curtis, Managing
Modernity: Art, Science, and Early Cinema in Germany (forthcoming), promises to be an
important contribution to the history of German scientific and medical film.
13. See Tom Gunning, “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous
Spectator,” in Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall
Cohen (1974; Oxford, 1999), pp. 818–32.
14. Yuri Tsivian, “Media Fantasies and Penetrating Vision: Some Links between X-Rays, the
Microscope, and Film,” in Laboratory of Dreams: The Russian Avant-Garde and Cultural
Experiment, ed. John E. Bowlt and Olga Matich (Stanford, Calif., 1996), p. 82.
15. See Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the
Archive (Cambridge, Mass., 2002).
908 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
Comandon was located at the interface of the Parisian medical research
community and the young entertainment film industry; he trained as a doc-
tor, did biological research, and, at the same time, worked within the Pathé
Frères film production establishment and contributed to their catalogue.
One of his early time-lapse films, Survival of a Fragment of the Heart and
Spleen of the Chicken Embryo: Cell Division (c. 1913), was made by filming
embryonic somatic cells living in culture. Tissue culture, a technique for
fragmenting and externalizing the cellular life of complex opaque bodies,
was adopted from Alexis Carrel, a Nobel-prize winning surgeon at the
Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Carrel in turn adopted micro-
cinematography from Comandon and used it to further develop his tech-
niques for growing somatic tissues outside the body. Carrel experimented
with film both as a mechanism for observing the physiological detail of cel-
lular life and as a vehicle for a new theoretical basis for cytology—which
also drew heavily on the philosophy of Henri Bergson.
Both scientists were public figures. Comandon worked within an enter-
tainment film enterprise and traveled, lectured, and taught with his films
constantly; Carrel though less visible was more famous—a man whose
press-clipping collection occupies many feet of archival space. Their ex-
periments did not take place in isolated laboratories far from the public
sphere occupied by cultural critics and other filmmakers; not only were
those commentators and filmmakers themselves in some cases educated in
medicine or biology before their turn to cinema but these films and ac-
counts of these films circulated widely for many years. In fact, both are part
of the discourse of early film. This paper is an exploration of biological ex-
periments on film and the traces they have left in early film theory.

1
Was Benjamin overly optimistic when he predicted that one of the rev-
olutionary functions of film would be “demonstrating that the artistic uses
of photography are identical to its scientific uses”? Or, perhaps, was this in
fact demonstrated, but we have forgotten about it? Benjamin saw a kind of
twentieth-century implosion of artistic and scientific enquiry in film,
caused by that medium’s specific analytic habits of isolation and focus,
which made it difficult for viewers “to say which is more fascinating, its
artistic value or its value for science.”16 Jean Comandon specifically chose
film as his experimental medium to take advantage of the technical possi-
bility of isolating a very particular segment of time and space, and the re-
16. Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Third
Version,” trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn, Selected Writings, 4:265; hereafter abbreviated
“WA.”
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 909
ception of Comandon’s cinematic work shows that it was indeed seen as
possessing both an artistic and a scientific value and that it was actually
difficult to distinguish between the two. These films were originally made
as scientific investigations, not as popularizations, though that line too was
indefinite. I focus below on experimental films in order to follow out Ben-
jamin’s suggestion that the analytic opportunities specific to the film me-
dium—due to the isolation of action and the precise delineation of
situation—“foster the interpenetration of art and science” (“WA,” 4:265).
This interpenetration introduces the cell into early film theory.
Comandon became a filmmaker by way of medical research, writing a
thesis on methods for the visualization of syphilis bacteria in patients’
blood samples.17 As a young student inheriting the bacteriological princi-
ples of Pasteur and Koch, success meant isolating and identifying the syph-
ilis bacterium, providing means to distinguish this unique organism from
a million other possibilities, and thus arriving at the certitude of cause, ef-
fect, and diagnosis.18 For this purpose, he worked with the newly developed
technique of dark-field microscopy, or ultramicroscopy, which lit speci-
mens from the side so that they stood out as bright objects against the black
background of the field of view. This enabled the microscopic observation
of weakly refringent organisms not visible with conventional light micros-
copy. Comandon explored the idea of diagnosing syphilis by distinguishing
syphilis spirochetes from other bacteria by their characteristic movement.
To capture movement, he turned to film.
Comandon reports that he was inspired by films of Brownian movement,
the unceasing, random movement of particles in liquids or gases. In 1908,
Victor Henri and Louise Chevreton filmed a microscopic preparation of
latex of rubber diluted with water, an emulsion containing enough rubber
particles to see their movement, but few enough that each particle could be
followed from frame to frame of the film.19 This frame comparison allowed
Henri to diagram the trajectories of single particles over time: “The trajec-
tory described by one grain is very complex; it varies from one grain to

17. Comandon’s thesis, “De l’usage en clinique de l’ultra-microscope en particulier pour la


recherche et l’étude des spirochetes,” was published in Paris in 1909 and can be found in the
Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University.
18. Compare Ludwik Fleck, Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, trans. Frederick
Bradley and Thaddeus J. Trenn, ed. Trenn and Robert Merton (Chicago, 1979). Fleck, detailing the
development of the Wasserman Test for the diagnosis of syphilis, provides an interesting context
for this hope on the part of Comandon that certain identification would come from film, not
biochemistry.
19. Chevreton and Henri were making these films in the laboratory of Charles Emile François-
Franck, assistant to Étienne-Jules Marey and his successor in the chair of physiology at the Collège
de France.
910 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
another and is absolutely independent for each grain . . . . That trajectory
often presents very abrupt changes of direction.”20 Seeing Brownian move-
ment was in itself controversial; although identified in 1828, it was part of
an intense debate about the atomic or molecular structure of matter. Prov-
ing the existence of molecules and measuring their motion was part of the
more fundamental question of the “discontinuity of matter which underlies
visible reality.”21 Just looking at Brownian movement through the micro-
scope allowed the perception of the phenomenon, but not its quantification,
“because of the rapidity and the faint trajectory of these movements.”22
Henri’s photographically traced trajectories allowed precise quantification
of the distance traveled by each particle over time, allowing him to exper-
imentally confirm the proportionality of movement squared to duration
predicted by Albert Einstein’s earlier theoretical calculations.23
More than the analogy of cells and particles drew Comandon to Henri’s
work as a model for filming cells through the microscope, though he too
made his own films of Brownian movement of molecules in colloidal sus-
pensions, which were noted by physical chemist Jean Perrin as furnishing
proof of the molecular structure of matter and the existence of Brownian
movement.24 Comandon was drawn to the promise of quantitative study of
microscopic movement—the exact specification of this bacterium’s move-
ment—which required not just making a trace of the movement but keep-
ing very precise track of time passed and space traveled in the microscopic
field. Comandon presented his first successful films to the French Academy
of Science in 1909. These were of syphilis spirochetes, trypanosomes, con-
stituents of blood, and Brownian movement. The emphasis of the published
report was on the apparatus itself and the mechanism by which one could
“materialize time and space in a fashion analogous to that employed by
Victor Henri and Mlle Chevreton to study Brownian motion: one films, at
the same time as the preparation, a scale of 1/100 of a millimeter and the
shadow of a pendulum beating the seconds which passes through the ray
of light.”25
This “materialization” through cinematography allowed the “study of
movements of microscopic living beings in their normal state”—in contrast
20. Victor Henri, “Étude cinématographique des mouvements browniens: Presentée par M.
Dastre,” Comptes Rendus des Académies Sciences, 18 May 1908, pp. 1024–26.
21. Mary Jo Nye, Molecular Reality: A Perspective on the Scientific Work of Jean Perrin (London,
1972), p. ix.
22. Henri, “Étude cinématographique des mouvements browniens,” p. 1024.
23. See Albert Einstein, Investigations on the Theory of the Brownian Movement, trans. A. D.
Cowper, ed. R. Fürth (London, 1926), p. 102.
24. See Jean Perrin, Les Atomes (Paris, 1914), p. 157.
25. Jean Comandon, “Cinématographie, à l’ultra-microscope, de microbes vivants et des
particules mobiles,” Comptes rendus des Académie des Sciences, 22 Nov. 1909, p. 940.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 911
with then-dominant histological methods, which meant killing the cell with
stains and fixatives in order to view it.26 The example he gave was the ability
to count fat particles (hémokinies) in the blood by doing a frame-by-frame
analysis, allowing one to quantitatively compare different blood samples.
Thus, at the outset, Comandon was using the separate frames of the film in
an analytic manner very similar to physiological chronophotography as es-
tablished by Marey; the comparison of sequential images allowed quanti-
tative comparisons and the construction of graphic traces of movement (of
fat particles, spirochetes, and blood cells). Like the studies of Brownian mo-
tion, the aim was to reconstruct continuity between frames in the form of
a linear trace of movement from which quantitative data could be drawn.
Comandon was able to make these films because he approached Charles
Pathé in 1908 with a request for aid in pursuing microscopy with a cinemat-
ograph.27 Pathé, of the company Pathé Frères, allowed Comandon to work
in his production laboratories at Vincennes with the proviso that Comandon
himself contribute to Pathé’s catalogue of films. This was not a simple act of
patronage but a commercial decision on Pathé’s part, a response to the need
to continuously attract audiences to salons by promising them a highly varied
program of films.28 Indeed, it was not the quantitative static aspect of Com-
andon’s films that impressed viewers, scientific or not, but the films in pro-
jection, the microbes and blood stream in movement. Not just the sight but
the very possibility of the sight of such “incredible activity and energy of mo-
tion” of bacteria and trypanosomes was, even for the scientific observer used
to the microscope and its sights, something of a shock:
It is only by artificially increasing the contrast by means of stains and so
forth that we can obtain a clear differentiation of even a motionless ob-
ject. To take in one minute some thousands of successive photographs of
a living, unstained object, magnified six hundred or a thousand times, an
object, moreover, which is moving rapidly, and therefore continually al-
tering its focal plane, is a task which might easily seem impossible.29
Seeing the living, unstained object over time gave embodied form to the
underlying causes of the disease sequence in the larger body, a certain sense
of watching disease happen, directly.

26. Ibid., p. 941.


27. See Comandon’s own account in “La Micro-Cinématographie,” Protoplasma 6 (1929): 627.
See also Isabelle Do O’Gomes, “L’Oeuvre de Jean Comandon,” in Le Cinéma et la science, ed.
Alexis Martinet (Paris, 1994), pp. 78–85.
28. See Jean-Jacques Meusy, “La Diffusion des films de ‘non-fiction’ dans les établissements
Parisiens,” 1895 18 (Summer 1995): 186.
29. Anonymous, “Microkinematography,” Nature, 14 Dec. 1911, p. 213; hereafter abbreviated
“M.”
912 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
We see the blood as it may appear at the height of an attack of the dis-
ease. It is now full of foreign organisms, long, slender spiral threads,
which dart hither and thither upon the screen, now hooking themselves
together and again disentangling themselves, impinging on the red cells
and recoiling in amazing numbers and activity. The whole blood history
of an attack is shown on these films, from the interval between the crises
when no organisms are present, through the period of multiplication to
the termination of the attack. [“M,” p. 214]
It is here that a crucial transition from chronophotography to cinema-
tography within scientific activity is manifest. Even though Comandon be-
gan by analyzing his films chronographically, he almost immediately
superseded this technique by using projection. In particular, the time-lapse
films that Comandon began to make after 1909 relied on the difference be-
tween the time of the experiment (hours) and the time of projection (min-
utes) and the resulting acceleration of very slow, otherwise utterly
imperceptible movements. While scientific observers were welcoming the
scientific value of Comandon’s demonstrations of living cells over time,
these films were being shown in a wide variety of public venues, and con-
sideration of their artistic value was not distinct from this scientificnarrative
of putting dead or still entities into motion. Emile Vuillermoz commented:
“At the base of every art there is a stereotypical element, inert material to
bring to life, dead cells to resurrect.”30 In an imagined debate between an
avant-garde enthusiast and two skeptics who speak here, Comandon’s film
is the vehicle for argument; the speakers are insisting that cinema need not
utterly sacrifice narrative and meaning:
You want to feel emotion, and seek out a rhythm; we want to think, and
seek out meaning. You know the film of Dr. Comandon, The Movement
of Leucocytes, recorded with the aid of the microscopic camera? What
does the eye of the layman see on the screen? Forms which for him have
no objective value, but which are nevertheless harmonious, decorative,
and whose elements change position like the crystals of a kaleidoscope.
That has to be sufficient for your happiness. However, does this film
mean anything? Don’t the learned see a drama there? Don’t the images
of the film, in succession, develop a logical action?31
The cellular film, an infinitely reproducible inscription of a continuous
living movement rather than a set of histological stills, was a new form of

30. Vuillermoz, “Before the Screen,” 1:227.


31. Henri Fescourt and Jean-Louis Bouquet, “Idea and Screen: Opinions on the Cinema,” trans.
Abel, in French Film Theory and Criticism, 1:380.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 913
narrative as well as a new set of aesthetic forms for both scientist and lay-
man. From the beginning, Comandon’s films, in particular their combi-
nations of magnification and acceleration, raised questions about narrative
and meaning not just for film critics but for the scientific investigation of
the relationship of structural elements and functional events in the micro-
scopic world.
The technical achievement of these films should not be underrated; it was
not simply a matter of “annexing the microscope to the film camera.”32
Both the content and the demonstration of the technical ability to go “dig-
ging through the visual planes” made Comandon’s work provocative for
thinking about the possibilities of film more broadly.33 At the heart of this
work was the actual building of a single machine—integrating microscope,
chronometers, motors, and film camera—that would simultaneously act
on the dimensions of both space and time. With the help of Pathé, Com-
andon built a specialized instrument for the simultaneous magnification
and acceleration of small living subjects. The microscope itself was buried
in the center of the machine and surrounded by an incubator so that the
living sample could be kept at the correct temperature—in the case of cul-
tured cells, at body temperature. There were two chronometers: the first
controlled the electric motor that ran the shutter and the camera and could
be set automatically so that the machine ran without an operator; the sec-
ond was itself being photographed, recorded in the upper corner of each
frame of the film. Thus the specimen and a clock were photographed at the
same instant so that even if the specimen were photographed once every
thirty seconds and then the film were shown at sixteen frames per second,
resulting in an acceleration of 480 times, at every moment one could main-
tain a grasp on the relation of the viewing time being experienced to the
“real time” that had passed in the making of the film.34
Although many of his earliest films were “real time” depictions of bac-
teria or pathogens in the blood, Comandon became more interested in phe-
nomena too slow to perceive. In his published explantions of scientific
cinematography, he used as his example the movement of the hands of a
watch:
We can accelerate or retard a movement by acting on the factor of
space, or the factor of time.
Look at the big hand of a clock: you do not see it move. But examine
the extremity of that hand under the microscope; you thus easily estab-
32. Abel, “Before the Canon,” French Film Theory and Criticism, 1:9.
33. Dulac, “Visual and Anti-Visual Films,” trans. Lamberton, in The Avant-Garde Film, p. 31.
34. See W. N. Kazeef, “Moving Photomicrography,” in Annual Report [1937] of the Board of
Regents of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C., 1938), pp. 323–38.
914 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
lish that it travels, with a jerky motion, the field of the ocular. Through
the microscope, you have multiplied the space traveled and, by conse-
quence, multiplied the speed by enlarging the optical system: you have
obtained thus a speed perceptible to the eye.35
By gradually diminishing the magnification, Comandon determined
what he called “the visual acuity for a slow movement,” the lower limit of
vitesse perceptible. Beyond this limit, movement had to be accelerated to be
perceptible to the film’s viewer. The choice of the hand of a clock as example,
as well as its constant presence in the film frame, implied a close-up of time
itself. Enlargement and time lapse could make any kind of time visible; the
cinematograph was an instrument of research in this very access to time:
Microcinematography alone is capable of conserving the traces of phe-
nomena occurring in the preparation. Like the retina of an eye which
never tires, the film follows, over a prolonged period, all the changes
which occur; even better, the cinematograph is, like the microscope it-
self, an instrument of research, while the one concerns visual space, the
other concerns time, in condensing or spreading out movements by ac-
celerating or slowing them; it reduces their speed to a scale that is more
easily perceptible, which, indeed, reveals to us that which we had never
suspected.36
In the films themselves, this idea of magnification and acceleration are
included in the film’s script, particularly in slightly later versions with in-
tertitles. Magnification is not simply making something larger, and accel-
eration is not simply speeding something up. In Comandon’s Movement of
Leukocytes, the viewer gets the distinct impression of what it is like to flip
between objective lenses on the microscope, from lesser to greater magni-
fication. Depending on the choice of lens, one could focus on the undulating
membrane—the physiognomy of a single cell’s surface—or one could pull
back and focus on a teeming mass of white blood cells attacking a clump
of bacteria (fig. 1).
Even in the earliest films, different scenes were tried out at different ac-
celerations because the filmmaker had to decide in each instance at what
time interval to set the camera to photograph the specimen. Certainly most
magnification yielded a view into the microscopically small, but the point
here is that this was not just one view; the number of possible views was as
numerous as the little beings swarming over the screen. Even the surface of
35. Comandon, “La Cinématographie, son role dans les études biologiques,” La Presse Médicale,
23 Apr. 1913, p. 472.
36. Comandon, “Le Cinématographie et les sciences de la nature,” Le Cinéma des origines à nos
jours, ed. Fescourt (Paris, 1932), p. 320.
f i g u r e 1. Stills from Jean Comandon, Globules du sang humain et phagocytose in vitro, c. 1920. The first three frames show a single white blood cell moving through a cluster of red
blood cells, and then the scene switches to a lower magnification, in effect pulling back to show a swarm of white blood cells. The intertitle indicates the change in magnification
and acceleration. Note the chronometer in the top right-hand corner of each frame. Reprinted with permission of the Pasteur Institute. ! 1920 by Jean Comandon.
916 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
the very small could itself be shown to contain within it or beneath it an-
other view of life, which could be accessed just by operating on the dimen-
sions of space or time or, as was most often the case, both at once. For
Comandon, microcinematography was simultaneously an instrument of
research and an instrument of demonstration; the manipulation of time was
made explicit to the audience along with the different spatial manipulations
of life—the extraction of cells from the inner space of the body to the trans-
parent space of the microscope slide, the magnification of different aspects
of the field of view.

2
In 1913, the development of microcinematography intersected with an-
other new technology for observing the apparently autonomous lives of cells:
tissue culture, the culture of live somatic cells from complex organisms out-
side of the body in glass vessels. First developed by embryologist Ross Har-
rison and taken up, modified, and highly publicized by Franco-American
surgeon Alexis Carrel from 1910 onward,37 the technique in these early stages
consisted of growing a fragment of excised tissue in a drop of serum sus-
pended from a cover slip over a hollowed-out glass slide. In contrast to the
usual fixed, stained, dead entities of histological slides, cells grown in culture
were quite evidently bodies in motion; hours after explanation into a drop
of serum, cells would begin to move out from the fragment, forming a char-
acteristic halo of wandering cells around the central clump of tissue.
That the cells were moving, changing shape, and interacting with each
other was indisputable. However, the actual ability to represent, capture, or
even discern exactly what live cells were doing in culture was more chal-
lenging. A culture observed periodically would be different at every junc-
ture, but the change itself occurred too slowly to be perceptible. The
ephemerally slow movements of hyaline substance through colorless me-
dium made the movements of live cells in culture extremely hard to see and
even more difficult to capture in a form communicable to others. In 1913,
Comandon, in collaboration with two other biologists, used the Carrel pro-
tocol to grow embryonic chicken spleen and heart cells in culture, which
they then filmed. Their aim was to access these very slow movements and
bring them to the scale of human perception:
What is the nature of the leucocytic exodus that one observes with the
spleen, what are the diverse phases of the appearance of fusiform cells

37. See Hannah Landecker, “New Times for Biology: Nerve Cultures and the Advent of Cellular
Life in Vitro,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 33 (Dec.
2002): 667–94.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 917
around the fragments of heart? These questions are difficult to resolve
by the simple examination of the preparations in the microscope, be-
cause of the slowness of the processes mentioned. On the contrary, cin-
ematic recording permits the reproduction in condensed form of these
diverse phases, exaggerates the speed of slow processes, and thus can
easily inform us on this subject.38
While much of chronophotography was aimed at the dissection of very
quick movements, taking apart moments into even smaller slivers of time,
cinematic recording was here a tool for the condensation of time. Accel-
eration and magnification opened the account of the experiment’s results:
“Enlargement 62 x 1. The phenomenon is reproduced at three hundred times
greater than the real speed (one image every nineteen seconds for the re-
cording; 16 images a second for the reproduction)” (“É,” p. 465). Almost
immediately, the description of technique was overwhelmed by the viewer’s
perception of what was seen via acceleration. “The fragment is composed
and surrounded by round or oval cells, endowed with very quick move-
ments.” Although it was carefully noted that the movements were repro-
duced at three hundred times greater than the “real” speed, the vocabulary
of their description was thick with the terms “quick,” “lively,” “gliding,”
“abrupt,” and “rapid.” The authors calculated that the actual speed of cells
moving through the culture preparation was ten micrometers in three min-
utes. A micrometer being one thousandth of a millimeter, and ten microm-
eters being the average diameter of one cell, this was a very small scale in
terms of unaugmented human perception. However, projected on a screen
three meters high, the diameter of the cell was magnified greatly, under
typical microscope magnifications, to fifty to eighty thousand diameters.
Epstein notes, “the close-up is an intensifying agent because of its size
alone,”39 and indeed the cells’ screen presence was imposing; even in this
technical report to the Academy of Biological Sciences, the description of
the film is a narrative of movement and behavior, of exodus and return: “Cells
. . . move in all directions; they leave the spleen fragment, creeping with the
help of their pseudopodia, going away some distance into the plasma, and
sometimes they return by another route, to rejoin the spleen fragment . . . .
The amebic cells seem to go out to search for their nourishment and return
later to their point of departure.” Even with the careful calculation of “real”

38. Comandon, C. Levatidi, and S. Mutermilch, “Étude de la vie et de la croissance des cellules
in vitro a l’aide de l’enregistrement cinématographique,” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des
séances et mémoires de la société de biologie 74 (1913): 465; hereafter abbreviated “É.”
39. Jean Epstein, “Magnification,” trans. Stuart Liebman, French Film Theory and Criticism,
1:239.
918 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
speeds, sizes, and times, Comandon and his coauthors quickly slipped into
a depiction of the intensity and rapidity of what they saw on the screen. “Else-
where, all around the periphery of the organ fragment, one notices a veritable
swarming of cells that constitute the fragment, and one has the impression
of a beehive where all is in movement” (“É,” p. 465).
While the viewer may know that the phenomenon observed on film is a
record of an experiment done in the past—over the course of two hours—
and is only moving at two hundred micrometers an hour, the impression
is of very intense activity of the living thing right there on the screen, like
watching a “beehive where all is in movement.” It is hard to think of these
as very slow bees. Thus, the exact knowledge of “real” speeds and times did
nothing to counteract the experience of cellular life as frenetic. What made
films of cells in culture so interesting was not their quantifiable or graphical
representation but their ability to show phenomena that were simply not
visible in any other way. A variety of segments of film were made at different
rates (300x and 92x) and different enlargements (125x1, 62x1), and different
preparations were filmed over different periods of time (two, four and one-
fourth, and eight hours). There was not just one kind of magnification or
acceleration; these were in themselves elastic qualities to be manipulated,
sometimes in relation to one another, in experimental and editorial deci-
sions about visualizing the living subject. These early films of cells mark the
emergence of the notion of acceleration through projection as being in itself
a mode of analysis, a research tool particular to biological movement that
was too slow to see.
This film and others showed the existence of a microscopic world whose
occupants’ small size prevented normal perception of their life; for his pre-
sentations, Comandon frequently used the title La Vie des infiniments petits—
The Life of the Infinitely Small. However, the films also showed that there was
another temporal world subtending that of normal human perception, even
perception aided by magnification. They demonstrated that what was ap-
parently still to normal observation with the eye was saturated with move-
ment once viewed at a different temporal scale. Even well-known biological
events turned out to be not as they had appeared. For example, the static
diagrams of stages of cell division were shown up in all their arbitrary stillness
by Comandon’s films, as the chromosomes in the living cells moved inces-
santly throughout the process: “in each phase the chromosomes are mobile
and animated with a vermiform movement. At the stages of spirem and étoile
de mère, it is a veritable swarming of the nuclear figure.”40
40. Comandon and Justin Jolly, “Démonstration Cinématographique des Phénomènes
Nucléaires de la Division Cellulaire,” Comptes rendus hebdomadaires des séances et mémoires de la
société de biologie 75 (1913): 457.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 919
After so many years of seeing static drawings, photographs, and fixed and
stained slides of cells, scientists voiced surprise and wonder at these scenes
of continual movement. “The realism and vitality of these kinematograph
pictures can scarcely be imagined by anyone who has not seen them thrown
on the screen” (“M,” p. 213). This is not obvious: why should biologists,
who presumably looked at living things all the time, exhibit such surprise
at the “realism and vitality” of these images? Living cells had of course been
seen through the microscope before, and a range of their activities (such as
phagocytosis) had been described and argued over. Not all cellular move-
ments were too slow to perceive. The description of a microscopic “world”
was not by any means a new phenomenon, and microphotography and mi-
crochronophotography had preceded microcinematography.41
These and other microcinematographic films showed how all living
cells—not just blood cells, or unicellular animals—but all cells constituting
all multicellular beings moved, all the time. They did not just move around
from one place to another, but they changed shape and their insides moved
too—incessantly. The impression of frenetic activity was only accentuated
by the apparently crazed timepiece figuring in all time-lapse films; the chro-
nometer, filmed at the same time as the specimen in order to mark the “real
time” of the passage of the experiment, appeared in the upper right-hand
corner of the screen with its hands rapidly twirling through the hours. When
Epstein writes of “gestures of Lillian Gish who runs like the hands of a chro-
nometer!” he evokes exactly this sensation of frenetic life.42
Because Comandon worked at Pathé, these films were also seen by the
general public, scholarly societies, and students. We can get some idea of
the context of their demonstration from texts of lectures written to accom-
pany the films, as well as from the reactions of journalists in both the medi-
cal and general press. Jonathan Crary has remarked that it is not simply the
development of new technologies of film or photography that constitutes
the history of the modernization of the perceptual world; the accompanying
set of “imperatives for consumption, attention, and perceptual compe-
tence” exercised on the spectator must also be taken into account.43 In the
case of microcinematography, the audience received very explicit directions
either just before or during the film on how to view the films’ depiction of
“the life of the infinitely small,” particularly in relation to the self. Specta-

41. This history belongs properly to that of microscopy more generally. See Catherine Wilson,
The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope (Princeton, N.J.,
1995).
42. Epstein, “Magnification,” 1:238.
43. Jonathan Crary, “Géricault, the Panorama, and Sites of Reality in the Early Nineteenth
Century,” Grey Room 9 (Fall 2002): 7.
920 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
tors, both scientific and nonscientific, were directed to see this the film not
just as another novel world of phenomena but specifically as a world
within—under the surface, in the interior of living things.
In a lecture to “Friends of the University of Lyon,” in March 1914, the
pathologist Jules Guiart presented several of Comandon’s films to a lay au-
dience which seems to have been composed mainly of women. Titled “La
Vie révélée par le cinématographe,” the event began with his promise that
the lecture would present “Life via its principal manifestations.” One of
these was protoplasm, that “marvelous substance” that “constitutes the
hardly visible microbes or the glittering insects, as well as the gracious forms
which make you, Mesdames, the queens of creation.”44 After telling them
of their constitution by cells, which were small masses of protoplasm,Guiart
proceeded to show them Comandon’s films of protoplasmic streaming in
plant cells, cell division, the movement of leukocytes, and protozoa. The
audience was thus explicitly directed to see their constitutive elements on
screen and to understand themselves as continuous with other beings made
of cells and protoplasm. With particular cruelty, Guiart asked his audience
members to henceforth see the world with appropriate sympathy, now that
they had seen the life inside these other beings: “You certainly comprehend
now the life in these plants that you trample underfoot, that you believe to
be insensible. You believe that, Mesdames, because they have no way of cry-
ing out, but in reality, what do you know?”45
Even newspaper articles carefully recounted the scientific form of the
experiment on film, comparing the scene of action of the battle of white
blood cells and Nagana trypanosomes (the pathogenic agent of sleeping
sickness) in three settings: without blood serum, with normal serum, and
with “specific” serum, that is, blood serum of an animal previously exposed
to the pathogen.
Successively, one saw the trypanosomes snaking in liberty and with in-
credible liveliness in the region of the leukocytes, touching them with
impunity, crossing over them without trouble. Then, when the appro-
priate serum acts, the scene changes. When these ever agile trypano-
somes touch a white blood cell, straight away they find themselves
attached, and despite all the efforts made to separate themselves, they
adhere more and more, like an underwater animal trapped by an octo-
pus. Soon, the movements of the trypanosome ceases and it dies, en-
compassed by the leukocyte, in which it is from then on incorporated.46
44. Jules Guiart, “La Vie révélée par le cinematographie,” Revue Scientifique 52, no. 1 (1914): 743.
45. Ibid, p. 744.
46. Salagnac, “Le Cinématographie de l’infiniment petit,” Le Journal, 31 July 1910, p. 1. This
headline appears on the front page of the newspaper directly next to the headline “Encore un
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 921
This front-page newspaper piece, subtitled “How Our White Blood Cells
Devour Microbes,” sensationalized this “great combat carried out in the or-
ganism,” this “intestinal battle” with “one of the most dreadful microbes”
whose drama is for physicians “far more interesting than the most poignant
events of everyday cinematography.” However, it also carefully incorporated
the experimental narrative of medical research; it compared different blood
sera and explained that the viewer should not “forget that the scenes shown
to us happened in laboratory preparations.” The concluding line of the article
emphasized that what happened on the screen was an experimental re-crea-
tion of the process: “We hope that the attack, engulfment and death of try-
panosomes is as well realized when it happens in the human body.”
Others reported that the films gave the spectator a “perfect illusion of
reality” in showing the “agitation” and “rapid changes” that constituted the
“intimate existence of these infinitely small things.” Again, the directions
to the reader were explicit. These sights became available not only to the
privileged few who work in the laboratory but to “the whole world.”47 This
implies that the spectators are to see as scientists do, making the cinema a
window not just onto the life of the small but onto the previously privileged
sights of science. Thanks to Comandon’s films, the author writes, the whole
world will be able know the microbes that cause contagious and epidemic
illnesses and will be able to know them en pleine vie. In full life.

3
In a much-quoted passage from “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Tech-
nological Reproducibility,” Benjamin builds a comparative analogy con-
sisting of four figures: magician and painter, surgeon and camera operator.
The painter is like the magician in that he “maintains in his work a natural
distance from reality,” while, like the surgeon, “the cinematographer pen-
etrates deeply into its tissue.” As a result, “the images obtained by each differ
enormously. The painter’s is a total image, whereas that of the cinematog-
rapher is piecemeal, its manifold parts being assembled according to a new
law” (“WA,” 4:263–64).
Sometimes, as it happened, the camera operator was a surgeon. This is
an excellent description of Alexis Carrel, who moved from doing transplant
surgery on whole bodies and organs to tissue culture, seeking the basic
mechanisms behind wound healing, regeneration, and aging in living pop-
ulations of cells. The picture of reality obtained by this cinematographer/

aviateur qui tombe et se tue.” See Jean Comandon papers, box com.8 presse, Pasteur Institute
Archives.
47. Auguste Barillé, “Ultramicroscopie et cinématographie,” Le Petit Marseillais, 1 Sept. 1910, p.
1. See Jean Comandon papers, box com.8 presse, Pasteur Institute Archives.
922 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
surgeon was of the physiology of the body as lived out by its constituent
elements, the cells. These cells were not viewed in the body, but were ex-
tracted and, as fragmentary populations, kept alive in glass vessels. The
meaning of their multitudinous, individual, in vitro existences was reas-
sembled by Carrel into a theory of life.
Carrel’s emphasis was on making cells live, not just outside the body, but
in full visibility, such that, “all the details of the living cells can be observed
at every instant of their evolution.”48 Carrel (like Epstein some years later)
went to medical school in Lyons and (again like Epstein) was acquainted
with cinema from its earliest days, having worked in the biological labo-
ratories of Auguste Lumière. After immigrating to the United States Carrel
turned to Comandon to help him build his own microcinematographic set-
up, and in the 1920s he began to produce films of cells living in culture.49
Carrel had begun experimenting with tissue culture in 1910; by 1912 he had
claimed “permanent life” for tissues grown outside the body in this way.
Carrel, an admirer of Henri Bergson, interpreted his own time-lapse films
of cells to be a demonstration of duration of cells. He said that cytology
must be based on “close observation of the concrete event which a tissue
is.” The cornerstone of the new cytology was cinematography; what other
method could capture an event unfolding over time? “A tissue is evidently
an enduring thing. Its functional and structural conditions become mod-
ified from moment to moment. Time is really the fourth dimension of living
organisms. It enters as a part into the constitution of a tissue. Cell colonies,
or organs, are events which progressively unfold themselves.”50 Because a
tissue was an event, with microcinematography one could see physiological
duration, and Carrel used Bergson to define duration: “the present of a
living organism does not pass into nothingness. It never ceases to be, be-
cause it remains in the memory and is entered in the tissues. Bergson has
clearly shown how the past persists in the present. The body is obviously
made up of the past.”51
Carrel saw cells in vitro as a simplified animal, pared down to a closed

48. Alexis Carrel and Montrose Burrows, “Human Sarcoma Cultivated Outside of the Body,”
Journal of the American Medical Association, 12 Nov. 1910, p. 1732.
49. Carrel invited Comandon to New York, but it does not seem that Comandon ever went;
instead, Carrel visited Comandon’s laboratories on his yearly returns to France. See Do O’Gomes,
“L’Oeuvre de Jean Comandon.” The correspondence between Comandon and Carrel, such as a
letter dated 19 August 1912, deals only with scheduling a visit by Carrel to Comandon in Paris, after
Carrel had secured permission in 1912 from the head of the Rockefeller Institute for Medical
Research, Simon Flexner, to acquire equipment for microcinematography. See Louis Schmidt,
letter to Carrel, 27 July 1912, “Correspondence 1912,” Alexis Carrel Papers, Lauinger Library Special
Collections, Georgetown University.
50. Carrel, “The New Cytology,” Science, 20 Mar. 1931, p. 298; hereafter abbreviated “NC.”
51. Carrel, “Physiological Time,” Science, 18 Dec. 1931, p. 620; hereafter abbreviated “PT.”
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 923
system of tissues bathed in blood and interstitial fluid. “Physiological du-
ration . . . appears as soon as a portion of space containing metabolizing
things becomes relatively isolated from the surrounding world” (“PT,” p.
621). For these cells, physiological duration was composed of metabolic pro-
cesses that created products that changed the cellular medium. The buildup
of metabolic by-products equaled the buildup of duration. “Time is re-
corded by a cell community only when the metabolic products are allowed
to remain around the tissue.” From this assertion it was a very short step
to the alleviation of time. “If these metabolites are removed at short intervals
and the composition of the medium is kept constant, the cell colonies re-
main indefinitely in the same state of activity. They do not record time qual-
itatively. In fact, they are immortal” (“PT,” p. 621). Thus immortality was
introduced into biology as a technical term within “the new cytology,” with
an attendant methodology. For Carrel, immortality was embodied in what
he called “the old strain,” a culture of embryonic chicken heart cells that
went on dividing and growing, apparently endlessly. It became known as
the immortal chicken heart, and the press used to celebrate its “birthdays”
annually.
Immortality and duration were for Carrel scientific concepts, and sci-
entific concepts are, he wrote, “operational concepts; in other words, con-
cepts equivalent to the set of operations by which they are acquired. And
those operations depend necessarily upon techniques.”52 The scientific con-
cept was that which must “involve as much as, and nothing more than, the
set of operations by which it is determined.”53 Following this definition, he
saw the scientific concept of immortality as equivalent to the set of tech-
niques that made up tissue culture. Carrel, in approaching immortality as
an “operational concept,” not only sought to interpret his results in terms
of Bergson’s concepts of time and duration but developed a set of instru-
ments and practices as an explicit materialized equivalent of these concepts
in the form of a “set of operations.”
This “operationalized” philosophy demanded the reconfiguration of
the body, and the development of means for its technical maintenance,
what one of Carrel’s coworkers called the building of “a new type of body
in which to grow a cell.”54 Carrel introduced a new form of culture vessel
of his own design (fig. 2). These were small, flat, round flasks five or eight
52. Carrel, foreword to Raymond Parker, Methods of Tissue Culture (New York, 1938), p. xi.
53. Carrel, “The Relation of Cells to One Another,” in Human Biology and Racial Welfare, ed. E.
V. Cowdry (New York, 1930), pp. 205–18. This concept was borrowed from the physicist P. W.
Bridgman’s The Logic of Modern Physics (1927).
54. Eduard Uhlenhuth, “Changes in Pigment Epithelium Cells and Iris Pigment Cells of Rana
Pipiens Induced by Changes in Environmental Conditions,” Journal of Experimental Medicine 24
(1916): 690.
924 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features

f i g u r e 2. Handling tissues in Carrel flasks, c. 1923. Carrel designed both the glass flat-
bottomed flasks and the long instruments for manipulating the tissues inside.

centimeters in diameter with narrow oblique necks. The shape of the neck
prevented contaminants from the air falling directly into the flask when it
was open, and the neck could be flamed before and after placing tissue and
medium inside the flask, thus mimicking the protective skin of the body.
The tissues were grown in a thin coagulated layer of plasma or fibrinogen
on the bottom of the flask and bathed in a liquid medium. Life could thus
be maintained and regulated—the medium added or removed at will—and
constantly observed, as “tissue and blood cells are always in the process of
becoming” (“NC,” p. 300). The shape and materials constituting the flask
were directed toward optical transparency. The flasks had several minor var-
iations; one had a bottom composed of a thin mica plate, and the whole
thing could be inverted and directly slotted into the microscope for high
magnification studies or cinematography of the living cells as they grew.
Later the flasks were refined such that their flat glass surfaces were thin
enough to be used with oil immersion lenses, replacing the mica windows.
This is perhaps the most hands-on interpretation Bergson’s work has
ever received; it was a science of duration complete with its own glassware,
instrumentation, choreography, outfits, and lighting (fig. 3). With cine-
matography, Carrel thought he could see duration. What did it look like?
Like Comandon, Carrel was using time-lapse imaging, but the actual slow-
ness of “the concrete event that a tissue is” fell away immediately from the
experience of watching the films (“NC,” p. 297). Cells do not “show their
true physiognomy when they are examined under the microscope . . . . Fixed
cells appear on the film as mobile as a flame. Their surface is never smooth.
In some places, it bubbles like boiling water” (“NC,” p. 300). Again, Carrel
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 925

f i g u r e 3. Carrel’s tissue culture laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research,
undated photograph. The space was lit by skylights, the walls were dark grey, and all workers wore
long black robes and hoods. All these measures were directed toward reducing reflection or glare,
in order to improve the lighting conditions either for intricate surgical procedures or
manipulating tiny translucent pieces of tissue.

was struck not just by the unceasingly mobile physiognomy of undulating


membranes but by the seemingly social and behavioral aspect of the cells
in relation to one another: “A colony of fibroblasts looks like a dense crowd
which moves without order. Very rarely do individuals wander far from the
main group, which is composed of cells sliding upon one another in every
direction” (“NC,” p. 300).
As far as can be ascertained, none of these films survive, and they were
never publicly distributed, as Comandon’s films were. However, a similar
set of accounts of their screenings appear in the newspapers, and they turn
up in unexpected places, such as John Harvey Kellogg’s Battle Creek San-
atorium, where the films were apparently shown to thousands of incoming
patients to demonstrate the intimately damaging effects of alcohol and
other ingested toxins on the body’s cells.55 A newspaper report of a film
55. “Doctor Kellogg is preparing an educational film, one purpose of which is to show the
effects of poison upon the blood, especially on the white blood cells. He would like to show the
leucocytes moving about, and requests a few feet of film for this purpose” (Carrel, letter to Simon
Flexner, 26 Oct. 1928, administrative correspondence, 1923–1929, 450c232 Faculty Box 2,
Rockefeller Archive Center).
926 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
screening at the 1929 International Physiologists Congress indicates that
contemporaries were impressed by not only the films themselves but what
their form implied about the scientists’ work of observing:
By substituting an automatic motion picture camera for a scientist’s eye
at the microscope, and gearing it to take an exposure a minute, Dr.
Alexis Carrell . . . obtained a film which reproduced the unremitting ob-
servation of the camera while the scientist was attending to other re-
searches. Half an hour of his time, spent in watching the film when it
was projected on the screen, showed what used to require days of pa-
tient observation alone at the end of a microscope.
The automobile observations of cell behavior made by Dr. Carrel
through his motion picture camera, were shared directly yesterday with
about 500 scientists.56
The observation machine works while the scientist is doing other things
and contracts the patient labor of days to half an hour. It then can be “shared
directly” and simultaneously with five hundred other scientists. Another
journalist commented that during this display it “was not even necessary
for Dr. Carrel to be present.” The scientist and his work were separated, his
observations reproducible—in fact, instantly repeatable:
Cells of microscopic size appeared on the screen in dimensions of feet
instead of microns. Their interior changes could be followed in detail
from the rear of a fifty foot room as they grew and reproduced.
The continuous record of their movements revealed dynamic
changes in the tempo of their “dance,” as it was called, which became
convulsive as they split . . . .
The visiting scientists applauded and examined the phenomena
again by having the films run through the projector once more.57
It is a kind of automatic seeing; the scientist knows there is something
happening in the cultures but can’t see it with the naked eye; turning sight
over to the “mechanical retina” reveals what is there. That sight can then
be shared, repeatedly.
In Carrel’s studies, the camera was not brought to the inside of the animal
to visualize the life within it, but cells were extracted from the body and fit
into the apparatus.58 In transparent glass vessels, they embodied the events
56. “Movie Reveals Living Cells of Tissue,” New York Evening Journal, 29 Aug. 1929.
“Automobile” as an adjective does not necessarily refer to a vehicle, but describes something that
moves by means of mechanism and power within itself.
57. “Living Tissue Cells Shown in Movie,” New York Times, 29 Aug. 1929, p. 20.
58. As Cartwright observes, “What is extended, perhaps, is not the observer’s senses but the
living process of the body studied, and the epistemological domain of the apparatus in the
generation of ‘life’” (Cartwright, Screening the Body, p. 27).
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 927
that constitute all the essential aspects of life: ingestion, metabolism, move-
ment, growth, interaction, reproduction, senescence, and death, and all of
these could be interfered with at will by the watching observer. Life was not
a property dependent upon a whole body, but a quantity that could be ex-
tracted and abstracted from any single body, while remaining fundamental
to all bodies. Cells were not structural building blocks, as the static pictures
of histology might suggest, but dynamic agents of physiological process. As
Epstein put it, “Life,” on film, “fragments itself into new individualities.”59
To look at them in time, using Comandon’s cinematic techniques, was to
see life.
Carrel’s theorization of these cells as exhibiting the endless, incessant
movement and growth of life-as-duration was then incorporated into what
the spectator was urged to see when viewing such a film. To reiterate, the
experience was supposed to be not just one of seeing living cells but a feeling
of unprecedented proximity to life as such, the powerful foundation of all
macroscopic phenomena. A Dr. Green, professor of chemistry at Leeds Uni-
versity, interviewed in 1925 as he was about to sail out of New York, had this
to say about his experience of viewing Carrel’s films:

“It was one of the most amazing things I ever saw . . . . The film of the
growth of the tissue was taken during twenty-four hours and must have
involved a vast amount of reel. What takes place in the twenty-four
hours is reduced in it to a comparatively few minutes . . . .
Dr. Carrel introduces immortality in a physicall sense. It is there be-
fore your eyes, and so long as this tissue is nurtured and irrigated it will
live. It cannot die. Its growth is so enormous that it doubles itself every
twenty-four hours, and if it had not been pared down each day since the
experiment began it would now be a colossal monster overspreading all
New York.”60

There are two things that are vast and colossal here: the amount of reel
and the potential size of the culture. Discussion of the cinematic medium’s
condensing action on time is linked to discussion of the actual object of
observation by the statement: “Dr. Carrel introduces immortality in a phys-
icall sense.” Films of living cells in culture induced a visceral feeling of life
as endless and boundless growth and proliferation; in this case, the film had
no necessary beginning or end; any twenty-four hour slice out of immor-
tality is interchangeable with any other. Thus a very specific form of cine-

59. Epstein, “The Senses I (b),” trans. Tom Milne, in French Film Theory and Criticism, 1:243.
60. “‘Immortality’ Is Achieved in Chicken Heart,” New York Herald Tribune, 22 Nov. 1925, p. 26.
928 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
matic life was produced out of the materialized philosophy of Bergson’s
duration.
Benjamin considered Bergson’s conception of duration as “estranged
from history.” Quoting Max Horkheimer, he says: “‘Bergson the metaphy-
sician suppresses death.’ The fact that death has been eliminated from Berg-
son’s durée isolates it effectively from a historical . . . order.”61 Yet this must
be the most appropriate philosophy to work with in creating a biology with-
out death, an artificial “immortal experimental animal” that one could ex-
periment on indefinitely, eliminating “innumerable causes of error due to
the individual characteristics of animals of different origins.”62 Evolution
and experience were conspicuously absent from Carrel’s work, as both the
life of the species and the life of the individual were left behind.
Benjamin also observed of Bergson’s durée that with the suppression of
death comes, in his words, “the miserable endlessness of a scroll.” It thus
seems appropriate to note that Carrel’s immortal chicken heart never ac-
tually died, nor was it killed. Two years after Carrel’s own death in occupied
France in 1944, the culture was merely thrown away, as no one was willing
to take on the continued labor of its maintenance.

4
Carrel’s claims about the permanent life of tissues removed from the
body were in prominent circulation in European and American scientific
and public arenas from 1910 on, as were Comandon’s microcinemato-
graphic films of everything from trypanosomes to cells grown in culture
according to Carrel’s protocol. In addition, physical chemist Jean Perrin
used Comandon’s films of Brownian motion as visual confirmation of the
phenomenon in arguments over the validity of “molecular reality,” as part
of the establishment of the assumption we live with today—the fundamen-
tal atomistic or molecular nature of all matter, known at the time as the
molecular-kinetic theory.63 Both Carrel and Comandon attracted constant
pronouncements of astonishment and dismay from commentators in the
popular press at the spectacle of life the two were respectively producing.
This complex response included not just wonderment at the sight itself but
shock at the amount of movement hidden in apparently still things, the
amount of heterogenous structure hidden in apparently solid things, ap-
preciation of the ability of audiences to see things as scientists do, com-

61. Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Selected Writings, 4:336.


62. P. LeComte du Noüy, Biological Time (New York, 1937), p. 103–4.
63. Nye, Molecular Reality, p. 153.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 929
mentary on the automation of scientific seeing, and a sense of visceral
proximity to life, disease, and immortality.
When Béla Balázs writes, in Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des
Films, that “the magnifying glass of the cinematograph brings near to us the
individual cells of living tissue, lets us feel the matter and substance of con-
crete lives,”64 the cell he is referring to is the “living” cell of film, not some
abstract idea of a cell. The film cell is understood as the fundamental stuff
of life, in all its glorious materiality. By this I do not mean to imply that he
must have been conceptualizing the cinematic close-up specifically in re-
lation to the work of Comandon and Carrel; there were many biological
films and many narratives of cellular life in circulation at this point. How-
ever, the close examination of Comandon and Carrel’s work is a window
onto the original energy that theorized film by thinking through scientific
film.
As indicated above, cellular and microscopic metaphors and references
appear in texts by Balázs, Eisenstein, Epstein, and Benjamin, as well as vari-
ous lesser-known critics and writers on film. The recontextualization of
these seemingly abstract scientific metaphors in the contemporary scene of
their production leads to a better understanding of both early scientific film,
of which critics were acute observers, and early film theory. Benjamin’s con-
cept of the “optical unconscious” will be familiar to many readers, but even
the highly scrutinized “Little History of Photography” may be seen anew,
if read with one eye on the historical materiality of scientific film.
Whereas it is a commonplace that, for example, we have some idea what
is involved in the act of walking (if only in general terms), we have no
idea at all what happens during the fraction of a second when a person
actually takes a step. Photography, with its devices of slow motion and
enlargement, reveals the secret. It is through photography that we first
discover the existence of this optical unconscious, just as we discover
the instinctual unconscious through psychoanalysis. Details of struc-
ture, cellular tissue, with which technology and medicine are normally
concerned—all this is, in its origins, more native to the camera than the
atmospheric landscape or the soulful portrait.65
What is cellular tissue doing in this passage? Is it an incidental illustration
of an analogy? Psychoanalysis and the unconscious on the one hand, pho-
tography and microstructure of physical things on the other? Along with

64. Béla Balázs, Der sichtbare Mensch oder die Kultur des Films (1924; Frankfurt am Main, 2001),
p. 49.
65. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” pp. 510, 512.
930 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
other mentions of cells and tissues in early film theory, this reference has
been read abstractly, as if it did not refer to anything in particular. For ex-
ample, Rosalind Krauss asks, “can an optical field—the world of visual phe-
nomena . . . have an unconscious?” For Freud, she says, Benjamin’s apparent
analogy would “simply be incomprehensible” because the microstructure
of the world is neither conscious nor unconscious nor can it be in conflict
with consciousness. “What,” she asks, “can we speak of in the visual field
that will be an analogue of the ‘unconscious’ itself ”?66
This apparent quandary seems to arise from a poor analogy, a loose in-
terpretation of Freud. However, this quandary dissolves if we simply speak
of what Benjamin himself spoke of in the visual field: cellular tissue. A short
excursion through late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century psy-
chology is necessary to understand the specific presence of cells in this pas-
sage. The question is not whether cellular tissue has an unconscious or is
conscious but rather how cells were understood to be elemental particles of
psychic phenomena whose investigation would elucidate the fundamental
characteristics of human psychology. And how, then, seeing cells via pho-
tography or cinematography would be experienced as seeing the fundamental
elements of psychological phenomena.
From the late nineteenth century on, “‘the psychic life of micro-organ-
isms’” was part of a wide range of experimental research with unicellular
organisms, particularly protozoa.67 Scientists did not think that each indi-
vidual protozoan was a little conscious (or unconscious) being; they as-
sumed instead that the protozoa’s actions were elemental manifestations of
the psychological phenomena inherent to all living matter. As part of an
effort to establish properties common to all living beings, researchers fo-
cused on the cell, or “‘elementary organism,’” as it was “deemed to be both
the only functional organic entity common to both plants and animals and
the natural starting point of physiological as well as psychological life.”68 It
was not at all extraordinary to see the cell as simultaneously fundamental
to physiological processes such as movement and to psychological processes
such as individuality, consciousness, and agency. And it was treated this way
not just within the life sciences but also in the writings of Nietzsche, Berg-
son, Charles Sanders Peirce, and Freud.
Certainly psychoanalysis proper had already considered the cellularity
of the “non-optical” unconscious in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).69
66. Rosalind Krauss, The Optical Unconscious (Cambridge, Mass., 1993), pp. 178–79.
67. Judy Johns Schloegel and Henning Schmidgen, “General Physiology, Experimental
Psychology, and Evolutionism: Unicellular Organisms as Objects of Psychophysiological Research,
1877–1918,” Isis 93, no. 4 (2002): 617.
68. Ibid., p. 616.
69. See Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. and ed. James Strachey (1920; New
York, 1961).
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 931
Freud, looking for evidence of phenomena more fundamental and primi-
tive than the pleasure principle, pursued an understanding of instincts as
forces originating in the interior of the body—in the cells—that are con-
stantly transmitted to the mental apparatus. Note that Benjamin too re-
ferred to the instinctual unconscious. Freud drew his own analogy between
his “dynamic” theories of life instincts and death instincts and August Weis-
mann’s “morphological” opposition of germ cells, which continue through
the generations, and somatic cells, which die with each individual body:
Accordingly, we might attempt to apply the libido theory which has
been arrived at in psycho-analysis to the mutual relationship of cells.
We might suppose that the life instincts or sexual instincts which are ac-
tive in each cell take the other cells as their object, that they partly neu-
tralize the death instincts (that is, the processes set up by them) in those
cells and thus preserve their life; while still others sacrifice themselves in
the performance of this libidinal function. The germ-cells themselves
would behave in a completely ‘narcissistic’ fashion.70
In this work, “life” is seen as torn apart into particles and straining ever
to reunite, and thus all the fundamental forces leading to the conflict and
struggle in the mental apparatus begin in elemental form, innate to living
matter. Freud drew extensively on such contemporary debates about the
biological basis of life and death in his discussion of the possible underlying
cellular basis of life and death instincts; following the citations from the
relevant passages of Beyond the Pleasure Principle, one finds Freud referring
to various works by contemporary authors such as Franz Doflein on the
biological nature of death.71 Doflein considers at length the implications of
the work of Alexis Carrel and his deathless cells, and the book includes di-
agrams of tissue cultures redrawn from Carrel’s papers.
The point here is not to interrogate Freud’s theories of cell division as
evidence of the universal compulsion to repeat or to revisit the question of
Freud’s biologism. It is to gain access to a mode of thought in which looking
at cells on screen was experienced not exclusively as a view of morphology
or physiology but simultaneously and indistinguishably as a view of the fun-
dament of psychological life. For Freud, particularly in Beyond the Pleasure
Principle, correlation between the physical form of living matter and the
theoretical form of psychoanalysis was an important mode of speculative
argument. In this framework, seeing cells move and behave correlated with

70. Ibid., p. 60.


71. See Franz Doflein, Das Problem des Todes und der Unsterblichkeit bei den Pflanzen und Tieren
(Jena, 1919).
932 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
seeing instincts. A leap between psychoanalytic methods and cinematic
ones was not so dramatic when films of the behavior of protozoa or somatic
cells were seen as scientific analyses of the foundations of life, broadly un-
derstood. The line between psychic phenomena and physiologicalphenom-
ena was indistinct, particularly when scientists like Carrel were claiming
that the films showed cells as “made up of the past,” as “duration,” in its
fully Bergsonian sense. In short, cells in the visual field were the visual “mor-
phological” counterparts to the theoretical “dynamic” structures revealed
by techniques of psychoanalysis. They might even be literally the same
thing, just accessed by different means, which is why psychoanalytic tech-
niques and visually analytic techniques were compellingly analogous. Thus
Benjamin’s text and those texts that formed the context of his writing im-
puted power to the camera to see life as it has not been seen before.
Theaters, lectures, and newspapers were themselves teeming with star-
tlement at what film was revealing of life, that all surfaces, even nonliving
ones, had within them another whole realm of life—incessantly moving,
pullulating cells and particles. The films were greeted as a view into the life
going on all the time beyond the range of normal (conscious) perception.
Manipulation of space and time through devices of magnification and time-
lapse was greeted as a means of revealing life beneath life, life inside life;
even the surface of the cell could be further magnified to see the streaming
cytoplasm or the paroxysms of internal division. Microcinematography
gave access to what was interpreted as the microstructure not simply of
cellular tissue but of life and death, of duration and immortality. The ex-
perience of watching the films—variously accompanied by narratives of the
essential protoplasm or the internal reality of the body—was to gain a vis-
ceral sense of that life as something inside the individual but also continuous
over all forms of nonhuman beings.
These connections only ramify when considering Benjamin’s return to
the notion of the optical unconscious in the later essay, “The Work of Art
in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Miriam Hansen writes,
“while the photography essay illustrated the ‘optical unconscious’ with ex-
amples from biophysics and botany, the Artwork Essay draws on the im-
agery of a social and mechanized world, the discourse of an alienated
experience.”72 Hansen’s nuanced analyses of the notion of the optical un-
conscious in these essays is only enriched by seeing this apparent difference
not as the replacement of one kind of example with something quite other
but as two interlinked kinds of examples of the same thing—scientific im-

72. Hansen, “Benjamin, Cinema, and Experience: ‘The Blue Flower in the Land of
Technology,’” New German Critique, no. 40 (Winter 1987): 209.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 933
agery as imagery of a social and mechanized world. As we have seen, viewers
of these films were highly aware of the technology allowing them to see such
sights—not just with the film camera and the microscope but with the
placement of living pieces of the body in the technology of the laboratory—
where they continued to live indefinitely. Even the scientific sight of these
pieces was itself mechanized by film. The perception of the body or nature
via the technological apparatus is as much a part of the modern condition
of human life as the factories and automobiles of work and motion, a point
that becomes explicit in one of Benjamin’s sources, an article by Luc Durtain
called “La Technique et l’homme.”73
Apparently very taken by Durtain’s discussion of corneal surgery, the
extremely delicate operations of manipulating an object that is itself vir-
tually fluid within a fluid medium, Benjamin quotes Durtain in a footnote
to his comparison of the cinematographer and the surgeon.74 Just above the
section that Benjamin quotes, Durtain discusses microcinematography. He
links the transformation of the perception of speed introduced by the mo-
torcycle, car, and airplane to the “universe” demonstrated by new optical
instruments; part of the contemporary configuration of technology and
man is that we are moved not just by the sight of machines but by the spec-
tacles machines themselves provide. His first example is microcinematog-
raphy. He speaks of the “grandiose architectures” and “physiological
landscapes” filled with “unforgettable sights”: blood cells circulating in the
capillaries and the “swarming life of the microscopic world.” He writes of
Flagellates, moving at top speed across the field of the microscope, and
cilia that quiver, and ruffles and pseudopods that undulate, or diatoms
that move their boxy skeletons, in a ceremonious and brusque move-
ment . . .the phenomena of cellular reproduction, sometimes by slow
simple division, sometimes by that extraordinary ballet in which the liv-
ing strands of chromosomes divide and go to the radiating poles . . .
parting two new lives.75
Durtain’s description could be quite accurately described as notes on the
“image worlds, which dwell in the smallest things”76 that Benjamin had
some years earlier said were revealed by the “devices” of photography,
whether scientific or not.
To analyze the bibliographic unconscious at work in Benjamin’s texts is

73. See Luc Durtain, “La Technique et l’homme,” Vendredi, 13 Mar. 1936, p. 9.
74. Not that Durtain was necessarily aware of this, and Benjamin most likely was not, but Carrel
and his wife, Anne Carrel, experimented with corneal surgery in the 1920s.
75. Durtain, “La Technique et l’homme,” p. 9.
76. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” p. 512.
934 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
not to suggest that he himself made these connections explicitly. It is more
likely that the references in these essays, and their various levels of connec-
tion, come not from any single source but were filtered through many
sources—newspapers, film programs, other critical writings on film and
photography. For example, the proponents of avant-garde cinema in France
formulated various definitions of “pure cinema” in direct relation to sci-
entific films such as Comandon’s. Inspired in particular by a program of
science films screened in 1924 at the Vieux Columbier, writers such as Ger-
maine Dulac used these films to elaborate theoretical concepts of “integral
cinégraphie” or the “essence of cinema.”
Writing of “the film about the birth of sea urchins,”77 Dulac says that
“the rhythm and the magnitude of movement in the screen space become
the only affective factors.” The film allows one to glimpse, unencumbered
by “philosophical ideal or aesthetic concern,” the elements of a more pure
filmmaking. “In its embryonic state, a purely visual emotion, physical and
not cerebral, is the equal of the emotion stimulated by an isolated sound.”
The composition of such visual notes can thus be imagined as “an integral
cinégraphie,” a “pure cinema, one liberated from every property alien to
it.”78 Dulac, in a 1932 essay in Le Cinéma des origines à nos jours, a volume
that also featured an essay by Comandon, dates the rise of avant-garde pro-
duction to the science-film screening of 1924, when “pure cinema . . . went
in search of emotion beyond the limits of the human” and found it in “cer-
tain scientific writings”: “Was not cinema potentially capable of grasping
with its lenses the infinitely large and the infinitely small? This school of the
ungraspable turned its attention to other dramas than those played by ac-
tors.”79 In a passage from 1928, she writes that cinema, “by decomposing
movement, makes us see, analytically . . . and, if we look at the sprouting
grain, thanks to film we will no longer have only the synthesis of the move-
ment of growth, but the psychology of this movement. . . . The cinema
makes us spectators of its bursts toward light and air, by capturing its un-
conscious, instinctive and mechanical movements.”80 Here, too, life beyond
the human was dissectable by “film as a sort of microscope”81 whose analytic
powers were akin to those of psychoanalysis. As described above, such films
often came accompanied by their narration providing a window not just

77. It is not possible to specify which film of sea urchin fertilization and development this might
have been, since there were many, including one by Comandon, made between 1909 and 1924.
They were all, however, made using time-lapse microcinematography.
78. Dulac, “Aesthetics, Obstacles, Integral Cinégraphie, ” trans. Liebman, French Film Theory
and Criticism, 1:396.
79. Dulac, “The Avant-Garde Cinema,” trans. Lamberton, in The Avant-Garde Film, p. 47.
80. Dulac, “Visual and Anti-Visual Films,” p. 32.
81. Dulac, “The Essence of Cinema,” p. 39.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 935
onto the sights of science (the world of the infinitely small) but onto sci-
entific seeing itself, its processes of isolation and comparison, and so the
invocation here of “analytic” seeing should be read, as with Benjamin,
with some specificity.

5
For this is the miracle of the science film, its inexhaustible paradox. At the far ex-
treme of inquisitive, utilitarian research, in the most absolute proscription of aes-
thetic intentions, cinematic beauty develops as an additional, supernatural gift.
[“SF,” p. 146]

André Bazin, like Dulac decades earlier, was delighted by the “inex-
haustible paradox” that those who were apparently trying the least to create
cinematic beauty, that is, scientists, were also those who were best able to
produce such beauty, “at the far extreme of inquisitive, utilitarian research,”
thus generating cinema’s “purest aesthetic” (“SF,” p. 146). This in turn bears
some resemblance to the troubled conclusion of Kracauer’s Theory of Film,
a chapter called “Film in Our Time,” in which cinema, with its visceral,
intimate access to the concreteness of material reality, will redeem us from
a world fractured and fragmented by aesthetically anemic scientific and
technological ways of thinking and being. In short, film, although a product
of science and technology, will redeem the world from science and tech-
nology because of the accident of cinematic beauty.
Kracauer’s work is a “somewhat belated offspring” of early film theory.82
He occupied an uncomfortable position in relation to classic film theory,
trying to look forward and back at the same time, writing that “the prin-
ciples and ideas instrumental in the rise of a new historical entity do not
just fade away once the period of inception is over; on the contrary, it is as
if, in the process of growing and spreading, that entity were destined to bring
out all their implications” (TF, p. 3). Kracauer’s engagement with science
in Benjamin, Epstein, Dulac, and his own earlier writing on film, from the
other side of the critiques of science such as Dialectic of Enlightenment, has
its own specific dynamics. His attempt to characterize scientific principles
and ideas as instrumental to film, and the resulting implications he saw from
the specific viewpoint “film in our time,” that is, America in the late 1950s,
deserves its own analysis. For now, however, I have used Kracauer’s partic-
ular attention to science as an entry point into the liveliness of early film
theory’s engagement with its contemporaneous biological experiments on
film.

82. Hansen, introduction, p. viii.


936 Hannah Landecker / Cellular Features
What Kracauer thought through, but later readers have passed over, is
the critical mobilization of scientific film in the early twentieth century as
a mode of understanding the characteristics and possibilities of film in gen-
eral. Writers thinking through the relations of parts and wholes in terms of
shots and frames, montages and narratives, looked to scientific techniques
of decomposition and synthesis as demonstrated in scientific films as a
mode of articulating and theorizing the specificity of the film medium. In
particular, they looked at these techniques in relation to the visualization
of life over time, and this was a way of articulating the specificity of the power
of the film medium to depict life as such. Recognizing, as Kracauer put it,
that the medium showed “characteristics inherent in the scientific ap-
proach,” particularly characteristics of analytic decomposition of wholes,
did not by any means then restrict the sense of what nonscientists could do
with the medium. Epstein, himself originally trained in medicine, an-
nounced quite firmly that cinema was a hermaphrodite whose sex had
turned out to be art, not science. But this did not stop him from using bac-
teriological and molecular metaphors to theorize photogénie and the char-
acter of the close-up or from using these techniques in his own filmmaking.
Having reestablished the sense that these diverse metaphors in the writings
of diverse authors are generated not by comparisons between avant-garde
or artistic film and abstract scientific concepts of the cell or molecule but
by comparisons between films of the macroscopic world and films of the
microscopic one, what then should we do with this knowledge?
Dulac, Kracauer, and Bazin thought that scientists, who were simply en-
gaged in finding things out or making things, by fortuitous accident left in
the wake of their rational and real an inexhaustible remainder of the irra-
tional and surreal. Such a conclusion now seems untenable. “The most ab-
solute proscription of aesthetic intentions” noted by Bazin and others is
itself a historically specific aesthetic of objectivity.83 As this essay has argued
in reconnecting scientific filmmaking in early twentieth-century France and
America to a larger discourse of life, death, and immortality, Comandon
and Carrel’s films were built with strong aesthetic and philosophical intent,
were carefully edited, and had quite distinct narrative shape, either implicit
in the film’s form, or explicit in accompanying lectures and texts. These
films were stories of scientific investigation and dramas of infection, sur-
vival, and life. Both the “experiments on film” and the critical responses to
them should be understood within this wider context.
Ultimately, the aim of this argument is not a rediscovery of early scientific

83. See Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, “The Image of Objectivity,” Representations, no. 40
(Fall 1992): 81–128.
Critical Inquiry / Summer 2005 937
film but a critical expansion on the insights it generated. It is my hope that
this demonstration of film’s role in the “interpenetration of art and science”
in early twentieth-century visualizations and conceptualizations of life
will both help renew interest in the history of scientific film and provide
some critical tools with which to think about life’s imaging in other his-
torical periods, including our own. Looking back to the cell in early film
theory—and forward to next year’s biological imaging with the same criti-
cal glance—requires first a recognition of early film theory’s insights about
the incorporation of scientific ways of seeing into the film medium and
then the consideration of the question of whether contemporary life sci-
ence is producing a cinema of life analogous to that made by Comandon
and Carrel. Such a question may equip us better to think about the ubiq-
uitous images of free-floating zygotes and micro-injection needles, icons
of our own version of the suppression of death; about the technically in-
novative methods for filming the movements of organelles and molecules
in living cells;84 or about the scenes of cellular interiority in recent Hol-
lywood cinema (The Hulk, Magnolia, Fight Club). Indeed, an autonomous
and authoritative cellular actor is very much alive in today’s cinema.

84. See Conly L. Rieder and Alexey Khodjakov, “Mitosis through the Microscope: Advances in
Seeing Inside Live Dividing Cells,” Science, 4 Apr. 2003, pp. 91–96.