Sunday, January 18, 2009

What the Canon is Missing

In 1952 Bela Balazs formulated a theory of “spectator identification” as the new and novel power absolutely unique to art of film. He describes identification in the following way:

In the cinema the camera carries the spectator into the film picture itself. We are seeing everything from the inside as it were and are surrounded by the characters of the film. They need not tell us what they feel, for we see what they see and see it as they see it” (Film Theory 48).

In Dudley Andrew’s exposition on Balazs in The Major Film Theories, he points out that this idea is inconsistent with other key components of Balazs’s theory: “Spectator identification and delusion are seen here in a positive light whereas they work against the concepts of defamiliarization and of art as formal technique, which Balazs struggled to establish” (98). My aim here is not to assess Balazs in general but rather to acknowledge that by elevating identification as the essential novelty of cinema and by further attributing this achievement to Hollywood narrative style he sowed the seeds of contemporary film scholarship. It is unfortunate that the pioneering work of someone so passionate about the potential of film to aspire to the status of a high art would in many ways function as the embryo that grew into a separate field of film study that decisively rejects high art in favor of texts that reflect upon, and appeal to, mass culture.

Genre theorists, cultural studies critics, psychoanalytic readers, feminists and psychoanalytic feminists, before they conclude anything else, assume that the unique power of cinema is its ability to encourage viewer identification to the point that the viewer gets lost in the world of the film and imagines himself part of it. Thus, what makes cinema important is simply the sheer force with which it can influence masses of people through this process of identification. This is how we come to view Leni Riefenstahl’s bald recycling of the essentially “Pavlovian tactics of Eisenstein’s montage” (David Cook, Narrative Film 789), as the means to creating a masterpiece. Triumph of the Will may be a masterpiece, but of propaganda. The crowning achievement of the film is to trick the viewer into identifying with a hero. In every important stylistic respect Riefenstahl’s methods are no different from Hitchcock’s or Spielberg’s.

The cinema of spectator identification neglects at least three things that only movies seem capable of doing. I will introduce these briefly:

Persistence of Vision and the Time-Image

When a person watches a real movie, celluloid through a projector and not a videotape or DVD, the film images are not actually continuous but projected one frame at a time at a rate of 24 per second. They look like a continuous stream due to a physiological quirk called persistence of vision. Because the frames appear one at a time, the viewer is physically in relative darkness, given the right theater conditions, over half the time he or she sits in the theater. In Forrest Gump, JFK or anything by Alfred Hitchcock this fact is merely incidental. Among those who would argue otherwise are the early film theorist for whom the cinema’s psychological potential was of a particular interest. I would distinguish between those who take advantage of this potential and those who neglect it. Cinema as such has no inherent aesthetic qualities, only potential qualities to be brought out by master artists.

In the cinema of spectator identification, much of the potential is neglected in favor of the one thing that matters: plot. One can buy everything by Oliver Stone, Robert Zemekis and Hitchcock from Columbia House, because plot looks good on video. Nothing crucial to their works is lost in the celluloid to video transfer. What Gilles Deleuze calls the time image, however, does not transfer as readily. Essentially Deleuze contends that cinema is unique in its potential to show time. Andrei Tarkovsky, Theo Angelopouplos, Chantal Akerman, Miklos Jansco and others make their films out of very long takes. While Hitchcock rarely needs a shot to last longer than 5 or 10 seconds Jansco, for instance, makes films in which shots last for 20 minutes (Red Psalm). When a viewer is in a darkened theater and relying on his persistence of vision for image continuity this is very important. It is not the same physical experience to watch a movie without many cuts as it is to which one with hundred and hundreds of cuts. This is a large part of the reason that the former does not work on video. Video is a continuous digital image so persistence of vision does not occur. A film with long takes helps to induce within the viewer a meditative rhythm while on video transfers it can much easier just make her tired and bored.

Color and Light

Celluloid is a translucent medium. The images appear on the screen because the light source behind the film strip projects them forward. A number of films within the American experimental or avant-garde tradition are interested in exploiting and exploring this aspect of cinema. These filmmakers actually make movies without ever photographing anything because they believe that the fundamental element of cinema is light. Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight consists of pieces of dead bugs, specs of dirt and gravel and tiny blades of grass affixed directly to the celluloid. When the film is projected, one sees the little bits enlarged and rushing across the screen, barely comprehensible, against a background of harsh white light. Mothlight is only movement and light. It could not be further removed from a tradition that believes the cinema to be an essentially and necessarily narrative form. Nor does Mothlight transfer especially effectively to video. The bright, natural light takes on a yellowish hue and causes the borders of the “images” to look pinkish when digitized.

This is part of a larger problem with the transfer of colors in general. Digital values are very different from the values of celluloid emulsion. In a film like Schindler’s List in which all you have to be able to do is pick out the red coat from the black & white image, this is not a problem. Likewise, the difference between the two color scales does not change the saturated color symbolism of Douglas Sirk melodramas or even Nicholas Ray’s color films. The important thing about Susie’s bedroom in Imitation of Life is that it is pink. The important thing about Jim’s Jacket in Rebel without a Cause is that it is red. But when colors are not meant to stand for something, but rather are to be confronted and lived, to actually alter one’s vision as in any color film by Tarkovsky or Bresson, video versions lose or at least alter a key component of the experience. In Spielberg, Sirk and Ray’s Rebel colors have a very basic – one could say “obvious” symbolism. Red means “x” and pink means “y.” In Tarkovsky and Bresson colors are part of a symbolic matrix that exists only in the film. Green does not mean “x” or “y” in Stalker; it means difference in experience from the sepia world that precedes it.

Size vs. Spectacle

Aficionados of films of spectacle like John Ford’s westerns, Spielberg’s historical epics or the proliferation of CGI enhanced adventures from The Matrix to Lord of the Rings will often vigorously demand that these films must be seen in a theater to get their full effect. By “full effect” they mean that these films are meant to be seen very large, overwhelmingly large, in fact, to facilitate the viewer’s desire to enter into the film in Balazs’s sense. I would suggest other reasons why films need to be big. Jacques Tati’s Playtime has to be seen as large as possible, because many of the shots offer so much that requires attention. Every aspect of the long-shots in the airport terminal at the beginning of the film has been meticulously choreographed. Everyone on screen is doing something, and all of it is important. One may find himself watching the person at the bottom left hand corner then suddenly realize he has neglected the other twenty people on screen. One then begins to dart his gaze around the whole image, fixing on some action or person momentarily and moving to the next one. Jonathan Rosenbaum refers to this as “Tati’s democracy” because he gives the viewer you so much to look at without demanding that you look at something specific. I would add that the viewer may be able begin putting together all that he or she notices and thus see a rhythm or composition emerge.

Whatever one concludes this experience, this process, is not possible when watching Playtime on TV screen in one’s living room. The gestures of figures in long-shot are subtle enough on a big screen; on TV they may be empirically non-existent. The trouble is that the meaning of the Tati film is precisely in the accumulation of those gestures and the rhythm of those movements. While we may miss the beguiling spectacle of Death Valley when we have to settle for watching The Searchers on TV, we get the meaning clear enough and freely acknowledge Ford’s mastery in creating that meaning. Tati on a TV screen is irreparably obtuse, and we are led to wonder why anyone would find his films worth watching at all.I do not wish to merely suggest that John Ford and Jacques Tati make different kinds of films; Tati makes better films. His films are better because their meanings can only be put forth through film and because they frustrate and disintegrate every theory of genre, spectatorship or race, class and gender that the critic may force upon them. Ford’s films invite this kind of criticism and, in fact thrive on it, because they are not very interesting for any aesthetic reasons.

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