I’ve not been updating this site as frequently as I’d have liked over this past month, mainly due to having a rather hefty load of work to get finished. Still, as January rolls to an end, I thought it was time I got at least one more post out, especially as I’d left my discussion of Avatar at the end of last month dangling with the promise of more to come. The original plan was to take a look at another title to investigate in more detail the concepts of realism and spectacle in cinema. However, with James Cameron’s film now counted the highest-grossing of all time and a news report this morning that the broadcaster Sky is launching its new 3d channel this Saturday with a live Premier football match that will be beamed out to nine selected pubs across the country, I get the feeling that we could be discussing the virtues of 3d, CG graphics, and all the other issues raised by these technologies and where they’re taking us, for quite some time (even though I find the prospect of legions of footie fans across the nation settling down on the sofa wearing 3d specs rather unrealistic in itself). Heck, even Mayor of London Boris Johnson weighed in with a rather strange article about how people are struggling to cope with life in our recession-stricken capital in this dreariest of seasons after being immersed in Cameron’s world.
The film industry has always been driven by new technologies (sound, colour, widescreen, digital cameras are but a few), and one of my interests is in how these have shaped the form of its resulting products. So now seems as good a time as ever to begin exploring the question, what the hell is reality? I want to return to Avatar for the moment, a film that looks set to be honoured at the Oscars this year. First of all, lets ignore the quality of the story-telling. For me, Avatar was more than just an entertaining diversion in that it throws up all sorts of issues to think about, even though I don’t think its 100% successful in what it says. It is undoubtedly one of the reasons the film is proving so successful, if only due to word of mouth – it is a definitely talking point title, and I think it’s great that its getting people into cinemas, if only because the industry as a whole really needs this at the moment.
I don’t, however, think its going to have a lasting legacy in that all Hollywood action blockbusters are now going to add a third-dimension. One only has to look at the lacklustre reception to Roland Emmerich’s 2012 last year to realise that you can only go on making things bigger and more spectacular before the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Avatar gives us something new for the moment, but once 3d ceases to become a novelty, I think it will be difficult to justify the expenses of productions such as these unless there’s more to them than just the visuals. For the moment at least, however, I think a precedent has been set that will pave the way for other more inventive works, and for that reason, it is definitely the film of the moment.
“Aha! But what more inventive works?” I hear you ask. Avatar seems to present us with a number of other ways to go, but I think if 3D is to be more than a gimmick, then new narratives or modes of expression will have to emerge to exploit the possibilities it provides. I’m intrigued by projects such as Wim Wender’s Pina, a dance film about legendary choreographer Pina Bausch (not sure what the status of this is now, since the death of Bausch, but there’s more on this film here). This could be one application of celebrating human movement within three dimensions.
As for the use of computer graphics, I find it a little disappointing that most animation always tries to emulate live action cinema when the medium has the potential to create any sort of world they can, by experimenting with presentational/representational modes. Of course, it is easy to indulge in pie-in-the-sky thinking about what could be possible, and obviously economic factors play a role. Due to the sheer costs involved, I don’t think cinema will ever see a complete break from its representational roots in the way that painting, for example, did at the beginning of the last century. The best example I can think of that experiments with these sort of ideas is Mamoru Oshii’s Tachigui: The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters from 2006, a fascinating film to analyse and meditate over, but I’m sure Oshii would be the first to admit it didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, and it is not what most people would desire from a good night’s worth of entertainment.
So anyway, as a critic of cinema rather than a creator, and as such not as dependent on its economic realities, you can consider me as playing something of the devil’s advocate in my opinions. But I think the next few years are going to be interesting in terms of what people are doing with these new technologies, so I think I’m going to continue with these posts for a while, using this website as a sounding board for my ideas. To this end, I’m posting the first half of an article I wrote a couple of years ago for the Deutches FilmMuseum’s Ga-Netchu! The Manga Anime Syndrome book, which was to lead into a discussion of Oshii’s film but was cut from the finished publication due to limits of space. I think it probably elucidates what I was driving at in my first post on this subject, and to some extent where Thomas LaMarre is coming from with some of the arguments he presents in Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. I look forward to hearing your feedback… (and if anyone could tell me how to put a damn space between this line and the next using WordPress, I’d be really grateful!)
Tunnel Vision: A Western Malaise
“It is well to remember that a picture before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.” observed artist Maurice Denis in 1890. As well as drawing attention to the role of aesthetics in art, Denis’ statement highlights the limitations of collapsing a three-dimensional scene onto a two-dimensional surface, something keenly felt by painters at the time.
For over 500 years, the dominant form of pictorial representation in the West has been linear or fixed point perspective, developed by Renaissance artists and set in stone by the Classical painter and theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72). Depth is signalled geometrically, with all lines converging towards a fixed point and distant objects appearing at a smaller scale than those closer to the viewer. Alberti’s observation that his paintings represented the visible world viewed as if through a window has led to this method being labelled Alberti’s Window, and it soon became the guiding principle for artists.
In his book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, British artist David Hockney hypothesises the widespread use of lenses and mirrors by Western artists from the Renaissance onwards to render nature more efficiently and realistically. Lens-based devices like the camera obscura and camera lucida allowed artists ranging from the Italian and Dutch schools, namely Caravaggio and Jan Van Eyck, to the Salon painters of the continental academic tradition like Bougeureau, to paint from a projected image rather than directly from nature, or at the very least, to use this projected image as a drawing aid. The use of optics accounted for the abrupt emergence of a new kind of pictorial realism that to the modern eye still appears almost photographic. It was marked by a greater sense of detail, especially in the rendering of light and shadow (chiaroscuro). Among the mountain of evidence Hockney presents is the close ties between painters and glass- and mirror-makers in the 15th century (who in the Low Countries shared the same guild), the emergence of the ‘still life’ genre at this point, and that Vermeer was a close friend and neighbour of van Leeuwenhook, known for his work on lenses and microscopy. He also makes the analogy between artists’ studios, which employed assistants to aid in the image-making process in tasks ranging from mixing paint and arranging the scene to actually rendering parts of it on the canvas, and the image factory of Hollywood: painters such as Rembrandt were not the solidarity creative geniuses we might imagine, with a role akin to film directors today. The difference was that, rather than the mass market, the artist was reliant upon the patronage of the Church or powerful political figures, who thereby effectively controlled the creation and distribution of images.
That there are ruptures contained within the works Hockney discusses with what would have emerged had the artists adhered entirely to the rules of classical perspective indicates the distorting effect of the lens, specifically with regards to issues of lighting, depth of focus and relative scale. For example, the fragmented non-Euclidian space or “wrong perspectives” (as opposed to the Euclidian space of “correct” geometrical perspective) art historians have detected in Flemish painting is attributable to the scene being reproducing from different viewpoints, with the lens re-focussed to take in the various figures, objects and details contained within the tableau. In effect, the works are a collage of multiple ‘exposures’; the scene as viewed from a number of different windows within the one main window. Moreover, linear perspective alone would never have allowed even the greatest of painters to depict the detailed patterns following complex contours like the folds on the clothes of their subjects.
Optical methods presented a sense of realism that was compelling and, as the technology advanced, evermore expedient. In the 1820s, photography emerged, allowing the projected image to be fixed permanently by chemical means. Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope and the advent of cinema followed at the end of the 19th century to create the illusion of movement from the synthesis of its constituent parts. In addition to the two-dimensions of the screen, within the moving image a third dimension was introduced, but it was not depth, it was time. Still, the dynamism of the moving camera brought about its own changes in our understanding of space and of objects’ positions in relation to one another, both in the physical and temporal dimensions, and thus a different conception of reality. However, this new cine-realism was still constrained by the monocular viewpoint of the camera lens. Furthermore, cinema is an ephemeral phenomena. Its individual elements exist only as they are projected, at a rate now standardised at 24 frames a second.
Human perception does not work in the same way as the camera. We have two eyes, and the images that fall upon the retinas are seldom static. Perceptually, humans are active participants in their environment, never mere passive observers. Our knowledge of the world is build up through complex processes, with the body and both eyes actively moving through nature. These physical processes are transformed into experience, as the perceiver constructs an internal mental model of the external world. In interpreting a scene, the eyes dart around the salient details of line and form, in what is termed by psychologists as saccadic movements. This is why we don’t immediately notice the “wrong perspectives” in Flemish painting, as our eyes flick over the different parts of the picture, and also why we accept, though never entirely believe, the simulacrum of cinema.
As the photographic image became more widely distributed, artists began to question and eventually break away from the static ocular centrism that had dominated Western presentations of the world since the Renaissance. The lineage of Modern painting can be traced from the Impressionists and post-Impressionists like Paul Cezanne, through Cubism (on which Hockney, as an artist, himself draws upon in his multiple-perspective photo-collages) to abstract art’s complete break with representation. These movements explored the quandaries presented by recreating a solid object on a flat canvas; the difference between “seeing” and “knowing” the world, and breaking it down into its aesthetic atoms. But in the age of mechanical reproduction, they couldn’t hope to compete with the tunnel vision presented by the photographic snapshot or the moving pictures, which were easier to produce and to circulate, and more attuned to the demands of consumerism.
Whether the image was moving or not, the emergence of the new consensual reality brought about by its mass circulation during the twentieth century had profound social and political ramifications. Through photographs, cinema and its more pervasive small-screen relation television, it became the primary mode through which people experienced the world beyond their immediate environs. “The camera never lies,” goes the maxim, leading to Jean-Luc Godard’s famous quote that “Cinema is truth twenty-four times per second” (though he later added the caveat “Every edit is a lie.”)
We rarely doubt the lens’ vision, but perhaps we should, as Hockney challenges us: “Look through an old stereoscope and ask ‘where am I?’ You are in a black void looking out. Alberti’s window seems to be a prison. Has photography pushed the world away? Has it done something to our view of the world? The optical projection dominates the world, but it is only one way of seeing, and one that separates us from the world. This might not have been a problem six hundred years ago, but it is a very big problem indeed NOW.”
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