26 décembre 2007

Crimen Falsi Redux, Part 1: The Theory of the Image

"General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon" by Eddie Adams

"The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths... What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?'" - Eddie Adams


"a photograph does feel more like a verification of an event than an eyewitness statement (often for good reason). A story is just a story, and it's as easy to make them false as true, but a photo, or a film recording, is a literal imprint of the world (until it gets altered, of course -- the epistemological difficulties that photo manipulation cause for, e.g., consumers of the daily newspaper, are an interesting problem). Without very aggressive framing, it's hard to communicate to an audience that what they're seeing might not be true ... We're trained to think of the camera's eye as impartial, unless we have good reason to think otherwise." {emphasis mine} - Crimen Falsi

"Seeing is believing" - proverb

A photo or film recording is not a literal imprint of the world. In the capturing and transmission of the image much is lost. We can call this lost material context, which is the supplement to the image: both the missing piece, and the extra one.

An image is framed, chosen, represented; it lacks history, smell, sound. All this serves as alteration whether or not what lies inside the frame is "manipulated." "Manipulation," though, also exists in choices most viewers aren't conscious of. Lenses - which affect depth of field, among other things; the size of the image (a combination of lense choice and distance from camera from subject); the angles chosen (is the camera above or below the subject? are speakers shot head-on, at a slight angle, or at a greater one? Is a conversation shown by a shot / reverse shot patter, or in a two shot? What does lighting emphasize/deemphasize/obscure?) These choices create emotional resonances in images that do not mirror the world itself. The camera does not see as the eye sees. The eye shifts attention along with consciousness, adjusts to varying lighting conditions, grabs peripheral information without directing attention on it. The tricks of the filmmaker or photographer can attempt to mimic these perceptual schema. The tools of cinema (focus, editing, lighting et al) can be controlled to simulate human perceptual conditions and construct the perception of a narrative.

Filmmakers create meaning and context through montage. The image, like the word, contains meaning only in the interplay between context and image, whether the context is intrinsic or extrinsic to the image itself.

"Montage means the assembly of pieces of film, which moved in rapid succession before the eye create an idea." - Alfred Hitchcock

The basic psychological principles of montage have been known since at least the late 1910s, when Lev Kuleshov showed how juxtaposed images cause audience members to assert certain relationships between the two images (Hitchcock explains this process in his third example in the video clip).


"The cinema is truth 24 times a second." - Jean-Luc Godard

"The cinema lies 24 times a second." - Brian DePalma

Godard is almost universally skeptical of the truth-value of the image (strictly defined, by which I mean: the kind of truth that Mike assigns to the photographic image in his post). Godard's "truth" is the revelatory impact of the image, but for Godard the truth and the lie of cinema is it's ability to represent the material conditions of reality. If my turn of phrase sounds explicitly Marxist, it's because Godard's political radicalism informs his ideas about the truth-value of the moving image with increasing directness as the 1960's progress. After the near-miss of revolution in France in 1968, Godard's work becomes more explicitly didactic. His work as part of the Dziga Vertov Group sets itself up as a lesson plan but rather than obfuscate the manipulations of the image, Godard and his comrades (Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others) foreground the manipulations of the image so as to undercut them. He's laying bare the structures by which this manipulation takes place, undercutting the cinematic illusion as a lesson in radical media literacy [Godard's use of the image to this effect begins well before this, but 1968 is the breaking point, the moment when his ideological agenda moves to the fore]. The final Dziga Vertov Group film, Letter to Jane, explores the process of assigning meaning to a single photograph of Jane Fonda with a North Vietnamese communist soldier.


"Look however in Kapo, the shot where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbwire: the man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body – carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing – this man is worthy of the most profound contempt." - Jacques Rivette's “Of Abjection”, a review of Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapo for Cahiers du cinéma, June 1961; cited by Serge Daney in his seminal essay The Tracking Shot in Kapo

"Tracking shots are a question of morality." - Jean-Luc Godard

The choices of presentation of an image are moral concerns precisely because they are images and not the world.


If Godard is interested in the truth as a lie, DePalma seems intent on creating truth by using lies as his raw material. DePalma understands all images as considered, i.e., "fictional," even (especially?) documentary ones. His newest film Redacted follows through on his previous work by addressing the 'reality' of images as images; it ends with a montage that takes "true" (i.e., documentary) images and combines them with a culminating "false" one (i.e., created by DePalma rather than documentary) that supports the 'truth' behind his political point. Why didn't he use a "real" image here? Were there no appropriate "real" images to be had?


"Art is a lie that tells the truth" - Pablo Picasso

"There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization." - Werner Herzog; from Minnesota declaration: truth and fact in documentary cinema


"We know that behind every image revealed there is another image more faithful to reality, and in the back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see." - Michelangelo Antonioni (via)

DePalma's best work, Blow Out, remakes Antonioni's Blow Up and stars John Travolta as a Hollywood sound man who accidentally records the sounds related to the "accidental" death of a politician. DePalma's film, unlike Antonioni's, arrives at certainty about the mystery at the film's core. Antonioni's film is not about sound but about image; a photographer captures an image that provides evidence of a murder. Or perhaps the image offers illusions instead of evidence; the image is too hard to analyze, the photographer doesn't know all the facts, and the physical evidence is not verifiable (or rather, it is verifiable but not reverifiable). In Blow Up, Antonioni explores the creation of ambiguous images and the roots of meaning in the physical, contextual world.

Update: For more from Blow Up, see this spectacular post at Hot Love in the time of Cold War

Antonioni's is frequently a cinema of ambiguity for the viewer, as his films create images whose meaning can't be discerned at first glance - or even upon closer examination. Rather than emphasize the illusions of the image as moral concerns (a la Godard), Antonioni focuses on the epistomological dilemmas of the uncertainty of the process of image-making. See, for example, the incredible final shot of The Passenger. We see only ambiguous evidence, the leadup and aftermath of the climactic moment. Antonioni calls forth the unimaginability and unrepresentability of death; he shows us things we cannot know by emphasizing the fact that we cannot know.


“We translate every experience into the same old codes.” - David Locke, in Michelangelo Antonioni's Professione: reporter / The Passenger (via)


Hitchcock makes flawless use of these codes into which we translate experience, manipulating his audience by way of tension and misdirection. His characters, like Shakespeare's, frequently misapprehend the narrative of which they a part. Hitchcock differs from Shakespeare because in Hitchcock's narratives we see through the eyes of these characters and misapprehend what they misapprehend. Take Suspicion, one of his myriad masterworks of subjective point of view. Hitchcock's creation of point of view isn't limited to subjective camerawork; it's the creation of a worldview in which knowledge is constructed through one person's understanding. Our information is incomplete but suggestive enough to allow us to draw conclusions; only later will we be presented with enough information to make sense of events in a concrete way.

Some suggestive stills from Suspicion:


Mike's point is not about the actual fact-value of the cinematic image; he asserts that audiences have a "greater susceptibility to moving-pictures-plus-sound than words"; and that "the degree of processing that needs to occur between the art and its consumption is higher with novels, leading to a greater opportunity to audit for a sense of falseness." There's no comparison here; it's like comparing apples and Chicago. The modes of procesing might be more conscious in literature, assuming the cinematic illusion is well-kept. The mode of cinematic storytelling that sidesteps any the sense of 'artificiality' draws on a preexisting set of codes that signal verisimilitude. We may be "trained to think of the camera eye as impartial," but this is a lie. The cinematic image is not a priori more capable of creating the illusion of reality than any other form is. Most cinema situates itself within a certain Regime of Truth (Foucault) that represent reality using certain forms. These forms qualify as 'realism' in the cinema because viewers have been trained to accept these codes as real; David Bordwell has done extensive formalist work on the develoment of the codes in Hollywood's Regime of Truth. [To counteract the Hollywood Regime of Truth, "art cinema" has created (itself as) an alternate Regime of Truth with codes of its own. I'm not sure that this is a positive development]. The establishment of any artistic Regime of Truth consists of the codification of a set of approaches toward the representation of truth. What begins as an exercise in appearance-making (as opposed to copy-making, the two types of artistic endeavor in Plato's The Sophist) becomes instead hyperreal, dependent on the Regime of Truth for its truth value. The problem of hyperreality is one of quidditas: Does an image have quidditas any more than a word does? Do 24 images shown in rapid succession contain an essence? Can an image ensconced in a Regime of Truth reveal truth?

For Heidegger, truth (ἀλήθεια / Aletheia) is a process of revealing, an uncovering. The image at once covers and uncovers. In Heidegger's The Origin of the Work of Art, art reveals the thingliness of things [Heidegger doesn't say 'quidditas,' though he might]; Heidegger considers this revealing to be the purpose of art. A pair of shoes painted by Van Gogh differs from the shoes themselves in that they serve different purposes: the shoes themselves cover feet; the work of art reveals the nature of shoes ("lets us know what shoes are in truth"). A work of art differs from its subject even when the image is exact, for it takes its place as an image, a tool of uncovering.


"What the moving pictures lack is the wind in the trees." - D.W. Griffith


Another essential commentary to refute the radical reality of the camera’s eye:
Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris examines 2 iconic images from the Crimean War to determine in which order they were shot. A fascinating, multifaceted, essential series, taking place on his blog Zoom at the New York Times website.
(Part One)
(Part Two)
(Part Three)
Cartesian Blogging, Part One (in which Morris answers reader questions on the first three parts)


Or, I could have just suggested you see Rashômon.

6 commentaires:

jmac a dit…

Wow! There is so much info here, and I am inspired by your exploration into the concept of the image. Can I share with you my recent brainstorming?

The famous photo of Jane Fonda talking with North Vietnam soliders? Would it mean anything to anyone without the image having been contextualized through words already? For example, if we saw the photo for the first time, today, without any written commentary or verbal discussion on the subject, what would the image mean to us? What about the horrible photo of the execution? Does knowing the historical, written context of this image, have unexpected results, such as helping us to compartmentalize violence? (Couldn't such an image be captured again, right here in the U.S., in a setting such as Virginia Tech?) How would we interpret this photo if we did not know its context?

Are words and images really ever separate? (Maybe in experimental cinema they are?!)

And lately as I ponder word vs. image, I wonder about a third language: money - it talks! In cinema, what would Hollywood be like if that industry functioned the same as experimental cinema? For example, how would a Hollywood film change if those celebs and studio execs were not paid anything at all, if no one made any money off the films ever (!), if the only people who discussed the films, were the people who made them? How would those Hollywood images change? :)

P.S. FWIW, I think that cinema is consciousness, whether we are trying to create an illusion or reveal the most secret truths . . .

dave a dit…

Jen, thanks for the comments! I'm also interested in the relationship between word and image, between interpretive gestures and the image as it is. I'm exploring this in another lengthy piece I'm working on at the moment.

You're right of course that context is the root of meaning, but as Eddie Adams said, context is always incomplete. The information we use to create context is always flawed. I'm with Antonioni - there's no essential documentary truth at the heart of an image. I also think, as you suggest in your Word vs. Image? posts (1, 2), that the truths an image can reveal are perhaps less factual and more visceral, cosmic, emotional.

I think that creating an illusion and trying to reveal the most secret truths are one and the same . . .

dave a dit…

WOW... an AMAZING image-based post with 23 stills from Blow Up examines the possibility of knowledge in cinema and photography and inaugurates a new blog, Hot Love in the time of Cold War. GO THERE NOW.

jmac a dit…

I'm still thinking about this subject . . . Your last observation about creating an illusion & revealing the truth is very intriguing. Do you think that creating an illusion pertains more to traditional narratives & documentaries, i.e. Werner Herzog's films? I ask because I think that narratives create ideas of the world, and experimental cinema works more with direct manipulations of the material image.

I sense an element missing from the Herzog & the Picasso quotes, and that's poetry! For example, Coleman Barks, the translator of Rumi's poetry, defines poetry as the intersection between the human and the divine. When I make my films, I am trying to capture nature, but nature coincided with something spiritual. I don't think that this quality is an illusion or artificial, it is my reality. Is Antonioni perhaps suggesting that our images are so subjective that we never see the true greater reality of all things in entirety? :) For example, Rumi describes our human condition as people who live in a ditch but cannot see the ocean, or people who carry jars looking for water, when we ourselves are composed of water . . . I hope that this is making sense! :)

P.S. That's a mysterious image based post, Vast.Active.Living.Intelligent?

Daniel a dit…

Jaw dropping.

dave a dit…

I think you're right that the statements of Picasso and Herzog lack poetry, but their work lives up to the potential poetry implicit in their ideas. As for Antonioni, I think you've gotten to the heart of his worldview - his project - by comparing it with Rumi. Both find poetry in the human lack that human beings themselves cannot fill, in all of its forms (memory, knowledge, identity, love).

Many, many thanks.