"La photographie, c'est la vérité et le cinéma, c'est vingt-quatre fois la vérité par seconde"
(Godard, in Le Petit Soldat, 1961)
Everyone loves to cite this smartass moto even though it's all wrong. Photography is as fake as the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. The realistic "ontology of the photographic image" Bazin defined was in comparison to paintings, within the realm of representational Arts, because the subjective interpretation of the artist disappeared in the capture of reality. Although nothing matches exactly with reality. Black&White (or approximated chemical colors), 2D, odorless. It's even inaccurate visually : proportions and perspective are determined by the type of lens. It is evidently an illusion of truth. An optical illusion, a delusion of the brains. It doesn't even have the 3D perception of human eyes (stereoscopy). The camera is a cyclops!
Moreover, the decomposition of a second in 24 still steps is an illusion of motion. It's all lies to exploit a loophole in the physiology of the human eye. We cannot perceive the flickering of quasi-identical frames when it goes over about 15fps. The retina remanency (eidetic memory) merges the frames together and only the subtle changes become obvious over time, creating an illusion of movement. But the cuts between unrelated frames at 24fps is always visible, we notice very well the changes from one shot to the next.
Cinema is the most realistic invention we have so far, but it's only a partial, approximated rendition of selective aspects of reality that only satisfies one of our five senses. It's an intellectualized vision-driven conception of "truth", but it's far from the subtle array of the most essential elements of reality. We tend to forget that this apparent "truth" requires the proverbial "suspension of disbelief".
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In his last post, Girish talks about "single-frame films" of Michael Snow and asks interesting theoretical questions about the viewer's perception :
"So the real subject of this film seems to be: How do single-frame images get apprehended, combined and synthesized into something new by an act of the viewer’s creative participation, via the workings of human perceptual processes?"
The challenge of human visual perception is a fascinating subject to study for an artist, but isn't it an antithesis of cinema?
More than just a boring conundrum for theorists to solve, this particular film modality questions the definition of cinema and its own limitations. There is a fundamental distinction to be made, that is not solely aesthetical but ontological, between the art form called "cinema" and other visual art forms that are developping a different cognitive process, and therefore define a new separate medium. The problematics differentiating these visual art forms are the coherence between the production of the film strip and its restitution on screen, as well as its type of apprehention by the audience. Exploring the bounderies of the medium helps us to refine what cinema is about as an art form.
Function alone, doesn't create form.
The usage of a camera and a film projector doesn't suppose the production of a result that should be automatically called "cinema". For example, a slide show is not proper cinema. The visual stimuli operated by an optician to test our vision aren't either, even though it projects images before our eyes.
The realm of performance art and conceptual art may use the technical apparatus usually employed for cinema, to study and critic the process of projection, audience perception, visual recognition and reaction to a spectacle. They may study the physiological or mental process of human vision. But it doesn't mean that everything dealing with eyes and images shall therefore be "cinema". Cinema is not just a product of a mechanism. There is an intimate relation between the technical illusion and the magic revealed to our eyes.
What makes cinema?
"On rendrait bien mal compte de la découverte du cinéma en partant des découvertes techniques qui l'ont permise. Au contraire une réalisation approximative et compliquée de l'idée précède presque toujours la découverte industrielle qui peut seule en ouvrir l'application pratique. (...)
Ce serait donc renverser, au moins du point de vue psychologique, l'ordre concret de la causalité que de placer les découvertes scientifiques ou les techniques industrielles, qui tiendront une si grande place dans le dévelopment du cinéma, au principe de son "invention"."
(André Bazin, in Le Mythe du cinéma total, 1946)
Bazin laid out fundamental notions to understand the ontogenic realism of the photographic image. He didn't say cinema was about a projector or about series of images at a 24fps (a mechanical device allowing to restitute a "movie"). The essence of cinema is somewhere else.
He said specifically that the precursors of cinema (like Niepce, Muybridge, Marey) worked on the "analysis" of motion (decomposition of a kinetic form into still steps), while cinema seeks the "synthesis" of motion (reconstitution of kinetic form from stillness) and its mechanical reproduction. "Cinema" is not a technical, industrial, optical or chemical medium.
That's why I brought up the Godard quote above. Could we say if the essence of cinema is in the single frame (elementary unit), or in the viewer's experience of a stream of frames magically born to life (combination of the whole)?
The ontological definition of the medium is independant from its practical projection, it is defined by what happens between what is recorded and what the spectator experiences, on a mental level. Cinema is like a dream, it's a dialogue between conscious memory and sight. Cinema is in the head, not in the projector.
When the single-frame film reduces the shot length to one "subliminal image", they in fact negate everything cinema intents to do. They kill the "suspension of disbelief". We are self-conscious about watching a light show, and are unable to be immersed in another world. So is it still making "cinema" to turn a film projector into a high-speed slide show? The difference between a silde show and cinema is the continuity that transcends the accumulation of images into a new medium with higher properties. That's when images get the chance to become more than the sum of their parts. The nature of still photographs vanishes and the optical illusion recreates a new art form, distinct from photography.
Single-frame films fail to do that, purposefully. That's the point the artist wants to work on. It is of course intentionnal and accomplished by design. But it operates outside the very nature of cinema, in contradiction to its process of transmission.
To clash with the "cinematic" purpose, they emphasize the cuts instead of the images. Cinema lets the images impress the retina, single-frame films deny this intimate relationship between the image and the eye. They frustrate the eye by spamming it with an overwhelming quantity of informations too fast to register. They frustrate the visual conscience, not on a narrative level, but on a basic cognitive level.
The image loses its content, its graphical quality, its meaning, to become a brief undetermined stimulus, part of an informal ensemble without perceptual cohesion. And the eye loses its ability to make sense of the stimulus, to trigger a phantasmatic universe in the mind. Single-frames by-pass almost entirely the conscience and directly connect with the subconscious, through undigested, uncensored, unchecked subliminal messages. We get a general impression difficult to appreciate and an intellectual rationalization of the conceptual process that has little to do with the images content...
Images only become "cinema" when there is no longer images but a life of its own, through invisible combination. Cinema happens when the illusion starts to make us forget the apparatus. The "24fps" aspect is a backstage secret for professionals. If the result of this illusion happened with a different mechanical invention (like with the electronic scan of a TV screen, with tricolor lines or pixels instead of frames), we'd still meet the ontological nature of cinema that speaks to the mind with its own language. The frames are only the practical means to a greater end.Read also Deleuze on singular frames.