28 octobre 2007

When do images turn into cinema?

"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".

* * *

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.

13 commentaires:

davis a dit…

"Is there a more succinct summation of the magic of cinema than the moment in Chris Marker's La Jetée when, after several minutes of still images, a face suddenly and unexpectedly breathes to life?" - David Hudson

HarryTuttle a dit…

Very apt quote Rob, thanks for posting it. And he goes on : "Even silkscreening, producing a series of paintings takes time and effort, and for all the other - many no doubt better - reasons Warhol turned to filmmaking, he must have delighted in the knowledge that he could produce 24 stills in a single second, each still, just like each silkscreen, very similar to the others yet slightly different."
"We're in some netherworld between the still and the film"

Although La Jetée is quite an exception. It is a slide show, only a sketch of a film, a storyboard, a "meta-film" (like Eisenstein's lost film Bezhin Meadow, or the unfilmed segments of Munk's Pasazerka)
But, unlike single-frame films, it is a film that does play with the perceptual continuity (although without exploiting the unique feature of cinema that David Hudson talks about, the "slightly different" sameness).

Brian a dit…

It exploits it in that one moment, though, and isn't that enough?

Though I do think the images in a single-frame film can be perceived by the human eye (certainly not every image gets perceived on a conscious level, but some images will stick), I'm not convinced that it'd be any less "cinema" if they didn't.

We can never completely comprehend every signal in any film. Even in a didactic piece in which the filmmaker has intended to remove all trace of ambiguity, uncertainties will inevitably leak in.

At the other end of the spectrum are the films of "contemplative cinema," in which long takes with minimal action leave room for myriad interpretations. The images are designed to be at least partly incomprehensible, as life is at least partly incomprehensible.

Or take film adaptations of novels or other sources, in which the audience is expected to have a familiarity with the original work in order to make sense of what they see on screen. But since each of our familiarities with these sources are different, we each assimilate the familiar and the adaptation with a different kind of comprehension.

In the case of single-frame films, we also cannot comprehend. There is no one way to comprehend them. It's another example of a kind of film in which the experience of viewing (or making) is more important than an end result or a take-away lesson.

HarryTuttle a dit…

Hi Brian, thanks for sharing your insights.
I agree with you, when the experience of viewing (or making) is more important than the end result. That's why it belongs to conceptual performance Arts, rather than cinema, which focuses on rendering invisible the making (perceptual continuity)) and the viewing (suspension of disbelief).

The "cinematic" way and the "stroboscopic" way are two parallel routes coming from the film projector but going to opposite directions.

Though the fertile ambiguity you talk about is on the "narrative level" of comprehension (between the eye and the brains), while the distracting ambiguity of single-frames is located on the "cognitive level" of comprehension (between the projector and the eye).

HarryTuttle a dit…

Well I defend my point of view, maybe I'm totally wrong.
Artists don't care for taxonomies anyway, they do what they feel, and the theorists do the contextualization. The Avant Garde always breach bounderies and tear down labels. And the audience doesn't care for theory. So whatever it is it always work anyway, and establishes its relationship between the audience and the artwork, on whatever level is concerned.
It's purely a technical consideration to figure out if these film experiences function the same way or if their nature are incompatible...

HarryTuttle a dit…

Adrian Martin at Filmkrant:
"In 1965, American artist George Landow (aka Owen Land) made Film in which there appear edge lettering, sprocket holes, dirt particles, etc. It is an early classic of the 'materialist' movement in avant-garde cinema, picking up from Kurt Kren in Austria and anticipating the even harder-line 'structural-materialists' of the UK. Film, in those days and in those counter-cultural circles, was to be stripped of all its illusion, its fiction, its seduction, its sinister power: we were to be returned, by many ingenious means, to the basic 'apparatus' of the screen, the grain of celluloid, the projected light, the spectator in the darkness. Only from that 'zero degree' could an eyes-wide-open cinematic practice truly be built. (...)
But it also links up to an important moment of the past: visionaries of the '60s and '70s like Kuntzel, Raymond Bellour, and the 'Camera Obscura' team in the US, who found a way to 'see' film anew through the decisive use of photograms or still frames."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Peter Kubelka in an audio interview at Film-makers' Coop (scroll down to bottom of page for the Flash player) :

"I had realized that cinema is not motion. The word movie is a lie. On the screen really nothing moves. The projector (XVth century mechanical device), brings every 24th of second another image in front of the light and projects it on the screen. Then everything closes down. In the dark, two little metal finger take the strip and bring it to the next position. And that is it. It's a rapid projection of slides."

"I called my cinema 'metric cinema', because i introduced a mesure into the visual, which music has been there for thousands of years.
People say my films are 'abstract'. But there is nothing like 'abstract art'. Art is always a tool."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Zach Campbell on Ernie Gehr's Serene Velocity at Elusive Lucidity :

The Body Breaks : "Around 23 minutes in length, Serene Velocity invites a really intense viewer participation. One can stare at--study--the frame almost like it's a rapidly alternating still picture. Or one can enter into the accordion-like, vertiginous horizontal space of the corridor, let oneself feel jolted and transfixed by all the weird and slowly evolving perceptual shifts in this quarter- or semi-flicker film."

To and Fro : ""Cinema is a Greek word that means 'movie.' The illusion of movement is certainly an accustomed adjunct of the film image, but that illusion rests upon the assumption that the rate of change between successive frames may vary only within rather narrow limits. There is nothing in the structural logic of the filmstrip that can justify such an assumption. Therefore we reject it. From now on we will call our art simply: film." (Hollis Frampton)

HarryTuttle a dit…

Cinema without Image :

"Experiments with the extreme limits of what constitutes cinema:
a provocation. A question? An open argument, perhaps.
Actually, a demonstration of the possibilities of paracinema:
a subtracted or contracted cinema, of everything and nothing. [..]
A range of works beyond abstraction, from the filmless to the projectorless, all without images. Zero degree cinema, past and present"


With work by :
Baker, Brand, Conrad, Debord, Eros, Fitzgibbon, Gibson,
Iimura, Jarman, Jacobs, Kosugi, Kubelka, Ono, Paik, Perkins,
Recoder, Ruttmann, Sanborn, Seven, Sharits & Sharits.

HarryTuttle a dit…

"Flashes of Brilliance. A brief history of the flicker film" by Michael Joshua Rowin at Museum of Moving Image (11 June 2009):

"Jonas Mekas told Kubelka that he watched Rainer with his eyes closed as the light rhythms of the film pulsated on and through his eyelids. He deemed Rainer “the only film ever made that can be seen with your eyes closed”"

Yeah right!

HarryTuttle a dit…

Edgar Morin in Le Cinéma ou l'Homme imaginaire. Essai d'anthropologie sociologique. 1956. Ed. de Minuit. p. 197

"Si les objets exhibés sont immobiles, si la caméra est elle-même immobile, il n'y a plus de films mais une succession brutale et spasmodique de cartes postales [..]
La participation du spectateur ne fait plus le lien [..] On Comprend que le statisme, qui désenchante l'univers du cinéma, en rende compte le langage inintelligible, à l'enfant ou à l'archaïque. [..] L'immobilité est l'arrêt de mort de l'intelligibilité. [..] Trop rapide, ou trop lent, le langage du film se détache de la participation affective et devient, dans les deux cas, abstrait. [..] La perte de mouvement est au sens vital la perte de souffle du cinéma."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Christian Metz in A propos de l'impression de réalité au cinéma (Cahiers du cinéma, #166-167, mai-juin 1965); in Essais sur la signification au cinéma (Paris) :

"Une réponse s'impose d'emblée, c'est le mouvement (une des plus grandes différence entre le cinéma et la photo) c'est le mouvement qui donne une forte impression de réalité." [..]
"Au cinéma, l'impression de réalité, c'est aussi la réalité de l'impression, la présence réelle du mouvement." [..]
"Le 'Secret du cinéma', c'est aussi cela : injecter dans l'irréalité de l'image la réalité du mouvement, et réaliser ainsi l'imaginaire jusqu'à un point encore jamais atteint."

plus tard il reviendra sur sa déclaration catégorique (in Langage et Cinéma 1971. p.30) :

"Prétendre que 'le cinéma est l'art du mouvement', ce n'est pas être, quoi qu'on en ait dit, énoncer l'une des composantes de la spécificité profonde du cinéma, puisque c'est énoncer l'une des composantes de la spécificité la plus superficielle et la plus manifeste, et puisque tous les films bougent."

HarryTuttle a dit…

Raymond Bellour (Moving Images. Tate Modern) 23 May 2002 :

"Cinema is a dispositif amongst others (Camera obscura, fantasmagoria, lanterna magica... all the history of XIXth century). Of all possible dispositifs, suddenly emerges this dispositif called cinema, which is nothing more in a way that one dispositif among many others, and which has incredibly succeeded in terms of fixing something [..] which has crystallized in this unique thing linked with the so called 'reproduction of reality'. In the first 15-20 years, images mix movements and sounds are only in cinema, after that all other dispositifs happened (television...). [..] It's difficult to define a dispositif of installation generically. It could be opposed to projection in a cinema or in a museum, as polar opposites. Each installation recreates one's cinema, one dispositif of cinema by itself, which is one reason why I wanted to shift to this idea of 'multiple cinemas' opposed to 'Cinema'. Because all those last years, it has multiplied so deeply, that after being the one that has work on the crossing all the time between cinema and arts, that I have been challenged by the need we have now to understand our history linked to cinema, of cinema as really specific. I don't mean I don't appreciate all the installations (they fascinate me), but we need to conceptually mark the real difference."