Mar 25, 2007

lazy old me.

I've been at home this weekend in Cambridge recovering from the ravages of a collaborative project that leaves me virtually praying for death after every rehearsal. Its been a little like 18 people trying to row a cruise liner through quickly drying cement without first deciding where it is any of them is actually planning on going - a floating calamity not helped by our mentor/benevolent-pseudo-director rearranging the deck chairs every 2 minutes seemingly for his own amusement. If all of this makes little sense its only because talking about said project in anything other than elusively metaphorical terms makes me sick a little bit in my mouth.

Anyway, as part of the above project I began thinking a little about animation or reanimation in cinema and thought I'd share my ideas - mainly because I'm too exhausted/lazy/full of homemade crumble to write anything new. Appologies if its all a little dry and dusty but there's a picture in there to jazz things up at the 3/4 mark...

‘What happens when the still photograph begins to move?’

In answer to his own question Sean Cubitt quotes Maxin Gorky’s response to seeing the Lumiere brother’s Cinematoscope in 1896.
When the lights go out in the room in which Lumiere’s invention is shown, there suddenly appears a large grey picture, “A Street in Paris” – shadows of a bad engraving. As you gaze at it, you see carriages, buildings and people in various poses, all frozen into immobility. All this in grey, and the sky above is also grey – you anticipate nothing new in this all too familiar scene, for you have seen pictures of Paris streets more than once. But suddenly a strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture springs to life.

Cubitt also notes that this response echoes that of La Poste’s review on the morning after the first projection:
Imagine a screen, placed at the end of a room as large as one can wish. This screen is visible to a crowd. On the screen appears a photographic projection. So far, nothing new. But suddenly, the image, lifesize or reduced, is animated and springs to life.
From the beginning then the animation of the cinema is about bringing things (back) to life. If the photograph is an image of death, of inevitable decay (‘What passes away and what survives that passing’ as Eduardo Cadava would have it), then the cinema seems, at first at least, to astonish with its powers of resurrection – taking that dead image and imbuing it with life.

And this is the important thing. That something in cinema seems to have sprung to life. Cinema gives life to images of the past, reanimating them for the present. If Proust was In Search of Lost Time, it is in cinema that that lost time is to be found. As Andrei Tarkovski states:
I think that what a person normally goes to the cinema for is time: for time lost or spent or not yet had. He goes there for living experience; for cinema, like no other art, widens, enhances and concentrates a person’s experience – and not only enhances it but makes it longer, significantly longer.
We live in a world governed by the clock. Cinema and Greenwich Mean Time developed and spread alongside each other, almost hand in hand; hourly time signals were first broadcast from Greenwich in 1924, the year that Louis B. Mayer’s acquisition of Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures created the world’s most powerful film studio. Under the incessant ticking of the clock time moves ceaselessly, ineluctably forward. ‘Nothing permanent gives things any kind of anchor against time.’

In a world of such inevitable, global passage, cinema seemed to offer some possibility of regaining time swept away. In the darkened room of cinema the ticking clock is replaced by the heartbeat of the whirring cinemascope and the audience is lost in the flickering pictures that bring the past back to life, or take you to another world entirely. For a few moments, or a few hours, the incessant movement of time outside of the auditorium is replaced by a rhythm of the director’s own choosing – he is, in Tarkovsky’s phrase, ‘a sculptor in time’.

Cinema is at once an animation and a pause. Its very movement appears to be a suspension of the normal rules of time – a few ‘artificially arrested scenes’ ripped from life’s inevitable passage. When we leave the movie theatre, we must also leave the film, and its temporality that our thoughts had so intimately embraced, to rediscover our own time and our own life. For an instant, we remain suspended between two times.

No director is more aware of this quality in cinema than Ingmar Bergman. He has stated that he made The Seventh Seal to conquer his fear of death. I would argue that all his films are in fact an attempt to conquer death itself, artificially arresting time. In Cries and Whispers clocks tick incessantly – a haunting reminder of rhythm we have come to the cinema to escape. Quickly however, the film constructs its own rhythm, drifting back and forth through time – ending at the beginning with the dead resurrected.

In Persona similarly, Bergman begins with a sound, as the film projector whirs into life – the traditional harbinger of cinema’s arresting animation. And yet, Persona does something else. It reveals cinema’s resurrection for what it is. An image. As the film camera whirrs we can see the pictures as they flicker through it one by one. Bergman’s montage deconstructs cinema’s slight of hand. The cartoon girl who seems set to come to life shudders to a halt again. Film is reduced to images – the spider, the slaughtered sheep, and, most crucially, the crucifixion – and as Sylvianne Agacinksi states ‘the image really is different in nature from the lived experience, even the visual experience, and cannot restore it’.

Despite the illusion of life that so astonished Gorky and the rest of Paris, this is all cinema is – not resurrection at all, but those same old images of death. For me the most striking image in Bergman's montage is the final one. A boy presses his hand up against the blurred image of woman projected behind him.

No matter how close we want to be, no matter how much we long for cinema to bring us life, it is merely an image. We are utterly distanced from it. Bergman uses the same image later, inserted into the narrative of the film. Breaking our relation to the striking female faces that are so famously writ large across the screen – reminding us that any life that cinema seems to offer us, any escape from time, is an illusion.

The film is already complete, it already has an end and thus it already belongs to the past. It is peopled by untouchable phantoms.
Our universe is peopled with faces of the dead as well as the living, to the point that we might wonder whether our descendants will not one day be tempted by a new iconoclasm to escape the armies of phantoms that we will have left them.

No comments: