Perception

The differences between the aesthetics and technologies of analogue and digital filmmaking have made me think more and more about how almost all cinema is a metaphor for subjective perceptions of reality.

Theorist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard writes about simulation being distinct from representation:

This would be the successive phases of the image: it is the reflection of a basic reality. It masks and perverts a basic reality. It masks the absence of a basic reality. It bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (Baudrillard, 1993)

The definition of simulacrum is:

simulacrum [ˌsɪmjʊˈleɪkrəm]

n pl -cra [-krə] Archaic

  1. any image or representation of something
  2. a slight, unreal, or vague semblance of something; superficial likeness

Which is a perfect description of film.

"Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari" D 1919/20 R.: Robert Wiene Conrad Veidt

“Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”
D 1919/20
R.: Robert Wiene
Conrad Veidt


Reading about the aura of the original in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (Benjamin, 1936) I wondered, does film has an aura? The physical medium of film itself does not seem to have an aura, it isn’t displayed and looked at as an artefact in itself (not by most people at least). But when it’s projected and viewed, it creates an artefact in the mind of the viewer, and that artefact has its own aura, one which is individual and unique to each viewer.

The uniquieness of this aura reminds me of differences in perception explored in 11’09”01 – September 11 (Makhmalbaf et al., 2002), in particular in Claude Lelouch’s French entry.

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In The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age (Cherchi Usai, 2001) digital cinema is described as “an infinite fragmentation of an endless number of events. Attempts to assess what is worth seeing are futile.” (Cherchi Usai, 2001) And I think this is true of everything we see, in cinema or real life. So much information is presented to our eyes, that we can’t possibly process and understand it all. So our brains, consciously or not, filter it and present us with a version of reality. That version may come close to the actual reality, but it’s still an interpretation or a simulation, and is never the same for two different people.

Our understanding is totally subjective, because everything we see is viewed through the context of who we are. It can be dangerous to forget this and assume that all the images presented to us are exact replications of reality. This seems to be one of Cherchi Usai’s fears. He writes that spectators can mistake a transient reproduction for exact repetition and cinema for reality:

Nature and social life are perceived by cinema as a sequence of events that can be remembered. Moving images produced outside the world of fiction give identity to the viewing experience as fragments of empirical evidence, but they can prove nothing unless there is some explanation of what they are. Be it ever so eloquent, the moving image is like a witness who is unable to describe an event without an intermediary. The ability to transform it into evidence, true or false [XL], is inherently linked to a decision to preserve, alter or suppress the memory of the circumstances under which the image was produced. The loss of the moving image is the outcome of an ideology expressed by the very object that made it possible. (Cherchi Usai, 2001) 

In some ways I agree with his point. Analogue film is more obvious in it’s fallacies, but the higher definition of digital can lull the audience into a false sense of reality.

It also makes me wonder whether by trying (digitally) to recreate reality as accurately as possible, we are losing sight of the subjectivity of our experience of reality. When we see the cracks in film, our imagination colours them in. But if we unquestioningly accept digital cinema as reality, will we lose the ability to see the cracks in our own perceptions?

fightclub

One of Cherchi Usai’s comments reminded me of  Tacita Dean’s The Green Ray (Dean, 2001):

Three motivations are certain: the pleasure of repeating an experience of pleasure [XLIV]. A desire to obtain a fuller perception of what has already been seen. A change of opinion. Another catalyst -realising that one has failed to see Or was noticing the wrong things the first time -may sometimes appear after a further viewing has taken place for spectators endowed with the faculty of introspection. (Cherchi Usai, 2001) 

Dean’s film makes us question our perception of reality, if we don’t see the green ray on the digital projection, does that mean that it’s doesn’t exist? We can’t trust what we see on the screen, film has the potential to reveal what we miss, but also hide what we see.

References

Baudrillard, J., (1993) The Evil Demon of Images and the Precession of Simulacra in Thomas Docherty (Ed.), Postmodernism: A Reader. New York: Columbia University Press

Benjamin, W., (1936) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, London: Penguin

Cherchi Usai, P., (2001) The Death of Cinema: History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age, London: British Film Institute

Dean, T., (2001) The Green Ray, film, 16mm

Fincher, D., (1999) Fight Club, Fox 2000 Pictures

Lynch, D., (2001) Mulholland Drive, Les Films Alain Sarde

Makhmalbaf, S. et al. (2002) 11’09”01 – September 11, StudioCanal

Wiene, R., (1920), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Decla-Bioscop AG

Simulacrum, TheFreeDictionary, Available from: http://www.thefreedictionary.com/simulacrum [Accessed on 28 September 2015]

veronika fee, (2012) green ray by tacita dean, Vimeo, Available from: https://vimeo.com/38026163 [Accessed on 30 September 2015]

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