Beyond Bazin discursive theories of the impression of reality

Contemporary film theorists replaced the notion of 'photographic realism' with the concept of the 'impression of reality', of which the work of JeanLouis Baudry (1986), Daniel Dayan (1976), Stephen Heath (1981: 76-112), Colin MacCabe (1986), and Jean-Pierre Oudart (1990) is representative. Moreover, each develops his theory on a different level: Baudry on the level of the apparatus; Oudart, Dayan, and Heath on the level of the filmic text; and MacCabe within the filmic text. Here we shall briefly consider Heath's account of the theory of suture, and MacCabe's theory of realism, for comparison with Bazin.

Suture designates a process whereby the spectator is continually positioned and repositioned in an 'imaginary', as opposed to 'symbolic', relation to the image. (These terms are defined and discussed in Chapter 8.) Positioned in an imaginary relation to the image, the spectator enjoys a sense of mastery and pleasure, since he gains the impression of being an all-perceiving eye (analogous to the child at the mirror phase). The result of this imaginary positioning is that the spectator perceives the space of the image as unified and harmonious. For Heath, this position of imaginary plenitude and spatial unity constitutes the cinema's impression of reality. Realism is not, therefore, based on the image's relation to pro-filmic reality (as it is for Bazin), but on the cinema's ability to conceal from the spectator the symbolic dimension of the image (the image as signifier, as representing lack). Inevitably, the symbolic dimension of the image becomes apparent to the spectator when this illusion of all-seeingness is broken - most notably, when attention is drawn to offscreen space. The spectator's perception of spatial unity and harmony in the image is similarly broken. But a cut to this off-screen space realigns the spectator to an imaginary relation to the image (i.e. sutures the spectator back into the film), and restores to the image the sense of unity and harmony - at least until the symbolic dimension of the image becomes noticable to the spectator once more. According to this theory, realism is nothing more than an effect of the successful positioning of the spectator into an imaginary relation to the image, a position which creates a sense that the film's space and diegesis is unified and harmonious.

In his theory of the realist narrative novel, Colin MacCabe set up a distinction between the discourse of characters (object language) and the discourse of the narrator (metalanguage). MacCabe establishes a hierarchy between object language and metalanguage, for the purpose of the metalanguage is to frame and fix the meaning of the object language. He then transposes this hierarchy to the cinema, and argues that in the classical realist film the discourse of characters is framed by the narrator. In other words, the narrator is privileged over the characters, and fixes the meaning and truth of what the characters do or say. MacCabe ascribes this hierarchy to classical realist texts because, he argues, 'classical realism ... involves the homogenization of different discourses by their relation to one dominant discourse - assured of its domination by the security and transparency of the image' (1986: 183).

7.2. Method

One of the practical consequences of Bazin's stylistic history of film is that we can identify which of the 'holy trinity' of film style a contemporary film alludes to, or quotes. Is the film's style dominated by the techniques of deep focus (with or without the long take), editing (découpage), and/or montage?

The identifying characteristics of deep focus are the following:

• The shot is dominated by multiple planes of action, all in focus, and is usually combined with long takes (shots of long duration) and camera movements; all of these techniques respect the unity of dramatic space and time, and decrease the need for montage or editing (since the-long take, deep-focus shot incorporates editing in its structure).

The identifying characteristics of editing:

• It involves breaking the same space and action into fragments, showing each plane of action separately, and linking them via rules of continuity editing. For Bazin, editing is analytic, dramatic and descriptive, for it analyses and describes the dramatic events in a certain order and closeness but does not, Bazin believes, add meaning to those events, or deform their inner logic, as montage does. In the long take aesthetic, editing is used simply to link shots together; it does not function (as in editing) to analyse a unified space.

The identifying characteristics of montage:

• Like editing, montage involves the juxtaposition of shots, but for a different purpose: 'the creation of a sense or meaning not objectively contained in the images themselves but derived exclusively from their juxtaposition' (Bazin 1967b: 25). Montage does not attempt to create a unified space and time, but instead juxtaposes heterogeneous objects and events for the purpose of creating abstract, symbolic, or metaphorical meanings. Sergei Eisenstein used the term 'association' to name the symbolic meanings created by montage sequences. For Eisenstein, from the montage of two or more shots is created a chain of associations that do not exist in any of the individual shots. As an example, we shall look at a celebrated scene in Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). After the Cossacks have massacred the people on the Odessa steps (the famous sequence) the response is that the Potemkin battleship fires on the headquarters of the military. This is followed by three shots of stone lions at the Alupka palace in the Crimea. The first shot depicts a lion lying down, the second depicts a lion seated, and the third a lion standing. The three shots of the lions create a montage unit. In terms of the content of each separate image, we simply have: a stone lion sleeping, a stone lion sitting, and a stone lion standing. Three concrete objects juxtaposed together. But what does it mean, and what effect does it create? First, due to the framing of the three separate lions, Eisenstein creates the impression that the same stone lion has moved from its sleeping position and has stood up. In terms of these three shots by themselves, Eisenstein has already created an abstract meaning that does not exist in each individual shot. The shots of the stone lions (the raw material), when taken in isolation, merely offer a representation of each lion. No shot shows a stone lion going through the motions of standing up - such an action is impossible anyway. But the juxtaposition of the shots creates the impression or the illusion of a stone lion being woken up. Eisenstein creates this impression purely and exclusively through the juxtaposition of the shots - montage. Above and beyond this illusionistic effect, this montage sequence can also mean - when viewed in the context of the previous scenes - that the Russian people (symbolized by the lion) are rising up against their oppressors.

Finally, in terms of discursive theories of the 'impression of reality', suture is a general process that, its adherents argued, operates on all levels of a film, although Oudart and Dayan in particular over-privileged the shot-reverse shot pattern of editing. In terms of MacCabe's hierarchy between object language and metalanguage, and the dominance of the latter (i.e. the discourse of the narrator) over the former (the discourse of characters), the narrator manifests his presence in various ways - by means of the camera, editing, or mise en scène. Sometimes the narrator is represented in the film and helps to fix the meaning of the characters' actions (as we shall see below, in a brief analysis of The Truman Show).

7.3. Analysis

Brian Henderson has noted that 'it has become a commonplace that modern film-makers fall between Eisenstein and Bazin, that they combine editing techniques and long takes in various, distinctive styles' (1976: 426). Henderson argues that in One Plus One, Godard 'erects a montage construction upon a series of long takes - in the aggregate a montage is created, though all of its ingredients, all the local areas of the film, are long takes' (p. 427).

But many other (and more popular) directors also combine the techniques of the long take and deep focus, editing, and montage. We shall analyse scenes from Spielberg's Jurassic Park and The Lost World in a moment. Bazin analyses an example from the film Where No Vultures Fly (Harry Watt, 1951) in a long footnote to his essay 'The Virtues and Limitations of Montage' (1967c). The primary aim of the example is to demonstrate the authenticity and realism 'inherent' in a shot that combines several planes of action. The film is about a young family who set up a game reserve in South Africa. In the scene discussed by Bazin, the young son of the family picks up a lion cub in the bush and takes it home. The lioness detects the child's scent and begins to follow him. The lioness and the child with the cub are filmed separately, and the shots are simply edited together. But as the child reaches home, the director abandons his montage of separate shots that has kept the protagonists apart and gives us instead parents, child, and lioness all in the same full shot. 'This single frame', writes Bazin, in 'which trickery is out of the question gives immediate and retroactive authenticity to the very banal montage that preceded it' (p. 49). In this particular example, the realism of the shot for Bazin is a matter of spatial unity, in which the child and the lioness clearly occupy the same diegetic space (more accurately, the shot conforms to dramatic realism). Indeed, Bazin concludes his footnote by writing: 'Realism here resides in the homogeneity of space' (p. 50). More specifically, the realism resides in the fact that this homogeneity of space is created optically.

Spielberg does not conform to one style of film-making identified above (montage, editing, or deep-focus), although he prefers editing. Nonetheless, he frequently constructs scenes using both editing and long takes, and occasionally deep-focus shots as well. The opening scene of Jurassic Park is typical. It begins with editing: the first six shots, which last a total of 33 seconds, are systematically organized into a shot-reverse shot pattern. Park wardens look off-screen and are intercut with shots of a crate containing a raptor. Shot 7 is the scene's establishing shot, and lasts 27 seconds. It contains extensive camera movement, a change in camera height, and intermittent moments of deep focus, particularly at the beginning, with lights in the extreme foreground, park wardens in the foreground and middle ground, and the crate in the background. Shot 9 is also a deep-focus shot with camera movement, although it lasts only six seconds. It consists of park wardens in the foreground and background, and the head game warden, Muldoon, in the middle ground. (In addition to the deep focus, the shot looks all the more 'Wellesian' because of the low camera angle.) The camera then tracks right to reveal the crate. In shots 1-6 the wardens and the crate are set in opposition via editing. In shot 7 they are united via deep focus in the same shot, and in shot 9 they are linked consecutively in the same shot via camera movement.

Another scene constructed using a mixture of editing, long takes, and deep focus takes place in Grant and Sattler's caravan during their dig in Montana. Hammond has flown in via helicopter and enters the caravan. He is followed by Grant, and then by Sattler. When Sattler enters (marking the beginning of the 50-second long take), Hammond is in the background (and there is additional space behind him), Grant is in the middle ground, and Sattler is in the foreground. Grant changes places with Sattler, as he introduces her to Hammond. All three characters then occupy the middle ground, before the shot ends and a conventional shot-reverse shot pattern begins.

The scene in the lab, where the tour group witnesses the birth of a raptor, also mixes aesthetic styles. The scene begins with a 44-second establishing shot, consisting of extensive camera movement, including the camera tracking back, which continually introduces new foreground space that creates a deep focus shot. This shot begins with a computer image of DNA and ends on the dinosaur eggs (the end result of that DNA). When the camera stops moving, the raptor eggs occupy the foreground, while six characters are carefully composed in the middle ground and background. The remainder of the scene is constructed using continuity editing, and consists of 22 additional shots lasting a total of 167 seconds. However, two of these shots qualify as moderately deep-focus: low-angle shots with five members of the group crouched around the hatching raptor egg. A robotic arm occupies the immediate foreground, the five characters occupy the foreground and middle ground, and background detail and movement is clearly visible.

One final sequence from Jurassic Park stands out in terms of its visual style: the scene towards the end of the film where Tim and Lex are chased by two raptors in the kitchen. In the opening establishing shot, the camera is placed at the back of the large kitchen, facing the entrance. Tim and Lex enter the kitchen (they are in very long shot, due to their distance from the camera) and run towards the camera, ending up in medium shot in the foreground with the door in the background (although it is not sharply in focus). The next action consists of one of the raptors looking through the window of the kitchen door. But rather than exploit the depth of this opening shot - or, more accurately, its unity of space - Spielberg decides to cut to a close-up of the window, and we see a raptor peering into the kitchen. There follows four shots in shot-reverse shot pattern, before a return to the deep establishing shot. After the two raptors open the kitchen door, the camera tracks from them in the background to the children hiding in the foreground. The raptors and children appear in the same shot, although not together; they are shown consecutively via camera movement, which maintains spatial unity but does not present the different planes simultaneously. Simultaneity is achieved in the shot in which one of the raptors sniffs the air. Initially, the raptor is shown on its own, in the background. But as the shot progresses, the camera tracks left to show the children hiding in the foreground, while maintaining the raptor in the background. Although the shot has considerable depth, and unites foreground and background, the focus shifts as the camera tracks left. As this sequence progresses, the simultaneous presentation of the foreground and background (occupied by children and raptors respectively) in the same shot increases, which increases the tension, suspense, and - most crucially for us here - dramatic realism of the sequence. This sequence has been skilfully choreographed to maximize the play between the foreground and background.

The Lost World contains similar scenes that mix styles. Shot 2 of the opening scene is a 52-second long take with extensive camera movement and moderate use of deep focus. The shot begins with the camera panning down from the sky to a beach. It then tracks right and stops when a yacht comes into view in the background. A crewman enters screen right in the middle ground carrying a bottle of champagne, and the camera tracks left to follow his movement. Almost immediately another crewman carrying a bottle of champagne enters screen right, this time in close-up in the foreground (only the bottle and his hands are visible). Therefore, within a few seconds several planes have been introduced, although they are not shown simultaneously, and are filmed using selective focus rather than deep focus. The camera continues to track left, covering the ground it tracked at the beginning of the shot, but this time it reveals a family on the beach. The remainder of the scene is constructed using editing.

A more obvious use of deep focus, combined with long take, occurs when Ian Malcolm visits Hammond at his home. While waiting in the hallway talking to Tim and Lex, Hammond's nephew, Peter Ludlow, enters. As he signs documents in the foreground, Malcolm, Tim, and Lex are shown in the background (and there is considerable space behind them as well). Malcolm then walks into the middle ground to talk to Ludlow, and in the background the children prepare to leave. As well as consisting of genuine deep focus and long take (of 73 seconds), the shot is positioned at a low angle, which reveals the ceiling.

In the scene in the large warehouse where Malcolm's team prepares its hasty departure, Spielberg employs another long take with carefully orchestrated planes of action. Shot 2 of this scene begins by tracking left, revealing the equipment in the extreme foreground and background, with Malcolm and Eddie in the middle ground, walking towards the entrance of the warehouse. When Ian and Eddie reach the entrance, they (and the camera) stop. Through the entrance we see Nick van Owen's van, in very long shot, reversing up into the warehouse. When he gets out of the van, he is in long shot, and the camera begins to track right again, to focus on the back doors of his van. He opens them, takes out two cases, walks towards the camera, and places them off screen on a table just below the camera. Van Owen is now in medium close up. The entire shot lasts 35 seconds.

One final shot worth mentioning appears when Ludlow's team arrives on Isla Soma. Malcolm's team is positioned high on a ledge overlooking the wide open plane below, where Ludlow's team are catching dinosaurs. A 9 second deep focus tracking shot shows Malcolm's team in the foreground and Ludlow's in the extreme background.

Before moving on to the digital image, we shall briefly use Colin MacCabe's theory of realism to analyse contemporary films. This theory is particularly useful for highlighting the way the narrator in The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1997) is depicted in the film's diegesis, and how he fixes the meaning of the characters. The actions and speech of Truman (as well as other characters), is framed and given meaning by the head of the TV channel, Christof. The spectator is placed in an omniscient position in relation to Truman (i.e. we occupy the place of the metalanguage, the framing discourse). We know that Truman's life is only a TV soap opera, but Truman doesn't know this. His knowledge is limited to what happens within the TV show, whereas the spectator is placed with Christof, who frames Truman's actions and speech. Christof also frames the actions and speech of other characters, who of course are also in on the illusion. At one point we see Truman's closest friend talkng to him, and we then cut to Christof feeding the lines to Truman's friend. Here the hierarchy between object language and metalanguage is clearly apparent.

But in other recent films we are placed with 'Truman', as it were. For example, in David Fincher's The Game (1997) we are always positioned within the game with Nicholas van Orton (played by Michael Douglas). He and the spectator do not know where the boundaries of the game end. In The Truman Show, by contrast, the spectator clearly experiences this boundary, and the film is about Truman becoming aware of this boundary, of quite literally coming up against the boundary of his world.

Lost Highway, analysed in Chapter 6, resembles The Game to the extent that the spectator is never privileged by a narrator or a metalanguage into knowing what is happening. But Lost Highway is more extreme because it has no stable character or narrator to centre the action and events (the film has characters and narrators, but they have a fluctuating identity). In MacCabe's now dated terminology, Lost Highway conforms to his definition of the subversive film, in which the narrative does not contain a unified metalanguage: '[in the subversive film] the narrative is not privileged in any way with regard to characters' discourses. The narrative does not produce for us the knowledge with which we can judge the truth of those discourses' (MacCabe 1985: 48).

Despite - or perhaps because of - his commitment to physical portrayal,

Bazin's theory of realism in the cinema is appropriate to our analysis of realism in the digital image. We shall therefore pursue his theory in the context of digital images.

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