home
reviews
essays
search

Essays

Film and Video,
Cain and Abel

 


I once read a terrific article by David Thomson about, of all things, the mustache in film (Film Comment, May-June 1983). Thomson looked at a wide range of movies from different periods and genres, but concentrated only on the mustache worn by the male hero. It was a little like the Surrealist cinematic game of irrational enlargement, where you choose to look at only one tiny thing in a film but, by blowing it up, you try to discover all in it the secrets of the medium, and of your culture. Thomson’s experiment worked on me, of course: for weeks after reading his essay, all I could see in whatever movie I watched was the damn mustache.

 

Video in film – the appearance within a movie plot of video cameras, video playback, video editing – is a similar kind of topic. Start looking, and you see it absolutely everywhere, even in the least likely films. In the nondescript thriller Invasion of Privacy (1992), a cheap Cape Fear (1991) rip-off, a serial killer pauses before approaching his bound and gagged victim – in order to show her a beautifully shot and edited home video of his perverse obsessions. In Fred Walton’s ingenious sci-fi telemovie Homewrecker (1992), a computer that speaks with a woman’s voice runs everything within a domestic space and has a HAL-like eye – a cold, video eye. In virtually every teen movie or family comedy I see these days, happy smiley people are sending each other home video letters, in which they narrate the story of their lives.

 

The place of video in film has changed a lot in the past ten years. A decade ago, at the time of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), there was the classic Gothic scenario in which video cameras were still menacing tools of a sinister State apparatus – surveying our every move as citizens from a secret location, or beaming mind control signals into our heads. More recently, Atom Egoyan has continued the pessimistic analysis of video in works such as Family Viewing (1987), in which everyone is an alienated narcissist before camera and screen, turning their life into a bad simulation of tacky TV soap opera.

 

More on the upbeat, the late ‘80s gave us a cycle of films that plugged into what I would call the Public TV fantasy: the dream that video pirates or guerrillas could hack into the TV airwaves and broadcast fleeting but devastating subversive messages, as happens in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film The Running Man or Dennis Hopper’s vehicle The American Way (aka Riders of the Storm, 1986).

 

In all these story types, whether optimistic or pessimistic, video is still fundamentally defined as television – something remote from us, and from our daily lives. And movies have often opposed themselves, in a rather romantic way, to television – as a hot, sexy, intimate, emotional medium opposed to a cold, empty one. Perhaps this is what Jean-Luc Godard meant when he had his alter ego (Jacques Dutronc as Paul) write on a blackboard in Sauve qui peut (1980) the dramatic formulation film and video, Cain and Abel.

 

But now, in the ‘90s, with the widespread use of domestic video camera and VCRs, it seems we have entered a new, user-friendly era, where the presence of video in film is not so sinister or remote. Zits (aka Sky Trap, Arthur Sherman, 1988), an obscure little American film for young teenagers, captures this transition well. It starts as a mocked-up videotape, seen through the camera’s viewfinder. We see, in turn, each of the main character’s best friends introducing themselves to this friendly camera-eye. At a certain point, however, each interviewee asks the classic question: “What's this for? Is it for a TV show?” For them, the presence of video still signals the immanent presence of TV Land. But then, we see the hero of this story, invisible up until now, march up the aisle in an empty school hall, set his camera up on automatic, and step in front of it himself to tell his own story. “What's this video for?”, he asks. “It's for me!” And then the frame freezes on his grin and a pop theme tune gaily strikes up.

 

Thus begins the triumphant era of private, domestic video – at least as seen and represented in movies. Video ceases to be an emblem of the State, and instead becomes an instrument of the People.

 

At least three distinct moments in the People’s relation to video are emphasised in movies of the later ‘80s and early ‘90s. First is the live or direct moment of real-time filming. Second is the process of home editing, which is often achieved with unbelievably professional post-production results – the sign of a bit of classic movie manipulation. Third is the moment of customised viewing, of controlled playback, with the freeze button, slow advance, and backward or forward motion. There are many telling scenes of this last-named phenomenon in contemporary popular culture, from the black humour of the psychopaths in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) watching their gruesome murders on video replay, to Bart on The Simpsons (1989- ) pinpointing with his remote control the precise moment that Lisa broke her would-be boyfriend’s heart in public.

 

That example from The Simpsons indicates one of the complexities involved in scenes of video in films. Video is so well and so often exploited as a dramatic or comic device because it can be seen to exist in a hazy zone between the purely private and the totally public. The private or privatised end of this continuum is captured best in movies in scenes of people watching video alone – usually some form of pornography. The public end of the spectrum is mass-broadcast TV Land. As programs of the Funniest, Naughtiest Home Bloopers-type reveal, private video moments are not entirely immune from occasional mass scrutiny. But movies tend to emphasise and explore another kind of situation between the public and the private: the moment that video enters the small-scale, immediate social setting of the family or the community.

 

My idea is that when video appears in a film, it is usually as some kind of eruption – a moment of crisis or revelation where a video not intended or not expected in a particular social setting suddenly materialises, wreaking dire consequences. In Joel Schumacher’s romantic comedy Cousins (1989), a teenager who describes himself modestly as a “multi-media performance artist” presents a tape of home-video moments to a vast, merry family gathering – leaving them to discover, as they watch it, that he has intercut shots of them all with scenes of starvation in the Third World and other random atrocities. It’s the guerilla video fantasy again – except this time in the context of an affluent, suburban lounge room, not the public airwaves.

 

The same frisson of the private suddenly becoming public occurs in Paul Bartel’s underrated satire Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills (1989), where a teenager in a similar family reunion setting threatens his aunt with another lounge room screening of her star turn in a porno video – one that the kid has inadvertently stumbled onto during his privatised bedroom pastimes.

 

Then, in a much darker vein, there are films in which a videotape is like a message from the dead, or from the dark side, completely destabilising the facade of normality. This is the case for the suicide video left behind by a sad intellectual in Laura Mulvey’s & Peter Wollen’s Crystal Gazing (1982), or the tape of a murder that a boy casually shows his mother in Michael Haneke’s Benny's Video (1992).

 

One of the most striking things about films in which video serves as a highly dramatic or comic turning point: what is captured and revealed on tape seems to tremble as a piece of pure, unadulterated reality. This has happened before in cinema history, as films have successively defined (or remediated) themselves against, and in relation to, other media: still photography, audiotape, Super-8 and TV. Think of the stills that expose murder or madness in Blow-Up (1966) and Repulsion (1965), the grainy, black-and-white, 16-millimetre footage that shows the truth at the end of the Australian political thriller Ground Zero (1987), the audiotape that reveals a hideous crime in The Conversation (1974).

 

So now it is the duty of video to hold and convey this sacred truth that is often confrontingly literal, obscene, sometimes pornographic – the Real in a Lacanian sense, or at least the representation thereof (since the Real is, strictly speaking, unrepresentable!). When a bunch of unsuspecting innocents is possessed by ancient spirits in John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness (1987), it is in noisy, murky, scary snippets of video that glimpses of the terrible past are communicated to them.

 

Naturally, not everything shot on video these days – as any technician will tell you – is doomed to be noisy, murky and scary. Increasingly, in the technology of how mainstream films are made, there is a strong presence of electronic video processes. But these processes tend to be seamless and invisible, woven into the fiction in the classic Hollywood style.

 

What I’m referring to in this essay, however, is the way that filmmakers deliberately exaggerate a certain video effect within a film (just as Roland Barthes distinguished reality effects from realism itself) – enhancing and overplaying the shaky camera, wandering focus, bad lighting, shallow space, raw sound recording, a general decentring of the action, and a certain dragged-out, heavy sense of time passing. The video effect resembles nothing so much as Andy Warhol’s experimental films of the ‘60s.

 

Indeed, when video appears in a film, it sometimes not only erupts into the plot, and into the lives of the characters, it also seems to take over the film itself, invading the screen and filling it up with its coarse, confronting texture – as in Belinda Chayko’s Australian short Swimming (1990) or, at the moment of truth, of video-vérité, in Bob Roberts (1992).

 

In a brilliant article discussing the role that other media play within film (“The Film Stilled”, Camera Obscura no. 24, September 1990), Raymond Bellour suggested that these singular moments of eruption or invasion can point in two quite contrary directions. On the one hand, there are moments of video in film that point backward, regressively, to a lost, even archaic past. Here, video becomes a sad, deathly emblem of nostalgia in the lives of people who are finding it hard to get themselves together. This occurs in Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993), where the relentless camera movement into the family video of William Foster (Michael Douglas) in the final shot expresses the complete disintegration of his identity.

 

But, in a completely different spirit, video moments can point forward to Utopian, transcendent, even mystical states and experiences. Bellour gives this trend in cinema the curious name of angelism – and what’s most curious about it is that he coined the word before seeing Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) where, in the final vision, video texture fills the screen, a child’s video camera discovering an angel (Jimmy Somerville!) singing and hovering in the sky.

 

If, in Orlando, video invades film, it is no longer a brutal invasion, but a gentle, reciprocal relation. Bellour suggests that the overcoming of the feud between film and video as Cain and Abel will happen when all the media are mixed freely, creating novel and hybrid forms – the between-images, as he calls them. We already see this in passages of films by Wim Wenders or Chris Marker, in which film images are lovingly revised and reworked through video technology.

 

Or take the extraordinary experimental film Parallel Space: Inter-View (1992). In this Austrian short by Peter Tscherkassky, images from film, video and computer flicker together to evoke a mysterious but sublime mental state: the pulsations of a living memory. Not the cold, robotic, sinister video memory that brainy machines in SF movies tend to display, but something far warmer and more poetic.

 

This heralds a coming era not of video in film, but video and film – not only a user-friendly pastime but, more profoundly, a new form of audiovisual art.

 

© Adrian Martin May/June 1993


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search