Processing the Aesthetic of the Frame
Introduction: One of the most significant and exciting interventions in recent film theory and analysis is Daniel Morgan’s book The Lure of the Image: Epistemic Fantasies of the Moving Camera (University of California Press, 2021). Reading it nudged me to dig out this short, unpublished contribution to “Cinapses: Thinking/Film”, an event organised by Bernd Herzogenrath at Goethe University, Frankfurt, on 7 November 2014, in which Raymond Bellour, Julia Vassilieva and Vinzenz Hediger (among other luminaries) also participated. The seminar as a whole was devoted to both elaborating and critiquing some assumptions of the neuroscientific approach to film studies as it circulated at that time.
My primary interest is in film aesthetics; and particularly in an expanded conception of mise en scène – of the film frame, the screen rectangle and all the different things that can be organised there, as well as all the different ways of organising it, especially now in the digital age. (1)
I would like here to focus on one particular, key issue in the annals of film aesthetics: what has been called (by Michael Henry Wilson) “the dialectics of objective and subjective shots”, (2) which is central to many forms of cinema, perhaps most particularly narrative, fiction cinema, in all its forms.
Now, the dialectic of subjective and objective does not just refer a stark clash of two totally different kinds of shots – distant establishing shots (objective) vs characters’ point-of-view shots (subjective). It is also about how these categories or denominations can be confused, can blend or slide into each other, can even change places – how they give rise to games, tricks and experiments all along film history.
But cinema will always need, always depend on the insistence – at precise, necessary moments – of the difference between the two extreme, identifiable poles: subjective and objective. It is the dialectical tension between them that gives so many movies their life.
In recent commercial cinema – such as expensive Hollywood productions – I have noticed that there has been a massive shift to the subjective side of this dialectic. In filmmaking training schools, students are taught that, even when an image is nominally outside a character – when the camera is not literally in the position of their eyes – other factors, especially enhanced sound design, should be “bringing us in” to what a character is feeling, experiencing and sensing. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) has been held up as the great achievement of the mainstream cinema’s move towards total, immersive subjective experience. (3) The film training schools are not terribly interested in studying, as models, Roberto Rossellini, Abbas Kiarostami, Béla Tarr, or even Robert Bresson: there’s too much objectivity there, too much “coldness” (!), as it has been described to me on more than one pedagogical occasion.
Yet Cuarón and his great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki themselves use a different term: elastic shots, long takes in a simulated space that, as the director says, “deliver that objective view, but then transform it into a more subjective experience”. (4) So again we have a dialectic of sorts between subjective and objective – an elastic, sliding, morphing dialectic. Their conception of this dialectic is intriguing because, as Cuarón also makes clear, in outer space (where much of the action is set) there is neither weight nor horizon – and hence no spatial stability, no orientation, no ‘ground’, no imaginable fixed vantage point from which to establish any objective perspective on a scene. We shall see how they resolve this problem for themselves, as filmmakers, in a moment.
But first: In some film studies that is taking its cues from an interest in neuroscience, I think we are also seeing this massive shift to the subjective, and the abandoning of a dialectic – and this development troubles me, precisely because it is avoiding everything fundamental associated with the aesthetics of the frame in cinema, and how we perceive and process the modulations of that frame. An example: several erudite papers by Adriano D’Aloia have proposed that when a camera moves in towards a person, the viewer becomes like an imaginary but hyper-present consciousness who is in the scene itself – thus triggering the same neuro-reactions in the spectator as if he or she were approaching a friend or a stranger in real life. (5)
Some of the work in this area, it seems to me, insists too heavily on such a real-world correspondence between human perception (and human movement) and the work of the camera-eye. Naturally, the film training schools I mentioned love this analytical development, and are eagerly in the process of embracing it. But I believe it is a wrong path, one that gives up on aesthetic complexity – in all its profound plasticity.
Let us pause for a moment on this camera-eye business. Eye of the camera, I of the camera – you know the drill. Cine-phenomenology in full flight. Or, in an only slightly different frame of reference: the male gaze of the camera! But, ascriptions of gender aside, the camera does not and cannot gaze. In human terms, to gaze is a concatenation of many things: will, attraction, concentration. A brain is involved. Cameras do not gaze; they impassively frame, register, record (at least, when turned on or pressed appropriately). They possess neither thought nor desire. The thoughts and desires that films express, and incite in us, are a matter of aesthetics and poetic imagination, not strict cognition.
We can flip this common camera-eye assumption even further. If we so regularly and unthinkingly these days describe even what we humans do when we look at things as a gaze – steely, fixed, unblinking, devouring – it’s because we’ve been highly influenced by the discourse and history of audiovisual technology. ‘I am a camera’, indeed! The human gaze – which flicks all over the place and is an abstraction in perception of an entirely cubistic process – is nothing like the recording/framing function of a camera. Cameras – just to remind you of this rather salient fact – do not have two eyes, and thus do not aggregate perception the way the human being does (this aggregation is precisely what Jean-Luc Godard plays with in his 3D experiments: through disaggregation of the visual fields, naturally – and similarly so in the work of Ken Jacobs, who tracks the pictorial exploration of two-eye vision back to Cézanne).
Gregg Flaxman has even provocatively proposed that “there is no camera” in cinema. (6) However, there is always a frame, and that is a different question, a different level, a different, complex unit that is a matter of aesthetic perception. Hollis Frampton, as you may recall, privileged the picture-theatre frame – or simply the rectangle of projected light – as the basic unit of cinema. (7) My question to neuroscience as a field would be: how do we process the frame, in all its dialectical and elastic modulations, and all the forms and variations it takes in audiovisual history?
So, three examples, three illustrations. Just concentrating on the action and metamorphosis of the frame – on mise en scène in this expanded sense. The first example is from Gravity, a fragment of the opening scene, occurring at approximately 12.45 minutes.
We start with what is, in fact, a pretty classical ‘objective’ frame. It merely adjusts itself in a (sometimes frantic) pan left or right or a tilt up and down, as objects and bodies swing towards it and away from it.
30 seconds later, once Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) comes right up close to the lens, we go into another type of move favoured in contemporary, immersive film production: the camera sticks to the character, as if now attached to her by a rig, an extension of her body: and here we, like her, we lose all spatial co-ordinates.
At 40 seconds, Stone detaches herself and goes flying off into deep space – and into the deep recess of the picture/screen frame. In a conference paper on Gravity, this was cited as an example of a real, subjective, neurological affect for the spectator: when Stone gets further away in our vision, we get sad (this was the basic argument), like we are seeing a friend departing from us. Boo hoo!
But see what happens next: Cuarón cuts – and a cut is a big decision in this touted ‘virtuosic digital long take’ movie. In fact, it is Gravity’s first visible, hence ostentatious, cut after 13 minutes of ‘seamless’ digital stitching. He did not strictly need to cut here. But he decided that he wants to reverse the movement, as well as the perspective: now we will watch Stone come close to the camera, which is stationed, again, at a stable point, with a solid spatial reference in the frame which is no less than Planet Earth itself.
This is a purely poetic decision (a simple but effective poetic decision), one regarding the frame and editing, and the expressive dialectic of objective and subjective. (It’s also a formal decision by the stylistically self-conscious Cuarón: in the overall shape of structure, to mark the ‘birth of cinematic editing’ in its customising of diverse audiovisual languages.) This final frame in my chosen fragment is no longer the magical viewpoint of an imaginary spectator somehow present within the scene. It is not, necessarily, a human viewpoint. And why should it be, for heaven’s sake?
After this fragment, the shot becomes elastic again, the camera tumbling more or less ‘with’ the body – it’s the body that it has a fixed relation to. But the film then performs a slow movement in closer to her face, and eventually it will, as it were, pass through her spacesuit visor, in order to see something like the character’s point of view. Then this, too, will be modulated. And on it goes …
Second example: the opening tracking shots of Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad (1961), five minutes worth of them before human characters definitively appear in the image.
What are we seeing in these famous camera moves? The subjective viewpoint of someone passing through these grand mansion rooms and corridors? At some moments, it seems so. But there are also movements that only a machine (like a camera), not a human body or eye, could perform. The angle, the orientation, the flow, the rhythm, the succession, the organ music score, the montage parade – all are sweeping us into something that is at once human and not human, beyond human. We are bracingly aware of all four edges of the widescreen frame, the full extension of its changing detail – in a way we never are in life, through our eyes. Instead of our eye moving through a space, we could think of a space moving past, or through, us – or, more radically, of an altered frame as a digital-style ‘resizing’, not a depth-progression at all. The voice-over on the soundtrack, too, fading out and in, adds to this hide-and-seek game between the mobile frame and a potential (but only potential, fleeting, instantly evaporating) subjective perspective of fictional characters.
Finally, after a recent Hollywood blockbuster (Gravity), and a canonical masterpiece of art cinema (Marienbad), I want to come back, with new eyes, to a thoroughly classical example of mise en scène: a moment of painful character interaction, performed by Alicia (Ingrid Bergman) and Devlin (Cary Grant), in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). A sad, domestic scene, almost 28 minutes in, when Dev’s hard disenchantment puts an instant chill into the relationship, and into the meal that Alicia has just cooked. “Not a word for that little lovesick lady you left an hour ago?”
It is an intricate, five-minute dance of bodies, of the elasticity of distances between bodies as staged on a set – so, classic mise en scène material. But it is also about the intricate modulation of the frame, through camera movement, lighting and editing: frames within frames (the archway, the window); masks for vision within the frame (the curtain behind which Bergman withdraws); expressive postures that this man and woman take up in relation to each other; the struggle of light and dark, of foreground and background, of interior room and exterior veranda, of sharp and soft focus, of hiding and revealing. Dialectics on every level!
For me (and I know I’m not alone), this Notorious fragment is full of emotion – the aesthetic emotion generated by the careful modulation and metamorphosis of the frame. In the encounter between film studies and neuroscience, I would like to see a new way of understanding this process of triggering and sustaining emotion that does not overlook or short-change the complex, aesthetic mediation of the cinematic frame, and the ways it relates us to the screen.
1. This is the topic of my book Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Narrative to New Media Art (London: Palgrave, 2014). back
2. Michael Henry Wilson, “Brian De Palma”, In Jean-Pierre Coursodon (ed.), American Directors, Volume II (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1983), p. 86. back
3. 2021: Daniel Morgan’s The Lure of the Image assembles several discussions of this film, especially its opening digital sequence-shot (from which my fragment-example also derives). back
5. See Adriano D’Aloia, “The Intangible Ground: A Neurophenomenology of the Film Experience”, NECSUS, (Autumn 2012); and "Upside-Down Cinema: (Dis)simulation of the Body in the Film Experience”, Cinema: Journal of Philosophy of the Moving Image, no. 3 (2012). back
6. I am referring here to Gregg’s intervention at “Cinapses”, subsequently unpublished. The author informs me it will one day be included in a larger work. back
© Adrian Martin 6 November 2014