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 Reading it nudged me to dig out this short, unpublished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
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).
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
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).
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.
© Adrian Martin 6 November 2014