A Lyric Space:
From Cinema to Media Art


A thing was being said here which did not have, could not have its equivalent in nature.

– Roger Munier, 1962


Anyone who gets a chance to view the key props from some beloved movie – whether in a museum, gallery, auction or private collection – knows the horrifying deflation that lies in store: in the harsh light of day, that famous astronaut suit, ruby slipper or handgun is just never a fraction as impressive behind glass as it was on screen. It lacks the careful lighting, the well-chosen camera filters, the glowing film stock and (perhaps above all) the magnified scale it once enjoyed when projected: in short, it lacks cinema.


This is not simply a matter of wrenching something out of its original audiovisual context and hence depriving it of its initial narrative or symbolic function. A worse, far more depressing, anti-magical and de-auratic process is going on here, as the wonderful fetish object is returned to its banal reality.  The threads of our imaginary investments, our unconscious projections, are being untied here and reduced to dust. Nothing, no possible refilming, will ever bring that fallen object back to life now.


Nowhere is this exaggerating, magnifying tendency of the screen-fiend’s mind more apparent than in the case of camera movements. We all tend to remember them as more grand, more expansive, more fluid and (quite literally) more extensive than they actually are. A friend, intoxicated by his fiftieth viewing of the Nicholas Ray classic Western Johnny Guitar (1954), described a scene in which the camera fantastically “swooped and whirled” while the ex-lovers (Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden) danced between the poles of attraction and repulsion; in truth, there is only one small, short, modest movement across the entire passage of dialogue he quoted to me by heart. Where did the imagined crane (to lift the camera high into the air) and all that other wondrous technological paraphernalia go?


In truth, as with the baleful exhibition of props, behind-the-scenes photographic documentation of how some great movie shot was achieved is invariably disconcerting. That moving image, so exquisitely tense and prolonged – when the camera discovered a hidden object in close-up, or prowled down a passageway, or made the all-important connection between one person being and another person looking – that really comes down to his miserable little bit of tracking rail on the floor? Indeed, in the real world of filmmaking, nothing is more onerous to a crew than the ritual of ‘laying the tracks’: such shots are often regarded, even (or especially) by those in the business, as a director’s show-off stunt, to be kept to a minimum and – especially these days – replaced wherever possible by a less fussy hand-held manoeuvre, as is de rigueur in television production.


But what magic at the heart of cinema – indeed, every form of audiovision, whether big or small screen – in these technically tiny movements! And we are talking about the simplest movements here, not the grandest or most pyrotechnical: not a sweeping helicopter shot over a vast landscape, but a short creep down a corridor towards a door or an object on a table, a push-in to a stilled human face, a humble lateral-follow-shot as a body heads off down a street. The eminent theorist Dudley Andrew, in his recent manifesto What Cinema Is!, evokes cinema as a “visual search” in which we are “enticed through a passage toward a view of what may be ultimately unviewable”.


From the endless shots down the depopulated corridors of a mysterious mansion in Alain ResnaisLast Year In Marienbad (1961), through to similar visual searches in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1998) or Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000), Andrew revels in the movement of the camera which “searches for marks, then for traces, of feeling”: “Passing like a voyeur amidst staircases, half-open doorways, and alluring corridors, the camera responds to hints and whispers, moving ever inward, framing spaces that might be filled with embraces …” The least ostentatious camera movement imaginable can still resonate with this thrill of search, discovery and revelation.


All movement in cinema is a journey, a passage from one point to another. Journey, assuredly, is an overused and much-abused word in the culture of contemporary film, television and new media – taking on its full humanistic and mythological connotations of the path of life, the growth to maturity and awareness, the grand adventure of suffering and redemption … Again and again, manuals for aspiring screenwriters and directors lay out the template of the mythic story that must be told, it seems, for maximum box-office gain: the everyday world turned upside down, the theft of some precious item by a nefarious villain who threatens the status quo, the eternal battle of wills between the forces of good and evil, the moment of despair, the rise to ultimate victory – and the restoration of order.


In such grand Hollywood-style fiction (Hollywood-style no matter what country it is made in), the journey of storytelling is always associated with getting out of home – as far and as fast as possible. Home is where everyone comes to rest at the end, once its values have been bolstered and protected in some other melodramatic arena of combat (war field, outer space, jungle). But – at least in a certain mainstream tradition – it’s no place for a story. David Byrne pondered this paradox in the Talking Heads song This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody): “I come home … Guess that this must be the place”. All heroes in the Homeric tradition must feel this moment of estrangement in the last moments of the home-leg of their journey, whether returning to the gate of the City or trundling up their suburban driveway, like in a John Cassavetes film such as Husbands (1970): is this the same place I left, do I even remember it now?


Thus the extraordinary obsession within commercial cinema for expeditions, exotic landscapes, or ‘scenery’ (as it is sometimes called) as a backdrop for adventure. It has fallen to an entire trajectory of contemporary cinema – from the neo-realists of Italy in the 1940s and ‘50s to the minimalists of Taiwan and Iran today – to find the decisive dramas of movement and journey within confined spaces, domestic or otherwise: a child’s search for the key that opens the front door of the house in Ebrahim Forouzesh’s The Key (1987), the solitude of a prisoner slowly chipping his way out of his cell in Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) …


What is the difference between the arts of journeying in cinema (defined in its widest sense) and the newer realms of video or digital media art? In narrative cinema, movement is frequently tied to the point-of-view of a fictional character, whether directly (through subjective shots) or more associatively, through the marrying of the film’s rhythm to the hero’s rhythm (as in the classic film in every adventure genre by Raoul Walsh). Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, Brian De Palma, Dario Argento, Michael Powell, George Miller: so many masters of this complex, popular form that takes the essential elements of cinema (movement, colour, sensation, sound) and moulds them to the patterns of a story and the trajectories of imaginary characters. But all these elements can also drift free and work of their own accord, autonomously of the dictates of character, story and theme.


In one sense, video and new media art today take us into that space of the ‘artefact exhibition’ or the on-set behind-the-scenes photo with which I began: they demystify, pointing up the technological apparatus involved; and they de-romanticise, clawing out or severely reducing the character surrogates and plot intrigues. Often we are left with the pure movement of a camera, or a viewfinder, or a roving computer cursor, taking us into landscapes that are natural or artificial or an indiscernible mixture of the two … After all, we acquaint ourselves with so many real or fictional places today through the digital simulations served up as mobile environments in video games, like the abandoned Japanese island of Okishima in the Battle Royale franchise.


But there is also a welcome re-enchantment going on today, between the images and us, the viewers – without the often cumbersome intermediary of narrative elaboration (or even, sometimes, a pesky artist). Indeed, video and new media art return us to that primal, formal core of cinema, that “visual search” (also often an aural search) which is a thing in itself, a pure journey. Often, indeed, we partake in what the veteran critic Shigehiko Hasumi calls the “archaeological rapture of film”, by which he means a return (intended or otherwise) to the earliest days of cinema, when passing landscapes were viewed through train windows, or a house was approached by a camera mounted on a horse-drawn cart …


At this very core of cinema, the journeying eye is impersonal, mechanical, a ‘bionic eye’. Early theorists of the moving-image medium, such as Jean Epstein and Dziga Vertov, celebrated what they called the ‘intelligence of a machine’: this automatic eye could see things, notice things, record things that the human eye could not. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the zoom lens became the widespread bearer of this machinic gaze. It was a revolutionary stance: the camera was not the extension of human capabilities of vision – not a ‘metaphor of vision’ as the Abstract Expressionist filmmaker Stan Brakhage described it – but something radically other, something which offered up the world differently, as if from an alien perspective.  Video games, or Second Life on the Internet, can give us the thrill of just such a spectral journey.


Current work in digital video often suggests to us just this kind of perspective. The feeling of it was captured well almost fifty years ago by the phenomenologist Roger Munier, at the precise moment that he attempted to evoke the strange, unfamiliar wonder of camera movement on screen:


The graph of movement reveals time in its essence, as pure element. Here, space allows itself to be looked at from all sides. A lyric space, a space, as it were, freed of the world of objects, a space which bounds, recoils, stands erect, expands, is compressed. A space in which, as for filmic time, all places throng and merge. In this new graphology, space and time are revealed one by means of the other.


It was in this context that Munier came to the conclusion – in truth, a little unsettling to a nature-lover like himself – that a “thing was being said here” in the cinematographic medium “which did not have, could not have its equivalent in nature”. The world had not been captured or rendered or even ‘painted’ via the resources of photographic composition, lens and film stock; in his view, it had suddenly been doubled in a ghostly fashion and, what’s worse, set apart from the world of living people as much as from the ‘world of objects’.  This images of nature no longer needed ‘us’ – at least in a philosophical sense – in order to be able to exist and function. They had created, long before the Internet, their own Second Life …


The relationship between the camera and nature has always been a fraught, haunted one. The camera (still or moving) has always been accused of reducing the fullness of the natural world to a succession of flat, picturesque views, of mere ‘scenery’. The cult of tourism has led to image-snobbery in all quarters, even from Prince in his immortal song Sexuality: “We live in a world overrun by tourists … What? No flash again?”


But we have to face facts: the moment we have a camera positioned before something to be viewed and framed within four lines, we have a spectacle, a cliché (French word for snapshot), a flattening, a transmutation from world to image. The world is a stage, the stage is a world … and we would be silly to think we could ever sidestep this confusion of the real and the mediated, the imaginary and the experienced, human sensibility and machine intelligence. For a newly lyric space awaits us there.


© Adrian Martin February 2011

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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