Light From the Screen: Cinema, Painting and Spectatorship
By Wheeler Winston Dixon.
Noël Coward once observed that “television is for appearing on – not for looking at,” but as the twenty-first century takes firm hold of our collective consciousness, it seems that everyone has become, in one form or another, a spectator of the events of everyday existence, whether at home or in the cinema. Reality shows and YouTube videos offer the prospect of instant stardom for the “lucky” few whose videos “go viral,” but for every video posted, there are literally millions of viewers who would rather watch than participate in the production of images.
It has become so much easier – and potentially safer – to stay home and let the images come to us, rather than to go out to a public place and view them with a crowd of strangers. Indeed, this is the era of what the theorist Gabriele Pedullà has described as “the spectator’s extreme volatility” (2012: 77, original emphasis). Images are anywhere, and everywhere, and there seems to be no escaping them, even if we wanted to, and weren’t constantly returning to our various digital screens for another visual “fix.” And we aren’t only watching movies and videos; we’re viewing paintings, sculptures, drawings, live video camera feeds; we like to watch, just as Chauncey Gardiner did in Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979). Life was “real” for Chauncey only if it was on television; for us, too, the image has become more real than life itself.
With lightweight portable tablets, smartphones, and other electronic devices proliferating rapidly in our culture, when one looks at images of family gatherings in 2013, one is struck by the fact that everyone is watching something on their own portable image device, and ignoring each other; we’re all watching each other all the time, but on some sort of electronic device, rather than face to face, and we have little time, thus, for any real communication or intimacy. We have been gradually transformed from a culture of human communication into a mediated society in which simulacrum images of the real have replaced human interaction. We’ve been both spectators and participants in the process of image production since the dawn of imagistic representation, but now it seems that more and more, we are content to simply watch anything that’s on, removing ourselves from existence.
Sometimes we still see a movie in a theater. We sit in the dark, and we watch. Images flicker on the screen. They’re digital now, so there are no more scratches, no cue marks at the end of a reel – the concept of a “reel” of film no longer exists – and if projected properly, they’re every bit as good as 35mm film used to be, before it became obsolete. But we may as well be watching on an iPad, or on Netflix on a computer, or even on a cell phone – in the end, it really makes no difference how we watch. No matter how we may view a film, in 2-D or Real 3-D, in a theater or in the street, in our home or in an airplane on a laptop, we are always the eternal spectator, looking for some image to take us out of ourselves, into another world that will make the present disappear.
It has always been thus, at least so far as the movies have been concerned, and yet when we watch a moving image, our emotions are all too new. The first viewers of the Lumière films, for example, were amazed by the sight of a train rushing towards them (L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, 1895), a sight they had hitherto seen only in real life, but now a phantasmal image on the cinema screen. A gardener watered with his own hose (L’Arroseur arrosé, 1895), a snowball fight against a backdrop of Utrillo trees (Bataille de boules de neige, 1896), workers leaving the Lumière factory – it was all too new, and yet for the first time removed from actual existence. The audience had no opportunity to interact with the images they viewed; they remained spectators only, spellbound in the dark. Painting and photography had brought viewers the illusion of pictorial verisimilitude, but without movement. Now, the pictures on the screen danced and shimmered, pulsating with artificial existence, somehow taking the audience out of their own corporeal reality, and transporting them into a phantom zone of a “realistic” presentation of events taken from life. And thus was the spell of the movies born.
When the ultra-realist painter Paul Delaroche saw one of the first Daguerreotypes in 1839, he famously exclaimed “from today, painting is dead,” but of course, that wasn’t, and isn’t the case. The impressionists, the surrealists, and others who saw reality and interpreted it, rather than recording it, even in an idealized fashion, immediately and intuitively sensed the limitations of the photographic image, and sought to move beyond it, to destroy it, to transform it into something else. And yet, when the first films were made, they remained slavishly representative; even the fantasy films of Georges Méliès, for example, sought to replicate the real within the realm of fantasy. So as Nancy Mowll Mathews notes, one can see in the American Mutoscope films of life in early New York, such as Madison Square, New York (1903) or Panorama of the Flatiron Building (1902), traces of the work of the realist painter Joseph Oppenheimer, as reflected in his canvas Madison Square (1900), clearly a source of inspiration and pictorial guidance for early filmmakers (2005a: 119).
Similarly, American Mutoscope’s Delivering Newspapers (1899) bears a striking resemblance to George Bellows’ charcoal drawing Election Night, Times Square (completed between 1906 and 1909), with its Monochromatic rush of action and streaks of bustling humanity (Mathews, 120), and Mutoscope’s At the Foot of the Flatiron (1903) is closely related to Everett Shinn’s pastel and watercolor drawing Sixth Avenue Shoppers (Mathews 2005a: 121). An even more direct example of pictorial representationalism can be found in American Mutoscope’s Spirit of ’76 (1905), which duplicates almost exactly the composition, framing and lighting of Archibald Willard’s painting of the same name from 1891, attempting not only to capitalize on the fame of the painting, but also to “bring it to life” (Mathews 2005b: 154).
And, of course, soon films themselves were examining the exhibition process itself, as with the famous short film Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), in which a country rube tries vainly to interact with the “performers” on the screen, and, unable to separate illusion from reality, ducks when a train approaches, and later, tries to intervene when a young woman’s virtue is threatened, only to discover that all he’s accomplished is to tear down the theater screen, exposing the projectionist and the cinematographic apparatus behind it – apparently, an early case of motion picture rear projection. As Antonia Lant notes of John Sloan’s depiction of early cinema goers in his painting entitled Movies, Five Cents (1907),
“film gatherings […] combined news, peculiar and contradictory elements. Key among these were assembling in the darkness, sexual and class mixing, mesmerization through lit motion, and a palpable sense of privacy within the mass […] as has often been remarked subsequently, film going offered spectators the apparently incompatible combination of public display and private reverie.” (2005: 162)
And indeed, this was clearly the case. One could not only get lost in the crowd, one could also get “lost” in the images, which is one of the primary aims of the spectatorial experience in nearly every case; to take the viewer out of her or himself, to remove corporeal consciousness and replace it with an identification with an illusory other, whether that image is moving or static, projected on a screen or displayed on an iPad, representational or abstract. Whether or not the pictorial artist or filmmaker intends it – and often, more didactic artists in either discipline will claim this is manifestly not their intent – every imagist constriction implies a viewer, just as it implies, or acknowledge, the existence, past or present, of its creator. When the artist Banksy appropriates a public space for one of his art works, despite his protestations of anonymity, the audience is always a part of the equation, as is the commodification of the work itself.
In the fall of 2013, Banksy took up residency in Manhattan, and in addition to “tagging” a number of empty walls and public surfaces, also arranged a sidewalk art sale of some smaller canvas works, using an elderly street vendor as his confederate in the enterprise. No one was told in advance of the sale, which seemed just like another sidewalk art exhibit, and none of the canvases were signed, though clearly they displayed Banksy’s usual iconic motifs. By the end of the day, only about a dozen canvases had sold, at ridiculously low prices – the vendor would “bundle” works together and offer them at a discount rate to effect a sale – but each buyer departed with a genuine Banksy original, worth much more on the open market, after literally thousands of spectators had filed by for most of the day, unaware of what they were seeing.
Even the now-anonymous painters who created the cave drawings in Chauvet Cave, some of which are more than 32,000 years old, as documented in Werner Herzog’s astonishingly beautiful 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), were working with an audience in mind, and, as Herzog notes in the film’s voiceover narration, many of the drawings, especially a multiple image depiction of a horse in motion, anticipate the desire to capture the essence of realistic movement, or as Herzog puts it, constitute a sort of “proto-cinema.” From the very first images created by humankind, both an audience, and a relationship to the actual world are primary considerations of the artist(s) involved.
The Chauvet drawings are clearly the work of a number of artisans, of markedly different skill levels. But in some of the most accomplished Chauvet drawings, one is struck not only by the fact that each image represents one “frame” of motion, but also by the remarkable sense of depth perception that is achieved, something that had hitherto been ascribed to as originating with painters of the twelfth or thirteenth century, and yet is clearly present here. Indeed, the verisimilitude is startling, as if these cave drawings, if run together in the manner of Muybridge’s horse of 1878, would also produce the illusion of genuine motion.
In their first incarnation, the movies were magic. The general public had no idea how they worked, and as with any magic show, they were happier to be kept “in the dark” rather than learning the secrets of their construction. In such films as Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), special effects exploded off the screen in waves of wonder: fantastic rocket ships, rabid moon devils, constellations that became alive with chorus girls, a moon that took a direct hit in the face when the spaceship landed, a suspenseful confrontation with the hostile aliens, and a miraculous escape. In Segundo de Chomón and Ferdinand Zecca’s The Red Spectre (1907), hard tinted in lurid shades of red, a demon appears in a cavern and creates one illusion after another, almost without narrative, in a naked attempt to dazzle the audience into silence and submission during its brief 9-minute running time.
Alice Guy, the marginalized foremother of the cinema, began her career with the charming fantasy La Fée aux choux (1896), in which a good fairy mysteriously brings forth a group of newborn infants from a cabbage patch to appease an anguished, childless mother, and then went on to direct no fewer than 409 films in Europe and then America, including L’Utilité des rayons X (1898), a very early example of fantasy/science fiction; the 33-minute religious spectacle The Birth, Life and Death of Christ (1906), which featured extensive use of special effects, a large cast, and lavish sets; and later still a 1913 adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum, which terrified audiences with its Gothic brutality.
These, of course, are but a few examples – audiences had also seen Edwin S. Porter’s thrilling “true life” adventure A Day in the Life of an American Fireman (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903), both filled with violent action, and films that through their pervasive influence almost singlehandedly created a sense of genre conventions; the mother and her child saved from the flames in Fireman; the train robbers tracked to doom by an unrelenting posse for their crimes. It was all there on the screen; murders, daring escapes, phantasmagoric transformations, magic, suspense, spectacle, everything to take the viewer out of themselves, and transport them into another world.
With the coming of sound, things changed, but exoticism remained the movies stock in trade, the one key element that pervaded every thought Hollywood had to offer. The silent era had been redolent with sin, sensuality and illicit romance, in such films as George Fitzmaurice’s Lilac Time (1928), one of the last of the major studio silents, or Wesley Ruggles’ look at decadent college life in The Plastic Age (1925), to say nothing of the dangerous encroachments of the “new morality” in Sam Wood’s “flaming youth” exposé Prodigal Daughters (1923) with Gloria Swanson, promising viewers “new lips to kiss, freedom from conventions, life with a kick in it [and] a new world for women” as just four of the “Seven Deadly Whims” the film depicted, but with the addition of synchronized sound, things only got steamier, in every sense of the word.
Depression-era audiences wanted escapism, above all – whether in the brutal realism of gangster films, or the luxuriant excess of such musicals as Mervyn Le Roy and Busby Berkeley’s justly iconic Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), in which the familiar “let’s put on a show” plot line collides with then-contemporary reality even in the film’s opening moments, when an onscreen rehearsal of “We’re in the Money” is halted by bailiffs removing the sets for nonpayment of production costs. The conclusion of the film, the production number “Remember My Forgotten Man,” is an ode to World War I soldiers ground under by the Depression, living from day to day without hope. Similarly, in Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley’s 42nd Street (1933), bankrupt director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) dangerously exhausted and on the brink of physical collapse, is forced by economic necessity to direct a Broadway musical, even with all the odds stacked against him, simply to survive.
The Depression era artist Reginald Marsh knew this milieu all too well; in his numerous charcoal sketches and drawings, such as Breadline (1932), he tracked the world of a society in collapse, as the cruelty and exploitation of Capitalism became all too obvious; those who had, and those who only stood and waited for a few crumbs of sustenance. And yet these images are just a few that we will be given to see in our lifetime; as Paolo Cherchi Usai notes, “relatively few moving images can be seen in the course of a lifetime, a tiny fraction of those actually made. Given an average lifespan of seventy-five years, the time spent viewing them rarely exceeds one hundred thousand hours, little more than a decade” (2001: 93). And yet it seems we always want more.
As early as 1954, long before he became an international celebrity, Marshall McLuhan railed against the intentionally mesmerizing effect of pop culture imagery on television and in films, noting that it was designed to create “a mindless, helpless, entranced audience” (as qtd. in Wagner 1954: 168) which would then do whatever its creators required. In short, consume, exist, and die. This is why the experimental cinema of the 1960s was such a tonic in the onslaught of calculated commercialism, in a world of “morally corrupt, aesthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, [and] temperamentally boring” film production, as the 1962 manifesto of The New American Cinema Group, which spawned the still-extant Film-Makers’ Cooperative, so aptly put it.
But with painting, spectatorship takes on a whole new aspect. Of course, one can access numerous collections from around the world digitally, but it’s not the same thing; it isn’t the same experience as when one confronts – and that might be the best word – a really first rate piece of work in a museum or gallery. For unlike the digital revolution in cinema, though some may argue this point, when one views a DaVinci, a Rembrandt, or even a Warhol on the screen of one’s tablet, one gets only an approximation of the impact and value of the original. This point has been argued many times before, and adds an extra layer of distance between the viewer and the work under consideration, but it seems of value to me to stress that whereas digital cinema is simply a new platform for the experience of the moving image, the digitization of paintings, drawings, watercolors, serigraphs and the like removes the work from the world of the real altogether, and all that is left is a trace memory.
In Herzog’s film, for example, we are allowed to admire the paintings on the cave walls, but only from a distance, and Herzog is at great pains on the soundtrack of the film to let us know how arduous the filming experience was for him and his crew, and what a privilege it is for both them, and us, to see these works. This, of course, is why Herzog used 3-D cinematography in an attempt to bring us closer to the paintings, but as with Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013), a film related only in its technical aspect, the illusion of a third dimension cheats the audience most precisely when it promises to deliver the most; the closer we get, the more we feel we can “touch” the paintings, the more pronounced and frustrating the illusion becomes – we can’t really experience these works.
The same, of course, holds true for books and all other reproductions – this again is nothing new, having been initially examined as early as 1936 by Walter Benjamin in his landmark essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which Warhol famously seized upon, to create works of reproduction that were, in fact, works of art themselves. But again, when these works were again reproduced, either through their appearance in a film, or as illustrative plates in a book, they once again lose the large portion of their resonance. Viewing Warhol’s giant Mao (1973) painting, for example, within the confines of a coffee table book, or an iPad, and then seeing it properly displayed in its complete 176 1/2 x 136 1/4 inch size, is a completely different experience, and the size, of course, does matter; the work is designed to dominate the viewer, just as Mao dominated China for nearly half a century.
Yet at the same time, the much more romantic paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, such as William Holman Hunt or Dante Gabriel Rossetti, are as invitational as Warhol’s work is forbidding; indeed, if the unspoken message of much of modern art is “go away” or “feel alienated,” the images created by these Victorian-era artists reaches out to the spectator, appealing to the senses in an almost tangible fashion, becoming all the more effective for their verisimilitude and tranquility, even if the world they paint is undeniably idealized, just as the images of Rosenquist, Basquiat, and other twentieth and twenty-first century modernists push the viewer back from the canvas with almost palpable force. Indeed, the luxuriant Romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelites signals an embrace of the world, and the viewer, even as contemporary image construction seeks to shock the senses.
In tranquility begins reflection; Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese filmmaker who will celebrate his 105th birthday on December 11, 2013, is perhaps the last film director who has an authentic memory of what the world was like before electricity, when the night was lit with oil lamps and torches, and his painterly work, as exhibited in such ravishing films as The Strange Case of Angelica (2010), evokes a world in which spectatorship was very much a personal pursuit, and not one mass produced for audience consumption. Indeed, the entire narrative of Angelica centers on a young man who is a solitary photographer, and whose images bring the title character “back to life” after a fashion. Much of the film is spent watching the photographer at work, as he documents the lives of the field hands in a nearby vineyard, and the moment of reproduction is central to the film; the second when the image is captured. This moment that will be memorialized, remembered, fetishized, examined, deconstructed and discussed.
Thus, either in a gallery, or a museum, or in a theatre, we are ultimately in thrall to what we witness, which is what the artist desires, whether she/he will admit it or not. Every work of art implies an audience, and every image, still or moving, implies a viewer, even if the maker specifies otherwise, or perhaps especially then. Light from the screen transfixes, whether it is actual illumination, or light created through pigmentation and colors on a canvas. The inescapable two-dimensionality of both cinema and painting is something that both mediums continually strive to overcome, but unless the screen of the theater, or the canvas, physically and actually projects towards the viewer, this will forever remain only an illusion. And yet we remain transfixed, drawn to the screen of light, hoping to see something there that we won’t see in real life, something that will take us, for a moment, out of our real lives, and transport us – to where?
Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, editor of the book series New Perspectives on World Cinema for Anthem Press, London. His newest books are Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access (2013); Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood (2012); 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster); A History of Horror (2010), and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (2009). Dixon’s textbook A Short History of Film (2008, co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster) was reprinted six times through 2012. A second, revised edition was published in 2013; the book is a required text in universities throughout the world.
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