By Jonathan Rozenkrantz.
Media history often seems to be understood as a (d)evolutionary succession of discrete units – one medium devouring the other (for better or worse). But while it may be true that photography, for instance, put painting into serious crisis, we know in retrospect that neither medium disappeared. This is a point worth repeating, as ever since the emergence of analog video the death of cinema has continuously been announced, and with the digital development of the last decades this discourse has intensified.
For a theorist like D. N. Rodowick, “[t]he question is not whether cinema will die, but rather how long ago it ceased to be” (Rodowick 2007: 26).[i] Although Rodowick mourns cinema from the point of view of aesthetic quality – claiming that video partook in turning cinema into “filmed entertainment” (Rodowick 2007: 27) – the medium has been attacked by the entertainment industry as well. Representing a billion dollar business feeling threatened by the bootlegging potential of videotapes, Jack Valenti, the president of the Motion Picture Association of America warned: “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone” (Valenti 1982).
In the introduction to Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable? – an anthology the very title of which refers to these media murder histories – Thomas Elsaesser offers a slightly different view: “Video is the starkest example of a seemingly total reversal from a distinct technology with the potential for unique aesthetics, to an almost wholly commercial, standardized, social function” (Elsaesser and Hoffman [eds.] 1998: 12). The electromagnetic materiality of video can generate imagery very different from that produced with photographic film. The experiments of artist such as Steina and Woody Vasulka constitute illuminating examples of the medium’s aesthetic peculiarities.[ii] From this perspective it was thus not so much video that killed cinema, but cinema that prevented video from developing into its own image.
The problem, however, with all three examples is that they treat each medium as an isolated object whose supposed essence – be it technological or phenomenological – makes it completely distinguishable from the others. The unfortunate consequence of this premise is that it turns a blind eye to an important area of investigation, namely the creative interplay between media. Much is to be gained from approaching media history not as a series of extinctions, but as a number of (pro)creative encounters. My aim in this article is to look at two of these encounters: that between photography and painting and that between video and film. Borrowing the hybrid term “photo painting” from German painter Gerhard Richter, I will treat these encounters as aesthetic media assemblages, labelling them “photo-paintings” and “video-films” rather than, for instance, photorealist paintings or the “video-in-the-text” (Moran 2002).
As a theoretical starting point I find Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s concept of remediation to be quite useful, as it acknowledges that,
“[n]o medium today, and certainly no single media event, seems to do its cultural work in isolation from other media, any more than it works in isolation from other social and economic forces. What is new about new media comes from the particular ways in which they refashion older media and the ways in which older media refashion themselves to answer to the challenges of new media.” (Bolter and Grusin 2000: 15)
According to Bolter and Grusin, remediation functions under a double logic inasmuch as “[o]ur culture wants both to multiply its media and to erase all traces of mediation” (Bolter and Grusin 2000: 5). They offer the twin concept of hypermediacy and immediacy as tools for analyzing the aesthetic manifestations of this two-way desire. While they suggest that immediacy has been the dominant logic in Western representation at least since the invention of Renaissance perspective, they also find instances of hypermediacy scattered throughout history. As an early example they mention the oil paintings of 17th century Dutch painters like Jan Vermeer whose “mirrors, windows, maps, paintings within paintings, and written and read epistles […] represented the world as made up of a multiplicity of representations” (Bolter and Grusin 2000: 37).
In the section that follows I will examine how the paintings of Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon remediate photography. With a hopefully better understanding of media (pro)creativity, I will move on to take a closer look at Michael Haneke’s Benny’s Video (1992) and Olatunde Osunsanmi’s The Fourth Kind (2009) – two video-films that raise relevant questions about remediation, media materiality and aesthetic analysis.
Insofar as painting once had the reproduction of reality as one of its primary functions, the invention of photography posed a serious challenge. Here was a medium to put painters out of work: not only did it record reality better than the best of them, its dependence on artistic skill was reduced to a minimum. Relieved from their mimetic task, painters found themselves forced to seek new creative paths – they thus found(ed) modernism, with its celebration of subjective vision and deconstruction of figuration.
But modern painting did not answer to the challenge of photography in an exclusively negative way (by exploring only that which the camera could not itself do). Painters like Walter Sickert and Francis Bacon celebrated the aesthetic possibilities of the mechanical medium, incorporating photographic motives into their paintings. And by the second half of the 20th century, many artists felt creatively trapped by the modernist credo of personal expression, thus finding a means of escaping themselves through the medium of photography.
Their strategy was not to abandon painting, but to remediate photography – to start painting photographs, as it were. For Bolter and Grusin, photorealists like Ralph Goings provide the primary example of such remediations (Bolter and Grusin 2000: 121). I, however, find the aesthetics of Gerhard Richter to be more challenging in theoretical terms. Instead of approaching immediacy by simulating flawless photographs, Richter remediates photographs by way of their technological shortcomings. His photo-paintings generally manifest different kinds of photographic blur: either the lines are softened, or horizontal lines are drawn over his paintings to evoke the effect of a camera in movement.
In a 1966 interview, Richter explains his motivation for painting photographs: the photograph has “no style”: it is “the only picture that can truly convey information, even if it is technically faulty and the object can barely be identified. [—] This is something that just has to be incorporated into painting” (Elger 2002: 50). The materialist notion of photographic indexicality is thus of little interest to Richter. Thinking purely in aesthetic terms, it is its lack of style that makes the photograph factual.
A less explicit example of photo-painterly remediation is found in the art of Francis Bacon. As Martin Harris nevertheless shows in a study entirely dedicated to tracing Bacon’s photographic and cinematic influences, even an early painting like Crucifixion (1933) has a “vaporously photographic” quality to it, recalling “the soft focus of a vignetted camera obscura image and the haziness of the fin-de-siècle paintings of Eugène Carrière, themselves hard to distinguish in reproduction from the painterly or graphic textures of secessionist photographs, such as the gum bichromates of Robert Demachy” (Harris 2005: 21).
Throughout his career, Bacon becomes increasingly influenced by photographs: by the end of the 1940s, the work of Eadweard Muybridge has become one of his primary sources, and from the early 1960s and on, Bacon commissions his own photographs of models. He is by now an obsessive collector who finds photographic reproductions of paintings to be at least as inspiring as the paintings themselves (Harris 2005: 8-11).
Says Bacon: “I look all the time at photographs in magazines of footballers and boxers and all that kind of thing – especially boxers. And I also look at animal photographs all the time. Because animal movement and human movement are continually linked in my imagery” (Sylvester 1975: 116). While Richter’s photo-paintings remediate single photographs, Bacon browses his collection for “triggers of ideas” (Sylvester 1975: 30). In a Francis Bacon painting the head of a figure could thus belong to a friend, the body to a boxer and the posture to an animal – all three sampled from different photographs. And insofar as he personally knows the person he is painting, he prefers looking at a photograph rather than having the model sitting for him in his studio. “I think that, if I have the presence of the image there, I am not able to drift so freely as I am able through the photographic image” (Sylvester 1975: 38).
Richter’s logic is fairly simple: photographs are more factual than paintings because they are less composed; therefore photographic (non-)composition makes a painting more factual. Bacon’s conception of factuality is less clear and his relation to photography more complex. Bacon often talks about “the fact”: with the camera’s marvellous capacity of recording fact, he says, “what can you do but go to a very much more extreme thing where you are reporting fact not as simple fact but on many levels, where you unlock the areas of feeling which lead to a deeper sense of the reality of the image” (Sylvester 1975: 66). Fact is thus here an affective matter – the reality of sensations captured and transmitted through images. Relating less to figuration, the superior immediacy of photography is thus no longer guaranteed:“I think the texture of a painting seems to be more immediate than the texture of a photograph, because the texture of a photograph seems to go through an illustrational process onto the nervous system, whereas the texture of a painting seems to come immediately onto the nervous system.” (Sylvester 1975: 57-58)For Bolter and Grusin an image is immediate insofar as it makes us forget the fact of mediation: we look through the image, rather than atit. Modern art is thus more typically hypermediate, for what “characterizes [it] is an insistence that the viewer keep coming back to the surface or, in extreme cases, an attempt to hold the viewer at the surface indefinitely” (Bolter and Grusin 2000: 41). Bacon and Richter complicate matters. While both invest their work with highly hypermediate expressions – Richter calling our attention to the photographic medium by remediating its technological failures; Bacon breaking down traditional figuration by merging photographic motives – both are using hypermediate means to achieve immediate ends: to bring us into closer contact with the reality of the image. For Richter immediacy is achieved by effacing the artist, for Bacon by defacing the figure. Both strategies involve a (pro)creative encounter between photography and painting – the brood of which is at once strange and strangely familiar.
Keeping it Real
As a modern artist interested in the capacity of media to capture and communicate affect, Bacon had little reason to develop any default doubtfulness towards the image. Born two decades later, influenced by Pop Art and maturing as an artist in the postmodern age, Richter’s belief in the factuality of photographs was eventually diminished. One of his most thought-provoking examinations of the impossibility of picturing truth is his photo-painting titled First Look (Erster Blick, 2000). Remediating a newspaper photograph the caption of which says “Now, for the first time, details of the inside of an atom have been made visible” the beautiful irony is that we only get to see “a sort of cloudiness: no discernable details, no spontaneous revelation of the elementary structure of the universe” (Elger 2002: 344).
The postmodern era saw not only the emergence of a new scepticism towards media, but also the birth of a new medium. Burdened by doubt from the very beginning, video would become one of the primary signifiers of postmodernity. Just as photography had once been judged in relation to painting, video was inevitably compared with its designated predecessor – the difference being that the video seldom benefited from its comparison with photographic film.
Some filmmakers, however, saw an interesting potential in the peculiarities of the electromagnetic medium, thus incorporating video imagery into their films. David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) and Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) remain, perhaps, the epitomic examples. Here I will focus on Benny’s Video and the more recent The Fourth Kind. My reason for choosing these two particular video-films is, more than anything, the fundamental difference between them. While Benny’s Video remediates video in an attempt to call our attention to the inherent falseness of the image, The Fourth Kind follows a more Baconian logic in its exploration of the (corpo)reality of images.
A film image of a video image of a pig being slaughtered. But that is hardly how we perceive the opening scene of Benny’s Video the first time we watch it. We see a pig being slaughtered, bolt gun fired into its head, body twitching as it dies, eyes wide-open. It is only when the image suddenly freezes, is rewound and replayed in rumbling slow-motion that we start considering the fact that we are watching a video-film – and that someone else is holding the remote control.
That someone is Benny, a 15-year-old teenager who goes to school, sings in a choir, does his homework and hangs out with his friends. His bourgeois family does not seem to be very capable of showing emotions; no point in being deeply affected when what matters is the neat surface of things. But for Benny, the family’s concern with its image has developed into an inability to experience reality directly. He has transformed his room into a hypermediate grotto where the blinds are permanently pulled down, the TV is constantly on, video cameras follow all his actions and a video monitor remediates his window view.
In addition to making his own videos, Benny rents pre-recorded ones. One day he approaches a girl outside of the rental store and invites her home. They talk, eat, watch Benny’s pig-killing tape and eventually play a game of dare that ends with Benny killing the girl. Whether Benny intended to tape the murder remains ambiguous throughout the whole film. We cannot even know for sure that the crime itself was intended. What is certain is that Benny shows no sign of remorse; he does, however, show his video to his parents. Thus Haneke sets up the main tension of Benny’s Video. Less concerned with moral justice than with their comfort and careers, the parents decide to get rid of the corpse and cover-up the crime.
While the father takes care of things at home, Benny travels with his mother to Egypt. Bringing with him his video camera, he continues recording during the whole trip. The peaceful vacation footage creates a disturbing contrast with Benny’s murder video, while also setting up a thematic link between the two. It is as if the video camera manifested a kind of naïve by deadly detachment – a gaze completely incapable of getting under the surface of things. So when Benny, upon his return, turns himself and his parents in (we now learn that he has also filmed the crucial conversation that implicates his parents), nothing suggests that he is acting out of remorse, that he has finally understood the gravity of his deed. Being asked by the police officer why he decided to come clean, Benny indifferently answers: “Just because”.
For me, at least, the opening of Benny’s Video is disturbingly immediate – hypermediate low-resolution video disturbance notwithstanding. The image of the dying pig’s eyes makes me forget the opacity of mediation; it brings me into direct contact with the undeniable fact of death. Even after the image has been revealed as an image ofan image, it is not its artifice that comes to my mind, but its reality that is brought to my senses. The fact that the footage seems to be authentic only intensifies this effect.
Unfortunately for Haneke, this is the exact opposite of what he was hoping to achieve. By freezing, rewinding and replaying the tape, he wants to enlighten us as to the invariably false nature of the image. So when Benny’s Video eventually reaches its violent climax, Haneke’s choice to show the murder scene on a video monitor is not meant to serve as a reality effect. This is not meant to be the video-filmic equivalent of a Gerhard Richter photo-painting where the factuality associated with one medium is borrowed for the immediacy of another. On the contrary, Haneke’s remediation of video is supposed to distance us. “The idea of course is to show the spectator that it is not reality that he is watching. It is a double screen, he sees one screen and behind it another”.[iii]
Haneke has used video as a distancing device throughout his whole career, most shockingly, perhaps, in his meta-horror film Funny Games (1997). Here, a bourgeois family is being terrorized at home by two young intruders. The husband and child are killed, but towards the end there is a glimpse of hope for the wife. She manages to get a rifle and kill one of the tormentors. But the other one now finds a remote control and rewinds the whole scene. To our surprise Haneke thus turns the whole cinematic image into a kind of meta-video – and the second time the scene plays out differently. The rifle is kept at a safe distance from the wife and she eventually joins her husband and child in death.
Haneke explains that the scene constitutes “the top of the system of broken illusions. The pleasure is to show the spectators how they can be manipulated.” At the Cannes Film Festival, he says, the audience first applauded the wife for killing the intruder, but sat in total silence the second time when the scene played out differently. Haneke reads this as proof of the moral potential of distancing effects: by rewinding and replaying the events, the audience is made to realize “that it is murder that they have been applauding.”
But is this really the reason behind the audience’s silence? Are we really caught with our pants down in the murderous act of make-believe? In The Cinematic Body, written around the time that Benny’s Video was made, Steven Shaviro argues that:
“Contemporary film theorists seek to disrupt the supposed illusion of ‘naturalness’ in cinema, just as Brecht disrupted the naturalistic conventions of bourgeois theater. But these theorists fail to notice that Brechtian techniques have an entirely different impact when they are transferred from the stage to the screen. The fact is that distancing and alienation-effects serve not to dispel but to intensify the captivating power of cinematic spectacle.” (Shaviro 1993: 42)
The problem with Haneke’s Brechtian formula is that, on an affective level, none of his videographic intrusions really function as distancing effects. Just as the video image in Benny’s Video pulls us further into the affective fabric of the video-film, breaking the cinematic rules in Funny Games is more likely to intensify our experience. If anything, the violence becomes even more frustrating once we realize that the villains have the power to protrude the diegetic frame, because this is when we also realize that Haneke’s violence is directed primarily at us. He shuts us up, alright; not because he makes us aware of our compliance with the killers, but because he transforms us from witnesses to victims.
There is something paradoxical with the notion of an iconophobic filmmaker, but with his insistence on the dangerous illusionism of images Haneke qualifies as one. He expresses a deep hostility towards mediation, calling, for instance, the cultural practice of filming vacations “absolutely perverse”. He claims that it manifests an “idiotic desire” based on the illusion that by controlling the image we control our lives. Created by media, this illusion is dangerous because it can potentially lead to the generation of people who have lost all sense of reality and, like Benny, play life as a videotape. Having a video-view of one’s street, watching a video of a dying pig, video recording a vacation or video recording a murder thus seem to be differentiated only by appearance; their meaning is one and the same: that the image is inherently false, perverse, dangerous and potentially deadly.
Benny’s Video’s hypermediate aesthetics and its concern with the reality-devouring effect of media evoke the postmodern philosophies that still flourished at the time of its making. One of its primary professors, Jean Baudrillard, not only influenced cultural theory but popular culture as well. The Matrix trilogy (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999-2003), for instance, was a cinematically successful but philosophically failed attempt at bringing Baudrillard’s thoughts into film. “The most embarrassing part of the film is that the new problem posed by simulation is confused with its classical, Platonic treatment” (Lancelin 2004), complained the philosopher whose very point was that there is no reality beyond the postmodern cave. In Baudrillard’s history of representation,
“[t]he transition from signs that dissimulate something to signs that dissimulate that there is nothing marks a decisive turning point. The first reflects a theology of truth and secrecy (to which the notion of ideology still belongs). The second inaugurates the era of simulacra and simulation, in which there is no longer a God to recognize his own, no longer a Last Judgement to separate the false from the true, the real from its artificial resurrection, as everything is already dead and resurrected in advance.” (Baudrillard 2010: 6)
Whereas in earlier times the image referred to an exterior reality, today it is the image that produces reality, thus turning the latter into an image of an image: a simulacrum.
If there is no longer an underlying reality to (un)mask, the whole structuralist myth-busting project looses its raison d’être. But Haneke’s postmodernist aesthetics notwithstanding, his philosophy is still stuck in the old structuralist cave. His hostility towards the image and critique of the bourgeois myth is based in a belief that Baudrillard is incapable of sharing: that some kind of profound reality remains to be uncovered and saved. By remediating video and multiplying mediation Haneke thus hopes to turn the images on themselves. From a Baudrillard’s point-of-view, however, this can only make things worse. For cinema
“is still blessed (but less and less so because more and more contaminated by TV) with an intense imaginary – because the cinema is an image. That is to say not only a screen and a visual form, but a myth, something that still retains something of the double, of the phantasm, of the mirror, of the dream, etc. Nothing of any of this in the ‘TV’ image, which suggests nothing, which mesmerizes, which itself is nothing but a screen, not even that: a miniaturized terminal that, in fact, is immediately located in your head – you are the screen, and the TV watches you – it transistorizes all the neurons and passes through like a magnetic tape – a tape, not an image.” (Baudrillard 2010: 51)
Baudrillard’s negation of the imaginary nature of TV and video (“magnetic tape”) should not be understood as an affirmation of their reality. On the contrary, these media are claimed to be less than imaginary because they no longer have a reality to reflect. Whereas cinema can still function under the modernist logic of a sign that dissimulates something (ideology/myth), video marks the turning point towards the postmodern logic of masking the void. It strikes me as surprising that a cynic like Baudrillard romanticizes cinema, although there is, of course, something deeply provocative about a post-Marxist theorist who celebrates myth. It is as if he is saying that anything – even the age of ideologies – was better than the disenchanted era of simulacra and simulation. Bring me back Leni Riefenstahl, as long as I’m spared from Reality-TV!
From a Baudrillardian point-of-view, then, Haneke’s postmodernist solution to a “classical, Platonic” problem results in a double offence: not only does he pervert the postmodern logic by holding on to the preposterous idea that there is a reality to unmask, his very strategy to defend reality ends up contaminating the last oasis in the desert of the real. This oasis is not reality, of course – of that there is none – but the imaginary realm of cinema: that dear old myth-making machine that at least had the decency to lie about something. So while Haneke believes that he is keeping it real by contaminating cinema with video, he is on the contrary intensifying the production of simulacra and accelerating the process of simulation.
This is, of course, insofar as we accept the Baudrillardian logic. But what if both Haneke and Baudrillard are wrong? What if the very premise that they share, the inherent irreality of the image, turns out to be false itself? While even a materialist like Shaviro – so keen on affirming the body of the spectator – claims that “[i]mages themselves are immaterial, but their effect is all the more physical and corporeal” (Shaviro 1993: 50), I agree with Bolter and Grusin in that “all mediations are themselves real. They are real as artefacts (but not as autonomous agents) in our mediated culture” (Bolter and Grusin 2000: 56). Insofar as the image exists in a physical medium (and where else could it exist?), it must itself be understood as (corpo)real. That it happens to us (Benjamin 1936), that it hits our senses like so many bullets, is only possible insofar as it shares with us the material fact of our being.
My critique of Haneke is in no way intended to undermine the power of his films. What I am suggesting is that he succeeds as a filmmaker exactly because he fails as a philosopher. Freezing the surface of the video image; the freezing surface of bourgeois life: these are not things that (un)mask reality or mask the fact that there no longer is one. Haneke’s images are themselves real, intensely real, and it is the frost on their freezing surface that bites us as sensible spectators.
Not to render the visible, but to render visible.
Paul Klee (Deleuze 2005: 40)
An affirmation of the (corpo)reality of the image changes the conditions for its analysis – not least when the boundary between the body in and the body of the image is broken down. This is what happens, for instance, in Bacon’s painterly disfigurations. Bacon often said that if he had not become a painter he would have liked to be a filmmaker (Harris 2005: 26). I say: if he had been a filmmaker, he would have made The Fourth Kind. Beyond any idiosyncratic judgment of this video-film’s artistic merit, I find that its aesthetic treatment of media and materiality very much remediates a Baconian logic.
For philosopher Gilles Deleuze, what made Bacon such a great artist was that he mastered the essential task of art: “in painting as in music, it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but of capturing forces. […] [M]usic must render nonsonorous forces sonorous, and painting must render invisible forces visible” (Deleuze 2005: 40). Commenting on Bacon’s series of Screaming Popes, he writes that:
“Bacon has always tried to eliminate the ‘sensational’, that is, the primary figuration of that which provokes a violent sensation. This is the meaning of the formula, ‘I wanted to paint the scream more than the horror.’ […] [T]he Pope himself sees nothing, and screams before the invisible. Thus neutralized, the horror is multiplied because it is inferred from the scream, and not the reverse.” (Deleuze 2005: 27-28)
The tension between visibility and invisibility informs most violent films. In Benny’s Video, for instance, the murder scene happens almost entirely off-screen. We see a static framing of Benny’s room on his video monitor, the boy running in an out of the image as he repeatedly reloads his single-shot bolt gun. But we never actually see the gun being fired; the violence is almost exclusively brought to us by way of sound – the scream more than the horror.
What Deleuze is saying – moving beyond the formula the less you see the scarier – is that horror is manifested not in appearances but in affects: in the reactions of bodies subjected to violent forces. Horror, then, is a material matter and it can manifest itself in the surface of things. It is the disfigured body in a Francis Bacon painting, or the distorted body in a video image – and in both cases it is relative to the specific materiality of the medium. Yvonne Spielmann calls the video image “transformative” due to its “flexible, unstable, nonfixed forms” and “fluid pictoriality” (Spielmann 2008: 4). The magnetic molecularity of the videotape makes its transformability quite different from that of the filmstrip. It might be fair to call video a kind of paint that never dries, for an electric current, a strong magnet, or why not the invisible force field of an alien entity, could distort the video image both during and after its recording.
The specific transformability of the video image is essential to the horror of The Fourth Kind, in which invisible forces are manifested both in and on the image. Like The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999), it is a horror mockumentary that makes use of the immediacy associated with analog video, although it makes things more complex by dividing itself into two representational regimes. One part supposedly authentic video footage, and one part cinematic re-enactment, both are often shown simultaneously in split-screen. A contrasting effect is thus created in which the less colourful, often grainy documentary quality of the video image intensifies the video-film’s overall effect.
Having witnessed her husband’s death under mysterious circumstances, psychologist Abigail Tyler is now convinced that aliens killed him. When several of her patients start telling her stories about strange sightings, Dr. Tyler sees her chance to prove that her Alaskan town is being visited and terrorized by an alien force. She starts videotaping her sessions where, under hypnosis, the patients remember having been abducted. But with their repressed memories brought back to the surface, things quickly get out of hand. One patient kills his wife under dramatic circumstances and the town Sherriff starts pressuring Dr. Tyler to stop her practice.
Refusing to stop, Dr. Tyler’s sessions turn more and more violent as they seem to summon not only memories of an alien entity, but the entity itself. As spectators, we perceive the intensified presence of the invisible alien not only in its violent effect on the hypnotized human bodies, but in the increasing disturbance that it produces on the videotapes. With each taped session the image gets less and less discernable – visual disturbance thus functioning as the indexical evidence of the entity’s (past) presence.
The alien is represented through the medium-specific shortcomings of videographic recording: the magnetic materiality of video rendering the alien visible as disturbance. The less we see, the stronger we feel the presence of the alien; traditional figuration thus being sacrificed for an exploration of video’s aesthetic potentialities. It is thus wrong to talk about The Fourth Kind in terms of technological failure: like Bacon’s painting its program is “to produce resemblance with non-resembling means” (Deleuze 2005: 111). It is not that we see less; we see something else. Not the entity’s form but its power. The medium thus fails only in terms of figuration; we might as well say, in modernist terms, that it is when the medium refuses to fulfil its figurative function that it can finally show us its true (sur)face.
“Since the visible movements of the Figures are subordinated to the invisible forces exerted upon them, we can go behind the movements to these forces and make an empirical list” (Deleuze 2005: 44). Deleuze finds three kinds of forces that Bacon supposedly captures: isolation, deformation and dissipation. Isolation is manifested in Bacon’s tendency to enclose his figures in limited portions of the field, most notably, perhaps, in the semi-abstract cages that surround some of his Popes. Deformation denotes the visualization of forces as they are exerted upon the flesh of the figures. Here we can mention the deformed faces in so many of Bacon’s portraits, looking at us as if caught in the moment they are struck by some invisible boxer’s hand. Finally, we have “the forces of dissipation, when the Figure fades away and returns to the field”. I understand this as the moment when the desire for disfiguration takes the figure to the point of abstraction, erasing the boundary between figure and field, thus turning the whole image into a surface.
The trichotomy of Baconian forces proves to be surprisingly illuminating for an understanding of the video aesthetics of The Fourth Kind. The videographic bodies of the supposedly authentic characters are isolated from their cinematic doubles by clearly defined lines; frames that might shift in size but that never blend with each other. Whether shown in succession or simultaneously, there is never any doubt as to which image is supposedly real. The bodies are then violently affected: deformed by invisible forces. And insofar as these forces also affect the image itself, the bodies in and of the image undergo a kind of molecular fusion. The isolated bodies of Dr. Tyler’s patients thus oscillate between deformation and dissipation – between being themselves tormented by the alien force and fading away into the turbulence of the electromagnetic field.
To me, the aesthetic force of The Fourth Kind’s videographic disfigurations is as powerful as that of Bacon’s paintings, and the scene that affects me most is Dr. Tyler’s final encounter. With her daughter apparently abducted, Dr. Tyler decides to summon the alien herself. She is put under hypnosis and as the entity enters the video image is blurred. The body of Dr. Tyler is now stretched out in a horrifying scream and due to visual disturbance her mouth is drawn out until it seems to swallow her own face. In Baconian manner “[t]he mouth then acquires this power of nonlocalization that turns all meat into a head without a face. It is no longer a particular organ, but the hole through which the entire body escapes” (Deleuze 2005: 19).
“That is what Bacon calls the Scream”, Deleuze writes, “in the immense pity that the meat evokes” (Deleuze 2005: 19). Just wait until you see the outcome of Dr. Tyler’s encounter. While you assure yourself that her defacement was only a surface effect of the videographic recording, the filmmaker prepares you for his last surprise. As the entity seems to withdraw itself and the image momentarily calms down, you catch a glimpse of Dr. Tyler lying lifeless on her couch. Her mouth is still open in an unnaturally dilated and unimaginably painful gape – the fragile body no longer separable from the fluid (corpo)reality of the medium.
Understanding the encounter between older and newer media in (pro)creative terms allows us to examine the creative interplay between them. While all media are born from processes of remediation – cinema, for instance, remediating photography, literature, theatre and so on – the concept of (pro)creative encounters is particularly relevant for the aesthetic analysis of media assemblages the parts of which have generally been described in mutually exclusive terms. In this article I have chosen to look at photo-paintings and video-films, but there are certainly other examples worth examining, not least the way that digital development allows computer games to become increasingly cinematic, while cinema itself starts incorporating the aesthetics of computer games.
The double logic of remediation provides a fruitful starting point for examining the tension between figuration and abstraction, manifested not only in the works I have discussed but in visual expression as such. However, to reach a deeper understanding of how images work, the concepts of immediacy and hypermediacy need to transcend the pictorial framing that they are given by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. What brings the photo-paintings of Gerhard Richter and Francis Bacon together with the video-films of Michael Haneke and Olatunde Osunsanmi is that they all complicate the conceptual division between the two logics. The immediate effect of these works is produced not in spite of their hypermediate expression but, on the contrary, very much because of it.
A more detailed analysis of these processes would also need to take into consideration how and why certain media might be experienced as more immediate than others, for instance how the (hypermediate) immediacy of video aesthetics is connected to discourses and practices of video surveillance and documentary film. Such an analysis must also observe that different practitioners and theorists conceive of the very term immediacy in different ways. The fact that Bacon’s affect oriented terminology completely separates immediacy and factuality from issues of pictorial realism brings his aesthetics quite far from the art that Bolter and Grusin present as immediate (the photo-realism of Ralph Goings, for instance).
Despite much of film theory’s insistence on the imaginary nature of cinema, it is important to acknowledge that all images are (corpo)real. This is a statement that might be particularly difficult to accept in our digital age, when images are stored on discs and hard drives and are visible only when displayed on electronic screens. But plasma, to mention one contemporary image generator, is hardly immaterial. It merely consists of a different matter than photographic film. Insofar as an image needs a physical medium to be perceptible its materiality needs to be acknowledged, since its aesthetics will always be relative to the media that generate it.
Media assemblages such as photo-painting and video-film are particularly useful for analyses of media materiality. Their (pro)creative playfulness with media specificities calls our attention to the particular aesthetics of different media without denying that such aesthetics can be interlaced through processes of remediation. A video-film like Benny’s Video can neither be reduced to the materiality of film nor to the materiality of video; it constitutes a new materiality that in some way incorporates both. The fact that we are now most likely to watch Benny’s Video on a DVD or Blu-ray only adds another layer to its multi-materiality – further altering its aesthetic and affective qualities.
The relationship between materiality and aesthetics is perhaps even more illuminating in the case of The Fourth Kind, where the aesthetic treatment of the fluid materiality of video brings the image back to a visual logic most evident in modernist painting (not so much shortcutting a linear understanding of media history as showing how it can be read in multiple directions). Examining The Fourth Kind so closely to Deleuze’s analysis of Bacon we find that it is as much a painting-video as it is a video-film, which is not to say that it is medially more complex than Benny’s Video but that it more evidently highlights the complexity that characterizes all (pro)creative encounters.
Jonathan Rozenkrantz is the cinema editor of LOFT the Scandinavian Bookazine, in which he also writes about art, media and culture. He has an MA in film studies and his writings have appeared in Film International, among others.
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[i] Rodowick defines cinema as “the projection of a photographically recorded filmstrip in a theatrical setting” (Rodowick 2007: 26). This rather narrow definition is primarily aimed at distinguishing cinema from digital media, the latter supposedly lacking the materiality that is central to Rodowick’s sympathies. Nevertheless, he blames analog video – the materiality of which is more difficult to deny – for initiating the process of cinema’s disappearance.