This weeks readings, David Campany’s Stillness from his book Photography and Cinema, and Janet Sarbanes The Idea of Still, an interview conducted by Sarbanes with director Rebecca Baron about her films exploration of still imagery, both highlight the murky similarities and differences inherent in still and moving imagery. Where Campany often deals with moving imagery which toys with aspects of stillness and gives a historical overview of the complex intersections between film and photography from Muybridge to The Matrix, Rebecca Baron deals more directly with the ways in which prolonged looking at still imagery within the filmic experience “allows and challenges you to look differently than you would in a casual way.”
Campany starts out by pointing out a key distinction between the early time based photographic techniques of Eadweard Muybridge and early cinema – the pursuit of “instantaneous arrest, the decomposition of movement, not it’s recomposition.” This seems to highlight the apparent differences in the two mediums pretty succinctly – while film gives the viewer an experience perceived to be occurring in real time, photography, even that with an obvious component of movement over time, seeks to separate an event from it’s grounding within time itself. Campany points out that while Muybridge did animate a few of his works when he invented the Zoopraxiscope in 1879, those experiments were “far removed from the serious project of stilling things.” While filmmakers inherently maintain a sense of illusion, particularly early on in the history of both photography and film, photographers such as Muybridge (who are so often referenced by early film) were attempting to break down and analyze events within real life – in other words, to break down illusion. While this is certainly an important distinction within early film and photography, this distinction begins to blur within more contemporary works.
An example I found particularly interesting of one of the many techniques used within film that begin to blur the distinction between photography and film is the long take and extended tracking shot. As Campany puts it, “the often glacial tempo of their [Ingmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, etc.] films seeks a distance from the spectacle of Hollywood and the cut and thrust of television. The fleeting was considered irredeemably frivolous and artistically beyond the pale. Instead, cinema’s gaze would be extended to become so long and so penetrating as to estrange what at first looked and felt familiar – a roadside, a face, a building, a landscape, the sea. The embrace of the slow was also a sign of increasing uncertainty about the recorded image in general.” Here I can’t help but think of the films of Bela Tarr, who Campany mentions among a long list of filmmakers who favor extended shots and long takes. Tarr’s films, which are often composed of scenes which unfold over the course of one long, continuous shot, test the endurance of a viewer and push against the clarity of the narrative he sets out to tell in a manner not unlike that of Michael Snow’s film Wavelength. The opening shot of The Turin Horse, for example, starts with a black screen narrated by a myth about the turning point of Nietzsche’s descent into madness after witnessing the beating of a horse, which ends with the line “Of the horse… We know nothing.” Tarr then cuts to a 4:23 shot of a horse pulling an elderly man sitting in a carriage down a dirt road, struggling against heavy wind. The camera never strays from the horse while moving around the scene itself, tracking it’s movement throughout the landscape it struggles against. Through the camera’s durational gaze and movement around it’s subject, along with Tarr’s resistance to cut from one shot of his subject to the next, the viewer begins to empathize with the struggle the horse faces against the landscape it moves through, and the ravages of time itself. Just as the horse in his film struggles against the harsh winds, the viewer struggles with the expected desire for rapid cuts and cinematic entertainment. Considered against Campany’s initial example of Muybridge’s early studies of motion, both Tarr and Muybridge aim to disrupt the viewer’s experience of movement throughout time to different affect – Muybridge deconstructing his horse’s movement into isolated slices of time, Tarr stretching it’s motion out over time, testing the duration of both the horses endurance against the harsh conditions in which he was filming, and his viewers experience of film as durational.
Another durational shot I thought was interesting in the context of Muybridge was the running scene from Steve McQueen’s recent film Shame. While more directly narrative a filmmaker than Tarr, McQueen often combines more durational techniques like long takes within a more conventional narrative structure. In 2011’s Shame, McQueen cast actor Michael Fassbender as a sex addict, whose daily life and habits are interrupted and confronted by an unexpected visit from his sister. In the midst of Fassbender’s emotional unravelling, McQueen included a 2:12 tracking shot of Fassbender jogging through the streets of Manhattan at night. Uninterrupted, the shot follows Fassbender out of his apartment building and down a number of city blocks from a flattened, clinical perspective not unlike Muybridge’s motion studies of a nude man running, or Ed Ruscha’s iconic Every Building on the Sunset Strip. While the shot is significantly shorter than many of the long takes favored by filmmakers such as Tarr, it is long enough to create a momentary break within the narrative of McQueens film. Watching Shame in the theatre, the sequence created an experience not unlike that of durational video – in the context of more traditional narrative film, Fassbender’s running seemed to extend infinitely, allowing the viewer to forget the larger narrative for just a moment and simply experience the pleasure of voyeuristically watching this man run. In a sense the viewer’s experience begins to blur the line between photographic experience and that of film – just as you analyze the gat of the man running in Muybridge’s motion study, you are also invited to do so for just a brief portion of McQueen’s film, toying with notions of the illusion of film and it’s events happening in real time.
All of this reminds me of something Rebecca Baron said in her interview with Janet Sarbanes. Discussing the use of still photographs within her documentaries, and her reinvestigation of iconic imagery, Baron said: “the filmmaker controls how long an audience looks at an image and where they look at an image. I can give you a glimpse of an image or I can make you look for minutes at a time. You can look away, but you are made aware that you are looking away… The obvious difference between moving and still images is that the latter allows for time to look at a single moment and the former is a series of constantly disappearing images that allow you to see what happens over time and, depending on the shot, expand the frame.” While I would like to cover more of this interesting conversation about the voracity of images and their reinvestigation through film, I feel like I am running out of time, so I will end here.