What is film? What makes a movie a work of art? How can film be interpreted? To give one answer to these questions I’ll take a look on Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed.
Whereas we understand saying “that’s a trumpet” when listening to a record, we seem not to understand saying “this is grandma” by upholding a photo of her. Thus, Cavell, in his chapters “Sights and Sounds” (pp. 16-23) and “Photograph and Screen” (pp. 23-25) of his The World Viewed, tries to make clear what we are saying in this situation.
He comes to the conclusion that a past world is present to us when looking at a photograph. This is a world devoid of us. Hence “photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it” (p. 23). It’s quite the contrary with paintings. They want a conviction of our presence to the world. So “to maintain conviction in our connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world” (p. 23).
That’s why we can’t ask with regard to paintings what’s behind an object or beyond the frame, whereas those questions make sense in reference to photographs, because a painting is a world and its frame being the world’s borders, whereas photographs are of the world.
In the following I’m going to unfold these ideas in more detail.
The foundation of film is photography. The photograph is of reality or nature, and the medium is a photographed picture projected and gathered on the screen. So the question rises what happens with reality, when being projected and gathered on the screen.
First, let’s focus the attention on reality in photography. Whereas film communicates what is real, painting visually renounces the representation of reality (as, for instance, will later be seen when talk is about the frame). However, what does it mean that photography is not painting?
The answer is, that photography presents us with things. But how to describe the connection between the photograph and that of which the photograph is? A comparison between visual and auditive transcription should clear things up.
We are completely accustomed to hear things that are invisible. That’s why sounds can be perfectly copied, which is to say that a recording reproduces sound. That, for instance, serves our interest to learn language; which wouldn’t be possible if sounds couldn’t be copied.
On the contrary we are not accustomed to see things that are not present. Moreover, apart from dreams, we are not accustomed to the fact, that we already see absent things, which is the case when looking at photographs. However, photographs do not reproduce sights, views, or appearances, because sights are objects. That means, it’s the object one sees, not the sight, if one sights something. In other words, objects neither have nor produce sights. Hence, to reproduce sights one has to produce moulds.
But what is it that photographs are doing? Photographs are no moulds, because moulds get rid off their originals, whereas in photographs the originals are still present. Not either are photographs handmade, rather they are mechanically, automatically manufactured.
Now, what does that mean? In comparing photography and painting, Cavell gives an concluding answer to this question as well as to question about what’s happening to reality in a photograph.
To understand his answer, call into mind the scepticism about the external world given i.e. in the Matrix-Trilogy. Our relation to reality is not harmonious, because we are captured by the dualism of what comes from reality and what we do carry into reality. (As if it would be possible to distil reality from concepts or conventions.)
Well, photography didn’t set free painting from similarity or the idea that a picture should be a picture (of or about something else) – as André Bazin says.
The reason is that painting and photography are not in competition about satisfying the human desire for reaching reality (which is the desire for escaping subjectivity and metaphysical isolation). Therefore it could rather be said that painting set photography free to be invented – by drawing back from similarity.
Furthermore, painting wants to create meaningful objects in colour, not essentially pictures. So Cavell concludes that painting and reality no longer ensure each other. What painting really wanted is the sense for presentness. Painting doesn’t want “a conviction of the world’s presence to us, but of our presence to it” (p. 22).
“At some point the unhinging of our consciousness from the world interposed our subjectivity between us and our presentness to the world. Then our subjectivity became what is present to us, individuality became isolation. The route to conviction in reality was through the acknowledgement of the endless presence of self. What is called expressionism is one possibility of representing this acknowledgement. But it would, I think, be truer to think of expressionism as a representation of our response to this new fact of our condition—our terror of ourselves in isolation—rather than as a representation of the world from within the condition of isolation itself” (p. 22).
That way photography overcame subjectivity in a manner of which painting didn’t ever dreamed of. Through the automatism of taking a picture the agent was removed from the task of reproduction. In this our absence from the world is expressed. Whereas the reality of the photograph is present to me, I am not present to the reality of the photograph. So, this reality is a past world.
Second, now let’s take a look at the question about what’s happening when reality is projected and gathered on the screen.
With regard to a photograph one can ask what is behind an object or beyond the frame of it. The reason we can ask this question is, that the objects on a photograph have an answer in reality. Reality is just cut off by the limited camera itself. For this, confining the world, photography should be praised, because by that means it allows us to think.
On the contrary those questions cannot be raised with regard to a painting, since the world of a painting stands in continuity to the world of the frame. In other words, a painting is a world whose limits are the frame.
The notion of the painting’s frame differs from the notion of the film’s frame. The frame of a movie is the whole of the screen. That frame is indefinitely extensible and contractible depending on the standards of technology and the range of the world. To draw the camera back or panning it are just two ways of enlarging the frame. The effect of changing the frame, i.e. through a close-up or a ling shot, raises attention. But changing the frame is not its only possibility. There is another one, namely to let the world happen. That means, to let the world self call attention to according to it’s natural weight. (Cavell names Carl-Theodor Dreyer and Michelangelo Antonioni, among others, as two masters of this phenomenon.)