Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Crimen Falsi Redux, Part 1: The Theory of the Image

"General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan Executing a Viet Cong Prisoner in Saigon" by Eddie Adams

"The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths... What the photograph didn't say was, 'What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two or three American soldiers?'" - Eddie Adams


"a photograph does feel more like a verification of an event than an eyewitness statement (often for good reason). A story is just a story, and it's as easy to make them false as true, but a photo, or a film recording, is a literal imprint of the world (until it gets altered, of course -- the epistemological difficulties that photo manipulation cause for, e.g., consumers of the daily newspaper, are an interesting problem). Without very aggressive framing, it's hard to communicate to an audience that what they're seeing might not be true ... We're trained to think of the camera's eye as impartial, unless we have good reason to think otherwise." {emphasis mine} - Crimen Falsi

"Seeing is believing" - proverb

A photo or film recording is not a literal imprint of the world. In the capturing and transmission of the image much is lost. We can call this lost material context, which is the supplement to the image: both the missing piece, and the extra one.

An image is framed, chosen, represented; it lacks history, smell, sound. All this serves as alteration whether or not what lies inside the frame is "manipulated." "Manipulation," though, also exists in choices most viewers aren't conscious of. Lenses - which affect depth of field, among other things; the size of the image (a combination of lense choice and distance from camera from subject); the angles chosen (is the camera above or below the subject? are speakers shot head-on, at a slight angle, or at a greater one? Is a conversation shown by a shot / reverse shot patter, or in a two shot? What does lighting emphasize/deemphasize/obscure?) These choices create emotional resonances in images that do not mirror the world itself. The camera does not see as the eye sees. The eye shifts attention along with consciousness, adjusts to varying lighting conditions, grabs peripheral information without directing attention on it. The tricks of the filmmaker or photographer can attempt to mimic these perceptual schema. The tools of cinema (focus, editing, lighting et al) can be controlled to simulate human perceptual conditions and construct the perception of a narrative.

Filmmakers create meaning and context through montage. The image, like the word, contains meaning only in the interplay between context and image, whether the context is intrinsic or extrinsic to the image itself.

"Montage means the assembly of pieces of film, which moved in rapid succession before the eye create an idea." - Alfred Hitchcock

The basic psychological principles of montage have been known since at least the late 1910s, when Lev Kuleshov showed how juxtaposed images cause audience members to assert certain relationships between the two images (Hitchcock explains this process in his third example in the video clip).


"The cinema is truth 24 times a second." - Jean-Luc Godard

"The cinema lies 24 times a second." - Brian DePalma

Godard is almost universally skeptical of the truth-value of the image (strictly defined, by which I mean: the kind of truth that Mike assigns to the photographic image in his post). Godard's "truth" is the revelatory impact of the image, but for Godard the truth and the lie of cinema is it's ability to represent the material conditions of reality. If my turn of phrase sounds explicitly Marxist, it's because Godard's political radicalism informs his ideas about the truth-value of the moving image with increasing directness as the 1960's progress. After the near-miss of revolution in France in 1968, Godard's work becomes more explicitly didactic. His work as part of the Dziga Vertov Group sets itself up as a lesson plan but rather than obfuscate the manipulations of the image, Godard and his comrades (Jean-Pierre Gorin, among others) foreground the manipulations of the image so as to undercut them. He's laying bare the structures by which this manipulation takes place, undercutting the cinematic illusion as a lesson in radical media literacy [Godard's use of the image to this effect begins well before this, but 1968 is the breaking point, the moment when his ideological agenda moves to the fore]. The final Dziga Vertov Group film, Letter to Jane, explores the process of assigning meaning to a single photograph of Jane Fonda with a North Vietnamese communist soldier.


"Look however in Kapo, the shot where Riva commits suicide by throwing herself on electric barbwire: the man who decides at this moment to make a forward tracking shot to reframe the dead body – carefully positioning the raised hand in the corner of the final framing – this man is worthy of the most profound contempt." - Jacques Rivette's “Of Abjection”, a review of Gillo Pontecorvo's Kapo for Cahiers du cinéma, June 1961; cited by Serge Daney in his seminal essay The Tracking Shot in Kapo

"Tracking shots are a question of morality." - Jean-Luc Godard

The choices of presentation of an image are moral concerns precisely because they are images and not the world.


If Godard is interested in the truth as a lie, DePalma seems intent on creating truth by using lies as his raw material. DePalma understands all images as considered, i.e., "fictional," even (especially?) documentary ones. His newest film Redacted follows through on his previous work by addressing the 'reality' of images as images; it ends with a montage that takes "true" (i.e., documentary) images and combines them with a culminating "false" one (i.e., created by DePalma rather than documentary) that supports the 'truth' behind his political point. Why didn't he use a "real" image here? Were there no appropriate "real" images to be had?


"Art is a lie that tells the truth" - Pablo Picasso

"There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization." - Werner Herzog; from Minnesota declaration: truth and fact in documentary cinema


"We know that behind every image revealed there is another image more faithful to reality, and in the back of that image there is another, and yet another behind the last one, and so on, up to the true image of that absolute, mysterious reality that no one will ever see." - Michelangelo Antonioni (via)

DePalma's best work, Blow Out, remakes Antonioni's Blow Up and stars John Travolta as a Hollywood sound man who accidentally records the sounds related to the "accidental" death of a politician. DePalma's film, unlike Antonioni's, arrives at certainty about the mystery at the film's core. Antonioni's film is not about sound but about image; a photographer captures an image that provides evidence of a murder. Or perhaps the image offers illusions instead of evidence; the image is too hard to analyze, the photographer doesn't know all the facts, and the physical evidence is not verifiable (or rather, it is verifiable but not reverifiable). In Blow Up, Antonioni explores the creation of ambiguous images and the roots of meaning in the physical, contextual world.

Antonioni's is frequently a cinema of ambiguity for the viewer, as his films create images whose meaning can't be discerned at first glance - or even upon closer examination. Rather than emphasize the illusions of the image as moral concerns (a la Godard), Antonioni focuses on the epistomological dilemmas of the uncertainty of the process of image-making. See, for example, the incredible final shot of The Passenger. We see only ambiguous evidence, the leadup and aftermath of the climactic moment. Antonioni calls forth the unimaginability and unrepresentability of death; he shows us things we cannot know by emphasizing the fact that we cannot know.


“We translate every experience into the same old codes.” - David Locke, in Michelangelo Antonioni's Professione: reporter / The Passenger (via)


Hitchcock makes flawless use of these codes into which we translate experience, manipulating his audience by way of tension and misdirection. His characters, like Shakespeare's, frequently misapprehend the narrative of which they a part. Hitchcock differs from Shakespeare because in Hitchcock's narratives we see through the eyes of these characters and misapprehend what they misapprehend. Take Suspicion, one of his myriad masterworks of subjective point of view. Hitchcock's creation of point of view isn't limited to subjective camerawork; it's the creation of a worldview in which knowledge is constructed through one person's understanding. Our information is incomplete but suggestive enough to allow us to draw conclusions; only later will we be presented with enough information to make sense of events in a concrete way.

Some suggestive stills from Suspicion:


Mike's point is not about the actual fact-value of the cinematic image; he asserts that audiences have a "greater susceptibility to moving-pictures-plus-sound than words"; and that "the degree of processing that needs to occur between the art and its consumption is higher with novels, leading to a greater opportunity to audit for a sense of falseness." There's no comparison here; it's like comparing apples and Chicago. The modes of procesing might be more conscious in literature, assuming the cinematic illusion is well-kept. The mode of cinematic storytelling that sidesteps any the sense of 'artificiality' draws on a preexisting set of codes that signal verisimilitude. We may be "trained to think of the camera eye as impartial," but this is a lie. The cinematic image is not a priori more capable of creating the illusion of reality than any other form is. Most cinema situates itself within a certain Regime of Truth (Foucault) that represent reality using certain forms. These forms qualify as 'realism' in the cinema because viewers have been trained to accept these codes as real; David Bordwell has done extensive formalist work on the develoment of the codes in Hollywood's Regime of Truth. [To counteract the Hollywood Regime of Truth, "art cinema" has created (itself as) an alternate Regime of Truth with codes of its own. I'm not sure that this is a positive development]. The establishment of any artistic Regime of Truth consists of the codification of a set of approaches toward the representation of truth. What begins as an exercise in appearance-making (as opposed to copy-making, the two types of artistic endeavor in Plato's The Sophist) becomes instead hyperreal, dependent on the Regime of Truth for its truth value. The problem of hyperreality is one of quidditas: Does an image have quidditas any more than a word does? Do 24 images shown in rapid succession contain an essence? Can an image ensconced in a Regime of Truth reveal truth?

For Heidegger, truth (ἀλήθεια / Aletheia) is a process of revealing, an uncovering. The image at once covers and uncovers. In Heidegger's The Origin of the Work of Art, art reveals the thingliness of things [Heidegger doesn't say 'quidditas,' though he might]; Heidegger considers this revealing to be the purpose of art. A pair of shoes painted by Van Gogh differs from the shoes themselves in that they serve different purposes: the shoes themselves cover feet; the work of art reveals the nature of shoes ("lets us know what shoes are in truth"). A work of art differs from its subject even when the image is exact, for it takes its place as an image, a tool of uncovering.


"What the moving pictures lack is the wind in the trees." - D.W. Griffith


Another essential commentary to refute the radical reality of the camera’s eye:
Documentary filmmaker Errol Morris examines 2 iconic images from the Crimean War to determine in which order they were shot. A fascinating, multifaceted, essential series, taking place on his blog Zoom at the New York Times website.
(Part One)
(Part Two)
(Part Three)
Cartesian Blogging, Part One (in which Morris answers reader questions on the first three parts)


Or, I could have just suggested you see Rashômon.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Dinosaurs and Art

Check out the last Dear Diary entry in the NYTimes Metropolitan Dairy today:

Apparently, the Art part of "The Metropolitan Museum of Art" did not tip off this young woman to the Museum's content.

Still, her comment does inadvertently elicit curiosity as to what The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Dinosaurs might be like. Or, better yet, what would Metropolitan Museum of Dinosaur Art be?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Physics works!

Great NYTimes article about the stardom effects of charismatic faculty in the age of freely reproducable teaching via podcasting and the internet.

Yale Open Courses
MIT OpenCourseWare

I'm really excited to start Introduction to the Old Testament with Yale Professor Christine Hayes

I'd love to see lectures from Econobloggers Mankiw and Cowen as well. (If you're not familiar with Marginal Revolution, get thee to the Cowen link immediately).

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Crimen Falsi

I've been thinking lately about unreliability (not unreliable narration as such) in books and film. This post contains a massive spoiler for Atonement, so if you haven't read the book or seen the movie -- and really, you should read the book or see the movie, preferably reading if you have to choose but both worth doing -- I'd recommend skipping this post, or at least jumping a few paragraphs down where I start speaking in generalities once more.

Atonement isn't, properly speaking, a "twist" story -- you know, the M. Night Shyamalan style of storytelling in which the lurching mindfuck 3/4 of the way in is the engine that makes the story go. But there is a bit of a twist, and if you've managed to make it this far into the post without heeding the spoiler warnings, get ye gone here or make peace with missing out on an unsullied encounter with one of the greatest works of modern English letters. Seriously.

For the sake of discussion, I'll give some context. The scene I'm interested in comes in what I think is part 3 of the book (and is clearly part 3 of the movie, which to its credit divides just as neatly as the novel). At the end of part 2, Robbie, our male lead, has finally found a place to rest after being wounded during his flight to the British retreat-point at Dunkirk. The section closes with him drifting into unconsciousness, and the reader (by which I mean "I," at least) can be forgiven for assuming that he is off to that undiscovered country from whose bourne etc. etc. But then, after the action's shifted back to London, Briony visits her sister Cecilia, and is surprised to find Robbie in the flat as well. Due to the events of the opening section of the book, confrontation and drama ensue.

The twist, as you all know who are reading this far, is that this last scene doesn't actually happen. Briony invents it when she writes a novel around the story of Robbie, Cecilia, and herself, because she can't bear to recapitulate the reality that Robbie died at Dunkirk, as did Cecilia in an air raid. Leaving aside the compelling way this dramatizes the simultaneous power and powerlessness of art, what I'm most interested in now are the dynamics of that false scene. Because when reading the novel, I was in fact struck by a sense of falseness about it -- I wanted to believe that Cee and Robbie had gotten their version of a happy ending, but I didn't buy it, being utterly convinced that he had perished. I don't think I resolved this tension during my first read-through, but I definitely felt it, and when I discovered my instinct was right I felt a sense of rightness (and pleasure at having understood what was going on, of course).

The film, however, doesn't project this sense of falseness to nearly the same degree. Part of this is due to how section 2 is presented; Robbie's wound is shown, but the state of his health is not well-established, which makes his lapse into unconsciousness at the end far more equivocal. But there's something about how the scene itself plays out that feels too naturalistic, I suppose -- in the book, the dialogue feels more stilted, the characters don't seem to act quite like they should, and Robbie seems to hover within the scene like a ghost before crashing in and causing a stagey confrontation. The film matches the book to a great degree, as far as I can recall (I've loaned my copy to my sister, and thus lack access), but these same elements don't have quite the same effect. The characterization and dialogue similarly feel strained, but here they come off as the effect of passed time and strained, brittle emotions. And Robbie does flit about in the frame, starting off half-glimpsed, rushing, seen only in profile -- but this reads more as a tease towards the reveal that he survived Dunkirk, than as an indication of his true, phantom status.

[This marks the point at which reading becomes plausible once more for those of you sadly unfamiliar with Atonement]

In trying to figure out why the book works and the novel doesn't, obviously there are questions of craft involved. It's not as if all novels that attempt this feat succeed -- in fact, I've just finished reading a novel which didn't pull it off, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield (it was bought for me as a gift, and a bit outside my usual genres of choice, for what it's worth).

In that book, an aged writer is telling the gothicized, heavily Jane-Eyre-inspired story of her life to an eager biographer; the writer's already been established as having a slippery relationship with the truth, and so the pump theoretically should be primed for the reader to expect unreliable narration. And there's a pivotal scene where something along these lines happens -- the writer is a twin, and she and her sister were raised somewhat feral by insane incestuous jazz-age aristocrats (and more usefully, by a pair of their servants). Throughout the story, the girls have been utterly indifferent to others, barely taking note of them and engaging in thoughtless cruelties. But after one of the servants dies, suddenly the writer becomes inconsolable, worries about how to set up a funeral, and has to struggle with bottling up her tears. Given the previous characterization, my eyes began to roll quite robustly at this point.

Now, there is a good reason for this emotional-affect whiplash (it's too complicated to go into in detail, and is ultimately not hugely interesting), but instead of reading it as an ambiguity or strangeness in the text, I took it as a mistake of the author's. She'd already made a few missteps -- especially a number of significant ones in the early pages of the book, including having everybody in the book sport the same idiosyncratic literary style, and making the writer the Most! Famous! Writer! Of! All! Time!, who wrote 56 bestselling novels over the past 56 years. Given that track record, attempting to underplay your twist doesn't work particularly well (I am reminded of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which I also recently finished reading, also features a child of aristocracy mostly raised by servants, and also has a twist or two that are clued by inconsistencies in the facts that the reader thinks he knows -- difference being, the quality of the writing makes one think "there's something odd here," rather than "this book needed a better editor.")

Anyway, the point of that aside being that implementation matters, so that the comparative-media analysis I'm about to embark upon should be seen as an attempt to grapple at one piece of the question, rather than any stab at a definitive resolution. But with that said, it seems to me that the nature of cinema, as against the nature of a novel, conspires to make this sort of scene more difficult to pull off. The first factor I'd point to is the viewer's greater susceptibility to moving-pictures-plus-sound than words. The act of responding to a movie is much more direct and visceral than that of responding to words on a page -- not to say that one is stronger than the other (I cry much more frequently reading books than watching movies), but the degree of processing that needs to occur between the art and its consumption is higher with novels, leading to a greater opportunity to audit for a sense of falseness. The cinema's been compared to a magic circle, and I think the unity of that image rings true -- if we accept one part, we accept all of it.

Relatedly, we're more accustomed to think about the slipperiness of words, compared with the unambiguity of light and sound. Words may lie but the eye never does, etc. But even beyond such cliched formulations, a photograph does feel more like a verification of an event than an eyewitness statement (often for good reason). A story is just a story, and it's as easy to make them false as true, but a photo, or a film recording, is a literal imprint of the world (until it gets altered, of course -- the epistemological difficulties that photo manipulation cause for, e.g., consumers of the daily newspaper, are an interesting problem). Without very aggressive framing, it's hard to communicate to an audience that what they're seeing might not be true (in fact, I had a friend who wrote a screenplay that failed to work for precisely this reason -- there was a scene midway through that was actually a post-hoc reconstruction of someone's incomplete memories, but even though I'm generally very good at picking up on twists, it totally sailed by me. We're trained to think of the camera's eye as impartial, unless we have good reason to think otherwise).

Finally, I think the fact that actors portray characters who in a novel are simply words on a page is perhaps the largest single factor. If the dialogue is stilted and the affect seems odd, there at least are people on screen saying and emoting them -- the same people who were doing the exact same thing before. Drawing a line between the impersonation that's happened earlier and that which is happening now is hard -- there is a living, breathing person on the screen, and the continuity of their existence is a very difficult thing to reject. Ascribing falseness to a physical, breathing person is not a natural act. We're much more likely to invent a psychologizing explanation of inconsistencies to explain why this self-evidently self-identical person is not behaving in the way we expect, than when confronted with simple print that needs to be enlivened and personified by an act of imagination.

Of course, all of this discussion is premised on a framework that makes no sense in a very deep way. All fictions are false, so what's "true" and "false" within that context is a problematic question. We could just say it's all simply a matter of narrative causality, I suppose, but that seems rather impoverished. I think it ultimately winds up being a clash of aesthetics; a good work of art establishes the frame in which it functions, and a scene or character or note is false where it clashes with that frame ([Atonement spoiler: the hard, rather dark reality that the novel establishes is betrayed by the happy-ending of Robbie surviving his wound, one notes]). But this is insufficient too, because obviously many works of art function by harnessing an internal aesthetic clash or contradiction, without exalting one to "truth" and demoting the other. And recourse to this whole line of approach as simply a cheap effect in the service of juvenile plot-twist plotting also strikes me as unsatisfyingly glib. Some scenes are true and some scenes are false, and we can feel the difference, after all.

[final Atonement spoiler:]

Is this a fuzzy-minded retreat to a reactionary, Potter-Stewart aesthetics? Perhaps. But, be that as it may, it's clear that Robbie really is dead, the reader knows it, and the viewer should know it too.

[I'm suddenly reminded of the Tim-Robbins-killing scenes in High Fidelity, where the viewer's reluctance to parse a scene as false is used to considerable comedic effect. But my lunch break is over and this is sufficiently long that a click on the post button is in order]

Monday, December 17, 2007

to remember better, to part with less pain

Let us touch each other
while we still have hands,
palms, forearms, elbows . . .
Let us love each other for misery,
torture each other, torment,
disfigure, maim,
to remember better,
to part with less pain.

from Four Poems by Vera Pavlova

DOC Required Viewing: Shawshank Redemption

An intriguing article came across the AP wire today that informs us we can no longer send wall decorations to our friends in New Jersey state prisons:

I'm not sure what I find more entertaining - that Stephen King actually divised a ligitimate form of escape from prison or that the DOC didn't see this coming.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

No hazard labels required

This box was delivered to the lab recently. I find it interesting in a few ways.

1. Do you really need a label saying you need no labels?

2. Which label do you believe? The Department of Transportation (DOT) label or the label from the company shipping (Sigma-Aldrich)? One of them is not assessing the situation correctly. Do you believe in government regulation or are you a libertarian socialist (aka anarchist)?

3. The Mister Fantastic cameo appearance on that DANGER label is pretty awesome. The DANGER label is pretty awesome overall.

To Sigma-Alrich's credit, thioglycol is pretty pungent stuff. But it's not going to explode or kill anyone.

I wonder if this is a sign of things to come. Maybe in the future McDonald's will have coffee cups printed with both CAUTION: CONTENTS HOT and a Federally-mandated NO HAZARD LABELS REQUIRED.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Gladwell on James Flynn on I.Q.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the mutability of I.Q. in this week's issue of The New Yorker.

The article gives a very brief history of I.Q. tests in America and a few consequences of those tests. It also addresses issues of race and eugenics, and nature vs. nurture.

What I found particularly striking was the Chinese-American example of high achievement preceding high I.Q. on the generational level. It is an obvious consequence of Flynn's ideas, but nonintuitive nonetheless.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Philosophy of Destruction

I'd intended my first post to be a bit more, uh, substantive (I have thoughts stored up on Pynchon, Murakami, and nostalgia via Kundera -- I have an hour-long commute and fly a lot these days, which means I'm doing a lot of reading!). But as is often the case, all my best intentions are no match for serendipity. Via Crooked Timber, whence many glories:

Kant Attack Ad

I want the whole series, now. K can really slash back, I feel. Ecce Homo is not going to go over well with today's values voter, I can tell you that much.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

We were all like that once; or if we weren't, we probably wish we had been.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

The Savage Detectives is a grubby epic, part road movie, part joyful, nostalgic confession. It starts as a diary, written by the 17-year-old Juan García Madero, who comes under the spell of the revolutionary-minded poets Arturo Belano and Ulises Lima (for whom read Bolaño himself and his friend Mario Santiago) and their "visceral realism" movement, in Mexico City in 1975.

These pages read like a homage to Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, as Juan learns to drink, argue, screw and write. They are at once brimming with exuberant, innocent depravity, and open to mature condescension. We were all like that once; or if we weren't, we probably wish we had been.
- On the trail of the runaway poets