In this article Charles Rees offers his personal insights about how image and sound can be re-‘read’ in such a way as to transcend current narrative constraints. He offers examples of films which have influenced and impressed him, and extrapolates on ways in which cinema might develop in the future.
My four views stretch over a long period.
Each individual sees differently.
The Camera Image sees differently from humans.
Third View: Sound Should Lead
I ran into a student friend who told me he was using a pinhole camera. He had punctured a film-can and covered the hole with camera-tape, which he would remove to expose frames of 35 mm film stock inside the can. This lens-less technique gave his photographs a special atmosphere, as if they had ‘grown’ in the dark. He offered to demonstrate this particular camera obscura to me by taping large plastic bags to the windows of one of my rooms. I cut a small hole in this blackout and suddenly the image of what was outside filled the whole room: dim and upside-down. It moved: the room was full of swaying leaves.
I brought a blank sheet of A4 paper near to the hole. There was a perfect image, bright and focused. The image was authoritative but it did not have a human-expressive quality. Yet it was beautiful and strange. Particularly strange were the clouds and the leaves of the trees. They seemed to count for more than when we saw them with our eyes. Conversely, the objects of human construction: the parked cars, the motley street-furniture and the buildings appeared drab and seemed to count for less. This strangeness was not due to the accentuating of what was already bright. The camera had a different way of seeing altogether. The image was qualitatively different to the same scene seen with one’s eyes. It was disposed more towards nature than human-made things.
I saw the same phenomenon in several different weathers. I saw it again when I visited the Camera Obscura on Castle Hill in Edinburgh. The city was spread out on a large dish as in a scene in A Matter of Life and Death (Powell & Pressburger 1946) but it was nature, in the trees and the clouds, which stood out.
Perhaps ‘nature’s picture’ responds to living nature? It was a mystery. I concluded that the discrepancy between our way of seeing and the camera obscura’s tells us more about the way we humans see. We humans probably assume that we can see objectively. We do not. The camera shows us truly objective seeing. All animals of the Earth see in ways appropriate to their species. Like them, we see in a way appropriate to our bodies and our concerns.
We have evolved two eyes to be able to judge distances and to prevent our physical bodies bumping into things and two ears to sense changes in our environment. The camera, which is without a body and a mind to interpret with, has a single eye. A pure and innocent watcher, it is coolly unbiased. It contrasts with the way we see principally in that it attaches no more importance to any one thing than to another.
The camera image is a phenomenon of wild nature. It is apart from us, like a snow-capped mountain in whose rarefied air we cannot stay for long. Many of us spend the greater part of our lives in the human-constructed environment, the city, preoccupied by our concerns about jobs, money and so on. We often think about the future. We become addicted to looking forward to small pleasures. We do not live very much in the instantaneous present, nor do we see in the spontaneous way of nature’s other creatures. We tend not to notice the wild nature that surrounds us: the trees, the leaves, the clouds, the shadows. Perhaps this is because they are part of a world we have left behind.
Eons before human beings: a cave. The cave’s mouth stopped with foliage: it is dark inside. A light-beam penetrates this leafy covering, filling the interior of the cave with an image of what is outside – an image always in the instantaneous present. The cave or dark chamber (‘camera obscura’) has a way of imitating life. It is a natural phenomenon like wind, rain or the everlasting waterfall. It is nature’s image of nature.
Much later, mammals evolved, amongst whom are the apes. They developed communication amongst themselves, an ‘echoing’ of nature. This is an imitation on a different principle: the body. By gesticulating and by sound (the voice) the apes developed language. They hunted together for survival and became a society. They learned to control nature. They acted according to their view and their interest. Two types of imitation: the action of light in a dark enclosed place and the evolved languages of humanity. For Aristotle, imitation of nature was the basis of all art. The camera’s imitation is different from ours. They do not overlap: there is a gap between them.
The invention of photography in the 19th century captured nature’s image permanently. We tried to bridge the gap. We tried to make the image fit our own human-constructed world. We designed film emulsions to ‘correct’ the disparity between the camera’s way of seeing and our own. We enlisted the help of our old, familiar arts of theatre and music to accompany and discipline the image. As a form of art, the theatre epitomizes our human communication by gesture and speech. Theatre amplifies the communication techniques we use in everyday life in order to reach a large audience. The players, set apart from the audience, create a re-enactment. The actors sense the audience’s response and fine-tune their performance in order to tell a story.
In this art based on the body, the individual spectators become part of a single, greater body, the audience. The actors sometimes call this ‘the monster’ (a slow-moving ‘bubble’ of response to the action which is not in the instant, but is rather following behind as well as simultaneously anticipating ahead). This following and anticipating ahead is the audience’s primary way of grasping what is happening in front of them. The grip is story-orientated: one has to understand what is going on before one is able to feel.
The camera, on the other hand, is not to do with meaning or story, and the response it draws from us reverses the process. So instantaneous is the camera (at the speed of light) that you can feel an emotion before you understand. Aristotle’s theory of imitation as the basis of all the arts is irrelevant in the case of the camera’s art, since the camera has already done all the imitating that should be necessary. The camera provides the platform for an artist to move beyond aesthetic matters to a moral venture. The camera invites us to aspire beyond ourselves – like voyaging into space. When we persist in employing our human-evolved imitation technique, we are using the camera as a reproductive device, not as an instrument of art.
Narrative film has been based on the theatrical approach. It subjugated nature’s camera, as if taming a wild animal and harnessed it, as if to a wagon. Today it still loads the wagon with selected material derived from other arts and leads it away from nature.
To make natural films we need to lead the audience towards nature not away from it. The audience needs acclimatizing to wildness. By tradition humanity came closer to wild nature by hunting. Today we can hunt with a camera.
We can use the camera the way an angler fishes. The river is time. We approach the bank and select our spot (the camera position) so that we do not disturb the life in the stream. Then begins the wily, patient procedure of trying to lift these cold, slippery live creatures into a different environment (art). Laying them in line on the bank the sun warms them up (the transformation by montage).
We should not tame the camera. The camera is wild, like an animal trapped in our human-built environment, the city. Perhaps that is the explanation for how doors and doorways seem to fascinate it. It seeks them out the way a squirrel collects nuts (more than half the shots in Robert Bresson’s L'argent (1983) are of doors). What is the explanation for this? Does the wild camera want to escape our environment? Perhaps it is intent in what is on the other side of every door? Whatever the case, the camera, as with the other phenomena of nature – wind, rain and the waterfall – has a unique character.
Nature’s imitation is outside us. Our human-evolved imitation is inside us. How is nature’s mode of imitating the outside of us to communicate to inside us without being changed?
Sound can lead the way and Robert Bresson shows us how. The great clarity of Bresson’s films derives principally from their contemplation of involuntary and unselfconscious behaviour – behaviour that is instantaneous. His L'argent is a natural film – like a leaf or a tree. Its surfaces are so close to nature it will be intelligible 500 years from now when most other films will seem weird and expressive only of their time. If we do not respond whole–heartedly to this film today – perhaps feeling that it lacks warmth and drama – it is because we are acclimatized to a cinema idiom that is unnatural.
The sound in L'argent often precedes picture. Bresson taught that in writing a script one should try to find a way of expressing something by sound before by picture. By giving priority to sound filmmakers can find their use of the camera becomes more vivid. Having an expressive sound already in mind, they are free to frame a shot more daringly. They begin to understand precisely what they need to see. Their camera comes nearer to people and to things. The 50 mm lens, the non-dramatic lens, gives optimal clarity without distortion. Finally, the raw images become subtly and powerfully expressive through montage.
An example might be a railway station scene. Begin with the sound, that grubby, echoing sound. Refrain from trying to shoot an interesting establishing shot of the station – in any case how to match brilliant images of the past such as in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927)?
Begin by listening and you are already inside the station, not only physically but also as a feeling. However, you need to select the sound with great care. Robert Bresson would listen to dozens of sound effects, such as car drive-bys, recorded ‘clean’ at a country airfield, to get the feeling he was looking for. Having begun by listening you now search for something to see which might have been unimaginable beforehand – perhaps a pair of walking feet, as in the beginning of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1951).
Sound provides our way of bridging the gap to the camera’s strangeness. A face can deceive us – think of the faces of murderers in newspapers. Sound, on the other hand reaches directly inside us, affecting us and moving us before we think. We already connect with what a sound means.
We can guide and help our eyes’ speculations by attending to sound first. Sound should lead the picture. It travels slowly, arriving to us, by means of the material air, later than what we see. It nevertheless penetrates us first. Our slow metabolisms can feel sound directly. We should concentrate first on sound to attune ourselves more accurately to the picture that is beyond us.
It is like going into space. We communicate first through air. All the initial effort is to do with passing through the Earth’s atmosphere. Once we have passed through that – you might call it our desire – our momentum propels us all the way. We have crossed over the wide gap. In this place of sensory deprivation, dead like the inside of the camera obscura, it is the view of the living Earth that draws us. How wonderfully balanced it is between icecaps and deserts, oceans and forests! We see no evidence of humanity’s constructions at this distance. All the dramas, conflicts and wars are not visible here. This contemplative place shows us where we live, a wonderful wholeness that needs careful management.