Monday, February 13, 2006

A Succession of Automatic World Projections?

Having so far puzzled things out, one is confronted with the following remark from Cavell's book on film:
The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it; and a world I know, and see, but to which I am nevertheless not present (through no fault of my subjectivity), is a world past.
This can't be right: it cannot follow from this kind of asymmetrical presence that one is presented with the past, since the events in a play are meant to be happening now. If photographs present the past, that is further fact about them.

Even if we grant this further fact, Cavell's account of film is almost impossible to square with what I took to be his conception of theatre. He argues, in effect, that since film is screened photography, it too presents what it presents as past. Thus we can explain, without need for the theatrical convention of make-belief, why no-one attempts to intervene:
In viewing a movie my helplessness is mechanically assured: I am present not at something happening, which I must confirm, but at something that has happened, which I absorb (like a memory).
But, again, this can't be right. I suppose one could treat the screened images in a movie theatre as photographs: watching a film as, in effect, a documentary about its previous enactment. But that is not what we typically do.

As Cavell points out, a photograph – unlike a painting – is always implicitly of a whole world:
You can always ask, pointing to an object in a photograph – a building, say – what lies behind it, totally obscured by it. [...] You can always ask, of an area photographed, what lies adjacent to that area, beyond the frame.
Imagine asking these questions as you watch a film. If you are properly immersed, you won't say: "Behind the building is the studio parking lot; adjacent to the actors are lights and a trailer."

To watch a film is to make-believe that these are not photographs, in Cavell's sense: and so there is, so far, no reason why what is presented must be presented as past. (Mulhall is therefore wrong to find a "conflict between the genre of science fiction, with its projections of future social and technological arrangements, and the grain of the film medium." We can travel in time.)

In effect, Cavell's account of film conflicts with the premise on which his conception of theatre rests: that, when immersed, our practical reasoning is in the direction of what we make-believe, not what we believe. We know that these are screened photographs, just as we know that they are actors on stage. But this is quite irrelevant. What matters, and what Cavell leaves quite opaque, is the content of the make-belief (or of the many kinds of make-belief) through which we engage with film.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

In further support of your criticism of Cavell's view of film, note the considerable lengths which some viewers go to construct additional events and storyline which back-fill the ostensible story of the film. Fan-sites creating imagined events in the "real-lives" of characters in (say) "24" or people attending Star Trek conventions are not doing so because they imagine the world described on screen as having past!

1:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're right about the viewer's having to "make believe", to play along with the film's reality. But I don't think this means that the events in a play are supposed to be happening now. (If the indexical now is meant to pick out the viewer's objective present, that is. If it's meant to pick out the film's present moment, then the claim would be trivial.) It seems rather that there's just a disconnect between the time of the film and that of the real world--that's the difference between actually believing and merely suspending disbelief.

Aristotle claimed that the events in a play had to take place within a reasonably small frame of time and space, otherwise the viewer would find it implausible that so much time had passed in a few seconds. Surely that doesn't capture the phenomenology of film viewing. (Consider the flashback.) I think that position was soubdly refuted by Dr Johnson.

9:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A film or play is simply a window into a seperate dimension that often recounts its events for the viewer.

3:07 PM  

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