Thursday, 12 July 2007

Vertigo: An Obsession with Realism

Photographs seem to haunt our imagination and our relationship to the world, offering as they do a persistent material presence to us of our absence from the world they display. The photograph confronts us with an automatic, mechanical and faithful doubling of a world now seemingly lost to us in time.

Their strange aura appears to derive from the degree to which the ephemeral moment of presence they persistently confront us with is inextricably linked to the overwhelming material density of the reality they serve to double and offer up to our memory.

Cinema, due to its essentially photographic nature, is also able to provide a complex double of an absent real world. Through the development of the necessary technology to screen moving photographic images the cinema was able to develop a simulacrum of the real world, capturing and ‘embalming’ the movement and eventually the associated sound of the existing material world.

Here lies the extraordinary value of Bazin and Cavell’s work on the strange and mysterious intertwined ontology of photography and cinema. Both identified the degree to which cinema extends and expands upon the ontology of the photograph, concentrating particularly upon the notion of mechanical automatism and the role it has in serving to so effectively double reality and mummify the duration of things in the world. Bazin highlights the fact that photography allows, for the first time in history, the mere ‘instrumentality of a non-living agent’ (i.e. a mechanical automaton) as the only medium between the original object and its reproduction. So the image is formed ‘automatically’, seemingly free from the intervention of the human hand and subjectivity, which, as Bazin indicates, ‘satisfies, once and for all and in its very essence, our obsession with realism.’

The fact that photographs provide a double of the real world does not at all guarantee our ongoing presence to the world so displayed. In fact it is just the opposite. The photograph displays a mummified presence that is absent – as Cavell writes ‘present as absent, or absent as present’. This is not to deny the reality of the real, rather it is to allow the photograph to disclose or approach an understanding of the ontology of reality. The photograph discloses reality itself (what is really in our presence) as being from which we are always absent.

The displacement of present reality, which is persistently displayed by the photograph, explains our sense of persistent estrangement from it. The ‘realism’ achieved by the photograph provides us with an acute sense of reality, which crucially is one from which we already sense a distance. The photograph doubles and consummates our implicit sense of ‘reality’. The mechanical automatism of cinema clearly exacerbates the sense of distance and estrangement implicit within photography thereby providing us with the requisite heightened sense of reality. However, it is an ontology of reality which is persistently haunted by the realisation of our absence from reality, the impossible distance which always already haunts our sense of reality.

I believe that such a hauntology provides an explanation for my ongoing obsession with a film about a singular desire for realised fantasy generated by the protagonist’s absence from the present of reality – Hitchock’s Vertigo. The obsession with realism and its integral connection to fantasy in cinema (exemplified so powerfully by Hitchcock’s Vertigo) was clearly identified by Bazin when he observed that cinema inherently produces images of the reality of the world, or hallucinations ‘that are also a fact’.

For Cavell the obsession with the type of realism explored within cinema is connected with our strong desire to ‘view the world itself’ and the associated wish to access the very condition of viewing or imaging as such. Cinema responds to these desires insofar as when we watch a film we appear to be viewing the world unseen and we appear to be in communion with the objective conditions of viewing as such. Such viewing fulfils our obsessive desire for realism since it displaces us from our normal subjective habitation within the world, and propels us towards a sublimated objectivity troublingly associated with voyeurism. Our normative mode of perception constitutes a somewhat strained connection to the world which is not so much looking out at it and perceiving ‘how it is’, but rather to ‘look out at it, from behind the self’. The interposition of subjectivity between one’s being and the world besets philosophy with a convoluted epistemological problematic, itself a symptom of our obsession for realism.

In order to come to view the world ‘how it is’, to form images of reality, it becomes increasingly necessary to attempt a sublimation of our private fantasies, to render them imperceptible. Yet, as Cavell notes, by viewing the world from behind the self, we repeatedly consign our private fantasies to being thwarted and displace ourselves from our natural habitation within the world. We are thus responsible, in our normative condition, for everything that is unnatural about our condition. However, the cinema offers us a redemptive opportunity for an automatic displacement from our unnatural subjective condition. Films seem to respond to our obsession for realism, insofar as they appear to be ‘more natural than reality’, by removing the responsibility for the displacement of subjectivity from us. Cinema thus provides a relief from the burdensome realm of private fantasy and its heavy responsibilities. Films serve to automatically displace us from our subjectivity and offer us an objective glimpse of the world ‘as it is’. However, crucial to such an understanding of the ontology of reality disclosed by cinema is the fact that the objective world which appears ‘as it is’ has always already been drawn by fantasy, that the world drawn by fantasy is not a world separate from the real world – fantasy and reality are aspects of the one existing world – and therein lies the revelatory redemptive power of cinema in relation to our obsession with realism. On film the world is automatically recreated, doubled and imaged.

As Cavell identifies, the cinema permits the self to become ‘awakened’ and to cease withdrawing its desires deeper and deeper into an imperceptible interior realm. Film awakens us from the governing mode of normative perception that has come to seem so natural to us, namely that mode of perception in which, in order to view the world unseen (and therefore objectively) we look at the world ‘from behind a self’ and render our desires and fantasies invisible (or rather, deny that their visible marks constitute part of the ontology of reality).

The cinema has the capacity to awaken us to the world’s reality and to the reality of our unnatural condition of displacement from the world.

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