Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Worked Matter

(A continuation of the ideas in the post, "The Real and the True.")

This still is from the Buster Keaton film "Doughboys" from 1930, a couple years into his sad and drunken decline at MGM. It's a cheaply produced programmer, and what joys it has revolves around Keaton gamely (but ultimately unsuccessfully) mouthing and falling over material way beneath him. They worked him hard and spit him out. You can see it in his eyes.

He's not in the south of France. He's in Culver City. MGM made a half-hearted attempt to recreate a WWI war scene on their backlot, and the forced perspectives in the backdrops, the on-cue smoke machines and fake explosions entertain as they show how the littlest of effort could go a long way to set the stage.

While certainly not convincing, it was all staged for the camera and edited competently to convince the viewers then (and now) just enough to go along with the gag. Film writer Stanley Cavell notes that while a painting may create a world on a canvas, photography is ever only of the world. It shows only what it is pointed at. It records, not creates.

Film - as an artform - is more than its parts. It an amalgam of worked objects, primarily of photographed shots. Photography has an intimate relationship to the real world - what is shown to it is revealed, yet what isn't is lost forever. These concrete and hyperreal, yet specific and limited, objects are then manipulated by the artist. Or artists. Or the process.

Photography approaches a kind of allographic art - a (captured) index of a preexisting object that is re-presented, rather like a song that is written then subsequently performed, creating a new work to be considered. Film (cinema) requires a series of arts and artisans working to create a new fictional, specific and virtual object. This craftwork is not separatable from the film - while you can measure the skill in a song, regardless of a bad performance, the "performance" of a film demonstrates and manifests the art. The cutting, acting, photography, or music used in unison with closeups, etc. all are made tangible only in its complete presentation.

The (film) object also has the property that it is not the actual artifact by which the artist(s) worked on. It is merely a representation of the final product, a duplicate (except in the rare instance in which you may actually handle the original nitrate print that Chaplin edited himself, or perhaps the original lithograph in which Andy Warhol spread ink onto, the one from which all the subsequent silkscreens derived (lending credence to the idea of an artist's aura remaining on the original artistically-worked object, and not on the subsequent copies. Regardless of the artist's intentions.).).

A film print is the manifestation of the history at its own making and of its subsequent remaking. Digital film- and image-making, on the other hand, does not preserve its historical roots; the images aren't worked so much as created - or re-created - by computer algorithms. The process redefines the original photographic pieces-of-the-world. And while the images may be astounding or spectacular, they no longer have a relationship to previous events of the world.

Such recent animated comic books as "The Spirit" or "The Dark Knight" demonstrate the unreality of surfaces that don't convince so much as suggest (it is still only the primal performance of Heath Ledger, surrounded by madness as much as manifesting it (extra-texturally as well as narratively), that still elicits comment - (so far) 6 months after that film's release). Such "unwanted" traces as a shoddy set, a hung-over actor, explosions with no sound (or jokes with no punchlines) are not the texture of the new media.

The raw footage isn't "historical" - it is fluid, and therefore has no specificity in time or history.

It's "faked," and the spectacle of the presented material moves to a kind of painting, creating a world but not being of the world.

The Keaton film remains a problematic document of a specific time in Keaton's career, and demonstrates (while it simultaneously suffers from) a specific mode and circumstance of production. Yet regardless of its "importance," it is a unique and historical reflection, in its parts and in total. The flaws create (and alter) its meaning.

The dinosaurs in "The Lost World" or the post-apocalyptic Earth of "Wall-E" are profoundly convincing, yet lack the visceral force of, for example, Dennis Rodman's performance in "Double Team" (1977).

The spectacle of Rodman's presence before the camera illicits a lurid fascination with the tragedy of humanity (and perhaps sympathy for the director) that digital lederdermain, for all its chicanery, can never hope to accomplish.

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