23 August 2012

Bresson and Uncanny Cinema

By Tymon Brown

The existence of cinema as a thought-process, far preceding its technical invention, has long informed and influenced the philosophical and artistic discourse of society. Questions pertaining to the nature of realism and existence, which had been largely unanswered, were tackled through the plastic arts and the sciences. The desire to capture (and therein understand) life’s essence, as if it were something to be reigned in and manipulated, has always been a priority for man; to negate the finality of death and futility of life through an artifice that expresses the innermost and immutable truths of existence, and in so doing achieve victory over time.

Through painting, sculpture, theater; the plastic arts gave man a visceral outlet with which perspective could be gained, understanding of one’s existence wrought, and emotions elucidated. The primitive nature of these arts, while utterly effective at spiriting away the imaginations of those that consumed them, would forever inherently fail to play as a stark reality; for the presence of the creator – a fallible, perspectival, and ultimately very human creator – would automatically discredit any objective and natural “perfection” that could have been present.

Consider the plastic arts preceding the technical advent of cinema. The lack of mechanical precision inherent in these mediums has always been the very source of their effect; despite the vagaries of human intervention, these mediums have illustrated and expressed the artist’s perception of life. These art forms are just as much a technical skill to be studied and honed as they are the sum result of the artist’s accumulated life’s experiences and perspectives. The presence of human manipulation in the creation of the image is where its power comes from. Indeed, the image becomes effecting and relatable because it is imperfect.

Yet the desire for perfection persists. The idea that human beings have any idea what perfection is suggests that we actually have an idea of what life truly consists of; the impulse to recreate this life in a tangible, visceral image, something that we can interact with and manipulate, is strong. However, it is problematic for one to focus on the technicalities of the artifice.

For example, the recent trend towards heavy use of CG in films has rendered, in large part, the craft of hand-drawn animation practically obsolete. The glitz and spectacle of crystal-clear, crisp image and audio is seductive and alluring, and presents technical visual possibilities that may not have been on the table in decades past. As the technical artifice expands, so does the visual palate grow jaded, until anything that the artist can dream up can become a “reality”.

Unfortunately this poses a problem. The prioritization of reaching life-likeness in film presupposes that we have any understanding of what life actually is; but, as society is an ever-shifting construct with which human beings can progressively learn more about life, it could be presumptuous for us to base our ability to imbue “life” into an image off of a subjective standard. It betrays the objective realism of the art form.

Consider the nature of a caricature vs. a highly detailed, photo-realistic copy of a human face. The potential for emotional resonance in, for example, an anthropomorphized talking banana is much higher than that of a near-perfectly human-looking robot or CG animation.

In a hypothesis purported in 1970, robotics professor Masahiro Mori presented his notion of the “uncanny valley”. Mori postulated that the more human-looking a robotic model becomes, the easier it will be for people to interact with it empathetically – that is, until the model becomes so near-perfect that there’s something obviously wrong with it, something distinctly inhuman, but difficult to pinpoint. At this juncture (or the breach of the uncanny valley), the empathetic human response to the near-human robot would turn to one of deep revulsion. Mori continued to theorize that “crossing the uncanny valley” is possible, and that once robotic models become indistinguishable from their human counterparts there would be no reaction of revulsion, and instead one of integration and, again, empathy. And yet, this hypothesis does not attempt to answer when that will be, or just how we will get to that point; or if the perfect mimicry of human life will ever be possible if the subject in question isn’t human. However, the debate over the affect of the soul (including whether or not such a thing exists, and if it does, whether or not it matters at all) will be left for others to engage in.

As it stands presently, we have approached the threshold of the cinematic uncanny valley. The technical progressions that allow filmmakers and artists the capability to artificially mimic life in near-perfect detail have led them to unintentionally stumbling upon a paradox of effect; the closer they have gotten to creating a perfectly “life-like” image, the less effective the image has become. It’s realism on a curve; the closer you get to reaching “realism”, the more apparent and frustrating will the remaining distance seem.

Film theorists have long attempted to understand the apparent paradoxes inherent in cinema. For example, the notion of a “cinematic” image does not have to be exclusively correlated to an image captured through a camera and displayed through a projector; take the painted works of Caravaggio, Rembrandt, or Vermeer. The displayed mastery of light and perspective, coupled with the artists’ deft illustration of realism in form, speak to an incarnation of cinema that goes beyond the “event”. One of the principal voices in determining this universal quality of the cinematic image was Andre Bazin.

Bazin addresses, in his essay “The Myth of Total Cinema”, the long-standing existence of the cinematic image in society. Indeed, the invention of the technical artifices of filmmaking (namely perforated celluloid, dry emulsion and the shutter/gear system) occurred so long after the presence of cinematic thought in the minds of people that it’s actually rather incredible that it took so long for the mechanical invention to be discovered and synthesized.

Bazin postulates that as the technical artifices of cinema continue to be refined, they continue to approach their natural origins. Color, grain, photo-realism, life-likeness; the technical components evolve and appear to be ever more emblematic of what they aspire to be. CG animation, HD resolutions, and ever more hyper-detailed technologies bring the viewer closer to the brink of an unfortunately specific augmented reality. This is the “cinematic” uncanny valley, and commercial pressures are causing us to dive into it, headlong. Bearing this in mind, Bazin suggests that, as “everyday” inventions continue to progress away from their points of origin, cinema can be seen as going in the opposite direction; it edges closer and closer to replicating nature. As Bazin states in Total Cinema: “In short, cinema has not yet been invented!” Whether or not uncanny cinema will be a blessing or a curse remains to be seen.

The reaction of revulsion experienced by the viewer aside, there is a problematic reality that we are being faced with; the rapidity of technical development, and the mad rush for commercial supremacy, has brought the mass viewer to a place of over-absorption so profound that the pace with which he or she absorbs information far outstrips one’s ability to retain, digest and learn from it - or at the very least, properly experience it. An assailing wall of sound and light coming from all directions at once cheapens the experience, and reinforces a possibly misguided representation of life, in a hyper-detailed verisimilitude. Audiences are being inundated with a desire for flash-bang mimicry of the only things they know; but even when we, as a society of audiences, resist the misguided veneer of realism purported by over-commercialized cinema, it can be difficult to know where to begin, and where to look for alternatives.

A contemporary of Bazin, the filmmaker Robert Bresson embraced a distinctive type of non-reality that unwittingly plays directly against the affect of uncanny cinema. Bressonian technique deliberately lauded a state of neutral being that, when filtered through the lens, laid bare harsh emotion in such a way that the viewer would be rendered entranced. Deviating sharply from traditional methods of acting and cinematography (such as employing Brechtian or Stanislavskian acting methodology, or playing with shot/reverse shot in a six-shot pattern), Bresson instead crafted his own method of direction. Instructing his actors to refrain from expressing their emotions in easily readable ways, and instead having them focus on merely being, Bresson was able to uncover a wellspring of possibilities that would allow the camera itself to become not so much a window into another world, but instead a conduit to the viewer’s mind.

In addition, Bresson had a propensity to use long lenses in situations that traditional cinematographic styles would think inappropriate. Coupled with this style was a trick that he developed with his long-time Cinematographer, LH Burel; by inserting a special filter into the film gate, Bresson and Burel discovered that they could create an image that was simultaneously in and (very slightly) out of focus.

Consider Bresson’s magnum opus of 1951, Diary of a Country Priest. The film winds its way like a snake through a pattern of intimate scenes concerning the Priest, and throughout each scene, the human subjects of the scenes are usually the only things perfectly focus. Even when intentional, Bresson’s partially-focused images have an otherworldly quality to them, which makes Diary of a Country Priest play not so much as a mimicry of life, but as an interpretation of life. Bresson’s films do not attempt to replicate the way we live; they inform how we live. They dance on screen in a deliberate play of ponderous yet elegant questioning.

Bazin’s alleged myth of total cinema can be thoroughly analyzed when considered through a Bressonian lens. Bresson’s championing of one specific branch of morality, or human emotion, throughout the course of each of his films speaks to his penchant for “pure” cinema. In Country Priest, the focus placed on visually reflecting each word of the original text, as a through line, makes for a film that exists as a deceptively simple lauding of stream-of-consciousness existence. The film makes no apology for its subsumed, folded-in nature. Instead, by fully embracing the perspective of the priest’s writings, we are made to see the world of the film in a very specific and focused way; through the eyes of the priest. Moreover, we do not only see this world in a strictly narrative sense, but also experientially. The frame, the image; they are used to bring us into a very specific and deliberately prioritized element of life – the world of the priest, which is a world of perspectival concern. By avoiding the temptation to have Country Priest (or any of his films, for that matter) attempt to run the gamut of the constructed, societal existence that seems to be apparent in day to day life, Bresson was able to very effectively show us a part of ourselves. We’re not wowed by the artifice; we experience the heart.

Juxtapose Bressonian technique against the onset of the cinematic uncanny valley. The response to Diary of a Country Priest was enormous and varied; many critics wrote of their confusion with the film, and Bazin related stories of extreme reaction from people who rarely went to the cinema, or at the very least didn’t consider themselves to be cinephiles in the slightest. Those that studied film for a living were perplexed by the deliberate simplicity of Bresson’s masterpiece, and couldn’t even identify whether or not they liked it. On the other hand, non-cinema goers were brought to tears, moved deeply, made to think. In this way, Bresson proved – experientally, not technically – that the honesty of partial expose is more effective than the attempted construction of an all-encompassing cinematic world. By focusing on just one or two elements of life, the viewer’s mind was able to fill in the rest with their own experiences, their own perspectives, their own emotions. What was left unsaid became just as important as what was said, or what was shown. In a very Sartrean turn, the absence of Bresson’s intentionally excluded elements became just as powerful as the elements he exercised.

Ultimately, the language of cinema is not something that can be corrupted; regardless of whatever trends occur, be it a push for a cinematic verisimilitude of what we think we know, or a dash for the minimalistic strain of the Dogme95 filmmakers, the myth of total cinema will always remain a myth. One cannot corrupt the air, and one cannot corrupt dreams; as such, one cannot corrupt cinema. There cannot be cinematic iconoclasm, because new people will always continue to be born. Moreover, as we tread ever deeper into the cinematic uncanny valley, the malaise of perceived presumptuousness will always be present. The desire to understand and learn about life will always be present in the hearts and minds of human beings; to wit, one must always have a partner with which to engage in discourse, and quite wonderfully, that partner does not always have to be a person. A finely crafted film, with the honest belief of its creator behind it, serves as an incredible tool with which one can elucidate meaning.

In fact, it may be a strange blessing in disguise that we have approached the uncanny valley of cinema, if an inevitable one. The sharp reminders that we experience as consumers, audiences, artists and people - that the polished sheen of almost-life is not life, but verisimilitude – is powerful and important. Crossing the cinematic uncanny valley (or avoiding it altogether) with the works of forerunners like Bresson, Bazin, and even the painters of the Renaissance to guide us and inform us, we are in good company.

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