Of Camera

 

Author: Steven Eastwood
Format: Film and Video
Duration: 14 mins


Research Statement

Films are rooms of topographic uncertainty

The word camera derives from the Greek word ‘kamara,’ which means chamber or vault (or bedroom, in the modern usage) but also has root fragments to do with taking and with transporting. A live action film is a series of “takes” which are durational renderings of spaces customarily populated by protagonists busily conducting themselves in accordance to a plot they are conveyed by. These takes are sutured – stitched together – to constitute the impression of a temporal and diegetic Whole that extends out as a logic and a world, beyond the arrangements we are being shown. The camera creates the impression of a three-dimensional moving space on a two-dimensional surface – a room in the lens and on the screen. This is a spatial system that developed from nineteenth century stage space, where the room was the natural centre of dramatic action. The cinema room consists of a continually collapsed unseen rebuilt into a seen, where the diegetic space and the fourth wall of the camera are perpetually reinstated in the reverse shot.

Cinema is founded on this mode of presence in absence, in that the camera that was present erases itself in the reverse shot and is further eradicated by way of the edit. As viewers, we have developed the complex ability to complete this space by overlooking the framing and suturing of space and time conducted by camera and edit. We know that only eyes or the camera have the means to see what we are being shown, but we have let go of the logic that what we have seen needed eyes or camera to see. We accept this even if the room on-screen is an empty room, where there are no character eyes to see and show us what they see. In other words, we do not notice the lack on which all of classical cinema is constructed. We have allowed a synthesis between our minds and the suturing process, and if this process collapses, for example, when the camera “crosses the line” during a shot/reverse-shot sequence and a performer consequently switches orientation in frame when reversed, occupying the same side as their counterpart, that synthesis is de-stabilized. It can be lost entirely.

Of Camera (Eastwood 2003) explores the abortive attempts of two people, a woman and a man, to be together in the same space. Their situation is a disagreement fuelled by technical difference: the woman exists on analogue video and the man on celluloid film. The two protagonists are at the point of failure in a relationship. Gradually the woman realizes that not only she and her counterpart are emotionally irreconcilable, but also that they are literally incompatible: they are merely on-screen characters who are being recorded, edited, played back and watched by a director and crew, an editor, and an audience. The film takes place in one interior, which comprises of four rooms, a corridor and a stairway landing. We never see the characters outside of this environment, and it is not entirely clear where each of the rooms is situated. Topographically, the woman is boxed into a film system and we are looking in from the outside of that system, eavesdropping on a character that is becoming aware of others who are present and investing, to varying degrees, in either her plight as a fictional character (can she or can’t she reconcile her differences with the other character?) or her plight as a mediated subject, (can she or can’t she find stable ground within the mediation system she is experiencing, as she encounters and slips into the intervals in her videotaped materiality?).

Of Camera opens with a customary hook: a woman is at home one night by herself and begins to suspect that there are intruders in her house. She makes an anxious telephone call and requests that the person at the other end of the line comes to the house to investigate. This develops into a plot twist: the people in her house are the people making the film, and there are a number of subtexts including the hanging question of whether the couple will reconcile their differences and come together to face the traumatic situation of their mutual disenfranchisement from the cinematic system they have been drafted in. Dialogue, musical score, key lighting, costume, and mise-en-scène suggest that the film will develop and resolve the issues it announces, but the film does not find a resolution. There is the residue, then, of a Hollywood form of telling, but the recognizable cues (the score, decor, wardrobe, romantic encounter) are misappropriated; they register as dissonance, as extra-linguistic; their boundaries are fluid. Key lighting and sound properties are unsuccessfully deployed, as though they have come in at the wrong moment, or belong to another film altogether. Exterior sounds are married, as room tone, to interior spaces (we hear traffic in the hallway); non-diegetic foley sounds, including VCR player eject mechanisms, and rain on a window that becomes applause, are con-joined to practical elements on screen.

Topographical certainty, which is most commonly arrived at through a correct sequence of establishing shots – wide shot, mid shot, and close-up (all monitored in terms of their continuity) – is here undermined. The positional blocking of the characters in relation to one another is inconsistent, and the 180 rule is frequently contravened. The pre-filmic space is continually implied from the space of the pro-filmic, a seen which is never entirely foreclosed and delimited by suture, so much so that shot/reverse-shot series often involve the appearance and disappearance of props (notably a red chair) and the uncomfortable shifting of composition in frame. The result is a crooked house whose changing walls, shifting details and narrative false starts threaten to bring about the loss of topographic balance in the minds of the audience. The device of the match-cut is challenged, by extending compositional likeness to compositional sameness: in one section the Woman retains identical position in frame and is oriented to the same chair, but across the interval of the edit she is relocated to a completely different room. She appears directly to experience the shock of this absurd movement. Unlike Keaton’s Sherlock Jnr, there is no progression for her character; there is instead the shock of the return of the same as difference.

Of Camera deals with the waning of indexicality and the different ontologies of analogue video and film images. The film presents not only the existential crisis of two characters but the impending demise of analogue video (the woman has the property of worn VHS videotape), the last days of celluloid film (the disappearing man exists on a 16mm projected film print) and the new temporality and binary notation of computer algorithm (both characters are isolated by rota-scoping and treated digitally by the manipulative power of computer software and filters). At one point the woman kisses the man and her video attributes momentarily transfer to his body. The properties and systems of classical cinema here extend outwards, revealing themselves to the audience before eventually folding in, so that the story and the characters are swallowed-up by the absent centre which constitutes all classical cinematic telling. When the Man stops still and burns in the projector gate, the film has stopped – stopped itself – from the point of this absent centre. For a moment the character is erased and a gap opens up in the film’s telling.

Of Camera is not a so much a functioning piece of architecture as a Trojan horse, one that unpacks as it unfolds on the screen. With its deceptive structure, the film is wheeled into a screening context only to collapse itself from within, disassembling, from a dynamic, action-oriented and outwardly mobile system to an introspective, failing system; from narrative to dysnarrative. The film fittingly ends by incompleting itself, taking the main protagonist in fast-forward beyond the credits and in reverse, back through previous sections, until she insists that this activity cease, and her image fades into video noise, and then black. The film twists its own narrative trajectory like a Möbius strip, so that it encounters the other side of its story, which is the film’s construction. It does this not merely reflexively but as the completion of its set, of its geometric existence. This is the balance of the equation: cinema as imbalance. The vernacular of the movement-image is effectively inverted, so that it is the phantasmagorical value of cinema in itself that forms the basis of the film. In short, the internal consciousness-like spatiality of the film becomes awry and we are left with the knowledge that the film is a thing that is doing the seeing. The audience can no longer rely on the mechanics of impossible continuity to transfer them from one cine-situation to another, because in the organization presented in Of Camera the engineering of the movement-image is grinding against itself and twisting on its own axis, destroying itself from the inside out, daring to transgress its own limit. The function of impossible continuity has broken-down, revealing false continuities, or the non-localizable relations of shots. By making a problem of the intra-diegetic in cinema, Of Camera makes naked the waltz of repositioning performed by actors and technicians in the cinematic operation, dancing solely in order to convey the simple command that A is looking at B. With its incomplete sentences and missing clauses, Of Camera draws attention to the language-like regulations of the classical cinema it resembles but disavows. The bottom-up, material existence of the filmic process – its corporeality – enters into a conflict with the top-down, narrative operation that seeks to negate it. Each sequence consists not of what happens next, so much as how, in film or video physiology, what happens next happens. Applause is also the sound of rain; chemical marks on the film print are also character tears; the apartment floor is street pavement; the half redecorated wall of the living room is also a blue screen backdrop. The process of cinema production arrives here, as an unwanted guest in the dinner party of telling – as that which can never be fully shut out of the house of diegesis.

The regulation and containment of the moving image’s wild properties is an activity that makes an enclosed place of its inherently excessive space. Classical cinema creates a corset for its own body, strapping in its frame. It makes a corset for the bodies on the screen, who, as performers cannot move too far to the left or too far right (they might step from their light), and who, as characters, have no time or scope for the mess of contingency which is a life (they never shit, and rarely choke on their words unless it has an explicit motivation). And, finally, classical cinema makes a corset which is the singular body psychology of the audience, who are now marked as unmarked, their identity implicitly constructed as male, heterosexual and white, their desires unified. This corset constitutes a synecdoche where the film body, corseted too as unmarked, has come to stand for the whole of the possible within the cinematic operation, thus refusing the activity of its intentionality and becoming. But the moving image is by nature a corporeal space, a porous space. It secretes, and is always threatening to leak through on to the tenets of classical cinema, making bodily stains on the film as a site of telling. Such stains – scratches, irregular mechanical ticks, corruptions, camera knocks, continuity errors, and so on – can enable the viewer to feel the exterior of the film, its diegetic excess, and to enter a cinematic body that is always between place, touching upon new ground, moving towards the very limits of the architecture of cinema itself.

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Peer Reviews

All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows

Review 1: Accept ‘Of Camera’, subject to rewrite of statement
Recommendation: Accept subject to re-cut specified. If the researcher were in agreement, I would recommend that the first in the trilogy, ‘Of Camera’, be published together with an amended statement specifically relating to this first film in the trilogy.

This work has been presented as a trilogy of films totalling 60 minutes. The accompanying statement runs at approximately 4000 words, well in excess of the 1000 word limit set out in the ScreenWork guidelines and the questions that these guidelines attempt to solicit answers to have not been adequately covered. The statement is dominated by general theoretical reflections and it is hard to see, particularly in the case of the two latter films, ‘The Film’ and ‘The Film We Didn’t Make’, strong palpable links between the (much too) general theory and the specific practice.

Of the films themselves, the first in the trilogy, ‘Of Camera’, evidences research with outcomes that could enhance our knowledge and understanding of the moving image medium. The exploration of the effects of differing formats, and differing textures, within the same frame and narrative and the juxtaposition of diegetic and non-diegetic imagery provides valuable insights into possible uses of these techniques and approaches in characterisation and narrative development. It would have been useful to see how these approaches could work with more substantial content, as the narrative content seemed distractingly thin.

Apart from the main character in ‘Of Camera’, there is little evidence in the works themselves of tangible research or thematic connection between this film and the other two in the trilogy, ‘The Film’ and ‘The Film We Didn’t Make’, despite the claims to the contrary in the statement. While ‘Of Camera’ clearly explores the relationships between formats and textures and their role in narrative characterisation, ‘The Film’ and ‘The Film We Didn’t Make’ seem to have quite different approaches and concerns. It is, however, not clear from these two films what their research purpose is and the claims in the statement of interrogating the divide between fact and fiction and their relationship to process and representation seem spurious. To pick two characters, as is the case in ‘The Film’, who endlessly walk around talking about the making of a film which has no content, goes nowhere and does not constitute an effective way of interrogating fact and fiction. Nor is there sufficient evidence of the characters ‘reorganise [ing] their own representation’. The coming together in the last film in the trilogy, ‘The Film We Didn’t Make’, of the main character from ‘Of Camera’ and the characters in ‘The Film’ does not successfully add to our knowledge and understanding of how the actual and the fictional might interact. Both sets of characters are of the same construct and the approach to imagery, unlike in ‘On Camera’, does not sufficiently enhance the stated research themes.

I therefore feel that there are fundamental flaws in the research questions and methodologies of the last two films as well as unresolved contradictions in the statement indicating the intent behind these works.

Review 2: Accept ‘Of Camera’, subject to major rewrite statement
Recommendation: 
This is a trilogy of three related buy very different films – albeit all focusing on similar themes. I would recommend that ScreenWork accept the first – ‘Of Camera’ – if the filmmaker agrees to have the trilogy sub-divided – and subject to a radical rewrite of the accompanying statement (see below).

The Screenwork:
The reasons for selecting ‘Of Camera’ are partly ones of length – it’s the shortest of the 3 films in the trilogy and so easier to fit into a crowded DVD – but also because it deals with its themes in a particularly witty way, with impressively high production values. The sense of a character watched and trapped ‘in a film’ is very well conveyed through performance, (thriller-ish) mise-en-scene and editing – so that the premise is completely ‘credible’. The surface of the image is very well crafted – for instance in the sequences where the differences between film and video are foregrounded: however I did that the ‘video’ effects worked better than the ‘film’ ones, which sometimes seemed overlaid rather than emerging out of the materiality of the ‘film’ itself. (This may have been a limitation of video post-production). The sound design was effective and atmospheric. There is a fascinating feeling through out of this as a ‘research film’ – an instance of a media practice artefact which is self-consciously exploring questions (about the materiality of screen work) without it becoming dry or instrumentally illustrative of theoretical questions.

The Supporting Statment:
The accompanying text appears to be at least three times the length that ScreenWork asks for. It is a fascinating essay about the films putting them into a theoretical context that draws usefully on Situationism and Deleuze, but also on the work of other filmmakers (Godard, McElwee). This essay is followed by a page outline of the three films. I would recommend a disciplined rewrite of the text – focusing on the first film (which would help to get it down to length) and maybe using the suggested structure and topics outlined in the Guidelines for Contributors: ie Research Question(s), Context, Method, Outcomes, Quality ‘indicators’, and Suggested Criteria for peer review. My sense is that a lot of this is already covered in the text as it exists (the Research question by implication, and certainly the Context) but it would help the readability of the work in its ScreenWork DVD context (alongside the other works selected) to have it laid out more schematically.

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