What is the shot anymore?
RHETORICAL FRAMES, RHETORICAL SHOTS: Separating Space from Duration
Cinema has really stuck us with some tropes that no longer function. Teaching college students Intro to Film Production, at the beginning of the first quarter I have to define ‘jump cuts’, which means I have to define ‘shot’. I usually come up with something strangely technical and formal for such an intuitive temporal object. Something like: “The Shot, like its namesake of the gun, refers to a single pulling of the trigger… a single continuous series of frames separated only by 24th of a second of real time.” The first part sounds good– for me it evokes those Bond-gun like Super-8 cameras, where you would hold down the spring-loaded trigger, committing film (and therefore real money) second by second to what was in front of the camera. “Shooting it”… it really felt it. Much more gun-like and less surveillance than the video camera which feels more like a hose that you try to spray over everything like fertilizer or insecticide hoping for absolute ‘coverage’.
Even in film, the logical underpinnings of the shot were questionable. Shots popped in to existence either with the mechanical triggering of a set of shutters by horses’ hooves, or with the skilled regular hand-cranking of the early camera man. I think the latter. Muybridge made more of a bear-trap for time, using devices of thread and snapping boxes. It was only after having seen motion reproduced that the cameraman, and therefore The Shot, could exist. That strange process of imagining an absent (not yet found) representation while faced with its real referent… An imagination that television successfully mechanized, so now not just professional cameramen, but everyone has the experience of watching a live video mediation of an object in their video camera or cellphone screens… watching, waiting, and then committing to a recording… a ‘shot’— if you can call it that now. More like a video recording of a live mediation than a gun shot.
Maybe it is that the film camera and the cameraman’s deciding finger committed a subject to the abyss of mediation… threw him in to the unknown like Barthes’ photographic ‘click’ …murdered him. Instead now with ubiquitous televisualization we are all, already, always, dead.
But I get off track… Problems with defining the shot. As an example, let’s compare 3 famous examples of the ‘long take’: a rhetorical subset of the shot, meaning a shot meant to function as a quasi-scene-unto-itself… to perform (or relinquish) the powers of montage within a continuous duration. I think you could say the former (perform) about early long takes—Welles, Bresson, Truffaut—and the latter about contemporary trends towards ‘durational cinema’ (Jia Zhang Ke, Chantel Akerman, Claire Denis). Hitchock made “Rope” a feature film of one shot. Russian Arc, a long (too long) feature film contained the longest take in history. Children of Men contains one of the most elaborate action-sequence long takes ever seen. Each of these similar achievements mark changes in the available technology. Hitchcock—a master of tightly planning his footage of film—planned for a transitional frame at the beginning and end of every 1,000 feet of 35mm, the longest standard magazine he could load. So his camera strangely becomes fascinated with the wall every 20 minutes (a wonderful foreshadow of Antonioni who would become truly fascinated with the wall a decade later and in color). Change reels. Everyone have a smoke and use the bathroom and continue.
Russian Arc marked the new capacity to capture hours of HD video directly to portable harddrive. No more magazines and a take can go on until the drives are full. 3 hours straight through with the much lighter camera performing impressive choreography (let’s make a footnote of Timecodes, a quadrilated screen of four longtakes which marked the entrance of mini-DV, running 2 hours to tape with a quarter resolution of the 35mm screen). For me, Russian Arc lacked the tension of Rope. I don’t know if it is being a filmmaker who has known film, or if it’s the inherent aura of mechanical reproduction which now seems like the rare ‘original’ in comparison to its electrical digital replacements (offspring), but I can see the money, the commitment, in the film of Rope. I can see ‘the shot’—that finger clasped tight and sweaty for 20 minutes on the trigger. In Russian Arc it is just the best home video ever made. And then there’s a new arrival in Children of Men… a long take that consciously or unconsciously amazes our sense for production value… a scene in a car, the camera moves fluidly through the tight-packed space, 5 people in a sedan, a car comes burning out of the forest blocking the road, followed by a gang of villains. The car is put in fast reverse, motorcycles chase, they shoot the passenger in the head, blood flies everywhere. The hero throws open the car door knocking over the gunman and his motorcycle. They pull the vehicle around and escape. 10 minutes all in one take. It trounces in achievement Welles famous opening to Touch of Evil. Though less people, the complexity of stunt, make-up, camera maneuver, performers in closeup… It is like the most amazing Youtube clip ever uploaded, capturing a terrible occurrence perfectly. But though it is in representation a long take, it has been stitched together from several shots with a little digital help. Here the CG is used to help the meta-construction (the camera man, the editor) instead of the profilmic (dinosaurs). It’s not hard to imagine constructing a whole film this way (should we say, Avatar?). No longer would you need to shoot it all at once in order to represent it as if you had. That is, you don’t have to continuously shoot a continuous shot.
But, ‘Yes, yes, that’s not so different from Hitchcock’s Rope,’ you might say. Let’s take the digital long take to its extreme then; in the continuously expanding world of 3D animation, a whole film can be constructed without shots. A 3D world mapped across a timeline and then only at the last stage is a set of camera angles and moments chosen… capable of generating an infinite number of long take films. Which is, basically, what video games are. It is disappearing right down to the technological basis for the distinction ‘shot’: a capturing of regular 24ths of a second. It is now standard practice to capture more fps and throw some away. Music videos are performed for constantly running cameras, like video games, moments are not selected for mediation, they are selected from it. In a common example, with video that is fast to digitize filmmakers are now in the practice of capturing everything as one long clip with multiple cameras for doc. From this long take—more like guided surveillance than a shot—durational fragments are selected to act as the ‘shots’ in the film. Not so much chosen in the taking, but chosen from the taking. ‘Well this is not so different than the accomplished film editor’ you might say. But it is a question of degrees. As Manovich points towards, selecting from mediation has become the media process, from search engines to Reality TV.
So what does this mean for the shot?
As we move in to the perfection of representation in the digital, the ‘camera’ becomes a rhetorical construct. The camera, track, lens, grain, resolution… all the apparatus of ‘film’ are iconic rhetorical descriptors for render processes. In the 3D animation software Maya, an animator will select the ‘camera position’, ‘movement’ (yes, even movement is in essence rhetorical, instead what is being selected is ‘desired representation of perspectival motion’), depth of field of the ‘lens’, and so on. At this stage, these elements frequently reference cinema apparatus—though there are also new and old aesthetic traditions, ‘Superflat’ derived from 2D animation, new combinations of 2D and 3D, and others—and through this correlate referentials to human perception (such things as the 50mm lens for 35mm film plane and the 1/50th second shutter being good approximations of the human perceptor apparatus). That is, the Maya constructed shot shows its true nature as a rhetorical apparatus of perspective. A simulate of how something is being seen— from where, through what. If we describe the frame as a delimiter of the perspectival mediation, then the shot is the durational correlate to the frame.
So what about the frame? Cinema, in its desire to commodify and regulate a process, simplified the perception of the frame. Like montage (or really more than ‘like’ because the frame is a necessary element of montage), the frame came on the scene as a totally new yet somehow intuitive mode of representation. Half art, half eye, the cinemas aligned the edges of the screens with the edges of the frames, with regulation of aspect and moveable curtains, creating a wonderful correlate between the real and the imaginary in the theater. The screen was a holistic analogue of the Film. What was inside the film was inside the screen and vice-versa (a regularity that Expanded Cinema and Intermedia Theater sought to break apart). Filmmakers played with windows, doorways, and mirrors in the pro-filmic to lightly give a self-reflexivity within the frame. But beginning with television, technology complicated the screen. The screen as a reflective object—more a part of this world than of the mediated—now seems quaint, like paper soon will. In television the screen became the end of a technological tube, in its primary state one end of a live circuit with a camera at the other. No longer an object the mediated is shown on to, the screen of the television is something that pushes the mediated on to you (I think of the anxious photos of tv-watching children glowing in the cathode-tube rays in the 70′s). And instead of embedded in an architecture and a process, television was embedded in an object, allowing for a multiplicity that has been greatly complicated again with the digital screen. As Lev Manovich states, the pixel-based screen is inherently broken up. The cinema apparatus may have lent itself to the singular frame or not, but it seems evident that the computer apparatus lends itself to the fractured frame. From the earliest GUIs, layers of windows have been used, and this seems to be further progressing in dimensions— the current movement is towards a development of the dimension of scale in the iPhone. As well, the borders, utility, and distinction of screens has heterogenized. We hardly think of LED and bitmap liquid crystal displays that give us readouts on cars, busses, calculators, watches, billborads, highway signs, as screens. Video is embedded in phones and computers, game consoles, home theaters, music players… People are becoming quite used to multiple screens simultaneously communicating from heterogeneous sources and contexts, and within these screens frequently multiple frames relating to the screen as master frame/context.
Take, for example, a comparison of traditional single-channel cinema and a multi-screen narrative work by Elisa-Lisa Ahtilla—one of the pre-eminent artists working in the area of cinematic video art. Consolation Service is designed for 3 screens. We could choose to describe the simultaneous content of the screens in terms of Eisenstenein montage but montage does not entirely fit. If we think of the classic examples of filmic montage, Kulishev’s experiments intercutting images of different women’s body parts to make a new whole, or intercutting the same shot of an actor’s face with different objects to create human expression— these experiments don’t really function in multichannel. If, instead of cut together they are assembled together on the screen in contiguous multichannel duration, there is no doubt that screens put up against eachother resonate—contaminate eachother with meaning—but they do not occupy the same frame, and could continue to not combine, become metaphor instead of simile, carry the momentum from the ‘shadow’ of the preceding shot… ‘montage’. That is, they could continue to never resolve into a new woman or a new expression. It is the phenomenological difference between switching channels and multi-channel where switching channels is a ‘dipping-in’ to a conceived multiplicity and multi-channel is that multiplicity. Eisenstein’s rhythmical montage might remain a rhythmical resonance. Intellectual montage, intellectual resonance, and Parrallel montage the normal elemental state of the multichannel. If we look at Ahtilla’s work, the most common organization of channels is this norm, parrallel (what McCloud would call ‘Aspect to Aspect’ in comic books). It is something we are completely familiar with from video surveillance: multiple perspectives of the same figure or scene. But we do find as well multiple channels as the metaphoric, the illustrative, and the scene to scene (where one screen has as-if moved ahead of the others on to the next scene).
Deleuze analyzed the traditional cinema frame most elequently in his analysis in terms of rational and irrational, open and closed sets. If we take the traditional cinema screen at any instant of the film, the screen delimits the closed set of the profilmic: that which is seen. This closed refers directly to the open whole of the film: the diegetic, the large context of the film which is infinite, yet doesn’t include all things… the world in which the story takes place… what can possibly be cut to. This potential open whole can be discovered by the frame at moment— the camera might pan to reveal the other side of the room, or the shot might cut to reveal another scene of the film—yet regardless the frame will always only be a piece of this open whole, and in any finite duration of film will always be partial, quantifiable (every frame could be printed and analyzed), closed. So he describes the narrative of the film to happen in this world that is never completely seen, and we only perceive the open whole as the area of imagination and identification… the place inside the viewer’s head that the film ‘happens’. Outside of this set is the irrational— that which cannot be reconciled with the film world. There are common occurrences of this in standard cinema… the preview, the credits, to a lesser degree the soundtrack, as well as the more esoteric as put forward by Deleuze (the non-sequiter Time Image cut and so on).
But what about the multi-channel? It cannot be described as a simple multiplication. It is not simply any single sets at once. It is phenomenologically different. The multi-screen is inherently irrational—like cubism… like the cut… a constant cut… a selected juxtaposition imposed from the outside. There is some imagined frame entering these smaller frames— a set of these sets that is also contained by the film. The frames are never fully reconciled—the pieces taken from the whole in some ways arbitrary, in some ways overpowering its denotation… more resonance than can be contained.
This brings us to the rhetorical. Because what do these frames do— what do they signify? These things that began as mechanical necessities: shot, cut, frame are now revealed as just how we want to represent and especially interface with human perception. About our attention and perspective. What is watched, what is separated out. Our visual language.
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