Author ········· Sam Wilkin
Published ······ February 11, 2020
Language ······· English

First as Tragedy, Then as

    As the crow flies, the contrast between cinematic video and cheap digital video may be rather conspicuous. The great moments of the last 100 years, whether they be of the theatrical or the documentative nature, are all deposited onto the blessed kinetic substrate of photochemical film, or of the clarion purity of HD digital video. Hold these in contrast to the flimsy digital video - considered solely a product of our incessant impulse to document, mere sleazy effigies or frail reproduction of the 35mm heroes. However, the theoretical underpinnings of how these differences are received, and whether that contrast may be subverted is where the essence of this essay lay.

Laughing in the Mirror

    The nomenclature: “Laughing in the Mirror” contrasts two meanings: one is the literal translation: to laugh at your reflection in a mirror is to laugh at a flimsy, two dimensional, weightless reproduction of yourself. I grasp the mirror’s state of feigned remoteness akin to that of pixelated video - in it’s method of reproduction of not only reality, but of other ennobled formats - retaining none of the clarity or depth in the sense that the pixelated video is dually a hollow of reality and a counterfeit of it’s more prestiged, higher resolution companions of video documentation.
    The other meaning expresses itself from the continual emergence within the video of the iconography of Andrey Tarkovsky’s 1975 feature The Mirror. Shots and format (the non-linear bricolated structure of the film) are translated from the staple of modernist esoteric cinema into the most base, shallow forms of contemporary video documentation (the cell phone camera, the three times compressed .mov) speaks directly to the nature of the translation - specifically that of modernism into postmodern, the esoteric into the populist, the theatrical into the real, and back again. The specifics of this translation will remain stowed, to give them up would be to hand over the hunt.
    There is a certain irony to this project - as it is purely symptomatic of multiple postmodern impulses - that tendency to curate rather than create (ennobling the concept of taste as capitalist primary structuring relation) and that of the raw material of the work being both a simulacrum and an image which is bereft of depth - as described by Frederic Jameson on the art of Andy Warhol:  “The emergence of a new kind of flatness or depthlessness, a new kind of superficiality in the most literal sense, perhaps the supreme formal feature of all [postmodernisms].” Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Stage Capitalism, Jameson, p. 9.
    I in no way try to disavow myself from the postmodern condition of the artifice, the collage or the simulacrum, but rather I attempt to understand that I am drowning beneath simulacrum; swimming to the surface would be futile and thus I must develop gills.

The 240p Experience

    Within the stratum of images, each image is unavoidably assigned a space within that register. For impecunious video to ascend from the putrid dregs of the image economy into the stream of the orthodox - to defy the caste of image-detritus - an image must provide a justifiable commodity to the total flow of images, to record something that is almost exclusive to candid documentation: exceptional displays of sex and violence. Within conventional avenues, images bankrupt of quality must make up for their inadequacies through corroboration of foul depths of human nature. This perception has no doubt varied over time- but one fact remains standard: that popular channels of news consumption do not openly welcome pixels into their broadcast - whether that be the televised news in the 2000’s, or the contemporary total flow of social media feeds, unless they are depicting something shocking.
    This is evidenced by the kneejerk initial reaction of fear or excitement when a major news outlet broadcasts a shaky 240p video. To flip on the screen and to awaken the image to a shaky display full of artifacted blurry video is to have the content presupposed by the form.  Recordings of this type are usually disseminated with the apology of “Breaking News” as to compensate for both the graphic content and the state of the video: which is customarily provisional until an instrument capable of higher caste of video documentation arrives on the scene of the incident, once it’s become furnished with a newscaster and the appropriate emergency personnel. Within the raceways of traditional channels of media consumption, this is almost undoubtedly an image’s sole 15 second opportunity to be amongst the big shots of professional 1080p recordings.
    This is not to say that the immaculate sensors of the high-quality video recording hardware are somehow slated with an inability to document atrocities. To posit the compressed 240p video into a dialectical opposition would be to present it across the 35mm photo-chemical exposure. Besides the obvious technical limitations of the former, insofar the primary abstract contrast is bread between these two video formats is one is perceived as wholly incapable depicting beauty, while the other, everything privileged enough to enter it’s cannon of light is ennobled to the timeless sublime.

The Candid and the Theatrical

    The motorized passerby, enamored with their glimpse of laundry animating itself in the wind from the view of their car window, decides to record it on their iPhone. This process, now almost ubiquitous within the west, is candid recording. It’s main purpose stems from the impulse to document - whether that be for personal use or to share with others (the subtleties of the current affinity for ubiquitous documentation are for another essay) - with no ulterior motives towards any formal production of narrative through the independent creation of the video it’s compiling with other similar segments. The candid documenter captures reality in the act, there is no fictitious set
    We can then compare this to that, to the production of the cinematic image. The cinematic image is largely (almost necessarily- which I’ll argue later) rendered possible by the “Film Set”, or the technical apparatus which surrounds the camera by way of an artificial backdrop, lights, meters, viewing tables, microphones and the like. What the film set seeks to accomplish is not recreation of reality - as anyone acquainted with the filmic medium knows the cinematic image is necessarily fake; we are witnessing actors reading lines under the bright static lights of the studio. What is retained from the filmic experience is not believability (there are exceptions to this rule, of course, mostly in the form of films that integrate a documentary element into themselves, such as F is for Fake by Orson Welles, or much of the Cinema Verite or Direct Cinema), but rather invisibility. The camera, the crew, the lights, the microphone, the hair and makeup - they are not seen. In fact, their existence within the film set is exactly what renders them invisible. The lights, for instance: by lighting a set that emulates that of the outdoors via large towers will beating LEDs attached: we - the non-peripheral viewer bounded by the confines of the aspect-ratio of the camera - are offered a view of the outdoors, graced by beautiful sunlight in perhaps a quaint rural Austrian suburb, rather than that of an artificially lit studio in California.
    In Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1935 essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin refers to the artificial reality facilitated by production:

...the equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice, the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology… The shooting of a film, especially of a sound film, affords a spectacle unimaginable anywhere at any time before this. It presents a process in which it is impossible to assign to a spectator a viewpoint which would exclude from the actual scene such extraneous accessories as camera equipment, lighting, machinery, staff assistants, etc.—unless his eye were on a line parallel with the Lens. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin, p. 13.

    What this technology also affords the image is it presupposes it to dramatic and aesthetic appeal. Beauty, via the dramatic, rich, lifelike creation rendered possible by the film production, is offered to the viewer for appraisal. Compare the rich image of the summits of modernist cinema: Citizen Kane, 2001 a Space Odyssey, Stalker, and attempt to translate that image into the Samsung Galaxy S1.
    Benjamin’s essay was written in 1935, where the video recording technology was only accessible through the production of dramatic films, long before the popularity of consumer video recording devices. His theory also predated the digital valley by 50 years, before a clear distinction could be even be made between dramatic and the candid video. My inquiry into this by combining it with an equally archaic theory in hope that through this rear-view of the historical we can perhaps crack the blinds on our new untheorized forms of image production. To produce a dramatic video event in which the viewer is not afforded invisibility of the camera rendered possible by the film set, but rather made incessantly aware of the experience of watching a screen; distanced through their inability to “lose themselves” in the theatrics of a studio production leads me to my next point.

The Brechtian Image

    The non-dramatic aspects of candid recording techniques evade, by way of their location in time, the two most foundational film theorists: the formative theories of Eisenstein and the realist theories of Bazin. In this sense, Eisenstein and Bazin, while generally considered opposites within the rehearsal of film theory, become co-conspirators in their approbation of the fictitious theatricality of the studio film set - whether that be to produce an imitation of reality (Bazin) or to evade reality (Eisenstein).
    What I’m interested in is dramatic production that does not rely on the invisibility of hand, of camera, but instead, clutches onto this visibility, making it as emphatic as possible. This visibility is not to be accomplished through, say, the recording of the crew and set, breaking the fourth wall, etc. - that has already been done in films such as Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, or much of the Cinéma vérité genre.
    The occasional tendency to break the fourth wall demonstrated by the above films or movements, doesn’t originate within film, but rather, is trunked with the ideas of Bertolt Brecht, the 20th century German playwright, who’s concepts of alienation pivot around the notion ripping the audience from their viewing position, and instead place them at a removal from the drama; this distance would allow the viewer to view the work more critically rather than dramatically or emotionally. This critical distance offers the viewer a position not to blindly feel the plot as a direct simulation of reality but rather to acknowledge that the plot is a simulation and that each emotion within the plot is a simulation of an emotion. This viewpoint offers the viewer an analysis of the events within a theatrical production as symbolic - in a way returning the symbols to their symbolic elevation - ennobling symbols with symbolism, poisoning, imbuing them with remote meanings, rather than mere imitations of reality. (sidenote: whether intentional or not John Cassavettes’ 1958 feature Shadows is the greatest Brechtian nod in the 20th century).
    While the prodigious work of both of these films reaffirms the work of Brecht in a framework that is wholly emblematic of modernism proper, a new model of the Brechtian disposition is necessary - as we cannot rest on aesthetic practices formed in situations of the historical, but rather those appropriate to our own age. I propose a new Brechtian language in which the distancing from the material is done, not through theatrical or thematic devices, but rather one that posits itself in omnipresence within the raw material of the viewing experience itself - the digital valley. This was my main motivation in producing the Laughing in the Mirror; a test of whether a translation of the Brechtian momentum was possible under the postmodern condition.

New Forms

    This essay began as a sort of rhetorical aide to Laughing in the Mirror, but insofar has become its co-conspirator. There is also no agenda to somehow stilt the images produced in the digital valley, but rather, to outflank the accustomed modes of dramatic production. By dramatizing resolutely undramatic forms, a new form is created, one inextricable from contradiction. Through that contradiction, new modes of meaning production, operating not against, but within the postmodern space are created; one that seeks not to navigate around the overwhelming depthlessness of postmodernity via tip-toe’d allusions to modernity, but instead seeks to encumber itself with the exact language of the postmodern condition: arming itself with the debris of an era in order to sail through its center.