Academic journal article CineAction

Saving the Image: Scale and Duration in Contemporary Art Cinema

Academic journal article CineAction

Saving the Image: Scale and Duration in Contemporary Art Cinema

Article excerpt

About halfway through Frank Tashlin's 1957 film, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, the title character, played by Tony Randall, stops the action of the film to sarcastically comment on the virtues of television. The widescreen, Technicolor image shrinks to the size and aspect ratio of a television set and falls prey to the snowy interference of the medium during its early days. Randall asserts that, "This break in our motion picture is made out of respect for the TV fans in our audience who are accustomed to constant interruptions for messages from sponsors. We want all you TV fans to feel at home and not forget the thrill you get watching television on your big twenty-one inch screens." As Randall speaks, the shrunken frame of this "televisual" image cuts off his head and later fades in and out of a clear picture. Tashlin's anti-illusionist gesture makes explicit the anxiety underlying the invention of the widescreen process of CinemaScope, which attempted to win the ongoing contest with television through a triumph of scale. CinemaScope's introduction in 1953 recast the pleasure of cinema as a delight in being dwarfed by the image onscreen, in cowering beneath its giganticism, of experiencing the world, as the Nicholas Ray film would have it, "bigger than life." This importance of the issue of scale has anything but diminished in recent years, as films are now seen more and more seen on tiny, portable screens by a mobile spectator. Tony Randall's indictment of television stands as even truer now, in the age of the video iPod. However, it is difficult to identify any technological development akin to CinemaScope in today's horizontally integrated film industry, as the major studios rely progressively more on DVD sales and tie-ins to ensure a hefty return on their investments, increasingly resigned to the fact that their revenue will come from venues other than theatrical exhibition. Audiences might be lured back to theatres by the promise of a special effects spectacle that must absolutely be seen at the cinema, but it seems safe to say that the ritual of moviegoing has been significantly altered: stripped of its monumentality and place in the public sphere, the big screen now most often appears small scale, in a domestic setting, even if televisions become larger and flatter all the time. This reduction of scale is accompanied by a freedom from the imposition of time felt in the cinema. No longer a party of an unspoken contract to sit and endure until the end, the home viewer does not experience the same constraints as the filmgoer, always free to pause, rewind, or break for a snack.

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It does seem, though, possible to identify a strain of recent art film that insists on the scale and duration of the traditional viewing situation of cinema, that refuses to be miniaturized. In an ever-accelerating image-based culture, this cinema emerges as a contestation of the frenetic montage aesthetics of contemporary media, mounting a significant challenge to the long-held conception of cinema as a province of shock and distraction. Through the employment of a long take style, it refigures the medium as one of intense contemplative possibility. Reaching across the globe, this tendency encompasses much of the most exciting cinema being produced today: Tsai Ming-Liang and Hou Hsiao-Hsien in Taiwan, Jia Zhang-ke in China, the Dardennes in Belgium, Bruno Dumont in France, Apichatpong Weerasethakul in Thailand, Bela Tarr in Hungary, Pedro Costa in Portugal, and Gus Van Sant in America, to name only a few. Certainly, these films are shown on DVDs in domestic settings, but there is a sense that they are all, in their own ways, essentially about the very things small scale domestic viewing neglects: the relationship between the spectator, temporality, and the grandeur of the screen. These films insist on this situation to achieve their full effect.

Paymond Bellour has advanced the somewhat elusive concept of "saving the image," an operation that might most productively be thought of as an attempt to redeem or rescue the image from the vulgarization and profanation it has undergone in the era of mass media proliferation. …

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