Monday, March 04, 2013

Image/Text: Jonathan Rosenbaum, Present and Les Miserables

Jonathan Rosenbaum, Present (Vishnevetsky, 2013)
Les Miserables (Hooper, 2012)
The image-text relation in film and theater is not a merely technical question, but a site of conflict, a nexus where political, institutional, and social antagonisms play themselves out in the materiality of representation…The real question to ask when confronted with these kind of image-text relations is not “What is the difference (or similarity) between the words and the images?” but “what difference do the differences (and similarities) make?” That is, why does it matter how words and images are juxtaposed, blended, or separated?
-W. J. T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Visual and Verbal Representation

I was briefly struck while watching Jonathan Rosenbaum, Present how much the main shot used to represent its ontological subject: a single light with a mostly out of focus background, the camera handheld, often attempting to re-frame its subject. Of course, it reminded me of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables, which used a similar shot for the film’s apparently “big show stopping” moment of when Anne Hathaway[1] sings “I Dreamed a Dream.” At the time, I shouted at the screen (I was at home), “Holy [explicit]! Just keep the camera still.”

Jim Emerson nails exactly the problem with this, beyond the content of what she is singing: “On the most obvious level, the actors are playing to the balcony while the camera (and those wide-angle lenses) push their faces into ours. It's like ‘Full Metal Jacket: The Musical!’ with all the parts played by R. Lee Ermey.”

Now imagine this: what if Hathaway didn’t scream the song? What if she played it almost as a whisper, with the camera as intimate as it is now? That’s what you get in Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s film: a man in his solitude revealing his secrets. The camera captures his face amidst the darkness, almost like a traveler you meet in the middle of the night. The film is about history—personal history, film history, the idea of history—and we are diving into a past otherwise unknown to us. History is seen in the DVDs and books that line the walls—the physical aspects of history—as well as that opening shot of Lake Michigan (where we can see the movement of time). The image thus presents the traveler, stoic, alone, hidden in darkness: the privacy becomes the content of the image.

There’s no privacy in Hooper’s image. The emotions are present, reflected, emphasized to the point of parody. This is not a single woman’s tortured moment; it’s the world’s. We are not brought into intimacy, but pummeled with it.

Not all films should build a symmetrical relationship between image, text, and sound. Read the scene in which Travis Bickle asks Betsy out on a date. On page, it appears like it’s more out of pity, a lonely soul reaching out for help. On screen, he’s magnetic (just watch that image of his hand floating across the desk, shot from top down). Scorsese doesn’t present us with a maniac until much later.

So why doesn’t Hooper’s approach to breaking text and image work? Because if we are about to be blasted with feelings (Feel all the feels as the kids say these days), we need to be appropriately ready for them. Hooper apparently cited The Passion of Joan of Arc as a reference for this shot. Perhaps he forgot that Dreyer planed the film to be played in complete silence without any orchestration.[2] To feel the passion of Hathaway, we must be near to her, but not physically. We have to feel we are the only ones feeling or hearing what she is saying. But that’s not we get; she is playing for the balcony, and for America’s heart.

[1] It should be noted I refer to the star specifically because this moment is not about the character; it’s about Hathaway showing us everything she has.

[2] Sound is almost the key element often not discussed in the image-text relationship, and is obviously part of the key in what I’m discussing. But sound is also related to the content here ie. Rosenbaum is telling Ignatiy; Hathaway is screaming at the audience. That works on stage—she’s emptying her emotions to what is usually an empty set. She’s truly all alone. Here, the awareness of an audience being built by the close-up is all too infuriating.

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