Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Realism: Vagaries of Lighting

Above: a tame/risque scene from the James Cameron potboiler-blockbuster True Lies (1994).

Those who would focus solely on the masters and masterpieces are missing out. (Those who focus mainly the Cameron-type films aren't likely to be regular readers of this blog, so I don't think I
need to address them, right?) A major reason why the Great Men / Great Film traditionalists are missing out is because aesthetic excellence is - and must be - always relational. The mountain of dreck & routine justifies, contextualizes the jewels. But even more interestingly, if you ask me, the entire field of a/v culture is more fertile when aesthetic standards are ... I do not say abandoned (how could one even pretend to do this?), but placed to one side for a bit.

At a certain point, who cares if
True Lies is an awful film, or an awesome flick, or a "genuinely underrated" something-or-other? More important is how we use it and what we draw from it. I have a mild sentimental attachment to True Lies, this movie having entertained me greatly over 5-10 viewings during my early teen years. So, revisiting chunks of it on Netflix Instant over the last few days, I was struck by the scene above: Jamie Lee Curtis' striptease.

No, not
as striptease.

It's the lighting. (And the sound.)

We are to believe that Curtis' character won't recognize her own husband in this dim light - not even his silhouette. I'm sure a cognitive psychologist would be able to explain to me something about vision & expectation, but I'm inclined to believe that a realist direction of the scene -
in this light, in this sound - would inevitably show Curtis quickly growing suspicious, and from there quickly discovering the truth. And I'm sure Cameron and whoever was working with him would have been able to develop the interaction in a suitably "entertaining" way if Curtis just ended up recognizing Schwarzenegger. So the question is: why this particular deviation of psychological believability in a film that draws all of its energy from the interplay between the quotidian and the violent-sublime-absurd?

(And the
sound, about which I have even less-formed thoughts, is intriguing here too: presumably Curtis does not hear the clicks of the play/stop/ffwd/rew buttons, but in close-up the film indeed replicates them, shows that this tape recorder is a perfectly "normal" tape recorder, not a special digital gadget requiring special CIA-ninja training ... is the disconnect the blatant, and open, jump from realism to fantasy, i.e., realism as a type of fantasy?)

In the videotape of the film I saw the film on multiple times in the mid-'90s, as I recall, the image was darker, murkier: it was somewhat more believable that Curtis wouldn't recognize Schwarzenegger. The YouTube clip above is a little closer to this VHS experience. The more optimal digital future, however, has scrubbed the composition clean - it seems - and at least on Netflix's stream, it seems baldly impossible that Curtis can't just
recognize her husband sitting in a chair a couple yards away from her.

How are we to take this series of images? Depending on the level of incredulity one applies to the narrative as well as the medium (and condition of the medium) in which one views the film, the lighting is a marker either of very subtly, deftly coded realism or quasi-realism (if the image is murky and Schwarzenegger cannot be recognized in long-shot by the viewer), or it is a bold divorcement from realism that requires our faith, much like the scenes of Westerns shot in
la nuit américaine.


Jaime said...

I have written about the harm done by home-viewing over-clarity. At the time, it had to do with films that relied on CGI objects, characters, and backgrounds. These films - LORD OF THE RINGS, etc - rely on the "flicker" of the film projector (or its imitation with the increasingly all-consuming DLP) in order for the audience to experience no cognitive dissonance between the "cinematographed" images, i.e. the human actors, the shells of sets, car interiors, and the computer-generated content. The latter, if viewed without obstruction, is unacceptable even if you're not a "trained" moviegoer.

It would seem that, whether or not Netflix's streaming video was imperfect, you experienced that kind of cognitive dissonance, albeit the ingredients were different. It's a sequence that already taxes the viewer's suspension of disbelief pretty heavily. Sounds to me like the final, thin strand of connective tissue between acceptance and denial had been cut.

Recently I watched Seijun Suzuki's PRINCESS RACCOON on DVD. I didn't love it as much as other films by the director - his penultimate masterpiece, PISTOL OPERA really won me over - but I couldn't help but recognize that Suzuki's forward-looking sensibility forges connective tissues you wouldn't believe. He plays up the artifice - grounds it in thousands of years of performing and visual arts, in fact - instead of faking it, paying off some imagined debt to verisimilitude.

ZC said...

It's a sequence that already taxes the viewer's suspension of disbelief pretty heavily. Sounds to me like the final, thin strand of connective tissue between acceptance and denial had been cut.

Yeah - and there are plenty of 'ridiculous' scenes in True Lies that the viewer is presumably happy to go along with - all the stuff with the fighter jet in the climax for instance. But this seems like an odd, indeterminate case. There are no shots (not really) that stress that Jamie Lee Curtis can't see Schwarzenegger, and thus doesn't recognize him - her psychology or optics are out of the picture. We just presume this lack of recognition to be the case because it's "dark." But it's not that dark! And the mere fact that she doesn't recognize him isn't played for laughs or amazement - whereas most other ridiculous stretches in this film, I think, are.

I don't think Cameron really has any kind of intelligence or depth about this issue (though he's not a bad "intuitive" filmmaker in many ways), and so he suffers in comparison to someone much smarter and more playful, like Seijun Suzuki.

Anonymous said...

Hey, we Cameron and Schwarzenegger types are lurkers...