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A Clumsy Sublime

A Clumsy Sublime ■C LO S E U P Laura Mulvey A Clumsy Sublime NOTHING DIVIDES THE HISTORY of the cinema into pre- and post-digital so clearly as the world of special effects and nowhere is this division clearer than in the disappearance of rear or back projection (using what are called “transparencies” or “plates”). Watching Hollywood films made after the coming of sound, rear projection seems in hindsight like an aesthetic emblem of the bygone studio era. As so often happens with passing time, its disappearance has given this once-despised technology new interest and poignancy. Rear projection represented an attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of star performances and action sequences: the stars’ close ups and dialogue could not necessarily be recorded during scenes involving dramatic action (or even driving a car). So landscape or cityscape footage, often filmed by a second unit or extracted from the studio library, would be projected in a specialized studio onto a screen; then as the stars played their scene (with as little extra movement as possible), screen and studio would be filmed together. In Preminger’s River of No Return (1954), for example, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, and Tommy Rettig struggle to keep afloat on a raft, at one moment on location, at the next in a studio tank with the river and its landscape flowing behind them in rear projection. These shifts inevitably emphasize the incompatibility between foreground and background, and therefore the artificiality and glaring implausibility of the rear-projection sequences. In his beautiful article, “The Wandering Gaze: Hitchcock’s Use of Transparencies,” Dominique Paini says: “Transparencies are all about time.” In rear-projection sequences, the different levels of film time are both visible and confused. Essentially a film is made up of three time levels: the time of viewing, the time of registration, and the time of fiction that emerges from the edited construction of a narrative. However, the relation between the registration time and the fiction time is uncertain. I have recently argued that in the process of pausing and restarting a film, so concentrating on a shot rather than an edited sequence, the time of the fiction may fall away, transforming an image into a document of the moment at which the celluloid was exposed. This temporal duality, of course, has to be constructed in the mind of the spectator, and the return of dialogue and editing will easily reassert the time of the fiction. Rear projection introduces a different kind of dual temporality: two diverse registration times are “montaged” into a single image. While this is true of any photographic superimposition, the dramatic contrast between the “document”-like nature of the projected images and the artificiality of the studio scene heightens the sense of temporal dislocation. Although, in principle, the studio element should seem to encapsulate fiction as opposed to the documentary cityscape or landscape, the studio shots often have the reverse effect. As the stars have to stay on an exact, given spot, their space is constricted and—often facing artificial wind, water, or vertiginous height—they make the required gestures as though in a mime. Performances, even in the easier setting of a car or a train, tend to become selfconscious, vulnerable, transparent. The actors can seem almost immobilized, as if they are in a tableau vivant, paradoxically at the very moment in the film when there is a fictional high point of speed, mobility, or dramatic incident. When Marnie came out in 1963, critics condemned its “processed” shots, most particularly one of Tippi Hedren’s Marnie seen exultantly riding her horse for the first time. The intensity of movement is reduced to static studio gesturing. As the star appears in this strange, disorienting space, her emotion trumps her parody of movement. In fact, Marnie herself loses all sense of time and place just when the discordance of time and place characteristic of rear projection is most evident. This paradoxical, impossible space, detached from either an approximation to reality or the verisimilitude of fiction, allows the audience to see the dream space of the cinema. But rear projection renders the dream uncertain: the image of a cinematic sublime depends on a mechanism that is fascinating because of, not in spite of, its clumsy visibility. LAURA MULVEY is the author of Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (Reaktion, 2006). © Laura Mulvey, 2007 http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Film Quarterly University of California Press

A Clumsy Sublime

Film Quarterly , Volume 60 (3) – Apr 1, 2007

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Publisher
University of California Press
Copyright
Copyright © by the University of California Press
ISSN
0015-1386
eISSN
1533-8630
DOI
10.1525/fq.2007.60.3.3
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Abstract

■C LO S E U P Laura Mulvey A Clumsy Sublime NOTHING DIVIDES THE HISTORY of the cinema into pre- and post-digital so clearly as the world of special effects and nowhere is this division clearer than in the disappearance of rear or back projection (using what are called “transparencies” or “plates”). Watching Hollywood films made after the coming of sound, rear projection seems in hindsight like an aesthetic emblem of the bygone studio era. As so often happens with passing time, its disappearance has given this once-despised technology new interest and poignancy. Rear projection represented an attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of star performances and action sequences: the stars’ close ups and dialogue could not necessarily be recorded during scenes involving dramatic action (or even driving a car). So landscape or cityscape footage, often filmed by a second unit or extracted from the studio library, would be projected in a specialized studio onto a screen; then as the stars played their scene (with as little extra movement as possible), screen and studio would be filmed together. In Preminger’s River of No Return (1954), for example, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Mitchum, and Tommy Rettig struggle to keep afloat on a raft, at one moment on location, at the next in a studio tank with the river and its landscape flowing behind them in rear projection. These shifts inevitably emphasize the incompatibility between foreground and background, and therefore the artificiality and glaring implausibility of the rear-projection sequences. In his beautiful article, “The Wandering Gaze: Hitchcock’s Use of Transparencies,” Dominique Paini says: “Transparencies are all about time.” In rear-projection sequences, the different levels of film time are both visible and confused. Essentially a film is made up of three time levels: the time of viewing, the time of registration, and the time of fiction that emerges from the edited construction of a narrative. However, the relation between the registration time and the fiction time is uncertain. I have recently argued that in the process of pausing and restarting a film, so concentrating on a shot rather than an edited sequence, the time of the fiction may fall away, transforming an image into a document of the moment at which the celluloid was exposed. This temporal duality, of course, has to be constructed in the mind of the spectator, and the return of dialogue and editing will easily reassert the time of the fiction. Rear projection introduces a different kind of dual temporality: two diverse registration times are “montaged” into a single image. While this is true of any photographic superimposition, the dramatic contrast between the “document”-like nature of the projected images and the artificiality of the studio scene heightens the sense of temporal dislocation. Although, in principle, the studio element should seem to encapsulate fiction as opposed to the documentary cityscape or landscape, the studio shots often have the reverse effect. As the stars have to stay on an exact, given spot, their space is constricted and—often facing artificial wind, water, or vertiginous height—they make the required gestures as though in a mime. Performances, even in the easier setting of a car or a train, tend to become selfconscious, vulnerable, transparent. The actors can seem almost immobilized, as if they are in a tableau vivant, paradoxically at the very moment in the film when there is a fictional high point of speed, mobility, or dramatic incident. When Marnie came out in 1963, critics condemned its “processed” shots, most particularly one of Tippi Hedren’s Marnie seen exultantly riding her horse for the first time. The intensity of movement is reduced to static studio gesturing. As the star appears in this strange, disorienting space, her emotion trumps her parody of movement. In fact, Marnie herself loses all sense of time and place just when the discordance of time and place characteristic of rear projection is most evident. This paradoxical, impossible space, detached from either an approximation to reality or the verisimilitude of fiction, allows the audience to see the dream space of the cinema. But rear projection renders the dream uncertain: the image of a cinematic sublime depends on a mechanism that is fascinating because of, not in spite of, its clumsy visibility. LAURA MULVEY is the author of Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (Reaktion, 2006). © Laura Mulvey, 2007

Journal

Film QuarterlyUniversity of California Press

Published: Apr 1, 2007

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