Camera in the Mirror: Response to Migrating Forms Programs 3 and 4
written by Conor O’Brien, The Living Gallery
Screenshot from Ian Cheng’s “bbrraattss.” Taken from his Vimeo channel.
The mirror is a threat to the film illusion. In the presence of a mirror, the camera is in danger of being revealed; it is timid: approaching the mirror cautiously, and angling itself in such a way that it remains hidden. A familiar and relatively harmless object in daily life, the mirror is an absolutely subversive, destructive force in the world of film; painstakingly avoided for those films that aim to keep film illusion undisturbed. The familiar technique of horror films is to use a mirror to reveal the monster. A character is in the bathroom with the mirror angled toward his/her face. The mirror is then turned suddenly and the monster is revealed to have been standing there, behind the character the whole time. This technique is meant to heighten the shock of the reveal, but because it remains within the fantasy of the film, this revelation of the monster ultimately comes as a relief. It is a displacement of the true threat: the mirror suddenly angled in the other direction, revealing that a camera has been standing behind the character the whole time. The shock of this revelation stems from realizing that your experience is being manipulated, forced through a lens over which you have no control. It is the shock of looking into a mirror and seeing, in place of your own reflection, a different reflection, the eye of a camera.
In Stephen Broomer’s “Pepper’s Ghost,” shown at BAMcinematek’s Migrating Forms Program 3, the camera remains in the center of the shot through the film’s entirety. According to the trailer posted on Broomer’s Vimeo channel, the film is shot in two rooms separated by a two-way mirror used for “psychological observation studies.” Throughout the film’s 20 minutes, Broomer and assistants create optical illusions using the two-way mirror, colored gel paper, and other objects in the rooms, lights, curtains, as a kind of meditative, guttural chanting plays over these shots. In one shot, Broomer seems to stand behind the camera next to a window. As he pulls down the window’s curtain, his image gradually fades away, and what seemed to be him standing in one room was revealed to actually be his reflection on the mirror from the other room. Broomer claims in the trailer that the mirror is transformed into a “mysterious tunnel.” The film seems to be about the kind of funhouse effects that are achieved when, instead of being timidly avoided, the mirror is surrendered to; when both mirror and camera are allowed to respond to each other.
Gina Telaroli created her piece “Amuse-gueule #1: Digital Destinies,” by playing a copy of the 2009 movie “Public Enemies” starring Johnny Depp on an old television and using a Blackberry (with, she claims, poor zooming capabilities), recorded the same 12 minutes of the movie four times, at four different levels of zoom, and these recordings are played simultaneously. The television frame is in the center of the shot, but because four different versions of the film are playing at the same time, the images seem to float out of and around the frame. By using “poor” recording technology, the Blackberry recordings draw attention to the materiality of digital film: images of the appropriated film become fuzzy, blown out, distorted, non-referential abstractions; the images are rendered material, reduced to their material qualities: light, transparency, color, form, movement.
Telaroli and Broomer’s films are similar in this way: they are explorations of the elements of filmmaking most films attempt to subdue. These are the mechanical elements, the materials and techniques of film that make up the film illusion. Rather than trying to work around the “inferior” recording technology of her phone, Telaroli emphasizes it, and as a result the images in her film burst with overexposed light, unsubdued and unconstrained.
Many of the other filmmakers in the program are also interested into playing around film’s material production. Andrew Lampert presented a restoration of the original print of Roger Altman’s film “The Long Goodbye,” which Lampert claimed to have purchased for $20 from a magazine. The piece highlights the process of colorizing black and white footage, the idea behind which is that color film is better because it is closer to reality and colorization aims to enhance the illusion of reality on film. As the piece progresses, the fact that the film was artificially colored becomes increasingly obvious: colors become less natural and float free of any reference point.
Shambhavi Kaul’s film “Mount Song” shows shots of several artificially constructed sets of forests and temples. Devoid of human form, the artificial scenery becomes alien and disorienting. The two films by Ed Atkins, “Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths” and “Even Pricks,” also the artificial construction of film, focusing specifically on the digital creation of images used so frequently in bigger budget film. The film’s title “Even Pricks” repeatedly flies at the viewer in different forms reminiscent of the title sequences of action movies. Computer constructed human and animal forms appear in undefined spaces to speak in often interrupted bits of dialogue. As in Kaul’s film, this emphasizing of artificiality becomes strange and disorienting: the images remain vaguely familiar, uncanny because we are used to seeing (often unconsciously) these techniques used in film, but we are not used to the heightening of their artificiality. Ian Cheng’s film “bbrraattss” is a short 3-minute clip of two computer generated figures, a humanoid rabbit and hunter, moving around and bumping into each other in a white space, their bodies twitching, bending, twisting in unnatural ways. The animation resembles a glitch in a computer game, a limitation of computer generation that is meant to be hidden or subdued. But, as with the other filmmakers, it is the “glitch” that interests Cheng, and the resulting film is both nightmarish and slapstick, unsettling and absurd.
The narrator of Benjamin Tiven’s film “A Third Version of the Imaginary” calls film an “amnesiac medium.” The film documents the Kenya Broadcasting Company as a narrator speaking in Swahili, talks about film and language. He claims that the word “image” does not exist in the Swahili language, the closest word is ‘taswira,’ which is more accurately translated as ‘vision.’ “Image” is an imported concept. He explains that at the television broadcasting company, films deemed significant are stored and preserved and those that are not important are filmed over. The narrator thinks about whether the filmed-over images still exist somehow beneath the new images. He thinks of this as being a kind of “guilt” that haunts the footage, that the old images refuse to be completely suppressed. The film ends with an employee of the broadcasting company playing footage of 1973 Independence Parade, but due to some technical problem the footage is distorted and discolored. The narrator explains that they were originally not allowed to film the screening of this footage, but since the images that were being projected were distorted, they were given permission to film.
Tiven’s film comments on our complicated relationship with images. Photographic and cinematic images are not objective. A photograph of an object, no matter how little it is influenced by the hand of the photographer, cannot be looked at in the same way as an encounter with the same object in the world. Images always contain some ideology. But the images of the Independence Parade in the film loose their power as ideological instruments, become useless as such, because of the technical difficulties which make the viewer aware of their artificiality. Such is the move of many films shown at Migrating Forms: to make the viewer aware of the power of images as ideological objects, to show them the reflection of the camera within the image.