Saturday, 12 September 2009

Still moving images: On the affectivity of photographs in film

I have published online a pre-print of the following book chapter which touches a lot on issues of affective recognition in film and media:

Catherine Grant, 'Still Moving Images: Photographs of the Disappeared in Film about the "Dirty War" in Argentina', in: Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative, eds. Alex Hughes and Andrea Noble (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003), pp. 63-86

Here's the first of the essay's six sections:

... in the cinema, no doubt, there is always a photographic referent, but this referent shifts, it does not make a claim in favor of its reality, it does not protest its former existence; it does not cling to me: it is not a specter.[i]

Roland Barthes

While motion pictures are usually composed of a series of photographically-recorded, still images,[ii] very few narrative films choose to foreground their photographic origins. Indeed, critics have maintained in accounts of the “basic”[iii] differences between photography and film that the illusion of movement, created in large part by film’s rapid, successive projection of its still frames, appears to “destroy,” to almost all intents and purposes, the potential power and action as photographs of these frames.[iv] Although theorists such as Barthes, Peter Wollen, Raymond Bellour, and Christian Metz have produced highly suggestive meditations on the ontological differences and similarities between film and photography,[v] I would argue that the spheres these writers circumscribe as “the photograph” and “film” are rendered so abstract in most of their accounts as to be of only limited practical use to examinations of actual films and their relations with photography in particular contexts. To give one example of what I mean by this, the “power” of photographs is not always treated “destructively,” or even irreverently, by films. In fact, the opposite is often the case. In ways that generally go unacknowledged by commentators, photos make regular and salient on-screen appearances: they are important devices in film narration; they are frequently deferred to as the central objects in the frame; and are even “imitated” by films through the use of freeze-frames, and other aesthetic contrivances.[vi]

In this essay, I shall explore some of the practices surrounding the diegetic interpolation of still photographs in narrative films, by examining a case in which both the photographs and the films in question are especially loaded with political and emotional significance. The case is that of the appearance of photographic portraits of Disappeared people (los desaparecidos), primarily in documentaries about acts of political resistance, “melancholic” memorializing, and mourning occurring in the aftermath of Argentina’s so-called “Dirty War,” which took place between 1976-1983. I shall briefly examine aesthetic aspects of this narrative interpolation, such as the ways these portraits are framed by the films; and their connection with forms of linguistic discourse including captioning, dialogue, and voice-over; as well as the relationship between their (apparent) stillness or (emphasized) motion. But, more prominently, I shall consider how the films play, or opt not to play, on the capacity of the photo-images to move us still, after nearly two decades of changing film practice and reception, and of changing narratives of national and international politics. Despite my determinedly situated interest in these particular films at this particular time,[vii] then, this last thread of my discussion will engage with aspects of ontological accounts of the “power and action” of photographs in the narrative medium of film.

[i] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (London: Fontana, 1984), 89.

[ii] This is obviously not the case with audio-visual material recorded analogically or digitally on video. Only one of the films I shall go on to consider in my essay was recorded on video rather than on film.

[iii] See for example Christian Metz, “Photography and Fetish,” in The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography, ed. Carol Squiers (London: Laurence and Wishart, 1990, 1991), 155.

[iv] “[F]ilm is less a succession of photographs than, to a large extent, a destruction of the photograph, or more exactly of the photograph’s power and action.” Ibid., 159.

[v] See Barthes, Camera Lucida; Peter Wollen, “Fire and Ice,” Photographies 4 (1984); Metz, “Photography and Fetish”; Raymond Bellour, “The Film Stilled,” Camera Obscura 24 (1990).

[vi] Bellour’s article does consider aspects of the freeze-frame at length. In particular, he asks: “what happens to film when the snapshot becomes both the pose and the pause of film?” Ibid., 105.

[vii] This essay is one of a continuing series of mine on Argentine cinema of this period. See also Camera Solidaria,” Screen 38: 4 (1997): 311-28; “Giving up Ghosts: Eliseo Subiela’s Hombre mirando al sudeste and No te mueras sin decirme a dónde vas,” in Changing Reels: Latin American Cinema against the Odds, ed. Rob Rix and Roberto Rodríguez-Saona (Leeds: Leeds Iberian Papers, 1997), 89-120; “Gender, Genre and the Social Imaginary in some Films from Argentina’s ‘Cinema of Redemocratization’ (1983-1993),” in Cinema and Ideology, ed. Eamonn Rodgers (Glasgow: Strathclyde Modern Language Studies, 1996), 17-33.

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