Unreal Nature

March 12, 2015

Such Quick Affection

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:52 am

… It is a balance so taut that the awareness of the camera seems not specifically such but something more generalized: an awareness of presence-for-others, a slight shyness …

Continuing through Portrait of an Invisible Man: The Working Life of Stewart McAllister, Film Editor by Dai Vaughan (1983):

… if [there is] one thing for which this film [Listen to Britain] is remarkable is its structure — the almost Mozartian elegance of the balance between its horizontal and vertical integrations — another is the strangely memorable quality of many of its individual shots: a machine-operator smiling as she sings along with ‘Yes, My Darling Daughter,’ a girl leaning against the menu board in the factory canteen, a particular person’s rapt expression at the concert … I say ‘strangely’ because most of these shots are not at all cinematically ambitious. Typically, they are routine cutaways. How, then, do they achieve such a hold upon the mind? (Gavin Lambert observed, ‘Not the least striking quality of Listen to Britain is its glimpses of ordinary people … caught with such quick affection and precision … ‘

[line break added to make this easier to read online] We are in effect asking what the word ‘quick’; can mean in this context.) What strikes me most forcibly about these shots is that McAllister has used precisely the segments which most editors would have gone out of their way to avoid: those segments where the subjects demonstrate, albeit fleetingly, their awareness of the camera. And my own experience tells me that, a frame or two after he has left them, they will have succeeded in composing themselves into that expression of earnest attentiveness or subdued yet eager endeavor for which the camera-operator habitually, professionally waits.

It might seem natural to describe this as an attempt to capture the spontaneity of the moment; but such a description would lend itself to misunderstanding. It is easy to look at old-time documentaries as if they were technically inept attempts at cinéma vérité; but of course they were not. In the days when most interior shots (and many exterior ones) had to be independently lit, in the days before lazy instant framing with the zoom lens, in the days before reflex viewfinders when even the,most casual-looking cutaway had probably had the end of a tape-measure held against its nose for focus, ‘observation’ in the present-day sense — the sense in which the subject is free to move at will and the camera required to follow as best it can — was scarcely possible. The referential truth of documentary was, as we have said, a truth fragmented as if through a prismatic eye. And the audience knew this, at least to the extent of never having been led to suppose otherwise.

… to discuss our cutaways in terms of spontaneity would be inappropriate. After all, every event is spontaneous in the ultimate, Heraclitian sense of being unrepeatable. What these shots convey to the viewer might be defined as the ‘autonomy’ of their subjects: their independent existence in a timescale, a history, a structure of motivations and meanings other than that whereby they take their place in the film.

Yet still this analysis is not sufficient to explain the particular properties of the shots in question. It would hold good even if the moments chosen were of an awkwardness and self-consciousness whose use amounted to ridicule. What we have are segments balanced to a hairsbreadth between their contribution to the film and their affirmation of the subjects’ pre-existence outside it. It is a balance so taut that the awareness of the camera seems not specifically such but something more generalized: an awareness of presence-for-others, a slight shyness almost akin, paradoxically, to that ‘self-absorption’ by which is meant virtually the opposite — absorption in something outside the self — since it does not recognize the outside as a threat.

[line break added] To the extent that we read these shots as a record of the moment of filming, this expression is a willing acknowledgement of visibility to others in the exposure of being photographed; to the extent that we read them in their context, it is self-possession in a public place, awareness of the presence of others whose looks are not hostile. Either way, they are the reverse of voyeuristic. And what these potential readings offer us, as valencies in a linkage of images, is the construction of the world as one in which we may respond to awareness of our presence-for-others with neither arrogant defensiveness nor cringing withdrawal.

My most recent previous post from Vaughan’s book is here.

-Julie

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