Saturday, 2 October 2010

Muybridge, Bazin and the wobble.

At the entrance to the Eadweard Muybridge exhibition at Tate Britain, the following disclaimer is displayed in friendly Tate font:

"Please be aware that this exhibition contains images of nudity and other images that visitors may find challenging."

Well, we all like a challenge, don’t we?

The exhibition makes a persuasive case for Muybridge, not only as an instrumental figure in cinema’s pre history, but also as a profound influence on 20th century painting and as a pretty damn fine landscape photographer in his own right.

The story of Occident the horse and Muybridge’s first attempts at capturing movement on film is well known. But as his technique developed, he soon took to depicting the human form, and his series Animal Locomotion of 1887 began to feature the kind of imagery the Tate still deems challenging.

Turning around in surprise and running away. 1887

Getting into bed. 1887

Muybridge’s quasi scientific objectives (note the gridded backgrounds) may well mask some rather more perverse intentions, but it’s not easy for a 21st century eye to see the plates as eroticism. If Muybridge has any detectable fetish, it is for movement: an urge to capture the unstructured wobble of the human form in action.

In Bazin’s seminal essay The Evolution of the Language of Cinema, he neglects to mention the wobble as an antidote to the pleasures of montage, but in his defence of duration (citing Flaherty’s Nanook of the North) he describes this human need to view uncondensed action, and the process of time occuring.

What matters to Flaherty, confronted with Nanook hunting the seal, is the relation between Nanook and the animal; the actual length of the waiting period. Montage could suggest the time involved. Flaherty however confines himself to showing the actual waiting period; the length of the hunt is the very substance of the image, its true object. Thus in the film this episode requires one setup. Will anyone deny that it is thereby much more moving than a montage by attraction?

Bazin, like Muybridge, is fixated on the desire to see an action for what it is, from beginning to end; be it seal hunting or getting into bed.

Bazin lost the argument of course. Patterns show a pretty steady reduction is average shot length from the early days of film to contemporary Hollywood. And whilst there are those outside of Hollywood who try to keep the tradition of the long-take alive, for anyone working in any kind of identifiable mainstream the quick cut is king.

So was our desire for unadulterated movement a temporary, historical blip? What happened to our need for duration?

In her article Excess and ecstasy: constructing female pleasure in porn movies Eithne Johnson cites the average shot length of Aerobisex Girls (1983) as between 14 and 15 seconds (compared to a mainstream average of around 3.5 – 4 seconds). And I would imagine this example is far from extreme. In contemporary hardcore pornography, the Bazinain long-take finds its last outpost. Muybridge’s movement fetish appears alive and well in this world where witnessing the duration of the action is still paramount. I’m sure there are a lot of theories about why the consumption of pornography is on the increase, but could this stifled need for accurate temporal representation be one?


From Herzog on Herzog, Werner talks about his 'Minnesota Declaration' for 'ecstatic truth':

The background to the 'Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Filmmaking' is a very simple one. I had flown from Europe to San Francisco and back again in a very short space of time and had ended up in Italy, where I was directing an opera. Jet-lagged as I was, I could not sleep and turned on the television at midnight to be confronted by a very stupid, uninspiring documentary, something excruciatingly boring about animals somewhere out there in the Serengeti, all very cute and fluffy. At 2 a.m. I turned the television on again and watched something equally bad, the same kind of crap you find on television wherever you go. But then at 4 a.m. I found some hard-core porno, and I sat up and said to myself, 'My God, finally something straightforward, something real, even if it is purely physical.' For me the porno had real naked truth.

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