Monday, August 25, 2008
D: David Cronenberg, Canada, 2000, approx. 7 minutes.
Source: Viderdrome (Criterion Collection version)
A narrator starts to tell a story off-camera: "One day, the children brought home a camera." It's a simple statement; it starts simply, with a man -- no, not a man: an actor. Images of the children with the camera are intercut with images of a nice gentleman with graying hair, shot with a video camera in medium shot. As he continues, however, the (video) camera starts to push forward, so that the man is in close-up when he announces something unexpected: "When you look at it in a cold light, photography is death."
Camera continues a fascinating interplay of images as the actor delivers a monologue about the "dangers" that the Camera proposes. The children matter-of-factly do all the tasks needed to make a movie: check lights, process film, measure the f-stop; these are all shot in a very matter-of-fact manner as well, with relatively "normal" lighting and camera distances. These are all in stark contrast to the images of the actor, who the video camera moves into shots so close that we as viewers feel uncomfortable. The actor appears unattractive, even sinister: the light from the windows appears too harsh, his eyebrows are thick and menacing. The actor is also edited in an odd manner: often, we are presented with jump cuts to sudden extreme close-ups of his eyes. The images are not necessarily horrific, yet the tone established throughout this piece is horrific.
In many ways, Camera is an interesting precursor to Cronenberg's 2005 feature film A History of Violence, which cannily comments on the movies in a similar way. In that film, scenes of violence and gore which would otherwise titillate the viewer are presented in a stark, cold manner than unnerves even the most seasoned viewers, making us question the very nature of the horror film genre. (One can argue he this is a common preoccupation for the director, also seen in eXistenZ, Naked Lunch and especially the brilliant Videodrome, which also featured Leslie Carlson, the actor featured here.) In Camera, Cronenberg does not present any gore and yet the whole film is structured to terrify. I particularly like this piece because the link between photography and death so clearly derives from Roland Barthes' tragically final work Camera Lucida. These ideas were not academic for Barthes: the work is inspired by his mother's death, and every photograph of her does not remind him of the joy that her life brought, but instead serves to mock him, reminding him that she is dead. Cronenberg highlights something very similar: the life captured by motion pictures only demonstrates that such moments cannot be repeated and taunt us with what once was and can never be again.
Camera becomes truly haunting in the last minute or so, when the children bring the large, old 35mm camera into the room with the actor. They apply make-up, change everything around and then a young boy (bespectacled, like Cronenberg) says, "Action." And suddenly, the image changes: it is warm, gorgeous, widescreen. And suddenly we realize that the harshness of everything that has come before is largely due to the use of video instead of film. (This section was actually filmed with the very camera seen throughout the short.) And yet, as soft and beautiful as this looks/sounds/feels, we are acutely aware of everything that the actor has noted before this. He repeats his initial line -- "One day, the children brought home a camera" -- but the line is changed, no longer innocent. And this time, the shot hangs on just a little too long. It catches the actor's face in a private moment: in the last seconds of the film, Carlson's face breaks for just a moment, his eyes watering and distant, filled with despair. The film cuts away to black -- and the effect is terrifying. Can we watch movies again the same way?
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