Travels in Film
The Precious Properties of the Image
Is cinema the best way to travel? In a piece on the critic Serge Daney in Negotations, Gilles Deleuze wonders why the former, a film critic, felt the need to go to Japan. Daney had watched various Kurosawa films and wanted to see the reality meeting the world of cinema that had previously provided him with an angle on life elsewhere: "You even go to Japan to see Kurosawa and to see for yourself how the Japanese wind fills the banners in Ran; but as there's no wind that particular day, you find wretched wind-machines standing in for it and, miraculously, contributing to the image the indelible internal supplement, that is, the beauty or the thought that the image preserves only because they exist only in the image, because the image has created them."
In the same essay, Deluze invokes Fitzgerald, Toynbee and Beckett. Fitzgerald "notes that traveling, even to remote islands or wildernesses, never amounts to a real "break" if one takes along one's Bible, one's childhood memories, and one's habits of thought." Toynbee sees "that travel aspires to a nomadic ideal, but it's a ridiculous aspiration, because nomads are in fact people who don't move on, don't want to leave, who cling to the land taken from them, their rgion centrale (you yourself, talking about a film by Van der Keuken, say that going south is bound to mean coming up against people who want to stay where they are)." "Because", as Deleuze reckons, "according to the third observation, the most profound, Beckett's, we don't travel, as far as I know, for the pleasure of traveling; we're dumb, but not that dumb." What is it within travel that makes us suffer flights, unknown hotel rooms, the difficulties of communication? If we provocatively suggest that we should watch images rather than directly experience them this isn't an issue of saying no to the real world, just saying yes to the aesthetic. For example, when Werner Herzog goes into the Amazonian jungle and returns with films like Aguirre, Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, when Pasolini films Medea and The Arabian Nights in Turkey, Syria, Nepal and Morocco, the personal experience becomes transformed into an artwork. When most people travel they come back with a few memories and a few photos: they haven't transformed their experiences, they have merely lived them.
But isn't this merely a little condescending, as though only the great artist should be entitled to travel the world? Two answers come to mind here. One is to say that there are numerous great filmmakers whose work hasn't required a passport to other parts of the globe: Ingmar Bergman, Eric Rohmer and Martin Scorsese are three directors who if they had never left their home countries wouldn't have been aesthetically impoverished as a consequence. The other is to wonder whether many people travel for inconsequential reasons; they want not so much to see the world but feel they have done no more than change their environment: basically that a change is as good as a rest. The consequence is that the environment is changed as the planet's resources are depleted. Yet what we want to suggest here is that the best reasons for travel need to be impersonal and aesthetic, or personal and perhaps ascetic: that one travels for spiritual reasons. While the former might seem to invoke the impersonal and the latter the selfish, both possess a dimension beyond the social self.
We won't have very much to say here about the ascetic traveller: about the person who walks for thousands of miles, who cycles around the world or allows their life to be a constant escape from the society from which they come. But this perspective will hover over the films we will discuss, as if the filmmakers whose work takes them from one country to another are themselves finding in aesthetics the alibi of the ascetic. Whether it is Herzog, Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni or Nicolas Roeg, these are filmmakers whose work suggests that staying in one place would have limited their freedom to create: that new landscapes generated new internal geographies. This isn't at all to propose that they utilise place symbolically, more that the place reflects the capacity for certain thoughts. This we feel is an important distinction: the symbolic as opposed to the reflective. The symbol asserts itself on the artwork; the reflective emanates out of the environment. Even if we accept that Roeg and Antonioni use the landscapes and cityscapes they explore more subjectively than Pasolini and Herzog, the power of each director's oeuvre resides in the acceptance that film is a stubbornly realist medium: an art form that doesn't work from the abstract like literature, but constantly demands the real by virtue of its nature as a recording device. When Antonioni films David Hemmings driving through the London streets in Blow-Up, we might wonder as we see buildings in blocks of blue and red whether Antonioni has painted them a particular colour, but this is still very different from a writer who could write a scene of a character travelling through London in his Rolls Royce taking in these colourful buildings. We know that because everything is in the abstract (abstracted by language as a system of symbols, possessing both the signifier and the signified, of a word that stands for something but is indirectly related to that thing) then we needn't concern ourselves with wondering whether the writer painted the buildings or not. It is the very absence of that dissolution of the signifier and the signified into the thing we see that makes us ask these types of questions.
Now this is why we do not believe that a writer travelling to different countries, and the reader then reading about them, quite passes for a vicarious experience. Laurie Lee, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, V. S. Naipaul and numerous other travel writers may write beautifully and vividly, but they are hampered by the abstraction of words that means literature cannot quite be experienced: our querying over the possibility that Antonioni painted buildings in London is invalidated in literature, and though developments in computer-generated imagery increasingly calls into question this capacity to film the real, discussing the filmmakers here we can see that the experiential is important to their work. Herzog makes great play of course that in Fitzcarraldo he used a real a boat and real Indians to haul it over a mountain, believing that to have faked it would have been to rob the viewer of the proper aesthetic experience as a property of film. The absence of the signer/signified relationship that semiotic film theorists fretted over, as they tried to discover whether film could properly be called a language, becomes an experiential solution. Christian Metz might have wished to nail down film to its various semiotic properties when saying "the purpose of this text is to examine some of the problems and difficulties confronting the person who wants to begin undertaking, in the field of "cinematographic language", de Saussure's project of a general semiotics: to study the ordering and functionings of the main signifying units used in the filmic message." (Film Language).
However, none other than Pasolini would vociferously argue with Metz, Umberto Eco and others, saying that film was the written language of reality. Though he believed "the disagreement between Metz and myself appears to be deep but perhaps not incurable", he was much more interested in notions of the real than the French semiotician. Arguing with Metz's attempt at breaking down the shot to its smallest unit as phonemes are used in language, Pasolini insisted: "I believe there cannot be a shot composed of a single object; because there is no object in nature composed only of itself, and which cannot be further subdivided or broken down." (Heretical Empiricism) In this sense we interpret literature (they are signs on a page that we convert into meaning), while in film, whatever the complexity of the work, we have an immediate experience with it. Pasolini wanted from film these found realities. In an interview with Film Comment he said: "so the rule that dominated the making of the film [The Gospel According to St Matthew] was the rule of analogy. That is, I found settings that were not reconstructions but that were analogous to ancient Palestine. The characters, tooI didn't reconstruct characters but tried to find individuals who were analogous. I was obliged to scour southern Italy, because I realized that the pre-industrial agricultural world, the still feudal area of southern Italy, was the historical setting analogous to ancient Palestine. One by one I found the settings that I needed for The Gospel. I took these Italian settings and used them to represent the originals." Pasolini adds, "I took the city of Matera, and without changing it in any way, I used it to represent the ancient city of Jerusalem. Or the little caverns of the village between Lucania and Puglia are used exactly as they were, without any modifications, to represent Bethlehem. And I did the same thing for the characters.The chorus of background characters I chose from the faces of the peasants of Lucania and Puglia and Calabria."
When Herzog, Antonioni, Pasolini and Roeg were making their films, in the sixties and seventies, and into the eighties, it was an age when travel was still expensive. There was the odd cheap airline like Laker Airways (that went bust), but this was long before Ryanair and Easy Jet. It was a period when visiting India, Mexico, Argentina or the States could still pass for a holiday of a lifetime, and it was as though in many of these films there was an acknowledgement of privilege in the filmmaker's vision. This was not the haughtiness of the filmmaker's look on all he surveys; more a curiosity towards what he has been fortunate to have witnessed. Whether it happened to be Roeg filming the Australian outback in Walkabout, or Morocco in Bad Timing, or Antonioni shooting the Sahara in The Passenger or Death Valley in Zabriskie Point, this was the flipside of James Bondian jetsetting but not inconsistent with it. The Bond films were saying that travel was a luxury, but also an easy possibility, with the scene shifts from one exotic location to another indicating the simple means by which Bond goes from A to B. When the central character in The Passenger gets his Range Rover stuck in the desert, or when the two children can't find their way through the outback in Walkabout, we are no less made aware of the exotic nature of travel. The first, however, presents it as luxury; the second as threat, but both acknowledge the idea that travelling is not something everyone can simply do.
Has cinema lost this capacity for registering the magnitude of the world because of the development on the one hand of budget travel, and on the other of computer graphics that can replicate any location with a few clicks of the mouse? The far-flung location is no longer so impressive: we can travel there ourselves at no great cost, and how do we know that the filmmaker hasn't used new technologies to enhance it into being? As Lev Manovich astutely notes: "the goal of computer graphics is not realism but only photorealism. Has this photorealism been achieved? At the time of this writing (May 1994) dinosaurs of Jurassic Park represent the ultimate triumph of computer simulation, yet this triumph took more than two years of work by dozens of designers, animators, and programmers of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), probably the premier company specializing in the production of computer animation for feature films in the world today." Manovich adds, "because a few seconds of computer animation often requires months and months of work, only the huge budget of a Hollywood blockbuster could pay for such extensive and highly detailed computer-generated scenes as seen in Jurassic Park."('Paradoxes of Digital Photography') What we have here is impressive simulation: images made in a computer but proposing a world like our own, one that augments it not with natural wonder, but unnatural delight: it can bring into being dinosaurs that look like they've been filmed yesterday. Manovich insists that while many thought around the time he was writing his article (the time of Jurassic Park) that computer imagery lacked the photographic quality of the analogue image, he believed that wasn't at all the problem. "This is, then, the final paradox of digital photography. Its images are not inferior to the visual realism of traditional photography. They are perfectly real - all too real." But this is a realism that need have nothing to do with the pro-filmic, with the image filmed by a camera, but with an image that hasn't been filmed at all. Its existence isn't in the world, but stored in a computer. Jurassic Park possesses awe alright, but we find it in ones and zeroes, not nature. It is a properly mathematical sublime as opposed to the dynamic sublime. Thus when Kant differentiates between the former and the latter he notices that while the mathematical indicates measurement; the latter suggests encompassment. While the former indicates a movement of the mind, and the interplay caused by the imagination and cognition, according to S. Korner, the dynamic results from the "interplay of the imagination and desire." (Kant) Is this the difference between Spileberg's awe in Jurassic Park and the filmmakers we are looking at here? The mathematically sublime becomes literal: with the numbers pumped into a computer and a dinosaur the result.
Yet, of course, one would be inclined to think there is more to Pasolini, Herzog, Antonioni and Roeg's work than seeing themselves as products of their era; a pre-CGI moment where the majestic could only be recorded and not digitally transformed. They are also concerned with searching out the sublime dimension of locale to register an aesthetic affect. They would always want realism; not photorealism. The more the filmmaker can acknowledge this enormity of place, the closer they can make us feel to the experience. When we ourselves go to see astounding locations, what do we take back: have we managed to find the means by which to record an aspect of the universe, or have we merely taken ourselves off to a place so different from our home? Just as we have the notion of diplomatic immunity that allows (however problematically) for certain citizens to act outside the ready laws of the country, should certain people have a travel licence entitling them to see the world at a moment when our movements around the planet are contributing to its destruction? Just as under Communism artists were often allowed beyond the Iron Curtain as their work contributed to the perceived good of the social order from whence they came, should we consider doing the same for artists who bring back from their travels so much more experience than the average holidaymaker?
This might sound like an elitist proclamation, but if we can imagine in fifty years' time that the state of the globe is such, that emissions have been so great and the ozone layer so weakened, that travel will become a responsibility, then perhaps our ideas have some validity. Someone taking off for two weeks to India just to get away from it all could seem to us to possess an element of moral effrontery that we now credit to people who flout smoking laws in a bar. Twenty years ago to ask someone to stop smoking in a public place because the person asking was annoyed by the smoke would have been to insult the smoker. To light up in that self-same place now would turn the smoker into the one doing the insulting. Already there are many environmentally inclined thinkers who reckon travelling idly is a luxury too many, so surely those who will continue to do so need a general rather than selfish reason in doing it. A selfish reason would be two weeks in India to get away from it all; a general reason would be to make a film or a documentary whose aim would be to share it with others, to try and extract from the environment, from whence the person has come, an aesthetic purpose so evident in Antonioni, Herzog and others.
What the filmmakers want to do is extract from the locale a residual significance so much greater, obviously, than the holiday snap, but, perhaps, far more significant than the location. We italicize to differentiate. Bond films use locations as they quickly announce to the viewer the awesome dimension of their setting, and the luxury of the film's making. We notice it at the beginning of Live and Let Die, where Manhattan is presented to us in a helicopter establishing shot as the subtitles announce the United Nations building. In the opening sequence of For Your Eyes Only the helicopter is incorporated into the shot as the film shows us the houses of parliament in London. Imdb lists no less than sixty-three locations for The Spy Who Loved Me, including Bute in Scotland, as well as parts of Canada, Malta and Egypt. A Bond film doesn't so much explore where it is set; it advertises its own resources. This is location cinema where the budget matters and manifests itself in production values. In films like Medea, Aguirre, Wrath of God, Walkabout and The Passenger the filmmakers instead emphasise locale. In an early sequence in The Passenger, David Locke's Land Rover breaks down and he is forced to walk with a guide through the desert. The location is Illizi in Algeria doubling up as Chad. What interests Antonioni is not the exotic nature of the location as production values, but a locale as a place of mystery and surprise as he captures its present. Here the wind howls, the sand kicks up and the camera is as attentive to the spaces filmed as to Locke's predicament.
There is often a dimension of both contingency and persistence in this approach to film. Herzog talks in Herzog and Herzog of the clouds coming in as he shot the opening sequence, in Aguirre, of the conquistadors and the Indians making their way up and around the Andes. Pasolini's films would often require long reconnaissance missions evident in the title of one of his documentaries: Seeking Locations in Palestine. Yet in both cases, for Herzog and for Pasolini, the purpose was much the same: they couldn't assume they would simply film a location on their terms; a locale would have its own demands.
This might seem less pronounced in Antonioni and Roeg's work. Antonioni is known for the precision of his framing and his interest in altering locale. Commentators often remark on the painted grey fruit in Red Desert, the grass painted greener in Blow-Up, the enlarged billboards in Zabriskie Point. Discussing colour, he said: "In Red Desert I used color for the first time. I don't think that's particularly significant since color is such a part of modern society. Many color films I have seen have fascinated me and at the same time left me unsatisfied." He reckoned it was "because while, on the one hand, they gave me a more realistic picture of the external reality of people and things, on the other hand, the colors were never the right ones to fully capture the feelings generated by the relationship between people and things." (The Architecture of Vision) Often the frame takes precedence over the shot, the painterly dimension over the documentative aspect. When he films Jeanne Moreau wandering around Milan in La notte, certain shots indicate abstract expressionism over the pro-filmic. One shot shows Moreau tiny in the frame against the enormity of a building that is like a geometric slab. In Roeg's films the editing becomes paramount. Though Roeg worked as a cinematographer on Fahrenheit 451 andFar From the Madding Crowd, it is the fractured editing for which he is famous, a fragile geometry of time that insists past, present and future aren't easily distinguishable. At the beginning of Walkabout, he doesn't just film the location, he insistently splices it, moving through various scenes of Australian life in lateral tracks that manipulate the space but doesn't quite obliterate it as a locale. It never becomes a Bondian location: an environment in which the story takes place; it remains a locale where we can never quite be sure about what will take place there. It is mysterious and not exotic; it is menacing without being an account of villainy. In Bond films, or the Bourne films, the location gives way to the story as Berlin, Paris and Goa become places in which certain events can happen. When Bourne drives through the streets of Paris in Mini, this isn't at all about Paris as a city one loses oneself in, that one soaks up the atmosphere of; it is an opportunity for Bourne to realise his prowess behind a wheel as he takes the tight street corners and trundles the Mini down steep cobbled streets. It remains throughout a location.
This suggests it isn't the filmmaker's manipulation of the material that makes it either location or locale: Paul Greengrass who directed a couple of the Bourne films could probably pass for more of a realist than Roeg, and certainly more than Antonioni. He is well-known for a hand-held approach that owes much to documentary, evident in his early film Bloody Sunday. David Bordwell writing on Greengrass's work might see it as overly stylised, but this is still a style passing itself off as one of verisimilitude, no matter how difficult it might be to reconstruct the scene and situation based on the shots the film contains. As Bordwell says of the Bourne Ultimatum: "could anybody reconstruct any of these stations, streets, or apartment blocks on the strength of what we see?" Yet there are scenes in numerous Greengrass films that want to give the impression events haven't been dramatised; they have been captured. We might think here of the press conference which could almost pass for archival footage in Bloody Sunday. Yet still we believe Greengrass's films (and especially the Bourne films and even United 93 and Captain Phillips) are narrative machines over anything else: movies that turn the screws on us so that the spaces and places filmed prove very much secondary to the devices at work. Both United 93 and Captain Phillips are based on recent events, but Greengrass seems to have gone to them for the suspense that could be found in the material. The first takes its title from one of the planes from 9/11, the second an act of piracy in the high seas. Both are tales of foreigners impacting on American life: the first ends with everyone dead; the second with Captain Phillips' life saved, but both are works of suspense narrative.
The notion of suspense is usually missing from Antonioni, Roeg, Pasolini and Herzog's work - as if suspense is too anticipatory a feeling for directors who want to immerse us in the milieu. If Claude Chabrol's films, for example, differ from Hitchcock's it is partly on this point. It isn't that Hitchcock has no interest in place (San Francisco is vividly presented in Vertigo, London in Frenzy), but we understandably see him as the master of suspense, not of space. Chabrol was much more interested in teasing out the villages in which he filmed than the tension he could create. In Le boucher murders are committed, but the terror partly lies in the contrast between the tranquillity of the environment and the bodies that pile up. In Le femme infidele there is only one murder as Chabrol focuses on the daily lives of a couple living in a big house on the outskirts of Paris, and the wife's affair in the city. Chabrol is someone like Rohmer or Bergman who could have made all his films in his own country, yet someone who was always interested in exploring the places in which he filmed. The South of France for Les Biches, the massif central for Le boucher, Brittany for La ceremonie. Hitchcock, on the other hand, was in some ways a precursor to the Bondian: looking for places nationally and internationally where he could build suspense narratives in The Man who Knew too Much, To Catch a Thief and North by Northwest. Chabrol utilised locale we feel; Hitchcock manipulated location. Understanding this difference is to comprehend a contrary ontology of the image. Chabrol's films might be less interesting as cinema than Hitchcock's, and hugely less influential, but they are intriguing as acts of temporal and spatial capturing. When watching Le boucher we have a very vivid feeling for the day to day routines of village life in the centre of France in the late sixties. Like in Pasolini and Herzog's, in Chabrol's films there is a low key ethnography at work: a sense that cinema as a medium of rendering must at a certain point give way to film as a documentative form. Chabrol might say that "documentary is based on a false notion; they think it's the truth because they recognize what they see on screen as what they see on the street...but it's just the appearance." But he does "try to go from the appearance of reality, of course [yet] you find reality more by significant detail." (Film Forum)
Sometimes this leads to interesting results that make us wonder whether the director has created something or simply filmed it. When Herzog hypnotized the cast in Heart of Glass, we feel caught between fiction and documentary, and Herzog more than most forces upon us certain ethical questions concerning the image that coincides with the moral conundrums ethnographic documentarists face. Dai Vaughan might understandably say that though Herzog said that "you can see it's a real ship. You can see it's not made of plastic...", we should accept that "despite this apparent appeal to its pro-filmic properties, it is no way the same ship as in Burden of Dreams, the film on the making ofFitzcarraldo..." (For Documentary) Yet whether it is hypnotising the cast in Heart of Glass, expecting local Indians to haul a boat over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, the brutality meted out to the horse in Aguirre, Wrath of God, or the use of dwarves in Even Dwarves Started Small, Herzog is a director who can often seem like he is flirting with exploitation. It was obviously an issue that became pronounced in Fitzcarraldo, after rumours spread that some Indians were killed during the film's making. It is a point he furiously denied. "No one was ever at risk while the ship was pulled over the mountain. No one means no actor, no technician, no extra." (Herzog on Herzog) But he has always been a filmmaker whose productions have been inextricably intertwined with the final result. Though Herzog denies he is an adventurer, his films more than most incorporate his own physical capacity to shoot in arduous conditions. Vaughan is right to distinguish between the boat in the fiction film and the boat in the documentary of the film's making, but the degree to which the filmmaker pursues the documentary dimension within the fictional makes the rumours possible.
Like Pasolini, Herzog would probably acknowledge that cinema is the "written language of reality". Hitchcock in this sense would be likely to propose the opposite, once saying that in the future we wouldn't need all this dramatic reenactment: the experience of film (the shock, the horror, the tears, the tension) could be directly conveyed to the brain as pure emotion. This is an anti-realist aesthetic taken to extremes: the idea that a film is an affect produced over a world explored. Some might see this as the answer to the environmental problem we have predicated this article upon: the notion that travel is now a luxury our planet cannot afford. If we can replicate everything on a computer, or directly wire sensations to the brain, why would anyone need to go anywhere? Couldn't Herzog recreate the Amazonian jungle on his laptop; Pasolini his images of the past likewise? This, however, wouldn't any longer be the written language of reality, but the language of pixels. If some might insist that relying on cinema to do our travelling for us is a removal from the real, we would argue that it is consistent with reality, just a recording of it. But a pixillated cinema leaves no one exploring the world as an act of adventurousness; merely technology replicating it at a further remove.
Cinema has always had a relationship with scepticism, even if it hasn't always couched it in a manner consistent with philosophical enquiry: most obviously evident in the work of Wittgenstein, where he took on G. E. Moore's common sense assumptions. If Moore insists that proof of the external world resides in "his knowledge that he had two hands, and, since hands were objects in the external world, he concluded that there was an external world." Wittgenstein's response in On Certainty was that "Moore does not know what he says he knows, but it stands fast for him, as also for me; regarding it as absolutely solid is part of our method of enquiry." (The Oxford Companion to Philosophy) When we discuss whether or not Indians were abused in the making ofFitzcarraldo, we might insist they were or they weren't, but it isn't absurd to make the claim one way or another. It would be absurd to wonder how the dinosaurs were treated in Jurassic Park. In both instances let us say neither Indians nor dinosaurs were abused, but our sceptical relationship with the claim of exploitations in each instance would be quite different.
Often the question of scepticism in film has been explored politically rather than philosophically, with various film theorists of the sixties and seventies concerned with the apparatus of film: the degree to which it generates false consciousness through making the viewer so at ease in the image. This would be where Plato's cave would be invoked not as a philosophical problematic but as a socio-political one. As Jean-Louis Baudry insisted viewers watched films as the prisoners in Plato's cave would confuse the shadows with the reality, this is actually a very apt metaphor for film in the age of, to tweak Walter Benjamin, digital production. Digital cinema is not an indexical image, it does not have a direct, existential relationship with reality, but an abstract, iconic one. When C. S. Peirce defined the indexical, he did so by stating that the index could be a footprint, a thermometer or smoke: there was a reality to which they were a part. A painting, on the other hand, would be iconic in the sense that it abstracts from reality; it doesn't have a direct relationship with the object of the painting. We paint a picture we don't record it. Thus when Baudry in 'The Apparatus' uses the image of the shadows as an illustration of false consciousness, we might say that it is an example instead of indexical consciousness. The prisoners might not be able to see the object, but they do see an index of it.
This is where the term can seem complicated. An index is both a part that signifies the whole, rather like metonymy and synecdoche, but it is also a part that existentially captures something. Hence cinema before becoming a computer file had an indexical relationship it has now all but lost, as fewer and fewer films are made on celluloid. This could lead to filmmakers less and less responsive to the written language of reality as they create images true to a language that is mathematical rather than verisimilitudinous. The images might still resemble the world, but they aren't extracted directly from it, and, if they are not haunted by the reality from which they come, will there be less and less of an obligation for the filmmaker to play fair by the real?
That is a bigger question than this essay would care to try and answer, and there are filmmakers either working in digital or celluloid still concerned with the image as an aspect of reality, where the advances in technology have led to greater resistance to digital or in its use an increase in realism and not its dilution. Hollywood filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese "rallied round and persuaded the major Hollywood studios to commit to buying a set amount of film for the next few years, whether they need it or not." ('Is It Really the End of Shooting on Celluloid Film?' ) The Argentinean filmmaker Lisandro Alonso is committed to making films on celluloid, shooting Juaja in 35mm and utilising a standard ratio familiar to films of the thirties and forties over the more rectangular image that became popular since the fifties. Miguel Gomes also chose to use a standard format for Tabu, using 35mm and 16 mm black and white. Other contemporary directors have shifted to digital but this hadn't always meant a move to the obviously digitized. While Three Monkeys (shot on HDW-900) looked like Nuri Bilge Ceylan had become more interested in artificiality than realism, both Once Upon a Time in Anatolya and Winter Sleep were more realistically inclined. Using a Sony F65 for Winter Sleep, the film suggests little in its visual aesthetic that is artificial. We can see that although ontological questions on the nature of the medium have to be sacrificed, this doesn't mean that we must assume filmmakers automatically have to accept that a digital film is an unrealistic work. We need only look at those early digital booth photographs in the late nineties and early 2000s and more recent ones to see how much closer the pictures now resemble us. It is the same with advances in film camera technology. Though Andre Bazin insisted on the link between realism and celluloid, more recent theorists like D. N. Rodowick wonder if Bazin and others' approach can now seem overly literal. "I agree that photographs are of the world in some fundamental sense" but film has also and always been about creating images as many filmmakers are using digital and "the filmic conception of the shot as a "block of duration", or a spatially whole and irreducible element of filmic expression, has been significantly challenged." (The Virtual Life of Film)
The question today is one of aesthetics over ontology: of creative choices over the givens of the medium. Alonso, Albert Serra, Ceylan, Jia Zhangke, Lucrecia Martel and Jose Luis Guerin are amongst the most important of contemporary filmmakers, searching out a dimension of the real that is sometimes missing from filmmakers who might resolutely be defending celluloid, but are happy working quite generically - like Tarantino and Nolan.
Thus when we look at the work of Herzog, Pasolini, Antonioni and Roeg, we ask not for a reality that is based on the truth because of technology, but a truth that is predicated on aesthetics. The technological has the advantage of a greater positivism. If celluloid records reality, and digital does not, then celluloid is more real than the digital. But while the aesthetic is less categorical it can also be much more subtle. If we feel that the digitally shot Winter Sleep has a greater interest in the 'real world' than Django Unchainedwe have to argue for this through questions of generic predictability, heroism and villainy, dialogue versus conversation, location versus locale and so on. Anyone who says that Django Unchained is more realistic than Winter Sleep on the basis of its celluloid credentials, isn't so much making an argument as looking to escape one.
Returning to our initial question of film as a medium that takes us places in our absence, and can return from these places with a greater sense of world than we can expect to generate through our own unaesthetic movements, should film, whether in digital or celluloid form, accept that this is one of the purposes of cinema in a time when the planet cannot allow for endless travel? Equally does cinema not need to do so through conquering certain questions of scepticism that are more philosophical than socio-political? These are not questions of false consciousness, but those of philosophical scepticism as modes of perception. Why might we accept Antonioni's desert in The Passenger, Roeg's Marrakesh in Bad Timing, Herzog's Amazonian jungle in Aguirre, Wrath of God and Pasolini's Turkey utilised in Medea, over Tarantino's Germany in Inglourious Basterds, Paul Greengrass's Goa in The Bourne Supremacy and parts of Africa in Guy Hamilton's Live and Let Die? It isn't as if the former films are nominally faithful: Antonioni uses Algeria for Chad, and Pasolini Turkey for Greece. No, it resides in an issue of the image's fidelity to a real; not the real. This is our final point and perhaps the most important one. In the real lies too easy questions and answers; those that reside in false notions of fidelity. If it is celluloid it is real because it is indexical; if it names the place and films in it then we can accept it as a visual truth and so on. But instead, we are suggesting a reality resides elsewhere: in a fidelity to the image that passes through the artist's attention to the pro-filmic that is in front of their eyes. This would perhaps above all else allow us to feel there: to believe that the filmmaker has been willing not simply to utilise the images he films for the story he tells, but for a truth he finds in the place where he films.
Hence, taking into account Beckett's remark, the artist is stupid to travel but not that stupid: they know that they need to find in the world images that combine their presence in the world and his or her need to find them through their consciousness; that internal supplement Deleuze talks about. They don't of course only exist in the director's head, or they wouldn't need to be found. Yet they don't only exist in the world or anyone could find them, shape them and make us feel the Amazon, the Sahara or the Outback. They are, as we have explored, not holiday snaps, but neither are they merely components of a narrative, as we often find in Bond films, in Bourne films and others. No, they are images extracted from the world rather as gold can be extracted from the earth. Most images generated are no more than mud; there are others, and those we have discussed here in the work of a number of great filmmakers, possessed of more precious properties.
© Tony McKibbin