Tuesday, March 3, 2009

On Realism, Beauty, and "Exposure Crisis"

As a quarrelsome discussion about the merits of Joe Swanberg was dying down on Glenn Kenny's Some Came Running site, I put my two cents in, and in the process made the following, perhaps excessively ambitious claim:

"…on the subject of the beauty or ugliness of compositions, I'd like to point out that "beauty" and "realism" are opposed concepts, that they will always be defined by their relationship to each other. Realism is always relative to prevailing practices, and the energy and newness that it aspires to, the ability to revivify the mystery of the photographic image, is totally dependent upon tearing down or neglecting or violating something that we've come to expect. When Rossellini or de Toth decided to let the camera shake, they were a) consciously or unconsciously evoking the newsreel footage that came out of WWII; and b) inviting criticism for undermining the beauty of the composed image. Ditto Cassavetes finding inspiration in cutting that evoked the tension of live TV when the control room punches up the wrong camera for a second; ditto Kubrick shining lights at the camera as if he were a street photographer unable to control light sources; ditto countless other attempts to make the image seem alive again. In each case something nice-looking was destroyed; in each case a new generation of filmgoers learned to find the innovation nice-looking."

The point, which I left as an implication, was that comparing Swanberg's visuals to YouTube uploads was not necessarily an insult. This subject is interesting enough that I didn't want it to get lost in a busy comments section, though I'd like to dial down that authoritative tone, which seems inappropriate on subjects as elusive as "beauty" and "realism."

The idea that realism is relative to prevailing practices is pretty well established, at least in my mind. In this longish 2003 post from a_film_by, I summarized my thoughts about the relativism of realism, during an attempt to establish a baseline for a difficult discussion I was having with Tag Gallagher.

(Apropos the examples from that post, here's a brief excerpt from André Bazin's article "Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry?" published in Esprit in 1953 and translated in Bazin at Work: "It would be equally naïve to believe that the filmic image tends toward total identification with the universe that it copies, through the successive addition of supplementary qualities from that universe. Perception, on the part of the artist as well as the audience of art, is a synthesis - an artificial process - each of whose elements acts on all the others. And, for example, it is not true that color, in the way that we are able to reproduce it - as an addition to the image framed by the narrow window of the screen - is an aspect of pure realism. On the contrary, color brings with it a whole set of new conventions that, all things considered, may make film look more like painting than reality.")

The motion in the opposite direction, from realism (based as it is on a renunciation of expressive possibilities) to beauty, is difficult to nail down. If one considers beauty as relative to anything at all, one is cast adrift on a sea of subjectivity. I tried to get around this issue in that comment on Swanberg by making an appeal to consensus, giving only examples of visual ploys that are widely regarded as attractive.

If I move away from consensus, and risk irrelevance by permitting unqualified subjectivity, the example that is most on my mind lately has to do with the limitations of the recording process. Very often, when an image strikes me as uncommonly beautiful, I note that the filmmaker has challenged the ability of celluloid or tape to register a full range of light or color values. This idea first occurred to me ten or fifteen years ago, when filmmakers began using faster stock that could record twilight landscapes without supplementary lighting while still avoiding an excessively grainy look. These images necessarily hover on the black side of the black-white continuum; but I have an immediate emotional reaction to crepuscular displays of contrasting colors, and I think I have the reaction precisely because the colors cannot be brought into the middle-range sweet spot of exposure.

I was reminded of the "beauty via exposure crisis" theory after a recent screening of Jacques Rozier's wonderful, too-little-seen Du côté d'Orouët (which has recently become available on English-subtitled Region 2 DVD as part of a Rozier box set). In one scene, Rozier uses a subjective shot through the windshield of a car to show his protagonists driving to a remote rural tavern, with the wooded terrain barely illuminated (perhaps only by the car's real headlights). I didn't immediately realize why the darkness in this image felt so primal and threatening. Easier to process was a later, stunning scene of a day-long sailing trip, where Rozier did not (or could not) adjust his 16mm exposure to prevent his characters' faces from glowing an unnatural red as the sun went down over the water behind them.

Shortly afterwards, I saw Raymond Depardon's Une femme en Afrique, in which the filmmaker lets the detail in sunlit images vanish into white to convey an unusually vivid sense of desert light and heat.

Other countries are generally more willing to flirt with exposure problems than the US, but the remarkable oneness of the interior and exterior scenes in last year's Ballast is largely due to the exclusive use of "God's own natural light," as Lance Hammer put it.


Anonymous said...

The traditional opposition, from the 18th century, is of the beautiful to the sublime, the one measured, composed, and knowable, the other unmeasureable and lying beyond comprehension, whether too large (the mathematical sublime) or too complex to be accepted as order. With music, Mozart insisted that only the beautiful could "still be music," although some of Don Giovanni and the Requiem seems to step outside that box, at least far enough to suggest the sublime.

What's interesting about all that in this context is that beauty then was tied to a sense of the everyday (everything in proportion) whereas we now think of beauty taking us away from the everyday, almost to something sublime in that older sense of the word. Hence the logic of your being able to oppose beauty and realism.

Dan Sallitt said...

Interesting. I was going to say that the kind of beauty that I was talking about, the kind that results from realism "feeding back" and giving pleasure, doesn't seem very unmeasureable or incomprehensible: most of my examples are of fairly simple phenomena. Then I looked at the Wikipedia article about the sublime, and ran across this apropos passage about Edmund Burke's thoughts:

"Beauty may be accentuated by light, but either intense light or darkness (the absence of light) is sublime to the degree that it can obliterate the sight of an object. The imagination is moved to awe and instilled with a degree of horror by what is 'dark, uncertain, and confused.' While the relationship of the sublime and the beautiful is one of mutual exclusiveness, either one can produce pleasure. The sublime may inspire horror, but one receives pleasure in knowing that the perception is a fiction.

"Burke's concept of the sublime was an antithetical contrast to the classical notion of the aesthetic quality of beauty as the pleasurable experience described by Plato in several of his dialogues (Philebus, Ion, Hippias Major, and Symposium) and suggested ugliness as an aesthetic quality in its capacity to instill feelings of intense emotion, ultimately creating a pleasurable experience."

This passage really goes well with the reactions I was describing! Here the sublime seems to substitute for what I called beauty.

The next section in the Wikipedia article is about Kant's view of the sublime, which seems to underlie the ideas you put forth.

Dan Sallitt said...

One further thought on this interesting Burkian division of good art vibes into "beauty" and "the sublime." Adopting that framework in a tentative way, I tried to think about it in terms of the back-and-forth flow that I was describing between beauty and realism. Let's call it "good art vibes" and realism to avoid confusion.

In the one direction, from good art vibes to realism, it seems to me that any good art vibe will do, whether beauty or the sublime. Even the most perfectly proportioned object, replaced with something less perfect, will yield a form of realism: you make Ernest Borgnine a romantic lead, and it's instant realism.

But, in the other direction, from realism to good art vibes, the outcome must be the sublime, almost by definition.

So we have described an entropic system where all the beauty in the world slowly gets replaced by the sublime in the catalog of good art vibes! No wonder these old ways of talking about beauty seem quaint to us.

Dan Sallitt said...

Sorry to keep commenting on my own thread, but this beauty/sublime opposition has made me think of one more thing. In my post, I continually used words like "alive" or "revivify" to describe the effect of realism on what I was calling beauty: "...ditto countless other attempts to make the image seem alive again." And yet, Edmund Burke's idea of the sublime seems to stand in the same relation to beauty as death does to life. Here's Wikipedia again on Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: "The formal cause of beauty is the passion of love; the material cause concerns aspects of certain objects such as smallness, smoothness, delicacy, etc.; the efficient cause is the calming of our nerves; the final cause is God's providence...The sublime also has a causal structure that is unlike that of beauty. Its formal cause is thus the passion of fear (especially the fear of death); the material cause is equally aspects of certain objects such as vastness, infinity, magnificence, etc.; its efficient cause is the tension of our nerves; the final cause is God having created and battled Satan, as expressed in Milton's great epic 'Paradise Lost.'"

So the aesthetic appeal generated by realism is akin to the attraction of death? This makes me think of Norman Mailer's essay "The Metaphysics of the Belly," published in The Presidential Papers, which contains an attempt to explain the appeal of the "scatology" of modern art: "...the modern condition may be psychically so bleak, so overextended, so artificial, so plastic - plastic like styrene - that studies of loneliness, silence, corruption, scatology, abortion, monstrosity, decadence, orgy, and death can give life, can give a sentiment of beauty."