Darkened vs Lightened Version of Cinema in the context of the Exhibition Space


Confession of a Justified Sinner (1998), Douglas Gordon, Found Footage: Cinema Exposed at the EYE Film Institute Amsterdam; photo taken by Esra Satici, on the photo: Monika Ponjavic, May 2012

Looking at the greater picture, films are generally characterized as „ocular-specular (i.e. conditioned by optical access), transitive (one looks at something) and disembodied (the spectator maintains the safe distance)” (Elsaesser 14). And to some extent I do agree with this characterization, but only to some extent because when it comes down to Hitchcock, especially to films like Rear Window (1954) or Psycho (1960), we, the audience, are everything but disembodied. Yes, in a physical sense we are maintaining the safe distance, meaning we cannot interfere in the events unfolding in front of us, nor can we be pseudo-harmed by them, simply because they are prerecorded, however, we are not the passive watchers because the director is playing (us) upon our own expectations, positioning us in relation to the screen in such a way by giving us the role of both the witness and the accomplice in a crime and therefore, in the end, it is we who assume the role of the perpetrator and the victim, respectively, it is we who keep changing our position constantly.

On the other hand, if we are talking about a filmic state as induced by the traditional fiction film, well, in that respect it is true that the spectator is in fact demobilized (not to be mistaken for passive) in a sense that he is immersed into the darkness of the auditorium, relatively immobile, i.e. spatially constricted (tied to a chair, facing the screen), in a state of lessened alertness, which is very often compared to the state of dreaming. However, Christian Metz argues that the first and principal difference between the filmic and oneiric situations in the case of the film spectator is the fact that “the dreamer doesn’t know that he is dreaming” whilst “the film spectator knows that he is at the movies” (“Fiction Film” 75). In other words,  “the film spectator is a man awake, whereas the dreamer is a man asleep” (“Fiction Film” 80). The identification of the relations between the filmic state (man awake) and the oneiric state (man asleep) obviously entails the problem of a sleep, which then inevitably leads towards the introduction of a new term, daydream, which, like the filmic state and unlike the dream, is in fact a waking activity (“Fiction Film” 93), a “twilight reverie” (Barthes “Leaving the Movie Theater” 364).

By contrast, in the 1966 Jean-Louis Comolli wrote an article Notes on the New Spectator, published in Cahier du Cinema, where he argued that darkened film theater is a theater of myths where spectator: (a) becomes imprisoned by darkness, (b) needs to put in effort in order to pull back and stay awake in such an environment, (c) is conditioned to receive certain impressions and to expect a series of standardized emotions. According to him “there is a wide gap between the state of a spectator in a darkened cinema and the state of receptivity or lucid participation demanded by any film not made simply for the consumer” (Comolli 213). Why? Comolli believes there are two plausible understandings of what film is. It is either “a natural extension of the dark, an ante-chamber of dreams, so that the spectator, having left the world behind, denies himself and others, and himself as another.” Or “the film, despite and beyond the darkened cinema, aims to be an extension of and comment on the outside world. If this is the case, spectator is lost” due to the paradoxical situation he found himself in because on one hand “he remains subject to the theatre, drawn by it towards habitual satisfaction of his expectations: which the film does not give” while on the other hand “the film confronts him with himself and others; its images continually draw him to the world, sustaining an awareness which the dark of the theatre is trying to deny him”(Comolli 214). To resolve this paradox Comolli suggested a lighted version of cinema that neither absorbs nor annihilates the clarity, which emits from the screen, but instead diffuses it “which brings both the film character and the spectator out of the shadows and set them face to face on an equal footing” (214). He divides cinema into responsible or modern cinema (Griffith, Renoir, Lang, Godard and so forth) and irresponsible cinema positing a conflict between the responsible cinema and the place in which it operates, i.e. the dark cinema. This conflict arises from the fact that it is the spectator who is the true hero of the film, hero incapable of understanding where he is and who he is as a consequence of the cinema that led him into this state, putting him on the stage, in the first place. In order to further elaborate on this he uses television, as the best illustration of this need for clarity:

Re-seeing the great works of cinema on television confirms this: if you are not obsessed with dark cinemas and do not try more or less to recreate the conditions of watching in the dark, in other words, if you review films in half-light that helps concentration, you see them differently and better than in the cinema. You watch them from a level of confidence and equality. (Comolli 214)

And although I do agree with him, on few points, I also believe that the power over the screen imagery, reflected in spectator’s identification with the camera as Metz suggested, mirrors our intent to fight, conquer or domesticate the highest of the fears—the fear of the unknown. Essentially, what man who is standing alone in a dark room fears is not the loss of his sense of sight, on contrary, it is his own imagination for these thoughts may potentially warn him of the unexpected, supervenient touch, which could lead to panic. Thus “all the distances which men create round themselves are directed by this fear” (Canetti 15). Like “horror film criticism has often insisted, it may be more frightening not to see things, to let you imagination free rein…” (Dyer 59). Furthermore, men are likewise governed by the fear of intimacy, fear of being touched, fear of getting closer to another human being. All these things we do: the way we move in the city, the way we move and act around people in the busy street, shopping mall or a public transportation is governed by this fear yet paradoxically “it is only in the crowd that man can be free of this fear”(Canetti 15). Once in the crowd our fear is transformed into its opposite:

As soon as a man has surrendered himself to the crowd, he ceases to fear its touch. Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against himself is the same as himself. He feels him as he feels himself. Suddenly it is as though everything were happening in one and the same body. This is one of the reasons why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched…(Canetti 15)

Cinema or the black box, as the epitome of the darkness (the unknown) paradoxically, bestows the sense of comfort and complacency upon us. In cinema our fear is tamed, our imagination is superimposed with the images on the screen. Therefore, L.B. Jeffries’ fascination of what goes on the other side of the window, the refflection of the mirror as his projected desire or likewise, his fear, is crucial because it makes Jeff (James Stewart) overlook the importance of what is going on in front of the mirror, in the very spot from which he looks at. Harnessed by the imagery of the screen, embedded in crowd, glued to the representation, the film spectator stops fearing the unknown for it is right here in “this urban dark that the body’s freedom is generated” (Barthes 346).

Furthermore, the very fascination of film, any film, lies precisely in the darkness of the cinema “(anonymous, populated, numerous – oh, the boredom, the frustration of so – called private showings!)” (Barthes “Leaving the Movie Theater” 346). By comparison, on television the fascination is lost, “here darkness is erased, anonymity repressed, space familiar, articulated (by furniture, known objects), tamed, eroticism – no…” (Barthes “Leaving the Movie Theater” 346). Following this analogy one could argue that exhibition space inhabits the threshold between these two opposite poles—the darkness is to some extent erased thus rendering anonymity repressed, per contra the space of the gallery is not familiar and eroticism is still a contingency. Be that as it may, this still doesn’t help us answer the question of the spectator that now goes beyond the dilemma of sitting in a darkened as opposed to the lightened version of cinema (albeit it is inseparable to it and likewise fairly of our concern). The core of the problem lies in the attempt to simulate cinema in a new space, that of a gallery. By extension, this entails that we are still sitting in a version of cinema, more specifically in front of a screen, watching a piece of durational art which is entrusted with the task of, first and foremost, telling a certain story. This task inherently implies that filmic storytelling doesn’t work unless the spectator does certain things. We make assumptions, frame expectations, notice certain things, draw inferences, criticize and pass judgments on what is happening on the screen. However, we are unable to follow through with the task given to us (to spectate) if the viewing conditions are not adjusted to our needs accordingly (to curate). This then leads to the failure of the spectator, which is conditioned with another failure, that of a curator who then, as a result of this cause and effect, together at last fail the artist whose work is on display. Reese argues how “the return of a single –screen film from the back-woods – as seen from the gallery point of view – signifies a resurgence of artists’ filmmaking as an independent practice” (141) that will, by extension, lead to enkindling and revivification of the cinema dark space as primary screening venue, rather than as a black box in the gallery’s white cube, whilst the curators may again turn into programmers” (142). Or instead, a new language will develop (if it hasn’t already), a new film form that acknowledges the spectator and is made specifically for the gallery space. 

Text by Monika Ponjavic (excerpt  from the MA thesis in Performance Research, Film Curation: Deconstructing Cinema)



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