The third in a series of essays in honor of André Bazin.
In a previous essay in this series I wrote:
As long as a movie constructs a substantial and coherent alternate
reality it has the power to express and manipulate our emotions.
As long as it delivers the illusion of a world that is convincingly
real while we are inside it
film can mimic the process of dreaming. Cinema is not about, or
not only about, the mummification of reality — it is about the
translation of psychology into the realm of oneiric reality, and the
essential quality of oneiric reality is that it feels absolutely real.
But this doesn't quite tell the whole story. Even in the grip of
the most convincing oneiric illusion, there is a part of the brain that
recognizes it as an illusion. This accounts for the exhilaration
we feel when, for example, we find ourselves able to fly in a dream.
We are conscious on some level that we have been freed from the usual
restrictions of gravity, which means that some part of us remembers the
usual restrictions of gravity — we are enchanted to find ourselves in
an alternate physical universe.
There are also moments in dreams when the waking self intrudes into the
oneiric universe — something so outrageous happens in the dream that we think,
“This must be a dream,” and we think this while dreaming. (This is usually a prelude to waking up, since the dream
state can not long survive rigorous evaluation by the mind of the
Whatever psychological compensations and satisfactions we get from the
oneiric state, there is always, to one degree or another, a
corresponding sense of wonder at the alternate universe we have entered
– a sense of inhabiting two states at the same time. The unreal,
and therefore constructed, nature of the dream state invests it with the quality of magic.
The same rule applies to the dreamlike illusion of cinema, though on a
level that is consistently closer to consciousness. However
seduced we might be by the alternate universe of the cinema, the sides
of the screen are always there in our peripheral vision. The
visible boundaries of cinema's dream space place a greater burden on
the medium to seduce us into forgetting those boundaries, but also remind
us delightfully of the constructed nature of that dream space, which
There are other phenomena related to cinema which offer even more
obtrusive reminders of their constructed nature and can actually seem
all the more wonderful for that. We see precisely how they are
seducing us, and yet we cannot help but be seduced — and we marvel at
the process as a process. One might point to elaborate miniature
environments, for example, like fantastically detailed and realistic
doll houses, or to the Bunraku puppet tradition. In the latter,
we can plainly see the puppeteers manipulating the puppets, wearing
black clothing to symbolically distance themselves from the puppet
figures — and yet the movements of the puppet figures are so real, so
like the movements of actual human beings, that we have to remind
ourselves that they are not in fact tiny people.
Realistic automata, toy soldiers, dolls, puppets of all kinds, can
plunge us into this middle world between illusion and the consciousness
of illusion. The joy they all induce must be complex, difficult
to define precisely, but I think it rests on two bases. One is
the creation of an alternate reality very like everyday reality in many
crucial respects but entirely within the control of human agents –
including ourselves as spectators, who can surrender to or resist the
illusion at will. Another is the creation of an alternate reality
in which psychological tensions and desires can be safely engaged — as
they are engaged in dreams. Thus little children can enact
fantasies of mastery by moving small armies across tabletops, or fantasies
of nurturing by parenting dolls.
All of these things are related to the joys of cinema. Thus we
can see the fundamental error of André Bazin's “ontology of cinema” –
which he saw as rooted in the shared ontological identity of the
photographic image and its subject, like the ontological identity
between a finger and its fingerprint. This ontological identity
does exists in photographed cinema, but it is not the source of its
power — it is only a technique for creating the convincing illusion of
a coherent alternate reality.
As I've observed elsewhere, drawn and computer-generated animation can
also create such an illusion — as can the the techniques of
scale-modeling and puppetry.