This is the seventh in a series of essays in honor of André Bazin . . .

In an article on film and painting, André Bazin argues that the frame around a painting has the purpose of cutting it off from the real world, establishing the limits of a conceptual field necessary to analyzing the painting in its own terms . . . while the frame around a cinematic image is not a boundary marker but merely a masking device, blocking out an infinite expanse of space which we are meant to imagine as existing outside the mask.

This doesn't seem quite right to me.  There are certain kinds of painting which evoke the world with an optical integrity, an über-photographic reality, which make it not only possible but desirable to imagine a universe beyond their frames.  Much Victorian academic painting has this nature — it was a quality of painting which modernism rejected but which still had its virtues.  Some “classical” painters used this quality — Vermeer, for example.  The conceptual universe of Vermeer's paintings does not end at the edges of his frames.

And the frame of a cinematic image is often much more than a mask — a device for focusing attention.  It sets the boundaries for creating a drama of space, exactly as the proscenium arch does in classical ballet.  The distance or nearness of two dancers in a ballet only has dramatic meaning in relation to the space defined by the proscenium arch.  In ballet, the frame of this arch doesn't just demarcate an arena of theatrical illusion — distancing it from the real world inhabited by the spectator — it has a functional role in defining the expressive terms of the dance.

It's true that in photographed cinema, as opposed to animation, say, we can readily imagine a world beyond the frame with the same ontology as the actual objects photographed within the frame, but there is a counter impulse to discount this peripheral world in order to read the space within the frame as a theatrical arena whose dramatic content only makes sense within that frame.

Take the scene in The Searchers, for example, when Debbie appears in the far distance on top of a ridge behind Nathan and slowly moves towards and into the foreground space they occupy.  This becomes a visceral objective correlative to Nathan's dawning acceptance of Debbie as an individual human being, not just a symbol of his sense of disenfranchisement as a man, an object for the vengeance he wants to visit on life.

The shot is an image of a real place in a real moment of time, but we cannot imagine the world beyond its frame, we cannot imagine the space as seen from Debbie's perspective, for example, and still experience the full meaning of the shot.  The frame here acts as a frame does with most paintings — it creates a conceptual field distinct from the world beyond its borders, and only within that conceptual field does the shot “work”.

Bazin's formula is just too simple.  In the paintings Alma-Tadema did of the ancient world, we feel that the frame is indeed just a mask — a window onto a whole lost world beyond its frame which we delight in imagining.  And conversely, when we are swept into the space of a great animated cartoon, it's hardly necessary to seriously imagine a whole cartoon universe beyond its frame.

We can imagine such a universe beyond the cartoon frame, just as we can, with much less effort, imagine a world beyond the ridge Debbie appears on, but it's the way the frame limits such images, takes them out of the larger world, that makes their meaning in purely cinematic terms possible.

Here again, I think it's Bazin's location of cinema's power in photographed reality, rather than in the drama of space, that leads him to a deficient theoretical proposition.

8 thoughts on “FRAMES

  1. Bazin's conception is just that – a simple tool to assist analysis – and on upon which your analysis relies. Btw, you have not referenced the photographic image which marks the transition from the painting to cinema…

  2. I think it's more than that. Bazin's insistence on the importance of the ontological connection between the film image and the objects it records fails to account for many aspects of cinema, including the (to me) highly “cinematic” imagery of animated cartoons.
    I assume that what Bazin says about motion picture photography would also apply to still photographs. Or would you see a difference there?

  3. A still image does not have a narrative, invites speculation, is more ubiquitous, and is largely documentary.

  4. Right, but I suspect Bazin would see the frame of a still photograph as having a similar function to that of the cinematic frame — as a masking device rather than as the border of a self-contained aesthetic field. Again, I'm not sure this would apply to all still photographs. I wouldn't apply it to the works of the Pictorialists, for example, who were imitating graphic art.

  5. Animation and cinema are made up of a series of stills that create the illusion of movement, and a group of sequential stills creates meaning and usually a coherent narrative.
    The scene from The Searchers has the meaning you have ascribed only because you as viewer are aware of the narrative, and the semiotic technique of framing in cinema creates meaning only within the context of the narrative.
    A still from the movie shown to a viewer who has no understanding of the image as taken from a wider narrative, can only have meaning from the what is in the frame, and here the frame is not a mask but a sin qua non.

  6. That particular shot in “The Searchers” has an emotional meaning apart from the narrative, as does any shot in which one character moves from a distance into the space of another character. The emotional meaning of this shot has no narrative equivalent, since we are never told that Nathan's heart is softening towards Debbie — just the opposite — but it prepares us unconsciously for Nathan's unexpected action at the end of the film, which in narrative terms is totally unexplained.
    In short, we don't “read” the shot as we read other narrative elements of the film, we feel it as an emotional development translated into spatial terms, and those spatial terms only have meaning in relationship to the frame.

  7. Too many Re's, so I will call a truce, but not without a parting shot (pun intended): nothing “moves” in a still image. PS: As Groucho said: Mr Gottlieb, Mrs Claypool …

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