JN: Wide Angle
SO: Wide Angle Vol IX nr 1 (1987); p 11-31
TI: Photo-gravure: death, photography, and film narrative.
AT: Article; Illustrations; Bibliography
Despite its overly flowery writing style, the Wide Angle article “Photo-Gravure: Death Photography and Film Narrative” formulates an interesting analysis of the relationship between film, photography, narrative and death. Author Garrett Stewart explores the filming techniques utilized to convey death across several films, but his analysis of the “photo finish” “freeze frame” employed at the climax of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is especially salient to his final argument.
According to Stewart, both the photographic image and death itself “characterize a pointed and irreversible arrest of time.” He goes on to argue that although film is a composite of still photographic images, the streaming of these pointed images breathes life into the actions that are captured one frame at a time. By introducing the “radical stasis of a freeze frame” into a film like Butch Cassidy, however, the director creates a simultaneous death of the film in conjunction with the death of his characters in the film. The “stop-action frame” turns Butch and Sundance into a still “image…the mirage of future movement.” As Stewart writes, the viewer “does not imagine the heroes…stumbling and falling.” “The contingencies of their narratives are over with their lives,” but Hill is able to glorify his heroes by concluding their story in a moment of bravery rather than degradation.
Stewart explains that “the temporal violence of dying” is what creates the “readability of the photo finish” in cinema. Yet he applauds Hill for expanding upon this standard trope by having his final image “fade to sepia monochrome” as though the shot were an old photograph taken by a sympathetic observer of Butch and Sundance’s last stand. By fading the image in this way, Hill reintroduces the self-reflexivity of his work (previously seen through the still photos intertwined with the opening credits of the film) and reminds his viewer that the story he tells is ultimately a nostalgic tale of a period long-gone in American history. Just as Butch and Sundance could not escape the changing times they were a part of, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid can only serve as a fond remembrance of the days of the Wild West by reminding us that those days and heroes are gone for good.
Michael Stein confronts his fear of violence censorship by comparing and justifying violence in a number of films. He suggests that post-Vietnam films contain a different type of American violence. It was no longer the American hero’s violence but a taboo violence viewed as a disease. The films all had a paradoxical theme involving protagonists who use violence to regain their own and other’s humanity. Filmmakers used this paradox to grab the audience with violence and force them to confront it.
Stein summarizes and analyzes the violence of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Terrence Mallick’s Badlands, and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In an interesting way, he justifies Alex’s violence: “with violence comes passion and with that passion comes our ability to choose what we love, what we dare, who we want to be—our humanity.” He points out that Alex, played by Malcolm McDowell, is elfin and childlike, causing us to enjoy what he enjoys. Kubrick causes us to sympathize with this violent character. We want him to get out of jail and go through the treatment which eventually makes him a “clockwork orange.” Kubrick emphasizes that violence and free choice go hand in hand. It’s like burning the flag and democracy. The film forces you to acknowledge that violence is a part of human nature.
With Badlands Stein argues that American violence is often a twisted version of success. The character Kit, roaming through the wilderness, feels he must kill people in order to survive. He also learns of his fame, possibly equating it with success. The audience is able to digest the violence and like the characters because of their romantic struggle. They are trying to be more human by killing people.
Blade Runner’s violence is also justified by characters fighting for their humanity. Deckard is the robot because he has no choice of being a replicant hunter. Through violence, Deckard is able to regain his humanity by rediscovering feeling, mostly love pain, and fear. Stein also considers Robocop, Terminator, and Lethal Weapon's use of violence relative to individuals and the state.