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.