A still photograph admits its true nature: when one looks at a photo, the photo attempts no more than it it is capable of: the capturing of a moment in time, now past.
The cinema is a shapeshifter, a kind of trickster. Since it was born of the still image, it maintains its innocence: "I am only seeing what it there. I am only recording these moments."
However, cinema also knows it is a liar.
In its very nature, the cinema seduces us by convincing us that it is only a mechanical recording device, but in reality, because it records IN TIME and not simply a moment in time, it actually suggests a lived, objective reality that does not exist at all.
When you play back the cinema recording of any event, you are looking at an event that happened in the past. In this sense, the motion picture camera tries to behave like a still photo. But something happens in the viewers mind when the moving image is presented to them: they begin to believe that what they are seeing actually happened, that the moments captured between the beginning of the filming and the end are begin faithfully recalled by the footage.
And this is the big lie.
The cinema image is actually a specific reality unto itself, and it beguiles us with the sales pitch of "recording device" in order for us to be be captured by the second reality it would have us encounter. Which is never reality itself.
It is, in fact, a second reality. A compressed, two dimensional image that moves in time, but in no way captures the human event that did occur at the time of the recording. It is soulless, empty, cruel, a death mask of sorts.
That is because the meaning, the tangibility of moments we experience in real life are dependent on a thousand or more circumstances, nuances, truths, lies, insinuations and suggestions.
A still image admits that it only trying to preserve less that one second of a moment. The cinema can record an entire day of events, but does not tell you one single valuable thing about that day.
This truth about cinema is why filmmakers spend so much time and effort into creating, controlling, defining and articulating the images to be shot. They know that the augmented or "false reality" that is being presented must rely on its "believability", which is a function of the arrangement of elements, fro text, to actor, to shot, to lens, to lighting, to sound, etc.n This is how a filmmaker brings "life" to a recorded image, and therefore value and meaning.
Even with the upmost care regarding the creation of the physical circumstances that go into the image, there is another, essential component regarding narrative or fictional films: that is, "suspension of disbelief". The audience enters into a contract with the filmmaker which says, "I know that which I am seeing did not really happen this way, but I will accept the reality I am being presented as real for the time being in order to access the work itself."
We know the movie star's life is never in real danger, but we need to believe it in order to experience the narrative with value.
So where does this situate so-called "documentary" footage, or "archival" footage?
Documentary films are there own kind of fiction, and are always subjective in nature. The use of "real" footage" is another illusion here, because the angle, moment, lighting, relationship to subject, etc. by definition changes the event that is being observed.
This concept is embedded in the current thinking about quantum physics: that the act of observing a phenomenon changes the phenomenon itself. Reality is subjective, always.
There is a growing acceptance of the idea of "archiving" live theatrical productions. I am not sure I have heard yet a compelling reason for this, and I am completely against this impulse.
This is because the archival footage is the worst kind of lie: because it photographs an imagined set of circumstances created by theatre practitioners, it triggers in the viewer the impulse to make meaning of the images. But the performance was never created for the specific nature and demands of cinema. To me it is the ultimate example of "apples and oranges", but worse, in that the collision results in the worst kind of Frankenstein monster. This is because usually there are actors, dialogue, costumes, lighting, etc. that was created for the live event. But the cinema camera tries to usurp these theatrical circumstances and convince us one can glean meaning from the recorded event. It is a kind of seduction for the viewer, and it is a dangerous one.
To me, setting a camera up to record any live creative act that is not specifically staged for the cinema, is akin to turning on the spigot on the wall of your house full blast, and walking away. Eventually the yard is watered, but at what cost? Would it not have been better, if one desires to water certain elements in the yard, to attach a hose, a sprinkler, walk to where the sprinkler can best cover the elements in an even and judicious pattern and then check back and move the sprinkler at the appropriate time? In other words, if you have the impulse to create a cinematic record of something, then make that record inherently cinematic. There is no other artists tool wielded with less respect and understanding in out world that the motion picture camera. From paints to canvas, to musical instruments to clay, all other art forms maintain a diligent respect of relationship between the artists and the tools employed. Only the theatre lacks the foresight or will to consider that in a rampant cultural effort of egotism and narcissism ("I need to preserve my live theatre work!"), it is actually killing what makes the live theatre unique and beautiful.
There have even been suggestions made about bringing the motion picture camera into the acting studio, where actors are developing the skills needed to do their eventual work. The idea of recording a formative, transient and out of context moment and then playing it back for the actor to "self-critique" is to misunderstand the entire nature and reality of a recording event. The actor, seeing themselves in the playback, observes only the exterior representation of what they did, in two dimensions and through an electronic device which changes the nature of their appearance and sound. There is no connection the the reality of the moment that was experienced, and is now gone. All that remains is the embarrassment.
In fact, isn't this rare, ephemeral quality of live performance one of the central arguments behind treasuring live theatre as an art form?
Jacques Derrida pointed out that we have a problem knowing whether we love the Other in total, or whether we are in love with the actions and behaviors and beliefs of the Other. How can we know? He talks about the privilege the hands enjoy in society, in that their freedom of expression is somehow expressive on an inner, subconscious truth that is only read by the Other. One is rarely conscious of one's own hand gestures, but to the Other, they are powerful signals and signs of intention and psychology. The live theatre exists in this relationship of the Other seeing the the One, and the observer / observed. Part of the contract that has sustained live theatre for thousands of years is this concept of "I allow you to observe this now, here, at this place, and you make meaning of it in your observance of me. We agree that after it is over, it is over and was shared by only us,"
When you film an event and play it back in time, you are showing a version of the events that were recorded. It cannot be the events themselves, by definition. How connected to the truth of the event is this version? How much artifice is added? What does the presence of a device that records "permanence" do to an environment that was created specifically for a live event?
Today, artists of all sorts are struggling to employ the power of the moving image into their work. And it is a struggle, as the cinema image can be both scalpel and bludgeon. It does continue to surprise me that artists I respect often tell me with glee how they recorded their living work with a video camera, but have little or no interest in: film grammar, lens choice, lens height and position, exposure, shutter speed, f-stop, etc. etc. etc. As if they were to say: "I will paint, but the color, brush, canvas matter not." This is because they see the camera as no more than a recording device, something that truthfully records what is there without interference. I wonder, how would the react if I brought my camera into their studio, office or home and said: "Don't worry...it's just a record, an archive." What truth would they be afraid of then?
From the Rodney King beatings, to the cinema of our masters and contemporary, to the video taped beheadings of prisoners on YouTube, combined with the instant availability of the recording device in your hand, the moving image is gaining in influence and power while at the same time is a repository for a world of nonsense. That is the way of all media, from the first Gutenberg bible to the world of Tumlbr blogs. The medium becomes available to all who want access in the end.
The question is, who among us will pause and ask, "What is it for?"