From Stage Business to Camera Business
…here we’re talking about controlled uncertainties—comparable not to the real but rather to the feigned stumble, to the actor’s deliberate slip of the tongue. Documentarians want the effect of imperfection but without a demonstration of their clumsiness.
Case One: Belief
We are watching an anonymous Youtube video. We follow the jittery movement of what we suspect to be an older cell phone camera. The ineptitude of the operator does not impede his ability to follow the action. However, the camera always seems to frame the action slightly late: The title of the video on The Telegraph’s website contextualizes our experience "Syrian ‘hero boy’ appears to brave sniper fire to rescue terrified girl in dramatic video. The video depicts a scene in which a young boy puts his own life in danger in the middle of a shootout in order to save the life of a young girl. While playing dead, the boy manages to eventually save her from the gunfire. The camera operator and the other men stand near the camera and scream in alarm in reaction to the scene. The camera is clumsy and out of focus, forcing us to decipher the action though through a weave of large pixels. It has a candid and yet amateur feel.
This video, we learn later, was directed and staged in Malta by the Norwegian director Lars Klevberg. Not surprisingly, the heroism of the anonymous boy captures many hearts: not only does the video go viral on social media, it is considered by international news agencies to be real footage captured in the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Through our willing suspension of disbelief, the imagery becomes a mnemonic device, enabling us to recall the Syrian struggle even though our conception of the event is subject to Klevberg’s prevarication.
Harun Farocki’s On the Documentary notes how a white coat in a German TV commercial is used as a way to establish credibility, that of the character, and therefore the advertisement. He also notes that during the commercial, the camera isn’t fixed on a tripod, while its swaying denotes the spontaneity of the unfolding events.
Case Two: Disbelief
Multiple digital cinema cameras are fixed on tripods, the footage is well exposed, steady, and the footage seems to have undergone basic color correction. The blue skies in the background compliments the orange toga of our to-be-decapitated character in the foreground. He kneels down. Clad in black, his executioner stands confident. The cameras are obviously staged for an editor. When the first videos of ISIS’s decapitations go online, audiences refuse to believe them. They cannot believe the authenticity of the desert, as many claim it to be green screened. The same is true about the authenticity of the clothes worn by people depicted in the video. The camera, being still, forces us to suspect that they are staged. The grammatical structure of classic Hollywood films according to which most films are cut stipulates that the less prevalent an authorial hand, the more successful the film will be in creating a sense of disbelief: a drama that overtly admits to being staged and rehearsed is a rarity. Farocki’s reference to “the feigned stumble, to the actor’s deliberate slip of the tongue” is evident in continuity filmmaking.
Only after the turn of the twentieth century did theorists finally coin the idea of “stage business”, an acting convention, that allows thespians to perform their roles without direct address to the audience, generating the bits and pieces of performance that add up to fabricate credibility in the eyes of the viewers. For instance, an actor picks a cup of coffee and drinks a sip, whilst actively listening to another performer confiding a story, a performative element that although not part of the plot development, nevertheless promulgates the idea that the performance is no performance at all. Cinema was quick to adopt these conventions in order to encourage its viewers in the labor of forgetting their immediate surroundings and their relationship with the filmmaker. So, in essence, “the feigned stumble….” is just another form of stage business.
To summarize, unprecedented exposure to heavily manipulated images has consistently taken a toll on the operational abilities of classical cinema conventions, and, while Harun Farocki takes great pride in his ability to predict and follow an unfolding series of events with his camera, videos like Klevberg’s demonstrate that believability today might particularly be found in candidness alone. Staged business is transformed into the camera business or a series of non-conductive camera movements that are used to forge documentary credibility for the footage. Today, “amateur” photographers and filmmakers might be taking unprecedented, and supposedly unbiased stands for newspapers who find them online, but the vast majority of images we encounter are suspected of being heavily manipulated.
On the other hand, it is well known that since the 1990s, cognitive psychology has been developing memory implantation, a technique used to investigate human memory, by which false memories of events are successfully inserted in the minds of those participating in such experiments. Whilst some of the earlier studies of these techniques involved narratives, in most studies, like the famous scene from Blade Runner they were replaced with photographic images. these newer techniques prove how relatively easy it is to distort a subject’s memories of past events.
If our memories are pliable, can image makers, by gaining our trust, help change the way we perceive history? And, what are the ultimate implications of this for politics in the age of cybernetics in which archival manipulation is not only made easier but has been an integral part of the operational logic of the Internet?