August 19, 1901 [Photographing a Country Couple]

I always get a bit light-headed when I consider films about filming—here, photographing. I'm watching someone trying to watch others in a way that suits his needs—while those being watched want their own needs fulfilled. Here, though, the photographer abandons his position as recorder—even as arranger of another's reality (the soon-to-be portrait of the bumpkin and his girl, something they intend to own—an image of themselves, the self abandoning self to another so that the self can in turn reclaim its self—hence my light-headedness!) But there's more: In allowing the bumpkin to look through the camera—switching roles—the viewer becomes the object viewed. (So far, in this gymnastic rumination I remain myself, which is a relief.) The photographer takes the bumpkin's place—wholeheartedly, as he kisses the girl. (Aha, kissing once again; one day I will reflect on the centrality of the kiss in cinema.)

Again, though, what of the "real"viewer, me? Do I actually remain myself? Or do I feel myself drawn to the photographer, taking advantage of his authority to kiss the girl? After all, aren't I closer to the photographer than to the rube, both of us viewing others through the lens? Or do I become the rube?—for he is tied to the camera's tripod by a ubiquitous bad boy—increasingly prevalent, a strange imp who seems to have no other life outside the frame, a kind of embodiment of the machine that manufactures this reality—as it pleases, as it needs. And so both of us, the viewer with his hat on his lap and the rube lashed to the mast of seeing, are forced into helplessness, as the photographer has his fun.

Naturally, just when such dizzying chasms begin to open at the filmmakers' feet, they draw back, end the piece with mayhem and comic tumbles, and in that vaudeville finale assert not chaos but order—I the viewer freed from vicarious bondage, neither rube nor photographer nor girl nor even bad boy, but suddenly, jarringly myself, safe in tame slapstick, relieved of all doubling, tripling, quadrupling identifications, motionless in my creaking seat, the audience laughing, talking, even ignoring the close shave, the moment when viewer and object viewed, audience and performance, exchange places. It is what makes cinema great, even in its tawdriest episodes.


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