My 1912 selection is spectacularly strange, but I won’t spoil the surprise just yet. First, a plot summary:
A restless husband and wife are bored with their day-to-day lives. The husband ventures out to his favorite city bar to visit a dancer who ‘understands him.’ He vies for her attention as she dances, competing with a rival suitor, who happens to be a cameraman. The husband ultimately prevails through forcibly removing his rival, then proceeds to escort the dancer to a nearby hotel. The cameraman, now seeking vengeance, follows them to the hotel with his camera and captures their dalliances through a keyhole. Meanwhile, back home, the wife is entertaining her own male suitor, an artist. The husband returns unexpectedly, chases the escaping suitor, and scuffles with him outside the house. Despite his anger, the husband forgives the wife (how noble!) and decides to take her out to the movies. Lo and behold, the vengeful cameraman is operating the projector and broadcasts the adulterous footage for everyone to see. The husband and wife fight, destroy the projection screen, and ultimately hunt down the projectionist. In the final scene, they are seen in in prison, sharing their provisions while bickering.
It’s a fairly clever, self-referential revenge tale for its time, as it portrays the potential power of the camera in the hands of a scorned filmmaker. The bizarre twist is that it’s filmed completely in stop-motion animation, starring dead insects. By that, I don’t mean that the film’s subject is zombie anthropods; rather, the character models are literally dead bugs: grasshoppers, dragonflys, beetles, and so on. Thus the married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Beetle, are precisely that.
It’s a remarkable work of animation, created by Vladislav Starevich, a Polish animator who made many such works throughout his career. But I don’t want to have an in-depth genre discussion, since I’ve covered animation and stop-motion in previous posts. (Just know that Starevich’s techniques have held up surprisingly well–the settings are meticulously crafted, there are no visible signs of puppetry or armature, and the expression he draws out of his unlikely subjects is entertaining and impressive.) Instead, I want to talk about the film’s subtext: the camera as a subject that captures other subjects.
It’s an interesting moment, at least for critics, when an art form becomes self-reflexive. I want to be careful about the language I use here, since it’s easy to slip into vocabulary denoting art’s autonomous desires. That’s not what I mean to imply. Paintings don’t paint themselves. When I say ‘self-reflexive’, I mean that artists in a particular medium begin to produce works that refer to the characteristics of the medium itself. Though I’m certain this isn’t the first example in the history of cinema, we know that at least by 1912, filmmakers were already making films about making films–or more simply, placing cameras in front of cameras.
If that is the case, what exactly is Starevich trying to say about the act of capturing events with a movie camera? Or, if his methods were less intentional, what does his film’s content reveal about the camera as a subject? I want to offer a few propositions, but they’re certainly not exhaustive. Bear in mind that each is related in some way to the others.
- The camera has the potential for power. Or at least manipulation. If anything, Starevich shows that the camera, in the hands of the right person, has the potential to affect the subjects that it films. Mr. Beetle’s secret affair is revealed due to the cameraman’s actions. The camera bears witness and subsequently possesses the power to ruin or redeem lives. In this case, the example is humorous and benign, but the implications are more radical when we consider propaganda films, wartime news footage, hidden camera shows, or documentaries.
- The camera is ‘truthful.’ The recorded image possesses veracity because it captures (some version of) reality. Mrs. Beetle accepts the images of her husband’s adultery unequivocally because the camera has shown her the truth. ‘The camera doesn’t lie’ has become a cliche, but it’s still a common maxim. Though the ubiquitous use of special effects, camera tricks, Photoshop, and artful editing have eroded our trust, many of us still maintain a certain faith in photographic or filmic images. Thus, ‘truthful’ must remain suspended in quotes, since we believe (or hope?) it to be possible in theory, but understand that it is never really so.
- The camera is voyeuristic. The camera sees but is not seen. Starevich portrays this in a literal sense, when the cameraman places his camera against the hotel keyhole and films Mr. Beetle’s affair. Yet there is a more subtle assumption about the camera’s status as a subject that is both always present and never present simultaneously. The entire premise of fictional filmmaking hinges upon the disappearance of the filming apparatus. Actors must not address the camera, nor look it in the eye. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, and genres that play with this convention, but the majority of filmmaking keeps the camera hidden in plain sight.
- The camera is recursive. This characteristic is a bit harder to articulate, but it’s helpful to borrow the art historical term mise en abyme, whose literal translation is something like ‘placed in the abyss.’ This term refers most commonly to the effect produced when two mirrors are placed in front of one another. Each contains progressively smaller copies of itself, in an infinite regression. When the cameraman films Mr. Beetle at the hotel, we are witnessing the filming of a scene which is itself being filmed. Later, when Mr. Beetle’s infidelity is played back at the theater, we see the screen within the screen, and witness the characters witnessing themselves. The filmed image is always available for further recursion, since it can be filmed again by another camera, which itself can be filmed, and so on.
- The camera is spectral. Cinema is always inhabited by ghosts, since it is necessarily temporal. The further back we reach into the history of cinema, the more apparent this becomes. Most everyone we see in early 20th century film is now dead, but their apparitions still inhabit our screen. Starevich has quite literally ‘raised the dead’, by using insects that were once living and are now re-animated.
French philosopher Jacques Derrida once addressed this peculiar characteristic of cinema in the film Ghost Dance (1983). In one scene, a young woman asks him if he believes in ghosts. Derrida, ‘playing’ himself, replies:
That’s a difficult question. Firstly, you’re asking a ghost whether he believes in ghosts. Here, the ghost is me. Since I’ve been asked to play myself in a film which is more or less improvised, I feel as if I’m letting a ghost speak for me. Curiously, instead of playing myself, without knowing it, I let a ghost ventriloquize my words, or play my role, which is even more amusing.
The cinema is the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms. That’s what I think the cinema’s about, when it’s not boring. It’s the art of allowing ghosts to come back. That’s what we’re doing now. Therefore, if I’m a ghost, but believe I’m speaking with my own voice, it’s precisely because I believe it’s my own voice that I allow it to be taken over by another’s voice. Not just any other voice, but that of my own ghosts. So ghosts do exist. And it’s the ghosts who will answer you. Perhaps they already have.
Perhaps I’m asking too much of a animated short starring dead bugs; entomology and philosophy do make peculiar bedfellows, after all. But I’m convinced that cinema is a strange and wonderful thing, and often taken for granted. Sometimes we need to look a bit deeper in order to remind ourselves of its peculiarity. The camera allows us to see the world with this fascinating ‘monocular objectivity.’ It captures whatever we point it toward, including ourselves and itself. Yet this remarkable gift of vision has filled our world with ghosts–and those ghosts are us.