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by Charles Leech| Toronto, Canada
Thursday, 20 June 2013
tags: americas, culture, making sense, semiotics, sequencing
I came across a terrific piece of edited video, called a ‘supercut’ (defined by Slate Magazine as “a video mashup that focuses on a specific word or element in a series of videos and remixes the multiple sources into one video montage”). There are hundreds of these supercuts on YouTube, some of them extremely popular. This particular one collects short scenes from movies that show the ‘back-to-the-camera’ shot. Doesn’t that sound silly? Well it’s not: it’s spectacular, and extremely moving. There’s a HD version on Vimeo, so go on and have a look. I’ll wait.
See what I mean? Phenomenal. So many great movies there!
This Supercut offers two primary sensory texts: the visual montage, and the musical track. Naturally, one informs the other: film music theory tells us that visuals are there to tell us what to be thinking about, and music is there to guide how we should be feeling about what we’re thinking about.
In this case, the framing of the foreground character (usually, the back of their head) instantly suggests that the music is providing the ‘soundtrack of their mind’, and that we’re being offered a synaesthetic sense of their mental engagement. The music starts off as very simple, but soon starts to become more complicated. As it does so, our understanding of the complexity of the characters grows, as well as the true complexity of the scene in front of them.
As the music swells, we also understand that we’re also watching an unfolding relationship between the character and the action in the background, which is the true subject of the character’s gaze. Although there are sub-themes that run through the clips (stage performances, Asian landscape, military dominance, doors and window opening, natural cataclysms, etc.), in most cases the background is spectacle: something wonderful, or awe-inspiring, or terrifying, or overwhelming. As the music grows fugue-like in complexity and repetition, so the emotional scale of the background image seems to grow.
At some point we realize there are two spatial levels of scopophilic relationships: one between the character and the spectacle, but another between us and the character. In one early scene (Baraka), the camera pans into the head of the character, but for the rest of the montage, we remain firmly behind the character. Our relationship with the character becomes complex in its own right: are we protected from the spectacle by their foreground stance, or are we being distanced from it? Are we being invited to empathize with the character, seeing what they see, or are we being removed from it by the distraction of the character’s foreground presence? The character is vulnerable, with their back to us, unprotected – yet in many cases the threat we pose to them pales in comparison to the threat they’re facing directly. Their vulnerability is also tempered by their anonymity, since we never see their face.
Many of the images, buttressed by the music, communicate a sense of isolation and loneliness. Even with many of the images that show two characters, the engagement of each character with the spectacle in front of them suggests that each is lost in a singular experience, that there is no true connection between them. Towards the end of the montage, it’s tempting to see some hope in the couples shown: Tyler and Marla share some handheld connection in Fight Club; Luke and Leia share a chaste but genuine moment in The Empire Strikes Back. But in both cases, we know better: Marla has fallen for a psychotic schizophrenic, and Luke’s interest in Leia will remain forever chaste – in each of those scenes, the connection is a lie.
And yet, there is unity in the montage. The only thing all the spectacles have in common is that they’re all being observed by the character/s. They all share objectification – spectaclification? – since they all sit just outside the character’s immediate orbit. The character is not in their scene, but always just outside it. Only their gaze connects them, and this helps us understand why the music is a non-diegetic soundtrack to their mind: it’s the sound of them trying to figure out what their view means, at the distance they’re at, while we’re using the same music to try to figure out what our view of their view means at the [even greater] distance we’re at.
The music is God Moving Over The Face of the Waters, by Moby, who, by the name he gave it, was well-aware of its potential for the profound. The repeated piano motif, which starts the piece and then continues through as a rhythmic counterpoint to the orchestral melody, acts as some kind of kinetic anaphone for (a) the white-cap ‘Waters’ of the track’s title, but also (b) the simple, desperate, and banal repetition of our own merely human lives. When you listen to just that one part, you can hear that sometimes we’re in sync and sometimes we’re out. The orchestral melody, with its deep bass sub-oceanic movements, is the voice of God, hinting at some larger truth . . . some just un-graspable, just outside-our-reach understanding of what it all adds up to, as a singular whole. Here the double-spatial levels of relationship gives a sense of hopelessness: if they can’t figure it all out and they’re that much closer to the spectacle, what hope do we have of true insight, since we’re that much further away?
And yet, even from our distance, we perceive and appreciate the beauty of the visuals and of the music, and of their combination . . . so perhaps there’s hope for us after all. Perhaps we need that distance, that perspective.
Lastly, if nothing else, it’s a great clip to remind us how cool Event Horizon looks! Time to dust that one off for a revisit.
(with help from students of the 2013 Georgian College Research Associate Program)
© Charles Leech 2013