Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Snuff, Reality TV, and the Issue of the "Too Real": Part 1

The question of Charles Manson and the “snuff film” has preoccupied my thoughts the past few days, prompted, of course, by the forensic investigation currently going on at the Barker Ranch (see my recent blog entries on the subject, below).

It occurs to me that the controversy surrounding the possible existence of the “snuff film” (never proven) is in fact no longer relevant—if the issue is simply one of transgression, the exhibition of content that is putatively considered “obscene”: this is merely a question of propriety, what ought to be shown and not shown. In a culture such as ours that is so preoccupied with the technology of war, we are able to see snuff film, in the sense of the filming of murder and the recording of death, just about every night on the national news, comprised as it is of video footage of missiles striking enemy strongholds, rockets raining down on “insurgents” hiding behind city walls or within buildings, the aftermath of car bombs with bodies littering the street, and numerous other atrocities.

The issue of televised snuff reveals that the so-called problem or controversy surrounding the snuff film exists because of photographic technology. In his essay on the art of the cinema, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image” (1945), André Bazin argued that photography had a privileged access to truth because it was the result of a mechanical, reproductive process over which human agency had no control. He thus regarded the cinema primarily as a vehicle of revelation, rather than transformation, of reality. “For the first time,” he wrote, “an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative invention of man.” Bazin’s idea of an image being formed “automatically” is called the principle of automatism. Historically considered, Bazin privileges the form of mimesis known as aletheia (revelation), in contrast to adaequatio (correspondence). But in both of these modes of truth, the act of representation brings into appearance the physis (essence of life) of that which is imitated.

The history of photography reveals that automatism, the potential for revelation, became one of its primary attractions. A marketing campaign by Kodak once touted the importance of photography’s automatism—there was a camera nicknamed the “Kodak Automatic”—by its ability to capture “precious moments”—weddings, births, anniversaries, graduations, award ceremonies, family reunions and the like, all of those “once in a lifetime” events upon which so much of our modern memory is formed. By the same token, photography’s automatism has enabled some catastrophic historic moments to be captured on film: the explosion of the Hindenburg, for instance, on May 6, 1937, at the naval air station at Lakehurst, New Jersey (pictured), or the stark truth of the Nazi death camps. There’s the famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by photojournalist Eddie Adams in Saigon in 1968, capturing the execution of a Viet Cong prisoner. Most Americans, I imagine, have the images of the collapsing World Trade Center Towers indelibly etched in their memory—I certainly do—an event made possible by the automatism of photography and the ubiquity of the inexpensive video camera.

Thus the principle of automatism allows photographic technology to capture atrocity as well. Considered strictly as a form of technology, photography illustrates what Edward Tenner calls the “revenge effect” of all technology: a process designed for one purpose turns out not only to subvert that purpose but to achieve its opposite.

The principle of photography’s automatism enables “Reality TV” as a form of representation but, paradoxically, creates a problem it must simultaneously overcome: there is the real, but there is also the too real. Reality TV must disclose (reveal) but also occlude (shut off, hide) at the same time. For instance, the subject of a "Reality TV" may use the toilet, but the camera doesn't intrude on the subject's privacy. In order to illustrate the nature of this dilemma, an anecdote is in order. Some years ago, I read a letter in Ann Landers’ column from a woman who, while snooping through her teenage daughter’s purse, had discovered birth control pills. She was writing to Ann Landers for advice on how to best handle her dilemma: she wanted to talk to her daughter about the daughter’s presumed promiscuity, but to do so she would have to admit to her daughter that she had been snooping through her daughter’s purse. (In her reply, Ann Landers suggested the problem originated with the mother’s lack of trust in her daughter, which is precisely why the daughter kept the pills hidden away.) The moral of the story is that in her remorseless, voyeuristic search for what was real, the mother became an eye-witness to something she didn’t wish to see—to know (knowledge as seeing). The mother should have been more familiar with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.

The makers of “Reality TV” programs face the same daunting problem that the nosy mother did while rummaging through her daughter’s purse: how to reveal the truth, but not to go too far, not to pass a certain proscribed limit. The problem isn't so much what you can show as what you can't show. If you go too far, for example, you find yourself confronting the outrage caused by the exposure of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl XXXVIII half-time show (2004)—the problem of the intrusion of the real, which gets you into trouble. On the other hand, if you don’t show (reveal) enough, you can’t claim to be presenting “reality.”

The Lacanian critic Slavoj Zizek conveniently addresses this problem by using as an illustration a love scene in a Hollywood film:

Let us take an old-fashioned, nostalgic melodrama like Out of Africa and let us assume that the film is precisely the one shown in cinemas, except for an additional ten minutes. When Robert Redford and Meryl Streep have their first love encounter, the scene—in this slightly longer version of the film—is not interrupted, the camera “shows it all,” details of their aroused sexual organs, penetration, orgasm, etc. Then, after the act, the story goes on as usual, we return to the film we all know. The problem is that such a movie is structurally impossible. Even if it were to be shot, it simply “would not function”; the additional ten minutes would derail us, for the rest of the movie we would be unable to regain our balance and follow the narration with the usual disavowed belief in the diegetic reality. The sexual act would function as an intrusion of the real undermining the consistency of this diegetic reality. (Looking Awry, MIT Press, 1992, p. 111)

Stated another way, movies are commercially successful only to the extent that they are magical, that they enchant the viewer. They cease to enchant or enthrall when brute fact intrudes on the theatrical frame: dreary fact is rather like a spoilsport who destroys the illusory world of the game. To “show it all” is to go way too far, to dispel the illusion, that is, to allow the real to intrude—just ask Janet Jackson. The revenge effect of photography’s automatism is the vulnerability of the photographic medium to the too real. For his example, Zizek uses sex; in my subsequent blog, I will use death—flip side of the same token. While its existence has never been proven, the theoretical existence of the "snuff film" was made thinkable in the first place because of the potential for photographic technology to so easily—automatically—record the too real.

1 comment:

Mrs Clayton said...

Hello there.

Funnily enough I was just considering he question of Snuff and I have to say that the 'too real' argument is not working for me here.

The whole reason why Cannibal Holocaust and Blair Wtch Project worked was because they artfully immitated the amateur angle.

There is a fair chance that any existing snuff film will be bereft of the lighting, angles etc that create the 'magic' you speak of quite simply because they cannot afford to bring in more no snuff Italian job it would appear.

Pleased to meet you by the way.