An insight into "moving images"
Institutional Communication Service
24 September 2021
Films are everywhere. Depict yourself taking a short video for your social media pages: the moment you click the white button at the centre of your screen, you are the author of your own film. If you are taking a “selfie”, you are also the star of it. You decide what to display, what to say and to whom direct your speech.
Digitalisation has rendered possible the production of moving images, and their diffusion in terms of format and geographical location. These have also profoundly modified the medium in return, to the point that it is now necessary to redefine its nature in terms not only of its cultural role within today’s society, but also of its aesthetic characteristics. One of the founders of Film studies as a scientific and academic discipline and winner of the Balzan prize 2019 in Film studies, Prof. Jacques Aumont, wants to lead a pioneering research in this field. His project “Aesthetic of the Present: Powers of the Moving Image” seeks to rediscover aesthetics inspiration for the present day by returning the focus of the study to the artefact, in other words, moving images themselves. These also represent the field of research of the new Locarno Film Festival Professor for the Future of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts at USI, Prof. Kevin B. Lee. Through his cinematic works and, above all, his award-winning desktop documentaries, Prof. Lee uses the cinematic medium to explore the qualities of digital productions and how they are constructed and they work in relation to their diffusion and use.
To anticipate the 2021 Balzan Lecture, which will take place on 29 September at the Palacinema in Locarno, co-organised by USI and Locarno Film Festival, we met with these two pioneering personalities in the field to discuss the role of moving images and the future challenges this discipline will meet. Please find below the video interview.
Prof. Aumont, the project presented at the Balzan Foundation is entitled "Aesthetics in the Present: Powers of the Moving Image". Where did this idea come from?
Abstract, theoretical reflections about cinema was actually born when cinema became an industry. However, it was only at the end of the 1960s that film studies made its entry in universities with a strong inaugural gesture: to put aside consideration of the great ensembles (genres, stars, spectacle, and economy) and take an interest in the works in an immediate analytical mode. A quarter of a century later, this attention to films reached the fine detail, by focusing on the very nature of the image. Since then, film analysis, claimed and practiced by all, has re-emerged as a tool in the service of history, sociology, ideologies, and psychology, among others. However, films have not ceased to be a semiotic, as postulated in 1970, and they have continued to cultivate their image matter, as was often said around 1995. During this half-century of film studies (filmologie), it has become increasingly clear that the analysis of cinematic works is aimed at the site where everything is played out - meaning, perception, affection - and that the aesthetic attitude (which focuses on sensory events above all) applies to all films. By aesthetics, of course, we do not mean an axiology based on the categories of beauty and taste, but rather the operation already described by Kant, which makes the "aesthetic state" have an epistemological value. In front of the work of art, as in front of the natural world, our "capacity for reflective judgment", our thinking, is based primarily on our sensoriality. Without it, we would be unable to organise a rational contact with the world in its variability and to grasp what an image says. The two centuries that separate us from the German philosopher have complicated these questions, with the 'loss of aura' diagnosed by Walter Benjamin, the 'aestheticisation of politics' in the totalitarian societies of the 20th century, or, recently, the vogue for the notion of 'creativity'. In purely philosophical terms, they have distanced aesthetics from its primary source, sensation, by giving more and more space to the reception of the sensitive work, to its socialisation and to the artificial classifications that result from it. Without ignoring the fruitful contributions of the philosophical currents of the last century, I wanted to remind myself that it is sensation that is the foundation of knowledge and understanding of filmic works and of what cinema can produce (its "powers"). Starting from sensation and the image in order to understand a film analytically is not to surrender to unknowable and unmasterable powers, but on the contrary to place oneself in the perspective of constituting a knowledge of the cinema and of the filmic. It is, among other things, to take up, on other bases and in other directions, the undertaking that semiology had begun, with its own tools, in the field of pure signification. Basically, it is a question of analysing what the image can do, and of understanding how, through its own "work", it leads us to think (that is, to think about the new). The project I presented to the Balzan Foundation is articulated around three questions, each summarised in one word: the pixel, the detail and the present. The detail is the object of the analysis: a question inherited from art history, in an iconographic perspective aiming at identifying objects and understanding their symbolic role; the moving image adds a figurative value of its own. The pixel: digital technology has not caused a major break in the pace of filmmaking, but it is rich in forms that no one knows in what way they will still be films, or what they will invent. As for the present, it is hard to imagine an aesthetic research that does not confront the question par excellence of filmic form: it produces time, it is time. Of these three questions, one comes from the past, another looks to the future, and the third is ageless; this seemed to me a good balance.
The process of digitalisation has also modified the manner and format with which we see films and it brought changes regarding how we consume and produce “moving images”.
The switch from film to digital has changed the way film is produced. It is now possible to make very long takes (or even films in one take); cameras have become very mobile, and any film can be modified at will in post-production, particularly at the compositing stage. The arrival of digital technology has further transformed the distribution of cinematic works: they can now be seen almost everywhere and almost all the time (if one is not too demanding about the quality of the image and the quality of the relationship established with it). This is where the cinematic experience has changed massively over the last twenty years: we are no longer the spectator described in 1916 by Hugo Münsterberg as a kind of experimental subject whose attention, memory and emotionality were to be tested. Thus, we are no longer the spectator of the semanalysis of the 1970s, totally subjected to the device of the darkened room like captives in the Platonic cave. Films have become visible at will; they accompany us everywhere, even if it means becoming tiny things that wiggle on our phones. Our attention, which is often discontinuous, has also become immediately analytical: we have all learned to combine the entry into fiction (or documentary reality) with the position of distance that allows us to see a film as a film.
However, this new digital situation has done little to change many questions of aesthetics and semantics, in particular those of filmic analysis and its anchorage in the detail of the film. The filmic is not a technical aspect of cinema, but a question of form and invention. The films of the last twenty years have universally imposed the digital image, but they have not renounced any of the image effects that cinema had explored for a century. Aesthetic attention, that of the ordinary spectator as well as that of the professional critic or film analyst, is informed differently (our imaginary of cinema is no longer the same), but it deals with objects that are still the same: forms, figures, movements, colours, lights, editing games, rhythms, durations,... The slow film and the one-take are new experiments, but they have only brought back into the common vocabulary ideas and ways of doing things that were until then reserved for "experimental" cinema. Finally, by entitling my project Aesthetics in the Present, I obviously intended to assert that, while discourses on the content (political, ideological, militant) of films are perfectly legitimate in their own field, that of the social action and function of cinema, the study of the filmic, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with more general questions. Like all reflection, it is anchored in history and must take the greatest account of the present moment, but it cannot for all that renounce its own aim: to understand how moving images are constituted, what their sensory and mental capacities bring us, and by what means.
The event will be streamed live at www.balzan.org