Monday, August 06, 2012

Caetlin Benson-Allott: Out of Sight

Out of Sight: Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)
by Caetlin Benson-Allott
Film Quarterly

Since Marey’s motion studies at the end of the nineteenth century, film has been a tool for providing visible evidence, a record of things seen. The development of digital imaging technology over the past twenty years has transformed that original empirical function. Advancements in CGI enable convincing depictions of things impossible to see in everyday life: dinosaurs, hobbits, viruses. It has become necessary to speak of “hypervisibility” to describe the way movies can realistically render such previously hard-to-envision phenomena. Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion tries to contest this prevailing logic by insisting on the limits of visibility.

Contagion begins with a black screen and a cough; someone somewhere is sick—and spreading it—but we cannot see who. Characters spend much of the rest of the film staring into monitors, feverishly studying colorful computer-generated models of the mysterious virus or digital video of its victims, but however hard they look, their screens reveal only biological explanations for the epidemic. They inevitably exclude macroeconomic and social forces, which are even harder to picture than the microscopic disease but causally every bit as important. To represent the limits of visual inquiry, Soderbergh’s movie keeps its computer-generated models on monitors and within frames. By separating digital visual aids from the rest of the characters’ environments, Contagion indicates that seeing the virus—or even the moment of its transmission—can never fully explain the catalysts behind the epidemic. Digital models may help halt the spread of an outbreak, but they cannot convey why the virus entered the population. Ironically, Soderbergh does try to show us the forces behind these images, but in so doing, he runs into the same explanatory limitations as his characters.

As a medical thriller, Contagion participates in the venerable filmic tradition of searching for visual pleasure on—and even within—the human body. Writing about Contagion‘s nineteenth-century precedents, Tom Gunning invokes “the gnostic (from gnosis, knowledge) mission of early cinema” that imbricated “new methods for investigating the visual world” with the joys of spectacle (“In Your Face: Physiognomy, Photography, and the Gnostic Mission of Early Film,” Modernism/Modernity, winter 1997, 1, 3). In addition to Marey’s motion studies, “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” (1894) provides another important example of this early mixture of scientific inquiry and visual pleasure. A forty-eight-frame close-up of a lab assistant’s involuntary expulsion, the movie’s appeal comes from its framing. The close-up of the sneezing face captures the “microphysiologies” of facial musculature at work and turns the body’s compulsions into spectacle.

These edifying delights inspired subsequent filmmakers to imagine visual pleasures hiding beneath the body’s surfaces. By the mid-1960s, playful science-fiction films were using special effects to depict extraordinary internal environments. Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Innerspace (1987) employ spectacular sets and production designs to take us inside internal organs as foreign and mysterious as outer space. CGI continued this tendency to turn flesh into fantasy. However, the ease with which digital artists can peek beneath the skin has made flesh part of the story in a much wider variety of genres. Fight Club (1999) famously begins inside the brain of its protagonist; unpleasantly organic burblings and squelches introduce the camera’s zoom backwards along a neural path across the cerebrum, out a hair follicle, and up the barrel of a gun nestled in the protagonist’s mouth. More recently, 127 Hours (2011) travels inside its protagonist’s arm to underscore the difficulty of amputating a limb with a utility tool. Framed by reaction shots that convey the character’s suffering, the virtual camera shows the knife blade sliding through muscle to detach bone and tendon. Although a digital fiction, the effect is horribly believable: this must be what it really looks like to sever an arm. The sequence furthers our expectation of what computer animation can make visible. Blade: Trinity (2004) and the recent remake of The Thing (2011) similarly exploit CGI to portray viruses and aliens penetrating human cells. These movies teach viewers that computers can render truths our senses cannot, a proposition Contagion openly questions.

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