- Out of Body Experience
By looking through the eye of a camera, an audience is able to gracefully float through a crowd, invisible, ghostlike. We are able to coolly glide through a window to witness a heated argument, the flash of a gun, and the escape of a murderer. Through the devices of cinema, we can watch time lapse and see the world spin. We can project an augmented reality without the weight of our bodies, the time it takes to travel.
As a storyteller traverses history, a filmmaker splices strips of film and uses camera rigs to transport the audience between scenes or shift perspective. With intensified concentration, audiences expect that time will be accelerated, that space will be disjoined and warped. In most cases the transitions are simply syntactic jumps in the narration of a story, but when radical camera movements are linked to the body's perception of the physical world, the affect can be sublime.
The thrill comes from breaking the rules, extending beyond what is accustomed. The more severe the rules, the more thrilling the flight. In a sense, most stories build up to a moment of transgression. Characters are established, a narrative structure is built, a plot thickens, and then, in a climactic moment, a breakthrough occurs and is followed by resolution.
In La Jetée (Chris Marker, FR, 1962), the moment takes place when the filmmaker breaks from the use of still photos with a brief cinematic clip of a woman batting her eyes. Building up to this moment we accept that still imagery relates to memory, to a frozen past. Based on the rules of this narrative structure, when the woman bats her eyes, the observer is no longer time-traveling into a dreamy past, but fully present in the now. The viewer sees something that is lifelike [End Page 102] and familiar to anyone who has observed a lover awake. We empathize with the hero of the story, and he discovers how to communicate with individuals in another reality: the distant future.
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In The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, IT, 1975), the moment of flight occurs in the final scene when the main character, David Locke, dies in a hotel room. During a seven-minute-long tracking shot, the camera exits the hotel room through an ornamental iron screen, ascends and rotates outside, and returns to the window, peering back into the room through the iron screen. For the first four minutes the camera slowly tracks across the room focusing on a single vanishing point beyond the room in what seems to pay homage to Wavelength (Michael Snow, US, 1967).
During this approach to the window, the interior of the room feels motionless in comparison to the activity outside. The contrast makes the architecture significant, and suspense builds as the camera approaches the iron bars. The rate of the movement is unusually slow for cinema, making us aware of time and allowing for the viewer to study the features of the room as we might in person. After asserting our relationship with the architecture, the camera surprisingly continues through a narrow opening in the iron screen, quickly ascends thirty feet into the air, and spins over a flurry of activity in the yard.
When the camera returns to the window and stops at the screen the threshold is affirmed and the viewer learns that Locke has died. The camera stands at the window as a person, barred from inhabiting the room and distanced from the main character. [End Page 103]
Nearly fifty years ago, director Mikhail Kalatozov and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky drew on our bodily sense of space to evoke similar sensations of departure in the film Soy Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, CU/SU, 1964). The project began as an ambitious collaboration between Cuba and the former Soviet Union in response to soured relations with the US and the escalation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Cuba had the attention of the world, and Soy Cuba would attempt to portray the country's revolutionary spirit with...