Werner Herzog once said, “What we do as filmmakers is immaterial. It’s only a projection of light. […] It’s illusionist work.” Hollis Frampton similarly observed the physicality of cinema and defined film as “anything that may be put in a projector that will modulate the emerging beam of light. […] A film is a ribbon of physical material wound up in a roll: a row of small unmoving pictures.” He creatively examined cinema as a projection of light in his film Lemon, while Nostalgia explored cinema temporality through “unmoving pictures.” Chris Marker’s La Jetee probably best captures the illusion of cinema movement by using still images to tell its time travel story.
Michael Haneke too expressed the illusion of cinema: “Film is 24 lies per second at the service of truth. Or at the service at the attempt to find the truth.” He examined the question of cinema’s relation to reality in Funny Games.
Films lie (that could be a great website name!) by presenting an unreal world in a realistic fashion. Along with photography, cinema is probably the medium that most realistically represents reality. Still photography, however, cannot as realistically create the illusion of movement, so cinema is probably the most deceptive of all arts. Robert Bresson compared it to with theater where suspension of disbelief and unreality are essential. In his book “Notes on Cinematography,” Bresson said, “On the stage a horse or dog that is not plaster or cardboard causes uneasiness. Unlike cinematography, looking for a truth in the real is fatal in the theater.” It seems he too sees cinema as a more realistic art.
The ultimate problem of cinema is its representation of reality. It is a problem in all art ever since the cave paintings in the Chauvet cave 32,000 years ago, about which Werner Herzog made the documentary movie A Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Rene Magritte famously depicted the problem of art’s relation to reality in his painting “The Treachery of Images.” It is a painting of a pipe with a sign underneath it that says, ‘This is not a Pipe.” Magritte meant that this is only the image of a pipe, not an actual pipe.
The Special Effects in Only God Forgives
In our digital era of extreme image manipulation, the problem of cinematic reality seems more relevant than ever. Especially in movies like Only God Forgives which depict unrealistic events in a very realistic fashion. Of course, the audience doesn’t really believe that real hands and eyes were cut in the film, but the contradiction between the implausibility of the events and their believable rendering has deep philosophical implications.
Here is a clip that shows some of the special effects in Only God Forgives. From the simple trick of hiding the real arm under the shirt to the computer-generated removal of dolly tracks and air conditioners, the video depicts cinema’s illusory ability to transcend its physical being of a “projection of light.”