Introducing The Masters Series. I hope to not fail this series of writings.
Remoteness and The Invisible Plane
(Snapshot of "Nine Eleven, 2011" on a display screen, 2012)
I start my collection of images with a morning scene in a living room and in the center of the frame is a television set. It is large unlike the television sets of today and is more furniture than an illuminated wall-mounted painting, and has become a piece of the domestic landscape, having photos, VHS tapes, and ornaments on top of it. The television has the image of a CNN broadcast of two planes crashing into the World Trade Center buildings. The room itself has a smoky atmosphere, dim with a bright world outside. And though the photograph is completely staged it is as real as my memory of that moment is. And since the moment has passed I cannot return to that morning of September 11, 2001, where I woke up for school, and my parents readily themselves for their day jobs as they watched the television. Having just woke up there was a disorientating feeling when my parents tried to update me on what they had known from what they were given by the fanatic behavior of the broadcaster not knowing himself what had exactly happened other than the fact that one commercial airliner had
crashed into the financial epicenter of the nation.
(Nine Eleven, 2011)
The photograph of the staged living room with a television playing a pre-recorded image strikes the viewer with not a question of is this image real but recalls their own memory of that moment. Even though it had been made ten years after reference point that image is still clear in the viewers mind, and what I claim to be as the clearest collective experience and image in recent memory. And this is evident in the effect of the viewer when they see this image they are able to place themselves within the context of the image, recalling what they were doing that day and even how they felt. This scene is not real, it is not the living room I had while I lived in Houston during the 9/11 attacks nor is it the viewers. It is a generic representation of a collective experience.
An event seen through the camera's lens, then broadcast, and then seen through the television set we are perceiving an image out of context, through the frames of the camera, but ultimately through the ideology behind that broadcasting network. Just as reality television differs from network to network, with TLC's obsession with abnormalities in our culture (ranging from conjoined twins, hoarding, large volume immediate families, and gypsies) to MTV's youth in conflict with reinforcement of stereotypes of college kids, Italian-American middle class youth, washed-out celebrities struggling with drug addiction and the public eye, these ideologies differ but are all part of multi-faceted ideology of a culture at whole. Even though we are given the choice of view, from CNN's more liberal approach to Fox News' conservative view, both operate under the same system. They are all representing reality within a specific cultural and regional ideology. And this broadcast reality is not providing the lived experience but the simulation of it. Through studying history we experience the Vietnam War as much as we experience youth drinking in a hot tub by the Jersey Shore or what it is to live in a house full of boxes and too many cats (some being lost or dead hidden away in some dark corner). There is this remoteness that separates us from the moment's true experience to a controlled and simulated experience. Cinema isn't far from this simulated experience of the real as it often depicts real events through a singular perspective. Its heightening of the event is theatrical and relies on aesthetics, staging, and performance to create believability. It places the viewer in a controlled environment of the cinema, a temple or cave-like setting that instructs the viewer to sit and to pay attention to the center piece, the silver screen in this case, and slowly dissolves the reality outside of the room for one which possess a flicker of motion and the omnipresence soundtrack. And for two hours what is presented in front of our eyes is believed as a temporal reality, we start to interpellate ourselves into the characters and develop emotional connections as we start to "know" the characters, their scenarios, and the environments that surround them.
Rather than focusing on what is in focus, I would like to contemplate not the characters of the narrative but what is in the background. The background actor's role is to be there, to camouflage itself to the background and to be commonly found object in the environment, such as trees in the forest. In a sense they are a kinetic background like graffiti jumping from the walls and possessing life. What they are meant to not possess is individuality, they are a mass of many, and are more caricature than character. In the contemplation of the background actor being a walking, breathing, and living background is to observed and brought into the foreground, –they now hold our conscious attention. Through observation they often create error to the simulated reality of cinema, as they are not necessarily trained professionals such as the main characters, but they are often real people there for volume and aesthetics. Occasionally a background actor can be seen doing a cycling movement that repeats in a shot, or they accidental or purposely look into the lens which gives way to the existence of a camera as our viewing point. And in some cases the background actors are real people that are untrained and are not volunteering to be background actors but are simply there in a real environment that is being used to represent one that is constructed. It is in these cases that the control of the filmmaker is removed and there are elements of the real the conflict with the simulation through comparison. The so-called, Fourth Wall, is breached and in these minor and often hidden nuances bring into question where the audience is. It is a lucid experience but rather gaining control one realizes the lack of control over the narrative.
(James Woods as Max Renn amongst background actors portraying the homeless in Cronenberg's Videodrome, 1983)
In further contemplation of the background actor is questioning what they represent. If they are appointed to be a mass of many and are not to have individuality such as the characters of the narrative then they are representations. It is in their attention or rather their lack of attention that they fall back to a role, and this role being that of "type". They are performing in the subconscious space of the film and are playing out roles based off of their appearance. There isn't any introduction to the background actor and their character, they simply appear there in front of us on the screen, –the word, "front", does not define their position within the planes of existence in the film. They are neither background as they are not affixed such as a wall of a building or a tree in a forest nor are they in same the plane as the characters of the narrative. If they are neither back nor fore then where are they?
They exist in the simulacrum removed from reality and exist as a sort of transparent being in the cinematic reality. Art directors in their pursuit to maintain the background actor in the background make them as real as possible, –the realer the less the contradiction is apparent to the viewer. The word seamless is an ideal description of their aesthetics but being as this is film their actions also must be as real to the viewer and as convenient to the filmmaker as their aesthetics. One could not imagine having to train individually each background actor to perform a specific role but rather an instruction via a megaphone addressing a mass or a second or third A.D. directing singular groups of background actors to perform a specific task. These task ranging anywhere from walking across the scene, to appearing to be reading, or talking amongst themselves set in a cycle. For example a background actor instructed to walk across the scene will perform this task identically for each take. Or a group of background actors dancing in a circle and to no rhythm in particular. The more real their everyday actions are the less apparent they become. They existence on an invisible plane which is right before us but we dismiss them from our attention as the individual is lost to volume and the volume is lost to representation of a representation. For what the background actor represents is a stereotype, a generality of a specific group of people.