Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Long Shot, the Close-Up, and Epic Tradition

Watching "The Shining" with a friend last night, and reading Robert Polity's article about D.W. Griffith and Poe in the new American Poet a couple of nights ago, I was reminded again of the discussion of film and poetics that has most stuck with me over the last couple of years, thanks to Nancy West's wonderful cinema course: Bela Belasz's writing about the close-up as lyric. He may have said "lyrical"; over the last year or so it's blended for me into Virginia Jackson's writing about the lyric as a kind of blackout of genre, and vice versa.

But Belasz writes about the close-up as its own moment, having its own life outside of the narrative, and the coincidence of that definition with a view of the lyric poem taking place outside of time, outside of the narrative of historical context, and outside of traditions tied to genre, seems like no coincidence.

It's tempting to invert the comparison itself without looking at priority in terms of history, so that the lyric acts as close-up in a very cinematic way. But that also points, as Jackson does wonderfully, back to the absolute mercuriality of lyric as it's been discussed in the last century and a half.

"The Shining" remains, for me, the scariest movie of the twentieth century. That may show how few movies I've seen, but the sense in it is that the whole project of the movie is not to expunge fear like a slasher movie can, or take on that sense of promise of day breaking the ghosts that comes from so many other horror movies, or even to draw suspense out like Hitchcock does, with the triumph of the human spirit that he and studio pressure gave as a defining torque for his stories. Instead, the narrative's unrelenting, multiple forebodings seem tied up in the apparatus conveying them, so that the scenes and the camera framing them take on a ponderous weight extending beyond the screen. In the midst of that, Jack's Cagneyan facial contortions, the inscription of "Psycho" within the film, and the escape of Danny and Shelley at the end become humbled to a greater fear extending beyond all of the above. Kubrick seems less the relief that Hitchcock is to his own project than an extension of its ominous and empty spaces; of course he never appears in the Overlook. He is not of it, and it is not of the domestic spaces that most horror movies seem only to compromise for a little while. He shares in its grimness; he's not Stanley, but an extension of the camera. Or we sense his wish to have been that, and find less release than identification. That's not of the close-up. It's of the faraway.

It makes sense to look at faraway cinematography, and call it epic. It's not that what was close is now far away, but that the zoom back shows a context for the object, that, depending on the ingredients of the mise-en-scene, can imply lots of things that have been seen as ingredients in epic poems (that may or may not be)--the place of the human in the landscape, the backdrop of some kind of nation, and, maybe most, the presence and mandate of the machine, in this case the camera. The long shots that show Shelley Duvall as a tiny figure escaping from the window of the Overlook don't only show the huge context in which she sits, but imply that a camera is capturing it all, and a cameraman behind it. The kind of inhuman that this is might seem alien and cold in terms of only technology, but, in the epic context, the machinery producing the artwork is something even more frightening--it's divine.

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