Close to the end of the first section of Harun Farocki’s last completed work, Parallel I–IV (2012–14), two images are placed side by side: an image of clouds rendered using computer animation and an image of clouds originally shot on photochemical film. A voiceover speculates, “Maybe the computer images will assume functions previously held by film. Maybe that will liberate film for other things”. In the English version a female voice speaks these words, but in German it is the filmmaker himself. From the uncertainty of our digital present, he speaks back across the decades to open a dialogue with another thinker of cinema who, like him, died far too young: André Bazin.
«In achieving the aims of baroque art, photography freed the plastic arts from their obsession with likeness»1. Bazin was able to write with the benefit of hindsight. He and his readers knew precisely what the fruits of this liberation had been: a pursuit of materiality and abstraction in painting and sculpture, an autotelic turn away from the world, which was now able to be registered automatically by the lens of the camera. Even if one disputes the blanket applicability of this thesis, the position is clear. But whereas Bazin looked back, Farocki looks forward, and not without some hesitancy: veilleicht, veilleicht. From which functions might film now be liberated? What might film now be free to do? Farocki offers no answers, but we owe it to him to take his questions seriously.
One way of approaching the matter is to see the film/CGI relation as a simple replaying of the painting/photography relation before it: at stake would be the production of likeness. To follow this route, one would say that computer generated imagery frees film to undertake tasks other than worldmaking; it might, for example, interrogate its own material substrate or pursue an essayistic cinema of thought – the latter being a vein of practice we might well see Parallel I–IV as itself exemplifying. But despite Farocki’s invocation of Bazin, one cannot assert such a tight parallel between them, so to speak, without taking into account the very different relationships to the referent possessed by painting and computer-generated imagery on the one hand, and cinema and photography on the other. Bazin rightly stressed that «the essential factor in the transition from the baroque to photography is not the perfecting of a physical process»; rather, what allowed photography to inherit the mantle of realism was the «psychological fact» of the image’s mode of production, the beholder’s knowledge of these images as acheiropoieta2. Despite the rapid development of computer-generated images from two-dimensional schematics to increasing photorealism – a trajectory Farocki assiduously outlines – they nonetheless still fail to achieve the level of illusionism found in photographic capture, whether analogue or digital, at least at this point in their history. But perhaps more importantly, they are unable to benefit from the «psychological fact» that served photography and cinema so well; instead, they are like painting condemned to the subjectivism of the all-too-human hand. Thus the notion that these new images might assume from film the function of producing likeness is difficult to maintain. If not likeness, then what?
It is perhaps worth further interrogating the opposition upon which Farocki’s questions rest: “computer images” versus “film”. Given that his primary objects of analysis in Parallel I–IV are video games, it would be easy to see him here as pitting gaming against the cinema. But crucially, the computer images Farocki mentions are now a central part of many cinematic productions as well. So-called “special effects” aren’t so special anymore; painterly manipulation now lurks behind even the most unremarkable of scenes, as exemplified by the visual effects reel of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) that was released online by the ScanlineVFX studio3. Farocki’s mention of «film» rather than «cinema» might lead the viewer to assume that he is setting out a difference between analogue and digital media, but Parallel I–IV never proceeds along these terms. Instead, the operative distinction is between images produced through the automatism of capture (whether analogue or digital) and images created ex nihilo. Farocki seems to use the term “film”in a loose sense to designate any image produced through the camera’s registration of a trace of the real. In What Cinema Is!, Dudley Andrew employs this same distinction to advance the claim that in order for something to be cinema, a source or referent in the world is required4. Without this, he argues, we may have moving images exhibited in a movie theatre – but not cinema. Andrew draws upon on what Serge Daney called the «Cahiers axiom» to support his claim: «the cinema has a fundamental rapport with reality and the real is not what is the represented – and that’s final»5. One can extrapolate from Andrew’s polemic the proposal that cinematic images must be borne of a triangulation of three forces: authorial intentionality, technological mediation, and the raw materials of the world. Meanwhile, computer images – like earlier forms of animation, which Andrew casts out of the domain of the cinema – are synthetic images produced at the intersection of authorial intentionality and technological mediation alone. While Andrew’s provocatively conservative definition of cinema might best be left aside, his distinction between these two modes of image production does allow us to move closer to a potential answer to Farocki’s question.
Here a second canonical text of Bazin’s is illuminating. There are, we are told in “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, those directors who put their faith in the image and those who put their faith in reality6. All these directors would negotiate the triangulation of forces just mentioned, but depending on the place an individual occupied on the faith-in-the-image/faith-in-reality spectrum, he or she would calibrate the balance of these forces differently. One can imagine the isosceles and obtuse triangles that might be created by privileging or minimizing one or another of them. Focusing on the period of 1920–1940, Bazin describes how a director with faith in the image might assert control over the filmic world through the plastic treatment of elements of mise-en-scène and by exploiting the resources of montage. The aspiration of complete directorial control over the filmic world is both dream and nightmare, depending on whom you ask. It is instructive to reconsider Bazin’s claims in the “Evolution” essay in light of our contemporary moment, when technological change has made possible new and intensified forms of faith in the image achieved in postproduction, such as digital effects spectacles that use fine-grained tools to create an onscreen world in which every last detail, down to the pixel, has been controlled. Here, the camera has ceded its place as primary means of cinematic creation to the computer. Though the dream of a universe submitted entirely to the will of an authorial agency runs throughout the history of live-action cinema, prior to the age of digital postproduction, this drive always eventually ran up against the obstinacy of the real, which resisted being tamed completely. Put differently, the triangle remained a triangle. But the extensive integration of CGI and postproduction manipulation into otherwise live-action filmmaking allows for a diminishment of the primacy of raw capture that is unprecedented in the history of cinema. And with the move to the completely fabricated worlds Farocki explores in Parallel I–IV, the triangle has been broken completely.
Perhaps this is the function that computer animation can best assume from film: the creation of a totally administered world, a complete faith in the image. Whatever CGI might lose in its production of likeness and in the spectator’s knowledge of how this image is produced, it gains in this enhanced relation to control. No more rustling of the wind in the trees, but merely a simulated wind, what Farocki calls a «new constructivism». In the case of video games, the primary subject of Parallel I–IV, this increased control manifests not only in the creation of the world but also in the player’s ability to act upon it through the prosthesis of the joystick or controller. But even within the cinema, one can easily see how the slightest remains of photographic capture may be deftly combined with CGI to produce synthetic worlds of unprecedented authorial sovereignty. What does the increasingly hegemonic status of this practice of worldmaking reveal to us? A fantasy of governance, rationality, and mastery at a time of crisis, uncertainty, and environmental catastrophe. Control over represented worlds emerges as a distracting substitute for the impossibility of control over our own.
If computer generated imagery can better fulfill the desire for a completely controllable world, what space does this now leave open within the cinema? If those with faith in the image abandon or at least reduce to a bare minimum their use of photographic capture, practices that remain based in the primacy of recording take on a new urgency. It is precisely the betrayal of the Cahiers axiom that allows its fierce reassertion across a whole host of contemporary practices, slow cinema and new forms of documentary foremost among them. What is vanquished in the new constructivism is the unruliness of contingency; this is precisely what may now be let to reign elsewhere. In effect, the rise of computer animation as a form of worldmaking – whether in its pure form in games or in its hybrid employments in mainstream cinema – allows for the intensified pursuit of one of the cinema’s historical strengths: the registration of the world. These images by no means remain outside the domain of control; an aesthetic intentionality is still in play. But they are above all invested in the creation of a frame within which there might be time and space for the unplanned, the unforeseeable, for that which resists algorithmic calculation. In the later sections of Parallel I–IV, Farocki emphasizes, sometimes humorously, the rule-based schemas that govern bodily movement and human interactions within the game worlds. Countering these programmable codes and the escapist fantasies of control they harbour, one might propose that it is through engagements with the cinema as an apparatus of capture and re-presentation that we are privy to an exemplary ethical encounter with the fragility, alterity, and incalculability of our world.
I am in no way claiming that these are the answers Farocki himself would have provided; they are only my own and perhaps his would have been very different. But a great strength of Parallel I–IV is the extent to which it does not simply ask its viewers to follow along with a fully resolved argument, but instead spurs us to speculatively extend its propositions. In this sense, though very differently, it too offers us a world beyond control, an open space of reflection within which we are set free to think beyond the enclosures that too often contain us.
1 André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, What is Cinema? Volume One, trans. Hugh Grey, University of California Press, Berkeley 1967, p.12.
4 Dudley Andrew, What Cinema Is!: Bazin’s Quest and its Charge, Wiley-Blackwell, London 2010, p. 3.
5 Andrew undoubtedly sees the key of this axiom as lying in its first proposition (a rapport with reality) and not its second (the real is not what is the represented). Note the unmotivated addition of «fundamental« in Andrew’s translation from the original French: «L’Axiome Cahiers: c’est que le cinéma a rapport au réel et que le réel n’est pas le représenté– et basta.» Serge Daney, “La période non légendaire des Cahiers (pour préparer le cinquantième anniversaire),” L’Exercise a été profitable, Monsieur, P.O.L., Paris 1993, p. 301. Quoted and translated in Andrew, p. 5.
6 Bazin, p. 24.