Friday, June 8, 2007

Sound + Image

Steven Fama remarks in the comments to my post on Bruce Conner's REPORT that the stroboscopic flicker of black and white blanks induces a state of heightened anxiety that he describes in physiological terms.

He's right, of course. In fact, I thought that I'd said this, but a review of the published version shows that I connected this dimension of the film exclusively to the soundtrack, and the newscaster's horror at what is unfolding. Fama's point is important because it elaborates what is at stake in the difference between the experience of a traumatic event of national urgency and the sutured and closed official narrative written after the fact. That is, an attention to the emotional response generated by the film's strobed blank reminds us that it is precisely this immediacy — experienced in a visceral, rather than "rational" or reflective way — that distinguishes the event from its analysis or intepretation after the fact.

At the same time, I think Fama overstates the role of the stroboscopic flicker in producing this anxiety-effect. Certainly, strobes tend to disorient, confuse, etc. And anxiety may well attend these effects. But I wonder if the film's particular anxiety is, in the end, an effect of the audio narration rather than the flickering crescendo that accompanies it. Certainly, the strobe works on the mind, and I can't deny that, in the rush towards its peak, it resembles a quickening pulse that corresponds to the breathlessness of the newscaster's report on the soundtrack. But when I watch the movie silently, the strobe, though disorienting, simply doesn't have the effect Fama describes.

[I should also note that Fama's comments allowed me the opportunity to correct my errant ways, and to render the title of Conner's film correctly. So, thanks!]


Steven Fama said...

Good idea on your part to watch REPORT without the soundtrack, to see how the strobe worked without the audio narration. For all the times I've seen REPORT, both projected and on DVD, I'd never watched it silent.

I just did now (on my TV, using the DVD, in a room darkened as in a theater.)

There's no question the soundtrack is harrowing. I must agree it works on the viewer along with the flicker-strobe. But when I watched REPORT silent, the flicker strobe still made me mighty anxious. Anxiety in, behind, and (if this makes any sense) just in front of the eyes. An elevated heart rate too, I think, and the beginning of a touch of mild nausea. Genuinely uncomfortable.

Of course, photo-senstivity varies among us humans (in the most sensitive, certain visual stimuli, including strobes of a certain rhythm, trigger seizures). So maybe the reaction to Conner's flicker in REPORT varies too.

Nathan Austin said...

It also occurs to me now — much later than it should, of course — that I've been watching the film on a laptop computer screen. Perhaps this makes a difference?

And, for whatever it's worth, I'm not denying a physiological response to the strobe. I find myself transfixed and stunned, but it's more of a hypnotic blanking than anxiety.

Or, to consider all of this through a different lens, I wonder whether it is possible that different people interpret the physiological effects of strobes in different ways? And what the factors are that might be taken into account here, aside from those that are truly physiological? What I mean is: two people might have the same effect within the brain, but is it possible that they process this effect in different ways on the level of consciousness?

Steven Fama said...

Conner himself has said that laptops provide the poorest visual image for watching movies. "A part of the picture isn't there," he says (paraphrased). I think he means that the image isn't as sharp (and thus as detailed) as it should be.

I don't know the technical limitations of laptops versus regular or premium DVD players, but I imagine he's probably right.

But the effect of the flicker-strobe section would I think be similar even assuming a laptop's limitations. Especially in a dark room where the computer screen size is big enough (and you sit close enough) to allow the flicker-strobe to both dominant your direct vision and "fill the room" with the reflective flashes.

For what's it's worth, Conner has also said that the flicker-strobe causes emotional reactions in people. I think though that you're right too in suggesting that the effect is processed differently by different people, so the type and degree of emotional reaction, if any, will vary too.

I like your description of it as "hypnotic."

Aside from the visual impact, the flicker-strobe also creates a kind of mystery. Is the "picture" ever coming back? Maybe this concern also creates anxiety, at least in some watching the film. Of course, this effect would be strongest on the first viewing.

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