Cinematic representation

What makes it the case that a picture of Grandma represents Grandma?  That it looks like her, you might say.  But that can’t be the right answer, or at least not the whole answer.  The picture might look like any of several people; still, it represents only Grandma.  Or it might not look much like her at all -- consider a bad drawing, or even a photograph taken at an odd angle or in unusual lighting or while the subject is wearing a very unusual expression -- yet still represent her.  Indeed, that resemblance of any sort is neither sufficient nor necessary for representation is about as settled a philosophical thesis as there is.  (The reasons are many.  An object might resemble all sorts of things without representing them.  Resemblance is a symmetrical relationship, but representation is not: If a certain picture resembles Grandma, Grandma also resembles the picture; but while the picture might represent Grandma, Grandma does not represent the picture.  There are many things we can represent in thought or language -- the absence of something, a certain point in time, conditional statements, disjunctions, conjunctions, etc. -- without these representations resembling their objects, either pictorially or in any other way.  And so forth.  Chapter 1 of Tim Crane’s The Mechanical Mind provides a useful discussion of the issue.)

Nevertheless, there are certain kinds of representation of which resemblance is an important component, even if it is not the whole story.  Movies provide some useful examples, the most obvious of which is the biopic.  Now, an attempt at perfect imitation of the subject of such a movie is neither necessary nor always desirable.  Patton would not have been as effective as it is had George C. Scott tried to capture the General’s somewhat nasal voice.  Still, verisimilitude can be very effective -- Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher has justly been praised.  And to fail to capture in at least a general and impressionistic way the appearance and mannerisms of the subject will make it impossible to suspend disbelief.  (Cliff Robertson as JFK, anyone?)

There are more complex and interesting ways in which resemblance plays (or does not play) a role in effective cinematic representation.  Consider the comic book flick, about which I’ve written before.  On the one hand, Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulkand Mark Ruffalo in The Avengers could plausibly portray the same character -- the Hulk’s alter ego Bruce Banner -- in what was in effect the same multi-part story, though the two actors do not much look like each other.  On the other hand, the CGI Hulk in the latter movie better represents the character precisely because its features were made to resemble Ruffalo’s.  (All of this works, perhaps, because we’ve got something like a Wittgensteinian “familyresemblance” between the various “players” -- Ruffalo facially resembles the CGI Hulk in The Avengers, who in other respects resembles the CGI Hulk in The Incredible Hulk, whom Norton is seen transforming into in the latter movie.)

A uniquely cinematic representational technique can be found in Arachnophobia, which I recently watched for the first time in years.  There’s a nicely executed scene in which Jeff Daniels’ character sees what he takes to be a tarantula-sized spider on the wall of his bedroom, and nervously approaches it only to find that it is merely the shadow of a clothes’ hanger affixed to the wall.  Now when you go back and watch the scene again and freeze the relevant frames, it seems pretty clear that it really was a spider (or perhaps a fake spider) rather than a clothes’ hanger that we, the audience, were originally looking at.  But of course, that doesn’t mean that Daniels’ character was wrong to conclude that it was just a hanger.  Though there does not seem to have been any trick photography in any of the relevant shots, the photography is nevertheless representing different things in the shots. The earlier shots are intended to represent the character’s perceptionof what was on the wall.  The later shots are intended to represent what really wason the wall.  Each shot crucially relies on resemblance, but in different ways -- resemblance to reality in the latter case, resemblance to someone’s perception of reality in the former.  

There’s a similar technique in David Mamet’s terrific movie The Spanish Prisoner.  Or maybe there isn’t -- the ambiguity is itself a further iteration of this uniquely cinematic method of representation via resemblance.  (Major plot spoilers follow!)  Campbell Scott’s character Joe Ross is the victim of an elaborate con game.  There’s a scene where the (ostensible) wealthy businessman Jimmy Dell, played by Steve Martin, gets Ross to sign what he takes to be a membership application in order to join (what is ostensibly) Dell’s private club.  (This is a completely straight role, by the way, and it may be my favorite Steve Martin performance.)  Ross finds out later, however, that what he had really signed was a document requesting political asylum in Venezuela -- an act which, given the details of the plot, is incriminating and gets him in trouble with the police.  The “application” (like the phony club and like Dell himself) was all part of the con.

Or was it?  If, via the magic of DVD, you go back and review the earlier signing scene, it is clear that the document Ross signed really was in fact labeled “Club Membership Decree,” and is not the similar-looking form requesting political asylum the police present him with later.  Now probably, as with Arachnophobia, the earlier scene is intended to represent, not what the character actually saw, but what he thoughthe saw -- though in this case most of the audience themselves won’t really notice the words “Club Membership Decree” (since they are largely obscured) until the second viewing.  So perhaps Ross really did see what he originally thought he saw, and the later document presented by the police is a forgery -- a con within a con?  Probably not -- but you’re not sure.

There are other elements like this in the movie.  For example, a crucial plot twist involves the subtle switching of a book Ross has in his custody, which contains the details of “The Process” he has developed for the company he works for, and which the con men are attempting to steal.  Yet if you watch the relevant scenes a second time, you find that there seems to be no point at which the switch could have been made.  Probably these scenes too are intended to represent, not what actually happened -- for the book really was switched -- but only Ross’s misperception of what happened, his failure to perceive the switch when it occurred.  And of course, Mamet knows that most people won’t go back obsessively to review the scenes and look for the switch: What matters to the story is what you thinkyou’re seeing earlier versus what you find out later.  

Again, though, you aren’t sure, precisely because there are enough twists in the con that you come to question everything you think you’ve seen, including every apparent revelation of earlier deception.  Hence, the ending of the movie appears to tie things up more or less tidily; I’ve seen the movie several times and I don’t see any clear way in which the denouement could be other than it seems.  Yet I’m not certain Mamet hasn’t somehow conned us, the audience, one last time with this apparent tidiness -- which is, perhaps, the point.  And a point that probably couldn’t be made as effectively in a medium other than film, with its unique ability to make use of resemblance as a means of representing or misrepresenting reality.  

(Nor is The Spanish Prisoner of merely epistemological interest.  The compelling aesthetic of this movie -- its look and especially its stylized dialogue, which is unusual even for a Mamet screenplay -- deserves a write-up of its own.)
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