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Out of Tarr's Universe

An uncompromised vision (FW34)

Beyond the frame
On the presence of off-screen space. By Esther Johnson
Motion pictures are continually linked to the presence of an off-screen space beyond the rectangular frame we are presented. Throughout the development of film, there have been many techniques invented as devices onto which a narrative or abstraction can be built. Through the convention of off-screen space we understand the connection between a shot of a woman reaching for a doorknob and a following shot of the woman inside another room, the action shown with the least amount of superfluous information to compress screen time. We gain a clearer picture of the whole by exploring the peripheral through listening and imagining, piecing the fragmented editing together like a jigsaw puzzle. This restricted visual language enables the possibility of “truly giving expression to the invisible” (E.H. Gombrich Art and Illusion, p.209).
From early cinematic techniques to modern cinema, there are many manipulative uses of cinematic space both within and beyond the frame of celluloid and the screen. An awareness of the space around the edges of the frame, behind the camera and the audience, the use of flashbacks, memories and diegetic and non-diegetic sound, creates a tapestry of dramatic effects and techniques. Withholding of the image and minimising of sound can be an especially cost-effective and liberating technique in the hands of artists and low-budget filmmakers. Editing out obvious and climactic scenes in order to physically show less, is a subtle way to enhance drama and intellectual questioning in a more poignant manner than ’showing all’. The shadow of the monster in Jacques Tourneur’s The Cat People (1942) is more powerful than showing the creature, the imagination being allowed the freedom to take over.
Framing profoundly affects how we perceive space. Active screen space can be narrowed to concentrate viewing through the use of masks which reduce the viewer’s focus. Such masks are utilised in Albert Smith’s Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900) and As Seen Through a Telescope (1901) in conjunction with another useful tool, the close-up. These are used to show what grandma subjectively sees, and in the second film to show on-screen events with a masked close-up. In Carl Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), we never see the sparse set in its entirety. Instead his exploration of framing concentrates viewers’ interest as we become embroiled within Jeanne’s situation through point-of-view shots and the intense scrutiny of close-ups, with initial off-screen imaginary space converted into on-screen space. The partial framing of objects or bodies on-screen also makes the continuing off-screen even more present with solitary characters appearing detached, vulnerable or threatening.
Through mobile framing we see the periphery brought into view as off-screen space becomes on-screen. Changes in camera height and distance through tracking shots, cranes, dollies in and out, tilts and pans, orient the viewer in relation to the action. We move with the frame, reminding us of the world beyond the screen, of the camera and crew as well as expanding the viewed world of the characters within the narrative. Michael Snow’s La Region Cntrale (1971) is an extreme example of mobile framing, with a purpose built camera filming a landscape by spinning in every direction possible. In contrast a fixed frame makes the viewer curious to what is outside it.
Occupying space around the frame
A character looking or addressing someone off-screen defines space around the frame. The space/person off-screen can become more important than what is visible. If the other off-screen character answers, we can get an impression of their distance from the frame through sound. Unseen space is expertly defined by Michelangelo Antonioni in L’Avventura (1960), L’Eclisse (1962) and Il Deserto Rosso (1964). In these films we see moments of the protagonist, Monica Vitti, searching beyond the frame with a blank gaze. In these spaces of reflection Vitti’s gaze can be seen as reflecting back, heightening her detachment and alienation.1 The films ask huge philosophical questions, exposing the uncertainties of the world and aspects of reality that we cannot necessarily see but can feel. The gaze is directed at the story space around and through the frame, and the space of the audience and filming.
In comparison, direct address towards the camera is a powerful tool in opening screen space, on-screen action spilling into the audience space. In Edward S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) the seemingly non-diegetic end shot shows a sheriff shooting directly towards the camera and thus the space of the audience. Similarly in Warhol’s films much depends on what is off-screen, interest being in incidence rather than plot.2 In his two-screen Outer and Inner Space (1965) his ’superstar’, Edie Sedgwick, is placed in dialogue with her own videotaped image on a television. As well as responding to her on-screen doppelganger on the screens beside her, she also responds to directions off-screen, resulting in a disorientating multi-layered and dimensional study. The two screens play between the in studio Edie and the distorted television screen Edie,3 with sound and image competing for our attention.