Wednesday, June 28, 2006

"the visible distance between" als and sacks see things differently

Hilton Als writes, of Toland's mythical deep focus and staging in depth innovations in Citizen Kane, "they wanted the camera to reproduce the way we perceive space - with both foreground and background object in focus." (49) What?

Far be it from me to insist on normalizing concepts of vision. Actually, one of the great things about vision is that for the most part (and say, compared to to sexuality), US 20th C culture is actually relatively comfortable with biological, physiological, phenomenological differences in human vision.

So maybe you, or your friends and neighbors see both foreground and background objects in focus at the same time like in that scene through the window at the beginning of Citizen Kane or that scene between Kane and Susan "Exhausted Toucan" Welles, but I don't.

Frankly, I always thought that what one calls rack focus was a sort of clunky reproduction of "the way we perceive" - that is, we could focus on objects near to us, while our perception of background objects became unclear, or the other way round, according to our will. Rack focus shots look a little silly, but that's what happens, more generally, when film tries to "reproduce the way we perceive." Like in Lady in the Lake. Or nauseating Russian Ark. Or that episode of M*A*S*H entitled "Point of View." Obviously, attempts to reproduce the way we perceive are a popular fascination. But not necessarily in Citizen Kane's deep focus, I don't think.

Rather, the ability to see multipe planes in sharp focus silmultaneously is an extension or expansion or variation of human vision, a kind of technological play that allows humans to see in ways that they can't in the world, not in ways that they can.


I'd say the same for stereoscopes. Sacks doesn't claim that stereoscopes reproduce the way we perceive, he's more careful than that. Actually, stereoscopes render what appear to be near and far details in sharp focus, sort of like deep focus camera work. And that particular effect of multiple plane sharp focus is not what Sacks claims produces the stereoscopes "uncanny verisimilitude" (64). The uncanny verisimilitude of the stereopticon is produced by what is variously called "a sensation of depth" and "a magical illusion of depth" or, in Als' language, a production of "the visible distance between." I'd go so far as to draw out Sacks' language a bit and say that what's so uncanny about stereopticons is that the "illusion of depth" feels familiar, but the sharp focus of being able to see that man and the landscape behind him both in sharp focus puts the un in uncanny. Or whatever. You know how that word works. That the familiar "illusion of depth," just one element of human vision, can be isolated and removed from a more unified experience of human vision is, again, technological play.

Sacks comes right out and says that films don't have the same access to stereo vision as "normal" human perception when he mentions Errol Morris, "There may even be certain advantages to monocular vision, as when photographers and cinematographers deliberately renounce their binocularity and stereoscopy by confining themselves to a one-eye, one-lens view, the better to frame and compose their pictures [...] Errol Morris, the filmmaker, was born with stabismus, and subsequently lost almost all the vision in one eye, but he feels he gets along perfectly well. "I see things in 3-D," he said. "I move my head when I need to - parallax is enough. I don't see the world as a plane." (66) Films, and, in this case, special filmmakers, do not have binocular vision.

Morris insists that there are other ways of producing the 3D effect in his own experience of human vision and Sack's agrees with him, "There are, of course, many other ways of judging depth: occlusion of distant objects by closer objects, perspective (the fact that distant objects appear smaller), shading (which delinates the shape of objects), "aerial" perspective (the blurring and bluing of more distant objects by the intervening air), and, most important, motion parallax - the change of spatial relationships as we move our heads."

And film has ways of producing, and, more importantly playing with, exaggerating, modifying all these effects. But REproducing them? Not exactly, not ever. Even if it were possible, what would be the point?

Sacks goes on, "All these cues, acting in tandem [he must mean together], can give a vivid sense of reality and space and depth. But the only way to actually perceive depth rather than judge it is with binocular stereoscopy."

That's a neat distinction - to judge or to perceive - god knows where it's located. The ability to see the space inbetween objects (not, I repeat, not, the objects themselves, in focus or otherwise) is a perception, but the overall ability to see space relies on a series of judgements.

When Sacks starts his discussion of Sue, and the learnablity, mallebility of stereoscopy, it sounds to me like he's modifying this original position a little bit. Maybe stereoscopy is more a judgement than perception or maybe the distinction loses meaning . . . but I like thinking of the "perception" of film (or the world) as judgements based on cues.

There's a bit more to say about Sacks and Sue, but it's in a more personal line, so I'll do that later.

But I thought I'd just close with this puzzle: in Sacks' account of Sue one of the most exciting effects of her stereovision was "Every leaf seemed to stand out in its own little 3-D space. The leaves didn't just overlap with each other as I used to see them. I could see the SPACE between the leaves." (70) The oldest chestnut in the reality effects of the cinema, the leaves on the trees. As in, Cinephilia and History, or the Wind in the Trees by Christian Keathley.

Oh, and the biographical career info in Als article could not be more generic. Blah, blah, blah in every sense of the word. All this in the June 19 2006 issue.

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