Sunday, June 25, 2006

Fade to White

Now that Syriana is out on DVD, I have to point out a peculiar similarity that it shares with another recent movie about the Middle East, Paradise Now: both films end (or nearly end) with white frames that signify the explosion and subsequent destruction perpetrated by a suicide bomber.

I can't recall exactly when white frames first became a symbol for afterlife as cipher. Certainly, the use of such blank space is important in the work of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. In contrast, Michael Moore chose to start his documentary about terrorism with black frames over the sounds of people responding to the mayhem of the attacks on New York City.

My U.C. Riverside friend Ivan Strenski analyzes the cultural logic of sacrifice from a Religious Studies perspective. Since both sequences are very much shot to convey the perspective of the suicide bomber -- riding a crowded bus full of busy Israelis or piloting a small boat toward an oil installation -- it seems likely that this logic is in play.

However, I might offer a competing interpretation and suggest that such white frames could also signify that which exceeds representation from the point of view of a Western audience member. The choice of omission is particularly significant at a time when explosions can be rendered with such hyperrealistic detail using digital media, as they are in training and rehabilitation virtual reality environments. Lev Manovich has called this a struggle to "outdo Zeuxis," after the legendary Greek painter who created fruit with such skill that the birds pecked at his paintings. Thanks to computer graphics, even obstacles to the realistic rendering of smoke, faces, hair, and skin have been rapidly surmounted. Yet the consequences of these characters' violent political actions are left to the viewer's imagination.

(Two other Virtualpolitik viewing notes about Syriana. First, notice that the CIA agent played by George Clooney is almost never shown using a computer, until the computer appears as the plot device from which he figures out that a political assasination is planned. In other words, this is a movie that counterintuitively shows that face-to-face interactions are deceptive while digital experiences are more authentic. It is interesting that this character figures out the conspiracy largely because he can not get access to the secret data, not because he has seen it with his own eyes. Second, pay attention to the prominent place of the joystick in several shots near the climax. The military flunky controlling this device seems to get what Janet Murray has called a "tight visceral match between the game controller and the screen action." As Murray says, "A palpable click on the mouse or joystick results in an explosion. It requires very little imaginative effort to enter such a world because the sense of agency is so direct" This sense of agency is worth keeping in mind today, when this morning Los Angeles Times announces that the Iraqi death toll has topped the 50,000 mark, which is the equivalent of a half million citizens killed out of the U.S. population.)

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Blogger Annie said...

It appears both the white space and Clooney's failure to gain access to important information show that it is what we do not perceive that may hold the most importance.

I like your blog and thank you.

9:09 AM  

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