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January 31, 2005

I was watching The Trilogy by Ingmar Bergman recently - three brilliant films, of course, but rather than talk about the films themselves, I want to call attention to the menus on the Criterion edition DVD, which are works of art themselves. Each features one of Bergman's flawless compositions as the background: a close-up on the faces of two of the lead characters in each film (the one exception -Winter Light - is composed slightly differently, but no less evocatively), faces unequivocal in pensive misery, weariness and (as is the case with all faces) mystery.

What makes these menus exceptional, however, is that they are not still images; the faces tremble, lips purse, eyelids flutter, faint breathing is perceptible. What Criterion seems to have done is taken four or five seconds of footage from the films (and indeed, it couldn't be more than that) and looped them. Furthermore (as far as I can tell) the segmented shot plays once forward, then once more in reverse, creating a seamless loop. This results in what is essentially a motion picture functioning as a still photograph; allowing the contemplation that affordable by the latter simultaneously with the dynamism inherent to the former. A perfect piece of media, unto itself.

I've given a lot of thought to the contextual properties of images. It is an almost inarguable fact, I think, that a perfectly composed shot placed at the right point in a motion picture will always lose some, if not most, of its aesthetic value to the greater good of the narrative. Whereas taken by itself, that same shot can be beautiful, powerful when existing to its own end. On the extreme side of things, this is why trailers are generally packed with a montage of the best images a film has to offer; mostly separated from the narrative, they call more attention to themselves, and in doing so make the film seem more impressive (while in the film itself, those same shots will pass unnoticed - unless the film is bad, in which case it becomes nothing more than a drawn out checklist of intermittently pleasant images). Likewise, compositions that otherwise might not be as immediately memorable may become moreso in the context of the narrative, although if the director is a good one, every image will be outstanding, no matter how simple.

That is what these Bergman compositions are: simple, and oustanding. They tell entire stories, chronicle, and explore the depths of, relationships. A still image of these compositions functions perfectly well a window into its own particular moment, but letting them exist in a (simulated) state of natural motion, as these DVDs do, cathartically releases (or, depending on your point of view, brings about) a certain tension in those relationships. As with any image, the longer one stares at them (and they are hypnotic), the more one begins to intuit, to impart, to acknowledge the reflective properties of the composition; but in these three cases, the narrative aspects of the image are far more tangible.

All of this is sort of the progenesis behind the conception of a new ongoing project which, predictably, would be based entirely on the long term narrative qualities of the human face (and possibly other subjects) in a state of natural stasis. I may or may not follow up on the idea - time is an issue at the moment- but it's something that's growing more and more appealing to me, the more I think about it. Just imagine the possibilities of a gallery exhibition of photography in which each photo is in subtle, constant motion! I may do a few examples on miniDV, although this is something I'd much rather do in a higher resolution.

I know I said this would be a post about Bergman, but I guess I lied. I can, however, recommend watching all three films in The Trilogy, which are all as good as - or far better than - the menus on the DVD suggest. Films about faith are tricky, but it's a trickiness Bergman completely understands - but that's a topic for another post another day.

Posted by David Lowery at January 31, 2005 6:49 PM