In this self-study journal I aim to collect some comparative and inter-medial ideas on how illusion - here defined as different perspectives on reality in the arts - is reflected within the media of film, painting and literature. The perception of reality (especially in the medium of film) remains up to the present moment a controversial, and still largely unexplored topic in the fields of philosophy, neuroscience and film theory; therefore the intent of this ‘self-study journal’ is to focus on a small selection of examples of modern and postmodern film, literature and the visual arts (photography and painting). As well, I will explore a few selected quotations from manifestos in the tradition of early 20th century avant-garde and also will make brief reference to earlier periods.
When we accept the ‘reality’ that is shown to us in the movies, we are giving ourselves over to the illusion of cinema, that is being created by talented cast and crew in the production and carefully honed in post-production by skillful editing. The power of the illusion in cinema is to take us for the time being into another world, and ideally we forget for the moment that we are still sitting in a dark room with a large screen. In the medium of literature our imagination takes control of the world presented by the author’s words and is translated into a uniquely imagined reality that is created by the readers own imagination and recollection of memories. Like in the cinema, if a book grabs us we tend to forget our presence in the (‘real’) world for the time reading the book.
Within works of fiction an illusionary world is created through language, and in most cases this illusion is not disturbed or directly reflected within the piece of work itself. In fact, the stronger the illusion is created by the writer the more critical successful an author tends to be. American realist-writer Henry James once said:
The success of a work of art, to my mind, may be measured by the degree to which it produces a certain illusion; that illusion makes it appear to us for the time that we have lived another life - that we have a miraculous enlargement of experience (Quoted in: Flannery, 1).
There are, however, many cases in which this illusion of reality is often intentionally revealed as illusion; thus ‘bended’, broken and deconstructed within the respective works of literature, movies and the arts. At first glance, this self-reflexivity appears to be mainly a common feature of post-modern film and art, though as I will try to point out some examples to show that this interaction with the audience has occurred much earlier. For instance, already Renaissance painters have ‘played around’ with perspective in order to amuse or confuse their audience.
It is sometimes difficult to draw a clear distinction between intentional and unintentional deconstruction of illusion in art, though one will not have this dilemma when viewing such an obvious example of intended deconstruction as that is found in ‘ scene silencio ’ in David Lynch’s 2001 film Mulholland Drive, which I took as starting point for my pool of ideas. Yet, I want to point out that it does not necessarily mean there is deconstruction of illusion when an ‘illusive medium’ appears within the medium. For example, when the protagonist watches television or goes into a movie theatre within the ‘illusive medium’ of a film doesn't necessarily signify an intentional deconstruction of illusion, as it may well be a reflection of the characters everyday activities. Likewise, not necessarily every camera, television or film theatre appearance in a work of art indicates that the illusion is reflected, deconstructed or broken. Self-reflectivity can be left rather ‘open’ for further interpretation, or can be made very explicit to the viewer of the medium.
I would argue that one must try to distinguish between experimenting or ‘playing’ with illusions (reflecting illusion created by art and media) and actually ‘breaking’ (deconstructing) them. The breaking of illusion might be done by directly facing and interacting with the audience in a (movie) theater - breaking of the ‘fourth wall’ - or, in movies one may see a lead characters stepping out of the scene or sequence, or perhaps stopping the action, rewinding the tape, or in some other way symbolize the active progression of the movie making is itself a part of that very movie.
When one looks at the birth of cinema, it is interesting to note that the first audiences could not distinguish between the illusion on screen and reality. In the 1894 one- minute silent film Black Diamond Express, directed by James H. White, a train was filmed to depict a rapid approach towards the camera; and thus the audience was given the illusion that they will be run over by the train. It is said that the reaction of the crowd was to faint or cry out in fear before the film suddenly stops (Riess 14-15). Ever since its invention cinema has contributed to the fulfillment the human desire for visual sensations and pleasures. Before the first movie theaters were built in the 1890s, short film-snippets could be viewed for five cents a minute in boxes, so-called ’peep hole Kinetoscopes’ (Riess 15). From such early days, audiences wished to be entertained by illusions strong enough to elicit emotional and physical reactions from viewers. Yet, the post-modern audiences are, as film scholar Richard Allen argues, “that the form of illusion central to our experience of the cinema is one in which, while we know that we are seeing only a film, we nevertheless experience that film as a fully realized world (Allen 4). Furthermore, it is important to remark that with visual powerful media such as photography and later with the development of film, the human perception of reality, or what is perceived as ‘real’ in our world, has dramatically changed as Jean Baudrillard and others have intended this shift in greater depth.
In the key scene ‘ Club Silencio ’ from Mulholland Drive (Which I refered to starting point for my investigations on illusion) the two protagonists Betty and her friend Rita (who suffers from amnesia) sit in the late night theatre ‘silencio’ to attend a singing performance of the singer del Rio. A mysterious looking man on stage is introducing the upcoming performance in the theater in a mix of several languages:
Il ne pas de orchestra.
This is all a tape recording.
No Hay Banda’, and yet we hear a band.” If we want to hear a clarinet, listen. [The sound of a clarinet is heard] […]
Then a trumpet player enters the stage from behind the curtain and appears to be playing at first, but then stops while the music continues. The mysterious looking man next to him narrates: “It’s all recorded […] it is all a tape”. He continues to make gestures with his hands in the air and magically sounds of the trumpet briefly reappear. Again, he states in French and English: “Il ne pas de orchestra. It is an illusion. He states out loud: Listen!” The illusions of thunder and lightning simultaneously appear out of nowhere and the man then magically vanishes from the stage with a devil-like smile on his face. At this Betty starts to shake heavily in Rita’s arm. A man in a red suit enters the stage to introduce singer Rebecca del Rio in Spanish. In the scene, before the performance of the song ends, del Rio collapses onstage, but her emotional powerful vocals continues to resonate throughout the theater. The emotional reaction for the viewer is emphasized by both the tragic tone of the song and the weeping lovers, Betty and Rita, who sit in the middle of the half-empty theater. This scene depicts the fact that the medium is only an illusion; all what we see or hear is not only recorded in the past. Indeed, the actors and actresses may well be long dead, and he final product may be so heavily edited and altered with special effects and programmed graphics in post-production to enhance and intensify the fantastical world of the film, as to not even resemble the ‘reality’ of the initial recording.
In Mulholland Drive the viewer is from the very beginning ‘wrapped up’ in illusion of seeing a coherent movie. At least until this key scene the first time viewer tries to construct a ‘realistic’ story (in chronological fashion) after the events he or she encounters on screen. The movie contains many elements of surrealism and film noir, and most critics’ explanations are suggesting that large parts of the movie are only a dream of the dysfunctional character Betty. However, in David Lynch’s 2006 film Inland Empire the illusion of a linear narrative is broken so many times that the viewer is left puzzled of which is ‘real’ in the reality created within the movie, and what is not ‘real’, perhaps surrealistic narratives within a dream, or mere thoughts within the mind of one of the protagonists.
In the following, I will now briefly cite examples from additional films as well as offer comparisons with other artistic media in which the illusion is reflected within its respective medium. Again, this is clearly, but not exclusively, a common feature for postmodern film. In David Fincher’s movie Fight Club, theater employee Tyler Durdon pastes an image of male genitalia onto a film reel in an attempt to play around with the audience in the cinema. He faces directly to the camera and thus directly addressing the audience in the real-life cinema several times - making fun of the audience within the cinema. This happens also in the film The Fabulous Destiny of Amelie Poulain, in which the protagonist, Amelie Poulain, turns around while actually sitting in a cinema within the movie, to directly address the audience in the 'real world' cinema and states that one of the things she likes in life is “to see the reaction in the faces of the audience”, as well as to see little details on the screen; an immediate example being a running bug over the camera as shown in that scene. In another scene Amelie announces that she does not like that it in old American films when drivers are not watching the road while driving, but are rather talking to the lady sitting next to them. Both are moments in which the illusion of film to create an entire fictional world in itself is deconstructed and the viewer is made aware of the characteristics of the film as a medium of illusion.