The still and the film

1. Leafing through a book on cinema, I come across a still from a film that I know well: Janet Leigh playing Marion Crane in Psycho, say. Let us suppose that this is not the famous shower scene but a less familiar moment in the film, perhaps the early scene in the hotel. Consider the richness of this still. It is an image of Janet Leigh, but also of Marion Crane. It is also an image of the film itself, something one might use to illustrate a commentary on Psycho even if neither Leigh nor Crane were the particular focus of that commentary. It exemplifies, further, Hitchcock’s work, and a certain style of film-making, and even cinema itself.

Hitchcock, in making the film, meant in this scene to depict Marion Crane, a woman in desperate circumstances. But it does not follow that Crane is the subject of the still, wherever it is used. Suppose it is used to illustrate Janet Leigh’s obituary: then, surely, Leigh is the subject. The still, in a given use, has its own subject matter, to some extent autonomously from the film from which it was taken.

The accompanying text, in the book about cinema, may help us to decide what is the subject matter of the still as used: Leigh as actress, Crane as character, Psycho as film. But it also may not: perhaps the image was chosen for its beauty and not determinately either to show us Leigh’s face or Hitchcock’s style.

Ordinarily, a photograph (I am thinking here particularly of casual snapshots) is of whatever happened to be in front of the camera when it was taken. I point my camera toward the Kölner Dom just as a tourist walks past. The result is a photograph of the tourist and not of the cathedral, despite my intentions. Contrast the case of a painting – my attempt to paint the cathedral results in a painting of the cathedral, even if the thing is done so ineptly that the result more closely resembles a tourist.

But if I photograph an actor on stage, it is unclear whether my photograph is of the actor or the character or indeed the performance. In the case of a still, things are still muddier, since the image does not merely depict the film but is actually in some sense part of it. As part of the film it exemplifies everything the film itself exemplifies.

Now consider a Victorian photograph of an actress modelling as Athena. The photograph is perhaps a picture of the actress, perhaps of Athena. It sometimes seems natural to think of it as a picture of the actress as Athena, as though the character of Athena were a sort of guise in which the actress can appear to us. Then, I suppose, the picture is not really a picture of Athena but of the actress.

Again, the picture may be used to exemplify a certain old-fashioned genre – to show what they once used the medium for. We refer perhaps to the intentions of the photographer to decide what the picture is of and of whoever exhibits or publishes it to decide what it is supposed to exemplify.

2. In some respects stills are comparable to quotations. Like a still, a quotation may carry its subject matter from its originating text. And, like a still, a quotation can be used to exemplify properties of the originating text: it is an example of a particular author’s work, of a certain style of English prose writing, of a certain sort of grammatical construction.

Suppose a page of my writing bears this quotation:

“Logic chases truth up the tree of grammar” – Quine

I am not claiming that logic chases truth up the tree of grammar, though context may or may not indicate that I approve of the sentiment. At a stretch I am perhaps stating that Quine wrote those words.

Insofar as the quotation is about anything (logic or truth or grammar), its aboutness is no achievement of mine. Nor, if what Quine said turns out to be true, will its truth be any achievement of mine. Its topic is borne from the original, and its insights and mistakes are Quine’s and not mine. That is why I cannot say anything false by quoting – I am not representing anything as so, and thus I cannot misrepresent the way the world is.

Now, quotations can be misleading. But what sort of incorrectness is involved in a misleading quotation? After all, since I am not claiming anything at all when I write those words on the page, I am not claiming either anything true or anything false. The incorrectness risked by quotation is not falsity. A misquotation, on the other hand (where I write words other than those written by Quine), is no quotation at all. I have perhaps made a false claim, by implying that the words are Quine’s. But I have not quoted anyone.

Quotation can distort. A merely bureaucratic and dry text from the middle ages gains, through its archaic language, an air of quaintness. We develop a false sense of a rich past. A piece of footage from the 1940s or ’50s, perhaps early television footage of film stars, which was superficial or tawdry in its time, acquires glamour. Nobody is being misquoted, but the atmosphere of the original is somehow changed.

Thus our sense of the past falsifies that past. It falsifies it, as it were systematically, through the merely formal mechanics of quotation. Those mechanics suffice to generate truths whenever genuine quotation takes place – since, as we have seen, the truth of a statement imputing a quotation to Quine depends only on whether Quine actually wrote the words that appear within the quotation marks. But such truths can fall short of yielding a true sense of the past, even while quotation is working just as it should. The falsification involved is not exactly that of a false claim, but rather something intangible, hard to describe, and perhaps impossible to remedy.

3. Compare a still and a photograph: say the moment from Psycho I have already mentioned and a portrait photograph of a woman in a hotel. (Or, perhaps, one might think of comparing a photograph viewed for a few seconds with a snippet of film of the same length in which there happens to be no movement.) We can even imagine that the photograph, whether by accident or not, is similar enough to the still that someone unfamiliar with the film would find no particularly interesting difference between the two images.

We who are familiar with the film we may feel a difference in that “atmosphere” which is so difficult to capture, the same atmosphere that can be preserved or destroyed or distorted in quotation. The still has the familiarity and strangeness of a lost moment; the photograph is merely banal. Is not this atmosphere something that we perceive? Certainly, our experience of seeing the still is soaked with the atmosphere. But someone who fails to appreciate the difference is not deficient in eyesight. Both scenes are unfamiliar to them; they are equally worthy or unworthy of notice. We might perhaps say that they lack a sense of the past which we possess, that our experience of the still and the photograph is richer than theirs because we experience something more. But the very falsification involved in such a sense should make us question whether those who have it really see more than those who do not.

An analogous case is what we hear when other people speak. It may be thought that we often hear more than the words uttered by others – that we hear mood or intention in the conversation of others, and thus that perception can be of more than mere colours and shapes and sounds. But even if we are tempted to suppose that, when I speak in anger or sadness, the listener can hear not only my words but also my mood, we might baulk at the further claim that when I quote the words of someone else the listener can hear in my voice the mood that those words express.

Similarly, it seems that the atmosphere of Psycho – real or imagined – that comes across in the still is not itself something we see in the still. If that is right, then there is perhaps no reason to think that we can see more in the still than in the photograph, that it looks different to us. The atmosphere we sense in the still is a deliverance of the imagination and not of perception.

4. A doctored still is not a still from the original film. Indeed, an inauthentic still is not a sort of still, just as a misquotation is not a sort of quotation. But, like a quotation, a still can mislead by distortion. This can occur in fairly trivial ways. A still capturing a moment of cinematic violence can have a certain look of tenderness, and the looks on characters’ faces can be misread (a hearty laugh looks savage, say). But there are deeper sorts of distortion, which are not so clearly the result of mere misinterpretation of an image.

The immobility of a still is deeper than the immobility of a painting or even of a posed photograph. The vivacity of a character’s actions, full of fear or hope or malice, is frozen. Where paintings bring dead figures to life, stills deaden living characters. There is a melancholy in looking into the face of a character in a still that there is not in the face of a painted figure. Stillness in a painting is to be transcended, but the stillness of a still is its end.

At least in a film we know well, the melancholy is compounded by our sense of the life we seem to remember sharing in for a while, the life that was depicted by the director but is carried over to us by the still, transformed into something dead. There is nostalgia for something we came close to but did not quite experience.