Wednesday, March 5, 2008

EMPHASIS ON THE CLOSE UP: Reygadas' Diegetics

Abundant with striking provocation, Carlos Reygadas’ 2005 film Battle In Heaven has numerous close ups that work on varying levels that could be theorized, but none is more striking, and highly debatable, than a close up that appears in the first scene of the film. Starting with a close up the face of Marcos, a large, older man, the camera tracks down his naked body where Ana, a young woman, is performing felatio on him. The camera continues to track around their bodies, and slowly moves on Ana's eyes as she is performing this sexual act. Or is she?

Mary Ann Doane’s artice “The Close Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema” calls into question the existence of space within the world of the close up and how the close up works within the diegetics of the film. Doane explains, “the space of the narrative, the diegesis, is constructed by a multiplicity of shots that vary in terms of both size and angle- hence this space exists nowhere; there is no totality of which the close up could be a part.” (Doane, 108) While this explanation comes from Balazs, Doane goes on to break down narrative spacialization into diegesis (the space of the narrative) and the space of the spectator. Doane argues, against Balazs, that the close up will always constitute a detail or a part, but admits that in the space of the spectator “the close up will, even if only momentarily, constitute itself as the totality, the only entity there to be seen.” (Doane, 108) It is in the opening close up of Ana’s eyes in Battle In Heaven that these two worlds that Doane analyzes come into collision.

There becomes diegetic confusion when Ana opens her eyes and stares into the camera and sheds a tear. In taking away the temporality of what Ana is doing and where she is, the look that Ana gives in close up becomes an implication to the audience and becomes totally isolated from the sexual act that is initially displayed. The image of her eyes has become the totality for the audience, but the same transference happens within the diegesis of the film. Although without spatio-temporality it is impossible to say what the rest of Ana’s body is actively engaged in, the previous shots seen of her performing felatio have her eyes shut tight. It is only when the camera is focusing on her that she is able to break from the diegesis and enter a no man’s land where diegetics no longer exist. She is alone in the world and is the totality of the cinematic moment. The isolation of her within the frame grants her a breaking from the diegetic world of the film and, literally, opens her eyes into the spectatorial cinematic space where Ana is now having a direct confrontation with the audience.

This diegetic battle posed in Battle In Heaven signals a new kind of diegetic autonomy that can be taken out of Balazs and Doane. The space between diegesis and spectatorial space is problematized in this close up. The diegetic autonomy is taken away in limiting to frame to only the eye’s of Ana, however, it opens up a new kind of spectatorial diegesis where the character is able to interact with the spectator outside of diegetics. More than just a simple breaking of the fourth wall, as could be suggested, there is something more radical at work in Reygadas’ film. When Ana looks into the camera and sheds two tears, it is certainly some kind of break, but there is no self reflexive recognition in this cinematic isolation. Without any kind of recognition, yet with the moment being so thoroughly non-diegetic in terms of the narrative, there is a certainly a new kind of cinematic space that is yet to be theorized by Doane. Battle In Heaven is able to take a diegetic moment, remove the diegetic autonomy of the narrative, but maintain some sort of diegesis within the realm of the spectator. This radical space may not be completely new to cinema, but is something that needs to examined further in understanding the diegetics (and radical make up) of the close up.

by James Hansen


Brandon Colvin said...

Great piece, James.

I'm actually quite fond of Balasz theories regarding close-up, particularly his analysis of physiognomy in "The Passion of Joan of Arc."

I'm glad to see some more film theory popping up on the blog. I'll try and work in some more theory-oriented pieces.

James Hansen said...

I'd love to get more theory going. I don't love putting up stuff I do for class, but I thought this was pretty fitting and an interesting discussion so I thought I'd put it up and get some feedback on it. It's really a great film, I think. His new film "Silent Light" was my fav of NYFF this year and is supposed to get a limited release. I expect it near the top of my top 10 of 2008.

Thanks for reading!