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The Torch: Visualize Customize Iconize?

16 September 2008

The Torch: Visualize Customize Iconize?

I like to challenge people, as much as I do myself, on their beliefs and commonly accepted truisms. To me, this is a worthwhile task since one can never be quite sure what may come of it, for better or worse. Easy to admit that it is all about the adventure, like time carrying us forward into the unknown future evolving, whether you like it or not.

thetorch1.jpgFunny then, how regardless of our wish and need to hold on to the past and what’s dearest among our forever growing stockpile of memories, in trying to keep up with the pace in this relentless rushing-on and almost caving in to the futility of the effort, we keep asking the same questions again and again. Apart from continuously repeating our own mistakes (some of us do), we attempt the impossible by setting out to pre-empt what obstacles will disclose themselves to us presently — yes, it’s true, time’s a twister. So today I come back with this one: Can that conflict between substance and surface in our digital age finally be resolved?

The moment, however you may look at it, whatever it may tell you, whether it brings you closer to the divine or opens up as an aesthetic experience before you — and these are two vastly different things and literally worlds apart — it is always the moment in the fullness of its greatest import when it discloses in an instant what is otherwise unattainable, which we want our films to build a representative and lasting record of. Can it not, film that is, by storing and enlarging, somehow even serve to justify those deep moments which we most intensely have our lives in?

These days it is in film most influentially that we create a communal memory archive of our dreams as much as of experience, and by storytelling and story-showing do we reconfirm that indeed our lives are worth preserving — precious and incomplete if it wasn’t for the sharing with others, our fellow human beings (and all of us mortal). This capturing of the decisive, the all-containing moment, it sounds so simple and yet it is so difficult to achieve — which is why when we encounter one fitting image representation thereof, it is invested with this special kind of relevance and betraying beauty. And the impression we will get of it and take back home with us on coming out of the cinema enclosure to resume our ordinary lives will be all the more lasting because we have come to know in one way or another that these moments are just too easily missed or spoilt.

Hardly anybody, I suppose, will get absorbed into a picture by naked symbolism alone; it takes more flesh to the image unfolding than the speaking to your intellect in such a way of ready-made address, by just an import which is prefab and somehow suspended from the film’s internal context. We want to attach to an image and thus will invest it with meaning, individually. We demand as viewers a visual eloquence of forms and faces that is captivating, comprehensive and self-assured. That is what we go to the movies for and why we come to value some films more highly than others, per this precise process of growing intimate and picture acquisition.

Work, especially every form of handicraft of the olden days as it is fondly (and often wrongly) remembered by the more romantically inclined, produces its very own, universal language and not just terminology, but more significantly in this context, a language of visual belonging, which holds the power to lend reality to a picture. The best in naturalist painting and early turn-of-the-century photography speak eloquently of an era and can prove this point to the dot for the precise narrative quality of their shared image inventory.

At the base of this one little observation on the workings of art history lies an insight into the guiding principles behind perceptional knowledge and its cultural formation. To a certain extent this will be the process of standardization and, if carried to the extreme of such simplification, we arrive at modern-day iconization: the image will no longer speak back to you — without a history there is no story to tell, and so it can’t.

When talking about the icon as such, it won’t do to simply bring to mind the Nike logo for example, and in rejecting it as a legitimate means of artistic expression one shouldn’t stop at just demanding that not all our products look Apple-ish. The success of the icon is indeed universal and its story convincingly tells the tale of our times like no other. Globalization triggers (and in fact has) the icon as its main catalyst, and that is precisely how it works its way into the fabric of our everyday.

The sheer usefulness of the icon is its weakest point and effectively disqualifying it as art; its ubiquitous marketability makes it affordable, intellectually as well as materialistically, like the art of Man Ray. No icon ever has the potential to dis-integrate, but they are by definition of their nature strictly contained and hermetic for the sole purpose of impenetrability as afforded by conservation and mass-reproduction. In short: there is no truth in the icon, there can’t be (trust me). But for fairness sake we should also stress that if a work of art, by virtue of its striking power to connect and be recognized, becomes an icon, this is the process of appropriation and the cold economics of public attention, and we should not hold it against the original.

I’ve said it before and I am ready to repeat this any time and for as long as it may take to finally materialize: there is no better place for a truly globalized and meaningful visual framing of the metropolitan 21st century experience to take shape, no better prepared place for this to happen than Singapore. Singaporean filmmakers of every age and profession are called upon to get to the forefront of such an international and transcultural movement, the school of globalized film. And it is for them alone to discover their own (voice and traits) in so doing, I have no doubt. But what now?, you may rightfully intervene, for doesn’t it mean to require us to do exactly that, to come up with a standard and fixed forms, just contrary to what’s been stated above?

Deep down we all know what guides our shopping: it’s not a semblance of real life but its heightening and adornment, and consequentially it is he who delivers best on that will win the game and come out on top of the box office (in parallel, I would own that sometimes I may like a particular movie more than can be accounted for if it touches upon a personal sore spot of mine; like “Eternal Summer”, part of my memory, I think). Accordingly, what I am demanding here is quite the opposite of xeroxing, but the informed articulation of character and identity, its adequate depiction — even (or most likely) if done subject to verification and as a process ongoing to be followed by a question mark, not a full stop.

As a filmmaker, you have your own methods to do so. Visual semiotics for one clearly ranks with the top items on every list of film school terminology, and it also happens to be one of the least understood among them. Too often what it practically amounts to is presenting us with some painstakingly miscarried concept of presumably significant miscellany — but verily, I assume that in making a film you don’t want to produce a visual treatise, or do you? So why all this expository digging when some things don’t need to be treated as more complicated than they really are: the visual is everything we see — and not that which we have to guess at. Work along this simple precept and you won’t ever go astray to err onto that brainiac’s favourite path of circuitous dead-ends and making a symbolic piece of film.

So, to press a button and get a response — that in principle sums up the whole idea of keeping us satisfied by icons, instantly and on demand. Therefore, and in bringing this to some sort of conclusion, I’d like to commit all filmmakers to not go it the easiest way when trying to formulate and frame their own distinct voice through strong visuals, but to utilize their independence by creatively adding new items to that global record of forms and pictorial representation instead of just tapping into that which is already there and established. Be bold, be daring, be radically you; and first of all: be innovative — that’s the only way forward!

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