Out of Proportion

Chris Fujiwara

Recently I attended FILMART in Hong Kong, Asia’s largest film and entertainment industry market. At what is essentially a showcase for the moving image, one would expect a high level of excellence in the reproduction and projection of moving images. So I was surprised that, at two different film screenings I attended, the settings for the aspect ratio, or proportion of width to height, were wrong, and even more startled that those who were running the screenings seemed unaware that anything was awry.

The first film started with the image stretched horizontally, so that human faces and bodies looked unnaturally wide. The film was projected like that in front of an audience of trade-show buyers and industry professionals for about five minutes, before a programmer from a well-known film festival got up from his seat to inform the sales agent for the film, who was also sitting in the audience, that something was wrong. It took another two or three minutes for the programmer, with my support, to persuade the sales agent that there was indeed a flaw with the projection and that it was technologically possible to correct it.

With the second film there was the opposite problem: the image was horizontally squeezed, with faces and bodies appearing unnaturally thin. I pointed this out to the FILMART staff member who was monitoring the screening. Though at first I met with a blank stare, eventually I convinced the staff member to call for a technician, who quickly made the needed adjustment.

What was particularly striking about both these cases is that the people responsible for the faulty screenings seemed unconvinced that there was anything wrong, until the nature of the problem could be verbalized in a persuasive enough manner to authorize them to act. Their own vision was not enough to inform them that the images on the screen were defective – or if it did, their own vision was not believed. The sales agent and the staff member live in the same world, under the same laws of optics, as the festival programmer and I; we all share the same experience of how bodies, faces and objects appear normally. Yet the programmer and I could clearly see that the filmic image was abnormal, whereas the sales agent and the staff member apparently could not.

This blindness, so strange to encounter in Hong Kong among people who were, at various levels, professionals of the moving image, would appear to be common among amateurs of the moving image throughout the world. On television screens in private homes and in public spaces such as airport lounges and pubs, it has become almost normal to see images that are horizontally stretched. No one mentions it, no one objects; and if you venture to point it out, you’d better be ready to defend your position with argument, because simply saying “You can see obviously that it’s wrong” is ineffective. It’s as if people’s common everyday visual experience – their sense of what the human face and the physical environment really look like – had become completely unmoored from their expectations and experiences of screen images.

This contemporary crisis in vision suggests ten things.

1) The authority of the screen. One reason people accept the distortion of screen images is that the alternative is tacitly agreed to be worse: the incomplete saturation of the screen. If the image on a TV screen appears stretched, it’s because it was intended to be viewed at a narrower aspect ratio than that of the screen itself. So to display properly a 4:3 image on a 16:9 (wide) screen, there would need to be empty, black space on the sides of the image (conversely, an image whose proportions are wider than the screen would require empty space on the top and bottom in order to be properly displayed on that screen). The reluctance to allow these empty spaces means that the shape of the screen has acquired an authority that must be preserved at all costs, including that of proper representation.

2) The image as stuff. This also means that a change in the status of the image has somehow come about. The image is now accepted as a kind of infinitely flexible material that can cross different media and appear on screens of varying sizes and shapes, so that its own original form is irrelevant and perhaps nonexistent.

3) The downgrading of the face. If it no longer matters to us that faces on screens are distorted, then the human form – and primarily the face – is no longer working as an analogical link between reality and representation. Formerly a standard of representation, the face is now only content-less information, a mobile structure without fixed proportion: in the terms of Charles Sanders Peirce, the screened face has been downgraded from an icon to a symbol, whose relationship to a real face is less a matter of likeness than of convention.

4) The impermanence of forms. If the screen is almost superstitiously valorized, it is also understood to be merely one of many possible screens, none of which has any special claim to preeminence. The screen is nothing more than a test (another meaning for “screen,” in English), a provisional or experimental state of various things that will soon flow into another configuration.

5) The collapse of evidence. Just as we know that all screens are merely screens, every viewpoint is merely a viewpoint. Nothing privileges or guarantees the correctness of even the most self-evident view. Instead, as my experiences at FILMART suggest, debates concerning vision are just combats of rhetoric, won by the person who can make a persuasive argument about how things look. We truly cannot trust our senses. If the image is free to wander from screen to screen without ever finding, or needing to find, a proper manifestation, the corollary to that is that even if there were some such thing as a proper manifestation, no one could be trusted to perceive it properly.

6) The gaze as such. However, this collapse, which is finally the collapse of the subject, merely proves that the image itself does not need to be reconstituted correctly in order to function as an image. In other words, the image has become what Lacan calls “the gaze as such” – something that functions entirely impersonally, independent of any subject.

7) Virtual surveillance. The ubiquitous formlessness of image that confronts us today reflects the triumph of the virtual and of that which operates without any reference to a subject, which even, as Lacan also says, annihilates the subject. The screen is indeed the partner of the gaze and not of vision. It aims at us – and this aiming is its main function, rather than the transmission of an image that would be intended for our vision and use. This aiming is not surveillance, but the next step beyond surveillance: the bland statement that since surveillance is everywhere implied in the visual landscape, actual surveillance is not necessary.

8) The subversion of entertainment. To return to the FILMART setting where I began, it can be seen that entertainment has been taken over by imperatives completely alien to the personal satisfactions that might be nostalgically understood to be implied by the word entertainment. Or perhaps we should imagine that entertainment is something that no longer is meant to happen with us, but that instead goes on over there, somewhere else, in the Lacanian Other, and that all vision and all personal satisfaction are to be thought of as secondary to the entertainment of a formless virtuality from which all screen manifestations of entertainment emanate. It is easy to conceive of this because entertainment now is called “content.” The simplest and most consistent and all-embracing definition of entertainment today is that which fills a screen. More precisely, that which fills any screen whatever. We may say then that it is entertainment itself that is entertained and that takes pleasure everywhere, promiscuously. The ubiquitous stretching of the image to fill television screens recalls Lacan’s imagination of a tattoo on a penis, changing form when the penis becomes erect.

9) Bigger is better but everywhere is nowhere. But we should also question this obsession with filling a wide screen. The wide screen itself, in television, seems to have been born from an urgent need to privatize the experience of cinema (which had previously, for a few decades, distinguished itself from television by the greater width of the screen) and disband the community that formerly came together in the movie theater. Cinema is now something that takes place everywhere (at home, in shopping malls, in banks, in government buildings, on airplanes, in prisons) and therefore nowhere. But in order for it to take place at all, it is necessary that absence be abolished and the space of the screen be entirely saturated. The unfilled screen is now an intolerable reference point for the risk of the return of some part of reality into the domain of virtual surveillance.

10) The ghost of the viewer. What risks returning is community, the subject, the viewer, vision as such (as opposed to the gaze as such). Within the frame of the screen, the form available for this risked return is only blackness, the absence of image. This form reflects back the viewer’s way of inhabiting the world as that of a ghost. Condemned and exiled, the viewer now haunts the virtual world of entertainment, seeking a space in its margins.

* The Korean translation of this column was included in Magazine F (No.9) published on 30th April in 2013.