It was clear––too clear—that something was not right.
I recently attended a screening of the award-winning 1989 film Glory, and noticed, a few seconds into the first scene, that everything looked too…real. Everything was extremely crisp, as though I were watching daytime television. This crispness gave the visual impression of hyper-reality. I found myself distracted by the overly clear visual quality of this DVD (certainly not present in the original VHS version I remembered watching several times in the 1990s) and unable to settle into the film’s story.
I know others have written on this topic before; in fact, a casual Google search yields numerous discussion threads dedicated to complaints and questions about precisely this visual quality. But whether the issue with Glory was poor lighting conditions, poor film quality, or (probably more likely, given the differences between VHS and DVD) an incorrect television refresh rate or a somehow-inept remastering for DVD, the experience made me think about those naturalized visual qualities of film; those qualities I unthinkingly value.
The hyper-real quality of Glory jarred me out of the viewing experience. Ironically, I realized, the relatively less realistic quality of most films enables a more engrossing movie-going experience. Visually less photorealistic, most films paradoxically draw us into their worlds precisely through a heightened visual mediation.
Is it that the hyper-reality forces us to confront how unreal the film actually is for us—makes us consider, through this heightened reality-effect, the actual distance between viewer and film? Does it disrupt that imaginative sense of escapism that can accompany a trip to the movies? Is it just that we are used to a vaguely fuzzy quality in our films, so that anything visually crisper seems less natural?
The strange visual effect made me realize not only how comfortable I am with a mediated viewing experience, but how the look of that mediation is crucial to the experience. This hazy, somehow not-quite-photorealistic look is the cinematic aura. It works by protecting us, its viewers, from the harshness of reality (even while it may be used in the representation of extremely harsh, extremely real events). It works by distancing us, visually, from too close an encounter. Like Impressionism, in both the literary and art-historical senses of the term, the cinema evokes the real, not through mimesis, but through something in-between the realistic and the imaginary; the objective and the subjective; the external reality and the internal psychology. The aura protects us by distancing us from the every-day; it evokes significance by aestheticizing.
As I wrote in a recent post, I am a bad Benjaminian in that I cannot hate the aura. The aura is what separates my everyday view of the world from a film; my mind-numbing reality-TV weekdays from a vision of a different sort. The aura asks me to participate, psychologically anyway, in narratives, whereas the hyper-real merely pushes me out of the story.
Does Glory, a film about the first African-American U. S. Army regiment during the Civil War, mean the same thing and do the same memorial work if its viewers feel detached? In our distracted culture, it is hard enough to dedicate two hours to an engrossing narrative, but it seems to me that we forfeit our capacity for such engagement at our peril.